Now he had a decanted version of his thoughts, organised by gravity

The chalk circle man book coverThe Chalk Circle Man
by Fred Vargas
translated from French by Siân Reynolds

This is my France selection for the EU Reading Challenge. It’s a detective novel set in Paris that was recommended years ago on The Readers podcast (RIP). I do tend to prefer crime novels written by women (Fred is short for Frédérique in Vargas’ case) and I think that crime/detective fiction is often especially strong on setting/sense of place. I’m grateful for the recommendation, even if it has taken me a long time to follow up on it.

This is the first in a series of novels following Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. He is already an established, successful public figure thanks to solving some big, media-friendly cases in the Pyrenees. New to Paris and the 5th arrondissement, he is not trying particularly hard to fit into his new team. He’s quiet, contemplative, often seeming to ignore his colleagues. He doesn’t seem to be the right temperament at all for detective work.

Adamsberg trusts his intuition more than seems advisable for someone in charge of major crime investigations, and he talks a lot about trusting these gut feelings and not logic. But I think this is to some extent a mask, as he is in fact extremely observant and has an excellent memory. He also has a high tolerance for other people’s quirks, for example quickly adapting to the discovery that his second-in-command, Danglard, is an alcoholic who is only just managing to hold it together as a single father to five children. He sees through the alcoholism to Danglard’s intelligence and abilities, and judges when to stay Danglard’s hand and when to let him drink.

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Everyone lives in the world they deserve

Ashes
by Sergios Gakas
translated from Greek by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife

Ashes

I took this book on holiday with me because crime is usually a good bet for an absorbing throwaway read. This book didn’t quite live up to that expectation, being both better than expected but also in some ways worse. I probably need to explain.

For a start this is one of the more literary police procedurals I have ever read, inasmuch as the writing is very good, a little experimental even, and it doesn’t follow the expected rules of the genre. Now that may partly be because it’s Greek, and perhaps they have their own set of rules. I’m not familiar enough with Greek literature to know. But this certainly didn’t read like it was slotting into a template.

“Let me break your seal, Stoli, my love. My red beauty, come here, give yourself to me, transparent like all my mistakes…I don’t feel good, damned wine, it’s all your fault. Armchair – prepare yourself. My sweet throne, I’m coming…Who’s that creeping around outside – who’s after my vodka? It burns, the bitch…It burns like hell: fight ice with ice, fire with fire…No! My face is burning, don’t, why won’t you listen to me? No, please.”

There are some familiar themes. The detective, Police Colonel Chronis Halkidis, is middle-aged, divorced, disillusioned, addicted to cigarettes (and some rather stronger illegal drugs to boot) and doesn’t follow the rules. So far, so familiar. I didn’t warm to Halkidis, especially as his addictions and methods became, well, worse. But that’s fine, I don’t need to like the main character.

“Three dark-haired types with shiny accordions were playing songs, a hybrid, it seemed, of children’s songs and revolutionary battle cries. The audience was singing along, miming the foreign lyrics with adolescent uncertainty. They were happy. I hated them. I ducked quickly into the toilet and snorted two fat lines of powder… Everyone lives in the world they deserve, and my particular world cannot take any more accordion music.”

The book opens with the crime and follows the police investigation, which again sounds traditional enough. The crime in question is the burning to the ground of a house in a suburb of Athens, a fire which takes hold so quickly that three of the house’s occupants are killed almost immediately and the fourth, a formerly famous actress called Sonia Varika, is left in intensive care with severe burns.

“‘Do you believe in God?’
‘No.’
‘Pity. If you did, I would recommend prayer. It would save me the more pedestrian option, where I explain to you that the human body is a machine, with a highly complex mechanism that we barely understand, but a machine nonetheless…Do forgive me if I come across as a vulgar materialist, but so far the only ones I’ve seen performing miracles and saving lives have been doctors and nurses. God has never once put in an appearance, not even to stitch up an eyebrow.'”

It took me a while to figure out the narrative voice, which alternately follows Halkidis and the landlord of the destroyed house, Simeon Piertzovanis, but there are also sections in italic, which are either memories or thoughts of Sonia from her coma. Almost the first thing we learn is that both Halkidis and Piertzovanis are former lovers of Sonia, which means that they both distrust one another but also form an uneasy alliance in their search for truth and justice.

Piertzovanis was an interesting character, a lawyer, gambler and alcoholic who has inherited enough money to not really need to work, he is somehow still largely likeable. And there was a good cast of secondary characters, from a girl Piertzovanis picked up the night of the fire and who has stuck around, to Halkidis’ small team of trusted police, to the various shady types involved to varying degrees in a crime that is somehow political, or at least large enough organisations are involved for solving it to get political.

“I dropped Piertzovanis off at the statue of Kolokotronis, waited for him to take a piss on it and then lurch across Stadiou, his arm raised to deflect the oncoming traffic; drivers were drowning him in hoots, obscene gestures and abuse, but they spared his life.”

So the people and their relationships kept me interested, plus the writing was good, so why didn’t this work for me? I think where it fell down was the crime/detective/thriller part. I’m not sure which of those three it was aiming to be because I didn’t think it worked as any of them. The solution to the crime was too convoluted, with no clues for the reader to follow. But I also never felt, for all of Halkidis’ antics, that he was ever in any danger, so it didn’t work as a thriller either.

Really, this is all about the detective not the detection. And the personal angle definitely added a certain something. Reading what I’ve written it sounds like I’m bothered because I can’t categorise the book and it surprises me that I should feel that way. Perhaps it’s even that the writing was lyrical enough that it slowed me down – I wanted to pay attention to the words, not fly through them. But whatever the reason, I wasn’t gripped, and that feels like a flaw.

First published in Greece by Kastaniotis Editions in 2007.
This translation published 2011 by MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus.

Source: This was a review copy passed on to me by fellow blogger Ellie of Curiosity Killed the Bookworm.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 Translation Challenge.

Light bleeds in among the cracks

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
by Michael Chabon

I found this book hard to read and I’m finding it hard to write about, but I don’t want to give the wrong idea. It’s hard in a brilliant, literary way. And it’s sort-of SF. Which I took a while to twig to.

In a big Jewish settlement in Alaska (that should have been my first clue that something was askew), detective Meyer Landsman is called in to the scene of a murder in the very same seedy hotel that he lives in. The dead man was a junkie who played chess – and that’s all anyone seems to know. Landsman’s lifelong love–hate relationship with chess has him intrigued by the case but he is almost immediately told to drop it by his boss, who is also his ex-wife. She is tidying up loose ends before administration of the Sitka district is handed back to the USA, as the Jews’ 50-year lease on the land is about to end.

“She puts a hand to his mouth. She has not touched him in three years. It probably would be too much to say that he feels the darkness lift at the touch of her fingertips against his lips. But it shivers, and light bleeds in among the cracks.”

There is so much going on this novel and it’s all wrapped up in gorgeous language, a combination of the purple prose of, say, Raymond Chandler, and Yiddish. Yes, Yiddish, which I am not so learned in, I must admit. And there’s also a fair selection of outright obscure words (a “hortatory cigarette”, anyone?). Which makes for brilliant quotes (I have marked so many pages in this book) but does not allow a quick read.

“Until this minute Landsman didn’t realize what he and every noz in the District, and the Russian shtarkers and small-time wiseguys, and the FBI and the IRS and the ATF, were up against…You could lead men with a pair of eyes like that. You could send them to the lips of whatever abyss you chose.”

Landsman of course does not drop the case and drags in his partner for good measure, a half-Native-American, half-Jew called Berko Shemets. Which gives Chabon the opportunity to discuss the effect a sudden mass-immigration of Jews immediately following the Second World War might have had on the local Alaskan population, not to mention on US politics in general. Social history, race, religion and culture are central to the story. The Jews are split between the averagely devout, the really devout, or “black hats”, and the…lapsed.

Unsurprisingly, Landsman is the latter. He is your typical detective – divorced, family all dead, a drunk, without faith, obsessive about his work and he chain smokes. He loves his friend Berko but is not above using him badly. He also (and/or perhaps Chabon) has a wry sense of humour.

“Landsman watches the progress of Elijah the Prophet and plans his own death. This is a fourth strategy he has evolved to cheer himself when he’s going down the drain. But of course he has to be careful not to overdo it.”

Despite the familiar trappings of a typical whodunit, with an action-packed story and a variety of bad guys who are linked in various ways, this is not a rip-roaring read because it is just too complex for that. I found it hard to follow and I am honestly sure if this was deliberate or if it was me struggling with the language. There are definitely facts held back, not fully explained until later. And the characters, while being realistically unstraightforward, are kept at a distance, because we effectively experience the story from Landsman’s perspective and he is almost perpetually drunk, so it’s tough to get to know even him.

“Men tend to cry, in Landsman’s experience, when they have been living for a long time with a sense of rightness and safety, and then they realize that all along, just under their boots, lay the abyss. That is part of the policeman’s job, to jerk back the pretty carpet that covers over the deep jagged hole in the floor.”

This novel is to some extent an intellectual exercise. There’s more than one “What if” scenario being played out, but there’s also a lot of general information about Jewish tradition, history and culture, some of which I felt I was expected to already know, to recognise from page one and be at home with. Add to that all the chess discussion and there was a fair bit of this book passing me by. But I kept going, because though I found it tough, I also found it beautiful, in a rough and dirty sort of way.

“The reporters have tumbled their way through the black hats…they haul out the questions they have brought. They unpocket them like stones and throw them all at once. They vandalize the woman with questions.”

First published in Great Britain by Fourth Estate in 2007.
Winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2008.

Fiction noir?

Farewell My Lovely
by Raymond Chandler

This is the second book in the Philip Marlowe series, which began with The Big Sleep. I’ve not read that title but having seen the film a few times I figured some of the plot twists and turns might be spoiled for me, so Farewell My Lovely would be a better test of whether I am likely to enjoy the books. I really, really did. Purple prose is amazing.

In case you don’t know, Philip Marlowe is a private detective in Los Angeles. The tale is narrated by Marlowe in that overblown, sarcastic, slang-laden voice now famous for narrating film noir, but originated by Chandler in this series. Unlike other detective stories I have read, it would be hard to guess where the story is going or solve the crime before Marlowe because he doesn’t share his insights until the last moment. You just have to go along for the ride, watch and enjoy the methods and accidents that Marlowe uses.

Marlowe has a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, so he’s learned to make the most of it. When bankrobber Moose Malloy is released after eight years in jail, Marlowe witnesses him commit murder in his search for former girlfriend Velma. Later that same day, Marlowe receives a mysterious commission to act as a man’s bodyguard for the evening, an evening that does not end well. Clues slowly emerge from both cases and fascinating later-than-life characters abound:

“He was looking up at the dusty windows with a sort of ecstatic fixity of expression, like a hunky immigrant catching his first sight of the Statue of Liberty. He was a big man, but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck…He was worth looking at…From his outer breast pocket cascaded a show handkerchief of the same brilliant yellow as his tie. There were a couple of coloured feathers tucked into the band of his hat, but he didn’t really need them. Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”

Marlowe is flawed but loveable. He is completely aware of his limitations and tends toward pessimism and distrust, yet he carries right on getting involved, even if there isn’t a pay cheque promised. He’s a sucker for a pretty lady and has a love-hate relationship with the police.

I have heard and read many takes on Chandler’s style, but nothing comes close to the real thing. It is brilliantly melodramatic, darkly funny and strangely beautiful. The language rolls around on your tongue:

“There was just enough fog to make everything unreal. The wet air was as cold as the ashes of love.”

I suspect if I read too much of this at once the effect would be spoiled, so I’ll wait a while before reading the next title in the series, but I’ll greatly look forward to it in the meantime.

First published 1940.

N.B. One of the reasons I finally picked this book out of the TBR was that a new film has come out loosely based on it. The Big Bang sounds terrible but also possibly enjoyable? Only one way to find out.