Category Archives: Fiction

Canary: Duane Swierczynski

Set in author Duane Swierczynski’s native Philadelphia, Canary is a topical, tightly written crime novel that explores and questions the ethics of using civilians as undercover confidential informers in the violent world of narcotics. And if anyone thinks that the scenarios in the novel may seem to push credibility, they don’t. The use of untrained confidential informers (CIs) is largely unregulated and considering the risks taken and the skill of duplicity required, highly dangerous. News stories weaved into the plot about murdered CIs and corrupt cops are true, and author Swierczynski repeatedly mines the dark history of some of Philadelphia’s crisis neighborhoods as background for this latest explosive crime novel.

canarySarie Holland, an Honours student, a serious, intelligent girl, a self-professed “lightweight,” who stays away from alcohol binges and drugs, attends a party the night before Thanksgiving and then finds herself giving a lift to a fellow student named D. Turns out that D is on a drugs run in South Phillie to his supplier, a winner known as Chuckie Morphine. Thanks to information from confidential informants, undercover narcotics officer, Wildey has Chuckie’s place of business under surveillance.

But a snitch swore that a guy at this address is doing a lot of slinging with college kids. Word is he’s a midlevel caseworker who calls himself “Chuckie Morphine” and specializes in small-time trappers who work the universities, sometimes doing direct sales to kids who are leery of driving to the Badlands or Pill Hill. Years ago this whole neighborhood–Passyunk–used to be solid working class, maybe a little sketchy in places. Wildey remembers those days. But now it has gastropubs and consignment shops and pop-up restaurants and all that other hipster catnip. Kids feel safe popping down here.

Things go wrong, and while D does a runner, Sarie is picked up by for questioning by Wildey. Sarie, caught with D’s drug stash, is threatened with being charged with possession, and takes the offer to “work off the charges.”

–Okay, then there’s the other way this can go. We can’t just let you walk out of here, not with what you had in your car. The good news is, you can work off the charges. Work hard enough, as a matter of fact, and it’s like this never happened.

–What, do you mean, like, intern with the police?

Both cops turn to smirk at each other, not even trying to hide it. I feel my cheeks burn. Fuck you both.

–No not an intern, Honors Girl. You can help us another way.

–How?

–You can become a confidential informant, and help us catch the scuzbags who sell drugs to your classmates.

–A confidential what?

They explain it to me. They want me to become a CI–a confidential informant. Only Wildey and his boss would know my identity. In short, they’re asking me to be a snitch. In Philadelphia. Where snitches are killed on a regular basis.

Sarie’s naiveté along with reluctance to have her freshly widowed drug counselor father dragged into the police station, lead her to take the deal, thinking that she can still attend her classes, and keep her father out of the picture. But soon the pressure is on for Sarie to produce dealers, and while she tries to outsmart the cops, Wildey, whose other confidential informants are disappearing off the streets, turns up the heat on Sarie.

For about 70% of Canary, the plot, initially presented in the form of a letter of explanation to Sarie’s dead mother, seemed fairly standard, and by that I mean not Swierczynski’s usual fare. This is an author whose solid comic book roots appear invasively in his earlier work. Take the Charlie Hardie trilogy (Fun and Games, Hell and Gone, & Point & Shoot), for example–a story of an overweight, guilt-ridden, former police consultant, now house-sitter who takes a gig in S. Cal only to find that he stumbles into a scenario created by violent Hollywood Star Whackers. As the trilogy progresses, Swierczynksi pushes the reader’s imagination with conspiracy theories, power brokers and increasingly bizarre scenarios, and if we allow our paranoias free reign, all this might just be possible.

Duane Swierczynski is a master of pulp, and yet Canary initially seemed to be a fairly standard, although good, crime yarn fused with topical real-life cases of bent cops and dead confidential informers who habituate the shady world of the Badlands. Sarie seems to be a regular Honors Student caught between law enforcement and the dangerous world of drug dealing. In other words, Canary seemed to be minus that Swierczynski spark–that exotic, exciting fusion of crime and pulp which raises his books from the zone of the ordinary to the archetypal. The last section of Canary, however, ambushes in its explosive intensity, for as the story progresses, Sarie morphs into a fabulous, unexpected heroine–just the type of character I’d expect from this author.

I’m not going to say a great deal about the plot as to reveal much more would spoil the experience for the potential readers out there. But I will say that once again I was tremendously impressed. Swierczynski crafts a story that initially seems to be taking one path, and yet as the plot progresses, Sarie, yes I know, a character in a book, seems to grow a life of her own apart from the already established plot; she becomes an awesome heroine who refuses to be defined by the role assigned to her by Wildey or the drug dealers she must fool. It’s almost as though Sarie grows and develops beyond the author’s original design, but that simply can’t be true, as by the end of the novel, we realize that the narrative arc was created well in advance.

Finally a note about the author’s characters. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the author’s characters: Jamie DeBroux from Severance Package, Charlie Hardie (Fun & Games, Hell & Gone, Point & Shoot), and Sarie Holland are ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, but that’s not true. These are extraordinary characters who are masked by ordinary hum-drum lives, and when the unpredictable erupts, these formidable characters rise, refuse victimhood, and fight back with whatever means necessary. The extraordinary human masked by blandness, even weakness (in Sarie’s case, her weakness appears to be her privilege and her naiveté) taps the subliminal archetypal dream we all harbor, and this is an extremely potent weapon in Swierczynski’s authorial arsenal. It’s in these character creations that Duane Swierczynski mines those comic book roots. Charlie Hardie can’t be described as anything close to a comic book super hero–he’s an over-weight, out-of-shape, middle aged, washed-up piece of human wreckage, but when placed in extraordinary circumstances, he shirks off that seeming ordinariness and rises to meet the challenge of survival, subverting his victim status as he fights back. In Sarie’s case, as a young college student she’s an unknown quantity, a blank page. As the plot progresses and Sarie’s nature slowly evolves into her new circumstances, we realize that she is a formidable human being–yes hampered by youth and inexperience, but all that’s about to change. Sarie, as the theoretical weakest link in the drug-enforcement chain, is primed to be eaten alive–either by the powers who desire to control her (the cops) or the dark world of narcotics that she is about to infiltrate. Sarie, who really should be outclassed by both the cops and the dealers, is yet another character who eschews victimhood, and we find ourselves cheering for this spunky heroine as she navigates her new role. Swierczynski’s impressive plot development shows incredible imaginative skill, and some seeds sown early and innocuously at the beginning of the novel, rear to powerful significance at the conclusion.

The Civic speeds past some of the most depressing vistas Philadelphia has to offer Abandoned fields of industrial much and a few struggling refineries. Burst of fire in the distance. Smoke. Weedy swamps and dump sites. Must be a shock to the tourist when they land and hail a can to the City of Brotherly Love and feel like they’re pulling into the set of Bladerunner.

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In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomás González

There are days when I suspect many of us entertain the fantasy of leaving civilization and moving to some remote tropical island. In the Columbian novel, In the Beginning Was the Sea, apparently based on a true story, author Tomás González creates two unlikable characters J and Elena who buy a ramshackle finca on an island off the coast of Columbia. The novel begins with J and Elena traveling to their new home by bus to the coast, and it’s a disastrous trip which is just the beginning of a bad decision. There’s immediately the sense that J and Elena are fish out of water who cannot even imagine the life that waits for them:

By day, the bus picked up passengers carrying bewildered chickens: at night, empty-handed individuals boarded the bus in dark, desolate places only to get off in equally dark desolate places twenty or thirty kilometres further on. Silent men with machetes slung from their belts and dirty, battered hats on their heads.

It’s a great quote which illustrates the menace of these men who travel without luggage from one remote place to another. Are they criminals or are they simply downtrodden workers, mired in poverty, looking for the next job? We can’t tell and as the novel wears on, this inability to distinguish between poverty and potential danger becomes an important factor.

in the beginning was the seaElena and J arrive in the ramshackle, chaotic coastal town and arrange a boat trip to the island. The town isn’t picturesque:

Parked all around the plaza were lines of Jeeps. Some looked new, but most were rusty broken-down Willys half eaten by rust or clapped-out Gaz or Carpatis. The newer models had metal driver’s cabs with small red or blue fans mounted on the dashboard while older models sported grubby statues of a saint next to the steering wheel and faded, patched tarpaulin roofs.

The dusty streets around the plaza would become quagmires in the rainy season. Traffic was heavy: trucks full with packages arrived as the jeeps teeming with passengers left. Garishly painted buses pulled up, their roofs piled high with live chickens, multi-coloured tin trunks and bunches of plantains.

The squat building on concrete and brick–mostly grain stores and seedy bars–were roofed with corrugated iron or asbestos tiles. There was no attempt at elegance or style; the walls themselves were grimy. The people teeming on the plaza were ugly: the white men were garrulous, potbellied traders with a yellowish tinge to their skin; the blacks, raised far from the sea and cheap fish, had prematurely rotting teeth.

The author doesn’t dwell on J and Elena’s impressions of the town, but J “threaded his way through the dusty streets” until “finally, he could see the water.”  Meanwhile Elena is in a state of inchoate rage at the fate of the first casualty of the move–her sewing machine which was broken when it fell off the roof of the bus. This incident, while seemingly quite small, is indicative of the future: J, who’s left Elena to deal with the luggage, goes off boozing and gets drunk while Elena, full of impotent verbal abuse, rails at people who obviously don’t care.

Elena headed off to the shipping office to complain, where she was roundly greeted by a slob who insisted this was just one of those things that could have happened to anyone. Elena flew into a rage and curtly informed him that his company was shit. The man–who was not so much rude as insignificant–immediately agreed:
“You’re right, the company is shit.”

With a scheduled departure on a boat the next day, J and Elena must stay the night at a local hotel. Elena tells a local that she wants “the best,” and she’s told “there is no best,” and they stay in one of the many local hotels–theirs “reeked of cat piss, though there was no sign of a cat.”

J and Elena’s desires and wishes, and their sense of importance, are immediately eviscerated by the hardscrabble economy of the town. Their sense of entitlement and their self-importance are nothing here amongst the locals. There will be no special privileges, no special accommodations for the fastidious. They will eat food covered with flies and sleep in airless rooms just like everyone else.  J rolls with it (helped by his alcohol haze) while Elena is obviously not the type to go slumming.

The finca is a “huge, ramshackle wooden mansion [was] built into the side of a hill.” It looks better from a distance. It’s filthy, has a corrugated iron roof, is full of bats & cockroaches, and has no running water. Elena’s earlier rage turns into cleaning mania much to the astonishment of a husband and wife team hired to work at the finca.

The finca comes with two hundred hectares and J’s plan to lead a simple life, farm and raise cattle goes wrong. By chapter 6, we know that something bad will happen, and it’s clear through J and Elena’s behaviour that they’re not suited for this type of endeavor. Elena is abusive to the locals and the servants, and J is busy drinking himself into oblivion. Their business plan takes a turn for the worse, and their initial plan branches out into a couple of other money making (or money draining) schemes. While it’s easy to predict that this will end badly, there’s no sacrifice in tension; there are so many ways this story could go, that the turn, when it comes, is sudden and brutal.

J and Elena are unlikable even “unbearable” characters–although J does gain some respect from the locals who clearly feel sorry for him being married to Elena. We don’t know exactly why J and Elena make this drastic decision to farm an island finca, but the novel gives us hints about the “wild chaotic life” they led “before they ran away to sea.” Life at the finca, instead of being the simple life of an island paradise, is hell for both J and Elena–she erodes into an ill tempered neurotic and in J’s case, he turns to heavy drinking. J has a history  of being fascinated by “futile intellectual pursuits, which were a part of his inchoate and confused revolt against culture,” and he’s clearly attracted to the idea of leaving civilization behind and carving a living out from the land while rejecting a conformist 9-5 job. Unfortunately, J is a dilettante who’s inherited just enough money to get himself into trouble. The islanders lead a subsistence level existence; it’s a life of hard work, and it’s fascinating to see how J, although he expresses some “highbrow-anarcho-lefty businessman bullshit, that mixture of colonial, bohemian and hippie” thoughts, shifts his goals once he becomes a landowner. The “original plan” to “move out to sea and enjoy life, buy a little boat for fishing, a few cows, a few chickens,” explodes into a self-destructive, arrogant “bourgeois dream” which neither J nor Elena are equipped to deal with. Of course there’s a great deal of irony here as the theoretical simple life turns into a massive problem of land and people management with the bank extending loans that are impossible to repay. Pretentious idealism meets reality and guess which wins.

Translated by Frank Wynne

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Little Black Lies: Sandra Block

I read out loud to them: ” ‘patient voices regret over her past actions. States she would like to visit Children’s Hospital, or become a Big Sister to help other children. Her dream is to become an elementary school teacher or social worker to help troubled kids, as she feels she was not helped.’ Is that not unbelievable? She’s acting like Mother Theresa, and he’s falling for it, hook, line, and sinker.”

Little Black Lies a first novel from neurologist Sandra Block introduces damaged psychiatry intern, Zoe Goldman. For regular readers of this blog, you already know that I have a fascination with books set in asylums/mental hospitals and plots either written by or featuring psychiatrists/therapists. Since Little Black Lies focuses on psychiatry resident Dr. Zoe Goldman who is assigned a patient newly transferred to her care, I was, naturally intrigued. Plus .. book two featuring Zoe Goldman : The Girl Without a Name has an ETA of 9/15 … sign me up.

little black liesThe plot takes place over just a few months, but reaches back into the shadowy past of the protagonist, damaged Zoe Goldman. Zoe who’s in the middle of a long-distance relationship with a Frenchman, works in the psychiatric ward of a hospital where she sees and treats many “frequent flyers:” those with the “usual circuit: emergency room, psych ward, rehab, streets, and repeat. A cycle destined to continue until interrupted by jail, death, or less likely, sobriety.”

The book begins with daily rounds and Zoe’s latest assignment, a ‘new’ patient– 36-year old, Sofia Vallano who’s been institutionalized since age 14 for the murder of her mother. After the closure of another hospital, Sofia has been transferred for “further treatment and evaluation,” and of course the underlying question is: can Sofia be released into society or does she still represent a danger to others? Compared to the other patients in the psych ward, Sofia seems much more controlled. There are no violent outbursts, she is on no medication, and, rather conveniently, she claims to remember absolutely nothing about the death of her mother.

And there is Sofia Vallano, perched on the bed, reading a magazine. I’m not sure what I expected. Some baleful creature with blood dripping from her eyeteeth maybe. But this is not what I see. Sofia Vallano is a stunning mix of colors: shiny black hair, royal blue eyes, and opera red lips. Something like Elizabeth Taylor in her middle years, curvaceous and unapologetically sexual. They say the devil comes well dressed.

Zoe juggles a number of personal problems with the demands of her professional life. While she performs well at work (in spite of constant friction from her boss) she really is a bit of a mess and takes three different medications: Adderall “So I keep my mouth shut most of the time,” Lexapro “So I don’t jump off the Peace Bridge,” and Xanax “So I can sleep.” Plus she’s in therapy. Zoe used to suffer from horrendous nightmares, and when those nightmares return, she begins to question her past. While holes rapidly develop in the constructed history of her childhood, Zoe hits a stumbling block when she tries to question her adoptive mother who now suffers from dementia.

The fragility of memory is a central theme of the book. On one hand there’s “model patient,” Sofia, who murdered her mother as a teenager, and now under Zoe’s supervision, she conveniently claims to remember a vital component to the crime. With Sofia’s imminent release on the table, Zoe isn’t buying Sofia’s sudden surge of memory or her professed desire to turn her life around. While trying to get to the bottom of Sofia’s story, in a parallel quest for the truth, whatever that truth may be, Zoe tries to uncover details about her own past–initially through therapy and then through some good, old fashioned detective work.

While I guessed the book’s central secret, this was an entertaining read that explores the ephemeral nature of memory. So much of our early memories become a construct for our adult selves, but what happens when that construction is fabricated? While Little Black Lies is an eminently readable book, complex therapy options including hypnosis, day residue and dream rehearsal enter the plot. Interesting secondary characters are included in Zoe’s support network: an adoptive brother and two workmates: idiom obsessed Thai Dr A. and Chinese-American Jason (the dialogue between Zoe and her fellow doctors is energetic and feels authentic) . If this is indeed the first in a new series, then it’s a good start. It’s going to be intriguing to see where the author takes her main character. Will she remain focused on hospitalized patients or will she branch out into her own practice? The subject matter offers a wide range of possibilities, and for therapy junkies (like me) Sandra Block’s Zoe Goldman promises an interesting new series.

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Cousin Pons: Balzac

Continued from Part 1..

When Pons suffers the ultimate humiliation at the home of his relations, the de Marvilles, he decides to take his evening meals with his best friend, the naive German musician Schmucke. Schmucke and Pons work at the same theatre and lodge at the same building. Schmucke, who doesn’t care much about food, doesn’t understand Pons’s “gastric nostalgia,” and he treasures his friendship with Pons above all else. Events occur which further blacken Pons’s welcome at the de Marvilles’ home, and Pons subsequently becomes ill.  With Pons incapacitated in bed, and very possibly dying, the concierge Madame Cibot takes command of Schmucke & Pons–her two “nutcrackers.”  She and her tailor husband don’t own the building but instead they run it for the elderly absent owner. Cibot is ailing and finds it difficult to continue to work, and La Cibot bemoans the lack of private income while noting that servants are often left annuities by former, grateful employers. Before Pons’s illness she wasn’t a bad caretaker, but Madame Cibot has gradually taken over various aspects of Pons and Schmucke’s lives. She does their laundry, makes and mends clothes and even provides meals. It’s through these services that she gradually creeps into every aspect of the bachelors’ lives and she begins to become obsessed with gaining an annuity through inheritance. Once fixated on this idea, she becomes increasingly disgruntled and convinced that she’s owed. Balzac, as ever, that great chronicler of human nature understands Madame Cibot; need, opportunity and justification–all those elements twist and turn in a poisonous blend, and soon Madame Cibot plots to strip Pons of his fortune. But she isn’t the only one who can’t wait to get her hands on Pons’s art collection, and the vultures gather….

Through Cibot’s greed, Balzac introduces a network of corruption and some great secondary characters. The ambitious  ‘man of law’ Monsieur Frasier is by far the most intriguing. He’s a dangerous cobra–waiting to strike at his enemies, and someone you certainly don’t want to cross. Frasier has a checkered past and he’s desperate to get ahead in society:

The next day, at six in the morning, Madame Cibot was in the rue de la Perle, eyeing the abode of her future legal adviser, our Monsieur Frasier, man of law. It was one of those houses inhabited by erstwhile lower-middle-class people. You entered it from an alley. The ground floor was partly taken up by the porter’s lodge and the premises of a cabinet-maker whose workshops and showrooms encumbered a small inner courtyard. It was divided into two portions by the alley and the well of the staircase, into which saltpeter and damp had eaten. The whole house appeared to be suffering from leprosy.

Before meeting Frasier, Madame Cibot speculated why he didn’t marry one of his clients–a certain Madame Florimond. Frasier’s concierge tells Madame Cibot that she’ll understand when she sees Frasier:

Monsieur Frasier, a shriveled and sickly looking little man with a red face covered with spots which spoke of impurities in the blood, who moreover was constantly scratching his right arm, and whose wig, pushed far back on his head, incompletely concealed a sinister-looking, brick-coloured cranium, rose from the cane armchair in which he had been sitting on a green leather cushion. Assuming an amiable air and a fluting tone of voice, he said as he offered her a chair:

‘Madame Cibot, I think?’

Schmucke is the one perfectly good character in the book (Pons has the weakness of loving food), and so while Schmucke is completely sympathetic, his dialogue was maddening. Yes I know he’s German, but the passages of his broken English weren’t easy to plough through:

‘Unt yet,’ he continued, ‘zey haf hearts of golt. In a vort, zey are my little Saint Cecelias, scharmink vomen, Matame te Portentuère, Matame to Vantenesse, Matame to tillet. I only see zem in zehamps-Elyssées, vizout zem seeink me. Unt yet zey lof me much, and I coult stay in zeir country-house, put I like much pesser to pe viz my frient Pons, pecausse I can see him ven I vish unt efery tay.’

In Cousin Pons, Balzac shows that innocence, kindness and decency are poor adversaries against greed. Many people have designs on Pons’s valuable art collection, and its questionable acquisition will solve the problems of some characters and make the careers of several others. Some of the vultures who gather for the spoils are more vicious than their fellow predators; the powerless will always be powerless, even as they grab the crumbs from the table. As Madame Cibot notes:

‘I knew perfectly well, my dear Monsieur Frasier, that I shouldn’t get even a whiff of that particular roast…’

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Cousin Pons: Balzac

“And here begins the drama, or if you prefer, the terrible comedy of the death of a bachelor delivered over by the force of circumstances to the rapacity of covetous people assembled around his bed.”

Balzac’s Cousin Pons, published first as a serial in 1847, is subtitled: Part Two of Poor Relations. Part One of Poor Relations is Cousin Bette–in my opinion, a much better novel. That’s not to say that Cousin Pons is bad; it isn’t, but while Cousin Bette is the story of a bitter, twisted poor relation’s plot to destroy the Hulot family (and they fall into her spiteful hands), Cousin Pons is the story of a harmless bachelor whose illness and death are accelerated by his greedy landlady, local art dealers and relatives who all plot to get their hands on Pons’s valuable art collection. Cousin Bette’s relatives fall victim to her dastardly plot, and the Hulots are mostly destroyed through actions of their own choosing, but in Cousin Pons, Pons and his innocent, child-like friend, fellow musician, Schmucke, are no match for the vultures who gather to strip the two men of Pons’s fortune. So while we expect the Hulots to fall in Cousin Bette, it’s painful to read about the systematic stripping of Pons’s fortune. For a great deal of the novel, Pons, who really should be a central character, is ill in bed, and that leaves secondary–albeit much more interesting characters–to carry the plot. It’s in these secondary characters that the book’s strengths can be found.

cousin ponsBut now to the plot…

Cousin Pons is the poor relation of a large extended family. The first few pages of the novel describe Pons’s appearance. It’s 1844, but Pons is dressed with “an unconquerable fidelity to the modes of 1806.” And here’s a beautiful long quote about his attire:

And so this thin, dried-up old man wore a nut-brown spencer over a greenish coat with white metal buttons! In 1844, meeting a man in a spencer made it seem as if Napoleon had deigned to come back to life for an hour or two.

Now spencers were invented, as the name implies, by an English lord who was doubtless vain of his elegant figure. Some time before the Peace of Amiens, this Englishman had solved the problem of covering his torso without burying himself in a carrick, that horrible garment which is now ending its days on the shoulders of old-fashioned cabmen. But as slender waists are scarce, the male fashion in spencers was short-lived in France, even though it was an English invention. At the sight of this gentleman’s spencer, spectators in their forties and fifties mentally arranged him in top-boots and ribbon-bowed, pistachio-green kerseymere breeches. They saw themselves back in the costume of their youth. Old women started living their love lives over again. Young people wondered why this Alcibiades had cut off his coat-tails. Everything else about him went so well with this spencer that you would not have hesitated to set this passer-by down as an ‘Empire Man’, just as one speaks of ‘Empire furniture’. But he symbolized the Empire only for those who knew something, at least from illustrations, about that superb and impressive era. The Empire is already so distant from us that not everybody can conjure it up in all its Gallo-Grecian reality.

So Pons is the sort of man it’s easy to poke fun at. He’s very thin, unattractive and he holds a position as a conductor in a theatre. Pons appears to be very poor, but in fact he’s managed over the years to amass a fantastic art collection. Balzac, ever a writer to exploit the hidden fixations of his characters, states: “you could see at a glance that he was a well-bred man addicted to some secret vice, or one of those persons with private means whose every disbursement is so strictly limited by the modesty of their income that a broken window-pane, a torn coat, or that plague of our philanthropic age, a charity collection, would cancel out their petty enjoyments for a month.”

So that’s one of Pons’s vices–almost all of his money goes towards this fantastic collection of objets d’art including “forgotten relics of seventeenth-and eighteenth century art,” Sèvres porcelain, snuff boxes and miniatures. But Balzac doesn’t think that Pons’s obsession with his art collection is necessarily a bad thing:

For in truth, to adopt a mania is like applying a poultice to the soul: it can cure any taedium vitae, any spleen. Let all those no longer able to drain what has always been called ‘the cup of joy’ take to collecting something (even advertisement bills), and in this they will find the solid gold of happiness minted into small coinage.

But Pons does have a weakness: he lives to eat well, and he cannot bear to eat simply. Over the years, he’s managed to meet his gastronomic cravings by invitations to the best houses in Paris, but as the years wear on, and Pons ages and becomes more and more unattractive, the invitations to dinner are few. There was a period when he made himself useful to his hosts and even served as a sort of spy, but those days are over. There are just a couple of houses where he is considered the poor relation who must be tolerated, and he becomes that dreaded figure; the “hanger-on.” And this is where all the problems begins when he shows up at dinner time at the home of his relatives, the Marvilles. Pons is such an object of ridicule that the servants feel free to treat him badly, and even though Pons arrives with an extremely valuable Watteau as a gift, 23 year-old Cécile de Marville fabricates an excuse to leave so that they can ditch Pons. There’s not much of an attempt made to hide the ruse, and Pons is humiliated….

More in part II

Translated by Herbert J. Hunt

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Behind God’s Back by Harri Nykänen

Behind God’s Back, the second in the Inspector Ariel Kafka series is a police procedural from Finnish author Harri Nykänen. I haven’t read the first in the series: Nights of Awe, but I will be correcting that. Starting with the second in the series, I didn’t feel as though I missed much by jumping in, and instead Behind God’s Back was an interesting read from Bitter Lemon Press–a publisher whose name is well-known to fans of international crime fiction.

Behind God’s Back features Inspector Ariel Kafka, a Finnish bachelor, a Jew, who’s just beginning to think that perhaps devotion to his job and the neglect of his personal life may have caused him to miss some opportunities. Kafka is an intriguing main character, a man we want to spend time with. He doesn’t have a drinking problem, he’s not a train wreck, but he does have the saving grace of possessing a lively, quirky sense of humour. Not that there’s much humour to be found in the crime under investigation–the assassination style shooting of a prominent Jewish businessman who made the mistake of opening his own front door to the killer.

Behind God's backWhen the novel opens, Finnish police are involved in Operation Jaffa aka Operation Haemorrhoid–renamed for the hours spent “without a break on the hard-edged, unpadded kitchen chair” watching a suspect through a telescope. This case, which purportedly involves a high-profile assassination, sprang from monitoring a group called Seeds of Hate who targeted a handful of “prominent Jews” for hate mail. The organization is also responsible for the kidnapping and beating of a professor, so the threats must be taken seriously.

The situation becomes even more serious when Samuel Jacobson, the owner of a chain of office supply shops is killed when he opens the door to a man who posed as a police officer. Inspector Kakfa, from the Violent Crimes Unit, and a member of the relatively small Jewish community, knew Samuel and briefly dated his daughter many years previously. Stepping into the case and becoming re-involved with Samuel’s family takes Kafka back to his teens when he was deemed not good enough to date Lea, Samuel’s daughter. It’s a weird, almost surreal turn of events for Kafka who, as he investigates, discovers that Jacobson’s company over-leveraged during the Boom years and is now heavily in debt. On top of that, Lea, now living in Israel, is married to a man who has ties to the Russian Mafia.

With a cast of nicely-drawn secondary characters (including a couple of nosy neighbours who keep a handy pair of binoculars close by,) Kafka works his way through the crime and makes the uncomfortable discovery that his much more successful brother, corporate lawyer, Eli is also involved in some shenanigans. As this police procedural unfolds, Behind God’s Back, is mostly a leisurely read–although as often is the case with police procedurals, the plot tends to pile in on itself as the solution nears. The plot does not rely on tension, violence or gore, but instead the emphasis is on Kafka’s dogged pursuit of the truth–no matter where that journey takes him. Kafka’s bachelorhood and relationships with his colleagues are all tinged with humour:

My relationship with Lea had come to an abrupt end when someone had blabbed that, after a party at my friend’s, I had stayed behind with Karmela Mayer, the daughter of the fur shop owner. I had dated Karmela for over a year, and had almost ended up under the chuppah. Karmela lived in Israel these days, and had three children. I still had restless dreams about her large breasts. Lea also moved to Israel later and married a wealthy entrepreneur, or at least that’s what I remembered someone telling me. That’s the extent of what I knew about her family life.

I had dated three other Jewish girls and screwed up those relationships , too. When you add one-night stands, if you wanted to draw a hard line, I was disqualified when it came to every single Jewish family in Helsinki.

The murder of Samuel Jacobson forces Kafka to confront his past as the investigation involves questioning people who consider him an outsider now and not quite good enough for their society or their daughters. The cast of characters includes:

Kafka’s boss, former male model Chief Detective Huovinen who “always looked polished down to the tips of his toes.”

Sidekick Detective Simolin:

a good police officer, but so inherently innocent that he often found himself coming up against life’s realities. He was fascinated by North American Indians. He even had an Indian name, which he wouldn’t tell anyone, and a set of buckskins complete with moccasins and a feathered headdress.”

Detective Arja Stenman:

To be honest, she looked too classy for rough-and-tumble police work. She would have fit right in as the trophy wife of a middle-ranking CEO. In a way, she had been pretty close. She was divorced, but her ex-husband owned, or had owned, a construction equipment rental company. He had sold it in the nick of time before the police and the tax authorities caught up with him. Stolen machinery had been found in the company’s warehouses. In any case, Arja Stenman had been accustomed to a life where you didn’t have to worry about whether the money would stretch until payday. She had clear skin, freckles and a straight nose. I couldn’t deny it: she was easy on the eyes.

While the solution to the crime held my attention, my main interest lurked on Kafka:

Living alone had its advantages, but it wasn’t a dogma or principle for me. It was ninety per cent sad especially when your wildest partying days had passed and started valuing other things.

I don’t know what my problem was, but I attracted the wrong sort of women. They represented one of two extremes: either they were too bossy and domineering, or too meek and adaptable.

Another problem was that all the women my age were divorced and usually bitter about it. Plus they had children, and even though I had met some nice kids, I didn’t want to be a father to the children of a man I didn’t know.

As a bachelor over the age of forty, my relatives considered me a strange bird. I was continuously dodging their attempts to marry me off. “Good Jewish girls,” were foisted off on me under any variety of pretences.

Kafka has an interesting voice, and he’s a character who blends well with his quirky colleagues. The term crime fiction covers a vast range of subjects and cannot fit into some one-size-fits-all description. This series should appeal to fans of international crime, Nordic crime, or police procedurals that are light on violence but emphasize an affection for returning characters.

Translated by Kristian London

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I for Isobel by Amy Witting

I for Isobel, and that’s a curious title with a child like ring, from Australian author Amy Witting (1918-2001), is an episodic view of the life of the heroine. This is a coming-of-age novel, a dislikeable term which implies a sort of cookie cutter simplicity that is, unfortunately, underscored by the title. In the foreword to the Text Classics edition, Charlotte Wood admits that she bypassed Amy Witting’s work because “their titles had turned me off,” and that they sounded “girlish, flatfooted, giving off a cutesy, floral whiff.” Yet there’s nothing simple and girlish about Isobel or this novel; this is the story of a young girl hated by her mother who, with some assistance from an aunt, must make her own way in the world, and what’s striking here is the insular nature of Isobel’s life–stripped of nurturing relationships, sustaining friendships and no real mention of the possibility of romance–we are left with just Isobel, a child, and later a young woman who is interesting for her remarkably self-contained ability to absorb life through the sustaining fuel of books while cloaking her nature and desires into acceptable conformity.

I for IsobelIn the case of Isobel, we see her first a child trying to establish emotional barriers against her mother’s venom, and  after crucial events, by the end of the novel, Isobel appears to have broken through some fundamental constricting membrane and is on the road to finding her own voice. There’s a sequel to I for Isobel, Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop. Witting had just started a third book in the Isobel series when she died, and that’s our loss.

This wonderful book opens on Isobel’s ninth birthday, and we are immediately dropped into the toxic spite directed towards Isobel by her mother. It’s not that Isobel’s mother ‘forgets’ her birthday–no she continually reminds her of the event and the fact that there will be no celebration:

A week before Isobel Callaghan’s ninth birthday, her mother said, in a tone of mild regret, ‘No birthday presents this year! We have to be very careful about money this year.’

Every year at this time she said this; every year Isobel chose not to believe it. Her mother was just saying that, she told herself to make the present more of a surprise. Experience told her that there would be no present. As soon as they stepped out of the ferry onto the creaking wharf and set out for Mrs Terry’s lakeside boarding house, where they spent the summer holidays, the flat reedy shore, the great Moreton Bay fig whose branches scaffolded the air of the boarding-house garden, the weed-bearded tennis court and the cane chairs with their faded flabby cushions, all spoke to Isobel of desolate past birthdays, but she did not believe experiences, either. Day by day she watched for a mysterious shopping trip across the lake, for in the village there was only one tiny store which served as a post office too; when no mysterious journey took place, she told herself they must have brought the present secretly from home. Even on the presentless morning she would not give up hope entirely, but would search in drawers, behind doors, under beds, as if birthday presents were supposed to be hidden, like Easter eggs in the grass.

It’s through the lack of a birthday present that Mrs Callaghan’s spitefulness is apparent, and we never know quite why Isobel’s older sister, Margaret receives preferential treatment when it comes to birthdays–although of course, in order for spitefulness to carry its full sting, there’s no better way than to concoct an arbitrary rule for one child and not for the other. As scenes from Isobel’s childhood unfold, it seems that Margaret is not loved either. There’s a father there, silent, “tired,” and “pale,” and at meal times, one of the occasions when this toxic family gather together, he keeps his head low, ignoring his wife’s tirades. Over time Isobel learns that her mother has two voices: her so-called “real voice,” (the nasty one) and the one she uses when out in society. Isobel also learns that her mother uses rage to seek some sort of emotional catharsis:

Then she saw her mother’s anger was a live animal tormenting her, that she Isobel was an outlet that gave some relief and she was torturing her by withholding it.

Her father used to do that, sitting silently while her mother raged at him, chewing his food slowly, turning the pages of his newspaper deliberately–doing what Isobel was doing now, But one night he had put the paper down with a fierce thump and shown a white face, wild eyes and a mouth gaping as if his tongue was swollen. His chair had crashed over, he had picked up the knife from the bread board and run at her mother, who was cringing away with her head at a strange angle and a meek frown on her face, her hands out in front of her and the line of blood suddenly across her fingers.

But before that, when he had got up, before she saw how real the knife was and how near, there had been two little glittering points of satisfaction in her mother’s eyes, two little sea-monsters swimming up from …

Isobel’s childhood absorbs only about 1/4 of the book. Soon she’s a young woman who has learned to contain spontaneity and emotion; she won’t learn so much through her own experiences but from watching the lives of others and, of course, from reading–a habit that sustained her throughout childhood. Salvation and sanity to be gained in reading (“Birthdays, injustices and parents all vanished,”) becomes one of the central themes of the book–from Isobel as a child discovering Conan Doyle and sinking into his books and forgetting, temporarily, at least, the fact that her birthday will be ignored. Then later, when Isobel lives in a shabby boarding house under the thumb of the tyrannical Mrs Bowers, her desire to read alienates her from the other boarders. For Isobel, reading is the most important thing in life.

She had been reading the novels of Trollope and whenever she wasn’t reading, no matter what was happening in the outside world, she was conscious of being in exile from Barsetshire.

Through significant episodes in Isobel’s life, events leave various lasting impressions, and it’s through these events that we see Isobel’s personality form. She passes through office life and eventually runs into some students who recognize her as a fellow reader. Through these relationships, she becomes involved, as an innocent bystander, in a side story of sad obsessive love, and again there’s the sense of Isobel observing the human zoo. As a child, Isobel is aware of the need to mask her desires and expectations as exposure only brings pain, and she manages to master these behaviors through her lack of birthday acknowledgement recognizing that not looking for a gift  “was a step towards the kind of person she longed to be but did not have words to describe–someone safe behind a wall of her own building.” It’s probably this type of strategic, deep thinking that saves Isobel from developing into a neurotic mess, but at the same time, she’s still behind that wall and has yet to emerge.

Towards the end of the novel, when Isobel mixes with a handful of students and finds some like-minded people, she is still an outsider. In one memorable scene a student named Kenneth notes the intense behaviour of a young girl who stalks a man who’s rejected her.  Although the rejected girl’s goals are very different from those of Isobel’s mother, nonetheless there’s a link there:

 “It’s amazing though,” said Kenneth, “what you can get away with if you give up caring about anything else, like self-respect and pride and all that stuff. Turning yourself into a projectile, so to speak.”

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As Far As You Can Go by Lesley Glaister

A young attractive woman named Cassie responds to a newspaper ad for “Housekeeper/companions,” and so Cassie finds herself in a London hotel being interviewed for the job by Larry Drake. The job entails working in Australia on the remote Woolagong Station, “right on the tropic of Capricorn, fringes of the desert”– a former sheep station on a half million acres. While the sheep station is no longer in operation, Larry claims that he needs a young couple to work around the ranch and help with his wife:

‘What do we actually do?’ she says. ‘On a daily basis, I mean.’

‘What would you expect to do?’

‘I’m not sure–housekeeping and so on?’

‘Yes. Certainly that. Mara, my wife, she is not–let us say not entirely “well.” She needs help with –‘ the corner of his lip twitches, ‘housekeeping, yes, but she also needs companionship. I’m away sometimes, and,’ he stretches out his arms,’ as you see, the place we live –Woolagong Station–it’s somewhat … remote.’

Well at this point, any sensible person would be out the door, but Cassie isn’t really thinking properly. She should be asking herself why an Australian has to come all the way to London to find a young couple to work in a remote region of the outback. Surely climate alone should dictate that a native Australian would be better suited to the job, and would at least have a good idea of what to expect. There’s something wrong with the whole set up and there’s something wrong with Larry–even Cassie, who thinks that job is the answer to her problems, is aware that the situation feels wrong and that Larry gives off  a strange vibe.

There’s something pleasantly reptilian about him, a grain of god in his skin. If he took off his shirt, you wouldn’t be surprised to find a pattern there, like lizard skin. She blinks, startled by the thought.

So why is Cassie willing to overlook her gut feelings and plunge ahead with this insane plan? We discover the answer to that when she returns home to Graham and breaks the news that she’s accepted the job for both of them. According to Cassie, the job in Australia is going to be a turning point in their relationship. Out there for a year’s contract on Woolagong Station, Cassie reasons that they can work out their problems. Since the major points of contention in the relationship are Graham’s habits of disappearing for days and refusing to accept monogamy, the remoteness of their new employment is a bit like making Graham go cold turkey.

‘But–what about last month when you went out for a paper and disappeared for a week? Or July? No–don’t. I don’t want to hear any excuses or anything. I want you to be here for me. Like a proper partner. A proper committed partner. No more flings. No more disappearing off. If you can’t do that then—‘ She slices her hand through the air.

If Cassie were sensible, she’d realize that Graham is his own person who cannot (and should not) be controlled, say ‘sayonara toots’ and move on to someone more suited to her temperament, but no. Instead she’s willing to go to extremes to keep Graham monogamous and by her side. It’s as if a year in the remote Woolagong station is required for Graham to be trained to be the kind of man Cassie wants.

as far as you can goGraham and Cassie soon have reason to regret Cassie’s decision to take the job. Woolagong station is slap bang in the middle of exactly … nowhere, Larry, who claims to be a doctor, seems to have an unhealthy interest in Cassie, and exactly why does Larry’s wife live in the shed????

As Far as You can Go, a novel of psychological suspense, shows how Cassie’s poor decision to accept the job leads to a very creepy situation. Cassie and Graham are completely dependent on Larry, and the environment at Woolagong isn’t exactly normal…

The novel is well structured and nicely paced, but in spite of this, when I turned the last page, something seemed to be missing–although I seem to be in the minority opinion on Goodreads. For this reader, all of the characters in the novel were rather unpleasant, and while that isn’t in itself a problem as I enjoy reading about nasty people, it was difficult to care about what happened to the two main characters–potential victims–Cassie and Graham. Both Cassie and Graham seem to be incredibly warped human beings: Cassie is determined to make Graham into the sort of man she wants in spite of the fact that the raw material falls far short of her expectations, and Graham seems both sleazy and weak-willed. Dig a little deeper, and there are some creepy similarities between Cassie and Larry as they are both people who are willing to go to extremes to control the behaviour of someone else. My sympathy for Cassie, Miss Organic Gardener, ended when she squashed a caterpillar who dared to venture into the vegetable garden, and at that point, who cares if they find themselves in the middle of nowhere with some nut job?

Review copy

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The Forgotten Girls by Sara Blaedel

First, an admission: I would never have started the Danish crime novel The Forgotten Girls from author Sara Blaedel if I’d known that it was number 7 in a series. Apparently it’s a number 1 bestseller in Denmark, and due to the current demand for Nordic crime fiction, the book will probably fare well in N. America.

I was well into the book before I began to pick up clues that this was not an introduction to Blaedel’s main character, the feisty, single, Louise Rick. Suddenly backstory began to appear in the crime under investigation, and so I took a look at Goodreads and discovered that The Forgotten Girls is number 7 in the Louise Rick series and while I may be missing something, I can’t see where number 1 in the series has been translated into English–although numbers 2, 3 and 4 appear to be available in English.

Excuse me while I rail at the illogicality of this….

The Forgotten GirlsIn The Forgotten Girls, Louise Rick has left the Copenhagen Homicide Department, and in “an unusual step down,” returns to her home town to become “the technical manager of the Special Search Agency”:

Each year, sixteen to seventeen hundred people were reported missing in Denmark. Many turned up again and some were found dead, but according to the assessment of the National Police, there was a crime behind one out of five of the unsolved missing person reports.

Her department was tasked with investigating these cases.

Investigating missing persons reports is, as it turns out, an important distinction; she’s not supposed to investigate or solve murders, and this becomes quite clear as the plot moves on. As head of the New Special Search agency, Louise arrives at the right moment, for shortly after her arrival, she gets her first case. An autopsy is conducted on a woman found dead in the woods near a lake in mid-Zealand, and although she appeared to die from injuries from a fall, there are some bizarre aspects to the case. The woman was barefoot and dressed in old-fashioned shabby clothing. No one has stepped forward to identify the mystery woman in spite of the fact that she has a huge scar that destroyed one side of her face. She also had horribly neglected teeth and a long-ago broken bone in her forearm that was not treated. Someone must be missing this woman, so why has no one claimed the body?

So this is the central mystery to the story, and eventually Louise and her new partner, Eik Nordstrøm, a man who seems to make a habit out of drinking hard and showing up for work late, find that their investigation takes them back into the past and the archaic attitudes towards treating the mentally handicapped.

Ok, enough of the plot.

There’s a lot of backstory here: some present–some absent–and there were moments when I wondered why on earth Louise decided to go back to her old stomping grounds where everyone is so friggin’ freaky. This a community in which a local bully holds sway over his peers, weirdos live in the woods, and people seem to be either running around hanging themselves or perpetuating rape. Ok, a bit of exaggeration, but as the distant sound of banjos played in my head, there did indeed seem to be a thread here which more than hints that the locals are odd. Not only are the locals strange, but the old gang from school don’t exactly remember Louise fondly. She frequently runs into the old crowd and these encounters just bring back a lot of painful memories. Some catch-up paragraphs helped explain some of the incidents in Louise’s past but her decision to return home, without the backstory, seemed either misguided or a moment of temporary insanity. Perhaps the earlier books fill in that gap.

The mystery of the dead woman is weighed against various personal problems faced by Louise. Her friend, the journalist Camilla, is planning a big wedding to a very wealthy man, and Louise’s involvement in her work may lead to difficulties with establishing boundaries with a neighbour. The ending seemed a little too Hollywood for me (read over-the-top), and I guessed the solution to the mystery way back, and that left me wondering what the hell the police were playing at. In spite of the fact that both the treatment of mentally ill and the mentally handicapped play significant roles in the tale, this is not a deep crime novel. Instead, its appeal probably rests on attachment to the characters and their lives, and since I haven’t read the other 6 books, I can’t comment on the series or how this book stands compared to the rest. However, Louise, as an unsubtle, two-dimensional main character, didn’t have much appeal for this reader–although I did warm to Eik when, after interviewing a particularly bitter, unhappy witness, he states that “that’s enough to make you want a drink,” when we already know that he doesn’t need much of an excuse.

Translated by Signe Rød Golly

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Nate in Venice by Richard Russo

In the novella Nate in Venice, former English professor Nate, now in his 60s, is persuaded to take a tour of Italy by his semi-estranged brother Julian. First stop Venice where he joins the Biennale tour group “most of whom, like Nate, hail from central Massachusetts.” We know, almost immediately, that something has gone wrong in Nate’s life when we learn that he worries “his social skills may have atrophied after so many months of self-imposed solitude.” If the tour is supposed to help with Nate’s depression, it’s not working. The tour group members are a sorry lot, and “a few appear fit enough, but others strike him as medical emergencies waiting to happen.” One couple is “extremely elderly” and very fragile while others have to stop and rest every few feet and appear to be “heart-attack candidates.” But things begin to look promising when Nate spies another member of the tour, Rene, an attractive older woman who has an air of fragility and anxiety. Interesting that Nate’s drawn to a woman who’s so obviously damaged while he overlooks the much more confident Evelyn:

The general impression she conveys is of a woman who once upon a time cared about how she presented herself to men but work up one morning, said fuck it, and was immediately happier.

Nate, a lifelong bachelor, isn’t smooth with women, so it’s not too surprising that Nate’s older brother, salesman Julian swoops in and takes over Rene. This move, probably inspired by deeply-rooted sibling rivalry, is a repeat of history as far as these two brothers are concerned. While Julian’s invitation to Nate seems both unusual and unexpected, the minute the two brothers meet at the airport, all their troubled history floats to the surface:

Amazing, Nate thought. Thirty seconds into their first face-to-face conversation in years, and he already wanted to strangle the man.

There are many clues about trouble in Nate’s recent past along with hints that there’s some disgrace connected to his retirement. Accompanying this is Nate’s fundamental fear and preoccupying thought that he took the wrong path in life and that he should never have been a professor in the first place.

Say this for Julian, a career salesman: he’s lived the life he meant to live. He’s sold cars, time shares, stocks, television advertising. Indeed, people are always impressed by the wide range of things Julian has sold, but as he always explains, selling is selling. It’s all about knowing people better than they know themselves. Figure out who they are and that they really want and they’re yours. Julian always makes a fist when he says this, as if inviting people to imagine themselves in his grasp. Knowledge is power, he maintains (though apparently not the kind of knowledge that leads one to a Ph.D. in English). Julian claims his head is full of the kind of algorithms Google would pay millions for. In Nate’s opinion, it isn’t just algorithms Julian’s full of. And he disagrees that his brother can sell anything. He’s known Julian a long time, and he’s only ever sold one thing: Julian.

Nate is a self-confessed “career bachelor,” but he’s happy to admit that “his true love has always been Jane Austen.” There’s a back story on both of those admissions, and that back story leaks out gradually over the course of the novella as the scandal concerning Nate’s career emerges.

This novella, one of those kindle singles, is a story of life’s disappointments, and it offers a Richard Russo short read in about 90 minutes. While it’s not as satisfying as his novels, Nate in Venice offers a sample of the author’s style. Some sharp observations of academic life emerge in these pages, but this is not Straight Man– one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Nate is a bit of a depressive hence the medication he takes, and while many of us would consider Nate’s life successful, he still isn’t convinced that he took the correct career path, and it’s as though his decision to stick with academia somehow left part of Nate behind. It’s of those the road-not-taken scenarios. Most of us don’t end up with the sort of life we imagined in our youth, but in Nate’s case, there’s an emptiness and a general lack of involvement as he failed to engage in his own choices.

As a main character, Nate is problematic: mired in depression, he’s not very appealing, and then there’s his almost complete disengagement from his own life–until the one moment he reached out…. The ending seemed a little too arranged–although at the same time, questions about Julian remain unresolved.

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Filed under Fiction, Russo, Richard