Tag Archives: Bitter Lemon Press

The Road to Ithaca: Ben Pastor

Ben Pastor’s novel, The Road to Ithaca, from Bitter Lemon Press is the 5th novel in the Martin Bora series (Goodreads lists it as number 10). This book finds Wehrmacht officer Martin Bora in Moscow in June 1941 (the period of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression pact is about to dissolve), hobnobbing (somewhat nervously) with the likes of Stalin, Beria and Erskine Caldwell, when he is ordered to Crete to pick up 60 bottles of “choice Cretan wine” for the monstrous Beria. It seems like a fool’s errand–a lot of bother just to curry favour with a Russian ally  but once Bora arrives in Crete, he’s diverted to the investigation of the murder of a Red Cross representative who was a friend of Himmler’s. With the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau fearing the “potential repercussions,” Bora is assigned to investigate and solve the “grave incident involving the illustrious citizen of a neutral country.” 

On one hand, it looks like an open-and-shut case. During the recent German invasion of Crete, German paratroopers apparently approached the home of Swiss national Dr Professor Alois Villiger and murdered everyone inside–the professor, his housekeeper and other employees. This was observed and photographed by British Sgt Major Powell whose whereabouts are currently unknown as he’s hiding in the mountains. POW Lt Patrick Sinclair is in possession of the camera. Sinclair subsequently reported the incident to the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau.

the road to ithaca

Accompanied by a coerced American woman as a guide and a local police inspector, Bora approaches the crime knowing that “the conquest of the island had been a bloodbath,” with the German paratroopers hostile to the combative Greek civilians. Bora is under pressure to close the case “before the International Red Cross intervenes or Reichskommisar Himmler sends someone,” and he’s given just one week to come up with answers. …

Martin Bora is a morally complex character who is shown to be caught in a knotty labyrinth of treacherous shifting political allegiances, and unbeknownst to Bora, the war is about to take a dramatic turn. Bora is torn between duty, honour, integrity and loyalty, and in order to survive “the habit of hiding his thoughts had become second nature.” This explains why Bora’s ruminations are not vocalised, so we read this character’s internal dialogue. Bora possesses a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and, as the title suggests, many of Bora’s thoughts centre on Greek mythology. Part of the interest I felt was in knowing that the things Bora struggles with will shortly overwhelm him. To paraphrase Robert Frost, ‘he has miles to go….’

This is a crime novel, and one that captures a tragic moment in human history:

More and more, the street resembled a funnel of liquid sunlight; its narrowness crowded with litter and vehicles dissolved, human shapes malted into it. Purgatory must be something like this, Bora thought, a cramped pass that is we only slide through it leads to the Throne of God. But there’ll be no stench of death there. 

I’ll admit that I had a bit of a problem feeling sympathy for Bora, but I did feel interest. On another note, Wikipedia has an interesting page on the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau.

Note: Although this is Book 5, other translated books in the series take Bora farther ahead in the war. Tin Sky is set in 1943, Liar Moon is set in 1943, A Dark Song of Blood is set in 1944. At some point, I’d like to go back and read these books in order. (Lumen is set in 1939)

Review copy

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Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions: Mario Giordano

“Fragrantly, in a white caftan and gold gladiator sandals plus dramatic eyeliner and plenty of rouge, she used to sail into the bar like a cruise liner visiting a provincial marina.”

german-literature-month-2016Yes it’s German Literature Month 2016 and what would this event be without a crime novel? Last year for GLM, I reviewed Thumbprint a 1936 novel from Friedrich Glauser; this year it’s Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions by Mario Giordano. The author, a child of Italian immigrants was born in Munich, and this first crime novel was originally published in German. Interestingly, the novel’s protagonist, Auntie Poldi is a German woman who decides to move to Italy. …

auntie-poldi

The novel’s narrator is Auntie Poldi’s nephew, a would-be writer who plans to write a “big, epic family saga spanning three German-Sicilian generations” but, so far, has made little progress. He relates how Auntie Poldi, at age 60, decided to move to Sicily “intending to drink herself comfortably to death with a sea view.” The nephew comes to visit once a month, living in his aunt’s attic ostensibly to work on that great novel, but also to keep an eye on his aunt. Auntie Poldi, a “pig-headed Bavarian,” is a sort of larger-than-life Auntie Mame figure; her hobby is to collect photographs of “good looking traffic cops from all over the world.”

My Auntie Poldi: a glamorous figure, always ready to make a dramatic entrance. She had put on a bit of weight in recent years, admittedly, and booze and depression had ploughed a few furrows in her outward appearance, but she was still an attractive woman and mentally tip-top-most of the time, at least. Stylish, anyway. 

Auntie Poldi (Isolde) had a career as a costume designer, and married a tailor, Peppe (Giuseppe).

Poldi and my Uncle Peppe had shared a grand passion, but alas, a few things went badly wrong. Two miscarriages, booze, my uncle’s womanizing, divorce from my uncle, my uncle’s illness, my uncle’s death, the whole issue of the plot of land in Tanzania and sundry other unpleasant twists and turns, setbacks and upheavals of life had stricken my aunt with depression.

Poldi’s retirement to Sicily has her relatives concerned, but she refuses to move closer to them in Catania, and instead moves to Torre Archirafi (found photos of the place online, and it is spectacular). The novel goes on to include some unpleasant realities about living there along with details that bring the location to life.

Poldi, in common with those who have strong personalities, has theories on just about everything, and while she may think she wants a quiet retirement, it’s clear that that will never happen. This indomitable woman turns into an amateur sleuth after the disappearance of a young handyman she employs, and she rapidly gets in much deeper than she expected.  Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions would be easy to classify as a cozy mystery, but I wouldn’t place the book fully in that subgenre: it’s too tangy a book for that classification. It’s definitely an amateur sleuth book, on the light side of crime, with an emphasis on humour and irrepressible figure of Auntie Poldi, but the book is also a statement about being comfortable in one’s own skin.  The appeal of the promised series will depend very much on how the reader connects to the character of Auntie Poldi. If you are looking for light, amusing crime set in an exotic location with a confident, older protagonist, then this book is a pleasant way to spend a few hours.

Review copy

Translated by John Brownjohn

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A Quiet Place: Seicho Matsumoto

In Seicho Matsumoto’s A Quiet Place, middle-aged Tsuneo Asai is a senior civil servant, dedicated to his job, a man who loves his second wife, the much younger but sickly Eiko. We don’t know what happened to Asai’s first wife who died early in the marriage, and it would seem that Asai is fated to be a widower when, on  a business trip, he receives the news that Eiko has died suddenly of a heart attack.

Asai knew that Eiko, his wife for seven years, had heart problems; she’d had a heart attack two years earlier, and that’s the reason Eiko gave her husband for no longer having sex. She was afraid that sex would bring on an early death, and so Eiko filled her days with a series of hobbies: studying traditional Japanese ballads, playing the shamisen, Japanese style painting–all abandoned until she found Haiku–an “infatuation” which “stuck.” She joined a haiku group, and Asai, happy that Eiko found something to occupy her time, remained largely disinterested about how his wife spent her days.

After the funeral, Asai asks a few questions about Eiko’s death. She collapsed and died in a “cosmetics boutique” in a neighbourhood peppered with “couple’s hotels.” Some things about the story of Eiko’s death don’t add up. Asai begins to wonder what his wife was doing in this area, and the questions, which remain unanswered, fester in his head.

a quiet place

There are details of Japanese customs here–the  matchmaker’s job in bringing Asai and Eiko together, condolence money after the death of a loved one. And since this is Japanese fiction, this is a tale that takes its time, unwinding in unexpected ways as we learn about Asai’s life–now ruined by the unanswered questions about Eiko.

While A Quiet Place is a crime novel, it’s also deeply psychological. The phrase ‘a quiet place’ refers to a section of the book, but it’s also symbolic of Asai’s state of mind. He is an ambitious man–not in the traditional sense of wheeling and dealing his way to the top, but he’s a coat-hanger operative. He prides himself on being a good judge of character and is “adept at sniffing out whether someone was likely to rise in the ranks or not.” Occasionally, just occasionally, he’s “deliberately malicious.” Asai makes sure that he makes himself indispensable, even arranging for geishas for those he thinks will rise in the hopes that one day, all his hard work will be remembered and “justly rewarded” by those he’s served on their way up the ladder. Asai isn’t a bad person; he’s responsible, faithful to his wife and hardworking, but his job is of paramount importance to him, and his one great character flaw is his complete indifference to his wife as a sentient being. He “valued money above everything,” and right below his attitude to money, in the hierarchy of his characteristics, is Asai’s dread of scandal and losing his respectability.

And then there are the images of Eiko who’s dead when the novel opens, and yet the impressions of this rather sad woman remain:

It wasn’t uncommon for her to spend two or three days at a time lying on the sofa, claiming to be too tired to do any housework. Asai never complained. He’d go out shopping and do all the cooking and cleaning himself.

[…]

She had two completely different sides. Asai often wondered if she was bored staying at home with him. She certainly came to life whenever she went out anywhere.

Asai is surprised after Eiko’s death to learn from one of the women in Eiko’s haiku circle that his deceased wife wrote over 150 haiku:

“It was a case of quantity over quality, I imagine,” he said.

Imagine how shocked Asai is to learn that his wife actually had talent, and according to the haiku teacher Eiko’s death has cut short the writing life of a truly gifted woman. Oh the irony–Eiko becomes more interesting and valuable to Asai in death than she ever was in life. And then it makes sense why we know nothing about Asai’s first wife. She was a blank, just like Eiko would have been a blank if not for the clues left behind in the haiku.

I’ve read only a few Japanese novels, and now I’m determined to read more. Yes, probably crime novels, but A Quiet Place is much more than a crime novel, it’s a character study, so don’t let that genre tag put anyone off. This is a slow-burn novel about how, in spite of the greatest planning and self-discipline, a middle aged man’s life goes off the rails.

Suggestions for further books welcomed.

Review copy

Translated by Louise Heal Kawai

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The Body Snatcher: Patrícia Melo

We think the devil comes in the back door, that he comes in with your enemies, but the truth is that we ourselves open the door to him the moment we trust someone.”

In The Body Snatcher, from Brazilian author Patrícia Melo, a tale of drug trafficking, police corruption, and blackmail, an unemployed former telemarketing manager who worked “in a boiler room in São Paulo”  has retreated to the rural area of Corumbá near the Bolivian border. It’s hard to imagine the pinnacle of your professional career trapped in a boiler room but that’s life for our narrator. After leaving São Paulo, he lived with his cousin, a mechanic, until he started lusting after his cousin’s woman. He moved on yet again, and now, when the novel opens, he rents a room from the son of the chief of the Guató tribe and spends his days loafing around. He has a girlfriend, Sulamita who works for the police initially as an administrative assistant and then, during the course of the novel, she becomes head of a morgue. One day the narrator goes fishing and witnesses a small private aircraft crashing into the Paraguay River. He tries to rescue the pilot, but the young man dies at the scene. Also in the plane is a kilo of cocaine, and for the narrator, it’s just too good an opportunity to pass up….

The Body SnatcherWith a kilo of coke to his name and no job, the narrator places his toe into the local drug trade and this soon escalates into full-blown trafficking. When things go wrong, the narrator finds himself in debt to Bolivian drug-dealer Ramirez. The book does an excellent job of showing how one bad decision leads to freefall.

You rob a cadaver. You hire some loser of an Indian to sell the blow you stole off the corpse. You fuck your cousin’s wife. You do that because you believe you can make a mistake, just one, just one more, and another, just one more little screw-up, and then return and go on with your path, your film, because the course of life continues there, static, waiting for you to screw up and return later.

With a lack of options, the narrator decides to approach the wealthy family of the dead pilot. It’s a macabre interest which would appear to be founded in some sort of guilt–although ultimately, guilt never really comes into play here. It’s puerile interest combined with self-preservation.

When you commit a crime like this the problem isn’t the others. Much less the reality. The evidence. The problem is you yourself. The slip-up you make when you’re asked a question. The imperfect actions. Your inappropriate reaction in a given situation. Not to mention the urge to confess that arises time and time again.

This novel is a slow burn read with the narrative gathering speed and sticking power as the narrator, nicknamed Porco by Ramirez, slides deeper into irreversible actions. The narrator has a linguistic tic of adding the word “over” to many of his thoughts. The linguistic tic, which isn’t guilt but a combination of common sense & justification, is finally explained at around the half way point:

You’re being stupid, over. That’s what my internal radio, which it was no longer possible to turn off, was saying. I would think and my private interlocutor, over, would counter, always trying to show me I was wrong, that goodness, over, like god, was a fantasy, that man was born bad and gets worse with time, and that I should forge ahead with my diabolical plan.

The Body Snatcher conveys the stinging, harsh bitter sense of the desperate side of Brazilian culture by positioning the lives of the extremely wealthy against the life of the dispossessed narrator who thinks a kilo of coke is the answer to his prayers, but instead it just opens the doors to more complications. Grabbing the coke, the narrator’s act of seemingly benign self-interest morphs into evil. As the narrator explains, “we are born with evil ensconced in us like a dormant virus only waiting for the moment to emerge.” While the narrator plays with the idea of guilt and conscience the author makes it clear that neither exist–or can afford to exist–in this tale of the baseness of human behaviour.  Instead of guilt or conscience, the fear of being caught dominates the narrator’s actions, and the author allows the narrator to play with a sense of regret at having to behave this way while showing his callousness. What’s so interesting is the permeation throughout society of bad behaviour from the brutal, vicious drug dealer, Ramirez to the man who beats his pregnant wife. Everyone is pitted, in some fashion, in a battle for survival, and there’s the sense that in this culture of corruption, the only way to survive is to leave morality behind and join in.

Review copy. Translated by Clifford Landers

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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

Review copy.

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All Yours by Claudia Pineiro

“However much you love your man, there are limits and sometimes, to be honest, I feel like putting a bullet between his eyes.”

In 2010 I read and enjoyed Argentinean author Claudia Pineiro’s novel, Thursday Night Widows. The book has since been made into a film. I’ve yet to see it, but I hope that Pineiro’s latest, replete with sly black humour, and told by a hilariously unreliable narrator, makes it to film too. That said, it’ll be no easy task to translate this book to the screen without turning it into a comedy, and that would be a shame. Chances are, if you enjoyed Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here and/or Jenn Ashworth’s A Kind of Intimacy, you’ll enjoy All Yours as well.

This slim novel which racks in at 172 pages in narrated by middle-aged, middle-class wife,  Inés Pereyra who begins to suspect her husband Ernesto is having an affair. Their sex life has dwindled down to nothing, and initially Inés is willing to chalk the lack of sex up to exhaustion on her husband’s part. But after digging in her husband’s briefcase and finding a heart “drawn in lipstick, with the words ‘All Yours’ across it, and signed ‘your true love,’  ”   Inés decides to take action:

But I said to myself, what if asking questions backfires on me, the way it did with Mummy? Because when she thought Daddy seemed a bit strange she went to him one day and said, “Is there a problem, Roberto?” And he said, “Yes, you’re the problem! I can’t stand you any more!” He left there and then, slamming the door behind him, and we never saw him again. Poor Mummy.

Inés reasons that she won’t repeat her mother’s mistake, and so while her “instinct” is to confront Ernesto with the paper heart and demand “What is this, you piece of shit?” instead she suppresses her rage. She decides that whoever drew the heart isn’t a serious threat and that Ernesto is “just getting his rocks off.” Nevertheless, Inés increases her vigilance:

So I started going through his pockets, opening his mail, keeping an eye on his diary, listening in on the extension when he was on the telephone. The kinds of things that any woman in my situation would do.

After a mysterious late night phone call that sends Ernesto flying from the house, Inés follows her philandering husband to a rendezvous. Hiding behind a tree, she sees her husband meeting his long-term, patently upset secretary, Alicia. An emotional argument takes place between Ernesto and Alicia, and it ends with Alicia dead.

Up to this point, Inés seems to be a little odd–one of those prim and proper ladies who worries about how her house looks, and what her neighbours and acquaintances think even while she can happily, and delicately, ascribe her husband’s alienation to ‘work stress.’ She seems to be on the pampered side and is, perhaps, a woman who can’t cope with the idea of functioning without a traditional family structure.  The initial impression of Inés begins to disintegrate, however, as the story evolves. With gusto and almost savage glee, Inés decides to show Ernesto just what she’s made of by providing him with an alibi (they were watching Psycho), even destroying damning evidence in her newly aggressive role of the supportive wife who stands by her man–no matter what. As time goes on, the crime remains unsolved, but life at home changes drastically….

What follows is a wickedly funny tale of obsessive love, adultery and revenge. The plot unfolds through Inés’ warped view of her toxic marriage, and then, at points, her off-kilter world vision is interrupted by what appear to be police reports. At still another point in the novel, the narration briefly shifts to third person. A sub-plot concerns Inés and Ernesto’s daughter, Lali, and while Inés who’s rather jealous of Lali’s relationship with Ernesto, thinks of her daughter as a protected spoiled brat who lives in a “bubble,” Lali’s life quietly unravels in the background.

All Yours is a marvellously clever novel, and I hope my enthusiasm conveys how enjoyable the story is. Initially Inés may seem like one of those perfect housewife types who’ll happily sweep anything under the rug rather than confront the fact that their domestic life is anything less than perfect, but when Inés begins to suspect Ernesto of the affair, she almost morphs into a bumbling amateur detective type from a British cosy. From then on as the plot settles into its main premise, Inés is clearly seen as the classic unreliable narrator. So we see events interpreted through her eyes while off in the periphery we get hints that Inés’ life is unravelling in ways even she cannot control.  When you have a character who sees murder as a less serious offence than the vulgarity of scratching herself, well you know that there’s a problem.

I took a bus into town I don’t like driving, especially when my nerves are on edge. And why deny it–I was really jumpy. I felt as if something inside my body was going to come out of my ears. Something hot. Something at boiling point. My insides? I sat down at the front and looked out the window. Trying to calm myself down. Deep breaths. Why did I ever stop going to yoga? The lights at the junction of Cabildo and Juramento weren’t working. Trees, cars, buildings. I fiddled with Alicia’s keys. Because the yoga teacher talked too much, she made me feel nervous.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher. Translated by Miranda France.

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Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo

If I read a crime novel set in a foreign country, one of the things I expect is to get a sense that either the characters, the crime or the manner in which it’s investigated is somehow or another unique to that country. In other words, I expect some local colour–not that I always get it, and my recent experience with the Polish crime novel Entanglement led me to have some high expectations.

This brings me to Needle in A Haystack from author Ernesto Mallo. Mallo, a writer and a journalist, according to the blurb on the front of my copy, was also a “former member of the anti-Junta guerilla movement.” I was curious, so encouraged by the fact that this is the first novel in a trilogy (and made into films), I decided to give the book a try.

I’ll admit that with all the books and films I’ve watched about life under Argentina’s murderous military regime, I’ve never wondered what it was like to be a policeman during this time. Needle in A Haystack argues that a successful career in law enforcement in Argentina of the 70s was based on the ability to look the other way and only investigate certain crimes. The book begins with Superintendent Lascano getting a call to pick up two stiffs. The bodies have been dumped in a site that’s commonly used by the Junta’s death squads for the disposal of victims. Lascano’s job is to go there, pick up the bodies and deliver them to the morgue. There will be no investigation. But when Lascano arrives, there are three bodies. Two of the bodies bear the ear-marked signs of execution by the death squads, but the trauma to the body of the third corpse does not fit the pattern. Lascano begins an investigation.

The mysterious third body turns out to be portly Biterman, a wealthy Auschwitz survivor who’s known to lend money. As the plot follows the investigation into Biterman’s death, it’s clear that Lascano’s job is not easy. Under his eyes, crimes committed by the state regularly take place in broad daylight–people are hauled out of their homes & shot in the streets while their belongings are ‘impounded’; others simply vanish without a trace, but in spite of the fact Lascano sees these things, he’s powerless to act. It’s hands off & look the other way. 

Things heat up for Lascano when the investigation leads him to a man who has powerful friends, and the overriding question becomes whether or not Lascano should continue his investigation or back off. I’m not going to tell you what he decides to do, you can probably guess.

The novel is at its strongest in its depiction of the insanity of life in Argentina during the Dirty War. There are people trying to ‘uphold the law’ (but only certain laws) while others act in blatant defiance of those laws. While the Junta supposedly tracks down lefties and subversives, the reality is that anyone can be a victim of the Junta. Just piss off the wrong person or have something they want, and it’s sayonara.

The novel is at its weakest in its sentimentality towards Lascano’s personal life. He’s a widower and during the course of the investigation he harbours Eva, a girl sought for her ‘subversive’ connections. This brings me to the subject of sex. It’s a touchy area but when it comes to describing sex organs all sorts of terms pop up. Here we get Lascano’s “sleeping sex” and at another point “his sex is triumphantly reborn and wants to fly.” This is bodice-ripper territory and created all sorts of strange images in my head–all of which were out-of-place with the rest of the novel. Another criticism is the long italicized passages. Sometimes these passages are thoughts and at other times these passages are exchanges between two characters. In the latter case, it’s sometimes difficult to follow just who is saying what.

Nonetheless, there are some interesting characters here, including Amancio, scion of a once rich family who knows how to live well but who no longer has the means to do so:

He feels nostalgic for the days of playing the white hunter, when he could happily blow a fortune on an African safari in the Okavango delta, for the lost splendour and indulgence of it all, because for some time now Amancio’s finances have been spiralling out of control. He was never taught nor felt the need to learn how to earn money, only to spend it . He was an awful student guided by an indifferent father, from whom Amancio inherited the sense of a life already accounted for, nails growing long like those of a Chinese mandarin. Work was not meant for the likes of them. Their distant ancestors had made fortunes appropriating indian land in the wake of the desert campaign of General Roca. Back then, just as today, the army lived by a non-negotiable principle: that the good fight meant fighting for goods. The sacrifice, the massacre of one thousand Indians per day, wasn’t considered excessive in return for securing a family’s wealth for three or four generations.

Amancio’s big problem is, of course, that those 3 or 4 generations are over. Meanwhile, the family wealth has dissipated. He’s left with little other than expensive tastes, a penchant for leisure and a high-maintenance wife who is primed to leave if things get too tough.

Another character subject to domestic troubles and the need to placate his wife is the incredibly evil Major Giribaldi–a man who arranges an adoption to his wife in order to shut her up. According to the military doctor who suggests adoption to Giribaldi (without raising the issue of stealing babies from pregnant women in detention centres), “adoption is the easiest thing in the world these days.” Giribaldi arranges to take a baby from a girl who, when she delivers, will become one of The Disappeared.  Needle in a Haystack is a novel that delineates the atmosphere of a country sunk into madness–where illegal actions are perpetrated by those running the country state, and one scene in the Plaza de Mayo epitomizes the insanity.

Translated by Jethro Soutar

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Entanglement by Zygmunt Miloszewski

“How unfair it is that we only have one life,” mused Szacki, “and that it so quickly bores us.”

 

I am less-than-thrilled with the recent flood of Scandinavian crime fiction. While I’m pleased to see publishers taking chances on books in translation (I read somewhere that a very small % of published books in N. America are translations), the latest offerings haven’t really interested me. Admittedly I haven’t read many–only a handful, and perhaps I read the ‘wrong ones’ but they’ve been bleak and anemic.

This brings me to another issue in crime fiction. I am getting bored with the overworked police detective who’s drinking himself into oblivion (a subject that recently came up at Whispering Gums). Classic noir fiction seemed to handle this character type perfectly–or perhaps it was just the times when a three Martini lunch wasn’t something that raised eyebrows. These days I can’t help but suspect that if you show up for roll-call with a whiff of booze, you’d be on leave and signing into rehab before you could grab your nightstick.

Anyway, this is a long preamble but it leads me to Entanglement an excellent POLISH crime novel from Bitter Lemon Press. This is one of the best police procedurals I’ve read in some time. My reaction may partly be explained by the fact that Poland seems exotic or at least fresh when it comes to crime locales. I’m not the only one who thinks that. Here’s the blurb from the back of the book:

“This is flinty, quirky crime writing from Poland with a pungent sense of locale and a nicely jaded protagonist in Szacki, the past-his-sell-date prosecutor energised by the case.” (Crime Time).

That’s so good, I wish I’d written it. Now to the book….

Warsaw State Prosecutor Teodor Szacki isn’t pleased when he’s told to investigate the murder of middle-aged businessman, Henryk Telak. The case just adds to the stack of work he already has, and compared to some of the other nasty cases he’s dealing with Telak’s murder doesn’t stand out in any notable way. But as Szacki starts asking questions, the case, which initially seemed to be the result of a burglary gone wrong, strangely becomes less transparent. The murder took place in a secure former Warsaw monastery now used for religious retreats. Telak was a participant at a weekend of intense Family Constellation Therapy, and the seminar was also attended by the therapist and four of his patients.  Libidinous policeman Oleg Kuzniecow sums it up in one sentence: “one body, four suspects–all sober and well-to-do.”

Szacki begins to be intrigued by the case as it’s a “nice change after all those run-of-the-mill city murders.”  The crime should be fairly easy to address: either one of the other people attending the seminar murdered Telak, or it’s a case of a murder committed during a random break-in. But the murder proves difficult to solve, and while there’s pressure to designate Telak’s death as an unsolved crime, Szacki isn’t ready to give up. There are troubling details about the crime that gnaw away at Szacki, and as he begins devoting time to the case and is gradually sucked in to its solution, it’s very easy for the reader to go along for the ride. 

Szacki initially dismisses Family Constellation Therapy as quackery, and possibly explosive quackery at that, but as the plot develops, Szacki finds himself thinking in psycho-babble metaphors, and in another cold case, a tip from a clairvoyant may lead to a murderer. Szacki begins softening to the notion of therapy as a useful tool while he questions his own domestic situation and just what Family Constellation Therapy would reveal about his intimate relationships. 

Part of the novel’s success can be attributed to Szacki. He isn’t the train-wreck-shell-of-a-man detective from, let’s say Raymond’s Factory series, but there’s definitely a self-destructive streak there under his flawed, all-too human surface. Szacki is a realistic character plagued with the trivia of everyday existence. For example, he limits himself to three cigarettes a day and then bargains about how soon to smoke them. He also worries about whether or not he can afford lunch in a cafe. For the first few pages, I assumed that Szacki was in his 50s (there are references to his white hair), but later it’s revealed that he’s in his 30s. He’s at the point in his career and in his marriage where he can see the future mapped out, and it’s hardly reassuring.  He’s a man who could slowly slide into a life of bad habits, and this is underscored by the idea that Szacki is beginning to think that there’s something missing in his life which may very well be fixed with an adulterous romp with a young, attractive reporter. As the story develops, Entanglement could easily refer to the Telak murder, Szacki’s increasingly complicated personal life, or even the depths of Poland’s murky political past.

As Szacki hunts for the truth, he interviews, meets and questions a range of crisply drawn characters, and it’s these intense quirky characterisations–usually a few sentences with a concluding zinger–that really make the book so entertaining. Here’s Szacki about to question one of the women who attended the therapy session with the murder victim:

Hanna Kwiatkowska had a pretty, intelligent face and her slighty hooked nose gave her a surly appeal and a certain aristocratic charm. In twenty years she’d look like a pre-war countess. Her smooth, mousy hair came down to her shoulders, and its ends curled outwards. And although no fashion house would have offered her a job advertising underwear on the catwalk, plenty of men would have been happy to take a good look at her well-proportioned, attractive body. It was quite another matter how many of them would be scared off by the restless look in her eyes. Szacki for sure.

There’s also a couple of state pathologists (Szacki calls them “necrophiliacs“)  who spice up their work hours with their morbid sense of humour, policeman Oleg Kuzniecow who won’t stop talking about sex, and Szacki’s boss, District Prosecutor for Warsaw City Centre, Janina Chorko–a tired, bitter, dried-up woman who makes him feel very uncomfortable: 

She was several years older than Szacki: her grey suit blended with her grey hair and nicotine-grey face. Always a bit sulky, with a wrinkled brow, she gave the lie to the theory that there aren’t any ugly women. Janina Chorko was ugly, was perfectly aware of the fact and did not try to cover up her defects with clothes or make-up. Quite the opposite-she consciously made herself sour, malicious and painfully businesslike, which was in perfect harmony with her appearance, turning her into the archetypal boss from hell. The new prosecutors were afraid of her, and the trainees hid in the toilet whenever she came down the corridor.

While Szacki admires Janina Chorko’s intelligence and integrity, he lives in mortal fear of any hint that her obvious loneliness may one day spill over to a sexual proposition, and so any conference between Szacki and his boss is fraught with tension:

Szacki nodded in silence. She was right, but he was afraid that if he started agreeing with her to eagerly, she’d think she’d found a fraternal soul in him and would suggest he drop in at her place for a glass of wine and a nice little chat about the sad lot of the prosecutor in the Polish Republic. He waited a while out of courtesy, thanked the boss, muttered something about a huge pile of paperwork and went out, leaving Janina Chorko surrounded by unhappy thoughts, the stink of cigarettes and the smell of her imitation leather chair.

Glimpses of Szacki’s home life surface throughout the novel. Szacki’s marriage to Weronika isn’t bad, but their sex life has stagnated, and their daily life has dissolved down to a series of petty details.  He’s genuinely confused when Oleg Kuzniecow makes a crack about Weronika’s attractiveness and wonders if Oleg sees something he doesn’t, if he’s being sarcastic, or if Oleg salivates over every female.  Szacki finds it surprisingly easy to lie to his wife but then his job has taught him a great deal about deception.

Szacki also deals with the inflated ego of an idiosyncratic therapist and an amateur historian who specializes in the covert actions of the SB (Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa), Poland’s secret police whose brutal speciality was political suppression. The novel’s depth and creeping air of menace is accentuated by an unidentified character (subject to his own domestic tyranny) who tracks Szacki’s investigation in case he gets too close. Entanglement blends just the right amount of crime, sly humour and despair, and it’s a novel I recommend to anyone who reads crime fiction.

Notes at the front of the book mention that the author is working on a screenplay for Entanglement and is also writing a sequel.

Entanglement is translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

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Thursday Night Widows by Claudia Pineiro

“Are we shutting ourselves in, or are we shutting out other people so they can’t come in?” 

I just finished the very impressive novel, Thursday Night Widows written by Argentinean novelist, Claudia Pineiro. The story is set in Cascade Heights, an exclusive gated country estate thirty miles from Buenos Aires. The novel begins in September 2001 with the discovery of three dead men at the bottom of a pool, and then the novel backtracks over the past decade. Ultimately,  Thursday Night Widows is a scathing psychological analysis of a class and a country seen through the narrow vision of one group of families who enjoy bloated, materialistic lives while ignoring the collapse of their society.

Told partly through the eyes of real-estate agent Virginia Guevara, the novel explores life in Cascade Heights–a walled in estate which encompasses 500 acres and 300 homes, and the worth of those homes increases with proximity to the perfectly manicured golf course. Naturally only Argentina’s ‘best’ families live there with most of the wives becoming avid consumers at home while their husbands travel by luxury car to work in the city. Marooned in “The Cascades”  the families are divorced from society and develop relationships with each other based on status and strict hierarchy. The high perimeter wall and dozens of guards keep out undesirables, crime and poverty, while creating a false world inside the estate. Lawns must ‘match,’ no fences or barriers are permitted, certain colours are ‘allowed,’ but these are all only external signalments of conformity. As the couples mingle and socialize, certain behaviour (excessive drinking, spousal abuse, subtle and not-so-subtle rascism) is largely ignored. Everyone adheres to the unspoken agreement of conformity and pack behaviour with El Tano Scagli, one of the estate’s most affluent men, and owner of one of the largest homes, dominating the other subordinate males.

Virginia Guevara, one of the rare Cascade wives to be employed, works to keep the family afloat, and notes the up-and-coming newcomers, along with the decline in fortunes of those forced to leave this fabricated, upscale Eden. The novel covers the affluence of the 90s and the rapid decline of Argentina’s economy through the ripple-out consequences felt in Cascade Heights. To the wives who live there, the outside world doesn’t exist, and while the perimeter wall and the guards manage to keep the poor and undesirables out of sight, nonetheless the social problems of Argentina still manage to creep through. In this fashion, the history of Cascade Heights becomes a reflection of Argentina’s problems, but with Argentina’s economy becoming a ‘reality’ only as it impacts the Cascades. At one point, Virginia mentions the “Antieri episode”–the suicide of a military man. Virginie and her husband, pick up the Antieri house “for next to nothing” when they move to The Cascades in the late 80s. Suicides, divorces, and bankruptcies all take their toll as the financial systems of Argentina wax and wane. Here’s Virginia talking about Argentina’s boom years:

“It was about two years later that I sold a plot of land to the Scaglias. This was a few days after the Minister for Foreign Affairs became the Finance Minister he had always been destined to be and persuaded Congress to pass the Convertibility Law. One peso would be worth one dollar: the famous ‘one for one’ that restored Argentines’ confidence and fuelled an exodus to places like Cascade Heights.”

Covering the late 80s until Argentina’s 2001 economic collapse, Thursday Night Widows is a stunning analysis of a social class. The smug upper classes flock to The Cascades, creating a sleek, affluent Utopia in which the poor are only allowed in wearing uniforms; “as a general rule, if someone is walking and not carrying sports gear, it’s a domestic servant or gardener.”  Every ugly reality is either hidden, ignored or ejected from this well-heeled paradise. Couples move in and then sell out–usually due to some horrible misfortune, and the novel records it all from the cluelessness of most of the wives, to the rebelliousness of some of the children:

The thing is, many of our neighbours made the mistake of thinking that they could keep spending as much as they earned forever. And what they earned was a lot, and seemed eternal. But there comes a day when the taps are turned off, although nobody expects it until they find themselves in the bath tub, covered in soap, looking up at the showerhead, from which not a single drop of water falls anymore.”

The scenes which include interactions between the Cascade wives and their servants resonant with bitter cynicism. In one section of the novel, some of the bored wives decide to form a charity and call themselves “The Ladies of the Heights.”  In one great scene the tanned, spoiled wives organize a jumble sale for charity, selling their cast off clothing and underwear. The jumble sale is  “exclusively for the maids”  and the maids are then expected to come and buy the discarded clothing they’d normally be given as handouts. You’d think the wives’ hypocrisy would stick in their throats but it doesn’t, and the wives consider they are better people for throwing crumbs to their maids and then making them pay for the privilege. But even though the wives are mostly clueless about their selfish, crass behaviour, the author still maintains sympathy for some of her characters–the wives are kept like exotic pets and then discarded as they age or deteriorate. Some of the Cascade wives have husbands who refuse to work, and so these women juggle the affluent lifestyle with debts and a lot of pretense.

I expected a crime novel, but Thursday Night Widows is much more than this–primarily a compelling tale, and at no point did the tale seem forced to fit an agenda or a point of view. Upscale, exclusive (and excluding) housing estates such as The Cascades don’t just exist in Argentina, and wherever they crop up, they tend to condition residents into conformity and homogenous pack behaviour. You couldn’t pay me to live in one of these sorts of communities, but I’ve seen them, and I’ve seen the sort of people who live in them. People of similar material circumstances prefer living with others who enjoy the same standard of living. It may be natural, but as the novel shows, add a wall, guards, and a few rules, and the result isn’t  healthy.

Thursday Nights Widows  by Claudia Pineiro is translated by Miranda France. With any luck director Marcelo Pineyro’s film version, Las Viudas de los Jueves, should make DVD release soon.

For those interested in the subject of gated communities, I recommend a short documentary film call The Forbidden City by filmmaker Matt Ehling. It can be ordered directly from the website: www.prolefeedstudios.com

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