Roundup April 2006

Touch of Evil

A selective investigation of recent mysteries and thrillers
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The popularity of Henning Mankell’s Inspector Wallander, who is said to make female fans want to mother him, has been a mixed blessing for readers of detective fiction. The good thing is that more foreign novels are being translated into English. The bad thing is that much the same Wallander type is now on duty from Reykjavik to Rio: a downbeat but lovable man in his forties or fifties, out of tune with the age—though hardly eccentric—and trying heroically to live without a woman. Poignant scenes of microwave cooking abound.

Karin Fossum’s Inspector Sejer, for example, is a lanky widower “dragging on alone for the ninth year.” In He Who Fears the Wolf (Harcourt), the latest installment of this Norwegian series to be published in America, a young schizophrenic escapes from a mental institution and heads for the forest, where an old recluse is later found murdered. It’s a setup worthy of the novel’s menacing cover, but in a farcical twist the schizophrenic is taken hostage by a bank robber on the lam. We soon learn that both fugitives are as lovable as Sejer himself. Like all men I have a maternal instinct, but I can clutch only so many characters to my breast at one time, and when the odd couple crosses paths with a little bird-hunting brat, I couldn’t help hoping he would set the schizophrenic off. Old Sejer putters about on the periphery of the narrative, solving a murder that no longer seems to matter. This is the problem with these sad-sack sleuths: their own creators get bored of them. Mankell recently took a long break from Inspector Wallander, and Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, the Brazilian writer, plans to give his Inspector Espinosa a rest after only the fifth novel in the series.

That fifth novel is Pursuit (Holt), in which a Copacabana psychiatrist commits to a mental institution a patient who has been stalking him. The patient disappears soon after his release, as does one of the psychiatrist’s daughters. Like Espinosa, who mulls things over every night while waiting for his microwave to beep, we find our suspicion shifting back and forth from the psychiatrist to the missing man. Having been written for Brazilian readers, Pursuit does little to evoke the sights and sounds of the place, though repeated references to street crime did take me back to the chilly August night I was mugged at knife-point in Sao Paulo. Benjamin Moser’s translation from the Portuguese is superb, the only infelicity—the American expression “going south” in the sense of “going bad”—appearing on the first page.

I should make clear that Garcia-Roza likes to leave loose ends. Here too the detective’s resolution of the case is so brief, sketchy, and uncorroborated by evidence that one wonders if it is to be believed at all. The author has told interviewers that the endings of his novels are “really determined by the reader,” but that probably doesn’t happen very often. A few readers will relish the open-endedness for its own sake, while the rest will feel a bit cheated. Most of us, I think, read whodunits for the pleasure of following a ratiocinative process, not to be left wondering which fictional character did what to whom; the real world offers far more interesting imponderables than that. Ian McEwan has recently remarked that magic realism can come off as a cop-out, a flight from the hard writing that a more straightforward approach demands. The same can be said of the vague denouement in detective fiction. Pursuit merits reading all the same. Memorably eerie are the scenes chronicling the emotional collapse of the psychiatrist and his family.

More conventional is Arnaldur Indridason’s Jar City (Minotaur), the first of the Icelandic novelist’s mysteries to be translated into English. How conventional? Let’s just say that Inspector Erlendur (divorced, “tasteless microwave dinners”) is moved by wet weather to wonder whether rain “was necessary to wash people’s sins away every now and then.” And the killer leaves a cryptic note near the corpse, as killers do. Fortunately, the strangeness of the locale helps Jar City transcend its clichés. Lava fields threaten to swallow up the careless driver, a man’s apartment is strewn with half-eaten sheep’s heads, and everyone in the country is literally on a first-name basis with everyone else. (Half of the names in Jar City seem to start with “E,” which makes for confusion.) When an aging rapist with a hereditary disorder is bludgeoned to death decades after his crime, the identity of the killer is not all that hard to figure out, but the novel’s social dimension makes Jar City a rewarding read. Iceland’s real-life genetic database, a work in controversial progress, is central both to the murder and to the detective’s efforts to find the killer.

Jar City and He Who Fears the Wolf belong to the increasingly common form known as the “cozy procedural,” a hybrid of the traditional detective novel and the police procedural. Those who prefer the latter subgenre in all its urban grittiness will enjoy Fiddlers (Harcourt), the latest of Ed McBain’s “87th Precinct” novels. Detective Carella and his colleagues are reluctant to assume that a serial killer is to blame for the deaths of a blind violinist, a cosmetics sales representative, and other seemingly unconnected individuals. Why reluctant? Because the victims are all over fifty years old, and thus part of a demographic that is evidently no more interesting to serial killers than to the entertainment industry. Ah, but it turns out that violinists aren’t the only “fiddlers,” to use a word that holds part of the solution to the case.

This is a fast and engrossing book. Some writers lazily presume on our familiarity with their characters, but the characterization of Carella and the other cops is rich enough that readers new to the 87th Precinct will quickly find their footing. McBain is one of those utterly unracist writers whose depictions of minorities can strike wrong notes, and here I could have done without the Korean pedicure customer “with her skirt pulled up almost to Seoul.” On the other hand, a story line about the romance between the killer and a call girl is surprisingly involving. Their conversations offer additional evidence that McBain (or Evan Hunter, to use the novelist’s other pseudonym) is the true king of American dialogue. Salvatore Lombino died last year at the age of seventy-eight, but I don’t want to talk about him in the past tense. He is at work whenever we open his books.

Patrick Neate’s City of Tiny Lights (Riverhead) introduces us to a Ugandan-Indian private eye named Tommy Akhtar. A boozing, chain-smoking veteran of the Afghan mujahedeen, and nothing if not a welcome change from the lonely microwavers, he is asked to take on the case of a Russian call girl who has gone missing after an assignation in a London dive. In fiction, missing call girls tend to mean guilty politicians; Akhtar’s investigations take him down a somewhat more original road that involves the enemies of the Establishment as well.

Though the dialogue is excellent and the story well paced, Neate’s hero narrates everything in a tiresome stream of slang and wordplay. “The proverbial… hit the rotating”; “there was no sunbeam glistening from my pearlies.” The reader, who assumes that this is meant to be tiresome—and who doesn’t believe those Afghan war stories for an instant—keeps expecting the gabby pretender to be forced into a critical account of himself, like Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, or the argot-spouting Alex in A Clockwork Orange. But on and on Neate/Akhtar riffs, refusing to be serious about Islamic terrorism, the fight against it, or any of the other political issues the story raises. “It is hard not to write satire,” a character says at one point, quoting Juvenal, but the irony here is too scattershot to communicate anything to the reader except the narrator’s inexplicable sense of intellectual superiority to the world.

After a few expository chapters, Jeffrey Archer’s new thriller, False Impression (St. Martin’s), gets moving with a harrowingly vivid depiction of a young woman’s escape from the World Trade Center on 9/11. If anything, this part is too good, creating problems of tone for a novel that on the whole is rather camp. Plucky Anna bounces back from her ordeal the next morning, so eager is she to get a Van Gogh back to the nice lady who deserves it, but a Romanian tycoon dispatches a tiny hit woman to steal the painting away. None of this can worry us much after what Anna has already survived.

Archer collects paintings in real life, but for all that False Impression imparts of his expertise, the characters might as well be fighting over a shipment of iPods. Overestimating our impatience to see everything wrapped up, the author hews to a brisk log of the international chase, never delaying things long enough for suspense to build. This is how he handles the intriguing image of the hit woman waking up in a construction crane: “She stared down on Tokyo as the sun rose over the Imperial Palace. She checked her watch. Five fifty-six a.m. Time to descend …” I disagree. Pure plot is just as boring as the pure lack of it.

Then again, a summary of the twists and turns in Natsuo Kirino’s Out (Vintage) would still be more entertaining than the average thriller. Proceeding from the Chamfortian assumption that such a widely acclaimed book was bound to be awful, I put off reading this Japanese novel until the paperback edition came out. A Tokyo housewife working nights at a factory strangles her abusive husband. Her co-worker Masako, a middle-aged woman angry at the corrupt and youth-mad world around her, decides to break away from its conventions by disposing of the corpse. The police investigating the man’s disappearance end up detaining a bar owner who recently served a prison term for murder. Although he is soon released, his business is ruined, and he sets out to wreak revenge on whoever let him take the rap.

Few writers would dare tell a story as amoral as this without either laying on the black humor or reassuringly blurring the line between reality and fantasy—by allowing us to doubt that there really is a corpse, say, or having Franz Kafka suddenly jump out of a sushi roll. But Kirino isn’t fooling around, and if that makes her a “naturalist,” which has become something of a term of opprobrium, then so be it. She does indeed recall Zola in many aspects: her careful description of factory work, her evocation of an entire society through a cross section of characters, the way she motivates her heroine without recourse to pat psychology.

And yet, Zola was never like this. Somehow Out succeeds in making us feel that Masako, who takes on more than one corpse, is not only doing nothing wrong but is acting more nobly than the law-abiding citizens around her. At the same time, and far more disquietingly, the novel wins from us a measure of sympathetic respect for the psychopath who is out to kill her. Putting the book down after the last chapter is like returning from a journey beyond good and evil—an exhilarating journey, even if one does feel glad to be back.

Stephen Snyder renders the original into just the right English, neither too formal nor too colloquial: “As she pedaled away, she noticed that the light shining through the umbrella turned the bare skin of her arms a brilliant rose pink.” My only quibble is with that pretty young face on the paperback cover, which cruelly undermines everything our heroine cut up corpses for. Why not put a pretty fifty-ish face on the front, like Natsuo Kirino’s own? Serial killers and Hollywood filmmakers will turn away with a yawn, but I don’t want them reading this anyway.

B. R. Myers is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and the author of A Reader’s Manifesto.
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