Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Holy Thief

William Ryan
The Holy Thief

Minotaur Books, 2011

In a normal working day, Captain of Moscow Militia Alexei Korolev goes to his office in the building at Petrovka, where the statue of Commissar Yagoda is removed and ready to be replaced with a statue of Yezhov. In Moscow, 1936, no one is protected from NKVD, even the investigators of the Criminal Investigation Division. Yesterday’s Stalin's loyal assistant Yagoda becomes an enemy of the people, and cleaning can hurt anyone. A colleague of Korolev ckracked jokes about Stalin, and now no one knows where the joker has gone, and the Korolev’s chief General Popov, responsible for his subordinates’s long tongue, may soon go to the camps as well.

Korolev is in good relations with the authorities; he does not talk much, reveals complex cases with unusual zeal, supports the party line and believes in God, which, of course, hides from everyone. When at the church a disfigured body of a young woman is found, Popov gives the case to his best detective. Murdered woman is a foreigner, and it interests chekists. The colonel of NKVD Gregorin does not take the case himself, but asks Korolev to report to him in detail. Gregorin also throws up to Korolev the information on the identity of the murdered: she was not only an American (with Russian roots), but also a nun. Soon after that the body of a Thief is found, killed and disfigured in the same way as the American nun. Korolev concluded that the two murders had a connection. Captain seeks help to Babel, the very same author of "Odessa Tales" and "Red Cavalry" who is close to the criminal world, to help him to establish the identity of the Thief who was murdered. Korolev will have to reveal a very tricky conspiracy and stay alive.

Ryan, a Londoner, who studied in Ireland, suddenly has written a successful book on the Moscow of the 30s. If the cover stood a Russian name, probably no one would have guessed that it’s written by an Englishman. Englishness of the novel only gives the charm to the book. If you do not take into account the interrogations in the basement of NKVD (because no one really knows what and how exactly was happening there), then the book has almost no factual errors (although I'm generally not an expert on the era). Several times not so young characters are called by their pet names and vice versa, young police officer is called by name and patronymic; camps are called the Zone, though, I think, this name of places of deprivation of liberty came later, but the rest looks all right. Heroes smoke papirosas, eat blinis, sometimes Ments are called Ments.

The British origin of the author affects humor side of the novel.Humor here is typically British. Only Korolev’s skirmish with neighbors in kommunalka and gatherings at Babel’s are very funny. Anyway, it is impossible not to smile (and I even laughed), reading the dialogue like this:

«Are you a football fan, Comrade? Spartak also?»

"I'm sorry, Comrade Starostin - Dinamo."

"No reason not to support them, they're a good team. I toured with some of them a few months back and a nicer bunch of lads you couldn't meet."

The real historical figures, such as Babel and Starostin, enhance the effect of humorous books. The novel, which, in general, in the opinion of the publisher was to show Russia choking with fear, produces such effect not due to the atmosphere of fear. Instead, William Ryan presents another surprise. His book is "The Master and Margarita", passed through the prism of Dostoevsky and the British surrealism. «The Holy Thief» is not about fear at all, but about how lonely a man becomes entangled in his life and can not find the exit. Fear all the time is inside’s feeling, not outside’s, but inside of Korolev there is no fear, only a confusion. Around the middle the book turns into a series of surreal episodes, so you finish it, with your mouth open. Meeting with the Thief Kolya, looking over all Moscow; Babel-cat-Behemoth; football fans’s brawls; interrogation in the basement of Lubyanka; the Bible under the mattress, reading "A Hero of Our Time"; a good chekist. All of this can not be reality; it’s a dream of unconscious Korolev. The fifth dream of Alexei Dmitrievich.

A very strange book.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Uninvited Guests

Sadie Jones
The Uninvited Guests

Chatto & Windus, 2012

In the center of this tragicomedy is the Swift family. At the beginning of the XX century in a small village in England the Swift family owns an estate in the two houses, the New House and the Old House, as the owners call them. Widowed, three years after the death of her husband, Charlotte Torrington married a lawyer Edward Swift, one-handed, but a with good heart, a real gentleman who loves Charlotte, as she does him as well. The financial affairs of the family, however, are not so good, and to preserve the estate, Edward will have to take a large loan, and he is not sure he will get it. The older children of Charlotte, Emerald and Clovis, 19 and 20 years respectively, do not like his stepfather, but they see his love for their mother. The youngest daughter, Imogen, or Smudge, as everyone calls her, often dwells alone, forgotten by everybody. The mother loves her very much, but not always finds time to spend with her daughter. The girl grows a little bit strange.

All the events of the book actually take place in one day, and it is Emerald’s birthday. On the eve Swift goes to the city for apply for a loan, and the family slowly begins to prepare for the birthday. Emerald waits for the arrival of her guests: her girlfriend Patience Sutton and her brother Ernest, who should come out of the city, as well as a wealthy gentleman, John Buchanan, still unmarried, living nearby in his own estate.

While maids help the birthday girl to smarten up and cook, Clovis, who met brother and sister Sutton at the station, has returned with unexpected news: there has been a railway accident, the locomotive derailed, and dozens of people can not continue their journey. Luckily nobody has been hurt, but the security guard at the railway station has asked Clovis to accommodate all the people who were traveling by train to the Swift’s house. Servants start to bring up the victims.

And soon, people in small groups, mostly not rich, but rather poor, who were traveling in economy class, begin to fill the house.

It's really a very nice comedy with some tense scenes and a handful of fascinating characters, but, perhaps, it is nothing more. Sadie Jones harness for a long time. The first one hundred pages, even before the general assembly of guests,invited and uninvited, comes to a dinner, have stylistically all the flaws of the so-called serious prose. A rich family, but on the verge of bankruptcy, strained relations between children and step-father, marriage of convenience on a rich neighbor, a child with oddities. Taken from different places, these components are already fairly worn out to give them any significance. In addition, putting novel’s action in the early XX century, you have a risk becoming a pale shadow compared to the authors who wrote at the time. The second part, in fact, birthday itself, is livelier, with growing intrigue. And if the comic part of it is a success (the girl Smudge and her horse are worth much), the psychological one not quite. Charlotte’s past, risen to the surface, remains an unsolved problem. The children, initially stunned by story of the mysterious visitor, do not know how to behave now with their mother. But later they are together again, happy family, although this transition should not be so smooth. Jones, however, dismissed from the looming conflict: laughter, supposedly, solves all problems.

The book is not without a happy ending, but it is here on the right place. The tone of the novel sets up that everything will be fine. And indeed, a close-knit family will overcome all adversities, and you can’t tell your heart what to do.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Norumbega Park

Anthony Giardina
Norumbega Park

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012

Still young enough Richie Palumbo and his family - his wife and two children - are going to celebrate Thanksgiving, but in the dark Richie gets lost, and the family travels to the town of Norumbega, near Boston. There Richie immediately falls in love with a house and decides that the house should belong to him. Later Richie buys the house.

Richie is one of the top managers at a defense plant. He recently has been promoted, but the war in Vietnam is nearing to the end, and the company should move to a peacetime production. Richie in the midst of changes buys the house from the owner, an elderly widow, at an inflated price.
Thus, we trace the fate of the Palumbo family for nearly forty years, from 1969 to 2007. In the next part Giardina gives us a closer look at the children, Jack and Joannie. Jack graduated from school and must apply for a college or university, but Jack, a gifted, the most gifted person from school, according to his father, is not very eager to study and does not submit an application in any university. Jack is popular among girls and dates with one of them, Ellen. But later at the dance, Jack leaves Ellen and switched to a modest Christina.

Later, Christina goes to the University of Massachusetts, and Jack goes New York to live from the saved-up money. Thus begins a free life of Jack away from home.

At the same time, Jack's sister Joan, who has always been a religious girl, closed and unsociable, goes the other way. She decides to become a nun.

«Norumbega Park» is a very complex novel. Simplicity of plot (the usual family saga, a temporary walk from point A to point B) is subject to the greatness of style and charm of the composition. Heroes do not make as much action as they analyze his actions, repeatedly and from different angles. Each family member of Palumbo family considers the causes and consequences of brief but important episodes in their lives. Giardina raises an important question in the book: how fragments of our lives, mini-events, affect the general course of life, our destiny? Each hero has a few such episodes, and each seems to them the turning point. Stella, Richie's wife, finds her reasons for excessive physical desire first in severe son’s birth, and later in the scene when she sees her son sleeping naked next to a girlfriend. Jack has even more those episodes, from a date with Christina at the lake to oral sex with one of his gay roommates. For Richie new life in Norumbega began when he saw the skaters on the ice pond. The novel ends with his daughter and her husband skating as well.

Each of these microevents is like a lymph node in the novel. To the reader they are emotionally intense and give reason to think: do these episodes really change the life of the novel’s character or is it just the imagination of the character.

Each character is chasing by the past and stays in the past almost always, and no one even tries to escape from the past. Past has a life; there is something elusive in it, what is missing in the present. All Palumbo are passive, they are more likely to think what they have done wrong in the past than to do something in the present.

«Norumbega Park» is a book of mistakes. The one that does not tell us that mistakes should be corrected, but the one that says that the mistakes of the past are need to think about. Full of nuances, the characters are the happiest people on earth and the unhappiest at once.

Giardina is a brilliant stylist, and the novel is brilliantly written, 95% of 100%. The imperfection of the novel lays only in the fact that in a family saga you can not give equal attention to all. If the male characters are very complex there, the women do not have enough space. Joan’s decision to become a nun is not convincing, the author told a little about the girl’s growing up Torment of Stella, her struggle with husband’s loneliness, too, are described briefly.

Such book as this proves that the genre of a family saga is still alive and capable of much.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Guilt by Association

Marcia Clark
Guilt by Association

Mulholland Books UK, 2011

A Deputy DA Rachel Knight walks home along the dark streets of Los Angeles when he hears the sounds of fire sirens. Out of curiosity, Knight, taking advantage of an acquaintance, steps on the police cordon area to take a look. From the cheap hotel where has been a fire, the coroner’s assistants come out with two bodies, and in one of them she recognizes her colleague, also a DA Jake. When later it appears that the second victim was a young boy prostitute, Knight can not find a reason what Jake would do in a place like that with a male whore. Jake as Knight knew him was sweet and kind person. FBI starts an investigation, working a theory that it was a murder/suicide: a pedophile Jake first killed the boy and then himself. Knight does not believe in this version and, risking his ass, tries to lead an independent investigation. The main case in this novel becomes another investigation: rape of the daughter of a rich doctor, holding a few clinics in LA. After the death of Jake his working cases have been spread out to other prosecutors, and Knight gets not the easiest one of them. Knight uses help of LAPD Detective Bailey Keller in searching for criminals (rapist and Jake’s killer). Soon Knight gets more threats, and what was obvious, becomes no longer obvious.

A former prosecutor herself, Marcia Clark knows how the justice system works. Knowledge of the inner game is a huge plus of the novel. We have read many books where the detectives conduct their own investigation against orders. And in these books, everything goes quickly and smoothly. In «Guilt by Association» Clark describes in detail the danger of interference with the investigation, which FBI is involved in. Knight then actually risks not only her career but also her freedom, risking ending up behind bars.

Both cases investigated by Knight are not the easiest, with a minimum of clues, but impudence and connections help the main character and her partner press to nail one suspect after another.

Despite the fact that Knight works in «Special Trials, the small, elite unit that handled the most comlex and high-profile cases», she has to deal with not high-ranking officials and corporate owners, but with the petty criminals: bangers, drug addicts and thieves. «Guilt by Association» has a very tight plot, no rabbits out of hats.

The main character Rachel Knight is not quite an original character, though. She is hard outside and soft inside. When she sees the body of her colleague, she almost loses consciousness. Several times throughout the book, the woman barely holds tears back. At the same time, Knight shows the hardness of the decisions and actions. To achieve justice and restore the honor of the late colleague for her is more important than losing a job.

There are also a few comic moments, such as the gang leader, who flirts with the prosecutor, which almost puts murder charges on him, or a police lieutenant who lives at the expense of what he and his brother used to come up developed a popular computer game.

Sometimes the novel gets too women-ish: Clark pays too much time choosing clothes for the heroine, and chapters begin with Knight’s mornings. Actually, you can immediately get down to business without having these details.

On the cover James Ellroy's blurb suggests that it is «a damn, damn, good thriller». It is difficult to argue with it.

The Best American Noir of the Century

The Best American Noir of the Century
Ed. by Otto Penzler and James Ellroy

Windmill Books, 2011

James Ellroy in the old interview had said about noir this: «Film Noir died 1959-1960. We love it. It's never going to come back. That's that, dig it. You can't go back. You cannot disingenuously go to tiki lounges and drink those big drinks, think that it's cool and it's not gonna kill you. You can't smoke unfiltered cigarettes in cocktail lounges all day, every day. It's over. The seduction of the past is just that. It's the past. We know more now and you can't go back. Film noir circumscribed an era and was fueled by the morays and repression of the era. You can't go back. You can imitate it and if you imitate it, it had better be something other than a stylistic and thematic imitation of film noir. L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia ape noir, they're historical novels. They trade on film noir but they're not film noir. Noir is over.» In the introduction to this collection Ellroy writes: “The subgenre officially died in 1960. New writer generations have resurrected it and redefined it as a sub-subgenre, tailored to meet their dramatic needs ... Noir will never die - it's too dementedly funny not to flourish in the heads of hip writers who wish they could time-trip to 1948…”

Ellroy is controversial as always, but by and large he’s right: noir is dead, but it will always live. What today is called noir, it is scarcely noir, or rather it is not noir at all, but noir is so rooted in contemporary culture that is sometimes difficult to say if this is not noir, then what's this then? Although from the collected 35 stories in the book, only 12 were written before 1960, all other have features of noir as a subgenre. This is, perhaps, not quite honestly, that this book is called «Best American Noir», but the title «Best American Noir, Neo-Noir, Post-Noir» would be too long and awkward, so just forgive it.

Even the earliest examples of noir literature, such as «Spurs» by Todd Robbins or «Pastorale» by James M. Cain, are not dated, but rather look here perhaps better than another stories. They are dated because of their language and their subjects. The later stories are often more elegantly constructed plotted, but bear the shade of a secondary nature: the story is old, but the details are new.

This is an incredible collection, even though there are a few missteps. Stories by Gil Brewer and Mickey Spillane are written as if only for the final twist, the Lorenzo Carcaterra’s story is overly schematic, and «Iris» by Stephen Greenleaf, in my opinion, and is not noir at all.

On the back cover the publisher writes that the book includes «many page-turners». For me, noir is just the opposite of a page-turner. When you read noir, to flip a page is not desirable. The body is paralyzed, because then lay the darkness, the abyss, the gas chamber and infinity.

All human vices, all the dark corners of the human soul, all fallings into hell, and all the terrible repetition of the darkest moments of life - it's all there in this book. 615 pages of falling into the abyss, from which there’s no exit.