By day, Glenn Harper
is the unassuming editor of Sculpture magazine, writes for numerous art magazines,
journals, and books, and has edited several books about art and culture. But by
night, Glenn has a dark side: he’s been reviewing international crime fiction
since 2005 at internationalnoir.blogspot.com. Take a tour of the world of crime with him below or scroll through to find your favorite hot spot.
crime novels offer much more than a portrait of crime around the world. The
following novels (drawn from the last six months of my blog/reviews) are
a window on the cultures of these diverse continents and countries, crime being
a perfect vehicle for a portrait not of the high and mighty but the people on
the streets (mean or otherwise).
Williams in the crime fiction world was recently included in a list of the top
10 European crime writers in The Guardian
(yet he's surely the least well-known name on the list). His Commissario Trotti
series is perhaps the best of the distinguished crop of non-Italian crime
fiction writers whose work is set in Italy, a literary generation that includes
Donna Leon, Magdalen Nabb, and Michael Dibdin.
All of these writers share a
jaundiced yet appreciative view of Italy: dismayed by the politics and seduced
by the culture. But Williams digs deeper into the real social and historical
background, from the "years of lead" and the kidnapping of Moro
through a series of scandals in government and church, as well as campaigns
against corruption, leading to the "mani pulite" years of the '90s,
which is the background of Big Italy, the fifth and
latest of the Trotti novels. In all of his books, Williams filters the big, historical
events through the lens of small, local events and people,
accenting the impact of social patterns on the daily life of individuals.
That all sounds dry and stuffy,
which the novels are anything but. As with all of Williams’ books, Big Italy progresses mostly through the
often oblique dialogue of the Commissario, his associates, and the suspects.
The effect is frequently both frustrating and comical, as well as reinforcing
the overall sense that what is really going on remains resolutely below the
surface of events.
Italy has, like the other Trotti novels and most crime fiction set in Italy,
a less-than-conclusive ending, without the absolute resolution of much mystery
writing. But there's a note of hope at the end: hope for the future of some
of the individual characters and for the goals for which they had been
striving, if not confidence in the future of the country as a whole.
by Jake Needham (another émigré writer), is a confident thriller that builds up
to its explosive conclusion rather than blowing people and things up from the
beginning. The story is more in the line of author Eric Ambler than that of
many recent thrillers, taking an ordinary guy and thrusting him, in frequently
comic ways, into an unfamiliar and unfriendly situation. The writing is clear
and evocative, whether in portraying San Francisco in the early chapters or
Bangkok for the majority of the book, and the characters are lively and
The story is set in the '90s (originally published in Asia in
1999, The Big Mango was reprinted in
2010 by Marshall Cavendish in Singapore; the only editions so far have been
limited to Asian publishers and distributors). Eddie, a small-time lawyer and
former Vietnam-era marine, starts getting threatening mail and visitors that
refer to his time in Vietnam, when he worked in a squad involved in guarding
the U.S. embassy in the waning days of the U.S. presence.
The maguffin is the stuff of
legends, urban and otherwise: it seems the gold and currency from the Bank of
Vietnam vanished during the chaos of the U.S. departure, and someone (several
someones, as it turns out) thinks Eddie's former captain knows what happened to
the money, and maybe Eddie does too. After a visit from the U.S. Secret
Service, Eddie gets an offer from a mystery man offering him a lot of money to
go to Bangkok to look for the captain and the money.
From there, Eddie becomes involved
with a shady crew: his old Army buddy, a laid-back bookstore owner and Native
American; an American in Bangkok who writes a column on the nightlife there; a
DEA agent; and various other Americans, Thais, and Vietnamese. It's a story
told from the point of view of outsiders, seduced by Thailand but not blind to
the pollution, corruption, and violence of the capital city.
The other book
I've read by Needham, The Ambassador's
Wife, is quite different, more of an insider's look at another Asian
crossroads, Singapore (which Needham also views with a jaundiced eye). And The Ambassador's Wife is a police
procedural whereas The Big Mango is
more of a slowly building adventure story.
I liked the first Jade de Jong novely
Jassy Mackenzie, and the second one, Stolen Lives, is even better. The
first half of the novel dragged me along relentlessly. There's a plot line that
in the second half seems a bit tacked on (though it leads to a twisty and
cliff-hanger-y ending). It deals with a character who could be very interesting
but isn't fully developed—but overall the novel (and especially that second
half) are very good indeed.
Jade has returned (in the first
novel, Random Violence) to her native
Johannesburg to bring her private detective business there—as well as to a)
inflict some revenge and b) reestablish contact with the object of her (mostly
unrequited) passion, detective David Patel of the J-burg police. Patel refers a
client to Jade, thinking that it's just a woman in need of straightforward
bodyguarding after her husband has disappeared, but the case becomes
complicated when Jade and the client are shot at and later the husband is
discovered nearly dead from extreme torture and their daughter goes missing.
Then David's son, who has been living with his estranged wife, is kidnapped...
There is a parallel case developing
in England, concerning brothels and human trafficking, which ties into Jade's
case and links to a deadly and mysterious character at the fringes of both: an
African man whom we glimpse in a pawn shop and other locales in several
chapters interspersed with the English plot and Jade's case. The threads come
together in an unexpected way, forcing the reader to reassess his or her
opinion about the characters. And Jade herself is very interesting: we follow
not only her professional exploits but also her troubled relationship with
David and a discovery about herself and her heritage that she makes in
connection with her current case.
The novel offers once again a
dynamic glimpse of post-Apartheid South Africa in all its grime and glory, as
well as thematic consideration of violence and its roots in culture (and perhaps
genetics), marriage, and desire: it's among the best of the substantial crop of
South African crime fiction now becoming available.
Several recent crime
novels published in the U.S. by African writers north of South Africa (from
Ghana and Nigeria in particular) promise more crime fiction from the
continent as a whole—not to mention one of the best books I’ve read this year, City
of Veils, by Zoë Ferraris, which is set in Saudi Arabia (and is a novel
that could probably only have been written by an outsider).
Wyatt, the latest Garry Disher novel to arrive in
the U.S., is a continuation of his Wyatt series (about a dispassionate thief)
rather than his police-procedural series (better known here in the States).
Wyatt recalls the noir end of Donald Westlake's oeuvre. (For those not in the
know, Westlake is one of the most prodigious and well-known U.S. writers of
noir fiction). And in fact, Disher offers an homage to Westlake with two names
that appear in Wyatt: Stark, one of Westlake's several pseudonyms, and Parker,
one of his longest-running characters. Disher's Wyatt character has similarities
with Parker, a master thief for whom things are always going wrong. But in the
new novel, Wyatt is confronting problems that Parker didn't have to: money that
moves electronically rather than physically, new security systems, and the
constantly rising surveillance of our world today.
The characters in the Wyatt series
are pretty much stock characters, interesting in their own way but reduced to
their relevance to Wyatt (though the narrative does depart from the central
character a good deal of the time). And Wyatt himself is always guarded, always
careful, never emotional. He is a particular sort of sociopath: without empathy
or even interest in his fellow humans; he's almost high-functioning autistic.
There's a telling passage in which
he is attracted to the central woman character (who is one of the most
interesting characters, as she veers from normal life into Wyatt's world and
then into Wyatt's point of view). He feels the attraction but doesn't quite
know what to do about it. Wyatt is super competent in other ways, and his
inability to understand affection or to act on attraction keeps him human, in
an odd way. He isn't vulnerable, but he's damaged.
The plotting is the outstanding characteristic
of the Wyatt series. Through the twists and turns, Disher manages to manipulate
the standard tropes of the noir-heist story in lively ways, much as Westlake
did (though without the overt comedy that Westlake often employed). Disher's
Wyatt (the novel and the character) are as dark as they come, but engaging and
involving for the reader. Wyatt seems in some ways to be a posthumous tribute
to Westlake, and is definitely both an excellent novel in its own right and the
best "post-Westlake" take on that master's style that I've read.
Bitter Thing, Leighton Gage’s
fourth “Chief Inspector Mario Silva Investigation” is his best book yet. The
language is lucid, it’s informative about Brazilian life and culture (the
reader even finds out how Rio de Janeiro got its name), the characters are well
defined (and their interaction is natural and often comic), and the plot moves
along inexorably and rapidly. It is a story that is closer to the kind of crime
novel I’m most interested in as well: the first three Silva stories dealt with
big issues (organ theft, human trafficking, disparities of social class and
property ownership) and often with torture, organized crime, and extreme
violence. Every Bitter Thing, on the
other hand, deals with murder and revenge at a personal level, committed not by
professional criminals but by more-or-less ordinary people under extreme
pressure (which could also be said of the victims of the crimes). There are, I
should say, some vividly mutilated corpses, though.
It’s also a police procedural in the
best sense of the term: each member of Silva’s team is a three-dimensional
character, and each has his or her separate role in the investigation. The
investigation ranges across Brazil, but is focused more on Brasilia (where
Silva’s federal police team is based) than the previous books as well. The
nose-to-the-ground view of the investigators at work gives a quite different
focus, in comparison with the first three Silva
books, which showed a lot more about the crime and the criminals: Every Bitter Thing, as a result, is far
more than just a mystery or a procedural. Though a reader may figure out what’s
going on before the end, the investigators are figuring it out at about the
same time (and both readers and investigators will will have figured it out by
the final couple of twists).