International Man of Mystery
Dear lord, I need a vacation. It’s a long damn stretch between Christmas and Memorial Day in America. Too long for me. Too long for you, I’m sure.
Not a real vacation, mind you. I once got distracted and spent years wandering around England, Ireland, Germany, Italy and other climes both hospitable and not. That’s what happens when you quit paying attention for a few minutes. David Sedaris wound up in France by much the same channel: “Relinquish a tiny bit of control, and the next thing you know, you’re eating a different part of the pig.”
But if I can’t catch, say, one of Iberia Airlines’s new flights to points east through Madrid (they’re on sale), I can at least take a cerebral vacation. I savor the exoticism of international mysteries and the things you can learn from odd places. Insights written by the furtive strangers of far-off lands, soaked in their jaded descriptions of immediate surroundings, can shed new light on places we only thought we knew.
You have to have an open mind about these things or you’ll never grow as a person. Take, for example, the recent op-ed piece in The New York Times by Stanley Fish, an erstwhile medievalist and practicing law professor who is apparently dead from the neck up. Maureen Dowd went on vacation, and somehow the forces that be let this bone-dry academic unleash a disarmingly bovine essay on choosing a mystery novel at the airport. I kid you not, it is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read, unworthy of its placement in a generally conscious publication. The highlight has to be this gem: “The moment I spot a reference to any country but this one, I move on,” Fish writes. “No international settings for me.” Bloody. Dimwit.
While I’m not exactly a fan of the globe-trotting, puzzle-solving school of thriller writing, diversity in milieu is one of the elements of the crime genre that keep things interesting. If we only stuck to the New York/L.A./Boston/Seattle/Florida pentagon of locations, there would be about six successful writers in the country and half of those would be ghostwriters for the others. And two of them would be James Patterson.
So let’s delve into the foreign language section. I started the month in the shallow end with a vastly entertaining anthology from the good folks at Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Passports to Crime. Janet Hutching’s introduction explains the reasoning behind the book, offered up in the spirit of former editor Fred Dannay’s observation that, “While we still have a long way to go politically, the planet Earth is truly One World detective-storywise.” The collection spans 15 countries and has the even more industrious tactic of commissioning several tales for translation, giving English-language readers a unique perspective on these international tales of intrigue. Among the outstanding stories are Dagger-winner Boris Akunin’s “Table Talk, 1882,” which provides a novel introduction to Erast Fandorin, a 19th-century intellectual in the Sherlock Holmes vein who stars in four other novels. “Who’s Afraid of Ed Garpo?” -- translated from the French -- is Fred Kassak’s story about a writer obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe and prone to the same madness. From the Asian world, there are also traditional Queen-esque tales flavored with Eastern acumen by Norizuki Rintarō (“An Urban Legend Puzzle”), Mitsuhara Yuri (“Eighteenth Summer”) and Isaka Kōtaro (“The Precision of the Agent of Death”). How can you resist a title like that last one?
We may see more from the Far East soon enough. Publisher Kodansha America is bringing over some truly gifted translations of work from Japan ranging from philosophy and history titles to more sensational titles like Memoirs of a Gangster’s Daughter. As part of their fiction offerings, they’ve translated a gifted noir novelist named Asa Nonami and given English language audiences a book to drown in. The Hunter stars Nonami’s enthralling hero, detective Tatako Otomachi, who provides a rare look into the closed, masculine world of the Japanese police. Paired against her will with a bitter veteran, Sergeant Tamotsu Takizawa, Otomachi hunts a serial killer with a penchant for throat-slashing through the neon underbelly of Tokyo. There’s universally great storytelling in this fish-out-of-water tale, infused with buddy-cop movie edginess in the manner of Black Rain.
Sometimes you don’t even have to leave your own hometown to find yourself irretrievably lost. That’s the case with Henry Chang’s Chinatown Beat, starring his surly police detective Jack Yu, whose beat is not a foreign jurisdiction but the ghostly alleys of New York’s Chinatown. Punctuated in choppy, short-lived passages, the novel follows Yu’s investigation of a child’s rape on the fringes of Chinatown as he struggles not to raise the hackles of the local gangs and real city fathers. But it also sheds light on the detective’s half-life as a beleaguered member of a police force that puts white cops on Chinatown’s streets, where only Yu is able to negotiate the tense, closed society ensconced within an apprehensive city.
Chinatown Beat is published by the masterful professionals at Soho Press, whom I’ve praised before. For international mysteries, you’d be hard pressed to find a better house, and it’s always worth looking at Soho’s latest catalog. There are plenty of stellar mysteries among their latest offerings, and they come in all flavors of noir. The Price of Silence by Camilla Trinchieri is a genuine drama about Emma Perotti, accused of murdering an Asian language student. New series titles abound, including The Glass Devil by Helene Tursten, following the latest case of Swedish D.I. Irene Huss; Dagger-winner Peter Lovesey’s The Secret Hangman, which finds his dowdy British investigator Peter Diamond besieged with affairs of the heart; and a newly launched Italian entry, The Last Enemy by Grace Brophy, unearthing the efforts of a Commissario in the State Police of Umbria to unravel the mystery of an American girl found dead in her family’s mausoleum in Assisi.
To cheer my cold bones, there are more books set in warmer climes on their way. One of the more intriguing translations is Who Is Lou Sciortino?, a sharp, talky culture clash between a New York Mafioso family who finds that you might be able to go home again, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get whacked while you’re there. There are actually two of the titular Sciortinos loose in Italian punk rocker Ottavio Cappellani’s debut novel: the elder Lou is an icy New York don who sends his same-named child to Sicily in the wake of a business-related bombing. Soon young Lou is tasked by the local chieftains to quiet up the murder of a local carbineri, leading to plenty of violent repercussions, machismo-soaked misunderstandings and cartoonish violence on the sun-kissed Mediterranean island.
On another steamy island, journalist Mayra Montero investigates the Cuba of her youth in Dancing to “Almendra,” a serious and nostalgic mystery set in Havana on the eve of the revolution. Here, a young muckraker named Joaquín Porrata is probing into the murder of mob capo Umberto “Albert” Anastasia. Its knotty plot captures both the glamour and poverty of Havana in days gone by but also draws in Hollywood intrigues, the menace of Meyer Lansky (portrayed with gusto by Dustin Hoffman in Andy Garcia’s similarly themed film The Lost City, which is worth a look), and a heartbreaking circus performer/gun moll named Yolanda.
Perhaps, like the island mentality of the world’s Chinatowns or the violent dichotomies of third world flashpoints, all cities are divided in the end. It’s just a matter of whether you can see those lines or not. They do, after all, keep moving the damned things, don’t they? Another Soho title bathes a cold city in the harsh black-and-white tones of wartime. David Downing’s Zoo Station is a portrait of Berlin before the wall, as the nefarious networks of spies, codebreakers, generals and enemies converge on one of Europe’s most crucial locations. Set in 1939, its hero is Anglo-American John Russell. The barb-tongued journalist knows the Nazis are on the march but he’s trying to stay in his adopted hometown to protect his young son and his longtime mistress Effi, a bit actress in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. He’s soon recruited by the Soviets for a special assignment, which doesn’t go unnoticed by the British spymasters , or the Germans on the path to war. “See where the journey took him,” Russell muses. “Into the blue. Or into the black.”
Finally, if you missed its quiet entry onto bookstore shelves last month, the new Rebus novel is here, delivering plenty of foreign nationals into the backyard of Ian Rankin’s brilliant creation. The Naming of the Dead finds D.I. John Rebus babysitting an empty police station while the rest of Edinburgh attends to the dignitaries at the G8 Summit. The nearly-retiring inspector is dragged into the festivities when a delegate falls to his death at the castle. Rankin has outdone himself here, tangling up real-world atrocities like the London tube bombings with his fictional character’s desperate need to control the damage to life and property in his own neighborhood. Perhaps Rebus needs a vacation, too.
God knows we’ve all earned one. Here’s to us.Clayton Moore is on the move. You can monitor his whereabouts at claywriting.blogspot.com.