Newsletter - EUROPEAN NOIR by Jack

Thursday Apr 05 2012
by Jack

Two features in crime writing that interest many readers are unusual settings somewhat off the beaten track, and books in a series, usually (but not always) featuring a continuing protagonist.  This essay will look at these two features combined in books available in our store. As is usually the case, the authors and books following are my choices from a much larger universe.

One relatively unfamiliar locale for most readers of crime writing is the continent of Europe. Most of us have at best travelled for a few weeks as tourists “on the continent,” and few are really cognizant of the complex historical backgrounds – particularly in the 20th century – that have shaped the countries we have visited. At the same time, the 20th century -- with its wars and profound political changes -- provides an apt backdrop for noir fiction, and a number of authors have taken advantage of the ready-made opportunity. 

Alan Furst is an American writer who has set a series of eleven novels of espionage and intrigue (with a twelfth soon to appear) in the 1930s in the very messy world of central and eastern Europe. This “Night Soldiers” series – named after the first book in the series -- is linked more by its region and period than by its characters, although some people do recur in different guises from one novel to another. This was a world that was first exploited by the great British spy novelist Eric Ambler beginning in the 1930s, but Furst has more recently (since 1988) made it his own. Like Ambler’s protagonists, those of Furst are usually accidentally trapped in the middle of intrigue not of their own making, ending up serving as spies or even double agents, often against their will. But they are unable to free themselves from the coils of circumstance until they work out their particular destiny.

Another writer who has prospered from the upheavals of the 20th century is the British writer Philip Kerr, whose character Bernie Gunther has seen his life chronicled through eight novels, stretching from 1936 to the 1950s and from prewar Germany to postwar Latin America (although the later Latin American novels usually harken back to the period before the war.) Bernie starts out as a former cop turned private investigator in Nazi Germany. He is initially a good guy, but one cannot survive among the Nazis without making a good many compromises, and by the third novel, set in immediately postwar Vienna, he is no longer a white (or even gray) knight of any kind. Indeed, in subsequent books he takes on the persona of a Nazi war criminal and moves among this particularly nasty group of villains within the various countries of Latin America, all of which had remained out of World War Two and serve as postwar havens in which former Nazis may hide. In the course of his peregrinations, Bernie still does some detecting, often by exposing the older civilian atrocities of his compatriots. Bernie is a fascinating character, complex and deeply flawed, but still quite likeable in his own breezy way.

If Bernie Gunther is a badly compromised and flawed human being, Arkady Renko is the embodiment of the Raymond Chandler hero – “down these mean streets a man must go, a man who is not himself mean. . . .” We first meet Renko, the creation of American author Martin Cruz Smith, in Gorky Park, published in 1981.  He is the son of a Russian military hero of World War Two working as a senior police investigator in Moscow, but with entirely too little sympathy for the pre-glasnost regime under which he serves. He falls in love with a beautiful dissident and helps her escape the Soviet Union. For this he is exiled at sea on a Russian fishing trawler (Polar Star), but is politically rehabilitated by solving a murder at sea which is connected with the Americans. From this point, Arkady’s resumed career –there are now seven novels in the series -- follows the bumpy and curved path of the Soviet Union in its post-Communist phase.   At one point he is sent to Cuba to solve the murder of a Russian diplomat, at another he finds himself in Chernobyl, at a third he must find out who is impersonating Stalin on the Moscow underground and raising the scary prospect of the dictator’s return.  With each book Renko becomes less and less a professional policeman and more and more an observer/participant in the new capitalistic Russia, which is in so many ways different from the Soviet Union but in so many other ways merely a continuation of the old regime.  The novels contain increasingly fascinating sidelights, such as the way of life of peasant survivors of Chernobyl, or the battlefield excavations in Stalin’s Ghost searching for the identities of fallen soldiers so that their families can get pensions.

Somewhat less heroic is Harry Hole (pronounced Herla), the cop created by Norwegian author Jo Nesbo. Poor Nesbo, who has been a popular writer in his native Norway for many years, now finds his books emblazoned on their covers with “THE NEXT STEIG LARSSON,” which is obviously totally unfair but represents the way in which publishers think they need to hype books. Harry appears from his first book as a deeply depressed and disturbed cop, a chain smoker bordering on chronic alcoholic.  In the course of The Redbreast, moreover, Harry stumbles across vestiges of Norway’s troubled past, a period when the nation’s politicians actively collaborated with the Nazis. None of the Scandinavian countries had an unblemished past during World War Two, although Finland’s involves more complications with Soviet Russia than with Germany.  Certainly Denmark was occupied by the Germans, and although Sweden was technically neutral, it often assisted Hitler’s boys in a variety of subtle ways. Curiously enough, despite its Nazi past and his own descriptions of modern neo-Nazism in Norway, Nesbo appeared genuinely surprised by the real-life massacre of young Norwegians by a contemporary Nazi killer only last year. In any event, there are now nine books in the series, seven of which are readily available in English translation. In them Harry sinks ever deeper into an alcoholic haze, emerging occasionally to show flashes of brilliance. 

Like Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell operates in the shadow of Steig Larsson, a writer whom he has obviously influenced and long predated.  Mankell’s cop is Kurt Wallander, another deeply troubled Nordic being who features in a dozen crime books (some of them short stories) beginning in 1997. Most of Mankell’s output consists of police procedurals, although several books veer in the direction of international intrigue. Cop-shop stuff is what Mankell does best, however, and the best of his procedurals can contend with anybody’s.  Wallander has a mixed relationship with his father, who had opposed his becoming a policeman and is an artist who has painted the same picture thousands of times. He is divorced from his first wife, the mother of daughter Linda, who also becomes a cop and who features as lead character in one of Mankell’s crime novels. He drinks too much, on at least one occasion struck his wife, acquires diabetes in the course of growing old, and has few real friends. He maintains a sort of a long-distance relationship with a Latvian woman he met in the course of one of his earlier investigations (The Dogs of Riga), but is unable to bring it to fruition. His author retired Wallander in 2011 in thoroughly modern fashion, afflicting him with early onset Alzheimer’s disease – can one imagine Sherlock Holmes with some form of dementia? Mankell weaves a variety of other issues into the Warrander books, which are a sort of a clinical dissection of modern Swedish society much like Steig Larsson’s work or the earlier Swedish series by Sjowall and Wahloo.

There are others who write European noir, but the above are five of the best.


Alan Furst – ‘Night Soldiers’
Night Soldiers
Dark Star
The Polish Officer
The World at Night
Red Gold
Kingdom of Shadows
Blood of Victory
Dark Voyage
The Foreign Correspondent
The Spies of Warsaw
Spies of the Balkans
Upcoming - A Mission to Paris (HC, 06/12)

Philip Kerr – ‘Bernie Gunther’
March Violets
The Pale Criminal
A German Requiem
The One from the Other
A Quiet Flame
If the Dead Rise Not
Field Grey
Upcoming – Prague Fatale (HC, 04/12)

Martin Cruz Smith – ‘Arkady Renko’
Gorky Park
Polar Star
Red Square
Havana Bay
Wolves Eat Dogs
Stalin’s Ghost
Three Stations

 Jo Nesbo – ‘Harry Hole’
The Redbreast
The Devil’s Star
The Redeemer
The Snowman
The Leopard
Upcoming – Phantom (HC, 03/12)

Henning Mankell – ‘Kurt Wallender’
Faceless Killers
The Dogs of Riga
The White Lioness
The Man Who Smiled
The Fifth Woman
One Step Behind
The Pyramid
The Troubled Man

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