Monday Jun 03 2013
by Jack

As I write this, the weather outside is frightful and has been so for as long as I can remember. Like most Winnipeggers, my thoughts turn continually to summer, wondering whether we will ever get one, and then to fantasizing particularly about summer in exotic places. In honour of this occasion, I thought I might offer our customers a glimpse of recent crime fiction set in exotic and semi-exotic places. I have long maintained that we can learn a good deal about the world by reading crime fiction, although I have to admit that the view we get from writings in the crime genre is usually a bit warped, focusing as it does on the criminal element in the society being described.

We can perhaps begin in the middle of the North Atlantic, by examining several recent books set in the Republic of Iceland. Many customers are familiar with the works of Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdadottir, which have been popular for some time. But these authors have now been joined by others. One is Quentin Bates, a British writer who lived for some years in Iceland and has now set Frozen Assets, which looks to be the first of a series of police procedurals in the countryside outside Rekjavik. His cop is named Gunnhildur Gisladottir, and she is the overweight sergeant in charge of the cop shop in a small Icelandic fishing village on the southwest coast of the island. Gunna, as she is called, spends most of her time dealing with truck traffic running through her village, but she is suddenly faced with a corpse and a tangled web of violence linked to the wider world. The story is well-plotted, although constantly interrupted by the blogs of an anonymous commentator on Icelandic political affairs that only eventually turn out to be relevant. Gunna herself may grow on us as the series develops; at the moment she seems a bit under-realized.

The greatest mystery in Viktor Arnard Ingolfsson’s Daybreak is probably why it has taken so long to reach us in English. Ingolfsson has been a popular Icelandic author for many years, and this novel – apparently his third, published in 2005 – was the basis for an Icelandic television series in 2008. The detectives, based in Rekjavik, are an interestingly contrasting pair, doubtless calculatedly so. Gunnar Mariuson is the son of a German immigrant to Iceland; he is fat and slobby. Birkir Hinriksson is himself an immigrant to Iceland, born in Vietnam and brought to the island at the age of nine. He is small and compulsively neat. The two men work well together, however. The crimes are the shooting deaths of duck-hunters killed by shotgun blasts. The plot is an extremely convoluted one in which the police are ultimately challenged by the killer to play an internet game with him involving answering literary questions on line. The book certainly kept me turning pages until the very end. It also felt to me much more authentically Icelandic than the more polished effort by Bates.

From Iceland we turn to Brazil, the site of the FIFA World Cup. The mother of the country’s greatest striker is kidnapped on the eve of the tournament, and it is up to Chief Inspector Mario Silva to get her back so that her son can devote his full attention to defeating the Argentinians. A Vine in the Blood is the sixth Silva book written by the American author, Leighton Gage, who has lived for many years in Brazil. Earlier books in the series struck me as fairly violent and well-plotted, but not very imaginative. This one is different. The premise is itself very interesting, and Gage introduces a detective who deserves (and may well get) his own series. This character is a former criminology professor who got tired of his academic salary and turned instead to crime, masterminding a gang who specialized in well-orchestrated kidnappings. Eventually caught and sentenced to a lengthy prison term, he wants to use his expertise to help solve this latest national outrage and thus be let out of jail as his reward. The professor has no inside information on the case, but his theoretical musings are quite credible and convincing. Gage also includes as a bonus a unique way for the ransom to be delivered to the kidnappers. A subplot involves the bombing assassination of one of the country’s leading criminal bosses, and maintains Brazil’s reputation for bloody gang violence.

Speaking of gangs, one of the recent developments in crime fiction is the appearance of a “World Noir” series published by Europa Books in New York. One of its first authors, well-known in Europe as a leading exponent of “Continental” or “Meditarranean” Noir, is the Italian Massimo Carlotto. A former left-wing terrorist who spent many years on the run and more years in prison before being pardoned in 1995, Carlotto has written a series of hard-boiled novels in which his former gangster detective, a man named Alligator, grapples with the endemic violence of Italy. At the End of a Dull Day features another Carlotto creation, Georgio Pellegrini, a former assassin gone straight and running a restaurant in Padua. Told in the first person, this book offers a character who is a virtual clinic in macho amorality. Drawn back into the killing game by a crooked lawyer, Georgio struggles to find some sort of leverage to exert  on his tormenter. In the end he succeeds, more or less. Carlotto is one example of a voice in Italian crime fiction that no longer needs foreigners like Donna Leon or Michael Dibdin to mediate their picture of contemporary Italy. Andrea Camilleri is another such writer. The latest in his Inspector Montalbano series is entitled The Dance of the Seagull. It is the fifteenth Montalbano book set In Sicily, an island which is obviously simultaneously very Italian and quite different from the remainder of Italy. Yet a third native Italian voice is Marco Vichi, whose latest Inspector Bordelli novel is Death in Sardinia. Set in Florence in 1965, the book offers a Bordelli who is older, irascible, and cynical, although how any Italian cop can be an thing other than cynical is beyond my comprehension, particularly one who, like Bordelli, served in Mussolini’s army during World War Two.

Another island with which Canada maintains a connection is Cuba, one of the settings for Peggy Blair’s latest, The Poisoned Pawn. The book represents one of the chief banes of my existence as a bookstore proprietor: it is an undeclared sequel to her previous novel, The Beggar’s Opera, not merely employing the same characters and settings but indeed brazenly continuing on with the plot of the earlier book. If you have trouble in understanding the opening chapters of The Poisoned Pawn, as I did, it may well be because you have not read Blair’s earlier effort. I don’t mind books that come in as part of a series, but I do object to books that aren’t complete and self-contained, particularly when the carryovers are not signaled. Once one gets over an initial perplexity over the story-line, this is an interesting read, although its author further confuses by trying to make too many political points for one police procedural to sustain. The comparisons implicit and explicit between the impoverished Cuban police state and aboriginal living conditions in Canada in the midst of Canadian wealth are laid on with a trowel. But there are several interesting characters, especially the Cuban dwarf pathologist Dr. Apiro and the Canadian aboriginal cop Charlie Pike. I for one did not find the lead cop, Inspector Ramirez, terribly compelling. And there are a few clever twists in the plot I did not expect.

Guadeloupe is another Caribbean island, although not one with which Canada has many ties. One connection is historic: in the early 1760s, after the British had conquered all of French America, one political faction in Britain wanted to return Canada and its arpents of snow to France, while retaining Guadeloupe as a sugar island. As Timothy Williams makes clear in Another Sun, set on the French island which was not kept by Britain, sugar is no longer a viable crop, and Guadeloupe survives economically mainly on tourism and handouts from the mother country. The chief detective is a Franco-Algerian female judge posted to the island because her husband is a native-born Guadeloupan. She is an attractive sleuth who must cut through a maze of local inwardness and mutual backscratching in order to solve the crime. This book is set in 1980, apparently because that is when it was written, although there is little to suggest that much has changed over the ensuing thirty years.

Finally, we turn to Africa and Botswana, the site of Alexander McCall Smith’s best-selling series starring Precious Ramsotswe, the boss of the No . 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection is by my calculation number thirteen in the series, which in my mind is distinguished chiefly by the author’s ability to create crimes that obviously reflect Botswana’s present situation as a third-world country rapidly modernizing. I particularly liked Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni’s suspicions of one of his countrymen for driving “a dishonest car.” McCall Smith is an extremely prolific author, with five or six series on the go at one time, but the Botswana series continues to be the jewel of his fictional crown.

Surely in the foregoing collection of exotic places any reader can find at least one good book that informs as well as entertains.

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