May 7th, 2011

snark maiden

Recent reads: Itlalian crime fiction

I like mystery novels and crime fiction that are neither too vicious, too twee, too simple nor too obscure. The police can be idiots if - as in much John D McDonald or Ed Gorman - they're inbred incumbents kept in position by family power or if - as in Chandler or Erle Gardenr's Perry Mason - they're hamstrung by politics or uncurbed syndicate crime, but they can't be idiots just to be a foil for the hero detective. I don't want to know the perpetrator on page five and be tapping my fingers waiting for the detective to catch up; I don't want the cards shuffled at the last minute or to have the denouement depend on abstruse knowledge I didn't know was going to matter (if there's going to be curare poisoning, I want to have seen the blowpipe on the mantelpiece when Chekhov picked up his gun). As I think Anthony Boucher used to put it, the writer has to play fair (I love the way he turns a locked room mystery into a thesis on locked room mysteries in crime fiction; very meta).

In the last couple of years I've been enjoying three series of Italian crime novels, all of them about policemen, only one of them by an Italian. That's Andrea Camilleri, author of the Inspector Montalbano books; set in Sicily, with only the occasional passing touch of Mafia - they're sharp and funny and depressing and I need to read more of them to really get the flavour. I've read a lot more Donna Leon; she write the Brunetti novels; he's in the Questura in Venice, his wife lectures at the university and calls Henry James the master and is quietly infecting him with feminism and radicalism (his children and colleague shift him a little too). Brunetti is far from an idiot policeman, though his hands are often tied by politics, by the idiots - naive or venal - that he works with, by the fact that finding the criminal isn't the same as solving the crime if their lawyer is going to get them off (you lose track of the number of times 50 or 100 mafioso have just been released due to errors in procedure). He detects slowly and by going over the ground more than once, he has sympathies and nods at some rule-breaking, he is - like the best fictional policemen - in search justice as much as criminals. Like the best characters he grows without becoming too different. And Venice is a delightful background character, sometimes soothing or contrasting or just acting as a backdrop - but it's a modern Venice with gypsies and counterfeit bag sellers and corruption and unfinished building work and that's as important as the landscape. As with the Montalbano novels there's a feeling that ultimate justice is out of reach, that the world beyond what the policeman can do himself (with the help in Leon's case of some strong female characters like his wife Paola and the social engineering, computer hacking, Gucci-clad Signorina Elettra, but I haven't found a series about an Italian policewoman yet) is crazily out of kilter and even local wrongs may be beyond fully righting - there's usually someone who is dead, after all. There's resolution, but it might be bitter or only partly satisfactory; and the policeman usually restores their balance by reimmersing themselves in the comfort of their family life, though often with the knowledge that this is as fragile a defence as any in life. They're not unhappy, but they're not always content.

I was going to say that Magdalen Nabb's Marshal Guarnaccia series set in Florence (although the Marshal is Sicilian and wonders at length about the Florentines and occasionally the Sardinians) are translations from German and talk about how the one I just read, Property of Blood reminded me of Heinrich Boll's Lost Honour of Katerina Blum in terms of the way it deals with the edge of Stockhausen syndrome in people who ought to be the victims of a crime but veer into being radicalised by the perpetrators - in this case the sympathy of a kidnap victim for the kidnapper who shows her some mercy, as a way of getting through the ordeal and as a way of coping with what happens at home while she's kidnapped. I though that because Soho Crime lists the first publication as being German. But then I looked up Nabb and discovered that she wrote for the German publisher who made Patricia Highsmith a success - but she was English (and lived in Florence but wrote in English and had the books translated back into Italian and added the Florentine flourishes she's turned into English idiom into the translations herself... which perhaps explains the feeling of something passing from one culture to another - there's another Elettra here who reads like a dog-breeding Wodehouse aunt).

Guarnaccia, like Brunetti, feels that the larger scale of things is out of his control, and he retreats to the sanctuary of family (either travelling to Sicily or in later books bringing his family to Florence), and he sees echoes of what's happening in the world around him in his family; and he also proceeds by going over things more than once and waiting for understanding to emerge from what people say. His real salvation is in buying himself in the kind of routine Brunetti loathes, in dealing with small scale complaints - he's a village policeman in a town, and his quarter is a village in the way everyone knows and is known to the people around them. There are some very dark and unpleasant characters in the book, not all of them the criminals. And there are few red herrings; you'll know who was responsible for things before Guarnaccia puts the pieces together - but only because it's utterly plausible that he doesn't want to draw the conclusion, and because the chapters are interleaved with a first person account that means you know more than the police (making up for the background knowledge about local criminals and the Sardinian bandit code that the author can't completely give the reader short of including a thesis and a set of maps).

English crime novels either titillate or reassure; either you feel superior and watch victims or villains get their comeuppance, or you watch the world be disrupted and then put safely back together. None of these series are quite that simple. There's entertainment; there's the puzzle; the crime is always explained - but to call it solved implies justice and punishment and reparation and redemption (or rehabilitation). Sometimes the truth has to be enough and wrongs aren't righted; the police can suffer as much as the original victims, criminals may be found but not caught. All is not right with the world - and maybe it's better that disturbing things are disturbing rather than everything being made mended the way it often is at the end of a Heyer detective novel (where again the police are far from idiots, but a wider spectrum of sinners tend to meet their rightful fate - either I've found the better of her crime writing or they're growing on me as I find them less cardboard than I once did).

Incidentally, I came to the Nabbs by way of another Soho Crime author, Colin Cotteril and his superbly black comedies about the pathologist in Laos after the revolution who is haunted by murder victims. All four writers are worth buying on sight - and this is something right with the world.