MURDER IN THE AFTERNOON RETURNS TO MARSIELLES WITH CHOURMO

Our June Murder In The Afternoon book club will be celebrating International Crime Fiction Month with a discussion by one of France’s most celebrated crime writers. Chourmo is the second installment of Jean Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy. Once again, the romantically tarnished knight Fabio Mantale navigates this port city of many cultures on a quest for private justice and other things unattainable.
Mantale has left the force, mainly due to the events from the first book in the trilogy, Total Chaos, but the cousin he used to be in love with puts him back on the streets. Her son who was having a Romeo & Juliet style affair with an Arab girl has gone missing. The search involves organized crime, religious extremism, the city’s politics, and early on the murder of his informant, Serge, creating a second mystery.
Chourmo deals with several different themes, both old and new love, intolerance, the culture of Marseilles. We will try to cover as much as we can. Join us with your thoughts Monday the 18th1PM, on BookPeople’s third floor. Chourmo is 10% off for those planning to attend.
Next month, July 16, we will be discussing Craig Johnson’s Dark Horse with the author calling in.

MysteryPeople Pick Of The Month: THE FRENCH CONCESSION by Xiao Bai

french concession

– Post by Molly

Xiao Bai has been known for his diverse writing projects in his native China for some time – his work ranges from essays, to novellas, to literary fiction. His literary spy novel, French Concession, is his first to be translated into English. According to ShanghaiDaily.com, the novel “sold…moderately well in China, but it has…elements that appeal to Western readers,” and while, after finishing the novel, I can’t speak for Chinese readers’ lack of enthusiasm, I can certainly agree with the Shanghai Daily that French Concession seems tailor-made for Western readers of espionage fiction. French Concession is such an impeccable thriller, I’ve chosen it as our July MysteryPeople Pick of the Month.

The novel takes place in 1931, predominantly in the French Concession, a French-controlled section of Shanghai. Xiao Bai has created a dizzyingly epic spy thriller, with a vast cast incorporating revolutionaries, spies, gunrunners, informants, refugees, colonial police, assassins, crime lords, prostitutes, cameramen, Russian, French, Chinese, Japanese, and every combination of the above. Xiao Bai juggles his complex plot and array of characters deftly, and his writing has a cinematic touch. French Concession is reminiscent of Lust, Caution in its mind-bending portrayal of East Asian espionage and revolution. Although Bai’s setting is complex, and his characters multifaceted, Bai includes maps, historical notes, and a tight, explosive conclusion to wrap one of the best international espionage thrillers I have ever read.

The novel begins with the recruitment of a young, French-Chinese photographer by the French Concession police, who want him to spy on his arms-dealer White Russian girlfriend. Meanwhile, a revolutionary cell led by a ruthless Soviet-trained Chinese communist plans an assassination attempt. When the photographer begins a new romance with a beautiful member of the underground cell, he continues spying for the French Concession while also spying on the police for the revolutionary cell. The photographer’s divided loyalties, conflicting loves and multiple professions serve as metaphor for the impossible choices facing China immediately before the Japanese invasion. His playboy nature, amoral collaboration with any and all, and semi-redemption through romance all harken back to the greatest of revisionist World War II movies, Lacombe, Lucien.

“Each major character shifts loyalty at least once, and their romantic entanglements are no more set then their political allegiances.  Xiao Bai’s story has no heroes – only those flexible enough to survive, or dogmatic enough to seek death.”

In order to understand why Shanghai in 1931 is such a brilliant choice of setting for an espionage thriller, some historical context is necessary. Shanghai is one of the largest cities in the world, a powerhouse of trade and politics for centuries. During the 19th century creation of “open” European-dominated trading centers in Chinese port cities, Shanghai became a hot-bed of revolution and a bewildering jurisdictional nightmare. After the end of the first Opium War, the British Empire established an International Settlement, composed of French, British and American zones, taking up large swathes of the city.

After the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 and the end of the Warlord Era of the teens and twenties, Shanghai came under the nominal control of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists, but with a strong Marxist underground movement determined to challenge nationalists and imperialists alike for control of the city. To translate this into noir-speak, Shanghai, in 1931, had four official police departments, four official secret services, and many other spies representing the interests of countless nations and individual parties. In contrast, occupied Berlin has served as a setting for numerous spy novels, despite having only four zones of occupation and far less jurisdictional overlap.

The complex scenario of a single city controlled by several political authorities allows each character in Bai’s narrative to play enemies against one another. Each major character shifts loyalty at least once, and their romantic entanglements are no more set then their political allegiances.  Xiao Bai’s story has no heroes – only those flexible enough to survive, or dogmatic enough to seek death.

Xiao Bai lushly portrays Shanghai at the peak of colonialist development and right before decades of invasion, decolonization, revolution and civil war would change the city represented in his book almost unrecognizably. He brings the city’s geography to life, even including a few maps so the reader can be sure to understand the choreography of each thrilling sequence.

“Xiao Bai juggles his complex plot and array of characters deftly, and his writing has a cinematic touch. French Concession is reminiscent of Lust, Caution in its mind-bending portrayal of East Asian espionage and revolution.”

The longtangs, in particular, are a unique neighborhood design, usually consisting of a lane entered through a decorative archway with gated residences facing onto the lane on either side. Xiao uses the longtang to great effect in chase sequences and to represent the tight-knit communities of Shanghai and the divided nature of the “Sphere of Influence” model of imperialism. Longtangs also serve as a metaphor for the city’s mixture of Western and Eastern, traditional and new, and open and closed. The longtang is a self-contained neighborhood defined by its open entrance and narrow side alleys; at once conquered and unconquerable.

French Concession has an incredible amount of research put into it, as well as spatial awareness of the city at the time. Xiao includes notes at the end detailing both the depth and limits of his research, and the novel is an exercise in the power of historical fiction to bring history alive. From the barest outline of intrigue found in crumbling French Concession police files, Xiao fills in the blanks to create additional emotional power and bring history to life, in a perfect example of what great historical genre fiction can be.


You can find copies of French Concession on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. The historical information included above has been gleaned from Wikipedia articles, and while a reader can enjoy French Concession with or without additional historical context, I strongly encourage readers of this novel to supplement the background information above with their own research, since the history behind this book is so incredibly entertaining.

International Crime Fiction Review: BLOOD-DRENCHED BEARD by Daniel Galera

blood drenched beard

Post by Molly

I’ll admit it. I picked this one mainly for the title of the book – I’m a sucker for anything with violence and facial hair in it, and this book clearly had both. Aside from the amazing title, and the novel’s Brazilian setting, I knew nothing else about this book when I started reading it. After finishing it, I can confirm that the contents of Blood-Drenched BeardDaniel Galera’s first novel to be translated into English, are just as good (as impossible as this might sound) as the title.

Blood-Drenched Beard follows an unnamed protagonist who, after his father’s suicide, takes his father’s dog and moves to a tiny seaside town. The picturesque village is perfect for triathlon training and far from the prying eyes of concerned relatives. His ulterior motive for moving to the middle of nowhere? In the 1960s, his grandfather had lived in this same seaside town until his murder at the hands of angry townspeople in an act of vigilantism.

“Much of what makes a noir can be found in this valley of the uncanny between the readers’ interests and the the characters’ needs.”

Galera’s hero resembles his grandfather enough to spook the townspeople. Initially he finds little help in his quest, and quickly loses himself in the grueling physicality of extreme fitness training while overcoming his grief and working to prove that his father’s dog, too, can thrive after his father’s death. His lack of clarity finds literal representation in the main character’s face blindness: secondary characters, depending on their context, go back-and-forth between familiar and unfamiliar, friend and stranger, in the perfect marriage of character trait and noir sensibility.

In Blood Drenched Beard, Galera’s attempts to solve what I like to think of as the Hard-Boiled vs. Healthy Dilemma. Authors today usually do not embrace the chain-smoking and gin-guzzling antics of their predecessors; not without catching a fair amount of flack for glamorizing bad habits, anyway. When authors step outside the traditional trifecta of booze, beatings, and tobacco, they are confronted with a new problem: how, outside of these habits, can they mimic the obsessive nature and cool style of a hard-boiled detective? How are they to go about pushing the main character to the brink of mental and physical collapse (a necessary part of any well-written noir) without also passing on his or her bad habits to the reader?

“When authors step outside the traditional trifecta of booze, beatings, and tobacco, they are confronted with a new problem: how, outside of these habits, can they mimic the obsessive nature and cool style of a hard-boiled detective?”

Some have dealt with this problem by simply substituting a drug more suitable for modern consumption. Pineapple Express, one of the more creative crime films made in recent years, merely substitutes marijuana for cigarettes, as does the HBO show Bored to Death, while Matthew Scudder, Lawrence Block’s eternal detective, made the switch from bars to AA in the early 80s and has stuck with coffee since. Other authors have responded to this dilemma by having their detectives simply consume every drug, thus potentially negating any particularly harmful influence to the reader by focusing on just one. Detective Sean Duffy, protagonist of Adrian McKinty’s Troubles Trilogy, may smoke like a chimney, but he also smokes opium, hash, and heroine, snorts coke while downing valium with a whiskey chaser, and by the end of the series, steals enough drugs from the evidence locker to be able to open up his own pharmacy.

An author can also choose, in place of substance abuse, to substitute addiction to a behavior or ideology. Galera’s hero is an avid triathlete before his move to the Brazilian coast. His devotion to exercise grows alongside his obsessive search for his grandfather. He eventually undertakes a trip to the Brazilian interior that physically taxes him to the mask, bringing him to an almost total physical breakdown, and leads to that magical noir eureka moment where he is pushed to the brink of endurance and and is thus able to find clarity.

The protagonist’s approach to excessive exercise is the perfect noir response to today’s fitness culture: take a popular habit and turn it into a dangerous obsession. Much of what makes a noir can be found in this valley of the uncanny between the readers’ interests and the the characters’ needs.

“Galera has written a novel set in an ever-changing country, mired in its past yet looking towards its future.”

Blood Drenched Beard, come to think of it, explores the Valley of the Uncanny in multiple constructs. The unnamed hero sees himself reflected in his father’s eyes as his grandfather. To escape his father’s crushing legacy, he decides to relocate to the town that killed his grandfather, to whom he bears an increasing resemblance as the the novel continues. His search for his grandfather quickly becomes a search for himself.

The main character’s face blindness, too, explores the valley of the uncanny – a familiar figure, in a different context, or even different outfit, instantly becomes a stranger. His failure to recognize his own resemblance to his grandfather parallels the village’s recognition of his face as that of his grandfather’s, allowing him to sublimate his own identity into that of his grandfather, instead of escaping his father’s legacy through establishing his own, independent concept of self.

Galera’s novel exists on many levels. It is a deep and powerful novel about family, identity, and community memory. Galera subtly explores the fear and paranoia characterizing Brazil’s military dictatorship of the 1960s, as well as the uncertainty of political, economic, and environmental change in modern-day Brazil. The novel delves into conflicts between fathers and sons, cities and country towns, and modernity and tradition; Galera has written a novel set in an ever-changing country, mired in its past yet looking towards its future. Blood-Drenched Beard reflects all the contradictions and inspirations of its setting, and is a great novel for so doing.


You can find copies of Blood-Drenched Beard on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

International Spy Fiction Pick: HIS OWN MAN, by Edgard Telles Ribeiro

his own manPost by Molly

Most detective novelists are not former private detectives. Most thriller writers are not, in fact, computer hackers. And most spy novelists have never set foot anywhere near the CIA. Some, however, do have experiences with the world of subterfuge and the ambiguous political climate in which shadowy organizations work best, and whether they be Graham Greene, John le Carré, or in the case of His Own Man, Edgard Telles Ribeiro, they not only write good spy fiction – they write great spy fiction. Ribeiro began work in the Brazilian Foreign Service in 1967, three years after a CIA-backed military coup, and he has obeyed the old writing adage, write what you know, to great effect.

His Own Man, Edgard Telles Ribeiro’s 2011 novel of Brazilian intrigue and political compromise, was released in the US last year, beautifully translated by Kim Hastings. His Own Man is the latest addition to the growing body of literature struggling to process the lingering effects of South America’s long list of casualties to the Cold War.

Ribeiro tells the classic spy fiction narrative of a clandestine organization working to achieve a conservative military coup and then enacting a purge of all elements deemed “subversive” with the aid of CIA cold warriors. Although the story, in its grander elements, is familiar, Ribeiro manages to capture both an insider and outsider perspective on the Dirty Wars of South America through the unique part played by his homeland. Brazil, as the first to fall victim to dictatorship post-Cuban Revolution, acts as a staging ground in the novel for Brazilian agitators to go to other Latin American nations and work, covertly, to achieve the demise of other liberal democracies with the blessings of the American government.

His Own Man is not just the tale of Brazilian political conspiracy; it is also the story of a man. Marcílio Andrade Xavier, or Max, protagonist and symbolic source of all Latin America’s travails, uses his interloper position to great effect, playing off his superiors in the foreign ministry (first in the liberal government, then in the conservative, and then the liberal again), his handlers in the secret service, his wife, his friends, and his compatriots in the elaborate dance of the consummate insider. Max’s sole motivating factor is his own ambition, and as a political chameleon, he merely takes on whatever the most suitable appearance may be to achieve the next promotion. Max is, in short, the kind of man who always does well, and is the consummate gentleman spy who, through his amoral actions, strips all meaning from the ever-shifting ideologies of his superiors.

Max is a stand-in for the country itself, and for any other Eichman-like figures who supported the dictatorship without contemplating the moral cost. He is ever adaptable, able to weather any storm, yet trapped in his context and vulnerable to outside manipulation. Max’s outsider/insider status is underlined by Ribeiro’s choice of narrator, an old friend and disappointed colleague of Max, determined to construct a portrait of a man verging on mythical through hazy memories and disjointed interviews: a partial fingerprint of an amorphous individual, and the reader is left to fill in the blanks.

Ribeiro writes spies and diplomats who would not be out of place in the work of Graham Greene, Alan Furst, or any other articulate master of espionage. His pages are filled with cheerfully cultured personalities whose ability to quote Montaigne or Walter Benjamin in no way detracts from their ability to remove someone’s fingernails in a torture chamber, or at least play poker with the torturer on his lunch break. Culture and paranoia, romance and appearances, open boulevards and hushed conversations, and the slow spread of dictatorship across an entire continent, worst in those places that thought themselves immune – these are the contradictions that His Own Man inhabits, processes, and makes the writer’s own.


Copies of His Own Man are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Molly’s Top Ten International Crime Novels of 2014

Post by Molly

I have always loved international crime fiction – something about crimes on other shores sparks the imagination in a way that a news bulletin from across town can’t quite mimic. 2014 has been a fantastic year for international crime fiction, with great new releases from all my favorite crime fiction publishers. I celebrated International Crime Fiction Month (known to the layman as June) at the store by launching a new blog series profiling mysteries set across the globe, and now it’s time to pick my top ten international crime fiction novels of 2014.


williammcilvanneylaidlaw1. Laidlaw, by William McIlvanney – This reissue from Europa Editions’ World Noir Imprint takes place in a dismal 1970s Edinburgh, as a dour detective races to find a murder suspect before vigilantes get there first. Scotland’s miserable weather and, in this novel, even more miserable denizens are a perfect fit for noir.

 


in the morning2. In The Morning I’ll Be Gone, by Adrian McKinty – McKinty finished up his Belfast-set Troubles Trilogy earlier this year with an explosive conclusion. Detective Sean Duffy, catholic policeman, punk aficionado, and all-around smartass, is hired by MI5 to track down an old schoolmate-turned-terrorist in what turns into a fascinating retelling of the closest Margaret Thatcher ever got to being assassinated.

 


last winter we parted3. Last Winter, We Parted, by Fuminori Nakamura – Not all Japanese detective novels are poetic explorations of alienation in modern society, but this novel certainly is. Last Winter We Parted follows a young journalist’s interviews with a photographer convicted of burning two of his models alive in a quixotic attempt to capture their essence. As the journalist becomes closer to the photographer and his sister, he begins to lose his own self.


ghostmonth4. Ghost Month, by Ed LinGhost Month is Ed Lin’s first novel set abroad; his previous novels, set in New York City, have centered around the Chinese and Taiwanese-American community, and now Lin has voyaged to Taiwan itself. Ghost Month, takes place in the vibrant Night Market of Taipei, following a Joy Division-obsessed dropout as he tries to discover who killed his ex-girlfriend.

 


minotaurshead5. The Minotaur’s Head, by Marek Krajewski – Set in Poland and Prussia on the eve of the Second World War, The Minotaur’s Head follows two detectives; one a straight laced family man, the other a drunken aesthete of the Belle Époque; as they try to solve a crime that quickly entangles them in larger politics. Marek Krajewski, perhaps because he is Polish, and clearly because he is a good writer, has a perfect handle on the the dialogue and sensibilities of the time period.


the secret place6. The Secret Place, by Tana French – In each of French’s novels, a different character from the Dublin Murder Squad becomes the protagonist for an intense psychological exploration into human nature and crime. French’s latest installment of the series stars Detective Stephen Moran, previously introduced in Faithful Place, who teams up with a colleague’s teenage daughter to investigate a murder at an elite private school.

 


final silence7. The Final Silence, by Stuart NevilleThe Final Silence, Neville’s latest installment in his DI Jack Lennon series, has the detective at a low point in his life when an ex-girlfriend comes knocking to tell him she found something rather disturbing in her dead uncle’s spare bedroom. Neville crafts a thrilling narrative that, like much of his work, also serves as a meditative reminder of Belfast’s haunting past.

 


murder at cape three points8. Murder at Cape Three Points, by Kwei Quartey – This is the third installment of Ghanaian-American Kwei Quartey’s Detective Darko Dawson series. In Murder at Cape Three Points, Ghanaian Detective Dawson is called in to solve the seemingly ritualistic murder of an affluent couple found dead near an oil rig. His investigation is quickly stymied in his efforts by corruption, bureaucracy, and nefarious oil companies, and he must use intuition and unorthodox means to solve the crime.


mad and the bad9. The Mad and the Bad, by Jean-Patrick Manchette – After reading Manchette’s novel The Mad and The Bad, recently reissued by New York Review of Books, I have yet another reason to love the folks at NYRB. The Mad and The Bad is a crazed romp through 1970s France. A spoiled heir to a fortune is kidnapped by an ulcer-ridden hit-man. The child’s nanny, only recently released from a mental institution, must try to keep him safe despite her increasingly fragile grasp on reality.


10. Singapore Noiredited by singapore noirCheryl Lu Tan – this impeccable collection of stories set in the glitzy high rises and seedy underbelly of Singapore is one of Akashic’s finest releases to date. You’ll get a vast array of characters from one of the worlds most diverse cities, including mafiosos, maids, and murderers of all kinds, and plenty of proof that Singapore can be as murderous a city-state as Rome ever was.

 


Copies of each book are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

MysteryPeople International Crime Fiction Review: BELFAST NOIR & SINGAPORE NOIR

 

– Post by Molly

In 2004, Akashic Books published Brooklyn Noir, their first collection of original noir short stories, set in Brooklyn and written by a combination of local authors and writers from all over. Since that time, Akashic has released collections for almost every major American city and region (including, for Texas, Lone Star Noir and Dallas Noir) and, after covering much of the United States, has moved on to collections set in cities around the world.

Akashic’s motto is “Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World.” Some collections profile the fraught and violent underbellies of some of the world’s most prominent centers of tourism and business. Others focus in on the humanity and humor within a place already possessing a reputation for violence. Whatever the setting, Akashic, in their noir series, succeeds admirably at this goal. Akashic releases new collections faster than I can read them, and alas, I am now woefully behind on my world noir anthologies, but two recent releases from Akashic particularly stood out to me: Belfast Noir and Singapore Noir.

Belfast has always had a rather noir reality, but over the past decade or so, Northern Ireland has also become known for an incredible outpouring of noir fiction, dubbed the “new wave” of Irish crime fiction. Belfast Noir draws upon two of my favorite authors from the region in editing the collection: Adrian McKinty, author the Troubles Trilogy and many other novels, and Stuart Neville, author of The Ghosts of Belfast, Collusion, Ratlines, and most recently, The Final Silence, and includes original crime fiction from many more.

McKinty and Neville, as editors of the collection, have crafted a fine introduction, distilling the past several hundred years of bloody history and a relatively recent economic resurgence down to three pages and a minimalist map. They chose to organize the collection into four sections to reflect Belfast’s changing narrative, post-Troubles: City of Ghosts, City of Walls, City of Commerce, and Brave New City. Each section includes stories by authors as varied as the times and city they represent.

It would take far too long for me to write and you to read a description of what I liked about each story, so I’ll describe just a few. “Taking It Serious,” by Ruth Dudley Edwards, tells the story of a young boy whose mental illness leads him to embrace the motto “Free Ireland” to dangerous levels after his uncle spends a little too much time telling his nephew about the glorious old days of the IRA. In “Belfast Punk Rep,” Glenn Patterson teaches us that not only is Belfast the noirest city in the world, but even the punks of Belfast are a bit more hardcore than anywhere else as well. “The Reservoir,” by Ian McDonald, blends ghost story, murder mystery, and cross-generational smack-down at a wedding for a perfect Northern Irish celebration gone awry.

Steve Cavanagh‘s “The Grey” uses electric meters to tell us a story of love, revenge, and consequences, while Claire McGowan, in “Rosie Grant’s Finger,” writes about teenagers reenacting the high drama of the Northern Irish Troubles in a very, very petty way. Eoin McNamee, in “Corpse Flowers,” structures the story of a young girl’s murder entirely through images seen through cameras, a poetic twist on the surveillance state. Each story, layered on top of the rest, provides another nuanced viewpoint with which to construct a portrait of Belfast today – perhaps not a complete portrait, but a beautifully complex and ever-growing one.

Belfast, with its long history of violence and division, and its more recent history of capitalism run rampant, seems to be an obvious setting for Akashic to have chosen. Singapore’s darkness, however, rests a little more below the surface. As S. J. Rozan writes in her story “Kena Sai,” “Singapore, it’s Disneyland with the death penalty. Jay-walking, gum-chewing, free-thinking: just watch yourselves.”

Many of the stories in Singapore Noir structure their narrative around this contrast between appearance and reality, particularly emphasizing the contrast of luxurious and poverty-stricken settings; the corruption and organized crime behind the facade of democratic government; the city of expats and migrants within the city of Singaporeans. Singapore Noir is edited by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Singapore native and current New Yorker, who describes Singapore as “the sultry city-state,” and if this description brings to mind the cutthroat Italian city states of the Middle Ages, you’re not far off.

The voices included in this collection are as diverse as the residents of Singapore itself. Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s story, “Reel,” tells a story of heat and lust set in the kelongs, old fisheries on stilts, while Colin Goh’s tale “Last Time” takes place in the glittering high rises of the city and involves international pop stars, corrupt businessmen, and powerful mafiosos. Simon Tay, writing as Donald Tee Quee Ho, in his story “Detective in a City with No Crime,” tells the story of an ordinary policeman stuck in a world of interchangeable people, where he can aspire only to lust, and never to love.

Philip Jeyaretnam’s “Strangler Fig” uses the natural environment of Singapore to structure a story of obsession and possession, while Colin Cheong’s “Smile, Singapore” uses a murder mystery to represent all of the frustrations of modern Singaporean society, and also fufills Chekov’s adage that if you introduce a gun in act 1, you had better use it by act 3. Each story is more poetic than the last, and Singapore Noir, like Belfast Noir, once again proves that Akashic Books’ noir series is better than any travel guide.


You can find copies of Singapore Noir and Belfast Noir on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.