Apr/May 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

Mysteries From Other Places

Review by Colleen Mondor

I have been a fan of mysteries since my first afternoon with the Bobbsey Twins and Boxcar Children way back in the Dr. W.J. Creel Elementary School library. I must have been around 8 years old when I really got hooked and I didn't look back for a minute. From the Twins it was on to Trixie Belden, then Nancy Drew and the Three Investigators. I suffered a bit of a dead period in high school when it was hard to find any mysteries for young adults (and it still is) but then my brother insisted I read some John D. MacDonald (who was a genius), and then my father showed me the entire shelf of Robert Parker's Spenser for Hire mysteries and well, it was only a month or two before I found V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone and on and on.

Is there anything better on a cold, rainy night than a great mystery? (Unless you're reading it on a sweet summer afternoon, or at the beach when it's the right side of not-too-hot, or on an autumn day when the wind is blasting like it won't ever stop... you get the idea.)

Everyone knows the famous mystery writers and the popular mystery series and the classics. What I had been missing out on were the high number of well crafted mysteries written by European and Australian authors that have been quietly making their way to American shelves. They are set in places no more exotic to the authors than Boston or Fort Lauderdale are to Parker or MacDonald and they sport the sort of carefully crafted plots that the American mystery reading public is always hungry for. I have been mightily impressed by several titles from foreign mystery writers lately and I'm certain other fans of the genre will be pleased to discover them as well.

Part of the appeal of Friedrich Glauser's Fever is the utterly unreal life led by the author. Glauser was an opium and morphine addict who first began writing crime novels while an inmate in a Swiss insane asylum. Originally published in 1936, Fever is the third of his Sergeant Studer series, but easily read (as I did) on its own. It involves two murders that look like suicide, a disappearance, two mysterious deaths from the past and a message (or two) from the dead. There is also treasure—of course there is treasure - and a lot of politics, both at the lowest and highest levels, which makes Studer's job of unraveling this mess much harder than it should be.

Oh—and there's a priest and his brother and maybe another brother.

The whole plot would sound like a joke if it wasn't so damn tightly wound that the reader keeps questioning where it will go next, and then shaking her head as Glauser points you in an unexpected direction. This is one very imaginative story and set as it is in pre-WWII Europe, there is all sorts of excellent tension pressing on the protagonist as Studer travels from Paris to Bern to Morocco. (Did I forget to mention that the French Foreign Legion is involved also?) The central question is whether he will solve the suicide/murders which will lead to the treasure and involve sorting out the earlier disappearance and maybe the murder from decades before. So many things hinge on two dead women who maybe sucked down the gas from the ovens, or maybe had someone make them suck that gas (prime suspect being the dead man who was married to one and formerly married to the other—oh, and did I mention they were sisters?)

Studer is doggedly determined to hang in there and get to the bottom of it all and the few times he isn't quite sure what to do, his very funny and smart wife kindly lends a hand. The plot zips along, clues are found, borders are crossed and when push comes to shove, Studer even rides a donkey to get from one off-the-beaten-track village to the next. Everything is revealed and explained in the end and no, you will not believe that someone made this all up. Fever is so complex and artfully crafted that it hardly seems possible that anyone, let alone a committed drug addict, could have put it all together. It's a fascinating dark tale of money, love and intrigue, and is just the first of several Sergeant Studer mysteries I plan to read.

Magdalen Nabb's The Innocent is about another murder and an altogether different sort of policeman who is determined to solve the crime. In this case the entire story takes place in one Florence neighborhood near the Boboli Gardens where the body of young woman, apparently drowned, is found. At first her identity is a mystery but even when her name and story are subsequently revealed, Marshal Guarnaccia finds himself no closer to discovering why she was in the gardens that day, or who would want to kill her. As he probes deeper into her reasons for coming to Italy, her pursuit of her craft, and her dedication to her employer, he finds himself coming up against one subtle prejudice after another. For many people who knew her, the question seems to be less who killed the woman and more why she was there, among them, in the first place. This perplexes Guarnaccia and prompts him to consider his own feeling about Italy and Italians and just what it means to be a foreigner.

There's a lot more going on in this book then a dead girl.

Guarnaccia is a very introspective character and because of that The Innocent is a much more thoughtful mystery than most. Once you know who the victim is, the pool of potential murderers obviously gets relatively small, but Nabb is not satisfied simply with working a whodunit. The much larger issue here is about what "made in Italy" means—does it have to be made by native-born Italians to count? In a relatively new country like America this is comparatively a non-issue; in Italy, where some crafts have been worked for centuries in certain towns or villages, it is a very big deal. Guarnaccia is not sure what to make of all this, or how it plays into the murder. All he knows is that his victim dared to pursue and embrace a notoriously Italian craft and now she is dead and he can't help but wonder if someone was bothered by her talent.

I never knew that shoe design could be so interesting—or dangerous—until I read The Innocent. This is a very quiet story; until the end, when the murderer is revealed, it is an investigation based more on conversations than action. But Nabb very effectively immerses her readers in the life of a neighborhood that might be in Italy but will seem remarkably familiar to anyone who grew up in a small town. This is a story about someone wanting a new beginning and other people wondering why it had to be in their town, their country, their way of life. It is also a very old-fashioned case of murder most foul. This one crept up on me, but the fate of that poor girl and all she hoped to have in life has lingered and made me eager for more from Ms. Nabb.

Kittyhawk Down is much more of a classic police procedural than the other books I read for this piece. Set in a small town near Melbourne, there are multiple crimes that all converge into one race for a crazed killer that causes Homicide Inspector Hal Challis to question why everyone (cops included) seems to fall so quickly for the easy answer. Something nags at Challis. Actually, everything nags at Challis, and the twists and turns behind a wave of crimes in the region really don't add up for him. On top of everything else, a pilot friend of his seems to be involved in something illegal—or dangerous—and Challis doesn't know how to save her (or if she even needs saving). Who is a good guy and who is bad are the basic issues here, and with multiple points of view presented throughout the book, readers will wonder just how much they want to root for some of the cops under Challis's command.

Kittyhawk is a relatively dark tale with more than one murder and even a missing child worked into the breakneck plot. Along the way author Garry Disher reveals much about each of the cops, including who is having a family crisis, who is having a personal financial crisis and who is having questions about his manhood and morality. Pile on all of that Challis and his own romantic issues and you might wonder how Disher holds together so many different characters with so many different problems. Fear not, though—he's just doing something that very few mystery authors do; he's giving the reader a team approach for the good guys as they face a slew of seemingly unrelated crimes perpetrated by an unknown number of bad guys.

There's an interesting and obvious difference between Disher's book and Nabb's—one crime, one criminal vs. a dozen different names and faces and bad things happening. But both books work very well. Disher's is about a much more wide open area but carries some of the same arguments about immigration (interestingly enough) and also delves deep into the ways people live behind closed doors. The Australian book is all about suburban life, about what neighbors see while walking the dog or peeking over the fence. Contrasting the two books, which both have modern settings, makes for an interesting comparison. The Disher book is a much faster read—and much more suspenseful from nearly the very beginning. It also packs a ton of upper-middle-class problems into what could have been a tale of murder first and foremost. And there's a cool lady pilot—I can't resist the lady pilot characters, wherever I find them.

Shifting gears a bit, Akashic Books has specialized in collections of noir mysteries set in cities across America and around the world. Recent publications in the series include D.C. Noir edited by George Pelecanos, Manhattan Noir edited by Lawrence Block and Dublin Noir edited by Ken Bruen. Cathi Unsworth, author of the wonderful mystery, The Not Knowing, edited London Noir and put together an excellent collection of all that is brutal and dark about the British capital. The collection includes tales by Unsworth and Bruen as well as Barry Adamson, Sylvie Simmons and Patrick McCabe, among others. If you are a fan of tough dames, fistfights and descriptions of life in the gutter, then this is the book for you.

Among seventeen stories told from the perspective of good guys, bad guys and those who dwell in heavy grey areas, it is always hard to decide which ones to highlight in any review. Unsworth's classic look at why there is no honor among thieves, "Trouble is a Lonesome Town," is a grand read—even though I just knew how that one was going to end as soon as she introduced Lola. (Lola!!!) It's such a fun story to read though, so perfectly dead on for every Barbara Stanwyck noir film ever made, that I could not resist it. I also have to say that Unsworth's description of a busy mealtime at a fast food restaurant is pretty much pure poetry, and dreadfully, desperately, funny to read.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Max Decharne's "Chelsea Three, Scotland Yard Nil," which is mostly a story about punk rock in the late 1970s and hardly seems to be about crime at all—until you get your mind blown by the ending. (And I really can't stress enough how brilliant the ending is.) Joolz Denby really hasn't written a crime piece at all, in "Sic Transit Gloria Mundi," although it is perfectly noir from start to finish. As her characters struggle to make it big in the city, she forces them to see London for what it really is, beyond all its bluff and bluster and empty promises. Denby has the best description in the book (to me anyway) with: "London, that braggart capital, passes away without glory, you see. Without greatness, without any kind of joy, without passion or fire or beauty. In the end, you see, London is such a pathetic bloody disappointment." And the rest of her story is just as hardcore as that and wonderfully written.

There is a lot more to enjoy in London Noir and I can only imagine that the other books in the series are just as much dark pleasure. There's something so perfect about noir in London though—it fits with the fog and the damp and old fictions of Sherlock Holmes and horrors of Jack the Ripper. The authors in this anthology prove that noir is a decidedly London style, I think, and will give readers many places to look for full-length books by writers of the best sort of gritty tales.

Finally, if a standard mystery is just a tad too boring (no matter the plot, setting or characters), then consider the amazing genre-bending Blood on the Saddle by Rafael Reig. Set in a near-future Madrid, Reig's book follows the adventures of private detective Carlos Clot, a man who finds missing people both real and fictional in the city's dark and waterlogged depths. Of course he takes on a case that seems to be one thing and turns out to be another (Was his client's daughter a victim of her rampant drug addiction or something more sinister?) but the really interesting case for readers begins when the author of the "most widely read Westerns in the metro, the great sales success of station bookstall literature" approaches Clot for help in finding a runaway character. This plot development certainly made me stop and think. Missing druggie daughter, that's something we recognize from any episode, any edition, of Law and Order. But Mabel Martinez, who has dropped out of the manuscript of a work in progress, well, what do we make of her sudden disappearance? As it happens, Clot is a bit of an expert on fictional runaways and understands what can motivate their actions. As Luis Penuelas, the famous author, has not abused his characters in any way, clearly Mabel must have had an idea planted in her head by a well-meaning friend of Penuelas. The mystery is who gave Mabel ideas beyond her western plot and where would she run to now that she's out of the plot.

What's really surprising about Blood on the Saddle is that it does not read like science fiction but more like a mystery with plot elements that are just a tad outside the ordinary. Once you get past the fact that no one drives cars anymore (no more oil) and there are bicycle jams at every street corner (some things never change), looking for a missing fictional character doesn't seem all that strange. To find her, Clot does a lot of the same things any detective does with a missing person case and the fact that he is still juggling some questions surrounding the dead junkie makes the two cases seem remarkably similar, which is probably what Reig wants for the reader. Ultimately, Mabel is not the strangest case Clot has to deal with—by a long shot—and when he finds her with the help of a famous fictional cowboy, well, his participation suddenly makes sense too. In fact, the real humdinger in this book is not fictional but the all-too-real massive criminal conspiracy that ties everything together.

But now I'm giving too much away and really, you would have to read it yourself to get the whole thing anyway.

Blood on the Saddle was probably the only book in the bunch that I had a little bit of trouble with—that I felt from beginning to end was a "foreign" book. But I don't think that is because of Reig's storytelling or the translation work of Paul Hammond, but my own awkwardness in fully grasping the utter and complete unfamiliarity of the plot ideas. Jasper Fforde has shown us literary characters come to life in both his Thursday Next and Nursery Crime series and Bill Willingham does it every month in the award-winning comic series Fables, but those characters inhabit worlds that still seem strikingly familiar. In Reig's case, it might be Madrid, but it's a Madrid like none we have ever seen or read about—and that strangeness, coupled with the easy acceptance of fiction come to life—sends the reader out on a literary limb from the very beginning. Don't think for a minute that I didn't enjoy that location, however—or relish reading the story from beginning to end. (I was hard pressed to set it aside, in fact.) This one is just a wild and unique ride and readers need to be willing to embrace the sci-fi aspects of the story so they can enjoy the many mysteries within it as well.


Fever (A Sergeant Studer Mystery)
by Friedrich Glauser
Bitter Lemon Press (2006) 224 pp.
ISBN 1-904738-14-1

Kittyhawk Down
by Garry Disher
Soho Crime (2006) 275 pp.
ISBN 1-56947-427-3

The Innocent
by Magdalen Nabb
Soho Crime (2006) 233 pp.
ISBN 1-56947-436-2

London Noir Ed
by Cathi Unsworth
Akashic Books (2006) 280 pp.
ISBN 1-888451-98-X

Blood on the Saddle
by Rafael Reig
Serpent's Tail (2006) 182 pp.
ISBN 1-85242-870-8


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