A Deadly Trio- Domenic Stansberry- The White Devil, Carl-Johan Vallgren- The Tunnel, Steinar Bragi-The Ice Lands

The chilling story of a young American woman in Rome, an aspiring actress, who- together with her brother- is implicated in a series of murders dating back to her childhood. She plays a deadly game, alternately intimate and distant, a cipher of unwholesome impulse, and erotic intrigue…

My, my, my, what a dark and sordid tale of jealousy, desire, and cold-blooded murder this proved to be… and I absolutely loved it. With a down-to-the-bone, spare prose style, so resonant of the American hardboiled noir tradition, and scenes that would not be out of place in a Fellini classic, The White Devil is quite simply perfect in its execution. As we become more deeply entwined with this ice-cold female narrator, Victoria, who slowly reveals her tangled and murderous early history, and the strange dynamics at play in her relationship with her brother Johnny, I began to fear more and more for the unsuspecting individuals whom they set in their sights. The book has the pace and sudden shock value of pure classic Hitchcock, and indeed there is a superb visual quality to Stansberry’s writing, as he leads us amongst the upper echelons of Italian society, the starry world of the movies, and the dimly lit and dangerous streets, that lay behind the glamourous façade of Rome.

In addition, Stansberry draws on themes of politics, religion, and money, drawing on the marked differences, and frames of reference, that Victoria and Johnny as Americans abroad harbour, sharply putting into focus their new world gaucheness, and drive to succeed at any cost,  both to themselves or others. I loved the style of Stansberry’s writing, both in its tautness, and, at times, supreme subtlety, and the eminently unlikeable cast of characters with their selfish intentions, or inherent stupidity, exposed as the dastardly Victoria and Johnny inveigle themselves into their world. Woe betide them…

Hardboiled noir to die for. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Molotov Editions for the ARC)

 

Private investigator Danny Katz is trying to track down his former drug dealer. Ramón and his girlfriend Jenny have both vanished leaving behind a lot of unanswered questions. How come Ramón suddenly found himself in possession of the mother-load of drugs? And is Jenny really who she claims to be?

Katz’s investigation leads him to the darkest corners of Stockholm’s porn industry and once again his old addiction threatens to control him. Ultimately only one thing seems certain – someone is willing to do whatever it takes to keep Katz from discovering the brutal truth…

What begins as a seemingly ordinary crime heist novel, The Tunnel quickly evolves into a multi-layered and very enjoyable Sweden set thriller, driven by the archetypal social analysis, and strong characterisation that defines Scandinavian crime fiction. As the individual stories of its three main protagonists and friends, Jorma, a  career criminal, Katz, a reformed drug addict, and Eva, an emotionally troubled woman who works for the police, play out, Vallgren draws us into a sordid world of sex trafficking and violence.

For me, Vallgren’s portrayal of these three contrary, but nonetheless totally appealing characters, is the lynchpin for the enjoyment of the book, and I found myself utterly engaged with them throughout. There is a nice sense of balance in their characterisation as they are not all paragons of virtues, finding themselves susceptible to their own singular vices and desires, and with Katz in particular Vallgren is given the opportunity to explore Swedish society, and to draw on the Jewish roots of his character to spin the story off in another direction. The central plot is unsettling, bleak and exposes the seedy underbelly of drug addiction and the sex industry, and the manipulation of those who find themselves caught up in, or profiting from this nefarious trades. I also liked the ending that is not neatly tied up with a bow, but instead is quite bleak and uncertain. Vallgren is the closest writer I have found to Cilla and Rolf Bjorland (Spring Tide, Third Voice) who also specialise in social realism, and troubled-but-empathetic characters, and will now be hastily backtracking to read the first book by him, The Boy In The Shadows. A top Scandi-noir recommendation from me.

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)

 

Set against Iceland’s volcanic hinterlands, four thirty-somethings from Reykjavik – the reckless hedonist Egill; the recovering alcoholic Hrafin; and their partners Anna and Vigdis – embark on an ambitious camping trip, their jeep packed with supplies.

Victims of the financial crisis, the purpose of the trip is to heal both professional and personal wounds, but the desolate landscape forces the group to reflect on the shattered lives they’ve left behind in the city. As their jeep hurtles through the barren land, an impenetrable fog descends, causing them to suddenly crash into a rural farmhouse.

Seeking refuge from the storm, the group discover that the isolated dwelling is inhabited by a mysterious elderly couple who inexplicably barricade themselves inside every night. As past tensions within the group rise to the surface, the merciless weather blocks every attempt at escape, forcing them to ask difficult questions: who has been butchering animals near the house? What happened to the abandoned village nearby where bones lie strewn across the ground? And most importantly, will they ever return home?

With a nod to Halloween, felt it right to include The Ice Lands in this wee round-up. I would probably describe this as an existential version of The Blair Witch Project, mixed up with Lost with shades of On The Road. I must confess, that for large portions of the book, including the not the most easily comprehensible ending, I was rather confused at quite what the jiggins was going on. Suffused with the dark, bleak and completely terrifying landscape of rural Iceland, and the creepy inhabitants of a house that I’m fairly sure was not constructed of gingerbread, four unwitting, and not entirely likeable egotistic individuals find themselves privy to a nightmare experience. With enough schlock horror moments to keep you on the edge of the seat, and some not always welcome diversions into the world of scientific academia which were initially quite interesting and then waned, Bragi has constructed a unique blend of traditional shocker, and highbrow horror, that chills and perplexes in equal measure. I was dying throughout for these frankly annoying characters to reach grisly ends, but did they? That would be telling. As much as I was confused by some aspects of this tale, I did make it to the end, having had a sense of enjoyment, and frustration, in equal measure. I think overall I liked it, but at times it was just a little…how can I put this… too much up itself for a totally enjoyable reading experience. Sort of recommended.

(With thanks to Macmillan for the ARC)

 

 

Massimo Carlotto- For All The Gold In The World

cover_9781609453367_661_600A robbery goes wrong and ends with a brutal murder. The police investigation turns up nothing. Two years later, Marco Buratti, alias ‘the Alligator,’ is asked to look into the crime and find out who was responsible. Buratti’s employer is young, the youngest client he has ever had; he is only 12 years old, the son of one of the victims. The Alligator senses right from the start that the truth is cloaked, twisted and shocking. Together with his trusted associates he will find himself mixed up in a story of contraband gold and blood vendettas between criminal gangs.

Massimo Carlotto is undoubtedly one of the most astute observers of the criminal and social dynamics of his native Italy. For All The Gold In The World featuring series regular Marco Buratti aka The Alligator, Carlotto once again takes the opportunity to fix his unique gaze on the complexity of his homeland.

In another taut investigation, unlicensed private investigator Buratti and his shady cohorts Beniamino Rossini and Max The Memory, are drawn into a tale of greed and murder following a particularly violent home invasion leaving the mother of a now vulnerable twelve year old boy dead. What Carlotto so brilliantly achieves in this book is an interesting exploration of his main characters’ barometer of morality. For three men who have indulged in criminal activity themselves and are no strangers to violence, there is something really quite touching about their willingness to take on this particular case, but balanced with the inherent buzz of danger that begins to embroil them as the investigation progresses. The main plot is underscored by the periodic authorial intervention of Carlotto himself, passing comment on the socio-political make-up of Italy, and providing an insider’s view of the layers of corruption that exist between the higher echelons of Italian power through to the world of law enforcement. This adds a richness of detail to the overall book, and works in perfect symmetry with the utterly compelling thriller that Carlotto has constructed.

I am a confirmed fan of both Marco Buratti and Carlotto’s other regular series character Giorgio Pellegrini, so for reasons unexplained this book gives a delicious pointer to things to come. Buratti is a man of contradictions, with his inherent violent masculinity that we see in his ‘day-job’, working in tandem with a sometimes apparent sensitivity in the personal sphere of his life. He has a huge obsession with the Blues, and Carlotto enlivens the book further with musical references and Buratti’s night visits to a local jazz club, whilst investigating the activities of a possibly philandering wife for an anxious husband. With Buratti being Buratti, this spawns an inevitable love interest for him, but once again affords Carlotto the opportunity to explore a deeper emotional side of Buratti’s character. There is also the wonderful dynamic of Buratti with his criminal cohorts Rossini and Max that not only demonstrates the solidity of their masculine fraternity, but also at perfect intervals allows us to witness their easy humour, and the emotional scars that they all bear. This exploration of ‘maleness’ is a recurrent strength of Italian crime fiction I find, and Carlotto is one of the masters.

Quite simply, this is gritty and edgy Italian noir at its best, with its vibrant and unflinching mix of violence and criminality, underscored by superb exploration of character and a wider focus on society as a whole. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Europa Editions for the ARC)

Piero Chiara- The Disappearance of Signora Giulia/ Alberto Barrera Tyszka- Crimes

51To0t8M8jL__SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Regular visitors to this blog will know that along with my other preferred sub genres of crime writing, I have a particular affection for those small, but perfectly formed, foreign crime in translation novels. It is with some delight that I’ve discovered this new line-up from Pushkin Press under their banner of Pushkin Vertigo, a series of releases bringing us some little classics from France, Austria, Spain, Japan and Italy with more to follow. My first stop is The Disappearance of Signora Giulia by Piero Chiara, one of the most celebrated writers of the post-war period. The winner of more than a dozen literary prizes, he is widely read and studied in Italy and this is his first book to be translated into English. A deceptively simple tale of a woman who has seemingly deserted the family home to disappear into thin air, leaving her husband, Esengrini- a prominent criminal lawyer- and daughter at a loss to understand or explain her disappearance. Enter steadfast Detective Sciancalepre who, over the passage of some time, cannot let this case go, being absolutely convinced that Giulia’s husband knows far more about his wife’s disappearance that he will admit to, with the added confusion of red herrings and blind alleys along the way. The interplay between Sciancalepre  and the cocksure, arrogant Esengrini is a real highlight of this taut tale, and despite its brevity, the reader is challenged as much as the detective to work out where Giulia has gone and who is the guilty party in her disappearance. Likewise, the character development, particularly of Giulia’s daughter, Emilia, as she grows into womanhood is neatly developed, moving on with her life despite the pall of sadness at the inexplicable loss of her mother. There is a slight anomaly in the narrative, which you may identify for yourselves, that proved a minor irritation, but that aside, any devotee of  noir crime will enjoy this little sojourn into domestic noir in pure Italian style.

51HBtXCx-bL__SX345_BO1,204,203,200_From the author of the brilliant The Sickness (shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), comes a new collection of 12 short stories, under the simple title of Crimes. What is most engaging about this collection is how Tyszka disseminates the theme of ‘crime’, to fit the moral, political and emotional themes that the stories encapsulate. He experiments with the idea of crime, and how it manifests itself in normal people’s lives and experiences, taking us from the raw human emotion of political dissent and demonstration, to the loss of a child, to the discovery of a disembodied hand, to a strange little tale of a man who bites dogs. Yes. You did read that correctly. Tyszka’s writing is full of subtle nuances, and quite often the raw strength of these tales lays in what he leaves unsaid, leaving significant reader participation at the close of several of the stories. He invites us to compile our own endings and resolutions, having given us the base of the narrative, which makes for an interactive and challenging reading experience. The stories are multi-faceted and surprising, whilst carefully incorporating some razor-sharp commentary on Latin America and its travails. His writing is crisp, uncomplicated, and inherently more powerful because of it, and the translation by Margaret Jull Costa is perfectly in step with his unique writing style. Something different, something challenging, but ultimately entirely rewarding.