Anders Monsen

Lost worlds and ports of call

Month: September 2017

Six-Four review

Hideo Yokoyama’s sixth novel, Six-Four, is his first to be published in English, appearing in early 2017 under the imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and weighing in at 566 pages. My knowledge of Japanese detective fiction is admittedly limited. Aside from having read all of Haruki Murakami’s books, the only other Japanese book I’d read before Yokoyama’s novel was Natsuo Kiruno’s Real World, another crime novel.
The title of the novel, Six-Four, is evocative and multi-layered. Its meaning refers to the 64th year of the Showa period, the last year of Emperor Hirohito’s reign. Hirohito died in January 1989 and a new Emperor ascended the throne, starting the Heisei period. The novel takes place fourteen years after 1989, with Six-Four now the unofficial name of an unsolved kidnapping and murder case that forms the background of the novel.

Yoshinobu Mikami, a former homicide detective recently appointed as press director, finds himself fighting many battles. His teenage daughter has run away from home. His relationship with his wife, Minako, herself a former police officer, is crumbling under the stress of their daughter’s disappearance. Meanwhile, he is assigned from homicide to become the director of the press relations group, and feels veru much like a fish out of water.

Mikami is new in his role, still finding his feet when balancing police needs to keep certain details from the the public while still satisfying a hostile press corps who question that very need for secrecy. Almost from the outside he finds himself at odds with the press contingent that covers crime and the police, when he withholds the name of a person involved in a fatal car accident. The fact that this person is connected to a government official makes his position more delicate. To the press that news would become a leading story, no matter any extenuating circumstances. The small but loyal police press department consists of two young male assistants (one of whom likely envisions himself one day in the job of press director himself), and a young female officer busted moved over from the transportation division. Mikami places himself almost in a fatherly role with the young Mikumo, limiting her contact with the devious and salacious members of the press, who frequent karaoke bars with the police outside work in a two-way street in terms of information and disinformation efforts.

As if dealing with the press and disappearance of his daughter wasn’t enough, Mikami also finds himself fighting internal political battles inside the police department. The press division isn’t the greatest of tasks, and supervisors and other divisions appear to be plotting against Mikami in various internal battles, jockeying for future appointments within the precinct and greater Tokyo police force infrastructure. A former classmate seems to be behind many of the plots, at least as envisioned by Mikami. This person, Ishii, hovers in the background, runs unofficial investigations of past cases. One such past case, Six-Four, becomes yet again a present case, as a high-ranking inspector from Tokyo plans a visit to pay his respects to the dead girl’s father, Yoshio Amamiya, who has suffered in silence for many years, and lost his wife one year ago, compounding his pain.

To facilitate the meeting between Amamiya and the police contingent, Mikami is sent to pave the way, both in his role as press director and as a detective from criminal investigations who worked the case, which remains unsolved to this day and weighs heavy on Mikami. The initial meeting doesn’t go well, and Mikami emerges with the feeling that he has failed his role, a feeling compounded during a meeting with his superiors. In that meeting the seeds are sown in his mind about internal plots within the department, various groups working at odds with each other, and maybe at the root is the failure of the Six-Four case fourteen years ago.

Events accelerate when a copy-cat crime takes place, with another young girl kidnapped and the exact same process as in the previous crime repeats itself. Finding himself at the center of various threads, from a rebellious and antagonistic press to imperious commanders and police chiefs seemingly plotting against him, Mikami sees the new case as a way to atone for past wrongs, and dives into his own investigations.

Although some of the plot points seems byzantine and contrived, Yokoyama’s massive novel became impossible to put down once the various plots had settled into their individual paths. The language is sparse, economical. As a reader I felt almost one with the protagonist, felt his paranoia and anguish, and wondered how the various elements would come together. Not everything is tied neatly at the end, and some mysteries remain, but Six-Four is one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read. Admittedly it felt slow to start, and the dispute with the press somewhat contrived, but the characters come to life in the pages. I should also note that the book was made into a two-part movie. I’m not sure if this was for the big screen or television, as I watched it this summer on an intercontinental flight between the UK and US. The movie remained relatively faithful to the book, something probably difficult for a book of that length and complexity.

Fritz Leiber’s Gray Mouser and Fafhrd republished

Although I have generally moved away from reading science fiction and fantasy, there are a few writers I never will abandon.

Fritz Lieber’s sword and sorcery series about the two rogues, Gray Mouser and Fafrhd (the latter whose names I continually misspell) have a special place in my heart.

Centipede Press, publishers of exquisite limited edition books, have started the process to publish eight (8) books collecting all the fiction with these two characters. The cost starts at $75 per book, which will set any collector back a pretty penny by the end of the venture.

The first book, Swords and Deviltry, contains the original tales, some poems, notes by Leiber, and the origin of the two characters. The wrap-around cover by Tom Kidd is unreal and gorgeous. Anyone who manages to own the entire set will guard them jealously. It even smells unique.

P. G. Wodehouse

Years ago I tried reading a Wooster and Jeeves book by noted British writer P. G. Wodehouse. I set it down, got rid of it, and shook my head wondering how anyone read his books. However, last week I read three Wodehouse books featuring the inimitable Jeeves and the hapless aristocrat Bertie Wooster. This time I got it, I laughed, I admired the genius of Wodehouse. I am hunting more of his books this weekend.

Perhaps one needs to be in a certain state of mind to appreciate Wodehouse, or have reached a certain age, or have recently visited London and absorbed some of its history. I know not the reason, but the pure fantasy world of Wooster and Jeeves slots perfectly into the imagined Britain between the wars, so familiar from reading Agatha Christie, or Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. The language, speckled with strange slang and archaic terms, brilliant quotes, and conversation so ornate as to be unreal, brought a smile to my lips on nearly every page.

Carry on, Wodehouse!

Bordersnakes review

I stumbled upon James Crumley’s name amid a list of recommended crime novels. His novel, The Last Good Kiss, apparently rated as one of the best crime novels of the last century, featuring a tough gumshoe by the name of C. W. Sughrue. Other writers hail Crumley as a genius in the field, while readers still haven’t flocked to his books en masse.
Crumley’s style is uniquely American, hewing to the hardboiled sub-genre of crime fiction, with tough men and tougher women. Live is short, hard, and often involves guns, liquor, and deadly relationships.
Bordersnakes, originally published in 1996, is the second Crumley novel I’ve read, kicks up the hardboiled feel a notch or two. The description at the back reads like something from a melodramatic Twilight Zone episode: two tough guys on “a death trip across a country called Texas, to a state of mind called revenge.” Texas, although one of the fifty states in the union, often is considered both another country and a state of mind, and features heavily but not solely as the setting of the novel, which ranges from California to Montana, New Mexico and old Mexico, to almost every corner of Texas. Sughrue and Milo drive and fly from El Paso to Austin, San Antonio to the Valley, to Kerrville and the Hill Country west of Austin, and along the various towns of West Texas between El Paso and San Angelo, and finally across the border into Mexico.
Crumley wrote several novels that featured Sughrue, yet he also introduced another private detective protagonist in his own series of novels. Sticking to names that are difficult to spell, this detective is Milo Milodragovitch, a former cop based out Montana like Sughrue. In Bordersnakes, the two men join forces in dual quests for revenge that, like all fiction, seem disconnected but are tightly intertwined. This makes the resolution simple, as two problems are solved with one bullet, in a manner of speaking.
Crumley’s style is rife with adjectives and contrasts. In a run-down motel, “[t]wo puke-plastic chain lights flank the filthy bed with dim stagnant streams from forty-watt bulbs.” Later, at a party held by a former general at his ranch in West Texas, with Hollywood actors and washed up directors, a rattlesnake appears on the lawn. One of the female guests shrieks and then pulls a Smith and Wesson “Ladysmith Auto” from her purse and kills it, prompting all the other guests to drawn their weapons before realizing none of the guests were the targets. It’s almost comical, but fits in with the general perception that all Texans carry guns.
The story itself features two main threads. In the first, Sughrue is shot in the gut and left to die in a ditch. He recovers, slips into a funk until Milo appears and sets him on the righteous path of revenge. The second thread features Milo, whose inheritance worth multi-million dollars has been siphoned from a bank account and the perpetrators vanished. Although apparently not worth much, Milo throws around money as if it’s renewable paper in his effort to grease the gears needed to reclaim his full fortune. When Milo shows up looking for Sughrue and the start their journey across the Southwest, they bounce around like confused pinballs. Their first trip recreates Sughrue’s shooting, which leads to a gun traced back to an accountant in Austin. Discovering the accountant and his wife dead, they rescue their dog shot by the killers and drop it off at an emergency clinic, before resuming their connect-the-dots journey from person to person, each one more devious and vicious than the last. There are no coincidences in this novel, and every character leads somewhere, every person is connected to their goals. Yet even were they both to succeed, I got the feeling they enjoy this journey too much to really care about the end result.
Many of the settings and landscapes in the novel were familiar to me, especially the locations in Austin and West Texas. A good part of the novel takes place in Austin, around the same time I lived in that city and traipsed around to many of the same places. Since it was published in 1996 and probably written a year or two earlier, it took place at the exact same time as I drove around the city, from Mount Bonnell to Town Lake and in between.
In terms of American crime novels in general and hardboiled in particular I’ve still a neophyte. I see echoes of Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald, and Joe R. Lansdale in Crumley’s fiction. It’s likely I’ve not yet read widely enough, and therefore these authors’ styles all bleed together. Having read quite a few of Lansdale’s novels, many of which have the same style, tone, topic, sense of violence and occasional poetry, I could not help but think of those two writers somehow connected at the literary hip. Much of Lansdale’s fiction takes place in Texas, like Bordersnakes. I didn’t get as deep a sense of similarity with Crumley’s more famous novel, The Last Good Kiss, which took place in California and Montana, but this one feel like an extension of Lansdale’s fictional world, especially his Hap and Leonard novels.
There are several other novels with Sughrue and Milodragovitch. I suspect I’ll read them as I find them, but in small doses. There are distinct differences between European crime fiction and American crime fiction, and I still find myself favoring the former over the latter.

The Deep Blue Good-By review

John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books spans 21 novels across 21 years. They were published between 1964 and 1985, which roughly correspond to the first two decades of my life. Growing up I remember seeing (and probably reading) several of the McGee novels in my parents’ library, as all the titles contain a color in the name. They also usually featured bikini-clad women, which to a teenage boy must have seen like incentive enough to read the books. However, unlike many of the novels by Dick Francis that I read around the same time during formative teenage years, I remember little about MacDonald’s books, except that they were set somewhere along the coast in the US.
Recently I read the first book in the series, The Deep Blue Good-By. Instead of a fading paperback with an embarrassing cover, the recently republished trade paperback edition’s cover is far more sedate, showing only elegant legs dangling over a swimming pool. Noted writers such as Stephen King, Mary Higgins Clark and Jonathan Kellerman provide blurbs, while Lee Child pens the introduction.
The protagonist, Travis McGee, hires himself out as a person who retrieves stolen property. People who can’t get back their property through regular channels turn to McGee. The work is such that he spends downtime relaxing on his large houseboat, the Busted Flush, somewhere in Florida. He works only when his funds run low, usually able to pick and choose his various jobs. As the book opens he’s currently between jobs, letting his houseboat be used as a space for a friend to tune her dance routine. McGee, the eternal gentleman, gently rebuffs her advances after her routine, which makes her both angry and thankful. This introduces to the reader a sense that McGee has a moral code, one that slips slightly after he picks up a young college student at a bar for a one-night stand later.
The dancer is there not just to highlight McGee’s ethics, but she also introduces him to a new job, Cathy Kerr. One of her dancers had her family fortune stolen by a conniving ex-lover, who used her to find a fortune in jewels smuggled back from Asia after WWII by her father. Junior Allen, a sadistic and manipulative person, had spent time in military prison with Cathy’s father, who died in prison after boasting he had a hidden fortune somewhere back home. Allen seduced Cathy, learned all he could about her father, then dumped Cathy and showed up a few months later a wealthy man with a high society woman on his arm like a trophy. Now Cathy wants to retrieve part of her fortune, for the sake of her family.
The actual work undertaken by McGee is cautious and indirect. He never confronts Allen, but gathers information through research and surveillance, with a dash of deception. Via his research McGee comes across Lois Atkinson, the high society woman last seen with him as he parade his new-found wealth around Cathy’s town in the Florida Keys. Used and abused by Allen both physically and psychology, Lois is a wreck barely hanging onto existence when McGee finds her. He nurses her back to health and sanity first at her house and then aboard the Busted Flush, while planning how to get the better hand of Allen. Yet Allen is not only sadistic, but cautious. He thwarts McGee’s plan to travel as a guest on Allen’s boat into the Gulf, and when Lois arrives to rescue him she’s taken prisoner as well.
 With everyone aboard Allen’s boat, we get to the meaning of the title of the novel. Amid the deep blue waters of the Gulf Stream some of the characters will truly say farewell to life, in a most brutal fashion.
The action of the novel spans only a small portion of the book. The rest establishes the characters, settings, and background, building tension slowly until a sudden rush that’s almost shocking in speed and force.
Published over fifty years ago, The Deep Blue Good-By stands the test of time with mixed results. When the novels first appeared, McGee might have been a unique character. Today, with so many similar characters in fiction and movies, that uniqueness seems diminished. MacDonald’s writing at times seems dated, his view on gender old-fashioned. The prose is tight, descriptions of people and places vivid. Some of the prose is rough around the edges, but in this first book of the long series Travis McGee stands out as a unique character. I certainly intend to continue reading the series. There’s a mix of both the hard-boiled and more gentler themes, at least in this book.

A Nest of Vipers review

Andrea Camilleri’s latest Montalbano novel is disappointing on many levels. Not until you read the afterword do you learn that, although it was published in the US in August 2017, that Camilleri wrote A Nest of Vipers back in 2008. Camilleri notes that it was held back as the theme was too similar to his 2004 novel, The Paper Moon. The so-called similarity is not the most disappointing aspect, at least to me. Rather, with Montalbano aging (ever so slightly) with each novel, I had looked forward to reading more about the ramifications from the two previous novels, A Beam of Light and A Voice in the Night. With 20 plus novels sketching Montalbano’s life, each one takes us little further, and A Nest of Vipers fails in that regard.

A greater disappointment, however, is that I solved the mystery less than five chapters into the novel. Usually with Camileri’s novels he’s far more careful: sowing seeds of doubt, planting false leads, tying in strange coincidences and sub-plots. An early sub-plot lasts no more than a few paragraphs, and other characters play minor roles. Even the title gives away too much.

A Nest of Vipers had one thing going for it: the murder victim. Father of two adult siblings, he was a ruthless business-man, philander, and blackmailer. Everyone, it seems, had a motive for killing him. Yet Camilleri ticks off one wronged person after another almost as fast as we’re introduced to them and their motives.

The entire supporting cast in the fictional town of Vigàta is in place, playing their familiar roles. Montalbano’s long-distance girl-friend makes a brief appearances. Enzo the chef prepares vast meals just for the Inspector. Fazio and Augello remain steadfast lieutenants, and Catarella mangles the language as brutally and comically as ever. Even the good forensics coroner Pasquano manages to insult Montalbano about “busting his balls” several times. While the supporting cast rarely veers from the set path, the various people Montalbano meets during his vacation draw little interest, at least this time. While the supporting cast has grown stale over the years, Camilleri usually draws other interesting characters, from young, beautiful students with dark pasts, to businessmen with various scruples, and the odd Mafia member in the background. Not so much this time, as only two main characters get much time in the novel, and then fades into the background. One character hovers in the background, then acts as a deus ex machina to explain a crucial bit of evidence right at the end.

A Nest of Vipers lacks much of the humanity in other Montalbano novels, and were it not originally written so many years ago I would call it a step back in the series. Had it been published in the right sequence maybe I would have walked away with a different impression. In the meantime, while I wait for the next novel, maybe it’s time to re-read The Age of Doubt or The Dance of the Seagull. In the meantime, titles of untranslated works continue to tease at least two more novels in the series.

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