Meanwhile, Over At Shiny: The Pledge

pledgeShiny New Books has undergone a revamp and now sports a new look! I’m over there today talking about Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s detective novel The Pledge, reissued by Pushkin Vertigo and made into a movie a few years ago starring Jack Nicholson and my beloved Robin Wright. Dürrenmatt challenges the very foundations of the detective genre, in a short novel about an obsessed policeman whose strict adherence to “the rules of the game” still isn’t enough to overcome the factor of random chance that inheres in all criminal investigations. It’s atmospheric, postmodern, and highly tricksy:

In a mountainous Swiss canton not far from Zurich, a little girl’s body is found. She is only seven or eight, with blonde braids and wearing a distinctive red skirt. She has been murdered, brutally, with a straight razor. It’s the last day on the job for Inspector Matthäi, of the Zurich police: he is about to be seconded to Amman as a consultant working on the reform of the Jordanian police system. He does the necessary preliminary work, then hands over the case and prepares to fly out the next day. But the girl—Gritli Moser—haunts him. At the airport, he can’t bring himself to board the plane; instead he rushes back to Zurich, determined to bring Gritli’s killer to justice. The fact that someone has already been arrested, confessed, and hanged himself in his jail cell doesn’t matter to Matthäi; he believes the man was innocent. The rest of Dürrenmatt’s novel recounts Matthäi’s increasingly desperate attempts to find the real killer.

You can read the rest of the review here.

Clinch, by Martin Holmén

My old trainer once said that boxing, at its best, makes you feel properly alive. This is wrong. Boxing is at its best when you’re completely empty inside.

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It’s Stockholm, Sweden, in the 1930s. Harry Kvist (“Kvisten”, or “twig”, to his friends, in what can only be irony) is an ex-sailor, ex-boxer, currently a heavyman-cum-debt-collector for whoever wants to hire him. He’s also skilled at tracking down unfaithful spouses, prostitutes, and teenaged runaways. When we first meet him, he is descending on the apartment of the hapless Zetterberg, who has defaulted on a loan. He scares Zetterberg, roughs him up a little, says he’ll come back for the payment tomorrow. So far, so good. But when he comes back, he finds Zetterberg murdered, and himself a person of interest in the inquiry. He’s released after the evidence of Zetterberg’s neighbour clears him, but the police know Kvist rather too well already, and they’re happy to take him in again if they can’t turn up anyone else. He’d rather not have them anywhere near his personal life, so the novel turns into a familiar path for the contemporary thriller: innocent man seeks to save his own skin by uncovering the real wrong-doer.

The reason the police know Kvist so well already is because he’s a practicing homosexual. (In point of fact, he’s bisexual, since he has an involved and very definitely sexual affair with a woman during the second half of the novel, but his relationship with Doris seems devoid of actual feeling. They fuck a lot, but the tumult and conflict of Kvist’s emotions are all directed towards men. It’s men with whom he shares the few moments in the book in which he shows tenderness.) The police have booked him twice, under what they refer to as “paragraph eighteen”—presumably, a Swedish anti-sodomy statute. The inspector who interviews him, Olsson, immediately makes clear his disgust and distaste for this “bloody homophile”, although he does have to grudgingly admit that Kvist is also a hard bastard.

Which he most certainly is. The front cover quote explicitly invites us to compare Holmén’s work with Raymond Chandler’s, which is a hell of an invitation but, as far as I can tell, a completely legitimate one. (Now is probably the time to mention that I have never read Chandler, but I have: listened to Garrison Keillor’s Guy Noir segments since I was six years old; read the Calvin and Hobbes strips where Calvin pretends to be a P.I.; and seen a fair few gangster movies. I feel like the lineaments of the noir genre are pretty well known, anyway.) Clinch commits, with manic glee, to its own atmosphere: it’s set in a perpetually snowy Stockholm winter, full of dark back alleys, shack-like tenement flats, and underground nightclubs for the consumption of illegal liquor. (Prohibition-era Stockholm is basically Prohibition-era Chicago.) Kvist, while not given to quite the level of throwaway wisecracks that we expect from Chandler’s protagonists, is a wryly sarcastic, enjoyably cynical narrator. He is much given to punching people’s lights out while detailing the gruesome shifting of bones in his hand as he connects. As an ex-boxer, he lives by sporting metaphors, and his stock of experience gives him an air of dangerous, world-weary authority as he explains street fighting to us:

I close my eyes, inhale what feels like an ice block, and listen. I’ve had to trust in my hearing many times when I was on the ropes, when the swelling around my eyes was such that I couldn’t even orient myself, or when I was blinded by blood or sweat.

Like many a detective, Kvist also has an alcohol problem and is terrible at relationships—in his case, a wife and daughter set sail for America at least ten years ago, but he has not followed them—but this is all complicated by his sexuality. Sweden actually legalised same-sex intercourse in 1944, and has in general been in the forefront of international LGBT rights during the twentieth century, but this story is happening in the 1930s and so Kvist must still cruise in silence and in danger. Although that is somewhat misleading; in most of the encounters he has, he is the danger. The first sex scene takes place less than thirty pages into the book and ends with Kvist punching into unconsciousness the boy who’s just sucked him off. In this combination of hypermasculine aggressive violence with queer sexuality, Kvist reminded me forcefully of Weeper in Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings: here’s another man who both reinforces and challenges “manliness”. Later, when he first has a sex scene with his mistress, Doris Steiner, the atmosphere is just as violent: from both sides, there are punches, slaps, bloody noses, hair-pulling. Where Holmén is maybe more modern than Chandler is in his willingness to write in detail about the mechanics of fucking itself; some of these scenes border on the pornographic, which is to say that they are excellent, evocative, achieve what they set out to do, and had me bending the pages away from people on the Tube.

Doris is a fascinating creation: she’s the classic noir dame, the bored hot wife of a rich man. She’s also an alcoholic and a heroin addict, and a former film star. We know from the start that there is something off about her, about the way that she meets Kvist: supposedly she has come to him for proof that her maid is thieving from her jewellery box, but she doesn’t seem terribly concerned, and after they fall into bed, we hear no more about it. When she tells Kvist a little more about her life and history, he seems to take it more or less at face value, which is surprising given his cynicism up to now. Is he blinded by lust, or does his indifference to her mean he doesn’t see her as a potential threat? (Or both?) Either way, alarm bells have started ringing for the reader now: surely Doris isn’t all she appears…

Indeed, she isn’t, though not quite in the way I had hoped. Still, the ending is delightfully, unabashedly melodramatic, with its tense showdown in an opulent setting, the iniquities of the rich and powerful finally entered into the ledger of justice. (Even if that justice happens to be extrajudicial.) It’s strong stuff, but Clinch is a fabulously classy twist on pulp fiction: it’ll be a top-notch summer book for readers looking for something diverting but smart, as long as they don’t mind a little blood and bonking.

Many thanks to Tabitha Pelly at Pushkin Vertigo for the review copy. Clinch is published in the UK on 20 May.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, by Soji Shimada

I would gladly give up my wretched life if this perfect woman were to become a reality.

Here’s a challenge to aspiring writers: make the first character your readers meet a lunatic confessional astrologist painter whose last will and testament includes the details of a plot to murder his six virginal daughters and nieces and dismember their bodies in order to create a perfect woman. Give him some creepy backstory–let’s say he tells us about this one time when he literally fell in love with a mannequin in a shop window, and maybe throw in a suggestion of rape when he talks about how he ended up with his second wife. Add a touch of megalomania. Then have the whole thing translated into another language, preferably one with a different alphabet from your own. See how many of your readers are sticking around after all that.

That’s a little unfair on Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, I know; it’s a complicated plot, it’s translated, and of course characters don’t have to be likeable. The book does suffer a little bit from having its prologue delivered through the artist (and first murder victim) Heikichi, though. If you can get through it, you can probably get through the rest, but it’s a bit of a litmus test.

We learn that Heikichi was murdered before he could carry out his horrible scheme–he was found with his head bashed in, inside a locked room–but shortly after his death, his eldest stepdaughter was found dead in what was assumed to be a rape and burglary gone wrong, and then his other six daughters disappeared. Their dismembered bodies were discovered over a period of several months all around Japan’s Hoshu island, arranged just as Heikichi’s note had described. Clearly, someone decided to carry out the plans after Heikichi’s death–but everyone has an alibi and there’s no clear motive. The murders remain unsolved for forty years, until our two intrepid amateur detectives decide to try and crack the case, mostly in order to distract one of them from his chronic depression. The novel is in the honkaku subgenre of Japanese mysteries: you get all the clues in the same order and at the same time as the two detectives, so you can follow along, trying to solve it as they do. Honkaku are kind of like literary sudoku, in that they’re puzzles. You’re engaging not only your narrative brain, but your logical one.

I think mysteries suffer with age, more than other genres. Possibly this is because so many of them deal with crimes against the vulnerable, and the way that we treat victims and think about them has changed so much over the past few decades. This book was written in 1980, and one of the most noticeable things about it is the sheer quantity of bullshit about “female psychology”. There is even the suggestion that the killer must have been a woman because the murder weapon was cleaned off, and that would be “more natural” for a woman to do (because ladies can’t stop themselves from tidying up!) The gender politics when it comes to the actual murders are just as depressing. Our narrator, Ishioka, announces at one point that the murderer must have been a man (he’s changed his mind since the scene mentioned above), because (dun duh duhhhh), “Kazue had been raped!” The response of Kiyoshi, the novel’s Sherlock Holmes character is, literally, “Uhhh…” This, and scenes like it, conspire to suggest that the actual reality of torture, murder, rape and dismemberment doesn’t interest Shimada at all, except insofar as these events can be used to make a good puzzle. I’m perfectly willing to accept that this is a matter of personal taste, but that attitude is really, really not for me. I like the idea of murders that are logic puzzles, but I want them to remain logic puzzles. Making truly horrible things happen to someone that you’ve established is a character, not a philosophical construct, just to make your clever-clogs challenge a bit more cryptic, strikes me as being somewhere between distasteful and genuinely psychopathic. As I read, I kept thinking of all the women in literature (especially genre literature) and film and popular culture who have been found chopped up in trash bags, in Satanic rituals, in rivers, in car trunks. And I thought of all the women in real life–the world I live in–who’ve been found the same way. And somehow I couldn’t take quite the innocent joy in a complex mystery that I think I was expected to take.

All the more frustrating, then, that by the middle of the book I was genuinely (if begrudgingly) keen to find out who had done the deeds. The puzzle element of the book works just fine; the solution is clever, although the identity of the murderer is obscurely disappointing, mostly because the motive is so meh. Revenge, revenge, does it ever get old? (Yes. Also, it would have been better had the murderer sought revenge on someone who had legitimately wronged them, as opposed to someone whose primary crime was to be immature and self-centered, but now we’re venturing into spoilers territory.) I was also both fascinated and frustrated by the way some details were explained profusely, while others–fairly important ones–were brushed over. The reason why the bodies were found buried at different depths, for instance, took pages; but when our narrator Ishioka explicitly asks questions like “Where did the poison come from?” and “How did the murderer chop up half a dozen bodies on their own? How did they even get hold of a saw?”, Kiyoshi’s answer was “They just did.” It’s hard not to admire the sheer brazenness of an author who’ll do that to you, but it does feel like a cop-out.

It’s a shame about this, because the book is part of Pushkin’s new Vertigo imprint, and usually Pushkin is absolutely spot on. They’ve already made a name for themselves with translated literary fiction, and moving into translated crime is a brilliant idea. I’m guessing that The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is a one-off. I’ve already heard good things about Vertigo, the novel that inspired Hitchcock’s films, and Master of the Day of Judgment by Leo Perutz, an Austrian novelist. Also, let me emphasize once more that this is entirely my own opinion; just because I have a hard time with novels that feel like diagrams doesn’t mean that everyone does, and as puzzles go, this one is fiendish, complex and probably quite satisfying. It wasn’t for me, but I’d love to have a look at some of the other Vertigo titles and see if one of them is.