The American – Better Than Donna Leon?

the americanAs I mentioned, I’ve got a couple of reviews outstanding, and this is the first one for which I’m part of a blog tour. The American by Nadia Dalbuono comes with a sticker on the front promising you your money back if you don’t love it as much as a Donna Leon novel – perhaps the most famous crime writer currently working from Italy. Given that the novel is based in Italy, I guess Donna Leon becomes the most obvious point of reference, but stylistically, Dalbuono is so very different that other comparisons came to my mind. If you like John le Carre, or Charles Cumming or Sara Paretsky, then I think you’d like this. It’s a very sophisticated, intelligent piece of fiction writing, and one that functions on the intersection of crime and politics.

Detective Leone Scamarcio is a good guy in a bad world. He’s a cop with the flying squad in Rome, but his background is with the Mob – his late father used to be a prominent member (if that’s the right term). Scamarcio is trying to do everything by the book, but that isn’t easy in an Italy that’s fundamentally corrupt, and where the police are under pressure from both politicians and the church to keep secrets and turn a blind eye. In this, the second novel in the series, Scamarcio also has the added complication of a girlfriend he isn’t sure he wants, Aurelia, who works in the pathology department. You kind of fear for her from the start, and goodness knows she’s in for more trouble in the course of this novel than just a commitment-phobe for a boyfriend.

The catalyst for Scamarcio’s inquiry is an apparent suicide, hanging off the Ponte Sant’Angelo, close to the Vatican City. This John Doe seems to be a banker suffering from the economic hardships blighting much of southern Italy, but there’s something about the way the body has been presented that makes Scamarcio think of an older case, the 1982 murder of a man called Robert Calvi who was called ‘God’s Banker’ because of his dodgy links with the Vatican Bank. And then, when a senior priest is found stabbed in the Vatican City, it seems obvious that some sort of link must be forged between the bodies. But how that can happen, when the local police have no jurisdiction over the Vatican (which is steadfastly not seeking their help), and the original body is nicked from the mortuary by two American secret service agents who don’t seem quite the full ticket, is anybody’s guess. Scamarcio is asked, none too politely, by the Americans to let it go – it’s a simple suicide, nothing for the police in Rome to be bothered about. But his instincts tell him the case is far more complex and far more dangerous, and he keeps digging.

He will eventually embroil himself in a long-standing and deep-rooted conspiracy that stretches between America and Italy and involves the shocking manipulation of political power by both church and government. I don’t want to give too much away as the gradual uncovering of the extent of the situation is one of the best features of the novel. Suffice to say, my regular complaints that too much contemporary fiction boils down to a storm in a teacup are not about to be aired here. This is a novel that really goes for the jugular, and had me looking up bits and pieces of international history on the internet (Mr Litlove didn’t believe some of the events described in the novel had actually happened, and was forced to eat his words). I learned a lot, whilst admiring the way that Nadia Dalbuono handles the intricacies of her plot, and the way that she muddies the water before the conclusion. Trust me, she is one smart writer.

If I had a niggle, it would be with the paragraphs in italics which open some of the chapters and describe scenes that occurred way back in the past. They are meant to be enigmatic, but initially I was quite confused. I could have done with a better grounding in world politics too, in all honesty, but that didn’t matter so much; the novel will tell you all you need to know to understand it. On the plus side this is extremely well-written and very cleverly conceived. Scamarcio is a strong character, torn between his desires to act ethically, and his old contacts who could actually achieve some beyond-the-pale justice for him, the sort of justice it’s almost impossible to mete out legally in current day Italy. There’s violence in the novel, viewed unflinchingly, but nothing gratuitous. All in all, this is a properly first-rate, literary, fiercely contemporary and proudly intelligent thriller. I must say I’m really intrigued now to see how Dalbuono manages to save Scamarcio from the situation he’s in by the finale – I’m not sure he could survive a long series. We may have to savour his few cases while he holds out.


Georges Simenon and Inspector Maigret

cellars of the majesticWhen I was first growing serious about learning French, I was advised repeatedly to read Simenon’s Maigret stories. The French was so simple! I was assured, and they were good stories, too. I have no idea why I resisted, sheer perversity, I expect. When I was teaching French, I was often asked if Simenon was one of the 20th century authors I taught – being, I think, one of the few French authors with whom most people were familiar. I did not teach Simenon. In fact, it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I finally read a Simenon novel for the first time. And now it’s taken me an absolute age to get around to reviewing it, though not because it wasn’t an enjoyable experience to read. In fact, I whipped through it in no time, loved it, and wondered why it had taken me so long.

Inevitably, having finally read Simenon, I became curious to know something about the man. What a life! He published almost 500 novels and hundreds of stories, using many pseudonyms. Born in Belgium, he moved to Paris as a young man where he worked as a journalist, always with a taste for frequenting the seamier side of the city. His love life was particularly energetic. He married and then began a decades long affair with his housekeeper. The second world war intervened and Simenon got himself into hot water over collaboration. I imagine he behaved much like Colette did – with a sort of hard-headed peasant pragmatism. Colette wanted very much to eat, which meant she had to sell her work, and so her basic view was that she would sell it to whoever was buying. Simenon would eventually be sentenced to a five year prohibition on publishing, but it wasn’t observed. Not least because, once the war was over, Simenon took his family to America for a decade. His wife had found out about his affair by now and the marriage was struggling. Simenon promptly began a new affair with the woman he hired as his secretary and they married and had three children during a stormy relationship. In 1955 they all returned to France, and ten years later, Simenon divorced and married again – yet another of his housekeepers. He claimed by the end of his life to have had 10,000 lovers, and that he wrote 60 to 80 pages a day. Judging by his output, the writing claim is probably true.

Inspector Maigret was his greatest creation, his first novel featuring him published in 1931. He would go on to write 75 Maigret novels and 28 short stories. The thing about these novels is that they are very short – 120 pages or so – but they manage to have the same depth as a book of much greater length. I’ve thought for a while that the tendency in publishing lately is to allow books an extra 100 pages more than they need, and there isn’t a better case for concision than Maigret.

In The Cellars of the Majestic, Maigret is called to the discovery of one of the hotel’s guests, strangled and unceremoniously dumped in a locker in the staff changing rooms. The victim is the French wife of a rich American businessman, and certain pressures are brought to bear on Maigret to go easy on the guests. Maigret has no intention of doing any such thing, but once he finds that the husband’s affair with the governess to his children gives him an alibi, Maigret is happy to leave the bourgeois to their own devices. He is, in any case, far more intrigued by the complex workings of the servant underworld in the hotel, and in the sad circumstances of the main suspect for the murder, the hotel’s coffee-maker, Prosper Donge. Prosper is a sad soul, an ugly red-head who lives in a platonic sort of relationship with Charlotte, a lavatory attendant at a nightclub. It turns out that they both knew the murdered woman when they were all working in the South of France. From there, Maigret is hot on the lead of a complicated story of prostitution, blackmail and unrequited love.

It’s hard to put one’s finger on what makes this book tick along so satisfyingly. There’s a wonderful evocation of place and landscape, vivid yet brief; the characters are drawn so sympathetically – at least they are sympathetic in Maigret’s understanding gaze – and the puzzle is convoluted in its unravelling but simple in its solution. The narrative chugs along swiftly, free from padding and all those scenes in contemporary crime novels in which no one learns anything of any note. In a book this size, every scene counts, every encounter progresses the story. And Maigret is a great understated, unshowy performer. Getting older, getting tireder, saddened sometimes by what he has to witness of human lives, but his sharp eye and rapid insight are never in doubt. Yes, perhaps that’s what ultimately makes these stories so comforting – you are never in doubt that Maigret is in control of the investigation and that he will succeed. Much like Hercule Poirot and Perry Mason and Jack Reacher – the foundation stone of the story is Maigret’s unshakeable competence.

Without doubt, I’ll be catching up on more of Maigret’s cases, thanks to the lovely new Penguin reissues. A steadfast hero in a short, vivid, well-plotted story; no wonder they remain classics.

Dark Tales for Dark Days

the watchersThe Watchers by Neil Spring is based on a series of real and unexplained events near the coast of Wales in the late 1970s. In the winter of 1977 a spate of UFO sightings took place, the most compelling witnessed by the children of a primary school who believed strongly that they saw a spacecraft land, whilst others were convinced they had seen giant silver-suited figures staring in windows. There was so much media concern over the sightings that the Ministry of Defence secretly conducted research into the area, though what their officials made of it is still unknown. I was a child of the 70s and the premise of the novel sparked long-buried memories of those UFO sightings. It struck me as an intriguing idea to go back to that era and to resurrect the old UFO concept – but although the novel begins there, it isn’t quite where the story ends up.

Robert Wilding is a tortured man. He suffers from anxiety and OCD, a legacy of the traumatic deaths of his parents in a flood and from the fear-fuelled adolescence he spent with his religious extremist grandfather in Wales. Even now as a grown man his nightmares and worst fantasies concern ominous pounding on doors and the need to hide from the Watchers, whoever or whatever they may be. He’s trying to do his best to right the wrongs of the past, however, through his government job. His father worked in the military and his mother was a protestor, so both were caught up in the events at RAF Croughton in 1963, when a demonstration went wrong and his mother was badly burned in the subsequent fire. Now, in 1977, with the help of the local Welsh MP, Robert is involved in the government enquiry into this event. When the enquiry is disrupted in a catastrophic way, the American Lieutenant Colonel who Robert was hoping to see in the witness box contacts him to arrange a midnight meeting. He suggests that the UFO sightings in the area are not in fact extraterrestial in nature, but high-tech surveillance from Russia. When Robert’s mentor in the government also encourages him to return to Wales to look more closely into what’s happening at the American and British bases, Robert must swallow his personal fears for the greater cause.

What he finds in Wales is a community living in extreme fear. Along with unexplained sightings such a balls of fire that travel as fast as a car, there have been animal mutilations and a strange sickness that sounds like radiation poisoning. Robert is forced to confront his grandfather and his memories of the past, but what is more alarming, he is beginning to understand his grandfather’s point of view. From here on in, events spiral into a waking nightmare in which no one is what they seem.

Having begun this thinking it would be a sort of thriller-ish affair, it turned out to belong much more readily to the horror genre or the book form of the disaster movie. There’s a lot going on and a great deal happens, each short chapter containing some incident that ratchets up the tension, resulting in a taut and compelling plot. However, I have to confess that I think I’m a bit old for this novel. If you love the kind of rapid-fire plotting that dominates a lot of current television and film, you’ll really get behind this. Me, I’m old school, so I would have liked to see more characterisation. If your main character begins the novel traumatised, is then thrown into the depths of his fears and never really has a chance to catch his breath, you don’t see many sides of his personality. I’m also not a believer in the paranormal. The thought that the UFO sightings might be military-based excited me; I love that sort of clever rational explanation, but quite quickly we are moved onto other, darker motivations. Essentially, I suppose the novel explores dangerous hypnotic beliefs, either in the form of satanic rites or mass hysteria. I fell out of the fantasy frame about halfway through and struggled to get back into it. I think it’s a good book; well-written, very well plotted, and conceptually it holds together on its own terms. You have to decide if the subject matter is up your dark and menacing alley or not.


smoke and mirrorsI was also sent for review Smoke and Mirrors by Elly Griffiths. Griffiths is known for her crime fiction featuring Dr Ruth Galloway, a forensic archeologist (who knew that obscure department would gain so much fictional credence?). This is the second in a new series set in Brighton in the 1950s. Her main protagonists are a stage magician, Max Mephisto, and his detective inspector friend, Edgar Stephens. The two met during the war, when they were part of a team coming up with more unusual ways to confound the enemy. In this novel, it’s a very snowy run-up to Christmas in 1951. Max is in pantomime on the pier (Aladdin), while Edgar is dealing with a sad and disturbing case: the deaths of two young children, left in a snowy hollow surrounded by sweets. The press are quick to make Hansel and Gretel comparisons, and they may not be so far off the mark. The murdered girl, Annie, was a keen playwright, organising her band of young local friends into an impromptu theatre group. Encouraged by her school teacher, Annie has been rewriting fairy tales in gruesome ways. In her character of the child snatcher, did she have some real life counterpart in mind?

But the solution to the crime may lie instead with the adult theatre troupe performing pantomime. Those with longer memories can still recall a murder that took place in the same venue in 1912, when a young girl, a Babe in the Wood, is found with her throat cut. By uncanny coincidence, several of the 1951 cast have family links back to that earlier play and the earlier unsolved crime. Could the police be dealing with a copycat situation?

For some reason or other, I had it in my head that Elly Griffiths didn’t write very good prose, and so I hadn’t read her before. This turns out to be a complete nonsense – Smoke and Mirrors was a very well-written book with an especially nice line in dialogue. Max Mephisto gets all the fun character attributes, being dramatic, egotistic and a tad louche; poor old Edgar is the worrywort with a tricky conscience. Edgar also has two promising henchmen, the dour, class-conscious Bob, and bright, moneyed Emma (who is treated in a way that will please all 21st century sensibilities, though somewhat anachronistic to the 50s setting). This was a well-conceived and highly atmospheric story, and my only real criticism is that by the three-quarters mark we still had absolutely no idea what had happened and not much to show for the efforts of the police. That’s not unusual in contemporary crime fiction, however, and it didn’t mess with my motivation. I found this a compelling novel and in fact have since begun on the Ruth Galloway series (I read The House at Sea’s End which was even better than this one). If you like crime fiction, Griffiths is definitely worth a try.

Out of Sheer Enthusiasm: The Prison Book Club

the prison book clubI will confess up front that teaching literature in prisons is something I have long been interested in doing – only whenever I start to think I might have enough energy for it, Mr Litlove says no, more forcibly than usual. He says he doesn’t want to come home one night to find a burly ex-con emerging from the shadows, saying in menacing tones, you ain’t treatin’ Litlove right. So when I saw Ann Walmsley’s book, The Prison Book Club, I was extremely curious to read it and enjoy vicariously an experience I’m probably unlikely to have.

And it was one of those books that did exactly what I’d hoped it would do, which meant I was glued to it most of the weekend. Ann Walmsley was invited by her friend, a determined and powerful philanthropist, Carol, to join in with her scheme of starting book clubs in prisons. Ann was intrigued but scared; when she lived in London a few years previous to this invitation, she had been mugged in the private lane running just alongside her house. One man had throttled her whilst the other took her phone and only the sound of the garden gate opening by remote control frightened them off. After this, Ann had suffered from post-traumatic anxiety for some time. Putting herself in the company of violent inmates seemed a terrifying prospect. But her friend, Carol, was someone who never took no for an answer, and Ann was evidently keen for a book project. She took a recorder with her to all the book club sessions and over time, as she grew to know and like the men, offered some of them journals to record their thoughts as they read the books, and spent one-to-one time with them.

Ann’s role is initially to help suggest books the men will enjoy reading. There are not, as you might wonder, that many issues around literacy levels; Carol plunges in with pure, unadulterated literature. But as always, the very question of book choice makes us think about how books work their magic. Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes was a huge hit with the men, who could relate to a story of poverty and slavery. But they equally loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, the metaphor of the Occupation having a more powerful resonance with them than, say, The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman, the story of the immensely brave Polish zoo owners who hid Jews in the animals cages before spiriting them out of danger. Equally big hits were The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Essentially, the prisoners enjoyed chewing over a book with profound themes, and had as much empathy as any other set of readers for social problems.

Some of the books they read alongside the Toronto book club that Ann and Carol both belonged to on the outside. On the occasion of Roddy Doyle’s tale of domestic abuse, The Woman Who Walked into Doors, coming up for discussion, the Toronto ladies, gathered in someone’s lovely home, eating pear and apple crumble and drinking a nice wine, were horrified and concerned.

Lillian-Rose asked bluntly who screened these books. If an inmate had engaged in domestic abuse, she said, wouldn’t the book provoke, disturb or even excite them? Ruth said that since Carol and I were not psychologists or therapists, how would we handle it if the material brought out something in a book club member that he hadn’t faced before. But Carol and I explained that the men had managed well with other books about abuse and neglect, like The Glass Castle. In fact, every prison group that had read The Glass Castle had absolutely loved it, Carol said. “Many of them have been through anger management programs and a lot of them have more self-knowledge than just about 95 percent of people I know,” said Carol’.

And in the event, the men have a full, frank discussion with sympathy and insight. Carol’s stated intention with her book club idea was to ‘hoist them [the inmates] into the middle class through reading.’ And Carol never misses an opportunity to bring the discussion around to her favourite point – that an essential part of humanity is looking out for, and looking after, other people. Yet what becomes obvious is that criminals are not necessarily idiots, or hopelessly morally corrupt; the prisoners have plenty of sensible, intelligent things to say about the books they read, not least because they have a fair bit of time to read them, especially when the jail is on lockdown as it often is, because of some outbreak of violence. Not that they don’t have a particular way of expressing things, however. One of the keen members, Dread, explains to some new recruits who are struggling with a book: “The book is not a predator. It’s a prey. You have to go after it. It’s not like a Sidney Sheldon read. Sidney Sheldon books are predators that go after you.” I’ll bet Barthes wished he’d thought of predators and prey rather than lisible and scriptible. But what they get out of the club is the same as anyone who has enjoyed a bookish discussion. “You get a chance to relive the book, but through someone else’s eyes,” says Gaston to Ann. “What makes this book club so interesting is people bring alive the points that you don’t even notice.”

All of which made me ponder long and hard about this strange thing ‘mentality’, what goes on inside each of our heads, and how any of that translates into doing the wrong thing. How stories, a litmus test for our beliefs and anxieties, can be so powerful in one way and so powerless in others. Ann grows very fond of many of the men, and meets with some when they are out on parole. She is surprised and saddened to learn that the inmate with the most writerly sensibility, the keenest insight into the books they are reading and the best self-expression, is the one who fails to flourish in anyway on the outside, and who is quickly rearrested for first degree murder.

I remember reading somewhere (and oh how I wish I could recall where exactly) about this intriguing test. Think of the worst crime (proper act of lawbreaking) that has happened to you. And then think of the worst thing that you have done to someone else. It could be anything – an act of disloyalty, a betrayal, an act of omission, of not doing something that should have been done, a little bit of cheating. For the majority of us, that bad thing we did is much worse than any crime that has happened to us. People are people; we do good things and we do bad things, all of us, every single one. Most habitual criminals come about out of a toxic mix of poverty, injustice and violent backgrounds. But we all have the capacity to transgress and do things we shouldn’t. Literature offers us all a very safe space to consider issues that are just too personal, too threatening, when we relate them to ourselves. Stories are fearless, and they open us up to all the extremes of human behaviour, the best and the worst. The Prison Book Club wisely offers no interpretations, or solutions or answers to the problems encountered in its pages, real or fictional. Ann Walmsley just lays her experience bare for us, and a fascinating one it is, too. I loved this book and will be thinking about its implications for a long time to come.