Varg Veum (lit: Lone Wolf) is a private investigator in the classic mould - the direct descendant of Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and (perhaps most of all) Lew Archer, he's a cynical operator who retains a stubbornly compassionate streak despite everything he's seen. Immensely popular in Staalesen's native Norway (there's even a statue of the character erected in the city of Bergen) he's only recently begun to catch the attention of British readers, and with good reason.
Wolves in the Dark is the latest of the Varg Vuem novels, sympathetically translated into English by the excellent Don Bartlett, and published by the "literary crime" indie publisher Orenda Books, and it is possibly one of the finest yet. Still suffering from the loss of his love, Karn, Veum has been continuing to work as a private investigator even as he spirals into alcohol-fuelled blackouts and a highly risky personal life. But then traces of child pornography are found on his computer. Veum knows he's innocent, but his recent behaviour has left gaps in his memory that he can't account for.
Determined to prove his innocence, Veum must retrace his steps to find the people who would want to frame him for such a horrendous crime, but he soon realises the answers he seeks may be even more troubling than he ever suspected...
Staaelesen's prose, as translated by Bartlett, gives this Norwegian thriller a unique voice that eschews the soul-searching of some of his contemporaries for a more active and immediate kind of story-telling. Comparisons to Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer novels are decidedly deserved here, as the Veum novels are both page-turning and deeply personal. There's a nice line in subtle humour, too, that only reinforces this sense of Veum's classic heritage. There's a hint of Chandler that sneaks in when being Veum is being taken back to his cell early in the novel:
"...I took the lift back down to Hades. I wondered if I should look for a coin or two to place on my eyes, then I remembered all my small change had been taken from me earlier in the day..."
Even if you think you've read everything Norwegian crime has to offer, Staalesen offers up something unique and gripping. The Varg Veum books respect the history of the US PI novel while adding a unique perspective to a familair formula. Vuem is a fascinating set of eyes through which to view the world, and this contemporary entry in a series which has been running in the seventies is proof of his longevity. Wolves in the Dark is gripping, playful, clever and unsettling. In short, its everything you could want from crime fiction in any language.
(Note: The book will be released 15 June 2017, and this review is based on a review copy supplied by the publishers)
Hard Case Crime are never anything less than fascinating in the way they choose their material. The new work is always unusual and often subtly subversive, where the "lost" classics can range from surprisingly brilliant (The Comedy is Finished by Donald E Westlake) to fascinating curiosities that have an interest beyond the words on the page (The Cocktail Waitress by James M Cain).
Vidal's "lost" pulp novel, Thieves Fall Out, is more a fascinating curiosity than . Its a straighforward slice of globe-trotting pulp where the bad guys are predictably "swarthy" and the women are alternately beautiful love interests or beautiful femme fatales (one of whom gets to utter the possibly immortal line, "No one can make love with a gun.")
The two-fisted hero of the piece, Pete Wells, is roped by one of these femme fatales into smuggling a possibly cursed necklace (a subplot that's never really expanded on) out of Egypt. Along the way he falls for a nightclub singer, and falls afoul of a local police inspector by the slightly conspicuous name of Mohammed Ali.
The action is formulaic, and while the writing may not be considered by many readers to the be the best Vidal had to offer, there's a kind of snarling joke underpinning the action, as though Vidal is perfectly aware of the cliche's he's employing. There's a few one liners to sweeten the plot, some convincing scene setting, and an excellent sequence towards the end of the novel where Wells and the nightclub singer have to escape a Cairo that has erupted into political chaos.
If you're a Vidal fan, its likely you'll either find this to be a curio or to simply something forgettable he pumped out in his early years for the cash (there have been a few articles that suggest he wasn't sure about its re-release and had he been alive would not have approved the novel's re-appearance).
But if you're a fan of pulp adventure, then its a pretty pure example of the form - if it seems like disposable fiction. then that's because it was supposed to be. And had Vidal chosen to pursue further novels like this, its possible he would have developed a very different kind of following, as his skill at the form - along with his ability to take it just the right side of seriously - is actually evident in the construction (even if he suffers from rushed prose on occasion). Yes, some of the attitudes are dated, and yes, to modern eyes some of it is eye-rollingly predictable, but Thieves Fall Out is a breezy old-fashioned adventure story filled with enough interesting little moments that mark a writer growing into his own voice to add that extra layer of interest.
As with his 2010 novella, Eat Him if You Like, cult French novelist, Jean Teule once more takes his inspiration from the darker events of French History with The Poisoning Angel, a fictional work based around the life of France’s most prolific serial poisoner, Helene Jegado.
In other hands, this disturbing tale could have been relentlessly grim and po-faced. Jegado killed at least 36 people, and may have been responsible for many more un-diagnosed poisonings. But Teule, as he has proved several times now, never does anything in a straight forward manner and imbues his narrative with a sense of the surreal that makes one think of the films of the Coen Brothers in its capacity to balance the horror of its subject with an oddly disconnected humour that highlights the madness of human behaviour.
Beginning in the village of Plouhinec, we meet the young Jegado, as she gathers herbs with her mother. The local women spy a cart approaching and believe that it is the vessel of the Ankou, the spirit of death. They attack the owners of the cart – a pair of wigmakers from Normandy – and send them packing. Jegado, whom her mother calls Thunderflower, explains the nature of the Ankou to her child. In short order, Thunderflower becomes obsessed with the Ankou and pledges herself to his service. As she grows older, she kills almost on a whim. Whether her own or the Ankou’s becomes difficult to say.
The book is deliberately cyclical, with Helene appearing somewhere, acting strangely, murdering her victims and then vanishing once more. Along the way, the Norman wigmakers appear, bemoaning that they ever came to Brittany, like a bemused Greek chorus or a pair of characters who have wandered onto the page from a Tom Stoppard play. The book runs the danger of that repetition becoming monotonous, but Teule pulls it back with the final act where Helene faces the consequences of her actions and, and comment is passed on the oddities of the age, including the idea of phrenology as a method for determining a person’s capacity for evil acts.
Translated by Melanie Florence, Teule’s prose is deceptively simple, if occasionally muddled as characters talk over each other and the point of view slips on occasion from Thunderflower to others observing her behaviour. However, this only adds to the air of oddity that is clearly an intentional aspect of Tuele’s own style. The resultant novel is gruesomely fascinating, if occasionally repetitive, and quite unlike anything else you’ll read this year. Like Thunderflower’s cooking, The Poisoning Angel won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s a definite feast for fans of black humour and those (like myself) already converted to Teule’s unusual and unsettling world view.
Well, this was an interesting way to return to SF... I love PKD, and this was one of the few of his book I hadn't read. There's an interesting history here, as the book was written in an almost patchwork fashion over several decades, with various bits added in and taken out as editors for magazines and pulp publishers made Dick stick to strict word limits.
The result is... intriguing for fans and completists. And almost utterly incomprehensible. The setup is brilliant as Rachmael ben Applebaum decides to journey to one of humanity's outermost colonies, which he believes is not as happy as the videos back home on Earth would have the public believe. Most people travel by energy transfer, but our hero opts to take a ship on an 18 year journey.
Great setup, but then in the middle of the book, as Applebaum arrives, he gets shot by an LSD tipped dart, and suddenly Dick's expanded material leads into a drug-fuelled frenzy hallucinatory "paraworlds" and a great deal of action that makes little sense. The novel definitely feels as stitched together as its history implies, with threads dropped in randomly to little effect (a great setup in the first few pages Applebaum accidentally inherit the memories of a rat; a thread that disappears very quickly indeed and seems to have little to no pay-off).
There are moments of brilliance (a monster that eats its own eyes, the dreams of a rat in Applebaum's mind) but the drug fuelled middle utterly destroys any semblance of coherent story. Dick's prose is also at its most wooden for much of the book, leading to a title that's intriguing for fans, but ultimately unsatisfying. And if you're not already a fan of Dick, well, this isn't a book to convert you really. If, like me, you're intrigued by the man's writing, its worth a look. But otherwise, probably best to stay away. Or find the original version published as The Unteleported Man, which reportedly makes a lot more sense without the extended LSD and paraworld nonsense.
Although I spend much of my time reading for edits rather than pleasure, I still try and fit in reading for fun. This occasional blog will record brief thoughts on some of the books I'm reading on my "off time"
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