Despite their indifference to genre fiction, American publishers of literary novels have consistently made exceptions for homegrown crime writers. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James Cain have long been celebrated in collections from the prestigious Library of America as well as reissues from Vintage, arguably the most stylish paperback house in New York; Patricia Highsmith, that once-forgotten mistress of the noir, is finally getting her due, with a steady stream of handsome reissues from Norton and a full-length treatment of her life out now in hardcover. Meanwhile James Ellroy, our living master of the hard-boiled detective story, continues to crank out his novels for Knopf to critical acclaim. So in this globalized culture, it makes perfect sense that publishers big and small would look to crime writers from farther-flung places to diversify their lists. Detective fictions tend to follow a pleasantly familiar form, no matter their country of provenance; suspense, intrigue and murder are universally addictive plot devices.
The right sleuth, killer or thief can also be the perfect guide through an unfamiliar land. As he–and it’s always a he–dodges bullets, searches for clues, hides from the cops (or his wife) and puts the pieces of the crime–as inspector or mastermind–together, we’re treated to foreign delights: narrow, curvy roads that hug the Mediterranean; bustling city streets bearing the names of great leaders instead of numbers; dusty paths that snake between rundown bungalows. Of course, from beneath the seductive exotica, dark underbellies of distant locales show through. Corrupt local officials and sleazy night spots are ubiquitous; backstabbing, lying and cheating, among both friends and lovers, de rigueur.
A new quartet of detective novels from Italian crime writer Andrea Camilleri, published here by Viking and Penguin, takes us to the fictional waterfront town of Vigàta, in Sicily. Camilleri’s protagonist is the overworked, straight-talking, politically radical Inspector Salvo Montalbano, whose passion for solving crimes is equaled only by his love of the perfect pasta al dente and the novels of his namesake, the contemporary Spanish detective writer Manuel Vazquez Montalbán. (Although Montalbán’s works have not found a home in the United States, British publisher Serpent’s Tail has been translating him into English for years.) When Montalbano hits a wall in his sleuthing, he’s known to turn himself around by asking himself what Pepe Carvalho, Montalbán’s famous sleuth, would do.
Like Mike Hammer or Sam Spade, Montalbano is the kind of guy who can’t stay out of trouble. He’s in a long-term, long-distance relationship with the smart and independent Livia, but every time they arrange to see each other, a corpse or two–usually bearing the marks of a deviant tryst–comes between them. (Over the course of the four books, this puts a considerable strain on Salvo and Livia’s relationship.) Montalbano is competitive and narcissistic; he exploits personal relationships to turn up clues, and often gets friends and witnesses killed during his investigations. Still, deftly and lovingly translated into English by Stephen Sartarelli, Camilleri makes it abundantly clear that under the gruff, sardonic exterior our inspector has a heart of gold, and that any outbursts, fumbles or threats are made only in the name of pursuing truth (and, often, thwarting Italy’s egocentric and dishonest politicians in the process–but that’s another story).
Camilleri surrounds Montalbano with a motley cast of recurring characters, among them: Free Channel newscaster Nicolò Zito, whose leftist politics are simpatico with the inspector’s; lughead Catarella, who mangles every crucial communication meant for Montalbano; and informer Gegè, who manages The Pasture, a sort of open-air bordello where tricks are turned and drugs are dealt under cover of night. So while it makes sense to move through the books from first to last, it’s far from necessary. If you’re in the mood for an archeological romp, start with The Terra-Cotta Dog. Something with a complicated, contemporary clash-of-cultures angle, complete with a Tunisian terrorist? The Snack Thief. For sheer, slim elegance, the thriller Voice of the Violin wins; and for a dark, sexy tale of political corruption–The Shape of Water.
In his essay “The Guilty Vicarage,” W.H. Auden described the reading of detective novels as “an addiction, like tobacco or alcohol.” “If I have any work to do,” he wrote, “I must be careful not to get hold of [one] for, once I begin one, I cannot work or sleep till I have finished it.” Although he preferred his detective stories to take place in the English countryside, I can’t help but think that Camilleri’s novels would have caused Auden to procrastinate for at least a day or two.
I can’t say the same for 3 to Kill and The Prone Gunman, two noir novels by the late French writer Jean-Patrick Manchette originally published in 1976 and 1981, respectively, and translated into English by City Lights. Manchette’s protagonists aren’t crime solvers, and his stories aren’t page-turners in the conventional sense. Rather, his heroes are angst-ridden anti-heroes, his stories those of alienated men who unexpectedly find themselves with blood of their own, and others, on their hands. Manchette doesn’t create suspense from mystery; we read to see whether our hero lives or dies.
Both The Prone Gunman and 3 to Kill are full of nasty, sadistic violence, leavened just enough by irony and black humor to be tolerable. The Prone Gunman‘s Martin Terrier is a career assassin, but one who took up his work only in order to make enough cash to marry Anne, his wealthy high school sweetheart; in 3 to Kill, Georges Gerfaut’s efforts to hide from two men who are trying to kill him provide a convenient excuse to drop out of the bourgeois life and suburban comfort that had begun to depress him in middle age.
To call Manchette’s style plain would be an understatement: It’s French. Like Camus (himself an admirer of noir fiction, especially James Cain), he writes a cool and lean prose; each sentence exists only to advance from disaster to disaster, or to relay some painful moment from the past. Here’s Manchette, writing in The Prone Gunman:
One Saturday evening when Anne had asked [Martin] to take her home after a party where they had danced to Miles Davis, she and he kissed violently…. She said that she found Martin much more colorful than the others, and she said that it was precisely because of his social background and because the others were spoiled children, but not him–he was acquainted with real-life problems, he worked in the summer instead of going on vacation, he had to struggle to elevate himself, and all that, she said finally, made him deeper and more mature.
But when Martin slipped his tongue in her mouth, she seemed surprised.
Still, despite Martin’s and Georges’s aggressive, despicable behavior, willingness to murder and disdain for those who care about them, it’s hard not to root for them. Their bloody triumphs provide a perverse kind of pleasure. The way Martin, once a wimpy, broken kid, outwits his pursuers makes him genuinely sexy, in that no-talk-all-action kind of way. When Georges quits whining about his life and takes control by killing a couple of thugs, it’s both surprising and winning.
Ultimately, both Martin and Georges are just two men trying to figure out how, and what it means, to be happy. For Manchette, contentedness is found in a sort of asceticism; his characters feel most at peace once companions and things–especially money–have been cast aside. And they are, inevitably, when you have to live life on the run.
For the characters in Cuban writer José Latour’s new noir Havana World Series, recently published by Grove, the situation is just the opposite. Latour’s group of thieves, all ex-cons hoping to pull off their last and best job, wants only to get filthy rich.
The story is set in 1958 Havana, just before the revolution. While the World Series between the Braves and Yankees plays in the background, a pair of New York mob bosses hurry a plan to break up Meyer Lansky’s stranglehold on Cuba’s gambling scene before there’s a shift in the government power structure and inside connections need to be rejiggered. On their behalf, a group of expert criminals, with the aid of an inside man, will rob Lansky’s most profitable casino. The heist will yield considerable profit for the guys in New York and, more important, shame Lansky and weaken his hold on Havana nightlife.
Although Havana World Series gets off to a rocky start–Latour opens the book with intense focus on a character who has little to do with the plot, and the World Series winds up being a flimsy backdrop to the very dramatic robbery–it picks up considerably once we meet Mariano “Ox” Contreras, who acts as both ringleader and father figure to the other criminals. He is a reserved and intelligent man who relishes more than anything pulling off the perfect job. His plan is intricate and, at times, comical; his affection for his men, especially the young Abo, who acts as his son in part of the robbery scheme, understated and sweet.
While the first half of Havana World Series is a romp through the casinos and planning and, eventually, the heist, the second half follows Contreras and his crew as they separate to hide out, to spend their stolen money, to get caught, to save one another. There’s torture and tension and dread; Latour’s characterization of the corrupt thugs in Cuba’s pre-revolutionary police force ends up being even better than his chronicle of the heist.
Of course, love stories and minor romances are wound through the story, but Latour’s characters care for Cuba more than they could for any woman. The island is warm, sheltering and sexy–full of good hideouts for a group of criminals, but also for anyone looking to escape from this interminably cold winter.