Sunday, May 31, 2015

SabineSabine by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nicolas Freeling's "Sabine" (1978), first published in the U.K. under the title "Lake Isle" taken from the famous poem by W.B. Yeats "The Lake Isle of Innisfree", frequently alludes to that poem's fantasy of a quiet, peaceful life in the country. "Sabine" is the third novel in the Castang's series, and - having now embarked on the project to read the 16 books in the order they were written - I find it the best of the first three.

It would be hard to find a mystery novel that has a thinner plot, and this "thinness" is one of the main attractions for me. An elderly woman, Sabine Arthur, an owner of a grand country house, is apparently killed by burglars, perhaps by wandering hippies. Inspector Castang, fresh from surviving a shootout in Paris, is sent to a small town - a large village, really - to investigate Sabine's death, suspected to be the result of a "crapulous crime". Not much happens in the book, almost nothing; instead we have Castang's fascinating conversations with various characters connected with Sabine, including one of the most sympathetic characters, Sophie, a "village call girl", and an utterly repulsive one - the mother of Sabine's daughter-in-law. The dynamic of the conversations is enthralling and satisfying: real people come through the words.

The atmosphere of a small, gossipy village is rendered perfectly: "I am learning about small towns," says Castang, and we are learning too. I find Mr. Freeling's writing more engaging than in the first two Castang's novels. Let me quote a nice sentence: "The soubrette smiled winningly and tripped off: he couldn't remember ever having seen anybody tripping off before." Also, Mr. Freeling wouldn't be himself if he did not show his knowledge of Europe: "Seven in the evening, when this already means nightfall, is the best time for looking at provincial towns in Europe. The animation is highest: the women who have worked all day are shopping; the streetlamps hide the ugliness and dreariness. Best of all when it rained, and each shop a glowing haven from the raw air, and faces seen through the glass of these brightly lit aquariums, laughing."

It is a good book, but only "almost very good", so I am rounding the three and a half stars down. And by the way, the last two sentences of the novel are "Well, now you know. The lake isle does not exist." I am of the age that I know it does not exist.

Three and half stars.

View all my reviews

Friday, May 29, 2015

A Criminal ComedyA Criminal Comedy by Julian Symons
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Not much can be said about Julian Symons' "A Criminal Comedy", a rather run-of-the-mill British whodunit, far inferior in quality to the same author's "The Progress of a Crime" (which I review here ). Yet one needs books like that in order to appreciate finer works in the mystery genre.

The story begins with a quote from a local British paper: "... two British citizens died in Venice. One was shot through the heart, the other drowned in an offshoot of the Grand Canal, into which he either fell or was pushed." The build-up to the Venice events takes place in "the very English town of Headfield", with most of the novel's characters belonging to the upper crust of the Headfield society. Anonymous letters play an important role in the plot, whose eventual resolution occurs three years later - the denouement is rather interesting and even though I hate plot twists, the final twist is somewhat satisfying.

A very fast, uncomplicated, and pleasant read, but one to be quickly forgotten. Lovers of classic British mysteries (the book is from 1985 but Mr. Symons' work is deeply rooted in the 1950s and 1960s) will rate this novel higher, mainly for its plot. Alas, nothing much there for me other than fine writing.

Two stars.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

What Are the Bugles Blowing For?What Are the Bugles Blowing For? by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another surprise - while I found my previous book by Nicolas Freeling ("Dressing of Diamond", reviewed here ) surprisingly weak for this phenomenally accomplished writer, this one, "The Bugles Blowing", although I like it much better, is just unremarkable. Well, Mr. Freeling's literary output totals 42 books, so it is natural that in addition to several masterpieces, it contains average and weaker items as well.

This is the second book in the Castang series. Castang, an inspector of the Police Judiciaire in a provincial French town, receives a phone call from Monsieur La Touche, as an Inspector of Finance a highly placed personage, who tells Castang that he has just killed several people: "My wife. My daughter. A man." Indeed, the inspector finds naked corpses of the three victims, stopped by bullets in the course of a sexual act.

Throughout Castang's investigation, M. La Touche insists on his guilt, and the police are trying to make sure there are no political undercurrents in the case. The male victim is Jewish, and the pro-Arab organizations are concerned about the case. The most interesting aspect of the book is the exposition of the French criminal law and how it is different from the Anglo-Saxon law process (the inquisitorial system vs. the adversarial system). The case is first considered by a Judge of Instruction (also known as the examining magistrate; what a vivid portrayal of Judge Szymanowski!), and when the "instruction" ends, the case goes - through the Chambre d'Accusation - to the Assize Court, where the actual trial takes place. The presentation of the trial is so refreshingly different than the tired, formulaic depictions found in the courtroom dramas of John Grisham, Scott Turow, or Steve Martini.

One of my favorite fragments is the sharp and scathing characterization of high-rank police and judicial functionaries and their often base motives. I have also been happy to find a short passage where Mr. Freeling utilizes the trademark stream-of-consciousness narration, so successfully used in his later novels. I still have 25 "Freelings" to read and - going chronologically - I hope the writing will get better and better.

Three stars.

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Under the FrogUnder the Frog by Tibor Fischer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tibor Fischer's "Under the Frog" was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize (the best original novel written in the English language) in 1993. Indeed it is an extraordinary book - powerful, often tragic and hysterically funny. It is advertised as a "black comedy" - well, maybe; life in general might be viewed as a black comedy, considering the futility of human efforts in the face of the guaranteed unhappy ending. Salman Rushdie offers a blurb for the cover: "A delicate, seriocomic treasure." True, but let's clarify that the comic element comes from the writing. While many issues addressed in the novel - deprivation, suffering, death - are not quite that funny, Mr. Fischer's prose is absolutely, totally hilarious.

The novel tells the story of Gyuri Fischer and several friends of his, basketball players, against the backdrop of dramatic events in Hungary between 1944 and 1956, covering the period from the end of German occupation, through the so-called liberation by the Soviet troops, which brought Russian occupation, to the hard years of Rákosi Stalinist regime, until the novel culminates in unforgettable scenes from the failed Hungarian uprising of October 1956.

The depiction of the October uprising in Budapest is astounding in its sheer power. The revolutionary fervor of ordinary people, the chaos and randomness of street fighting, people throwing petrol bottles at Russian tanks, moments of revenge on hated Hungarian security agents, led to tops of high buildings to practice their flying skills. The days of freedom, hope, joy, and death.

The book may take some effort to understand for readers who never lived in a totalitarian regime, where 99.9% of the society are completely against the government, yet nothing can be done about it as most people naturally prefer to live enslaved than die hero deaths or linger in prison. Over half a million of Hungarians were imprisoned, executed, or sent to Russian labor camps, after the "liberation" of this small country. Those who did not actively oppose the government were allowed to live in a Communist heaven, where people pretended to work and the government pretended to pay them, with virtually the entire economy being underground, and grocery stores carrying only two items: pickled gherkins and apricot conserve.

The picture painted by Mr. Fischer is frightfully accurate. The conditions in Poland, my native country, were not as drastic as in Hungary and not as many people perished in Stalinist times, but the grim atmosphere of oppression was the same, and the Polish people enthusiastically celebrated the Hungarian uprising of 1956. These October days are my first memories connected with politics. I recall demonstrations in support of Hungarian freedom fighters, and the blood drives to help thousands of victims. My life was so much easier though - I am about 20 years younger than Gyuri, I missed the war and the Stalinist period, and conditions after 1956 were quite benign both in Hungary and Poland, with Communism showing its "human face".

An outstanding novel, exceptionally well written. Sad and funny to tears.

Five stars.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Dressing of DiamondsA Dressing of Diamonds by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A surprise! A below-average work from Nicolas Freeling, one of my absolutely most favorite authors. Among about 15 books of his that I read (I have reviewed nine of them on Goodreads) there are several masterpieces of the mystery/crime genre and almost all of them are first-rate, deserving four stars. Alas, "Dressing of Diamond", the first novel in the Castang series, is also the first book by Mr. Freeling that I do not much like. Although I love books that surprise me - reading books that are exactly as expected is pretty boring, that's why series are not my thing - "Dressing of Diamond" has surprised me in a "wrong way". Not only do I not understand a presumably important thread in the novel, but also Mr. Freeling's writing, usually superb, maybe the best of all mystery/crime novelists, is not up to his stellar standards.

Colette Delavigne is a Judge of Instruction, specializing in children cases, in a French town. She is happily married to Bernard, a local businessman, and has an eight-year-old daughter, Rachel. One day, when Colette comes home from grocery shopping, Rachel is not home. Colette's panic grows, she calls her daughter's friends and their parents, but Rachel is nowhere to be found. Colette is friends with Inspector Castang's wife, Vera, so she calls the inspector. So far the story has followed rather standard tracks, well known from many thrillers about child abductions.

However, with Castang entering the story, things become strange - the characters talk about finer points of French law using language that sounds stilted and unnatural, resembling fragments of legal or philosophical essays. Absent is the stunning stream-of-consciousness narration of many of Mr. Freeling's books. What's more, a thread develops that suggests the relationships between the four central characters are less straightforward than they seem. This comes from nowhere and leads nowhere so I do not understand the whole purpose of the exercise. Maybe I am too obtuse to get the author's message.

On the positive side, the narration by Rachel is accurately childlike - many authors could learn from Mr. Freeling how children perceive things. The prolonged negotiations with a judge about the applicability of a certain legal procedure are shown with acute insight. The homage to Albertine Sarrazin is moving, and Mr. Freeling still manages to inject some of his wise cynicism, e.g., "the whole society is based upon thinking ill of others, and [...] the chief pleasure of the human animal in all walks of life is back-biting."

Despite the novel being way out of mainstream, which usually is a good thing, and despite several passages showing great depth, I am unable to rate the novel with more than

Two and a half stars.

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Cabal (Aurelio Zen, #3)Cabal by Michael Dibdin
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Another disappointment! While I quite liked Michael Dibdin's "End Games" (reviewed here ), his "Cabal" (1992), a substandard thriller, is a badly botched effort. Although The Scotsman in its back-cover blurb pronounces: "Michael Dibdin is an absolutely sensational writer", my take would be: "Michael Dibdin is a master of hiding his solid writing skills under the cover of embarrassingly amateurish style."

Sunday Times writes "Dibdin puts together a fictional structure that combines the intriguing twistiness of the mystery story with sharply angled perspectives on contemporary Italy." Well, to me the fictional structure of "Cabal" resembles a high-school student's naive attempt to construct a thriller by combining a variety of clichés, found in low-grade books of the genre, and the author's portrayal of contemporary Italy is limited to throwing thousands of Italian words and names of places at the reader without conveying much sense of location.

The ridiculous plot begins with an apparent suicide jump in St. Peter's basilica in Rome. "The glistening heap of blood and tissue subsided gently into itself with a soft farting sound." Mmm, evocative style! When it is determined that the farting heap of blood and tissue used to be Prince Ludovico Ruspanti, the Vatican officials call Inspector Aurelio Zen to conduct the investigation. In the worst tradition of cheap thrillers super secret organizations are involved; Cabal is a clandestine group within a secretive society, Order of Knights of Malta. The preposterous main plot line is intertwined with inane thread about Zen's jealousy.

The writing is really bad; let's quote some pearls of phrasing: "Unachieved coition made his testicles ache", "He skied the ball and whacked it across the net with a grunt suggestive of a reluctant bowel motion", "Ciliani stuck his finger in his ear and extracted a gob of wax which he scrutinized as though deciding whether to eat it." Mr. Dibdin also likes to mention the smell of urine (for some reason, a teenage computer hacker, another tired cliché, routinely pisses his bed) and bad breath. Oh, how very funny!

There are some good things in this badly disappointing novel; the best, probably, is when the author makes fun of fashion designers who price up their cheap creations, to "sell the price rather than the garment". (Apple Inc. has long been doing exactly the same - raising prices on average-quality products to dupe the gullible public into believing that their wares are better than the cheap Samsung stuff). Also, the symmetry of the beginning and the ending is neat. These are not enough, though, to save this mess from a low rating.

One and a half stars.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Flanders SkyFlanders Sky by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Flanders Sky" was first published in the United Kingdom under a different title - "The Pretty How Town", one of the best book titles ever. I guess the American publishers were afraid that the "grammatically incorrect" title will result in decreased sales; after all what can one expect from an author who cannot even follow the most basic rules of syntax? While "Flanders Sky" is a beautiful and appropriate title, I much prefer the original, which comes from e.e. cummings' poem "anyone lived in a pretty how town" (I quote the first stanza of that stunning poem at the end of the review).

Not that the story is important in the novel - readers who are mainly interested in the plot may be disappointed - but here is the basic premise: Henri Castang, a high-ranking Commissaire in the French police, becomes a high-level functionary of the European Community in Brussels. The second sentence of the novel is "I had been given to understand, and very clearly, thanks, that I was both promoted and sacked, simultaneously". His erudite boss, Harold Claverhouse, the head of EC's Judicial Services, is arrested for murder and Castang becomes actively involved in the investigation and in the subsequent trial. Claverhouse's case becomes entangled with a domestic child abuse inquest, which involves Castang and his wife who do volunteer social work for an organization that helps runaway children

As usual, I find it a pleasure to read Mr. Freeling's quirky, stream-of-consciousness narrative. He muses about workings of the European Community, ridiculous attempts of intelligence services of various countries to spy on each other, and bureaucratic excesses and pitfalls. He also writes about politics and European history; the action takes place not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the "velvet revolution" in Prague. We read about Irish, French, and Flemish poetry, a Verdi's opera, and are offered a revealing look into the judicial procedure in Belgium, so very different from one in the United States. I have read the trial fragments three times, each time to find something new and brilliant. The book is deeply immersed in European history and culture, and it might be less appealing for a reader who does not have some personal connection with Europe.

While most of narration is from Castang's point of view, several chapters are told by Vera, Castang's Slovak-born wife, who defected to France while competing as a gymnast. These chapters are close to literary masterpieces - the unrestrained and seemingly disjointed stream of consciousness adds depth and power. The story of Vera's first visit to her native country is moving - maybe just for me, though; I had similar feelings when visiting my native country for the first time about a quarter of the century ago.

I love Nicolas Freeling's books. I share his bitter, cynical outlook on life (I am now exactly the same age, 64, as he was when writing this book) and I share his unabashed Europeanness. I just wish I had a tiny little bit of his literary talent. If I worked eight hours a day, day after day, for twenty years, I would not be able to produce even one page of such remarkable prose.

Four stars

Here's the beginning of e.e. cumming's poem:

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 9, 2015

To Each His OwnTo Each His Own by Leonardo Sciascia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A faint shadow of suspicion is cast upon a young woman's honor; maybe, just maybe, she talked to a married man too many times. Eventually, the suspicion proves to be unfounded and the woman is clearly not guilty of anything. Yet the family name was - however fleetingly and mistakenly - connected to possible wrongdoing, so the family has no other choice but to punish the woman, and she is "silently, steadily, diligently" beaten by her relatives. This is the world of Leonardo Sciascia's "To Each His Own" (1966), a painfully brutal short novel about the tribal relationships and rituals in a small Italian town. The action takes place in rural Sicily in the second half of the 20th century, but the mechanisms shown by Mr. Sciascia have not changed much for thousands of years in any place where people yearn for money, power, and sex.

The author has disguised this parable of greed and lust as a mystery. Dr. Manno, the town pharmacist, receives an anonymous letter that contains a death threat: "To avenge what you have done, you will die." The doctor treats it as a joke, as do his friends whom he consults about the threat. Yet the next day, during the opening of the hunting season, he is killed along with his partner. The police inquiry does not seem to go anywhere, and professor Laurano, a local literature teacher, begins his own investigation. In the end, professor Laurano's efforts are successful - in certain sense - and we learn why Dr. Manno and his hunting partner had to die. Yet the truth cannot be disclosed and will never become officially known because the fundamental mechanisms that control functioning of the town are based on deep, pervasive corruption of the entire town's elite. And yes, there is mafia, though no one ever mentions it - there is no need to; it is as natural as air or water.

The author offers a fascinating look into small-town Italian politics, where the party allegiances - Fascist, Christian Democratic, Communist, whatever - do not mean a thing, the Left and Right are hollow terms, and the only thing that counts is the system and its Holy Trinity of money, power, and sex. While I mention these three words twice in this review, they are not mentioned at all by any of the characters in the novel. They instead speak of love, honor, hard work, and sacrifice, knowing these are just empty words; everybody knows this, save for poor professor Laurano. Naive simpletons are tolerated in the society as long as they do not make waves.

Many readers will find this short novel depressing, well ... many people are deluded about human nature. But Mr. Sciascia's novel has some lighter passages as well, some of them somewhat erotic in nature yet sparkling with sharpness of observation: "Any and every place in the world where the hem of a skirt was rising a fraction of an inch above the knee, there, within a range of thirty yards, was bound to be a Sicilian, one at least, to spy on the phenomenon. Laurana did not stop to think that he, too, had voraciously caught the white gleam of flesh between black and black, and that he had noticed the group of young hoodlums for the simple reason that he was of the same breed." I hope this passage also shows that the English translation reads well.

Four stars.

View all my reviews

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Lady MacbethLady Macbeth by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For many writers, especially in the so-called mystery or crime novel genre, the prose -meaning the sentences and paragraphs that they put on paper - is just a vehicle to carry the plot. But there are also writers for whom the plot is a secondary concern and who focus on psychological and sociological observations or even on the writing - or perhaps I should say the language - itself. Nicolas Freeling's prose is an outstanding example of the latter approach and he is well known for his extraordinary "turn of a phrase". I believe I would recognize his writing in a blind 'Who wrote it' experiment, based on just a single paragraph. I am enclosing one of the stunning paragraphs at the end of this review. Thank God for Nicolas Freeling!

For whatever it is worth (not much), here is the setup of the plot of Mr. Freeling's "Lady Macbeth" (1988). A gardening architect Guy Lefebvre and his wife Sibille, ex-neighbors of Arlette (one of recurrent characters in Mr. Freeling's novels) leave for a business trip. In the evening Mr. Lefebvre returns alone and claims that his wife left him. Arlette suspects he has killed Sibille and asks her acquaintance, Police Commissaire Henri Castang, to undertake an unofficial investigation. The story is presented in a series of vignettes narrated by different characters.

This is Mr. Freeling's book so the plot is not very important. In fact, I am quite unhappy with the ending, where too much happens and which provides kind of a resolution. I would prefer the mystery to remain unresolved, which would better fit the overall mood of the novel. Also, when one considers what "really" happened, the answer to the question "did he or didn't he?" does not seem important.

There are so many wonderful things in the novel: stunningly vivid portrayal of Europe, with the events taking place in France, close to the German border, among mostly British people. Phrases in French, German, and Spanish frequently appear in the text. One can learn so much about various quirks of the French judiciary system. All characterizations are superb, and the author is fond of puns and word games (I love the word "akshally"). My perhaps favorite twist is that one of the main characters is a British professor, Dr. Davidson. Davidson happens to be Mr. Freeling's birth name.

An extraordinary book, spoiled for me, by the presence of a definite and hardly satisfying ending.

Four and a quarter stars.

Here's just one sample of the Freeling-style (also free-style!) paragraphs (to me this is Prose with a capital 'P' and exclamation marks):

"I was slouching along the verge when I saw a little old man, a 'petit vieux' approaching me in a brisk hobble: the liveliness caught my eye. Beautifully dressed up, cap à pie. A check overcoat looking new and loud - it was a lowering chilly day. Twinkling polished shoes, shirt with a modish sporty cut and a rich silk tie; sharp-pressed legs. On top a curlybrimmed hat with a fresh ribbon. He looked highly rakish, helping himself along with a cane that was newly varnished, had chased silver bands and a bone crook. As he came nearer he was still older than I had thought; eighty, the prehistoric saurian look of an old Mexican peasant - no; birdy and brilliant, the rapid eye of a cultivated Jewish gentleman."

View all my reviews

Monday, May 4, 2015

Closing TimeClosing Time by Jim Fusilli
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What a pleasant surprise! Some years ago I started reading a book by Jim Fusilli - I think it was "Hard Hard City" - and despite really trying, I failed to get past about page 40. So I had been apprehensive before starting his "Closing Time". In addition, when I opened the book I noticed an epigraph from Friedrich Nietzsche. Uh-oh! Yet the novel has proved quite readable, and while not exactly captivating, it is rather well written, and Mr. Fusilli does not shy away from sharing sharp sociological observations with the reader.

Terry Orr, a writer and a father of a precocious twelve-year old, Bella, cannot come to terms with death of his beloved wife and baby son at the hands of a maniac two years earlier. (By the way, can anyone seriously believe that it is possible to fully recover after such an unimaginable tragedy? I doubt it). One night, out for a run, he finds a dead livery cab driver, victim of an assault. Soon after that incident, when he and Bella attend a party in an art gallery owned by Judy, his late wife's friend, the gallery is bombed, and he saves Judy's life. Obsessed by his own revenge drive, Terry becomes sort of a private investigator, working on the cases of the cabbie's killing and gallery bombing, while trying to raise his daughter as best as he can.

Best thing about "Closing Time"? Definitely the portrayal of New York. The author has a great sense of the place and conveys it beautifully in the novel. The conversation with the vice principal of the exclusive school for minority students is another highlight - it shows particular complexities of the racial divide that we normally do not see. Raising a precocious daughter is a tired cliché, but the thread sort of works here, unlike in most other books, and the snobbish world of haute art galleries and their denizens is depicted with flair.

The downside? There are too many characters in the novel, and the author has a pretentious manner of using more complex stylistic devices than needed to forward the plot. Readers who - unlike me - enjoy fast moving plots will be disappointed and may think the book boring. Overall - a good crime novel, psychologically and sociologically solid, though not in any way exceptional.

Three stars.

View all my reviews