Act of Passion by Georges Simenon

act of passionAct of Passion by Georges Simenon, translated by Louise Varèse

Originally published 1947 as Lettre á Mon Juge

This edition: New York Review Press Classics, 2011

 

Act of Passion is the most disturbing book I’ve read this year. It’s one of Simenon’s non-Maigret novels, ones he called romans durs. It’s also rare in Simenon’s novels because it’s a first person story.  Dr. Charles Alavoine after being found guilty of manslaughter (the act of passion in the title), writes a letter to the examining magistrate explaining how actually he planned the murder. The letter is his plea to be understood, and it’s pretty obvious that someone who wants to declare how he planned murder is not the most easy character to read.

It’s a book about a criminal’s mind, and the story gets worse as it goes along as we approach the recap of the murder. Alavoine’s view of women is quite horrid, and his crime is quite horrible as well. I couldn’t stop reading in part because this book is such a contrast to the Maigret series and because I mistakenly thought the narrator would have a flash of insight.

A few things in the novel place it in 1947 for me:  (1) the focus on psychoanalysis; (2) Alavoine’s journey from the provinces to a larger city strikes me as particularly of the period; and (3) the mention of tubercular husbands..

It’s not a pleasant book. Alavoine is  not a sympathetic main character. And it’s a book where the main character’s rationalizations do not make sense to me either. I don’t feel like a psychoanalyst, but I do feel like a gawker by reading this very unsettling book.

Finally, a couple suggestions for further reading: first an interesting conversation in the comments about recommended Simenon novels see Asylum, and this lengthy piece in Open Letters Monthly discusses the romans durs along with a spoiler-laden discussion of this particular novel.

I borrowed the book from the library.

A Few Thoughts on the Serial Podcast

Serial is a podcast spin-off of This American Life, and this particular version of the series investigates the 15 year old murder conviction of Adnan Syed. He was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in Baltimore, and the podcasts detail Sarah Koenig’s year-long investigation into the case.

I don’t typically read, watch, or listen to true crime stories because they either feel too formulaic (48 Hours Investigates) or too messy (this podcast). I like crime fiction both because it organizes messy stories of crimes and because sometimes it’s clear what really happened. In the eight episodes I’ve listened to so far, the holes in the investigation, the holes in the evidence, and the inconsistencies in witness statements make it seem like the task of finding out what really happened is impossible. Nevertheless, I’m in the Adnan-is-innocent camp despite Koenig’s attempted approach of being impartial. The trial excerpts and other interviews I’ve heard on the podcast make me see all kinds of reasonable doubt in the prosecution’s case, but, of course, I’m saying that without having been a witness to the six week trial. There is a lot that this podcast leaves out, but I’ve jotted down a few thought in general about the series:

  1. Re-investigating a crime that happened fifteen years ago is incredibly difficult. It’s hard to track down witnesses, it’s hard for those witnesses to remember back that far, it’s hard to find out what evidence has not been destroyed.
  2. Serial’s investigation must have been quite costly. The collect calls from Adnan in prison alone have to be pricey.
  3. As a long-time fan of Laura Lippman and David Simon, lots of the Baltimore County locations are familiar, including Leakin Park.
  4. I don’t have time to go down the Reddit rabbithole of people trying to solve the case. I do, however, recommend the blog of Rabia Chaudry, a friend of Adnan’s family who brought the case to Sarah Koenig’s attention.
  5. My favorite episode so far included a long conversation with Deirdre Enright of the University of Virginia Innocence Project Clinic. Her years of experience reviewing criminal case files was much more interesting to me than Koenig’s story of her thoughts about the case during the course of her investigation. I wonder what the clinic’s review of the file will yield.
  6. I’m not sure what the ending of the series will be: will it be more about Koenig or more about Syed.

All in all, I recommend this podcast.

 

All She Was Worth by Miyuki Miyabe

all she was worth

All She Was Worth by Miyuki Miyabe
Translated by Alfred Birnbaum
Kodansha International, 1996
Originally published as Kasha, 1992
I borrowed the book from the library.

It took quite awhile for me to find a translated crime novel from Asia I’d like to finish for the Global Reading Challenge– a problem I ran into last year as well. First of all, there aren’t so many crime novels written by Asians that are translated into English. Secondly, I tried a few novels I just wasn’t in the mood to read because their tone was too noir (Yoshida) or or something I can’t quite label (Higashino).

Despite the very disturbing cover, I liked this book. The story centers on a missing persons case: injured and recuperating police detective Honma investigates his cousin’s son’s fiancee’s disappearance, and the story revolves around overextended consumer borrowers who are harrassed by legal and yakuza bill collectors. From the description, the cover image seems a little on-the-nose.

The story is a bit slow and the plot relies a bit heavily on coincidences, complaints I feel like I make with other missing-persons novels, but Honma is an engaging character. Since he’s on leave from the police department, the book doesn’t get into office dynamics and instead focuses on his homelife with his young son and nanny (he was widowed a few years before the novel takes place).

Two aspects of the story make it feel particularly Japanese, one major and one minor: first is the background of the Consumer Finance Scare of the 1980′s, and second is Honma’s reliance on bullet trains. The easy credit part of the story is crucial to the missing persons case, and it sounds an awful lot like the housing bubble of the 2000′s. And the existence of bullet trains and the communities that grow around them stands out for me since I live in a part of the world without widespread train service.

Finally, I want to include the funniest bit from Miyabe’s author bio, “In her spare time, she enjoys playing video games and singing karaoke.” It reads a little like,”Authors: they’re just like us!”

Other reviews appear in Complete Review, Petrona, and Black Plume.

 

 

The Fourth Secret by Andrea Camilleri

fourth secretThe Fourth Secret by Andrea Camilleri

Translated by Gianluca Rizzo and Dominic Siracusa

Open Door Media, November 2014

Originally published as La paura di Montalbano, 2002

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I’m a sucker for novellas or short stories featuring characters I really like, and this is an important installment in the Inspector Montalbano series for spoiler-filled reasons that I won’t mention. Montalbano unofficially investigates a series of industrial accidents that may not have been accidents after he receives a belated tip-off. He is driven by guilt because he was unable to prevent the death of one construction worker, and he’s also driven to investigate the accidents because he would like to outdo the carabinieri, the military police, who are also pursuing the accidents.

Wikipedia led me to find out that this story was one featured in a collection titled La paura di Montalbano, and I’m not sure why this translated edition is just one story instead of six. Reading just a one-off makes it a bit difficult to say much more about the story or the context, but I enjoyed the story.

 

 

Long May She Reign by Ellen Emerson White

long may she reignLong May She Reign by Ellen Emerson White

Feiwel and Friends, 2007

The President’s Daughter book 4

I bought my copy of the book.

Sometime well into adulthood I discovered The President’s Daughter series by Ellen Emerson White. Written in the 1980′s, they feature Meg Powers,  the teenage daughter of a female senator and then first female President of the United States. They are full of teen angst, complicated family relationships, and, in White House Autumn, a horrible crime. Meg is kidnapped and held hostage, and then the series was on hiatus for over ten years. In 2007, Emerson White published the next installment in the series, and it feels like an adult book. Meg is coping with the physical and emotional effects of her capture and imprisonment, and after a long section at the White House, she leaves for college in Western Massachusetts.

It is very much a political novel (Meg is quite interested in a political future), it’s very much a novel about coping with something horrible that happened to you and processing it– that alone allies it with the vast majority of crime novels I’m drawn to. I’m always curious how characters cope with such senselessly horrible things that happen to them and their loved ones. Finally, it’s a novel about growing up and going away to college. The very interesting character of Meg is what kept me going in this long book that has quite serious moments as she deals with her family and friends as she’s coping with trauma and rehabilitation. She’s funny, she’s smart, she’s stubborn: she is a messy character, and I find those so refreshing.

I simply adored this book: it felt like a long, thoughtful book revisiting characters I was very fond of some time ago instead of a rushed novel. I like series in general, and this one is one of my favorites because the conclusion was so damn good. My only regret about the book was that Meg abandoned her beloved drink of choice, Tab, for the more 21-century-appropriate Coke in this novel, but that doesn’t even rise to the level of real regret.

 

Book vs. Movie: Before the Fact by Francis Iles and Suspicion by Alfred Hitchcock

Before the FactBefore the Fact by Francis Iles

The Gregg Press, 1979

Originally published 1932

I borrowed this book from the library.

 

Before the Fact is a psychological thriller that has a quite captivating first paragraph and delves into a story about money, a very odd marriage, and murder. It sounds quite contemporary, but there are several things that place the book firmly in the year 1932: the economy is in shambles. Work is hard to come by, and there are limits on taking English currency out of the country, which is a crucial part of the plot.

Lina McLaidlaw is an older  unmarried woman– nearly 30 years old– who lives with her wealthy parents in the country, and she falls in love with Johnnie Ayrsgard, a disreputable man from a formerly-wealthy family. The novel chronicles the ups and downs of her marriage to Johnnie and follows the turns of her relationship with him. Over the course of 10 years, she finds out what crimes he is willing to commit in order to sustain his standard of living. Their relationship is quite twisted and codependent, but codependent is not a word much bandied about in 1932, when this book takes place.

The introduction in my edition is from H.R.F. Keating, and he calls it a primo psychological novel in terms or focusing on characters and their subconscious unlike lots of earlier works. It’s a sort of incomprehensible subconscious to me: she has money and means to escape Johnnie, but she refuses to do so. Part of it has to do with how much Johnnie has manipulated her during the course of the 10 years this book covers, but part of it too is her own personality: she feels extremely grateful that Johnnie rescued her from spinsterhood. Iles does not go into Johnnie’s mind, which is fine by me, but it makes for a bit of an odd story because the other characters are not nearly as well-developed as Lina is.

I also watched the Alfred Hitchcock version of the book, Suspicion (1941), starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine. The obvious differences between the book and the film involve the beginning and the end. The first paragraph of the book is quite creepy, a tone that is utterly missing in the film:

Some women give birth to murderers, some got to bed with them, and some marry them. Lina Ayrsgarth had lived with her husband for nearly eight years before she realized that she was married to a murderer.

The film is much more oblique, as the title Suspicion points too: the film constantly plays with the question of whether Lina is misinterpreting events. and Iles himself is quite clear that she cannot underestimate Johnnie’s criminality. Also, according to an interview in a DVD extra, the ending of the film was not Hitchcock’s choice, nor was it in any way like the ending of the book: Cary Grant comes off a lot better in the movie than Johnnie does in the book, and it’s a much cleaner ending for Lina as well in the film. The ending of the book is one worth much discussion, and though the book is ancient, I don’t want to go into it in much detail here.

My preference is for the book over the film: even though I didn’t understand all the levels of Lina and Johnnie’s marriage in the book, the story was much more nuanced in the book than in the film. And the tone was much creepier in the book as well.

Martin Edwards wrote an interesting piece in Mystery Scene Magazine about Anthony Berkeley (Francis Iles was a pen name), and Shelf Love featured another comparison of the book and film.

 

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

being mortalBeing Mortal by Atul Gawande

Henry Holt, October 2014

Disclosure: I received a review copy via LibraryThing Early Readers.

I really wanted to read Being Mortal after reading an excerpt several months ago in The New Yorker. The chapter is called “Letting Go,” and the piece followed a young mother diagnosed with cancer making end-of-life care decisions. The book as a whole is a combination of policy discussion and narratives, and overall it’s very affecting stuff.

Gawande starts the book with some history of medicine and elder care options (he’s part sociologist, part gerontologist, part surgeon, part son throughout the book). As a book about things that people find difficult to talk about, this book is invaluable. As a manifesto about reforming nursing homes and assisted living centers, it’s very effective.

As tough as the subject of this book is, it was a very good: the writing is not dry. And because he uses stories about his own family members as well as some stories of his patients, Gawande is constantly providing context to his points about how to lead a meaningful life while you are dying.

Highly recommended.

 

Voices by Arnaldur Indriðason

voicesVoices by Arnaldur Indriðason

Translated by Bernard Scudder

Vintage,2006

Originally published as Röddin, 2003

 

While he was waiting Erlendur looked at the souvenirs in the shop, sold at inflated prices: plates with pictures of Gullfoss and Geysir painted on them, a carved figurine of Thor with his hammer, key rings with fox fur, posters showing whale species off the Icelandic coast, a sealskin jacket that would set him back a month’s salary. He thought about buying a memento of this peculiar Tourist-Iceland that exists only in the minds of rich foreigners, but he couldn’t see anything cheap enough. p. 185

Voices takes place in a sort of version of Tourist-Iceland. Inspector Erlendur investigates the stabbing death of a hotel Santa Claus found in sordid circumstances in the basement of said hotel just before Christmas, which is peak tourist season. Erlendur takes up residence in the hotel for less than a week, but this is not a sort of locked-room mystery: there are too many people coming and going from the hotel and he’s pressured not to alarm the guests too much so the hotel is not on lockdown during the investigation.

Parallel to the murder investigation, Elinborg is handling a trial of suspected child abuse that she can’t avoid being affected by, and Erlendur remembers many more details about the disappearance of his younger brother, a story I was eager to read after the last installment in the series.

The story of the deceased Santa, a former child star on the brink of international fame as a pre-pubescent choirboy, was affecting in parts and a bit predictable in parts. I do admit the actual murderer was a surprise for me though. Elinborg’s case was more affecting and surprising to me.

This series is one of my favorites, and though this book didn’t affect me as much as Silence from the Grave, it was still a good story. Sometimes I actually get back to series I love more than once a year, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a reminder to me to spend less time on new releases and catch up on older books.

Other reviews appear in EuroCrime (Norman), The Game’s Afoot (Jose Ignacio), and Novel Heights (Suzi).

I bought my copy of the book.

Cobra by Deon Meyer

cobraCobra by Deon Meyer, translated by K.L. Seegers

Originally published as Kobra, 2013

Atlantic Monthly Press, October 2014

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Sometimes I feel like I’m lukewarm about quite a few books I read, and it may have to do with my energy levels going towards other things in my life besides reading, but this book, which I read just as I was getting over a bad cold, was just the thriller-jolt I needed to read to get out of the doldrums. I’m a fan of fast-paced, slightly preposterously-plotted books like those by Jo Nesbø, or big conspiracy thrillers like those by Alan Glynn, and after trying one of Meyer’s earlier books, Devil’s Peak, earlier this year, I began Cobra with lowered expectations.

Part of my surprise was reading a book that didn’t involve two overlapping storylines, one in the past and one in the present (I’ve read a lot of books like that in 2014), nor did it involve a strange prologue in the killer’s head or at the scene of a gruesome murder: this book, thankfully, began with the police arriving at the scene of a horrible murder. It’s a little strange to feel glad about that, but I was.

Benny Griessel, part of SAPS (South African Police Service) and a veteran of the police force during apartheid, investigates multiple murders linked by bullets etched with a cobra, and they appear to be professional hits. The overlapping storyline is told from the perspective of Tyrone Kleinbooi, a professional pickpocket trying to earn enough money for his sister to get to and through medical school.

The joys of this book were the compressed storyline, not too unbelievable characters (though characters are not the main focus here), and a thoughtful reflection on crime and levels of crime– crime that goes unpunished and crime that is prosecuted based on your economic status. It wasn’t overly moralistic, though, which is important. And finally, the extensive glossary and background information at the back of the novel was so helpful. Meyer and Seegers include lots of different slang and leave lots of language untranslated throughout the novel, but the definitions and background materials in the back flesh out the terms even more.

 

Only the Dead by Vidar Sundstøl

only the deadOnly the Dead by Vidar Sundstøl, translated by Tiina Nunnally

University of Minnesota Press, September 2014

Minnesota trilogy book 2

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Only the Dead is a short sort of thriller that feels very different than the first book in the Minnesota trilogy, The Land of Dreams. It works best if you’ve read the first book in the trilogy, which involves U.S. Forest Service officer Lance Hansen’s  investigation into the stabbing death of a Norwegian tourist at Baraga’s Cross at the Cross River on the Northern Shore of Lake Superior, but if you’re one for taut thrillers, I’d skip the first lengthy book and start with this one. He believes it to be the first murder ever in the county until he suspects one of his ancestors of having murdered Swamper Caribou, an Ojibwe settler. The two stories alternate in this book as well as in the first book, and they take on a sort of hallucinatory quality.

So what exactly goes on in Only the Dead is a series of hunting trips with Lance and his brother Andy, whom he suspects murdered the Norwegian tourist. Lance is fueled by guilt because another man is in jail facing murder charges, but he can’t prove that his brother is the murderer. Andy in turn is suspicious of his brother, and their hunting excursions in increasingly dire weather in early winter are very suspenseful.

I read this book because I’m invested in the case of the dead Norwegian kayaker, and I’m glad this book felt like a surprise compared to the first one. It’s a thoughtful book as Lance tries to come to terms with his family’s past and his ancestor’s past (he discovered he has Ojibwe ancestors in the last book). I wonder how the case develops in the next installment, entitled Ravens, and I wonder what kind of format that book will take: meditative crime story or a thriller?