T describes new modes of behaviour, new versions of human character, new shades and varieties of good and evil, and implicitly criticises them,’’ wrote Californian author Ross Macdonald of the popular crime novel. ‘‘ It holds us still and contemplative for a moment, caught like potential shoplifters who see their own furtive images in a scanning mirror and wonder if the store detective is looking.’’
I’ve had several crackers on the go this past month, a large pile filled with those ‘‘ furtive images’’ by the bed, another by the couch, sometimes dipping in and out of competing narratives, absorbed by crime fiction’s ability to reinvent itself. That’s even though the market is increasingly crowded and the usual suspects are stranger than they used to be and there are a lot more of them — especially now crime has gobbled up the conventions and content of horror writing, and what’s now known as translation crime has proliferated.
Let’s start with Euro crime, an increasingly rich variation on the translation genre. At 629 pages, Italian Roberto Costantini’s debut novel, The Deliverance of Evil (Quercus, $29.99), translated by NS Thompson, is a slow burner, complex and dense. At times it’s tiring to read, let alone hold up in the light, but once hooked you grind through the night — a joyride into the heart of darkness to the novel’s redemptive conclusion.
Costantini delivers a kind of composite political thriller and relentlessly plotted Italian police procedural, written with grave literary poise. A huge success in many European countries, especially Germany, the weighty novel went into its third reprinting within a week of being published in Italy and was the only debut book among the five finalists in Italy’s 2011 Scerbanenco Prize, receiving special mention as ‘‘ debut work revealing itself as a great promise for noir fiction’’.
It’s the first of a trilogy featuring the not yet quite likable former fascist agitator Michele Balistreri, head of Rome’s Special Section, a kind of maverick seemingly already in decline. On the day of the World Cup final in 1982, the womanising Balistreri, drunk and frustrated, becomes involved in investigating the murder of the saintly Elisa Sordi, whose mutilated body has been discovered on the exposed gravel bed of the Tiber, just past Ponte Milvio. His investigation less than perfect, he continues to serve and risk his life for the state, rising through the ranks in a cloud of remorse, swallowing antidepressants and reduced to putting off death for as long as possible.
In 2006, the Italian team is again in the final and the country has caught World Cup fever again — but then the body of another young woman is found. Balistreri alone keeps an open mind when the local Roma community is accused of harbouring the criminals who assaulted and killed her. A conspiracy emerges linking government, the Vatican and the police, a whole society depraved by corruption. And just what are the connections to the death of Elisa Sordi?
I am glad I hung in with Balistreri, a fascinating protagonist who, though a misogynist at the start, becomes increasingly complex as the plot unfolds in this fine stateof-the-nation thriller. As British critic Barry Forshaw said recently: ‘‘ The growing success of crime fiction in translation is built on the awareness among readers that the best writers are social commentators with as acute a grasp of the way their country works as journalists.’’
This is certainly true of Adrian McKinty, whose second Detective Inspector Sean Duffy novel, I Hear the Sirens in the Street (Serpent’s Tail, 334pp, $29.99), has been lurking in the pile for a couple of months. The first in the series, The Cold Cold Ground, found Duffy newly promoted and posted to Carrickfergus CID, ‘‘ that stinky Proddy hell hole’’, in Northern Ireland in 1981 at the height of the Troubles.
Now living in Melbourne, Northern Ireland-born McKinty took us inside the sectarian violence as Duffy, a Catholic cop trusted by no one in a Protestant town, struggled with two different cases: one was possibly Northern Ireland’s first serial killer, someone preying on homosexuals; the other was the suicide of a young woman that might just have been murder. Now in the new novel he’s got a man’s headless naked torso in a suitcase dumped in an abandoned factory, army helicopters are still flying low over the lough, sirens are wailing in County Down, and the sound of mortars or explosions is a distant thump-thump.
McKinty is seriously brilliant, his flair for language matched by his remarkable feel for place, appetite for redemptive violence and seriously cool appreciation of characters who reject conformity. There are echoes of Dennis Lehane, Joseph Wambaugh, Eoin McNamee and even Raymond Chandler, but McKinty is resolutely his own hard man.
The Danes again clawed their way to the top of the reading pile with The Hanging (Bloomsbury, 298pp, $24.99), the first in a six-part series introducing Copenhagen police investigator Konrad Simonsen, another book demanding to be read quickly. Written by sister and brother Lotte and Soren Hammer (aka ‘‘ the Hammers’’?), this dark atmospheric thriller intercuts a dogged procedural investigation with close-up sequences of those responsible for some grisly killings, a difficult shifting of perspectives handled adroitly.
Early one morning in Bagsvaerd, a Copenhagen suburb, two children find the naked corpses of five men hanging from the ceiling of their school gym, each suspended by a single rope, each with his face mutilated, all hanging in a geometric pattern. The scene resembles a public execution and when word leaks out that the dead men were all child molesters, public opinion shifts in favour of the killer, assumed to have taken revenge on behalf of the victims of abuse. The truth is less straightforward, the inquiry complicated by the apparent suicide of a key witness, the intriguing Per Clausen, and the problems of any investigation when justice is considered to have been accomplished.
Far away from The Hanging’s bleak and silent falling rain is the steady grey drizzle that greets Quinn Colson, an army ranger returning to life in fictional Tibbehah County in remote North Mississippi, heading south on the highway in a truck he bought in Phenix City, Alabama. A US Army rucksack sits beside him, stuffed with enough clothes for a week along with a sweet Colt .44 Anaconda he won in a poker game.
Colson is the protagonist in Ace Atkins’s The Ranger (Corsair, 339pp, $24.99), the first in what’s certain to be a hugely popular series, with its echoes of Lee Child, Greg Iles, CJ Box and Urban Waite.
When Waite’s The Terror of Living arrived a year or so ago, something about it said ‘‘ read me now’’, maybe the echoes of James Lee Burke and Cormac McCarthy that came off the first few pages. Atkins, a former crime reporter for the Tampa Tribune, writes the same kind of fate-laden poetry as those gents and a touch of what may be called country gothic (though some call it redneck noir), and the new novel is another one-sit read. Colson returns to a place where corruption is rife, his mother is still playing Elvis Presley’s version of How Great Thou Art on the stereo, tipsy on margaritas and gospel, and his uncle, Korean War veteran Hampton Beckett, is being lowered into the ground to the sounds of a 21-gun salute.
The cops say the old man stumbled with a .44 in his hand, contemplating the world as damned unlivable, and checked himself out. Learning his uncle was almost certainly murdered — the .44 way out of reach and an entry point that wouldn’t make sense to a blind man — he’s determined to find the truth. But his quest is complicated by a pregnant girl of 16 with a sweet little peashooter she’s stolen from her grandmother, a sister who has become a lap dancer, and Lillie Virgil from the local sheriff’s office, once a cop in Memphis, returned to local town Jericho because her mother is dying of cancer.
Atkins’s prose is spare and poetic, full of telling detail, his influences as diverse as Burt Reynolds films, Dashiell Hammett and the crime fiction of William Faulkner. (The novel comes with an endorsement from Elmore Leonard: ‘‘ Atkins can run rings around most of the names in the crime field.’’)
‘‘ I always wanted to work on a novel that felt like an old Johnny Cash ballad — a soldier returning home to town, unrequited love, guns and violence,’’ Atkins says, and he listened to a lot of Cash and loads of outlaw country when coming up with the background of Quinn Colson. The Ranger ain’t pretty but it should go to the top of your next pile, a novel of hard-edged character and a distinctive sense of place.