CRIME FILE:

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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