February 6, 2008


Blood On The Borders: Crime fiction from all over (Clive James, April 9, 2007, The New Yorker)

If you’ve spent a couple of years being unable to get past the opening chapter of one of the later novels of Henry James, it’s hard to resist the idea that there might be a more easily enjoyable version of literature: a crime novel, for example. After all, quite a few literary masterpieces spend much of their turgid wordage being almost as contrived as any crime novel you’ve ever raced through. On page 13 of my edition of “The Wings of the Dove,” Kate Croy is waiting for her father to appear: “He had not at present come down from his room, which she knew to be above the one they were in.” But of course she knew that, knew it so well that she wouldn’t have to think about it; she is thinking about it only so that she can tell us. If a narrative is going to be as clumsy as that, can’t it have some guns?

It’s been a long time since Sherlock Holmes cracked his first case, and by now every country in the world must have at least one fictional detective with half a dozen novels to his name. Some countries seem to have a dozen detectives with twenty or thirty novels each. We long for these sleuths to be surrounded by classy prose, like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, so that we can get the art thrill and the thriller thrill at once. Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean. Great idea, great sound, great sociological significance. But above all an eventful narrative to make you read on. Something unputdownable, to make you feel better about dreaming of ways to enliven the unpickupable: “Kate Croy looked at the fully dressed but headless corpse hanging from the ceiling fan and realized with a surge of fear that, unless there was another equally well tailored man with the same cufflinks, this was her father.”

If the author does that kind of stuff well enough, he starts counting as literature. [...]

A requirement of today’s lone detective is that the police force he serves on be riven by faction if not corruption, so that he has adversaries on the inside to contend with. That requirement is easily met in Italy, where what seems like dozens of different police forces jostle to get on the take. Against such a background, the lone detectives are in many cases invented by writers who are not native Italians, but just visiting.

My younger daughter, a crime-fiction maven, was the one who tipped me off that the Italian maverick cop who really counted was Commissario Brunetti, created by Donna Leon. Inspector Brunetti operates in Venice. Donna Leon, however, is not Venetian, or even Italian. She may have lived in Venice for twenty-five years, but she benefits mightily from the outsider’s traditional love of the Serenissima. Donna Leon is an American, and although the Brunetti novels are best-sellers in many languages, she has so far not allowed their translation into Italian. Thus her fans are either non-Italians (she’s especially big in Germany) or Italians who read foreign languages. It seems a fair guess that the factor uniting them all is a sad involvement with Venice. In every fan’s first-pick Brunetti novel, “Acqua Alta,” Leon gives intimate details of the decaying city while never delaying the action. Hers is an unusually potent cocktail of atmosphere and event.

Always vowing to give up soon, I have read about ten Brunetti novels and have got well past the stage of remembering what happens in which book, even though the author is pretty good at not letting background detail overwhelm foreground action. You always know which canal the body is in, but the inspector never takes his eye off the way it has been lashed to the piling. (“Although the fish and crabs had been at her during the high water of September, he knew it must be the Englishwoman, Kate Croy.”) Usually, in this sort of book, the sleuth is divorced, eating a snatched sandwich and drinking hard, especially if he is Irish. But Inspector Brunetti can’t wait to get home to his hot wife and her subtle tricks with the calamari. He is kept on the case, however, by crimes of rare intricacy that would take time to solve even if he were not frustrated all the way by an incompetent senior officer. Meanwhile, the beautiful city sinks slowly but irretrievably into a sea of corruption. Down these mean streets a man must row who is not himself mean.

Another of the vast crowd of Italian lone detectives, Inspector Zen, is also the creation of a non-Italian, Michael Dibdin: based in Seattle, background in England and Northern Ireland. Typical among Dibdin’s several Zen novels, “Vendetta” reveals that Dibdin commands a precisely literate prose. He knows what it means to “eke out,” for example. But he doesn’t know that the action would move faster if Inspector Zen—a member of the Criminalpol section of the Ministry of the Interior, where he’s unpopular with his superiors for being too honest—didn’t take what feels like a hundred pages to get across Rome, mentally noting every detail, as if he were a writer. The disadvantage of an author’s being a straniero is thereby starkly revealed. Non-Italians are prone to find Italy too fascinating (a temptation that Donna Leon only just avoids), and the homegrown writer often scores on the level of economical evocation.

Featuring prominently in this department is Andrea Camilleri, the inventor of the Inspector Montalbano mysteries. Montalbano’s bailiwick is Sicily. If mainland Italy is corrupt, Sicily is corrupter, and Montalbano has some plenty-mean streets to walk down. He does so at a brisk pace, and it is because Camilleri knows his background too well to be impressed. He speaks the language.

A typical Montalbano novel, and one that I recommend heartily for when you can spare a couple of sunlit afternoons from “The Wings of the Dove,” is the impeccably grimy “The Shape of Water.” Hookers, junkies, scary crime, inspired sleuthing, great sexual tension between Montalbano and the vampy young female cop Corporal Anna Ferrara. Camilleri can do a character’s whole backstory in half a paragraph, and only rarely do you get that giveaway trade trick by which one character tells another what he already knows, so that you can find out. “You know what he’s like,” says A to B about C, and then proceeds to tell B what C is like, as if B didn’t already know. Nor does Camilleri resort to the trick of planting his protagonist in front of a mirror and giving him Rembrandt’s ability to depict himself.

These mysteries teach you about Italian corruption and explain the the learned political helplessness of its people better than any essay in Foreign Affairs or the Times will.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 6, 2008 8:20 AM

"Learned political helplessness."

I'm going to use that OJ. Though nowhere near that far down the road, I believe that this is where our leaders are taking us.

Thanks for the phrase.

Posted by: Bruno at February 6, 2008 9:28 AM