Sunday, March 8, 2009

Detective Fiction Set in Laos, Australia and Spain

In keeping with my recent, brief remarks about the books I've been reading, some gems from SOHO press are presented here. My reviewing is far behind my reading, so there's still plenty more to come.

Thirty-Three Teeth
by Colin Cottrell. One doesn't normally expect to end up in the "recently liberated" Communist Laos of 1977, especially in the company of a very elderly doctor who serves as national coroner. However, what a delight Dr. Paiboun is- he takes us on a journey through the ancient and semi-modern traditions of a country trying to establish a "proper" Communist bureaucracy... what an ambition to have... but the ambition is not shared by the good doctor or most of his friends and acquaintances. The book stays away from overt politics for the most part, though there is reference to a Washington delegation that demands access to American MIA's, in spite of continued insistence that there never were U.S. troops in or over Laos.

An important character in Cottrell's novel is Nurse Dtui, whom her boss thinks highly of, but who is consistently underestimated by everyone except her mother. The combination of Paiboun and Dtui, both independent, one old and the other young, ends up being formidable. Add traditional Laotian spirits into the mix as Cottrell did, and a rich, unusual story results. The wonderful journey is far more important than the satisfying conclusion.

Death by Demonstration
by Patricia Carlon is not the masterpiece that I found her novel The Unquiet Night to be (see my review of that great thriller here). Death by Demonstration seems dated in its treatment of "naive" student protesters and in its rather blind respect for government authority, a respect that one would be hard-pressed to find these days in most places I'm familiar with. The story itself does involve an excellent mystery, a clever detective, and a cast of rogues, bystanders and victims who are not all what they appear to be. Carlon writes well, as usual, and reading for the words, paragraphs and characters is satisfying. Things droop only when the misplaced moralizing pops up in the text; it is quite organic to the story, but very much in the wrong, as we know now (in my opinion). A product of its time, Death by Demonstration is recommended with only minor reservations.

Death of a Nationalist (Soho Crime)
by Rebecca Pawel. This is a remarkably emotional story (it was, for me, anyway). Pawel's novel is about a fascist soldier/member of the guardia civil in Spain, and takes place immediately after the conclusion of Franco's takeover. Sergeant Tejada is a committed fascist, a believer, who is stationed in Madrid after taking part in some of the war's most terrible battles. He dispenses the fascist version of justice swiftly and without remorse, calmly shooting a woman dead for her suspected role in the murder of a fellow officer. However, Tejada is not a fool (in every way), and he doggedly, even creatively, continues his investigation of the murder, in part because the victim was a close friend.

The trail of evidence leads to the black market and provides some disturbing and seemingly out of character revelations about Tejada's former comrade-in-arms. As things progress, Tejada surprises even himself by developing an admiration for some enemies of the state. There is no middle ground, of course, and the parallels between Franco and recent US administrations are disturbing: you are either on their side or you are not a patriot. Of course, in post-war Spain, the punishment for dissent was brutal.

This terrific first novel recreates Spain in the aftermath of civil war and describes the deprivations of regular citizens who suffered through food shortages, purges and burgeoning totalitarianism. Death of a Nationalist is a remarkable story of a character development that occurs against all odds, as the truth keeps showing its inconvenient self through the investigative work of the diligent and dogged Sergeant.

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