Friday, January 25, 2008

Murder, copyright law, Washington, D. C. and Pyongyang: books and reviews

Here is a set of mini-reviews of books I've recently read.

I just read my first ever George Pelecanos book, Soul Circus, which is one of the series of Derek Strange, P. I. novels. I found Soul Circus to be very good. The story starts out with everything going well for Strange and his partner Terry Quinn, who have an urban detective agency in Washington, D. C. However, Quinn is uncomfortable with the job that opens the story, and sounds of the upcoming train wreck start to echo long before the collision happens; a literary Doppler effect, perhaps. This is one book where I accidentally saw comments by others at Amazon. Hmmm... Well, the book deals with the reality of how gun laws in Virginia and nearby States affect life and death in the Capitol. It's curious how people often want to kill the messenger rather than face the message (referring to some of the comments by other readers). Anyway, this is not a perfect novel, but the flaws are relatively minor: in particular, the character and motivation of Quinn are hard to understand (though reading the earlier books would undoubtedly help, given the hints that we do find about his recent past). Nevertheless, there is a highly-authentic feel to the writing, a great use of music to add to the atmosphere, and a tough set of moral ambiguities, and no-so-ambiguous issues, to deal with. If you like crime fiction to move fast, hit hard, and illuminate rather than sugar-coat life, this is well-worth reading.

Errors and Omissions, by Paul Goldstein, is a novel that fell short of my hopes, but that still maintained a good flow and storyline almost all the way through. It deals with legal rights of ownership by artists and writers, ethics in Hollywood (or the lack thereof), the McCarthy era blacklists, and murder. The book also deals with the effects of the past on people, even many decades later, and gives an unromantic picture of alcoholism. Errors and Omissions is a legal thriller with a fresh perspective, though the plot needed more planning- every now and then the story seems to tread water. I can still say I'm glad that I read the book, which managed to mix a lot of fascinating and tragic history into the contemporary tale, and I hope to see more from the author.

A Corpse in the Koryo was published under the pseudonym James Church. The author is a former intelligence officer who was stationed for many years in Asia, and he gives us a very unusual story because of the setting: North Korea. In fact, "The Koryo" is a major hotel in Pyongyang, the capitol of North Korea. In part a Pyongyang police procedural, the novel presents a complex and compelling story told by the protagonist, Inspector O, in a series of reminiscences that are inter-cut with a current interrogation. The glimpse of North Korean culture is fascinating, and there is plenty of action to keep the story going at fast pace, though things never accelerate beyond the author's ability to control the trajectory of the plot. An occasional war-time or childhood memory from Inspector O helps moderates the pace, but these are always a pleasure to read rather than merely a literary device. I did detect a bit of a shift in the Inspector's personality in the last third of the book, but that may have been an illusion because I read much of that out loud, clearly a different experience from solitary reading in the middle of the night. I also need to mention that, somewhat to my surprise, I don't think I understood everything that took place in the story, but this confusion and the many levels of alliances and treachery probably added realism to the story. I doubt that many events in North Korea are ever fully understood by its people, given all of the forces at play and the way that information is controlled; for example, military security is at odds with both state security and local police, and all vie for control of corrupt operations. This is the best book of the three mentioned here, and I'm happy to see that there is another Inspector O mystery to read.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Shadow of the Shadow by Paco Ignacio Taibo II, translated by William I. Neuman

Having neglected Latin American literature for too long, we’ll delve into this gem from noted novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II (apparently known as PIC II by his friends). The author was born in Spain but moved to Mexico nearly 50 years ago. He writes in various genres, including historical fiction, revolutionary biography and crime fiction. PIC II published a recent collaboration (The Uncomfortable Dead) with the renowned Mexican rebel leader from Chiapas, Subcomanandate Marcos of the Zapatista Revolutionary Army, or Zapatista Army of National Liberation. PIC II also started Semana Negra, or Noir Week, a week-long crime fiction festival in Gijón, the Spanish town where he was born. This is the very festival that contemporary Cuban crime writer, Amir Valle, was attending when he was declared persona non grata by the Cuban government.

The Shadow of The Shadow (TSOTS) is a novel of Mexican revolution, of ordinary men doing the extraordinary, of military and political corruption, of unions vs. the establishment, of racism, and of the bountiful variety of Mexican life, love, and the pursuit of liberty. TSOTS follows a group of domino-playing friends through adventures and perilous encounters, all of which were started by a chance observation and a subtle set of inconsistencies, and which are pursued with the undying loyalty and hunger for the truth that bind the men together.

At the very start, we meet the main cast: the poet Fermín Valencia, who is a native of Spain- Gijón no less; journalist Pioquinto Manterola; the lawyer Verdugo; and a union organizer of Chinese-Mexican heritage named Tomás Wong (or simply The Chinaman). The men are playing a regular, late-night game of backgammon in the empty, barely-lit basement bar of Mexico City’s Majestic Hotel. To say this is a motley crew would be a significant understatement, and Verdugo, whose career is fully occupied by the legal requirements of prostitutes, typifies their lives of the fringes of society. However, this is also a lovable group: they engender respect from the reader by their loyalty to each other, their bravado, their humanity, the way they bleed when cut, and an adherence to a moral code that is as clear to them as is the blue sky over Sonora.

The year is 1922. Men carry side-arms as essential accessories to any set of clothes, because these are dangerous times. The poet Valencia, who makes his living, such as it is, writing advertising jingles, is a five-foot tall, nearsighted and slightly-built combat veteran, formerly of Pancho Villa’s army. With typical bravado and vanity, Valencia wears a full mustache and tall leather boots, but almost never wears the thick glasses that he needs to see much of anything. However, Valencia's vision doesn't fail him much when he witnesses the cold-blooded assassination of a military trombonist during a performance by the First Artillery Regiment Brass Band. Being on the scene, he learns some inside information and relates it to his friends over the next games of dominoes.

That very game is interrupted by a brief and unpleasant interlude with a trio of Army officers, who refer to our friends as third-class citizens and mock Wong's Chinese heritage. Wong responds by firmly punching a lieutenant in the face. With smooth coordination, the lawyer covers his friend with a pistol and the poet prevents the downed man from drawing his pistol, leaving the officers with nothing to do but slink off. Then, things really begin to heat up.

While waiting for a sketch artist to finish illustrating an article about the recent murder of two decorated Army officers, the reporter Manterola looks out the window of his third floor newspaper office and daydreams. After inadvertently tossing his cigarette at beautiful woman on the street below, Manterola watches, stunned, as a man flies through the glass of a 3rd floor window on the opposite side of the street. Looking straight through the broken window across from him, Manterola sees a familiar face. The reporter then rushes downstairs to record the details of the dead man and his fall.

An important subplot that parallels and intersects the novel's mysteries is the struggle between union man Wong and management, who use thugs and ultimately the Army in an attempt to repress workers' rights.

Meanwhile, another game takes shape alongside dominoes, one that Holmes and Watson would enjoy, as the men discuss, puzzle through and piece together some connections that link the recent violent events. Each brings unique training and skills to the game, in addition to a shared courage, and they unravel the mystery against the backdrop of union action.

The storyline is intricate but accessible, and it pulls the reader along with well-orchestrated suspense, reflection, observation and action. This is much more than a mystery story, however. Though it is never forced or heavy-handed, the novel allows us to learn about Mexican society of the 1920's. In many ways, it isn't a pretty picture, though we come across plenty of beauty in Mexico itself: the countryside, the Mexican people (no matter how marginalized), their courage under constant fire, and the language of the author all provide a welcome and often heroic contrast to the corruption and violence that stain nearly every political and business endeavor.

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Missing Comments

note: I have recovered missing comments as text in the previous posts. I'll add links shortly.

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