Friday, 8 April 2016

Watching the Detectives 1 and 2 - "Rain Gods" by James Lee Burke - "Faceless Killers" by Henning Mankell

"For me imagination is key. I especially enjoy fiction when invention is coupled with vivid characterisation.  There is, and has been for a number of years, a thought process that demands ‘realism.’ Being real is a western concept and is vastly overrated. Too often it is nothing more than applied grimness.  Rows of grey curtained windows hiding women lacking make-up sporting facial hair. Balding men with bulging bellies all eating plates full of pizza belching as they swig from beer bottles. It may be representative of small degree but it misses the nature of humankind entirely."

I admit to being prejudice. I also admit to using far too much loo paper and not for the purpose it was intended. What have spiders ever done to me? You see, I am not the biggest fan of ‘grim realism.’ It is far too glum and very unrealistic as far as I am concerned. So, determined to give this genre another try I thought I would do a series of comparative world crime fictions. You know Icelandic versus Australian or, as in this case here, yes right here just below this paragraph, The mighty US of A versus Sweden. A bit like a Mustang taking on a Volvo. There can surely be but one winner?


 “Rain Gods” by James Lee Burke

The problem with this book is that there are no real problems to speak of. Hawkish prose that epitomises the southern states. Like the vocals of John Fogerty, swampy and ragged, sharp as a thistle. James Lee Burke has the admirable ability to encapsulate a characters traits in as few words as possible. Each one as different and individual as he last: Nolan feisty, Jewish and frightened; Jack Collins greasy, lean and living in a vortex where only his logic makes sense; Hugo Cristianos is a livid scar hidden beneath panache and Hackberry Holland, a John Wayne look-a-like, an ex-Korean vet, ex-drunk, womaniser and a man who has seen the ugly side of life on one continent only to revisit it again on another - America. His Deputy is Pam. A woman broad of bottom, wide of hip and large of heart which is pretty much given to her Sheriff. This is the stuff of grim realism fiction. People with problems. No one has Haemorrhoids, though.

Two small town crooks double cross a Russian gangster who smuggles in Asian women carrying polythene bags of heroin in their stomachs. They, the gang lords, give the order to have the women machine gunned. The mistake they make is having a man known as The Preacher (Jack Collins), an evangelical psychopath, to slaughter the females. He gets a scent of another double cross, cuts the finger off one of the low life gangsters who then orders his murder. A Russian gang lord, who is more trouble than all of them thrown together if less insane than the Preacher. Add to this a young couple who are on the run from said Preacher, the interference of an ICE agent but also the FBI, things get uncomfortably screwy. This is more than a decent thriller, almost Cormac McCarthyish in its delivery although with far fewer conjunctions.

It is Burke's restraint that takes his work a league above most of his contemporaries. He lets the narrative wander where others wouldn't think of going but always maintains a tension. The only flaw I could find, and I had to look pretty hard, was when Deputy Pam Tibbs repeatedly coshes Clawson which seemed a little gratuitous. What makes the story stand out is Burke's depiction of the Preacher. Unlike so many nutters featured in fiction, Jack Collins actually invokes sympathy. This is achieved by juxtaposing his callous heart with his redemptive seeking soul. The novels Raison D'etre is the evangelism rife in modern America. It's hypocrisy and its ability to align itself with random acts of violence all perpetrated in God's name.

This is a good book. Pass me the bourbon on ice.


 “Faceless Killers” by Henning Mankell

This is the first of the much praised 'Wallander' series and no sooner have you read the first ten pages you understand what an impact if has had  as series but also on both European writers and the American market too.

The writing style is far more economic, structured, almost architectural. The dialogue too reflects a sparseness that adds credibility to the story. It is a story that follows police routine relatively faithfully even though allowances, poetic licence if you will, do creep in surreptitiously. It is, of course, a fictional work. An elderly couple living in a remote farmhouse are brutally murdered. Wallander investigates. The old woman is rushed to hospital and, before her final end, whispers the words, 'foreign.' The press gets hold of this and publishes that foreigners, that is immigrants, have murdered a true blue Swedish family. Enter right wing extremists who take their own bloody revenge on an innocent black man. Suddenly we have two murder investigations joined invisibly at the hip.

The other fine quality Mankell brings to this story is the level of characterisation. Much of the book, probably half of it, is spent defining not only the central protagonist but also those around him. But it is the twists that set this apart from other such works. All of them realised convincingly well.

So in conclusion, we have Burke v Mankell. Who wins? It is a score draw, a tie. Burkes prose is incredible, his plots less so. Mankell's prose is paired back, blunt but his plotting superb.

Comparisons are, by are largely pointless, and should only be used if in so doing the critique gains from that evaluation. The first of these crime thrillers was by author James Lee Burke who must be in the top five of American crime writers and in the top ten in the world. Henning Mankell is without any shadow of doubt Sweden's number one and among the top five in all Europe.

Two very different styles. Equally good. If Mankell wins it on his twisted plots. Burke does same with his prose.

My re-assessment of modern crime thriller fiction hangs in the balance. Perhaps I shall compare Japan’s efforts with those of Belarus. Who knows? Who cares? Not me that’s for sure. 

Now where's that Kyril Bonfiglioli book?
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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