Monday, May 21, 2018

The Innocent [1990]

Berlin, for large parts of the 20th century – from the rise of Nazism after WWI till the fall of the Soviet Bloc – was, quite literally, the center of the world; hence, it doesn’t come as a surprise to see how it has intrigued and fascinated completely divergent authors who've made this the backdrop and thematic reference point for their works. For The Innocent, which was written just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and published as the German reunification was underway, Ian McEwan evoked the bleak, gray, fragile, murky, paranoia-laden, politically charged and morally ambiguous world (read: Berlin) of John Le Carré’s Cold War spy thrillers (I wouldn’t be surprised if McEwan used fellow his Britisher as a point of reference); it reminded me also of Greene, as well as Mario Puzo’s hugely underrated debut novel The Dark Arena. Set a decade after WWII, in a dilapidated Berlin in the process of, ironically, arduous restoration and increasing division as the two dominant, distrustful superpowers are aggressively vying for control, the book, despite it’s backdrop, was in essence a tale of doomed, obsessive romance. Leonard Marnham, a gauche young British engineer, arrives in the city to be part of Operation Gold – a clandestine CIA/MI6 operation to build a tunnel under the Soviet sector in order to tap into their communication systems – falls desperately in love with Maria, an older, divorced lady with a troubled past and a violent ex-husband… and just when he starts finding a piece of heaven in this freezing, rubble-strewn, compelling city, things take a bizarre turn that might not just jeopardize the unlikely love story that neither his glibly bourgeois parents nor her jealous, alcoholic ex would ever approve of, but might also force him to become a turncoat in a time when loyalties can be bought and sold in a dime store or at a gin joint. The gradual build-up, which eventually leads to a farcically grotesque finale, was chronicled through terse, deadpan, fatalistic prose.

Author: Ian McEwan
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Political Drama/Romance
Language: English
Country: UK

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Bad Girl [2006]

Unlike the 3 other novels by the Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa that I’d read thus far – the saucy, freewheeling semi-autobiographical masterpiece Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter; the politically charged multi-POV bildungsroman The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, and the ambitious multi-POV recreation of Trujillo’s assassination, The Feast of the Goat – which were all dizzying in their formal audacity, The Bad Girl seemed considerably less adventurous. Filled with a mix of disarming levity, infectious zeitgeist, globetrotting spirit, a Hitchcockian sense of suspense and the unexpected, and a grand scope in terms of time and space, this tale of obsessive, unrequited love, however, made up for its lack of political and formal complexity through charming storytelling and a delectably cinematic premise. The basic tenet involves Ricardo, an affable and linguistically gifted Peruvian who fulfills his ambition of becoming a Parisian by becoming an interpreter and subsequently translator, falling in love over and over again with presumably the same girl who keeps reappearing in his life over a period of over four decades – as an enticing yet aloof Chilean teenager during his days of growing up in the Miraflores district of Lima, as a mysterious Communist revolutionary passing through Paris on her way to a guerilla training camp in Cuba, as the vibrant spouse of a French diplomat, as the bored wife of a wealthy English businessman who’s crazy for racehorses, and as the mistress and moll of a twisted Japanese Yakuza boss. Set largely in Paris, with stretches in Lima, London, Tokyo and Madrid, and with an engaging chronicling of the changing sociocultural mores and the key events that defined the passing decades, the seriocomic novel comprised of an enigmatic, unpredictable, unapologetically amoral and fabulist heroine – a femme fatale if you will – whose unflinching desire to continually rise the social ladder and the resultant misadventures, is matched only by the protagonist’s tenacious and unfailing efforts to have her as his lover / fiancée / wife even though, inevitably, it always ends badly for him.

Author: Mario Vargas Llosa
Genre: Drama/Romantic Comedy
Language: Spanish
Country: Peru

Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Wrong Case [1975]

James Crumley had once remarked, in order to differentiate between his two iconic Montana detectives, “Milo’s first impulse is to help you; Sughrue’s is to shoot you in the foot.” Well, any impressions of a mellowed gumshoe that this had elicited in me about the former flew first thing out of the window as soon as I started reading The Wrong Case, Crumley’s extraordinarily brilliant and compelling first foray into hardboiled literature, and his 2nd after the Vietnam War novel One to Count Cadence. Milo Milodragovitch – violent, volatile, sardonic, unpredictable, lewd, hard-drinking, self-destructive and gleefully insolent lone-wolf – was a successfully specialist in the sleazy task of digging dirt on people in order to facilitate divorces, but is now out of job on account of the enactment of liberal separation laws. Even though he now spends his days boozing, staring out of the window, and counting his dwindling savings, when the strikingly captivating yet oddly vulnerable Helen Duffy enters his shabby office in order to help find her missing brother who she’s obsessively attached to, he begrudgingly takes the job not for the money (which she has plentiful of) but in the hope of her intimacy, and perhaps even love, in return. He initially suspects this as a straightforward case of a pampered rich kid gone astray in the then prevalent climate of hippies, flower power and counterculture; however, it soon turns out to be a complicated business, as he gets embroiled in a messy affair reeking of drug peddling, institutional corruption and stray murders. Alongside Crumley’s mesmeric, bleakly poetic prose, filled with mordant wit, a hard-bitten world view, vernacular of the streets and moments of disarming profundity, it was populated with an array of marvelous side characters – a drunk ex-lawyer and Milo’s best friend, a scary ex-criminal, a self-righteous cop married to Milo’s ex-wife, a host of bit players frequenting the gin joints in the town, and of course the beautiful, frail and enigmatic Helen who ends up causing a lot of grief, bruises and deaths.

Author: James Crumley
Genre: Crime Thriller/Hardboiled Literature/Detective Novel
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Eight Million Ways to Die [1982]

The Naked City, the gritty police procedural and classic noir by French-American filmmaker Jules Dassin, and an early example of cinéma vérité style of filmmaking, ended with the iconic voiceover line, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” – a facet which was repeated in every episode in the renowned TV series which was created as a spin-off. Lawrence Block didn’t just play on that line for the title of Eight Million Ways to Die, the 5th and, along with When the Sacred Ginmill Closed, the most well-known book in his Matthew Scudder series of novels, he also used the reworked line as its prime, driving motif. Hardboiled gumshoes, as a fraternity, were all borderline alcoholics; Scudder, ex-NYPD cop who now earns his living by doing “favours” as an unlicensed PI, was the first that I encountered who’d crossed the line and was a bonafide alcoholic – the fallout of an accidental killing of a young girl in the line of duty which’d led him to quit force. A striking hooker approaches Scudder to help her get out of the profession by speaking to her pimp Chance about it on her behalf; the section about him searching for the enigmatic Chance across the pubs, jazz joints and alleys in New York’s sinister underbelly quite easily formed the best part of the book, along with the droll AA meetings that he keeps frequenting. Things, however, take a dramatic turn when the girl is brutally slashed to pieces, and Chance, who Scudder had initially assumed to be the assailant, appoints him to find out who did it. With nearly no favourable leads at his disposal, and increasingly bemused by the senseless violence and meaningless crimes plaguing the metropolis, he starts doggedly pursuing seemingly irrelevant details, while, in parallel, battling his irredeemable craving for bourbon. The tale, though not hardboiled enough due to its tone and loquacity, provided an intricate portraiture of the Big Apple.

Author: Lawrence Block
Genre: Crime Thriller/Detective Novel/Mystery
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Galton Case [1959]

James Crumley hasn’t been shy about his deep admiration for Ross Macdonald. Consequently, when I read the Crumley masterpiece The Last Good Kiss, where C.W. Sughrue takes on the seemingly absurd task of investigating a decade old missing person case, one could almost guess that Macdonald, who loved the premise of missing persons, would have had done something equally absurd himself. The Galton Case, considered by many among his most important works and a personal one too, has two seemingly unrelated strands that converge only at the end – one pertaining to unearthing a young man missing for 20 years now, and another about verifying a potential case of impersonation. Lew Archer, tough, cynical and dogged as always, is hired by a powerful lawyer, on behalf of the aged matriarch of the incredibly wealthy Galton family, to decipher what happened to the family’s sole heir, Anthony Galton, who’d left them two decades back on account of irreconcilable differences with the family’s moral impositions. He loved poetry, had a rebellious streak, and had just got married to a girl who the family just couldn’t accept (many of these facets reminded me of his previous novel The Doomsters) – he therefore disinherited and declassed himself, and relocated with a different identity altogether. Thus begins Archer’s fascinating investigative process, as he goes about unravelling and putting together one missing piece after another. Over the course of this complicated process, he also meets a young man with an uncanny resemblance to the missing Galton heir, and, despite his conveniently jumbled background, might just be his lost son. Meanwhile the domestic help working at the lawyer’s home is murdered, and that, too, might have some connections with this complex and mythically charged ensemble piece. Questions of identity, therefore, formed a key motif for this brilliantly conceived tale, along with such aspects as the desire to preserve murky personal and family secrets, multiple and conflicting agendas stemming from lust and greed, loosely interrelated crimes across a span of many years, and Archer’s distrust of coincidences and absolute truths.

Author: Ross Macdonald
Genre: Crime Thriller/Detective Novel/Hardboiled Literature
Language: English
Country: US