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A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor

April 25, 2014 1 comment

A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor

Here we find ourselves pitched into an increasingly confident area of historical mystery. The conventional mystery or thriller writer picks a time of relative calm as the setting. This leaves the history as contextual background information, with the foreground free for the hero to investigate the wrongdoing. But some authors prefer times of great conflict as the setting, and the period just before, during, and after World War II is proving a fruitful area for authors to explore. J. Robert Janes has a long-running series set in Occupied France featuring Hermann Kohler of the Gestapo and Jean-Louis St-Cyr of the French Sûreté. The interest, of course, lies in the question of whether St-Cyr is a collaborator and therefore worthy of contempt, or does he earn some latitude because he pursues wrongdoers regardless of nationality or status? Philip Kerr also has a long-running series featuring Bernie Gunther, a homicide detective. The first book starts in 1936 at the time of the Olympics, then moves forward to 1938 with him given the temporary rank of Kriminalkommissar in Heydrich’s state Security Service, and later moves into the war years and the period immediate afterwards. Luke McCallin has his second book featuring Captain Gregor Reinhardt coming out later this year and J Sydney Bounds has one book set in post-war Nuremberg, see Ruin Value.

A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014) is the third book in the series featuring Martin von Bora, an officer in the Wehrmacht who continues to work with Italian police inspector Sandro Guildi (in the first book, Bora is teamed with Father John Malecki, a Polish-American priest working directly for the Vatican). The consistent themes through the three books are dark and complex. First in Poland and then the two remaining books in Italy, we’re required to think about how different groups form and maintain alliances. Standing slightly outside the more conventional political power structure, there’s the overarching relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Third Reich. As part of the plan to deChristianise Germany, catholics had been specifically targeted which led to the increasing marginalisation of catholics during the 1930s. However, the relationship with the Papal See was complicated when Italy formally joined the Axis. As Germany began its expansion across national borders, it immediately found itself having to hold areas still deeply religious. As if invasion was not hard enough for the occupied people to stomach, it would further antagonise locals if priests were arrested and the people were prevented from worship.

Ben Pastor

Ben Pastor

Much of this book is taken up with Germany’s difficulty in reconciling its presence in Italy with the entrenched power of the Pope and his cardinals. Bora is a useful honest broker because he’s a trusted catholic whose university study was guided by a man now serving as a cardinal. This book is set in 1944 as the Allies are pressing their advance through Italy towards Rome. So the alliance with the Italian Fascists is failing as patriotic fervour dims in line with military failures. The relationship between the Wehrmacht and the SS is also strained as the practice of retaliating for German deaths by executing multiples of local citizens is encouraging the emergence of increasingly confident resistance fighters. Final efforts to deport Jews and others deemed socially undesirable are also producing real political disagreements between the different groups. It would be a serious understatement to call this a time of danger and uncertainty. And Ben Pastor does not make the mistake of leaving these events in the background. In many senses, this is a work of military fiction or a political thriller which just happens to feature an army officer who gets sucked into investigating politically sensitive deaths.

The initial hook for the investigators is the death of Magda Reiner who worked in the German Embassy as a secretary. She was found dead on the pavement outside her apartment block. It could have been suicide, but the Roman Chief of Police prefers that a political opponent be guilty of her murder. Much later there’s what may be a murder-suicide with a society lady well-known for her charitable works found dead in bed with an elderly cardinal. Obviously all three deaths are sensitive albeit for different reasons. As a serving officer, Bora is already deeply committed to defending what Germany holds in Italy. The investigations must therefore be fitted around his military duties. He’s also conscious of the fact that Germany will lose this fight and be forced out of Rome. If Guildi is positively involved in this investigation, he may be damned when the Allies take over and the locals can take their revenge against known collaborators. Independently, Guildi finds himself walking a narrow line through the infighting between the Italian factions as the Communists begin to take a more active role. In the end he will be faced with the difficult decision of whether to risk staying in Rome as the Allies arrive, or going north with the partisans.

A Dark Song of Blood is a powerful novel about lives under pressure. With every individual wondering whether he or she will be able to survive, it falls to the few with a conscience and a sense of honour to defy the prevailing power structures and do what they believe to be right. Bora has been emotionally scared and physically damaged. He’s no longer fit for active duty on the front line and so finds himself fighting a different type of war both with himself and many of those around him. As the novel progresses, he proves to be a proactive survivor, i.e. once he realises he’s falling into the pit, he decides to fall with as much force as possible and hope to produce at least one small change for the better before he dies. The outcome for Rome as a city is a matter for history. The different outcomes for Bora and Guildi are completely fascinating, making this a genuinely impressive novel.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Hotel Brasil by Frei Betto

February 25, 2014 2 comments

Hotel Brasil by Frei Betto

Hotel Brasil by Frei Betto (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014) translated by Jethro Soutar, sees the first publication of this prolific author’s work in English — there are fifty-two other books to wait for. This modest volume is subtitled, “The mystery of the severed heads” which suggests it is either a crime or horror novel. The reality is rather different. It’s set in a rundown guest house in Rio de Janeiro. Originally, it was a private mansion, but when the owner departed, Dona Dino, the woman left behind, could not pay the bills unless she admitted paying guests. To call it a hotel would be to miss the mark. It’s rather more a collection of individuals who have come together in cheap accommodation offered by an apparently benign and supportive elderly lady (and her cat). When one of the guests, an elderly man who traded in semi-precious gemstones, is found decapitated, this provokes the police into action and, as each of the residents is interviewed by Delegado Olinto Del Bosco, we’re introduced to their lives.

The primus inter pares resident is Cândido. He’s a modern-day equivalent of Volatire’s Candide, a not unworldly man who makes a meagre living as an editor for a local publishing house while volunteering to help the street kids who get into trouble. He wants to find the best in people which is why, during the course of this book, he becomes involved in defying the military police who are dealing with a mass breakout at a juvenile detention centre. On a whim, he protects a girl who escapes, involving others in hiding her, even though it makes him even more a target for harassment and possible disappearance if he gets caught. Then there’s Rui Pacheco, a political aide and Marcelo Braga, a newspaperman. Both are, in their different ways, relatively powerful. Pacheco has networked into the political class and knows the right people to get some things done. But he’s also a contradiction. He ought to be building up wealth alongside his influence yet he lives in reduced circumstances. Marcelo could write front-page opinion pieces to castigate Del Bosco for his failure to catch the killer. This would probably lead to Del Bosco being sidelined if not dismissed. But he doesn’t think an intervention worth his while. There are few men of talent in the ranks of the local detective force and Marcelo does not believe any replacement would be any more likely to find the killer.

Frei Betto

Frei Betto

This leaves us with the flamboyant Diamante Negro who’s a professional cross-dressing transformista, and Madame Larência who’s reached the age when she can no longer easily turn tricks and so acts as a pimp. Rosaura Doroteia dos Santos is a young and naive fantasist who dreams of becoming a star of one of the prevailing television soaps. While Jorge Maldonado is the general factotum around the hotel and, when no-one else seems likely to have been the killer, he’s the one arrested. He’s lucky enough to have an older bother who was a notorious, if less than successful, crook. Beating a confessional out of him seems the most reasonable solution to the case. Except, while this unfortunate is locked up, there’s a second decapitation.

In a way, the hotel and the sequence of murders is just a excuse to talk about Brazilian society. Through the characters we get an insight into the social dynamics of the culture in Rio. This is not the tourist version with street carnivals and beach parties. Rather it’s a study of the progress being by the post-junta government, highlighting the problems of the disadvantaged and marginalised. The are moments of humour and equal elements of tragedy as the stories of the different residents play out. So you should not pick up this book if you are looking for a traditional whodunnit. Although the final pages do explain who’s responsible for the killings and why, that’s of secondary importance. The real thrust of the narrative is whether Cândido can find love and redeem the girl from the streets. In this, no-one is an angel. Equally, it’s hard to single out any of those who survive to the end of the book as being devils. Everyone does what they must to survive. They may be required to do some things that, objectively, they will acknowledge as illegal or merely immoral. But people will pay such prices if they emerge with their lives intact. This makes Hotel Brasil a social commentary with some satirical ambitions and relatively unflinching insights into Brazil’s current social and political problems.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Death on Demand by Paul Thomas

September 13, 2013 Leave a comment

Death on Demand by Paul Thomas

Death on Demand by Paul Thomas (Bitter Lemon Press, 2013) is the fourth novel featuring a Maori cop, Tito Ihaka, the other three being Old School Tie, Inside Dope and Guerilla Season. Curiously, there’s been a fifteen year hiatus during which our intemperate maverick has been living in exile in the Wairarapa. He enjoyed a protected status in Auckland until he insisted a local wealthy businessman had arranged for his wife to be killed. When he rose to the bait and beat a fellow detective for racially abusing him, the price of him remaining in the force was relocation. Now the man he suspected of murder is dying and calls his would-be nemesis back to hear his confession. His return triggers a number of deaths. With this sudden increase in police workload, Ihaka is persuaded to stay on to help out. But not in the original case. Having heard the confession, he’s now a witness. His ex-colleagues insist in taking that on. This leaves him with the death of a young man. It looks like a gang hit. Later the body of a woman turns up with almost identical injuries. Then a somewhat notorious fixer is shot. Auckland is a happening city when it comes to violent crime.

There are two allied issues surrounding this book. The first is the apparent fascination with death in general and murder in particular. There’s quite a long prologue in which we review a parade of deaths. Each one is detailed separately. The fact we are shown these people dying is evidence their deaths are related but it’s not until quite a significant way into the book that we understand the significance. There’s nothing wrong with this narrative structure. The hook is set early and we rise to the bait. But it does set the tone of the book which belies New Zealand’s image as a land where there are more sheep than people and some of those people get to dress up as hobbits and orcs when the film crews come into town. This is a hyper-real version of this twin spit of southern land in which most of the people we meet have a darker side. Even the hero speculates the most likely reason he became a police officer was to inoculate him against the crime bug. Except he’s hardly the most law-abiding of police officers.

Paul Thomas

Paul Thomas

All of which brings us to the second issue. I have on a number of occasions this last year been moved to comment on the increasing amorality of lead characters in books and films. It seems the level of “anti” ness in anti-hero has been increasing in power. Whereas the early examples in the last century tended to be part-time criminals with redeeming features, the more recent characters have become more completely criminal, not to say thoroughly evil. We’re not just expected to accept thieves, but also contract killers and other serious gangland felons, as heroes. I’m not so uncomfortable with plots requiring protagonists to kill in self-defence. The fact they may provoke the bad guys into attacking and so justify the killings is broadly acceptable — it would be even more so if the books and films would also show the trials in which the self-defence pleas were successful. But I grow increasingly unhappy when the protagonists literally fight fire with fire. There have been a number of recent examples of “heroes” finding the need to get their self-defensive strikes in first. Vigilanteism is an increasingly common motif with stone-cold killers keeping their neighbours safe by taking out the predatory criminals around them. This book has a police officer prepared to do deals with some of the criminals he meets in order to get justice done. Indeed, it would be fair to call him relentless in his pursuit of what he considers justice. He may not always like himself very much — not many people do like him — but he’s remarkably effective. All his superiors have to do is look at the big picture and overlook the transgressions on the way to the solution of the high-profile cases and the unmasking of criminals whether they be the common or garden thugs or members of the wealthy elite. After all, it’s the arrests and public trials that earn the public’s gratitude and support. Solving crimes is a vote-winner for politicians and when they are happy, the senior police officers can relax. No system is free from corruption.

So whether you will enjoy this book depends on your approach to ethically-challenged heroes. Death on Demand is a great piece of writing. There’s a vividness and power about the prose and plot (once it gets going) that drives through to the end. But you’re invited to support a police officer who bends all the rules in the book and, if the need arises, throws the book away, to get the right result. He’s a vigilante with a badge. Perhaps societies always need some officers like him who can get things done, but should they be heroes? Your choice.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Sound of One Hand Killing by Teresa Solana

The Sound of One Hand Killing

The Sound of One Hand Killing by Teresa Solana (translated by Peter Bush) (Bitter Lemon Press, 2013), is the third in the Barcelona series featuring twin brothers, Eduard Martínez and Borja “Pep” Masdéu, who unofficially act as private detectives. They keep their relationship a secret and just say they’re partners. On this auspicious day, they set off to meet their metafictional client, Teresa Solana. When they arrive at their offices (for which they don’t actually have a lease), they discover the chaos of a break-in. This is not a problem because Borja has the keys of a flat upstairs in the same block occupied by an American. There’s just one problem. When they enter the flat, they find his dead body.

This presents them with a dilemma. Do they meet with the client and then report the murder? In the end, the thought of a cash advance leads to them postponing the call to the police. There’s just one problem. They are hopelessly compromising the murder scene. Fortunately the client does pay them in advance. So everything’s all right. Well. . . if they tell the police, the client will hear they saw her in a flat with a dead body. And then there’s the small antique that Borja had hidden in the flat. That’s not strictly legal, you understand. So what choice do they have but to clean off all the evidence of their presence and leave the doors open so that the smell will attract interest and someone else will call the police. There, you see, an end to another successful day. Except the school pass on the news Eduard’s five year old son is well on the way to becoming a foul-mouthed football hooligan. This is an unwelcome distraction made worse when the police send a car for them. Apparently someone in the building opposite saw the brothers opening the windows in the American’s flat. No that must be a mistake, surely, their offices are immediately underneath.

Teresa Solana

Teresa Solana

The moral of this story is that, when you’re already in a hole, there comes a point when you must stop digging. It’s just that our two heroes never seem to have received this message during their basic training for doing whatever it is they do. That means it never rains but it pours and then the wind gets up and blows away their umbrella, and lightning stalks the land. It’s at times like this they should go to Zen Moments for a little meditation and relaxation.

From this introduction, you will understand the book is delightful fun. The whole point of farce is that the objective observer can see the build up to the approaching disaster but the protagonists remain oblivious. What gives added edge to the anticipation is the general air of improbability about the set-up. Surely no-one would get into this sequence of events and allow them to proceed. It would be absurd. . . but then we all think back to those times when we were caught up in events beyond our ability to control. We too were swept along and ended up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

This is not to say The Sound of One Hand Killing is a comedy. That rather misses the point of farce. Although there are times when we, the audience, do laugh, the reality of the situations is often more cruel. Because of all the mistakes, misjudgments and misunderstandings, the characters frequently find themselves on the receiving end of humiliation and defeat. In more extreme cases, the threatened consequences of disclosure and discovery can be far more severe. If we do find this comic, it’s only because of schadenfreude, the sense of relief that we are not caught out in this way and some degree of pleasure the characters deserve their misfortune. Well, perhaps not all the misfortune of our heroes being involved in another murder and then kidnapped. It would be so helpful, in times such as this, to be able to speak more than just Catalan and Spanish. But you just can’t prepare in advance, particularly if you think you might be in China. Well that might just be another misunderstanding. And then they have to account to the metafictional author and, of course, there’s still the problem of who had what and wanted it, but might have got something else instead, or not as the case may be. On the way, at least one of the crimes committed is solved which is always reassuring because this is supposed to be a detective murder mystery novel. Or perhaps that’s not the point at all. You really should read it yourself and make up your own mind. I was fascinated.

And as a final thought, don’t forget the healing properties of purée of asparagus.

For a short collection by Teresa Solana, see Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts by Teresa Solana

Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts

Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts by Teresa Solana (translated by Peter Bush) (Bitter Lemon Press, 2013) a short ebook collection @ $3.99, starts with “Still Life No 41”, shortlisted for Best Short Story in the 2013 Edgar Awards, in which the young twenty-six year old Director of the Museum of Ultra-Avant-Garde Art is pushed out of her job on the orders of the Minister of Culture. She’s naturally outraged. While it’s true she only got the job because the previous director had been her uncle and her father used his political pull with the Minister, it wasn’t her fault that the first exhibition she curated should turn out like that. The Museum had been negotiating for two years to persuade the artist to allow his work to be displayed. Our first-person narrator simply came in at the end with the deal in place. All she had to do was display what arrived. Which is what she did even though there was one more piece than the Museum was expecting. The launch was a triumph. Even the canapés were deemed sensational. After the excitement of the opening, every art critic who attended during the first days of the exhibition was ecstatic, confirming the forty-first work to be one of the finest example of modern art he or she had seen for years. It’s all so unfair she should be the political scapegoat.

Teresa Solana

Teresa Solana

The reason why “A Stitch in Time” is so successful is the tone. I mean if I was going to do something like this, I would have to be organised and stay calm. This is not the kind of thing to do when you’re all-a-flutter. Perhaps one of the more powerful anti-anxiety pills would be a good idea, just to settle the nerves but, once started, I would need to keep myself in one piece emotionally without external aid. And then it’s all as I rehearsed when the police come. Oh yes, the police are almost certain to come. But I’ll have everything ready by then. . . It’s the same with “The Thought That Counts”, a strangely dispassionate history of the life of a vampire. Did you know what having your very own vampire in residence does for the tourist trade? Everyone wants to come for the dark and forbidding castle and to sample the atmosphere where the beast sucked the life out of so many virgins. Anyway, having lived a lonely unlife through the centuries, you can imagine how our hero feels when someone tells him another bloodsucker has moved into his territory, and without so much as a by-your-leave or a friendly “Hello”.

“The First (Pre) Historic Serial Killer” shows a troglodyte of above-average intelligence tasked with the job of investigating three murders. Someone is bashing out the brains of his fellow cave dwellers with conveniently-to-hand rocks which is disturbing the amenity of the cave and putting some of the other men on edge — at least those bright enough to see a correlation between dead men and blood-stained rocks left a few feet away from the body. Our hero is able to discount Geoffrey as a suspect because a bear ate his arms which makes rock-wielding a challenge. But be reassured, our Sherlock of the Stone Age is going to crack the case as soon as he realizes the game’s afoot, or something. And finally, “The Offering” has a pathologist readying himself for an autopsy without realizing it’s the body of one of the secretaries working at his clinic who’s apparently committed suicide. When the truth sinks in, he grows obsessed with the question why she should have taken her life. He visits her apartment and learns something of her by observing what she left behind. But it’s when he confronts the body that he realizes her motive. This story, like the others in this short collection, has a brooding sense of tragedy overlain with a satirical sensibility.

Thematically, we’re concerned with individuals who find their lives turned upside down by events. The Museum director accepts the additional exhibit, the mother can only find love for her child, the vampire is first curious then angered another is attacking the people who live around him, the detective who can penetrate the mysteries of life, and the pathologist who finds unexpected beauty. Set out in simple phrases, this fails to capture the wit and humour underlying the sometimes gory subject matter. Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts is not quite black humour, but it’s certainly dark grey and a delightful surprise in a world that’s largely forgotten the function satire is supposed to perform, i.e. as a form of social commentary or criticism designed to encourage the world to improve. This review should encourage us to try Teresa Solana’s latest mystery novel The Sound of One Hand Killing which comes out in May.

For a review of one of her novels, see The Sound of One Hand Killing.

“Still Life No 41” was nominated as in the Best Short Story category of the 2013 Edgar Awards.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Baksheesh by Esmahan Aykol

Baksheesh by Esmahan Aykol

Baksheesh by Esmahan Aykol (translated by Ruth Whitehouse) (Bitter Lemon Press, 2013) is a story about the life of Kati Hirschel. She’s forty-four years old and lives in Istanbul where she runs a shop specialising in mystery and detective fiction. We find her in a moment of crisis. She’s had a major argument with her lover, a lawyer, and her landlady is preparing to impose a big surcharge on her current rent. Her reaction is simple and direct. She will find a new place to live, even if this means entering the treacherous waters of the baksheesh market. For those of you not familiar with the ways of the world outside Europe and America, the majority of civil servants and other people in positions of authority are chronically underpaid. But since they often control access to essential bureaucracy, they can achieve a living wage by taking a little extra money on the side to move people through the system more quickly or, if appropriate, to keep people out of the relevant system altogether. For these purposes, it doesn’t really matter whether you call these payments a tip or a small gift, the majority in the West will condemn this approach to life as corrupt and reject the actual or implied requests for payment. This is to misunderstand the culture.

In fact, the payments also reflect respect for the individual and the work he or she does, and a real sense of gratitude when the work is done well. But to navigate the social conventions and taboos, all the parties have to be in tune with each other. Although our heroine has real experience through living in Turkey for many years and speaks the language well, this is her first interaction with this method of acquiring a new home. Perhaps if her relationship had not just broken down or she did not feel so under pressure, she would have approached this transaction in a better frame of mind. But she lacks the patience and subtlety. Sadly this persuades her to try visiting the places she may be allowed to buy. The fact there may still be people living there who are not be aware of any threat to their continuing occupation does not occur to our heroine. She just wants to make quick unannounced viewings of her potential home. Sadly, in one block, this leads to a major argument. Threats are made. The following day, the man she fought with is dead and she’s a suspect. Well, again, in Turkey this is not a certainty. The police insist people come down to the station to make statements for even the most trivial of incidents. But she feels under threat and so, drawing on her love of detective fiction, she sets off the solve the crime.

Esmahan Aykol

Esmahan Aykol

This is a wonderful book. As a first person narrative, it plays at metafiction with regular asides to those of us reading the book, references to the fact this is her second book, and gentle explanations of who everyone is, how Turkey works as a society, and how she thinks about her own life. As you will realise from the first reference to the book, this is translated from the Turkish. It may therefore surprise you it should take its time to explain and comment on local culture. In fact the author is using the perspective of an outsider to hold up a mirror to life in Istanbul. Our heroine is of German stock but was born in Turkey and has returned to live there. She’s been there long enough to speak the language well and cope with everyday situations. But she discuses her own problems with idiomatic usages and frets she’s not always creating the right impression. She’s also quick to point out when prejudices impact her life. Sometimes, she’s aggressive in her own defence. Other times, she’s able to exploit local conventions of hospitality to be able to sit and talk with people (pumping them for information).

In fact, she remains a suspect to the end of this book. She certainly has motive and opportunity. The fact she’s able to offer an alternative candidate for the two deaths does not get her off the hook. The lead detective has doubts about the first death but, when the alternative suspect makes a significant confession, he’s not going to go anywhere outside this convenient package. This just leaves our heroine to put the final pieces of the jigsaw into place. As a perfectionist, she always wants the satisfaction of a complete picture. And it proves a very satisfying set of solutions because we’ve been able to watch our heroine ferreting out the relevant information and following through on all the details. Although she’s briefly distracted by one or two possible suspects, none of the early candidates fit into the emerging picture of what happened. It’s only when information emerges about a key relationship that she can finally be certain what probably happened. It’s a wonderfully tragic backstory.

For me this is an almost perfect book. It has a beautifully described first-person narrator who navigates the treacherous currents of Turkish society with considerable skill despite her uncertainties over the subtleties of language and the dangers arising from the tensions between different ethnic and religious groups. That she could still be arrested as the last page of the book turns is a testament to the very clever way the mystery is put together. All it would take is for the police or prosecutors to take a different view of the evidence and she would be toast. In the majority of other detective or mystery fiction outings, there’s never any doubt the primary protagonist will be accepted as completely innocent. This book reflects the realities of life in the world of policing where little is ever black and white. As a final thought, Esmahan Aykol is the mirror image of her heroine. She was born in Turkey but has spent many years in Germany. Such a lifestyle enables her to make telling observations about the culture of both countries. On all levels this is a book worth reading.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

No Sale by Patrick Conrad

July 15, 2012 2 comments

Those of you who read these reviews will know that, although there’s never any chance of film or television replacing my love for books, I do in fact enjoy the visual media. It therefore comes as a pleasant surprise to encounter a book where the love of film is intrinsic to the plot. No Sale by Patrick Conrad (translated from the Dutch by Jonathan Lynn) (Bitter Lemon Press, 2012) is a wonderful, not to say magnificent, piece of metafiction dressed up to look like a police procedural and murder mystery. For those you you who like the jargon, the primary devices are intertextuality and the use of an unreliable narrator.

In the world of semiotics, the concept of intertextuality has been rather overdone of late but, if you wanted to find an example of it, this comes as close as it’s possible to get. At more or less every point during the narrative, we get examples of vertical intertextuality with references to films, or to the dialogue within films, or to the real-world identities and lives of those involved in the making of films, or to songs and their lyrics, the lives of the singers and composers, and so on. We also have significant horizontal intertextuality with long quotes from different sources based on separate literary conventions incorporated into the narrative, thereby connecting the reader to different views of the same set of circumstances. Naturally, all the text appearing in the book is written by the same author except where otherwise attributed, but the sense and meaning of the words is being drawn from the work of different creative individuals. So, for example, one character may describe the scene of a murder and, later, a second character may give the synopsis of a film plot which has features matching the initial murder. This is art mirroring cinema with the fictional serial killer meticulously staging the murders to recreate actual film scripts or real-world events associated with film stars. The author is reminding us that we should never see one work in isolation. Our understanding is always enhanced by being able to relate elements of the text being read to other texts and symbols.

Patrick Conrad

Patrick Conrad: thriller writer, poet, screenwriter and film director

I need to note one other semiotics-related irony. The author has gone to much trouble to translate many lines from US noir films into Dutch for his intended readership, only for Jonathan Lynn to translate them back into English for us to read. Presumably the meanings stayed the same even though the languages were different.

There are two narrative tracks through the text. The key figure in the expanding investigation is Professor Victor Cox who teaches the History of Cinema at the Institute of Film and Theatre Studies. He comes to the attention of police when the body of his wife, Shelley “Dixie” Cox, is fished out of one of the docks in Antwerp. The initial signs are that of a hit-and-run with the dead body thrown off a bridge. The second thread features Chief Superintendent Fons “The Sponge” Luyckx, and Detective Inspector Lannoy who assume the responsibility of trying to unravel a number of murders which, at first sight, appear unrelated. The Sponge is the quiet thoughtful one who hates to be beaten by any problem, while Lannoy is quicker to feel the frustration of being unable to make progress through the mass of detailed information that emerges.

At first, the Professor appears entirely normal insofar as anyone so obsessed with the study of any single subject can be considered normal. He’s amazingly encyclopaedic on early American cinema and we’re treated both to excepts from his lectures and memories that suddenly seem relevant given events around him. There’s also a direct link with Lolita by Nabokov in that our “good” Professor seems perpetually drawn to young women, preferring those who resemble the heroines of his favorites films. It’s at this point we encounter a real problem because he’s not proving to be consistent in what he remembers nor how he sees the world. Indeed, there are distinct indications he may be mentally ill — schizophrenia would be a distinct possibility if, in the usual way it’s shown on the screen, this involves twin personalities as in Jekyll and Hyde. The structure of the book is carefully managed so we’re never sure whether the Professor is a retired academic helping the police solve a series of murders or the murderer hiding in plain sight and misdirecting the police.

I was hooked from the outset because I love a good mystery and am a sucker for noir films. There are also some rather pleasing jokes as the book goes along. However, I’m forced to raise one slight caveat. In a way, the book is slightly too clever for its own good. It has to twist the events so that they fit the needs of the immediate plot while staying faithful to the sets of circumstances being replicated. This gives the whole a slightly surreal form. In the more general sense of the word, mysteries need not be credible. If we’ve willingly suspended our disbelief, authors can convince us their murderers can do anything. But it does raise a slight problem when we’re in a police procedural. This subgenre is somewhat more real than reel, i.e. the police should be seen chasing down criminals based on the evidence that emerges. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely anyone could actually commit these murders. That said, No Sale is a masterful piece of writing and creates a genuinely tragic figure in Professor Cox. He’s a man who seems to have the capacity for great suffering and, when reality becomes so unpleasant, who would blame him for retreating into the world of his own imagination and, perhaps, acting out what he finds there.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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