From women who pull the strings to tales of old corruption
Declan Burke looks at five absorbing new publications in the crime genre
A scene from an adaptation of ‘Suburra’, an Italian corruption tale co-written by Carlo Bonini and Giancarlo De Cataldo
Peddling cartel smack to the addicts of LA’s South Central,
Lola(Point Blank, €14.99) is doing whatever it takes to “make a life for your family better than the bulls**t God served you”. But when a drug deal goes wrong, Lola – the power behind the throne of the Crenshaw Six – has 72 hours to make it right, or suffer a horrible death at the cartel’s hands. The debut novel from Melissa Scrivner Love, a TV writer for CSI: Miami and Person of Interest, Lola is on one level a gripping tale of a brutal struggle for survival in Los Angeles’ barrios, a bleak and cynical noir that pulls no punches in its depiction of the poverty underpinning the savagery of Lola’s world. It’s a novel that has much in common with Bill Beverly’s Dodgers, although Love’s characterisation of Lola gives this novel an added heft, not least because the innate chauvinism of Lola’s sub-culture means she needs to be a chameleon-like “shadow leader”, a woman who pulls the strings, flatters multiple egos and cajoles rather than threatens: a junkie’s daughter, Lola grew up abused and beaten, a life lesson that taught Lola “she didn’t need a father figure; she was the father figure”. The result is an absorbing tale that blends compassion and a bracing realpolitik into a fascinating account of one woman’s unquenchable will to not only survive but thrive, in the process breaking the cycles of abuse that have destroyed generations of women before her.
The Orphans(Hutchinson, €15.99) of Annemarie Neary’s second novel are Jess and Sparrow, siblings whose parents disappeared from a Goa beach when they were young children. The adult Jess, now living in London, has built a wall of certainties around herself – job, husband, child, social status – but the nomadic, fragile Sparrow, refusing to believe his mother abandoned him, descends into monomaniacal obsession. Jess and Sparrow conduct separate investigations into the mystery of their parents’ disappearance, but for the most part The Orphans is a story of how Jess struggles to cope with the belated realisation that she is ‘just a woman without a job, in a sham marriage, with a loose-cannon brother who might turn out to be a murderer”. Neary has a terrific eye for detail – “the same wet-weather gear is flapping its pessimist’s charter outside Mountain Warehouse” – but Jess is a rather passive, hand-wringing protagonist concerned with maintaining the status quo, while Sparrow, potentially fascinating as a study of sociopathic tendencies rooted in violent loss, is sketched in strokes too broad to fully persuade.
French author Pascal Garnier writes short, offbeat crime novels reminiscent of Georges Simenon in whimsical form, and
Low Heights(Gallic, €12.99) is no exception. Cantankerous widower Édouard Lavenant requires a live-in nurse after suffering a mild stroke that leaves him with a crippled arm, and Thérèse seems to fit the bill: professional, mild-manner and complaisant, she tolerates his fits of pique and endless complaints. Thérèse, however, may be a little too tolerant of Lavenant’s idiosyncratic behaviour, and perhaps even guilty of enabling Lavenant’s increasingly dangerous disregard for the importance of human life. There’s a strong sense that Garnier is toying with the reader’s expectations in Low Heights, as he cheerfully lobs supernatural elements, doppelgängers and deus ex machinas into the plot (it’s no coincidence, presumably, that Lavenant was “born in Lyon, the home of the puppet Guignol”), although the recurring motif of griffon vultures provide a stark reminder of the Darwinian struggle to survive that underpins Lavenant’s actions. Few writers, meanwhile, can turn a sentence so abruptly as Garnier: “Jean-Baptiste was smiling because that’s all a human being is left with once the skin and flesh are stripped away”. Deliciously sly and nuanced, Low Heights is as much an acerbic commentary on the crime novel’s conventions as it is a slow-burning psychological thriller.
The award-winning French author Fred Vargas is best known for her police procedurals featuring Chief Inspector Adamsberg, but
The Accordionist(Harvill Secker, €15.99), set in Paris, is the third novel to feature her “three evangelists”, as retired policeman and “unofficial private eye” Louis Kehlweiler sets out to prove the innocence of Clément, a simple-minded man whom Louis believes to have murdered at least two women in a serial-killing spree. As with Pascal Garnier, Vargas delivers a whimsical variation on the crime novel’s conventions, as Louis justifies his improbable approach to investigating the murders by declaring that he is “inclined to let murderers have more rope with which to hang themselves”, and further propounds a theory in which the killer is inspired by Gérard de Nerval’s epic poem, El Desdichado. It’s all rather delightfully bonkers, a playful and subversively unorthodox take on the private eye novel by a master of her craft.
Already a film, and now a Netflix series,
Suburra(Europa Editions, €18.45) is a sprawling tale of corruption on an epic scale, as politicians, judiciary, police, Mafia and the Vatican fight for a slice of the pie that is the Roman suburb of Suburra during the dog days of the Berlusconi administration. Co-written by Carlo Bonini and Giancarlo De Cataldo, a journalist and magistrate, respectively, the novel’s main narrative thread follows Lieutenant Marco Malatesta, former fascist ideologue and wannabe gangster, but now the scourge of Rome’s parasites, and particularly the gang leader known as Samurai. It’s a ramshackle, rollicking tale, strongly rooted in the historical conflict between Fascism and Communism, with the jocular tone employed Bonini and De Cataldo deliberately undermining the appalling extent of the corruption involved in order to make the irreverent observation that there is no point in taking the story seriously – corruption, after all, is as old as ancient Rome itself.
Declan Burke is an author and journalist. He is the editor of ‘Trouble is Our Business’ (New Island Books)