Writing about crime in the US even if you do not hail from there is a popular pastime. We have all been brought up in American films and TV cop shows, and we can probably repeat the Miranda warning word for word even if we are less aware of the equivalent in our own countries.
In the past, French authors Boris Vian and Georges Simenon set some of their novels in the US. In the last couple of years I’ve reviewed Emma Flint’s Little Deaths and Steph Broadribb’s Deep Down Dead on this blog, and thought Joel Dicker’s The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair was overrated. But just how easy is it to get the balance right between making the American landscapes come alive and cramming in too much detail?
E.O. Chirovici: The Book of Mirrors
Chirovici deliberately set out to conquer the English-speaking market. After writing several novels in his native Romania (all well-received), he wrote this one in English, set the whole story in the US and found himself an agent and publisher in the UK (with a little bit of luck, which makes for an amusing story of the road to publication). The novel sparked a frenzy of publisher auctions and was sold to 30 countries before it even appeared in English, somewhat similar to Joel Dicker’s debut. With all the buzz around the publication, it’s not the author’s fault that I was expecting something along the lines of The Name of the Rose or Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. Alas, it is neither the ‘heart in your mouth’, pulse-racing, twisty thriller you want to finish in one night, nor is it the clever, off-beat, startlingly original and thought-provoking novel that you want to examine again and again. Nevertheless, it is perfectly competent and a pleasant way to while away a few hours.
The story within a story framework and the multiple narrators with hidden interests give a touch of the literary to what is in essence a relatively straightforward story of thwarted love, jealousy, manipulation and murder. The author says he is fascinated by the unreliability of memory, how we can create false memories to support our current interpretation of facts. That is indeed an intriguing subject, but the narrators sounded a little too bland and similar. I loved the idea of an unfinished manuscript hinting at a murder: the set up is similar to The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz but far less tongue-in-cheek. In fact, I think this is the downfall of this novel: it takes itself a little bit too seriously, but is not noir or menacing enough to cause a significant chill down my spine.
So what about the American setting: mostly a campus in a small university town? Although there are a lot of extraneous details in the book about the relationships between people and academic life, there are actually remarkably few eloquent details to place the story in time and place. It did not quite have that authentic zing for me: it could have been any campus in any country and reminded me of my college days in the UK and Germany. However, this is an above-average book, clearly written by an experienced author, who is to be highly commended for writing in his second (or third or fourth) language.
Chris Whitaker: Tall Oaks
By contrast, I felt the small-town setting in Tall Oaks was utterly convincing. There is a bit more bluster and strong opinions going on in American rural areas than in the UK, and this comes through loud and clear in this wonderful dissection of the social scene. It is eccentric, dark and funny, a combination which is very hard to get right, but Chris Whitaker succeeds perfectly. This is most certainly not a book which takes itself too seriously, and yet it left a more lasting impression of the loneliness of most of its main characters.
A small boy goes missing in the small town of Tall Oaks and we get to meet all of the neighbours, supposedly all eager to help, but also all having something to hide. So a strange collection of believable but also quite extreme characters parade in front of us. Jess is the grief-stricken mother, who has been abandoned by the boy’s father and now has to face life completely alone. Jim the policeman who is obsessed with the case and the mother’s despair. Big, lumbering Jerry, who works at the photo store, is considered dim-witted by most of the town, and still lives with his manipulative mother. And of course that wonderful creation, the teenager Manny, who so badly wants to become a cool gangster that he is prepared to have wounds on his forehead by wearing hats that are too tight for him. Manny’s mother and her new admirer, the car salesman Jared, much scorned by Manny and who seems to be on the run from something. Expat Roger who feels emasculated by his wealthy wife Henrietta. But just listing all these peculiar characters does not really do justice to the complex interplay between them, and how much of an insight we get into their rich inner lives with just a few strokes of the pen.
A blurb on the back of the book describes this as Fargo and indeed the book resembles the film and series with its wacky humour, as well as plot twists, rich character descriptions and witty dialogue. However, you care more deeply about Manny and his friends, about poor downtrodden Jerry and the others, than you ever do about the anti-heroes in the TV series. If Fargo is about the baseness of human nature, and how we can all go off the rails, Tall Oaks is about an innate belief in kindness and humanity. And it doesn’t come across as naive, because there is a lot of warmth, humour and compassion.
This was such a delight to read! By turns tender, laugh-out-loud funny and sad, sometimes within the space of a single chapter or paragraph. I can’t wait to see what Chris Whitaker writes next. It is bound to be entertaining and unpredictable, with just enough detail to make the background come alive.