Levels of Gentility in Crime Fiction

You know how quickly I devour crime fiction and that my preference is for the subversive, disturbing and relentlessly noir. However, quite a few my recent reads have been of a gentler persuasion, almost an old-fashioned feel. In descending order of ‘gentility’, may I introduce you to…

BVERYflatMargot Kinberg: B Very Flat

Margot is such a supportive, knowledgeable member of the crime-writing and reading community, plus I have a soft spot for novels with an academic setting, so I’d been planning to get this one for ages. Not easy to order outside the US, but I eventually got my paws on it (and am now waiting to meet Margot in person, so she can sign it for me).

Serena Brinkman is a talented violinist at Tilton University, a small but prestigious college on the East Coast. She truly seems to be the golden girl who has it all – but then death strikes on the night of a major music competition. A former detective, now professor of criminal justice at Tilton University, is asked to investigate the apparently accidental death a little further. We are firmly in Golden Age detective era type of fiction here, although there are all the modern accoutrements of student life nowadays (including PDAs and online gambling). What struck me was how very polite and nice all the characters seem – genteel, in other words (although, obviously, they can’t all be, since one of them at least is a murderer). Even the flawed ones, even when misunderstandings occur.  It’s a book for readers who like a puzzle and a minimum of gore.

BirdCageFrédéric Dard: Bird in a Cage (transl. David Bellos)

Dard was one of the most prolific crime writers in France (and that’s saying something, given that Simenon was also writing there). Best-known for his nearly 180 San-Antonio novels (think a more satirical and realistic Bond), he has also written over 100 standalone novels and shorter series, many of them under various pseudonyms (clearly, the publishers couldn’t keep up with him!).

This is a bittersweet novel with a perfect 1950s setting, which reminded me a little of Pascal Garnier. Albert returns to his old neighbourhood in Paris after his mother’s death (having spent several years in prison) and is captivated by a beautiful woman and her young child, whom he sees eating alone in a restaurant on Christmas Eve. He becomes involved in a very complicated and dubious story with the woman, her husband and the Midnight Mass for Christmas. A clever puzzle and a rather quiet, gentle man who is clearly being manipulated, although we are not quite sure how.

bloodonsnowJo Nesbø: Blood on the Snow (transl. Neil Smith)

I was struck at once by how similar this novel is to Bird in a Cage in terms of premise and feel (rather than style or plot). A professional fixer (with some moral scruples) is asked to ‘fix’ the wife of his boss, but starts to feel sorry for her. Falls a little in love. This is a much more brutal story, far less ambiguous than Dard, and Olav is not as genteel or well-spoken as Albert, but it is a quieter book, with an old-fashioned atmosphere which we’ve not hitherto experienced with Nesbø. Bet you weren’t expecting him to come smack-bang in the middle of this post!

AngelisAugusto De Angelis: The Hotel of the Three Roses (transl. Jill Foulston)

Another Pushkin Vertigo release, I had high hopes for this one, set in a boarding-house in Milan in 1919, written in the 1930s and filled to the brim with unreliable characters with a dodgy past. However, I found there were just too many characters, all lying with no compunction and very little concern about plausibility. There were just too many things happening, insufficient clarity and psychological motivation. This was gentility of the cold-nosed, snobbish variety, not even a smidgen of warmth or attempt to make me care about any of the characters. And, as for those creepy china dolls…!

Deadly-Harvest-Vis-6-copy1Michael Stanley: Deadly Harvest

This is not the Botswana of endless cups of Redbush tea and astute yet gentle musings of Alexander McCall Smith. But it remains, nevertheless, a polite, traditional society with respect for rank and the elderly, even though we are dealing with some pretty horrible realities. Under the ‘quaint’ umbrella of traditional African medicine, muti, we find a profoundly disturbing superstition and increasing use of human body parts. As young girls go missing and the communities are too scared to talk, our beloved rotund Detective Kubu supports his feisty new recruit, Samantha Khama, who wants to find out just what is going on. Politics, traditions, family ties, AIDS victims and reactions to HIV-infected children, plus strong characterisation all form a delightful and far more believable alternative narrative of modern Africa. The authors scratch beneath the surface of the beauty, charm and nostalgia that the British Empire still has for Africa, yet carefully avoid making the country or its people the villain of the piece. One of my favourite series set in Africa.

For a more comprehensive review of the book and an interview with the authors, see Crime Fiction Lover.

 

 

Death of the Mantis by Michael Stanley

DeathMantisIf you have become accustomed to the gentle mysteries and charming portrayal of Botswana in Alexander McCall Smith’s series featuring Mma Precious Ramotse, you will find this crime series less comfortable reading. Michael Stanley is the pen-name for the successful collaboration between Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, who are not from Botswana but have extensive experience of Southern Africa (one of them lives in Johannesburg). For an anthropologist, this novel is a dream: it not only has a very keen sense of place, but it also describes the conflict between the different ways of life of the ethnic groups in that country.

 

This is the third novel in a series featuring detective David ‘Kubu’ Bengu (Kubu is his nickname and means ‘Hippopotamus’, referring to his generous proportions), but it works equally well as a standalone novel or an introduction to the series. Kubu is an absolutely delightful character, a man caught between traditional and Western culture, with an equal love for his job, his parents, his wife and baby daughter, but also thirsting for truth and justice.

 

It starts out simply enough. A park ranger is found dead, with three Bushmen hovering near the body. Are they trying to help or did they commit murder? One local detective believes the latter, but Kubu is not so sure. Especially when he is asked to take on the case by his old school chum, also a Bushman who is now an advocate for the native rights of these people. The Bushmen or Khoisan – both names are used somewhat disparagingly for what is a diverse group of people –  used to roam freely in the Kalahari but are now being increasingly herded into reservations. The lack of evidence forces Kubu to free them, but then more murders take place, leading Kubu deeper into danger and forcing him to make difficult personal choices.

 

The Mantis, with its light brown colour and small proportions, is one of the animals most revered by the Bushmen of the Kalahari, and the double entendre of the title of this book is significant. While there are many deft humorous touches to the story, this is also a serious examination of societal issues and the consequences of modernisation. Yet these issues are addressed lightly, without preaching, in a thrilling and compelling story. I will certainly be reading more in this series and thank you to the book bloggers who have recommended it to me.

 

Sunrise in Botswana
Sunrise in Botswana (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

This was the final book (my second Africa entry) for my Global Reading challenge – Medium Level, hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. Thank you to Kerrie for encouraging us to step out of our usual cultural comforts and for enabling me to discover so many new settings and authors this year!