Two Very Different Crime Locations

Yet another sleight of hand and double-entry bookkeeping, to make up for my recent invisibility on the blogging front. Here are two book reviews of crime fiction for my Global Reading Challenge. It’s not just necessity that inspired me to set them alongside each other. I find the comparison fascinating, as it is hard to think of two more diametrically opposed  locations than Cuba and the Northern Territories of Canada. Both books transport you to a different world, where it is nearly impossible to find your bearings, where none of your usual rules apply.

Both books deal with closed societies, where few outsiders venture, as they are viewed with suspicion and find it difficult to integrate.  Both authors are tremendously skilled at conveying the richness of a world few of us can explore or even imagine. And if this means that in both books, the plot is sometimes slowed down a bit by this complete immersion technique, then so be it! There is still much to be gained from exploring these books.

Cover of "Havana Gold: The Havana Quartet...
Cover of Havana Gold: The Havana Quartet

Leonardo Padura: Havana Gold

Perhaps the most unusual fact about Leonardo Padura Fuentes is that he is still living and writing in Cuba, although his novels are quite critical of Cuban society. Political discourse is kept to a minimum in this novel (the second in a quartet featuring detective Mario Conde), but the depiction of the absurdity of a centralised system for everything, the almost casual mention of corruption and preferential treatment of high-ranking Party officials would have been enough to get censored in other Communist countries. Yet there is such passion for life and love in the pages of this novel, so much of the hustling and mingling from the streets of Havana, that the plot is almost secondary. I was intrigued by the initial set-up: a schoolteacher is brutally murdered, but it turns out she was anything but your typical schoolmarm. In fact, she had far too close a relationship with her students. Yet, despite the twisting plotline, I found myself struggling to remember whodunit after finishing the novel. I was far more interested in the evocation of Havana society and of Mario’s developing love interest.

The style is flamboyantly Latin, with lots of noisy chatter, and disconcerting moves from third person to first person narrative, as we go inside characters’ heads.  This is a rich tapestry of double meaning, double dealing, lack of trust and enduring friendship despite growing differences. The truth is slippery, and nothing is quite what it seems.  A metaphor for Cubanese life? Whatever the author intended, it makes for a colourful noirish tale, with plenty of funny moments to alleviate the underlying sadness.

M.J. McGrath: White Heat

mcgrath-m_1844550fI’d been meaning to read this novel for ages, but it was proving elusive here in France. Then I just happened to find a hardback copy for sale at a charity shop in London last week and carried it home in my suitcase. There is something about ice, snow and Northern countries which utterly beguile me.

The author displays an uncanny knowledge of the Inuit world. I cannot tell if it is accurate or not, obviously, but it feels completely believable, so I am completely sucked into that landscape and society. She captures perfectly the vast emptiness of Ellesmere Island, far north of the Arctic Circle, a harsh, dark world, with remarkably resilient people, despite the excessive drinking, the lack of jobs and future of its young people. All this is rendered in a clear-eyed, unsentimental style, taking that lifestyle for granted rather than trying to explain too much of it away to us.

Edie Kiglatuk is an expert Inuit hunter and guide, and she is getting suspicious of the way recent tourist expeditions to the area have ended in accidents and death. When her beloved stepson Joe becomes involved in these tragic events, Edie displays almost super-human cunning and endurance skills to track down the killers and find out the truth. This reminded me of ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow’, a book I loved when it first came out.

So pleased I pushed myself to explore new continents, thanks to the Global Reading Challenge. For 2014, I am thinking of going into far more detail with Japanese and Latin American literature.

Writing Exercise

This was a 5 minute writing exercise that I was set in a writing group, based on a photo prompt.  I’ve been unable to find this picture again, so you will have to take my word for it: it was a beautiful black-and-white photograph of a Cuban woman in white traditional dress, smoking a cigar, looking out of the window.  She is flashing an insolent smile straight at the camera.  Some makeshift flowerpots are teetering precariously on her windowsill.

The thyme is doing well this year.  Grown all over, in a hurry like a virgin about to be married, all ready to jump into the nearest pot.  Majoram, now that was a tricky one, hasn’t sprung the smallest green shoot. Rowdy waste of time. But who said aloe vera would never make it in a tin? Just bore’em and stuff’em, I always say.  Look at it now: it’s tall, it’s spiky, it sucks up my smoke like a greedy suitor.

Speaking of suitors, it’s nearly time for him to pass by again for the day.  He can’t keep away.  He thinks he’s so irresistable in his shuffling walk-by, with his fancy hat, his spit-polished shoes, his thin moustache. I’m sure he can dance and gaze into my eyes for days.  All he needs is a little feeding, watering, to grow into the man he could become. Do me proud, like my plants, every day.

This time there will be a pause in his shuffle.  This time he will look up. And learn to linger.