Police Procedurals in Three Countries

Serial killers of some description or another appeared in each of these three books – a trope which I have slowly grown weary of, but it was handled intelligently in each of the novels below and brought something fresh to the subgenre. However, what I found far more interesting were the obvious differences in approach to investigating a crime, reporting on it and even finding a resolution in the three countries and societies described here. [My own translations unless otherwise marked.]

klausvaterKlaus Vater: Am Abgrund – Berlin 1934

The serial killers here are in power. Berlin after Hitler’s rise to power, during a murky period of German history, when the SS and the SA (both Nazi supporters) are fighting for power between themselves, and the police is losing authority daily and its right pursue criminals according to legislation. During the construction of a tunnel for the S-Bahn in Berlin, an explosion kills several of the construction workers. A ‘non-aryan’ carpenter Leiblein is accused of provoking the explosion and is arrested. Hermann Kappe is a Kommissar with a lot of heart and ethical principles, and he soon realises that Leiblein is being made a scapegoat for a matter which the various political factions would like to see buried. As the lines between right and wrong, truth and cover-up, become increasingly blurred, it becomes clear that the power of the fist (or weapons) triumph over the power of law. In fact, law itself is being subverted by a new political regime keen to rid itself of any opposition. Kappe has many moments when he fears for himself and his family. He learns to compromise, to find small loopholes in a society which is becoming ever more frightening and inhuman. No happy outcome is possible, only temporary relief and terrifying uncertainty.

Without looking at them, [Kappe’s boss] told them: ‘According to a report from the Reich’s Ministry of Transport, Director Dr. Erich Klausener shot himself in his office earlier today. There is no police confirmation of this. The news came to us via the security services… It’s hard for me to believe them. Gentlemen, it’s clear to me that there is an entirely different tune being played here. The FĂĽhrer is clearing out anyone who stands in his way: Klausener, von Schlicher and his wife, … and many more. I don’t know what to do anymore.

They waited for him to say something more. But he didn’t. Then he told them: ‘You can go now.’

sixfourHideo Yokoyama: Six Four (translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies)

In Japan, the police seems to be as much of an administrative morass as the great corporates. Officers are rotated between departments every few years, and Superintendent Yoshinobu Mikami finds himself moved from Criminal Investigations (specifically: murder) to Press Director in the Administrative Affairs department. Even worse, when he tries to create a more collaborative relationship with journalists, his efforts are thwarted by his superiors and decisions about what to reveal and what to hide are made above his head for reasons which are not even explained to him. The amount of political manoeuvring and the social nuances which need to be taken into account make the Japanese police force seem labyrinthine in comparison to its Western counterparts. Everything seems to be about preserving the reputation of the police and getting promoted.

Captain Tsujiuchi is on his ‘tour of duty’ from Tokyo in the prefectural HQ where Mikami works, but he has no real power. He isolates himself in his office and is kept far from any real problems by Mikami’s fellow officers.

The Prefecture D Police had been diligent in their cultivation of the man’s near-divine status. They reported favourable information and insulated him from everything that wasn’t good news. They devoted themselves to ensuring that his time in the Prefectural HQ was spent in comfort. He was kept free from germs, sheltered from the troubles and worries of the local police, treated instead like a guest at a spa, and when he returned to Tokyo it would be with pockets full of expensive gifts from local companies. I enjoyed my time here, surrounded by the warmth of the local community and the officers serving it. They would feel relief as he recited the formulaic words during his departing speech, then, hardly leaving time for them to gather breath, they would begin to gather information on the personality and interests of the incoming captain.

tempsglacFred Vargas: Temps Glaciaires

And then we come to France, itself no stranger to the stranglehold of bureaucracy.  However, as in all countries with a Latin influence, rules are made to be broken or reinterpreted, and Comissaire Adamsberg pushes the boundaries of what is permissible more than most. At a certain point, he is in a rush to get to a certain place in the countryside and is pulled over by the traffic police. He tries to explain that it’s an emergency, but the two gendarmes (a different branch of the police than the detectives, and suffering a bit of a chip on their shoulder from being regarded as inferior) seem to take great pleasure in throwing the rule book at him:

‘I forgot to put my beacon on. I’ll come tomorrow and we’ll sort all that out…’
‘Ah, no, not tomorrow. First of all, because it’s Sunday, and secondly, because it will be too late.’
‘Too late for what?’
‘For testing your alcohol levels…’
‘I repeat: it was an emergency.’
‘Sorry, sir, your trajectory was a bit uncertain in the curves.’
‘I was just driving fast, that’s all. Emergency, how many more times do I need to say it?’
‘Blow here, Commissaire.’

In this book, Adamsberg relies so much on his legendary intuition and continues to pursue a line of enquiry regarded as tenuous by Danglard and some others in his team, that he is almost faced with a mutiny. When he insists on going to Iceland to pursue some leads, his team is divided between those sceptical but loyal to their boss, and those who openly disagree with him. Yet Adamsberg does not pull rank on them and punish the disbelievers: his is a democratic approach, even when he is at the receiving end of distrust. He can even forgive serious mistakes, as one team member discloses rather more than they should have to a suspect. But he does make sure that they realise their mistake and never repeat them.

I have to remind you all that no private information about any of our team members should be given out to a stranger. Not even if he has gone for a piss or to feed the cat. Not even if the stranger is sympathetic, cooperative or frightened.

So there we have it: three very different approaches to policing, one of them is set in a historical context, three insights into different cultures. The world of Scandinavian, British and American policing, which we are all so familiar with, suddenly seems very much easier, doesn’t it?

 

 

Quick Reviews of Foreign-Language Fiction

I’ve fallen very far behind on my reviews, so will write brief ones for four books I’ve recently read in a vain attempt to catch up. Besides, although they are all good books, they did not quite bowl me over. I suspect that may be because I wasn’t reading the best efforts by these authors. I do want to revisit each one of them in future.

AttentatYasmina Khadra: L’Attentat (The Attack)

Absolutely terrifying and intriguing premise for this book. A suicide bomber attacks a Tel Aviv restaurant. Dr. Amine, a respected surgeon of Arab origin (but now an Israeli citizen) is working in a nearby hospital and spends all night trying to save the lives of the victims of the ensuing carnage. Then he is called in by the police: the suicide bomber turns out to be none other than his wife. Devastated by his loss and apparent blindness to his wife’s real feelings, he tries to understand what could have driven her to such a terrible action. There is no real final message from his wife, except for the one question about how we can enjoy personal happiness when the whole community is suffering. There are many descriptions of the humiliations of daily life for Palestinians living in Israel, but the book offers no simple answers, it merely raises more and more questions. I liked the even-handedness of the depiction of both Israelis and Palestinians – there are good and bad people in each group, there are friends and enemies that the narrator makes in both camps. It’s a powerful book in its depiction of the sources of anger amongst the Arabs in Israel, even though the points are sometimes made in a rather heavy-handed way.

TeenSpiritVirginie Despentes: Teen Spirit

A French author recommended by Emma, although for a different book. But this was the only novel I could find at the local library. She has a very natural internal monologue style and a great ear for dialogue. Bruno is a failed writer, sponging off his girlfriend. He believes he suffers from agoraphobia and has been unwilling to venture outside for well over two years. But then one of his first girlfriends from high-school contacts him and tells him that they have a thirteen year old daughter, Nancy, who wants to get to know him. This is the bittersweet, often funny story of how father and daughter find each other – in a way that is not at all sentimental. The story is not terribly original and the ending felt a bit abrupt, but the characterisation was very good. The teenager Nancy is suitably stroppy and impressionable, but also touching and naive at times, while her father Bruno is lazy, contradictory, selfish but increasingly protective and paternal. A quick and fun read, with perhaps some more profound messages about self-absorbed parents.

BetrayalKarin Alvtegen: Betrayal (transl. Steven T. Murray)

This was an author that both John Grant and Margot Kinberg had mentioned recently, so I followed their recommendations. The book was a bit of a surprise, not quite what I expected. It started out relatively conventionally, with the discovery of a husband’s infidelity. Eva’s feeling of betrayal and hurt turns into a desire for revenge. But then it took a darker twist, not just because the characters were for the most part unlikeable and unreliable as narrators, but also because they were making some very bad choices. Most people have said they did not like the ending and I could say things about it feeling unjust, undeserved – like real life, I suppose. It was a cleverly constructed book, that took well-worn tropes and managed to inject a note of freshness in them – as well as constant creepy menace. But there was something about the style which did not quite appeal to me; it felt too cold, detached, perhaps a reflection of Eva’s own desire to cope. Something did not ring quite genuine. But I’ll be looking out for more novels by this author.

MaisonatlantiquePhilippe Besson: La maison atlantique (The House on the Atlantic Coast)

Another author recommended by Emma (again, not this particular book). This was a rather predictable story, but the author did make the most of it. He has a limpid, clear style, very pleasant, elegant and easy to read, although with more internal musing of the first person narrator than one might expect. It’s a coming of age story, a son thwarted by his father at every turn, with predictably tragic consequences (that we’re alerted to from the very beginning, although without giving away any of the details). It would have been interesting to hear alternative points of view (and I don’t often say that about books), as it all seems to be speculation and self-justification.

So four foreign writers, three of them French-speaking, two women, two men. Luckily, they’ve all been translated to some extent.

Karin Alvtegen has had 5 psychological thrillers translated into English, all with snappy one-word titles. The best known is perhaps ‘Shame’. Yasmina Khadra’s so-called ‘extremist trilogy’ has been translated and is very thought-provoking: ‘The Attack’, ‘The Swallows of Kabul’ and ‘The Sirens of Baghdad’. Two rather controversial books by Virginie Despentes are available in English: ‘Baise-Moi’ and ‘Apocalypse Baby’. I’ve only found two Philippe Besson books in English: ‘In the Absence of Men’ and ‘His Brother’.