Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Calculator

Pantip Plaza
Originally uploaded by Mr ATM
“The Calculator” by Mithran Somasundrum” Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, May 2011.

Ah, a good old-fashioned private eye story, all the way from Thailand. Vijay makes his living in Bangkok as a P.I. and a translator. Mostly he deals with divorces but this time his client is Atiya, a young lady worried about an American man she met the day before – a human calculator in town for the world championship. These are the people who can figure out things like the cube roots of long numbers in their heads.

Part of the pleasure of a story like this is the guided tour of a different part of the world. Much of the story takes place at Pantip Plaza, the center for buying consumer electronics. And here's the world outside:

Walking back to Pantip past the mats on the pavement (plastic toys, children’s clothes, mobile-phone cases) and the food carts (fried chicken, gelatin sweets, freshly squeezed orange jouce), I was starting to wonder about Atiya myself.

I was fascinated by the description of the Sois, the long narrow lanes off main streets where motorcyclists make their living carrying people from the bus stops to their homes.

There is humor here, and the plot is clever too, although as is often the case, I have a problem with motive – in this case, an important character who does something important, apparently just to be nice. Actions that are important to the story need clear motivation.

But I still enjoyed the tale.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

When The Time Came

“When The Time Came,” by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis. Copenhagen Noir. Edited by Bo Tao Michaelis. Akashic Press.

I wish this volume came out last year, before my family vacationed in Denmark. It would have made a nicely twisted guidebook. I may be prejudiced in favor of this particular story because it is set in Ørestad, the area where my family had an apartment, and the authors perfectly captured the inorganic brutality of the scenery.

The building looked like every other place out here. Glass and steel. He’d never understood who would want to live in such a place…. The other brand-new glass palaces were lit up as if an energy crisis had never existed, but there was no life behind the windows. Maybe nobody wanted to live this way after all…

Chaltu is a very pregnant African woman, desperate to make it over the bridge to Sweden where she can seek asylum and be reunited with her lover. Unfortunately contractions begin too soon and she is left in an unfinished building in Ørestad. As it happens three Iranian men have chosen the same night to loot fixtures from the empty apartments. On discovering Chaltu one of them calls the “okay secret doctor,” actually Red Cross nurse Nina Borg, the authors’ series character.

By the time Nina arrives the situation has gotten worse , in the form of a murder. (This deserted building seems busier than Tivoli Gardens.) She has to do some fast thinking to get out of the mess.

This is not a true noir story, as I defined it a few weeks ago. And it doesn’t exactly feel like a crime story, in spite of the fact that just about everyone in it is at least technically a criminal. They are breaking the law, but are they evil?

The story is in the book section entitled "Mammon," not the part “Men and Women,” which contains mostly stories related to sex, but in some ways this story is very precisely about men and women. The event of childbirth has a powerful sway over the character's actions and as long as Nina is presiding over the labor she can order the men around, but once the baby is born, “Nina’s reign had ended.”

Powerful stuff.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sweet Thing Going

“Sweet Thing Going,” by Percy Spurlark Parker. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. April 2011.

I have written here about nice bad guys and nasty good guys, but what about stories where the protagonist is a nasty bad guy? Well, the story can go three ways:
1. The bad guy wins. Not very common, except in heist stories, like Richard Stark’s Parker books. (I also remember an astonishing story I read in AHMM, probably thirty years ago in which the tale ends not with the crime being solved but with the sheriff getting a satisfactory bribe from a suspect… Don’t know the author or the title, but I still remember the plot.)
2. The bad guy turns out to be a good guy. Usually an example of what I call the Unknown Narrator story, in which the reader only knows what people are saying about the main character, and, as is often the case, the common knowledge is wrong.
3. The bad guy gets caught in his own trap. Also known as The Biter Bit.

The thing about Biter Bit stories is that you can usually see them coming. Percy Spurlark Parker’s story is about a cop named Rycann who is as dirty as they come, squeezing the petty crooks on his beat for money and sex. You know he’s going to get his comeuppance, so the question is: how will it happen?

And this is where the question of story length comes in. When I turned to the last page I could see that it was the last page and as I read down I was thinking: there’s no way he can pull off a surprising and satisfying ending in the space that’s left.

Obviously I was wrong or I would be writing about a different story this week. Nice job.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Leopard of Ti Mourne

“The Leopard of Ti Morne” by Mark Kurlansky. Haiti Noir. edited by Edwidge Danticat.

So, what is noir? Glad you asked. Here’s the essence: You’re a nobody, you try to be more, you get shafted and end up in a worse place than you started (likely dead or in jail).

The various books in the Akashic Press Noir Cities series have hundreds of stories, and probably the majority of them don’t fit that description very well. Some have nothing in common with it except being pessimistic.

Kurlansky’s story is probably the story in Haiti Noir that comes closest to my definition. That’s not the reason it’s my favorite, but I admit it helps.

The story is funny, in parts, at least. Our nobody-hero is Izzy Goldstein a Miami Beach Jewish guy who “felt in his heart that he was really Haitian.” After years of eating Haitian food, hanging around in Little Haiti, and learning Creole he decides it’s time to do something for his spiritual home. He buys a boat and starts a charity. Not surprisingly, the sharks start to circle, and I am not talking about the ocean.

Kurlansky makes nice use of Haitian mythology. It isn’t a major part of the story but he ties tales of the lwas, Vodou spirits, into the chain of events that Izzy accidentally starts.

Another main character is the wealthy Madame Dumas, very real, but effectively the spirit of malevolent greed that distorts everything Izzy tries to accomplish.

She was wrapped in a thick red fox coat. Her body stuck out at angles, a hard thin body. Her straightened black hair was swept up on her head. She wore shiny dark-purple lip gloss with an even darker liner. Her green eyes were also traced in black, which matched the carefully painted polish on her long nails filed to severe points. All this dark ornamentation on her gaunt face made her skin look pale with a fat finish, like gray cardboard.

Another good (and noir) story in the book is Katia D. Ulysse’s “The Last Department.” It’s full of wonderful writing, but the ending didn’t satisfy me.