Fuminori Nakamura: The Thief – Suri (2009)

the-thief

I’ve seen people call Japanese author Fuminori Nakamura’s novel The Thief crime or thriller but I don’t think that’s doing it any justice. What The Thief really is, is a Japanese noir. I think that’s important to know because there are big differences between these genres and frustrated expectations have a tendency to spoil books. Of course, expecting a traditional noir, in the vein of some US or European authors, could lead to a similar frustration.

The protagonist of this story is a talented thief. So talented in fact that he can steal wallets from inside pockets with zippers. At the beginning of the novel, he introduces us to his art and to his code of honour. He only steals from the rich and often gives to the poor. He’s just returned to Tokyo. Where he’s been and why he was gone, will only be explained later. Coming back proves to be a very bad idea as one of the reasons why he left was that he had to go into hiding after a robbery with a Yakuza gang. Those gangs are notorious for getting rid of people who helped them.

The thief is a loner. He had a lover and a friend but both are gone. He doesn’t have a family. When he meets a small kid whose mother uses him to steal things in shops, he takes pity on the boy and shows him some tricks. The kid who is as lonely as the thief, soon begins to follow him and wait in front of his apartment. The thief tries to shake him off but the kid keeps on returning and finally the thief decides to help him. The readers senses that the kid must remind the thief of his own childhood.

Unfortunately, our hero bumps into someone from his past who wants him to steal several things for him in exchange of his and the boy’s life.

Large parts of the story are told chronologically, but there are many flashbacks that tell us a lot about the thief’s past.

I called this a noir as the book contains a lot of typical noir themes. It explores loneliness, fate, and angst. The main protagonist is a loner with a pessimistic outlook on life. The similarities to other noir novels I’ve read stop there. What I missed most was the typical atmosphere of  traditional US/European noir. This book was so cold. Like a polished chrome surface. Never melancholy or moody. Unfortunately, those are some of the elements that make me love noir and their absence prevented me from loving this.

I’ve seen a few reviews in which people complained about the ambiguous ending. I didn’t mind it because I felt it worked.

What I liked a great deal was the way the theme of freedom was explored. Freedom of choice and action. I’m afraid to spoil the book, so I’ll only say there’s a sinister character in this story who likes to play with people tricking them into believing the choices they make are their own. The results are chilling.

The Thief was fascinating and readable and offers a unique look at Japanese gangs. I didn’t love it but I enjoyed it a lot.

 

Dorothy B. Hughes: In a Lonely Place (1947)

In a Lonely Place

I came across Dorothy B. Hughes excellent noir novel In a Lonely Place in Books to Die For, a book of essays on important crime novels. Each of the articles was written by a famous crime writer. The book has been edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke. The article on In a Lonely Place was written by Megan Abbott. I’m sure I would have liked In A Lonely Place without reading Abbott’s essay but I might have missed a few things.

Books to Die For

Hughes novel is one of the first serial killer novels and inspired later works like Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. I know that many readers of this blog are averse to serial killer novels and I understand why. But this one is a very different book. There are three types of serial killer novels—those from the point of view of the victim, those from the point of view of the detectives and those from the killer’s point of view. The mainstream/bestselling novels usually fall into category one or two, while this one falls into the third category. Unfortunately, the blurb gives a very wrong impression and the reader thinks (s)he is reading a thriller-type story. That was never Hughes intention. Without the blurb it’s clear from the beginning that we’re in the head of the killer, Dix Steele. Dix is a WWII veteran who has just moved to L.A. and, on the spur of a moment, contacts Brub Nicolai, a former army buddy, who served with him in the UK, not knowing that he is a detective. An other perpetrator would have stayed away or fled, not so Dix Steele. He loves the idea of being able to follow the investigation very closely.

Here’s an early quote which doesn’t only give an idea of Dorothy B. Hughes’ writing but also of how eerie this scenario is. Brub is obviously talking to Dix.

Brub started, “Wha-” He realized Dix’s question. ” I guess it’s pretty much my fault. Ever since the thing started, I’ve been afraid for her. She’s lived in  the canyon all her life. She never had any fear, wandered all over it, any time of the day. But the canyon at night, the way the fogs come in— it’s a place for him.” His face was again angry, helplessly angry. “I’ve scared her. She’s alone so much. I never know what hours I have to keep. We have good neighbours, a couple of our best friends are right across the road. But you know our street. It’s dark and lonely and the way our house is set up there—” He broke off. “I’m the one who’s scared; I’ve infected her. And I can’t help it. I can’t pretend until we caught him.”

Megan Abbott emphasized in her essay that this is far more than a serial killer novel or an ordinary noir. The author went further than others in showing how difficult it was for veterans to return. How in many cases, they felt like their masculinity was in danger. The book is as much about gender as it is about crime. Men like Dix Steele had to reinvent themselves after the war. With the end of the war, they lost their identity.

What made me love this book is that we actually pity Dix Steele. He’s more than a little troubled and his suffering is genuine. Here’s a quote to illustrate this:

A man couldn’t live alone; he needed friends. He needed a woman, a real woman. Like Brub and Sylvia. Like that stupid Cary had that stupid Maude. Better than being alone.

It wasn’t often it hit him hard. It was the balmy night and the early dusk and the look of the lamps through opened windows and the sound of music from radios in the lighted rooms. he’d eschewed human relationship for something stronger, something a hell of a lot better.

What makes Dix Steele so tragic is that he is not only greedy and full of longing— for women he can’t have, for status, money, relationships, the “good life”— but also oddly hopeful. He believes that with the right woman everything might be different. When he sees Laurel Grey for the first time, a young  actress who is just as greedy for the good life, as he is, he genuinely believes, she might be his saviour.

I love nothing as much as atmospherical crime novels and this one might be one of the greatest in this regard. Set in L.A., it really brings the city to life and makes great use of the landscape and weather conditions. I thought that fog and mist were particular to San Francisco but reading this, I have to assume that the L.A. area (at the time?) was constantly foggy. Reading how this lonely, deranged and driven killer hunts for his prey in the fog made for great reading.

In a Lonely Place has been made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. I haven’t seen it but I get the impression, the ending is very different.

Dorothy B. Hughes had an unusual writing career. She published twelve novels, three of which were made into movies, before she stopped writing in 1950. Allegedly, because she took care of her mother and her grandchildren. She died in 1993. It’s a bit sad to think that this great writer spent the last forty years of her life not writing.

Dashiell Hammett: The Thin Man (1934)

The Thin Man

While I’ve devoured all of Chandler’s books, I’ve hardly read any Hammett. Way back when I started this blog, I read and reviewed The Glass Key – book and movie – and while I liked it, I never returned to him until now. Although I had both The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man on my piles, I picked the latter. I’m pretty sure they are not in the same league and it wasn’t s as hard-boiled or noir as I expected. On the contrary. It has even some elements of a screwball comedy.

It’s the Christmas season and our hero, Nick Charles, is back in New York with his young wife Nora and their schnauzer Asta. Nick used to be a PI in New York before he met Nora and followed her to San Francisco where they share a business.

While waiting in a speakeasy for his wife who is Christmas shopping, a young woman walks up to him and introduces herself as Dorothy Wynant. Nick used to know her father and her when she was a kid. Dorothy hopes he’s got her’ father’s address but he hasn’t. He hasn’t heard from Wynant in years. Shortly after this encounter, Nick hears that Wynant’s secretary and former lover Julia Wolf has been found dead, shot four times, and that Wynant is missing. Interestingly, the dying Julia has been found by Wynant’s ex-wife, the manipulative, bitchy Mimi. Everyone, including the police, is convinced that Wynant shot Julia, only Nick doubts this.

While the readers are kept guessing who shot Julia, I can’t say that the crime-solving is the most interesting element in this story. What I enjoyed the most is the description of the couple Nick and Nora and the way they spend their days and nights. Most of the story takes place in their hotel room and a huge number of people drifts in and out. Friends, acquaintances, police men, criminals. Every one is constantly downing a drink. The last thing Nick does before he goes to bed – drink, the first thing he does when he gets up – he pours himself another drink. Nora and the others aren’t much better.

Nora might not be the best developed character but she’s fun. She’s the opposite of a nagging housewife. No matter what Nick does or what happens to him, she never gives him a hard time, never freaks out. She’s almost twenty years younger than her husband and very fascinated by his old life. When he’s dragged into the investigation of Julia’s murder, she joins him eagerly and tries to help him find out who killed her.

The tone and humour throughout the book, especially in the dialogue is very dry. Not as dark as in other novels of the era but refreshingly brittle.

I only found out after finishing this novel that Hammett wrote it for the women’s magazine Redbook where it was serialised in 1934. That may explain why it’s not as dark and why there are so many female main characters. There’s Nora, Nick’s wife, the hysterical Dorothy, Mimi, her bitchy mother and Dorothy’s aunt. The male characters are rather pale in comparison.

The THin Man is certainly not Hammett’s best but it’s fun.

Has anyone seen the movie?

Jakob Arjouni: More Beer – Mehr Bier (1987) Kayankaya 2

More Beer

More BeerMehr Bier is the second novel in Jakob Arjouni’s Kayankaya series. It’s set in Frankfurt, Germany. PI Kayankaya is of Turkish origin. While Arjouni was still alive, he was called Germany’s answer to Raymond Chandler. I always found this comparison problematic. Arjouni writes extremely well. I’d say he’s definitely at the literary end of the crime spectrum. His books are hardboiled noir. Kayankaya is a cynical loner who gets beaten up more than once, still, I don’t think he has a lot in common with Marlowe. The differences are quite subtle but they are important. I remeber hating how Kayankaya killed a fly in the first novel. In this one, he beats a rat. Marlowe would never do something like that. I remember noticing after I’ve read three or four books by Chandler that Marlowe has a great fondness for animals. Kayankaya is much more jaded.

More Beer sees Kayankaya investigate the murder of a chemical plant owner. Four eco-terrorists have been charged with the murder, but it seems highly unlikely that they did go that far. Unfortunately,they don’t want to talk. Early on, it becomes obvious that there was a fifth man involved. But who and where is he? The defendants’ lawyer hires Kayankaya to find him. He investigates with his usual stubbornness, even pursuing after he gets beaten up a couple of times.

Kayankaya is a loner, a heavy drinker, a disillusioned man with an acerbic wit. And constantly mistreated because of his origins. I forgot how old these books are. This one was written in the 80s and to read about the way Kayankaya is treated was quite shocking. I think the status of people of Turkish origin has changed meanwhile. At least I hope so. Creating a character like this in the 80s must have been pretty provocative.

I’m not too sure what to think about this book. I found the first in the series, Happy Birthday, TürkeHappy Birthday, Turk, so much better. But while I didn’t care for the story of More Beer, I loved the writing. I’d forgotten just how well Arjouni writes. The novel is full of memorable metaphors like when the narrator compares rain drops on a windshield to a herd of animals running.  For that alone, I might reread it and will certainly not wait another ten years before I read the third one.

Arjouni, Jakob
Most of Arjouni’s novels have been translated and published by Melvillehouse.
Sadly the author died of pancreatic cancer in 2013. He was 48 years old.

Mehr Bier