Monday, April 7, 2014
They say you can't, but with Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti series that landed on its feet almost fully formed running to twenty-three titles anyone who's been along for most of the ride can take a glance at the book and have a pretty fair idea of what they'll be getting.
The elements will, of course, vary from title to title. The amount of time Brunetti gets to spend at home and when he manages to get there will affect how much of his family the reader sees in each successive title. The actual case he's dealing with may or may not present opportunities for the wonderful and highly efficient Signorina Elettra to do her computer-based thing.
Brunetti's boss, the entirely loathsome Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta, will appear in his office just before lunch and depart not that long afterwards, and how far his nose sticks into Brunetti's case will depend on the case's effect on the issues that matter to him.
Apart from Signorina Elettra most of the cast have been in place since the first title in a series that landed on its feet almost fully formed from the start of Death at La Fenice. You know, more or less, what you're going to get. It's just a question of detail and delivering an outcome.
This time around it's an afternoon phone call from the director of Biblioteca Merula, a prestigious library with an extensive holding of rare books. A number of titles have had pages cut out, maps and illustrations rather than pages of text, and others have gone missing.
As far as library director Dottoressa Patrizia Fabbiani is concerned there's an obvious suspect. American academic Joseph Nickerson, from the University of Kansas, has been using the library for research into medieval Mediterranean maritime trade but has suddenly vanished after daily visits over a solid three week period. Books he has requested are gone, others are damaged. There's your man. Q.E.D.
He's definitely a suspect, particularly after his passport turns out to be a fake and a check with the University of Kansas reveals they have no one by that name on the payroll.
But he's not the only regular visitor who passes under the gaze of library guard Piero Sartor.
Another regular reader is the former priest the library staff has nicknamed Tertullian since his regular reading matter is mainly drawn from the works of this prolific early Christian polemicist against heresy. According to the Wikipedia Tertullian has been called the father of Latin Christianity and the founder of Western theology.
According to Brunetti, on the other hand, he's dry as dust and the fact that anyone, ex-priest or not, would spend three years reading his voluminous output piques his interest. The latter day Tertullian also seems to have vanished and when he is found brutally murdered, Brunetti finds himself investigating something more serious than theft.
The Patta angle this time around kicks in when he learns that several of the vandalised or missing volumes were donated to the library by Contessa Elisabetta Morosini-Albani, the wealthy widow whose late husband was the head of a long-established Venetian family. As a total philistine, the theft and vandalism barely register on Patta's radar. The possibility that the Contessa's nose might be put out of joint is entirely another matter and Brunetti is cleared to investigate a matter that might otherwise have been pushed to one side and pinned on the obvious suspect.
Interestingly, when Brunetti interviews the Contessa his wife's aristocratic connections come into play as Brunetti quietly goes about piecing the ins and outs of the trade in purloined vintage editions together.
By Its Cover seems to have been prompted by a wave of theft and vandalism in libraries, museums and churches, and particularly by the systematic looting of thousands of rare books from Girolamini Library in Naples unearthed in 2012. That was the work of the library's director, and here, as Brunetti patiently peels away the layers of things that aren't quite what they seem Leon gets the chance to vent through her characters.
Theft and vandalism in the world of rare books aren't the only things to attract her wrath. There's a particularly well crafted incident involving a massive cruise liner Brunetti and his offsider encounter in the course of their perambulations (or the maritime equivalent thereof) and the presence of crowds of tourists as spring starts to kick in are a perennial target as well.
When you're looking at a series that has been running this long you're always likely to suspect a tendency to phone it in, and you may well think that's operating here. There's not much that could be described as a new development, and not much room for Signorina Elettra to do her thing, but that's largely a function of the subject under investigation. You can use the internet to check things like prices of rare books, but that's about as far as it goes.
But if the author is delivering the latest episode telephonically I'd suggest there'll be a tendency on the part of the reader to put things aside. By Its Cover's blend of intrigue, theft, blackmail and murder kept me turning the pages until I got to the end and left me looking for more after a characteristically abrupt end.
The Golden Egg ended with Brunetti setting out for a brooding walk along a wind and rain swept Lido, and By Its Cover comes to a full stop because, really, once Brunetti has pulled out his phone and dialled the number of the Questura and requested the warrant there really isn't anything more that needs to be said.
Friday, March 21, 2014
A silent kill, Cliff Hardy ’s friendly Intelligence Agency acquaintance informs him, is one of those rare instances where intelligence chiefs sanction the removal, leaving no body, witnesses or clues, of people whose continued existence constituted a serious threat.
To national security? Hardy asks.
Yes, Josh Carey responds, but more often to the organisation itself.
That exchange takes place at the beginning of Chapter 28, but it’s fairly obvious from very early in the piece that the ex-firebrand student agitator turned populist whistleblower Rory O’Hara would be a prime candidate for a silent kill.
Given that description, O’Hara obviously has enemies, and he still hasn’t recovered from a hit-and-run incident that was almost certainly not an accident when Hardy’s ex-commando, stuntman and actor Jack Buchanan approaches him with a job offer.
Buchanan has sunk a lot of money into O’Hara’s forthcoming speaking tour, which is going to attract very big, high-paying audiences and will be followed by a documentary, high-profile television interviews and a book deal.
The tour is also going to publicise O’Hara’s new political party, which looks like attracting significant defectors from both major parties and The Greens. That means you’ve got all the major parties as potential enemies, along with the people behind a massive development project in the western suburbs that O’Hara had exposed as shonky and corrupt.
That adds a fundamentalist Christian church, a major trade union, a superannuation fund and … an outlaw bikie gang to the enemies list, along with corrupt local councillors and a state government minister.
The fear, as far as Buchanan is concerned, is that there’s a traitor lurking in O’Hara’s entourage. He wants Hardy to act as a combination of bodyguard, security consultant and traitor detector.
The first stop on the speaking tour is Wollongong, which is also where it ends after O’Hara’s girlfriend is abducted and the abductor is murdered. So much for the security consultant gig.
The murder victim’s wealthy brother, however, comes to the rescue, hiring Hardy to investigate the murder, and providing almost unlimited financial resources to fund the investigation.
Hardy uncovers assorted hidden agendas among O'Hara's entourage, powerful political, intelligence and commercial concerns in an investigation that winds its way through Sydney, Darwin and Canberra.
Along the way, he picks up the clues that lead him to the killer with the assistance of the resourceful Dave Burns, a Tiwi Islander (the only indigenous person with a PIA licence, as far as I knew) and an uneasy alliance with O’Hara’s former personal assistant, who has her own scores to settle as far as the killer is concerned.
The heritage township of Gundaroo delivers a terrible secret, and the pursuit leads to a Russian cafe in Manly where his quarry, who has turned out to be a rogue intelligence agent with psychopathic tendencies plays highly competitive chess for money.
Hardy’s private life remains as messy as ever as he becomes involved with the attractive personal assistant, the former swimmer and motivational speaker Penelope Milton-Smith, who has gone back to using her maiden name (Marinos) while set tries to avoid the killer.
That comes after the departure of his live apart girlfriend to greener pastures in Los Angeles, and while the new interests have been known to stick around from one book to the next, Penelope is damaged goods and follows professional advice to move on.
And that, as we carefully step around spoiler territory, is the gist of Corris’ thirty-ninth Cliff Hardy yarn. Given the longevity of the series, you’d expect things to verge on the formulaic, but even where it does Corris manages to avoid ‘phoning it in.’
It’s a remarkable achievement by one of the icons of Australian crime fiction, delivered with the regulation hard-boiled observations at a crisp, page-turning clip. Corris’ eyesight is failing, but hopefully we’ll get to Hardy #40.
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Spend any time at all contemplating the notion that there’s a “Real Australia” lurking out there somewhere or pondering the possibility of an Australian identity, and you’ll more than likely come to recognise that we’re rather good at denialism.
Now, The Argumentative Reader might contend denialism is a little bit strong, and in the face of that sort of criticism you might be tempted to water things down a little. Substitute a firm but polite we’d rather not talk about that, thank you very much, perhaps.
That’s one of the things I tend to find interesting when the subject of the History curriculum rears its head from time to time. There seems to be an unwillingness to consider certain topics, and if anyone’s scratching their heads and wondering why students find Australian history boring, you might start by considering the possibility that we’ve chopped out most of the interesting bits because there’s stuff in there that we’d rather not talk about.
My primary school exposure to Australian history came, of course, in an entirely different era, and one in which the possibility of someone producing something like the title under discussion here wasn’t totally non-existent. Just mostly, like about 99.999999%.
Author David Hunt is, among other things a comedy writer, and takes great delight in lampooning Australia’s earliest years, taking the narrative as far as the end of the Macquarie era. That leaves a fair bit of territory to explore, and hopes he has the inclination to continue.
He covers all of what one might term the usual suspects, from the Indigenous destruction of the continent’s ancient megafauna by fire, through Makassan fisherman trading in Arnhem Land to seventeenth-century Dutch explorers sailing along the Western Australian coastline busily nailing plates to trees.
In 1606, Willem Janszoon landed near present-day Weipa and named the land he’d discovered Nova Guinea, as distinct from New Guinea, which he labelled Os Papua, part of which he called Nieu Zelandt. Hunt is rather good at coming up with that sort of detail and displays a remarkable ability to dig around and come up with something that’s strange enough to be true, and cites Mark Twain’s take on Australian history:
It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies … but they are all true, they all happened.
And, of course, when he gets to the English contribution to our nation’s history and national identity things get really interesting. We get the connections between Captain Cook of the Endeavour, and Star Trek's Captain Kirk of the star ship Enterprise and learn that the first and last space shuttles, took their names from the two vessels.
As far as Cook is concerned, the Captain Cook Monument at Botany Bay has him setting foot a day early (on 28 April 1770 rather than on the afternoon of the 29th). When he set out on his first voyage Cook had never crossed the equator. By way of contrast the ship’s goat had circumnavigated the globe the previous year and received a silver collar engraved with a poem by Dr Samuel Johnson after its second circuit .
And then we get to Joseph Banks, a dedicated pants man, who’d planned to smuggle his mistress onto Cook’s second voyage disguised as a Mr Burnett. One could cite further examples of eccentric behaviour from a botanist who was dismissive of Portuguese gardening techniques and displayed an inclination towards fishing trips with two or three Ladies of pleasure accompanied by his mate the Earl of Sandwich, who happened to be First Lord of the Admiralty and would go on to have his name associated with the dietary staple of the Australian school lunch.
There are all sorts of other examples that could be cited, and we’re definitely getting close to spoiler territory, but one can’t help pointing out that Mary Reibey, who is portrayed on the $20 note, was a cross-dressing convict entrepreneur who built up an extensive pastoral, hotel, shipping and sealing empire and leased her house to Governor Macquarie so it could be the first branch of the Bank of New South Wales.
Macquarie, we learn, is hardly the shimming light he was presented to primary school students of my generation, and William Francis copped a seven year sentence for stealing A Summary Account of the Flourishing State of the Island of Tobago.
And, trust me, there’s plenty more detail to revel in.
One awaits the sequel with considerable interest.
If there wasn’t a specific link on the official Martin Cruz Smith website I probably wouldn’t be referring to the revelation that one of my favourite authors has had Parkinson’s Disease and the diagnosis dates back to 1995.
Under the circumstances, one can see why he kept it hidden from the reading public, but it was also a closely guarded secret as far as his publisher and editors were concerned. You would tend to assume, given the medical condition, that the writing might suffer, but in the period since the diagnosis he’s produced the Arkady Renko titles Havana Bay, Wolves Eat Dogs, Stalin's Ghost and Three Stations, all of which were quite sublime.
And, with Tatiana, he’s done it again, confirming a long-held belief that a new Martin Cruz Smith Arkady Renko novel needs to be approached as soon as I can get my hands on it. Better still, from my reading of the photographs here, there’s more on the way.
It’s not as if there’s going to be a lack of material to work with. While Arkady Renko has survived the transition from the old Soviet Union to Vladimir Putin’s New Russia, the country’s oligarchy is as obsessed with maintaining secrecy and enforcing its wishes through whatever means it deems necessary as any of its predecessors have been.
There are disturbingly familiar events at the beginning of Tatiana after reporter Tatiana Petrovna is alleged to have thrown herself from the sixth-floor window of the Moscow apartment she was trying to save from demolition by corrupt developers who want to convert the area into a shopping complex.
Her death coincides with a power vacuum at the top of the criminal food chain after the execution-style murder of mob billionaire Grisha Grigorenko, a member of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce and patron of charities and the arts whose status stems from his interests in drugs, prostitution and stolen weaponry. While Grigorenko is buried with the trappings associated with a feudal lord, his death paves the way for a war of succession involving his son and heir apparent, and other Mafiosi with criminal empires of their own.
Given the tendency for mobster funerals to attract persons of interest, Renko and his offsider attend Grigorenko’s funeral, where Arkady is sidetracked by a protest about Tatiana’s death. Her record of exposing corruption and cover-ups in government circles means there were any number of people who’d want to see her dead and the official verdict of suicide seems a little less than credible. There is a witness who heard her screaming as she fell.
What caught Arkady’s attention was that a neighbour had heard her scream. Suicide usually took concentration. People who committed suicide counted pills, stared in fascination at their pooling blood, took the high dive in silence. They rarely screamed.
Renko finds himself on the receiving end of some police brutality at the protest, but is persuaded to take a closer look at the investigation into Tatiana's death. The Cynical Reader might find this a little hard to accept, but a combination of Renko’s background and the fact that he’s carrying a bullet in his skull after a near-death experience in a past investigation means he’s not particularly concerned about the consequences of a little inquisitiveness.
Add Arkady's neighbour and interim lover Anya Rudenko’s involvement in the demonstration, the cemetery’s refusal to inter Tatiana’s body which couldn't be located at any of the city's morgues and then was allegedly found and cremated before any investigation could begin and you’ve got a combination of circumstances that are almost guaranteed to pique a predilection towards inquisitiveness.
Then there’s the notebook and the tapes.
As Arkady starts sniffing around, assisted by his loyal alcoholic comrade, Sgt. Victor Orlov, the investigation leads from Moscow to the Baltic port of Kaliningrad, a geopolitical oddity populated by hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians.
The city was originally Konigsberg, part of eastern Prussia wedged between Poland and Lithuania taken by the Red Army in the dying days of World War II and held by the Soviet regime as a closed strategic region. Stalin forced the entire population to relocate and repopulated the city with Russians, but no one admits they are from Kaliningrad.
They call themselves Koenigs instead.
In the post-Soviet era Kaliningrad remains an important port, is the centre of the amber industry, boasts the highest crime rate in Russia and, interestingly, happened to be Grisha Grigorenko’s power base.
Kaliningrad also gives us another body, that of cycling fanatic interpreter Joseph Bonnafos, whose death on a deserted Kaliningrad beach at the hands of a psychopathic butcher who stalks the beach in a van with a smiling plastic pig on its roof is described in the Prologue. He’s the author of the mysterious notebook, kept in a cryptic form of shorthand by a linguist who loved word games.
And the dead interpreter’s notebook seems to link the other two deaths, with possible details of all sorts of dodgy dealings in the interactions between the government, criminal gangs and foreign powers. All that’s needed is someone who can crack the translator's personal and seemingly indecipherable code.
In the end, of course, the code is cracked and the notebook delivers details of a clandestine meeting attended by Moscow’s leading criminals along with a series of revelations about corruption and greed.
And the tapes.
Having entered Tatiana’s abandoned apartment, Renko finds the archive of tapes that hold her spoken accounts of horrific crimes. Her accounts clash with the Kremlin's official versions of, among other events, the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in 2000, the terrorist takeover of a Moscow theatre in 2002, the Beslan school massacre in 2004 and the Moscow metro bombing of 2010.
Many of those events were covered by Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist and human rights activist gunned down in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building in 2006. She provides the obvious template for Tatiana. Since her death was obvious payback for her aggressive reporting of events on the ground in Chechnya and exposés of corruption it was never going to be investigated too vigorously, and Moscow prosecutors ended up assigning blame to a former policeman sentenced in December 2012.
Anna Politkovskaya didn’t have Renko on the case.
Here, once he has access to the tapes, as he listens to Tatiana's recorded notes about scandals at home and abroad (Both sides have the same weapons … because our Soviet soldiers have traded their weapons for vodka. Here in Afghanistan, vodka is the great equalizer) the details are enough to have the reader lining up beside Renko in the quest for truth and justice without descending into overworked doom and gloom.
There are other difficulties that cast themselves into the path as Renko sets out to get to the bottom of things, and the chief among them is his semi-official foster son, Zhenya. The moody seventeen-year-old chess prodigy is blackmailing Renko to give him permission to enlist in the Army. In return for that permission, Zhenya will have a go at cracking the code, assisted by another chess prodigy, an attractive young woman whose grandfather paints portraits of Stalin. While they're hunkered down with the notebook in Arkady's Moscow apartment, Renko has plenty on his hands as he continues to pursue his investigations in Kaliningrad.
And that is where we start to get rather close to spoiler territory. Things work out in the end, and work out a deal better than the reader has any right to expect. But while Tatiana ends on a comparatively high note the reader just knows there’ll be another case, or another issue with Zhenya that’ll have Renko out in pursuit of a more civilised Russia.
The brutal criminal billionaires at the top of the pecking order aren’t going away anytime soon, bureaucratic incompetence that has become endemic is never going to disappear, the lines between organised crime and big business are going to stay blurred, investigative journalism will still put lives at risk and a reluctance to investigate matters that might involve the rich and powerful will continue in official circles.
On that basis, it’s just a matter of waiting to see what attracts Renko’s attention next time around.
I, for one, hope it won’t be a long wait.