Athenian Blues by Pol Koutsakis

AthenianBluesAthenian Blues is the first novel in Pol Koutsakis’ series about ‘caretaker’ Stratos Gazis set in modern-day Athens. Stratos is not a good guy – he kills people for money – but he is successful enough to be able to pick and choose his clients which helps him assuage his guilt.

Stratos has been approached by Aliki Stylianou, a model who has turned television star. She is looking to have her husband, a famous lawyer and philanthropist killed. She claims that not only has he been abusing her but that he has made two attempts on her life. He tells her that he will look into her situation before deciding if he will take the job.

Shortly after their meeting, Stratos learns that her car has been found with a woman shot to death inside it. When he gets close to the victim however he realizes that while the woman resembles Aliki, it is someone else.

Before long he finds himself speaking with the husband, Vassilis, at gunpoint. He has a proposal of his own, telling Stratos that he wants to keep his wife safe and offers to pay whatever price he sets to find who is responsible. Stratos will have to decide who he can trust as he tries to get to the bottom of just what is the truth about that marriage and why someone is targeting Aliki.

 

Athenian Blues is a story that draws heavily on its classic hard-boiled and film noir influences but which also feels a decidedly modern work. Part of that reflects the references to Greece’s recent economic and political turmoil which places this very firmly in our own time. There is even a bit of a #metoo angle with a seedy film producer character that Stratos interviews. But I think what also stands out as modern and different is the way Koutsakis handles and develops the relationships between Stratos and his circle of friends. I found those relationships to be just as interesting and rewarding as the case itself.

Stratos intrigues as a protagonist because this is a hardened character who is not a loner but rather retains strong connections to that circle of childhood friends, each of whom knows what he does. His friend Drag is a homicide cop who keeps his distance when necessary but who is also around to be backup for him when he is in danger or to help clean up any messes he gets into. Both men are in love with Maria and each has had a relationship with her but she has got married, creating a slight awkward dynamic between the three. And then there’s Teri, a transgender prostitute who helps him line up jobs and who has developed her own awkward dynamic with Drag since her surgery.

The relationships between the four characters are rich, complex and rewarding and it is clear that there is immense scope for Koutsakis to explore them further in later novels. This background also humanizes Stratos, immediately giving us a sense of who he is and what he values, and in the brief story of his first meeting Drag we get to see what created that bond between them and that he had his code long before he was a seasoned professional killer.

Turning back to this story, Koutsakis creates a vibrant and colorful cast of characters for Stratos to investigate though morally they are mostly composed of shades of gray. As with most of the film noir stories that are referenced throughout the novel, we are reminded that there are no easy heroes nor clear villains to be found here. Instead we must read the situations Stratos finds himself in and try to reconcile the varying accounts we get of Aliki and her husband.

Tonally, the piece is more a psychological investigation than puzzle mystery though there are a few clues and red herrings to throw the reader off. Readers of hard-boiled crime fiction may anticipate some of the story beats but I think the execution is strong and I enjoyed seeing how Stratos would make some of the connections or get his way with an elusive witness or source.

Admittedly the case itself does feel a little thin and readers may feel that one twist near the end wasn’t built up enough beforehand to achieve its full impact. I also think the confrontation at the end becomes a little exposition-heavy with an awkwardly stretched conversation taking place. This has the unfortunate effect of making it feel a bit like one of those Bond pastiches where the villain explains everything in enormous detail while giving him more time to hatch an escape. Still, given the comparative brevity of the novel I can forgive this slightly clumsy device.

Though the idea of a killer sleuth has been done before, it is the dynamics between Stratos and his friends that really set this book apart for me and had me take notice of it. If you like character-driven stories or are a fan of a hard-boiled style of detective fiction, you may well want to check this series out. I will be looking forward to seeing how future titles in this series develop this collection of characters.

The Gravedigger’s Bread by Frédéric Dard

GravediggersFrédéric Dard has been on my list of authors I wanted to try for an age so when I read that The Gravediggers’ Bread was an inverted novel I couldn’t resist starting there.

The book’s premise bears some similarities to James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, at least in terms of the initial scenario. Some elements and moments may seem familiar – particularly a biting of a lip that draws blood during a kiss – which led me to wonder if this was an intentional homage. Ultimately though the two novels take quite different paths and should be considered entirely separate works.

The story concerns a young man, Blaise, who is visiting a small provincial town in the hopes of securing a sales job for a factory. On arriving he discovers that he has got there too late and someone else was already hired. He is telephoning the friend who encouraged him to try to let him know the bad news when he discovers a woman’s wallet. When he returns it to her, the woman’s husband suggests that he could take him on to assist with sales for his funeral business. Blaise does not care much for the work but is drawn to the man’s wife and chooses to stay for her sake.

The Gravediggers’ Bread is a very short novel being just 160 pages long so I want to avoid going into too much detail about what prompts the crime or the circumstances in which it is done. What I can say is that there is a murder committed by the narrator and we follow Blaise’s attempts to avoid detection. While the identity of the victim will likely be quite obvious, the circumstances of the death and particularly the cover up are entertaining.

Where the novel is most successful is the building of tension as the reader wonders just how Blaise may be caught. Dard builds suspense very effectively in the second half of the novel in a couple of ways. Firstly by reminding us how precarious his position would be should the murder be discovered and secondly by allowing the reader clues as to some of the ways that might happen. But even then Dard has a further twist or two in store for the reader. Even if you work out where this story will ultimately be headed, the execution of these moments is quite sublime, building to a very satisfying conclusion.

While the characterizations within this story initially seem quite simple and familiar, I was surprised by some of the depth that Dard is able to give the relationships between Blaise, the undertaker and his wife given the short page count. Blaise’s role in particular is complex, befitting his role as the narrator, and we may question whether he is as different from the undertaker as he imagines.

There is a moment in the development of that relationship that did leave me somewhat uncomfortable and a little unsure how to interpret it. There is a moment where Blaise exercises some force to initiate a sexual encounter, apparently against the other character’s will. While it seems to begin without consent, following the encounter it never seems to be referred to and Blaise implies that part of the reason for this is the inadequacies of her husband as a lover.

Now Blaise is certainly not a hero, no matter how he may perceive himself and it should be said that the character is the narrator and may not be capable of putting his actions in any sort of context. It is certainly not surprising that this character would not be troubled by his actions and there are some possible character-based explanations for her acceptance of this treatment but as his narrative and perception of those events is never challenged and her feelings are never explained, it is left to linger uncomfortably a little like with a comparable scene in Gone With The Wind. At least for me.

Though I found Germaine’s reaction problematic, I can’t deny that their relationship is interesting and it becomes only more so as the novel nears its conclusion. Dard’s plotting is excellent and while I have read enough inverted stories not to be surprised by the conclusion, it is one of the better examples of that type of ending to an inverted mystery. I think fans of noir fiction will also appreciate elements of that ending too.

Dard creates some striking moments in this story and shows an admirable economy in his plotting. The 160 pages seem to whizz by and each plot twist is superbly executed, even if you pick up on clues as to where this story is going. I was left feeling very satisfied by the resolution to the novel and felt that it struck some interesting and, at times, provocative points in terms of its characterizations.

I am interested to try some other works by Dard and if anyone has any recommendations (in English translation, please) I would be very happy to receive them.

Review copy provided by the publisher. The novel is being published by Pushkin Vertigo in the UK on June 28 and in the US on August 28.

The Case of the Velvet Claws by Erle Stanley Gardner

VelvetClawsPrior to picking up The Case of the Velvet Claws I had never read a Perry Mason but it has been on the reading bucket list for me, especially knowing that JJ rates Gardner as one of his four Kings of Crime. While I could, no doubt, have started somewhere in the middle of his run it seemed to me to make sense to take a look at the character as he first appeared.

The novel opens with a woman walking into Perry Mason’s office to hire him to represent her in negotiations with a gossip rag, Spicy Bits, after she was spotted at an inn with an aspiring politician following a holdup. It turns out that she is a married woman and her concern is that if the reporters were to pursue the story that her own indiscretion would be revealed.

As you might expect, events will soon take a bloody turn and Mason’s client will be accused of a murder. However that is all you’re going to get from me in terms of a summary as if you haven’t read this already I would hate to spoil your fun. The book is something of a rollercoaster, packing several satisfying revelations and plot reversals into a compact and punchy story.

Much of this success stems from the characterization of Eva, the young woman who hires Mason as her lawyer. She is a slippery customer who refuses from the start to be straight with him, offering up a false name and giving the detective that is sent after her the slip when he tries to discover her identity for himself. In other circumstances she might be something of a femme fatale and certainly Della, Mason’s secretary, seems to worry that she has some sort of hold over him, rendering him incapable of exercising good judgment with her case. Frequently she works against her lawyer, lying to him and throwing obstacles in his way, and often making herself look more guilty in the process.

In spite of his client’s behavior, Mason remains absolutely committed to pursuing her interests and securing her freedom. He explains it rather eloquently in a speech he gives to Della, telling her ‘when you do take them, you’ve got to give them all you’ve got’. He does give a few variants of this speech at points in the novel, arguably weakening its impact, but Gardner establishes this as the key theme of the work and the circumstances Mason will find himself in should test that to the extreme.

Mason is established as being calm, perceptive and aggressive in pursuing his clients’ interests and one of the most gratifying aspects of this novel was seeing how he responds to the situations Eva puts him in. He certainly proves himself to be resourceful and it is impressive to see how he can predict and stay ahead of events for so much of the narrative. Because he is so confident however and never seems shaken in his beliefs, I do think the cost to him of his actions risks being underplayed.

Gardner gets around this problem by taking the time to flesh out the character of his secretary, Della Street, who seems to care for her boss quite a lot and is worried about how the case will affect him. Her reactions to those seemingly reckless choices help establish and reinforce the danger of his actions, putting them in perspective and providing some conflict while I think her affection for him also helps to humanize him.

While Della is quite clearly intended to play the role of a secondary character in this adventure I did appreciate that Gardner does give her a back story that makes her feel more dimensional than the usual secretary who is in love with her boss. This is brought out in discussion of her feelings about Eva which seem to border on jealousy, both with regards Mason’s reaction to her but also about their comparative social and economic situations. She resents how easy Eva’s life has seemed to be and in doing so begins to explicitly draw a comparison between the two women, helping to better define each of them.

Both Eva and Della are certainly colorful and complex female characters but I do not wish to give the impression that this is a more progressive piece than it actually is. The novel, published in 1933, certainly reflects some social attitudes of the time and Mason can be somewhat dismissive of his assistant’s thoughts and feelings as well as fairly scathing towards his own client. This is not the character’s most attractive side but it does feel pretty realistic to the era.

When it comes to the conclusion, I think Gardner does manage to come up with something that struck me as unexpected and I enjoyed learning how the various aspects of the story pieced together. In particular there is one aspect of the solution that struck me as quite ingenious to the point where I wondered if a key piece of information could possibly be accurate, leading me to do a little research. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that it was and I think it does make for a rather elegant solution to what happened to a piece of evidence.

For those who expect a story like this to have a courtroom resolution, it was rather refreshing to find a legal thriller that features no court scenes at all.  Instead it focuses on the lawyer’s life outside the court and the work that can be done to try to prevent a case from ever appearing before a judge at all. I certainly think it works well here and while I gather that subsequent stories in the series would not follow this plan, it does help to mark the story apart.

Will I be making a follow-up appointment to see this particular lawyer? I feel pretty confident you will. For one thing the novel ends on an exchange that sets up the following title, The Case of the Sulky Girl and while I am not sold on that as a title I am sufficiently intrigued by that exchange to read on.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Book made into film/tv/play (Why)

The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

SilverHave you ever had a book that you keep buying copies of, starting but never seem to get around to finishing? For me that is Lindsey Davis’ The Silver Pigs, the first of her series that features informer and imperial agent Marcus Didius Falco.

Over the past fifteen years I know I have bought at least three paperback copies and one audiobook and I can remember starting it and abandoning it on two different occasions. This was not because I didn’t care for it but because real life got in the way and by the time I was ready for it again too much time had passed and I felt like I’d have to start over. Would I ever actually finish it?

Obviously I did (I never write about books I didn’t complete) and I am very pleased to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think it probably helped that I listened to the audiobook reading by Christian Rodska whose gravelly voice seemed a perfect fit for Falco’s hardboiled narration. I certainly had no difficulty motivating myself to keep going this time and once the second phase of the novel began I finished the rest of the book in two sittings (a task that is fairly tricky to do with a ten hour audiobook!).

The novel begins with Falco encountering a sixteen year old girl in the forum being hassled by some thugs and his stepping in to protect her. After taking her on as his client, he learns that she has been hiding a silver and lead ingot in her lockbox stamped with the imperial seal. The ingot comes from the British mines but what was it doing in Rome?

Falco is soon on the track of a political conspiracy that spans the Empire but his world is turned upside down when the girl turns up dead. He agrees to work for her family to find the murderer and uncover the conspiracy, setting sail for Britain…

In a sense I am glad that I delayed reading this for so long. Back when I first picked up the book I had little knowledge of the hardboiled form and doubt I would have extracted quite the level of enjoyment I did reading this now. While the idea of placing that sort of character in a historical setting seems like it shouldn’t work, I quickly embraced it. Rather than pulling you out of the historical period, it serves to make that culture more accessible.

Falco is a wonderful creation. His cynicism and grouchiness instantly endeared him to me and I think Davis does a good job of building up a good cast of colorful supporting characters around him that help his Rome to come to life. Favorites included Lenia, a laundry owner whose shop is far below Falco’s apartment, his overbearing mother and his dodgy landlord Smaractus who employs training gladiators to collect his overdue rent. I also think Davis presents us with interesting takes on the various members of the Flavian family (Vespasian, Titus and Domitian).

This novel, as I hinted at before, takes place across quite a wide canvas and involves a fairly large number of characters yet I had little difficulty keeping track of who everyone was and what role they were playing. I think that speaks to the quality of Davis’ characterization. Rather than just present us with historical figures or confining the narrative to one strata of Roman society, Davis’ story presents us with characters from a variety of professions and social classes.

The case itself is a good one and perfectly reflects some common hardboiled themes. We get to see government corruption, grift at every level of society and our hero is often in completely over his head. Somewhat surprisingly the trope that isn’t present is the femme fatale, although it would be true to say that Falco is encouraged into action at several points because of his feelings towards certain female characters.

I particularly appreciated Falco’s interactions with Helena Justina, the Senator’s daughter he encounters while visiting Britain. The pair develop quite an enjoyable sparring relationship and I appreciated that as the novel progresses Davis is able to flesh out the character and help us understand what she wants out of life and why her marriage her failed.

Towards the end the reader is likely to get a step or two ahead of Falco and I think one attempt at misdirection is less effective than I think it was meant to be but that did not bother me too much. Even once it becomes clear how the story will end, I think Davis maintains interest in her characters and in how their personal lives will be resolved. I also felt that the ending does a good job of setting up further adventures for Falco, giving readers a reason to quickly return to the character.

While it may have taken me fifteen years to finish it, I really enjoyed reading The Silver Pigs and am looking forward to continuing the series with Shadows in Bronze. Hopefully I will be able to finish that one in a little more timely fashion!

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

I had been thinking a little about some of the features I would like to incorporate into this blog alongside the reviews of new and old books when it occurred to me that it might be interesting to take a look at a novel and an adaptation of that work in some format. The idea would be to comment on whether it captures the tone and spirit of the original work, some of the changes that were made and whether I felt it does the original work justice.

The novel and film I have selected to start with is Devil in a Blue Dress which I read for the first time over a decade ago. At that time I had never read a hard-boiled detective novel before and while I enjoyed aspects of the novel, I struggled to engage with the writing style and the novel’s grim outlook on the world.

Had it not been for an Audible special offer I might never have given the book a second thought but when the chance came to snap up an audio recording read by Michael Boatman for under a dollar I snapped it up on an impulse. Boatman brought Mosley’s hard-boiled prose and the character of Easy Rawlins and the characters he interacts with to life for me.

If you have never read the book or seen the movie, here is a potted summary:

It is 1948 and we are in Los Angeles. Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins is out of work and in desperate need of some money to help him pay his mortgage when into the bar walks DeWitt Albright, a white man who is offering to pay him to help locate a missing girl, Daphne Monet who he believes may be frequenting an African-American bar. That is, of course, just the start of an adventure that sees Easy getting beaten up, accused of murder and manipulated by just about everyone.

The Novel

DevilinabluedressbookThe first thing to say about Walter Mosley’s novel is that it is an incredibly significant and influential work within the hard-boiled mystery genre. Mosley was not the first successful African-American mystery novelist but he remains one of the most widely read and enjoyed. Easy Rawlins sees Los Angeles from a different perspective than other hard-boiled characters do and encounters different barriers in his investigations.

Simply being historically significant does not mean that the experience of reading it will necessarily be rewarding or enjoyable. After all, the first time I read the novel I was just as aware of its reputation but perhaps focused my attention on the plot without appreciating the skillful way Mosley builds a sense of time and place. What I noticed in my second reading that I had missed the first time through were the discussions of perception of a person’s race, of the lack of integration within society in that time and the way that Easy prizes his sense of agency above security at several points within the novel.

His story is compelling, especially in those sequences that feature the character of Mouse who is something of a wild card within Easy’s life and perhaps the ultimate example of the destructive friend who is really bad news. We learn about their relationship in flashbacks throughout the novel, building our anticipation for the moment when Mouse will inevitably enter the story.

While I found the narrative engaging, I did feel that the female characters in the story were somewhat one-note being defined primarily by their sexual presences. I recognize that this is hardly unusual for a hard-boiled work but it does make those characters seem a little flat and two-dimensional which is a shame when the characters of Easy and Mouse are so well drawn.

I am curious to see where the series leads and plan to listen to the next story at some point soon.

The Adaptation

DevilinaBlueDressmovieCarl Franklin’s movie adaptation stars Denzel Washington in the role of Easy. By the time this film was made he was one of the highest profile actors around, having found critical and commercial success with Glory, Malcolm X and Philadelphia. Looking at the cast list, he was really the only established star in the mix which may help explain why the film was not a box office hit in spite of some strong reviews from critics.

Franklin keeps the initial set-up of the story the same but makes some changes to some character motivations and adds a new subplot to help condense and simplify the narrative. Characters such as Frank become less of a presence in the movie than they do in the book while Terrell’s significance is increased.

There are two changes to the story that I found to be particularly significant however. The first is that Daphne’s relationship with Easy is not consummated as it is in considerable detail in the book. That choice, in my opinion, strengthened her character and made her feelings about a third character clearer.

The second change really arises from the first and is hard to write about without spoiling both the book and the film. What I can say is that while many aspects of the ending remain in place in the film, the character motivations in those final scenes are notably different and give the ending a very different tone. I think that this different ending largely remains in keeping with the themes of the novel but it does put a different spin on a key relationship.

Generally though I was impressed at how well the film bought the world of 1940s Los Angeles to life. Visually the film is not glossy or lush but it is competently directed and does a good job of setting the scene and evoking a sense of time and place.

I was also quite pleased with the way most of the parts were cast with most of the characters being fairly good matches for how I had imagined them when reading. The exceptions were Todd Carter and DeWitt Albright. In the case of Carter I had imagined someone a little younger and childish, though the actor cast matched the character as portrayed in the film. In the case of Albright however I had thought the novel had mentioned being from the Georgia and I imagined him to physically look like a lawyer rather than the enforcer interpretation we see from Tom Sizemore. While those changes may sound cosmetic, in the case of Albright I felt it diminished the character a little, simplifying him.

Where the film gets it absolutely right is in the casting of Don Cheadle as Mouse for which he won a number of awards. While I cannot say that Cheadle is how I had imagined the character physically, his interpretation makes a lot of sense and captures the character’s sense of bravado. When you consider just how much material from his story is cut, in particular the flashback descriptions of how he committed two murders and his discussion with Easy about guilt, it is remarkable just how complete his presentation of that character is. The film noticeably shifts a gear when he arrives in the narrative and he gets several of the most powerful moments in the picture.

As for Denzel Washington, he does a very solid job with the role of Easy, particularly given we are only treated to the character’s internal monologue as a bookend to the movie. Given how important his internal voice is to the character and to helping the reader understand what he is doing and his feelings about the people around him, it is impressive how much of those feelings Washington is able to convey through his physical performance.

Overall, I think the film has stood the test of time fairly well and works well as an adaptation of the novel. I was struck as I watched it though that the material would surely be even more suited to television where the story could be given more room to breathe.