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May 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Find more A Hard-Boiled Gazetteer to the Weather
Setting has been the driving force behind our gazetteer series for the last 22 years. Back in 1997, in the first “Hard-Boiled Gazetteer,” I wrote, “Today we’ve come to expect mysteries, cozy as well as hard-boiled, to place a high priority on vivid settings, but many crime writers use a sense of place mainly to create ambience, with landmarks strewn about in the manner of an interior decorator selecting wallpaper. Occasionally, though, setting becomes something more—the architect replacing the decorator—and a metaphor emerges that enhances meaning and helps develop character rather than just prettifying plot.” Those are the kind of crime novels we’ve sought to showcase over the years, jumping about the globe with reckless abandon and, in recent years, taking the concept a bit further by gathering books that use landscape to enhance a theme—WWII, postwar noir, or even other worlds, focusing on genre blends combining mystery and fantasy.
This year we take another step in a slightly different direction, examining not just place as such but a particular aspect of place: the weather. Like chameleons, hard-boiled and noir novels adapt to their landscape and climate, finding in either sun or rain or snow the climatological ingredients necessary to generate a mood of oppression, foreboding, and inevitability. So this year we’ve been “watching the skies”—a line from an old science-fiction movie called The Thing from Another World that scared the hell out of me back when I was a wee pup watching from the balcony of the Majestic Theater in Dallas, Oregon. But this time we’re not watching for aliens but for rain and snow and even blue skies—and feeling the effects of suffocating humidity and life-threatening ice. In the hands of talented writers, these climate-generated forces vividly enhance our ability to feel all the horror that human beings inflict on one another.
And, now, let’s check the weather forecast, remembering that, as Bob Dylan reminds us, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” In noir, it always blows against you.
ICE AND SNOW
Faceless Killers. By Henning Mankell. Tr. by Steven T. Murray. 1997. Knopf, $15 (9781400031573).
It isn’t snowing when Kurt Wallander receives a call about bodies found in a remote farmhouse outside Ystad, Sweden, but it won’t be long: “The snowstorms are on their way, he thought. Sooner of later, they’ll be upon us.” The chill in the air sets the tone for the novel and serves as a harbinger of what is to come. After the seemingly unprovoked murder of an elderly farm couple is linked to foreigners, an ugly wave of racist hate grips the region. Wallander recognizes immediately that hate crime has come to his supposedly liberal country. “The snow was general all over Ireland,” Joyce wrote in “The Dead,” symbolizing a kind of paralysis of the soul, and so it is in Wallander’s Sweden, the worsening weather bringing a new kind of gloom, descending like a blanket on the stooped shoulders of an Old World cop on the edge of being overwhelmed by the unremitting brutality of New World crime.
Gorky Park. By Martin Cruz Smith. 1981. Random, $13.95 (9780812977240).
“They lay peacefully, even artfully, under their thawing crust of ice, the center one on its back, hands folded as if for a religious funeral, the other two turned, arms out under the ice like flanking emblems on embossed writing paper. They were wearing ice skates.” So begins the great set piece with which Cruz Smith opens his landmark novel. From this scene onward, the Renko series has always been about the perils of digging: whether it’s bodies under the snow or radioactive facts that the powerful want to keep hidden (in Wolves Eat Dogs, 2004), the treasures that Renko seeks always contain the seeds of his own destruction. But, somehow, digging his own grave is what keeps him alive—and keeps us reading.
Ice Lake. By John Farrow. 2001. Random, $19 (9780812992649).
Farrow’s second Émile Cinq-Mars novel opens with a stunning sequence in which the Montreal police detective finds a body submerged in water beneath a frozen lake, a favorite haunt of ice fisherman: “The circular ice hole was partially filled with water, and a few inches below the surface floated a human head, the long hair beaded with ice, the face plunged down into the frigid lake.” As in City of Ice, the first in the series and equally dependent on the Canadian winter to establish a sense of danger, the frigid atmosphere (lethal in itself) mirrors the all-encompassing peril that surrounds the hero. Farrow, a pseudonym for novelist Trevor Ferguson, combines a marvelously detailed, brilliantly structured plot with an extremely moving human drama in which Cinq-Mars again finds himself forced to act on his own, “answering to the angels and the saints, whether or not they watched or cared.”
Smilla’s Sense of Snow. By Peter Høeg. Tr. by Tiina Nunnally. 1993. Dell/Delta, $16 (9780385315142).
Høeg’s smash best-seller became The Name of the Rose for the 1990s: a demanding, philosophical novel, rich with theme and character, riding the narrative wave of a crime story—in this case, about a troubled, intensely intelligent Copenhagen woman, the daughter of a Greenland Eskimo, trying to understand the death of a young boy. Never has climate and landscape—a nightmarish, claustrophobic vision of snowbound Copenhagen—been more central to the meaning of a novel than it is here. Where some of Høeg’s other novels have come close to losing their narrative moorings altogether, overcome by the force of the author’s intelligence, in Smilla thedemands of the crime story keep the book grounded just enough to give readers something to hold on to.
Winter Range. By Claire Davis. 2000. Picador, $20 (9780312284251).
Ike Parsons, sheriff of a small ranching town in eastern Montana, has a reputation for fairness. Both his reputation and his marriage are put to the test when the former lover of Ike’s wife goes broke and lets his cattle starve in the snow. When Ike intercedes with a court order to take over the ranch and put the animals out of their misery, local reaction is mixed: everyone shares the horror of the starving cattle, but Montana ranchers value their independence above all. The inevitable tragedy that results seems driven as much by the unforgiving land and sky as it does by the emotions of the embattled characters. The snows of winter and the thaws and ice storms of early spring alternately imprison and empower the dwarfed humans, whose attempts to connect with one another appear both feeble and noble in the teeth of the “vast ice-locked landscape.”
RAIN AND FOG
Acqua Alta. By Donna Leon. 1996. Grove/Atlantic, $16 (9780802120288).
Place and character meld in this series, taking Venice beyond metaphor to produce an atmosphere that teems with life beneath the surface, corruption permeating human activity as vermin infect the canals: “To his left, he heard the slap of water and turned the beam of the flashlight toward it. The eyes that gleamed back at him were too small and too closely set together to be human.“ In one of the best entries in this long-running, wildly acclaimed series, police inspector Guido Brunetti braves Venice’s winter floods, the dreaded acqua alta, to sort out an art-forgery case turned lethal. Snapshots of Brunetti’s domestic life and the romance between a female archaeologist and her lover, an Italian diva, emerge like an island sanctuary amid Venice’s rain-soaked streets and corruption-drenched society.
The Hound of the Baskervilles. By Arthur Conan Doyle. 1902.
Although even casual Sherlock Holmes fans are likely to associate the great detective with foggy, lamplit London streets, there’s really not that many pea-soupers in the stories themselves; we owe that connection to movies, especially the classic series starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes. Still, there’s plenty of creepy bad weather—rain, mainly—setting the mood in The Hound of the Baskervilles, perhaps the best-known Holmes tale, and, of course, there’s nothing like the bloodcurdling wail of a hound or two echoing in the mist to make the moors at night seem all the more perilous. Many editions of Hound are available in multiple formats.
In a Lonely Place. By Dorothy B. Hughes. 1947. New York Review of Books, $14.94 (9781681371474).
In Hughes’ novel, unlike in the Humphrey Bogart film based on it, Dix Dixon isn’t just a returning WWII vet accused of murdering several women; here he really is the killer. That’s not a spoiler because Hughes tells us in the first scene all we need to know about the devil inside Dix. He’s at the beach in Santa Monica, in the fog, and he sees a young woman: “She didn’t know he was there in the high foggy dark. He saw her face again as she passed under the yellow fog light, saw that she didn’t like the darkness and fog and loneness. . . . He could hear her heels striking hard on the warped pavement as if the sound brought her some reassurance.” Hughes’ novel is a brilliant mood piece as well as a psychologically acute study of a misogynist, and it also features two strong female characters, who figure out that Dix is the killer.
Macbeth. By Jo Nesbø. Tr. by Don Bartlett. 2018. Hogarth, $27 (9780553419054).
This latest entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, which reinterprets the Bard’s works across multiple genres, hews closely to the story in most respects, but Nesbø adds one element that brilliantly accentuates the malevolence of the landscape: rain—“The rain drifted to the southeast, across streets of smashed street lamps where jackals on the lookout huddled against the walls.” The sky never stops emptying its dagger-like pellets on the cloud-darkened, drug-infested Scottish city where Macbeth, refashioned as the power-hungry head of a SWAT unit, and his wife—known here only as Lady—murder their way to the top and then unravel in a guilt-fueled fever dream that only prompts more violence. Nesbø infuses the mythic elements of the tragedy with bold strokes of horrific, Don Winslow–like drug-war realism. The result displays in a strikingly original way both the timelessness of Shakespeare’s art and the suppleness of noir to range well beyond the strictures of formula.
The Maltese Falcon. By Dashiell Hammett. 1929. Vintage/Black Lizard, $14.95 (9780679722649).
Chapter 2 of Hammett’s classic novel is called “A Death in the Fog,” and these oft-quoted lines appear near the beginning: “Where Bush Street roofed Stockton before slipping downhill to Chinatown, Spade paid his fare and left the taxicab. San Francisco’s night-fog, thin, clammy, and penetrant, blurred the street.” In an alley off Bush lies the body of Miles Archer, Sam Spade’s partner. Much of the rest of the novel—encompassing Sam’s encounters with a femme fatale, a fat man, and a black bird—takes place indoors, but that opening scene sets the mood for all that follows, as Spade attempts to see through the fog obscuring what happened to his partner.
The Tin Roof Blowdown. By James Lee Burke. 2007. Simon & Schuster, $16 (9781501198595).
“I wanted to wake to the great gold-green, sun-spangled promise of the South Louisiana in which I had grown up. I didn’t want to be part of the history taking place in our state.” That sentence wouldn’t be out of place in any of Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, all of which have been distinguished by their elegiac tone, but it’s only fitting that it should appear in this heartfelt, post-Katrina ode to a lost New Orleans and a lost world. In a sense, Robicheaux, Burke’s Cajun detective, whose heart is in the past and whose eyes are on the horizon, expecting trouble, has always been anticipating Katrina—or at least some form of cataclysm—as he has watched his world spin further and further out of control. But Katrina was no fictional event, and Burke writes about the storm and its aftermath as vividly and powerfully as any nonfiction chronicler.
SUN AND HUMIDITY
The Big Sleep. By Raymond Chandler. 1939. Vintage/Black Lizard, $15.95 (9780394758282).
Has there ever been a scene in fiction more drenched in humidity than Philip Marlowe’s initial meeting with his new client, millionaire General Sternwood? The scene takes place in a greenhouse, where the dying Sternwood, wrapped in blankets, soaks in the room’s artificial warmth: “The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. . . . The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.” The disorientation and near suffocation Marlowe endures in the greenhouse only increase as he attempts to hack his way through the fetid jungle of dysfunction that has left the Sternwood family in the clutches of a blackmailer.
Miami Purity. By Vicki Hendricks. 1995. Busted Flush, $16 (9780979270932).
Sherri Parlay is a Miami topless dancer who tries, in her fashion, to go straight, but, like the doomed heroes in a James M. Cain novel, Sherri isn’t going anywhere but down. A job at a dry cleaner called Miami Purity seems safe enough, a symbolic step out of the night life, but the boss lady has a son, a cute son, and before the postman can ring even once, the sexual heat makes the steam rising from the pressing machines seem like an ocean breeze. Hendricks makes unflinching use of the archetypal noir story—flawed character in a flawed world wants more, gets less—but she does it in a voice that’s all her own. The overpowering humidity in this scorching novel doesn’t come from the Miami sun; with a little help from those pressing machines, Sherri generates it all on her own.
Solea. By Jean-Claude Izzo. Tr. by Howard Curtis. 2007. Europa, $15 (9781609451288).
“Life stank of death. . . . the rotten putrid smell of it. I’d sniffed my arm, and the smell disgusted me. It was the same smell. . . . The air was a viscous mixture of humidity and pollution. Marseilles was stifling.” The concluding volume of the late Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy remains utterly uncompromising in its allegiance to the classic noir worldview. Fabio Montale, the embittered former cop, sees nothing but misery in his own future and in the future of his beloved city, imbuing the novel with a eulogistic tone as Fabio says farewell to possibility, farewell even to the idea of constructing a separate peace out of harm’s way from the world. A Jim Thompson–like ending pretty well seals the deal: “Could you draw the curtains on our life? I’m tired.” The sun shines brightly in Marseilles, but Izzo’s Mediterranean noir is as dark as noir can get.
The Stranger. By Albert Camus. Tr. by Stuart Gilbert. 1946. Knopf, $20 (9780679420262).
Anyone who has ever read Camus’ existentialist classic has no doubt wondered, Why does Meursault kill the Arab on the beach? A random act in a random, meaningless universe? Maybe, but beyond the sociological, racial, and philosophical explanations that critics have proffered to explain that random act, there is still the sun. Never have weather and crime been more intertwined than in the moment when Meursault takes a step forward, and the Arab draws a knife: “Beneath a veil of brine and tears my eyes were blinded; I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinctly, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scarring my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs.”
A Tan and Sandy Silence. By John D. MacDonald. 1971. Random, $16 (9780812984033).
Sandy beaches are typically landscapes for romance—Stella got her groove back at the beach, and countless couples have found bliss on blankets in the sand. But turn the dial 180 degrees, and sand becomes a tool of torture, as in MacDonald’s thirteenth Travis McGee novel, in which a woman is buried up to her neck in sand, and Travis, bound and seemingly destined for the same fate, must watch, powerless, as the sun bears down, and waves overtake her. Travis doesn’t usually lose in such situations—those he strives to protect are typically protected—but here he fails, only barely saving his own life by knowing a thing or two about riptides. This is possibly the best McGee novel of all, largely because, for the first time in the series, we see Travis as vulnerable: “In all my approximately seventy-six inches of torn and mended flesh and hide, in all my approximately fifteen-stone weight of meat, bone, and dismay, I . . . felt degraded.”
Tangerine. By Christine Mangan. 2018. Ecco, $26.99 (9780062686664).
In Mangan’s hypnotic debut, set in 1950s Tangier, a deadly, Hitchcockian pas de deux plays out under an unrelenting, Camus-like African sun. Alice, a fragile Englishwoman, has landed in Tangier after a sudden marriage to one of those British gentlemen whose pedigree masks his idler essence. The marriage is a way of escaping the scandal that caused Alice’s breakdown and forced her to leave college. When Lucy, Alice’s college roommate, turns up at Alice’s door in Tangier, the dance begins, with Mangan switching the narration between Alice and Lucy as we gradually begin to get a feel for the psychological dynamics between the two women. There are strong echoes of Patricia Highsmith here, but they never feel reductive, nor even like mere homage. The electrical energy between Alice and Lucy crackles with kinetic menace, as Mangan turn the mood and the setting of the story into a kind of composite force field that sucks the reader in almost instantly, like a wave of humid air blanketing you after emerging from an air-cooled room.
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