Noir for Our Times

Reviewed By Maureen Corrigan
Sunday, November 16, 2008

SMALL CRIMES By Dave Zeltserman | Serpent's Tail. 263 pp. Paperback, $14.95

I don't know about you, but with the world in financial free fall I don't feel like reading comic mysteries or cozies or even espionage thrillers. I don't want escapism. I long to immerse myself in literature that captures the all-encompassing anxiety of the times. There's only one type of mystery that fits that profile, and that's crime noir: the jittery genre, born during the Great Depression, about saps and grifters who ain't gotta barrel of money and just can't get a break; the genre about a world gone wrong and the greedy bumblers who made it so.

James M. Cain was one of the first writers to explore this little tributary of mystery fiction, and though some followers -- notably Cornell Woolrich, Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson and James Ellroy -- have pulled off stories almost as good as Cain's, nobody, at least for my money (fast dwindling though it may be), has ever bested Cain at his best. Pulp morality tales like Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce hold their own against any of those highbrow novels the awards committees are always slapping ribbons on.

But there's a new name to add to the pantheon of the sons and daughters of Cain: Dave Zeltserman. If Zeltserman keeps writing novels as terrific as Small Crimes, and if the economy keeps nosediving, he may churn out a corpus that rivals Cain's. Oh, and Small Crimes is a paperback original, so fans don't even have to shell out the big bucks they no longer have for this piece of crime-noir genius.

This tale is told by a first-person narrator who's one of fortune's fools. Joe Denton is a crooked ex-cop in Bradley, Vt., who's just been released from jail after serving seven years for stabbing the local district attorney, Phil Coakley, 13 times in the face with a letter opener. Joe was coked up at the time, and he was rifling the d.a.'s office trying to find documents that fingered him as being part of a police corruption ring. Unfortunately, Phil turned up just as Joe was pouring gasoline around the office. Here's how Joe explains his side of the story:

"The funny thing was I had always liked Phil. I always thought of him as a solid person, a good family man, just an overall decent human being. If I'd had a real knife, like a fishing or hunting knife, I would've killed him that night. The letter opener wasn't sharp enough. I did damage -- Jesus, did I do damage -- but I didn't kill him."

If you're new to the conventions of crime noir, you might well think that Joe sounds like a reasonable guy and that he's ready to start over now that his debt to society has been paid. Wrong. What's past is never past in crime noir. No sooner does Joe step out of the jailhouse than cosmic I.O.U.s begin to rain down on his head. First, the grossly disfigured Phil greets Joe right outside the slammer. Phil perkily breaks the news that Manny Vassey, the local crime kingpin, is dying, has suddenly found religion and is likely to clutch at redemption by confessing his crimes.

Manny's 11th-hour mea culpa could send Joe straight back behind bars, since Joe (a gambler as well as a cokehead) was known to be in debt to Manny (and, thus, in his vile employ). Then Joe gets a "welcome back" phone call from the sheriff, who still runs the ring of crooked cops that once included Joe. The sheriff tells Joe that he needs to finish the job he started in Phil Coakley's office lo those many years ago, because if Manny squawks to Phil about all that's rotten in the little burg of Bradley, Joe's head will roll. What's a loser like Joe to do in a no-win situation like this but go out to the local tavern, where he digs himself into a deeper and deeper mess?

The plot of Small Crimes is a thing of beauty: spare but ingeniously twisted and imbued with a glossy coating of black humor. Zeltserman takes up all the familiar tropes of the formula -- femmes fatales, frighteningly dysfunctional families, self-destructive drives and the death grip of the past -- and shows how infinite are the combinations that can still be played on them.

THE DRAINING LAKE By Arnaldur Indridason, Translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder | Thomas Dunne. 312 pp. $24.95

Iceland, the Nordic Tiger, has been experiencing its own economic woes of late -- as if things weren't depressing enough in a country where the seasons oscillate between dark, bone-chilling winter and eerily light, brisk summer. Someday Arnaldur Indridason may get around to chronicling Iceland's economic tumult in his acclaimed police procedurals featuring Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson. But in Erlendur's latest outing, The Draining Lake, it's the skewed political ideologies of the Cold War, rather than financial mismanagement, that wreak havoc.

Something rotten has just popped up in Lake Kleifarvatn in southern Iceland, which has been losing water ever since an earthquake opened up ancient fissures . Enough water has dribbled out to reveal a human skeleton weighted down with Russian-made spy equipment. Hoping to identify the remains, Erlendur and his team dig into unsolved missing person cases from the 1950s.

Next, Indridason introduces a complementary storyline, set in the 1950s, about idealistic Icelanders handpicked by the Communist Party to study in East German universities. This second tale really takes over. The students are on fire with their belief in Marx and frozen in the squalor of their drafty group houses. Eventually, a police snitch fingers those who harbor doubts. One vocal student disappears from the university, never to return.

Indridason keeps readers guessing as to the identities of the snitch and the skeleton until the very last pages of this moody investigation into the fatal follies of youth, politics and memory. By novel's end, fittingly, the lake waters begin to rise again, obscuring all.

TOO CLOSE TO HOME By Linwood Barclay | Bantam. 404 pp. $22

Forget about complex characters or poetic atmosphere or smart social commentary; Linwood Barclay's Close to Home doesn't display any of those classy literary ambitions. It's simply a terrifically fast-paced suspense story with a tolerable amount of bloodshed.

Here's the premise: Jim and Ellen Cutter are economically stretched suburbanites in the quaint college town of Promise Falls, N.Y. Late one night, the family just up the road -- the Langleys -- is brutally murdered. The only witness -- and chief suspect -- is the Cutters' teenaged son, Derek, who'd snuck into the Langleys' basement when he thought they'd already left for a vacation. Derek was planning an assignation with his girlfriend at the empty house. Everybody's plans were spoiled -- and the Langleys' fates were sealed -- when they made an abrupt U-turn because Mrs. Langley became ill. Trapped in a basement hiding place by the Langleys' unexpected return, Derek heard the doorbell and then screams and gunshots. This is only the first chapter, and things get much more cleverly complicated. Close to Home is the kind of yarn that would have given the famous critic and mystery hater Edmund Wilson heartburn. But, I bet he would have read it -- raptly, if disparagingly -- until the very last paragraph.

WHITE NIGHTS By Ann Cleeves | Thomas Dunne. 392 pp. $24.95

Turns out the Shetland Islands are so far north that, like Iceland, they experience 24-hour sunshine, or "white nights," in the summer. Readers will learn a lot more about life in the picturesque Shetlands off the coast of Scotland in Ann Cleeves's new mystery, White Nights, a follow-up to Raven Black, which won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award and introduced the likeably insecure Inspector Jimmy Perez.

Perez has just fallen in love with local artist, Fran Hunter, and his spirits are shakily rising when a corpse is found hanging in a remote (everything's remote on the Shetlands) outbuilding. Perez recognizes the victim as the Englishman who caused an irksome disruption at Fran's art exhibition the previous night. Are any of the locals guilty? What about that voyeuristic English writer who seems to spend his days at the bedroom window of his cottage, staring at anyone who passes by? And hasn't the local celebrity, Bella Sinclair -- famous for her (now fading) beauty and bacchanalian revels -- been peculiar lately? White Nights is intricate and engrossing, offering readers the pleasures of the traditional locked room/isolated island mystery. Though it's not quite my cup of tea in these trying times, some readers will doubtless welcome being whisked off to the Shetlands, where stock markets seem very far away. ยท

Maureen Corrigan is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air."

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