“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Books Wanted. Only Brilliance Need Apply

A quick question for any Italian readers out there. Yesterday I came across the following line in Michele Giuttari’s A DEATH IN TUSCANY: “A five-thousand-lire phone card was used for the call.” The novel was originally published in 2005, three years after Italy converted to the euro, so is this a blatant mistake or is it the case that in Italy ‘lire’ is still used as slang, much in the same way that ‘quid’ is still used as slang in euro-friendly Ireland? I’m just curious.
  As for the novel itself: I gave it 223 pages and then packed it in, which is the second time this week I’ve finished a book early, albeit for wildly different reasons. For a story written by a former Florence police chief, the tale offers no particularly interesting insights into how the Italian police go about their business. Neither is the story especially interesting or unusual; in fact, it’s pretty standard fare. And despite the exotic location of Florence and its hinterland, Giuttari gives us little sense of the natural or man-made beauties of the locale.
  John McFetridge left a comment somewhere on these pages to the effect that I should skip A DEATH IN TUSCANY and read Michael Dibdin instead, although it arrived too late – I was already 100 pages or so in at that stage. But he’s right. Michael Dibdin, perhaps because he was seeing Italy with a foreigner’s eye, offers a more richly textured setting, and his protagonist, Aurelio Zen, is rather more complex and interesting than Michele Giuttari’s central character, Michele Ferrara.
  (Incidentally, Glenn Harper over at International Noir has an fascinating theory on Giuttari’s inter-textuality, to wit: “I have to mention as well that [Giuttari] evidently persecuted a pair of journalists with an alternate view of a real case that is part of his plot in his first novel, A FLORENTINE DEATH, jailing one and kicking the other out of the country for the crime of contradicting the cop’s theory of the Monster of Florence case, in both his police work and his own book on the case.” According to Glenn, the Monster of Florence case has a bearing on the outcome of A DEATH IN TUSCANY).
  It’s probably only fair to mention at this point that A DEATH IN TUSCANY probably suffered in the reading because yours truly has pretty much decided that brilliance is the order of the day from here on in. Life is too short to be reading average books at the best of times, but with time so short these days, only brilliance – as a minimum – will do it from now on. Up until now I’ve always had it on my conscience if I didn’t finish a book to the bitter end, even if I wasn’t enjoying it, perhaps out of some kind of perverted sympathy with the author, given all the work he or she has put into the novel. But no more.
  I’ll take genius, I’ll take unusual, I’ll take challenging, I’ll take glorious failures. But spare me the rising tide of bland read-a-likes seeping onto the bookshelves of the world like so much literary porridge.
  Take John McFetridge (right), for example. Desperate for a jump-start after putting away A DEATH IN TUSCANY, I turned to GO ROUND, his third and yet-to-be-published novel set in Toronto. Bang! A propulsive narrative. Fascinating characters. Believable dialogue. A setting depicted with real vim and love. A hefty dollop of piss-and-vinegar to season. The result? A masterclass in storytelling and a vibrant, relevant rendition of the one story the entire world is dealing with. And I’m still only on page 97.
  Of course, demanding brilliance and genius of the books I read raises the bar all over, but especially in terms of what I manage to grind out of the white page myself. Am I entitled to demand brilliance in my reading when I can’t deliver it in my own writing? No. Am I deliberately offering a hostage to fortune in order to get my small but perfectly formed ass in gear for the redrafting projects I’ve planned for the next six months? Yes. Will it result in brilliance? Erm, probably not.
  Which writes me into a corner and / or makes me a hypocrite. Bummer. Aha, but can I do hypocrisy brilliantly? Only time, that endlessly prevaricating doity rat, will tell …

4 comments:

Conduit said...

If you fancy something set in a far off land, I've been reading and rather enjoying The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo over the last couple of weeks (I'm a painfully slow reader!). While the prose is occasionally blunted by it being translated from the original Norwegian, it more often rises above its euro-thriller peers to be something much more intelligent. I was at first wary of the protagonist being yet another hard-drinking, under-achieving cop, but as the book goes on I've been warming to Harry Hole a great deal. I'm about four fifths through, and so far it's a recommendation.

And I agree on not wasting time finishing a book if you're not enjoying it. I used to feel obliged to finish everything I started, but perhaps its age that's reminding me that life's too short for bad books.

Declan Burke said...

I've had THE REDBREAST on the TBR for a while now, squire, and I'm very tempted to get into it ... Consider it bumped to the upper regions, post-haste. Cheers, Dec

Anonymous said...

Generally we only use 'lire' when we want to stress the entity of a particular sum,because figures in euros are less impressive.
The new euro cards were identical to the older ones,with a nearly exact price conversion (5,000 £=2,5 eu) so in common parlance a persistance of the older name wasn't unusual.
Giuttari profits from his real-life credentials,but is a mediocre writer.That said,I'm not particularly fond of Dibdin,either;too witty for its own good.
Still,some very good Italian crime fiction is available in English:you could try Lucarelli's Commissario De Luca trilogy,Ammaniti's I'm Not Scared or Camilleri.
All offer interesting characters and keen social analysis.
If you want noir,look no further than Massimo Carlotto,preferably his two standalone novels,The Goodbye Kiss and Death's Dark Abyss (the other two translated books are numbers 4 and 5 in series).
Death's Dark Abyss in particular is,in its own way,perfect.
Be warned though that those two are much gloomier than the general fare.You won't find many likeable characters in them.

Declan Burke said...

Much obliged, Anon ... the mention of 'lire' was the only glaring mistake I spotted, so I presumed it was intentional. On Italian crime fiction, I have Camilleri's THE TERRACOTTA DOG on the shelf, so I'll consider that one a live prospect. And I don't mind in the slightest if characters are likeable or not, so long as they're interesting. Cheers, Dec