International Association of Crime Writers, North American Branch


by J. Madison Davis

Duet in Beirut, by Mishka Ben-David. Transalted from the Hebrew by Evan Fallenberg. Overlook.

Mishka Ben-David has published a number of spy thrillers and other books. He is a twelve-year veteran of the Mossad who ought to know the espionage business intimately. At one point on his career, he was assigned to take an antidote to a Hamas leader in Jordan after a poisoning attempt by the Mossad had failed. As John Le Carré has frequently demonstrated in his books, espionage makes strange bedfellows. In Duet in Beirut, Mossad agent Gadi goes into Beirut to stop an agent who has disappeared and is suspected to have gone rogue, intent on completing an assassination that he botched as a member of Gadi’s team some time before. Tel Aviv, however, no longer wants the assassination carried out. Perhaps the author knows how this kind of thing works too well. The first part of the novel consists of an account of the internal review of the failed assassination, but this section goes on too long and despite the action picking up somewhat afterwards, the book never quite loses its expository tone. According to the dust jacket, Ben-David’s thrillers are in development for international television.

Ice Cold, by Andrea Maria Schenkel. Translated from the German by Anthea Bell, trans. Quercus.

Ice Cold is only Andrea Maria Schenkel’s second novel, but it earned her the German Crime prize, making her the only author to win that award in two consecutive years. That alone should tell us that her talent must be exceptional and to expect a lot from this little book. Saying a book seems longer than it is rarely is intended as a compliment, but this 140 page novel is rich in its portrayal of character, evokes atmosphere like a much longer novel, and conveys a complex story. Set in Germany during the Nazi period, but before the outbreak of war, the novel begins with the execution of a murdering rapist and, because he is a member of the party, the suppression of public news about it. The book then flashes back to the story of the victim, a country girl who takes off for the city to find a job. Despite her poverty, she manages a lively period of drinking and sex, only to end up dead beside the road. The evocation of the time period with its lowering clouds is brilliantly done without the usual overripe melodrama and over-the-top evil characters. Anthea Bell, who has translated W. G. Sebald, Stefan Zweig, and the Asterix comics, does us yet another favor by rendering Ice Cold into English.

Eyes Full of Empty, by Jérémie Guez. Translated from the French by Edward Gauvin, trans. Unnamed Press.

The French, by embracing Poe, had their own golden age of crime writing before World War I and now, after recognizing the concept of American noir post-World War II, have created a distinctive breed of their own noir. Eyes Full of Empty is the first novel by 26-year-old Jérémie Guez to appear in English, and it demonstrates the deeper shade of black that noir has taken on in France, darker than even the Scandinavian variety. Idir is the son of a bourgeois Algerian immigrant and has done jail time. Like Showtime’s Ray Donovan, he does odd jobs as a discreet detective and fixer. He gets involved in two mysteries here, locating a stolen Audi R8 and finding a missing brother who disappeared after being raped by a gay sadist. The hardboiled motifs are all here. Idir has a network of colorful characters he can call on when he needs help. The streets were never meaner, the bad guys never more psychopathic, and, of course, there is the irresistible babe with dubious motives. Idir is curiously plagued by fits of crying, the lingering result of some kind of breakdown he suffered in prison, and though he is very tough, he’s no Mike Hammer when confronted by killers. Guez makes all of this seem gritty rather than derivative. This looks like the beginning of a long career.

Innocence or, Murder on Steep Street, by Heda Margolius Kovály . Translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker. Soho Crime.

The odds were against Heda Margolius Kovály surviving to write anything at all. In fact, astronomically against it. Born in 1919, she was confined to the Łódź ghetto in 1941, then transported to Auschwitz in 1944 and death marched to Bergen Belsen in 1945, from which she somehow escaped to haul ammunition for the uprising in Prague. Later, her husband (who had also survived the death camps) would be convicted of treason and executed by the Communists. Much of her history was recorded in her memoir Under a Cruel Star and though Innocence is a novel, it is largely based on her life under Communism in the 1950s. The main character, Helena, works in a movie theater with a variety of other women who are trying to get by in a Prague that Kafka envisioned long before it came to pass.The police suspect that the theater is a means to pass information and Helena is under suspicion because her husband is currently a political prisoner. Meanwhile, a boy is murdered in the theater and then, a philandering investigator. It’s a good mystery made richer by the convincing characterizations of the women, but the power of the novel is in giving us a vivid feel for the atmosphere of the conquered Soviet Czechoslovakia. In that gray world, Mrs. Kovály outlived most of her tormentors and saw her country independent again. She passed away in 2010, at the age of 92. It is our good fortune she had the opportunity, for at least part of her life, to write.

The Man Who Loved Dogs, by Leonardo Padura. Translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

History is a mystery and never ceases to be one, as we rarely know exactly what happened and almost never exactly why. Nonetheless, clever novelists create convincing clarity that often seems more real than what we actually know.

Padura’s remarkable novel takes the murder of Leon Trotsky and develops it into the kind of novel that used to be more of a staple of literature, the kind of novel that the words “epic sweep” were intended to describe.

Nearly six hundred pages, it takes the reader on a journey that is more psychologically and character driven than event driven, as, after all, if we know who Trotsky was, we are also likely to know he won’t come out of Mexico alive.

Some big books skip from event to event like a stone over a shallow pond. The great ones, and this may well qualify, slide steadily deeper. The character of the assassin is rendered, if not sympathetic, at least comprehensible—something rarely done in conventional thrillers. A finalist for the Book of the Year award in Spain, the novel was translated over a two-year period by Anna Kushner, earning a nomination for the PEN translation prize.

(Editor’s Note: Padura is a member of our Cuban branch.)

Bed of Nails, by Antonin Varenne. Translated by Siân Reynolds. McLehose Press.

A police department bureau that investigates only suicides is an interesting idea, but as portrayed in Antonin Varenne’s Bed of Nails, it’s a kind of Siberia run by losers and detectives on the outs with the brass.

In this case, a performer who specializes in sticking sharp metal objects through his arms, cheeks, and other body parts is supposed to have intentionally bled out in a live performance. Of course, the detective Guérin and the performer’s friend John suspect murder and dangerous secrets and menacing characters soon appear.

Guérin bears all of the hallmarks of the noir policeman, with the addition of a pet parrot. He’s odd, naturellement, but of course brilliant and dismissive of authority, a gnomish type reminiscent of Pierre Lemaitre’s detective in Alex. Dealing with the various internal obstacles in the bureaucracy and out-of-control colleagues, Guérin never quite comes across as convincing, partly because his pursuit of the truth is much less interesting than John’s.

John is an expatriate hippy type who lives in the backwoods of rural France and gets drawn into his friend’s problems involving a large debt and an embassy employee compromised by his homosexuality. Along the way, John links up with the most vivid character, an ex-con who lives as a caretaker in the Luxembourg Gardens in a small shack with his dog.

Bed of Nails is a fast read, with the stories told in parallel mostly. But the plot is unnecessarily complicated, as if the author couldn’t decide who or what to focus on. More of the pleasures of pulp and a little less self-conscious noir would have benefitted the book greatly. Nonetheless, it was an award winner when published in France, and Varenne is a writer to watch for as his promising career continues.

Behind God’s Back, by Harri Nykänen. Translated by Kristian London. Bitter Lemon Press.

Harri Nykänen spent many years covering the crime beat in Finland and uses his extensive knowledge of police procedure in his novel, Behind God’s Back.

The setting and his detective’s name, Ariel Kafka, suggests that the usual elements of Scandi noir will be in play, but Kafka doesn’t come across as the usual world-weary Wallanderoid, and the case is rather straightforward and free of angst, despite the opportunities set up by Kafka’s being part of the small Helsinki Jewish community, a former girlfriend’s father getting shot at his front door, and the mysterious relationship of his own brother to the case. Little thought is expended on what it means to be a diaspora cop in Helsinki, though there are anti-Semitic crazies, there as everywhere, who may have been behind the murder.

The Mossad, Russian gangsters, professional assassins and corrupt politicians are also involved, but the book doesn’t become an international thriller, either. One anticipates the usual passionate reunion of former lovers, Kafka crying in his beer, but the former girlfriend barely appears–even though her husband is a possible suspect.

There are a couple of major bad guys who are much discussed, but are never confronted. Kafka has a bit too much equanimity as well, getting home by nine and drinking a beer, and listening to the solution of the case rather than actively figuring it out. In a way, this might make Kafka a more realistic portrayal of real detectives, but, as Chandler put it, all that isn’t quite enough. The novel is quite different from the usual, but if you toss the huge “K.” card on the table, the expectation is that it doesn’t just lie there. It didn’t help that there are several typos and very odd wordings as well.

© 2015, used by permission
J. Madison Davis is the president of IACW’s North American branch, an author, and a Contributing Editor at World Literature Today.