International Association of Crime Writers, North American Branch

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by J. Madison Davis

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