Over the course of the holiday season, there have been a few movies and novels that are worth mentioning, as a reminder of some of the great crime fiction that we had to entertain us, thrill us, and creep us out over the last year. Most magazines, newspapers, blogs, et al, will give a concise list of a top 10 of the usual suspects for the best of the best of the past year. But instead, let’s nix the formula and just go through a few works that made this year a good year to keep up with the who and what of crime fiction.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: The recently released US film adaptation of the best-selling Swedish cold noir, is a locked room thriller by David Fincher. The film concerns a disgraced journalist, Michel Blomkvist (played by Daniel Craig) investigating a mysterious death of the niece of a Swedish businessman. The evidence suggests that the kidnapper is on the island estate of the business exec – and since there’s only one bridge off the island, it’s basically a locked room mystery. All the suspects are relatives of the journalists’ client. Although that’s the through line story of the film, its main allure is Lisbeth Salander, a punk computer hacker who did some background investigation on the journalists’ creds at the beginning of the film. She teams up with Craig as the case develops. This plotline might sound familiar (hopefully the fans lightly skimmed) and that’s because it was not too long ago made into a Swedish mini-series that was a fixture of the US indie circuit for a few years running (what with the two sequels as well) But David Fincher is able to make the American version work by adding in elements of Hitchcock, as well as his on mastery of the whodunit. The whodunit is a very expositional genre. It requires a person searching for clues on paper or the endless questioning of reluctant suspects or witnesses, which doesn’t exactly lend to the marriage of image and sound. But Fincher is able to visually involve the audience in the research, in the painstaking effort to match names to events, testimonials to motives, clues to suspects. He did so in “Zodiac” and excels again in the genre with “Dragon Tattoo”
Rampart: The film stars Woody Harrelson as Dave Brown of the LAPD Rampart Division (close to Westlake/Downtown LA) The story takes place during the Rampart police Scandals that shook LA in the late 90’s. Harrelson plays a corrupt, racist, “black is black white is white” moral justice kind of cop who has to face the shifting police department as they go through the scandal that was motivated by years and years of institutional racism. The story is secondary to the character though, who has similarities to Vic Mackey from “The Shield” but with more of a messy personal life: he has a long-term affair and children with his wife’s sister. Although Dave Brown is an awful, morally reprehensible human being, he’s engaging to watch. That might be because the film was written by James Ellory, the (self-proclaimed/generally recognized) master of crime fiction who has written about ends justify the brutality, tough guys in the LAPD since the early 90’s. Like in his novels, Dave Brown starts out an utterly detestable human being who, at the end of the day, doesn’t get punished or redeemed for his ways, rather the audience sees the corrupt, brutish cop in a new light.
The Cut: The new novel written by George Pelecanos. Fans of “The Wire” might know Pelecanos as the writer of the penultimate episodes of the first three seasons – all which end with the tragic death of a central character. Pelecanos’ flair for urban tragedy is identifiable in “The Cut” as are traces of Hammett. The story concerns Luke Speros, an army vet. home from Fallujah who adjusts to boring, old civilian life by becoming a private investigator for a defense lawyer. He gets involved with one of the lawyers clients, a notable D.C drug dealer, who hires Speros to find a shipment of weed for him. The story proceeds to get more complex with many different levels of D.C’s stratified urban environment getting thrown into the mix. Although this is a hardboiled crime novel, complete with a villain and action sequences it has a good amount of sociological insights into D.C’s changing landscape – whether it’s the change of neighborhoods from poor and chocolate to gentrified and white, or the effects of the war on the young men returning home from Iraq, the novel has plenty for crime fans as well as those interested in the changing face of the American city.
The Prague Cemetery: The new historical novel released by Italian semoitician Umberto Eco isn’t a mystery novel per se, but it deals with every imaginable sort of low life that can be found in the best of the rest of crime fiction. The story concerns the rise of Anti-semitism in the late 19th century following the creation of the fraudulent “Protocols of Zion” The story follows Captain Simone Simonini, a master forger with a deep seated hatred of Judaism. The novel expands to real-life characters of the age, and their role in creating the myth of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. The novel might seem like an interesting idea, yet nothing more than a potboiler written by an intellectual with too much time on his hands, but when you realize that “The Protocols of Zion” is still being issued as truth in Iran, your impression of the book may take a darker turn.
The Killer is Dying: The new novel by James Sallis, who wrote the vastly different book version of the movie “Drive” The story follows three characters – an assassin on his last hit, a cop searching for this assassin, and a kid who has the same cryptic dreams as the assassin. The book was recommend earlier on here, and it’s an interesting read, written in bare, concise words, following the lineage of economical writing that served early innovators of the genre so well.