A Month of Reading – December 2022

In a year that was full of wonderful reads, December also turned out to be a good month. On the 14th of this month, I released My Best Books of 2022 list, a mix of 20th century literature, translated lit, contemporary fiction, novellas, short stories, a memoir and a biography; books that truly enthralled me.

In December, I read five books – a combination of translated literature, Indian fiction, crime, short stories and volume 11 of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage.  My favourite was the Hjorth by a mile, a novel that also found a place on my year end list.

So, without further ado, here’s a brief look at the five books…

WILL AND TESTAMENT by Vigdis Hjorth (tr. from Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund)  

Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament is a powerful, gripping, masterfully constructed novel about family feuds, abuse, trauma and a woman’s fight to be believed and her story acknowledged, where Hjorth cleverly uses the set-up of an inheritance dispute to examine the deeper fissures that run in a dysfunctional family.

The novel opens with the news that Bergjlot’s dad died five months ago, a development that only exacerbates the ongoing property dispute between the four children and the mother. Bergjlot initially chooses to stay out of this clash and the modern reader will immediately discern the reason for this – she was abused by her father as a child and the scars from that incident made it easier for Bergjlot to completely sever ties with her family for more than 20 years in order to maintain her sanity. At its core, Will and Testament, is about a victim of abuse fighting back to be heard, about the legacy of abuse that can run down generations, how it can irreparably damage relationships. The prose has a feverish quality that is compelling, the characters are brilliantly drawn and overall this is really a superb novel.

KILLING HAPPINESS by Friedrich Ani (tr. from German by Alexander Booth)

Friedrich Ani’s Killing Happiness is a dark, wintry, melancholic but beautifully written crime novel. Lennard Grabbe, Stephan and Tania’s 11-year old son, is found brutally murdered in a forest one cold December day after being missing for a month. This devastating news is delivered to them by Jakob Franck, now retired from the police force but not entirely out of it – he still performs the difficult duty of conveying news of death to the victim’s loved ones.

Her son’s tragic demise sees Tania spiraling into a depression, while Stephan is left to run their café. Holed up in her son’s room for most part of the day, communication between husband and wife is pretty much non-existent; cracks in their marriage leave no room for the couple to find solace in each other in their grief. For some reason though, Tania remains closer to her brother Maximilian, a shaky mysterious relationship the nature of which Jakob Franck and even Stephan can’t quite fathom.

Meanwhile, the case completely consumes Franck; a crime seemingly difficult to solve given the lack of clues and reliable witness statements (“Franck knew from innumerable question sessions that memories consisted of fissures, ellipses, misperceptions, loose sensory connections”). Heavy rain and thunderstorms on the day Lennard disappeared pretty much obliterates the chances of finding critical forensic evidence, and Franck is desperately seeking that crucial piece of information, or what he calls the ‘fossil’ (“that very material or immaterial link that placed the act’s past in an unassailable connection to the crime’s present and held the genome of the truth to solving the case”).

While Killing Happiness has all the traits of a crime novel, it is also very much a novel of marriage and family, the dark secrets that lurk within and how a hidden past can drive a wedge into already fragile relationships.

Franck is also an interesting character, effortlessly donning the dual roles of investigator and confidante. He assiduously and patiently chips away at the evidence before him, revisiting the crime scene innumerable times, probing witnesses to remember better, while his gentle, quiet personality compels Lennard’s family members to talk to him in a way one would to a therapist.

Published by Seagull Books, this is a novel I very much enjoyed and I plan to read Ani’s other work released earlier, The Nameless Day.

A SURPRISE FOR CHRISTMAS & OTHER SEASONAL MYSTERIES edited by Martin Edwards

This turned out to be an excellent Christmassy read in December; a terrific compilation of golden age crime stories and my first ‘British Library Crime Classics’ read.

The stories are mostly set around Christmas, and while Christmas itself might not be a dominant theme, quite a few are atmospheric, capturing the starkness of the wintry season. In GK Chesterton’s ‘The Hole in the Wall’, a country house fancy dress party in the depths of winter goes awry when the host mysteriously disappears; while Ngaio Marsh’s ‘Death on the Air’ is an excellent story of a dysfunctional family ruled by a tyrant with “a clever murder device and a cleverly hidden murderer.”

‘Person or Things Unknown’ by Carter Dickson is a historical mystery set in the Restoration period during Charles II’s reign centred on a love triangle gone wrong; ‘Dead’s Man’s Hand’ is an atmospheric, intense story where guilt is examined to brilliant effect; Cyril Hare’s ‘A Surprise for Christmas’ (lending the collection its name) is also wonderful where an old homicide gets unexpectedly discovered in a cosy domestic setting. A postman is killed in Margery Allingham’s ‘On Christmas Day in the Morning’ that combines the gloominess of winter with the warmth of the festive spirit in a surprise ending.

Medieval masked balls, notorious gangs, pantomime, ghosts among other things feature in these stories as do love affairs, fractured families and broken relationships. A collection comprising 12 stories, I have given a flavour of only a few but overall I thought this was a lovely collection well worth reading.

SOJOURN by Amit Chaudhuri 

Sojourn was my first foray into Amit Chaudhuri’s work; I enjoyed this novella but didn’t quite know what to make of it. Our narrator/protagonist is unnamed, a middle aged Indian writer, who has been offered a short stint as a visiting Boll professor in a Berlin university where he is required to give weekly lectures.

Once ensconced in a flat in his new surroundings, he meets the Bangladeshi poet Faqrul, an exile in Berlin, who takes our narrator under his wing, helping him navigate everyday living in the city. Our narrator ponders about the Japanese writer Oe in the bathroom, aimlessly wanders around the city – Brandenburg Gate, Jewish Museum et al – thinking about the history of Berlin and its present status, dines in restaurants with acquaintances, and so on. Faqrul then disappears as fast as he had made an appearance, and our narrator later gets entangled in a tentative relationship with Birgit, until a feeling of disorientation completely engulfs him in the final pages.

Throughout this novella, there’s a sense that our narrator is lost and maybe trying to find himself, akin to Berlin’s identity which also seems in flux; a unified city very different in the present but one that has not entirely shaken off the remnants of its past.  The prose is elegant, pared to the bone, not a word wasted and an aura of uncertainty and rootlessness pervades the novel, the sense of being in no-man’s land  further heightened by the fleeting nature of things and the impermanence of connections. Like I mentioned, I am not entirely sure of having grasped the essence of this novella and yet it was laced with the sort of suspense that made it fascinating.

CLEAR HORIZON (PILGRIMAGE 4) by Dorothy Richardson

Clear Horizon is the eleventh installment in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage cycle of novels, after Pointed Roofs, Backwater, Honeycomb, The Tunnel, Interim, Deadlock, Revolving Lights, The Trap, Oberland and Dawn’s Left Hand.  

In Clear Horizon, Amabel continues to be a dominant presence, and a telegram from Michael Shatov sends Miriam reminiscing on their friendship and his marriage proposal which Miriam rejects, but in this book she considers introducing Shatov to Amabel. There’s also a sense that Miriam could be pregnant post her one night stand with Hugo Wilson in Dawn’s Left Hand, but then realises that not to be the case. That’s the first very long chapter and the second chapter entirely consists of a lengthy conversation between Miriam and Hugo Wilson, where Amabel is partly present at the beginning. This meeting only confirms Miriam’s opinion of how different her views are from Hugo’s who continues to be annoying and patronising. It’s then that Miriam decides that the end of her relationship with Hypo is now final.

It suddenly occurred to her that perhaps much of his talk was to be explained by the fact that he had never known that rapture. Had always been shut in and still, in spite of his apparent freedom, was enclosed and enmeshed? If this fact were flung at him, he would freely admit it, with an air of tragic hilarity, while overtly denying it, with a conspiratorial smile to emphasize his relatively large liberties, in order to use the admission as a point of departure for fresh insistence upon their neglected opportunities, while, hovering high above the useless to and fro, would hang the question, sometimes accepted by Amabel and sometimes wistfully denied, as to whether men, however fitted up with incomes and latchkeys and mobility, can ever know freedom-unless they are tramps.

Meanwhile, Richardson’s descriptive powers continue to enthrall as can be seen in the following passage…

And again, demanding no price for truant contemplation, the heavenly morning received her. Turning, in the fullness of her recently restored freedom, towards the light as towards the contemplative gaze of a lover, she felt its silent stream flood her untenanted being and looked up, and recovered, in swift sequence, and with a more smiting intensity than when she had first come upon them, the earlier gifts of this interrupted spring: the dense little battalions, along the park’s green alley, between tall leafless trees, of new, cold crocus-cups, glossy with living varnish, golden-yellow, transparent mauve, pure frosty white, white with satiny purple stripings; the upper rim of each petal so sharp that it seemed to be cutting for itself a place in the dense, chill air; each flower a little upright figure and a song, proclaiming winter’s end. Then tree-buds in the square seen suddenly, glistening, through softly showering rain. Then the green haze of small leaves: each leaf translucent in the morning and, at night, under the London lamplight, an opaque, exciting, viridian artificiality. And it was with power borrowed from this early light, and from the chance of stillness as perfect as its own, that these memories were smiting through her.

Just as The Tunnel marked Miriam’s entry into London as an independent woman with a career as a dental assistant to Dr Hancock, so does Clear Horizon mark the end of this period of Miriam’s life, a period that encompassed a decade. Having now read 11 of the 13 volumes of Pilgrimage, Miriam’s journey has certainly been interesting although I must say that to me the first six volumes (including Deadlock) were the best. I’m not yet sure whether I’ll continue with the remaining two volumes, we shall see.

That’s it for December. 2022 has been wonderfully rich in terms of reading and I hope that streak continues in 2023 too!

In The Woods – Tana French

Tana French is an author I had been meaning to read for quite some time. Some love her, some have mixed opinions and I was curious to know on which side of the fence I would fall. As of now, she has written six novels under the Dublin Murder Squad series and two standalone novels, and I decided to begin with the very first, In The Woods. My verdict – I really, really liked it.

Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, watercolour nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silk-screen blue.

Thus begins Tana French’s In The Woods, the first in the Dublin Murder Squad series, a fascinating gothic mystery, but also a beautifully written novel of memory, identity and childhood trauma.

The place is Knocknaree, a small County Dublin town, sparsely developed with its housing estate bordered by the deep, dense woods quite vast. During that particular summer in August 1984, three children aged twelve – Peter Savage, Jamie Rowan and Adam Ryan – ventured into the woods as usual, but two of them never returned. The woods were no stranger to the children; they knew it like the back of their hands.

These three children own the summer. They know the wood as surely as they know the micro-landscapes of their own grazed knees; put them down blindfolded in any dell or clearing and they could find their way out without putting a foot wrong. This is their territory, and they rule it wild and lordly as young animals; they scramble through its trees and hide-and-seek in its hollows all the endless day long, and all night in their dreams.

So when they asked for permission that day to spend some time there, they were allowed to do so provided they were back in time for tea. But when the children failed to return by teatime, one of the parents knew that something was amiss. Large search parties went further into the forest to hunt for the children, and came across one of them – Adam Ryan – standing with his back and palms pressed against a large oak tree, his nails digging deep into the bark. Adam’s shoes were heavily bloodstained but otherwise he suffered minor injuries. However, he had no recollection of the events, of Jamie and Peter’s whereabouts, or why he was the only one to be discovered. Given Adam’s memory loss and no new leads, the case goes cold.

Fast forward to twenty years later.  Our narrator is Rob Ryan, newly accepted into the elite Dublin Murder Squad, having assiduously worked his way to get there.

What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass.

We immediately learn that Rob Ryan is actually Adam Ryan, but he has deliberately changed his identity to begin life anew and leave his troubled past behind. Also, a new recruit is Cassie Maddox, one of the very few women to find a place on the squad. Cassie is a tough young woman, exhibiting a flair for human psychology and profiling, adept at navigating the trickier moments of misogyny displayed by a heavily male squad. After a warm, cozy evening of wine, music and conversation reminiscent of their student days, Rob and Cassie quickly become best friends, pairing up to take on cases.

Gradually building up a solid reputation and a good solve rate, Rob and Cassie go from strength to strength until they land up with the Devlin case. For Rob, the Devlin case is a trigger for his old ghosts returning to haunt him. Strictly from a point of view of conflict, Rob shouldn’t be on the case, but he can’t tear himself away, a part of him wants to know the truth. What if the two cases are linked?

The brief outline of the case is this – at an archeological site in Knocknaree bordered by woods, the very woods where Rob’s friends vanished all those years ago, Katy Devlin, a twelve-year old girl, is found dead on a high rise altar. Brutally hit by a stone and subsequently strangled, Katy’s death sends shockwaves throughout the small Knocknaree community. We learn that Katy had become quite the talk of the town before her untimely death having secured a place at a prestigious ballet school for which the community had organized a fundraiser. Enmeshed in this story is the politics of the place – the archeological site is to be completely razed to make way for a motorway funded by nebulous corporations, a development that does not sit well with certain members of the community.

We are then introduced to a host of characters – the motley crew of archeologists digging for finds at the site, the dysfunctional Devlin family, the protestors signed up for the ‘Move the Motorway’ campaign, not to mention certain key figures from Rob’s past.  

In The Woods, then, is a fascinating exploration of fractured memories, the elusive aspect of them; memories like jagged shards that pierce the consciousness when least expected. It’s a closer look at how certain events can trigger seismic shifts in memories forcing those wedged in the subterranean recesses of the mind to suddenly reveal themselves, but that too only partly. For Rob, the Devlin murder in Knocknaree is too close to home, a painful reminder of a traumatic period he would rather forget. Rob is an extremely flawed character, and as the novel progresses seems more and more lost grappling with a range of emotions – anger, guilt, suspicion and fear. It is crystal clear that the trauma entrenched within him is unresolved threatening to spill over into his work and personal relationships jeopardizing them.

And then, too, I had learned early to assume something dark and lethal hidden at the heart of anything I loved. When I couldn’t find it, I responded, bewildered and wary, in the only way I knew how: by planting it there myself.

French uses the Devlin murder as a medium to study the widening cracks in society, particularly the unholy nexus between politicians and property developers and how small time residents end up getting a raw deal.

Corruption is taken for granted, even grudgingly admired: the guerilla cunning of the colonized is still ingrained into us, and tax evasion and shady deals are seen as forms of the same spirit of rebellion that hid horses and seed potatoes from the British.

References are made to the Celtic Tiger, or ‘Ireland’s Economic Miracle’ and the accumulation of wealth it fuelled, how the generation before it slipped through the cracks never to corner a slice of the country’s rapidly expanding wealth pie.

There’s a gothic feel to this book amplified by the fear of the unknown; the deep, dark, mysterious forest at once terrifying and familiar. The other strength of the book is the depiction of Rob’s relationship with Cassie, the camaraderie and banter between them becomes a febrile ground for close friendship to the point that they gradually become comfortable sharing their secrets with each other, secrets they have told no one else.

It’s a deliciously slow-burn of a novel (although at times one does feel it’s a tad too long), but French’s prose is electrifying and gorgeous, blurring the lines between literary fiction and traditional crime. She is interested in character studies, of delving into their minds…highlighting the psychological aspects which expose their flaws as well as their strengths. The flashbacks often have a filmic quality to them, tinged with nostalgia and regret and French is great at portraying the simplicity and innocence of children to whom the complex world of adults is unfathomable.

Trauma is a theme that pulsates throughout the novel; French is particularly keen to examine this topic from varied angles. For instance, while the events of Adam’s childhood form the core of this theme, Cassie is not without scars either having been profoundly affected in her student days by the actions of a pathological liar.

In a straightforward police procedural, the solving of the crime takes centrestage, the resolution is neat with the threads all tied up, and I liked how In The Woods refused to conform to these requirements. It’s a beautifully written crime novel, melancholic, haunting and poignant, a reminder of how our childhood crucially defines who we shape up as adults.

I have now bought the rest of the books in the Dublin Murder Squad series and am looking forward to making my way through them.  

Sunburn – Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman turned out to be an excellent discovery this month. I liked Sunburn so much that I ended up buying two more of her books – The Lady in the Lake and After I’m Gone and I’m also keen to explore more titles from her backlist, she seems to have quite a few under her belt.

He looks into his own drink and says out loud, as if to himself:

“What kind of an asshole orders red wine in a tavern in Belleville, Delaware?”

“I don’t know,” she says, not looking at him. “What kind of an asshole are you?”

“Garden variety.”

Sunburn takes its name from the opening scene in the novel. Adam Bosk is drinking at the bar of a rundown motel called High-Ho in the equally dead-end town of Belleville, Delaware. He observes an attractive redheaded woman, our protagonist Polly, just a few barstools away from him, all by herself and lost in thought. Her shoulders are peeling from too much exposure to the sun.

It’s the sunburned shoulders that get him. Pink, peeling. The burn is two days old, he gauges. Earned on Friday, painful to the touch yesterday, today an itchy soreness that’s hard not to keep fingering, probing, as she’s doing right now in an absentminded way. The skin has started sloughing off, soon those narrow shoulders won’t be so tender. Why would a redhead well into her thirties make such a rookie mistake?

Adam finds her presence in this small, unremarkable town a bit disconcerting. Belleville is not the kind of place that screams tourism; on the contrary, it’s the sort of place that no person will even look at twice.

And why is she here, sitting on a barstool, forty-five miles inland, in a town where strangers seldom stop on a Sunday evening? Belleville is the kind of place where people are supposed to pass through and soon they won’t even do that.

And yet strangely enough Polly has landed up in Belleville. At that point, her motive is a mystery to Adam and to the reader (“One thing’s for sure: she’s up to something. His instincts for this stuff can’t be denied”).

But for that matter, the same could be said of Adam. What is Adam Bosk also doing in this run-of-the-mill town?

Adam tentatively attempts to strike up a conversation with Polly, a cautious banter that only heightens the sense of mystery around the two.

“You from around here?”

“Define from.” She’s not playing, she’s retreating.

“Do you live here?”

I do now.”

“That sunburn – I just assumed you were someone who got a day or two of beach, was headed back to Baltimore or D.C.”

“No. I’m living here.”

He sees a flicker of surprise on the barmaid’s face.

“As of when?”

“Now.”

It immediately becomes clear that Polly is running away from something, and a sufficiently curious Adam books himself a room in that very same motel where Polly has chosen to reside. In the second chapter, we are introduced to Gregg, Polly’s husband, who is taken aback by Polly’s sudden decision to abandon him and their daughter Jani. A typical conservative man, Greg finds himself saddled with the unnerving prospect of being Jani’s sole caregiver, a role he did not take seriously before.

Things take a turn when Adam finds himself falling hard for Polly against his better instincts, and Polly begins to reciprocate. The fact that both have secrets they would rather hide only complicates matters.  As the novel progresses, Polly’s motives become clearer as do Adam’s and their lives become intertwined in a potent manner, a combination that involves both attraction and mistrust. 

Sunburn, then, is a riveting piece of noir fiction that explores themes of identity, violence, survival and trying to start life afresh.

Polly is a fascinating character with a dark, checkered past; a past dotted with violence and murder. Largely sidelined to the fringes of society because of what happened to her before, Polly through sheer resilience and instinct for survival soldiers on, always trying to think ahead. Her quiet demeanor and attractive persona make her irresistible to men and Adam, unsurprisingly, is taken in by her charms. Precisely because of her reputation of having an uncanny way with men, it’s also not surprising that most of her relationships with women are largely strained, marked by hints of suspicion.

Lippman is great at portraying the intrusive atmosphere of small town life – the gossip, the unflattering insinuations, and the conservative outlook…plus through the stuff that Polly has to grapple with, it’s also a book that subtly makes digs at gender stereotypes.

Sunburn appears to be some form of homage to James McCain and his brand of hardboiled noir. During a particularly disturbing period in her life, Polly seeks refuge in cinema halls watching adaptations of his novels, particularly Double Indemnity.

Then she found the films series at the museum, free on Thursday afternoons, and she escaped the long Baltimore summer in that cool, hushed place…The summer of 1985, the film series was all black-and-white films from the 1940s. Double Indemnity. Mildred Pierce. The Postman Always Rings Twice. Polly didn’t understand at first how they were linked, why the series was called Raising Cain, but then someone explained they were all based on books by a Maryland man who had lived in Baltimore and Annapolis, grown up on the Eastern shore.

With Lippman’s flair for sharp dialogues and the creation of an unforgettable, tough-as-nails female lead, Sunburn is smart, expertly-paced and intelligently written, and well worth one’s time.  

Fatale – Jean-Patrick Manchette (tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith)

Some years earlier, I was impressed by the two Manchette novels I had read – Three to Kill and The Mad and the Bad. No reviews on both of them here, because it was in the pre-blog days, but given that quite a few of his books have been published recently, I felt it was time to pick up another one.

Chaos reigns supreme in Fatale, another delicious, slim novel from Manchette’s oeuvre. When the book opens, Aimée Joubert, quintessential femme fatale, has left a trail of bodies in her wake, mostly of people belonging to the wealthy and privileged set.

Aimée has a single-minded focus – when on a mission in any particular area, she gathers information on members of the elite society there and leverages it to extract money.

“Well, it’s the same as ever, isn’t it? It seems slow, but actually it is quite fast. Sex always comes up first. Then money questions. And then, last, come the old crimes. You have seen other towns, my sweet, and you’ll see others, knock on wood.”

Aimée is now on her way to a town called Bléville (literally translated as Doughville). Like any other town or city, Bléville has within its folds all strata of society, but Aimée is not interested in the working class obviously, heading towards the upscale residential neighbourhood instead.

Once ensconced in a spacious apartment she finds with the help of moolah-loving realtor, Aimée begins to steadily move around in these upper circles and blend in with them. A series of dinners, openings, bridge games follow and Aimée attends them all, always the cool observer.

At one such opening at a mansion, Aimée spots Baron Jules pissing publicly against the walls of the house. The baron is not at all liked in the town, his reputation is tarnished. A notoriety for voicing frank opinions and a stint in a psychiatric hospital have blemished his image.

We are also introduced to a variety of characters Monsieurs Lorque and Lenverguez, owners of a food factory, and “the pillars of Bléville’s prosperity. There’s Monsieur Moutet, a senior manager at the factory. His wife Christiane Moutet along with Sonia Lorque team up with Aimée for a series of bridge sessions. And then there is Lenverguez’s wife who is carrying on an extramarital affair with Baron Jules.

Aimée, meanwhile, goes about her business in town, attending parties and get-togethers, gathering information on the residents and honing her physical fighting skills. The plot suddenly thickens when a series of fatal food poisonings pushes the town residents to the edge.

When the spotlight glares on the powerful Lorque and Lenverguez, all hell breaks loose and Aimée plans to take advantage of the chaos that ensues.

Aimée is a fascinating character. She is a highly trained killer with gorgeous looks, but romantic entanglements do not interest her. Her past is murky – we learn that she was married, but subsequently killed her husband for abusing her.

“It was a genuine revelation, you see,” said Aimee to the baron. “They can be killed. The real assholes can be killed.”

Her motives seem to be purely driven by money and she has no qualms killing her wealthy victims who have largely risen to the top riding on the waves of corruption and exploitation.

Baron Jules could be labelled as left wing as far as his views go. He hates the town residents with intense fervour and claims to know all about their darkest secrets, although he hasn’t yet revealed any of it. As far as the town is concerned, he is a loose cannon.

“You poor old fool,” said the factory owner. “Nobody dares say it to your face, but I’ll say it: You are not welcome here, you are not invited. You think you can do whatever you like because everyone in Bléville is afraid of you. Well, I’m not afraid of you.” Lorque glanced at the man with the mustache. “Commissioner, throw this man out!”

“I don’t give a fuck!” cried Baron Jules as he was hustled towards the door. “I’ll be back to piss all over the place.”

The commissioner and the servants threw him down the front steps. He rolled into the gutter. “I don’t give a fuck,” he cried once more. “You’re all done for.”

These are some striking, bold set pieces that dot the novel – signature Manchette stuff. For instance, right at the beginning when travelling in a luxury train compartment, Aimée, all alone in her cabin, gorges on pickled cabbage and champagne, strips naked and rubs all the banknotes against her body. It’s the only time we glimpse her taking pleasure in something, in sharp contrast to the cold efficiency she displays otherwise. Then there is the incident of Baron Jules deliberately peeing in public as a mark of scorn, a man who greatly unsettles Aimée and which will later have consequences.

In terms of themes, Fatale explores the dark side of capitalism, and is an indictment of the evils of status and class differences. The novella surges ahead at a frenetic pace, and the noir is as black as it gets hurtling towards a conclusion that does not leave much room for hope. The madness and mayhem depicted within is characteristic of Manchette’s writing – I am particularly reminded of that striking supermarket set piece in The Mad and the Bad.

In a nutshell, Fatale, is another excellent novel from Manchette’s repertoire, well worth a read with a terrific NYRB Classics cover to boot.

Elena Knows – Claudia Piñeiro (tr. Frances Riddle)

Elena Knows is a forceful, thought-provoking, unconventional crime novel where Claudia Piñeiro effectively explores a range of social concerns such as illness, caregiving, crippling bureaucracy and a woman’s choice regarding her body.

When the book opens, Elena, a woman in her sixties, is home alone waiting for the clock to strike ten. Elena suffers from Parkinson’s, a progressively devastating illness, characterized by loss of control over everyday movements.

And she wonders if Parkinson’s is masculine or feminine, because even though the name sounds masculine it’s still an illness, and an illness is something feminine. Just like a misfortune. Or a curse. And so she thinks she should address it as Herself, because when she thinks about it, she thinks ‘fucking whore illness.’ And a whore is a she, not a he. If Herself will excuse my language.

Elena is now entirely dependent on Levodopa, a drug routinely given to increase dopamine, a critical chemical in the body, a messenger of sorts that carries signals from the brain to the limbs.

And he said, an illness of the central nervous system that degrades, or mutates, or changes, or modifies the nerve cells in such a way that they stop producing dopamine. And then Elena learned that when her brain orders the feet to move, for example, the order only reaches her feet if the dopamine takes it there.

But that’s not the only matter troubling Elena. The real burden weighing heavy on her soul is the sudden, recent death of her daughter Rita. On a rainy afternoon, Rita was mysteriously and inexplicably found hanging from the bell tower in the local church. The police classify her death as suicide and close the case with no inclination to pursue the matter further.

But, Elena refuses to accept the police’s version. She’s convinced it is murder and pushes the inspector to do more, to interview potential suspects so that the true facts of Rita’s death can come to light. Because there is one aspect of her daughter’s personality that Elena knows could not have caused Rita to voluntarily visit this local place of worship. So terrified was Rita of being struck by lightning that she always chose to stay away from the church in stormy weather. And it was raining on that fateful day. That explains Elena’s conviction that Rita could not have possibly entered the bell tower (“it’s the town lightning rod”) of her own accord, someone clearly dragged her there and killed her.

The local police indulge her by meeting her regularly but don’t really take her seriously. Elena finds no solace in religion either especially since the priest insists that she put the matter to rest and move on.

When it dawns on her that there is now only one avenue left, Elena braces herself to locate Isabel, a woman Rita had “helped” twenty years ago but had lost touch since then. Elena’s mission is simple – she is hoping that by calling in an old debt, she gets the help required in catching Rita’s murderer. But given Elena’s illness, finding Isabel is a challenge akin to climbing a steep mountain. She would have to walk a few blocks to the station, ride the train, and after that either walk or taxi to Isabel’s home, hoping against hope that Isabel hasn’t relocated in all that time. It’s a game of chance; yet, Elena is resolved and feels herself equal to the task. Hence, she patiently waits for the clock to strike ten so that she can consume her next pill of the day giving her the fillip to embark on her arduous journey.

That’s the central premise of the story and I don’t want to reveal anything more. But as the novel progresses we are given a glimpse into the tenuous relationship between Elena and Rita, more colour on Rita’s belligerent personality and the crucial encounter between Rita and Isabel twenty years ago, an incident whose repercussions Elena will be compelled to deal with now. The chapters alternate between the present where Elena sets off on her journey, and the past which shines a light on the life she shared with Rita.

What makes Elena Knows so compelling is the richness of themes explored, a gamut of hard-hitting social issues. First of all, the book is an unflinching portrayal of a debilitating disease, a hard-edged look at the daily struggles of performing commonplace activities, and the loss of dignity that it involves. Among many things, the illness completely alters Elena’s perception of time, which is now not governed by the clock but pills that she has to take at hourly intervals. Once the effects of the pill wear off, Elena can’t move till she takes her next dose. Her neck perpetually droops and restricts her gaze to a certain height, and her mouth is always dribbling.  She understandably resents being helpless but is painfully aware that she has no choice. And yet, does she still have the will to live on despite her failing body?

Then there is Rita, her daughter, a dominant force in the book, even if she is now dead. Elena and Rita share a love-hate relationship. Given that both women are headstrong, fights are a regular feature when they are together, frequently hurling cruel words at each other.

They repeated the same routine everyday. The walk, the whip cracks, the distance, and finally the silence. The words changed, the reasons behind the fights were different, but the cadence, the tone, the routine, never varied…

As Elena’s disease progresses, the burden of caring for her falls on Rita, who fights through her teeth to ensure health insurance covers her mother’s mounting medical bills. This aspect of the novel brings two critical problems to the fore – the challenges of caregiving and the tediousness of having to deal with seemingly insurmountable red tape. Both these issues highlight how lack of requisite support, both practical and emotional, can make it hard for the caregiver to cope, paving the way for anxiety and depression.

Piñeiro’s bio mentions that she is an active figure in the fight for legalization of abortion in Argentina, so it’s not surprising that she also addresses this topic head-on in the novel, how every woman has the right to make her own choice regarding her body and she employs Rita’s actions as a vehicle to explore this point. As readers are made privy to a slew of Rita’s eccentricities, we are told how she avoids walking past the midwife Olga’s house and always crosses the pavement when she approaches her place. Olga also performs abortions, a fact that Rita finds hard to digest. Rita is a woman driven by her own convictions with not much respect for other people’s choices. She has fixed ideas on moral code and behaviour and an unwelcome aggressiveness in pushing her views on others. 

Roberto and Rita were united by their convictions more than anything else, that way they both had of stating the most broad, arbitrary, clichéd notions as absolute truths. Convictions about how another person should experience something they themselves had never experienced, how people should walk through life along the roads they’d walked down and the ones they hadn’t, issuing decrees about what should and shouldn’t be done.

Ultimately, both Elena and Rita are flawed, unlikeable characters (Rita, I thought, was even worse, particularly for being a busybody), but it’s hard not to feel sorry for their plight accentuated by the difficulties of Elena’s illness. As the novel hurtles towards its conclusion, Elena is forced to confront some hard truths and a possibly growing realization that her earlier opinions about many things might not hold much water. Can she bring herself to accept that at her age?

In a nutshell, Elena Knows is a riveting, tightly constructed novel that turns the crime genre on its head by providing social commentary on pressing issues that remain relevant even today. That she manages to do so by not being too preachy or sentimental only enhances the book’s power.