Pascal Garnier’s novella Too Close to the Edge (Gallic, £7.99, translated by Emily Boyce) deals with the boredom of middle age and how passion and violence can take on the guise of salvation. Éliette has moved to the French countryside following her husband’s death. She seeks an ‘atom of madness to stop herself sliding into reason’, and finds it in the form of Étienne, a man who helps her when her car breaks down. She invites him into her lonely home, and her life. When her neighbour’s son is killed in a road accident, it becomes obvious that her new lover is linked to this tragedy in some way, and yet Éliette reacts strangely: she welcomes the criminal behaviour, and in fact becomes criminalised herself.
Éliette isn’t exactly a likeable protagonist, yet it’s easy to be fascinated by her. She will do anything to preserve her newfound amour, even turn a blind eye to incest, and to murder. As the consequences of her actions spin out of control and the bodies pile up, the book loses its earlier power. It becomes almost comic in a grand guignol manner. Still, this is a short, sharp shocker, laced with keen philosophical insight amid the blood and guts.
Seicho Matsumoto’s A Quiet Place (Bitter Lemon, £8.99, translated by Louise Heal Kawai) also gives us an ordinary person who turns nasty. Tsuneo Asai is a government official who hides a fierce ambition behind his bowing and scraping. When his wife dies of a heart attack in one of the ‘Love Hotel’ districts of Tokyo, he becomes obsessed first of all with discovering the reasons for her being there, and later on with uncovering the actual events surrounding her death. He fixates on one particular man as her supposed lover, and pursues him, and kills him in a fit of passion.It’s probably the most passionate moment of his life.
In her final years, Tsuneo’s wife became an accomplished writer of haikus, and there’s an element of that exquisite poetic form in the book, in the details that turn the story in new directions, and the tiniest mistakes that lead to tragic and unforeseen outcomes. It’s an enjoyable read until the final pages, which fizzle out somewhat. If only we could have followed our anti-hero a little further, into his final struggles. It’s easy to imagine the madness that would be revealed as his carefully constructed world caves in completely. The missing final line of the haiku tantalises.
It was a delight to read the first sentence of James Sallis’s Willnot (No Exit, £7.99): ‘We found the bodies two miles outside town, near the old gravel pit.’ At last, a traditional murder mystery! Sadly, it was not to be. Sallis is a proven master of noir, but Willnot is a frustrating novel. Our narrator is Lamar Hale, the town’s doctor, and his various medical cases take up most of our reading time. Meagre suspense is provided by the arrival of Bobby Lowndes, a soldier on the run, and the mysterious presence trying to kill him. But as the plot wanders about, so does the mind. Unforgivably, the cover blurb reveals the story’s one major incident, which actually takes place a few pages from the book’s end. I believe the publisher is trying to persuade us this is a crime novel. It isn’t. It’s a piece of fair to middling Americana.
The most intriguing character is Lamar’s late father, a writer of science fiction novels. For a moment I really thought the bodies in the pit would turn out to be part of one of these fantastical tales. Wishful thinking. In this town, such flights of fancy hardly ever leave the launch pad.
Rising from the neo-noir underground, we have Yuri Herrera with his new book The Transmigration of Bodies (& Other Stories, £8.99, tranlated by Lisa Dillman). An unnamed Mexican city is depicted as a dark, menacing plague zone, and the story’s protagonist — known only as the Redeemer — is one of the few people capable of negotiating between the various factions that rule the mosquito-clouded streets. Many citizens hide behind surgical masks, and aliases: Three Times Blonde, The Unruly, Dolphin, and so on. These are larger-than-life characters inhabiting a plot that involves two dead bodies and two rival criminal gangs. The Redeemer’s job is to deliver the two corpses back to their rightful families, a task fraught with danger (‘grimreapery’) for all concerned.
Barely 100 pages long, the book is more concerned with atmosphere than plot, with language as its true star. Herrera’s brilliantly surreal turns of phrase mirror the strangeness of the world: he knows that brutal everyday truths are best revealed through dreams. Towards the end, the Redeemer imagines himself to be ‘nothing but someone’s scar, nameless, no epitaph, just a line on the skin’. And yet this is one scar that tells a good story: blood-soaked, driven deep and expertly written.