Reviews of: Lauren Beukes, Broken Monsters; Lynn Kostoff, Words to Die For; and Paul Johnston, The Black Life
The noir thriller has proven itself capable of powerfully depicting the breakdown of society and the human consequences of political evils, lies and betrayals. Contemporary urban disintegration, violence and economic collapse are at the heart of Lauren Beukes’ complex novel, Broken Monsters. Equally fascinating – and equally relevant to the political experiences of our own time – are two pieces of historical noir, both of which anatomise the treacherous political decisions, the crimes, guilts and corrosive allegiances of earlier eras. Lynn Kostoff’s Words to Die For, set in the deregulated corporate world of the Reagan era, plays out at an individual level its compromises and cynical deceptions; Paul Johnston’s The Black Life, which partly takes place in modern-day Greece, also encompasses the horrors of Nazism and the holocaust. All three novels stand out in my recent reading and exemplify the best qualities of the outward-looking crime story, which, as Andrew Pepper argues (Unwilling Executioner, forthcoming from OUP), “remains the most politically-minded of all the literary genres.”
Our May 2015 reviews are part of a new Editor’s Choice feature – a selection of some of the best crime novels published during the last two years.
Lauren Beukes, Broken Monsters, Mulholland Books (July 2014)
Broken Monsters is a beautifully written novel, with a taut, compelling plot that is both terrifying and ambitious. It is in part a dark and suspenseful narrative of the investigation of a series of bizarre murders, and in part a dream-like meditation on the people whose fates are bound up with the calamities befalling a disintegrating twenty-first century city. One of Beukes’ characters reflects, “pulling under the corridor bridge of the Packard Plant: over two miles of broken-down factory. ‘The number one Death-of-America pilgrimage destination’… The sprawling waste of it. Broken bricks and concrete pillars holding up the sky.”
Detroit, with its catastrophic economic failure, its declining population and abandoned buildings, is a city so broken that all of the old structures and borders seem to be dissolving, losing their meaning: “There are places that are borders. Where something was but isn’t any more, and other things can surface.” The murders investigated begin with a teenage African American boy, posed in death in a foetal position with the legs of a deer curled where his lower body should be. Everyone is “trying to figure out what it all means” – not just what the murders mean, but what the misshapen, devastated cityscape itself might mean.
The corpse of Detroit, which seems to elude rational explanation, is home to a serial killer who dreams that his violent creations will open a door to another world: you can feel “the hope and despair crackling through like static”. Beukes’ novel moves through criminal investigation towards suggestions of supernatural terror. When reality becomes unbelievable, conventional mystery and suspense give way to something else, to hallucinatory horrors that are beyond the reach of procedural investigation.
Lynn Kostoff Words to Die For, New Pulp Press (December 2014)
Words to Die For is a quintessentially noir narrative – a tense, gripping portrait of a tortured protagonist trapped in a role he can’t escape. Raymond Locke is a fixer, a man who is “disconcertingly good” at his job of making problems disappear for the clients of the PR firm Public Domain. Driven by financial need and family commitments, he stays at his job, starting and ending each day “by courting the equivalent of temporary moral amnesia”.
Kostoff’s novel is set in 1986, during Reagan’s second term, at the time of the Iran-Contra affair. He includes a glancing reference to Dan Rather on the evening news, explaining to bemused viewers the “welter of competing narratives full of gaps, coincidences, mistakes, misjudgments and cover-ups…” Raymond’s damage control exercise is on a smaller scale, but the deviousness and dishonesty required are not dissimilar. A ten-year old girl lies in a coma because of tainted fast food chicken produced by the poultry empire Happy Farms, and Raymond’s task is to transform the public persona of its owner, a “megalomaniacal, pompous, tight-fisted, opinionated, selfish little prick,” into a “salt-of-the-earth, generous, God-fearing, socially-concerned” paragon; it’s to “bury or sidetrack anything damaging.”
The contamination of the food chain is part of a world in which political and corporate duplicity has poisoned the entire chain of human interactions, and Kostoff compellingly takes us into the mind of a man who both manipulates and is threatened by this world of lies. With immense skill, he makes us care deeply about Raymond’s fate while at the same time seeing his life and his compromises as symptomatic of deep-seated political malaise. An associate protests that “There are too many days when I don’t want to live with myself.” “Welcome to 1986, Larry,” Raymond replies.
Paul Johnston, The Black Life – a Novel of Jewish Collaborators in the Holocaust, Creme de la Crime (August 2013)
The Black Life is a fast-paced and harrowing novel. Johnston’s riveting narrative is in part a continuation of the Alex Mavros detective stories and in part an unflinching confrontation with the political evils of Nazi Germany and the unimaginable personal suffering and humiliation they caused. By Johnston’s own account, “Writing The Black Life was such an arduous experience that I find it difficult to talk about.”
The novel brings together two timelines in alternating chapters. Mavros takes a case that involves finding someone called Aron Samuel – a man who is is thought to have died in Auschwitz but who has now reportedly been seen in Thessaloniki. As readers, we know that Aron survived because we have his own narrative, a story that confronts us with the appalling choices made by a Jewish survivor of the death camps and asks us to consider not only what a man might do to preserve life but how he might exact revenge for everything suffered by himself and his people: “Jewish monster,” Aron writes. “The words meant nothing to me. They were men, I was a man, and we each had to make choices. I chose to survive and become an avenger.” Just as Aron’s vengeance is resolutely sustained in the decades following the war, so Nazi violence continues to walk abroad. Part of what Mavros uncovers in his investigations are the underlying realities of the Greek political scene: “The genesis of The Black Life,” Johnston says, “really lies in contemporary Greece, where an extreme far-right populist party, Golden Dawn, has come to the fore. Many view them as neo-Nazis, although they now deny their past open allegiance to Hitler and his cronies.”
The Black Life is one of the most darkly noir pieces of crime fiction I have read – a tense, chilling novel, political in the most serious sense. Johnston makes it impossible for the reader to look away from some of the most horrific events of European history, or to respond with simple moralising to his vision of the irreparable individual damage inflicted by the political crimes of the 20th century.