In October 1940, Warsaw's German occupiers ordered that Jews be rounded up and crammed into neighborhoods that took up only two percent of the city. T...moreIn October 1940, Warsaw's German occupiers ordered that Jews be rounded up and crammed into neighborhoods that took up only two percent of the city. This was the Warsaw Ghetto: Specially erected high walls, barbed wire and sadistic guards doomed Warsaw's Jews to grim and brutal ways that were only just beginning.
One of the doomed is an elderly Jew, Erik Cohen, once a prominent psychiatrist. Erik gets by but is already skin and bones. We know little about his former life, only that he was respected and took some comfort in that respect. Erik's young nephew, Adam, is one of Erik's few lights of hope. Adam has a sparkle about him and might just make it out of this hell.
Then Adam is murdered. It's a grisly killing that leaves the boy's corpse horribly disfigured and tossed onto barbwire just outside the ghetto. Erik's shock turns to rage, and he summons the grit to find the killer. The clues are few and cryptic and Erik will endanger friends and family on the way, which would seem more careless if they weren't already so damned.
The desperate hunt is on. Erik and his old friend Izzy even cross over secretly into regular Warsaw, a chase full of riddles and false friends that will lead just where it had to. This isn't standard historical crime fiction. The story surges between: Erik's pursuit of an untouchable and crafty killer who, in standard historical mystery style, also symbolizes the dark era; and Erik's longing for lives and loved ones lost and soon to be lost, the former pummeling Erik in storms of emotion and nightmare.
Erik Cohen had been an atheist and modern Jew, but the old Jewish ways loom even as they're being eradicated. At times the dead seem to come alive like Ibbur in the Jewish Kabbalah, decent souls not sure if they're alive or dead. The ciphers and anagrams of that tradition will also help Erik cover his tracks — and lead him to the killer.
The dire setting of The Warsaw Anagrams outdoes the mean streets of most any noir novel. Those inside slowly succumb to misery and oppression, cold and hunger, and those somehow alive survive as ghosts of their former selves. It's a grueling wasteland churning backwards to a primitive state where good can rarely find its reward. Everyone loses and the more cunning often win. The story evokes noir in the fierce and hopeless way Erik and others scrap and scheme to beat rigged odds, well knowing they're well screwed. They will finish off what they pursue not so much to survive but to honor their dead and plunge a jagged blade into the throat of all those who thrive on making them disappear.
Author Richard Zimler is from New York and lives and teaches in Portugal. Zimler's novels include the internationally bestselling The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Hunting Midnight, Guardian of the Dawn, and Seventh Gate. He's won numerous prizes for his historical fiction, and the reasons ring clear in The Warsaw Anagrams. The writing is intense. Zimler is able to pinpoint emotions and desires with dead accuracy. The beginning and some sections favor loose, introspective narrative over action and dialogue that show the reader the way, but these passages work with great effect to establish Erik's longing, agony and the harsh fate of too many.
Near the end, when Erik tells the man who will continue his quest for him, "Beware of men who see no mystery when they look in the mirror," you begin to know just what Erik means.
I enjoyed this read a while back more than I expected, and the fact that I'm adding my thoughts now is probably testament to its odd haunting power. A...moreI enjoyed this read a while back more than I expected, and the fact that I'm adding my thoughts now is probably testament to its odd haunting power. Actor Sterling Hayden, best known (to me) as Gen. Jack Ripper in Kubrick's classic Dr. Strangelove, put all he had into this memoir of his lifelong wanderings aboard various sea vessels he obtained at any and all cost whenever the world became too much for him.
Hayden never felt comfortable in his skin as a hunky actor, and some of the best passages come when he comments on the fast-paced world of Hollywood and mid-century America in general. Another great section follows his exploits during WW2 as an OSS agent named John Hamilton running guns to Yugoslav partisans, a bold and heroic effort he surprisingly plays down—and I would like to know more about. He doesn't always come off so well. He sold out friends who had dabbled in communist/socialist circles to the House Un-American Activities Committee, and later, defying a court order, basically absconded with his children on a sailing boat in one famously irresponsible incident. But Hayden owns up to all his flaws and to the society that formed him. Some brief passages are downright poetic. For me, this beats On the Road for its criticism of a culture of the sheep and the Man, a troubled cry from the dark side of 1950s America. (less)
If Patricia Highsmith wrote dystopian fiction but had more of a sense of humor, it might be something like The Miracle Inspector. The book opens in an...moreIf Patricia Highsmith wrote dystopian fiction but had more of a sense of humor, it might be something like The Miracle Inspector. The book opens in an England of the near future that's been partitioned and in decay. London proper seems to have the worst of it, walled off and Taliban-like in its social clampdown. Women can't leave the home. The Arts are off-limits. Men work meaningless bureaucratic jobs that only serve the faceless authority that keeps them all locked in, both socially and interpersonally. The book focuses on one couple, Lucas and Angela, who think they once loved each other but are really just strangers passing each other constantly. An aging and legendary underground poet, Jesmond, fuels their secret needs to escape to that sought-after heaven, Cornwall. They're all not especially likable, but they're always a little more so than those around them, chipping away at them. It works.
The saddest part might not be that they can't have what they want, but rather that they don't truly know what they'd want if they could have it.
I mention Patricia Highsmith because Smith deftly works in the dark urges and fears of Lucas, Angela and others in a way that only psychological mystery and espionage writers like Highsmith and Graham Greene do well. The story manages to remind of 1984, Brazil, Children of Men, The Road and other noirish dystopian tales yet manages to be original, partially through the dark and often subtle humor. Yes, I'm mixing films with books here, because I think this would make a good film script.
If I could give this 4.5 stars I would, but as we know we have to choose between 4s and 5s. I would have like to have had more setup and background about how England became this way, but that's also a product of me liking the story enough.
Private detective Kemal Kayankaya can’t help sticking his nose where things stink. In Jakob Arjouni’s tough and nonstop crime noir tale from 1987, fou...morePrivate detective Kemal Kayankaya can’t help sticking his nose where things stink. In Jakob Arjouni’s tough and nonstop crime noir tale from 1987, four so-called eco-terrorists in West Germany are accused of murdering the head of a Frankfurt chemical company whose products should, in a just world, get it accused of crimes of its own.
The four suspects had sabotaged the company’s chemical plant, but they deny murdering anyone. A fifth man was seen at the crime, yet no one in authority seems willing to find him. In a tight spot, the defendants’ lawyer hires Kayankaya to track down the missing fifth suspect.
If private detectives are outsiders in fiction, Kayankaya is doubly so. Born in Turkey but raised in West Germany, Kayankaya gets hit with ignorance, cruel insults and outright assault as he chips away at the case no one wants. In the 1960s, West Germany had invited Turks to come help the country rebuild and flourish, but now it doesn’t want to know about Turks in its midst. It even seems to resent them for it. If this was set in America, it would be (in a simplistic analogy) as if our hardboiled detective was black or Mexican and operating in a far less tolerant era.
Kayankaya can take the slurs and blows after a lifetime of both. He fires back with a sharp wit, yet it’s not only the dialogue that keeps us following our Turk PI. We aren’t told a lot about him so we learn a lot through how he acts and reacts. He’ll shout and insult back and go to the fist if need be; he’ll wear it on his sleeve but he’ll leave it on yours. To those with wealth, reputation and career to protect even when it’s a stranglehold, Kayankaya appears to be a lazy, uncaring problem child — and a dire threat. Yet he’s the only one who cares, in his way, and he’s willing to keep after the truth.
In this translation from Anselm Hollo, few words do a ton of work. This isn’t literary fiction disguised as crime noir. In one passage, Kayankaya fails to address a suspect named Schmidi as “Mister.”
Schmidi shoots back: “Mr. Schmidi. I don’t call you rat-Turk.”
Kayankaya: “So that’s what you want to get off your chest all this time?”
“You better leave while the going is good.”
“Yes, I might just give in to the urge to beat the name of that fifth guy out of you.”
Some of it may come through as clunky in translation, but it always moves the story along.
The eco-terrorism threat is a ruse used by the forces of complacency and corruption, Kayankaya learns. A sad and thorny love scandal holds the real crime. There are shades of Chinatown here, though without the imposing Noah Cross figure. The staid Establishment in the West German state of Hessia fills that role, arrogant and entitled and getting a little jumpy.
One passage hits at the futility of the little guy versus ruthless power — Kayankaya’s small-time dealer sidekick, Slibulsky, comments on the real possibility of getting killed for their efforts:
“And who would give a f*ck? Some little dealer from the railroad station, and a Turkish snooper. That doesn’t even rate a mention on the morning news. They’d just plow us under in a hurry. So you risk your life for something you believe is justice, and end up in the compost heap. What’s justice, anyway? It doesn’t exist, not today, not tomorrow. And you won’t bring it about, either. You’re doing the same scheiss-work as any cop ... you won’t change a thing about the fact that it’s always the same guys who do something, who get caught — not a thing, because the rules are set up that way.”
Supporting characters like Slibulsky and the grim Frankfurt settings are superbly drawn, and they deliver details that surprise. Who knew that arsenic was capable of improving one’s beauty in the right doses, even as it’s causing death?
I had few complaints. We know little about Kayankaya other than that he was born a Turk but raised by German parents. I wanted to know why and how he’s fallen so low. Usually I don’t need such background in a hardboiled tale, but Kayankaya’s unique background left me wanting to know. Also, the journalist Carla Reedermann seems underdeveloped, disappearing for much of the story.
Kayankaya doesn’t need her help in the end. He makes enough waves on his own, whether it’s in a sea of foul muck or too many liters of beer.
A longer version of this review ran originally in the blog Noir Journal.
I didn't know much about the Falklands War, and this provided a good overview of the conflict. I learned much. I didn't realize so many lost their liv...moreI didn't know much about the Falklands War, and this provided a good overview of the conflict. I learned much. I didn't realize so many lost their lives, and that Argentine agents attempted to hit a British ship in Gibraltar. Russell Phillips writes straightforward narratives that convey a lot of information concisely. You can trust their accuracy. As a historical fiction author looking for topics to research, I rely on articles such as these to point me in the right direction. I look forward to more. (less)
The Gallery was a successful first novel when it came out in 1947 and went unknown until recently when it was re-released. Author John Horne Burns, by...moreThe Gallery was a successful first novel when it came out in 1947 and went unknown until recently when it was re-released. Author John Horne Burns, by most accounts troubled and alcoholic, hit his peak with this work and died relatively young.
It's been touted as a WWII novel, but this is not a novel. The narrative doesn't have an overriding plot, and there's only one brief combat scene, which transpires more like a murder. The book is rather a series of character vignettes, of various soldiers and locals behind the lines in North Africa and near Naples, Italy. The author served there and knew his story.
The book gives great insight into the true mindset of the WWII era. You'll find no Greatest Generation-style acounts here. It's surprisingly dark. Most had little idea what they were fighting or suffering for. It delves deep in ways a combat novel could never do, except possibly in homefront scenes. The mindsets of the relatively coddled rear-line officer, the desperate and nearly starving local civilians, and the battle-scarred and doomed Joes on leave from the front line are vastly different if not in direct conflict. They're all there, men and women, officers and noncoms and grunts, the locals down and out or suddenly in clover, straight or gay, drunk and depressed, each trying to wrap their minds around the sick repercussions of World War and apply morals that have run dry. The author put all he had into this work. It's got great language and writing, and captures a sad and tragic time. (less)