Sunday, February 18, 2018

South African Noir, MY NAME IS NATHAN LUCIUS, by Mark Winkler

Nothing is simple in Mark Winkler's crime fiction -- least of all the motivation of the protagonist. In MY NAME IS NATHAN LUCIUS (his "fourth" title but actually his second novel, originally titled Wasted), Winkler provides a setup that should be transparent: Nathan Lucius is telling his own story, in detail, including his emotions and his, umm, peculiar forms of unclean mind. We should know whether he committed any crimes, and why -- right?

Well, no. Not the way Winkler spins this very usual and gritty work of noir. Nathan Lucius, age 31, an ad salesman for a newspaper, has unusual filters for what's important to comment on, and what's not. Running, drinking, jerking off ("wanking" in British slang) -- those are his primary concerns. Almost accidentally, in his preferred life of days-all-the-same, he's made a friend, the owner of a secondhand shop. This owner, Madge, is dying of cancer, and soon we realize Madge and Nathan are considering how he might help her to end her life.

But just how twisted is Nathan's version of his possibly crime-leavened life going to get? It's tempting to say, "not twisted," because Nathan appears to narrate everything just as it happens. But check out this interlude, when he first is questioned about Madge's death, by Inspector Morris:
I'm expecting a tough Cockney from a BBC cop show. I suppose it's the name. Morris has a heavy Afrikans accent. It would be a mistake to associate the accent with stupidity. People have done that before. I'm not going to. The room is so small that he has to squeeze himself against the wall to get around the table. He sits opposite me. He thanks me for coming. I put my sad face one. I tell him the facts as I'd told them to Mrs du Toit.

"So you've known the deceased for ...?"

"Four or five years," I tell him. [...]

"Forgive me, I have to ask. Was there anything, ah, inappropriate about your relationship?"

"Goodness, no." I sound just like Madge.
Blurbs for the book in advance talked about its exploration of violence, trauma, social responsibility, memory, morality ... I would rather say it's a daring adventure with an unreliable and unlikable narrator who nevertheless turns us into his witnesses, for court and elsewhere, with a related crazy mix of horror, appalled laughter, and insistence on knowing what comes next. Don't read this unless you're ready for very, very dark (think Dave Zeltserman even more than Thomas Harris). But if you do pick it up, clear the schedule, because you'll need to finish it before you'll be able to do anything else.

And then, you'll want to wash your hands. Twice.

From Soho Crime (Soho Press) comes this unforgettable transplant from a distant continent, straight into our most unsettling postmodern unease.

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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