Monday, February 09, 2015

Going Global: To Florence with Marco Vichi, DEATH IN SARDINIA; to Dublin with Louise Phillips, RED RIBBONS

Reading darker crime fiction lately? Here are two authors whose mysteries probe very different kinds of evil -- where each redeems the story in a very different way.

Louise Phillips is a significant award winner in Ireland, and Hachette Ireland recently brought her series to the United States. I started with RED RIBBONS, a forensic investigation featuring Dr. Kate Pearson -- she's a criminal profiler in Dublin, where there's plenty of skepticism about her craft and skills among the usual police investigative teams. But the discovery of a murdered child, carefully posed in her grave in ways that must have meaning to the murderer (why the braids and red ribbon? why the prayerful position), pulls Kate into a race-the-clock partnership with Detective Inspector O'Connor and his team. It's clear the killer's likely to strike again, and also pretty obvious that the timing of the next murder may be a lot faster than the investigation can move.

Phillips is deft and sure with pace, suspense, and twists. She lays out two other important narratives: one, the mind of the killer -- at least as skillful as the investigators, and in the lead on this perverse dance; and the other, the confusion of Ellie Brady a woman who's spent years in a psychiatric hospital, numbed with medication, after declaring she'd killed her own daughter. As the strands pull closer to each other, the risk for the probing profiler takes on menace toward her and her family.

RED RIBBONS could take place in most locations where urban landscape meets preserved wilder lands, and the main "feel" of Ireland here is the structure of police responsibilities, as well as a throbbing sense of the power of religious imagery. Even when the crime is solved, there's no recovery from damage done. But (unlike Stuart Neville's books, for instance) it's not especially steeped in Irish history.

In that sense, it's very different from Marco Vichi's series.

DEATH IN SARDINIA is the third in Vichi's Inspector Bordelli series, which is gradually making its way here via release in English in the UK, then in America, thanks to Pegasus Crime - but the series is originally in Italian. This title opens in the December holiday season of 1965, just 20 years from the end of World War II. Through Bordelli, a lonely bachelor unable to quite kick the cigarette habit, or the habit of socializing with a former prostitute, the war is an unforgettable part of his own life. His city of Florence is tinged with the sorrow, loss, and anger that the war's left behind. And although the crime he's investigating -- the murder of a loan shark who seems to have few pleasant qualities -- is clearly personal and related to some recent pressure on a victim-turned-killer, Bordelli keeps coming across threads that lead back to the war: a scandalous photo from a concentration camp, for instance.

Meanwhile he's missing one of his officers, the young police office Piras, who's recovering from a gunshot wound at his parents' home in Sardinia. When Piras realizes that a death in the village community is also murder, for Inspector Bordelli there is significant relief in being able to help the younger man's investigation move quickly forward.

The pace and the dolor of midlife frustrations for Inspector Bordelli echo Henning Mankell's Wallender series -- but with some lovely interludes, like the visits Bordelli pays to the hospital room of a dying colleague, to play cards with the frail Baragli and pretend death's not approaching, while also discussing the case:
"It was probably one of his debtors that did it," Baragli muttered with a wheezy voice.

"That's exactly where I'll begin."

"You've got your work cut out for you, if there are as many as you say."

... "I also found some photographs of a very young girl hidden behind a picture frame on the wall. I've got some men looking for her," said Bordelli, to let him feel part of the investigation. And indeed the sergeant seemed pleased.
Even this small sample reveals the slightly stilted language of the translation, which I suspect reflects partly the original and partly the deliberately slow uncovering of the everyday evils that Bordelli is confronting. There were moments when I felt like I was reading a Russian novel -- one memorable paragraph lasted for two pages! -- but the warmth with which Vichi's protagonists interact with their colleagues and friends kept me reading. It's good to savor this kind of portrait of teamwork and to see the author letting it gently reflect the bonds that soldiers in a long war also form.

I enjoyed DEATH IN SARDINIA, and I'll look for more Vichi crime fiction ... to read when I can make time to linger with the language and characters. Winter turned out to be a good time to read this one.

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