TARGET IN THE NIGHT by Ricardo Piglia (Translated by Sergio Waisman)

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Target in the Night
(Emilio Renzi #2)
By Ricardo Piglia
(Translated from Blanco nocturno by Sergio Waisman)
Deep Vellum Publishing — October 2015
ISBN 9781941920169 — 288 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


As unique a piece of crime/detective fiction that one will likely come across, Target in the Night is an acknowledged literary masterpiece, winner of the 2011 Premio internacional de novela Rómulo Gallegos and other prestigious prizes for Spanish language literature. In the few years since its translation into English by Deep Vellum Press, it has gotten even further positive reviews in multiple outlets. However, I found the novel to be a nigh impenetrable puzzle that I could never quite capture in the cross-hairs of my focus or enjoyment.
Set in a small, insular Argentinian town, the novel begins when Puerto Rican visitor Tony Durán is found murdered in his hotel room after flamboyantly arriving in town and sleeping with the twin Belladonna sisters, members of a powerful family that gained its wealth in the crooked industry of horse racing. Authorities make an arrest, but Police Inspector Croce remains unsatisfied, convinced there is something buried and committed to discover the truth behind Durán’s murder, no matter the cost. Emilio Renzi, a reporter who appears as a character in other novels by Piglia joins Croce in the investigation, and in this way Renzi serves as the point-of-view narrator of events, recounting them years after their completion in a nonlinear pattern.
While the plot of Target in the Night seems rather straight-forward and conventional for a crime thriller, it’s style is decidedly the opposite, from the aforementioned nonlinear structure to an unconventional focus away from details of the crime, or its resolution, themselves to a postmodern meditation on the politics of an intricate web of characters, on seeking interpretations of truth in a corrupt society where nebulous, authoritarian forces spin individuals into intractable realities.

There is nothing inherently problematic with this unconventional approach. Were I to have read up a bit more on the novel prior to my starting reading, it may have lessened my frustrations with finding its rhythm, because all my expectations of a ‘detective novel’ would have been shed. But even so there remain some significant potential impediments for readers. One is an ignorance of its historical context. Target in the Night is rife with not just abstract philosophical strains, but also with specific metaphor and commentary on Argentinian political unrest. The Spanish language here may be translated with fidelity, but I have no basis for making the full cultural connections the novel paints. The slow paced building of Piglia’s ideas through novel combined with a cold, almost emotionally distant personality of his characters exacerbates this inability to connect. Given the large number of eccentricities that Piglia gives his characters, I was surprised how hard it became for me to get into them, and the text.

Piglia, who sadly passed away in January of last year achieves some staggeringly impressive writing, that while not easily approachable is evocative and at times poetic. Despite that, this particular novel simply did not work for me. Readers who appreciate intellectual literature still might want to check Target in the Night out, particularly if more familiar with the history of Argentina than I. The mystery and detective aspects of the novel provide an adequate backdrop of plot for Piglia’s craft, just don’t expect that plot to become more than a means to an end.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

DIVIDEND ON DEATH, by Brett Halliday

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Dividend on Death
(Mike Shayne #1)
By Brett Halliday
Open Road Media – 16th June 2015
(First published 1939)
ISBN 9781504012737 – 218 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


This is the first of the Miami-set Mike Shayne noir novels, written by Davis Dresser under the pseudonym Brett Halliday. The style of the novel will be familiar to anyone who has read pulp crime or seen film noir. There is a hard-boiled private investigator, murders, a beautiful woman in distress, thugs, and dangerous twists and turns for the hero.
A young woman named Phyllis Brighton shows up in PI Mike Shayne’s apartment/office in psychological distress. Both her doctor and her new step-father believe that she has a mental complex that could lead her to unconsciously harm – even kill – her mother. No sooner does she leave with Shayne’s guarantee that he will work for her to prevent her from killing her mother than the step-father also shows up at the door to hire Shayne to protect his wife from Phyllis. Two payments for one job, what could be better? But before Shayne can even start the job(s), he finds Phyllis covered in blood and her mother lying dead with a knife in the back.
Dividend on Death is primarily interesting as a curiosity from its age and as the first Mike Shayne novel. The psychological, medical aspects of the story are influenced from the theories of the late 1930s, and are nice to see played out here. In a way the novel falls into the ‘mad scientist’ genre perhaps as equally as the crime fiction one. So readers interested in that historical perspective, or the role of psychology in fiction, could find something of great interest here. I wasn’t previously familiar with the character of Shayne. Given that the character is one of the giants of the field (featured in novels to the late ’70s and appearing in radio, TV, and film) some readers might consider the start of the series worth checking out.
As a pulp crime novel, however, Dividend on Death isn’t anything exceptional; the character of Shayne doesn’t have any personality traits that make him particularly compelling compared to other well known characters of that age or of more recent decades. (Perhaps the character is fleshed out and develops more unique personality in later books?). The story and the writing in this are neither superb nor poor for the genre. Dividend on Death in most respects is just average: a decently entertaining read.
Compared to some pulp of the era and beyond this novel doesn’t focus on a femme fatale relation or steamy scenes, instead featuring the criminal action and Shayne’s attempts to find the truth and ‘capture’ those responsible. Fans of the genre who favor action and punching over the sexploitationesque elements in crime fiction may then appreciate this.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

300,000,000, by Blake Butler

300,000,000, by Blake Butler
Publisher: Harper Perennial
ISBN: 0062271857
456 pages, hardcover
Published: 14th October 2014
Source: Goodreads’ First-reads

Written in a manic stream-of-consciousness flow as diary entries from minds fractured and deranged, 3000,000,000 is at times poetic and profound, vulgar with visceral gore, illuminating, and impenetrable. The main characters are Gretch Gravey, a psychopathic mass murderer/cult leader, and Detective E.N. Flood, the officer tasked with combing over Garvey’s rambling writings and testimonies to penetrate the meaning behind his horrific crimes.
As Flood struggles to understand the insanity of Gravey and his alter-egos his colleagues (and the reader) begins to witness Flood’s own life and mind descend into a similar vortex of madness where rational sentences devolve into surreal images of raw contrasting emotions. Reality and imagination in the minds of the protagonists blur, as do the lines between the plot and the social commentary of 300,000,000 on the fabric of America.
I try to avoid statements such as this, but this novel if any will hold to that idea that most people will either love or hate Butler’s novel. The near incomprehensibility of much of the text, read more for the poetry, frantic cadence, and general feeling of unease that it elicits will not be for everyone. At times I found it fascinating, but as the novel wore on I became increasingly bored and uninterested, dulled to the violence and disturbing heart of it all, which perhaps is an effect and commentary Butler desired to convey to some degree.
Just as Flood becomes affected by the crazed mind of Gravey, so too does the reader. The effect is chilling. In moments where I spent time focused on the novel, and in the dark quiet of the night, my mind tried to construct some logic around the surreal, and began to feel a growing sense of paranoia and discomfort. Butler succeeds well at making this truly creepy for the reader able to immerse into the pages of 300,000,000, particularly in the start of the book. I also appreciated how the horrific depravity and bloodbath behind the minimal plot of the novel seems at times supernatural in nature, yet also reads like that would be a cop-out, denying the utter evil capable by humanity itself.
Eventually, however, the novelty of that experience became old, the effects dulled. After a certain number of times reading dehumanizing words like ‘flesh’ and ‘meat’ to describe people loses its effect. The fragmentation of characters and the unreliability of who is ‘real’ and who is a fragment of Flood’s imagination start to become repetitive and the social commentary on America grows a bit too literal perhaps. A little over halfway through the novel I was ready for it to end. The remainder just reinforced responses I’d already had and there isn’t enough of a ‘plot’ here to really make the latter portions of the thick novel fulfilling from the angle of story.
Readers who really enjoy surreal, bizarro fiction will find this worth checking out, but this is certainly not for those who want a more traditional kind of novel or those put off by disturbing horrors. While I remained welcome to it, the experimental nature of the novel wore thin on me. Finally finishing it I felt far more displeased and unsatisfied than I feel now with the passage of some time. Butler’s 300,000,000 is certainly unforgettable.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

Déjà Vu, by Ian Hocking

Déjà Vu, by Ian Hocking
(The Saskia Brandt Series #1)
Publisher: Unsung Stories
ISBN: 9781907389221
312 pages, eBook
Published: 30th June 2014
(Originally Published 2005)
Source: NetGalley

 It is the near future. European detective Saskia Brandt arrives with a foggy mind, despite a vacation, back into her office where she discovers the corpse of her receptionist. With all evidence pointing to her as the killer, Saskia is given mere hours to find a way to clear her name. This seemingly impossible task opens a door of revelation to Saskia, indicating that her identity, purpose, and past may not be what she now believes.
In the meantime, academic scientist David Proctor receives a strange visiter and message from his inventor daughter drawing him back to a research site where his wife died decades prior in a bizarre explosion. Accused of that explosion, but having no memory of it, Brandt travels in flight from European agents, including Saskia.
Shrouded in uncertain identity and memory, the pasts of Saskia and David mix together with their present and future in Déjà Vu, a self-described technothriller that mashes up science fiction and crime thriller genre tropes.
The opening chapters of the novel caught my attention, and Saskia Brandt and her predicament in this book regarding her identity and uncertain past hold a great deal of potential. The shift in narrative to Proctor was therefore a bit jarring, for the remainder of the novel remained on this protagonist. This is especially unfortunate because he isn’t a particularly fascinating or likable character. Also it ends up negating the potential of Saskia, who the series is named after. The female protagonist ends up never having any self-definition. Instead she remains something created and manipulated, within the story as much as by the writer. By the time she returns to the novel after the chapters of focus on David, her purpose becomes fully tied to David’s, and there she basically remains.
Beyond disappointing with the wasted potential of a strong female character, Déjà Vu, doesn’t find any other way to significantly impress either. It is not a bad novel; it’s just rather ordinary. Nothing in the plot is particularly novel in terms of technology or twist. The mystery of how the various plot strands come together between past and future of course involves time travel, again not something new to science fiction. Here though time travel is kept to strict rules of causality, so that if something happened in the past, it will happen in the future. No exception.
So, if you try to shoot Hitler to prevent him from rising to power, it won’t happen. The gun will jam. The bullet will fly off at a ninety-degree angle and hit a wall instead. Etc. This ends up effectively making a deus ex machina situation where the plot advances simply because that is how the past was written – quite literally here, by the author.
There are concepts within Déjà Vu that while done in science fiction plenty of times, could be handled anew in a fresh significant way. The start of Saskia’s story had me excited that this might be the case, but unfortunately that isn’t what the novel became. Again, Déjà Vu isn’t terrible and there are nuggets of creative quality here, that even writer Ian Watson gave it praise. But with a generic plot and characters that never became captivating or profound the work just comes across as flat.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Return of the Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett

Return of the Thin Man,
by Dashiell Hammett
Publisher: Mysterious Press
ISBN: 080212156X
256 pages, paperback
Published October 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

The “Thin Man” movies are among my favorite, and I can always go for a good film noir, but I haven’t yet read Dashiell Hammett, the writer responsible for so many of the classic characters and styles of these movies. It was a pleasure to finally read some of his work, though when it says “novella” it really does mean the ” “.

The two stories here are really informal scripts, written in a distinctive simple style intended for film production, in this case what became the movies “After the Thin Man” and “Another Thin Man”. The eventual films produced (that you should see if you haven’t) are not far removed from these treatments by Hammett. The witty dialogue was left largely intact in the screen version and surprisingly few details of the plot were taken out or altered.

As such, reading these is just as fun as watching the movies. So, if you are a fan of “The Thin Man” series and are open to experiencing them in a slightly different version in a different medium, then I’d highly recommend reading these. Similarly, if you haven’t seen the films but like crime mysteries and good humor and wit, then these will be entertaining stories to read, particularly the first, which is a bit more original than the second ‘novella’, which is largely a re-working of another Hammett story.

If you are familiar with the movies inside and out, then I’m not sure how much will be gained from reading these, other than that experience through a different form or getting to note the deviations from the final film product where they occur. It is interesting to note that those in control of enforcing the Production Code of the day were just as arbitrary and illogical as the MPAA today.

Three Stars out of Five