The Burning Gates by Parker Bilal published by Bloomsbury
The Whites by Harry Brandt published by Bloomsbury UK, Henry Holt US
The Exit by Helen FitzGerald published by Faber
Some of the most repellent real crimes have been committed by couples, who have both egged each other on and legitimated each other’s depravity. Similar psychological mechanisms operate in larger groups, which is how corruption grows, tax-evasion blossoms, and torture comes to seem a reasonable means of protecting the interests of a particular society. Courage is needed by anyone who stands up to the group, risking not only physical attack but also emotional blackmail from the rest of the family, tribe, party, or regime. This month’s crime fiction explores the phenomenon in several alarming manifestations.
Sara Moliner’s The Whispering City offers a portrait of Spain under General Franco, whose fascist government brutally suppressed dissent and allowed all kinds of violence and cruelty in its own protection. Set in Barcelona in 1952, the novel features Ana Martí Noguer. She is the daughter of a famous, now blacklisted, journalist and is trying to follow her father into a world that does not readily admit women. The most she has been allowed to do is write up fashion notes and cover society events. Her struggles at work and with her traditional mother’s determination to make her behave as a conventional good daughter are as nothing to the battle she takes on when her boss sends her to cover a police investigation in the place of the paper’s regular crime reporter.
The inadequacies of the police investigation and her own rebellious instincts lead her to uncover clues and suspects the authorities have not bothered to find, with the help of two cousins: one, Beatriz, is an academic who dreams of escaping the appalling regime to a job in Oxford; the other, Pablo, an agreeable young lawyer under threat from his own employers.
This is an intelligent and absorbing novel, in which the portrait of the regime is at least as important as the mystery. The authors writing as ‘Sara Moliner’ are in fact two academics, Rosa Ribas and Sabine Hofman, which perhaps explains why Beatriz is such an effective character. The translation by Mara Faye Lethem is occasionally a little wooden, which merely underlines the distance between modern democracy and the fascism of sixty years ago, but it also includes an uneasy mixture of Americanisms (a rookie journalist; a two-bit lawyer) and unconvincingly archaic British slang. A maid, who sometimes addresses her employer as ‘ma’am’, also refers to her as ‘the missus’, when I think she would have thought of her as ‘the mistress’ and called her ‘mum’. Ana is once described as having ‘been running, and a lock of her hair had slipped out, which she’d tucked pell-mell behind her ear.’
Parker Bilal also looks back in The Burning Gates, his latest novel about private investigator Makana, but only as far as 2004, just after the Iraq War. Makana is a wonderful character, whose clever gentleness suffuses the whole novel. Great violence occurs, and Bilal doesn’t shirk describing it, but he never wallows and always makes clear that Makana’s mission, whatever his current client may actually want, is the restoration of civilised decency between human beings. Bilal is even-handed in his portrayal of all sides in the region’s conflicts. At the start of the novel, with Makana in Cairo on his way to an art exhibition put on for the very rich, he describes the atmosphere:
‘Right now it was a city preoccupied with war. Ever since the invasion of Iraq...The occupation of another Arab country by a Western power, a Christian one at that, put everyone ill at ease. The government did its best to reflect the common sentiment...Few really believed this was any more than amateur theatrics to keep the people at bay while not upsetting the Americans.’
Much later, an American character talks of his combatant son: ‘He said his sergeant told him not think of all that negative stuff, how the fat cats in Washington were turning this war to their own profit, how they were getting rich on the blood of young men like himself and his buddies.’
When the American doesn’t remember the significance of one of Makana’s compatriots, he explains: ‘She has a young son by our people back home. She was raped and tortured.’ No one group comes unaccused out of this beautifully written and engaging novel.
A smaller group is indicted in Harry Brandt’s The Whites. Brandt is the pseudonym of Richard Prior, whose Clockers brought a violent young gang leader to sympathetic life in 1992. This time he focuses on police officers, who often spend a large part of their careers chasing uncatchable criminals, in much the same way that Captain Ahab pursued Moby Dick. Brandt’s flawed hero is Billy Graves, condemned to the family-destroying night shift because of his accidental shooting of a 10-year-old boy. Billy’s journey through the criminal underworld of New York and its police enemies is full of coincidence and conflict in a way that seems absolutely convincing. Clockers was wonderful but took a lot of close reading to interpret the language. The Whites is much easier to understand but follows Clockers in its demonstration that vulnerability doesn’t belong only to the good or violent disorder to the bad.
Helen FitzGerald brings the danger of group-think down to an even smaller scale in her chilling novel The Exit. She gives us Catherine, the 23-year-old angry daughter of a control-freak single mother. The two of them have to negotiate the tricky ground between love and resentment, as any mother and daughter must. Mum wants Cat to get a job and pay off her credit-card debts and refrain from hanging-out with her unsuitable friends. Cat wants to remain a free spirit, making love where she chooses and ingesting any appealing substance, whether it’s legal or not. Eventually Cat goes to work at the Dear Green Care Home. Her essential nature is good and loving, and you can’t help sympathizing with her irritation with her mother, who has risen to dizzy heights in the charitable sector and who leaves her notes, always incorporating the same minatory sentence: ‘This, Catherine, is something I would like you to do from now on.’
In the care home, Cat comes to know Rose, whose mind swithers between her current life and the trauma she suffered seventy years ago, at the age of ten. Their interaction displays the difficulties of paying proper attention to anyone suffering from dementia. Rose is often confused, sometimes aggressive and even dangerous, yet quite capable of accurate perception of shocking behaviour. Slowly Cat comes to understand what Rose has seen, just as her relationship with her mother is put under new and dreadful strain. What Cat learns so disturbed me that I had to stop reading for a while. Charmingly and wittily written, this novel has a more shocking effect than any number of psychotic serial-killer gore-fests.
In each of these novels brave individuals dare to stand up to the corrupt and corrupting powers they encounter. Theirs are fights we should all join.