Dan Katz reads “The Buenos Aires Quintet” by Manuel Vazquez Montalban and “Little Scarlet” by Walter Mosley
I seem to have been reading crime and noir endlessly, book after book, for years. That’s what it feels like — and God have I read some crap.
Villains from south London, investigators from Manchester, cops from Leeds. Even a half-wit from Nottingham (whose author — conspicuously unable to write well — adopts an old trick to give his character a certain melancholy and bleak depth: the man listens to jazz! Apparently liking jazz conveys all the above without the need to write words which express emotion, and traditional stuff like that…)
Of course the Americans seem to do it better. Lawrence Block is a great writer: his Matt Scudder books, and a large volume of short stories are well worth reading. And James Lee Burke, James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard.
But the endless, extreme violence reflects the current US. The nastiness for the sake of nastiness, the amorality of it all, grinds a reader down. (It’s interesting to compare James Lee Burke from the 1970s and today. Lay down my shield and sword from 1971 is about union busting and has a lot less violence).
But, amid it all, there are some reasons to go on breathing: a new Walter Mosley paperback is out, and The Buenos Aires Quintet is even better.
Mosley has several leading black men — Socrates Fortlow, Fearless Jones — but the first and the best is Easy Rawlins. A series of books trace Easy’s life from the late 1940s. Little Scarlet is set a few days after the Watts riots, in 1965. And the difficult line Easy has walked between standing up for himself and his friends, without risking a continual full confrontation with the white state, has given way. Relations between black and white people are in flux.
This is exactly where Mosley is best: where noir meets personal politics and social history. Mosley’s somewhere in the gap between ignoring politics and society, and writing an explicitly political book.
And then we have Manuel Vazquez Montalban’s The Buenos Aires Quintet — in a new paperback edition, from a dead author.
What makes this book all the more astonishing is that the author previously published one of the worst books I’ve ever read (Murder on the Central Committee). But this is great; and what makes it great is the weirdness of its people and the sadness of good noir.
The formerly political Pepe Carvalho — a puzzled man obsessed with food — goes to Buenos Aires to find a missing relative, keeping in touch with his sidekick, a strange car thief, to discuss recipes.
Pepe is reluctant to go, all he knows about Argentina is, “tango, Maradona, and the disappeared”. And as he gets nearer to finding his man, he gets a close look at the reality of Argentina’s past.