I only packed four books in my suitcase when I left Paris in early July, for lack of space for more. They were Gene Wolfe’s An Evil Guest, Camilla Lackberg’s Hidden Child, Richard Ford’s A Piece of my Heart, and Niccolò Ammaniti’s La fête du siècle. I then bought Graham Greene’s A Gun for Sale in a nice bookshop near Bondi Junction in Sydney.
An Evil Guest is the second recent book by Gene Wolf I read in the past months, following Home Fires that I did not finish… They are both of a similar style, relying on 50’s witty hard-boiled dialogues à la Hammett and set in a vaguely futuristic setting. Just completely orthogonal to the involved and almost oniric former books by Gene Wolfe that I discovered a few years ago thanks to a colleague in Paris-Dauphine. Although I finished An Evil Guest, I see little appeal in it, except for the publisher’s bank account. As mentioned above, the style is rather poor, consisting almost uniquely in dialogues, and the plot is minimalist: a second-rate actress becomes suddenly irresistible and falls in love with an initialy-suspicious-but-eventually-redeemed rich guy, then looses it all at the end (this is not a spoiler, is it?!). Characters are shallow and either antipathic or idiotic. Not even a pleasant vacation read, end of the story. If I did not have to return it to my colleague, I would certainly have left An Evil Guest in the first book collection I met during my trip! (Home Fires was exactly of the same type and I am amazed at the highly positive reviews for those books…)
I bought The Hidden Child in Oxford, mostly because it was on sale and also because I was curious to see if this highly publicised Swedish author was worth the read. (A bit for the same reason I started reading Steig Larsson’s trilogy!) The Hidden Child is certainly a nice summer book and a wee more. Lackberg exploits the ambivalent history of Sweden during the Second World War: while some persons took part in a resistance movement, other engaged into an active collaboration with the Nazis. (Offering similarities with to what happened in France in this respect.) Although the protagonists of the novel were teenagers at the time, their whole life (and their children’s) was impacted by their attitude during the war. This is certainly the most appealing aspect of the book! In addition to this historical layer, the detective part unravels in a rather classical way: the resolution of the crime is very predictable and there are highly unrealistic aspects, from the way almost all characters are interconnected in one way or another, to the attitude of the young policeman’s family all over the book (him taking his baby daughter to a crime scene and her conducting her own enquiry on the side). A good book for a long plane ride but not much more, not really explaining its apparent popularity then… (I did purposely leave The Hidden Child in one of the places I rented during my Australian Tour!)
Among all Greene’s novels, I had managed to miss A Gun for Sale, which is one of his classic pre-war detective stories!!! The plot is both simple and complex, with a perfect depth in the psychological motivations of the characters that only Greene can attain. The central role in the novel is held by the young woman, who helps the criminal pursued by her fiancé out of pity, quite in line with Greene’s catholicism. While it is difficult to grasp the motivation for her acting so out-of-line, so despicable is the murderer and so witty a free spirit she is, the story unravelling around this apparent treason makes complete sense and raises the book to the level of a classical tragedy. The shortcomings of all the characters come out in a very bright light, none remains unscathed. There is for instance a bully student in the medical school that runs a gas mask exercise with desperate ruthlessness, until a mere look from the murderer reduces him to nothing for the rest of his life. The ordinators of the murder, pursued by the murderer for framing him with stolen money, are as weak and prone to fail as the other characters and end up pitifully. The only part that does not convince me is the “happy ending” of A Gun for Sale, which is not that common with Greene’s novels: take for instance the superbly cruel last page of Brighton Rock. Here, the return to “normality” and wedding prospects has a bitter-sweet quality that may be (maybe!) interpreted as a warning that nothing will be “normal” in the impending war…. (Or I am reading too much in the ending, given this reflection by the author on his work.)