latest bitter lemon

THE MEASURE OF TIME

GIANRICO CAROFIGLIO

BITTER LEMON PRESS

£8.99

The title of the latest book by Gianrico Carofiglio published by Bitter Lemon Press provides more than a clue to its contents.  ‘The Measure of Time’ has two stories rather than plots.   Rather than dovetail the two stories in the way that thriller writers feel obliged, Carofiglio describes how the time that has elapsed between the events has affected the two main characters.  The climax of the book is a detailed and authentic account of a trial in which the accused might be innocent or might not.   A trial itself is an examination of the past and an organised presentation of memories.  But painstaking legal procedure only creates confusion and doubt. ‘The Measure Of Time’ ends in a satisfying manner that is loaded with irony and moral complexity.  Truth exists but it not only depends on events that occurred before those examined in the trial, it is discovered by lawyer Guido Guerrieri outside the courtroom.   The obvious comparison to ‘The Measure Of Time’ is the cynical Otto Preminger classic ‘Anatomy Of A Murder’ which was based on a book by Michigan Supreme Court Justice, John D. Voelker.  Carofiglio also has professional pedigree and he utilises his legal expertise.   Carofiglio  worked as a prosecutor specialising in organised crime.

‘The Measure Of Time’ is unusual in that apart from the possibly innocent man in the dock, someone who has already spent some time in jail, there is no one whose existence is threatened within the tale.  The achievement of Carofiglio is to create suspense without adding formulaic dread.  Before the final court scene the book is leisurely rather than slow burn.  Lawyer Guerrieri is a fan of ‘Tristram Shandy’ by Laurence Sterne, and it has left a legacy.  There are plenty of digressions in ‘The Measure Of Time’.   They exist, though, as invitations into the memories and thoughts of lawyer Guido Guerrieri.  Losing the battle against a world that denies the hope of youth, the characters in ‘The Measure Of Time’ evoke the unsatisfied souls that exist in the novels of the Italian existentialist Alberto Moravia.  Inevitably there are the odd moments when the digressions become whimsy.  Nothing offends but in his next tale Guerrieri should abandon the habit of talking to his punch bag.  There is also a misquote by one of the characters from the Scott Fitzgerald essay ‘The Crack Up’ but perhaps something was lost in translation when it reached Italy.

The verdict that the appeal lawyer Guerrieri has to overturn is a response to a crime that is not complex but that simplicity adds to the appeal of ‘The Measure Of Time’.   Initially it appears that Guerrieri has little to examine and expose but the need to find possible alternatives to the obvious adds to the suspense.  Author Gianrico Carofiglio is never tempted by the melodramatic.  ‘The Measure Of Time’ is a fine, subtle and satisfying read.  Much of the book consists of courtroom drama but that should not deter crime fiction fans used to bullets and hard heroes.  For once the drama and excitement is rooted in the routine.

Howard Jackson

THE FOREIGN GIRLS

SERGIO OLGUÍN

BITTER LEMON PRESS

£8.99

In its initial fifty pages the novel ‘The Foreign Girls’ creates an Argentinean alternative to the Mexican road movie ‘Y Tu Mamá También’ except the tryst this time consists of three women.  As in the movie, we meet three characters enjoying their emancipated freedom and indulging in some explicit sex.  Male author Sergio Olguín writes about lesbian lovemaking with confidence.  What that says about his capacity for research I would not know.  Murders, though, soon interrupt the fun, and readers are taken inside a complex and hefty crime novel.  Veronica Rosenthal is the investigative journalist and the independent minded hero of the book.  This is a return appearance for Veronica.  Her debut was in a novel called ‘The Fragility of Bodies’.  Author Sergio Olguín has written several successful novels and is also a scriptwriter.  Despite the busy schedule of Olguin the hero Veronica is likely to return.  There will be a demand.

There is much in ‘The Foreign Girls’ to appeal to fans of crime fiction.  The plot is sturdy, and the unusual structure permits both in-depth characterisation and detailed descriptions of Argentinean society.  The detail is not sparse and sometimes excessive but is justified. These are people whose lives are defined by what they buy and consume.  The dialogue in ‘The Foreign Girls’ can also be mechanical but the characters, the plot, surprises and bold tricks ensure that the book is a page turner.  The vicious murders are condemned, as are the corrupt and powerful that have no real interest in justice.   All, including Veronica, though, are shaped by living in a society that has a dark past that persists through unacknowledged secrets and guilt.  Inevitably, the murder and rape of two women overlaps into the previous excesses of authority.  Apart from the vicious murderers all the characters are given understanding rather than sympathy.  Yet within a brutal tale there is still scope for the poignant story of Melchi, a young maid with no prospects.   And we do root for Veronica.

How ordinary lives run parallel to the machinations of the powerful is a feature of both Argentinean literary fiction and cinema.  ‘The Foreign Girls’ is no exception and it has the same concerns.   For once, though, the events do not take place in Buenos Aires.   The plot and the female hero move between San Miguel de Tucaman, the state capital of the Tucaman province, and the small towns in the north east of Argentina.  Throughout the book Veronica mixes business with relaxation but what we realise is that the heavy hand of the powerful intrudes even in what should be simple pleasures.  In view of its history no one can claim innocence in Argentina.  And amongst those with ambitions for a quiet life surprising characters become obliged to carry arms.

For those with an interest in Argentina, ‘The Foreign Girls’ is an essential read.  I am a little biased because I have travelled the geographical route that Veronica explores.  ‘The Foreign Girls’ not only brought back memories, it felt authentic.  All that and a decent mystery was too hard to resist.

Howard Jackson

CROCODILE TEARS

MERCEDES ROSENDE

BITTER LEMON PRESS

£8.99

The title makes sense.  Compassion in all of the characters of Crocodile Tears is limited to a self-pity shaped by an exaggerated sense of entitlement.  The tale in the book has been compared to that in the movie Fargo.  The comparison also makes sense because, like the movie, much of Crocodile Tears consists of black farce created by chaotic and amoral personalities completely unaware of the law of unintended consequences.  But there is nothing in Fargo or anything else for that matter that compares to the stunning armed robbery set piece that dominates the second half of Crocodile Tears.  That alone makes Crocodile Tears an essential and delightful read.  Indeed it probably justifies a special trip to South America.  Most readers, having followed the armed robbers and police around the streets of Montevideo, will have the urge to remap the events and street corners where all the action takes place.

Crocodile Tears glories in crazy coincidences, and their purpose is to support an intricate farce that is constructed as well as anything French playwrights constructed in their heyday.  For those of a bleak disposition, and for those who write farces, life can either be regarded as sad or pathetic.  Before the robbery of the armed vehicle the characters vary between the two.  One of the key characters is a sad or pathetic peeping tom.  But as in the Patricia Highsmith novel The Cry Of The Owl this peeping tom is a lot more complicated than we imagine.  Patricia Highsmith may have understood the distinction between what is sad or pathetic but even she would have baulked at the madness that occurs in the armed vehicle robbery.

Mercedes Rosende is a talented and confident writer and in the first half of Crocodile Tears she pushes literary invention to include detail beyond what is expected of genre fiction in Britain.  The book, though, never stops being a page turner, and there is always the glorious and extended set piece that concludes the book.  The confidence of Rosende extends to the author keeping the reader in the dark for as long as possible.  Crocodile Tears has not just one denouement but many and none are introduced too soon.  Even better, some are hilarious.  There are even some serious themes hidden in the mayhem.  At the beginning of Crocodile Tears two of the protagonists begin the book in prison but all the characters are imprisoned to some extent.

In the plays of Chekov much of the confusion is caused by characters making the right speeches to the wrong people.  In Crocodile Tears all the conversations are somehow inappropriate and misjudged.  The action consists of helpless stumbles by people who overrate their talents except, of course, there are twists.  But that would be telling.  The female author has several sly digs at the conflict between the genders and has her own points to make about men and women.  But like the twists in the plot, mentioning them would also be telling.  The best thing to do is read Crocodile Tears.  The laughs and chuckles will be genuine. 

Howard Jackson