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Mongolia and Montana : two crime fiction books

February 13, 2022 14 comments

Yeruldelgger by Ian Manook (2013) Not available in English

Ian Manook is the penname for the French writer Patrick Manoukian. (A play-on-word on his surname Manoukian/Manook Ian, I guess) Yeruldelgger is the first volume of the Commissaire Yeruldelgger trilogy set in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. It won the Prix SNCF 2014, a prize dedicated to crime fiction.

Commissaire Yeruldelgger is still recovering from a personal tragedy when he’s called on two crime scenes at the same time. One is in the steppe, away from the capital. Nomadic people called him because they found the body of a little girl, buried with her tricycle.

The other is in Ulan Bator: three Chinese men were killed and their penis was cut and stuffed into three hookers’ mouths. Six bodies and a horrific crime scene. Inspector Oyun who works under Yeruldelgger, goes on scene and starts the investigation.

Yeruldelgger and Oyun work on the two cases at the same time. We meet the police of Mongolia, its corrupted and non-corrupted members. Yeruldelgger works with two women, Oyun and Solongo, the medical examiner. A street boy named Gantulga will help them.

Their investigations will lead them to Yeruldelgger’s past, to the exploitation of Mongolia’s natural resources by Chinese companies, to corrupted Mongolian business men who organize wild rides in the steppe for rich Koreans and to Mongolian neo-Nazi groups.

While the plot is solid and the story unfolds nicely and according to the codes of crime fiction, I can’t say that I loved Yeruldelgger. Something was off. The sense of place felt stilted, the landscape descriptions as fake as a theatre décor. I am sure that the details about Ulan Bator and the cultural references were accurate but they didn’t flow well.

The titles of the chapters were disconcerting, sounding like 19thC literature. You know those titles like “Where Mr … goes to XX and makes a fool of himself” The language couldn’t hide that the book is written by a Frenchman. A native from Mongolia would have written differently, with another sensitivity.

I think the book would have been better if Ian Manook had embraced the fact that he was a Frenchman writing a book set in another country. Yeruldelgger could have become a foreigner living in Mongolia, working with the local police under whatever capacity and all would have been well. The awkwardness would have had an explanation.

Yeruldelgger is not available in English and for once, it’s not a Translation Tragedy.

Dead Man’s Fancy by Keith McCafferty (2015) French title: La Vénus de Botticelli Creek. Translated by Janique Jouin-de Laurens

After this visit to Ulan Bator, I turned to one of my comfort crime fiction series: cozy crime by Keith McCafferty. Back to Montana with the sheriff Martha Ettinger helped by Sean Stranahan and Harold Little Feather.

In Dead Man’s Fancy, Nanicka Martinelli, a fishing guide at the Culpepper Ranch, goes missing. For once, she was riding with the tourists of this dude ranch and her horse came back to the ranch, without its rider. A wrangler took off to find her in the mountain and he’s found dead, impaled on an elk antler. (Who needs guns for a crime scene when the wilderness provides such weapons, eh?)

The investigation leads Martha and her team to the controversy around the reintroduction of wolves in the mountains. Nanicka was pro-wolves while her father Alfonso worked for the ranches to control the population of wolves. Another strange character haunt the woods: Fern Amarok, a pro-wolves activist who camps in the area with his girlfriend. Did Nanicka and Fern know each other? Is she missing or dead?

The plot is well-drawn but the fun isn’t in the story. It is in what happens around the plot. I wonder how Keith McCafferty got the idea of Nanicka’s father, Alfonso, a Frenchman born in the Hautes-Alpes, in the village of Saint-Véran and who emigrated to Québec, British Columbia and then Montana.

Our hero Sean Stranahan now lives in a tipi. He still paints but has an office at the community center because he can’t paint in his tipi. I didn’t that change coming in the previous volume.

Stranahan works for the sheriff but never forgets to take the time to fish. He stops to fish any time he wants. Determined to try out all the rivers possible? Given McCafferty’s job as Survival and Outdoor Skills Editor of Field and Stream, the descriptions of fishing and living in Montana ring true.

I found in Dead Man’s Fancy the fun and relaxation I was looking for, even with the dreadful elk antler and the wolf cries. Despite the violent crimes, some unmistakable peace oozes from this series. I’m a bit dubious about Stranahan’s new accommodation and life style, I find it a bit too much. So, now I’m curious to see what McCafferty will do with his characters in the next volume.

Dead Man’s Fancy is published by Gallmeister, an independant publisher in France. It belongs to Oliver Gallmeister and it’s specialized in crime fiction and Nature Writing from the USA. It has recently branched out to Italian fiction, always with nature as an important part of the book.

The antidote to bleakness – comfort books.

October 23, 2021 28 comments

As mentioned in my previous billet B Is For Bleak: the bleak fest continues in Oktober, I tried to mitigate the effect of bleak reads and plays with comfort books.

The first one was The Stationery Shop by Ogawa Ito. (2016. translated by Myriam Dartois-Ako).

I had already read another of her novels, The Restaurant of Love Regained and I knew I’d be reading something soft and uplifting.

In The Stationery Shop, Hatoko is 25, she’s back in her native town of Kamakura to take over the family business after her grandmother passed away. Hatoko inherited a stationary shop and has to replace her grandmother as a public letter-writer.

We follow her as she settles into her new life, meets people in the neighborhood, connects with clients and learns about her past. I knew nothing bad would happen and that Hatoko’s life would improve as she made peace with her past and built her future. It didn’t disappoint on that part.

However, The Stationery Shop has the same backbone as The Restaurant of Love Regained and the parallels are striking. A young woman comes back to her hometown or village. She’s lonely. She has unsolved issues with the woman who raised her, mother or grandmother. She starts or runs a business based on Japanese traditions. She knows a craft deeply embedded in Japanese customs, cuisine for one, calligraphy for the other. She connects to her Japanese roots through this craft, one that is turned towards others and aims at making her customers happy with a meal or with the right letter for an event or to a dear one. While she applies her craft as a balm to her customers’ souls, she finds her inner peace. It bothered me to find out that the two books had the same structure.

Ogawa Ito gives a lot of details about Japanese calligraphy. To be honest, I don’t know enough about Japan and its tradition to catch on all the calligraphy explanations and details about the writing, the quill, the choice of paper, of stamps…I missed a layer of knowledge and all these details bored me, which is even worse than getting emotional over a bleak play. So, the comfort book wasn’t that comforting, I thought it was a bit slow and dull. A bit goodie-two-shoes too, you know, a novel aimed at spreading love and good feelings.

The next time I turned to a different kind of comfort read, crime fiction set in Montana, with The Grey Ghosts Murders by Keith McCafferty. (2013. Translated by Janique Jouin-de Laurens)

I’d already read the first volume of the series, The Royal Wulff Murders and had enjoyed it. I expected entertainment and a reprieve from emotional books.

It’s crime fiction, so, of course, there are terrible deaths and corrupt politicians like everywhere else, and it doesn’t qualify as a fluffy feel-good novel but the context is positively endearing.

No stiff in dirty back alleys like in a Connelly novel. No, you’re in the wild part of Montana. The police and the medical examiner have to hike to go to the body, only to discover that bears messed up with the evidences and that their pepper spray is damned handy when they get too close to a mamma bear and her cubs while on the job.

The main character, Sean Callahan shares his time between working as a fishing guide, painting Montana landscapes for tourists and playing amateur sleuth. Beside the murders, a group of fishermen who purchased a cabin together for their fishing holidays, ask him to investigate a theft: two of their antique fishing flies were stolen from their display cases. They were mounted by famous fishermen who invented these flies, a breakthrough in fly-fishing techniques. It’s as serious as stealing Dumbledore’s wand and yet, it’s funny to think that somewhere, there’s a parallel world where fishermen collect antique flies.

Sean helps with the murders investigation and researches thoroughly the person who had the idea to steal antique fishing flies.

Sean is quirky character, with a tender heart and he falls in love too easily, with the wrong women. He has a touchy relationship with Martha, the sheriff. He has decided to settle in Montana for good and we understand why, with all the attaching second characters in the book.

This comfort read totally worked because, to me, it’s exotic and took me far away from the previous book. It did the job and I’ll get the third volume on the shelf for future comfort read. It’s like having a Louise Penny on the ready.

That was before I read Sandrine Collette. After that one, I needed a solid pick-me-up and decided to take the safest option with guaranteed HEA.

I read Beauty and the Beast, the 1740 original tale by Madame de Villeneuve. The story was consistent with the children version I’d read before. The Disney movie and the film by Cocteau are based on a later version of the story, written by Madame Leprince de Beaumont.

Compared to this well-known version, the original has an additional part in which Madame de Villeneuve describes the war between the fairies and explains how the prince fell under a magic spell and why Beauty ended up with her father’s family. Interesting and relaxing.

Now my reading has come back to its usual mix of easy, challenging and entertaining books, like Richard Russo, Michael Connelly and Balzac.

What kind of books do you turn to after a challenging or emotional read?

The Royal Wulff Murders by Keith McCafferty – Murders and fly-fishing

January 22, 2020 13 comments

The Royal Wulff Murders by Keith MacCafferty (2012). French title: Meurtres sur la Madison. Translated by Janique Jouin-De Laurens.

The Royal Wulff Murders by Keith MacCafferty is a book published by Gallmeister in France and with a sticker that says that Craig Johnson found it marvelously entertaining. How could I resist?

The book opens with Rainbow Sam, a fly-fishing guide, whose client fishes a dead body instead of trout. The client generously throws up at the sight and Sam contacts the sheriff. We’re in the small town of Bridger, a fishing community on the Madison river, in Montana. The sheriff is a woman, Martha Ettinger. With her second-in-command Walt, their first task will be to identify the victim and answer the other question: is it an accident or a murder?

Meanwhile, Sean Stranahan, ex PI from Boston and current fly-fisherman/painter is hired by a singer, Vareda Lafayette, to follow her father’s footsteps on the Madison river. Her father has died a year before, loved travelling from New Orleans to Bridger for fly-fishing. He had marked the trout he had taken and Vareda would like Sean to fish them back, to honor her father. (Fishermen are weird, I know but so are bookworms). Soon Sean realizes that Vareda’s problems are more complicated that he imagined, that her brother who lives in the area is missing. Against his will, he will investigate his disappearance.

Martha and Sean follow their leads and eventually understand that their investigations overlap and join their forces. They will dive into the mudded waters of fly-fishing and its lucrative business. (and not, it’s not farfetched)

Keith MacCafferty sounds like a combination of William G Tapply and Craig Johnson. The law representatives are named Martha and Walt, probably a friendly allusion to Craig Johnson. Indeed, Johnson’s main character is named Walt Longmire and his late wife was named Martha. Sean Stranahan reminded me of Stoney Calhoun, Tapply’s fishing guide/detective.

I went to see Craig Johnson at a meeting in a bookstore and he said that sheriffs in Wyoming and Montana are often big guys because the staff of the police force is small, the territory is huge and they often are alone on a spot and can’t count on a quick backup if things go awry. They tend to be muscular and armed. So, deciding on a female sheriff in Montana for a main character is kind of daring.

I liked Martha, her hidden insecurities while she keeps up appearances and leads her investigation like a pro. Like Longmire, she has an Indian friend who helps her in her job. At the same event I mentioned before, Craig Johnson said that books set in Wyoming and Montana that have no Indian characters lack authenticity: there are several reservations in these States and Indians are part of the local population.

The other main character is Sean. He’s divorced, still wears the scars of his failed marriage and left Boston and his past behind to start afresh in Montana. He paints fishing scenes and Montana landscapes to make a living and put a PI sign on his door to differentiate himself from other newcomers. He never thought that someone would take it seriously and hire him, especially since he’s not licensed in Montana.

The Royal Wulf Murders is a lovely combination of beautiful landscapes, loveable characters and a well-oiled plot. I learnt new details about fly-fishing and could test whether I had assimilated some of John Gierach’s lessons from Sex, Death and Fly-Fishing. I want to know Sean and Martha better and see where their informal collaboration will lead them. The plot builds up slowly, probably because MacCafferty settles his characters for the upcoming series but the last third of the book accelerates and takes us to territories I had not anticipated.

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