David Malcolm

Upping the Ante

Crown of Beaks, Erik Martiny, River Boat Books, 2020

Sometimes I think that if there is a spectre haunting Europe, it is crime fiction. I have carried out empirical field research. In bookshops from Gdańsk to Salzburg, from Preston to Berlin – there’s just so much of it. In the old days in Gibert Joseph on the boulevard St Michel, you used to be politely if snootily invited to go downstairs if you asked for a polar. On my last pre-pandemic visit, I was somehow disappointed to discover this was no longer so. It’s just everywhere. Mind you, I speak as a modest fan of the supercategory (it cannot be a genre any longer; it’s just too big). I enjoy old stuff; I like new stuff. But sometimes I wonder why. After all, I don’t like pain (my own or others’) and my sense of guilt is so developed that even the sight of a uniformed police person harrows my conscience.

In the splendid and absorbing Crown of Beaks, Erik Martiny engagingly and intelligently confronts the universality of crime fiction and one’s worries about why one actually likes it – and much else to do with the phenomenon. It’s a thrilling, unputdownable, entertaining, stimulating, and insightful novel. I enjoyed every page of it (even when I was wincing in horror, twitching with worry).

It is a feverish journey through some of the most powerful devices and motifs of crime fiction. Stieg Molloy is a wearyish, semi-hard-boiled detective for Interpol. Because he specializes in crimes relating to art, he is sent to investigate the grotesque murder of a contemporary, avant-garde artist in Venice. He encounters a stunningly beautiful Italian police inspector, a lasciviously seductive suspect, and sinister and physically repellent villains. He and his gorgeous Italian companion get hell beaten out of them at every turn, so that by the end, they have added to the scars that they already bear. The investigation bounces all over Europe, always moving northward – Venice, Paris, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, the polar regions. There is much slaughtering of seemingly disposable characters, and at one point it even seems that . . . . but no, I cannot say. In fact, it is hugely difficult to write a review of a detective fiction. The conventions of the review genre (let alone those of the supercategory itself) are constraining. You just can’t be a total party-pooper and reveal whether the perpetrator is only revealed at the conclusion or earlier, whether everyone that you care about makes it to the end, or whether the villain or villains get away with their fiendish designs. I cannot even discuss some of the characters’ names without giving away some of the novel’s fun. Discretion is enjoined on the poor reviewer at every turn.

But some of the features of the novel can be revealed without prejudice. The murders are all grotesque and the scenes of violence and torture (of which there are one or two) are (shall we say?) increasingly inventive and scary. The story material is involved. The settings are exotic (by most readers’ standards) and carefully realized with a fine choice of detail so that they seem authentic and believable. The dialogue is witty and often hard-boiled (as convention demands – I wish I could speak half as well). Dilemmas are believable and real, if highly wrought. The characters are engaging or sinister, grotesque or just about believable, and even the pets – Artemesia’s viverrids at the novel’s start – are intriguing. The whole performance is absorbing and keeps you reading and on the edge of your seat. (In a review of a novel with such a fine ear for cliché, let me use one or two myself.)

The novel’s protagonists swan around Europe, and the novel swans around genres too. It starts off as a kind of police procedural and mutates into something much more like an international thriller. However, it drifts off knowingly into a science fiction piece. Indeed, one of the most engaging characters is a driverless, electric car with a computer as part of the ensemble (which I believe in my naïveté to be an undocumented technology, as such). The protagonist’s conversations with this knowledgeable and charming piece of machinery are funny and fascinating simultaneously. She (for she has a female voice) performs the complex role of the sage authority whom the detective must consult from time to time, and she also saves the narrator having to do exposition in a tiresome fashion. Furthermore, the novel has some horror story elements, and certainly more than a few suggestions of the supernatural. But this is not a genre hodge-podge, but rather a well-judged melding of closely related genre material. In Crown of Beaks, you certainly get your money’s worth. The novel even ends with an apocalypse of sorts, something that Martiny seems fond of (see The Night of the Long Goodbyes).

Interspersed in the text there are several author’s notes. Many are extensive. In them, the author discusses some of the difficulties and enigmas of writing crime fiction after about two hundred years of the genre and a twentieth century that has it crawling out of the woodwork and everyone’s brains. If this sounds dull, it isn’t. The author’s comments are witty, insightful, learned, irreverent, written with great verve and inventiveness, and often very funny. They themselves involve motifs drawn from relevant genres: the mysterious stranger who offers to narrate the piece, the author’s own increasing unease, his confrontations with the sinister stranger-narrator, his probable disposal of the tough-talking, out-of-control alter ego. As a crash course in the contexts of anyone’s writing a crime novel (or reading one) these days, you could hardly do better.

Crown of Beaks is a good read (cliché again, I know) in the broadest sense. It offers a complex and absorbing tale; it never bores you; it is intelligent and insightful, and funny too; it touches one or two raw nerves; it pushes the envelope. It is an impressive addition to Martiny’s diverse (and yet, I think, related) fictions.

Review by David Malcolm.

Crown of Beaks by Erik Martiny is available from River Boat Books.

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