Crime fiction is a greatly underrated genre, and so recently I have been deliberatley making and effort to explore it further.
Lenny Bartulin's The Black Russian ticked a lot of boxes for me. It was crime fiction, it was Australian, it was set in Sydney (my home town), it had a reputation for being funny and, as a bonus, its protagonist was a second hand bookseller.
It had all the makings of a great read, and Bartulin delivered.
"After yet another slow week at the cash register, Susko Books - that fine purveyor of second-hand literature - is facing financial ruin. Jack Susko heads to a gallery in Woollahra to scape up some funds with the sale of an old art catalogue. With his characteristic panache and exquisite timing, he arrives just as De Groot Halleries is being done over by masked thieves. Along with a mysterious object from the safe, the robbers seize a valuable first edition from Jack's bag, too.
The owner of the gallery refuses to call the cops, and Jack is offered a sizeable sum to keep silent. But when de Groot arrives at the bookshop with his heavy to renege on the deal, all bets are off. With an ease that almost constitutes a gift, Jack Susko finds himself at the centre of a world full of duplicity, lies and art theft."
Although this might sound a little shallow, what I enjoyed most about this book was that it was based in Sydney, and much of the action took place in areas I am very familiar with. I liked seeing those areas depicted in fiction; roads I drive along several times a week, buses I regularly catch and at one stage, a street my parents in law actually live on. I think Bartulin really captured what Sydney feels like - the weather, the streets, the people. He is able to capture the different atmospheres and lifestyles of Woollahra, the city and the western suburbs for example.
In fact, The Black Russian has a distinctly Australian flavour, expressed in the accuracy of the depiction of the setting as well as the dry Australian humour in Bartulin's writing.
The characters were perfectly formed stereotypes. There was the money hungry art gallery owner, the evil and morally repugnant crime boss, the femme fatale and of course the cynical and frustrated small business owner. Fortunately, Bartulin was a skilled enough writer to prevent the steotypes from becoming cartoonish caricatures - thus maintaing the humour that they each provide.
Perhaps another risk Bartulin took was with the entirely implausible plot, but rather than distracting the reader with its implausibility Bartulin provides comedy, larger than life characters, accurate and atmospheric setting and witty one-liners to ensure that the reader sees past the implausibility and becomes drawn into the story.
I would even go so far as to say that the implausibility of it is all is almost part of the point of this book. Bartulin uses the larger than life characters and outlandish plot to poke fun at Sydney's 'try-hard' preoccupation with art, culture and money.
Although this is a comedy, it is primarily a piece of crime fiction. Scribe Publications, the publisher, has quotes on its website comparing Bartulin's writing to Raymond Chandler and Ian Flemming. I haven't read Ian Flemming, but I think that a direct comparison to Raymond Chandler's work is perhaps taking things a bit far.
There is certainly the influence of the often talked about hard-boiled style of crime fiction writing in Bartulins writing, most clearly in the dialogue of Jack Susko. This was the books main weakness for me, but a weakness I see in a lot of hard-boiled style pieces of crime fiction (and so probably more a question of personal preference than weakness). A lot of the time Jack Susko's sarcastic sense of humour is very funy, but at other times it felt false and unauthentic. Consider these exchanges in the early part of the book between Jack Susko and the two thevies who are holding him at gun point.
In the first exchange, Jack Susko is being duct taped to a chair by one of the thieves:
"'Nice mask,'said Jack.The second exchange takes place as the second thief goes through Jack Susko's bag and pulls out his copy of a valuable first edition Ian Flemming book:
Shane ignored him, concentrated on winding the tape.
'Why didn't you wear the cape?'
'Lone Ranger doesn't wear a cape.'
'You mean you're not the Scarlet Pimpernell?'"
"Walter picked up Jack's bag from the floor. He lifted the flap and had a good look inside. He pulled out a package and waved it around. 'What's this then?'Maybe it's the criminal solicitor in me, but I can't suspend my sense of reality quite enough to believe that this is how any person would react when being held up and robbed at gun point, I don't care how financially unstable they are.
'A bomb,' said Jack."
Ultimately, The Black Russian is an incredibly humourous book. It is the second in a series of three books, A Deadly Business, The Black Russian and De Luxe. Although I hadn't read the first book in the series this didn't affect in any way my understanding or enjoyment of this one.
You could read this book if you were looking for a witty example of modern-day crime fiction with a good dose of black humour. It is also a good book for a person who is interested in reading an accurate depiction of the people, the life and the atmosphere of the Sydney I know and love.