BooksFriday, January 6, 2017
Murder most Mongolian
For The Herald
There is enough action in this detective thriller not just for a film but for a mini-series, and it has the added interest of its exotic setting. It must be said that, when it starts out, although events unfold in Mongolia, the chief character seems much like the harried cop of familiar fiction: steely, but with a soft spot at the centre, and burdened by events in his past, by family problems, and by bosses who are either stupid or untrustworthy, or both.
In other words, give or take the details, it could be Los Angeles.
Then, as the action proceeds — and at almost 500 pages, there is a lot of room for proceeding — the specifics of the place do take over, and we certainly think we’re not in LA anymore. And another thing that requires re-evaluation, and stunningly, even shockingly so, is that soft spot in the detective’s heart.
Author Ian Manook is French; real name: Patrick Manoukian. The word “polar,” on the book’s flaps, is French for detective story, and seems to have been adopted in Spain — at least for these book-flap purposes. The hero, Yeruldelgger, must have had the rank of commissaire in the French original, which translates automatically into Spanish as comisario, as in this edition of the book. When it comes to turning them into English, however, police ranks are notoriously difficult to translate.
That’s because they are organised differently in different countries and even among different police forces in one country. After research, it would appear that the most defensible all-purpose translation of comisario in English, when the person in question isn’t necessarily at the head of a precinct (comisaría) but has that rank, is “chief superintendent” for Britain and “police captain” for the US. So that's what our Yeruldelgger is.
His is a robust, fast-moving yarn, probing a number of heinous and unusual murders and suspicious deaths and/or disposals of bodies. Under the cast-iron rules of the genre, one assumes from the start that the cases will somehow come together before the end. Ingredients include Mongolian mafiosi, Chinese treasure hunters (of a very specific kind) and reckless South Korean thrill seekers; Manook, who obviously has studied the land in great depth, portrays Mongolians as despising Chinese and Koreans. Yeruldelgger’s two closest allies are women — one an inspector, the other a coroner, and both of them tough.
The author may have gone a bit over the top, at least for some tastes, when, well into the story, he introduces some Buddhist monks and Shaolin practitioners into it, and makes them almost superhuman. It’s not quite like those Chinese films in which fighters leap over buildings and perform other such feats. But here, recluse monks — who presumably don’t even read the papers or watch TV — “know” things out of the blue, like who is who in a police investigation, and its details.
In another example, a monk stops a bad guy two metres away by radiating “an invisible force... a mass of energy.” A shaman comes out of nowhere to help the good coroner when she’s troubled, alleging she somehow “called” him, and displaying such powers he may put readers in mind of the fairy godmother in Disney’s Cinderella — they may half-expect him to begin singing “Salagadoola, mechicka boola, bibbidi-bobbidi-boo!” In another episode, one person’s dream is telepathically transmitted to another. Aw, come on!
Some people surely like that sort of thing; still, it’s a risky mixing of genres.
Where the writer definitely could have kept a tighter literary control is in the matter of whose points of view are followed in the narrative. Most of the time, it is Yeruldelgger and some other “good ones” whom readers shadow, as it were — being told what they think, and learning about things only when those people find them out in their investigation. Once the book has chosen that procedure, it’s unsettling for readers to be suddenly also told, for a moment, what the thoughts of a suspect are. If readers can enter his mind, why weren’t his thoughts known all along? It’s arbitrary, and just feels wrong.
And why isn’t one bad guy’s claim that he is a cop quickly investigated? But overall, the whodunnit is brawny enough to trample over such hitches.
Necessary information: a soyombo is a Mongolian ideogram. Many Mongolians live in tents even within cities. About the translation into the Spanish of Spain: encajar a blow doesn’t mean, as in Argentina, to deliver it, but to receive it. Pista in the book is a mere dirt track. Pasma are cops: the fuzz. Trena is jail: the clink.