Friday, July 16, 2010

The Book You Have to Read: “Diva,” by Delacorta

(Editor’s note: This is the 101st installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s pick comes from San Francisco author Ronald Tierney, a past finalist in the St. Martin’s Press First Private Eye Novel Contest, and a Shamus Award nominee. Tierney has penned 10 books--including the soon-to-be-published Bullet Beach--featuring semi-retired Indianapolis gumshoe Dietrich “Deets” Shanahan, plus two others starring Bay Area P.I.s Carly Paladino and Noah Lang, the newest of which is Death in North Beach [2010]).

Perhaps the famous Swiss novelist, poet, and expert tantric practitioner was genre slumming. Or maybe he was just having some fun, writing what he wanted without worrying about threats of academic retribution. Whatever the reason, Daniel Odier, who chose to write crime fiction under the pseudonym “Delacorta,” made a brief but very bright and light foray into the genre with a series featuring an underage, precocious heroine, Alba, and a 30-ish artist musician, Gorodish. Together they solved crimes and lived dangerous, perverse, eccentric, and stylish lives.

The most famous of the half-dozen books in this series, Diva, was written in French in 1979 and, following the international success of the movie based on Delacorta’s tale, was translated into English in 1983. That novel arrived in the United States amid rave reviews from both the French and American press.

In Diva, a young motorbike messenger, quite capable of getting into trouble as a result of a pirated recording of an opera performance, finds himself fending off police and gangsters in a situation not of his own making and beyond his expertise. The only people he can trust are Alba and Gorodish, the slightly amoral couple who had agreed to fence his illegal tape for millions, but now must save his life.

The cynicism, double crosses, and elaborate chase sequences found in Diva show the kinship between American and French crime fiction. There are also the international staples of prostitution and illegal drugs so common to U.S. crime novels. And more than a few American authors have written with the kind of humor Delacorta possesses. But I think--and being far from an expert in such matters, I invite comment here--that’s where the similarities are likely to end. It is doubtful that characters, behaving as Delacorta’s characters do, would ever appear in an American work of fiction.

No doubt engaging in some form of centrism here, I’m suggesting that only the French would create such series protagonists as Delacorta did, one being a sophisticated man, Gorodish, whose principles are patently for sale. Loose as they are, though, those principles apparently prevent him from being seduced by the other protagonist, his decidedly Lolita-esque and even more criminally inspired partner. And it’s likely that the “inappropriate” association between the two would not sit well with many American readers, as physically unrequited as their relationship is.

Diva is a story quickly told, despite the stylish overlay. And like all but the last and weakest book in Delacorta’s series, Alba, it comes in at well under 200 pages. (The other books are playfully and confusingly called Nana, Luna, Lola, and Vida.) The reader, at least this one, may have the impression of the story unfolding in a lushly detailed setting. But when examined carefully, it is clear that the sentences are short, spare, and simple. In terms of moving the plot along, Delacorta is all business. That’s obvious in this passage:
As soon as a figure appeared in the shadowy rectangle, she emptied her gun into it. Expecting to take her by surprise, Boulanger didn’t have time to aim. One of his bullets went over her head, then he was thrown back against the banister. She stepped toward him. He was dead, with a look of amazement on his face.
And again, here when we are given the bad guy’s response to a tough-talking Gorodish:
Saporta crushed his cigar in the ashtray. Not many people ever talked to him like that, and those who had done it before were all dead.
In this sense, Delacorta’s work is not so far removed from familiar American tough-guy crime fiction.

But then there are entries in Diva such as this:
Cynthia’s coat dropped to the floor and Jules found himself lying on it with her, as if it had pulled them down in its fall. Then, her face briefly disappeared behind her white silk dress as it unfurled like a breaking wave, leaving her dark body stranded on the fur of her coat.
If one were to say that Dashiell Hammet was a rib-eye steak with fries and Agatha Christie a cucumber sandwich, then Delacorta seems to be a tasty lemon tart. He created a reality we don’t see much of these days--as Nordic winters seem to dominate the crime-fiction landscape, to mix a metaphor--a world that is only briefly scary, often funny, sexually edgy, perhaps a bit too stylish, and often outright silly. Didier, commenting on his alter ego, Delacorta, reportedly called his crime-writing series “fairy tales for adults.”

Delacorta’s novels also mirror the times in which they were written, not just in mood, but also in subject. In the other books as well, the reader will get a chance to tour the highlights of the 1980s--LSD, punk rock, cults--as well as sample a book or books not on many must-read lists.

It may be that Delacorta vanished from the publishing scene because the novelty of his vision wore off. The style, unique as it was and is, is passé--pop fiction going the same way as pop art. Perhaps, when its time comes around again, a new generation might embrace it and revive it, or it might inspire a new vision. Whatever the reader concludes, Diva and its cousins have carved, at minimum, a distinctive niche in crime fiction.

READ MORE:The Video Shelf: Diva,” by Vagrarian (Dust & Corruption).


Julia Buckley said...

I may have to read the book, because I saw the movie years ago and loved it. One of the greatest chase scenes ever.

Martin Edwards said...

Very interesting. Coincidentally, I just watched the movie again - very good.

Anonymous said...

I've never heard of this series but it does sound well worth the look. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

kathy d. said...

Now that is a cover!