Saturday, March 28, 2015

What do comics do better than, er, non-comics?

I read a few comics last week, which got me thinking about how comics tell stories. Here's an old post that asks a similar question.
I recently read a crime novel whose one distracting quirk was an occasional paragraph of dialogue or exposition that read like an editorial comment or an information dump.

I've also been reading Greg Rucka's Queen & Country, a comic set in the contemporary world of British intelligence, and it occurred to me that comics can sometimes convey information more efficiently than non-graphic books — verbal information, I mean.

Say an author decides the contents of a report about complex, high-level, multinational drug, arms and financial transactions are essential to his or her story. How is the author to convey that information without dragging the story to halt?

Queen & Country's characters spend good chunks of their time at their desks discussing intelligence and other data, but the discussion is never boring. One reason is that we can see their reactions.

A spy chief might slap a report on his desk in disgust or grit his teeth as a superior shoots down his plans. It's a lot easier on a reader to see a skilled graphic rendering of such reactions than it is to read: "He slapped the report on his desk in disgust, grinding his teeth as his superior shot down his plans."
What else can comics do better or more efficiently than traditional novels and stories? What can traditional stories do better? Have you ever read a scene in one medium that you thought would work better in another?

Rucka himself provides an opportunity to test these questions. He has written several novels based on the graphic-novel series. Read excerpts here and here.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Black Hood, or how comics tell stories

(Clockwise from upper
left: Black Hood #1,
Black Hood #1, Black
Hood #1, and Black
Hood #1)
I almost never buy individual issues of comics because I don't like working myself into a state of excitement over something that will take me five minutes to read, then having to wait a month before I can resume the story. That's why I prefer trade paperbacks that compile five or six or eight issues. (Most recently I bought and read the two books that collect the 11 final issues of Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera's awesomely good Scalped.)

Philadelphia's own Duane Swierczynski and his artist collaborator Michael Gaydos compensate for the small number of pages in a typical comic by packing a whole lot of beautifully spare storytelling into those pages. The climax of the opening scene in their new Black Hood series, for example, is one panel, one color, and 19 words: "And as the dark came down over my head, I couldn't help but wonder: Would anyone give a shit?"

That's a lot of storytelling, mood-setting, and existential-doubt establishing for one little panel about two inches high and three inches wide, and Gaydos and the colorist didn't have to vary their palette much; the panel's all black, except for the two little white rectangles where the character's thoughts appear.

As often with good comics, I like the way the two media — words and pictures — play off one another, sometimes together, sometimes one (usually the picture) offering ironic commentary on the other. The Black Hood is something like a masked-avenger tale, the story of a guy, here a wounded police officer, who dons a mask and assumes a new identity before going out into the world to attack criminals, but the first glimpse of the protagonist in his hood is anything but heroic.

And Swierczynski is a hell of a technician and craftsman if he can get the hero to refer to "the 15-year-old inside my head" without even coming close to breaking the dark mood.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Talaash, India, and language(s)

The 2012 Indian suspense/noir/police movie Talaash includes too much supernatural wiffle and at least one crappy pop song. I’d have known the song was crappy even without the English subtitles – soaring bathos comes across just as well in Hindi as it does in English.

English also comes across in Hindi, the actors' lines sprinkled with please and thank you and investigation and case and Shut up! Just shut up! in a way that makes me not chauvinistic about the primacy of my language, but tickled by the flexibility of theirs.The mix of languages is beguiling. I love it as much as I love those multilingual, multigenerational conversations I hear in which the elders speak Chinese or Spanish, and their interlocutors answer in English, and everyone speaks in calm and perfect mutual comprehension.

I'm not sure what India's ruling Hindu nationalists think about such matters, but I like the headlines that accompanied an essay by the author Vikram Chandra some years ago: "The Cult of Authenticity: India’s cultural commissars worship `Indianness' instead of art." (Read about Chandra in these Detectives Beyond Borders posts about language and India.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Gun Street Girl is out in the U.S., or Adrian McKinty and the fourth Sean Duffy novel: Are you series?

Since Gun Street Girl is recently out in the United States, here are some comments I posted a few months back.
 Adrian McKinty has expressed skepticism of series fiction, but he does a fine job writing it.  Gun Street Girl, fourth in his Troubles no-longer-a-Trilogy (following The Cold Cold Ground, I Hear the Sirens in the Street, and In the Morning I'll Be Gone), shows McKinty laying the groundwork for further books, whether consciously or not.

The novel lays down plots and subplots ripe for development in future books, and it continues at least one subplot (or is it a leitmotif?) from the previous novels. (This book is set against the background of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, and includes thinly disguised versions of other historical events of the time, including one that will be of especial interest to Americans.) Moreover, it proposes a vision of Northern Ireland's post-Troubles history as a long-range game, so a long-range series could well carry Detective Inspector Sean Duffy along with that history, reacting to it and commenting, sometimes acerbically, on his place in it.  In Gun Street Girl, that commentary includes McKinty's customary good jokes and one of the funniest Beatles references you'll read anywhere.

Most important, perhaps, for its long term-prospects, the trilogy series has, in Duffy, an engaging protagonist/narrator with personal and professional triumphs and defeats that never, however, get in the way of the story. So sorry. Adrian. You may be in this for the long haul.

(Hear and see McKinty talk about Gun Street Girl and its sources at

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Concrete Flamingo, a.k.a. All the Way, by Charles Williams

Nothing in Her Way remains the best of the five Charles Williams novels I've read in recent weeks, but each of the other four has impressed me. A Touch of Death, especially, is almost as good as Nothing ... . The Diamond Bikini wins points because it's not just a comedy, but one that manages not to condescend to its rural setting.

The Concrete Flamingo (1958), also published as All the Way, is not rural, and it's no comedy. But, like The Diamond Bikini, it demonstrates the author's versatility and sheer professionalism.

In bare outline, The Concrete Flamingo sounds like many mid-century paperback original novels: Down-on-his-luck but handsome man falls for woman who involves him in a plan to kill, steal, or both, and violent or tragic complications ensue.

The intricate plot works itself out nicely and with high suspense. No surprise there; Williams has to have been one of the better plotters who has ever written crime fiction. What impressed me most, though, was the plot's unexpected resolution. To avoid spoilers, I'll say no more. But I admire Williams for taking the chance that he did.
The Concrete Flamingo does, indeed, include a concrete flamingo, but All the Way is a more suitable title. I don't know why or when the title was changed, but it's hard not to suspect the publisher of trying to capitalize on Ross Macdonald's popularity. The Concrete Flamingo sounds as if it should be a Macdonald title. (The cover of the edition included here is unusually faithful to the novel's plot, though I don't recall that any of the book's cars were green. )

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Lionel White and definitely established mathematical odds

The occasional lapses in prose style in paperback original novels get me thinking about the conditions under which their authors wrote. I remind myself that the verbal lapses may be due to those conditions rather than to lack of talent. But here's the opening of Lionel White's 1955 novel The Clean Break, which Stanley Kubrick filmed as The Killing (the novel, not just its opening):
"The aggressive determination on his long, bony face was in sharp contrast to the short, small-boned body which he used as a wedge to shoulder his way slowly through the hurrying crowd of stragglers rushing through the wide doors to the grandstand.

"Marvin Unger was only vaguely aware of the emotionally pitched voice coming over the public address system. He was very alert to everything taking place around him, but he didn’t need to hear that voice to know what was happening. The sudden roar of the thousands out there in the hot, yellow, afternoon sunlight made it quite clear. They were off in the fourth race.

"Unconsciously his right hand tightened around the thick packet of tickets he had buried in the side pocket of his linen jacket. The tension was purely automatic. Of the hundred thousand and more persons at the track that afternoon, he alone felt no thrill as the twelve thoroughbreds left the post for the big race of the day.

"Turning into the abruptly deserted lobby of the clubhouse, his tight mouth relaxed in a wry smile. He would, in any case, cash a winning ticket. He had a ten dollar win bet on every horse in the race.

"In the course of his thirty-seven years, Unger had been at a track less than half a dozen times. He was totally disinterested in horse racing; in fact, had never gambled at all. He had a neat, orderly mind, a very clear sense of logic and an inbred aversion to all `sporting events.' He considered gambling not only stupid, but strictly a losing proposition. Fifteen years as a court stenographer had given him frequent opportunity to see what usually happened when men place their faith in luck in opposition to definitely established mathematical odds."
I'll give White "aggressive determination," though I think the phrase weak, bordering on repetitive. But every other word or string of words I highlighted crosses that border or is at best unnecessary and at worst grammatically ludicrous.  "Emotionally pitched"? What does that mean? Did the announcer sound as if he were about to break into tears? Why "everything taking place around him" rather than just "everything around him"? Why slow a sentence down by beginning it with an adverb ("unconsciously"), especially when White repeats himself in the next sentence, telling us the tension was "purely automatic"? And why "purely automatic" rather than "automatic"?

"Turning into the abruptly deserted lobby of the clubhouse, his tight mouth relaxed" is not only a dangling participle, it's wordy. Why tell us that the stragglers were rushing if you've just told us they're hurrying? And "the course of," "very," "in fact," and "at all" are throat-clearing. White should have cut each in his second draft or his editor on a first pass. As to "definitely established mathematical odds," all odds are mathematical, and "definitely established" is doubly redundant, each word with respect to the other, and the two when set against "mathematical."

OK, these guys churned it out, and their work probably did not get the care most novels got at hardback houses or that one associates with novels today, when authors will turn out maybe a book a year rather than a book a month. If  he'd had more time, Harry Whittington might occasionally have substituted another word for sickness in A Night for Screaming. Charles Williams might have found other ways to say "thoughtfully" in All The Way (also known as The Concrete Flamingo).  But those guys saved the repetition for later in their books, and it's easy to imagine them so caught up in the stories they were telling that verbal polish fell by the wayside. They didn't bog things down on the very first page, never a good idea, particularly not in thrillers or suspense novels.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Gil Brewer: Squalid, but funny

Some things that surprised me about Gil Brewer's 1961 novel A Taste of Sin:
1) The protagonist drinks too much, but his drinks are absinthe and Pernod. 
2) The morbid (and mordant) humor, as in the ending of the first chapter: 
"In my mind there was the sound of broken glass."  
and its segue into the beginning of the second: 
"I got in the Volks and sat there. 
"Well, a sane woman could be a bore." 
3) The virtuosic sarcasm of some of the best of that humor, as this observation about the cop who questions the protagonist: 
"He was very bright. He sighed brightly."
 4) That no one could write squalid, desperate sex like Gil Brewer could. Lots of books of the time tried, and their scenes often read like something out of a sex version of Reefer Madness. Not Brewer's
© Peter Rozovsky 2015 

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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Shot in Philadelphia (and Long Beach)

And then there's this shot, with which Dietrich Kalteis illustrates his current discussion withSam Weibe and John McFetridge. That's John in the photo at lower right. His current novel and his next one include a photographer named Rozovsky.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015 

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Black Wings Has My Angel

Barry Gifford is right so far about Black Wings Has My Angel. The author of Wild at Heart called Elliott Chaze's 1953 lovers-on-the-run story "An astonishingly well-written literary novel that just happened to be about (or roundabout) a crime."

The novel is so well-written, and so diverting in its incident, that when Chaze injects not just a noir touch a few chapters in, but one of the must typical mid-twentieth-century noir touches, it seems entirely new and entirely right.  This is not what I think of when I think of Gold Medal Books, but that is precisely who first published the book.

Two more observations:  One is unlikely to read description much better than Chaze's of the waitress "who was hanging over the table like a fat starched cloud," and I'm hardly surprised Gifford loved this book, because in its story and in the relaxed, off-hand, humorous way of telling it, even at its grimmest, it seems a virtual blueprint for Wild at Heart and the rest of Gifford's Sailor and Lula novels.
Gifford is not just an author and screenwriter.. His Black Lizard Press launched the revival of interest in paperback-original writers from the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, including Elliott Chaze.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015 

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Sunday, March 08, 2015

Street of No Return: The David Goodis pilgrimage, 2015

Lou Boxer
Much of David Goodis' Philadelphia has disappeared, from the waterfront dives and cheap apartments of Cassidy's Girl to the house where he lived as child that was demolished because the neighborhood was sinking into a subterranean creek.

The house on North Eleventh Street
where Goodis lived and wrote after
he returned from Hollywood.
Cullen Gallagher
reading by Goodis'
graveside at Roosevelt
 Memorial Park in
Trevose, Pa.

Joe Samuel Starnes
Every year a gang of Goodis fans gathers to visit these forgotten places and others significant in the life of Philadelphia's greatest crime writer, and one of the most moving and compassionate writers anywhere, in any time.

Erik Arneson interviewing Andrew Kevorkian.
Kevorkian knew Goodis and attended his
funeral in 1967.
Eric Rice
Here's a record of this year's pilgrimage, which took place Saturday, photos by your humble blogkeeper.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015  

Lou Boxer, Jeff Wong

Foreground: Cullen Gallagher and your humble
blogkeeper/photographer. Background: David
Goodis' house on North 11th Street.
Joe Samuel Starnes, Erik Arneson, Cullen
Gallagher, Lou Boxer
The Street of No Return: Site of Goodis' childhood home
in Philadelphia's Logan section.

Friday, March 06, 2015

"Ace" Rozovsky, backstage photographer

This week I read two books and shot some actors.

The books were The Big Bite, by Charles Williams; and Wake Up to Murder, by Day Keene, but it appears you'll have to wait till tomorrow to hear about them.

The actors were the cast of Lafferty's Wake, at the Society Hill Playhouse in Philadelphia. Deen Kogan, the theater's artistic director and also director of this production, is an acquaintance through Philadelphia's Noircon crime fiction convention, and she invited me to take photos at a run-through of the play, which opens this weekend.
By this stage, a show is virtually a finished product, and the cast, in full costume, ran through the entire show without interruption, but with a warm-up session, with discussion of lighting and music beforehand and a short presentation by the director afterward. This included a detailed — and I mean detailed — review of the rehearsal: a slurred line here, a suggestion for altering an entrance there. It was my first time behind a theater production, and I loved the interaction before and after, even the tiny occasional bit of testiness at the give and take.

During was pretty good, too. Lafferty's Wake includes four or five of the best-known Irish songs, including "The Rising of the Moon" and "Wild Rover" — a good thing, and as near as I could tell, the cast's accents were not shite.

The theater world was once a popular setting for crime fiction. Ngaio Marsh set mysteries there, as did Bill S. Ballinger. Theodore A. Tinsley's Jerry Tracy, celebrity reporter, moved amid the great and not so great of Broadway.

Theater no longer is as central to popular entertainment as it once was, though, and everyone who entered the rehearsal I attended left the building alive (though Lafferty's Wake does include a crime-fiction-like twist).). But I shot 574 photos, and I had a fabulous time, and the next time a director calls, I'll be there with my trusty shooter.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Multiple noir shots plus something that drives me nuts

I hate when reporters write that someone was shot "multiple" times. What does "multiple" times mean? Does it confer what the writers imagine is cachet that many does not? Does multiple even mean many, or does it simply mean more than once?

"Multiple times" is an ideal official expression. It's imprecise, it has lots of syllables, and it sounds vaguely impressive. Is that why impressionable reporters, easily seduced into taking on the jargon of the beats they cover, persist in using it? I've asked myself that question multiple times.

Meanwhile, here are four some a few a collection of more than one multiple recent noir shots by your humble blogkeeper. Interest from publishers welcome.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Hear Detectives Beyond Borders read, and celebrate David Goodis

(Photo by your
humble blogkeeper)
Erik Arneson (right) has posted a podcast of "Three Minutes of Terror" from Noircon 2014 in Philadelphia. I was one of about twenty authors who read from their work, three minutes maximum, or risk being attacked with a chainsaw.  Have a listen; I'm up at the 18:45 mark in this second part of the two-part podcast.

Then on Saturday, I'll join a few dozen Goodisheads to celebrate the life and work of David Goodis, Philadelphia's greatest crime writer and one of the best noir writers anywhere. This annual event has in part years included visits to sites associated with Goodis' work as well as to the cemetery where he was buried.

We'll discuss Goodis, we'll read from his writing, and a convivial meal is generally on the itinerary. Here's a favorite moment from the one year I attended the celebration previously.  Weather forecasts call for temperatures more comfortable than they were that year.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Monday, March 02, 2015

What's so great about Noir at the Bar?

Funny you should ask, because Dietrich Kalteis asks the same question over at his place in conjunction with a Noir at the Bar to be held in Vancouver March 24, and I don't mean Vancouver, Washington. That's a nice bunch of folks who'll be reading, mellow and cheerful, as befits their balmy and civilized setting, like Portland or Seattle, but without the hype. And they write some good books, too.

Here in Philadelphia, I chronicle the dying winter with more photos of rain, snow, sky, and slush, all photos by your humble blogkeeper/photographer.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Friday, February 27, 2015

Rabe on (It's a crazy feeling)

I'm a book and a half into my career as a Peter Rabe reader, and I've reached two tentative conclusions: 1) Rabe was an heir to early Dashiell Hammett, and 2) He worked psychology into his novels a hell of a lot better than Ross Macdonald did.

Rabe had a master’s and a doctorate in psychology. He incorporated psychology in his crime novels with an expert’s knowledge and an author’s restraint. Macdonald, on the other hand, at least in The Galton Case, was more like a yammering cultist on the subject.

The Hammett connection is more pertinent, though, to a discussion of Rabe’s The Box and Kill the Boss Goodbye. (I’m told that only one or two of Rabe’s novels appeared with a title he suggested. The Box is one of them. I would bet a dozen Montreal bagels that Kill the Boss Goodbye is not.) Each novel reminded me a bit of Hammett’s portrayals of men doing their jobs. More particularly, each portrays with cool detachment, deadly power struggles at the head of a criminal or quasi-criminal enterprise, in the manner of Red Harvest. But they read more like Patricia Highsmith's The Tremor of Forgery, no surprise given that both that book and The Box are set in North Africa.

(A post on the Violent World of Parker Web site discusses Donald Westlake and an essay he wrote about Rabe. Read Westlake on Rabe in the Westlake nonfiction volume The Getaway Car. Read more about Rabe at Mystery File and Stark House Press.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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