Saturday, August 27, 2016

Elevator to the Gallows and jazz in movies: What a little soundtrack can do

"Elevator to the Gallows" poster, photo by Peter
Rozovsky for Detectives Beyond Borders
Louis Malle's first feature film, Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l'échafaud), released in 1958, has to be one of the better mixes of noir substance and stylish noir trappings ever.

In the realm of style, there are night scenes, rain, Jeanne Moreau walking the streets of Paris on a fruitless quest, and a roadside motel (charmingly explained and defined by one character for another, presumably for the benefit of mid-century French audiences unfamiliar with the phenomenon of motels), and a score by Miles Davis.

In the realm of gut-clenching noir substance, there are misunderstandings that push people over the edge, doomed runaway lovers, low-life thieves, and characters whose alibis for crimes of which they are falsely accused put them squarely in the fame for crimes they committed.  (Bits of the movie may remind Dashiell Hammett fans of "The Golden Horseshoe.") Elevator to the Gallows is one of the rare films noirs I have seen that I thought would make a good book. (It is in fact based on a novel by Noël Calef, otherwise unknown to me.)

In re stylish noir trappings, the score and Malle's use of it especially impressive. Miles Davis wrote the music, played by a five-piece band that included Davis and drummer Kenny Clarke, so you know the soundtrack was bound to be good. Cool jazz, just because it is cool and understated, makes a nice, ironic counterpoint to moments of high tension on the screen.    The long stretches without music, in which the only sounds are dialogue and ambient noise, compel attention to the action. And when the music comes in, it trusts the viewer to experience the story without any sonic nonsense such as furious pounding on the cymbals to let the viewer know he or she is supposed to feel tension.

(Hear Miles Davis play and Louis Malle discuss (in French) the soundtrack to Elevator to the Gallows.  And here's a list of the twenty best jazz soundtracks in movie history. The list ranks Elevator to the Gallows fourth.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Detectives Beyond Borders writes intro to hot new crime book!!!

Does Nordic crime leave you cold? Do you like your beach reading sandy rather than Scandi? The sun better than lots of guys named -sson? 

Maybe you prefer your protagonists heat-baked and lethargic rather than shivering and morose? Or perhaps you want your crime fiction to do more than rip away the gleaming facade of the welfare state to reveal the hypocrisy that lies beneath. If so, boy, do have the crime fiction collection for you.

Sunshine Noir hits e-readers near you next week and bookstores in mid-September. If you're going to Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans, you just might find some copies there.

Annamaria Alfieri and Michael Stanley put the volume together, and the book includes stories by Robert Wilson, Jason Goodwin, Colin Cotterill, Paul Hardisty, Nick Sweet, Leye Adenle, Susan Froetschel, Greg Herren, Barbara Nadel, Richie Narvaez, Tamar Myers, Kwei Quartey, Ovidia Yu, Timothy Williams, and Jeffrey Siger, plus a word from Tim Hallinan and, in the British edition, from Peter James.

I'm in there, too; I wrote the book's introduction, a little thing I called "Clime Fiction." I quite like it, and I hope you'll enjoy it, too, along with some pretty good stories.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Monday, August 22, 2016

Detectives Beyond Borders makes the news in Australia

The Mercury Sunday Tasmanian I've never been to Tasmania, but I made it into this week's Saturday Mercury newspaper of Hobart, capital of that hospitable Australian island. 

The occasion is a profile of David Owen, a Tasmania-based crime writer whose novels featuring Franz "Pufferfish" Heineken I have enjoyed for years.  The writer, Sally Glaetzer, overstates my radio experience, but she does a hell of a job with the article, very much better than what newspapers generally do when they deign to notice crime writers. I thought I knew Owen and his work fairly well, but Glaetzer's piece told me things I had not known before, about his political activity in South Africa, for instance.

Here's the article. Here's my review of Owen's most recent novel, 13-Point Plan for a Perfect Murder.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Michael Gilbert, Charles Williams, and writing what you know (My Bouchercon 2016 panel)

The estimable Laura Lippman once said that the old advice to write what you know had served her poorly in one of her own embryonic, excessively autobiographical early efforts. "Write what you know," Lippman said, is "well-intentioned, but it's poorly put. [Better to] write what you want to know about."

But knowledge, wielded with discretion and with the aim of telling a good story always in mind, can serve crime writers well. Michael Gilbert was both a lawyer (a solicitor, to be precise), and a prolific and much-honored crime writer. Gilbert's novel Smallbone Deceased (1950), about a dead body that turns up in a solicitors' office, not only wrings a convincing mystery out of the minutiae of conveyancing, but it also includes some delightful jabs at the foibles of law as practised in a Lincoln's Inn solicitors' firm. And that makes of the novel a social comedy in addition to a mystery.

Back in America, that great writer of paperback originals (and some hardbacks, too, I think) Charles Williams devoted a considerable chunk of his output to crime novels set in the world of sailing and featuring lone-wolf, man-on-the-run sailor protagonists. His titles in this category include Scorpion Reef, Aground, Dead Calm, And the Deep Blue Sea. and The Sailcloth Shroud.

A boat with two or three people aboard (or three at first, then two) makes a great setting for a locked-room mystery. If the ship sails between and outside various nations' territorial waters, one has built-in ingredients of international intrigue. The tension between the different demands of life on ship and life ashore adds another element not present in mysteries set solely on dry land. And the minutiae of shipboard life, like the minutiae of the law in Michael Gilbert's novels, become both a plot element and an exciting new setting for the reader.

Williams served ten years in the Merchant Marine and later worked at a shipyard. Is the picture his novels offer not just of shipboard life, but of life aboard several distinct types of ships authentic? Who knows; authenticity is not fiction's job. But the books sure are convincing. Now, your turn: What are your favorite crime stories in when the author's mastery of given subject makes the book what it is?
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Martin Edwards will discuss Michael Gilbert and Eric Beetner will say a few words about Charles Williams on a panel I'll moderate at Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans next month. The panel is called "From Hank to Hendrix: Beyond Chandler and Hammett: Lesser Known Writers of the Pulp and Paperback Original Eras," and it happens at 9 a.m., Thursday, Sept. 15, at the Marriott, 555 Canal St., New Orleans. The room is LaGalleries 1. See you. The Fantastic Fiction Web site includes bibliographies for both Michael Gilbert and Charles Williams.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Monday, August 15, 2016

Richard S. Prather and Stephen Marlowe, or What are your favorite author team-ups and cross-overs?

As much as I love Richard S. Prather's extravagant descriptions of luxuriantly appointed women ("She'd just turned twenty one, but had obviously signaled for the turn a long time ago."), they can wear thin over the length of a novel. And the one book by Stephen Marlowe I had tried to read before last week gave me a headache with its political yammering.

But when Prather's Shell Scott and Marlowe's Chester Drum teamed up for Double in Trouble in 1959, the excess flew out the window, each author concentrated on what I presume he did best, and the contrast between the ebullient Scott and the somber Drum provides extra fun.  Marlowe's descriptions of women who catch Drum's eye seem touchingly chaste next to Prather's enthusiasm, for one. (The novel alternates chapters narrated by Scott and Drum. I assume Prather wrote the Scott chapters and Marlowe the Drums, but who knows? Maybe each took a stab at the other's style.)

I don't know Marlowe's style well enough to judge whether he altered it all for Double in Trouble. But one of Prather's descriptions leavens the joy with a bit of concern. The result is just beautiful, screwy but affecting and empathetic, and it may be my favorite description of them all:
"She was a big, healthy tomato with plenty of tomato juice in her, but somehow without all the usual seasonings."
Your turn now. What are your favorite crime-fiction collaborations, particularly if they involve both authors' characters teaming up? Why do you like them?

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Tommy Red and Charlie Stella

New Jersey's own Charlie Stella holds unsound views about bagels, but he writes good books.

His latest, Tommy Red, is a bit more somber than his previous eight novels, but that only adds to the impression that Stella's low- to mid-level gangsters and cops are people, too, worried about their families, about the future, about the jobs they have to do.

Charlie Stella. Photo by
Peter Rozovsky for
Detectives Beyond Borders.
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By no means, though, is Stella any kind of a believer in moral equivalence. His anger against law enforcement use of informants is an undertone throughout his books, sometimes boiling over into righteous explosions.

But the situational jokes outnumber the explosions. I've written about all his novels; read my blog posts here. Then read the books and enjoy the jokes. And pity their author, who has yet to taste a Montreal bagel.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Sunday, August 07, 2016

My Bouchercon 2016 panel: Meet Peter Rabe

Peter Rabe's gangster/fixer characters seem driven toward confrontations with their bosses that do not generally end well (though Daniel Port, the political fixer of the Glass Key-like Dig My Grave Deep, [1956] survived his confrontation long enough to feature in a series of novels.)

The Box (1962), A Shroud for Jesso (1955), and, believe it or not, Kill the Boss Good-By (1956), also turn on conflicts between ambitious underlings and the top men who punish them or stand in their way.   Can you imagine what sort of father-figure  psychobabble Ross Macdonald would have wrung out of material like that?  Rabe, a trained and practicing psychologist, on the other hand, avoided Macdonald's embarrassing amateur Freudianism, concocting instead stories of men who, while not necessarily trapped, just do what they have to, as dictated by their temperament, or circumstances, or ambition.

It's harder to find crime-fiction parallels for Rabe than it is for some authors, perhaps because, with two exceptions, Rabe said his influences came from outside crime fiction. (One of those two exceptions was Dashiell Hammett, so you know he had good taste.)

If you don't know Rabe or his work, this 1989 interview with him is a good place to start. If you do know Rabe, you may find his admiring comments about Donald Westlake especially interesting. Rabe also comes across as surprisingly genial for a man whose life included escape from Germany to avoid the Nazis, a false diagnosis of a terminal disease, several marriages and divorces, and ups and downs in his writing career that eventually led him so stop writing for publication. The man seems to have been pretty well adjusted for a psychologist.

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Rick Ollerman will talk about Peter Rabe as part of my panel called "From Hank to Hendrix: Beyond Chandler and Hammett: Lesser Known Writers of the Pulp and Paperback Original Eras" at Bouchercon 2016. It happens at 9 a.m., Thursday, Sept. 15, at the Marriott, 555 Canal St., New Orleans, Room LaGalleries 1.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016 

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Friday, August 05, 2016

DBB meets Dolores Hitchens

I first read Dolores Hitchens while preparing for a panel I moderated at Bouchercon 2014 in Long Beach, the first of my Beyond Chandler and Hammett sessions focusing on lesser-known crime writers from the middle of the twentieth century. Hitchens will be among the subject of this year's version of the panel at Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans next month, and this pre-Long Breach post captures nicely why I like these panels so much: I get to read, experience, and come to grips with authors new to me.
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A friend sent along Dolores Hitchens' 1955 novel Sleep With Strangers because of its setting in Long Beach, site of Bouchercon 2014. Indeed, the book is even more evocative of its setting than is that other great Long Beach crime novel, Paul Cain's Fast One.

Hitchens is new to me, so naturally I start out thinking of her in terms of other crime writers her work evokes, and those writers are two of the best.  Hitchens' compassion for characters who lead marginal existences reminds me of David Goodis, particularly The Street on the Corner [At this late date, I don't remember if I meant The Blonde on the Street Corner or The Street of No Return. The latter, I suspect.] and Cassidy's Girl, and her dissection of family life in California brings to mind The Big Sleep. (Ed Gorman's discussion of Sleeps With Strangers invokes Ross Macdonald. I've never warmed to Macdonald, but I suspect that what Gorman sees as Macdonaldish is what I see as Chandlerlike. In any case, that's another illustrious name associated with Hitchens.)

The novel's opening is an atmospheric, moody, tension-filled inversion of the usual scene in which a P.I. meets a client, and it hooked me on Hitchens right away. (The client is named Kay Wanderley.  "Wonderly," of course, is the name Brigid O'Shaughnessy uses when she first calls on Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Homage? Coincidence? Either way, it's more good fictional company for Dolores Hitchens.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2014, 2016

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Thursday, August 04, 2016

My Bouchercon 2016 panel: Odds Against Tomorrow

The New York Times was right: William P. McGivern's 1957 men-on-the-run novel Odds Against Tomorrow is "a powerfully exciting action-melodrama." Let's look at the last part of that description.

Melodrama fell out of favor in the middle of last century, perhaps after French movie critics came up with a fancier name for the mid-century American movies that were called melodramas when they first appeared. The French called them films noirs and unleashed a wave of cultural cachet that swept up everything in its path.

So, what's melodramatic about Odds Against Tomorrow?: Two men, one white, one black, thrown together when a bank heist goes wrong and forced to overcome mutual hatred and suspicion and yadda, yadda, yadda (McGivern's novel was the basis of the 1959 movie starring Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan and produced by Belafonte.)  What saves the novel from being a brave, dated relic? Astonishing characterization like this:
"He wasn't worried about failure, because he didn't have the imagination to picture disaster in vivid and personal terms."
The taut professionalism of McGivern's work. The repetition of certain words that work through, with, under, and around the narrative, reinforcing it and building suspense: Confused. Confusion. Unconscious (impressions).  Co-protagonist Earl Slater's invocation of his military background. Johnny Ingram's cool. Some delicious plotting, much of it involving the interpersonal dynamics between Slater and Ingram.  The canny decision to add a brief coda so the novel does not end on the somewhat schmaltzy note that brings the main action to a close.  McGivern knew what he was doing.

(Poster by Jon Jordan)
(McGivern also wrote the novels on which the movies Rogue Cop and Fritz Lang's classic The Big Heat were based.)
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Eric Beetner will discuss William McGivern as part of a panel I'll moderate at Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans in September. The panel is called "From Hank to Hendrix: Beyond Chandler and Hammett: Lesser Known Writers of the Pulp and Paperback Original Eras," and it happens at 9 a.m., Thursday, Sept. 15, at the Marriott, 555 Canal St., New Orleans. The room is LaGalleries 1. See you.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Tuesday, August 02, 2016

My Bouchercon 2016 panel: The Scene, by Clarence Cooper Jr.

Clarence Cooper Jr.'s 1960 novel The Scene is so harrowing and so heartbreaking in places that a careless reader might be tempted to call the novel authentic and leave it at that.

Cooper was a heroin addict who spent much of his short life in prison, and the scene of the novel's title is a neighborhood and a state of being not just controlled but defined by heroin.  Cooper may well have written out of firsthand knowledge, but what makes The Scene great are the sympathetic detachment it displays toward its many significant characters, its cunningly fragmented narrative, and its sly allusions to crime fiction conventions.

It takes a gifted writer to get away with all that. It takes a writer at least bordering on great to get away with all that and make it serve the story the novel has to tell.  It's early days yet, but The Scene may be my crime fiction discovery of the year.

========================
Poster by Jon Jordan
Gary Phillips will discuss Clarence Cooper Jr. as part of a panel I'll moderate at Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans in September. The panel is called "From Hank to Hendrix: Beyond Chandler and Hammett: Lesser Known Writers of the Pulp and Paperback Original Eras," and it happens at 9 a.m., Thursday, Sept. 15, at the Marriott, 555 Canal St., New Orleans. The room is LaGalleries 1. See you all there.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Sunday, July 31, 2016

My Bouchercon 2016 panel: Michael Gilbert, plus bipartisan political vacuousness

A piece of gaseous conservative slogan-mongering in the National Review brought to mind Michael Gilbert's taking the piss out of a similar piece of gaseous liberal slogan mongering in his 1965 story "The Spoilers."  As a nonpartisan break from campaign-season brain rot, here's a post about Gilbert and politics.
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Thc occasional politically tinged passages that work their way into Michael Gilbert's stories about Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens are not always the most subtle, the hyperbole put in the mouths of young, speechifying men of leftish inclination especially wince-making (“Freedom,” said Tabor. “You’re prepared to accept inefficiency, selfishness, slackness, lack of purpose, timidity and greed – provided you have on the other side of the scales a fictitious thing called freedom.”).

But the books appeared in an unsubtle time (1966 and 1967) at least as prone to lunatic hyperbole as political discussion is now. Besides, politics and ideology are small presences in these tightly plotted, delightfully told stories. And, since today's readers want positive news, I thought I'd share a jab as pertinent and just as delicious today it was in the mid-1960s. It's from "The Spoilers," which appears in the collection Games Without Rules:
“`We’re getting so security-minded,' said Miss Nicholson, `that we might as well be living in a totalitarian state, under the control of the Gestapo.'

“Miss Nicholson, who was an intellectual liberal, often said things like this in letters to the Press and at public meetings, possibly because she had never lived in a totalitarian state and had no experience of the Gestapo."
Now, good readers, tell me your favorite political jabs from crime stories. Be a good sport, and tell me especially about lines with whose point of view you may disagree.
***
As noted above, ideology does not bulk large in these stories. The powers against whom Calder, Behrens, and their fellow intelligence officers work are referred to far more often simply as Russia or China than as communists or commies, never, that I can recall, as "evil" or "Rooskies" and only once as "reds." More typical are non-ideological barbs such as this, from "The Spoilers":
"Mr. Calder, considering the matter, was inclined to agree. He knew that in certain branches of the Security Services, sexual irregularity was considered a good deal worse than crime and nearly as bad as ideological deviation."
or jabs at features of English life that Gilbert probably wished were in a higher state than they were. From "The Cat Crackers":
“`Splendid,” said the professor. `We will sit all afternoon and talk.'

“`Not in an English pub, you won’t,' said Tabor."
or this, from "The Headmaster," which sounds more than a bit like P.G. Wodehouse:
"The Hambone Club in Carver Street is the offspring of that eccentric aristocrat, Sir Rawnsley Clayton. Having been turned out of the Athenaeum for giving dinner there to a troupe of clowns, he had founded it as a place where he could meet his more bohemian acquaintances. It was still much used by actors and writers, but had acquired a solid addition of politicians who found the Carlton too stuffy and of soldiers who found the Senior too exclusive."
Gilbert, an Englishman who died in 2006, was both a Cartier Diamond Dagger winner and a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master.  Here's Martin Edwards on Gilbert. The highest compliment of all, however, and the most pertinent to this post, may come from Joe Gores, who wrote:
"A critic once remarked that Maugham's Ashenden is the finest collection of espionage fiction ever written. That critic is wrong. The honor goes to Michael Gilbert's Game Without Rules, and to its twelve-story sequel, Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens."
=======================
Martin Edwards accepts
his 2016 Best Critical/
Biographical Edgar
Award for The Golden
Age of Murder
. Photo
by Peter Rozovsky.
========
Martin Edwards will discuss Michael Gilbert as part of a panel I'll moderate at Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans in September. The panel is called "From Hank to Hendrix: Beyond Chandler and Hammett: Lesser Known Writers of the Pulp and Paperback Original Eras," and it happens at 9 a.m., Thursday, Sept. 15, at the Marriott, 555 Canal St., New Orleans. The room is LaGalleries 1. See you there.

See the compete Bouchercon panel schedule at
http://www.bouchercon2016.com/#!schedule/c8k7

 
© Peter Rozovsky 2014, 2016

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Saturday, July 30, 2016

My Bouchercon 2016 panel: Rogue cops, fool's gold, and more!!!

I have the singular honor of being the first name on the panel schedule for Bouchercon 2016. That's because I'm moderating a session at 9 a.m., Thursday, Sept. 15, and it's a good one.

The panel is From Hank to Hendrix: Beyond Chandler and Hammett: Lesser Known Writers of the Pulp and Paperback Original Eras. This is the third year I'll moderate this panel, in which authors, critics, and editors discuss their favorite lesser-known crime writers of the past. The sessions always expand my appreciation of crime's fiction's range, and this year is no exception.

The panelists for 2016 are: Patti Abbott, Eric Beetner, Martin Edwards, Rick Ollerman, and Gary Phillips, and they already have me reading authors new to me. So come see us in LaGalleries 1, in the Marriott, 555 Canal St., New Orleans, 9 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 15.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Democratically conventional post

Photos by Peter Rozovsky
for Detectives Beyond Borders
Sixteen years ago, when the Republican National Convention came to Philadelphia, I used a one-day press pass from my paper to spend a day on site. I saw placards being placed beneath chairs on the convention floor in preparation for that evening's spontaneous  displays of enthusiasm. I walked through the media tent and saw Michael Medved at his table, though Oliver North was away from his.

I rode on the back of a golf cart with Linda Chavez, conservative commentator and future failed nominee for labor secretary. She was intelligent and an eager conversationalist and, showing bipartisan openheartedness rare since Richard Nixon, said she had been to national conventions of both major parties and admitted that Democrats party better than Republicans.

No such one-day passes were available for this year's Democratic convention, thanks to security reasons, so my closest contact with the convention has taken the form of traffic jams, detoured buses, and the observation that a subway car full of Democrats looks much like a subway car full of Republicans, except that the Democrats have healthier complexions. Oh, and signs and other political bric a brac around town, including the T-shirt I bought from a vendor on Market Street for a surprisingly low price. Here are a few photos of my experience, at several removes from reality, of the 2016 Democratic National Convention.



© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Hammett wrote "It"; you should read it

Dashiell Hammett's story "It" appeared in Black Mask in November 1923, a month after "Crooked Souls," two months before "The Tenth Clew," and five months before "The House in Turk Street" kicked off the high point of Hammett's short fiction.

Three of those stories are included in the Library of America's volume of Hammett's crime stories and other writings. "It" is not included, which is one reason to look for it in Mysterious Press' reissue of all Hammett's Continental Op stories.

"It" is a bit talkier than some of Hammett's short stories, but the talk has the Op and his interlocutors trying to hash out the case in question (a man's disappearance), and Hammett makes of it a pretty good mystery. In this case, the talkiness is, arguably, a plus. The story also offers the novelty of placing the big summing-up-the-crime scene (remember Sam Spade's speech to Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon?) at the beginning of the story rather than near the end.

Throw in the deadpan wit that Hammett had already perfected from his earliest published work, plus a wry existential final line, and you have a story that deserves a place with Hammett's best short fiction.
*
“`Yes, we were pretty good friends, but not especially thick. You know what I mean: we had a lot of fun together but neither of us meant anything to the other outside of that. Dan is a good sport—and so am I.'

“Mrs. Earnshaw wasn’t so frank. But she had a husband, and that makes a difference.”
 © Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Monday, July 25, 2016

Rabe on (It's a crazy feeling)

I'm about to begin reading Time Enough to Die, which Donald Westlake called the only good novel of the six books by Peter Rabe that featured a tough guy and political fixer named Daniel Port. (Westlake regarded Rabe as a formative influence on his own crime writing. He just didn't like the Port books much.) In the meantime, here's a post from back when I first read Rabe.
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 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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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Lionel White and definitely established mathematical odds: A classic heist novel revisited

Sixteen months after I made this post about the wince-making first scene of Lionel White's novel Clean Break (filmed by Stanley Kubrick as The Killing), I went back and read the whole novel; it's a hell of a novel. Rick Ollerman was right to invoke Richard Stark's Parker books in his comment below. The Killing (1955), and also White's The Big Caper, from the same year, are like Parker novels such as The Score, with their emphasis on the build-up to a heist and the ever present danger of interpersonal complications. White's story stays closer to film noir's roots in melodrama than Stark does, and the narrative pace is faster, but if you like one, you're liable to like the other. White appears to have published at least four novels in 1955. Perhaps the haste of publication deprived the book of the editorial scrutiny that would have remedied to faults I highlight in the post. \
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 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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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"Kamilla grinned and head-butted him": A look at Paul Brazill's latest

Back in December 2014, I praised Paul Brazill's Guns of Brixton for not pretending to be "anything but a comic romp, a kind of high-spirited musical without music, albeit one full of violence, the threat thereof, and all sorts of unpleasant bodily effluvia, whether the result of gun blasts or not."

I'm not yet finished reading that novel's follow-up, the brand-new Cold London Blues, but a few snippets suggest that this one will be as much fun as GOB:
"A group of drunken middle-aged men in Manchester United football shirts staggered out of a Thai restaurant shouting racial abuse at an angry looking chef who was chasing them out and wielding a machete.

"‘Ah, Northern scum,’ said Tim. ‘Cultural ambassadors.’

"‘Indeed,’ said Gregor, in the clipped RP English usually only found in 1940s public information films. ‘Unfortunately, at certain times of year, they infest the streets of this great city like lice.’"
and
"Father Tim slammed one of them in the Adam's apple with his fist and then kicked him in the groin."
and
"Kamilla grinned and head-butted him."
Add an occasional jab at Cool Britannia and at noisy cafés, and I feel like I know England even better than I do when I'm there.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Sunday, July 17, 2016

Pufferfish: Return of the world's prickliest detective

David Owen's Franz "Pufferfish" Heineken, the prickly detective inspector in Hobart, capital of the Australian state of Tasmania, is back, his prickliness mellowed into wry, sardonic observation and acceptance that just rarely flare into open rebellion. In compensation, 13-Point Plan for a Perfect Murder is a terrific mystery and a tragedy and a comedy at the same time, with amusing and affecting allusions and references to George Eliot thrown in.

As always, the wit is here. as in the description of a polo club as
"a strange but beguiling rather than tacky mixture of showy wealth and understated environmentally conscious good taste."
or
"Another little session of silence, which seems to bemuse Brody Hearn somewhat. It;s calling thinking, son."
As a bonus, the novel answers my one complaint about Devil Taker (1997), the fourth Pufferfish novel and the last before the character returned in 2009. Owen is also a naturalist who has written several book on endangered species in Tasmania, where he lives, and I thought Devil Taker let that interest crowd out the crime.

13-Point-Plan
, by contrast, introduces interesting information about the animal and plant life of Tasmania unobtrusively and always in ways relevant to the plot. Readers might be amused that his description of Tasmanian devils, related in an utterly straightforward way, is very close to the fictional Tasmanian devil that many of us know.
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I've liked Pufferfish for years, since I read the character's explanation of the moniker thus: "The nickname's Pufferfish. A prickly, toxic bastard, ability to inflate and even explode when severely provoked." Read my previous Detective Beyond Borders posts about Pufferfish (click the link, and scroll down.)

And should you happen to be near Hobart this Thursday, July 21, visit Fullers Bookshop for the novel's launch.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

How a book for reluctant readers might help reluctant writers, plus a cover photo by me

My latest cover photo with accompanying novel has landed.  Linda L. Richards' When Blood Lies, like the book that supports  my previous cover shot, Reed Farrel Coleman's Love and Fear, is part of Orca Books' Rapid Reads line.

I've known the author for a few years, and I wrote about her 2008 novel Death Was the Other Woman, a Sam Spade-like story told from an Effie Perrine-like character's point of view. The Dashiell Hammett love continues here. The protagonist is named Nicole Charles, and the book's epigraph is a nod to The Thin Man.

Linda L. Richards
Rapid Reads target "a diverse audience, including ESL students, reluctant readers, adults who struggle with literacy and anyone who wants a high-interest quick read," and I can add reluctant writers to that potential audience.

I am one such, and the brevity of these books, plus their stripped-down narrative, vocabulary, or both make it easier for me to see how the authors build their plots and what they do to keep the story going. Since plot is not the strong point of my occasional efforts at fiction, I took mental notes as I read Richards' and Coleman's books. Perhaps other would-be writers who want to learn how to build a story could do the same.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Marlon James and Viet Thanh Nguyen: Why is one's work considered crime fiction and the other's not?

I recently read two novels that won big literary awards, and I thought highly of both. One of the books is very much a crime novel, the other is not, yet it was the non-crime novel that won this year's Edgar Award for best first novel from the Mystery Writers of America.

That novel, Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer, I wrote:
"includes two killings of the kind that presumably would be investigated by local authorities if they happened in the real rather than a fictional California, but there is no such investigation in The Sympathizer. Nor do the protagonist's reaction to and thoughts about those crimes constitute a major component of the narrative. Significant, yes. Thematically dominant, no.

"Rather, the novel's generic affinities are from the very first sentence with the espionage novel, which has long led a comfortable co-existence with crime fiction. Still, I suspect that few readers will regard
The Sympathizer as a spy story. Indeed, the subject does not come up in an interview with Nguyen included as an appendix to the Grove Press trade paperback edition of the novel. Rather, the book is a political novel, a novel of immigration, a novel about Vietnam, a novel about the United States, about the perils and exigencies of moving between the two, about the equivocal (at best) nature of revolutions, and, most important, about the illusory nature of binary opposition, whether between American and Vietnamese, European and Asian, communist and its opposite, or what have you."
Yet the MWA gave the novel an Edgar Award that the author can hang on his wall next to his 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The action of Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings, on the other hand, is set in motion by a real-life crime reimagined: the 1976 assassination attempt against Bob Marley. It includes scenes of gang and drug violence in Jamaica and New York, and its story of a crime's ripple effects is something like that told in James Ellroy's A Cold Six Thousand or perhaps Don Winslow's Savages, yet James has no Edgar or Dagger Awards to hang next to the 2015 Man Booker Prize he won for A Brief History ...

I don't suppose it matters much in which category one places these two fine books, but I wonder why Nguyen's achieved purchase in the crime fiction world while James' achieved none, at least in that part of the crime fiction world that gives out awards. Did Nguyen's publishers make a conscious decision to promote the book as crime? Did James' make a conscious decision not to do so? And does it matter?

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Monday, July 11, 2016

The Longue Goodbye and more photos from Noir at the Bar in New York

Rick Ollerman enjoys a
moment of nail-biting
suspense. Photos by
Peter Rozovsky for
Detectives Beyond
Borders.
Here are more photos from Sunday's Noir at the Bar in New York along with the other story I read there. I've included a face from earlier in the day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that would not have been out of place at the reading. (See if you can spot the interloper.)  See my other story and the first batch of photos on the previous post here at Detectives Beyond Borders.)
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The Longue Goodbye


Nick Kolakowski, Suzanne Solomon.
I pushed open the door to the pool deck and inhaled chlorine and death. Fen slumped in the chase lounge. He looked smaller and sicker than he had when I'd seen him three days before.

Hellenistic dramatic mask
Spit and blood caked around his broken mouth, and for a moment I thought he was dead. "Got anything to tell me, Fen?" I knelt by the chair.


Jeff Markowitz
His lips cracked when he tried to talk, and I knew Fen was more than halfway to where he was going. I leaned closer.

"It's chaise longue, not chase lounge, you illiterate fuck," he said. "It means long chair."


Jen Conley
He died happy.
— Peter Rozovsky


Albert Tucher, Jen Conley, Suzanne Solomon, Terrence McCauley
© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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