Saturday, January 14, 2017

What makes this great beginning great?

Here's how Lester Dent opens Chapter Three of his 1956 novel Honey in His Mouth:
"The hospital was as noisy a place as Harsh had ever been in."
To my mind that's one of the best opening sentences ever. Do you agree? If so, why? Disagree? If so, why?
© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Why "Underworld, U.S.A." is better than "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (the movie)

My recent observation on Facebook about two crime movies turned into a symposium on movies, books, style, history, and other interesting subjects with comments from some of the sharpest crime fiction minds I know. The movies were Underworld, U.S.A. and The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I called the former superior because it wastes fewer words. Here are highlights of what ensued:

Michael Carlson attributed my observation to the writing style of the novel on which Eddie Coyle was based. "That's [George V. ] Higgins," he wrote. "There's more words, but I wouldn't call them wasted."  Fair point, except that the movie isn't Higgins, or at least not just Higgins. It's also Peter Yates, who directed the movie, and Robert Mitchum, who starred. among others.

Mike Dennis, commenting in his Don Donovan persona, called the movie version of Eddie Coyle "IMHO, one of the greatest noirs of all time ... without question, Robert Mitchum's finest hour." He's half-right. Mitchum does what words on a page cannot: His physical eloquence and facial expressions alone make the character. As good as the rest of the movie is, nothing else in it comes close to doing what movies alone can do.  The rest of the movie is at best a good adaptation of a good or great or seminal crime novel.

Underworld, U.S.A., on the other hand, is full of cinematic touches: shots lingering on nervous eyes, atmospheric lighting, and such. Scott Adlerberg, a novelist who lectures regularly on movies, understood this when he wrote:
"I like the Eddie Coyle film, but Underworld, U.S.A. is definitely the better film, in my view. But Sam Fuller is indeed a great director, one of the best crime/action directors of them all, and solid as Peter Yates is, he's no Fuller when it comes to packing a cinematic punch. Still, those two movies are hard to compare because their styles are so different. Fuller's the master of pulpy tabloid style, very kinetic crime stories, and Eddie Coyle is, as said here, the flip side, to all that."
I take Scott's comment as supporting my position for two reasons: One is that he speaks more knowledgeably than I can about Samuel Fuller's superiority as a director. The other is that with the exception of Scott's comments and, to a lesser extent, Mike Dennis/Don Donovan's, the commenters replied to my (perceived) slight of Eddie Coyle the movie by defending Eddie Coyle the book. What does that tell you about the movie?

And that gets to my problem with Higgins and, to a lesser extent, Elmore Leonard. I love any number of crime writers who swear allegiance to Higgins and Leonard -- Charlie Stella, Garbhan Downey, John McFetridge, and Declan Burke, to name a few -- but I've never warmed to Higgins' crime novels, and I don't know why.   Have I grown so accustomed to working-stiff gangsters who can crack a joke without necessarily knowing they're being funny that I fail to appreciate the writer who created the type? Has Higgins perhaps not aged as well as he night have? Your thoughts on the matter are welcome.

In the meantime, here's some of what Stella posted on Facebook:
"You know where I stand on Higgins (you fucking communist!) :) but to be fair, there are a number of his other works I had (to quote William Buckley discussing Atlas Shrugged) “to flog myself” to finish (and some never were finished). That said (you fucking communist!), I’ll have to read the other author you mentioned. The musings on the Boston common, if I’m thinking about the same scene, I’m pretty sure is Dillon (not Doyle) … I read a bio on Higgins last summer (I think) … the guy had issues, no doubt, and he probably would’ve hated me and my politics, but I remain a sycophant to his dialogue and ability to portray what the real world of organized crime was like (very different from the horseshit in The Godfather, for instance)."
And here's what he has to see about Higgins, in a guest post at The Rap Sheet .

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Saturday, December 24, 2016

What turns a good joke into a good story?

I asked that question Friday on Facebook, and some fascinating replies ensued. I wanted to know how crime writers make a story work despite an improbable conceit, and also how they make their stories something more than nonstop yukfests.

Garbhan Downey, whose novels and stories about Derry in Northern Ireland I've written about often, said: "I just watch the news, then dial it back to something more plausible."

John McFetridge, whose crime novels set in Montreal and Toronto are unmatched in their seamless combination of story, history, and character, has this to say about the wild Christopher Brookmyre: "Lots of humor and some improbable conceits but they do work. Very good character development is the reason why, I think."

David Magayna, a big wheel behind Bouchercons, says: "I'd recommend Lawrence Shames and Carl Hiaasen. I believe they make their stories work because among all the absurdity there is enough truth about human nature. ... I think those who do it well, blend it in with the natural elements of the story: plot, setting, character development. I don't think they lead with humor, but incorporate it where they can."

"Plot," said David Biemann, to which McFetridge responded, "Yes, I think the plot is important, too. Brookmyre is very good at grounding his characters and plots in mostly believable, everyday stuff so the more improbable conceits don't overwhelm the book."

Mary Harris had this to say about Donald Westlake's Dortmunder novels: "The characters, hapless ones in Westlake's case, react to ridiculous situations in a way they think is normal."

Travis Richardson mentioned Jim Thompson's great novel Pop. 1280, about which I added that "Everyone mentions Jim Thompson's nightmare visions, but no one seems to talk about his dark, dark humor. What sets Thompson's psychopaths apart is the deadpan way in which they think themselves normal. That can be pretty funny."

Elsewhere on this blog, I call Pop. 1280 "Dark, hilarious, a stunning performance that sustains its mood in every word, far and away the best of Thompson's work that I've read." So, good choice, Travis.

I asked the question for a personal reason. Several years ago I encountered a series of sights around which I built an improbable and entertaining situation without, however, thinking about turning into a story. Where was the conflict that could turn the funny situation into a funny story? What makes the result a story rather than a drawn-out SNL sketch? The e-mail part of this discussion got me started on the story, and the comments here and on Facebook will stay with me as I write. It gets published, and you'll all get acknowledgments. Thanks, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and enjoy the season.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Friday, December 16, 2016

"Merry Christmas to All, and to All a Goodis Night" (An annual holiday tradition)

Turn over, baby. You’re burning up," she cooed. “Let me do your front.”

 The fat red man purred. Then he opened his mouth and screamed. He awoke from the dream jammed down the chimney, flames licking at his back. From above, a shaft of weak, sooty light and murmured voices.

 “But, Rudy, what about—”

“Leave the fat guy. I’m out of here. Who’s with me?”

“I’m in,” a voice said.



"You on, Dancer? Prancer? Vixen? Comet? Good. Let’s go.”

 Back down in hell, the fat red man shut his eyes and heard them exclaim as they drove out of sight …

— Peter Rozovsky 
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Don't hold it against Adrian McKinty that he can write

I have begun browsing Police at the Station and They Don't Look Friendly, sixth of Adrian McKinty's novels about Northern Ireland police officer Sean Duffy. Ian Rankin loves these books, and he's not wrong; I'm a fan, too.

I've read far too little of Police at the Station ... to write a review, and, since I'm reading an advance reading copy, I'm honor-bound not to quote from it in any case. I can tell you, however, that the book demonstrates once again McKinty's flair for suspenseful, funny surprisingly lyrical opening scenes, sometimes all at once, other times in varying proportions. This latest is up there with the opening chapters of Cold Cold Ground, Rain Dogs, I Hear the Sirens in the Street, and Fifty Grand. Moreover, the parts of his books that come after the first chapters are pretty good, too.

Adrian McKinty. Photo by Peter
Rozovsky for Detectives
Beyond Borders
Reviewers praise crime novels for their plots, their themes, their characters, their sociology, their psychology, their politics, their settings, their conformity with or deviation from trends, where they fit in the publishing landscape, and whether or not they're from Scandinavia.

Writing? That doesn't get mentioned much. I suspect this is because reviewers and other people are uncomfortable talking about writing at best or wouldn't know good writing if they saw it at worst.  McKinty has noted something like a puritanical aversion in some writing  circles to writing that exists for its own sake, that shows off a little. He is not constrained that way in his own work, which is one reason you should read him. That, and all that good stuff about Northern Ireland, and the jokes.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Saturday, December 10, 2016

A post about Angel Colón's "No Happy Endings" that includes just one ejaculation/masturbation joke

Angel Colón reads.
Photos by Peter Rozovsky
Good fun was had by all at Friday's launch of Angel Colón's new novel at Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan. We also had at least as good a time afterward, the novel's title to the contrary. The book is called No Happy Endings, a reference to the (planned) sperm-bank heist that drives the plot. Our evening, on the other hand, ended in good fellowship, crepes, and wine in the West Village.

Look closely. That vessel next to
the book is not a gift-set jam jar.
Wine was served at the launch in plastic specimen cups (Angel got them cheap), and the evening included its share of ejaculation jokes, but I was more impressed by the author's distinguishing the novel's very human protagonist from the other lead character he writes about, the ex-IRA hard man Blacky Jaguar. "Blacky's a cartoon," Colón said.

Fantine Park, on the other hand, the new book's protagonist, is an epigone: She's not nearly the safe cracker her mother was. And her relationship with her father (said Colón and some attendees who had read the book) is a thread running through the novel and one reason I'm looking forward to reading it. Farce and character is not always an easy combination to, er, pull off, and I'll be eager to see how Colón does it here.

From left: Scott Adlerberg, Angel Colón, Dave White
Later a gang that included Colón; his wife, Jeanette; Scott Adlerberg; Suzanne Solomon; Jen Conley; and me repaired to Shade Bar for dinner, drinks, and conversation that ranged over Shakespeare, politics, crime writing, the teaching of history, and (says Jen) Nine Inch Nails and Donald Trump. The most excellent bartender, Laurie, remembered my name, Todd Robinson showed up, and I realized that I dig hanging out with gregarious, intelligent, opinionated New Yorkers. I was feeling so expansive that I passed up the 10-year aged tawny port and bought myself a glass of the 20-year instead.

For me, though, the evening's most trenchant observation came from Scott as we rode the subway from the bookstore to the bar. True crime, said this crime writer, is depressing in its brutality, banality, and stupidity, if I recall his words correctly. Crime fiction, he said, avoids this because it is highly stylized. That is the most thought-provoking observation I've heard about crime fiction in quite some time, and I'll be thinking about it and quoting it.  So thanks, Scott.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Sunday, December 04, 2016

Max Allan Collins has fun with history

Max Allan Collins has his usual fun with history in Quarry in the Black, published in 2016 and set in 1972, during the Richard Nixon-George McGovern presidential campaign.

One example is Quarry's dismissive reference to Watergate as a third-burglary — fun because that echoes Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler's dismissal of the scandal that would bring his boss down, and also because Collins is a liberal Democrat.

In a grimmer vein, the novel cites a legacy of anti-black discrimination in Ferguson, Mo., a suburb I suspect many people never heard of before the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, 42 years after the time of the novel's setting.

Max Allan Collins.
Photos by Peter
Historical novelists, or those who simply set their books in the best without necessarily exploring that past seriously, have the disadvantage of hindsight: They know how the history turned out, and their job then becomes to wield that knowledge lightly, to remember at all times that the characters cannot possibly know what the author does. Collins' Ferguson passages veer close to bookishness, to my mind, but the Watergate references as well as an allusion to Rosa Parks are delightful, a wink from Collins to his readers right over the unsuspecting heads of his characters.

Your question is who else does this well? Who else writes crime fiction set in the past, uses history lightly, and never forgets that the characters do not know how events will shake out? John Lawton provides a beautiful example in A Little White Death. Who else does it as well or almost as well?

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Crime writers I have shot in November

Rob Brunet (right) and me (left) in Toronto.
I shot him right in his kitchen.
I haven't read many crime writers the past few weeks, but I have shot a bunch of them. I shot them in the street, I shot them in public places, and I shot them in their homes.   One of them had a broken ankle by the time I left, though he also had a broken ankle when I arrived.

John McFetridge at the Art
Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. I
shot him at the museum.

Clea Simon with Jon Garelick in
Harvard Square, Cambridge.
I shot them at the bookstore.
Linda L. Richards and your humble blopkeeper
captured by a young crime writer about whom you
may hear much in the near future. She shot us
in a bar.
That's all OK; some of them shot me.

(Click this link and this one for more crime writers I've shot so recently that the forensics results are not back from the lab yet.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2016
Rob Brunet almost fell on his ass
answering the door. I shot him anyhow.

Linda took me up to a gorgeous bridge
in Vancouver. Then she shot us both.

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Monday, November 21, 2016

Detectives Beyond the U.S.-Canada Border

In Stanley Park, Vancouver.
Photo by Linda L. Richards

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Monday, November 07, 2016

Crime in Vancouver

Museum of Anthropology at the University of British
Columbia. Photos by Peter Rozovsky for Detectives
Beyond Borders
Montreal-style bagels in Vancouver
I've just spent six days in Vancouver, one evening at a Noir at the Bar that also served as a book launch, another at a question-and-answer session with four local crime writers at the Vancouver Public Library, and part of an afternoon at a crime fiction bookshop. (Yes, Philadelphians, some cities have those.)  Oh, and I shot the photo that became the poster used to promote the Noir at the Bar.

Sam Wiebe
Janie Chang
The bookstore was Dead Write Books, and the book that received its unofficial launch was Fast Women and Neon Lights, a collection of stories inspired by the 1980s. Michael Pool, who put the collection together, read at the Noir at the Bar, as did Dietrich Kalteis, Linda L. Richards, Will Viharo, and Sam Wiebe, all of whom contributed stories to the volume.  I also did some non-crime stuff.

Will Viharo

Dietrich Kalteis

Lions Gate Bridge
Sam Wiebe, Michael Pool, Linda L. Richards,
Will Viharo

Lions Gate Bridge

© Peter Rozovsky 2016
"Double Meditation on Looking: Linda 2016." Digital
iPhone print, artist's private collection

Sam Wiebe, Dietrich Kalteis, SG Wong, E.C. Bell,
Janie Chang, Linda L. Richards
© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Monday, October 31, 2016

Why NoirCon is good for the soul

Woody Haut talks about David Goodis and Central Avenue, Los
Angeles. Photos by Peter Rozovsky unless otherwise noted.
Charles Ardai, Stona Fitch
You know what noir is about? Good fellowship, empathy, sharp wit and keen intelligence, subversion without destruction, doing good for others, working hard at work one loves, and communicating that passion, among other things. And it's about gin. Always gin.

Leigh Redhead
That's how it was at Philadelphia's NoirCon 2016, which ended Sunday. Ninety-nine percent of what we hear, read, see, or are told is trivial at best, arrant lies and bullshit at worst.  I thank Woody Haut, Charles Ardai, Stona Fitch, Barry Gifford, Aurélien Masson, Leigh Redhead, Buffy Hastings and others for reminding me that things don't always have to be that way. And I thank Vicki Hendricks for the gin — a Hendrick's and tonic, naturally.

Jonathan Woods, Annie Finnegan

Ed Pettit flanked by Eric Rice (left) and Cullen
Haut's presentation on David Goodis and Los Angeles' Central Avenue was the first time I had the feeling I was seeing something real about L.A. Ardai, who has enjoyed success in several fields, talked about how his Hard Case Crime imprint publishes the books he loves — even if these include no books by Harry Whittington — illustrated with cover art he loves just as much. Receiving a canvas by Robert McGinnis, Ardai said, is like getting a fresco by Giotto in the mail.

Aurélien Masson
Masson was passionate and voluble about the venerable French crime imprint he heads, Série noire, about what it's doing, about how French crime fiction has changed, and about authors all across that political spectrum can find a home there and still go out for a drink together.And Fitch shared the story of his Concord Free Press and its unusual "business" model.

Charlie Stella
Gifford, interviewed on stage by Wesley Stace, offered inspiring reminder that classic books don't just reappear; someone has to do the work to get them before the public. Gifford's Black Lizard press did that for many of the hard-boiled and noir classics that we take for granted today as part of our cultural landscape.

Mike Dennis assumes his Don
Donovan persona for Wednesday's
Noir at the Bar at the Pen & Pencil
Vicki Hendricks, Leigh Redhead
Redhead, who also read at Wednesday's pre-Noircon Noir at the Bar at Philadelphia's Pen & Pencil Club, gave the only conventional presentation on a "Masters of Suspense" panel, but her thoughts on Scott Smith were so sharply focused and her examples so well chosen that I want to read Smith. (The unconventional choices were by Lano Waiwaiole, who talked about Richard Stark as a suspense writer, and Radha Vatsal, who discussed adventure films of the 1910s directed by women and featuring women in prominent roles.)

Suzanne Solomon, Cullen Gallager,
Ed Pettit, Andrew Nette
Vicki Hendricks, Hendrick's and tonic, and me.
Photo by Lou Boxer
And how nice it is to be among people to whom books matter. Huzzahs and thanks to Lou Boxer and Deen Kogan for the best edition yet of this excellent festival. I'll be beck at NoirCon in 2018. You should be, too.

Richard Vine
Jay Gertzman, Jedidiah Ayres, Charles Ardai
Veteran Boxers Association, Ring 1, site
 of NoirCon's wind-down gathering
Radha Vatsal, Lano Waiwaiole, Leigh Redhead
Bob and Barbara's
Richard Edwards, Warren Moore
On the way to Port Richmond Books
The main NoirCon site
© Peter Rozovsky 2016