Thursday, May 31, 2007

Australian comic crime fiction, or Damien's list

Damien at Crime Down Under posts a gracious reply to my recent post about the funniest crime stories ever. More to the point, he offers seven suggestions of his own, all Australians, two of whom I've read.

Those two authors are Shane Maloney and Chris Nyst, both of whom I've discussed on this blog. My reading of Australian crime fiction has shown me that Australian writers have a way of sneaking a wry remark or sly observation in at even serious moments, so I suspect that Damien's list will be worth looking into.

Damien's other authors are Max Barry, Robert Gott, Geoff McGeachin, Robert G. Barrett and Scott Bywater. Why not check them out? You may be in for some good laughs, and you'll feel a warm glow of culturally inclusiveness.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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More Colin Watson

Sure, Colin Watson has fun at the expense of Flaxborough and some of its inhabitants, but he never takes cheap or easy shots. He can be wistful without being maudlin, satirical without being condescending. And always, a sense of compassionate humor leavens all, as here, from the last chapter of Plaster Sinners:

Purbright bought two half pints of bottled India pale ale and they sat in the corner of one end of the long, narrow room, which once had had tables of white marble and curly cast iron and mahogany counter and a gilded mirror and a wheezing tea urn big as Stephenson's Rocket, but now was fitted with plastic cantilever slabs and benches rivetted to the floor as if in fear of their being stolen.

"All right, ducks?" the custodian of the bar inquired of Purbright. She was a large woman, flushed and sweaty with an eruptive cheerfulness that neither her place of work nor her occasional
appearance at petty sessions could long repress.
© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Colin Watson

I normally don't keep track of naughty words in a novel, but it was hard to avoid doing so with Lonelyheart 4122, the fourth of Colin Watson's Flaxborough novels. Oh, the words are not all that naughty — arsehole, fornication, fetishists — and Watson uses them sparingly, but they were a surprise in a traditional English village mystery.

So was the novel's climax, in which Watson leads victims, police and perpetrators out of Flaxborough to a showdown in an isolated country house. If the occasional freedom with sexual and scatological language seems a product of the 1960s, the climax could well have happened in a hard-boiled American crime novel of the 1930s. That Watson makes this all work in a genial, well-constructed and at times very funny story published in 1967 is a source of wonder to this reader in 2007. There was plenty of life — and plenty of room for renewal — in a good, old mystery full of village eccentrics in Watson's day.

Flaxborough is an ideal setting for such a story, "a market town of some antiquity and a remarkable record of social and political intransigence ... the Vikings — welcomed as kindred spirits and encouraged to settle — had fathered a population whose sturdy bloody-mindedness had survived every attempt for eight centuries to subordinate and absorb it."

Two middle-aged women have gone missing, and the search for them leads police to an introduction, or dating, service. Flaxborough's police fear that a newcomer with a marvelous name, Lucilla Teatime, will become the third, and they place a shadow on her, several in fact. Miss Teatime eludes all with ease, leaving one stranded in the lingerie section of a department store:

He was soon looking so guilt-ridden that a supervisor went up to him and asked meaningfully if she could help him. Pook merely scowled at her.

As the supervisor passed closely by Miss Teatime, she raised her voice.

"They call them fetishists, you know," Miss Teatime said sweetly.

Could there be a better chronicle of the passing from an age when lingerie was unmentionable to one when it is unavoidable?

The novel is chock full of amused observations — "(Sgt.) Love departed after holding the door for the entry of a very plump woman in a short yellow coat and thinking that she looked like a pot of mustard."— about Flaxborovians and their ways. But not all is farce and delight. Sparing remarks about loneliness and about the changing face of once-prosperous streets indicate a gentle sympathy on Watson's part.
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A big thanks to Michael Walters for suggesting Watson and to Karen Chisholm for raving about him. You should follow their suggestions and mine and read the Flaxborough novels, of which you will find a list here.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Some good lines from Bill James' "Girls"

An instructive comment that I quoted yesterday noted that the characters don't change much over the course of Bill James' Harpur and Iles novels. But that's not entirely true. In the latest of the series, Girls, we are given this heretofore unrevealed biographical datum: Detective Chief Inspector Colin Harpur's sexy, smart and much younger girlfriend, Denise, plays lacrosse for her university.

Denise is also responsible a meditation on mortality from Harpur:

"(H)e would catch himself sometimes storing memories of Denise brilliantly naked, as if he might lose her any day and should make sure he amassed these recollections as a fill-in for her absence. ... This sad urgency, also, arose from age. It meant he knew he could not rely on a future with her and should therefore file these images away in his brain, the way explorers left pemmican and ship's biscuits in igloos for subsequent journeys. But he did not want to be reminded that he could not rely on a future with her by behaving now as though he knew he could not rely on a future with her."
That's the first time I've seen nostalgia compared to pemmican. It's also touching, and it's similar to thoughts that Andrea Camilleri puts in Inspector Salvo Montalbano's head in The Smell of the Night and that I quoted here. In each novel, an author around eighty years old puts suspicions of mortality in the mind of a protagonist thirty or forty years younger. Could the bittersweet wisdom of age be creeping into crime fiction?

Elsewhere, Girls has its share of the funny, caustic commentary that James-lovers have grown accustomed to, as in this exchange between Harpur and his boss, the smarmy, menacing Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles:

"Mrs Grant is not keen on the police, that's right, sir."

"Quite a few like that about these days in luxury houses. It's because speed cameras do their four wheel drive jobs. They think it's persecution. They don't know what we're like when we really persecute, do they, Col?"

Or this, from the perennially insecure Panicking Ralph Ember, doomed but ever hopeful of turning his lowlife bar into a respectable club: "Consider the tainted ancestors of many earls and so on in the House of Lords. What was it Lord Kinnock called them — before he could get the robes on and become one himself? Brigands."

James may have stopped writing anything like a conventional crime story fifteen or twenty years ago, but he can still write a good line and offer a poignant observation.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Bill James

Blogging for a Good Book, from the Williamsburg Regional Library, offers some interesting comments on Bill James' Harpur and Iles series:

Most crime fiction writers working today are all too imitable. Then there’s Bill James. His Harpur and Iles novels are all style. The characters — thugs on both sides of the law — have a way of talking that’s a hilarious combination of smarm and menace. ... Harpur looks like a yobbo, but is infernally crafty. Iles is urbane, ambitious, and violent—and has a thing for young girls. The crooks, meanwhile, subscribe to business management theory and harbor illusions of joining the upper middle class.

Each of the short books in the series follows Harpur’s and Iles’s efforts to foil a criminal plot while keeping a wary eye on each other. Double crosses and adultery are common. The characters don’t develop much through the series, so it’s not necessary to read the books in order.

The observation about the characters not developing much is especially acute as long as the reader understands two things: We don't necessarily want our main characters to change, and much of the fun in these books comes not from how the characters change, but from the how circumstances change around them. And those circumstances provide a wonderful stage for some memorable characters, the recurring cast of supporting characters as well as the two protagonists.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Laughs and death, or, what are the funniest crime stories ever, and why are they so funny?

The spring issue of Mystery Scene magazine (sample articles here) includes Art Taylor's article on "10 Comic Crime Movies." The list includes Sherlock Jr., After the Thin Man, Arsenic and Old Lace, Kind Hearts and Coronets, A Shot in the Dark, Murder by Death, Foul Play, Raising Arizona, A Fish Called Wanda and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Discussions of the individual movies mention scores of other films. Unless I missed something, Taylor omits Big Deal on Madonna Street, possibly the funniest caper movie ever. Still, his list will generate a thousand arguments, conversations and DVD rentals.

What belongs on a similar list of comic crime novels and stories? I'd start with 32 Cadillacs and Cons, Scams and Grifts by Joe Gores, Donald E. Westlake 's Dortmunder novels and Bill James' Harpur and Iles books. Norbert Davis' stories about Bail Bond Dodd and Max Latin deserve a place, and I'd make room for Bust by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr as well as Bruen's Brant and Roberts series. Janet Evanovich's first and fourth Stephanie Plum novels offer deliciously comic opening scenes, and the set pieces with Plum, her father and her grandmother are gifts.

I like to think that most of my choices work both as comedy and as crime writing. How about the movies on Taylor's list? Most are fine film comedies. Are they fine crime films as well?

OK, now it's your turn. What are your favorite comic crime stories, and what makes them so funny?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Another prejudice that might be history

I feel like a man unburdening myself of my sins. First I dropped a prejudice against crime stories set in countries other than the authors' own. Now I'll try to do the same for historical crime fiction.

My hesitation about such writing has two causes. First, is the inability of many authors to dispel the reader's nagging awareness that decades, centuries, even millennia have elapsed between the story's time and the author's. Then there is Lindsey Davis, whose historical research is so good and whose tone is so engagingly breezy that for me the two have interfered with one another, at least in her novels.

But I'm giving her another try because I've just visited the spectacular setting of one of her books. Fishbourne Roman Palace in Fishbourne, West Sussex on England's south coast, contains gorgeous Roman mosaics that are all the more moving because most are in situ, right where they were laid in the first and second centuries. Davis' novel A Body in the Bath House, part of her long-running series about Marcus Didius Falco, the Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe/Travis McGee of first-century Rome, sends Falco to far-away Britain in pursuit of some shoddy building contractors who have fled Rome. There, the palace later to be known as Fishbourne is under construction and plagued with problems that include fatal accidents.

At Fishbourne last week, a member of the staff told me that Davis launched her novel at the palace and that she was highly respected by historians and classicists. That and the memory of some funny lines from Davis' other work were good enough for me. I'm reading her again.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Bloody foreigners

Back in the paleolithic days of Detectives Beyond Borders, I wrote that I was wary of novels set in countries other than the authors' own. "Such books," I wrote, "often degenerate into travelogues." In fact, I'm not sure that's the case; I have read few such books. Still, the wariness remains, the suspicion of arrogance on such an author's part, and the fear that he or she will concentrate on sights at the expense of story.

I've read enough of Christopher G. Moore's The Risk of Infidelity Index to know that Moore never pretends his protagonist is anything but an outsider, and I didn't have to read far to figure that out; the novel makes it clear from the first page. Vincent Calvino is a Bangkok private eye, an expatriate New Yorker, and a farang, a Thai word for a foreigner of European ancestry. The novel's opening line quotes a Thai saying about a frog living inside a coconut shell. Some of Calvino's clients are like the frog: blind to reality, safe, secure and unable to solve their own problems, so they hire Calvino. Spiders change those inside-the-coconut-shell dynamics, though: "Drop two alpha spiders into a coconut shell and watch as things become infinitely more interesting. It's still a shell, but the dynamics change from security and comfort to fear and suspicion."

"As far as Calvino could make out," we are told, "there was no Thai saying about a couple of large, hairy spiders spitting poison at each other in a coconut shell, but when he mentioned it to the Thais, they laughed and said that he knew too much about the country. When a Thai said that, it wasn't a good thing for the farang. It wasn't a compliment; it was a warning."

By the end of the chapter, Calvino has worried that he was the only farang inside a massage parlor when police arrived to investigate the death of one of its workers, and such worries contribute to a tone of apprehension and menace -- good things for a thriller or a crime novel. More on this subject once I've read more.
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The novel's title refers to an index that ranks Bangkok tops in the risk that its sexual temptations present to the sanctity of expatriates' marriages.

My favorite line from the opening pages: "His mind possessed an image of the perfect bow tie."

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Cold-case file

A fat volume about a short Belgian came my way yesterday, and its first story prompted some reflections on the continuing freshness of Agatha Christie. Hercule Poirot's Casebook purports to include every story Christie wrote about the vain and brainy Belgian, and its first story, "The Adventure of `The Western Star'," contains as economical a summing up of events as has ever graced a tale of investigation.

Christie frames the opening as a light-hearted exchange between Poirot and his sidekick, Captain Hastings, about the identities of a woman glimpsed from Poirot's window and of the small parade following her. The casual dialogue between two intelligent men passing the time of day gives the basic information the reader needs about one of the story's key figures. At one graceful and entertaining stroke, Christie carries out the detective-story writer's task of conveying chunks of information without bringing the action to a halt.

That problem has tested the inventiveness of crime writers forever, and picking out various authors' solutions is an entertaining pastime for crime-fiction readers. Think of Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes' lectures to Watson about the perfect obviousness of impossibly difficult problems can come off as preachy information dumps. A detective story necessarily entails the enumeration of great piles of facts, and Conan Doyle was still groping his way toward integrating this task into the basic job of telling a tale.

Dashiell Hammett saved his fact-dumping for the ends of his stories, in those great, breathless, pages-long recitations that were subjects of parody by Woody Allen, among others. Or think of the byplay between officers at meetings during police procedurals. What are they but artful attempts to liven up the necessary job of conveying masses of detail? Even though she wasn't writing about police, Christie had that basic job down pat more than eighty years ago.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007


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Monday, May 21, 2007

100 Must-Read Crime Novels

There may not be precisely a hundred, and not all are novels (the list includes story collections by G.K. Chesterton and Arthur Conan Doyle), but Richard Shephard and Nick Rennison's 100 Must-Read Crime Novels makes a nice, compact guide. It will fit easily into your pocket to replace the 5 pounds, 99 pence you take out to pay for it.

The occasionally flat prose in the capsule descriptions (Novels are "unbelievably powerful" or "atmospheric, entertaining") is offset by interesting choices from authors I had not read (John Franklin Bardin, Nicholas Blake) or knew only through movie adaptations (Vera Caspary's Laura). I was pleased to see Fredric Brown's The Fabulous Clipjoint on the list and tantalized by the description of Eric Ambler's writing as "poles apart from the run-of-the-mill, imperialist yarns favoured by such writers as John Buchan and Sapper."

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Stop the Olympic robbery

It's a Crime! (or a mystery...) posts a link to this petition for "the Prime Minister to Stop the Chancellor from using lottery money to fund the [London] Olympics in 2012."

This raises the possibility of some interesting discussion, since the prime minister and the chancellor are now effectively the same person. But even this writer, ineligible to sign the petition since he is not a British citizen or resident, is appalled by the diversion of arts funding to a project whose overshooting of its budget has been breathtaking even by the standard of modern Olympic Games. (Sympathetic readers might enjoy Bryan Appleyard's chronicle of the rapidly spinning meter on the costs of the 2012 London Olympics.)

Perhaps I count myself among that sympathetic number because I grew up in a city where the mayor famously boasted that the 1976 Summer Olympics could no more run at a loss than he could have a baby. When the monstrous bill was finally paid three decades later, the braggart mayor was mother and grandmother to two generations of debt.

I wonder, as others have, whether British voters could reject the 2012 Olympics the way Colorado voters said no the the 1976 Winter Games.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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A bit more about Buchan

Greenmantle is greatly enjoyable as it enters the homestretch. It's full of disguises, last-second escapes, hair-raising dangers, and all the other things a good thriller is made of. It also feels surprisingly up to date with its assessments of Germany's war aims and its discussions of religious revival in the Muslim world.

Its contemporary feel is all the more noticeable because the book is in so many respects a thoroughgoing product of its time. Without necessarily expressing contempt for commoners, it is shot through with the attitude that war is really a contest between those few, rare men of noble soul and exceptional ability. The German Col. von Stumm is brutal, thuggish and depraved, for example, but the kaiser is a high-minded man whose responsibility weighs heavily upon him.

Buchan is also acutely sensitive to the joys and sorrows of travel. Exhausted and depressed when he reaches Constantinople, the protagonist, Richard Hannay, finds the city "a mighty disappointment. I don't quite know what I expected -- a sort of fairyland Eastern city, all white marble and blue water, and stately Turks in surplices, and veiled houris, and roses and nightingales, and some sort of string band discoursing sweet music. I had forgotten that winter is pretty much the same everywhere. It was a drizzling day, with a south-east wind blowing, and the streets were long troughs of mud. The first part I struck looked like a dingy colonial suburb -- wooden houses and corrugated iron roofs, and endless dirty, sallow children."

Later, however, refreshed, in new clothes, and after an unexpected rescue by an unexpected colleague, Hannay makes this sage observation: "What had seemed the day before the dingiest of cities now took on a strange beauty ... A man's temper has a lot to do with his appreciation of scenery. I felt a free man once more, and could use my eyes."

And the novel's humorous touches, particularly in the form of the American, Blenkiron, are delightful. His bluff manner of speaking will awaken readers to the joys and peculiarities of Americans and the ways they talk.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Friday, May 18, 2007

John Buchan

Having just seen the weird stage production of The Thirty-nine Steps, I thought I'd look into one of John Buchan's later novels. Greenmantle, published in 1916, a year after The Thirty-nine Steps, again throws Major Richard Hannay into wartime intrigue.

The opening pages set a pleasantly bluff, breezy tone, but I make this comment because of Buchan's politics. One character -- one of the good guys -- offers less than flattering opinions about two groups against whom Germany took rather firm action in the war after the one during which this novel is set. The same character, though, offers an assessment of the Ottoman Empire that seems fresher than one might expect in a novel written more than ninety years ago: "The ordinary man again will answer that Islam in Turkey is becoming a back number, and that Krupp guns are the new gods. Yet -- I don't know. I do not quite believe in Islam becoming a back number."

Islam, the character says, just might be a force in world politics. He just might be right.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The 39 Steps on stage

The 39 Steps has been a novel, three movies and now, as winner of a Laurence Olivier Award for best new comedy, a farce.

The current production, at London's Criterion Theatre, offers clever staging, deft character and costume changes on the fly from the cast of four, and a lead actor whose mustache is strikingly similar to Robert Donat's in Alfred Hitchcock's great 1935 film version.

It also offers a corpse that keeps waving one of its arms, Scottish and other accents milked for laughs, gay and straight sexual winking and nudging, and an old man running around in boxer shorts. What it does not offer is any but the slightest hint of the suspense that marked either John Buchan's 1915 novel or Hitchcock's very different movie. (I haven't seen either the 1959 or the 1978 movie versions.)

The show, crafted with apparent affection from the important bits of the Hitchcock, turns those bits into a long Benny Hill sketch. The mix works, to judge from the explosive horselaughs and deep, rich and rasping snorts of merriment from the two men who sat right behind me. But it has little to do with crime fiction despite the influential novel and superb movie from which it borrows its name.
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An essay in the play's program proposes Buchan's hero, Richard Hannay, as one of the most enduring and influential heroes from the Golden Age of the thriller. Hannay, according to the article, "formed the blueprint for a whole gallery of similar characters," including Bulldog Drummond, the Saint, and, as the type mutated, James Bond, Len Deighton's unnamed hero and John Le Carre's disillusioned protagonists.

It's a stimulating article that may interest readers of my recent comment about the most influential crime writer ever.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Small world

The three Croatian crime writers whose names I have recently discovered (Goran Tribuson, Pavao Pavlicic and Jurica Pavicic) have done much writing of other kinds: science fiction, journalism, film criticism and, if I remember correctly, non-crime novels. I guessed that this was one by-product of their membership in a small group. Since they write in a language not widely read, perhaps these men have to be versatile if they want to make a living writing.

Then I received another charming piece of evidence that Croatian writers are part of a tightly knit community. The owner of the Internet parlor that I made the Dalmatian Coast headquarters of Detectives Beyond Borders not only was acquainted with Pavicic's work, he knew Pavicic himself. God forbid I should spend more than, say, forty-five minutes a day blogging while on vacation, but that place left me with a good feeling about Split. The owner and staff played good music -- Jimi Hendrix, just enough Grateful Dead to avoid making me sick, and, best of all, Brazil's Caetano Veloso.

I asked the owner if Veloso had ever played in Split. No, he said, "This is the end of the world."

I hope he gets the opportunity to see Veloso one day and also to achieve his real dream: to see Neil Young. For now, though, Split is just fine as the smallish, lively, gorgeously situated, historically rich city that it is.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Crime zone Croatia

Lars at Krimi-Couch adds the name of Jurica Pavicic to the list of Croatian crime writers. A quick and dirty search turns up this on Pavicic:

On December 7th 1991 home of Mihajlo Zec, well-to-do Zagreb butcher and ethnic Serb, was visited by a group of reserve policeman. In those days such visits usually ended with people being taken away only to be found executed. Zec apparently tried to escape and was killed. His wife Marija and 12-year old daughter Aleksandra were taken in a police vehicle and later executed. The perpetrators were relatively quickly arrested and admitted the killings during interrogation. But due to procedural screw-up their confessions were invalid and whole criminal case was dropped. Instead of receiving prison sentences, the killers later received military decorations and pensions. The killings later served as inspiration for Ovce od gipsa, novel by Jurica Pavicic, later adapted into controversial movie Svjedoci.

This has overtones of Dario Fo's play Accidental Death of an Anarchist, and it suggests once again that I was too hasty to assume that no Croatian crime writers had written about life in their own war zone of the 1990s.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A guide to hard-boiled crime in Scandinavia

Petrona provides a link to a Hard Boiled Gazeteer to Scandinavia by Bill Ott. Ott traces the explosion of interest in Scandinavian crime writing to the fall of the Iron Curtain: "The breaking down of the Soviet Union, combined with liberal immigration policies in Scandinavia, especially Sweden, sent immigrants pouring into a region that had been defined by its insularity and lack of diversity. The resulting culture clash turned the tables on a lot of societal assumptions, prompting the same kind of racist hate crimes that have plagued the U.S. and other parts of Europe. Here was a hard-boiled melting pot waiting to be cracked."

Ott omits Norway's Jo Nesbø and his hard-boiled protagonist Harry Hole, but that's my only complaint based on a quick first look at the article. More comments will likely follow.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Please disregard the previous post

It turns out that at least one Croatian author has written crime novels that take advantage of the country's recent political changes in ways that make me wish his work were available in English. Goran Tribuson's novels about the private investigator Nikola Banic give "a historical panorama of the Croatian society, from the beginning of the fall of socialism to the ups and downs of the transitional period. Tribuson has not only given literary legitimacy to the crime genre in Croatian literature, he also bases novels of this genre on the everyday reality of the local community."

Banic, a "Croatian version of Phil Marlowe, is a slightly unconventional detective type because he is a jazz fan, a beer drinker, a dedicated smoker and a man burdened with many family problems." Because of this, according to the article from which this information is taken, "he has become very popular among the readers."

On the one hand, this may seem an overly familiar description. On the other, interesting things can happen when sensitive authors adapt the traditional American hard-boiled form to the situations of their own countries. Perhaps Tribuson is similar to Yasmina Khadra in this respect. If so, he's well worth reading.

In one respect, both Goran Tribuson and Pavao Pavlicic, another Croatian writer, are similar to to such American crime writers as Frederic Brown, Donald Westlake and the early Elmore Leonard, in that all have written in more than one popular genre. Leonard wrote westerns; the others have all written science fiction in addition to their crime stories.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007
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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

No-crime zone, Part II (Croatia)

Here in Split on the Dalmatian coast, residents love their city and country and are fond of sailing, staying out late, and reading lots of books. The latter does not include not much crime fiction other than the occasional Agatha Christie, though, according to a native informant. Though Split missed the heaviest fighting during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, enough activity spilled over into Split and the waters of the Adriatic to have generated some war-zone crime writing a la Philp Kerr or Don Fesperman.

Of course, neither of those two novelists is a native of the war and post-war zones about which he wrote. Perhaps people who have recently lived through war have other things to do than write detective stories about it. Maybe Croatia needs a few more years as peaceful, "normal" country (May it happen speedily and soon!) before its authors begin to discover possibilities in crime fiction.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

How Kjell Eriksson portrays character

I mentioned that Kjell Eriksson uses multiple points of view. This helps the reader empathize in turn with a number of characters. Eriksson's characters also empathize with one another. One of his frequent devices is to have a character make a snap judgment -- almost always positive -- about another character based on the sound of that second character's voice. This, I think, reflects the way many of us judge people upon meeting them for the first time. Well, Eriksson's characters may have a more positive outlook that this blogger, but you get the idea.


© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Kjell Eriksson / Blurb comparisons, far-fetched and otherwise

Time constraints and fatigue prevent a full review for now, but I thought I'd say a word about critics' invocation of Ed McBain when discussing Kjell Eriksson. The comparison is apt, but Eriksson takes the ensemble approach farther in The Princess of Burundi. Killers, neighbors, workers, wives and lovers get their say in addition to police, the shifts in point of view evoking a reader's sympathy for all but the very worst characters.
The surprising though apt association of McBain and Eriksson brought to mind the question of odd blurbs. The ones that make me roll my eyes fall into three categories: invocations of Raymond Chandler (I would pay good money to read a book-jacket blurb along the lines of: "This exciting new crime novelist, whose work is not in the least reminiscent of Raymond Chandler's ... "), strained comparisons ("If Borges wrote chick lit, this is the chick-lit novel he would have written"), and testimonials that collapse under their own weight ("Take a touch of James Joyce, a dash of Kafka, a soupcon of Dashiell Hammett, a sprinkling of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a dose of William S. Burroughs, a pinch of Georges Simenon, a spoonful of P.G. Wodehouse, a samovar of Tolstoy, a snifter of Agatha Christie, and a thunderclap of the Old Testament, and you have just a hint of what this scintillating debut is like.")
Readers, the floor is yours. What is the weirdest book blurb you have ever seen?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The most influential crime writer ever?

And I don't mean Arthur Conan Doyle; his influence is too remote. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are obvious choices, since Hammett influenced Chandler, and Chandler influenced everyone else.

My new dark horse, though, is Ed McBain, author of the 87th Precinct novels, featuring Detective Steve Carella and a cast of many. The manic Sgt. Brant in Ken Bruen's Calibre loves the 87th Precinct books so much that he tries to write one himself. More recently, I've come across this sly and surprising acknowledgment in Kjell Eriksson's The Princess of Burundi:

The Rastafarian locksmith worked on the lock for about thirty seconds. He whistled as he worked and Fredriksson asked him to be quiet.

"Cool," he said. "Are you Sweden's answer to Carella?"

Fredriksson has no idea what he was talking about, but nodded.

Eriksson's book has an ensemble cast, somewhat in the manner of – well, you can guess.

So, the floor is open to you once again, readers. What crime writers have influenced other writers? And what form has that influence taken?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Clive James on international crime fiction, part II

He’s a sharp and funny guy but prone to overly sweeping statements.

Here’s an example of the former, from his New Yorker article Blood On The Borders: Crime fiction from all over:

Here’s one of the latter:
“ . . . there are only so many storylines and patterns of conflict. The only workable solution has been to shift the reader’s involvement from the center to the periphery: to the location. In most of the crime novels coming out now, it’s a matter not of what happens but of where. Essentially, they are guidebooks.”
Simenon, with the organization and instincts of a Colombian drug runner, got the whole world hooked on Maigret. Not only did Maigret sell by the million in every tongue and in all media; literary critics praised his author’s stripped-down style. … the Maigret novels acquired such prestige that Simenon’s action novels without Maigret in them started counting as proper novels, the absence of the star turn being thought of as a sign of artistic purity.
Well, no. I’ll cite Swedish crime writers again, since that’s who I’m reading these days. Håkan Nesser and Kjell Eriksson shift point-of-view characters frequently. In Eriksson’s case especially, the numerous shifts create multiple sympathies on the reader’s part, for cops, killers, victims and bystanders alike. I think of the technique as an objective correlative of Swedes’ proverbial social concerns: everybody has his reasons. It’s something distinctively Swedish, a reason other than setting or guidebook-style exotica to read Swedish crime writing.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007
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