Friday, August 31, 2007

Le trouble avec Harry

Je viens de trouver cette interview de Jo Nesbø qui comprend au moins deux déclarations intéressantes (et de plus un fait frustrant pour les lecteurs anglophones).

Nesbø dit qu'il a envoyé son personnage principal, Harry Hole, en Thaïlande dans Les Cafards parce que:

"J'étais fatigué de lire des polars scandinaves réalistes, qui traitent des problèmes quotidiens des gens dans les pays riches. Alors j'ai amené mon personnage à l'étranger, et j'ai pu également jeter un oeil sur le façon de penser scandinave depuis l'extérieur."
Il dit aussi qu'il ne se considère pas comme partie d'une famille des auteurs de polars scandinaves.

L'interview discute cinq romans de Jo Nesbø disponibles en français. Naturellement, seulment deux ont été déjà traduits du norvégien vers l'anglais.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

More "Half Moon Investigations" plus two questions

On the one hand, you have third-rate American sitcoms and the rancid, focus-group-driven family strips that waste acres of space on American comics pages every day. Their idea of humor when it comes to children is the drooling baby, the troublesome teenager, and, most grating of all, the impossibly precocious tyke into whose mouth the "writer" puts words that no child would ever say.

On the other, you have Eoin Colfer's Fletcher Moon, who shows what can happen when a real writer writes about children. Fletcher "Half" Moon, as readers of this blog will know, is a 12-year-old private detective. In Half Moon Investigations, he breaks a case that involves theft (of his detective's badge and a set of turntable needles, among other items), conspiracy and assault (Was the target really a garden gnome?)

Among the book's charms are that young Moon credibly confronts dilemmas familiar from the crime fiction that Colfer loves so well while remaining anchored at the same time in a child's world.

The novel's climax and dénouement pack an emotional punch, partly as a result of Fletcher's having had to be cruel to a girl he admires. Fletcher's letdown after he breaks the case neatly echoes the gloomy perspective of a Philip Marlowe. Yet in the midst of his rather affecting reaction, he remains an authentic twelve-year-old, convinced that the world revolves around him (though this scene happens in a school lunchroom rather than a seedy bar):

"Life was rolling along with no regard for my personal gloom. Kids were chatting, flirting, fighting, and occasionally eating.

"Didn't these people realize how depressed I was? I had turned my back on two things that were very important to me. My chosen profession and an unlikely friend, Red."
Rarely have more charming and affecting thoughts been put in the head of a fictional character, at least not one who was thinking them in a school lunch hall.

Here are the questions; feel free to seek help from a young person of your acquaintance: What's your favorite children's or young adults' crime story? What does such a story have to do in order both to work as crime fiction and be suitable for and attractive to its intended age group?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Jo Nesbø on traitors, sunshine patriots and more

The social criticism in Jo Nesbø's The Redbreast goes beyond the humorous digs at presidential pomposity and, just possibly, Norwegian parochialism that I mentioned last week. Yasir Arafat and Ehud Barak get fleeting mentions in connection with a summit meeting set to take place in Oslo as the novel opens. But another real-life politician's name resonates far more strongly: that of Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian fascist whose name became a synonym for traitor after he collaborated in the German Nazi occupation of Norway during World War II.

Nesbø has nothing but contempt for the neo-Nazis who plague 1990s Oslo, portraying them variously as apes and as children who refuse to grow up. At the same time, he is (or lets his characters be) just as hard on the "latter-day saints," Norwegians who were quick to declare their love of country — after Germany had been safely defeated. A murder late in the novel re-enacts Quisling's execution. The killer's identity makes clear Nesbø's scorn for the latter-day saints. Norwegians, those enthusiastic flag-wavers, could be just as nationalistic as Germans, he has a character say, and he means it as no compliment.

Did I mention that The Redbreast is also a murder mystery? The killings have their roots in World War II, in a cold, lonely Eastern Front outpost to which the novel flashes back frequently. Mysterious events happen there, in military hospitals and in wartime Vienna, and the moral lines are not nearly as clear as they become later. And love and betrayal, real and perceived, play as much a role as do political events.

Back in the novel's present, in 1990s Oslo, Nesbø's Harry Hole slowly uncovers the link to that World War II past, fueled by his customary mix of intuition, doggedness and alcohol, though there is far more to him than those hallmarks of the highly capable, highly angst-ridden detective.

I'd best stop before this post approaches the novel's 521 pages in length. Suffice it to say that the killing of a police officer precipitates a moving, formally surprising depiction of Hole's descent back into drink, that Nesbø knows how to make violence shocking by understating it, that he can darken a mood as few writers can, and that, boy, can he ever lay down plot lines for further novels. (Though translated into English after The Devil's Star, The Redbreast was written first and is set earlier.)


A translation note: Don Bartlett chose not to translate most Oslo street names, a nice touch. Thus, one character lives at Vibes gate 18. This is interesting because gate is an archaic English word for street; hence the many streets in England that have gate as part of their names. Similarly, translators of Henning Mankell's novels leave untranslated street names that contain gatan. One may conclude from this that travel is broadening and that international crime fiction can be educational.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Awards in Australia

The Crime Writers Association of Australia has announced the winners of the 2007 Ned Kelly Awards. Among the honorees is Adrian Hyland's Diamond Dove for best first novel. Read it yourself, and see what I and Australia raved about!

Also, hat tips to the several bloggers who have highlighted this interview with Peter Temple, the multiple-Ned Kelly (and also Dagger) winning author of The Broken Shore, the Jack Irish novels and others. Among other things, he has high praise for Hyland and Diamond Dove.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Monday, August 27, 2007

"Half Moon Investigations" by Eoin Colfer

I've wanted to read more of Eoin Colfer since I found his short story "Taking on PJ," a hilarous tale of two small-time crooks trying to avoid a beating and worse at the hands of a true tough guy.

Colfer, author of the Artemis Fowl series, has a nice career going as an author of books for children and teenagers, though, and does not seem especially likely to grow up any time soon. So I decided to grow down and try one of his young people's crime books.

Here's the opening of Half Moon Investigations:
My name is Moon. Fletcher Moon. And I'm a private detective. In my twelve years on this spinning ball we call Earth, I've seen a lot of things normal people never see. I've seen lunch boxes stripped of everything except fruit. I've seen counterfeit homework networks that operated in five counties, and I've seen truckloads of candy taken from babies.
A child who reads that may just develop an affectionate attachment to crime fiction. Adults may like it, too. I do.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007
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Sunday, August 26, 2007

An old story

Have you noticed that well-known quotations get attributed to the same small group of sources whether the attribution is accurate or not? That anything worth repeating in English is said to have come from Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Winston Churchill or Yogi Berra?

Edgar Allan Poe occupies a similar role in crime fiction, credited with inventing the detective story and just about every variant thereof: the locked-room mystery, the private-detective tale, the thinking detective, the detective-plus-partner team, the puzzle story, the code-and-cipher tale, etc. Unlike Yogi Berra, though, Poe may get too little credit. He may have been the first comic crime writer as well:
"That is another of your odd notions," said the Prefect, who had the fashion of calling everything "odd" that was beyond his comprehension, and thus lived amid an absolute legion of contradictions.
That's from "The Purloined Letter," a reading of which has just prompted these thoughts:

1) The story takes place in Paris, yet, by contemporary standards, nothing save the protagonist's name (C. Auguste Dupin) and the police officer's rank (prefect) marks the setting as French. In Poe's day, however, the very fact of the story's being a detective tale may itself have carried all the connotations of France that he needed, thanks to François-Eugène Vidocq.

2) In one respect, at least, the story has found more followers in England than in the U.S. Dupin and his unnamed narrator are, of course, the direct fathers of Sherlock Holmes and Watson. The distinct superiority of private investigator to police is also, for various reasons, more characteristic of later English detective fiction than of American.

3) The story is all telling, no action. The only sections that take place in the narrative "present" are the meetings of Dupin, his assistant, and the Prefect of Police, Monsieur G– . This might interest followers of Patti Abbott's current discussion of exposition.

4) The anthologists' introduction tells us that "extensive research" has disproved the belief that Poe was plagued by alcohol and drug problems. Rumors to that effect, we are told, were "grossly exaggerated by a rival who sought to discredit him after his death." It is amusing to think there was a time when such things would discredit a crime writer.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Saturday, August 25, 2007

      Are publishers cheap?

      The Rap Sheet and other blogs have weighed in on publishers’ penny-pinching use of stock photos for book covers and the inevitable result: that a lot of covers wind up looking suspiciously similar.

      The miserliness may show up between covers, too. In a review headlined “The lost art of the editor,” Crime Scraps discusses a novel whose ludicrous errors include this discussion of a super-light handgun:

      "For you I'd recommend a Walther TPH. It's a seven round weapon, .25 calibre, remarkably accurate for up to 100 yards and light as a feather at three kilograms."
      As Mr. Scraps points out, 6.6 pounds is pretty damned heavy for a handgun. Unlike the copy editor that the publisher apparently failed to pay for, Scraps did his research and found that the Walther TPH weighs 325 grams, not three kilograms.

      In my own recent reading, I’ve run into an official briefing about an impending visit of political dignitaries that includes this on one page:

      “ … in exactly twenty-seven days’ time, Air Force One, with the American President on board, will be landing at Gardemoen Airport, Oslo”
      and this on the next:

      “I don’t need to tell you how short a time two months is, but it means what we’re going to need daily coordination meetings … ."
      Elsewhere, I’ve run across a book that confused want and wont and a memorable volume that spelled one character’s name three ways in three consecutive uses on two consecutive pages.

      I raise these examples because it’s my understanding that publishers often farm out their copy editing to free-lancers. If that’s the case, one can understand the benefit to publishers: They avoid the necessity of having to pay health and other benefits. But I expect that such a practice would also eliminate copy editors’ chances of feeling that they have a stake in a book’s success.

      I invite readers to submit their own examples of such errors. Perhaps we can shame publishers into taking steps to eliminate them. I especially welcome comments from anyone in publishing, whether they are victims of such practices, perpetrators, or merely knowledgeable observers.

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007


      Poking fun at politics (Jo Nesbø, "The Redbreast")

      This Norwegian author's political jokes in The Redbreast are like his funny exchange about rock and roll in The Devil's Star. Here as there, Nesbø takes an odd, unexpected approach to a subject about which it is far too easy to be far too serious.

      Here's The Redbreast's little gem of a comic take on politics:

      "I read that a well-known American psychologist thinks the President [of the United States] has an MPD," Ellen said.


      "Multiple Personality Disorder. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The psychologist thought his normal personality was not aware that the other one, the sex beast, was having relations with all these women. And that was why a Court of Impeachment couldn't accuse him of having lied under oath about it."

      "Jesus," Harry said, looking up at the helicopter hovering high above them.

      On the radio, someone speaking with a Norwegian accent asked, "Mr. President, this is the fourth visit to Norway by a sitting U.S. President. How does it feel?"


      "It's really nice to be back here. And I see it as even more important that the leaders of the state of Israel and of the Palestinian people can meet here. The key to – "

      "Can you remember anything from your previous visit to Norway, Mr. President?"

      "Yes, of course. In today's talks, I hope that we can – "

      "What significance have Oslo and Norway had for world peace, Mr. President?"

      "Norway has had an important role."

      A voice without a Norwegian accent: "What concrete results does the President consider to be realistic?"

      The recording was cut and someone from the studio took over.
      Anyone who has suffered through the banality of an American political news conference ought to love that one. What I like are the sly buildup and the gentle yet pointed satire on a subject about which another writer might have been strident.

      So, readers, give me some examples of political satire and humor from your favorite crime stories.

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Thursday, August 23, 2007

      New translations of Latin American crime fiction ...

      . . . into French.

      The Ile noire blog recently published notice of a new series of Latin American crime novels translated into French. The imprint, L’Atinoir, has enlisted the Mexican crime novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II as a literary adviser, and the comment on Ile noire discusses offerings in the series by two more Mexican writers: Eduardo Monteverde and Juan Hernández Luna.

      I don't know Monteverde or Hernández Luna, but I did a quick search for English translations of their work on the Web site of a large American book retailer. Nothing turned up. This surprised me at least mildly; one might have expected an American publisher to be at least as interested as a French publisher in work coming out of Mexico. I've written here and elsewhere about the scarcity of translated crime fiction in English. This latest example hits close to home because the writers involved are from so close to home, and readers far away will get to read them before I do.
      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      They noticed!!!

      A BBC News article on crime fiction (its conclusion: crime fiction is still popular) includes the following, apropos of Matt Beynon Rees, author of The Collaborator of Bethlehem:

      "Rees hopes to tap into the new interest in exotic crime fiction ... "

      The canny connoisseurs of criminous exotica who read this blog have known about this new interest for some time, of course. (Hat tip to Sarah Weinman.)

      N.B. Rees and his novel have been given new names in the UK. There, the novel is The Bethlehem Murders, the author Matt Rees.

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Wednesday, August 22, 2007

      Gwendoline Butler, or Calling all fans of historical mysteries

      I've just finished Gwendoline Butler's short story "Bloody Windsor" in The Oxford Book of Detective Stories: An International Selection. It's a stunner, and, with its clipped prose and elliptical narrative, surprisingly modern in tone for a writer described as "Britain's finest practitioner of the traditional mystery." It's also set in late-eighteenth-century England. Here's its opening:

      "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

      "In Paris the tricolor flew, and the crowds sat watching Madame Guillotine receive her passing guests.

      "In Windsor all was normal except for a few apprentices and mechanics who held a meeting in Thames Street but were soon dispersed, one or two to the hulks and then on to Australia. The navy was offered as an alternative but few chose it and rightly so, Denny thought ... "

      Look what Butler does: She lets the reader know when the story takes place, she makes the reader smile with the allusion to A Tale of Two Cities, and she gets us right into the mind of one of her two protagonists.

      I'm most impressed with the first of those achievements. Having set the period scene with such force right at the start, Butler averts the necessity of cluttering the body of the story with period detail. That sort of clutter and constant scene-setting has put me off historical mysteries in the past. I may make another try with Butler's historical novels, which include The King Cried Murder!.

      Here are my questions for readers of historical mysteries: Is Gwendoline Butler regarded as an innovator in historical crime fiction? Do my observations about her short story make sense to you? Do they hold true for her novels?

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Tuesday, August 21, 2007

      Donna Leon and John Burdett on the radio

      A reader sends notice of National Public Radio's Crime in the City series, in which crime novelists talk about the settings of their work. Readers of this blog may be interested in the interviews with Donna Leon, whose name is inextricably linked to Venice, and John Burdett, who takes his readers on memorable tours of Bangkok. Click here for the interviews.

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      A history of (talking about) violence — African Psycho

      How to discuss this without plot spoilers? How to enumerate everything Alain Mabanckou makes fun of in his inside-the-killer's-head novel African Psycho?

      Mabanckou satirizes much: the novel's ne'er-do-well country, its talk-too-much protagonist, and the protagonist's neighborhood, He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-An-Idiot. The unnamed country's pontificating and sensationalistic media come in for some jabs, too, though Mabanckou is too wide-ranging a satirist to fall into the easy and fashionable media bashing so prevalent in America these days. He has just as much fun at the expense of credulous folks who crave the attention of those very same media.

      Foremost among those attention seekers is the novel's protagonist and narrator, Grégoire Nakobomayo. African Psycho narrates Grégoire's plan to commit a murder that will elevate him to the stature of Great Master Angoulaima. That killer and rapist could, according to the legends that encrust his name, change his shape at will, among other supernatural properties, and Grégoire worships him, visiting the Great Master's grave to seek inspiration and to commune with his spirit. That spirit is unafraid to chide Grégoire for his feckless dawdling, and these ghostly, graveside scoldings provide several funny passages.

      Grégoire settles upon a prostitute as his target, working his way up to the act with a hammer attack on a corrupt notary and real estate dealer and a sexual assault on a nurse. Both are described in some detail, and the latter especially may disturb some readers.

      That's where the novel's title comes in. It plays off that of Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho, vilified for its affectless depictions of horrific violence. The culmination of African Psycho raises the question of whether such vilification is misplaced, whether it confuses literary depiction and legendary accounts of violent act with the acts themselves.

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Sunday, August 19, 2007

      Camilleri in America plus a bit of politics

      The Crime Scraps blog, presided over by the King of Camilleri, last week ran down the worldwide availability of Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano series on television and DVD. No DVDs in suitable format yet in Canada and the United States, but il signore Scraps did offer the delightful news that a public television station in Washington, D.C., is broadcasting the series. So now there is something to do in Washington besides watching members of the Bush administration jump ship.

      That is no gratuitous snipe. The United States has just received its clearest signal yet that the administration of President George W. Bush is over, and it had nothing to do with the announced departures of chief strategist Karl Rove and press secretary Tony Snow. The obituary came in the form of a column by the syndicated commentator Charles Krauthammer.

      Krauthammer has been a forceful, sometimes strident Bush booster, notably on Iraq. Headlines over his columns have included "Congress must not micromanage war," "Supreme silliness about Cheney," and "Comrade Feinstein?" for example. Another column scoffed at the perjury conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney's former aide Scooter Libby, downplaying Libby's misdeeds by comparison with lies uttered by, you guessed it, Bill Clinton and members of his administration. Like Krauthammer or not, in other words, a reader rarely has trouble figuring out where he stands.

      Yet this week, with the 2008 presidential races heating up in both major U.S. political parties (Yes, they do things that far in advance here), with all the chance in the world to bash China over product-safety scandals and mining disasters or Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf over his hands-off attitude toward warlords who may be sheltering Osama bin Laden, Krauthammer wrote about ... baseball. And not just about baseball, but about the wistful yearning for redemption exemplified by a fictional character, Roy Hobbs in Bernard Malamud's The Natural . (Krauthammer was stirred to invoke Malamud by the story of Rick Ankiel, a pitcher-turned-outfielder who recently made a comeback with the St. Louis Cardinals.)

      The column was escapist in matter, perhaps less so in manner. Here's how Krauthammer ended it: "(n)o one knows why Hobbs is shot. It is fate, destiny, nemesis. Perhaps the dawning of knowledge, the coming of sin. Or more prosaically, the catastrophe that awaits everyone from a single false move, wrong turn, fatal encounter. Every life has such a moment. What distinguishes us is whether — and how — we ever come back."

      Coming from a normally pugnacious Bush booster, that sounds like an elegy for the Republican Party's hopes to retain the White House.

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Saturday, August 18, 2007

      The humorous afterlife of the English country-house mystery

      The jacket matter on my newly arrived copy of Going to the Dogs attests to the lingering attraction of the English country-house mystery in an age that had left gentility behind:

      "A body has been found in the library. A body in the library? That sounds familiar. But ... this is not the world of Agatha Christie and genteel murder among the cucumber sandwiches. Dan Kavanagh's thriller is firmly set in the on-the-make Britain of the 1980's, where new money talks loud, old vices flourish, and the people you run into during a country-house weekend are the sort you might very well not want to ask home to meet your mother."
      On the smart-alecky side? Sure, but that's just the front-jacket blurb. I'm more interested in the suggestion that Kavanagh (Julian Barnes), like Colin Watson, may have found the English mystery tradition irresistible even as he delighted in poking fun at its outdated pretensions.

      The above excerpt was from the front flap; the back flap offers a send-up of the bio-blurb that seeks to impress the reader with the gritty, globe-hopping and numerous jobs the author has held. Typical jobs include bartender and taxi driver (preferably in New York), with an occasional excursion into loan-shark collection agent for truly edgy authors. Here, on the other hand, is the pseudonymous Kavanagh's job history:

      "He has been an entertainment officer on a Japanese super-tanker, a waiter on roller skates at a drive-in eatery in Tucson, a bouncer in a gay bar in San Francisco. He boasts of having flown light planes on the Colombian cocaine route, but all that is known for certain is that he was once a baggage handler at Toronto International Airport."
      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Friday, August 17, 2007

      Crime in an academic setting

      I found out about this one only after the fact, but if I'd been in Ireland in June, I might have made my way to The Scene of the Crime: Setting in Modern Crime Fiction at the University of Limerick.

      This academic conference drew scholars from Europe and North America to talk about setting in mysteries and, yes, one or two of the papers had goofy titles ("Bodyscape, or the Representation of the Body in C.S.I."). But there was plenty to interest serious readers of crime fiction. A paper in the "Unreal Places II" session was devoted to "Fred Vargas’s Mythical Sense of Place," for example, and another focused on "Murder in Swedish Arcadia: The Idyllic Setting in the Swedish Whodunit of the 1950s." Given the conference's location, it's no surprise Ken Bruen made it onto the program. He made it twice, in fact, in "Scene and Heard: Ken Bruen’s Defective Detective" "American Skin, Irish Masks: Ken Bruen’s Postmodernism."

      I'll save the conference's program as a shopping list for writers whose work I'd heard of but not read -- Driss Chraïbi and Didier Daeninckx, to mention two -- and I'll look into others who were the subjects of intriguing-sounding papers. The organizers appeared to take crime fiction the way it ought to be taken if it is to be the subject of a conference: seriously, but without going over the top. The good people who put the event together billed it as the second interdisciplinary crime fiction conference of the Atlantic University Alliance, and if they'll allow a non-academic into their midst, I might attend the third.

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      A top-ten list of crime fiction from Asia

      I meant to post this one a week ago. Catherine Sampson, who knows something about the subject, writes in the Guardian about her ten favorite crime novels set in Asia. Tops on her list: Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong. She also includes the worthy Inspector Imanishi Investigates by Seicho Matsumoto, whom I've mentioned several times here and whose novel Points and Lines I discussed, with Death of a Red Heroine, in the very first Detectives Beyond Borders post.

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Thursday, August 16, 2007

      African Psycho

      With a hat tip to Sandra Ruttan, I introduce you to African Psycho by Alain Mabanckou. Mabanckou was born in the Congo Republic (Brazzaville) in 1966 and studied law in Brazzaville and Paris. (He did this to please his mother, according to his Web site.)

      He began publishing poetry while working for the French water company Lyonnaise des Eaux, and he came to the United States in 2001 to teach francophone literature at the University of Michigan. These days he teaches French, francophone studies and comparative literature at UCLA in Los Angeles.

      African Psycho's title reveals one of its influences: Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho. (African Psycho is not a translated title. The book is also called that in its original French.) A borrowing like that reflects a sly sense of humor, a quality on ample display in the novel's opening pages.

      The narrator, Gregoire, has decided to kill his girlfriend to make his mark in the world and to act in the spirit of the Great Master of crime Angoualima, "the most famous of our country's assassins." The country is not named, though there are several references to "the country over there" across the river. The grimness of Gregoire's task is mitigated by a humorous fussiness of his narration, a narration that stretches back to his beginnings in the neighborhood of He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-An-Idiot, toward which he displays if not affection, then at least a certain resignation. He is a protagonist of interest, and I will report back with more news of him.

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Wednesday, August 15, 2007

      Detectives Beyond Borders: The Interview

      Julia Buckley interviews me here. Read the interview for the heretofore untold tales of how this blog began.


      A big con from Argentina

      What's the greatest movie ever made about con artists? The Sting? I don't know; I've never seen it. But Nine Queens probably stacks up well, and I'm guessing it stands out in ways a big-star, big-budget movie never could.

      For one thing, this Argentine production,written and directed by Fabián Bielinsky and released in 2000, is a quiet movie, literally and figuratively. It has no background music that I can recall, no thudding, fast-paced soundtrack to hammer home the message that something exciting is happening. It's a sweet-natured buddy movie, in part, a tale of one con man teaching a younger colleague the tricks of the trade.

      It's also a deadpan comedy of two men trying to make a living in a hard world. "Those are thieves," the older scamster, Marcos, tells his protégé, Juan, pointing out the pickpockets and snatch-and-grab thieves in a sequence whose rapid cutting among shifty characters at work is a sly satire of action movies.

      "I'm not a crook!" is a catch line throughout the movie, and it works because it's always delivered straight and always accepted at face value. It even works when Juan's jailed father confides to his son during a prison visit that "This place is full of crooks."

      The Nine Queens of the title are a sheet of rare stamps from the Weimar Republic, a counterfeit copy of which Marcos and Juan try to sell to a millionaire about to be deported. The customer's haste means he lacks time to verify the stamps' authenticity with chemical tests, and therein lie Marcos and Juan's hopes for success.

      Complications naturally ensue, one provided by the snatch-and-grab thieves mentioned above, and Juan and Marcos end up scrounging for money to finance their scheme. That's when the fun really starts and, even when tension is highest, the mood remains quiet. Its mood is perhaps best encapsulated in this droll exchange, Marcos' proposal of a business partnership after he rescues Juan from a botched convenience-store con:

      "I'm Marcos, and you are?"


      "Juan. But you've always wanted to be called – "


      "Guys called Juan always want another name. Let's do business, Sebastin."


      And now, readers, here's your assignment: Rent and watch Nine Queens. Then tell me how far in advance you figured out what was going to happen.

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Tuesday, August 14, 2007

      A star translator of mystery and history

      I took a break from crime fiction to pick up The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, by that epoch-making French historian-geographer Fernand Braudel. Braudel wrote on a grand scale (the famous longue durée), and his writing was lively, engaging and passionate, especially when he wrote about his native country.

      This afternoon I made the exciting discovery that the book's English translator was Sian Reynolds, known to crime-fiction readers as the double-Dagger-winning translator of Fred Vargas' Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand and The Three Evangelists. Reynolds also translated Braudel's three-volume Civilization and Capitalism — 15th-18th Century and the two-volume The Identity of France. I recommend the latter to anyone who wants convincing that history is exciting and can take in far more than what is normally understood by the word history.
      I don't know how typical Sian Reynolds' genre-hopping is in the translation and publishing businesses, but she obviously keeps good company in her work.

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Monday, August 13, 2007

      Fred Vargas' France vs. Quebec rivalry?

      A fellow blogger tells me that some Montreal members of online reading groups were bothered by aspects of Fred Vargas' Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand. I've been unable to track down their complaints, but Vargas does not shy away from the cultural friction that ensues when Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his Paris colleagues fly to Quebec for a forensics conference.

      Among other things, the novel's scariest character other than the killer is a high-level French Canadian police officer portrayed as strict, manipulative, and even a bit sadistic in his psychological toying with suspects. In addition, French Canadian readers might not have been thrilled that a good Quebec officer who helps Adamsberg is rewarded with promotion to be closer to his girlfriend — in predominantly Anglophone Toronto. The novel also offers observations about mutual mistrust between French Canadians and French and about typical French Canadian names that don't occur in France — Ginette, Laliberté and, if I recall correctly, Filibert are three of them. It's all rather gentle stuff, I'd say.

      In any case, such intercultural suspicion may be a kind of turnabout from a previous Vargas novel, Seeking Whom He May Devour. In that book, a Canadian naturalist working among wolves in southeastern France is less than impressed with the humans, especially when they begin to suspect a werewolf, rather than a conventional animal, in a series of sheep killings.

      "They're saying this time it's not an ordinary animal."

      "Not ordinary?"

      "A different kind of beast. Bigger. A force of nature, with a monster's jaw. Abnormal, like. In a word, a ghoul."

      "Pull the other one."

      "That's what they're saying."

      Johnstone was stunned. He shook his blond locks.

      "Your bloody backward country," he said after a
      pause, "is populated by nothing but bird-brained yokels."

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Happy birthday, Hitch!

      The man who directed Rear Window, Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble With Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Thirty-Nine Steps and many more of the most exciting, most technically proficient, and most enjoyable movies ever made would have turned 108 years old today. Happy birthday, Alfred Hitchcock!

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Sunday, August 12, 2007

      Crime in Ireland, crime in the wider world, and a question

      Declan Burke, author of The Big O and keeper of the Crime Always Pays blog, sets his sights on the dimensions and foundations of the Irish crime-fiction boom here. He offers a lively review of the theories, and one might surprise you: "Money is the great leveller, and in an Ireland where the vast majority of the population have benefited from the economic boom, the erstwhile great and good can no longer depend on deferential treatment, while the moneyed classes are no longer deserving of their pedestal."

      Further to the south, I've finished Solea, final volume in Jean-Claude Izzo's Marseilles trilogy. The novel is just as romantic as its predecessors, Total Chaos and Cheops, just as besotted with the light of Marseilles and just as pained by the memory of lost love. But this novel thinks globally, too. The narrative is punctuated with U.N. and other data about the hellish intermingling of the criminal and "legitimate" economies and with harsh criticism of governments, especially France's, for failing to act.

      Izzo presents the information as research by a reporter whom the protagonist, Fabio Montale, is trying to find and protect. The excerpts are sprinkled throughout the novel, set it in italic type in chunks sometimes a page or two long. The presentation, set off narratively and typographically from the main action, functions like a play within a play, making its impact precisely because of its distinctive presentation.

      And now, a question: That's how Jean-Claude Izzo presented blocks of factual information; how do your favorite writers do it? What thrillers make history or diplomacy come alive without making the story die? What police procedurals do a good job with forensic detail? What mysteries taught you much about an unfamiliar city or a new field of endeavor?

      Or tell me about some novels that failed to do the job.

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Saturday, August 11, 2007

      It's noir, but is it always Dublin?

      It's an odd collection so far, its oddity not entirely explained by Ken Bruen's introduction: "At first, it was straightforward — Dublin authors to write on their city ... Then we turned the concept on its head, as you do in noir. The Irish are fascinated by how we appear to the world, so let's have a look, we thought, at how this city appears from the outside."

      The result is an odd assortment of stories from American, British, Irish and Canadian writers, Eoin Colfer, Laura Lippman, Jim Fusilli, Olen Steinhauer, Reed Farrel Coleman and Bruen himself among them. Why odd? Because there are some terrific stories here, only some left me wondering what they had to do with Dublin or Ireland. With others, the connection was there, but self-conscious and seemingly grafted on as an afterthought. In one or two, the dialect and pronunciation were grating. Bruen writes that "You won't find many leprechauns or bodhráns here — and not one top o' the mornin'." Fair enough, but a pack of writers who make their characters say "feckin' this" and "feckin' that" all the time can be just as bad.

      What binds the collection, then? Well, a number of men wind up bound, to chairs or to beds, victims or potential victims of revenge. Two of the collection’s best stories are revenge tales, from Craig McDonald and Laura Lippman, McDonald’s because of a clever twist and Lippman’s, noirest of noir, true to the bleak spirit of the genre but new all the same, with a punch-in-the-gut double twist. I also like Duane Swierczynski’s “Lonely and Gone,” dark as its title and with a canny use of untranslated Irish Gaelic that adds to the strange, buzzing, off-kilter atmosphere. And John Rickards appears to have torn up whatever guidelines he was given when he wrote his weird, paranoid, hilarious supernatural romp, "Wish."

      Eoin Colfer’s “Taking on PJ” is another highlight. It takes a special kind of alchemy to mix violence with laugh-out-loud humor and make both work. No one does it better than Bruen himself, and Colfer is just about as good. It’s no wonder Bruen chose “Taking on PJ” to open the collection. With its accent and its attitude, there’s no mistaking where this one takes place.

      (Click here for the complete table of contents of Dublin Noir.)

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Friday, August 10, 2007

      More musical notes

      Second page, first chapter of Jean-Claude Izzo's Solea, and the protagonist is already listening to music:

      "When I came in, Léo Ferré was singing:

      "`I sense the arrival
      of trains full of Brownings,
      Berettas and black flowers
      And florists preparing bloodbaths
      For the news on color TV ... '"

      That's a stunning passage for the starkness of its content, to be sure, but also because of the slight awkwardness presumably introduced by the translation and because of the song's unfamiliarity, at least to me. The last two reasons may be more essential than the first to the passage's success.

      Too often, popular music fails as an indicator of character in crime fiction precisely because it's so popular. If it's part of everyone's mental landscape, how can it signify a character's uniqueness? For me, a song can work better in fiction if I don't know it. When that happens, the author and I have to do the work. My experience is not filtered through countless listenings, half-heard snatches, radio, records, background music, television, commercials, ring tones and media hype.

      Jim Fusilli has an interesting, ambivalent take on music in his story "The Ghost of Rory Gallagher," from the Dublin Noir collection. The central character is obsessed with the Gallagher of the title, a fiery Irish rock guitarist who died in 1995. That character listens to Gallagher with a passion that I'm guessing Fusilli shares.

      On the other hand, the character's grasping, overweening love for the musician is a lampoon of the hysterical worship of rock and roll guitarists that has been around at least since a graffito proclaimed that "Clapton is God." The character is a villain, an unscrupulous trader whose depradations bring ruin to scores of people and who is willing to pay vast sums of money for rare Gallagher recordings. It's easy to read this as a criticism of rock and roll's failed promises of escape, equality, love and justice.

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Thursday, August 09, 2007

      What ever happened to sports-related crime fiction?

      Andrea Fannini's blog recently discussed an Italian crime novel set amid the Tour de France.

      The review calls Giallo su Giallo, among other things, a diverting immersion in the cyclists' world and a gastronomic guide to France. When the killing starts, Inspector Magrite turns up to investigate. One assumes, with a surreal name like that, that author Gianni Mura has a sense of humor, too. (Would an inspector named Magrite puff on a Ceci n'est pas une pipe?)

      Andrea posted his review nine days before the 2007 Tour began. That race, of course, turned into a doped-up scandal on wheels, which may have put the Italian reading public in a mood for cycling-related crime. Here in North America, though, crime readers and publishers have lost their appetite for sports. Horseracing tracks and boxing rings were once archetypal settings for crime fiction and movies. Then governments got in on the game with state lotteries and robbed gambling of much of its forbidden glamour. Outside of Dick Francis, Stephen Dobyns and Harlan Coben, I can think of no crime writers who still regularly use sports as a setting.

      Why is this? Why have the Italian soccer bribery scandals, the proliferation of Olympic doping, the expenditures of billions on sports betting and television rights everywhere, the defections of Cuban baseball players, the shameful treatment of older retired football players and other such scandals not generated crime fiction? Or have I missed it?

      So readers, what sports settings have generated crime stories — or should have?

      N.B. Giallo su giallo means yellow on yellow. Crime stories are known in Italian as gialli, or "yellows," singular form giallo. Yellow is also the color of the leader's jersey in the Tour de France.

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Wednesday, August 08, 2007

      Another thing about titles

      I've just posted a comment about Åsa Larsson's Sun Storm. The novel was published under that title in the U.S. and as The Savage Altar in the U.K.

      Leaving aside the question of which title sounds better (I think the answer is obvious), the divergent decisions on what to call the book provide a revealing look at two opposing philosophies of titling.

      Sun Storm, an accurate translation of the original Swedish title, refers to the Northern lights, which appear several times in the book in descriptive, but not narrative, passages. The British title is presumably an allusion to the murder that drives the plot, which takes place in a church, though not at an altar.

      There you have it: One title refers precisely to a feature that plays no direct role in the book's events. The other refers to the central event, but it does so imprecisely. Two titles, two schools of thought, one more item for the gripe session over title changes that drive you nuts (or not).

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Åsa Larsson, "Sun Storm"

      "It had turned a little milder. The thermometer was showing minus fifteen ... "

      The weather is cold, the body dismembered, the setting a church. The novel, of course, takes place in the south of France.

      That's a joke, dear readers. With setting, killing and temperature like the ones I've described, Åsa Larsson's Sun Storm could only have taken place in Sweden. The question is relevant because among this novel's accomplishments are its creative spins on themes common in recent Nordic crime fiction.

      Take the church, for one. Religion, its rejection by the public, and the fear of Satanism bubble close to the surface in a number of Nordic crime novels, Helene Tursten's The Glass Devil and Jo Nesbø's The Devil's Star among them. One could easily conclude from such books that citizens of the Nordic lands have an uneasy relationship with their churches. Usually, however, the theme is not central to the novel. A clergyman might be a victim or a suspect. Satanists might be suspected of a murder because of their earlier attack on a church building. But the books don't examine how believers believe, how practitioners "do" religion.

      Here, the attacks on abuses committed in religion's name are more sustained and direct, both in matters of administration and of religious practice. And the protagonist, Rebecka Martinsson, is a former church member still bound by ties of memory and vestigial belief to the church people among whom she conducts her investigation.

      Also, the weather is even colder than one might expect. Nordic crime novels tend to take place in or near their country's biggest cities. Sun Storm, by contrast, pulls Rebecka Martinsson from her Stockholm law office to her (and Larsson's) home town of Kiruna, in Sweden's far north. The novel is more one of action and character than of setting, but the setting does make for several differences. Drinkers drink at home rather than in bars. Place names sound Finnish rather than Swedish. There are references to the Sami, the ancient people of the far northern region where Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden meet. Intergral to the novel's main themes? Perhaps not, but they do contribute to its feel, as does the little girl a lock of whose hair freezes, much to her delight, on a typically cold day.

      The novel abounds in such nice touches. A tyrannical police inspector gets his comeuppance not in some fantasy revenge scenario, but in a quiet snub. Large chunks of explanatory information are presented in engaging and clever ways. Themes that shout their way off the page in other novels are dealt with quietly here, almost daringly so. And Rebecka Martinsson's friend, accused in the killing of a charismatic religious leader, is handled far more convincingly than the cover blurb's description of her as "beautiful and fragile" might lead a reader to believe.

      I have the tiniest of quibbles over a melodramatic touch or two, but I'll happily read Åsa Larsson's The Blood Spilt, currently available, and The Black Path, scheduled for publication this year.

      Sun Storm, a literal translation of the novel's Swedish title, is called The Savage Altar in the U.K. The sun storm of the U.S. title is the aurora borealis, or Northern lights, evocatively and suprisingly described several times in the novel.

      The book won Sweden's award for best first crime novel in 2003 and was short-listed for best crime novel. The Blood Spilt won for best crime novel of 2004.

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Tuesday, August 07, 2007

      More about first lines

      Jerome Weeks at BookDaddy expands on my recent post about Great first lines in crime fiction with some excellent crime-fiction openers and thoughtful comments about why they work. He also offers a wince-inducing opening from an acclaimed novel and a comment just as thoughtful about why it doesn't.

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Monday, August 06, 2007

      Detectives beyond other borders

      Have you ever peered into a telescope only to find someone peering right back at you? Neither have I, but that's the feeling I get when I find an overseas blog that explores the exotic world of American crime fiction.

      I recently received a comment from Bernd Kochanowski, keeper of the newish German-language blog Internationale Krimis, or International crime fiction, which offers "thoughts about crime fiction, especially from the U.S., Great Britain and Ireland." I'll keep an eye on it to see if it offers a perspective on the American scene that I might have missed because I'm too close to it. [Rhian, keeper of the It's a Crime! (or a mystery...) blog, who signs her comments "crimeficreader," might be interested in Bernd's blog signature. He calls himself "krimileser," which means crime fiction reader.]

      Then there's Jazz al Nero, an encyclopaedic effort that I recently deemed schmoozeable. This Italian blog's bibliographies are a sobering reminder of how little crime fiction is translated into English. Take the entry on Håkan Nesser. Why should an author from Sweden be especially attractive to readers in Italy? Yet at least five of his books have been translated into Italian, versus just two into English.

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Sunday, August 05, 2007

      Title changes that drive you nuts (or not)

      Why do publishers change a book's title when translating or reissuing it? Why does Åsa Larsson's Solstorm become Sun Storm in the United States but The Savage Altar in the United Kingdom? How about The Smell of the Night and The Scent of the Night? Again, same book.

      And could political sensitivities lie behind the change in title of Matt Beynon Rees' first crime novel set in the Palestinian territories? The Collaborator of Bethlehem in the U.S. became The Bethlehem Murders in the U.K. (The British edition also changes Rees' name, dropping Beynon.)

      Sometimes a change is easy to understand. Fred Vargas' Have Mercy On Us All made a better English title than a literal translation of the French original would have been: Leave Quickly, and Return Late. And Cornell Woolrich's story "It Had to Be Murder" is more easily found these days under the title of the movie that Alfred Hitchcock made from it: Rear Window.

      OK, readers, what title changes delighted or infuriated you — or made you scratch your head or roll your eyes?

      And here's a special Detectives Beyond Borders quiz: Adrian Hyland's wonderful Australian debut novel, Diamond Dove, will be published in the United States as Moonlight Downs. Why?

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Saturday, August 04, 2007

      Nothing says "love" like warding off a swarm of plague-infected rats

      I'm not quite ready to shut up about Fred Vargas, but I'll try to keep my raves relatively painless by presenting them as short, easy-to-digest notes:

      Have Mercy On Us All concerns a plot to make Parisians believe they are being infected by bubonic plague. Vargas, herself a researcher on the epidemiology of the plague, offers a guide to the superstitions by which people sought to ward off the disease in the middle ages. Rich people, it transpires, suffered less than poor people did because their better-made houses were less hospitable to the rats that carried the plague than were the wretched quarters of the poor.

      Rich people also wore more jewels, and the belief grew, we are told, that the jewels themselves warded off the plague. Then, as now, diamonds were the most precious jewels, "Which is why," Vargas has a character explain, "a wealthy man would give his beloved a diamond to plight his troth, so as to save her from the scourge. The habit's stayed with us, but nobody has the faintest idea anymore why we buy diamond rings."

      True? I don't know, but it's a hell of a story and unlikely to turn up in jewelers' ads any time soon.

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Friday, August 03, 2007

      The man who came in from reading Fred Vargas

      The Oz Mystery Readers group is discussing John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a classic espionage novel and an occasion for some lessons in history.

      You know the history I mean, don't you? The history of the fictional spy, which meant, at that time, James Bond. Le Carré's protagonist, Alec Leamas, is an anti-Bond. His life, according to the article to which I link above, "is far from the glamour of James Bond's world: he has a love affair with a lonely, unpaid librarian, not with a fashion model."

      Then there's that other history, that of the Cold War, of us vs. them, with its harsh symbol of division, the Berlin Wall. And us vs. them, Le Carré tells us, is decidedly not good vs. evil. It was probably easy to call the book a classic back in 1963, and the dust jacket of my handsome old hardback edition trots out a lineup of superstar blurbsters: Daphne du Maurier, Alec Waugh, J.B. Priestley and Graham Greene, the last of whom called the book "the best spy story I have ever read."

      But that was then; this is now. How does the book's laying bare of the amorality of espionage hold up today? Pretty well, even when the prose seems tendentious by current standards:

      "Ashe, Kiever, Peters; that was a progression on quality, in authority, which to Leamas was axiomatic of the hierarchy of an intelligence network. It was also, he suspected, a progression in ideology. Ashe the mercenary, Kiever the fellow traveler, and now Peters, for whom the ends and the means were identical."
      I'll report back later on a bit of plot manipulation that just might be shocking or even offensive, depending on the next thirty or so pages. In the meantime, sit back and reflect on the vanished days of the rivalry between Russia and the West, that golden era of international spying.

      Say, who was that Alexander Litvinenko guy, anyway?

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Thursday, August 02, 2007

      Turn off the TV, and pick up a book

      Sarah Weinman of Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind links to a 1978 article from Time about the state of crime fiction.

      She quotes three paragraphs, of which one especially might make readers of this blog feel good:

      It is a truism nonetheless that future historians may get their surest handle on today's world by studying Martin Beck's Stockholm, the Amsterdam of Van der Valk and Grijpstra, the England of Merle Capricorn and Adam Dalgliesh, Inspector Ghote's Bombay, José Da Silva's Rio, the Manhattan of Inspector Schmidt and Detective Steve Carella, Fred Fellows' Connecticut, Sam Spade's San Francisco and Travis McGee's Florida.
      I got a special kick of seeing Janwillem van de Wetering's Grijpstra mentioned, though it was odd to see Grijpstra's name without that of his partner, De Gier. But my favorite sentence in the article is one that seeks to explain the popularity of mysteries. Though written in 1978, it is just as true today:

      They are the insomniac's solace, the commuter's opiate, everymitty's escape from idiot box and cuckoo's nest.

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007


      Fred Vargas is positively medieval

      I knew Vargas was a medieval historian and archaeologist. More recently I read that she had done research on the epidemiology of the Black Death. The latter certainly figures prominently in Have Mercy on Us All. In Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, protagonist Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg's recurring fantasy of stuffing Strasbourg Cathedral, one of the great medieval buildings, full of noxious beasts is redolent of plague imagery from medieval art.

      In Have Mercy ... , a town crier and an impoverished keeper of a boardinghouse team up in the opening chapters to investigate puzzling messages that keep turning up in the letterbox where the crier gathers his news. The two have a testy relationship and, in their contrasting turns of mind and their squabbling, are a kind of humorous echo of the intuitive Adamsberg and his erudite, analytical lieutenant, Danglard.

      It's tempting to think that Vargas took that echo-in-miniature idea from the Middle Ages. Medieval painters, sculptors, manuscript illuminators and embroiderers loved to populate their work with marginal figures that fill space, provide decoration, or, as in this example from the Bayeux Tapestry, echo, supplement, or comment on the main action.

      None of this is necessary to enjoy Vargas' writing, but it's fun to think about and just might give some insight into her technique.

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      Wednesday, August 01, 2007

      Fred Vargas, queen of the slow fuse

      A concerned reader wondered whether last week's post about great first lines in crime fiction may have overemphasized the importance of a whiz-bang opening. "I've trawled some of the novels I've read recently," she wrote, "and realised that the opening lines were not great, although the novels were brilliant. We're all told you need a good hook to open, but could that hook really be more than just the first line, perhaps the first page?"

      That's a valid concern. In fact, the question did not go far enough. A hook, in Fred Vargas' case, can be not the first line, not the first page, but the first chapter — or chapters. Breaking from my usual practice, I posted a comment two weeks ago after reading just the opening chapter of Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand. I was astonished that Vargas opened that novel with the protagonist and his top assistant contemplating and fretting over a broken water heater and an upcoming forensics conference. The site of the conference turns out to be a key plot element, but the reader has no way of knowing this at the time. The chapter works because the characters are so interesting and the situation so odd.

      Have Mercy On Us All burns with a similarly slow fuse. The flics, or police, don't make the scene until the fourth chapter. When they do, the words get right at the heart, not of the plot, but of the protagonist: "`I wonder," mused Chief Inspector Adamsberg ... '"

      Those six words sum up Vargas' approach. The first three chapters are full of odd occurrences and characters surprisingly fully realized considering how "quirky" they are. But then come those six key words. Adamsberg is impatient with procedure and prone to making intuitive connections that often come to him on the long walks he loves. His wandering and wondering and musing drive the novel and drive his loyal, logical second-in-command, Danglard, nuts.

      And now, back to the book, to see how Vargas works her magic. The tentative verdict is that she has as sure a grip on what she wants her protagonist to be as any author I can think of.

      If you're up to it, think of some novels that are memorable for their slow buildups. Then tell me what they are and why they worked for you.

      © Peter Rozovsky 2007

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