Saturday, September 29, 2007

National characteristics in crime fiction and a question for readers

Yesterday's discussion of political pot shots cited three examples, all from Australian crime fiction. Two of the three were gruffly humorous; no surprise considering the source. Humor, often of the bluff sort, is a distinguishing feature of Australian crime fiction, just as social concern is a part of so many Swedish crime novels and food of so many Mediterranean ones.

The list goes on. Hard-bitten P.I.s are prototypically American, amateur sleuths of independent means typically British. French crime fiction has given the world few private investigators.

Here's your job, readers: What characters and characteristics are especially prominent in the crime fiction of particular nations? And what examples run counter to national type?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Friday, September 28, 2007

What are your favorite political pot shots in crime fiction?

Here are three selections from crime novels I've read in the past few months or am reading now:

"She kept saying things like `the continuance of this program is a litmus test of our national decency' or, worse still, last week's corker, `without initiatives such as this one, we may as well be Republicans.'"

"Extramarital affairs were bad enough in the Democratic heartland, but porking a conservative was unforgiveable."

"Fooling around might be forgivable. Kinky is a matter of taste. But doing it with a member of the Republican Party was beyond the pale."
Rather characteristic of what pundits like to call the poverty of American political discourse, is it not — the narrowing of discussion to insults flung back and forth between members of two, and only two, irreconcilable political parties? Except that the examples are from Australian novels, and I've substituted Democrat for Labor and Republican for Liberal, switches that are least roughly accurate ideologically.

The novels in questions are, respectively, Dead Set by Kel Robertson, Crook as Rookwood by Chris Nyst, and The Big Ask by Shane Maloney. The latter two ought to make you laugh at loud amid the suspense, and the first shows similar potential. (If you like an occasional laugh with your fictional violence, in other words, try Australian crime fiction. Humor, if not always as bawdy as these examples, abounds.)

And now, the questions for readers:
You've seen what Shane Maloney and Chris Nyst can do. Now, what are your favorite and funniest political wisecracks? If they're from crime fiction, so much the better!

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

O, man! (Declan Burke)

Declan Burke reveals in an interview with Shots Ezine that his riotous, compassionate and very funny caper novel, The Big O, owes its existence to his exasperated wife's having flushed a chick-lit novel down "a metaphorical khazi."

You can read the interview to find out what a khazi is. You'll also get this entertaining writer's insights on Irish crime fiction, his fellow Irish crime writers, and his frustration with publishers who won't take chances. Burke talks at length about what he went through to get The Big O published, and I suspect that his comments will be of special interest to authors and would-be authors.

In June I called The Big O "one of the most fun and purely pleasurable reads I've had in a while." That still holds true, so why write about it again? Because it's a hell of a novel, and maybe if enough buzz is generated, and enough readers bang their bowls on their high chairs, a U.S. publisher will bring it out on this side of the ocean.

Until then, you can order The Big O through Hag's Head Press. While you're waiting for it to arrive, read my review here, along with the novel's hilariously deadpan opening lines.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Welcome, Inquirer readers

Today is a proud day for Detectives Beyond Borders, the blog for international crime fiction: DBB is now linked to the online edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer. (You'll find the link on the newspaper's Blogs & Columns page.)

I like to think of this as a clever and productive way for the Inquirer to take advantage of its staff's latent talents and to offer readers material for which there is insufficient space in the newspaper. I hope Inquirer readers will find it a diverting place to learn about and discuss crime writing and crime writers from around the world.

If you've found this link via the Inquirer, welcome for the first of what I hope will be many visits. Stick with me, and you'll learn about crime writers like Algeria's Yasmina Khadra, France's fantastic Fred Vargas, Ireland's Declan Burke and England's well-known William Shakespeare. You'll take flight with Adrian Hyland's Diamond Dove from Australia, and you'll find out why people keep winding up dead under trains in postwar Japanese crime fiction.

We'll discuss issues in international crime fiction, including strategies of translation, and you'll learn what crime-fiction fans in other countries read. You'll also get to chat with an interesting, knowledgeable and friendly group of readers from around the world, and, if you'd like, to practice your French, Italian, German, Spanish and maybe even Finnish.

Welcome. And now, start reading!

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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"Look, idiot of the trenches," or Fred Vargas' gentle humor

I've alluded from time to time to the humor that runs through Fred Vargas' work, but I'm not sure I've given any examples. So, how about this, from Seeking Whom He May Devour, about a hill-dwelling loner whom the locals believe is a werewolf and thus, in his human form, smooth all over:

"He can't have much fun up there on his own without any hair."
Or what about the novel's African co-protagonist, a foundling raised by a loving French mother who bedeviled his youth by forcing him to watch serious television documentaries about Africa? The character, nonetheless devoted to her, develops a habit of meeting any contingency with a dubious if not outright made-up piece of African folklore that inevitably makes his listeners roll their eyes and cut him off with gentle admonitions such as "The pond story is not strictly gospel, you know."
And this exchange of insults between a historian of World War I and a medieval historian in The Three Evangelists:

"What do you mean madness, you no-brain soldier?"
"Because, you no-brain worshipper of courtly love ... "

"Look, idiot of the trenches ..."
For reasons I cannot entirely explain, I find those last two lines, especially, among the most engaging I have ever read in crime fiction. They capture the gruff affection and exasperation that exists between Lucien and Marc, two of the three evangelists of the title, and extends to the third of the group, named, naturally, Matthias, and Marc's uncle and godfather, Old Vandoosler.
Three of the four Vargas novels that have appeared in English feature eccentrically endearing types, some of them down-and-outers, as protagonists or co-protagonists. Temperamentally, this relates Vargas to Daniel Pennac's Belleville novels and, more generally, to a gentle brand of French humor about loveable and not-so-loveable outcasts and waifs that can teeter on the brink of (Boudu Saved From Drowning) or tumble over the edge into sentimentality (Audrey Tautou's "cute" roles). The successful examples manage to keep humor and sentiment in play at the same time. I recommend Vargas.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007
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Monday, September 24, 2007

Ask an Australian author (Adrian Hyland)

The Oz Mystery Readers group is hosting an online discussion with Adrian Hyland, Ned Kelly Award-winning author of Diamond Dove, about which I rave here. Hyland's passionate defense of his decision to write in the voice of an Aboriginal narrator/protagonist is especially worth reading. I urge you all to sign up, log in, and sound off. It's free, and it's fun.

(Soho Press will publish the novel next year in the U.S. under the title Moonlight Downs.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Fred Vargas' France

"As they left the last slivers of Mediterranean landscape behind them and began the climb towards the Col de la Croix-Haute, about ten kilometres before the summit they drove into a bank of white, fluffy fog. Soliman and Watchee were entering an alien sector and they observed their new surroundings with hostility and fascination."
Last month I wrote about a fascinating connection between Fred Vargas and Fernand Braudel: The superb French crime novelist and the late, great French historian shared a translator, Siân Reynolds. In a gracious reply to my fan letter, Reynolds shed further light on possible connections. She wrote that Mrs. Braudel had told her Vargas had been to see Braudel when she was starting her own career as a historian.

But the ties between the two are more than circumstantial and biographical. Braudel and Vargas had temperamental affinities as well, and those affinities strongly inform Seeking Whom He May Devour. In this novel, second of Vargas's four about Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg that have been translated into English, Vargas shares Braudel's keen and amused interest in the physical and social diversity of their homeland. The selection quoted above is a virtual illustration of Braudel's observations in The Identity of France about the country's countless pays, its distinctive micro-regions with their own economies, traditions, and even climates.

Vargas has put a plumber/musician, a wise old shepherd, and a young, all-purpose handyman in a livestock truck converted into a camper and taken them on the road through southeastern France. Their goal: Find the man or beast who has been terrorizing the countryside and the country by slaughtering sheep and the occasional human. The journey is not terribly long, but it takes the searchers through a range of climates, geography and social attitudes. With reason, one of the characters calls their odd odyssey a road movie.

And then, at a surprisingly advanced stage in the eccentric voyage, Vargas brings Adamsberg onto the scene, a symbol, despite his utterly idiosyncratic methods, of bureaucratic, Paris-centric France, another one of Braudel's many Frances and of Vargas's as well.

But Seeking Whom He May Devour is a novel, and not a geography lesson. The leisurely, late introduction of Adamsberg lets Vargas do what she does so well: build a convincing fictional world populated by sympathetic characters before the investigation gets serious. Among other things, this means that when Vargas introduces the inevitable tensions and complications and personal notes, they seem an organic part of the novel, and not mere grafted-on human interest. We know these people. And the ground is fertile for the interpersonal dynamics that help make any journey more than a mere itinerary: The plumber/musician is Adamsberg's long-ago lover, the elusive Camille.

The mystery is fully worked out, complete with red herrings and false leads, the killings suitably gruesome, the confrontations with the killer and other bad characters suitably tense. But the pleasures of seeing the travellers developing a daily routine around their rolling home are at least as great. The delights, as in any good journey, are at least as much in the travel as in reaching the destination. Or maybe even more so.
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The other Adamsberg novels are Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, Have Mercy on Us All, and This Night's Foul Work. The last, a translation of Dans les bois éternels, which appeared in French last year, is to be published in 2008.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

All about translation

I've written from time to time about issues that arise in translation, from Siân Reynolds' decision to leave out mutual misunderstandings of French idioms between French and Canadian characters in her translation of Fred Vargas' Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand to Shane Maloney's vivid thoughts on making Australian expressions available to American readers to an excellent article in which leading crime-fiction translators talk about what they do.

With a hat tip to Nearly Nothing But Novels, I've found a blog all about translation. Life in Translation's author works mostly on Spanish-English translations, but she offers general thoughts on the art and practice of translation, as wel, and, in a comment, some thoughts on the Mexican crime novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Happy birthday to this blog, plus a note on Tokyo Year Zero

Today is the first anniversary of the first Detectives Beyond Borders post, which I mention because I have read that few blogs last this long. Mine, I think, is beyond the teething stage by now and is even walking on its own. So, thanks to all of you who have read and commented over the past twelve months. Keep on doing it, and tell your friends, colleagues and loved ones to join you.

I begin the new blog year with another post about Tokyo Year Zero, this time about its technique. Author David Peace has interpolated memories, presumably the narrator's, and sound effects of the decaying and rebuilding Tokyo into the novel's text. The interpolations are set in italic type, which fairly screams Technique! The same is the case with the frequent repetition of sentences, sometimes with minor variants in word order.

But Peace has put the technique to exceedingly good use. The constant ton-ton-ton-ton of hammers and the repetition are highly effective ways of translating the noise, squalor and monotony of a war-ravaged city into terms a reader can understand and feel. The devices are far more effective than exclusively descriptive passages would be, though Peace offers plenty of those, too, and does it well. Peace makes the squalor a part of the very texture of the narrative. He does as good a job of describing war's effects on people's minds and daily lives as does Yasmina Khadra in Morituri.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Jeopardy! catches up to Detectives Beyond Borders, then gets one of its own questions wrong

Loyal readers will know I've posted several Shakespeare comments recently, noting instances in which the Bard drew from the same wellspring that inspires current crime writers.

Someone in TV land must have read those posts, because tonight's Jeopardy! including the cleverly titled category "C.S.I.: Shakespeare." Once they'd run through categories of '70s hits and words with the letter z, the contestants correctly answered, in ascending order of monetary value, questions that amounted to the following: Who kills the king who married his (the killer's) mother? Who stabs a king? What play has two dead lovers in it? and Which king who suffers heavy losses had three daughters?

Only the fifth question posed any kind of a test, asking, in effect, who drowned the Duke of Clarence in a cask of wine. None of the cautious contestants took a stab at that one (the answer was Richard III).

I expect a note of gratitude and a hefty royalty check from the Jeopardy! folks any day now.
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If money and thanks fail to arrive, I'll console myself with the rare pleasure of having seen the show's question writers and host Alex Trebek make a mistake. A category called "The Star-Spangled Banner" asked: "Which two (sic) times of day" are mentioned in the U.S. national anthem? One contestant answered: "Dawn and night," which was closer to correct than Trebek got it. No, Trebek said, the answer is dawn ("by the dawn's early light") and twilight ("at the twilight's last gleaming").

Question for Alex Trebek: "This word completes the following line from `The Star Spangled Banner': `Gave proof through the ________ that our flag was still there.'"

(On second thought, I hope the question did not refer to the first verse of the anthem, in which case Jeopardy! would be right. Yikes!)

© Peter Rozovsky 2007


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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Sweet news from Bitter Lemon Press

The good folks at Bitter Lemon keep making interesting tweaks and additions to their offerings. First they moved into English-language crime fiction, adding titles by D.B. Reid and Australia's Garry Disher to their fine list of translated crime.

Now, they plan a book of short stories from Italian crime writers, the company's first move into short fiction (hat tip to Crime Scraps). Crimini, with publication dates of January 2008 in the U.K. and April 2008 in the U.S., will include stories by Massimo Carlotto, Niccolo Ammaniti, Andrea Camilleri, Carlo Lucarelli, Marcello Fois and others. I like the catalogue's description of the book's nine stories as often darkly humorous.

But the best news from Bitter Lemon is the upcoming publication (February 2008, U.K. / January 2009 U.S.) of Friedrich Glauser's The Spoke. Glauser was one of the outstanding crime writers ever: low-key, compassionate, witty, deadpan. Getting his work translated into English is the best thing Bitter Lemon has done.

One question: For some reason, I'd thought that Glauser wrote six novels about Sgt. Studer, and I could have sworn that I heard this from Bitter Lemon. But the company says The Spoke is the fifth and last of the Studer books. I shall investigate!

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A gold mine of international crime fiction on TV and DVD

I’ve written here and there about international detective stories televised by MHz Networks in the Washington, D.C., area. It turns out that the network shows more than the Andrea Camilleri and Harri Nykänen series I mentioned in those posts. It screens entire series of detective shows from abroad under the general title International Mystery and plans to issue several on DVD, which I think is big, exciting news.

Here’s a note from Mike Jeck, MHz’s programming manager for films:

International Mystery has been screening since early 2000 on MHz Networks [an independent, noncommercial television broadcaster delivering international programming to the Washington, D.C., area, and now, selected affiliates and other outlets around the country].

Currently we are showing TV movies adapted from:
— Georges Simenon’s works about Maigret [the French series starring Bruno Cremer]
— Andrea Camilleri’s works about
Montalbano
— The originally scripted German series Tatort [Scene of the Crime], focusing on the Cologne team of Ballauf and Schenk
— The unique, award-winning Finnish miniseries Raid [inspired by the novels, so far untranslated, by Harri Nykänen].

In the past, we have shown the Russian Sherlock Holmes adaptations, and almost all of the Mankell/Wallander movies and mini-series. We will soon resume showing all the Swedish adaptations/extensions from the novels about Martin Beck.

On a sister program we are showing the originally scripted Mafia series La Piovra [The Octopus], series 1 [there are 10.]

All of these are presented in the original language with English subtitles.

How to see us: For those in the Washington, D.C., area, click
here. Nationally, click here.

DVD: We hold all US rights for the Montalbano, Octopus, and Martin Beck series; have wholesale/retail agreements re the Maigret and Raid series, and are in negotiations for several other series.

We expect to begin issuing Montalbano, Octopus and Raid DVD collections by at least early next year, with plenty of others to follow.

This is good stuff, readers.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Monday, September 17, 2007

The Eoin Colfer Code

You might be able to help me with a chronological question.

I wondered last week whether young readers would get Eoin Colfer's sly genre-fiction references. I had in mind the first book of his Artemis Fowl series, but I could as easily have been discussing Half Moon Investigations, whose opening monologue offers a 12-year-old's delightful version of the standard world-weary P.I.-novel opening. Perhaps Colfer's books are like the old Warner Brothers cartoons. I loved the cartoons' humor and richness when I first saw them, and I appreciated them anew once I understood the musical and other topical references.

Here's another genre-fiction reference from Colfer — maybe. The title Artemis Fowl and the Eternity Code would seem to be a dig at a certain bestseller of recent years. The possibility seems even stronger in the novel's opening sentences:

"For the past two years my business enterprises have thrived without parental interference. In this time, I have sold the Pyramids to a Western businessman, forged and auctioned the Lost Diaries of Leonardo da Vinci ... "
Is that a great dig, or what? One problem: Artemis Fowl and the Eternity Code and The da Vinci Code are both copyright 2003.

And now, that chronological question: Is Colfer's seeming dig really a shot at Dan Brown? Is it a highly fortunate coincidence? Or is something mysterious at work — mysterious and deep?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Mongolia is coming to America

Michael Walters reports on his blog that his novel The Shadow Walker is to be published in the United States by Berkley Books in 2008.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

A bit more from a great seventeenth-century crime writer.

I don't want to carry this Shakespeare thing too far, but Act III, Scene iii of Hamlet is like a noir novel with the characters viewed inside out, or maybe through a fluoroscope. They think out loud classic noir patterns of guilt and doom.

Here's Claudius:

"O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven"

And, even better:

"'Forgive me my foul murder'?
That cannot be; since I am still possess'd
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon'd and retain the offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence's gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft 'tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law: but 'tis not so above"

Modernize the language a bit, and you could slip that seamlessly into a 1950s pulp novel called The Haunted Killer.

And how about this, from Hamlet himself, plotting not just to kill, but to kill when the killing will have the greatest impact:

"Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't. ...
... am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season'd for his passage?
No!
Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in't;"



Hamlet thinks at the same time like a contemporary crime-fiction psycho who plots a killing so it will have the greatest symbolic meaning, and a cool, professional killer, who plans the hit for when the target is most vulnerable, that is, not praying.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007



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Saturday, September 15, 2007

History, mystery, and crime in Japan

History and crime fiction have been topics of discussion here in recent days, and the trend continues thanks to an interview included with a review copy of Tokyo Year Zero.

Author David Peace talks about the novel and two further novels on which he is working, each of which was inspired by real crimes that happened during the American occupation of Japan after World War II. Peace says the second of those two books is based on the Shimoyama incident of 1949, in which the head of the Japanese National Railroad was found dead next to train tracks in Tokyo.

And that's where I felt I'd gained a bit of insight into modern Japanese history. Seicho Matsumoto, the celebrated Japanese crime novelist, wrote non-fiction works about the Shimoyama case, and his novels are marked by train trips and by bodies found under trains.

Peace also talks about the title Tokyo Year Zero and the dual sense it conveys of utter devastation but also of a new beginning. This and the criminal subject matter conjure inevitable memories of Akira Kurosawa's great crime movie Stray Dog.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Why historical crime fiction should go heavy on the history — or not

I've picked up a number of historical crime novels but finished few, probably because of the clashing demands of genre and setting. If the plot is compelling, the togas, horse-drawn carriages and imperial messengers become a distraction. If the historical period is compelling, I think, "What's all this stuff about a murder?" I'd rather go the source and read Gibbon or Tacitus.

When I do enjoy a historical crime novel, I ask myself what the author did to hold my attention. Carlo Lucarelli strips his De Luca novels of almost all historical detail. Instead, he lets the paranoia and confusion of story convey the atmosphere during the decline and fall of Fascist Italy.

Peter Tremayne, on the other hand, stuffs his Sister Fidelma novels so full of detail about the sights, sounds, laws and languages of seventh-century Ireland that the sheer joy of observing and learning becomes part of the fun. He talked about his technique a few years back in an interview in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society:

"Accuracy is the first principle. My characters can do nothing that is not consistent with the time, place and social system. I would say that I have probably done the bulk of general background research during the many decades I have been writing of this period of Irish history. When it comes to the setting of each individual novel, I will only write about places I know – places that I’ve been to. Spirit of place is very important to me. On the technical side, I have to ensure that any law that Fidelma quotes can actually be verified in the ancient law texts. This is something that happens as I go along. An argument on law might arise in the story … then I have to start checking my library to see what the interpretations are."
I've read the first Sister Fidelma novel, Absolution by Murder, and I'll read at least one more before offering further thoughts on the subject. For now, it's time once again to play A question for readers.

Today's questions: Carlo Lucarelli is a stripped-down minimalist when it comes to historical detail. Peter Tremayne is a beefed-up maximalist. Which approach do you prefer in historical crime fiction? Why? And what influences your choice?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Irish crime fiction in an unexpected place

Think Irish in the Americas, and you'll likely think Boston, New York or Mexico City. (Yep, Paco Ignacio Taibo's one-eyed private investigator, Hector Belascoaran Shayne, is half-Irish.)

But Houston? That bustling Texas metropolis has an Irish radio show and a Web site whose congeries of blogs and links includes these reviews of Irish crime fiction. It's nice to think that Ken Bruen, Eoin Colfer, Declan Burke, Declan Hughes, Gene Kerrigan, "Benjamin Black" and the rest might have one more city to add to their itineraries should they visit the U.S.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Mystery solved

Everyone knows crime fiction has boomed in Sweden in recent years. Last month, Bookwitch figured out why.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Calling all kids, or Fowl play

As promised earlier this week, I've started Eoin Colfer's first Artemis Fowl novel, Artemis Fowl. Though the news may be old hat to young readers, the novel is a delightful blend of police procedural, science fiction and fantasy.

Here's my favorite bit so far, with a question to follow:

"Holly Short was lying in bed, silently fuming. Nothing unusual about this. Leprechauns in general were not known for their geniality. But Holly was in an exceptionally bad mood, even for a fairy. Technically she was an elf, fairy being a general term. She was a leprechaun, too, but that was just a job."
Anyone who can squeeze world-weary fictional-cop attitude into a paragraph about elves and fairies need not rely on the other world for magic. We adult readers can enjoy the knowing weary-cop reference. The question of the day is: Do young readers get references like that, too, or do they just enjoy the story because it's so much fun? In more general terms, does a book that appeals to children and adults alike appeal to both groups in the same ways?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

What Spaniards read

From time to time to time, I like to post about the crime fiction available to readers in other countries.

An article from Spain's El Pais newspaper that I mentioned in my most recent comment gives a snap shot of the novelas negras that were hot in Spain a few years ago. It's an interesting list, with current writers, classic writers, Americans, Canadians, Spaniards, Brazilians and others along with such usual Detectives Beyond Borders suspects as Andrea Camilleri and Friedrich Glauser. There are also the inevitable author or two who have yet to be translated into English.

The list is worth a browse even if you don't read Spanish. You can still recognize the authors' names and get, if not a taste of Spain, then at least an idea of Spanish readers' tastes. (Hat tip to Detectives literarios.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Family matters

I've just picked up Eoin Colfer's first Artemis Fowl novel after having enjoyed his Half Moon Investigations. Each novel features a 12-year-old protagonist, one a criminal mastermind, the other a private detective.

I also recently discovered an article whose author found Fred Vargas' Have Mercy On Us All reminiscent of Daniel Pennac's Malaussène novels, and I agreed with the observation. (Hat tip to Detectives Literarios.) Pennac and Vargas write about "marvelous tribes" — strange families and eccentric collections of people who somehow get along harmoniously living under one weird roof.

That's two reminders the same week that not all family humor is as dreary, featureless, focus-group-driven and identically unfunny as that to be found on the typical American newspaper's comics pages.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Bill Shakespeare, sleuth / A question for readers

Like crime stories beyond number, Hamlet begins at night. Like fictional sleuths beyond counting, its protagonist sets a trap to snare a murderer ("The play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.")

Hamlet, like Philip Marlowe, is prone to bitter jokes, and, like Lovejoy, Keller, Quiller and Parker, he has just one name. He goes undercover, in a sense, to impersonate a madman. And you can keep all your self-doubting Kurt Wallanders, Harry Holes or John Rebuses; Hamlet was there first.

Shakespeare has long inspired crime writers. Murder Most Foul is a line from Hamlet (Act I, Scene v, Line 27). And does the title of Fred Vargas' Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand seem familiar? Macbeth says those words after slaying Duncan.

And now, dear readers, what have I missed? What other crime writers have taken titles and other cues from Shakespeare? I'll start you off: Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon paraphrases Prospero in The Tempest when he calls the black bird "the stuff that dreams are made of." Now, help me build this list.

(image from http://www.leoyan.com/global-language.com/ENFOLDED/YOUNG/index.html)



© Peter Rozovsky 2007



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Saturday, September 08, 2007

Sister Fidelma goes to school: Crime fiction in the classroom

There are female sleuths and historical sleuths and lots and lots of historical female sleuths, and a group of educators has the novel idea that the latter belong in the curriculum.

The Women in World History Curriculum's Web site will gladden the hearts of crime-fiction readers everywhere with its defense of crime fiction as a teaching tool. It also offers short reviews of more than 90 crime novels with female protagonists. The settings range from ancient Egypt to 1947 Pennsylvania and contemporary Botswana.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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... and, alas, another checklist of untranslated (into English) crime fiction

Krimi-Couch offers a list of crime fiction to be released in German this month. Among the new releases is Mensch ohne Hund, a translation of Håkan Nesser's Människa utan hund. That will bring to something over fifteen the number of this Swedish crime writer's books available in German. This compares with the two available in English.
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Another question for readers: What crime authors would you like to see more of in English? Why?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Critic blasts crime fiction for lacking ontological scrutiny

An article in the Independent under the wince-inducing headline "Murder most horrid" let us know earlier this summer that crime fiction had turned decadent and, I might as well say it, yucky.

The shame of one author's otherwise praiseworthy patterns of good, evil, damnation, redemption and salvation, the article tells us, "is that he makes those patterns in blood and gore. ... There are almost as many deaths as in Hamlet but without any of the accompanying ontological scrutiny."

It seems to me that all that evil, damnation, redemption and salvation would provide just the ontologogical kick that crime-fiction readers crave, but the article's author, Paul Vallely, has read the novel in question, Allan Guthrie's Two-Way Split; I have not. At least Vallely finished that book. He tells us with fastidious relish that he was simply unable to get far into two others that he tried: "Enough. I turned from the prologue to the first chapter. It began: `It was pissing down outside ...' Enough indeed."

Though Vallely's style is more precious than most ("As an ingénue in the world of crime writing I had expected something else ... "), his complaints are, of course, old and familiar. I thought of them earlier today as I flipped through the introduction to a book containing a story I wrote about here recently. That introduction quoted an earlier objection to the sorts of stories the book contains. The are filled with, to select just a few from a catalogue of sins, "injury, anger, wrath, hatred ... murder, cruelty ... incest ... killing, stabbing ... "

The complaint's author was John Greene, its date was 1615, and its target was stage tragedies, quite possibly including those by the guy who wrote Hamlet. In the spirit of investigation, then, I'm rereading Hamlet, even though it includes desecration of corpses and murder by poison poured into the victim's ear.

(image from http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/frailtyofhamlet/gallery/shakepictures/)

© Peter Rozovsky 2007


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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Another checklist of translated crime fiction ...

It's no longer August, but you can still read an article on translated crime fiction in that month's edition of Cluelass.com's electronic newsletter Deathstyles. The article discusses recent and upcoming work from Fred Vargas, Håkan Nesser, Andrea Camilleri, Leonardo Padura and others. If offers the encouraging reminder about Nesser that "there are another decade or so of books awaiting translation."

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Peter Tremayne's sister act

Not many crime-fiction characters have societies devoted to them; Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma is among those who do.

I've just made my first acquaintance with the good investigating advocate and woman religious of seventh-century Ireland, and it's enough to know that Tremayne is a lively guide to an interesting but remote period of Western history.

How remote? More than a century before the Book of Kells, back to a time and place when Celtic and Roman churches contended for supremacy, when men and women shared abbeys and monastic foundations where they raised their children in the service of God. Ireland stood out at the time not just for its learning, Tremayne writes in a brief historical introduction, but for the opportunities it offered women:

"The Irish laws gave more rights and protection to women than any other western law code at the time or since. Women could, and did, aspire to all offices and professions as co-equals with men. They could be political leaders, command their people in battle as warriors, be physicians, local magistrates, poets, artisans, lawyers and judges. ... Women were protected by laws against sexual harassment; against discrimination; from rape; they had the right of divorce on equal terms ... "
Tremayne, it seems, chose a suitable time and place for a series about a woman religious and dálaigh, or investigating magistrate.

The first in the series, Absolution by Murder, opens in the year 664, with Fidelma and a range of dignitaries arriving for a debate between the Celtic and Roman churches, the famous Synod of Whitby. What better background for a murder mystery than a momentous historical event? And what better opening for a crime story than a group of travelers finding a body hanging from a tree?

"It was not the fact that a man had been hanged on a crossroad tree that caused the small party of travelers to halt. The travelers had become used to witnessing ritual executions and punishments since they had crossed from the land of Rheged into the kingdom of Northumbria. ... The sight of one more unfortunate suspended on a tree no longer troubled them. What had caused the party to draw rein on their mounts, an assortment of horses and mules, was something else."
I'm just two chapters in, but I can see already that Tremayne has an interesting way of handling dialogue. Without resorting to excessive archaisms or grating faux-medieval speak, he gives speakers a slight formality of tone. This adds flavor without hitting the reader over the head. Of course, most of the speakers thus far have been educated ecclesiastics, which could account for the hint of formality.

For some delightfully blunt thoughts from Peter Tremayne, see this interview on Crime Always Pays.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

More Mongolia and one more question for readers

I've finished Michael Walters' The Shadow Walker and, as in last week's comment, I'll say a word or two about settings.

My earlier comment discussed Clive James' occasionally simplistic view of crime novels set in far-flung climes, expressed in a New Yorker article in May called "Blood on the Borders." His thesis is that since crime novels have nothing new to say, their authors instead offer colorful views of their homelands. ("In most of the crime novels coming out now, it’s a matter not of what happens but of where. Essentially, they are guidebooks.”)

I'll save the question of whether crime novels are outmoded for later. The other half of James' assertion is easier to deal with. His guidebooks comparison conjures up visions of picturesque settings, when, in fact, setting can be more sophisticated than that. Sure, Walters' novel offers an occasional marvel at Mongolia's splendid isolation, including this, about a tourist camp in the Gobi:

There are also occasional observations about older residents in traditional robes mingling with younger people in western dress and, as I mentioned last week, of traditional Mongolian tents called gers incongruously co-existing with modern apartment blocks. I liked the observations, but I'll give Clive James the benefit of the doubt; they have a whiff of the guidebook about them.
"Holiday camps?" Drew said. "In the desert?"

"Well, you could perhaps think of it as a large beach," Nergui smiled. "Though I admit it's a long walk to the sea."
Not so for the novel's musing on the effects of capitalism on the environment and economy of the once-communist Mongolia. Nor is it the case for the unusual position in which the chief investigator, Nergui, finds himself, as a mix of police officer, diplomat and commercial and industrial relations specialist. Mongolia's rapidly modernizing economy is responsible for this mix of roles, and Walters make it a plot element.
Wearing his police hat, Nergui is resigned to the occasional blundering and ethical lapses of his colleagues, and this, too, is no mere narrative guidebook description. Rather, Walters presents it as the inevitable result of a sudden necessity for a professional police force, unnecessary when the army exercised police functions. The main plot, too, is tied closely to current conditions in Mongolia, involving as it does international struggles over rights to the country's extensive mineral wealth.
Yes, these are all aspects of setting, but they're hardly guidebook stuff. They're part of why I'd recommend The Shadow Walker as a story of, and not just a guidebook to, Mongolia.
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The question: Clive James called current crime novels "essentially ... guidebooks." What crime stories have you read where setting overwhelmed plot, where the story was lost amid the colorful sights?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007
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Monday, September 03, 2007

"Modesty Blaise," the movie, or, something from the '60s that really sucked

1966, and Batman was on the air, Fellini had turned surreal, and James Bond was all the rage. Joseph Losey's movie version of Modesty Blaise has affinities with all three, combining the worst of each in a pretentious and weirdly dated period piece.

I'm no expert on the Modesty Blaise comic strip and novels, but I did appreciate the first book's low-key humor, its aching portrayal of Willie Garvin's devotion to and chaste love for Modesty, and its occasional touches of chilling cruelty and cold, nocturnal ambiance. Among other things, these features made the novel, Modesty Blaise, something more than a sex-and-gadgets spy caper.

Losey and screenwriter Evan Jones jettison almost all of that and exaggerate the rest. Where author Peter O'Donnell sharpened the humor by applying it sparingly, mostly in the person of a fastidious but irrepressibly wise-cracking assistant to the villain of the piece, the movie hits us over the head with a ha-ha, hilariously clueless government minister, too. Where O'Donnell gives the villains a Bondian hideout in an isolated monastery, Losey turns the sinister fortress into a cheap, swinging-London-style outtake from Blow-Up, a rather better movie released the same year. (A more accurate comparison, though anachronistic by two years, might be a Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In sketch, but without the humor.)

Plot? Modesty is a mysterious character, a war orphan who has retired from a lucrative criminal career until called in by the British government to foil a diamond robbery. But she pulls some tricks of her own. Forget all that, though. It's probably not the main reason you'd enjoy the novel, and you won't be able to make much of it in the mess of a movie.

Four decades on, the most puzzling aspect of this film is that so many big names and, apparently, an at least adequate budget were involved. Amsterdam's streets and canal houses are gorgeously photographed, and just look at some of the people involved in the movie: Losey as director. Monica Vitti as Modesty. Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin. Dirk Bogarde as the villain Gabriel in a role that one might regard as an amusingly camp deviation from O'Donnell's original if it were in the least amusing.

I can't entirely blame the makers and participants of Modesty Blaise. 1966 was probably a heady time, with producers willing to throw money after this and other hip, glamorously decadent projects. I wonder how long it took all involved to regard the movie as they would a bad hangover.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

An English writer's Scottish crime story

With Macbeth, the story of a man sent spiraling into murder and despair by his own weakness and the prodding of a femme fatale, the versatile English genre writer William Shakespeare proves he is as at home in crime drama as he is in romance and historical stories.

Macbeth, a thane or "capo" in medieval Scotland, plots a route to power like Rico "Little Caesar" Bandello's, only more ruthless and more direct. Rather than eliminating rivals one by one, he goes right for the top, killing the king and planting forensic evidence on his guards, whom Lady Macbeth has got drunk in the meantime. The next day, feigning grief and anger at the murder, Macbeth kills the guards, neatly eliminating two possible witnesses.

Like Little Caesar, Shakespeare's story turns "away from the ... focus on detectives and victims of crime, and onto the life and development of the gangster himself." That focus takes a noirish turn almost from the start. Though noble and highly placed, Macbeth is a weak man and thus a cousin to the losers of classic roman and film noir. Plagued by visions and hallucinations, swinging wildly between depression and desperate optimism, Macbeth begins killing off possible threats to his new crown.

When Lady Macbeth, whose plot for Macbeth to take over the throne found fertile soil in her husband's susceptible mind, commits suicide, Macbeth is plunged into a hopelessness as affecting as any in Jim Thompson or David Goodis, the famous "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" speech. Many of the key scenes take place at night, thus lending the story a noirish feel to match its tragic protagonists' descent into hopelessness and death.

With its Scottish setting, Macbeth is sure to please fans of Ian Rankin.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Saturday, September 01, 2007

A Ned Kelly Awards roundup

Here's more about the Ned Kelly Awards for Australian crime fiction: long lists of nominees for the past few years, lists of winners for earlier years, and links to many of the books. It's a good resource, as is the site from which it's taken.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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A mystery from Mongolia and a question for readers

Clive James told the world five months ago that crime fiction had run its course. “(T)here are only so many storylines and patterns of conflict,” he wrote in the New Yorker. “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.”

Among the valid rejoinders is “So what?” A story can do worse than introduce a reader to an unfamiliar location. An author can do worse than explore a strange, new land and let the reader experience vicariously the strange newness. Once upon a time, that was one of the things stories were supposed to do.

I suspect that for most readers, setting will not come much stranger or newer than Michael Walters' Mongolia. In The Shadow Walker, a visiting investigator glimpses traditional nomadic camps as his plane descends over Ulan Bataar's airport. Minutes later, he is jarred by the contrast with the customs formalities and baggage carousels in the terminal.

Later, two Mongolian detectives meet in one of Ulan Bataar's new American-style coffee houses, and:

Sure, the opening chapters may contain more exposition than some crime novels, but why not? Walters is exploring interesting territory, so I don't mind that he stops now and then to tell me about it. Besides, he breaks the telling into small, unobtrusive chunks.

The killings have just begun, and the major complications have not yet started. So far, though, I like what Walters is showing me.
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I said that Mongolia would likely be a new and strange setting for most crime-fiction readers. What new, unexpected, surprising or exotic crime-fiction settings have caught your attention? And why?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007
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Nergui looked with some displeasure at the large foaming cup that Doripalam placed in front of him. “This isn't coffee,” he said. “It's a nursery drink.”

Doripalam shrugged. “It's what the Americans drink. Apparently.”

“So we must get used to it.” Nergui took a mouthful and grimaced. “Though that may take some time, I think. But thank you anyway."

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