Friday, May 30, 2008

Duane Swierczynski, "The Blonde," and a question for readers

I've just finished The Blonde by Duane Swierczynski in preparation for Swierczynski's Noir at the Bar reading in Philadelphia on Sunday. The book is not really "international," though it does pay clever, grisly tribute to Jean-Patrick Manchette.
But The Blonde does give careful attention to its setting, a subject of more than occasional interest here at Detectives Beyond Borders, as here, from Page 152:

"The bus pulled up. The brakes were shot; a high-pitched whine cut through the predawn quiet. The engine was rattling so fiercely, it was a wonder the panels of the bus were still attached to the frame. There was a pneumatic hiss, like a snort, and the two panels of the doors shuddered open.

" ... Jack stepped up and tried to scan the fare signs quickly. Confusing as hell. Transfers, zones, base fare ... two dollars. Two dollars?

"`One ride costs two dollars?'

"`Two dollars,' the driver said. He had patches of a beard on his jowls, and his eyes were red-rimmed.

" ... oh, thanks Christ. A ten and a single. His change from the airport bar last night.

"`Can you break a ten?'

"The driver sighed. `Exact change only.' He nodded his head in the general direction of the fare sign.

"`Come on, buddy. Can't you sell me a one-day pass or something?'

"The driver didn't answer, as if the question was beneath him. `On or off.'"
Swierczynski, who was born in Philadelphia and still lives here, has said that writing in the persona of an outsider visiting the city gives him a sharper view. Those of us who live in Philadelphia, take public transportation and have read The Blonde know he's right.
Swierczynski took an everyday observation of life in his own home town and integrated it effectively into his book. Which authors have done the same for you? What novels and stories integrate bits of local life that you recognize because you lived there?
© Peter Rozovsky 2008
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23 Comments:

Blogger Shakespere said...

Wonderful!I totally agree.
Nice job on the blog too.

May 30, 2008  
Blogger The Clandestine Samurai said...

I can't really say that any have, because I haven't read any books that took place in the Bronx. I've read stuff that took place in New York, but it usually ends up being the New York of 2 decades or more ago. I generally try to read stuff that takes place in cultures and locations far from me.

May 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Shakespeare, I take it from your comment you must be from Philadelphia. I don't think SEPTA is the worst public transportation agency in the world, but it has to be the stupidest. I may get around to compiling a list of its idiocies for a "miscellaneous" post one of these days. And thanks for the compliment.

May 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Most of what I read, fiction and otherwise, is similarly situated in cultures and locations other than my own. Perhaps that's why the little jolts of recognition from reading The Blonde were all the sharper.

I can think of one current crime writer who sets his work in the Bronx, by the way: Abraham Rodriguez.

May 30, 2008  
Blogger Elisha said...

The Time Traveler's Wife. Almost every single place they mentioned I have either been too or I go to school right down the street, etc. It was pretty cool. It personalized the story a bit more because I could really picture exactly what they were talking about.

May 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the note. I think it takes more than topographical accuracy to evoke a familiar setting. I remember one novel's dead-accurate charting of a drive between Philadelphia neighborhoods that had all the passion of a set of directions.

I like the bus and subway scenes from The Blonde because they evoked experience as well as physical settings. Did The Time Traveler's Wife do that for you? And where is it set?

May 30, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

I've got to go with Alice Munro's short stories set in rural Ontario. It was a completely foreign culture for me before my wife and I got married and I met her family. Wow, does Alice nail it.

Also, oddly, the future-Canada of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake has an eery familiarity (as do some of Robert J. Sawyers sci-fi novels set in Toronto such as Calculating God).

And Peter, now that you mention it, L'Affaire Bernier is a good book waiting to happen, all right. Time will tell what his actual role in it would be.

In a column this week, Antonio Zerbisias asked why any of it is a security issue, adding it would only be one if the Hells Angels got their heroin from the Taliban. Which I think begs the question, where does she think they get it?

May 30, 2008  
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May 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael Ignatieff may have been making political hay out of the affair, but I'd have to agree that even if his ex-girlfriend's Hells Angels connections are not an issue, the Hells Angels guy's connection with a company that sought a security contract at Dorval Airport is. I mean, a motorcycle gang running security at an airport in times of high tension over terrorism? That's pretty darkly comic to me.

Bernier need not have a role in the book. Call the novel L'Affaire Bernier and then giving Bernier no role would emphasize the comic absurdity of the tale. And, as much as I hate to admit it, the first thing I noticed in the photo of Bernier and his femme fatale was her cleavage, the same cleavage that commentators kept bringing up in order to deny that it had anything to do with their disapproval of Bernier.

Actually, the story appears to be less about a femme fatale than about an homme stupide.

May 30, 2008  
Blogger Emo Cat said...

Years ago we had a local columnist -- Ken Cruickshank -- who made readers love the mundane aspects of living in Jacksonville, Florida.

Ken wove simple events into rich tapestries of local color. He had his share of larger-than-life experiences -- like a run-in with a hellacious Biker Gang who took him up on a standing invitation to drop in if they were "ever in the neighborhood."

We lost Ken to Palm Beach more than 20 years ago -- and I still miss his writing.

Zora Neale Hurston brought Janie and Tea Cake to Jacksonville in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. She captured the old train station and downtown hotels with a reality that strips away the modernization right down to the bones that gave the city so much character.

Thanks for your blog. Think I'll just have to locate a copy of The Blonde and enjoy an afternoon of reading.

By the way, found you via Blogs of Note. Well deserved recognition. Congrats!

May 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the kind words, and I refer all who read this to your post about Motormouth Mo. Yikes! What kind of a visit did Ken Cruickshank have from the biker gang? What kind of refreshments does one lay out for such a gang of visitors?

Just the phrases "old train station" and "downtown hotels" stir my blood. Yours is just one of several comments that may enlarge my to-read list.

May 30, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

L'Homme Stupide - I like it.

In their early days in Montreal a Hells Angels associate got the cleaning contract for many police stations. People still treat them like fat, dumb guys. Sigh.

Already the press here is talking about how Bernier was never qualified for a cabinet post and was never all that interested in the job. So you're right, there's no need for him to be a character at all. Dark comedy, for sure.

Do you remember the movie "Scandal" about the Profumo affir with Joanne Whalley as Christine Keeler (I had a bit of a crush) and Ian McKellen as John Profumo?

May 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I assume you had a crush on Joanne Whally rather than on Christine Keeler. One never knows, though. I'm not sure how old you are. I haven't seen the movie, but the photo on the box of the video version had a fetching photo of a woman I assume was Whalley.

A cleaning contract is one thing. A cleaning contract in a police station sounds like something Donald Westlake might invent. But bikers running security in the post-9/11 era -- All I can say is that I wish I'd thought of it.

May 30, 2008  
Blogger AlwaysOnTheGoodSide said...

nice blog...hope to learn from your psot...keep it up...:)

May 31, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Many thanks!

May 31, 2008  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

Jeffrey Eugenides does a great job with Detroit and Grosse Pointe in Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides.

May 31, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I know you've written about both. I also know you've been posting photos of your city for a while, so it's no surprise you think about hometown settings.

How does Jeffrey Eugenides do what he does as far as getting the spirit and sights and sounds of a place down on paper?

May 31, 2008  
Blogger Sucharita Sarkar said...

I am from India, which is hardly on the English detective writer's map...only some novels by HRF Keating appear to be set here.

But there are plenty of detective writers in Bengali whose books are set in Calcutta (my home-town). Satyajit Ray (sleuth : Feluda) is one such writer (he's also a brilliant film-maker with an Oscar for lifetime achievement. His Calcutta is the one I most recognize and love...

May 31, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for your comment. I have read some of H.R.F. Keating's stories about Inspector Ghote, and there is also Vikram Chandra's Novel Sacred Games, which is a kind of crime story.

At least one of Satyajit Ray's detective novels has been translated into English. I remember seeing it on a bookstore shelf and being surprised that such a celebrated and respected filmmaker also wrote detective stories. I was cynical, and I suspected that perhaps the novel was a vanity project for him, but now I see that he wrote thirty-five Feluda stories and other fiction as well.

And I'd be interested in learning about those Bengali detective writers, about what their influences were, and about what they do with and add to the tradition of the English detective story. (I am guessing that detective stories may have been introduced to India by the British, an interesting area of research, I think.)

May 31, 2008  
Blogger Elliot said...

You would make an awesome book reviewer. I think I might have to read that book myself!

June 01, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Many thanks! It's nice to be able to convey something of what makes a book a special. And I do take a turn at reviewing from time to time, both here on this blog and here.

June 01, 2008  
Blogger GJG said...

I fully understand why you have been awarded the recognition (Blog of Note), I happen to be an avid Mystery reader. Your point about the authors taking the time to fully describe a physical scene, allowing readers who live in that area to identify with it----making their reading that much mor enjoyable. I live in The San Fernando Valley of Los angeles---and from time to time I come across a mystery and DO get those exciting moments reading about locales just a few blocks away. I love your blog, and have added it to my page, hopefully my readers will check your blog out. Keep it up.

June 04, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the note and for the kind words. Living where you do, you have ample opportunity to come across locations in your reading familiar from real life and vice versa.

June 04, 2008  

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