Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Hie thee to a betting shop

Over at Crime Always Pays, Bernd Kochanowski, keeper of the Internationale Krimis blog, weighs in on the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Awards (that's the original Edgar at right, in the MWA's logo), which are to be bestowed in New York Thursday. Is it odd that a German critic/reviewer should hold forth on an Irish blog about America's top crime-fiction awards?

No. We're all about crossing borders, remember? Also, two of the authors nominated for best novel, Ken Bruen for Priest and "Benjamin Black" for Christine Falls, are Irish, and everyone thought for a long time that Tana French, whose In the Woods is up for best first novel, was Irish, too. That has to count for something.

At all events, Kochanowski offers brief, well-considered comments on the nominees for best novel , best paperback original and best first novel by an American author, along with an amusing observation about the nature of the Edgars themselves.

He also offers blunt assessments of each book's chances and, though I disagree with his comments about one of the books, he appears to have read more of the nominees than I have. Besides, he also offers predictions, so if you plan to bet on the Edgars, check with Bernd first.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008


Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The interpretation of memes

I have been tagged separately by Uriah Robinson at Crime Scraps and by Julia Buckley for a meme that asks participants to share six random facts about themselves, then invite six more bloggers to do the same. Even though I've been invited twice, you'll get six facts, not twelve. No two-for-one specials here.

The facts:

1) When I was a young jackass in the 1970s, my friend Jeff and I leapt from the left-field bleachers at Jarry Park and onto the field during the ninth inning of a Montreal Expos baseball game. I zigged close to Expos centerfielder Willie Davis and zagged enough to leave several overweight security guards sprawled on the grass in my wake, to the cheers of thousands. My entire life since then has been an appendix to that moment.

2) When playing God in a summer-camp play, swathed in white bed sheets, my head covered in a white pillow case to lend an aura of purity and majesty, I fell off the stage and landed flat on my back. But I bounced right back on stage, doffed my pillow case, and resumed the play, to the cheers of hundreds. My entire life since then has been an appendix to that moment.

3) I have, at separate times, made Susan Sontag and Fran Lebowitz laugh.

4) At 18 months old, I fell off a lawn chair and knocked out my two front teeth. At 15 years old, I fell off a bicycle and knocked out my two front teeth. I hope not to repeat the experience.

5) Since beginning Detectives Beyond Borders in September 2006, I have blogged from six countries.

6) Through no fault of my own, I once flooded six floors of a hotel in Guilin, China.

And now, the lucky six, with apologies to those who may have been tagged already as well as to those who have not.

Australians say g'day; I say D. Gay and tag Damien Gay of Crime Down Under. Still in Australia, Karen Chisholm of the Aust Crime family of fine Web sites, Kerrie of Mysteries in Paradise and Matilda's Perry Middlemiss are my next three victims. Closer to home, the unsuspecting Frank Wilson, the much beloved former books editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the keeper of the Books Inq. blog, gets meme-whacked, as does Simona of the delicious briciole blog.

And thanks!

© Peter Rozovsky 2008


Monday, April 28, 2008

Books received and a question for readers

Among the books to cross my desk recently at Detectives Beyond Borders are A Carrion Death by Michael Stanley and a new edition of Derek Raymond's How the Dead Live.

The former is of interest here for at least two reasons: its setting (Botswana) and its title, which comes from The Merchant of Venice. This adds Stanley, who are really the team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, to that roster of crime writers who take titles or other cues from Shakespeare, a subject of occasional interest in this space.

How the Dead Live is part of a recent noirish turn to my crime-fiction experience. First came the delightful whirl of NoirCon 2008, and then came this new edition of Raymond's book, courtesy of Serpent's Tail. Raymond is revered as among the darkest of dark British crime writers, and the novel's opening plays nicely into a subject about which I've been thinking recently: humor in noir. Here's that opening:

"`The most extraordinary feature that psychopaths present,' the Home Office lecturer was saying, `is the painstaking effort they make to copy normal people.' He looked happily at us. `They make a close study of us — you realize that.'"

I suspect more than one reader will smile at that "He looked happily at us."

How about you, readers? Tell me about some of the grimmer or at least more unexpected places where you've found humor in your crime reading.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Non-traditional book distribution and other non-fictional news

Via Crime Scraps comes the news that a truckload of the Spanish edition of Jo Nesbø's The Redbreast was hijacked in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Here on the North American landmass, Sandra Ruttan was happy to report receiving author's copies of her novel What Burns Within even though the box containing them had been ripped open and one of the books "liberated along the way."

Here's hoping that the hijackers and liberators enjoy their books and that the authors get the royalties they deserve.

Back in South America, Brazil's government wants to fine all foreigners who visit the Amazon wilderness without government permission. Under a bill the government plans to send to the country's Congress, those caught in the Amazon without a permit from military and justice authorities could be fined $60,000, according to the Associated Press.

"We want the world to visit the region. But we want them to tell us when they’re coming and what they’re going to do,” said National Justice Secretary Romeu Tuma Jr., who added that the government was looking at Brazilian organizations in the Amazon for possible illegal activities.

According to the AP, "The bill reflects suspicions among conservative politicians and the military that foreign nongovernmental organizations working to help Indians and save the rain forest are actually attempting to wrest the Amazon and its riches away from Brazil."

“We have information that some international groups disguised as NGOs have come to carry out bioprospecting and have entered public and indigenous lands to try and influence their cultures,” Tuma is quoted as having said. “There is piracy and the theft of (traditional) knowledge in the region.”

Sounds to me like a story idea for Leighton Gage.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Timely travel tales and a question about amateur sleuths

Hot on the heels on the Lonely Planet/Thomas Kohnstamm travel-guide scandal, and through the good offices of William Morrow, come Timothy Hallinan's first two novels about Poke Rafferty, a rough-travel writer forced by circumstances to turn investigator.

Jacket copy on the first book, A Nail Through the Heart, says Rafferty's "Looking for Trouble series is for travelers obsessed with the unusual: how to beat official foreign-exchange rates; how to spot fake amber or counterfeit money; how much to bribe a cop; how to identify a transvestite before it's too late."

I don't know if this novel or its follow-up, The Fourth Watcher, deal with issues raised in the Kohnstamm dust-up — comps, freebies, accounts based on visits that never happened — but that lighthearted blurb leads me to believe in the possibility. And the protagonist's situation — he's not just Bangkok-based, but he writes for foreigners seeking thrills — leaves ample room for satire, not to mention intrigue and thrills. The novel's short prologue, though, is a somber invocation of a tsunami as seen through a jerky TV camera.

Rafferty's job expands my list of interesting amateur-sleuth professions, a subject about which I've posted here and here. And so, readers, two questions: Have you met any other travel-writer sleuths in your reading? How about other odd and interesting occupations for your favorite amateur detectives?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Who will be the next Samir Spade? Or the first one? (Crime fiction in the Arab world)

An article earlier this month from the London Book Fair (hat tip to Sarah Weinman) touched on issues that crop up from time to time at Detectives Beyond Borders. The subject was a speech by Amr Moussa, secretary general of the League of Arab States, on the "immense challenges" facing the Arab books world.

"The Arab League recognizes the shortcomings of education in the Arab world," he said, highlighting issues that included the inability of many would-be readers to afford books. But all was not negative. Moussa cited positive signs, including what he said was a decline in censorship, and more translation abroad.

Both the positive and the negative judgments dovetail with matters that have arisen on this blog. One of my early posts concerned a trip to Tunisia, where I found no crime fiction. Our local guide suggested an explanation that tallies with one of Mussa’s: that many Tunisians simply earned too little money to afford books.

Some time later, the questions of poverty and censorship arose in an exchange of e-mails with Matt Rees, who sets his novels in the Palestinian territories. Though the subject was crime fiction, the discussion touched on subjects Moussa raised in connection with Arabic literature in general.

“There are two separate issues,” Rees wrote. “One is that the book market is very small … My theory is that the Arab world is very prone to conspiracy theories, but the uncovering of the truth is generally not encouraged by governments or religious establishments – in political terms. Though the detective novel grows out of situations of corruption (Hammett's San Francisco or Chandler's Santa Monica), it also depends on a conception that when right is uncovered, it can also be carried through. Unfortunately the Arab world suffers from a lack of that freedom."
Rees also said crime fiction was virtually unknown in the Arab world, in part for reasons outlined above. What does this all mean? Perhaps that if Amr Moussa is right, and if a measure of liberalization does come to Arabic culture in general and publishing in particular, a new Arabic crime fiction might result.

There might be a way to go, though, at least in some Arab lands. The Algerian novelist Yasmina Khadra, author of the searing Brahim Llob crime novels, writes in French because "I wanted to write. In Russian, Chinese, Arabic. But to write! At the beginning, I wrote in Arabic. My Arabic teacher ridiculed me, whereas my French teacher encouragd me." And Khadra, who lives in voluntary exile in France, once told an interviewer that:

"Algerian readers like me a lot. They read me in French because I am not translated into Arabic. I am translated into Indonesian, Japanese, Malayalam, in the majority of the languages, except in Arabic. But that has nothing to do with the Arab peoples. It is the leaders who seek, as always, to dissociate the people from the elites so they can continue to reign and cultivate clanism and mediocrity."
© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Big O hits the U.S.A.

It's been a while since I've written about Ireland, so I was pleased to learn from Crime Always Pays that the U.S. edition of The Big O arrives on bookstore shelves Sept. 22 and that author Declan Burke arrives shortly thereafter to build goodwill and talk up his wonderful second novel.

Detectives Beyond Borders called The Big O "A tour de fun from a high-spirited Irish novelist and blogger" and said that "the deliciously complicated plotting, the wry dialogue and the sympathy Burke engenders for his cast of characters made this one of the most fun and purely pleasurable reads I've had in a while."

U.S. readers, you're in for a treat.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Alcohol, crime and social control in Ireland: A question for readers

Irish crime writers have not hesitated to voice skepticism about their country’s Celtic Tiger economic rise, a criticism articulated ruefully by Ken Bruen, who said: “I didn’t want to write about Ireland until we got mean streets. We sure got ’em now.”

The Irish are also proverbially great drinkers, and that same Bruen has written with anger and emotion about the curse of alcoholism. But those sentiments, in his Jack Taylor novels, target alcoholism’s destructive effects on individual lives. I don’t remember Bruen ever citing drinking as a cause of social unrest. That is why I read the following news item with interest last night:

Ireland curbs alcohol sales

DUBLIN — Acting against binge drinking, Ireland is curbing alcoholic-beverage sales in convenience stores and gas stations. Stores can sell alcohol only from 10:30 a.m., not the current 7:30 a.m., and must close by 10 p.m., Justice Minister Brian Lenihan said yesterday. Food stores must display alcohol away from other goods.

About a third of Irish citizens have five or more drinks when they consume alcohol, almost double the European Union average, a survey shows.

“This is a response to a very significant problem of alcohol abuse, which is leading to public disorder,” Lenihan said. Almost half of those who committed murder or manslaughter were drunk at the time, according to a study by Ireland’s Health Services Executive published this week.

— Bloomberg News

Are the Irish drinking more than they used to? Are they doing so more destructively? Are the economic forces that contribute to social dislocation driving up rates of alcoholism? Or are the measures cited above an effort by newly monied classes to control the behavior of those left behind by the country’s sudden prosperity?

I’m neither Irish nor an expert, nor am I an especially subtle thinker on matters of public policy, so I suspect the truth is some mix of these. What do you think, readers, especially Irish ones? Jargon-free comment from social scientists and law-enforcement personnel is welcome.

(Photo of the 1913 Dublin Lockout.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Another fine opening from Declan Hughes

Declan Hughes began the main body of his first novel, The Wrong Kind of Blood, with one of my favorite opening lines: "The night of my mother's funeral, Linda Dawson cried on my shoulder, put her tongue in my mouth and asked me to find her husband."

His third, The Price of Blood (The Dying Breed in the U.K.) does not get to the heart of things quite so quickly. One has to wait until the end of the paragraph for the comic payoff:

"Two weeks before Christmas, Father Vincent Tyrell asked Tommy Owens to fill in for George Costello, who has been the sacristan at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Bayview for thirty years until he was rushed to the hospital with inoperable stomach cancer. A lot of Father Tyrrell's parishioners were outraged, to put it mildly, since Tommy was known as a dopehead and a malingerer and a small-time drug dealer, one of the die-hard crew who still drank in Hennessy's bar, and not a retired Holy Joe shuffling about the church in desert boots and an acrylic zip-up cardigan like George Costello, God have mercy on him. And fair enough, the first time I saw Tommy on the altar in cassock and surplice, it was a bit like something out of a Buñuel film."
That's not a bad way to begin a story, I'd say. In fact, it's a little story in itself, complete with buildup and payoff. So far, I can report that the story also involves tangled family secrets, that blood in several senses figures prominently in Hughes' books, and that this book contains at least one dubious priest. Did I mention that Hughes is Irish?

The novel also explores the world of Irish horse racing in some detail. Between Hughes and Peter Temple in his Jack Irish novels, crime writers are proving that there is territory left to be explored in that old sport.

More to come.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Meme me up, Scottie

I have been tagged by Declan "Dad" Burke at Crime Always Pays with the following meme:

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open it to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

My answers:
1) The book is Queenpin by Megan Abbott.
2) I have just opened it to page 123.
3) Ignoring the sentence that carries over from page 122, I have counted off the first five sentences, which got me to:
4) "Through everything. The dress I'd finally peeled off at 3 A.M., shivering and shaken to the core. She'd asked me to hand it to her through the partially open bathroom door."
4a) Wow!
5) I tag, with apologies, Patti Abbott, Sandra Ruttan, "Linkmeister," Juri Nummelin, and Adrian Hyland.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Ken Bruen's "Priest": Best crime novel of its year and any year?

An online crime-fiction reading group of which I am a member has a monthly feature called "Who Have You Met?" This feature asks group members to choose a character they have met in the current week's reading and to answer a number of questions about him or her. Among these are "What was this person's role in the story?"

Thus, Priest, the fifth of Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor novels, and as perfect a merging of the protagonist's personality with the book's mystery and subplots as any I have ever seen in a just about any novel, crime or otherwise.

If you know Jack Taylor by reputation, you'll want to know that in this novel he has stopped drinking. His drinking and consequent inattention had led to the death of a 3-year-old girl, the only child of Taylor's only remaining friends. Taylor's struggles with the guilt and his facing down of his alcoholism are a stark and heart-rending a challenge as any faced by any fictional hero you'll likely to encounter. They also are the centerpieces of this novel. Believe that he can wage these battles, and you'll believe he can handle the loss, horror, dislocation and mystery that the rest of the story throws at him.

You'll want to know about the book's philosophical epigrams (mostly from Pascal), about its musical references and about Bruen's rueful, acidic commentaries on contemporary Ireland ("Nobody gets shot in Galway ... We are supposedly getting Starbucks soon, so anything is possible, but gunplay, no."). All are just as seamlessly integrated in the story the book tells (the mystery of who has killed a priest who abused children).

A word or two about that mystery: Could any issue be riper for melodrama and easy exploitation that child sexual abuse by priests? That Bruen resorts to neither is an act of narrative magic and supreme authorial self-control. How does he manage this? By keeping the book free of child characters. By avoiding cliché in his treatment of two of the victims who, as adults, play key roles. By steering free of easy consolation, even that offered by killing and death. By including a climactic confrontation, then carrying the drama several steps beyond, Taylor as unsparing of himself as he had been of a nun who knew of the abuse and kept silent. Jack Taylor hates than nun; whatever hatred Ken Bruen may hold for such characters, his compassion for the woman is touching. Bruen has mentioned Zen from time to time. For some reason, the Buddha of Infinite Compassion comes to mind.

And oh, the wit and the satire, made all the sharper by the narrative that surrounds it:

"A looker, with long auburn hair, she had all the confidence of the new Ireland, 100 percent assurance and little ability."
"Maybe my favorite feature are the cannons from the Crimean War. They stand like UN observers, useless and obvious, serving nothing."
Bruen likes to talk about the fans who beg him to go easy on Jack Taylor and let the poor guy have a drink. I'm glad Bruen resisted the temptation, at least for this book. Taylor's struggles with the temptation of alcohol, with the loss of friends and with the changes in the city he loves are the heart of an immensely affecting, sad and funny story, one of the outstanding experiences I have ever had in reading. This book deserves any award it wins.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, April 21, 2008

"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" has been won

I learned something today about Detectives Beyond Borders readers: They get up earlier in the morning than I do.

The old mail bag was filled with correct answers by the time I brushed my teeth and got to work. The first three correct respondents, and thus the winners of a copy of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf, were:

Don in Oak Harbor, Washington
Carol in Columbia, Maryland


Sandra in Uniondale, Pennsylvania.

Congratulations to all three, and thanks to all who entered.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Win "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"

Few crime novels come as widely praised as Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Never mind Henning Mankell, he to whom all Swedish crime writers will be compared; Larsson's Milennium Triology, of which this novel is the first part, has been compared to no less than War and Peace.

The good people at Alfred A. Knopf have graciously agreed to donate three copies to Detectives Beyond Borders for awarding to U.S. readers. Here is one of the many raves for the novel. Read it for a clue to this skill-testing question:

The novel's protagonist, Mikael Blomkvist, is a disgraced member of which profession?

Be one of the first three U.S. residents to send the correct answer to detectivesbeyondborders(at)earthlink(dot)net, and win a copy of this "genuinely complex and unique contribution to crime fiction."

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Oy, Canada!

To my mother, who looks in on this blog from time to time and asked why I never mention her: Hi, mum.

Like my compatriot and co-religionist Sarah Weinman, I am visiting the family for Passover (She's in Ottawa; I'm in Montreal.) Like her, I am struck by the odd things that weather can do at this time of year. For me it was the hip-high piles of dirty urban snow that remained in yards on a day when sun-seeking afternoon eaters crowded the terrace at the Premiere Moisson on Sherbrooke West.

I'd hoped to make this a crime-fiction trip and pick up Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Dirty Sweet by Canada's own John McFetridge, but the bookseller I visited today told me the hardcover of the former and the paperback of the latter were due on the shelves May 1.

Ken Bruen called Everybody Knows This is Nowhere "a wondrous mix of Elmore Leonard and McBain but with a dazzling Canadian slant that is as fresh as it is darkly hilarious," which sounds to me well worth waiting an extra eleven days for – and perhaps worth a trip to a different bookstore tomorrow, just in case.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Thoughts from Hockensmith

And try to say that ten times fast after a few drinks.

The Mystery News Web site offers some refreshing excerpts from an interview with Steve Hockensmith, whose delightful but unspoofy novel Holmes on the Range, about a pair or ranch hands turned detectives in 1890s Montana, I discussed a few weeks back.

"I didn't really choose to write a western mystery," Hockensmith said. "I was looking around trying to figure out what was going to be my next stab at a novel and I'd been doing short stories for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine for a while and I thought well, the smart thing to do would be to pick on one of those characters."
It's refreshing to read that such an unusual series could spring from such an unassuming beginning.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, April 18, 2008

A sense of place in a place that looks like no place?

My former colleague Dave Knadler, of Wichita, Kansas, commented recently that he liked Scott Phillips' novel The Ice Harvest (and the movie based on the novel), but that "it could have been set anywhere. You don't get any feeling for the Midwest in general or Wichita in particular."

A few days later, I heard an interviewer on the excellent Out of the Past podcast series tell Phillips, a native of Wichita, that: "One of the things that really worked for me in the novel was the Wichita setting."

So, what is The Ice Harvest's setting? It's nocturnal, wind-swept, snow-covered and dyed pale orange by streetlights. It's strip clubs and restaurants set in unprepossessing shopping malls. It's the protagonist, Charlie Arglist, banging in frustration on the door of of a fast-food chain restaurant that's shiny, bright and closed. It's largely anonymous, in other words.

But here's Phillips in the same interview, asked if he had ever considered writing about a more typical noir setting than Wichita:

"No, because the only town I wanted to write about Wichita. I wasn't going to name it as Wichita, but ... Dennis [McMillan] said no, you have to call it Wichita because that's what it is ...

"The aircraft plants drew thousands and thousands of single men into town ... You get a lot of single guys in a place without a corresponding number of single women, you get a certain type of vice."

Perhaps, then, the story's sleazy anonymity reflects the city's history and therefore its setting. It is Wichita, though perhaps a Wichita the local Chamber of Commerce might not be eager to promote.

And now, readers, your question: What other novels, stories or movies create a sense of place through their very anonymity? What other odd, unexpected ways do writers use to create vivid settings?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

How much violence will you accept?

Someone asked during a panel at NoirCon why we seem more willing to accept violence on television and in movies than in books.

I was surprised that no one suggested one obvious answer: reading is a more intimate act than watching a TV show or a movie. It demands more of our attention and thus involves us more fully in the action. In reveals more easily a character's thoughts during an act of violence, which can make the depicted act more disturbing.

When a book describes violence deadpan, without such thoughts and reactions, a reader may feel their absence all the more because he or she knows they are possible and has been conditioned to expect them. Some of the most disturbing descriptions of violence I have read in crime novels (and at the same time the most anti-violence) have been flat and matter-of-fact.

How much violence are you prepared to accept in your crime reading? Is violence more affecting on the page than on the screen? Less? Why? Under what circumstances will you accept violence in a book, movie or television show?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

All hail the Carnival (of the Criminal Minds) queen

The fourteenth and latest host of the Carnival of the Criminal Minds is Barbara Fister, who started the carnival way back in 2oo7. Barbara offers a wide-ranging guide to crime-fiction blogs, as one might expect from a librarian. She also ventures outside the field for some glimpses at intriguing non-mystery blogs, as one might expect from a librarian.
The best thing about this carnival is that it never folds its tents. When you're done reading Barbara's Carnival of the Criminal Minds, Part 14, visit the Carnival Web site for a carnival archive.
© Peter Rozovsky 2008


Monday, April 14, 2008

Not all peers are amiable but bone-headed

A few years ago, some people wanted to eliminate them. Far from fading away, though, Britain's House of Lords has joined the blogosphere. With a tip of the headwear to Maxine Clarke of Petrona, let's have a big "Hear! Hear!" for the progressive lords and ladies of Britain's Upper House of Parliament.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

NoirCon 2008: Eat to the beat

Two of the people whom it was my pleasure to meet at NoirCon, Christa Faust and Ed Pettit, posted similar remarks about the event's raucous awards banquet.

Here's Faust's account, in part:

"There were uniformed police in black rubber gloves lined up to frisk everyone entering that half of the restaurant (which incidentally was where the only bathrooms were located.) The food was lousy, mostly bland, uninspired Chinese junk that even their hottest hot sauce couldn’t save, but the parade of chubby Cambodian hotties in micro minis and platform heels more than made up for it.

"The high-decibel Cambodian warbling continued all through the meal and the actual award ceremony. Nothing but a thin, folding wall separated us from the festivities. ... Meanwhile Bruen is just hanging his head in the background and dying a long slow death. It was hilarious, excruciating and surreal. I’ve been to way too many boring, endless rubber chicken dinners at conventions in the past, but whatever else you may say about this event, it was anything but boring."
Here's part of Pettit's:

"There was even tight security ... with police searching each and every partygoer before they were allowed to enter their party. The music was so loud that the presenters could barely be heard giving their congratulatory speeches to the honorees, Bruen and McMillan. But when it came time for Bruen to give his thanks, he showed how loud an Irishman can be. The whole event was surreal. And we loved every minute of it. Who wants to be at another boring awards ceremony?"
And here's a clip from a different concert at the same restaurant that gives an accurate impression of what it was like trying to listen to the NoirCon speeches.

Me, I liked the quiet conversation. Since there was no way I'd hear much of what was happening on the NoirCon stage, I surrendered myself to pleasant chat with my convivial tablemates.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

NoirCon 2008 podcasts

Or is that NoirCast 2008 podcons?

Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards, whose cyber-noir panel at NoirCon explored exciting new ways to think about, publish and broadcast noir, have begun posting their podcasts of the convention at Out of the Past and Behind the Black Mask. So far, they've posted on-the-street and in-the-theater interviews, including Ken Bruen and Gary Phillips, and talks with members of the George Lippard, Philly noir and editors and publishers panels.
Their format is simple but effective: After each panel discussion, Clute and Edwards snatched a member or two for an interview about the panel. The segments are no mere TV-style sound bites. The interview subjects go into considerable depth about the issues the panels had raised.
I was there for the discussions, and I still enjoyed Clute and Edwards with panelists William Lashner and Jon McGoran on why Philadelphia is a great city for crime writers. Civic boosters might not like what the interviewees had to say, though, which buttresses another notion floating about the conference: that noir is and should be a subversive genre.
© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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The seamy side of noir: Money Shot and The Ice Harvest

The crime-fiction borders I have crossed most recently took me into the dim and smoky half-world of strip clubs and porn talent agencies – appropriate, since I picked up the books right after a convention dedicated to noir.

Christa Faust's Money Shot has everything a noir story ought to: fast pace, stripped-down prose, killing, confrontation with some of the darkest crimes humans can commit, and an ending that hits like a punch in the stomach. But it also has an ambivalent, mature attitude to cathartic violence, and a refreshingly nuanced view of the milieu its protagonist inhabits.

The milieu is the pornography trade, and the protagonist is Angel Dare, once a porn actress, now owner of an agency that supplies talent to strip clubs and porn-movie producers. Faust's view of the subject is neither moralistic nor hedonistic. There is a hierarchy: some clubs are stinking and sleazy; others are harsh, viciously competitive, but a good source of income for dancers who can fight their way to the top. As narrator, Angel Dare meets women and men scarred by drugs and cosmetic surgery, but she also recalls good times and good, generous people.

Some aspects of the novel might catch the eye of an adventurous gender theorist. Angel is forced into a disguise as a man to avoid killers who want a briefcase full of money that has disappeared from her office, and it is during this phase that she turns detective. But when the time comes to kick ass, she sheds the male garb and becomes a woman again.

Faust dedicates the book to the multimega-million-selling crime author Richard S. Prather, who died shortly before its publication. Prather's Shell Scott may be inimitable, but Faust has a good ear for his goofily reflective over-the-top wisecracks in lines like "Now that I could see where I was, I still had no idea where I was" and this:

"I slowly pulled open the Civic's passenger-side door and put my bare feet on the grimy concrete, high on beautiful, full-color action movie fantasies of dishing out .44-caliber justice. That's when I realized I was naked."

I've just started The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips, but I'll mention it here because its opening scenes take place largely in a string of strip clubs in Wichita, Kansas, on Christmas Eve 1979. The clubs are nearly empty, most who are there would rather be somewhere else, and a kind of resigned humor marks the proceedings:

"Shouldn't you turn down the heat a little, Dennis?"

"Sure. I bet the nude members of our staff would greatly appreciate that."

"I see your point."

The novel became a 2005 movie that featured John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton in the leads, Harold Ramis as director and Richard Russo and Robert Benton as screenwriters. It's very much worth watching even though Phillips says he hated the ending.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, April 11, 2008

NoirCon 2008: Everybody else's wrap-ups

I've posted my NoirCon 2008 wrap-up; now you can read everyone else's. Ed Pettit offers a round-up of the wrap-ups at The Bibliothecary. They're worth reading because many reflect the event's high spirits and because so much was going on that no one person could capture everything, not even if she posted a photo of five crime writers in bed.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Leighton Gage on crime and crime fiction in Brazil, Part II

Leighton Gage is the author of Blood of the Wicked and the forthcoming Buried Strangers, both from Soho Crime and both featuring Chief Inspector Mario Silva of Brazil's Federal Police. In Part II of his interview with Detectives Beyond Borders, Gage talks politics and answers a question about the state of crime fiction in Brazil. To the latter, he offers an answer similar to ones I've received about crime fiction in Tunisia and in the Palestinian territories: If you can't afford books, you can't read them, crime fiction or otherwise.

(Read Part I of the interview with Leighton Gage here.)

Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has a background as a leftist and a labor activist. What difference has this made as far as police violence, land rights, and other issues that concern you in Blood of the Wicked and in future novels?

Virtually none. Unfortunately.

Parenthetically, how did Lula go from being feared as a wild man to being respected as a moderating influence so quickly? How much of this is due to even more radical South American leaders such as Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez?

To begin with, the fear of Lula was both logical and overrated. Logical, because you had this labor leader with a grade-school education. And he was threatening to take over a government owing so much money that a default could have caused a meltdown in the world’s financial system. Overrated, because Lula surrounded himself with responsible financial advisers from the very beginning and declared, long before the election, that he had no intention of not meeting Brazil’s obligations.

He’s still hated by many of Brazil’s elite, but he has clearly distanced himself from the far left. He doesn’t speak ill of Chavez or Morales or even of Castro, but he doesn’t go out of his way to strengthen relationships either. He has successfully steered a middle course, eschewing offensive rhetoric. And he continued to do so even after Bolivia’s expropriation and nationalization of the Brazilian National Petroleum Company’s multi-billion dollar assets in Bolivia. Argentina has moved closer to Chavez’s Venezuela. Colombia has moved further away. Brazil continues to follow its own course – right down the middle.

De Gaulle once said “Brazil is not a serious country.” The statement went on to become much quoted in diplomatic circles. Lula hates it. He wants Brazil to have firm recognition for its importance in South America and the world. He wants a permanent seat on the Security Council of the United Nations, and to that end he is being careful not to offend anyone. He’s even sent troops to enforce the peace in Haiti (the UN detachment is being run by a Brazilian general), and he’s sending financial and material aid to a number of nations in Africa.

By all intents, he seems to be getting his message across. And for Brazil’s poor he can do no wrong. His approval rating, even after a recent spate of corruption scandals that would have brought down most presidents in most democracies, is holding firm at about 55%. That’s pretty good for a guy who never got past the American equivalent of the sixth grade.

Police violence seems to be especially notorious in Brazil. Is it in fact any worse than in, say, Argentina? If so, why?

During the recent dictatorships, all three countries in the Southern cone were about on a par when it came to police violence, so it isn’t as if the Brazilians have a patent on it. But these days, an ordinary citizen doesn’t have to worry too much about the cops in Argentina and Chile. Their governments pay them reasonably well and keep an eye out for abuses.

Brazil, unfortunately, is different. It’s tough to raise a family on the salary of an average Brazilian cop. Many, if not most, look for other sources of income. Those sources can include evictions (as in the case of evicting landless workers from land they’ve occupied), extortion, “losing” evidence, and “cleaning up neighborhoods”. It doesn’t help the situation, either, that being a cop in Brazil is more dangerous than it is in Argentina or Chile and a lot more dangerous than it is in the United States or Western Europe. Cops are targets, often losing their lives just because they are cops. They respond in kind, dealing out death to people they regard as threats. All too often they’re wrong in their assessments. But by that time it’s often too late, and their superiors, cops themselves, turn a blind eye to the error.

You occasionally give readings in Brazil. How is your work received there? Who is your audience? Are any translation deals in the works, whether into Portuguese or into other languages?

When I give readings in Brazil, I give them mostly for foreigners, and I always give them in English. My European agent is working on foreign rights, and I expect my work to come out in French, German, Italian and Spanish before all too long. But I’m doubtful about Portuguese. And, in fact, I’m very happy with that. Most Brazilians speak and read only Portuguese. When Blood finally appears in that language, if it ever does, my Brazilian friends aren’t going to like it. I’m going to take a lot of flak for washing dirty laundry in public. Some of those friends are landowners, one is a cop, and one is a priest. All three categories take heavy hits in Blood. I’m not worried about the landless. If they can read at all, they probably don’t read books, and it’s even less likely they read fiction.

How popular is crime fiction in Brazil? Of the two Brazilian crime writers I’ve read, one is an academic who named his protagonist for a philosopher (Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza), and the other is a “serious” and respected writer by any standard (Rubem Fonseca). What does this say about Brazilians and their attitude toward crime fiction and mysteries?

Crime pays in Brazil. Crime writing, by and large, does not. The genre isn’t popular at all. I’ve heard a number of explanations for this, but none that convince me. One argument is that Brazilians live with crime and violence every day of their lives. So much so, that they choose to live in denial of just how dangerous their large cities really are. They want to close their eyes to crime, and they don’t want to turn to it for diversion.

But if that’s true, why do the scripts of so many local television series rotate around murder and other crimes? Is it possible that people who buy books don’t watch those kinds of shows? Maybe, but I doubt it. Another explanation, often given, is that publishers are so leery of the genre that good crime writing simply can’t get into print. Maybe. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Does Brazil lack good crime writers, or does it lack publishers who are willing to publish good crime writers? The argument goes round and round, and its defenders claim the situation has historical antecedents. They say that a number of writers started trying to imitate the English and American greats of the 1930’s and failed miserably at it. And rather than ascribe the failure to lack of talent on the part of writers, the publishing industry erroneously interpreted it as a lack of interest in the genre.

But, if that’s so, how can one explain Rubem Fonseca, Patrica Melo, Marcello Rubens Paiva, Silvio Lancellotti, Rubens Costa, Augusto Boal, Ruy Castro, Dalton Trevisan and, yes, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza? They’re all in print, all of them write the genre, and all of them manage to sell books. I question, however, if any of them (with the possible exceptions of Fonseca and Garcia-Roza) can live on the income thus generated.

Fonseca, although he was a cop at one time in his life, isn’t regarded as a crime writer. Garcia-Roza, although he’s an academic and has published other kinds of works, is. His Espinosa series has attracted more readers in the English-speaking world than it has here. Overall, Brazilians read much more non-fiction than fiction. And when it’s fiction, it’s likely to be one of the worldwide best-sellers (including works by the Brazilians Jorge Amado and Paulo Coelho) or one of the “serious” writers, like Clarice Lispector. (And, yes, Fonseca.)

Remember, too, that in this country lots of people can’t afford to buy books. Many are still illiterate. In a country of over one-hundred-eighty million people less than eight million daily newspapers are sold. In books, a best-seller is anything over five thousand copies.

(Read Part I of the interview with Leighton Gage here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

(Satellite photo of Brazil: © 2008 )

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Leighton Gage on crime and crime fiction in Brazil, Part I

Leighton Gage came to Brazil in 1973, left a few years later for Australia and the Middle East, but could not stay away.

When he came back two years later, he “ran smack dab into all of the bad things that I’d pushed into the back of my mind: the crime; the obscene wealth; the staggering poverty. I couldn’t take it. I went to live in Miami for a time. And found myself missing Brazil all over again. Now, a quarter of a century on, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have to live here all the time, but I do have to live here some of the time. I get homesick when I’m away for too long.”

Gage's first novel, Blood of the Wicked, published by Soho Crime, was one result of his exposure to the uglier side of the country. In Part I of a two-part interview, he talks to Detectives Beyond Borders about that book, its follow-up, and the vast, beautiful and violent land that inspired them.

(Read Part II of the interview with Leighton Gage here.)

Why is Brazil, northern Brazil in particular, a good setting for crime fiction?

Verisimilitude, for one thing: You can believe in cops who murder people because there are cops who murder people; you can believe in people that will kill you for your cell phone because there are people that will kill you for your cell phone; you can believe in the impunity of the rich, because it’s a fact that rich Brazilians seldom go to jail – no matter how grave their offense.

Add drug lords who operate with the support of government officials (and, not uncommonly, are government officials). Add Indians living in a vast rain forest who’ve never had contact with modern civilization. Add the eight- and nine-year-old girls, working in brothels before their breasts have bud. The list goes on and on. There are hundreds, thousands of stories to be told.

You mentioned the north. It’s a vast region that embraces several states and the Amazon rain forest as well. Salvador, in Bahia, was the capital long before Brasilia, long before Rio de Janeiro, and for a longer time than both of them put together. The countryside in northern Brazil has a character all its own. There’s a feudal aspect to it. Some of the great landlords still hold agricultural workers in virtual bondage. Those landlords have pet judges and politicians and hired gunmen to resort to in case the judges and politicians don’t see things their way. There are borders up there with five other countries. Arms smuggling and drug trafficking is rife. It’s like the Wild West.

Issues of land rights and police violence loom large in Blood of the Wicked. What single event or set of events made you say, “That’s it; I’m writing a novel.”? How did you then proceed to build a novel from that initial idea?

Blood of the Wicked was never meant to be a stand-alone. I didn’t just say to myself, “That’s it; I’m writing a novel.” I said, “Wow! All this s*** is happening, and hardly anyone outside of this country knows anything about it. What a great opportunity for a series. I’m sitting on a writer’s gold mine here!”

But I’m a big believer in character-driven fiction, so when I started laying the groundwork for the Silva novels, I started with my protagonist. He had to be a male. (A woman would wind up spending more of her time fighting sexism than fighting crime.) He had to be someone with enough rank to get things done. He had to have a mandate that would allow him to act anywhere in the country. He had to have a highly developed sense of morals. And he had to have a reason to fight crime and criminals that went beyond a simple vocation. I mixed them all together with the personas of two senior law-enforcement officials I know, and I came up with Mario Silva, a chief inspector of the Brazilian Federal Police.

Then I delved into the newspapers and started collecting material for stories. Blood of the Wicked deals with land reform. Buried Strangers, due for publication in January of 2009, deals with something entirely different, but if I tell you what it is, it would be a spoiler. Readers get halfway through the book before they discover why people are being murdered. One thing I can tell you, though: It’s not the sort of thing that could happen in downtown Los Angeles, or in the suburbs of New York, or anywhere else in America. But it sure as hell happens here.

Not all the crimes in Blood of the Wicked involve the landless and the landowners, yet the issue underlies everything, leading to false leads and wrong guesses. I’d like you to talk about this, if you would, preferably without too many plot spoilers.

Okay, but I can’t do it without giving you some statistics. Some people think Brazil is a poor country. It isn’t. Brazil is a rich country populated largely by poor people. The income distribution is only a little better than that of Bangladesh. A mere 1.6% of the population owns almost 50% of all of the arable land. The Brazilian Landless Workers' Movement (in the book I call them the Landless Workers' League), has set out to change all of that. They now number about 1.5 million, distributed across 23 of Brazil’s 27 states. Their principal technique is what they call the “peaceful occupation of untilled property.” Except that it isn’t always untilled, and it’s hardly ever peaceful. In the majority of cases, the cops and the local politicians have a vested interest in supporting the landowners. And the landowners often have a legally acquired title to the land that’s being trespassed upon. But not always. Sometimes those titles are faked. And sometimes people get forced off land that their families have tilled for generations. So what you’ve got here are the elements of a true tragedy: a case in which right and wrong is blurred on both sides.

Another important element in Blood of the Wicked is liberation theology, a doctrine now condemned by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, but one that a number of rural priests still covertly subscribe to. Some say that clergymen who practice liberation theology are Marxists. Liberation theologians say, “Wrong. Marxists deny the existence of God. We don’t. But the poor shouldn’t have to wait until after death for their reward. We want a radical re-distribution of wealth, and we want it now.”

They regard anyone who doesn’t agree with them, and that often includes their fellow priests, as defenders of an unjust status quo. Blood of the Wicked begins with the assassination of a bishop. Early suspicion falls on liberation theologians. But it could also have been a landowner. Or it might be someone else. But I can’t tell you more without running the risk of a spoiler.

You gave your protagonist, Mario Silva, and his nephew and assistant, Hector Costa, dramatic back stories. In Silva’s case, the background is especially shocking. Why did you make this choice? What does it add to the book?

Brazilians don’t believe in honest cops, and they particularly don’t believe in honest cops who have moved up in the hierarchy. And for good reason: Cops’ salaries in Brazil are a pittance. The opportunities for earning money on the side are great. And when your boss, and your boss’s boss, and all of your colleagues are on the take, the pressure to conform is enormous.

Mario Silva and Hector Costa are rare cops by Brazilian standards, rare because they’ve both achieved positions of influence while retaining, and often acting out of, a sense of justice. Please note that I’m not using the word honest. Silva is not honest. Costa isn’t either. They’re merely just. In Brazil, honest men seldom seek out careers as cops. And if they do, their likelihood of promotion is slight. Silva and Costa are realists. They know, from the very beginning, that if they want to enforce the spirit of the law, they’re often going to have to break the letter of it.

But to do what they do, indeed to be able to perform at all within their environment, they need strong motivation, motivation that goes beyond vocational considerations. Hence the inclusion of their back stories.

(Read Part II of the interview with Leighton Gage here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

NoirCon, Part VI: Philadelphia's own George Lippard

At least one suggestive and unexpected connection emerged between NoirCon's (mostly) American subjects and this blog's (mostly) non-American ones.

Ed Pettit's presentation early in the program focused on a mid-nineteenth-century Philadelphia journalist, author, social reformer and outsize character named George Lippard and his 1844-5 gothic/crime novel The Quaker City; or, the Monks of Monk Hall. Two days later, Pettit mentioned over coffee that Lippard had sued over pirated German translations of his work published in Philadelphia — and Germany. That sounds to me like an early and little-known instance of crime fiction crossing borders. That it crossed into Germany and not into France is especially interesting.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Hard Case Crime in German

Hard Case Crime gets around. Less than a minute after making the post immediately below, I found this interview with publisher/editor Lisa Kuppler on the German crime-fiction site Krimi-Couch. It appears under the headline "Ein neuer Umgang mit den Konventionen des Hardboileds – im Retro-Kleid," which means something like "A new encounter with hard-boiled conventions – in retro dress."

If my rough reading is accurate, it appears that Kuppler bought the rights to the entire Hard Case line and will issue selected books in German, retaining the original covers but translating the titles – except in cases like Christa Faust's, should her Hard Case book make it into German. Its title, Money Shot, is untranslatable, according to Kuppler.

(See Hard Case's German Web site for more information or just to satisfy your curiosity about this encouraging example of crime fiction crossing borders.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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The Big Schiamazzo, or the best Hard Case Crime cover of the 17th century

Did I mention that I'd been to NoirCon in Philadelphia? You should have been there, too. You'll know from my previous posts about the quality of the presentations and the company. All that good stuff sparked some unexpected connections, including this:

Charles Ardai, founder of Hard Case Crime, said during a panel on publishing and editing that a proposed cover for one of the imprint's books ran into opposition from a major department-store chain. Ardai was told, he said, that "We don't like dirty feet or butt cleavage."

Now, painters in the Italian Renaissance and Baroque were not fazed by butt cleavage. In fact, they often showed the entire butt. But dirty feet could and did cause an uproar, and Ardai's comment made me think immediately of Caravaggio's moving painting of The Madonna di Loreto (above, in a too-dark reproduction) from the Church of San Agostino in Rome.

The woman is not disrobed here; she is the Virgin Mary, after all. But look at the rest of the picture: The ramshackle setting. The harsh contrast of dark and light. The stucco chipped from the wall to reveal the bricks beneath. Looks like a noirsh back alley to me.

Mary's elongated neck and legs would not be out of place on a Hard Case cover (of which you can see a complete collection on the Hard Case site, to which I link above). Notice, too, the dirty feet (here belonging to the kneeling pilgrim), which caused a big schiamazzo in Rome in 1604 just as it offended chain-store buyers in our own day.

Then there is the artist himself, whose life contains tantalizing bits and pieces from which to build a splendid noir story. A murder charge was probably the most famous event of this celebrated scapegrace's life, and a quick Web search for "Caravaggio" turns up some suggestive sentences:

"Even in his own lifetime Caravaggio was considered enigmatic, fascinating, rebellious and dangerous."

His female models include Fillide Melandroni, Anna Bianchini, and Maddalena Antognetti ...
all well-known prostitutes, who appear as female religious figures including the Virgin and various saints."
and, best of all, this:

"His rage finally led him to commit murder, forcing him to flee Rome a hunted man."
Sterling Hayden, anyone?

So, here is my proposal: The book's title is The Big Schiamazzo, the cover is based on The Madonna di Loreto without the clothes and the baby, and the author is me. What about it, Ardai?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, April 07, 2008

NoirCon 2008: The Big Wrap-up

I urge everyone to attend a crime-fiction convention just small enough to allow convention goers to mingle, drink, hang out with and pick the brains of the panelists and presenters, especially if these include people like Ken Bruen, Dennis McMillan, Reed Farrel Coleman, Christa Faust, Scott Phillips, Gary Phillips, Charles Ardai, Vicki Hendricks and Duane Swierczynski, as a start, and those were just the guests of honor, a few of the authors, and an additional publisher.

The program at NoirCon 2008 also included enough editors, publishers, podcasters, professors, scholars, screenings (and screenwriters), forensic sculptors and cold-case specialists to keep the old synapses crackling long after logic dictated that I should have been asleep.

And that was just the official events. The real action happened after hours, when everyone would gather in the hotel bar to talk about crime fiction and its social role. Tempers sometimes flared, and club soda and ginger ale spilled amid vigorous exchanges of views that lasted until well after 10 p.m.

The final event, for those still in town and not exhausted by the late nights, was Sunday afternoon's screening of Deadline U.S.A. in conjunction with the Philadelphia Film Festival. That 1952 Humphrey Bogart classic was one of two movies that the festival screened as part of NoirCon, along with the over-the-top Blast of Silence, from 1961.

I'll be back tomorrow after a good night's sleep, perhaps to offer another detail or two. Until then, why not visit the NoirCon home page and check out the podcasts and the links to the panelists' Web sites? You'll find material sure to expand your mind and your to-read list.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

A long day and a short post from NoirCon 2008

Day Three had an early beginning and a late end at NoirCon 2008. What I don't get to now, I'll discuss tomorrow night.

The convention's one session that dealt explicitly and exclusively with international fiction unexpectedly had little to do with the usual subjects at Detectives Beyond Borders. The session was Saturday afternoon's tribute to Georges Simenon, with William Boyle and Scott Phillips.

Each expressed a preference for Simenon's romans durs, his hard, tough, psychological novels, over his books and stories about Inspector Maigret, and both offered sound, noir-based reasons for doing so. The romans durs put their protagonists in tight, tough, bad situations that get tighter, tougher and worse, sometimes, even often, when no crime is committed. Phillips' and Boyle's preferences made sense; the convention is called NoirCon, after all, and not CrimeCon.

This puts a positive spin on an artistic decision that some critics have regarded as a grubby bid for respectability on Simenon's part. Clive James, for example, wrote that "the Maigret novels acquired such prestige that Simenon’s action novels without Maigret in them started counting as proper novels, the absence of the star turn being thought of as a sign of artistic purity."

Noir, then, does not necessarily imply crime.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, April 05, 2008

Noir Con 2008, Part II — No boundaries?

OK, maybe some boundaries, though no one at NoirCon 2008 seemed to be able to figure out precisely what noir is and isn't. Happily, no one seemed to worry much about this, and the confusion gave rise to some pregnant thoughts on Day Two, Year Two of this fine Philadelphia crime-fiction convention.

And why should I worry about what is international crime fiction and what isn't at a conference with a French name ("Noir") devoted to an American art form that honored an Irish author (Ken Bruen) and a publisher (Dennis McMillan) whose offerings have included seminal Dutch and Australian crime writers?

Highlights from Day Two:

1) Jason Starr's observation toward the end of his Friday panel discussion with Ken Bruen that "The French have a much wider definition of noir" than do Americans. Could he have meant that the French critics who coined the term as applied to film and fiction in the middle of the last century emphasized atmosphere more than today's writers do?

I recall a television interview with the director Jean-Pierre Melville and the star Alain Delon included as a DVD extra with one of Melville's movies. In today's terms, Delon was a laughable parody of cool, literally staring into space and blowing smoke while Melville talked about the movie. From the viewpoint of, say, any time after maybe the early '70s, that looks more kitsch than noir.

Maybe he meant that French writers have taken noir in directions more political than American crime writers have explored (Jean-Patrick Manchette, Jean-Claude Izzo, Didier Daeninckx)?

2) Bruen's declaration during the same discussion that, after having written a few "straight" novels, "I really wanted to write a crime novel, but I wanted to see if I could write it the way the American hard-boiled school writes."

3) The award for the publisher Dennis McMillan, whose offerings have included books from Janwillem van de Wetering, Robert van Gulik and Arthur W. Upfield.

4) News from Akashic Books that another novel from Juan de Recacoechea, author of American Visa, is being translated into English as we speak.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, April 04, 2008

Conventional odds and ends

I'm just back from the first evening of my first crime-fiction convention, NoirCon 2008 in Philadelphia. Though the event is devoted principally to American crime, the opening sessions contained a touch or two of special international interest, starting, of course with the name: noir, a French word adopted for an American sub-genre of crime fiction and film.

1) David Schmid, a professor at the University of Buffalo and the kind of professor whose classes you would have wanted to take, opened proceedings with a talk about the wide use to which the term noir has been put. Schmid was educated in England and, from his accent, grew up there, too. Why does this matter? Because it's just one more piece of evidence of the international appeal that noir, like its fellow American art form, jazz, has enjoyed.

2) Scott Phillips, present for a screening of the superb movie based on his novel The Ice Harvest, said he had read about 150 of Georges Simenon's books and planned to be part of a Simenon panel later in the convention. He said he started reading Simenon as a way to keep up his skills in French when he was living in France.
He's not the only author for whom Simenon opened (or widened) a path into French. Janwillem van de Wetering, Dutch author of the Amsterdam Cops novels, has said in interviews that he started reading Simenon for a similar reason: to sharpen his French skills for business purposes. This, if I recall correctly, inspired him to start writing crime fiction.

3) One of the convention's two guests of honor was not on the first evening's program but put in a brief appearance nonetheless. I am happy to report that, based on a brief meeting, Ken Bruen seems to be a warm and personable a fellow as his reputation would suggest.
© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

A critical question for readers

A week and a half ago, I quoted Joe Gores' praise of Michael Gilbert's dapper but deadly fictional spies, Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens. Gores' thumbs-up appears in a useful collection called 100 Great Detectives, edited by Maxim Jakubowski and winner of an Anthony Award for best critical work in 1992.

Another entry in the book, Peter Robinson's, shines an illuminating light on Georges Simenon's Maigret, demonstrating in the process that criticism need not be diffuse, obscurantist, frivolous or incomprehensible. Robinson writes:

"H.R.F. Keating has noted that the Maigret stories represent the first examples of the detective as writer. Part of this clearly stems from Maigret's desire to understand human motivation and his need to soak up the atmosphere of a place and immerse himself in a complex mesh of relationships until the solution to the crime becomes clear. Simenon's plots are often flimsy or far-fetched, and Maigret's actual detective work can be minimal at times. What makes the books so absorbing is his empathy with the characters he encounters ... " (Highlighting is mine.)
What can I say except that the man is right and that his comments say much about why we read crime fiction.

As it happens, crime-fiction reviewers come in for some criticism on Crime Scraps this week, where a comment laments the shakiness of the Telegraph's recent list of 50 crime writers to read before you die. The commenter complains that:

"With the odd exception — Marcel Berlins, e.g. — reviewers are stringers or staff with a passing interest and without knowledge either wide or deep of the genre, nor of what, in literary terms, constitutes fine writing. And they [don't] particularly care — after all, it's just crime fiction. Today we have no Julian Symons, no Harry Keating, no Jacques Barzun, and that is a very unhappy thing."
That's another bouquet for H.R.F. Keating. Now, how about you, readers? Who's your favorite crime-fiction critic? What remarks about crime fiction have made you stroke your chin thoughtfully and muse, "Hmm, that's right."?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Carnival of the Criminal Minds' Lucky Thirteenth

The carnival hoists its tents in Texas, courtesy of author/blogger/odd-news collector Bill Crider and his Bill Crider's Pop Culture Magazine. As befits that state, the latest edition is a biiiiiig carnival, with a loooooong list of sites about crime fiction and other interesting topics.

When you're done, revisit the previous hosts at the Carnival of the Criminal Minds site. And check Bill's site periodically for its coverage of Madonna, Anna Nicole Smith, alligators, weird uses of body parts, Emmylou Harris ...

© Peter Rozovsky 2008