Saturday, May 31, 2008

Crime-scene photo, South Philadelphia


(Broad and Tasker Streets)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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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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Thursday, May 29, 2008

A blog of note

Your blushing blog keeper is surprised and pleased to be today's Blogger Blog of Note.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Noir at the Bar reading series debuts this Sunday!

kicks off Philadelphia's Noir at the Bar with a reading and Q&A Sunday, June 1, at 6 p.m.
Duane's noir thrillers include, most recently, Severance Package (St. Martin's Minotaur). His previous novel, The Blonde, has just been optioned by actress Michelle Monaghan. He's also the writer for Marvel Comics' monthly X-Men title, Cable, and in July, he takes over scripting duties for Immortal Iron Fist. Until recently he was editor-in-chief of the Philadelphia City Paper, and he has worked at Philly Mag, Men's Health and Details. He's a native Philadelphian, and his hippie parents named him after one of the Allman Brothers — the dead one, of course.
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"Come for the crime fiction; stay for the food and the music."

Where: The Tritone
1508 South St., Philadelphia, PA
215-545-0475

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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They're butchers ... I think


(Seventh and Dickinson Streets, South Philadelphia)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The stupidest critical cliché ever?

I had some fun last week with a pair of posts about critical clichés, which you can find here and here. Last night, though, I found one that I think beats them all. It was reproduced on the DVD box for a movie at my local video store, and it tells us that the movie "Has to be seen to be fully fathomed."

Think about that for a moment. Don't movies generally have to be seen to fathomed, fully or otherwise?

And now, readers, your question: What is the stupidest critical cliché ever?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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And one winner more!

A Colorado reader knew that Fred Vargas takes Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his colleagues to Canada in Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand. She wins a copy of Vargas' latest novel, This Night's Foul Work, which takes Adamsberg to — but that's a question for another contest.

Thanks to all who entered, including a spate of late contestants who missed winning literally by minutes. Be sure to enter the next competition, coming soon, which will offer another brain-teasing question and the chance to win an Edgar Award-winning novel.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

We have another winner!

A reader in England knew that Peter Temple is a native of South Africa and thus wins himself a copy of The Broken Shore.

You can still win Fred Vargas' This Night's Foul Work if you tell me in which novel Vargas takes Adamsberg and his colleagues out of France and to which country she takes them. Send answers and your postal address to: detectivesbeyondborders(at)earthlink(dot)net.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Matt Rees and reality

Matt Rees, author of The Collaborator of Bethlehem (Bethlehem Murders in the U.K.) and A Grave in Gaza (The Saladin Murders) and subject of a Detectives Beyond Borders interview, has some interesting things to say in a new review/interview about the latter book in the Jerusalem Post. So does his reviewer/interviewer.

The novel's General Moussa Husseini, reviewer Avi Hoffmann writes, appears to be based on Yasser Arafat's cousin, the security chief Moussa Arafat, who met an end in 2005 like the one Husseini meets in A Grave in Gaza's most chilling and violent scene.

Back in the fictional word, Hoffmann cites a blurb that invoked Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse and Ian Rankin's Rebus alongside Rees' protagonist, Omar Yussef. Hoffmann says he finds the comparison strained, and he offers interesting reasons for doing so. He nominates his own candidate for a closer Yussef parallel, a choice I agree with: Yasmina Khadra's Brahim Llob.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, May 26, 2008

Celebrate Awards Week with free books, part II: The Broken Shore

He's one of the sharpest minds, wickedest wits and most graceful prose stylists in crime fiction. He won the world's biggest crime-fiction prize last year, and he deserved it. He's Peter Temple, the prize-winning novel is The Broken Shore, and the good folks at Picador USA have now issued it in paperback.

Detectives Beyond Borders has a copy to send to the first reader who correctly answers this skill-testing question:

Temple, who has lived and worked in Australia for about thirty years but did not grow up there, once told an interviewer that:

"If you come to a new society in midlife, your perceptions are sharper. Everything in Australia was strange to me. It’s an English-speaking country but it’s quite unlike England or America. It’s a very interesting and complex society, with lots of problems, and also a very egalitarian one."
Of what country is Peter Temple a native?

If you know the answer (and you have not won a Detectives Beyond Borders competition in the past three months), send it, along with your name and postal address, to detectivesbeyondborders(at)earthlink(dot)net.
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And don't forget your chance to win a newly arrived copy of Fred Vargas' latest, This Night's Foul Work.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Declan Hughes in the Philadelphia Inquirer

My review of Declan Hughes' third novel about Dublin P.I. Ed Loy, The Price of Blood (The Dying Breed in the U.K.), appears in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer:

"A fist to the jaw carries with it an intimacy that a bullet to the gut just can't match."
That's how the review begins. Read the rest on the Inquirer's Web site, or pick up the paper at a newsstand near you.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Brian McGilloway talks about the personal, the political and the police

I've pondered in recent posts Brian McGilloway's interesting choice of a police officer, or Garda, from the Irish Republic as protagonist of his two crime novels, both set along the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. I've also wondered about the place in the books of the North's bloody sectarian Troubles.

McGilloway, who grew up in Derry in the North, sent a thoughtful reply to my posts that reminded me of what Matt Rees likes to say when asked if he plans to include Israeli characters in his novels set in the Palestinian territories. No, Rees says, because to do so might lead to unseemly and distracting side-taking.

McGilloway's novels are Borderlands and the new Gallows Lane. Without further ado, here's what their author has to say about the personal, the political, the police and the hero of the books, Inspector Benedict Devlin:

"I know you've been questioning the issue of a Northern Irish writer setting his hero in the Republic, then working with the North's PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland). The main reason for it, I suppose, was to avoid the political. During the time of writing, policing was still a hot issue in Northern Ireland. I was aware that, as a Northern writer, people would rightly or wrongly look at the books for a political angle on the presentation of the PSNI. By filtering their presentation through Devlin's eyes, it allows Devlin to direct, to some extent, the reader's reactions and makes his response to the PSNI a personal rather than political one. I hope that makes sense.

"In addition, the PSNI was changing so much that, by the time the book would have been published, their presentation would have been out of date. Some Northern Irish politicians still complain if it's discovered that Guards are coming into Northern Ireland — on the ground it's happening much more frequently than people expect, I imagine. I thought that was an interesting and unique angle from which to approach a police procedural.

"And of course the Guards over here have had their own problems recently — considered more fully perhaps in the second Devlin book, Gallows Lane.

"As for the Troubles — I wanted to write a non-Troubles book but, around the Border, it would be unrealistic to assume that they're not there somewhere — thus the only representation of the Troubles in
Borderlands is the disembodied voice, talking about the past. It's there, but increasingly insubstantial. Or that was my intention, at least."
© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Gawking across borders at Brian McGilloway's Borderlands

I wonder if people from Northern Ireland ever get tired of outsiders filtering everything about their homeland through the lens of the Troubles.

I suspect that Brian McGilloway does not. Or maybe he does and, having resigned himself to this state of affairs, decides to have a bit of fun with it. He calls his debut novel Borderlands, after all, for the zone where the Irish Republic and the North meet. And the book opens with a body found straddling the border.

Mostly McGilloway hints at the Troubles through the verbal equivalent of a photographic negative: Where one would have expected to see violence so recently, one sees instead its inverse: peaceful cooperation. Here, the republic's Gardai borrow equipment from the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The protagonist, Garda Inspector Benedict Devlin, and his opposite number, Inspector Hendry of the Northern Irish police, share an easy rapport that extends to mutual kidding and even shared interrogations. Even in their absence, the Troubles are present.

Against such subtle reminders, the rare explicit references to the Troubles hit hard, as here, when Hendry replies to Devlin's inquiries about into the roots of their current case: "I told you yesterday. The main line of inquiry at the time was IRA involvement. Of course, that meant that it never went any further."

Or here, the novel's darkest and funniest passage, in which Devlin has sought out a priest both to confess a minor marital indiscretion and also to ask the priest's help in reaching a shadowy IRA contact:

"God forgives you, Inspector. Your wife, I suspect, will forgive you. Try now to forgive yourself. I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen. Leave your phone on."

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Celebrate Awards Week with one more free book by Fred Vargas

An extra copy of Fred Vargas' This Night's Foul Work has arrived at Detectives Beyond Borders, which means you have one more chance to win!

Three celebrated crime novels by three much-honored authors have just had or are about to have their U.S. paperback releases. Over the next few days, you'll have a chance to see what the fuss is about, as Detectives Beyond Borders gives away one copy of each book to the first reader who can answer a skill-testing question.

First up, from Penguin, is This Night's Foul Work by Fred Vargas, which won Vargas the second of her two Duncan Lawrie International Dagger awards from the Crime Writers’ Association in the U.K. This fourth of Vargas' mysteries about the dreamy, abstracted but hard-working and brilliant Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg released in English may be, as one admiring reviewer commented, even quirkier than the earlier Adamsberg novels.

Like those books, it brings back Adamsberg's large cast of colleagues, including the large and devoted Violette Retancourt, and the wine-indulging right-hand man Adrien Danglard, as logical as Adamsberg is intuitive. Like those books as well, This Night's Foul Work offers an excursion through the physical and human geography of a region of France, this time Normandy. It also takes Adamsberg on an excursion through his own past. Here, though, that past takes the form not just of Adamsberg's old girlfriend Camille, but also of a brilliant pathologist with whom Adamsberg had once almost become romantically involved, and of a new police recruit from a village in the Pyrenees next to Adamsberg's own native village.

The barest outline of the story seems familiar: two men are found dead in Paris' Port de la Chapelle flea market. The drug squad wants the case, but Adamsberg insists that the murders are about more than drug dealing, and he refuses to surrender jurisdiction. Lest you believe this is a routine police procedural, though, note the ghost that inhabits Adamsberg's new house. The cat that is an expert tracker. The police officer who speaks in twelve-syllable Alexandrine verse. As is often the case with Vargas, you're apt to find yourself enjoying the odd stories and eccentric sub-plots, reading slowly, and being pleasantly reminded that, yes, there is also a mystery going on. There may be a bit more mystery than usual, actually, as Vargas slips in an extra bit or two of misdirection.

You can win a copy by being the first to correctly answer this two-part question (and if you have not won a Detectives Beyond Borders competition in the past three months): Fred Vargas often takes her characters out of Paris to a different region of France in each book. In one novel, however, she takes them out of the country altogether. To which country? And in which novel? Send your answers along with your name and postal address to detectivesbeyondborders(at)earthlink(dot)net.

In the meantime, here's a roundup of Vargas reviews from Euro Crime. And read my two-part interview with Vargas' translator, Sian Reynolds, whose name is right up there on those Daggers with Vargas'.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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We have a winner!

A discerning reader in British Columbia knew that fears of the plague, also known as the Black Death, spark the action in Fred Vargas' Have Mercy on Us All.

His knowledge wins him a copy of Vargas' newest novel, This Night's Foul Work. Thanks to all who entered, and be on the lookout for more contests to come.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

North of the border

The helpful Gerard Brennan of Crime Scene NI offers a generous reply to my request for a shopping list of crime fiction I might look for on a trip to Ireland. You'll find his recommendations here.

They include one novel in which "The frenetic world of rock music is combined with the tranquillity of the Irish countryside," another inspired by the unsolved murder of a pioneer in formal semantics, and a third that may interest readers who enjoy Shane Maloney's Murray Whelan novels.

There are also a violent novel with a highly evocative title and a bleak outlook on Northern Irish politics, the latest from a master of comic crime, and a book chosen to mark the tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, a sign of respect for a crime novel, it seems to me.

The recommendations were for me, but I'm sure Gerard wouldn't mind if you looked into them, too. Thanks, Gerard, and may the wind always be at your back except when I'm approaching from the opposite direction.

(Map from CAIN Web Service)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Detectives Beyond Borders' most nerve-chilling critical-cliché post yet

I'd planned to return to my normal high seriousness for this comment, but thanks to you, I had so much fun with yesterday's post about critical clichés that I'm offering a sequel.

1) When did it become a high compliment to call a work authentic, and can critics and reviewers vouch for the authenticity of the works they so praise? If I recall correctly, David Mamet once wrote a play about bargemen on the Great Lakes, and a review lauded him for capturing the cadences of Great Lakes bargemen's speech. How in God's name did the reviewer know Mamet had done this?

2) "If Author X wrote in Genre Y, this is the book he would write." Author X in this formula is often Borges, García Márquez or Kafka. (See "transcends its genre.")

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Critical clichés — A richly textured, fully realized comment

I recently read a reference to a crime novel as "fully realized." Not long before, I'd found myself thinking that another crime novel was "richly textured." You've read both terms a million times; so have I.

Such familiarity is usually a sign of danger. But I've apparently become more tolerant than I was, and I adopted an attitude of benevolent inquiry toward the expression that had sprung so readily to my lips. What did I mean by it? How did it apply to the story in question? I came up with a satisfactory answer, which you may read here one day.

But what about you? What critics' terms have you read and heard so often that they've become part of how you think about books (or other works of art)? What terms drive you nuts? What terms do both? What do critics mean when they use these terms? And what do the terms mean to you?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Carnival of the Criminal Minds, No. 16

The sixteenth edition of Carnival of the Criminal Minds promises a thrill-filled ride through the world of crime fiction from a woman who actually writes the stuff: Sandra Ruttan.

She writes novels. She writes stories. She edits Spinetingler Magazine. She doesn't mince her punches or pull her words, and she likes authors, bloggers and commentators who do the same.

I don't quite know where to start, so I'll just tell you that her carnival offers a heady mix of controversy, thrills, exotica and fun that looks worth several visits. I shall see you there. And when you're done, visit past Carnivals at the archive maintained by the founder, Barbara Fister.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Owen Wilson was here

In my newsroom, that is, on Thursday, filming a movie. The crew, which included Wilson, actor Clarke Peters, camera, light and sound people, continuity girls, best boys, makeup artists, hair stylists, extras, grips, gaffers, gofers, food servers, cable layers, carpenters, electricians, technicians, and nuchschleppers with cell phones, arrived far earlier than I did. I did, however, catch the last couple of hours, including a scene that Wilson and Peters shot in the editor's office.

Now, this was all taking place during a working day in a working newsroom, with editors, reporters and office staff trying to do their jobs, and our editor-in-chief was naturally concerned about the possibility of disruption. So he sent a memo to the staff asking that we not disturb the film crew.

In fact, the crew, whose 250 members prompted one of my colleagues to remark that she now understood why movies cost so much to make, was considerate, quiet and unobtrusive considering its size. They were packing up within seconds of the final "Cut!" and were out within minutes, leaving behind only a few pieces of equipment to be retrieved the next day. It was an astonishing reminder of how efficiently an enterprise can run given a staff of adequate size.

(I'm not sure my desk is visible in this scene with Wilson and Peters, but that's my newsroom, all right.)

(Addendum: The movie crew left without removing the yellow filters they had placed over the windows, so my colleagues and I have been violating union rules by removing them ourselves.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Fuzz, flic, flatfoot: What do you call the cops?

One of the joys of reading crime fiction from countries other than my own is the linguistic vistas that open up. Shocking though this may be, I was well into adulthood before I learned what a plod was. And I have only recently learned that the term comes from Mr. Plod, a character in Enid Blyton's Noddy stories. Bill and poulet (in its slang sense) are two relatively recent additions to my vocabulary, and I am sorry I don't get to use them more often.

A detailed discussion on the French/Corsican Ile Noire blog is a gold mine of French terms for police, starting with the familiar flic. Read the article, and you'll add bourre, cogne, argousin, roussin, poulet, condé, keuf, babylone and schmit to your vocabulary.

Ile Noire's favorite, and mine, is baffi, a term little known except among old marseillais gangters that means mustache and derives from yellowed cartoon images that invariably depicted police officers with that particular facial ornament between nose and upper lip.

And now, readers, what are your favorite slang terms for rozzers, Johnny Law, the Man, bulls ... (To get you started, or for your own edification, here is a Wikipedia list of slang terms for police, the authenticity of some of which I can vouch for. You may also like this article in English about French verlan slang, and this list of legal and police terms, slang and otherwise, in English and French. )

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

When truth imitates fiction

Yesterday's post about insider/outsiders bled naturally into discussions of fictional characters who blur lines between the criminal world and that governed by law. That, in turn, dovetailed nicely with a comment John Baker posted last week about the Mean Streets panel at New York's World Voices panel, a panel that included Jo Nesbø, Roberto Saviano, Christian Jungersen and Juan Gabriel Vasquez.

Baker quotes a commentator who said Saviano pointed out that:

"These very mafia types drew for exaggerated fictional types on which to model themselves — a mafia man who built his house in an exact replica of Tony Montana’s in Scarface, or made men, practicing lines from The Godfather; uncanny cases of real people drawing from fiction to appear more real."
That echoes a theme that my colleague George Anastasia has made, and it leads to today's question: What other real-life crooks or crime-stoppers have imitated fictional counterparts?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Bodies across borders (Brian McGilloway)

Talk about your liminal spaces! Here's how Brian McGilloway opens his much-discussed debut novel, Borderlands:

"It was not beyond reason that Angela Cashell's final resting place should straddle the border. Presumably, neither those who dumped her corpse, nor, indeed, those who had created the border between the North and South of Ireland in 1920, could understand the vagaries that meant that her body lay half in one country and half in another, in an area known as the borderlands."
But things get even more intriguing. Most readers, I suspect, will assume an identity between an author and a first-person narrator, and most authors, I suspect, know that readers will suspect this. Interesting, then, that McGilloway, born in Derry, Northern Ireland, a teacher there, and resident "near the Irish Borderlands," according to the novel's biographical blurb, writes in the persona of a garda, a member of the police from the Irish Republic.

Moreover, McGilloway delivers this information in a matter-of-fact manner calculated to achieve the greatest effect:

"When a crime occurs in an area not clearly in one jurisdiction or another, the Irish Republic's An Garda Siochana and the Police Service of Northern Ireland work together, each offering all the practical help and advice they can, the lead detective determined generally by either the location of the body or the nationality of the victim.

"Consequently then, I stood with my colleagues from An Garda facing our northern counterparts through the snow-heavy wind ... "
I have not read much beyond these opening passages, but it seems to me McGilloway casts himself in the role of an outsider against a background that will scramble all notions of inside and outside right from the start.

OK, now that I've figured everything out, I'll go ahead and read the book. But I'll leave you with this question: What other characters combine the insider and outsider roles, or move between the two?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Noir, sex and betrayal: Part II of an interview with Megan Abbott

In the second part of her interview with Detectives Beyond Borders, Megan Abbott talks about some of the tensions and traditions that lie behind her novel Queenpin, winner of the 2008 Edgar Award for best paperback original. The novel tells the story of a young woman attracted by the aura of a powerful gangster named Gloria Denton, the queenpin of the title.

(Read Part I of the interview with Megan Abbott here.)
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Queenpin is full of intimate, commanding, almost-threatening, almost-sexual gestures from Gloria Denton toward the protagonist. Is my imagination overheating, or is this another hint of dangerous, because forbidden, sex? If so, were such elements present in early crime stories? Or did I answer that one when I referred to gansels?

In part, I think a sexual edge generally shows itself in mentor/protégé tales (or in a lot of the intense male friendships that appear in hardboiled fiction, e.g., Glass Key, Long Goodbye). And stories of entering a life of crime are always a seduction of one kind of another. It's hard to avoid it — and when it's a story of a young person wanting to be like or become their mentor, or a mentor wanting to shape their student into a younger version of themselves — well, that line between identification and desire can become pretty hard to detect. The intimacy and fear of betrayal mimics or even supplants a romantic relationship. Gloria treats the protagonist with more respect and more gallantry than her lover ever does.

So much for sex; on to power and betrayal. Gloria Denton radiates power, yet you also have her display the scars that torture has left on her. It's clear why she shows these to the kid/protagonist. Why do you show them to the reader?

As a reader, I always like moments of unveiling. Up until that time, the world the protagonist is entering has been just about glamour. And then she has to see the price, even if she may not be able to understand it yet. And, to me, it's Gloria's first intimate gesture toward the protagonist. It's a warning but also a sharing thing. A confidence.

Plenty of crime movies are about a gangster's rise. Plenty of noir is about falls into abysses of one kind or another. Without, I hope, giving away too much, Queenpin contains elements of both. Is this new?

Gosh, I think the criminal's rise, except in the most giddy of gangster fantasies, is almost always presented as a terrible fall as well. But I guess that the kind of fall is different than in noir. The fall is kind of glorious in classic gangster tales, as in Scarface, rather than a quicksand descent into darkness or an existential dead-end as in most noir. And I think the former is closer to what I have in Queenpin. The common separator of hardboiled vs. noir — hardboiled novels offer some kind of order restoration at the end — well, I think for me that's more where Queenpin fits.

Were there any real-life queenpins?

There are a few, but my biggest inspiration was Virginia Hill, the one after whom Bugsy Siegel purportedly named the Flamingo Hotel in Vegas. She moved money and goods for the mob and somehow lasted for years in the most treacherous of positions. She had figured out long ago how to run with the wolves, and that kind of smarts was so dazzling to me. There were so many legends about her, and she was one of those figures where you think the legends, as over-the-top as they are, don't even come close to capturing what went on in this woman's life, what went on behind her eyes.

Without plot spoilers, can you discuss how notions of betrayal figured in your thinking as you were planning and writing Queenpin?

It was at its center. I really wanted to do a classic mentor-protégé tale, and I wanted the threat of betrayal to be about so much more than business. I wanted it to hurt. Teachers and students always want things from each other that they can't even name. They want everything. And when you transplant that dynamic to the crime world, the stakes become so high. I hoped readers wouldn't always be so sure where their allegiances lie either. I know mine shifted. As a reader, I like that unsteady feeling. It keeps me on my toes.

(Read Part I of the interview with Megan Abbott here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Noir, sex and betrayal: An interview with Megan Abbott, Part I

Noir is like obscenity: hard to define, but you know it when you see it. For this reader, noir hits me hard in the stomach with an ending in which a protagonist goes knowingly to his or her fate. Call it resignation, even if that resignation is sometimes triumphant. By that yardstick, Megan Abbott's third novel, Queenpin, is noir, even if she does not quite agree with my assessment of its ending.

Queenpin tells the story of an innocent kid, a bookkeeper, who gets caught up in the glamour of gambling and drawn into the aura of a powerful gangster. It's an tale often told, but Abbott tells it with a difference: The two principal figures are women.

Megan Abbott is the author of two previous novels, Die a Little and The Song Is You. She is the editor of A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir and author of The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir. With credits like that, it's no surprise that she has a keen eye for the sexual tensions that mark noir and hard-boiled fiction and an awareness of noir's history and traditions.

Queenpin won this year's Edgar Award for best paperback original novel from the Mystery Writers of America. Fresh from her post-Edgar euphoria, Megan Abbott talks to Detectives Beyond Borders about the novel and about the seamy tradition that it both honors and extends.

(Read Part II of the interview with Megan Abbott here.)
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What is noir, and how does Queenpin fit that definition? How does it vary from it?

I tend to flee from the definition debates on noir. I always think our definitions really just reveal our passions for a particular corner of noir, and I'm no different. My favorite noir books and film share a kind of doomy romanticism, a dark glamour, the feeling of being in thrall to one's own desires. I think my attraction to that quality lurks behind Queenpin. I wanted to write one of those voice-driven, desire-leads-to-doom tales so central to noir — one of those whispery-insinuating unreliable narrators in the vein of my favorite hardboiled/noir novels, from Cain through Vicki Hendricks.

The plot, too, is inspired by common noir themes: paranoia and betrayal — two themes that I think explain the persistence of noir. Time and again, we go through periods in our culture where we feel we have no control over the path things are taking, and noir's themes so speak to those anxieties, while noir also creates an escape from them by elevating them, making them seem both alluring and monumental.

What are the precedents for the story of an impressionable kid who comes under the sway of a powerful gangster? To what extent is Queenpin a deliberate riff on such precedents?

A deliberate riff, most definitely. I love those stories. The Grifters and Goodfellas/Wise Guy were probably the largest influences. I especially love the minutiae of the teaching process in those cases. There is so much detail about passing along the tricks of the trade. And the threat of betrayal always hangs heavy. Also stories like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie — the mesmer-like quality of powerful teachers. It's always so interesting how it can be framed as a coming-of-age tale in which the student must, in same way, reckon with either disillusionment or betrayal to find their own identity.

If the precedents are primarily male, why did you make the change to women in the lead roles? How does the switch affect the story? And does English even have a word for a female gansel?

The limits of our language, right? Even in talking about the book, I often resort to moll, but moll suggests that the woman in question is the mistress or plaything of the (male) gangster, so it doesn't really work.

My abiding interest was to write a basic hardboiled tale but one in which a woman-woman relationship was foregrounded. The men are in there primarily to mediate the two women's relationship with each other, much as female characters function so often in classic noir triangles. Ultimately, though, the gender switch changed everything and nothing. On the one hand, it struck me how little difference it made; that mentor/protégé relationships are always about power and ambition, and this was no different. On the other hand, the particular complexities in relationships between women really interest me, as do the forms female power can take, forms that may be different from male power. For instance, Gloria, the older woman, has specific ideas about the way women can retain power, and sexual discretion is one of them.

The queenpin is Gloria Denton, but you never name the protagonist. Why?

The book stemmed from a short story I wrote for Damn Near Dead: An Anthology of Geezer Noir, edited by the wonderful Duane Swierczynski, and I'd never bothered to give either character names in that. When it came to writing the novel, I couldn't settle on a name, so I kept substituting nicknames instead — sugar, tiddly wink, Dolly Dingle. Then it struck me that I should keep it that way. The protagonist is so young and formless and is in many ways defined by others — especially Gloria. There is no there there, yet. She hasn't earned a name.

The protagonist tells us she'd do anything for her low-life lover, "even that." "Even that" is left to the reader's imagination. To what extent did you set out to make sex dangerous again? Assuming that was part of your intent, how much of a challenge did it represent in this permissive age?

I didn't have any aims in that area, and I'm embarrassed to say I have a pretty hard time writing explicit scenes and generally find ways to avoid or evade it. At the same time, 1930s-40s hardboiled novels, especially those by James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Chandler, are so suffused with eroticism because of their sudden gaps and omissions. You come just this close, and then the door shuts, and as a reader you become suddenly aware of yourself, of how much you've been filling in the space between the ellipses. Those books just crackle with it. I've always been a sucker too for the way Cain, in Postman and Double Indemnity, will bring us along just so far and then push us away. We start to feel just as guilty as his confessor heroes. And we should.

(Read Part II of the interview with Megan Abbott here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

What your favorite glamorously dressed detective is wearing

I've written from time to time about amateur detectives, so I took notice when Euro Crime published an interview with the creator of an especially exotic example: a glamorous transvestite/corporate consultant/computer whizz/underground-club owner, and in Istanbul, no less.

Author Mehmet Murat Somer tells Euro Crime about his unusual protagonist and, as a bonus, offers a brief guide to crime fiction by Turkish writers and by foreign writers who set their books in Turkey.

And, in another hat tip to Euro Crime, here's something that sounds like fun.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

What your favorite well-dressed detective is wearing

The New York Times profiles the wardrobes of New York detectives in an article headlined "Dressed for a Meeting, Ready for Mayhem," an unusually snappy turn of phrase for the Times, which prizes subtlety in its display type.

The article quotes one Detective Kevin P. Schroeder, who says:

"`I like room in [my suit jacket] because of my pistol, my handcuffs, my radio,' Detective Schroeder said. `You want it a little bigger than you normally would get.'

“`I try to wear my less expensive suits if I am going out to track a bad guy,' he added."
Fictional detectives, too, are defined in part by what they wear, from Sherlock Holmes and his deerstalker cap to Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor, an ex-cop who refuses all demands from the force to return "item 8234, me old Garda coat."

The deerstalker is an integral part of our image of the detective, the coat an integral part of the character's own self-image. But how about you, readers? What other fictional sleuths are inextricably associated with articles of clothing? How do the clothes make the man or woman when it comes to your favorite fictional detectives?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Friday's forgotten books: Bill James' Harpur and Iles

Patti Abbott frets over Forgotten Books. "I'm worried great books of the recent past are sliding out of print and out of our consciousness," she writes, and she asks other bloggers to help out by retrieving a book from the ranks of the forgotten. I like her idea so much that I'm suggesting a whole series: Bill James' Harpur & Iles novels.

The books are not exactly forgotten; the series is now up to twenty-three novels with a twenty-fourth due this year. But James' brand of dark betrayal, darker humor and keen social comedy has remained a connoisseur's taste, beloved of critics for the rich beauty of its prose style, among other features, but never selling in the mass numbers that its excellence deserves.

What makes the series great? Its delicious looks at the upward aspirations of its gangsters. Its funny, touching takes on family life. Its teaming of the vain, violent, ungovernable Iles and his partner, Harpur, who sometimes deflects and sometimes slyly returns Iles' insults, yet who is capable of betrayals of his own. Its "brilliant combination of almost Jacobean savagery and sexual betrayal with a tart comedy of contemporary manners," according to John Harvey, who ought to know a thing or two about crime fiction. And the beauty of the writing:

"If you knew how to look, a couple of deaths from the past showed now and then in Iles' face."
That's from In Good Hands, and it's haunting and beautiful. James can also be laugh-out-loud funny while remaining just as haunting, as in the opening paragraph from The Detective is Dead:
"When someone as grand and profitable as Oliphant Kenward Knapp was suddenly taken out of the business scene, you had to expect a bloody big rush to grab his domain, bloody big meaning not just bloody big, but big and very bloody. Harpur was looking at what had probably been a couple of really inspired enthusiasts in the takeover rush. Both were on their backs. Both, admittedly, showed only minor blood loss, narrowly confined to the heart area. Both were eyes wide, mouth wide and for ever gone from the stampede."
The series hits its stride around its seventh book and becomes a kind of grand and cracked portrait of Britain's shifting urban and social landscape at the end of the twentieth century, of the murky boundaries between police and criminals, of suburban social climbers who happen to be killers and drug dealers, of the strange ways people build families in changing times. The books are violent, dark, and often very funny. And their author just happens to be the best prose stylist who has ever written crime fiction in English.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Modern crime, circa 1929, plus a question for readers

Dorothy L. Sayers, whose satirical jabs at advertising are as fresh today as when she published Murder Must Advertise in 1933, was just as lively an observer in 1929. That's when she wrote the following in the introduction to The Omnibus of Crime, which she also edited:

"The art of self-tormenting is an ancient one, with a long and honourable literary tradition. Man, not satisfied with the mental confusion and unhappiness to be derived from contemplating the cruelties of life and the riddle of the universe, delights to occupy his leisure moments with puzzles and bugaboos. The pages of every magazine and newspaper swarm with cross-words, mathematical tricks, puzzle-pictures, enigmas, acrostics, and detective-stories, as also with stories of the kind called `powerful' (which means unpleasant), and those which make him afraid to go to bed."
That may speak even more to the current obsession with sudoku than it does to the almost 170-year-old Western thirst for crime stories. Sayers' definition of crime is perhaps wider than we would define it today. The book's stories are divided into two major sections, for example: Detection and mystery, and mystery and horror.

Few commentators today would include horror stories in an omnibus of crime. Sayers, however, sees Edgar Allan Poe's early achievement as creating mystery stories "as distinct from pure detection on the one hand and pure horror on the other."

"In this fused genre," she writes, "the reader's blood is first curdled by some horrible and apparently inexplicable murder or portent; the machinery of detection is then brought in to solve the mystery and punish the murderer."

And here's your question, readers: Sayers' 79-year-old observation may provide fresh insight into contemporary crime stories and why we read them. Does it? To what extent do her observations still hold? (And here's a bonus question: Does anyone else find it interesting that Sayers was looking at crime fiction in historical terms as early as 1929?)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

True crime, international and domestic

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Two professions, one of them odd, for fictional amateur sleuths

I've discussed amateur sleuths from time to time in this space, usually with emphasis on their professions, from high school history teacher to shady antiques dealer and beyond.

Implicit in any such discussion is the question of believability. How plausible is it that a stripper or real estate agent or nice old lady would get involved in solving a crime, usually a murder?

Robert Bloch's Mark Clayburn in Shooting Star is one of the odder combinations. He's a one-eyed private investigator who is also a literary agent. Further, he has entered the former profession after his flourishing business in the latter fell apart as a result of the same set of events that cost him one eye. How likely the combination is, I don't know, but it does make for some atmospheric touches — the weary P.I. musing about sending out manuscripts rather than about pounding pavement.

Elsewhere on the amateur-sleuth front, Bill Ott begins a review of Anna Blundy's The Bad News Bible with the declaration that "It’s odd that there aren’t more foreign-correspondent series leads in crime fiction. The job requires a classic hard-boiled hero—tough talking, cynical to the bone, and capable of ingesting prodigious amounts of booze and cigarettes—and the work entails jumping from one dangerous venue to another ... "

What ever could he mean? There are tons of foreign-correspondent sleuths in crime fiction. There's Dan Fesperman's, and um —

Maybe Ott is right. What other foreign-correspondent sleuths can you think of? Do such characters make good crime-fiction protagonists? And why are there so few of them, other than that American newspaper are closing down their foreign bureaus because news is too expensive?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, May 05, 2008

What a laugh!

Declan Burke blogs the news that his novel The Big O has been nominated for the Last Laugh Award. This prize, awarded to the best humorous crime novel published in the British Isles in 2007, is to be announced at next month's Bristol CrimeFest.

Burke's competition:

Murdering Americans by Ruth Dudley Edwards
The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam by Chris Ewan
Hard Man by Alan Guthrie
Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn
Angel's Share by Mike Ripley
The Herring Seller's Apprentice by L. C. Tyler
What's So Funny? by Donald Westlake

Going up against Donald Westlake for a comic-crime award is like learning that your play has been tossed in the ring with some guy named Shakespeare, but Burke's tour de fun has an excellent chance.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, May 04, 2008

Duane Swierczynski to kick off Noir at the Bar

Detectives Beyond Borders presents:
Noir at the Bar
A crime-fiction reading and Q&A with the author (music to follow) featuring:

  • Author of Severance Package, The Blonde, The Wheelman, Secret Dead Men, Murder at Wayne Manor: An Interactive Batman Mystery and much, much more.
  • .
    “Another fast, funny, and action-packed outing from a writer who, fortunately for us, doesn't seem to know how to slow down.”
    Keir Graff, Booklist

  • “I canceled a night out and stayed up all night reading. That’s how much I loved this book . . . at every turn, I was blindsided. Hilarious and bloody violent.”
    Ken Bruen
======================================
Where: The Tritone
1508 South Street Philadelphia, PA 215-545-0475
http://www.tritonebar.com

Cool bar. Great food. The most diverse music venue in Philly”

Sunday, June 1, 2008 at 6 p.m.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, May 03, 2008

How much list could the Booklist list if the Booklist could list books?

Quite a lot of list, actually. Bill Ott's list of 2008's best crime novels includes his ten best of the year plus six best crime-fiction debuts plus five best new installments in long-running series. That last item especially should earn Ott an award for creative list-making.

What really makes his lists stand out, though, is that he states his criteria at the outset. This seems like an obvious thing to do, but most list-compilers never do it. That failure, more than anything else, accounts for the endless ear bending, bandwidth consuming and time wasting that follow the publication of most top 10, 50 or 100 lists.

Ott's predisposition is for the darker regions of crime fiction. At the same time, he is not dogmatic, nor is he condescending about other kinds of crime.

"(L)et’s face this issue squarely," he writes. "As crime fiction continues to attract more and more writers of a distinctly literary bent who want to use the genre to build multifaceted characters and to explore sensitive social issues and address questions of profound moral ambiguity, it is almost inevitable that darker worldviews and less formulaic plots will come to dominate `best' lists. ... But don’t get us wrong: sometimes a good cozy hits the spot just perfectly. Just not this year on this list."
That's a thoughtful assessment, and it lets the reader know exactly where Ott stands. One can't ask more than that, which is why Bill Ott's tops my list of best lists.

What about you, readers? What's your favorite list, preferably but not necessarily of crime fiction? And what makes a good list? Novelty of conception? Of content? Agreement with your preferences? Careful thought on the list maker's part?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Bernd gets burned on the Edgars, then bounces back to host Carnival of the Criminal Minds

If you bet your salary on Bernd Kochanowski' s picks for the top three Edgar awards, announced last night in New York (the awards, not Bernd's picks), you'll have to work some overtime to make up for it.

In a guest appearance on Crime Always Pays Tuesday, the keeper of the Internationale Krimis blog favored Cruel Poetry almost head to head with Blood Paradise for best paperback original, Pyres for best first novel by an American author, and Priest followed by The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Soul Patch, Down River and Christine Falls for best novel.

In fact, the winners were Queenpin for best paperback original, In the Woods for best first novel, and Down River for best novel. Find a complete list of nominees at the Mystery Writers of America Web site.

Not one to be discouraged, though, Bernd delivers an interesting lot of links as the fifteenth host of Carnival of the Criminal Minds. He is the carnival's first German host, and he delivers (in English) a guide to some crime-fiction sites (in English and German) I had not seen before.

He is also the first Carnival host to offer a blog museum: a guide to memorable posts of the past. His rundown may encourage other bloggers to compile their own such lists. And why not start your walk down Random Access Memory lane with a browse through the previous editions of the carnival, courtesy of host Barbara Fister?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

The beauty of banality

A delightful passage in Timothy Hallinan's Thailand-set novel A Nail Through the Heart shows refreshing modesty about exotic travel:

"Twenty or so years ago, in one of the first invasions by a Western brand name, Nescafé shouldered aside the much more labor-intensive processes by which the Thais made some of the world's best coffee, replacing taste with convenience."
The novel's protagonist, Poke Rafferty, does not much like the change, seeing in it "a clear line of demarcation between the relatively leisurely pace of life in traditional Thailand and the hurry-up influence of the West." Does this make Hallinan an author from abroad taking an easy pot shot?

Not quite. Here's the rest of the passage:

"But Rose [who is Thai] grew up with Nescafé. She adores it, hot, tepid or iced. He has seen her eat a teaspoon of it, dry. ... [Rafferty] takes a sip, rolls it around in his mouth like red wine, and revises his opinion. It's an interesting drink if you don't insist that it's coffee."
The thought is amusing, the observation affectionate. It leads me to suspect that Hallinan, an American who lives part time in Southeast Asia, has an eye for real life among his hosts and an openness to experience that goes beyond the exotic. He is a traveller, to cite a useful distinction that a teacher of mine once made, and not just a tourist.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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