Thursday, December 31, 2009

South African thriller opens with a barrage of good lines

The thumbs-up on Roger Smith's Wake Up Dead comes once again from the energetic David Thompson of Houston's Murder By the Book. He recommended this South African thriller, and I think I'll like it because the opening pages are full of quotable lines. Here are some of my favorites:
"The night they were hijacked, Roxy Palmer and her husband, Joe, ate dinner with an African cannibal and his Ukrainian whore."
and
"The cannibal elbowed her beneath her plastic tits. `Go and piss.' Coming from his mouth it sounded almost like a benediction: Go in peace."
and, maybe best of all:
"They walked into the tiled and scented bathroom, Michael Bolton dribbling from the ceiling speakers."
The challenge will now be whether Smith can sustain and whether the story can bear that much verbal panache for 290 pages. I think I'll have lots of fun finding out.

(Wake Up Dead is Smith's second thriller. Read more about the author here. Read more about South African crime fiction at the Crime Beat Web site. And does the prose in these brief excerpts remind you of anyone?)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Leighton Gage's latest

A good start to Dying Gasp, Leighton Gage's third novel about Chief Inspector Mario Silva of Brazil's Federal Police:

"The bomb aboard the number nine tram claimed seventeen lives. Sixteen were passengers.

"The seventeenth was the driver of a nearby postal truck. Mail from his shattered vehicle littered the cobblestones in front of the Museum of the Tropics and fluttered, like tiny flags, from the branches of the linden trees."
That's a nice bit of lyricism, perhaps unexpected in the description of a terrorist act's aftermath.

Another early chapter has Silva acknowledge what might be the most calculatingly reprehensible act I have ever read by a crime fiction protagonist who is ostensibly a good man. Moreover, Silva's own rashness and stupidity may have forced him into the act. I'm not sure this will play a large role in the story, but it does remind me of what Gage said about Silva and his colleague in the first part of last year's Detectives Beyond Borders interview:

"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."
© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Monday, December 28, 2009

Olha, que coisas mais feias!

Leighton Gage writes about the ugly side of a beautiful country: Brazil.

"You can believe in cops who murder people because there are cops who murder people," Gage told Detectives Beyond Borders last year. "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."
Now you can catch up with the corruption. I'll send Gage's second Mario Silva novel, Buried Strangers, and the soon-to-be-released third book, Dying Gasp (one book per person), to the two readers who make the best cases for why they should get a book. In the meantime, read excerpts from both novels at Gage's Web site.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Wooden Overcoat

I've just begun another of the books I bought on David Thompson's recommendation at Houston's Murder by the Book (May its profits increase!): The Wooden Overcoat by Pamela Branch.

I've waffled over whether the book is too cozy for my taste, but an informative short biography of Branch, available on the Rue Morgue Press Web site and as an introduction to the novel, may have resolved the issue in the book's favor. The biography likens Branch's "madcap black humor" to that of such British movies as Kind Hearts and Coronets.

Branch published the novel in 1951; Ealing Studios released Kind Hearts and Coronets in 1949. Throw in another Alec Guinness movie, The Ladykillers, and there's reason to regard The Wooden Overcoat as a literary version of a subgenre I'd known previously only through movies: the macabre cozy. (Be sure to watch the original Ladykillers and not the wretched Tom Hanks remake.)

(Branch's novel offers one big surprise in its opening chapters, at least for me. And wooden overcoat is slang for coffin. At least one source says the expression may be of U.S. origin, while others call it Cockney rhyming slang, without, however, explaining the derivation.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Saturday, December 26, 2009

New Guy Ritchie movie honors Irish crime writer

Well, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, but the Doyles were an Irish Catholic family, and Doyle's mother was Mary Foley.

OK, I admit that that was just a hook. I mentioned it because several minor characters in the new Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law movie, Sherlock Holmes, speak with what sound to me like Irish accents. I eagerly anticipate a critique from the blogosphere's leading critic of Irish accents in movies.

More notable is a scene of Holmes fighting a bare-knuckles boxing match to the accompaniment of Luke Kelly and the Dubliners singing "Rocky Road to Dublin," even though the band members did not write the song, as the movie's credits say they did.

The film also makes interesting use of the vaunted Holmes logical method, alluding to it at the very beginning, and then having Holmes do so just a time or two later on. This lets Guy Ritchie do his action/special effects thing without getting bogged down in old-fashioned mannerisms.

What other contemporary touches does Ritchie bring? In the aforementioned fight scene, he turns Holmes' famed logical method into a kind of Zen-like meditation that will be familiar to a generation raised on latter-day, glossy martial-arts-influenced movies. And the central plot strand, more thriller than detective tale, has a steam-punk overtone.

Robert Downey's Sherlock Holmes is more dissipated than the typical Holmes, falling into a depressed funk and letting his room fall into an alarming state of disorder. (The emphasis on the dark side goes only so far, though. Holmes used cocaine, but probably could not be shown doing so in today's moral environment. See Smithsonian.com for interesting speculation on a possible literary source for the darker side of Sherlock Holmes. That source, too, is Irish.)

That's how Guy Ritchie updates Sherlock Holmes. How do other directors update old stories?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Season's greetings beyond borders

Merry Christmas. Happy Christmas. Joyeux Noël.

Gledileg Jó. Buon Natale. God Jul. Feliz Natal. Nollaig Shona Dhuit. Vrolijk Kerstfeest. Meri Kirihimete. Sung Tan Chuk Ha. Eid Milad Majeed. 圣诞快乐. Sretan Bozic. Sawadee Pee Mai. Geseënde Kersfees. Feliz Navidad.

Bon Nadal. Hyvää joulua. 聖誕快樂. Froehliche Weihnachten. Baradin ki shubh kamnaaye. Souksan van Christmas. Heughliche Winachten un 'n moi Nijaar. Gledelig Jul. Shub Naya Varsh. Buorrit Juovllat. Noeliniz Ve Yeni Yiliniz Kutlu Olsun. めりーくりすます. Nadolig Llawen.


===============
Each of the above -- with one exception -- is in a language spoken where a novel or story discussed on this blog or a post that appeared here was set. Find the exception, and I'll be highly impressed.

Now, excuse me while I go investigate some strange noises on the roof.

Merry Christmas!

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A real cool comic and a real free sample

I've now caught up with all but an issue or two of the Scalped saga, and I can say a few things about the characters and about how the story fits into the noir and hard-boiled traditions. I can also speculate about how long writer Jason Aaron and artist R. M. Guéra will continue this superb comic-book series.

Scalped works as high-intensity noir because every major and significant supporting character is driven by traumatic, unresolved events in his or her past. It works as fast-moving narrative because Aaron jumps back and forth in time, more distant flashbacks always building toward the present, and thus averting the danger of losing focus.

It works as believable, contemporary storytelling because it is unsparing and unsentimental in its depiction of the fictional Prairie Rose Indian reservation, and because its Native American, Asian and black characters can be driven and corrupt. There is little guilty-white-liberal breast-beating at work here. It works as hard-boiled because it's harsh and violent and because Aaron puts wisecracks in the mouths of tough characters at the grimmest moments.

Vertigo has just published or is about to publish Issue #33 of Scalped, and I wonder how long the series will continue in its current narrative form. A number of stories to this point include lengthy flashbacks to a given character's back story, and Aaron will run out of characters sooner or later, or at least risk seeming soap-operalike if he introduces new characters for the sake of giving them dramatic backgrounds. Already, the two strongest characters — the gone-but-returned Dashiell Bad Horse and the violent, corrupt, venal, haunted casino owner/police chief/boss/ex-activist Lincoln Red Crow — overshadow fellow characters given equal back-story treatment.

But that's a quibble. Scalped is one of my best crime-fiction discoveries in recent years and certainly the most unexpected.

(Read Scalped #1 free here.)

***
I've read Scalped in trade paperback collections and regular monthly issues. One of the latter offers on its back cover an advertisement for Star Wars: Space Chicken. That's a cartoon comedy based on the Star Wars™ "universe," but the ad copy makes fun of the Star Wars™ fan phenomenon, with references to nerds and such. The idea of a movie/television/action figure empire so all-encompassing that it can make fun of itself is disquieting. Satire is good. Officially licensed satire seems somewhat worrisome, totalitarian and beside the point.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Billy Boyle and Ireland's secret World War II history

I neglected to mention yesterday what sparked my interest in James R. Benn's Billy Boyle novels. Here's the beyond-borders connection:

Benn's current and fourth novel in his World War II-based series, Evil for Evil, has Boyle in Northern Ireland investigating theft of arms from a U.S. base for possible use in a Nazi-sponsored IRA uprising. (For some reason, IRA ties to Nazi Germany are not much discussed in the United States.)

The first book, Billy Boyle, which I'm reading now, has explored no such politically dangerous territory yet. But it does lay the groundwork for interesting internal conflict. Boyle, a young Irish American police officer from South Boston, heads to war in London with no particular military ambitions and a family legacy of ill will toward the English.

Young Billy, also the novel's first-person narrator, scorns advice that he be discreet about flaunting his American cash in front of the beleaguered and relatively impoverished English — until, on his way to his new assignment, he sees a wounded woman flashing the V-for-victory sign as she is carried from a pile of rubble on a stretcher:

"`Welcome to London,' Harding said as the traffic moved forward.

"`Yes, sir,' Maybe I wouldn't wave those sawbucks around for a while."
This shapes up as a compelling, politically charged take on the loss-of-innocence-in-war theme. It also makes me wonder how big a readership Benn has in South Boston.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Billy Boyle's life during wartime

Billy Boyle, first of James R. Benn's four mysteries about a young Boston police officer who winds up in World War II England, has a long, leisurely buildup to what I suspect will be its central plot, and that suits the context just fine.

Billy's arrival in London is full of walks about town that take in tourist sights, wry observations, innocent wisecracks, loneliness, and the curiously unreal (to an American, at least) spectacle of a city trying to go about its business in a war zone:

"We turned a corner and had to stop as workers in blue coveralls hauled bricks away from a smoldering pile of debris that had slid out into the street. People going to work walked around the mess, carrying their newspapers, umbrellas, and briefcases as if it were completely normal to walk past bomb-damaged buildings. Shops across the street had OPEN FOR BUSINESS painted on wood plans nailed over shattered windows."
Young Billy, like virtually all Americans, has no experience of war on his own soil, in his cities, on his own streets. Benn's leisurely introductory chapters lay the groundwork for possible conflicts, but mainly they give the innocent protagonist a chance to take in the strangeness of his own situation, and they invite readers to do the same.

(James R. Benn was part of the "War Crimes" panel at Bouchercon 2009 in Indianapolis. Read more about Benn at his Web site.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Tower

One advantage of a book cowritten by an Irish and a Jewish author is the enhanced possibility of good Irish and Jewish humor. The concision of this novel occasionally means both in the same scene:

"`Your father and books, don't get me started.'

"As if she needed an excuse. She was Jewish, she was born started. To say they were a poor match? Man, they were the worst marriage on the block and we had some beauties there. See the street on a Saturday night, after a ballgame and the brews had been sunk? Buckets of blood and recrimination.


"Did the cops come?

"Yeah, right.

"Most of the participants were cops.

"Mick neighborhood, what'd you expect?"
I'm just halfway through this short novel, but that's enough to note that it's hard, violent and funny without, however, making light of violence. It also has much to say about friendship and loyalty and, though it has the feel of an old-time gangster story, its setting is very much of our own globalized world ("Nick discovered he had a talent for boosting cars. He made Boyle and a lot of Third World bastards happy.").

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Red, white and a bagful of noir

I bought six issues of Scalped at my local comics shop this week and was surprised and pleased when I brought my purchases to the cash register to learn that the 50 percent off sale was still on. Then, when I found three back issues of 100 Bullets in the dollar bin, the proprietor let me have them free. Net result: nine dollars for nine books of the best noir being written and drawn today.

(Of course, in my day one could buy nine comics for $1.08. Even nine DC 80-page giants would have run $2.25, but who could have dreamed of such a bounty back then?)

Writer Jason Aaron situates Scalped on a fictional Indian reservation in South Dakota, and if you think the stories offer alcoholism and despair, you're right. But they also offer struggles for power, love, sex and money and, in a brief prologue to one story, a noirish flashback to Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee. Aaron and illustrator R. M. Guéra do a fine job creating a sense of place, in other words. Highly recommended.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

"Don't hate me because I brood": Now with 60 percent fewer words!!!

Someone remarked recently that Nordic crime novels tend to feature whiny male detectives. I suggested that morose might be more accurate than whiny, and someone else added that Nordic crime fiction offers whiny female detectives, too.

Yet another observer offered the off-hand but accurate observation that a Nordic crime novel is likelier than an American one to include immigration as a major theme.

It would be a shame if anyone thought they knew what they were getting with Arnaldur Indriðason, though, just because he has that odd letter in his patronymic and because his protagonist lives alone in a cold country and broods occasionally and eats lots of lamb. He is a remarkable writer.

(Read all my posts abour Arnaldur here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Another great Brazilian noir song

Last year I nominated "Ocultei," recorded by the Brazilian singer Elizeth Cardoso, for a place among the great noir songs ever. There's something about the last verse, which runs tremulously thus (tentatively translated from the Portuguese by your humble blogkeeper):

"And my most ardent desire
May God pardon me the sin!
Is that another woman by your side
Kill you in the hour of a kiss."
If you think that looks good on your screen, you should hear Elizeth sing it, her voice melting from dreamy resignation to trembling passion, jealousy and anger.

This week, I finally paid attention to my second-favorite song on the album, "Só Voce, Mais Nada," which I think means "Only You; Nothing Else." Translating even more shakily than before, I hear the first verse as:

"Only you, nothing else
In the silence of the night
The emptiness of the street
When nothing happens
Only you go on."
The first song covers obsession and doom. The second has atmosphere down, I'd say.

What new noir songs have you heard since last year's list? And what makes noir noir for you?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Long-lost James Ellroy story found ...

... in an anthology I'd had for some time without knowing the Ellroy tale, "Gravy Train," was in it. The book was in the bathroom, too, just like that first edition of Origin of Species.

Back in the fall, I was surprised how funny Ellroy was in print and in person. Had I read "Gravy Train" at the time, the humor would not have surprised me.

The story, published in Armchair Detective in 1990, is over the top, a full-out spoof of '40s and '50s hard-boiled P.I. stories. It's full of lines like "My trigger finger itched to dispense .45 caliber justice" and "I ran up and bashed his face in with the butt of my roscoe." There are also blackmail, a shady lawyer, and an inheritance scam.

Oh, yeah: There's hot girl-girl sex (it's relevant to the plot), an allusion to Ellroy's own reputed sordid past, and the protagonist falls in love with a dog. And, unlike most stories by the authors whose chains Ellroy yanks here, this one has a happy ending.

"Basko attacked; the schmucks ran for their car; one of them whipped out a cylindrical object and held it out to the hot pursuing hound. A streetlamp illuminated the offering: a bucket of Kentuck Colonel ribs.

"Basko hit the bucket and started snouting: I yelled "`No!' ... "
© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

That's Baron de Montesquieu to yuieu

I found a nice prediction in the Persian Letters, Montesquieu's epistolary narrative/satire of a Persian who journeys to the exotic land of France.

Usbek, having stopped in Smyrna, writes to his friend of the corruption and decadence of the Ottoman Empire: "There you have it, my dear Rustan, a correct idea of this empire, which will be the scene of some conqueror's triumphs in less than 200 years." (Italics mine, not Montesquieu's.)

The Persian Letters appeared in 1721; the letter quoted above is dated 1711 in the book. Historians date the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire to 1908, and the empire fell in 1922. Montesquieu had a keen mind or perhaps good intelligence (or "intel," as today's jargon-worshiping newspapers would have it).

Later, bound for Marseilles and urgently eyeing Paris, Usbek writes to another friend that "Travelers always seek out the big cities, as they are a country common to all foreigners." As yesterday, so today, except for those travelers who always forgo the big cities to seek out the all-inclusive resorts.

(Read the Persian Letters free here. The Ottoman prediction is in Letter 19, the observation about cities in Letter 23.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Camilleri's Italian covers

My reading of and about Andrea Camilleri has led me to a Web site that offers a gallery of his Italian covers and links to tantalizing summaries of books not yet translated into English.

Camilleri's eleventh novel about Inspector Salvo Montalbano has just been published in English as The Wings of the Sphinx; the site offers covers and summaries of fourteen novels plus two collections of Montalbano stories, an omnibus edition and a non-Montalbano book.

One of the novels takes the investigation into Montalbano's beloved Mediterranean, "the most marine of Montalbano's investigations," according to Camilleri.

A collection of long stories, La prima indagine de Montalbano (Montalbano's First Investigation), takes the reader to a time when "Montalbano is 35 years old, an adult but still professionally naive and not so astute ..."

Now, there's something for Camilleri's readers to look forward to.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The season: How do you give away books?

I love my readers; I steal some of my best ideas from them. The erudite Elisabeth has reminded me of a discussion some time back about the charms of passing books on to others once one has read them. So here's what I'll do:

Be one of the first five Detectives Beyond Borders readers to take a book you've read and send it to someone else, and I'll send you a book. Be honest, now; I'll have to take your word for it. The only condition is that you can't wipe toast crumbs from your face and pass the book to a spouse or child over the breakfast table. The book has to go to someone outside your household, whether across town, across country, or across the world.

I'll start the ball rolling by sending copies of Sandra Ruttan's two most recent books, Lullaby for the Nameless and The Frailty of Flesh, one to ccqdesigns and one to that old tooth-puller, Uriah Robinson, for their answers to the question I posed last week in Chasing the three-headed protagonist.

Write to me at detectivesbeyondborders (at) earthlink (dot) net with instructions on where to send the books.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Monday, December 07, 2009

Free crime for Christmas

If you're wracked by the recession or strapped by Christmas giving, here are four links that could keep you reading for a while and all for the right price: free.

They are Project Gutenberg's Crime Fiction, Mystery Fiction, Detective Fiction and Crime Nonfiction Bookshelves, and they offer free versions of classics to read or download by people like E.W. Hornung, creator of Raffles; Maurice Leblanc (Arsene Lupin), Poe, Dickens, John Buchan, E.C. Bentley, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary Roberts Rinehart, G.K. Chesterton, Baroness Orczy (The Old Man In the Corner, The Scarlet Pimpernel), Joseph Conrad, Wilkie Collins, and many more, including some guy named Dostoyesvsky.

Season's greetings to all, and thanks to the good people at Project Gutenberg.

Now, it's your turn: What good no-cost gifts can you think of for the crime-fiction fan on your list?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Sunday, December 06, 2009

Just call me Daddy War Books

Readers responded in good number to Friday's post about wartime crime fiction. One suggested I post a list of the nominated books and authors, and here it is:

Alan Furst
John Lawton
— Andrew Taylor's
Lydmouth series
David Downing, Silesian Station and Zoo Station
Jo Walton: Farthing, Ha'penny, and Half a Crown
Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther novels
Jacqueline Winspear
Rebecca Pawel's Carlos Tejeda series (suggested by Rebecca Pool in response to a post about Rebecca Cantrell)
City of Gold by
Len Deighton
Marshall Browne, The Eye of the Abyss and The Iron Heart
Charles McCarry

Some readers noted that their suggestions would usually be considered espionage novels or thrillers, but they offered good arguments for including them on a crime reader's list. I made the post to increase my own TBR list and to give a shout-out to good books I might (might!) not get around to reading right away. You helped me do both. Thanks, gentle readers.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Saturday, December 05, 2009

Norbert Davis' hard-boiled slapstick

I like to stick to my topic — crime fiction from outside the United States — so I was apprehensive about this post's subject, an American story by an American author. But the story appeared seventy-two years ago and, as Leslie P. Hartley reminded us, the past is a foreign country. Besides, the story is short, it's funny in some interesting ways, and you can read it free here.

Norbert Davis wrote novels with a dog as co-protagonist. He wrote stories set largely in a restaurant, and he created characters named Bail Bond Dodd and J.P. Jones (the J.P. stands for "Just Plain." That's the man's name — Just Plain Jones.) Yet despite those slapstick touches, and plots, dialogue and action to match, the stories work as hard-boiled tales. Little touches in some of the stories may even reflect the grimness of the Great Depression; he published his first stories in the early 1930s.

Here's the opening sentence of "Something for the Sweeper":
"Jones limped slowly along, his rubbers making an irregular squeak-squish sound on the wet cement of the sidewalk."
Is that slapstick (squish-squish), or is it gritty urban realism? In Davis, it's both. When you get to the end of this tale of murder and deception, you'll find the story has come full circle.

Find more free Norbert Davis online here, including his three man-and-dog novels featuring Doan and Carstairs, the former a deceptively harmless-seeming detecive, the latter a Great Dane Doan won in a card game. And read more about Davis at the Thrilling Detective Web site.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Friday, December 04, 2009

Read On ... Rebecca Cantrell and wartime crime novels

Three years ago I wrote about an efficient little reference book called The Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide to Crime Fiction. That book expanded its range through such clever devices as entries on themes and a handy "Read On ... " addendum to many author entries that referred readers to similar books and writers. This made the book a guide to many more authors than the 220 who received entries of their own.

I thought of the book today when I received Rebecca Cantrell's A Trace of Smoke in the mail. I heard Cantrell on the War Crimes panel at Bouchercon 2009 in Indianapolis, and I liked what she had to say about her book, a tale of death, intrigue and secrets in interwar Berlin. Among her fellow panelists, James R. Benn and Charles Todd also set novels in that jolly time between the start of World War I and the end of World War II.

I'll read A Trace of Smoke when I get some deadlines out of the way, and Benn is also in my TBR pile, along with Olen Steinhauer, whose novels are set amid the Cold War. I'll want to read more John Lawton, whose Second Violin chronicles inglorious episodes in English history before Word War II, as well as Charles Todd.

And then there's ... Well, here is where you come in. Help me build a "Read On ... " list of current crime novels set in Europe between 1914 and the early 1960s, Europe in World Wars and Cold Wars. What are your favorite crime stories set in these times and places? Why do you like them? What is the appeal of such books?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Chasing the three-headed protagonist: Your chance to win a book

Posting may be sketchy for the next couple of weeks thanks to a pair of looming deadlines. Fortunately, a thoughtful author has stepped in to help.

Sandra Ruttan's new novel, Lullaby for the Namless, like its predecessors, The Frailty of Flesh and What Burns Within, has three police-officer protagonists: Nolan, Hart and Tain. Ruttan recognizes the increased dramatic possibilities multiple protagonists offer, and she says she's surprised that publishers are not more open to this format. We may never have another Ed McBain, she laments.

Is Ruttan right? Is there a prejudice against books with three (or more) lead characters? If so, why? What are your favorite such stories?
Best answer wins a copy of Lullaby for the Nameless signed by the author. And stay tuned for more Ruttan book competitions.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

How series change over time: Montalbano and performance

Conversation during and after yesterday's Sandra Ruttan-Jeff VanderMeer reading in Baltimore turned to the joys and frustrations of writing a crime-fiction series and the changes authors make from book to book. Ruttan's new novel, Lullaby for the Nameless, jumps back and forth between plot lines in the present and in the past. And VanderMeer makes changes in narrative form and even, to some extent, in genre from City of Saints and Madmen to Shriek: An Afterword to his new novel, Finch.

Talk of these radical formal and stylistic changes within a series struck me all the more because of the subtle changes within the series I'm currently reading, Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano novels. Early in the series, Camilleri exploited his theater background for metaphors and similes. This tendency is especially notable in Excursion to Tindari, the fifth book, published in 2000 and translated into English five years later.

That novel includes an admonition to "Calm down, you look like a character in a puppet theatre." A few pages later, "As if following a script, Montalbano first wrung his hands ... " and, my favorite of the bunch: "`The stakes are extremely high.' He felt disgusted by the words coming out of his mouth. ... He wondered how much longer he could keep up the charade."

Elsewhere, Montalbano impersonates Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot and, as if to underline the motifs of performance, toward the end of the novel Montalbano reflects on the town of Tindari, destination of the couple whose murder triggers the story: "What Montalbano remembered of Tindari was the small mysterious Greek theater." And that's not Camilleri's only invocation of Athenian drama. Several novels in the series feature family dynamics unmistakably redolent of Greek plays and epics.

That's why there's a decided edge of humorous introspection to an exchange in August Heat (Italian publication 2006/English translation 2009) between Montalbano and his junior colleague Fazio as the two speculate over the case of man whose stepson has been found dead"

Montalbano: "In short, you don't see Speciale as a
murderer?"

Fazio: "No way."

M: "But you know, in Greek tragedy—"

F: "We're in Vigàta, Chief, not Greece."

M: "Tell me the truth: Do you like the story or don't you?"

F: "It seems okay for TV."
(Click here for more on how series change over time.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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