Thursday, April 26, 2012

Charlie Stella's polemical porno pizzazz and a handful of Holt

I've finished Johnny Porno by Charlie Stella and started 1222 by Anne Holt, the latter because it's up for a best-novel Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America on Thursday night, and the former because no one in crime fiction is more fun to read than Charlie Stella.

With Stella the fun starts before the novels proper do; how can you not smile at an author's note that addresses readers as amici (friends)? The note that follows is a zesty polemic on the historical moment in which the novel is set: 1973, after a New York judge ruled Deep Throat obscene.
"As films go," Stella writes, "one has to acknowledge Deep Throat was nothing more than a campy, cheaply made porno that showcased the `sexual talent' of a young woman stage-named Linda Lovelace. With a soundtrack comprised of silly parodies and jingles and a plot born of male fantasy, the movie might well have come and gone without the slightest notice had the government ignored it. Instead, political directives from the White House launching a moral crusade that had much more to do with distracting the public from the war in Southeast Asia and an ever growing Watergate scandal guaranteed the film’s iconic success. What it also did was provide organized crime with a new way to make a fast buck. It is fittingly ironic that the name given to the secret informant (FBI agent William Mark Felt) who provided information that would eventually take down the Nixon White House itself shared the name of the film."
That polemical thread runs judiciously through the novel that follows, adding social and historical oomph to Stella's cast of hard-working guys, reluctant gangsters, cops, bookies, wives, girlfriends, and families, almost all of whom the author means us to view with a sympathetic eye.
***
1222 is the first novel of Holt's that I've read (she's published about sixteen), and I'm impressed because she has given herself the challenge of taking a well-worn crime-story set-up (group of people trapped by a snowstorm in an isolated hotel; one of them is found dead) and making it fresh. She has succeeded so far, in part by making the narrator/protagonist not especially likable, in part by doling out information about her characters only gradually.

1222 is one of at least six novels by a non-American author up for an Edgar (Holt is from Norway) and, based on what I've read of it so far, I won't complain if it wins.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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8 Comments:

Blogger Howard Sherman said...

1222 sounds very interesting. I'm curious to see that new slant on a tired - yet trusty -- premise.

April 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment, and welcome. After I'd put up the post, I read a reference to 1222 as a tribute to or update of Miss Marple. This makes sense to me. In any case, though the protagonist has lost some of her hard edge in the chapters I;ve read since I made the post, I'm still impressed with the book.

I'm curious now about whether she uses a similar Christie-like template in previous book in the series.

April 26, 2012  
Blogger Dana King said...

Charlie Stella has a knack for humanizing his characters, even the guys you don't like. JOHNNY PORNO is a good read, and gives a nice peek into what goes on at the capillary level of mob cash flow.

April 26, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

...a well-worn crime-story set-up (group of people trapped by a snowstorm in an isolated hotel; one of them is found dead) and making it fresh. She has succeeded so far, in part by making the narrator/protagonist not especially likable, in part by doling out information about her characters only gradually.

Hmm... Sounds suspiciously like Margaret Millar's 1944 novel, Fire Will Freeze. Millar's influence is apparently even wider than I'd heard.

April 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana: Johnny Porno contains two characters less likeable than any I'd come across in the four previous novels of his that I'd read (though one of them gets a bit of sympathy toward novel's end). I have to think this was deliberate, maybe an effort on his part to do something he had not done before.

I think Charlie Stella has always written about the retail, local aspects of mob activity. I like the way maintains that focus even when writing about such a large scale cultural, criminal, and political phenomenon as Deep Throat.

April 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth: If you'd posted that comment yesterday, I could have asked Anne Holt about it this evening. She was at the Edgars, though her novel did not win.

I finished the book on the train back from New York, and it includes at least two explicit Agatha Christie references. I've never read Margaret Millar, so any nods in her direction would have escaped me.

The explicit use of a hoary narrative framework reminded a bit of what Michael Dibdin did in Cosi Fan Tutti.

April 27, 2012  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

It was good, works for me as a reader. This book is nowhere close to being a run-of-the-mill Agatha Christie copycat. No.

It's done very originally and the main character is certainly like none created by Christie.

I definitely am looking for more books in this series.

April 29, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, 1222 did get me interested both in reading more Holt and reading a bit of Christie. I was surprised when John Connolly and Declan Hughes rated Christie so highly in their "Ten crime novels to read before you die" presentation. If authors like that like her, I figure there must be more to her than the old-fogey countryhouse cliche.

April 30, 2012  

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