Saturday, June 30, 2012

River of Shadows

Lots of crime novels build their tension on deeds from the past that spark guilt and recrimination in the present. Arnaldur Indriðason's books, for example, regularly belch up long-buried corpses to trouble the morose Inspector Erlendur.

One way such books avoid melting into melodramtic schmaltz is to create a compelling narrative present on which the threatening past can intrude. Pierre Magnan's The Murdered House did such a good job of this that he was forced to bring its vanished protagonist back in a sequel called Beyond the Grave.

Valerio Varesi's 2010 novel River of Shadows offers a world as self-contained as Magnan's French villages. Here the world is that of the Po River and the boatmen and others whose lives depend on it. The mystery heightens with the rising river and begins to resolve itself with the subsequent winter freeze and receding flood waters, and if that sounds like a bit much, it got me in tune with the river's slow rhythms — the boatmen in riverside bars listening to radio communications about the rising water, the creak of barges rising and bumping against the docks, the crackle of ice on a frozen floodplain.

The novel contains at least one timely and satisfying red herring, but to preserve the mystery and, at the same time, offer a taste of the novel's pace and atmosphere, I'll leave you with two brief excerpts:
"I would even have defended them if they had been under threat from anyone else. Maybe that's a kind of love, like the love you have for rabbits that you tend and look after with the sole intention of having them for dinner once they have been fattened up."
"`In an age of prosperity, everyone hates everyone else because egotism springs up everywhere ... Mark my words, poverty will return and people will seek unity again, but it'll have nothing to do with me. ...'

"Soneri felt as though he was back at the debates he had listened to as a student. There were words he had heard declaimed thousands of times at assemblies in occupied sports halls and cinemas, and now they left him with a bitter savour of nostalgia and passion spent amidst the glittering well-being of today. It seemed as though a century of history had gone by, but all that had passed was the brief period separating youth from the present."
Joseph Farrell translated the novel, titled Il fiume delle nebbie in Italian. The translation was shortlisted for the Crime Writers' Association International Dagger award for 2011. Varesi's novel The Dark Valley, with the same translator, is also a finalist for the 2012 Dagger.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Win a shelf of New Zealand crime fiction

Not everything from New Zealand is fuzzy on the outside; green, sweet, and delicious on the inside. Readers worldwide can win a set of seven New Zealand crime novels, the titles shortlisted for the titles shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award. The titles are:
COLLECTING COOPER by Paul Cleave (Simon & Schuster)
LUTHER: THE CALLING by Neil Cross (Simon & Schuster)
FURT BENT FROM ALDAHEIT by Jack Eden (Pear Jam Books)
TRACES OF RED by Paddy Richardson (Penguin)
BY ANY MEANS by Ben Sanders (HarperCollins)
BOUND by Vanda Symon (Penguin)
THE CATASTROPHE by Ian Wedde (Victoria University Press)
Quoth the king of Kiwi crime fiction, Craig Sisterson:
"Anyone can enter the prize draw simply by emailing a photo of themselves reading any New Zealand crime, mystery, or thriller title - contemporary or from days gone by - to ngaiomarshaward (at) gmail (dot) com. 
The book in your picture doesn't have to be set in New Zealand, as long as the author is associated with New Zealand (lives in New Zealand, was born or grew up in New Zealand, etc). So whether it's a well-loved copy of a Ngaio Marsh, Elizabeth Messenger, Laurie Mantell, Michael Wall, or Paul Thomas novel that's been sitting on your bookshelf for years, or a brand new New Zealand crime novel you've recently picked up from a bookstore or library, grab your camera, take a smiling photo of yourself with the book, and send it to ngaiomarshaward (at) gmail (dot) com. If you need some inspiration when it comes to finding an eligible, mystery, or thriller novel to read and photograph, check out this list of more than 80 authors and more than 250 titles here."
I like very much that the contest offers the chance to learn something and not just scarf up a prize. So get educated and enter today!

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Giorgio Scerbanenco, dark maestro of Italian noir

I can't quite figure out whom Giorgio Scerbanenco reminds me of most. He can be as dark as Leonardo Sciascia, as deadpan realistic as Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, as probing in his observation of people as Simenon, as humane as Camilleri, as noir as Manchette, as hope-against-hopeful as David Goodis, but with a dark, dark humor all his own.

In short, the first-ever English translation of his 1966 novel A Private Venus (Venere Privata) has to be the year's biggest event yet for readers of translated crime fiction, and I hope its status as a new book in English makes it eligible for the big crime-fiction awards in the U.S. and U.K. next year.

Here's a passage that sums up the novel's intriguing mix of involvement, alienation, social observation and wry, dark self-awareness:

"Everything was going wrong, the only thing that worked was the air conditioning in those two rooms in the Hotel Cavour, cool without being damp and without smelling odd; everything was going badly wrong in a way that the confident, efficient Milanese who passed, sweating, along the Via Fatebenefratelli or through the Piazza Cavour couldn't begin to imagine, even though they read stories like this every day in the Corriere. For them, these stories belonged to a fourth dimension, devised by an Einstein of crime, who was even more incomprehensible than the Einstein of physics. What was real was going to the tobacconist to buy filter cigarettes, so that they didn't feel so bad about smoking ... "
Not much is available about Scerbanenco in English.  This edition of A Private Venus, from Hersilia Press, includes a short autobiography called "I, Vladimir Scerbanenko." This outline of Italian crime fiction includes a few remarks. If you read Italian, Wikipedia offers a detailed summary of the novel. The Italian Mysteries Website offers a brief discussion of Duca and the Milan Murders, a 1970 translation of Traditori di tutti, second of Scerbanenco's four novels about the defrocked Milan physician Duca Lamberti. (A Private Venus is the first.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Monday, June 25, 2012

Giorgio Scerbanenco, the father of Italian noir — in English

How highly does Italian crime fiction regard Giorgio Scerbanenco? The Scerbanenco Prize honors the year’s best Italian crime novel. Andrea Camilleri’s Track of Sand has Salvo Montalbano reading a novel by Scerbanenco. And here’s what the Camilleri Fan Club thinks: “Scerbanenco is considered the master, the father, of Italian noir. A great Master, with a capital M.”

So the release of a Scerbanenco novel in English is a not just an event, but exceedingly rare and welcome. A Private Venus (Venera Privata), the 1966 novel that introduced the defrocked physician Duca Lamberti, is just the second of the series to be translated into English and the first in more than forty years.

What can readers expect? An introduction says that in the two decades after World War II, Scerbanenco was more prolific than Georges Simenon, and the mention of Simenon strikes a chord. The novel’s first ninety or so pages read like a Maigret novel might if the narration examined Maigret’s psyche as thoroughly as it did that of Maigret’s quary – or if David Goodis wrote a police procedural. And that’s good.

That psychological dissection is more to the fore so far than are the vivid evocations of Milan that those who read Scerbanenco in Italian often cite. The opening of Chapter Four, though, gives a tantalizing hint: “Even in Milan, the sun rises every now and then.” And a cover blurb from Carlo Lucarelli says that Scerbanenco wrote “Some of the hardest and darkest pages ever written in a novel.”

A thousand thanks to Hersilia Press for publishing the book, translated fluently into English by Detectives Beyond Borders friend Howard Curtis. I hope the house, which looks to be making much fine Italian crime writing available to readers of English, has plans for more Scerbanenco.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, June 23, 2012

"Such a good pal that you give me the blues"

What did I mean when I wrote that David Goodis knew how to create a mood? How about this:
"`Don't get me wrong. I'm not sore. You're a nice guy. But I don't want to listen to you any more. I don't want to see you any more.'

"`Don't leave. I hardly ever get to talk to anybody. Let me buy you a drink. I promise to keep my big mouth shut.'

"`Sorry,' Vanning said. `Thanks a lot, but you're such a good pal that you give me the blues.'"
That passage stood out from any number of more overtly heartstring-tugging depictions of loneliness in Goodis' 1947 novel Nightfall for its humor. Readers of this blog will know that I like humor in crime writing especially when it appears at unexpected moments. This passage will get a man laughing into the bottom of his gin glass.
The Boston Phoenix's assertion to the contrary, all five novels included in the Library of America's new Goodis collection, where I read Nightfall, did not appear as paperback originals. Dark Passage and Nightfall appeared first in hardcover editions issued by Julian Messner. This information is available in the notes to the LofA volume.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Friday, June 22, 2012

In a Goodis mood

I have all kinds of exciting new crime fiction lined up to read and talk about, from people like Adrian McKinty, Mark Pryor, Paul Charles,  Paul O'Brien, Andrea Camilleri, Wolf Haas, and others.

But somehow the mood seems right for David Goodis. Maybe it's the chaotic state of my newsroom, stripped of office furniture, a meager staff banging away at keyboards while others scavenge for bargains in books, mugs, and leftover promotional T-shirts. Only now our move to  a new building has been postponed a week or two, so we're all feeling a bit like stunned post-apocalyptic bottom feeders.

Anyhow, Goodis' tales of loneliness and isolation seem especially appropriate, though the novel I'm reading now, Nightfall, is set in Manhattan, rather than in Goodis' native Philadelphia, where I am typing these words.

What crime writers seem especially suited to a given mood? Do you ever choose the books you read based on such considerations? Which authors do you reach for? And what mood are you in when you reach for them?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A short history of crime fiction in Israel, Part 2

Last month I turned this blog over for a day to Uri Kenan, who offered a brief, eye-opening introduction to the history of crime fiction in Israel. Uri's back now to take the story from the 1980s until today, taking in along the way perhaps the only Israeli crime writer whose name many non-Israeli readers might recognize. Uri is an engineer for a Web-design company, but before that he compiled a résumé perfect for crime writing: "market research, journalism, documentary film production, private investigation (a lot more boring than it sounds), cooking, and managing a bar." He lives in Jaffa with his girlfriend and their two children, and he writes when he can.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012
By Uri Kenan
In the fifty years between the first appearance of detective fiction in Hebrew and its breakthrough into the mainstream of Israeli culture during the eighties, Israeli society had changed in ways that rendered it unrecognizable. Wars, waves of immigration, and ideological and generational shifts have shaped a society that is in constant conflict both internally and externally.
Mirroring this conflict, every decade since the sixties has seen the appearance of a literary wave trying to differentiate itself from previous ones and reshape Hebrew literature. In this way the old taboos about writing genre fiction were eventually viewed as outdated. This opened the door for change in attitude toward detective fiction, but it would take more than that. The true key to the critical and commercial success was to make the fractured nature of Israeli society the star.
Outside looking in
Due to their many successes in various wars and conflicts, the Israeli secret services, the Mossad and Shabak  (General Security Service), have achieved international renown. It shouldn’t be a surprise, therefore, that in early attempts at Israeli detective and suspense fiction writers tried to cash in on these “brand names.” The first stories centering on Mossad agents had appeared during the seventies, but these were pulps and were written under pseudonyms.
In the early eighties Amnon Dankner, who wrote the political thriller Al Tiru Banasi (Don’t Shoot the President) was the first writer to publish Israeli suspense fiction under his own name. He was soon followed by Amnon Jackont with the spy novel Pesek Z’man (Translated as Borrowed Time), and the way was paved for scores of spy thrillers focusing on the Israeli intelligence community. None of these, however, has achieved the commercial and critical success of the Michael Ohayon and Lizzy Badihi novels, by Batya Gur and Shulamit Lapid respectively.
Saturday Morning Murder, which appeared in 1988 was Batya Gur’s first novel and it introduced her most enduring creation: Chief Superintendent Michael Ohayon. Ohayon, a quiet, sensitive man who seems more intellectual than policeman, would traverse through the course of six novels into one closed community after another, interpreting their cultural norms and taboos on the way to solving the case.

Ranging from the psychiatric community and the academia to the kibbutz, from the world of classical musicians to the ethnic tension in a Jerusalem neighborhood and the backstage of a television channel, Gur’s subjects were communities trying to maintain their identities against outside forces while serving as stages for internal struggles. As it matured, Gur’s work became increasingly political. Her resentment towards Israeli policies in the occupied territories as well as her frustration with discrimination in Israeli society featured more and more prominently. Her last novel,
Murder in Jerusalem, was a critique of Zionism and Israel society after the crash of the peace process in 2000. Batya Gur died in 2005, aged 57.

Shulamit Lapid was already an established writer when her first Lizi Badihi novel appeared. Contrary to a considerable amount of Israeli literature and film, which centers on Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, Lapid used the city of Beersheba in the Negev desert as the setting for her novels.

Badihi, a reporter for a local newspaper (a trend introduced to Israel in the 80s), was a lanky, clumsy bachelorette with a nose for a story and a natural dogged curiosity that would not back down from threats. Beersheba, normally sleepy town, appears in the Badihi novels as a battleground for passion, greed and revenge. In describing this microcosm, where everyone knows everyone else, Lapid makes use of anthropological insights, humor and even surrealism. From the ongoing rivalry of Badihi with her two police detective brothers in law to her mother’s constant attempts to get her married, from the hippies in of the remote Negev villages to the powerful bureaucrats of Beersheba’s elite Lapid’s novels are never short of color.
Ohayon and Badihi have much in common. Both are perpetual outsiders in their communities, unable to find their proper place except when busy investigating. Echoing one of the most recurrent sources of tension of Israeli society, both protagonists are Sephardic Jews created by Ashkenazi writers. In that sense they are not only tools for exploring the surrounding communities but themselves the subjects of investigations by the writers.
Gur and Lapid are the first names in Israeli crime fiction but far from the only ones. Yair Lapid, the son of Shulamit Lapid and an established Israeli publicist in his own right, has also published several detective novels; his Josh Shirman detective series is the most faithful attempt so far to bring Raymond Chandler’s style to an Israeli setting. Adiva Geffen has written suspense novels that combine detective mysteries with elements of romance. It’s also more common, these days, to encounter Israeli writers and poets who publish one-off attempts at detective fiction.
Making up for lost time
In Israel, the late eighties were filled with a spirit of change, not merely in literature but throughout Israeli culture. Post-Zionism, the critical analysis of Zionist ideology and practice, became more and more prevalent in academic circles. The most outspoken proponents of this view belonged to a group labeled “The New Historians” who challenged almost every aspect of Zionist historical narrative sparking a heated, emotional debate. This new awareness of the past led to a new appraisal of the past as subject for genre fiction. 
The first historical whodunit to appear in Hebrew was Adonis, by the poet and writer Arieh Sivan. The novel, published in 1991, takes place sixty years earlier, around the time of David Tidhar and “Sifriyat Habalsah (Detective Series),” has become a cult favorite in recent years, but only after several years of going virtually unnoticed.
Towards the end of that decade, several more novels focusing on the period of the British Mandate in Palestine appeared. Boaz Apelbaum, who had been former Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ chief of staff, wrote under the heading of the nostalgic detective. A few years later, Ram Oren, one of Israel’s most popular suspense authors, published several historical novels set around the same time period.
In 2002, Amnon Dankner published The Boneless, a mystery novel that jumps from late-nineteenth-century Paris, where the idea of Zionism was first taking shape, to twenty-first-century Jerusalem, where “new” and “old” historians are bickering over the results of this idea. A series of murders links the eras and ties the story together.
Detective, crime and suspense fiction has gone from hidden, guilty pleasure to legitimate voice in popular Israeli fiction. It has done so by the processes most outcast cultural forms go through when breaking into the mainstream: tapping into the social and cultural zeitgeist and reflecting it in new and original ways. That is not much of a mystery. What the success of crime and suspense fiction says about Israeli culture and society is, arguably, more revealing.
Despite the image it projects, both to the world and inward, Israeli culture and society is far from uniform. It is, rather, a continuous battleground for competing narratives. In the early days of Israel this competition could be relegated to a minor role because of the demands of the Israeli melting-pot project and the threat posed by the outside Arab world. Over time the narratives became more focused and sought for a place at center stage.  
The more overt this struggle has become, the more traction and legitimacy detective fiction has gathered. It is has given readers peeks at the various Israeli subgroups and, in some cases, a voice to those less often heard. The trend of historical detective fiction can be viewed as a nostalgic reaction, a yearning for “simpler days” when everyone knew his or her place, or else as a genuine attempt to reevaluate the past, in light of current ambiguities.

(In writing this article I relied upon the many written eulogies to Batya Gur as well as several of her interviews. I have also relied on Interviews reviews and biographical Information about Shulamit Lapid, Amnon Jackont, Amnon Dankner, Arieh Sivan, Boaz Aplebaum and Ram Oren as well as ,off course, their novels. As with the first post I would also like to thank Nir Yaniv and Lior Oryan for their valuable input.)
(Read Part 1 of A Short History of Crime Fiction in Israel.)

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

At Swim-Two-Birds, or Anything you can do, I can do meta

(First edition of At Swim-Two-Birds,
London, Longman's Green & Co., 1939)
The only thing that makes me blush about reading meta-fiction is that phrases like "modes of fictional discourse" spring unbidden to my lips.

The first third or so of Flann O'Brien's 1939 novel At Swim-Two-Birds (that's how far into the book I am) reads at time like solemn myth; at times like boastful, parodic epic; at times like naturalistic narrative; and at times like just plain fun. One of my favorite examples of the latter:
"`I'm thirsty,' he said. `I have sevenpence. Therefore I buy a pint.'

"I immediately recognized this as an intimation that I should pay for my own porter.

"`The conclusion of your syllogism,' I said lightly, `is fallacious, being based on licensed premises.'"
But what I really like are the bits that call amusing attention to their own modes of fic— to their own amusing ways of saying stuff:
"My talk had been forced, couched in the accent of the lower or working classes."
This can wake the reader up and make him notice, with a smile, even the most routine acts:
"In a moment he was gone, this time without return. Brinsley, a shadow by the window, performed perfunctorily the movements of a mime, making at the same time a pious ejaculation.

"Nature of mime and ejaculation: Removal of sweat from brow; holy God."
If you don't think self-reference can be funny and lovely at the same time, try the following:
"Purpose of walk: Discovery and embracing of virgins.

"We attained nothing on our walk that was relevant to the purpose thereof but we filled up the loneliness of our souls with the music of our two voices, dog-racing, betting and offences against chastity being the several subjects of our discourse. We walked many miles together on other nights on similar missions-following matrons, accosting strangers, representing to married ladies that we were their friends, and gratuitously molesting members of the public. One night we were followed in our turn by a member of the police force attired in civilian clothing. On the advice of Kelly we hid ourselves in the interior of a church until he had gone. I found that the walking was beneficial to my health."
Now, I'll go resume my reading. You should do the same.
Declan Burke offers more recent evidence that meta-fiction can be fun. His novel Absolute Zero Cool was a deserving winner of the Goldsboro Last Laugh Award for comic crime fiction at Crimefest 2012 in Bristol last month. "Author and character together and individually ponder and confront the very biggest moral and ethical questions in ways occasionally touching and always hugely entertaining," I wrote about the book.

That still seems about right,

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

What's your favorite Washington and/or political crime novel?

It's a strange land, where normal rules don't apply, where shifting tribal loyalties make life dangerous for the unwary, where even the most careful and idealistic visitors may soon get sucked into the intrigue and become indistinguishable from those whom they had previously affected to deplore.

It's Washington, D.C., and it's the setting for Ross Thomas's 1967 international thriller Cast a Yellow Shadow. Less overtly a satire of politics than the two Thomas novels I'd read previously (The Seersucker Whipsaw and The Fools in Town Are on Our Side), the book is nonetheless full of snippets of dialogue and nuggets of description evocative of their place and time in politics:
“The call came while I was trying to persuade a lameduck Congressman to settle his tab before he burned his American Express card. The tab was $18.35 and the Congressman was drunk and had already made a pyre of the cards he held from Carte Blanche, Standard Oil, and the Diner’s Club. He had used a lot of matches as he sat there at the bar drinking Scotch and burning the cards in an ashtray. `Two votes a precinct,' he said for the dozenth time. `Just two lousy votes a precinct.' “`When they make you an ambassador, you’ll need all the credit you can get,' I said as Karl handed me the phone.”
“They liked to mention that Hennings Van Zandt was eighty-two years old and that he had been one of the first whites to be born in the country that he served as Prime Minister. He had watched it evolve from a virtually unexplored territory into a private preserve of the British South Africa Company, then into a colony, and finally into a self-governing country. Now he claimed it was independent, but Britain said it wasn’t and that its declaration of independence was tantamount to treason. Because of the chromium, the U.S. had made only gruff warnings about not recognizing the declaration.”
“It sounds like a typical American intelligence plot,” he said. “Only 2,032 things could go wrong—and probably will.”
Here are some notes about Ross Thomas and a Thomas bibliography. While you browse them, ponder these questions: What is your favorite Washington crime novel? Your favorite political crime novel?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Bloomsday, or Not every Irish writer is a dead green male

Today is Bloomsday, and Mysterious Press wants you to celebrate by reading Ken Bruen. Adrian McKinty, mentioned a time or two in this space, suggests reading some contemporary Irish writing.  I will take their suggestions, run with them, and offer a few of my own. And this is just crime fiction:
Declan Burke. McKinty. Stuart Neville. Ronan Bennett. Bruen. Eoin McNamee. Kevin McCarthy. Arlene Hunt. Alex Barclay. Brian McGilloway. Garbhan Downey. Alan Glynn. David Park. Gerard Brennan. Eoin Colfer. Colin Bateman. Ruth Dudley Edwards. Gene Kerrigan. Declan Hughes. John Connolly. Gerard O'Donovan. Tana French. Ian Sansom. John McAllister. Sam Millar. Jason Johnson. Rob Kitchin.
Who'd I miss?
If you're old-school and want to celebrate Bloomsday with Joyce's text, copyright expires on Ulysses this year, so adapt, stage, and perform away!

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Friday, June 15, 2012

The Vanity Game

Andy Warhol is not often associated with the murkier precincts of the inner life, but author H.J. Hampson detects a dark side in his work:  "Screen prints of car crashes, suicides and riots, and, most memorably for me, the Tuna Fish Disaster – a screen print of a newspaper story about two women who died from botulism contracted from tinned tuna."

That dark view colors Hampson's take on Warhol's Jackie- and Marilyn-worshiping side. Her new novel, The Vanity Game, is a dark satire about a celebrity whose life turns bad, worse, and then worse than that, and not necessarily in ways one might expect.

The cheat is that the narrator/protagonist, a narcissistic, cocaine-snorting soccer star named Beaumont Alexander, is just funny and just self-aware enough to keep readers interested. Lines like the following redeem him from complete self-absorption and, whether or nor they mesh well with the narcissistic side of his character, they work as acid commentary:
"Everything you've been through?" Alexander tells his wifty singer girlfriend. "You know most people aren't that sympathetic to minor celebrities with coke habits."
For all his dope, fame, and money, Alexander is a child who, when things go bad, wants to retreat under a blanket at his mother's house. But childlike self-absorption (Alexander is always saying, "I can't get my head round it.") can be entertaining as well, as here, at the first of the novel's several deaths:
"She's tried to drag herself about two metres across the floor, leaving a thick trail in her wake. Blood everywhere. Cherry red, just like my Invicta sports car."
The novel turns considerably darker and more fantastic in its last third, with sadistic but calculating gangsters who prey on people's desire for fame. And that makes a line near the end of the book funny, pathetic, and horrifying at the same time:
"She said, `I know what happened to you, it happened to me too. I used to be on prime time TV."
The Vanity Game is published by Kyle MacRae and Allan Guthrie's Blasted Heath.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Thursday, June 14, 2012

The stupid should stay at home and other Viking wisdom

(Photos by your humble blogkeeper)
If the first bloom of this fellow's youth seems to have faded, consider:
— He has sixteen visible wounds.
— The wedge-shaped wound on his upper leg was caused by an ax.

— The cut on his jaw and the blow under his nose would have caused severe bleeding.
— Injuries to his arms suggest he defended himself against sword blows.
— He has two execution-style wounds to the back of his head.
— He probably was not wearing a helmet.
— He's almost a thousand years old.
Take all into account, and I should look so good.

The young man probably died around the time of the Battles of Fulford and Stamford Bridge or during the Norman takeover of England, which followed shortly thereafter (1066, and all that). He sleeps today at the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, a museum and educational center at the site of spectacular archaeological finds in the 1970s that laid bare the history of Viking York and that today includes both traditional and "living" displays.

I studied the rich artifacts. I rode through an impressive recreation of how Jorvikers might have lived in the eleventh century. And I bought a small copy of the Old Norse collection of wisdom poetry, the Hávamál, which I left in the York train station before I had the chance to read it.

Happily, I found another copy, and initial reading suggests the Vikings were, indeed, wise. A few examples:
"Who travels widely needs his wits about him,
The stupid should stay at home"
"Less good than belief would have it
Is mead for the sons of men:
A man knows less the more he drinks,
Becomes a befuddled fool"
I showed the second example to the bartender at my local, where I was doing my reading, and her reply proved her as practical as her Scandinavian predecessors a thousand years ago: "I think two drinks, you know more; three drinks, you know less."

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Pierre Magnan, R.I.P.

News has belatedly reached Detectives Beyond Borders that Pierre Magnan has died.

I've read three of Magnan's novels: Death in the Truffle Wood, The Messengers of Death, and The Murdered House, each an extraordinarily rich picture of rural French life. Here's a post I made about The Messengers of Death. Here's one about The Murdered House. And here's a third, about Death in the Truffle Wood.

Magnan was 89.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

How Swede it isn't: Is Italian crime fiction the next wave?

I gave up speculating about next big things a few years after the Beatles broke up, but it occurs to me that the next cosa grande in crime writing could be Italy.

Three of the six novels shortlisted for the CWA's International Dagger Award this year are Italian: The Dark Valley by Valerio Varesi (translated by Joseph Farrell), The Potter's Field by Andrea Camilleri (tr. Stephen Sartarelli), and I Will Have Vengeance by Maurizio de Giovanni (tr. Anne Milano Appel), the last of which is also up for the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger. Furthermore, the good folks at Hersilia Press, who specialize in Italian crime fiction and who publish I Will Have Vengeance, are also bringing out an English translation of A Private Venus, a 1966 novel by Giorgio Scerbanenco, the father of Italian noir. That's good news.

The De Giovanni, titled Il senso del dolore in its original version and set in Italy's Fascist period, will make an interesting comparison with some of my favorite historical crime fiction: Carlo Lucarelli's De Luca trilogy of Carte Blanche, That Damned Season and Via delle Oche. (Read the first chapter of I Will Have Vengeance at the publisher's Web site.)

Hersilia, by the way, was the wife of Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome. Hersilia are also long-spinnered bark spiders. What this says about ancient Roman women, I don't know.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Thuglit at the Bar

discovered this week that some folks had staged a Noir at the Bar in New York, adding to a list of Noir at the Bar cities that includes L.A., Austin, Toronto, St. Louis, and the place where it started, right here in Philadelphia.

The New Yorkers brought in some good people to read, including Wallace Stroby, but the big find for me was Todd Robinson, because he's the Thuglit Web zine guy. I'd never read Thuglit even though it published authors like Stuart Neville and Hilary Davidson. But I'm a fan now, based on "Rags to Riches" by Joe Clifford and "Five Kilos" by Mike Wilkerson, both in Issue #38, and I've bought Robinson's own collection of stories, Dirty Words, plus Blood, Guts, and Whiskey (Thuglit Presents), a collection stories, most of which appeared first in the Web zine.

The blog post where I learned about the New York event properly credits Jed Ayres and Scott Phillips for what they've done with Noir at the Bar in St. Louis. But Ayres and Phillips, those generous gents, know how to acknowledge their inspirations.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Joseph Conrad on war

Joseph Conrad has pulled me back from the brink of crime again, this time with his thoughts on the Russo-Japanese War:
"(T)he war in the Far East has been made known to us, so far, in a grey reflection of its terrible and monotonous phases of pain, death, sickness; a reflection seen in the perspective of thousands of miles, in the dim atmosphere of official reticence, through the veil of inadequate words. Inadequate, I say, because what had to be reproduced is beyond the common experience of war, and our imagination, luckily for our peace of mind, has remained a slumbering faculty, notwithstanding the din of humanitarian talk and the real progress of humanitarian ideas. Direct vision of the fact, or the stimulus of a great art, can alone make it turn and open its eyes heavy with blessed sleep; and even there, as against the testimony of the senses and the stirring up of emotion, that saving callousness which reconciles us to the conditions of our existence, will assert itself under the guise of assent to fatal necessity, or in the enthusiasm of a purely æsthetic admiration of the rendering. In this age of knowledge our sympathetic imagination, to which alone we can look for the ultimate triumph of concord and justice, remains strangely impervious to information, however correctly and even picturesquely conveyed."
— Joseph Conrad, “Autocracy and War” (1905)
The highlighted portion, especially, made me think of a tendency toward especially graphic violence in some crime writing in recent years, and of the justification of some boosters that "that sort of thing really happens."

What does Conrad have to say to Stieg Larsson lovers (and haters)? To we readers of crime fiction, almost all of which concerns an event (death) that can never be adequately comprehended? About the limits of the aesthetic imagination?

Conrad talks about "the stimulus of a great art." What's the difference between great art and voyeuristic exploitation? And do we want fiction to awaken our "slumbering" imagination?

(Read "Autocracy and War" online. )

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, June 09, 2012

Joseph Conrad on the Titanic

I found this purely by accident while browsing last night. Conrad thought a fair amount about the sea, and his thoughts on it and other interesting subjects may be more pertinent this year than ever:
“It is with a certain bitterness that one must admit to oneself that the late S. S. Titanic had a `good press.' It is perhaps because I have no great practice of daily newspapers (I have never seen so many of them together lying about my room) that the white spaces and the big lettering of the headlines have an incongruous festive air to my eyes, a disagreeable effect of a feverish exploitation of a sensational God-send. And if ever a loss at sea fell under the definition in the terms of a bill of lading, of Act of God, this one does, in its magnitude, suddenness and severity; and in the chastening influence it should have on the self-confidence of mankind.
Joseph Conrad, “Some Reflections on the Loss of the Titanic” (1912)
Much in the 100-year-old essay may induce shivers or smiles of recognition today, Conrad's reflections on the fatuous ignorance of senators, for example, or on naive fascination with and faith in bigness. But perhaps none cuts more deeply than this:
“In reading the reports, the first reflection which occurs to one is that, if that luckless ship had been a couple of hundred feet shorter, she would have probably gone clear of the danger. But then, perhaps, she could not have had a swimming bath and a French café.”
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Friday, June 08, 2012

Steven Torres' crime fiction across cultural borders

I don't like to get too anthropological about crime fiction, and Steven Torres is a novelist, not a social scientist.  Still, Torres' position as a member of at least two worlds (he was born in New York to Puerto Rican parents, moved back to Puerto Rico, then came back to New York) probably makes it easier for him to look across cultural borders and ask, "Why?" Here's one such bit from The Concrete Maze:
"`Why is cockfighting illegal?' he asked. `We eat chickens anyway.' I didn’t have an answer for him. In fact, I didn’t have a single word for him, but that didn’t stop him.”
That's not all there is to Torres in the almost two books of his I've read in recent days. More than most crime writers, Torres has his protagonists try to imagine what it's like to walk a mile in the other fellow's shoes. Here's a bit from Death in Precinct Puerto Rico:
"In her mind, he sat in a dejected state, as many prisoners sit in prison when they begin to feel what they have done." 
And, though his books are not comic, Torres' eye for detail in the fictional Puerto Rican town of Angustias will elicit smiles, as here when, out of space in the tiny station-house jail and the municipal office, Sheriff Luis Gonzalo has a deputy resort to an emergency alternative to hold a suspect:
"Vargas walked his man up the center aisle of the church, stopping to genuflect with his prisoner before the altar as he headed towards the back of the church where the offices were." 
 © Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Thursday, June 07, 2012

Win Andrea Camilleri's latest (and give yourself one less reason to curse the saints)

Two sentences into The Age of Doubt, fourteenth of Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano mysteries and newly available in English, and Salvo is already cursing the saints:
"He had just fallen asleep after a night worse than almost any other in his life, when a thunderclap as loud as a cannon blast fired two inches from his ear startled him awake. He sat up with a jolt, cursing the saints."
That has long been Salvo's favorite expression of disgust as well as one of mine, and its occurrence this early bodes well for the book. Thanks to the people of Penguin, one lucky U.S. reader can win a copy of The Age of Doubt and curse the saints along with Salvo. All that reader has to do is answer the following question correctly:

What is Salvo's favorite restaurant? (Hint: The restaurant is named for a saint.)

While you're scratching your head and cursing the saints, why not weigh in on your favorite invective in crime fiction, read my review of Camilleri's previous Montalbano book, or get hold of Following the Detectives: Real Locations in Crime Fiction, which includes an essay about Camilleri by your humble blogkeeper?
We have a winner! Fred in Ohio knew that Salvo's favorite restaurant is the Trattoria San Calogero. He wins a copy of The Age of Doubt, just in time for several festivals of San Calogero in Sicily over the next few weeks. Felicitazióni e buon appetito. 

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Steven Torres' worlds

Steven Torres' Concrete Maze is a revenge story with two nice twists: the point-of-view character is not the vengeance-seeker but rather his nephew, who both narrates the quest and describes its effect on his uncle. And the tale is no revenge fantasy. Rather, it offers a human and physical landscape (the Bronx and Manhattan) that feels real.

Here's one example I especially like:
"Finding a Carlos in Manhattan was like finding a Bob in Kansas."
The nephew-narrator is both an insider and an outsider, part of the quest for revenge but not its center. Torres' own circumstances may predispose him to such a narrative stance. He was born in the Bronx to parents who had come from Puerto Rico, then moved to a small town in Puerto Rico briefly before returning to New York. Torres acknowledges that the town is part of the background of his Precinct Puerto Rico series. More generally, I have to believe that moving between two worlds sharpens one's ability to both partake of and objectively observe those worlds.

(Torres talks about The Concrete Maze in an interview with Allan Guthrie.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Sheep's head revisited

I've been fond of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir since Bouchercon 2008 in Baltimore when, on a glorious fall day, we chatted about the collapse of her country's economy.

(Indianapolis, 2009. Photo by
your humble blogkeeper) 
At Indianapolis in 2009, Yrsa was part both of the first convention panel I ever moderated and also of a group that made its frequent cigarette breaks so much fun that I wanted to take up smoking at an age when most people have already quit many times.

Yrsa and I have stuffed ourselves with dim sum in San Francisco and rung up bar tabs in Bristol. In short, a crime fiction convention would not be a crime fiction convention without Yrsa and her husband, Oli, two of the most popular and hospitable figures on the convention circuit.

But something was missing from the just-concluded Crimefest 2012: Yrsa brought no Icelandic food specialties or enamel-searing spirits with which to force the delicacies down our throats. Two years earlier, she had brought hákarl, a pungent fermented shark that, according to Wikipedia, even many Icelanders never eat. And the schnapps that went with it was pure, burning volcanic effluvia. I can't even show you what Yrsa brought to Bouchercon 2011 in St. Louis. So I'll let Leighton Gage do it instead.

So, Yrsa, if you read this, what will you bring us in Cleveland?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Monday, June 04, 2012

Win a Camilleri library and stuff your face

The good people at Penguin are offering a big, fat prize in conjunction with the release of The Age of Doubt, fourteenth in Andrea Camilleri's series of novels about the splenetic, introspective, put-upon, food-loving police inspector Salvo Montalbano.

Enter by Tuesday to win all 14 Montalbano novels, plus a basket of food that just might divert Salvo's attention from the case at hand: pasta, sauce, olives, desserts, roasted red peppers, olive oil, and cheese. Visit this link for details:

Now, if only they'd offer elocution lessons from Catarella as a prize.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Sunday, June 03, 2012

Christopher G. Moore's dissipated Scheherazade

Trapped between post-vacation exhaustion and the sheer joy of being back in the daily routine I love so well, I haven't been reading much.

But this passage, from the first page of Christopher G. Moore's 2003 novel Waiting for the Lady, caught my attention for some reason:
"In the ten years I had known Hart, I felt that each year he lost a bit more faith in himself and lost even more faith in the motives and desires of others. That was another way saying that Hart had lost his youth like a bloated giant star that had lost its nuclear fusion just before collapsing in on itself."
The lady of the title is Aung San Suu Kyi, and the book tells the story of the protagonists' quest to meet her. Here's a review of the novel by Kevin Burton Smith (like Moore and me an expatriate Canadian) that calls the book's narrator "a dissipated Scheherazade, prone to self-pity [with] an over-inflated view of his own worth." I hope you find the phrase "dissipated Scheherazade" as beguiling as I do.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, June 02, 2012

Crimefest 2012: Author says she'll give up sin

(Photos by your
humble blogkeeper)

Anne Zouroudi, Detectives Beyond Borders' favorite surprise of 2011, writes a series in which one of the seven deadly sins (and its consequences) features prominently in each book. Naturally she gets asked what she'll do for Book Eight.

(Little Shambles, York))
Zouroudi was part of my "Passport to Murder" panel at Bouchercon 2011, and I suggested that if she wanted to use Jewish tradition, she could write about the 613 mitzvot, which would leave Sue "L is for Long-Running Series" Grafton in the dust. (Yes, Grafton was also at the just-completed Crimefest in balmy Bristol.)

But Zouroudi told a Crimefest questioner that she'll likely take up the easier theme of the Ten Commandments next, which means more adultery, murder, covetousness, and dishonoring of parents for her protagonist, Hermes Diaktoros (the same name as the messenger of the Olympian gods) to negotiate.

It will be interesting to see what Zouroudi gets up to with graven images.
In other news — and excellent news it is — Adrian McKinty's The Cold Cold Ground is on its way to America from Seventh Street Books (the name is a tribute to the site of the Edgar Allan Poe house in Philadelphia.)

The book is hard-hitting and funny and very human, and it paints a plausible picture of what it must really be like for ordinary folks to live through Northern Ireland's Troubles. Highly recommended to Irish Americans and non-Irish Americans (NIAs) alike.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Friday, June 01, 2012

Crimefest 2012: Wrap-up and fun facts

(Peter James, James Sallis)
1) As a good chunk of crimeworld knows by now, a seagull shat on Lee Child and three other Crimefest 2012 attendees.

2) James Sallis attended the festival, and he must be a nice guy because everyone referred to him as Jim.

3) Philip Kerr, author of the Bernie Gunther World War II novels, was also on the program, and if I did not mention him earlier, that's an indication of how packed the Crimefest program was with star power. Kerr's Prague Fatale made the shortlist for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger, announced at Crimefest.

(Peter Guttridge, Philip Kerr)
4) I've already written about my Crimefest encounters with P.D. James and Bill James. Peter James was there this year (he asserted on a panel that crime fiction begins with Sophocles; I reminded him that the much older Epic of Gilgamesh contains considerable elements recognizable as crime fiction. "Good point,"  he said.)

I also renewed my acquaintance with Dan Waddell, one of whose novels is written under the name Dan James. So, parents, if you want your kids to grow up to write crime novels, change their last names to James.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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