Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Craig Rice, crime, humor, and empathy, with two questions for readers

I picked up Craig Rice's 1945 novel The Lucky Stiff because someone had put it on a "Ten Best Noirs" list.  It's not noir*, but it is a high-water in fast-talking, hard-boiled crime fiction with far more empathy for the accused than most crime writers try, let alone pull off.

The protagonist is Rice's impecunious Chicago lawyer John J. Malone, so you know the laughs will be there, but with a hard edge. (Of course, the best comic crime novels have always leavened the jokes with profound sympathy, or at least empathy, for victims, dupes, and even criminals. Think of The Thin Man.)

I'm about two-thirds of the way through the book, and only twice, for a total of two or three words, has a laugh line seemed even slightly forced or cheap.  The rest to the time Rice juggles humor, suspense, domestic interludes, and dark empathy, and keep all the balls in the air.

And now, your question: When does humor become too much in a crime novel or story? When the humor is just right, and what makes it so? 
Here are two previous posts about Craig Rice (Click the link and scroll down). And here's an article about the Craig Rice touch from the Rue Morgue Press website.

* OK, maybe The Lucky Stiff is noir. I shall be happy to discuss this further once you have all read the book.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Sunday, June 28, 2015

You do that Urdu you sure do so well: A look at Indo-Pak crime writer Ibne Safi

As I continue my reading of Indian history, here's a repost about an Indo-Pakistani crime writer.
  I don't know about you, but I can't resist a crime novel whose main action begins with a food fight in a night club:
"A couple of screws in Qasim's brain mechanism came loose, and the very next moment a plate full of meat and watery sauce hit the young man in the face."
 That's from The Laughing Corpse, sixty-second of the late Urdu-language crime writer Ibne Safi's 125 Jasusi Dunya ("The World of Detection" or "The World of Espionage") novels about the aristocratic Col. Ahmad Kamal Faridi (an inspector earlier in the series) and his acid-tongued sidekick, Hameed. (The name Qasim may be mere coincidence, but my favorite line from The Thousand Nights and a Night is "Your wit is as heavy as Abu Qasim's slippers!")

 Blaft Publications of Chennai, India; and Berkeley, California; has translated four of the Jasusi Dunya books into English. The Laughing Corpse has its slapstick moments, but it also has a cool, mysterious, manipulative protagonist in Faridi, and a surprisingly caustic sidekick in Hameed. Most of all, Ibne Safi knew how to create suspense and head-scratching mystery.

Ibne Safi began his writing in India in the early 1940s and continued from Pakistan after the partition of British India in 1947. He wrote through the 1970s and died in 1980. Like many pulp writers of the Indian subcontinent, he was prolific. He wrote more than a hundred titles each in Jasusi Dunya and his other main series, plus poetry and satire.

Read more about the author at the Ibne Safi site. Read more about the fantastically broad and colorful world of Indian pulp writing at Blaft's Web site and in the informative editor's and translator's introductions to the books.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Dana King's Grind Joint again

Dana King
I won a pile of books at Sunday's Noir at the Bar in Baltimore that included Dana King's Grind Joint, which I am happy to report is just as good the second time around. So here's some of what I wrote about it the first time.  Here's Dana telling Patti Abbott the highly personal story of how he came to write the novel. Finally, here are all my posts about King (click on the link, then scroll down), whom I have known since he was still cutting his authorial teeth at Bouchercon 2008 in Baltimore.
  I like Grind Joint for its local color; its humor; its lack of sentimentality about its decaying urban setting; its ending that comes out of nowhere, but in a good way; and its tribute to a late star of King's beloved Pittsburgh Pirates.

A teenager who figures peripherally in the story is given the name Wilver, and if that's not a tribute to Wilver Dornell "Willie" Stargell, I'll eat your silly vintage-style 1979 Pirates baseball hat. Stargell was a slugger who did not win most valuable player awards he arguably deserved in 1971 and 1973, and did win one he decidedly did not deserve in '79, when he became a much beloved leader of the World Series-winning "We Are Family" Pirates.

The novel's ending is harder to discuss because I don't want to spoil the surprise. Suffice it to say that I did not see it coming, that it hits with a melancholy punch, that I'd have said, "Wow!" had anyone been around to hear me say it, and that it made perfect sense.

The lack of sentimentality:
"Doc was tired of hearing how many things couldn't be prevented, or even punished. ... He'd made peace with the idea that he was becoming less a cop than an urban hospice worker, easing the end of the transition from booming mill town to—to whatever happened to towns like this"
The humor:
"`Mr. Rollison, you're so good I could almost believe you, except my boss looks like he just farted in front of the pope.'"
"`I talk when I want. Who knows? In five minutes, maybe not want to. Better ask quick before I change my mind, police man. Someone tell me once I am volatile. I like that word. I am volatile."

"You are peckerhead, Doc thought, kept it to himself."
© Peter Rozovsky 2013, 2015

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Monday, June 22, 2015

The faces of crime

Dana King
Nik Korpon
I got my crime in person rather than on the page this weekend. Here are some photos from Sunday's Noir at the Bar in Baltimore, hosted by Nik Korpon, along with others from my afternoon at the Baltimore Museum of Art. See if you can tell which are which.

Ed Aymar

J. David Osborne

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Wow! I didn't know she could do that!

The second story in Manhattan Mayhem is a piece of dark psychological suspense with an ending I did not see coming.  It's one of my two favorite stories in the collection so far, and what makes it notable is that the writer is Julie Hyzy, author of two successful cozy mystery series. (She had the good taste to turn one of my suggestions into the title of one of her books.)

Nothing in Hyzy's previous work and nothing I knew about her prepared me for her Manhattan Mayhem story, "White Rabbit," so today's question is What writers have surprised you in this way? What novels or stories have made you think, "Wow! I didn't know he (or she) could do that!"?
Manhattan Mayhem includes 17 short stories, and it ccelebrates the 70th anniversary of theMystery Writers of America, the organization that, among other things, presents the annual Edgar Awards. My other favorite in the collection so far is T. Jefferson Parker's "Me and Mikey," and the best title has to be S.J. Rozan's "Chin Yong-Yun Makes a Shiddach." The contributors include Jeffery Deaver. Lee Child, Margaret Maron, Thomas J. Cook, and more,  a strong cast.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Monday, June 15, 2015

Scene of the crimes: Philadelphia City Hall

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Saturday, June 13, 2015

Peter Rozovsky is a fictional character

John McFetridge's new novel and a galley of Charlie Stella's next one arrived this week, so you know I'll be reading lots of low-key humor the next few days, lots of gorgeous transitions between small jokes and big drama that make both hit even harder.

Here's one example from the McFetridge book, A Little More Free, the scene the aftermath of a fatal fire, relatives learning that their loved ones have died:
"There were other people inside. It was quiet for a minute and then Dougherty heard the crying."
"`Sixty-five cents for a pint? We should arrest you.'"
Another plus: Unless McFetridge or his publisher, ECW Press, made changes between unbound galley and finished book, the police photographer Rozovsky, a sidekick in McFetridge's Black Rock, gets a first name this time.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Thursday, June 11, 2015

What do history and crime mean to you?

I've taken a break from crime to read some history, here's an old post about history and crime.
The Charlie Stella interview to which I linked on Thursday is full of references to history.

"I prefer reading history-based novels (crime or otherwise), which is why Craig McDonald’s Lassister series strikes such a terrific chord with me," for example, or this:
" I’ll read pretty much anything that presents a past I see slipping away, but the new stuff that seems to top the bestseller lists I find mostly boring horseshit.

"That’s not to say the writing is bad. I’m sure some of it is wonderful, but if there is no or little basis in reality or some sense of history (i.e., the first three George V. Higgins novels – The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Digger’s Game and Cogan’s Trade – and James Ellroy’s American Tabloid)."
The comments hit home, not least because the books he names are not generally considered historical fiction, and because Higgins set his books, at least The Friends of Eddie Coyle, in his own time. So, what does history mean? A sense of time and a sense of place and a wide streak of romance as an optional extra.

Stella's comments neatly take in the attractions of one crime novel that I've read recently, one I'm reading now, and another I expect to read soon. Adrian McKinty's The Cold Cold Ground plunked me right into the middle of Belfast and environs at the time of the hunger strikes. Ronan Bennett's Zugzwang is doing something similar for St. Petersburg in 1914, and I have every hope that Donald Westlake's The Comedy is Finished will do the same for the late 1970s in the U.S.

What do those books have in common, other than gifted authors? Turbulent historical periods. Narration that enhances the personal aspects of the story (first-person in the McKinty and the Bennett, free indirect speech that's as personal as first-person in the Westlake.) An eye for what's particular to the period that never degenerates into mere sightseeing or detail mongering.

What does history mean to you when it comes to fiction? Stella talks about "history-based novels;" What do you think he means by that? Are "history-based novels" different from historical fiction? 

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Location. Location? Location! with questions for readers

I'm reading a location-based collection of stories and, by coincidence, the first three stories I read illustrate three approaches to location in crime stories (other genres, too, I imagine).

One of the stories, and not a bad one, laid the tourism touch on a bit heavily, I thought, name-checking well-known locations with just the slightest whiff of the guidebook. A second, a fine story, was a bit more subtle in its invocation of setting but, as good as the story was, it would have worked just as well set in any number of other places. A third story, the best of the lot, to my mind, made superb use of its setting's unique features. The author could have written a similar story and set it elsewhere but, more than is the case with the other two, it would have been a different story.

 Now, your thoughts on setting, please. What novels or stories simply could not be set anywhere else? What novels or stories that emphasize their settings could, nonetheless, work if transplanted to a new location?  What, in other words, does setting mean to you? What constitutes good setting in fiction, crime fiction or otherwise? 
The book illustrated at the upper right of this post is Maxim Jakubowski's Following the Detectives: Real Locations in Crime Fiction, to which I contributed chapters on Andrea Camilleri's Sicily and Arnaldur Indriðason's Iceland. Arnaldur's novels are more intimately (and literally, in some cases) rooted in their settings than any others I know. What authors do you say are most inextricably bound up with their settings?

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Saturday, June 06, 2015

Bono gets a one-two punch from two top crime writers

(Design by Heads of State)
Poor Bono. Poor, poor Bono.

Here's the beginning of Adrian McKinty's fine new Sean Duffy story, "Shadowboxing" (available free at the Radio Silence site):
"Even the fulminating racists on the far side of the police barriers were temporarily awed into silence by their first sight of the Champ as he stepped nimbly—lepidopterously—from the bus onto the pavement in front of Belfast City Hall. He was bigger than ordinary men, physically, of course, but there was an aura about him, too. Ten years past his prime, heavier, grayer, and with what was apparently early-onset Parkinson’s, this was still the most famous man on the face of the Earth. He was wearing Adidas trainers, a red tracksuit, and sunglasses. He was flanked by two Nation of Islam handlers in dark jackets and bow ties, and a pace behind them was the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a celebrity in his own right in America but a largely unknown figure here, and finally to his left—to no one’s surprise—Bono."
And here's the opening of "The Gumshoe," from Paul D. Brazill's The Gumshoe and Other Brit Grit Yarns:
"In the beginning was the sound. The light came later.

"The sound was a horrifying wail that skewered its way deep into my unconscious brain until I awoke sharply—drowning in sweat, my heart smashing through my ribcage, my head about to burst.

"Some twat, somewhere, was playing a U2 song over and over again ... "
Do you think that, now that the whole world is catching on that Bono is a putz, it may be time to lay off him?

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Thursday, June 04, 2015

Crimefest through a camera, Philly through photography

High up in Philadelphia
I bought my camera a year ago today, so here's a photo post, some from the recent Crimefest 2015 in Bristol, others from where I spend my time between crime fiction festivals, all photos by your hunble blogkeeper..

K.T. Medina and Rebecca Whitney at Crimefest
Bristol noir
Demographic study at Crimefest 2015
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Indian crime and proto-crime

(Eighteenth- or nineteenth-century painting
from a classic Hindu proto-crime story
I've neglected crime fiction recently in favor of Indian history in the form of Ramachandra Guha, both his essays about important persons and themes in India's 20th-century history and his fat, highly readable volume India After Gandhi. (Is it enough for weighty volumes of history to be "fat" and "highly readable," or is it mandatory that they be called "magisterial"?) In any case, while I burrow deeper into Guha's highly readable majesty, here's an old post about a prolific Indian crime writer that includes some thoughts on his country's literary classics.
 More good ancillary material from The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, this time from a Q&A with Rajesh Kumar:
"Some people don't think crime novels count as literature. My answer to them is that the first crime novel in this world is the Mahabharatham — which has every imaginable sort of intrigue — and the next is the Ramayanam. The great epics themselves depend on rape, molestation, abduction and murder for their plots. It makes me laugh when I am accused of spoiling society with my crime novels."
It is nice to see that an Indian crime writer faces the same moralistic scorn that some of his Western counterparts do. It's nice, too, to see two Hindu epics in the ranks of the world's great proto-crime stories (click link, then scroll down).

Kumar also laments India's poor performance in the country's favorite sport ("Our cricket team is too busy advertising soft drinks, having affairs with film actresses and abandoning their families. Where is the time for practice?") and offers a disarming answer to questioner who asks: "I am suffering from hair loss due to stress. Do you worry about such things?"

"Why should I worry," Kumar replies, "about you losing your hair?"

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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