Saturday, December 24, 2016

What turns a good joke into a good story?

I asked that question Friday on Facebook, and some fascinating replies ensued. I wanted to know how crime writers make a story work despite an improbable conceit, and also how they make their stories something more than nonstop yukfests.

Garbhan Downey, whose novels and stories about Derry in Northern Ireland I've written about often, said: "I just watch the news, then dial it back to something more plausible."

John McFetridge, whose crime novels set in Montreal and Toronto are unmatched in their seamless combination of story, history, and character, has this to say about the wild Christopher Brookmyre: "Lots of humor and some improbable conceits but they do work. Very good character development is the reason why, I think."

David Magayna, a big wheel behind Bouchercons, says: "I'd recommend Lawrence Shames and Carl Hiaasen. I believe they make their stories work because among all the absurdity there is enough truth about human nature. ... I think those who do it well, blend it in with the natural elements of the story: plot, setting, character development. I don't think they lead with humor, but incorporate it where they can."

"Plot," said David Biemann, to which McFetridge responded, "Yes, I think the plot is important, too. Brookmyre is very good at grounding his characters and plots in mostly believable, everyday stuff so the more improbable conceits don't overwhelm the book."

Mary Harris had this to say about Donald Westlake's Dortmunder novels: "The characters, hapless ones in Westlake's case, react to ridiculous situations in a way they think is normal."

Travis Richardson mentioned Jim Thompson's great novel Pop. 1280, about which I added that "Everyone mentions Jim Thompson's nightmare visions, but no one seems to talk about his dark, dark humor. What sets Thompson's psychopaths apart is the deadpan way in which they think themselves normal. That can be pretty funny."

Elsewhere on this blog, I call Pop. 1280 "Dark, hilarious, a stunning performance that sustains its mood in every word, far and away the best of Thompson's work that I've read." So, good choice, Travis.

I asked the question for a personal reason. Several years ago I encountered a series of sights around which I built an improbable and entertaining situation without, however, thinking about turning into a story. Where was the conflict that could turn the funny situation into a funny story? What makes the result a story rather than a drawn-out SNL sketch? The e-mail part of this discussion got me started on the story, and the comments here and on Facebook will stay with me as I write. It gets published, and you'll all get acknowledgments. Thanks, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and enjoy the season.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Friday, December 16, 2016

"Merry Christmas to All, and to All a Goodis Night" (An annual holiday tradition)

Turn over, baby. You’re burning up," she cooed. “Let me do your front.”

 The fat red man purred. Then he opened his mouth and screamed. He awoke from the dream jammed down the chimney, flames licking at his back. From above, a shaft of weak, sooty light and murmured voices.

 “But, Rudy, what about—”

“Leave the fat guy. I’m out of here. Who’s with me?”

“I’m in,” a voice said.



"You on, Dancer? Prancer? Vixen? Comet? Good. Let’s go.”

 Back down in hell, the fat red man shut his eyes and heard them exclaim as they drove out of sight …

— Peter Rozovsky 
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Don't hold it against Adrian McKinty that he can write

I have begun browsing Police at the Station and They Don't Look Friendly, sixth of Adrian McKinty's novels about Northern Ireland police officer Sean Duffy. Ian Rankin loves these books, and he's not wrong; I'm a fan, too.

I've read far too little of Police at the Station ... to write a review, and, since I'm reading an advance reading copy, I'm honor-bound not to quote from it in any case. I can tell you, however, that the book demonstrates once again McKinty's flair for suspenseful, funny surprisingly lyrical opening scenes, sometimes all at once, other times in varying proportions. This latest is up there with the opening chapters of Cold Cold Ground, Rain Dogs, I Hear the Sirens in the Street, and Fifty Grand. Moreover, the parts of his books that come after the first chapters are pretty good, too.

Adrian McKinty. Photo by Peter
Rozovsky for Detectives
Beyond Borders
Reviewers praise crime novels for their plots, their themes, their characters, their sociology, their psychology, their politics, their settings, their conformity with or deviation from trends, where they fit in the publishing landscape, and whether or not they're from Scandinavia.

Writing? That doesn't get mentioned much. I suspect this is because reviewers and other people are uncomfortable talking about writing at best or wouldn't know good writing if they saw it at worst.  McKinty has noted something like a puritanical aversion in some writing  circles to writing that exists for its own sake, that shows off a little. He is not constrained that way in his own work, which is one reason you should read him. That, and all that good stuff about Northern Ireland, and the jokes.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, December 10, 2016

A post about Angel Colón's "No Happy Endings" that includes just one ejaculation/masturbation joke

Angel Colón reads.
Photos by Peter Rozovsky
Good fun was had by all at Friday's launch of Angel Colón's new novel at Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan. We also had at least as good a time afterward, the novel's title to the contrary. The book is called No Happy Endings, a reference to the (planned) sperm-bank heist that drives the plot. Our evening, on the other hand, ended in good fellowship, crepes, and wine in the West Village.

Look closely. That vessel next to
the book is not a gift-set jam jar.
Wine was served at the launch in plastic specimen cups (Angel got them cheap), and the evening included its share of ejaculation jokes, but I was more impressed by the author's distinguishing the novel's very human protagonist from the other lead character he writes about, the ex-IRA hard man Blacky Jaguar. "Blacky's a cartoon," Colón said.

Fantine Park, on the other hand, the new book's protagonist, is an epigone: She's not nearly the safe cracker her mother was. And her relationship with her father (said Colón and some attendees who had read the book) is a thread running through the novel and one reason I'm looking forward to reading it. Farce and character is not always an easy combination to, er, pull off, and I'll be eager to see how Colón does it here.

From left: Scott Adlerberg, Angel Colón, Dave White
Later a gang that included Colón; his wife, Jeanette; Scott Adlerberg; Suzanne Solomon; Jen Conley; and me repaired to Shade Bar for dinner, drinks, and conversation that ranged over Shakespeare, politics, crime writing, the teaching of history, and (says Jen) Nine Inch Nails and Donald Trump. The most excellent bartender, Laurie, remembered my name, Todd Robinson showed up, and I realized that I dig hanging out with gregarious, intelligent, opinionated New Yorkers. I was feeling so expansive that I passed up the 10-year aged tawny port and bought myself a glass of the 20-year instead.

For me, though, the evening's most trenchant observation came from Scott as we rode the subway from the bookstore to the bar. True crime, said this crime writer, is depressing in its brutality, banality, and stupidity, if I recall his words correctly. Crime fiction, he said, avoids this because it is highly stylized. That is the most thought-provoking observation I've heard about crime fiction in quite some time, and I'll be thinking about it and quoting it.  So thanks, Scott.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

Labels: , , , , , ,

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Max Allan Collins has fun with history

Max Allan Collins has his usual fun with history in Quarry in the Black, published in 2016 and set in 1972, during the Richard Nixon-George McGovern presidential campaign.

One example is Quarry's dismissive reference to Watergate as a third-burglary — fun because that echoes Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler's dismissal of the scandal that would bring his boss down, and also because Collins is a liberal Democrat.

In a grimmer vein, the novel cites a legacy of anti-black discrimination in Ferguson, Mo., a suburb I suspect many people never heard of before the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, 42 years after the time of the novel's setting.

Max Allan Collins.
Photos by Peter
Historical novelists, or those who simply set their books in the best without necessarily exploring that past seriously, have the disadvantage of hindsight: They know how the history turned out, and their job then becomes to wield that knowledge lightly, to remember at all times that the characters cannot possibly know what the author does. Collins' Ferguson passages veer close to bookishness, to my mind, but the Watergate references as well as an allusion to Rosa Parks are delightful, a wink from Collins to his readers right over the unsuspecting heads of his characters.

Your question is who else does this well? Who else writes crime fiction set in the past, uses history lightly, and never forgets that the characters do not know how events will shake out? John Lawton provides a beautiful example in A Little White Death. Who else does it as well or almost as well?

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

Labels: , , , , ,