Thursday, November 30, 2006

When red was noir -- "A Case of Two Cities" by Qiu Xiaolong

A Case of Two Cities is the fourth of Qiu Xiaolong's novels about Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau. Like its predecessors, including the superlatively good Death of a Red Heroine, it offers rueful portraits of social upheaval in a China that embraces capitalism with the morality of Tammany Hall, the business sense of Al Capone, and the tender mercies of Margaret Thatcher.

Its themes may resonate with fans of American crime fiction of the 1930s and 1940s, a time when municipal corruption was shocking enough to interest crime novelists. Here, a Shanghai official with unsavory connections addresses Chen:

"(P)eople know a lot about you, our poet chief inspector. Someone just told me about your hongyan zhiji, not only in Beijing, but in the United States."

It came like a seemingly effortless blow delivered by a tai chi master: we know everything about you, so you’d better watch out."

Hongyan zhiji, Qiu tells us, is "a classical literary term meaning an attractive female friend who appreciates and understands you: not necessarily a girlfriend, but definitely with such a connotation – an archetypal dream for lonely, unappreciated scholars ancient China." (Qiu is a poet and a translator of Chinese poetry, and his protagonist, Chen, shares those literary interests and draws inspiration and warning from them.)

Here’s Chen describing his preparation for the visit with the menacing official:

Mang went out of his way, providing inside information about the area’s potential: a list of the properties bought by senior Party officials. Such purchases were an unmistakable message that the property value would soon rise because of city development plans known only to those officials.

As mentioned above, Qiu shares an interest in municipal corruption with certain American crime authors, but he tempers their burning, righteous anger with an understanding of the ways of the corrupt. He notes the understandable desire of talented, ambitious Communist Party functionaries to break free of party shackles and go into business for themselves, even as he writes with horror of their corruption. And he has great sympathy for those left behind by China’s unstoppable economic and political changes.

Inspector Chen’s China reminds me in a small way of the world of American newspapers, of which I am a part, at least for a few more hours. Publishers struggle mightily to cope with the challenges they face in changing markets – and they use their struggles as an excuse to intimidate, threaten and demoralize their workers. Change is happening, and it may be inevitable. But the inevitability of change does nothing to ease the pain of those who suffer from it.


© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

What's so funny?

Karen at the Australasian Crime Fiction Forum is asking readers which crime writers they find funny and why. She weighs in on a new Australian comic crime writer, she considers Parnell Hall, and -- proof that she is a woman of wit and judgment -- she likes Bill James.

Sign up, log in, and join the entertaining discussion.

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© Peter Rozovsky 2006


Monday, November 27, 2006

Pufferfish's personality

I want to be Inspector Franz Heineken of the Tasmania Police Force, protagonist of David Owen's 1990s series and proud bearer of the nickname Pufferfish ("An ugly, poisonous scavenger known to bloat in times of distress," according to one description). OK, I want to be everything but the "ugly" part.
Pufferfish knows his boss is an oily, backstabbing careerist. Pufferfish recognizes that colleagues are vindictive and possibly bent. In X and Y, the third of the four books in the series, Pufferfish has been shot at and set up to take the fall for a drug bust gone wrong. But he's not bitter, and he's not haunted. John Rebus and Matt Scudder would sidle away from this guy at a bar. He's too psychologically healthy.
And that's what makes him such a standout protagonist. He works in a nest of vipers, but he's an amiable zoo guide, telling the reader about the snakes' habits, rather than worrying all the time about being swallowed up by them. His attitude of amusement leavens the contempt and anger enough to set him apart from the legions of police-procedural protagonists in similar situations. At the same time, he can survive very well among the reptiles, and he's not afraid to tell his boss where to get off, only in language a good deal coarser than that.
And his sense of humor ... I've been reading Shane Maloney's Murray Whelan novels, and Maloney's a wild man compared to Owen when it comes to jokes. A Murray Whelan joke can stretch near a page in length, pushing the reader to the brink of impatience before whomping him or her with the payoff. A Pufferfish joke is more likely to be a wisecrack slipped gently into the dialogue.
Heineken, under police guard, trying to persuade his minder join him for a fishing trip: "Don't you eat fish and chips?"
Heineken, on a colleague who wishes him no good: Of all the eyes that look at me, it's Boston's that talk. They're flat, without light and they wish to hell that I were well and truly dead. A-ha. Well, well.
As a bonus, X and Y functions very nicely as a thriller, as a hunted-man story, and as a mystery. It's shame Owen did not take the series beyond the four novels.

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Can a setting be too familiar?

Has this ever happened to you? Have you been driven nuts by an author's mistakes with a setting you know well? Distracted by topographical detail when you would rather have been enjoying the story? Have you reached the conclusion that perhaps it's better to read stories set in unfamiliar areas?

A discussion at Yahoo's Oz Mystery Readers group raises the question. A reader from Tasmania said she found David Owen's Pufferfish novels distracting because he didn't get the local ambiance quite right. Another reader responded that she loved the Pufferfish novels but was driven "bats" by some aspects of Garry Disher's settings, which she knew better. And I mentioned having been distracted by an unnecessarily detailed description of a car ride through some Philadelphia streets that I knew. In this case, the author did not get the setting wrong. Indeed, he got it too distractingly right.

© Peter Rozovsky 2006


Saturday, November 25, 2006

Australian crime novelists and humor

I don't want to get weighty and sociological, but it certainly seems as if Australian crime writers are more willing than Americans or even the British to suffuse a crime novel with humor. I've just finished Shane Maloney's Something Fishy. Recently I read The Big Ask by the same author, and I'll soon begin X and Y, part of David Owen's Pufferfish series. I even noted that Garry Disher's Kickback, for all its debts to Richard Stark's Parker novels, has moments of humor that a Parker book would never have.

I can't think of any American counterparts off the top of my head, not the excellent and sometimes hysterical Janet Evanovich; her Stephanie Plum novels seem more like picaresque romance novels to me -- comedies that happen to have something to do with crime, as opposed to crime novels written with humor. And not Parnell Hall. I tried one of his novels, but the yuk-yuk, aren't-I-droll? first chapter left me cold.

Among British crime writers, Ian Rankin can write with wit and sly humor in a short story, but he turns grim and weighty when it comes to novels. Bill James can be howlingly funny, but his are not primarily humorous novels. The Long Firm? Well, maybe. And cozies and academic mysteries, with their built-in drolleries, don't count. I'm talking about a full-bore, hard-boiled, action-packed detective story that just happens to be funny from beginning to end.

I'm not the first to speculate about American unease over humorous crime writing. At least one critic wrote that the 1940s writer Norbert Davis was cursed with a sense of humor. That, the critic said, may have accounted for the relative scarcity of his publications in Black Mask, the premier pulp magazine of the time -- just six stories, if I recall correctly.

I'd be especially interested in having Australian readers weigh in on this. I'm not sure Australians are naturally funnier than anyone else. But they certainly seem more willing to stretch that humor out over a few hundred pages. Or maybe Australian readers are responsible for this state of affairs. God bless them for being more willing than readers elsewhere to accept humorous crime novels!

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

More from Shane Maloney

With the possibility of an ugly strike looming large at the newspaper where I work, what better time to reach once more for that lighthearted political minder, Murray Whelan? In The Big Ask, Whelan got caught up in the struggle for control of a truckers' union. In Something Fishy, he's been elected to his state's parliament as a member of the Australian Labour Party, which "exists only in the imagination of its members."

This novel, the fifth in the Whelan series, is off to a more somber start than The Big Ask. But its third chapter contains a delicious description of the sort of meeting that is the lot of an opposition backbencher's life: "Proceedings drifted like the continents, the room was overheated and my attention wandered out the window."

More later.

Did I say somber? The scene where Whelan falls on the Swedish woman at the beach had me laughing out loud.

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Shaky translations?

I've read that one should refrain from criticizing a translator's work unless one has read the work in the original language as well as in translation. That is snobbery and balderdash. At least with fiction, a translator's goal is, or should be, to produce a work readable on its own terms. The result is fair game for comment, as long as the critic acknowledges limits, such as not knowing the original language.

The first chapter of Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett's Dog Day, translated into English by Nicholas Caistor, contains lapses that an editor should have caught. "It was a chorus that made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck" should have been "The chorus made (the) hairs stand up on the back of my neck." That's basic. "It" constructions and the verb "to be" slow sentences down. If such constructions are acceptable in Spanish, too bad. Each language has its own quirks and peculiarities that may not translate well. A translator should take these into account and try to reproduce the effect of the original even if that means departing from literal, word-for-word translation. And if he or she fails to do so, an editor should step in.

Elsewhere, Caistor has a hospital patient prone, when he almost surely was supine. Was this patient really on his belly rather than on his back? Probably not, since Gimenez-Bartlett gives a description of his face. Did Caistor simply use the wrong word? Does a single word serve for prone and supine in Spanish? Too bad. Caistor is translating for an audience that reads English.

Other sentences tell when they should show. A character's tortoiseshell glasses "contrasted sharply with his juvenile appearance." Juvenile appearance? What does that mean? Or: "'Signor Garzon ... ' I declared theatrically, ' ... allow me to introduce Ignacio Lucena Pastor.'" Theatrically? Did she bow deeply, scraping the floor with an exaggerated flourish? Did she lower her voice to a stage whisper? In a workingman's bar, customers wear "different-colored overalls according to their line of work." Welders in grimy, scorched gray? Mechanics in white long since died black by accumulation of grease? Or is the intent to portray a dehumanizing regimentation of the working classes, sorted into colors by their bosses? We'll never know; all we get is "different-colored overalls."

Here, Caistor's task may be trickier. Does good Spanish writing simply not insist on the specificity of description that good English writing does? Are these simply weak passages on Gimenez-Bartlett's part? If so, what is a translator to do?

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Boris Akunin avoids the big questions

An amusing and richly informative 2004 article/interview in The Telegraph examines the novelty of Boris Akunin's situation in Russia's cultural life:

"Until the fall of communism in 1991, educated Russian readers had retained a taste for classic literature ... There was no such thing as reading merely for pleasure. But that all changed with the lifting of the ban on decadent Western fiction. As suddenly as crime rose in Russia, so did crime fiction."

Unlike two of his fellow Russian practitioners of the new art of Russian crime fiction, the article continues, Akunin could write. Still, Akunin says, Russian readers can't avoid asking the big questions. "I never meet readers in Russia," he says, "because there would always be some guy who would stand up and say, 'What is the meaning of life? Does God exist?' "

Of course, Akunin did not reject the Russian classics completely. Here's how he created Erast Fandorin:

"When I was a kid there was never a Russian literary character who I could imitate. I was either Sherlock Holmes or d'Artagnan or some other bloody foreigner. You cannot pretend when you are 11 or 12 that you are a hero of Turgenev. ... I approached this problem in a scientific way. I grafted a bit from every protagonist in Russian literature whom I admire. I took 10 per cent of Andrei Bolkonsky [from War and Peace], 10 per cent of Prince Mishkin [The Idiot], 10 per cent of Lermontov's Pechorin. Then I added a recipe of my own design, mixed and stirred. At the beginning he looked like a Frankenstein, a homunculus. Then miraculously he came to life, for me at least, and started not doing what I wanted him to do. Now for me he is more alive than most of the people I know."

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Paradise tossed ("Murder on the Leviathan")

There's plenty of good, old-fashioned fun in Boris Akunin's tale of murder off and on the high seas: suspects gathered in one place, funny lines, rivalry between English and French (with a Russian coming out on top), nods to Wilkie Collins, Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Maltese Falcon, and just maybe Maurice Leblanc, and the tale of a French police inspector who just knows that he'll get off the damned boat one of these days.

The Leviathan is a super steamship bound for Calcutta in 1878. Its passengers include a doctor or two, a doctor's wife, and a highly nervous nobleman. A middle-aged English lady suddenly grown rich under suspicious circumstances is part of the group, scandalized by the behavior of a Russian diplomat with a slight stutter. A flighty young woman in a delicate condition has her own reason to be nonplussed by the Russian, and a specialist in Indian archaeology arouses suspicion when he chucks a napkin under a table. One of the group has slaughtered ten people in a Paris townhouse -- maybe.

The characters take turn narrating chapters, and each misinterprets the state of affairs in his or her own way. Each, without knowing it, stumbles upon certain truths well before the detective in charge, Erast Fandorin. And, in a strange way, each is part of his or own Tempest, only these characters lose their illusions and delusions at sea, instead of on a wild island, before heading home, free of "the feverish stupor that had shrouded our minds and souls."

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Grab your Italian dictionaries ...

... and get ready to read Il Falcone Maltese, an Italian magazine about crime and noir fiction, movies and television. The on-line version contains introductions to a wide variety of articles, news, interviews and reviews on crime and mystery Italian and foreign, past and present, current and classic: Gianrico Carofiglio and Orhan Pamuk, to name two in the current issue. For full texts of all the articles, you'll have to subscribe or visit Italy.

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

New Australian crime fiction

Crime Down Under's What's New section offers capsule descriptions of new Australian crime fiction -- a good holiday shopping guide.

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An award for Peter Temple

Peter Temple, subject of several discussions here (click on "Peter Temple" next to the "Labels" heading below), has won a major literary grant in Australia.

Via Austcrime comes news that he received a $90,000 AS award from the Australia Council for the Arts. "I had no expectation of getting it," Temple said. "Literary people get grants, if you look at the history. People with my reputation don't get grants."

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Friday, November 17, 2006

More good blogging about crime fiction

I've been remiss in not mentioning Petrona more often, and not just because that blog has directed readers toward this blog more than once. It's not a crime-fiction site, but recent subjects include Kate Atkinson's Case Histories, good deals on Ian Rankin and Mary Higgins Clark, Peter Temple, and book suggestions that include discussions and links about crime fiction. Maxine, who maintains the site, is an amiable and knowledgeable guide to the world of books and beyond.

Another frequent correspondent, Uriah at Crime Scraps, is especially good on Italian crime fiction and fact.


Rome, city of crime

It's a Crime! (or a mystery...) posts a notice of this lively interview with the Roman writer Massimo Mongai. The discussion includes entertaining thoughts on, among other subjects, why Rome is a good place to write a crime novel ("it has double the number of embassies of any other city") and the city's neighborhoods ("Trastevere, which is full of freaks, American tourists and Italian snobs").

Mongai won a award for his science fiction novel Memorie di un cuoco d'astronave (Memoirs of a Spaceship Cook), according to the article. He has just published a crime novel, La memoria di Ras Tafari Diredawa, and he has this to say about his fellow citizens: "And remember, in Italy dramatic situations are always dramatic but never serious." With an attitude like that, you know this guy will be fun to read, even more so when I can read him. His work has yet to be translated into English.

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A thrilling house of games: "Kickback" by Garry Disher

On the off chance that I ever again receive a comment on this blog, I pick up my assessment of Kickback where my initial discussion left off.

The obvious and numerous nods to Richard Stark's Parker novels in the end serve to highlight the differences of temperament between Disher and his protagonist, Wyatt, and Stark/Parker. Like the best Parker books, Kickback is a well-paced and compelling caper story. We see the selection of a target, the debate over method, the acquisition of guns. The crime's planners worry over a safe place to hide out afterward and about their need for seed money to pay for the robbery. The caper is planned, and both it and a preliminary crime step on dangerous toes, with violent complications.

But Disher is more interested in emotion and less in surgical detail than Stark. Wyatt, though impatient with stupidity in others, is more social and susceptible than Parker. For one thing, he lets himself become involved with a woman during the caper's planning, which Parker avowedly would never do. And when he does become involved, the feelings are more than just sexual. There are tenderness and vulnerability in Wyatt's feelings for this novel's femme fatale. There are also touches of humor here, both on the author's part and the protagonist's, where there would be none in a Parker book. A typical Parker novel would never contain an exchange like this:

Hobba jabbed with the gun. `I said shut up.'

`Ivan's got contacts. Anything happens to me, you've had it.'

`Sugar,' Hobba said wearily, `your brother thinks you're a fuckwit.'

The family complications implied in that exchange are another `human' facet bolstering the case that Wyatt is no mere Parker clone. And the killing of an ultimately hapless villain in Kickback has pathos utterly foreign to Parker's world.

I hope I have not offended Australian readers by discussing Wyatt almost exclusively in terms of Parker. We (North) Americans are often accused of cultural arrogance, and sometimes we even deserve the accusations. But I know from Disher's short story "My Brother Jack" that he loves to play literary games. I'd say that at least in this first of his Wyatt novels, he renders tribute to Stark and Parker, playing the high and amusing game of imitating Stark in details while remaining different in the essentials, and trying to write a compelling story at the same time. He succeeds.

Besides, the borrowing may run both ways. In addition to the similarity in titles between the later Parker novels and those of the Wyatt books of a few years earlier, Stark appears to have borrowed a detail or two from Disher. An improvised door alarm from Stark's Ask the Parrot (2006), for example, is virtually identical to one from Kickback (1991).

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A view from the other side

Detectives Literarios has posted a second day's suggested dish from Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Salvo Montalbano a few days after promising to introduce one dish each day. Between times, hungry readers can share a meal with Manuel Vazquez Montalban's Pepe Carvalho and his cook/assistant Biscuter.

Detectives Literarios also discusses Eric Ambler's The Mask of Dimitrios. I don't read Spanish, but it's refreshing to be reminded that our classic British and American crime writers are someone else's overseas, international writers.

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Garry Disher's "Kickback"

I've started Kickback, the first of Disher's six novels published between 1991 and 1997 about a tough professional thief named Wyatt. Wyatt works three or four jobs a year and relaxes in warm locales the rest of the time, like Richard Stark's Parker. He is identified only by a last name, like Parker, and his capers can go wrong when an amateur is part of the job, like Parker's.

Many reviewers have noted the similarities. Wyatt is similar to Parker, "obviously inspired by Parker," even "a Parker clone," according to one Wyatt admirer on this blog. What I've never seen Wyatt called is an affectionate tribute to Parker, and that's what this book is in its opening chapters. The set-up is nearly identical to those in some of the Stark books, for example, but the characters act in ways just different enough to give the story a slightly different feeling. Disher also pays a bit more attention to details of setting than Stark, and there is just enough unfamiliar language to spice things up for this North American reader (" ... they were too up themselves to be sus about what he did for a crust.")

Stark (nom de plume of Donald Westlake) may have returned the compliment. The first four Wyatt novels are Kickback, Paydirt, Deathdeal and Crosskill. When Stark brought Parker back in 1998 after a twenty-five year hiatus, he called the first five new Parker novels Comeback, Backflash, Flashfire, Firebreak and Breakout. Are the similar titles coincidence? I think not.

More later.

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Good Reading from Australia

The Australian Crime Fiction Forum has a link to Good Reading -- the Magazine for Book Lovers, published in print and online versions -- a "great magazine and a useful site for those interested in the Australian book marketplace," according to Karen, who maintains the Australian Crime Fiction site.

A quick glance at Good Reading's contents and archives turned up a long list that included Robert Wilson on why he sets novels in Portugal and Spain, and a series about famous characters that included selections on Dr. Watson and Modesty Blaise. That's an intriguing mix and one that looks well worth exploring.

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Patricia Highsmith's quasi-crime novel

"What the Vietnamese needed, Adams said in appallingly plain words, was the American kind of democracy."

"Several of Highsmith's works fall out from the mystery genre, and her crime novels often have more to do with psychology than conventional plotting, " according to one useful commentary. Someone else once said that when Highsmith, probably best known today for the Ripley novels, Strangers on a Train, and the movies based on them, wrote The Tremor of Forgery, she had almost entirely abandoned character for the political.

Both observations are pertinent to this novel, published in 1969 and set in 1967, at the time of racial unrest in the United States and the Six Day War in the Middle East. Highsmith's Howard Ingham is murkily aware of these events, a writer left to his own devices in Tunisia after a movie project falls through. Ingham finds a dead body late at night in a narrow Tunis street. The man's throat has been cut. Ingham fails to report his finding to police, and ... nothing happens. Ingham throws his typewriter at a man breaking into his room. The typewriter hits home, the man screams, the body disappears, and ... nothing happens.

Later, Ingham's sort-of fiancee arrives from New York. They patch up a misunderstanding born of betrayal. They drift apart. Ingham meets a Danish painter living in Tunisia, rejects his sexual advance, yet becomes the man's close companion. They, too, drift apart, Ingham accepting with enthusiasm then rejecting the man's invitation to accompany him back to Denmark for a visit. This Dane, having seemed to go thoroughly native, welcomes the opportunity to return to his homeland. Ingham stays behind.

Issues of morality and right social conduct arise, then melt away. The Dane, bitter over his treatment by some local residents, tells Ingham that his victim -- if, indeed, Ingham killed the intruder -- did not matter. Adams, the smug, Reader's Digest-reading American from the passage at the head of this post and possibly a spy, insists that Ingham tell the truth about the (possibly) fatal meeting with the burglar.

The Tremor of Forgery is a crime novel only indirectly. After the movie deal falls through, Ingham works on -- and eventually finishes writing -- a novel he at first calls The Tremor of Forgery about an embezzler who steals from his company, gives the money to people in need, and can never quite understand that he is a criminal. He is a man, in other words, without a clear identity, a kind of Ingham in action. "The tremor of forgery," Highsmith tells us, is the slight shake that even the most expert forger produces at the beginning and the end of his false signatures. But nothing is certain; nothing is resolved. Ingham changes his novel's title. In the end, there is no Tremor of Forgery in The Tremor of Forgery.

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Friday, November 10, 2006

L'histoire du polar marseillais / crime fiction from Marseilles

I've posted here, here and here about Total Chaos, the first novel in Jean-Claude Izzo's Marseilles trilogy. Two recent discoveries, plus the arrival of my copy of Chourmo, the second volume, brought me back to that atmospheric tale, at once downbeat and full of Izzo's love for Marseilles.

The Ile noire blog explores, in French, the early history of Marseillais crime fiction. That's a concept that we readers of international crime fiction ought to like. Ile noire is a bilingual site, mostly French with a bit of Corsican. I learned that bonavinuta means welcome and a dopu means later! or until the next time. The obvious similarities between the Corsican words and their Italian counterparts (other Corsican words are more like French) is a rich little lesson in language and history – and I owe it all to international crime fiction.

An Italian site reviews a collection of tales and other writing by Izzo that bears the delicious title of Aglio, menta e basilico – Marsiglia, il noir e il Mediterraneo (Garlic, mint and basil – Marseilles, noir and the Mediterranean). The sensual appeal of that title is beguiling, as are the reviewer's descriptions of how Izzo's detective protagonist Fabio Montale –"a Mediterranean man" – loves jazz, hip-hop, eating, drinking, gossiping for hours in bars ... What a life!

Izzo, reviewer Andrea Fannini concludes, is "a French, indeed, a Mediterranean poet."

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Qiu Xiaolong on genre and conventions

I've praised Qiu Xiaolong's Death of a Red Heroine often. Christopher G. Moore's site links to an illuminating interview from 2003 with Qiu. Here's an excerpt that every fan of crime fiction and literature that crosses borders will want to read:

"When I wrote the first book, I had not intended to write it as a `detective story,' so I did not pay much attention to special conventions or tricks at the time. I merely wanted to write a book about contemporary China, which has been little introduced in the West, but it turned out to be a mystery. I think it is perhaps because mystery happens to be one of my favorite genres, and it provides a ready framework for the story.

"I chose to set the story in the early 1990s, as it's a transitional period, in which the old value system is being questioned, while the new is not being established. In that sense, I may be more or less like Chief Inspector Chen, an intellectual questioning and being questioned all the time. As a result, the drama is staged outside as well as inside.

"Of course, I am not Chief Inspector Chen. I have never been a cop, or a Party member, but as far as his passion for poetry (for Eliot especially, whose poetry I have translated into Chinese) and for food, he has my shadow. Another passion I share with him is go chess games, as described in the novel. With my second book, my editor insisted on the discovery of a body at the very beginning, and I complied, which may be a trick, but not really mine."

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A fine source for news and reviews of crime fiction

The Euro Crime Web site's news section has links to news, views, interviews and lots and lots of reviews from newspapers in Europe and North America. It looks like a great place to browse, to find new books and authors, and to find gifts as that special time of year approaches.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Eat like Montalbano

Detectives literarios makes the sensible observation that Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Salvo Montalbano can help readers enrich their lives through good eating. An entry on the Spanish-language blog promises to suggest new items each day from the food-loving Sicilian detective's menu.

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Four funniest lines from "The Big Ask"

1) "Behind the lenses of his sunglasses Farrell's face was as unreadable as a Patrick White novel."

2) "One-Stop's chambers were smack in the middle of the legal precinct, in a Queen Street high-rise commonly known as the Golan Heights. The reason for this was apparent when I read the directory in the lobby. Unless I was mistaken, few of O'Shannessy's fellow tenants had been educated by the Jesuits."

3) "Lyndal was in a plum-coloured pants-suit. Her businesslike demeanour reminded me how much I longed for her community welfare services to fall into her safety net."

4) "(H)is behaviour was even more scandalous than alleged in the shit-letter. Fooling around might be forgivable. Kinky is a matter of taste. But doing it with a member of the Liberal Party was beyond the pale."

Readers of this blog have suggested that Shane Maloney might not travel well to the United States because of his subversiveness or that "Ultimately I suspect there is some concern that `Australian' won't translate / will be unfathomable." Maybe, maybe not. I suspect Maloney will take a few pages of getting used to for some people because of a wild, deadpan humor that may leave readers wondering whether this man takes himself and his story seriously. At the end of the The Big Ask, after all, narrator/protagonist Murray Whelan says, in effect, that's my story, and "Whether you believe it or not is entirely up to you."

I'd say Maloney's humor and his plain-spoken but evocative descriptions of setting, to name two qualities, make him well worth the effort.

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Monday, November 06, 2006

Two set in Tunisia

This is too good to pass up. I've just returned from an archaeology tour of Tunisia, and I discovered Lyn Hamilton's The African Quest, about a series of murders on an archaeology tour of Tunisia. I hope to get some comments from my fellow travelers to Tunisia, none of whom has ever been party to a murder, as far as I know.

It took that vacation to get me reading Patricia Highsmith, though I'd long loved Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, based on a Highsmith novel. The Tremor of Forgery is about a youngish writer left to his own devices in Tunisia when a movie project fails to materialize. It's a thrill to recognize the settings in the first chapter. Beyond that, the chapter is a superb piece of mood-setting for the strangeness that no doubt will follow.

© Peter Rozovsky 2006
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Shane Maloney -- "Quintessentially Australian"

His sense of humor, that is, and that verdict comes from an Australian, so I'm allowed to repeat it. I'll fight off the ravages of an excellent vacation, a bad cold, and my company's current efforts to break and humiliate its employees, and I'll offer a few remarks on Maloney's novel The Big Ask, with more to come when I'm done with the book.

Maloney is five novels into his series about Murray Whelan, a political troubleshooter who eventually wins election to Australia's parliament. I've seen the books billed as comic thrillers. I'm not sure about the thriller part -- The Big Ask seems more like a straightforward crime story so far -- but the comic description is dead-on. A good comic novel is comic from the beginning. The Big Ask is comic even before its beginning. Here's Maloney's version of the customary disclaimer about similarity between the story and real life:

The author of this book, its setting and its characters are entirely fictitious. There is no such place as Melbourne. The Australian Labor Party exists only in the imagination of its members.

Whelan's profession is the second noticeable novelty. Politics, with its skullduggery, its negative research, and its dirty financial deeds, is a perfect forum for a crime story. I slap my forehead and wonder why no one had thought of writing a detective story with a political-operative protagonist before. (And the floor is open. Feel free to suggest any I have missed.)

Next is the dry humor. Whelan is the book's narrator as well its protagonist, and he relates often hilarious events without seeming to be aware of how hilarious they are. This sets him apart from, say, Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum. When he is aware, he pokes only gentle, deadpan fun. This dry and gentle wit is all the more impressive, coming as it does in a novel whose plot concerns that most ungentle of subjects, labor strife and violence.

Here's Whelan's boss, a beleaguered government minister, confronting a labor leader, as Whelan waits dutifully by his boss' side:

`You want to talk plans, Howard," said Agnelli, `you should drop in on the Minister for Planning. He's got plans coming out his arsehole. Isn't that right. Murray?'

`Arsehole,' I agreed.

And here's Whelan with an outnumbered group of union reformers:

Roscoe looked me up and down with new interest, then unbuttoned his denim jacket and displayed the slogan emblazoned across his chest. Vote Reform Group, it read, Stop the Sharpe Sellout.

`Reform Group?' I said. `Who's that?'

`Us,' said Donny. `Me, Roscoe and Len.'

A final note: Maloney has a sharp eye for headlinese, that sometimes weird compression of language that copy editors/sub-editors are forced into when writing headlines. "STUHL SLAMS GOVT COSTS," reads one of the novel's fictional headlines, and the pitch is perfect. I can see that sucker crammed into a single column, the copy editor flipping through his mental repertoire of short, monosyllabic verbs. As an employee of the dying American newspaper industry, I was especially impressed with this.

Another final note, to Australian readers: This novel is set in Melbourne. So are Garry Disher's Hal Challis novels. Does Melbourne occupy a special position in the imagination of Australian crime writers? Is it an Australian counterpart to New York, Chicago or San Francisco?

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Will Blogger ever let me post a comment again?

I've been unable to post comments since last night. Instead, I keep getting a message that Blogger's engineers are aware of the problem. Is anyone else having trouble with this?

OK, I can post comments now, but Blogger's help desk is not working. May I suggest Blogger change its name to something more reflective of what its users get, say, Internal Error?

Wednesday: Blogger Problem. Status code: 1-500-3, anyone?
Thursday: Blogger seems to be bugged by a series of annoying but not terribly serious problems: I can't upload a photo. The links to the help desk aren't working and have not been for several days, at least the links I've tried.

An arresting Spanish site

Detectives literarios is an interesting and eclectic site for those who read Spanish (and what better way to practice a language than reading about detective fiction?)

Among the detectives you'll meet in the introduction are Marco Didio Falco (Marcus Didius Falco, to those of us who read in Latin or English), Salvo Montalbano, Hercule Poirot, Perry Mason, Philip Marlowe, Joseph Rouletabille, Lew Archer, Philo Vance, Sherlock Holmes, Kurt Wallander, Guido Brunetti, Kostas Jaritos, Nastia Kaménskaya, Michael Ohayon, Harry Bosch, John Rebus "y tantos otros." Subjects of recent posts include Chester Himes, Patricia Highsmith and Yasmina Khadra. That's a nice list.

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Friday, November 03, 2006

What's a crime novel? (Modesty Blaise)

Among my haul at Murder One was Modesty Blaise (the novel, not the comic strip). The book is full of evil villains, 1960s-style sex (You know, lots of it, but no dirty words), fiendishly clever secret weapons, and humor. But what made it interesting was a blurb on the back cover.

No, the blurb does not compare author Peter O'Donnell to Ian Rankin. But it does call the Modesty Blaise series "seminal British crime novels." And the blurb comes from Crime Time, so it was not written by some know-nothing reviewer.

I'd have considered Modesty Blaise a thriller rather than a crime novel, so let's call this one more of those salutary reminders that one should not be a stickler for categories. Besides, I am not the only crime/detective-fiction reader who regards Modesty Blaise as a guilty pleasure. A reviewer in Mystery Guide writes: "It's a good thing I don't belong to any mystery fans' associations, because they'd probably kick me out for admitting that I have a secret weakness for Modesty Blaise."

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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More from Bitter Lemon

I, too, have now received notice of Bitter Lemon Press' updated Web site. As I noted when I first saw the new site, the latest catalogue contains a first for this fine imprint: two novels whose original language is English, Garry Disher's The Dragon Man (May 2007 in the United Kingdom) and D.B., by Elwood Reid (November 2006 in the U.K.).

The site also brings the good news of another novel from the great Friedrich Glauser: The Chinaman, with publication dates of February 2007 in the U.K. and November 2007 in the U.S. Like the first three Glauser titles published by Bitter Lemon, this is translated by Mike Mitchell. Long before I ever thought much about the job translators do, I noticed an interesting challenge that Mitchell must have faced: how to convey the speech of characters who slip in and out of various German dialects. Here's what Mitchell had to say on the subject in an excellent article on translating crime fiction that I cited a few weeks back:

"Thumbprint ... is set in Switzerland and the language is an important part of the setting. (Whether Swiss is a 'dialect' or not is something I won't go into here.) Mostly the characters speak 'normal' colloquial German with the odd Swiss word or phrase. Sometimes they speak broad Swiss: this is impossible to copy, if only because there is no English 'dialect' which has a status and usage comparable to Swiss, not even Scots. ...

Glauser tells us his detective, Studer, normally speaks the German of Bern, though as I said above, what appears on the page is mostly ordinary colloquial German; but sometimes, when he's angry, Studer speaks 'formal' (close to written) German. The author points this out, as a way of indicating his mood. Another character speaks a mixture of Swiss and formal German which doesn't sound quite authentic and, again, Glauser points this out. I've copied this commenting on the characters' language, doing it in places where the author doesn't, where it seemed to me that the particular type of language used reflected mood or feeling. I felt I could do this because the author's 'voice' makes that kind of comment. Beyond that, I have kept a few Swiss words and phrases, where the meaning is clear enough, in order to try and emphasise the Swiss background (e.g. 'Chabis' = cabbage = nonsense)."

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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A source for short stories.

Those hard-working people at Crime Down Under have started an online crime-fiction magazine. The first issue of The Outpost offers six short stories by Australian and New Zealand writers, and plans are to publish quarterly.

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