Monday, April 30, 2007

The New Yorker gets it partly right

I remember the night I figured out my place in the Philadelphia ******er's universe. I was proofreading stories in the sports department, and I came across one that said the local football team's quarterback had "shattered his knee." The trouble was that he had torn a ligament. Ripped, shredded or tore up might have worked, but shattered was plainly the wrong word to describe a tearing injury.

I pointed this out to the night sports editor, who looked at me as if I were from Mars. A reporter standing nearby added helpfully, "It's a matter of semantics." Well, yes, it was a matter of semantics – a matter of meaning, a matter of figuring out what you intend to say, then using the right word to say it. I don't remember if anyone corrected the mistake, but the night sports editor eventually enjoyed a career full of promotions ever higher into management, and the reporter eventually was rewarded with a major beat. As for good, crisp, accurate prose, the people who count at the ******er have always agreed with the eye-rolling reporter: it's a matter of semantics, in the dismissive sense of the word.

Why mention this here? Because I'm grateful to Clive James for raising the question of prose style in his recent New Yorker article, Blood On The Borders: Crime fiction from all over. It's a curious piece, with a conclusion that might anger crime-fiction readers and some slack reporting that frustrated this reader of international crime fiction, but it got at least one important matter right: Good prose is important.

James accuses Massimo Carlotto of bad writing, and he cites this example from The Master of Knots: “We’ve absolutely got to find a way of stopping the Master of Knots and his gang," Max said angrily. James fails to consider that poor translation may be the problem, but he's right; that's a bad sentence. I enjoyed seeing an attack on bad prose in crime fiction that went beyond ritual bashing of Dan Brown.

So much for one paragraph from Clive James' amble through the world of international crime fiction. Maybe I'll discuss the substance of his piece later. In the meantime, read it, and let me know what you think.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007
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Sunday, April 29, 2007

An evening with Inger Frimansson, Kjell Eriksson, Håkan Nesser and Helene Tursten, Part III (The funny part)

Is there such thing as a New Wave in Swedish crime fiction? "All of us are so different," Håkan Nesser says.

In one respect, at least, Nesser's work is different from what I'd known of Swedish crime writing previously, which is to say Henning Mankell, Helene Tursten, and a bit of Liza Marklund: It's shot through with playfulness that can break into raucous, slapstick humor. Chapter II of The Return, for example, is a droll account of a chaotic school outing that would have been hell for its leader but is fun to read about.

Borkmann's Point has an amusing solution to a married couple's difficulties at achieving intimacy in crowded quarters, and I discuss the novel's brevity and wit here. Clive James complains in a recent New Yorker article about the indeterminacy of Nesser's settings. To me, some of the ways Nesser achieves that indeterminacy (names that are not quite Swedish, not quite Dutch, for example) add to the novels' fun.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Win "The Return" by Håkan Nesser ...

... if you live in the UK. The Crime & Investigation Network is offering the chance to win five copies of the novel here. Enter, win, and see for yourself what I've been raving about.

A land of mystery

From the redoubtable Euro Crime comes this note about The Shadow Walker by Michael Walters. Why do I mention this? Because the novel (along with the same author's The Adversary) has an unusual setting: Mongolia.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Language schools and other shady settings

I don't know why I think of this now, other than the shark-like principle that governs blogging (For sharks, the credo is keep swimming, or die. For bloggers, it's keep posting, or die), but I realized that Peter Lovesey's The Summons was not the first crime novel I had read in which a language school is a focus of shady dealings. In that book, a character's desire to cover up dodgy matters at such a school is presented as credible motive for murder. Some time earlier, I had read Michael Dibdin's Dirty Tricks, whose protagonist gets himself in a whole lot of trouble, starting with his job at a sleazy language school.

In neither novel do the principal crimes take place at language school, but both books present such schools the way earlier writers presented saloons or used-car dealerships. They are places where bad, dishonest things are just waiting to happen.

So, dear readers, name some other prototypically disreputable locations from your crime reading.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

An evening with Inger Frimansson, Kjell Eriksson, Håkan Nesser and Helene Tursten, Part II

Four of Sweden's top crime writers have something in common: They didn't start out as crime writers.

Helene Tursten was a nurse, then a dentist who began writing when an illness made it difficult for her to continue practicing dentistry. Kjell Eriksson was well into his career as landscape gardener before he published his first novel, and he didn't publish his first crime book until several years after that.

Håkan Nesser was a teacher, and Inger Frimansson, who says she had wanted to be a writer from an early age, became a journalist and an author of fifteen books before she turned to crime. "I thought if I wrote from a woman's perspective, I could change the world," Frimansson says of her pre-crime work, "but then I got bored."

Nesser said he started writing after an alternating-weeks joint-custody agreement in his divorce gave him free time he had not had earlier. "I had seven nights!" he says. Even then, according to Nesser, "I didn't intend to write a crime story, but since I had killed a woman in the bath tub ... "

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

An evening with Inger Frimansson, Kjell Eriksson, Håkan Nesser and Helene Tursten, Part I

I've just returned from a reading by Inger Frimansson, Kjell Eriksson, Håkan Nesser and Helene Tursten. I spoke with all four during and after the event, and I'll present parts of those discussions and selections from their remarks over the next few days.

The evening's second reading concluded with a passage that muses on the place of leeches in the universe. "Leeches don't deserve to live," declares a character in Frimansson's Goodnight, My Darling before crushing one of the slimy bloodsuckers. The leeches are among the torments inflicted on Frimansson's protagonist, Justine, a character for whom the author has profound sympathy.

Frimansson, neither a bully nor a victim during her youth, by her own account, nonetheless recalls seeing a group of boys grind a girl's face into the snow. The girl's resulting asthma attack made a profound impression. "I remember how we stood there looking, clinically looking, and now we understood that this was asthma," she said.

Years later, after Frimansson had started writing books, "I had to help her get revenge, but how? I was her creator. ... I felt that I had to use my fantasy to help Justine get her revenge. ... I decided to send her out into the world so she could kill."

For Kjell Eriksson, the sympathy takes the form of identification with his neighbors in Uppsala, a Swedish city known for its university, the oldest in Scandinavia (founded in 1477). It, along with the city's main cultural attractions, is on the west side of the Fyris River. "I'm on the wrong side if you're talking literature," Eriksson said. "I'm from the east side. ... I had no dreams to become a writer." Instead, Eriksson left school at fifteen and became a landscape gardener, a career he says included one job at a nuclear power plant.

Eriksson says the main purpose of his crime novels "is to describe my home town, my society, the conflict between east and west." Early in his novel The Princess of Burundi, a man with a lengthy though small-time criminal past is found murdered, likely tortured to death. "Little John is dead," the police chief tells a meeting of investigators convened to discuss the case. "There are probably those of us who don't think that's much of a loss. ... That would be a pity, however," and he proceeds to explain why. That is an unexpected note in a police procedural.

Eriksson says he bases characters on local residents, and he acknowledges his fellow feeling with those characters: "They are my neighbors."

Tursten, three of whose novels about Göteborg Detective Inspector Irene Huss have been translated into English, said she "wanted to create a female investigator that would be believable as a good cop." That meant she was older than twenty-five and lacked the looks of a runway model. "She's intelligent, she has intuition, but she's not intellectual; she doesn't have time."

Detective Inspector Huss, the first of the books to be translated, includes a subplot about one of Huss' daughters and her involvement with racist music and the people who play it. The subplot stemmed from Tursten's alarm at the strength of the neo-Nazi movement in Sweden, the biggest in Europe at the time she wrote the book, she says. (Read more of my comments about Helene Tursten here – scroll down after clicking – including Irene Huss' special skills at observing her colleagues' behavior.)

Håkan Nesser expresses his sympathy in several ways, some of which I discuss here (scroll down after clicking), others of which are harder to talk about without giving away critical plot elements. But he did say that his excellent novel The Return was spurred by a notorious Swedish murder case in which a man spent twenty-four years in prison based on dubious evidence.

Each of the four writers has a different take on the question of sympathy for his or her characters. "We are not interested in telling how to kill people," Eriksson says. Frimansson, whose writing is significantly different from that of the others in at least one respect – she declares flatly that she has no interest in how police solve crimes – nodded when I suggested a compassionate interest in characters as a common element. "I think we all have that sympathy," she said.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Blog with Ken Bruen

The Rap Sheet (to which, a firm handshake and a big hat tip) mentions Ken Bruen's guest appearances at the Murderati blog. Yep, the man's worth reading.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The international side of Mystery Readers Journal

I have now received the print version of Mystery Readers Journal's Ethnic Detectives, Part I issue, the online version of which I wrote about recently. Much of the issue focuses on "ethnic" detectives in the United States, including several articles that wonder what terms such as ethnic and outsider really mean.

Two of the articles relate more directly to international crime fiction: Adrian Hyland's, on how the Central Australian Outback drew him in, and Matt Beynon Rees's, on his novel The Collaborator of Bethlehem. I've written about Hyland's novel Diamond Dove before, and I'd read about his affection for the people of the Outback. Here he expands on this matter and talks also of his love for the land.

I haven't read Rees yet, but he has some interesting things to say about his setting and his novel, the first of a series. Here's my favorite:

By learning the language, I was able to give my characters some of the formalized greetings and blessings that are an important part of Palestinian speech. I translated them, rather than just putting the original Arabic phrase in italics, because I wanted readers to get the poetry of everyday speech. For example, to wish someone good morning my characters say `Morning of joy,' and the response is `Morning of light.' When someone gives them a cup of coffee, they tell them `May Allah bless your hands' Isn't that beautiful?
© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Aussie pulp

That hard-working Karen Chisholm at AustCrime, who reads more books and keeps more lists than you could shake a stick at, posts an especially interesting article about author Joe Blake and his resurrection of Australian pulp tradition.

The first of Blake's two novels has one of the great titles ever: Murder is Never Pretty ... Even When the Corpse Is a Blonde, and the title of the second is no slouch either: Warning Shots Last. Here's an excerpt from the latter: "You can shoot a man hard or you can shoot a man soft. Hard would have been in the guts or the nuts or the knees. Considering what he had done I shot him soft, too soft for the rabid mongrel dog he was. I shot him right in the middle of his forehead."

Blake also paints vivid nocturnal word pictures. Here's the opening of Murder is Never Pretty ... (excerpt available on Blake's Web site):

"I was cruising west along Great Eastern Highway, going nowhere in particular, waiting for the call. It was one of those nights. It was hot, the moon was full and the dregs of society were restless. Black clouds hung over the Perth hills to the east and we'd had a drizzle of rain. It was enough to bring out the smell of hot tar."
Doesn't that convey a sense of place? And isn't that one reason to read international crime fiction?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Ken (Bruen) likes Karin (Fossum)

I haven't always liked Ken Bruen's penchant for epigraphs and chapter headings taken from other books, but in Calibre, the device works. Perhaps that's because the novel's killer takes his inspiration from a book: Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, another crime novel about an outwardly calm, intensely self-aware psychopath.

Bruen being Bruen, though, his killer is far funnier than Thompson's or anyone else's. Here he is in his own words:

I'm not going to get caught. I'm due for another kill on Friday, a woman this time, keep the balance. The reason I won't get caught is not just cos I'm smart but I have an edge.

I watch CSI.

Kids? Would I kill a kid? No way, José. Not unless he was in a boy band.

Ever see that profile shine they pedal[sic]? Me now, they'd
typically pin as:

White (true)
Late twenties,
early thirties (wrong)

Loner (mm...mmm)

Impotent (hey!)
Narcissistic (well okay, I'll
give them that)

Low-paying job (nope)
No partner
(wrong again)

Quiet (I'm a party animal).

In addition to the Thompson (and Cornell Woolrich, Charles Willeford and Raymond Chandler) reading killer, the loud, violent, manipulative, bribe-taking but oddly upright Sergeant Brant is back, not just reading Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels, but this time trying to write one himself. So, with both sides of the law -- London killer and London cops -- immersed in pop culture, the chapter headings comment on and reflect the novel's action, rather than standing outside it, awkward and self-indulgent, the way they sometimes do.

The authors Bruen chooses for his epigraphs and headings are no surprise, for the most part: Thompson, Willeford and Elmore Leonard, to name three. One, however, was unexpected, a nod from an author of violent, hysterically funny hard-boiled books to one of quieter psychological crime novels: Karin Fossum. Chapter 16 is preceded by this, from Fossum's He Who Fears the Wolf:

"The only interesting people in the world are the losers," she said. "Or rather, those we call losers. Every type of deviation contains an element of rebellion. And I've never been able to understand a lack of rebelliousness."
By the way, the killer in Calibre has an unusual set of targets: He murders people who have bad manners.

Bruen, of course, may be the hottest and most prolific crime novelist in the world, but critical attention focuses mostly on his Jack Taylor novels or his standalones. The Brant or Brant and Roberts books, of which Calibre is the sixth, with a seventh due this year, deserve to be better known. Sure, it's easy to see Bruen's inspiration; he doesn't bother hiding it. It's McBain's 87th Precinct books. But he puts his family of officers through changes McBain never set down on paper. There has simply never been anything else like this violent, brawling, drinking, cocaine-snorting -- and side-splittingly funny -- gang in crime fiction.

Read about the Brant novels on Bruen's Web site here. I predict that if these novels ever gain the attention they deserve, some adventurous theater producer will find them ripe for the funniest, most violent Broadway crime musical ever.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Commentary on Khadra

An article in CrimeSpree Magazine's online version shares thoughts about Yasmina Khadra, whose many novels include four about the Algiers police inspector Brahim Llob. The article discusses some of the controversies surrounding the complex figure of Khadra, among them his service in Algeria's army.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Meet, greet and eat with Swedish crime writers

Janet Rudolph of Mystery Readers Journal and Mystery Readers International will host an evening with Helene Tursten and Inger Frimansson, and "other surprises" possible at her home in Berkeley, California:

When: May 1, 2007
Time: 7 p.m.
Where: Janet Rudolph's home, Berkeley, California.
Directions: E-mail
What to Bring: Swedish hors d'oeuvres/food/drink -pickup type food, if possible
RSVP: Space is limited for this event.
Books: MRI will not have books available at this event, so please order your books in advance from M is for Mystery, the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore or your local store or online. Tursten and Frimansson will talk as well as sign at this intimate evening of mystery.

Helene Tursten is the author of the award-winning series featuring Detective Inspector Huss. The latest is "The Glass Devil" (Soho). Inger Frimansson is another of Sweden's most celebrated writers. "Good Night, My Darling" and "The Shadow in the Water" were named Best Mystery Novel of the Year in 1998 and 2005. "Good Night, My Darling" is coming out in translation this month (Pleasure Boat Studio). There may be some other surprises. RSVP early.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

When authors spring a surprise in mid-series

A discussion at the Oz Mystery Readers group sparked thoughts of the ways crime writers shake things up mid-series. Peter Lovesey, whose novel The House Sitter is the Oz group's current subject, has brought Peter Diamond back into the Bath police force and killed off his wife. In He Who Fears the Wolf, Karin Fossum pulls her protagonist into the background and makes him part of an ensemble cast in which suspects and victims are far more prominent.

The late Michael Dibdin livened things up in the fifth of his Aurelio Zen books by basing the story on a Mozart opera. And then there's that gushing fountain of ideas, Donald Westlake, who has shared chapters with other authors, who has had the characters in his comic Dortmunder series plan a heist based on an imaginary novel in his decidedly un-comic Parker series, and who has used the same opening chapter in novels in two different series, with the action in each book then following a different character.

How have your favorite writers changed things up in mid-series? Did the changes work? And tell me about some of the stranger changes. Can you think of anything wilder than Dibdin's wonderful opera plot in Cosi Fan Tutti?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

New issue of Mystery Readers Journal

The Spring 2007 issue of Mystery Readers Journal is online and off the presses. It includes essays and reviews by Reed Farrel Coleman, Adrian Hyland, S.J. Rozan, Barbara Nadel, the Friends of Chester Himes, and many more, including a review by yours truly of Hyland's Diamond Dove (to be titled Moonlight Downs in its U.S. release from Soho Press).

Each issue of Mystery Readers Journal is devoted to a theme, often of special interest to readers of international crime fiction. Recent issues discussed mysteries set in Italy and mysteries set in the Far East, for example.

The new issue is the first of two on ethnic detectives, with articles on "The Post-Charlie Chan Era", "Who Is Ethnic?", "The Outsiders" and other interesting, even provocative topics. The Mystery Readers Journal link gives you the table of contents for the print magazine, with links to selected articles available online and to information about Mystery Readers International.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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A good opening lion

I don't normally read historical mysteries, but it's hard to resist an opening like this, from Lindsey Davis' One Virgin Too Many:

I had just come home after telling my favorite sister that her husband had been eaten by a lion. I was in no mood for greeting a new client.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

He Who Fears the Wolf, Karin Fossum (Part II)

Even the dogs are thinkers in He Who Fears the Wolf. A team of police dogs and their handlers close in on the suspect in a bank robbery, and how do the handlers motivate the dogs? With psychology, of course:
"After fifteen minutes the handlers changed places and let Zeb go first. The competitive instinct was immediately aroused, and the dogs intensified their efforts." (The italics are mine.)
It is typical of this novel that Fossum defines even the most minor characters, human or canine, by what they think first, and later by what they do. This, perhaps even more than the sympathetic care givers I mentioned in my earlier comment, is what makes this such a humane and gentle novel, even toward the one character who turns out to be rather unsympathetic.
I don't know what movies Fossum likes, but this novel reminds me of the famous line from Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game: "You see, in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons." At least, it reminds me of the second part of the line.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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An honorable mention

Detectives Beyond Borders has made it onto Library Journal's list of Eight Top Mystery Blogs with an asterisk. I'm not one of the eight, but I'm pleased to rate an "also check out ... " behind the estimable Euro Crime.

It's a good list, a balance among reference, news, author and review sites. This blog is in good company.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

He Who Fears the Wolf (by Karin Fossum)

Chief Inspector Konrad Sejer comes on the scene surprisingly late in He Who Fears the Wolf, the second of this Norwegian author's novels about Sejer to be translated into English (three more translations have followed), and once he arrives, Fossum lets us see him mainly through the eyes of other characters:

"What's your boss like? Tell me about him."

Skarre smiled. This was a common reaction when someone came across Konrad Sejer.

"Stern and gray. Slightly authoritarian. Reserved. Smart. Sharp as a scythe. Thorough, patient, dependable, and persistent. With a soft spot for little children and old ladies."

"Not anyone in between?"

Skarre gazed out the window. "He has forgotten that the only promise he made was to remain true to her until death separated them. He thinks that means his own death."
Look how much Fossum does in just a few lines. She tells the reader about her protagonist without falling prey to the dreaded "he looked at himself in the mirror and didn't like what he saw" syndrome. She injects a bit of humor and lets us know that Sejer's assistant regards him with respect and affection -- a valuable piece of information in a police procedural. And she gives a far more evocative description than is usual of the lonely middle-aged detective.

But the passage's most distinctive aspect is its perspective: One character, rather than an omniscient or third-person narrator, does the describing. Elsewhere, an escaped inmate from a mental institution analyzes a bank robber in a way that will make you smile, and a psychologist analyzes Sejer based on Sejer's manipulations of a toy toad.

Sure, the novel contains lengthy passages that probe its criminals' states of mind. But that's not what makes He Who Fears the Wolf a psychological novel, at least not in the book's first half. Rather, almost everyone is a psychologist: Sejer, the escaped inmate, and the bank robber. A resident of a home for troubled boys who discovers a killing. Oh, and the psychologist and Fossum herself, who grants us probing access to the minds of even solitary characters. And the psychologizing is never oppressive. It's just what these people do. It's the aspect of character and action that apparently fascinates Fossum.

I'll post a comment on the novel's second half once I've read it.

The novel's first hundred or so pages offer scenes with supervising staff members of the mental institution and of the home for troubled boys. The institutions themselves may be grim, but the two supervisors are exceptionally wise and humane, at least in their initial appearances. This is a change from the Nurse Ratcheds of the world whom many us may be used to, or from the self-imporant bureaucrats who run the institutions that fill Friedrich Glauser's books.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Yasmina Khadra goes to the movies

A new post brings the exciting news that the movie version of Yasmina Khadra's Morituri is to be released in France April 25. The site offers clips, stills, reviews, production notes, and interviews with Khadra and director Okacha Touita. The clips make the movie look like an urban war film, and Khadra's comments lead me to expect a film noir. Both are entirely appropriate, given the bleak and draining atmosphere of 1990s Algiers, as pictured in Khadra's novels about police Inspector Brahim Llob.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

A passport to Africa

Daliso Chaponda's "Heroic Proportions," another story from the Passport to Crime collection, begins with a dictator dead on a toilet and an investigator whose job is to ferret out the killer from among the ambitious political pretenders who rush forward to claim credit. Does this sound like a joke? That's no surprise; Chaponda, born in Malawi and now, if I am tracking his tangled history correctly, living in the United Kingdom after being forced to leave Canada once his visa ran out, is a stand-up comic.

The story takes advantage of its setting with matter-of-fact observations on the aftermath of looting that followed the dictator's death -- not the sort of thing one finds in most crime fiction.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Friday, April 13, 2007

You don't have to read German ...

... to enjoy Krimi-Couch (denn Lesen ist spannender), an attractive and wide-ranging German crime-fiction Web site. The Krimis nach Regionen link, for example, offers comprehensive lists of crime fiction by region. Its categories include crime fiction from the Benelux countries, the Middle East, and Africa, for instance; I've already found an author or two whose work I'll look for.

The subject of translations and their availability in the English-speaking world comes up on crime-fiction blogs from time to time. It's interesting to see which translated authors German readers get to read.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Mystery music, part II

In February, I posted a comment about fictional sleuths and their musical tastes. I saved a little sneer for Ian Rankin's John Rebus and his penchant for the Rolling Stones not because I have anything against the Stones, but because their music is so popular that a taste for it is insufficiently unusual to serve as a character marker.

In The Devil's Star, however, Jo Nesbø uses rock and roll as an amusing marker for his protagonist, Harry Hole, at least three times, once invoking the Stones:

"Hi, Øystein. Harry here. Have you got anyone in the car?"

"Just Mick and Keith."


"The world's greatest band.



"The Stones are not the world's greatest band. Not even the world's second greatest band. What they are is the world's most overrated band. And it wasn't Keith or Mick who wrote `Wild Horses.' It was Gram Parsons."

"That's lies and you know it. I'm ringing off – "

"Hello? Øystein?"

"Say something nice to me. Quickly."

"`Under My Thumb' is not a bad tune. And `Exile on Main Street' has its moments."

"Fine. What do you want?"

"I need help."

That's funny and real, and its occurrence at a moment of tension makes it funnier and more real. Perhaps that's because Jo Nesbø is a funnier writer than Ian Rankin. Or perhaps it's because Nesbø is himself a rock musician and can write about the subject with passion and humor.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

A German passport to crime: Gunter Gerlach

The subject of Germany and its lack of a deep crime-fiction tradition has come up here and elsewhere, with speculation tying the lack to the country's dreadful past. ("It is probably due to the long tradition of authoritarian states and totalitarian social conditions that we have only been able to talk about a phenomenon of the `German crime novel' since around 1962," according to this article on a Goethe Institute Web page.)

Passport to Crime, last year's volume of short stories collected from the monthly feature of the same name in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, includes the excellent "Wedding in Voerde," by Gunter Gerlach, born in Leipzig and living in Hamburg. An introductory note says none of Gerlach's thirteen novels is available in English.

If "Wedding in Voerde" is any indication, that's a loss to readers of English. The story, deadpan and slapstick at the same time, relates the familiar tale of two robbers freed from prison who set out to get their share of the loot from the accomplice who avoided capture. But nothing goes quite right. Their car breaks down. One of them is constantly burning himself, falling off stolen bicycles and running into trees.

When the pair finally find the accomplice, on his wedding day, neither the accomplice nor his bride acts as anyone expects. An air of guileless confusion pervades the tale until Ullrich, the accident-prone thief, brings the end of the pair's quest within reach -- unexpectedly, of course. It's no wonder that the article cited above says that "Writers such as Jakob Arjouni, Gunter Gerlach, Roger M. Fiedler, Jörg Juretzka or Norbert Klugmann (and) Peter Matthews clinically play with stereotypes."

The story is comic, with the barest hints, rapid as musical grace notes, suggesting darker possibilities. "Wedding in Voerde" won the Friedrich Glauser prize for short fiction in 2005, according to the story's introduction. Gerlach merits mention with the great Glauser.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Scandinavian pentagrams (Jo Nesbø)

What was up in Norway and Sweden in the last years of the twentieth century and the early years of this one? I wrote recently about The Glass Devil, the third of Helene Tursten's novels translated from Swedish into English, and last night I finished Jo Nesbø's The Devil's Star.

Satanism and pentagrams figure in both books in a specific, highly similar way, and not just as a plot element. The authors' use of satanic motifs says much about their attitudes toward religion and evil in their own countries, it seems to me, and I'll hope to ask Helene Tursten about this in Toronto in two weeks. I'll refrain from saying more, lest I give away plot elements, but I invite comment from anyone who has read both novels. And if you haven't read them, then do so.

Nesbø's Harry Hole is an alcoholic Oslo police detective called in to work a murder case only because so many of his colleagues are out sick or on summer holidays (the weather is just one of several familiar elements that Nesbø uses in odd and unexpected ways. Steaming streets. Fraying tempers. Long, hot summers. You've seen it before, but in Scandinavia?) Hole has come close to drinking his way off the force, and for much of the novel, his dismissal papers lie on a desk, awaiting his boss's signature.

The young woman's killing, with seemingly ritual elements, including specific, selective mutilation of her body, is followed by two more, which means postponement of the end for Harry Hole's career. Hole uses oddly gained insights, keen guesses, good detective work, and thoroughly modern technical means to track down the killer. A confrontation with the murderer ensues, though not the climactic one. The life-and-death meeting, an effectively chilling one – and it's not with the killer – comes later.

The novel is rich in incident, in subplot, in deliciously slowed-down narrative passages, but the centerpiece is the protagonist. Hole is the most alcoholic fictional detective I have ever come across. He passes out, he sleeps poorly, and he is tortured by nightmares from his past. Yet he is oddly accepting of his fate, if not passive, and this makes him compelling figure and likeable.

He's a good detective, too, able to rely on unexpected intuitions and constantly analytical of his own ways of seeing and hearing. And not just of his own ways. As the investigation nears its peak and the tension builds, Hole compares a seemingly perfect crime to a perfectly tuned piano: There is something off, suspicious, not quite right about either. The crime part of the insight is Hole's. The piano part is from Duke Ellington.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Language beyond and within borders

I posted a comment on Oz Mystery Readers about the colorful language in Chris Nyst's Crook as Rookwood, and a reader offered this touching reply:

"Thank you, Peter. Sometimes it takes someone not born in Australia to point out just how colourful the Australian vernacular can be. I did read all of those and took them as a matter of course."

Here are some examples of that vernacular, explanations courtesy of Peter Macinnis of Oz Mystery Readers:

" ... his minders became very particular about who got within cooee of their boss." (Cooee is a call, originally used by Aborigines -- it sounds like that, but the call is strung out, and the end rises in tone. ... A good cooee! can carry for 3 km, and people would use cooee calls to get together, or to indicate that they were inbound. So "within cooee" can mean you are still two miles off.)

"She was the one who'd tipped the bucket of prawn-heads all over his career in the police in the first place." (When you leave a hated place of work or residence, a couple of prawn heads inserted into the tubular steel leg of a desk can wreak havoc for weeks. Smart people put their prawn heads in the freezer until garbage night.)

"All I know is, three weeks ago you're throwing sheep stations at me to find this old guy" (A sheep station is a large farm with lots of, umm, sheep. The "station" was originally the central point on a large and unfenced run in a time when people just went out and grabbed some land. ... Think ranch, and you won't be far off.)

The frequent reference to deals and a political party's record keeping as shonky. (Shonky means what it sounds like: dodgy, bent, crooked, not to be trusted.)

Not only are such expressions beguiling, but they are reminders that English is quite probably the richest language in the world because so many people from so many places speak it and have spoken it. (See this post for beguiling words from an Indian crime novel written in English, but make sure you're over eighteen.)

So read Christ Nyst. And be careful where you put your prawn heads.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Monday, April 09, 2007

... and a list of European author sites

The Euro Crime family of fine Web sites offers this list of European authors' Web sites, home pages and authors' groups. Not all the sites are in English, so you can even brush up on a language by reading about your favorite authors in Russian, French, Dutch or Spanish.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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A handy checklist of Nordic mysteries

I've just found this list of Nordic mysteries, published last year by the Marin County Free Library. It's almost a year old so not quite up to date, but it makes a nice shopping and reading list for crime fiction from Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Iceland.

It states that no Finnish mysteries are available in English translation, which is not quite the case. Some of Matti Joensuu's work is available, at least in used copies, and there is always my man Pentti Kirstila, whose deadpan short story "Brown Eyes and Green Hair" is available in The Oxford Book of Detective Stories (An International Selection).

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

You slept with a WHAT???

If Shane Maloney and Chris Nyst ever get together for a drink, the two entertaining Australian crime novelists may find they share certain views on politico-sexual morality.

Here's a worried political fixer in Nyst's Crook as Rookwood:

"Sharpey's missus Lainie was certain to go totally ballistic if that young bloke from the Age published the breaking story that the newly appointed Foreign Affairs Minister Gary Sharpe had been bunning the ex-Victorian National Party leader Frances Hutton. ... Extramarital affairs were bad enough in the Labor heartland, but porking a conservative was unforgiveable."

And here's Murray Whelan in Maloney's The Big Ask, upon catching his boss in bed with a ... well, let Whelan tell the story:

"(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."

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Friday, April 06, 2007

More readings the same week!

I juggled my schedule so I could go hear Carlo Lucarelli and Massimo Carlotto read in New York, and then I found out that Håkan Nesser and Helene Tursten are reading in Toronto the same night. OK, readers, which reading should I attend?

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

... and I'm working that week

Black & Blue: Mediterranean Noir Comes to New York, April 25-28, is dedicated to the memory of Jean-Claude Izzo. Its programs of readings and discussions includes appearances by Yasmina Khadra, Carlo Lucarelli, Massimo Carlotto and Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett and a documentary film featuring Lucarelli and Andrea Camilleri.

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Crook as Rookwood

The Oz mystery readers group (free sign-up) is discussing Crook as Rookwood by Chris Nyst, a co-winner with Peter Temple's The Broken Shore of the 2006 Ned Kelly Award as best crime novel.
2006 was obviously a hell of a year for crime novels in Australia, at least at the top of the list. I praise The Broken Shore to the skies, and so far I've enjoyed the very different Crook as Rookwood as well. A hundred pages in, Nyst shows great flair for mixing humor and menace, for plunging headfirst into the dirtiest of politics, and for incisive courtroom drama. That a lot of flair for just 100 pages, but Nyst also tells a story quickly, beginning scenes in mid-conversation, wasting few words, jumping from an event to its consequences years later.
Nyst comes by his courtroom knowledge firsthand. He's a high-profile criminal lawyer in Australia, and a number of the Oz mystery readers think the novel's gadfly lawyer, Eddie Moran, is a version of Nyst. And the title? Turn to page 30: "In these parts, it things weren't good, they weren't bad, they were `crook', and if things were really crook then they were `crook as Rookwood', because Rookwood was where the cemetery was, and simple working folk knew well enough that when you got as crook as you could be you ended up in Rookwood."
Nyst has a nice ear for the cadences of speech, too.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Michael Dibdin is dead at 60

Through the Rap Sheet comes the sad news that Michael Dibdin, author of the Aurelio Zen crime novels, has died at age 60. The item links to an obituary from the Telegraph that offers interesting insights into Dibdin, that cleverest of crime authors. A biographical note here includes a bibliography.

Here is what I wrote about Dibdin, Zen and the novel Cosi Fan Tutti in my first post on this blog (Cosi Fan Tutti is almost surely the only crime-novel version of a Mozart opera that you will ever read) :

3) Cosi Fan Tutti, by Michael Dibdin, is an exception to my general distaste for novels set in "foreign" countries by writers not from those countries. Such books often degenerate into travelogues. This novel is formally daring, and talk about surprise endings! Dibdin, an Englishman, spent several years teaching in Italy, and his charmingly named protagonist, Aurelio Zen, offers a kind of Baedeker's guide to official Italian corruption and internecine rivalry, each novel set in a different region: Naples here, the Vatican, Venice, the south in other books. And Rome. Always Rome. "Zen" is a name characteristic of the protagonist's native Venice, but it also has overtones of the detachment with which this Zen moves through the sometimes deadly worlds of Italian officialdom and gangsterdom. Of course, the character's other name, Aurelio, is another clue that he is wise and given to occasional musing, if not outright meditation.

Aurelio is the Italian form of Aurelius, as in Marcus Aurelius, that most philosophical Roman emperor.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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The Glass Devil (Helene Tursten)

Back when I read the first of this Swedish author's novels about Detective Inspector Irene Huss to be translated into English, I noted the protagonist's impressive ability to integrate a sane family life with the schedule of a hard-working investigator of homicides. I also noted that the author seemed less able than her heroine to accomplish that difficult juggling act. A subplot about a flirtation with neo-Nazism by one of Irene Huss's daughters seemed grafted on. It had no especial connection with the principal plot, and it was not subordinated; Tursten gave it so prominent a weight that it seemed to me awkward and tendentious, a forced effort to prove a point.
Here, the subplots are, if I remember correctly, more numerous, yet more lightly sketched and hence far more successful at conveying the texture of a life as lived by a hard-working, self-aware, observant and socially conscious woman, mother, wife, and lead investigator of brutal killings. I especially enjoyed one delightful exchange between Huss and one of her daughters on the subject of a boyfriend who has been cruel to the daughter. I think it safe to say that a man is unlikely to write an exchange like this one any time soon.
I realized early on that Tursten was going to show here where she had told in the earlier novel, Detective Inspector Huss. And so I appreciated Irene Huss's observations of her male colleagues during meetings, absorbing what I needed to know about her observational skills at the same time as I absorbed the details of the story; neither interfered with the other. And such observations are a significant part of the novel.
Perhaps they are significant in any story about a good detective, but I may have noticed it more here because of Tursten's frequent descriptions of beautiful women Irene Huss encounters during the investigation. I had not often encountered descriptions of beautiful women, at least not in crime fiction, that were not at the same time descriptions of sexual desire on the part of the author, the narrator or both. Art historians a few years ago used to write about the male gaze, that combination of desire and possession with which male painters looked on their female subjects. Perhaps there is a quite different female gaze as well.
But yes, this is a crime story, and Tursten tells this one with greater technical skill than I remember in Detective Inspector Huss, including a masterly piece of misdirection that is all the more impressive because it at first seems like a cheat or a lapse. A young man and then his parents are found shot dead, and the investigation takes Irene Huss to England to interview a relative of the victim's but also, I suspect, so Tursten could share pleasant and occasionally surprising memories of a first visit to London.
Tursten plants a convincing red herring, explained eventually by the character who has planted it, and explained earnestly, of course. Author, characters and setting are Swedish, after all. I'll say no more other than that The Glass Devil worked for me as a crime story and as a mystery as well.
(Tursten has written eight novels about Irene Huss, according to Tursten's Swedish Wikipedia biography. The Glass Devil is the fifth, according to the list. It is the third and most recent to be translated into English.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Peter Temple in Canada

I've just returned from a shopping trip to one of Canada's big chain bookstores, in Toronto. Though I did not find the one Canadian crime-fiction author I was looking for, I am pleased to report that the store did have a nice display of Peter Temple, with Bad Debts, Black Tide and the great The Broken Shore.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

The mystery of the missing mountain

I posted a comment about Seicho Mastumoto in February, sparked in part by my viewing of the movie Zero Focus (Zero no shoten), based on one of his novels. Now comes the surprising news that the cliff that was a dramatic focus of the highly dramatic movie is no more. Sic transit gloria monti.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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