Wednesday, October 31, 2007

What knowledge does a detective gain ...

... by solving a crime? If you answer that he or she learns who did it, odds are that the most recent crime fiction you've read was not by Janwillem van de Wetering, particularly not his 1985 collection Inspector Saito’s Small Satori.

Van de Wetering, author of the Amsterdam Cops novels and stories, travels to Japan for these tales, and his protagonist, a brilliant young police inspector, is even more prone than are the three Amsterdam cops to amused – or bemused – contemplation of his own existence and the jobs he must carry out:

"He had, in a way, been promoted. He was still an ordinary inspector, of course, but he had been nudged up the ladder. And the door had his name on it – SAITO MASANOBU – in bright brown characters.

“He sat down and frowned. It would be nice if he had something to do.”
Saito is stationed in Kyoto, city of Zen Buddhist temples, at one of which Van de Wetering himself studied for two years. The Zen program apparently involves much meditation and, though Saito himself does not practice, he seems to have gained such insights as meditation might bring.

A monk in the collection’s title story, confronted with evidence that he has murdered a woman, says quietly that he wishes to kill himself out of shame. Saito replies just as quietly, in essence, what would that solve?

“`Yes,' Ohno said. `You were right, Inspector-san. It was silly of me to consider my shame and to respond to that shame. I am what I am and I will continue from the point where I find myself. … There will be good points later on, and they won’t matter so much either. Ha!'

“Saito grinned. The priest’s words had helped him to make the grin break through … And he realized that he didn’t care about his successful investigation … The priest’s shame was as much of an illusion as his own fame. He felt much relieved, lightheaded. The grin spread over his face. ‘Ha!’ The laugh was as carefree as Ohno’s laugh has been.”

The mystery, in the traditional mystery-story sense, is not the real mystery – and this in a story that meets all traditional mystery requirements.

And now, readers, your question: Van de Wetering’s stories offer an insight into an unfamiliar way of thinking, or at least into one man’s wrestling with such thinking. What crime fiction has given you similar insights?

(Photo of Ryoan-ji, the Temple of the Peaceful Dragon, © Copyright 2007 Roy Tennant,

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

“The Big O” is coming to the U.S.A.

I am pleased to announce that Harcourt will publish Declan Burke’s sidesplitting and compassionate second novel, The Big O, in the U.S.“in the very near future,” according to Burke’s blog, Crime Always Pays .

Raved Detectives Beyond Borders about this absurdly entertaining caper story: “Each character takes time for some humorous introspection, which makes the story a fast-moving caper built up of leisurely episodes. Perhaps [Ken] Bruen had this in mind when he called Burke's writing `a joy, so seamless you nearly miss the sheer artistry of the style and the terrific, wry humour.'"

Burke is an entertaining and educational blogger, too. Until Crime Always Pays came along, I had no idea what a hup-ya was, not to mention an Interweb yokeybus. I hope you'll join me in congratulating Burke on this deal. If you haven't read The Big O yet, you have a treat in store.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Peter Temple's idiosyncratic comedy

I’ve mentioned Peter Temple’s wit now and then and cited examples here and here. It was not until I read Dead Point, however, that I realized that Temple’s Jack Irish novels, of which Dead Point is the third, are comic in structure, and not just punctuated with funny lines.

The stories are reasonably hard-boiled, and Dead Point contains characters, scenes and outcomes that would not be out of place in the most violent neo-noir. Yet in the end, villains get a comeuppance of a kind, and Irish gets the girl. The novels don’t read like comic crime, nothing like Ken Bruen and Jason Starr’s collaborations, say, or Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder capers, but they do offer delightful bits of dialogue and deadpan observation here and there.

Readers: Can any of you think of anyone else who writes crime fiction that is comic in structure (happy ending, loose ends tied up, hero gets the girl as in, say, the marriages that end Shakespeare's comedies) without being slapstick in tone?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Skull Mantra (and a question for readers about political commitment in crime novels)

Yesterday I finished Eliot Pattison's The Skull Mantra, a novel set amid Tibet's high, harsh, wind-buffeted peaks. Then I picked up where I'd left off in Peter Temple's Dead Point and found this:

"I went to bed with my book, Dying High: Lies About a Climber's Life, grabbed on my way out to get a taxi to the airport. There is something about the stupidity of climbing mountains that appeals. Perhaps it's the clinging by the fingertips to inhospitable surfaces. I could claim experience in this area."
A rather sharply contrasting attitude to mountains, is it not, and perhaps understandable from a flatlander like the Australian Temple.

Pattison's novel, winner of an Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America for best first novel of 1999, has a location of unparalleled interest and exoticism (for many readers). But is has more. For one, it puts a highly unusual spin on the old motif of the unlikely detective pairing. The protagonist, Shan Tao Yun, works with a changing and uncertain roster of partners. Above and beyond the expected squabbles, there are deeper reasons for mutual mistrust and suspicion.
Shan is a Han Chinese official, disgraced and imprisoned at a work camp in Tibet, then given temporary freedom of a kind when officials need an experienced investigator to probe an official's killing. His shifting cast of overseers and helpers includes Chinese and Tibetans, officials and prisoners, uncertain hybrids of the two, monks and soldiers. The clashes of nationalities, politics and sympathies mean Shan can never be sure of his position, whether a given action will land him back in prison, whether Chinese officials are looking over his shoulder and conducting parallel investigations. And that tension pervades the novel from beginning to end.

Political and cultural rivalries are at work, naturally, not just between Chinese and Tibetans, but within both groups. Economic and scientific interests come into play as well, in the form of a Western mining company working against bureaucratic hurdles to meet a production deadline that, among other things, will let it have something to show a soon-to-arrive group of American tourists. All these clashing interests provide, among other things, a wealth of possible suspects.

But above all are the various faces of Tibetan Buddhism, the prayers, the demons, the all-sustaining faith of monks and lay people, the texts, the art, and a sympathetic view of outcast clans whose traditional job is to prepare bodies for "sky burial," all held together by Pattison's strong sympathy for Tibetans. If Clive James was right that most international crime novels, with no original stories to tell, "Essentially .. are guidebooks,” this is one hell of a guidebook.
And now, your question: The Skull Mantra fairly burns with awe for Tibet, its people and its ways, and with anger at China's treatment of all these since the invasion of 1959. How do you feel about strongly expressed opinions of this kind in crime stories?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Questions about setting

Geography must be in the air. I was preparing to post a link to John Sutherland’s New Statesman essay on cities and the crime novels they inspire when I found a comment on Crime Always Pays that links to another essay on a similar subject.

Sutherland writes about hyperlocalization: “crime writers' practice of rooting their narrative not just in some metropolitan setting, but in one which is loaded with a `solidity of specification’ (as Henry James called it) far in excess of what that narrative strictly requires.” He calls this a distinct trend in U.S. and British crime fiction of the past fifty years. (Once again a writer on crime fiction invokes Henry James, though not, as Clive James did in the New Yorker in April, to beat crime fiction over the head.)

Sutherland’s piece on hyperlocalization is hypershort and, though he cites authors he says exemplify the practice, he gives no samples. That makes it difficult to know precisely what he means. I was surprised that he dated the trend at half a century. I’d have extended it further back, to Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles in the 1940s. Sutherland cites Ian Rankin, Sara Paretsky, J.A. Konrath, among other writers. Whom would you include? Which crime writers do you think fill their work with “`solidity of specification’ far in excess of what that narrative strictly requires”? And how do they do this?

The other essay, by Ingrid Black, focuses more on killers:

“The obsession with geography which inevitably grips any crime writer who claims a city as their own and tries to stamp their own personality on it is not mere self-indulgence or authorly vanity,” she writes. “It’s an essential counterpart to what the killer, that invisible and unknown protagonist who haunts the pages of every crime novel – the ghost in the machine of the narrative, as it were – does too. The only person who knows the city as well as the detective is the perpetrator. They match their knowledge of the city one against another.”
Is she right to assert that crime writers who put their own stamp on a city do so, in effect, to have their protagonists match wits with the killer?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

I love Lucy

A big hat tip to Perry Middlemiss of Matilda for linking to Lucy Sussex’s short history of Australian crime fiction. Australia’s early crime writers, Sussex tells us, “are an interesting, colourful bunch including thieves, drunks, bigamists and general literary ratbags. Of course, they also include some perfectly respectable people with extremely lurid imaginations.”

Beyond the zest lie fascinating facts:

– Crime has been part of Australian fiction since its beginnings “precisely because of the nation’s origins as a penal colony.”
– The first known Australian murder mystery novel, Force and Fraud (serialized in 1865), was written by a woman, Ellen Davitt.
The Shepherd’s Hut, which became the first Australian crime serial, features a transvestite bush ranger.

Here’s a link to Sussex's article about Mary Fortune, a 19th-century pioneer whose life contains enough adventure for several stories: “Her ‘The Detective’s Album’, a series of self-contained crime tales – the form later used by Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes – was published for over forty years, making it the longest running series in the early history of crime fiction. … Seven of her stories were reprinted in book form, as The Detective’s Album: Tales of the Australian Police (1871), the first book of detective fiction published in Australia. Yet nobody knew who she was…”

And now, a historical question for readers: What is your favorite fact, tidbit, anecdote or excerpt from crime fiction’s early history?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Dead protagonists and other clever ways to end a series

A few months ago I read a novel that ended when its protagonist died. Needless to say, it was the final book in its series.

With the subject of series’ conclusions much on people’s minds these days thanks to Ian Rankin, John Rebus, and that courageous gay activist J.K. Rowling, I now turn my thoughts to last things as well. To avoid plot spoilers for anyone who might be reading the book in question, I won’t name my dead protagonist. But can you name any? You get half-credit for Sherlock Holmes, whom Conan Doyle killed off in “The Adventure of the Final Problem” but was forced by public outcry to revive later. You get similar partial credit for coming up with Michael Dibdin’s Blood Rain, which ended with Aurelio Zen being blown up by a Mafia bomb … only to begin a slow recovery from his injuries when Dibdin decided to revive the series three years later.

If you can’t think of protagonists who died, what other clever or satisfying ways have authors chosen to end series?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Authors on characters, extra-textual sexuality, and a cavalcade of questions

I can’t remember where I first read about Otto Penzler’s project of commissioning crime authors to write profiles of their series characters, but you'll find the details at Publishing News Online.

Penzler conceived the project to raise money for his Mysterious Bookshop in New York, asking authors to write 5,000-word profiles of their characters, then publishing them as pamphlets that he gave away to customers who bought books at the store. He then published hardcover copies in editions of 100, had the authors sign them, and sold them for sixty dollars each. The latest is that Little, Brown in the U.S., Quercus in the U.K. and Hayakawa in Japan will publish collections of twenty profiles. These are to include Michael Connelly on Hieronymus Bosch, Laura Lippman on Tess Monaghan and Robert B. Parker on Spenser, according to Publishing News.

Without having read any of the profiles, I have mixed feelings about such a project. On the one hand, shouldn’t an author’s novels and stories say all that needs to be said about a character? (For a forceful enunciation of this viewpoint, see Dave’s Fiction Warehouse on J.K. Rowling’s revelation that Dumbledore is gay. Dumbledore is apparently a character in the Harry Potter books.) On the other, perhaps the profiles will themselves read as new works. Maybe authors will talk about how they came to create their protagonists, for instance, which could be interesting. Donald Westlake likes to tell how his comic caper series about John Dortmunder grew out of a story Westlake was trying to write about the ultra-grim Parker. Something like that would be worth reading.

So, readers, here are your questions: Are you eager to know about your characters’ biographies beyond what you read in novels and stories? Would you buy a book of such biographies? And, most important, whom would you like to read about? My candidate would be David Owen’s acerbic, eccentric Tasmanian police inspector, Franz “Pufferfish” Heineken, about whom you can learn more here (scroll down after clicking).

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Disjointed again (a bit of Bruen and Joseph Brodsky)

I promised you eccentric, disjointed posting, and now, by God, I'll deliver.

First, I would not want readers to think that Ken Bruen and Jason Starr's Slide is all self-reference. The self-reference, in fact, is in keeping with a larger spirit of mischief and fun that pervades the book, as in the following:

"Angela. Max wished he could strike that name from his brain, like they did in that Schwarzenegger movie, Total ... what the fuck was the name of it?"


I've read some non-crime this week, notably a commencement address by Joseph Brodsky called "A Commencement Address" that has not a whiff of Pomp and Circumstance about it. Brodsky warns his audience of the deadly consequences of misinterpreting the Sermon on the Mount as a text in passive resistance, of misremembering its most famous passage as ending with that bit about turning the other cheek. The verse, he reminds us, "continues without either period or comma" thus:

"And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. / And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain."

"Quoted in full," he says – or said to those lucky graduates of Williams College in 1984 – "these verses have in fact very little to do with nonviolent or passive resistance, with the principles of not responding in kind and returning good for evil. The meaning of these lines is anything but passive, for it suggests that evil can be made absurd through excess; it suggests rendering evil absurd through dwarfing its demands with the volume of your compliance, which devalues the harm. This sort of thing puts a victim into a very active position, into the position of a mental aggressor. The victory that is possible here is not a moral but an existential one."


"In this situation, there is very little room for tactical maneuver. So turning the other cheek should be be your conscious, cold deliberate decision. Your chances of winning, however dismal they are, depend on whether or not you know what you are doing."

Turning the other cheek as a strategy of aggression could be an intriguing basis for a crime story. What kind of a story do you think it would be?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Self-reference unto death ("Slide," by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr)

Self-reference has been a big topic here lately, and Slide, by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr, is an absolute riot of the practice. The least of it is the epigraph to the novel's fifth chapter, a quotation from Bust, by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr.

In the book proper, the obnoxious, venal but hapless Max Fisher cokes and martinis himself into a belief that his quips belong in a book, "like those Hard Case books with those women on the covers. Max had never picked one up but man, those guys know how to use a pair of tits to sell a book." Guess who publishes Bust and Slide. (This self-reference is especially ironic. Though Bust is named for that particular part of a woman's anatomy, the Bruen and Starrs show far less flesh than most of the gloriously lurid Hard Case covers.)

And, in a jocosely creepy example, Slide fantasizes Bruen's own death. The novel's drug-addled, hysterical psychotic killer/kidnapper of a title character plots to kidnap Keith Richards for ransom, but:

Whoever this guy was, he wasn't Keith Richards. He was in his fifties, thick lips, with a scar to the right of his mouth, a button nose and blue eyes. The guy had to be fooking Irish.

The guy went. "Don't you know me? ... I'm a crime writer ... I've won the Macavity for – "

Slide shut him off, roared, "Ary Christ, shut the fook up or I'll remove all your fookin' cavities and your tonsils too! Are you somebody? Anyone give a damn about you?"

The guy looked crestfallen, stammered, "I-I got starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Booklist ... well, maybe I caught them on an off day b-but– "

Slide gave him a slap on the mouth, said, "I don't want to hear about your bloody career. I want to hear somebody will pay cash, lots of cash to have you back.
The thin fook was going, "I wrote a book with another guy. Maybe he can– "

But he never got to finish as Slide lashed the crowbar into his teeth, then took out the bastard's left eye with an almighty swing. ... Slide panicked. He opened the door, kicked the body out, and went, "That should sell some books."
© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Disjointed (me, not Colin Cotterill’s book)

I’m reading three or four or five books, including non-crime, so posting may be less cohesive than unusual the next few days. Feel free to respond coherently if you’d like to, though.

First, I may have to retract some of the spleen I vented this week at self-reference in crime fiction. The cause is an exchange from Colin Cotterill’s Anarchy and Old Dogs that includes the following:

“`Very well. In that case, I suspect what we have here is a message written in invisible ink.’

“Phosy raised one eyebrow. `And how would an old bush surgeon know a thing like that?’

“`Inspector Phosy, allow me to reintroduce you to Inspector Maigret of the Palais de Justice. I became very involved in a number of his cases as they were outlined in the pages of l’Oeuvre while I was in France. Unlike ourselves, Inspector Maigret has the very good sense to be fictional, and thus can dispense with such human annoyances as inefficiency and budget restraints… ’

“`I’m impressed. And all this time I thought there was nothing positive to be gained from reading mysteries.’

“`You’d be surprised.’”
Why does it work? The exchange is almost a full page long, which helps. The conversation is believable, and it’s allowed to develop, as a real conversation would; why shouldn’t two colleagues chat about mysteries?

Further, I suspect that many readers are complicit in the sentiment that Cotterill’s Dr. Siri expresses. We indulge his gentle acknowledgment that Maigret is not quite real because it accounts for our love of Maigret. (And that in itself is nice work on Cotterill’s part. Attempts to explain author Georges Simenon’s fantastic popularity are generally far weightier than Cotterill’s sensible observation.)

Third, the exchange is nicely paced, a gentle comedy sketch in miniature, a little story, and not a string of annoyingly self-referential quips.

Fourth, some of the lines are funny – gently so, of course.

I hinted strongly at incoherence, so here's a non-crime-fiction note: In a possible first in its years-long history, the comic strip Sally Forth was mildly amusing yesterday.

End of note.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Blogger shows author some love, or More about Michael Dibdin

I got on Michael Dibdin’s case yesterday; today I’m pleased to pass along a thoughtful article from Booklist via the Librarian's Place that says his Aurelio Zen series “launched what eventually would become the still-flourishing renaissance of the Italian crime novel.”

But Dibdin was even more influential than that, according to author Bill Ott: “(W)ith Zen came the distinctive world-weariness that eventually would define the new European procedural, not only in Italy but also in Scandinavia.”

That, readers, is big. And Ott just might be right. The dates work. Dibdin published the first Aurelio Zen novel in 1988. That predates Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander and Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano. Ian Rankin published his first John Rebus novel in 1987, but the series did not hit its stride for a few years. In sum, Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen may be the most influential crime-fiction character of the past twenty years.

What do you think? Who is more influential as a world-weary fictional detective than Aurelio Zen? If you haven’t met Zen, who are your favorite such detectives?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Self-reference that makes you scream (or smile)

I must not be a post-modern type of guy because I don't generally like self-reference, and I hate self-reference that compounds the sin by referring to its own self-referentiality.

I don’t like wiseacre private eyes in detective stories who say things like “What do you think this is, a detective story?” I don’t like it when a character says, “You watch too much television,” and I hated it when a tough quipster of a fictional private eye said to another character, “You don’t watch enough television.” You want to pay tribute to or poke fun at a genre, be my guest. Just don’t hit me over the head with it.

Thus, the following, from Michael Dibdin’s Back to Bologna, made me wince from beginning to end, which probably made it more of a scowl than a wince:

“He knew that he had fired his current girlfriend, but only because he did that to whoever happened to occupy that position on the last day of each month. Private eyes couldn’t have stable, long-term affairs. They were complex, alienated loners who had to walk the mean streets of the big city, men who might be flawed but were neither tarnished not afraid. Above all, they had to suffer.”
The first sentence is funny because it’s unexpected. The second is a warning. The rest is cliché, more grating, not less because the author calls the reader’s attention to his awareness that it’s cliché. “Mean streets.” Heh-heh. Good one, Michael. I get the Chandler joke.

And now, readers, you have the floor: Give some clever examples of self-reference, or some examples that drove you nuts.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007
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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Michael Dibin's Italian overtures

You know those novels each of whose short opening chapters introduces one character? I finally figured out what such introductions remind me of: the overture to an opera, in which each little musical theme stands for one character or one predominant situation or emotion from the piece that is to follow.

That's how Michael Dibdin's Back to Bologna begins. In the first chapter, two amusingly disgruntled police officers find a body that may be that of a prominent businessman. Call that a lively introduction that ends in a burst of percussion. In the next, we meet the worried protagonist, Aurelio Zen, out of step with his lover, his job and even himself as he recovers from surgery. The tempo here is slow, melancholy, and the key might be mournful minor with a passage here and there in a livelier major key (Zen is, after all, the hero.)

Next come two students and the Romanian girlfriend of one, and after that Zen's lover, Gemma. Her theme, like Zen's, might be more complex than the others, since her chapter has her thinking about Zen, and Zen's has him thinking about her.

And now I'll stop with the music because I don't want to take this too far. But it's at least plausible for Dibdin if for anyone. He wrote an entire Aurelio Zen novel, Cosi Fan Tutti, using the plot of Mozart's almost identically named opera.

And now, use your imagination, readers: Back to Bologna's beginning is reminiscent of opera. What crime fiction reminds you of something else? Whose prose style or narrative structure reminds you of music or city traffic or guns firing or a gently babbling brook (or of anything babbling gently, for that matter)?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Channeling Raymond Chandler

The easiest bit of Raymond Chandler for the Chandler channelers to handle is the wisecracks, and a fair number do a good job of it.

More difficult are those convoluted plots of the kind that make the reader's or viewer's head spin when Philip Marlowe explains them.

Hardest of all for a contemporary author is to remain faithful to the mechanics of Chandler-like storytelling while capturing the tone of desperation, violence and depravity that the old pulp writers are said to embody. These days, Chandler's mean streets just don't seem as mean as they must have in the 1940s.

Oddly enough, though Declan Burke's Eightball Boogie abounds in Chandleresque wisecracks, it's best in those two more difficult areas. To avoid spoilers, I'll say little about its plot, a testament more to Burke's plotting skill than to my laziness.

Chandler is famously said to have had no idea what was going on in The Big Sleep. Eightball Boogie, while of a complexity confusing to its protagonist, is never so to the reader or, I suspect, to the author. Minor characters who lend color early play pivotal roles late. Events here make suspense-inducing sense there and, though there are surprises, all are believable. Everything, shocking as it may be, makes sense in light of ground that had been laid earlier. Burke, I suspect, mapped out his plot more carefully than Chandler did, and if I'm right, he had quite a bit of mapping to do.

The protagonist, Harry Rigby, is a private eye and a reporter, though the journalistic aspect falls quickly by the wayside. As a reporter, he pokes around the edges of a crime scene: a woman has been stabbed to death in her own house, and the killing has been ill-disguised as a suicide. The woman was married to a dodgy politician, and police will say little about the death, even about who found the body. A client then hires Rigby to find evidence that his wife is having an affair. Rigby the detective finds the wife. Rigby the reporter finds another reporter who was working on a profile of the murder victim at the time she was killed. Drugs are involved as are shady property deals.

The characters eventually intersect in unexpected ways, and then there are Harry's girlfriend, their son, and his brother. Family secrets and the good cop-bad cop theme are just two of the time-honored devices that Burke updates by upping the violence of feeling and action.

How does Burke accomplish his updates? With one scene of violence that may make sensitive readers queasy, with betrayals laid bare rather than hinted at, with beatings more violent than Chandler's, and with characters who give voice to sentiments that Chandler's characters never would have. If one accepts that Chandler's spirit is worth honoring and preserving, this seems a better way to do it than merely through wisecracks, battered coats and characters who could use some tidying up (though Eightball Boogie has all that, too).

For this reader, the wisecracks work better once Burke ratchets up the tension, about a third of the way through the novel. Once he's created a sense of menace, the wisecracks resonate all the more, as here: "If I squinted I could make out the bench where I'd been sitting just before taking my header into the river, so I didn't squint." Or this, faithful to the spirit of a resilient Chandler protagonist but with a dangerous edge that hinges on one four-letter word: "Adrenaline, the cleanest drug of them all, charged through my veins."

There appears to have been a post-Conan Doyle story about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson called The Case of Harry Rigby. Could Burke have taken his protagonist's name from it?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Curl up in bed with Modesty Blaise

Or read the book anywhere you'd like to. Crime Always Pays offers a chance to win A Taste for Death, a handsome reissue of the fourth novel about that sexy icon of 1960s cool, Modesty Blaise – except that the character is more interesting and complex than that. If you don't win a copy, I hope that I do.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Does this protagonist get a clothing allowance?

I’ve posted here, here and here about amateur crime-fiction sleuths with interesting professions, but Sarah Weinman recently offered an example that beats the pants off any of mine. I don’t want to give away too much, but key words in her announcement of Mehmet Murat Somer's The Kiss Murder and The Prophet Murders include “Istanbul,” “transvestite nightclub owner” and “Thai kickboxing expert.”

Elsewhere, Dave’s Fiction Warehouse holds forth on that car accident heard around the world, the death of Princess Diana. Warehouse shares pungent and entertaining thoughts on the subject and offers a surprising suspect. A comment on his post offers the lowdown on Mohammad El Fayed’s eating habits when he visits America. (An unrelated comment from Declan Burke at Crime Always Pays offers eloquent answers to anyone shocked, shocked! that we cannot leave the poor woman alone: “One, it was okay for the Princess of Wails to spin the entire world a fiction while she was alive, but no one is allowed write about her now she’s dead, or at least not for 25 years after the event – is that correct? Two, how come Elton John didn’t get this kind of grief?”)

While Diana’s story involves no crime but lots of fiction, today’s final topic involves no fiction, and its only crime is against good English usage. This evening’s dinner special in the cafeteria at the media outlet that pays my salary was a turkey burger “bundled with” a drink. What consultant decided that “bundled with” was better than “and”? Perhaps the same one who decided, for the same cafeteria, that “accompaniment” sounds more impressive than “side dish.”

Back at my desk, I read a statement from the manager of the Baltimore Orioles on his dismissal of the team’s pitching coach: “Moving forward, I felt that we would be better served with someone else working with our young staff … " I was ready to fulminate against that odious piece of blame-shifting politico-business jargon when I found that someone had done so already.

And now, a non-crime-fiction question for readers: What vogue expressions set your teeth on edge?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

More fun from Shane Maloney / Authors' previous jobs

Damien at Crime Down Under recently linked to this short profile of Shane Maloney, author of very funny novels about a Melbourne political minder named Murray Whelan who eventually wins election to parliament.

Two highlights: Maloney's biggest disappointment – “Missing out on the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature” – and the news that "employment is overrated. Unemployment meant I finally had the chance to do something that I'd had in the back of my mind for a while – to write a novel."

What stuck out for me, though, was the down-to-earthness of Maloney's work history. His career began:

“(O)nly after he lost his job as an adviser to Melbourne's bid for the 1996 Olympic Games. Before that he had a string of jobs, including general manager of the Melbourne Comedy Festival, arts administrator for the Melbourne City Council, the PR rep for the Boy Scouts Association and as a music promoter and band reviewer.”
That’s the kind of work that, well, that I could have wound up doing.

This made me feel at home with Maloney in a way I could not with ex-M16 or CIA types who write thrillers, on the one hand, and globe-trotting former roustabouts who would absolutely never, ever exaggerate the extent of their experience as bartenders, cab drivers or loan-shark collection agents in order to buffer their hard-boiled credentials on the other.

And now, a question for readers: What is the strangest, oddest, most exotic former job you have heard of any crime writer having ... or claiming to have had?

I posted a few months back about Dan Kavanagh’s japes at the macho-job tradition on the jacket of his novel Going to the Dogs. Kavanagh, the jacket copy tells us:

“(H)as been an entertainment officer on a Japanese super-tanker, a waiter on roller skates at a drive-in eatery in Tucson, a bouncer in a gay bar in San Francisco. He boasts of having flown light planes on the Colombian cocaine route, but all that is known for certain is that he was once a baggage handler at Toronto International Airport."
Can your favorite writer top that?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The fleeting vogue of crime-fiction themes

I’ve read enough of Tana French’s In the Woods to notice its dreamlike prologue and its initial narrative hook: A detective will wind up investigating something horrible that happened to him and two friends when they were children.

The superficial similarity with Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River got me thinking about other such similarities, and it happens that I’m not the only one doing so. Here's a recent comment from the Oz Mystery Readers site: “Serial killers went through a phase of being genre du jour. Seems to have died down a bit now. And for some reason nearly every second book I read at the moment has the protagonist recovering from injury or illness or a traumatic experience.”

That’s two recurring themes right there: Serial killers, and protagonists looking into their own traumas. What others can you think of? Why do certain themes capture the attention of writers? Why do such themes come into and go out of fashion?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Tana French's sex-based humor

I hate the word gender because it’s so often used incorrectly, at least in America, as a puritanical or social-science-jargon substitute for sex. I can’t help thinking about the word, though, in connection with a very funny bit in Chapter One of Tana French’s first novel, In the Woods.

French’s protagonist, Rob Ryan, muses on his position as an investigator:

“I sometimes thought the brass assumed I was a good detective in the mindless pre-programmed way that some men will assume that a tall, slim, blonde woman is beautiful even if she has a face like a hyperthyroid turkey: because I have all the accessories. I have a perfect BBC accent ... they still assume that anyone with a stiff upper lip is more intelligent, better educated and generally more likely to be right. On top of that, I am tall, with a bony, rangy build that can look lean and elegant if my suit is cut just right …”
Ryan has been set to musing by the presence of a young female officer on the murder squad, and he discloses that he “disliked the Neanderthal locker-room overtones, competing cars and competing aftershaves and subtly bigoted jokes justified as `ironic’, which always made me want to go into a pedantic lecture on the subject of irony. On the whole, I preferred women to men.”

A male character created by a female author uses the presence of a woman as an occasion to shake his head at male behavior and the dopiness – and usefulness – of stereotypes male and female. I don’t know what French will do with all this over the course of this long novel, but she sure has fun with it in the opening chapter.

Can you think of any other crime writers who have similar fun with sex (or, OK, gender) roles?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Big, fat and hard-boiled

It has been said with some justification that Rex Stout was the only crime writer able successfully to combine the English tradition of the eccentric detective, in the person of Nero Wolfe, with the harder-boiled American tradition, in the person of Archie Goodwin. That’s a fair assessment, and Stout’s achievement is all the more impressive when one considers that Goodwin narrates the stories. He must thus tell a story in one style while acting in another.

How does Stout pull off this balancing act? With an ear for American slang and a playful sensitivity to contrasts of tone. There is no finer example than the third paragraph of “Invitation to Murder,” one of three long stories that make up Three Men Out. The paragraph begins as an enumeration of Wolfe’s eccentricities (“He hated to work, but he loved to eat and drink … his domestic and professional establishment in the old brownstone house on West Thirty-fifth Street, including the orchids in the plant rooms on the roof, had an awful appetite for dollars.”)

So far, Archie Goodwin sounds like a Bertie Wooster. That’s the English-eccentric side of Rex Stout. Then the narration starts turning into something more typically American — the anxious client visiting the P.I.’s office asking him to take the job — while retaining its amused tone. Wolfe’s only source of dollars “was his income as a private detective, and at that moment, there on his desk near the edge," Archie tells us, edging closer to hard-boiled land before crossing defintively over: “was a little stack of lettuce with a runner band around it. Herman Lewent, who had put it there, had stated that it was a thousand dollars.”

One is tempted to salute Stout for the virtuoso transition from P.G. Wodehouse to Dashiell Hammett, turning on the gorgeous use of “lettuce” for “money.” But why invoke other writers’ names? That little piece of stylistic alchemy was Stout’s alone, at least part of what made him great.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Maigret and the Wonderful Meals

Years before Andrea Camilleri's Salvo Montalbano or Jean-Claude Izzo's Fabio Montale ate their first fictional meals, there was Inspector Jules Maigret. Georges Simenon's creation is, of course, right up there with Sherlock Holmes among the world's most popular fictional detectives. If benefit of the doubt goes to the detective who eats best, though, Maigret leaves the competition trailing in a cloud of kitchen aromas and pipe smoke.

Thirty-two years ago, in fact, a noted French food writer and a prestigious publisher got together to produce Madame Maigret's Recipes, a collection of instructions for the most enticing dishes from the seventy-five Maigret novels and twenty-eight short stories.

Robert J. Courtine, author of books on French cooking and of a food column for the French newspaper Le Monde, translated into recipes the dishes that Maigret enjoys so much at neighborhood bistrots, on his investigations all over France and, most memorably, in his own kitchen, as prepared by Mme. Maigret. The dishes are classified by type, and each is preceded by an excerpt or excerpts from Maigret stories in which the dish is mentioned.

These brief selections convey the flavor of Maigret's wanderings throughout France and of his leisurely love of a good meal. The juxtaposition of food talk with the sometimes grim titles of the stories from which it taken is also good for a smile, as in this introduction to Courtine's recipes for filets de harangs, or fileted herring:

"Bring us a carafe of Beaujolais right away. What's on the menu?"

Andouilettes. Just came in from Auvergne this morning."

"Maigret decided to start with
filets de harangs."

Maigret and the Madwoman

Each recipe comes with Courtine's comments ("You can shell the mussels completely — they'll be easier to eat, but it won't look so amusing."), including suggestions for possible substitutions. The American edition, at least, includes a useful glossary of French wines along with suggested American substitutions. The publisher, by the way, is the Helen and Kurt Wolff imprint of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

The book is out of print, unless I am mistaken, but you may be able to find a copy in a secondhand bookshop, as I did. The entertaining, zestful writing may turn you into a fan of Maigret, of French cooking, or of both, even if you know nothing about either when you pick the book up.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Saturday, October 06, 2007

Ken Bruen's jaded view of the Celtic Tiger

I ought to make a list of contemporary crime-fiction writers who are skeptical of claims about economic miracles. It would constitute, I suspect, a good syllabus for anyone who wants a salutary opposing view to prevailing orthodoxy or, should I say, cheer leading. Declan Hughes, Christopher Brookmyre, the excellent Brian Thompson and Peter Temple are just some of the fine crime writers who have cast jaundiced eyes on post-welfare-state prosperity.

I'll now add Ken Bruen to that list thanks to passages like this from The Magdalen Martyrs:

"`It's a Mont Blanc, the Agatha Christie limited edition. Want to hold it? ... Out of your league, Pops.'

"His expression now was rampant with the New Ireland, smug, greedy, knowing. He said,

"`I have a set of these, cost more than you'd earn in your whole miserable life.'

"I decided he was too stupid for a slap in the mouth."

It's typical or Bruen that his slap at the new nouveaux riches is more personal and also funnier than those of most crime writers.

And now, it's your turn. I gave you a list a of crime writers who raise their hands and say, "Hold on there" to claims that this is an economic golden age. Help me enlarge that list.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

A history lesson in an Australian crime novel?

Crime fiction from countries other than one’s own can offer lessons in contemporary and recent history, as well. Kel Robertson’s debut novel, Dead Set, offers a protagonist with an unusual and pertinent ethnicity (Chinese-Australian) and an addiction that stands out amid the legions of fictional detectives who consume dangerous substances: He’s hooked on painkillers.

In the novel’s early pages, he also pushes a murder investigation in a potentially explosive direction:

“People started to gather their papers but something irked me about the groups we’d been briefed on. Most of their members were, inevitably, unskilled, uneducated males – blokes in the edge of society. There wasn't a single group of coppers or ex-servicemen. There were no equivalents of General Blamey’s White Knights of the 1920s, Eric Campbell’s New Guard of the 1930s or Ted Serong’s more recent Aussie Freedom Scouts. ...

"`The groups listed here don't include the better organized ones – those made up of police and soldiers. Are you saying they no longer exist?'"

"Miller looked at Best."
I don’t know those groups, even whether they are real of fictional, but I suspect that the passage has introduced me to a phenomenon in Australian history with which some in the country might be uncomfortable.

So, a twofold question to readers this time: What role did these groups play in Australian history? What other crime fiction sheds light in a country’s recent or contemporary history?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The morals of Christopher Brookmyre’s story, plus a question for readers

The author of Boiling a Frog is a moralist. He pokes ruthless fun at obtuse and hypocritical Catholic leaders. He writes with spitting and sometimes hysterically funny contempt for image-driven, lying New Labourites, vicious, selfish, lying Conservatives, and the irrelevant Scottish National Party. All are far more concerned about their own preservation, he tells us, than they are about the people whom is it ostensibly their job or sacred duty to help.

More than Brookmyre’s biting humor, though, the fates of the characters point up what the author is up to. Everyone in this book is a scapegrace or worse, and everyone gets what he or she deserves.

Brookmyre’s outraged morality is finely calibrated: There are the purely evil characters, who have no qualms about what they do, and there are those burdened with the knowledge that they act wrongly. Within the latter group, those who obey their scruples and redeem themselves with a good deed are rewarded, and those who disregard their scruples suffer. This holds true for everyone from … well, no spoilers here, but read the book, then tote up the score yourself. Redemption (I choose this word carefully) depends not on what the characters think, no matter how sincerely they may think it, but on what they do.

I wrote earlier that Boiling a Frog broke rules with its lengthy expositions. Don’t ask me to provide examples, but those lengthy passages seemed almost a product of the nineteenth century, when the “show, don’t tell” rule was unheard of. The moral aspect is reminiscent of the eighteenth century. Though the contrast with the novel’s title might be jarring, this book could well bear the subtitle Virtue Rewarded.

And now the question for you, readers. It has been said that crime fiction’s appeal lies in its creation of a world in which wrongs are righted and order at least partly restored. Is this accurate?

From Boiling a Frog:

"You remember the Tories and `the economic miracle’ of the Eighties?”


“Do you remember an economic miracle taking place in the Eighties?”

“Eh. No, not really. Far from it, in fact.”

“Exactly. They got the phrase into the press and into the public mind. And, even smarter, they did it in the past tense … They referred so often to something as having happened that everyone began to believe it had. … Boom. Word association: Eighties, Thatcher, Economic Miracle. It replaced Eighties, Thatcher, Unemployment.”

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Christopher Brookmyre breaks a rule ...

... and it's a big one, too. I don't mean the rule that says never build a humorous scene around bodily functions. In fact, bodily functions take second place to a misplaced vibrator and slip in just ahead of a broken ankle and a string of double entendres in the scene in question, from Brookmyre's novel Boiling a Frog.

No, the rule is that which enjoins authors to show rather than tell. An early scene between a pair of political minders breaks off for a lengthy flashback on the life, philosophy and political predicament of one of them. That's ten pages in which conversation comes to a halt, and action stops. It's a daringly long piece of back story, especially in a genre normally built around plot.

But the flashback, even if surprising and a bit worrisome at first, works on at least two levels. First, parts are bitingly funny:

"There was no more selfish urge in the human condition than sexual desire, and therefore no urge more capable of compromising all other moral considerations. In a sense, it brought out the little Tory bastard in everyone. It was about me, me, me: ego-driven individualism, id-driven indulgence, and it didn't care who got hurt, neglected or abandoned in the process."
I would hope that even incensed Conservative readers give Brookmyre credit for the virtuoso feat of turning sexual license, a sin of the Left in contemporary political demonology, into a defining vice of the Right.

Second, the flashback goes a long way to setting up a tension Elspeth Doyle, the political fixer whose life and opinions it recounts. Brookymyre does not wait long before exploiting that tension for narrative effect when Doyle meets the man at the center of the bodily-functions scene with which this discussion began.

I'll have more to say later, but for now, I'll leave off with a line typical of Brookymyre's wicked humor and also of Scottish crime fiction's tendency, as raised by a comment on this blog, to use the sports team a character roots for as an indicator of his or her social position. This time it's Jack Parlabane, Brookmyre's scapegrace journalist of a protagonist, who finds himself in jail and, to his surprise, feeling briefly like his criminal cellmate who is, incidentally, a Catholic:

"Don't be a prick, he told himself. At this rate, within a week he'd be planning his next 'job.' A fortnight and he's have a Rangers tattoo."

A question to readers: What other crime fiction writers breaks the "rules"? Does the rule-breaking work?

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Monday, October 01, 2007

What's so funny about Scandinavian crime fiction?

My article about humor in Nordic crime fiction, "Dry Humor in a Cold Climate," appears in the Fall 2007 issue Mystery Readers Journal, now available from Mystery Readers International. The issue is devoted to Scandinavian mysteries, and it includes Håkan Nesser's thoughts about writing, contributions from several other top Swedish authors, a roundup of contemporary Finnish crime fiction, and quite a bit more in addition to my piece.

You'll also find articles about Danish crime fiction, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Karin Fossum, and the Scandinavian touch in American crime writing and one by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir that bears the intriguing title "A Depressing Lack of Crime." See a complete table of contents, full versions of selected articles, and information about the print version of the magazine at the Mystery Readers Journal link in the above paragraph.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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