Monday, December 31, 2007

Win a copy of "Thirty-Three Teeth" ...

... by Colin Cotterill if you live in the U.K. and if you get yourself to Euro Crime quickly. The contest ends today.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Meet the new post ...

It's not quite the same as the old posts, but it does shed light on them. Recent discussions on Detectives Beyond Borders here and here touched on authors who shift protagonists and point-of-view characters from book to book in a series, bringing minor or supporting characters forward into larger roles.

Damien Gay at Crime Down Under has just cited one such shift, in Kathryn Fox's novel Skin and Bone, whose detective protagonist had been a minor character in Fox's earlier work:

"[Fox] has moved the focus away from the forensic pathology side of criminalistics and moved to the coal-face of the homicide detective office in a police procedural story that twists behind a series of cunning facades."
I'd asked for examples of authors who changed protagonists. Damien shows the practical effect of one such change. Thanks, mate.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Technorati tags:

Labels: ,

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Reasonable doubts

This title of this post is deliberately simple. It’s the title of the book in question, the third of Gianrico Carofiglio’s novels about the Italian defense lawyer Guido Guerrieri. I chose it in part because of passages like this one:

“I broke off, but too late. I was about to say, even supposing your husband is telling the truth – and supposing doesn’t mean conceding – proving it, or at least creating a reasonable doubt, will be extremely difficult. I broke off because I didn’t want to reawaken her more than reasonable doubts.”
That’s Guerrieri talking to the wife of a client jailed and accused of smuggling forty kilograms of cocaine from Montenegro into Italy. Look how much Carofiglio tells us about Guerrieri in three simple sentences. He’s lawyerly, he’s good-hearted, he’s humorous, and he sends the narrative off in two directions: toward Guerrieri’s case, and toward his relationship with the client’s wife. Reasonable doubts (a literal translation of the Italian title) does double duty in its legal sense and its everyday sense.

The passage is ironical for a third reasonable doubt, unstated here: Guerrieri’s own doubts about the case. Or perhaps those doubts are implied in that second sentence, with its stops, starts, hedges and changes of direction that contain a humorous hint of Dickens. In any case, it helps make Guerrieri an enormously appealing protagonist, more so than he would be if he were just another good-guy lawyer fighting for the downtrodden. (I'll guess that the smoothly delivered multiple meanings are a tribute to the translator, Howard Curtis.)

Before I stop typing and resume reading, I'll ask you to think about titles. Reasonable Doubts applies to the novel's action in least three senses. That makes it a hell of an appropriate title. What titles can you think of that work similarly, surprisingly well?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Technorati tags:

Labels: , , , , ,

Friday, December 28, 2007

Unsung international crime-fiction heroes

Some blog posts are so good that I just have to steal them (and adapt them for my own purposes, of course). Murderati asks readers to choose their unsung crime-fiction heroes, authors who “never get the accolades they deserve,” who “consistently write great books, have enough of a following to keep doing it, but are unknown or forgotten to most of us — including those of us who read quite a bit.”

The post and its comments offer some intriguing names that I’ll add to my list. But first I want to begin a new list here. Who are your favorite unsung crime-fiction authors? (Extra credit for authors from countries other than the U.S.) I’ll start things off by nominating, as I always do, that “that undersung British master of irony,” my man Bill James.

Since I’m focusing on “international” authors, here’s a thought: Since so relatively few crime writers are translated into English, can any remain unsung, or are they devoured upon publication by those of us starved for crime from foreign climes?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007


Thursday, December 27, 2007

God rest ye fairy gentlemen (and ladies), and a comical question

I’m not sure what the rate of inflation has been since the late 1960s, but I’m pretty sure that the comic books for which I paid twelve cents back then would still not cost the $9.99 I just paid for Artemis Fowl: The Graphic Novel. But then, graphic novels have production values that the old-time DC comics could only dream of.

The newer printing processes can produce deeper, much more saturated colors. I suspect that this, as much as any predisposition toward darker subject matter on the writers’ part, is responsible for the look of graphic novels. Why do graphic novelists fill their stories with deep, dark, brooding shadows? For the same a reason a dog licks its … but never mind.

Artemis Fowl: The Graphic Novel, adapted from Eoin Colfer’s first book about a 12-year-old criminal genius, may be particularly well-suited for such treatment, since much of the story happens underground, in the land of the Lower Elements People – fairies, elves and the like. (Fowl’s antagonists and sometimes allies are members of the Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance squad, or LEPrec– you can figure out the rest of that one, too. Colfer is, after all, Irish.)

Among this graphic novel’s attractions are the opportunities to see how the characters look and to match them against the mental images one has from the book. The artist and colorist (Giovanni Rigano and Paolo Lamanna, respectively) do a good job, rendering convincing pictures of the hirsute troll that nearly puts an end to Artemis’ butler, the hairy and endearingly amoral dwarf Mulch Diggums, and more. The butler, named Butler, is a tad more gigantic than I'd have pictured, and Butler's sister, Juliet, does not look especially Eurasian, though she is described as such in one of the later novels in the series. Still, the graphic novel looks terrific, if necessarily a bit darker than the novel on which it is based.

Artemis himself looks as one might expect of a boy of such overarching ambition: short, immaculately dressed, his eyes narrowed or shielded behind special eyewear. His eyes widen just once, at a highly appropriate moment at the story’s end.

And now, readers, the question: Artemis Fowl joins Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise as characters who enjoy parallel lives in comics/graphic novels and in crime novels of the traditional, non-graphic kind. Who else has done this?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Technorati tags:

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Skepticism is not just for adults: Another post about Eoin Colfer and Artemis Fowl

I wrote a few months back about Ken Bruen's jaded view of the Celtic tiger and about other crime writers and their salutary skepticism of economic miracles. I have just learned that kids are getting in on the act, or at least authors who write for them. Here's a passage from Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident by Eoin Colfer:

"Holly set the coordinates to the flight computer, and let the wings do the steering for her. The countryside sped by below. Even since her last visit, the Mud Man infestation seemed to have taken a stronger hold. There was barely an acre of land without dozens of their dwellings digging into its soil, and barely a mile of river without one of their factories pouring its poison into their waters."
I've come to realize something else about Colfer now that I've read three of his novels and am into a fourth. It has to do with the old saw about a comic being someone who says funny things, while a comedian says things funny. Colfer is a comedian. He has a knack for fashioning sentences in such a way that even lines not obviously meant to elicit a laugh are amusing. I hope to build a comment around this fascinating and entertaining subject soon.

In the meantime, don't believe anyone who tells you the Artemis Fowl books are just for kids.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Technorati tags:

Labels: , ,

Monday, December 24, 2007

Converging series

And this has nothing to do with mathematics. Rather, it's something I've noticed from time to time in Donald Westlake's books the last few years. You may know that the man is prolific, author of at least four crime-fiction series and scores of standalones. His production, in fact, lies at the heart of this comment because a question like the one I'm about to pose could only apply to a writer whose production spans multiple series.

The question concerns motifs or situations from one series bleeding over into another. Comeback, Westlake's 1998 novel about the ultra-professional thief Parker (written, like the other Parker novels, under the name Richard Stark), opens with a heist at a religious rally. One of the robbers is disguised as an angel. He makes an especially nervous angel, and if you think that sounds like something out of Westlake's comic caper novels about John Dortmunder, you're not the only one, even though Comeback is Parker all the way – cool, taut and serious.

A later Parker novel, Ask the Parrot, has Parker teaming up with a man resentful because he has lost his job for being honest. The motif of good man forced to desperate measures because he lost his job echoes Westlake's standalone novel The Ax.

Can you think of other prolific, multifaceted authors who borrow from their own work the way Westlake does?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Technorati tags:

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Crime-fiction lines that make you laugh

I've just finished one novel by a chuckle-inducing Australian and started another by an equally mirth-provoking Irishman, so I thought I'd give the gift of laughter for Christmas and list some of their funniest lines. Then I'll ask you to tell me some of your favorite laugh-getters or satirical crime-fiction jabs.

From Shane Maloney's Nice Try, a story of love, murder, revenge and Murray Whelan's fight to give up smoking as Melbourne bids to host the 1996 Olympic Games:

"Like an economist, I worked backward, fabricating arguments to fit my conclusions, bolstering them with statistics plucked from thin air."

"According to what I'd read in the papers, he was a key player in preparations for the Seoul Olympics. You know, the ones with the persistent background odor of tear gas."

"At one time, the area had specialized in textile and footwear manufacturing, back before wiser heads than mine decided that the country needed fifteen-dollar Indonesian running shoes more than it
needed jobs."

"My heart, never reliably buoyant, sank. But I knew immediately what I must do. What any reasonable, thinking, politically aware member of the Labor Party would do under the circumstances. I left the scene."

From Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code:

"The other port was in Wiltshire, beside what humans referred to as Stonehenge. Mud People had several theories as to the origins of the structure. Hypotheses ranged from spaceship landing port to pagan center of worship. The truth was far less glamorous. Stonehenge had actually been an outlet for a flat, bread-based food. Or in human terms, a pizza parlor. ... And anyway, all that cheese was making the ground soggy. A couple of the service windows had even collapsed."

"Nobody had a clue what had happened until they replayed the incident on the screen of Kamal the chicken man's camcorder. ... The traders laughed so much that several of them became dehydrated. It was the funniest thing to happen all year. The clip even won a prize on Tunisia's version of the
World's Funniest Home Videos. Three weeks later, Ahmed moved to Egypt."
And now, readers, what makes you laugh in crime fiction or at least smile widely?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Technorati tags:

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The deep, somber, serious side of Shane Maloney, plus the ever-popular question for readers

Longtime readers of this blog know that Australia’s Shane Maloney is a funny guy, whether venting his spleen about translation, offending audiences at exclusive private schools, or writing crime novels about a beleaguered political functionary, single father and would-be nonsmoker named Murray Whelan.

I’ve read books one, four and five in the Whelan series, which took him from “minder, fixer and general dogsbody for the Minister for Industry” to respectability as a member of parliament. Now I’m reading number three, Nice Try, in which Whelan is detached from his job as senior adviser to the minister of water supply and put to work on Melbourne’s bid to host the 1996 Olympic Games.

I mention this because Whelan’s musings about encroaching middle age, moments of professional truth and the like seem more heartfelt this time, not just on his own behalf, but for his boss, Angelo Agnelli. The latter, especially, is a surprise, since Whelan in past books has regarded Agnelli with clear-eyed and amused condescension. Why the change? I wondered. Could it be – and I invite Australian readers especially to comment on this – because Maloney was part of Melbourne’s bid in real life and thus might have been disillusioned or disappointed when the bid failed?

On an unrelated note, Maloney does a nice bit of character development in the opening chapter. The character in question is a beautiful blonde female aerobics instructor, and you can imagine what fun an author of a novel whose protagonist is a single father might have with such a character. Maloney has that fun, and entertainingly so. But he also writes that “she had an open, frankly inquisitive face and wore her mandatory smile with a slightly ironic twist that didn’t quite match the earnest, professional cheerfulness of her workmates.”

The contrast piques the reader’s interest. That’s nice work on Maloney’s part.

How else do authors make you interested in their characters? What do they say about their characters that makes you want to know more?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Technorati tags:

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, December 21, 2007

The subject is sex

My recent comment about Harper also considered the two filmed versions of The Big Sleep, one of whose characters, the wild, irresponsible Carmen Sternwood, is palely echoed in Harper's Miranda Sampson. (The character is called Camilla in Michael Winner's 1978 Big Sleep remake.) Carmen is the one who pouts at Humphrey Bogart's Marlowe that "You're not very tall, are you?" to which he replies, "Well, I, uh, I try to be."

That's one character, more or less, in three movies from three decades, and, since sex is central to the character, three attitudes toward that interesting subject.

Young Carmen is a drunk, a drug user, and possibly a nymphomaniac and a psychotic, according to some accounts. A pornographer has taken pictures of her, and he uses them to blackmail her father, old General Sternwood. Marlowe finds his way to the pornographer's house, hears gunshots, and bursts in to find Carmen drugged and naked. In Howard Hawks' 1945/46 movie, she is draped in a blanket. In Winner's 1978 version, she is not. That's no surprise; the '70s could show what the '40s hid.

The real eye-opener for me was Harper's version of the character. Miranda Sampson parades around in revealing bikinis, and she drapes herself over any man in sight. So far, nothing exceptional, though she does look good. But it's a hotel-room scene with her and Harper (Paul Newman) that screams "Sixties!!!!!", or at least Hollywood's version of that decade.

Miranda props herself up on the bed, doing her best to seduce Harper as he searches the room. She goes so far as to lie back and slip a cushion under her hips. When Harper, fed up, slams the lights off and suggests that they close the door, though, Miranda springs upright and rolls across the bed in a panic, her virtue intact (to which the knowing Harper replies, "Ha, ha. Mmm, hmm.")

The '40s alluded, the '70s showed, the '60s teased.

And now, readers, your question: What parallel scenes, characters or situations from books or movies of different eras shed light on changing attitudes the way the scenes discussed here do?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Acting up

Spurred by a fine old article from January Magazine, I decided to acquaint myself with Ross Macdonald, only I did so secondhand, through the 1966 movie Harper.

That Paul Newman vehicle, based on Macdonald's 1949 novel The Moving Target, alters one of the more famous names in crime fiction, turning Lew Archer into Lew Harper. It also brims with the early Macdonald's debts to Raymond Chandler that J. Kingston Pierce cited in January Mag, and more besides.

It's a highly watchable movie, though a weird blend of three eras in American pop culture: the wince-inducing Hollywood 1960s; the 1930s and early '40s, toward which Macdonald looked when he wrote the novel; and the late 1940s, when Macdonald, to judge from what we see on screen, had yet to make the "fairly clean break with the Chandler tradition" that Pierce cites.

Let me break down my comments into a list, and perhaps something coherent will emerge:

1) The Lauren Bacall/Raymond Chandler connections. In Howard Hawks' celebrated 1945/46 movie of Chandler's The Big Sleep, Bacall plays a sexy, spoiled rich woman whose father hires Philip Marlowe and hopes he can find a missing man, among other tasks. In Harper, she plays a sexy, spoiled rich woman who hires Lew Harper (Archer) to find her missing husband.

The Big Sleep has moody shots of oil rigs churning away in the California night; so does Harper.

Both stories take place in Los Angeles.

Both feature a troublesome, flighty young woman who makes herself a thorn in the Bacall character's side (Pamela Tiffin in Harper, the much-better Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep).

As a bonus, Michael Winner's 1978 remake of The Big Sleep, though transferring the setting to England, begins with a near duplicate of an early sequence from Harper.

2) The wince-inducing 1960s detail, and I don't mean just the laughable music and god-awful clothes and haircuts that are trotted out to indicate "1960s." I mean the acting. Just about anyone with more than thirty seconds' screen time spends some of it mugging or otherwise going over the top. Arthur Hill is not just Harper's lawyer friend, but a cringing über-nerd with thick glasses and a bad haircut. Shelley Winters plays a star gone fat, so naturally the camera captures her noisily stuffing her face.

Pamela Tiffin's go-go-dance-on-the-diving-board routine is so dated that I expected someone to yell, "Crazy, man!" Bacall grins evilly in one sort-of close-up, chewing scenery as if in an Agatha Christie parody. Even Newman, the anti-Pacino, the most graceful and restrained of stars, gets into the act, rolling his eyes and tossing his head in impatience. (He brings it off better than anyone else in the movie, making it a part of the character and not just a piece of schtick. With the exception of Tiffin, everyone in the cast can act and does so nicely when not mugging and grimacing.)

3) The really wince-inducing 1960s detail: The nightclub scene in which three musicians with English-style clothes and mod haircuts pretend to play guitar and bass to a soundtrack on which the only audible instruments are trumpets.

4) The pre-Chandler connection. The whiff of family secrets is still vaguely in the air, as in much crime fiction of Chandler's time and before. This was a hallmark of American crime fiction from the late 1920s on, as Robert Towne knew well when he wrote Chinatown.

A religious cult figures prominently, as in Dashiell Hammett's The Dain Curse or "The Scorched Face" or Jonathan Latimer's Solomon's Vineyard.

Hey, I didn't promise coherence.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The king of questions

I’m rather the macho type when it comes to quizzes, preferring to throw the best my brain has to offer against the toughest questions the competition can come up with. Crime Scraps, heretofore the King of Camilleri, has come up with some tough ones.

“Which city had sixteen different police forces?” is about the easiest of his questions. Get it and twelve more right, and win yourself some wintertime crime reading (or summertime, if you're in Australia).

© Peter Rozovsky 2007


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

How Rex Stout kept it fresh

The mystery of how crime writers keep a long-running series fresh has been a great topic of discussion here. Last night, I found a beautifully simple and amusing example in Rex Stout's novella "Counterfeit for Murder," from Homicide Trinity.

Nero Wolfe has ordered Archie Goodwin to summon the trusted stable of freelance detectives whom they often use when extra manpower is called for. Fans will be familiar with the set piece. Goodwin always names the detectives, taking care to point out that Saul Panzer is the best of them. How is an author to keep such a scene, repeated so often, fresh? Here, Stout does it with a little joke:

"He spoke. `Saul and Fred and Orrie. At eight in the morning in my room.'

"My brows went up. Saul Panzer is the best operative south of the North Pole. His rate is ten dollars and hour and he is worth twenty. Fred Durkin's rate is seven dollars and he is worth seven-fifty. Orrie Cather's rate is also seven dollars and he is worth six-fifty."
© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Technorati tags:

Labels: , , ,

Monday, December 17, 2007

Necessity is the mother of this question to readers

I had intended to post about the remake of a movie I discussed here some time back, but that will have to wait, thanks to a defective DVD from the video store. This was just the second defective disc I'd rented, and I believe the first one was of the same movie. Oh, well. You remember what George Santayana said, don't you?

Instead, I'll share some observations about Kittyhawk Down by Garry Disher, whose books about the professional thief Wyatt I've discussed recently. Disher's approach in this novel, the first of his Hal Challis books that I've read, dovetails nicely with some readers' comments on my recent posting about crime series and freshness. The discussion turned to writers who change the central point-of-view character from book to book, and names including Michael Robotham, Karin Fossum, Olen Steinhauer and Ed McBain came up.

Disher does something vaguely McBainian in Kittyhawk Down's early chapters, opening each with a different point of view in a pattern that seems almost symphonic, if one diagrams it: Hal Challis gets the first chapter; followed by his sidekick, Ellen Destry; then Pam Murphy, another officer; then Challis again; Destry again; a local eccentric; and a return of Challis, a kind of ABCABDA structure.

Disher discusses his ensemble approach and other issues here and here on the State Library of Victoria's summer reading blog. In the latter piece, he writes that he became more interested in Destry as the series progressed. What began as the Challis series, and was billed as such, is now the Challis/Destry series.

Thus, today's question. The Challis series became the Challis/Destry series. Similarly, Bill James billed early books in his great series as Detective Chief Inspector Colin Harpur novels until the manic Desmond Iles came on the scene, and the books became the Harpur & Iles series. Who else has done this? Who has started writing a series with one protagonist, then brought in a co-star or changed protagonists as the series progressed?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007Technorati tags:

Labels: , , , , ,

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Down these green streets a man must walk, plus a question for readers

It’s not my turn to host the Carnival of the Criminal Minds yet. No, the current place to go for a roundup of the best in crime-fiction bloggery is Material Witness.

Still, I’d like to direct you to Bert Wright’s essay about Irish crime fiction on the always straightforward and somber Crime Always Pays blog. I’ll cull a few highlights from the piece as an entrée, then let you click your way to the main course:

“Thirty to forty years ago, crime in Ireland might involve an ageing farmer murdered over an inheritance dispute, sweet nothings in the ballroom of romance turning to violence in a country lane. Now we have teenage drug barons plugged in cold blood on quiet suburban streets, headless torsos fished out of canals, contract killings as an extension of the services sector, and most notoriously, a fearless crime reporter executed in her car at a busy intersection.”

“As Ken Bruen, one of our most highly-rated crime writers wrote:`I didn’t want to write about Ireland until we got mean streets. We sure got ’em now.’”

“`It’s part of the tradition too,’ declares Declan Hughes. `The hardboiled novel always depended on boomtowns where money was to be made and corners to be cut: twenties San Francisco for Hammett, forties LA for Chandler.’”
With Declan Hughes’ statement in mind, readers, what other boom towns have produced classic crime fiction?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Technorati tags:

Labels: , , , ,

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Warrantless surveillance? Pfui!

I’ve always enjoyed Nero Wolfe’s jousts with Inspector Cramer, in which the grouchy, orchid-loving Wolfe invariably gets the better of the splenetic New York cop. I also knew that Wolfe’s creator, Rex Stout, was active politically. I never put the two together, however, until the following, from “Death of a Demon”:

“`Nuts.’ Cramer stood up. … `I’m taking Goodwin. They’ll take his statement at the District Attorney’s Office, a complete report of the conversation. I’ll have a man here at two o’clock to take yours. If I took you down you’d only – '

“`I shall sign no statement. I am not obliged to. If you send a man he won’t be admitted. If you have questions, ask them.’”
Rivalry between fictional private detectives and police goes back at least to Edgar Allan Poe, in “The Purloined Letter,” and no one has done it better than Stout. Here, though, he does not merely show the private detective getting the better of the exasperated police officer, he flings a direct challenge at unwarranted exercise of police power.

A bit of research turned up Controversial Politics, Conservative Genre: Rex Stout's Archie-Wolfe Duo and Detective Fiction's Conventional Form , submitted by one Ammie Sorensen Cannon last year as a master’s thesis in English at Brigham Young University.

“Stout attempted to present radical messages via the content of his detective fiction with subtlety,” Sorensen wrote. “As a literary traditionalist, he resisted using his fiction as a platform for an often extreme political agenda. Where political messages are apparent in his work, Stout employs various techniques to mute potentially offensive messages.”

Maybe there’s more to the Wolfe-Cramer clashes than enjoyable embodiment of a detective-story tradition.

What other crime writers resort to the devious stratagem of entertainment to make a political point?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Technorati tags:

Labels: ,

Friday, December 14, 2007

Keep it simple, except in Italian

The Rap Sheet posts a series of retrospectives on The New Black Mask. The posts are full of good reading, as, indeed, the publication seems to have been. Some comments from Inspector Maigret's creator are of special interest.

Georges Simenon told New Black Mask that he used “a minimum of adjectives and adverbs, a minimum of abstract words which have a different resonance for each reader.” He asked as well that his translators “safeguard his simplicity,” but he admitted the task could be difficult, “as for instance in Italian.”

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Labels: , ,

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The lowdown on Wyatt and Parker

After often pondering Garry Disher's Wyatt and his entertaining and intriguing ties to Richard Stark's Parker, I went to the source, and the source answered. Here's Disher's reply to my questions, along with some observations about his other series characters, Hal Challis and Sergeant Ellen Destry. (Another hat tip to that human RSS reader, Damien of Crime Down Under.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Technorati tags:

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A bit more about proto-detectives, and a question for readers

I wrote a few days ago about Voltaire and his tantalizing and funny foreshadowing of the detective story in Zadig. (Find an archaic but free e-text version of Zadig here. Look for Chapter III.) That piece of Holmes-like reasoning dates from 112 years before Conan Doyle's birth. But pre-detective writing goes back far further, at least to a proto-legal thriller and the world's first locked-room mystery, both from additions to the Book of Daniel.

What pre-crime fiction can you think of? Your examples should not just be about murder, fraud and revenge, they should use narrative techniques and methods of detection that would be at home in Poe, Conan Doyle or their successors. Find me, in other words, a patient, pipe-smoking Athenian detective or a wise-cracking sentinel from the mean streets of Palmyra or Carthage.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Labels: ,

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

When series go ... er, not as good as they used to be

I've asked how authors build up a series character over time, how series change over time, and how authors keep interest alive in a long-running series.

Now it's time for the hard questions. What makes a series go bad, or at least lose its luster? For me, Bill James' great Harpur & Iles novels lost something once Panicking Ralph Ember made it to the top and the manic Desmond Iles lost his chief target with the departure of Chief Constable Mark Lane. Have you had similar experiences with long-running series?

Or does the fault lie with the reader? Does the intensity of reading many books in a short time bring on impatience and fatigue? A reader commented on one of my earlier posts that she had bought almost the entire run of one series at the same time and read the novels one after another. "These books are quite good," she wrote, "but if you read them as I did, the formula is obvious." (italics mine)

© Peter Rozovsky 2007


Sunday, December 09, 2007

Was Voltaire Sherlock Holmes' grandfather?

I posted last week about François-Marie Arouet, detective, suggesting that Voltaire would make a good fictional sleuth. I'd forgotten at the time that he wrote a vignette often cited as a forerunner of the classic tale of detection. Here’s part of that vignette, from Zadig:

“As regards the king of kings’ horse, you may know that as I walked along the road in this wood I saw the marks of horseshoes, all equal distances apart. That horse, said I, gallops perfectly. The dust on the trees in this narrow road only seven feet wide brushed off a little right and left three and a half feet from the middle of the road. This horse, said I, has a tail three and half feet long, and its movement left and right has swept away this dust. I saw beneath the trees, which made a cradle five feet high, some leaves newly fallen from the branches, and I recognized that this horse had touched there and was hence fifteen hands high. As regards his bit, it must be of twenty-three carat gold, for he rubbed the studs against a stone which I knew to be a touchstone and tested. From the marks his hoofs made on certain pebbles I knew the horse was shod with eleven scruple silver.”
That’s pretty Holmesian, and it was published in 1747 – 112 years before Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Technorati tags:

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Some sensible words about crime fiction and a question for readers

I generally squirm at discussions of genre vs. “serious” fiction, especially when it comes to my genre, crime. Anti-genreists are snobs, pro-genreists exaggerate their claims. More to the point of these debates, what’s their point? I can enjoy Fred Vargas or Ken Bruen or Ruth Rendell without agonizing over whether they are as worthy as James Joyce or Tolstoy or Ralph Waldo Emerson.

James Fallows’ recent posting on The Atlantic’s Web site, though, held my interest, and not just because he singled out some crime novelists whose work I especially enjoy. No, what makes Fallows’ essay stand out is that he bases his assessment on the actual experience of reading the books:

“I've figured out a way to tell the books I can feel good about reading from the ones I should wean myself from. The test is: can I remember something from the book a month later – or, better, six months or a year on. This is the test I apply to `real' fiction too: surprisingly often, a great book is great because it presents a character, a mood, a facet of society, a predicament that you hadn't thought of before reading the book but that stays with you afterwards. Rabbit Angstrom, Captain Ahab, and Clyde Griffiths (of An American Tragedy), to choose the first three examples that pop into my mind from American fiction.

“I say that `genre' fiction, like spy and crime novels, ascends into the `real' fiction category when the world it presents can exert the same tenacious hold on your mind.”

Among the crime novels that Fallows says meet that standard are Janwillem van de Wetering’s early “Amsterdam Cops” books (though he cites an odd reason for liking them, and he misspells van de Wetering’s name), and Inspector Imanishi Investigates by Seicho Matsumoto.

I agree with those choices, and I would add a few that present “a character, a mood, a facet of society, a predicament that you hadn't thought of before reading the book but that stays with you afterwards”: Yasmina Khadra’s novels about life in war-torn 1990s Algeria, the delicious social comedy of Bill James’ middle-period Harpur & Iles novels, and perhaps the yearning hope and despair of Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy.

OK, readers, what crime writing does the same thing for you? From which books can you “remember something from the book a month later – or, better, six months or a year on”? (Hat tip to Sarah Weinman.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Friday, December 07, 2007

Garry Disher plus one last Paris picture

And no, the picture is not of my hotel room.

Crime Down Under posts links to two articles by the award-winning, attention-getting, worth-reading Garry Disher. In one, Disher talks about becoming a writer, including some interesting remarks about the trials and tribulations of being so versatile an author. In the other, he offers a detailed analysis of how he writes, and he discusses some of the products of that writing: Hal Challis, Ellen Destry, and the cold, mysterious Wyatt. The latter article includes the excellent news that Disher is at work in on a seventh Wyatt novel. But Disher does not discuss the entertaining and intriguing ties between Wyatt and Richard Stark's Parker.

A bonus for readers in the Northern Hemisphere is that Disher's articles appear under the heading "Great Victorian Summer Read Blog." The nerve of the guy, lording it over we damp, shivering northerners.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Technorati tags:

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Planet News

Declan Burke's Crime Always Pays blog is the holiday home of the Carnival of the Criminal Minds, and I fear our jovial host has been hitting the egg nog a little early. I bear no more than a passing resemblance to the picture he posted alongside his kind remarks about Detectives Beyond Borders. Nor is Carnival queen Barbara Fister on the mark when she asserts, based on said photo, that I have a brain the size of a planet. At most, it is no larger than a floating piece of space junk in a disreputable suburb of the asteroid belt.

As previous Carnival hosts have done, Burke gives an entertaining précis of the best in recent crime-fiction blogging. He also offers the story of his blog, his belly-laugh-inducing caper novel The Big O, and their heartwarming rise to international prominence.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Labels: ,

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Sartre, Camus and Ken Bruen

Hey, I didn't say it; Declan Burke did, and he just might be on to something. Here's part of what he had to say about Bruen's character Jack Taylor in a recent interview with the Sons of Spade:

"In [Taylor’s] world, everyone is equally culpable, and Bruen has inverted the focus of his PI’s gaze so that it’s himself he’s investigating, his morality, the part that he plays in creating the kind of world where good, bad and indifferent all jostle for pre-eminence. What Bruen is doing for crime fiction right now is akin to what Camus and Sartre, in their different ways, did for philosophy sixty or seventy years ago – although a more appropriate, Irish, reference would be that of Samuel Beckett."
What I find interesting is that Burke's comments distance Jack Taylor from the ranks of middle-aged loner P.I.s, a group about which I have commented from time to time and to which I now realize that Taylor's resemblance may be merely superficial.

Paris, city of crime: The end. I arrived back in Philadelphia yesterday, a day ahead of my luggage. I can't tell you how good it is to be home from Paris and ready to go back to work. Actually, I could, but it would make unpleasant telling and dreary reading.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Technorati tags:

Labels: , ,

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Paris-crime IVème: François-Marie Arouet, detective

Who's that Arouet guy? He's better known by the name he took for himself — Voltaire — and he made a pretty good detective at least once in his celebrated career.

Jean Calas was a draper in Toulose in 1761, a Calvinist at a time when it was not always healthy to be one in France. In October of that year, his son Marc-Antoine was found dead. A hue (and also a cry) went up among the population that Calas had murdered his son to prevent him from converting to Catholicism. Calas' family was dispossessed, and he was taken into custody, eventually to be tortured publicly and executed.

The affair became a rallying cry for religious toleration, the inspiration for Voltaire's famous treatise on the subject. Here are some excerpts from an introduction to the edition of that treatise, Traité sur la tolerance, that I bought when I was thinking elevated thoughts at the Panthéon this week:

"Did (Marc-Antoine), when he came down to the ground floor, commit suicide by hanging in the store? The answer depends on the position of the body when it was discovered. On this chief point, the Calases disagreed, which aggravated the presumption of their guilt. The evening of the 13th, Pierre, pressed by his father, affirmed that the body was stretched out on the floor, the first version and no doubt the truth. Such a position does not exclude the thesis of suicide by hanging, but it accords better with murder by strangulation. Also, the Calases changed their story the next day. ... an acrobatic suicide, but these exist.

"The investigator, David de Beaudrigue, was no Maigret, much less a Sherlock Holmes; He failed to follow tracks that might have led to the truth. In the afternoon, Marc-Antoine had exchanged some silver for [gold] louis d'or for his father's account. These louis d'or were never found. What became of them? Beaudrigue never asked that question. Did Marc-Antoine lose them, gambling or some other way, which would explain his suicide? Did an assassin wait for him in the rear of the house, watching for him to rob him, or for some other reason? (The investigation did not interest itself in this 28-year-old man's relations with women."
With the scene thus set, allies of the Calas family called in Voltaire, who took the case and solved it in three months, eventually winning a posthumous exoneration for Calas and a royal pension for his family. What most impressed this crime-fiction reader, though, was the introduction's readiness to cast the story in detective-story terms, and this from an academic.

And now, readers, can you name other historical figures who have turned detective?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

Technorati tags:

Labels: , , ,