Monday, March 31, 2008

Richard Price is conflicted on crime

The same issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer that features my review of Adrian Hyland's Moonlight Downs (a.k.a. Diamond Dove) also offers my colleague Dan DeLuca's interview with Richard Price about Price's new novel, Lush Life.

"The page-turner is shaped like a police procedural," DeLuca writes, "but there's next to no mystery. When he's called a crime writer, `I hate it,' says Price ... `If I could tell you on the cover of the book who did it, I would.'"

But wait. Just because Price confuses crime and mystery does not mean he's a bad guy or a snob. DeLuca also asks Price about his job writing for The Wire:

"When Simon and Wire producer George Pelecanos (one of Price's favorite novelists, along with Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, Denis Johnson and [Dennis] Lehane) asked him to pitch in ..."
Anyone about whom favorite novelists and George Pelecanos, Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy and Dennis Lehane can be used in the same sentence is more comfortable with crime writing than he lets on.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

NoirCon 2008 in Philadelphia this week

It began last year as GoodisCon, honoring Philadelphia's own David Goodis, whose work included the novels made into the movies Dark Passage and Shoot the Piano Player. This year's version is called NoirCon, and it honors the kind of writing Goodis exemplified.

The event runs from April 3-6, and it includes discussions, movies, meals, a silent auction and more. Tributes to Georges Simenon, Dorothy B. Hughes, Jim Thompson, Donald Goines, Charles Willeford and Carroll John Daly are on the agenda, though these are scheduled as early as 8:45 a.m., a highly un-noirlike hour to expect attendees to be out of bed. Guest of honor among a star-studded list of attendees, and a man I'll hope to meet, is Ken Bruen.

More information here.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Adrian Hyland in the Philadelphia Inquirer

My review of Adrian Hyland's novel Moonlight Downs (a.k.a. Diamond Dove) appears in today's Philadelphia Inquirer. Click here to read the online version.

A heads-up: I liked the book.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

International understanding

My innocent question to Bernd Kochanowski in a comment here about German writers who use lots of anglicisms and how an English translator might cope with them has generated a flurry of discussion at Bernd's blog, International Krimis. I can't understand much beyond the authors' names, but the give and take sure looks interesting.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Ken Bruen and Jason Starr in German

The German blog Krimi-Couch, which bears the charmingly straightforward tag line "denn lesen ist spannender" ("Because reading is more exciting"), brings the news that Ken Bruen and Jason Starr's Bust, which may be the funniest crime novel ever, is scheduled for publication in German translation this month under the title Flop.

I recommend this hilarious tale of scamming, psychopaths, sex and kidnapping in any language (Read a chapter at the Hard Case Web sites in English or in German
), but the book's German title is especially interesting. Bust in the original partakes of several of that versatile word's English meanings, including the amplitude of the key female character's bosom. The German publisher appears to have homed in on one of those meanings. If anyone out there knows of any special meanings or resonances flop might have in German, please let us know here at the Detectives Beyond Borders foreign desk.

A short item about Bruen on the same blog says just two of his more than twenty novels had previously been translated for publication in Germany. That may surprise those of us who assume readers of English are uniquely deprived of translated crime fiction.

In a late-breaking news flash, it transpires that Bruen and Starr have signed an option deal for a film version of Bust and that a screenplay has been written. The only apprehension anyone should have about a movie is whether it could possibly be as good as the hilarious, violent, still somehow tender, etc. and altogther wonderful book. (Hat tip to new father Declan Burke at Crime Always Pays.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Mamur Zapt and the Girl in the Nile, or details, details!

Sure, there's a killing in this fifth book in Michael Pearce's Mamur Zapt series. Not only that, there's an arms-smuggling ring, and the two connect in macabre fashion.

But I still like the details best, mostly of late-colonial politics, as interests play off one another, and the mystery of the dead woman (she fell off a prince's boat, no less!) bumps up against a looming Anglo-Egyptian diplomatic agreement.

And not just political details. Pearce has a sharp ear for the nerve-racking pitch of a lover's quarrel, for example, and an eye for the increasing prevalence of image over substance:

"`Have you noticed,' said the Prince, `that their business has changed? They used to sell beads and hippopotamus-hide whips and boa constrictors. Now they sell themselves to be photographed.'"
As for politics, how about this:

"The Khedive's an Absolute Ruler, well, relatively Absolute, and can conduct Agreements on his own, provided we say so."
or this wry observation about the origins of Egypt's French-style Parquet, or prosecution service:

"`New?' said Owen. The Parquet had existed, he thought, since at least 1883 when a reforming Minister of Justice had unearthed in his office some Arabic translations of parts of the French Code Napoléon and promulgated them as the new Egyptian legal system."
And for humor, this, from a bon-vivant heir to Egypt's nominal throne who nonetheless considers himself a progressive thinker, and is thus surprised when he finds himself a target of angry nationalists:

"`I'm all for reform myself,' said Narouz, `but does one have to be quite so drastic?'"
© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

K.O. Dahl: A Norwegian crime writer joins the blogosphere

I have not yet read the Norwegian crime writer Kjell Ola Dahl, author of The Fourth Man and The Man in the Window. I am inclined to do so now, however, thanks to his guest-blogging stint on Moments in Crime, which includes the barest hint of salutary skepticism on a major world issue.

Elsewhere, Dahl has some interesting things to say about Scandinavian crime fiction and crime stories that cross borders in an article called Crime Pays.

(A hat tip to the hard-working and quasi-encyclopedic Euro Crime.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Mike Mitchell, part II: An interview with Friedrich Glauser's translator

(Read part I of the interview with Mike Mitchell here.)

Talk briefly about some of your other translation work and about how that work compares with translating Glauser.

That is rather difficult, as I’ve translated over 50 books. Whenever I start a book by a new author, I work on it until I feel I’m getting under the skin of the writer, that I’m getting an English ‘voice’ which is a satisfactory equivalent of the original; critics might not agree, of course, but in most cases there does seem to come a point where I start to feel more comfortable with the translation. That is how I approached Glauser, but I can’t think of any direct comparison with other writers I’ve translated. He’s not just the only crime writer I’ve translated, he’s the only Swiss writer and the only 1930s author — though I don’t know if that’s really relevant.

In The Chinaman, Glauser has Studer observe that "detective novels seemed popular in Pfründisberg," and he names Edgar Wallace, Agatha Christie and Georges Simenon. What is Glauser’s place in the canon of crime writers? Within Swiss and German-language literature?

I’m not very familiar with the canon of Swiss literature, but (leaving aside all the arguments about the status and evaluation of the genre of crime fiction; German in the past has tended to have stricter demarcation between ‘light’ and ‘serious’ literature) Glauser is treated as a serious writer, not ‘just’ as crime writer, an important figure in 20th-century Swiss literature who has made a significant contribution to Switzerland’s self-image.

I think this ‘Swissness’ is particularly important, especially in the reception of his detective, Sergeant Studer, who is widely familiar in German-speaking Switzerland through films and television as well as the books; I suspect he is seen by many as embodying typically Swiss virtues. A contemporary writer, Hansjörg Schneider, has created a detective (Hunkeler) who is clearly modelled on Studer and was immediately recognised as such, though his background is Basel, not Bern.

As I’m sure you know, the major German crime-fiction prize is called the ‘Glauser’ — because, I think, he was the first German writer to give the crime novel literary ‘respectability’ (see comment above).

Glauser seems obviously to rank high among crime writers – perhaps something like a slyer, more humane and funnier Simenon. Why did it take so long for his work to be published in book form and translated?

Glauser’s crime novels first appeared as — very successful — serials in Swiss newspapers. Only two were published in book form during his lifetime, the other three in the years following his death in — in German terms — relatively little-known publishing houses. I believe his reputation spread in the wider German-speaking world some time after the war.

I suspect this publishing history is the reason why he didn’t come to the notice of English publishers before the war — Switzerland has never been ‘sexy’ to use a modern journalistic term; afterwards it was the war itself (Kirst’s ‘Gunner Asch’ novels) and coming to terms with the Nazi past (Grass, Böll) that attracted English attention to German writing. Also, Glauser’s style of crime writing is not in tune with the English tradition: the country-house mystery, the amateur, often upper-class, ‘sleuth’, Agatha Christie’s almost abstract ‘locked-room’ type puzzles, and a ‘Swiss Simenon’ lacks the attraction of Paris.

One of Bob Cornwell’s questions in “The Translators Unedited” concerned translators’ professional relationships with authors. In the case of Glauser, who died in 1938, where would you go with the sorts of questions you might have asked the author?

Generally with authors who are dead — or don’t respond — you have to make up your mind yourself, which is both a privilege and a duty, sometimes a big problem, though not with Glauser. Occasionally secondary literature or annotated editions can help, but not often for specific questions. I have a former colleague who specialises in Swiss literature I can ask for help.

Fortunately one paperback edition of the stories has very useful material, information on institutions, photographs of buildings etc, and another has explanations of Swiss terms for German readers, again very useful, as the Duden Swiss-German dictionary is out of print, and when I looked it up on Amazon there was a long queue waiting for a secondhand copy.

A further problem with true dialects, of course, is that they are written as they are pronounced, so even if one has a dictionary, one has to be aware of variant spellings. A small Swiss-German dictionary I have gives the word quoted above — ‘meitschi’ — in the form ‘maitli’. It does also give a brief account of pronunciation differences between Swiss dialects, of which it lists ten.

(Read part I of the interview with Mike Mitchell here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Mike Mitchell, part I: An interview with Friedrich Glauser's translator

Friedrich Glauser had a more harrowing time of it than do most crime writers. Born in Vienna in 1896, he died forty-two years later after a life that included morphine and heroin addiction, diagnosis as a schizophrenic, service with the Foreign Legion in North Africa, and periods in psychiatric wards, insane asylums and prison.

These experiences are reflected in his crime novels, yet not in the way one might expect. Rather than self-pity, sensationalism and self-dramatization, his five novels about Sgt. Studer are filled with quiet humor and intense empathy with their downtrodden characters. Such empathy has led some critics to compare Glauser to Georges Simenon.

Glauser's reputation is such that the top prize in the German-language crime-fiction world is named for him, yet his work was never translated into English until Bitter Lemon Press brought out Thumbprint in 2004. Since then, Bitter Lemon has issued the remaining Studer novels as well: Fever, In Matto's Realm, The Chinaman and, this year, The Spoke.

To render Glauser into English, Bitter Lemon turned to Mike Mitchell, whose résumé as a translator includes works in several genres from all over the German-language literary map with occasional forays into French. Goethe and Oskar Kokoschka are just two of the writers whose work he has translated. His current projects include Kafka's The Trial for Oxford University Press.

Mr. Mitchell graciously agreed to answer questions on a number of Glauser-related subjects, including the challenges of translating a writer in whose work dialect plays an important part.

(This is part I of a two-part interview with Mike Mitchell. Read part II here.)

How did you come to be associated with the project to translate Friedrich Glauser? Were you aware of his work before you took on the job? If so, what did you think of him? If not, what do you think of him now?

Simple — I was invited to translate him by the publisher. The owners of Bitter Lemon are Swiss, though two have lived in Britain for years and are fluent in English. They were setting up a new publishing house to specialise in European crime fiction in English translation, and it was natural for them to want Glauser, who had not previously been translated into English, as one of their first authors. I knew of Glauser as a 1930s Swiss crime writer, but I hadn’t read anything by him previously. As an academic I had specialised mainly in Austrian literature and culture, so for me, Swiss writing was a list of names I knew but had mostly not read.

A life like Glauser’s will lead many to speculate about connections between his life and his fiction. He set In Matto’s Realm in a sanatorium, for example, and parts of The Spoke, such as Studer’s talking to himself, strike me as something like what an inmate of such a place might write. What connections between the work and the life strike you about Glauser?

Behind the exterior of a detective story a novel such as In Matto’s Realm is a gripping and very moving picture of institutionalisation, something Glauser himself was well acquainted with; the background material to one of the German editions suggests it includes direct references to people and situations Glauser was familiar with. Incarceration in such institutions obviously never managed to break Glauser’s spirit, but there are frequent characters in his books who have suffered under the system; the curriculum vitae of: ‘brought up in poor circumstances — bound to a farmer at a young age — maltreated and underfed — caught stealing and sent to a reformatory etc etc’ occurs more than once.

What particularly attracts me about Glauser’s crime novels is the way his detective — Sergeant Studer — understands and sympathises with the disadvantaged, even if his job means he has to continue to investigate them. There is a profound sense of humanity permeating Glauser’s writing, which at the same time throws a keen light on social conditions in Switzerland in the 1930s, but coming across as a concern for individuals rather than as a political message.

You’ve discussed Glauser’s handling of dialect. I’d like you to talk about his use of, say, Bern dialect vs. standard spoken or written German and about the challenges this posed for you as a translator. Were there any passages that were simply untranslatable?

Not untranslatable in the sense of finding it impossible to convey the meaning, but it was very difficult to follow the way the main character switches from local dialect to standard ‘educated’ Swiss to very formal German. Fortunately Glauser himself comments on this at times, so I felt justified in occasionally adding a rider of my own of the type: ‘ ‘’Xxxxx”, said Studer, reverting to his Bernese dialect’, where, say, a remark by Studer in thick dialect is reported without comment.

In The Spoke this is complicated by the fact the Studer is operating in another canton (Appenzell) with a different dialect. Again, what I do is insert a few markers in the translation to suggest non-standard language, the precise nature of the language becoming clear from the narrator’s comments and one or two added ones of my own.

I live in Scotland, and there is a temptation to use a Scottish dialect (or dialects) for the Swiss, but I feel that would arouse the wrong associations in the reader (tartan, kilts, bagpipes etc). In other translations I have used British dialects a couple of times, but only for very minor characters in scenes which last half a page or so — and even then I’m not 100% happy about it.

One example of this was Studer’s use of the word ‘Meitschi’ (meaning ‘girl’) for young women he becomes emotionally attached to (in a fatherly kind of way) in the course of his investigation. It needs a word with emotional warmth, and the warmth is partly expressed in the use of a dialect word. In the first novel I translated I thought I had found a solution in ‘lassie’ — common in Scotland and, often also as ‘lass’, in Lancashire, where I grew up. But readers from the south of England complained that it stood out from the rest of Studer’s language. I think that criticism was justified, and avoided the word in later novels. But I didn’t find a word I felt had the same emotional warmth, and words the editor suggested sounded to me too southern English.

All that, I think, supports my view that dialect shouldn’t be translated into a dialect of the target language — unless the setting is ‘translated’ to the other country as well.

I was once asked if I would translate an Austrian play about a Jewish actor in the 1930s who loses his job, disappears and then reappears in the guise of a very Aryan Tyrolean farmer who is a ‘natural’ actor. I decided it was impossible to do his return to Vienna, speaking broad Tyrolese. Someone else later translated it using a Scottish dialect, but I have to say I wasn’t personally convinced by it.

A possibly related question: What was the biggest challenge for you in rendering Glauser into English?

I think the dialect was the biggest challenge. Also perhaps the way much of the narration is close to Studer’s mind — keeping the balance between clarity of exposition and the colouring of Studer’s feelings and responses.

(Read part II here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

The pleasures of anthologies, or What are your favorite crime-fiction collections?

I recently read the following rave about Michael Gilbert:

"A critic once remarked that Maugham's Ashenden is the finest collection of espionage fiction ever written. That critic is wrong. The honor goes to Michael Gilbert's Game Without Rules, and to its twelve-story sequel, Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens."

Since the source of that encomium is Joe Gores, author of the estimable D.K.A. Files stories, I said to myself: "Wow! I've got to look for this Gilbert guy."

Imagine my surprise when I found Gilbert in my kitchen two days later, in a 1997 anthology called Detective Duos. I can do no better than to cite a passage that Gores quoted:

"Mr. Behrens said, raising his voice a little, `If I were to lift my right hand a very well-trained dog, who has been approaching you quietly from the rear while we were talking, would have jumped for your throat.'

"The colonel smiled. `Your imagination does you credit. What happens if you lift your left hand? Does a genie appear from a bottle and carry me off?'

"`If I raise my left hand,' said Mr. Behrens, `you will be shot dead.'

"And so saying, he raised it."
A few weeks earlier, I'd been flipping through Hugh Greene's 1971 collection, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. That volume contains some of the usual suspects among late-19th- and early-20th-century detective writers not named Conan Doyle, notably R. Austin Freeman and Baroness Orczy. It also includes two stories by Arthur Morrison, of whom I'd not heard and of whom Greene justly remarks that the oblivion into which he fell was undeserved.

Morrison, whose two stories in the collection appeared originally in 1895 and 1897, wrote with an understatement uncharacteristic of the period, even when the stories involved such Gothic details as characters locked in basements. The understatement is probably why his writing feels so fresh, particularly in "The Case of Laker, Absconded."

What a pleasure to discover these writers I might not have found if not for anthologies, and anthologies I might not have discovered if I'd not found them in a secondhand bookshop. All praise to used bookstores!

And now, readers, what are your favorite crime-fiction anthologies, no matter where you found them?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, March 21, 2008

The Mamur Zapt and the Girl in the Nile

While we're on the subject of colonialism and occupying powers, there are Michael Pearce's Mamur Zapt police procedurals. Pearce brings contemporary sensibilities to an old-style exotic setting: early twentieth-century Egypt, with its competing British, Ottoman and Egyptian interests and its French-style judicial system.

The Mamur Zapt and the the Girl in the Nile, fifth in a series that now numbers sixteen, offers all the trappings of espionage tales of an earlier era: hot, lazy days; cool, callously scheming British officials; and the odd lazy or ingratiating native. But then come the subtly contemporary touches. The mamur zapt's, or British secret police chief's, romantic involvement with an independent daughter of the Egyptian upper classes is the most obvious of these.

More intriguing are remarks such as this: "Not only that. He was also the façade which concealed the realities of British power in Egypt." That's not the sort of thing one is likely to find in, say, John Buchan.

Most intriguing, and likely to hit home with a force as fresh as today's headlines, are passing observations like this one about the populace's unease with police, whom they saw "as the agents of either an alien, infidel force (the British) or a dissolute secular power (the Khedive)."

I shall read this series with considerable interest.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Eliot Pattison talks about Tibet

Eliot Pattison has set five crime novels in Tibet, a place unfortunately much in the news these days. The novels are much concerned with Chinese repression of Tibet and Tibetans, so it's no surprise that the BBC has sought him out for comment.

"I think we're at a very historic moment," Pattison says in an interview on the program The World. Though he does not mention the Beijing Olympics, he does say China increased its repression a year ago. He says the new campaign has included the destruction of religious statues, acts he compares to the Taliban's destruction of the colossal sixth-century Buddhas at Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001.

You can hear the complete interview here.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Chain of Evidence: Garry Disher's parallel cases and supporting characters

Those are two of the features that make Chain of Evidence work. The fourth in Garry Disher's Hal Challis/Ellen Destry series uses the time-honored device of parallel cases, and it keeps them parallel; they never meet. And several of the supporting characters are especially strong because they do just a bit more than supporting characters of similar type generally do.

The latter adds greatly to the novel's texture. A callous, career-minded chief is just a bit more callous and career-minded than most. A jealous, small-time corrupt, socially inept officer is just a little bit more than usual of each, enough that one wonders when he might go over the edge.

The parallel cases are a child abduction handled by Sgt. Ellen Destry on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, Australia, and an old missing-persons case in which Destry's boss, Inspector Hal Challis, becomes involved while visiting his ailing father in South Australia. No, the cases do not come together to reveal hidden connections that no one would have dared imagine. Yes, they (and the novel) hold together, because of Challis' and Destry's mutual longing, personal on Challis' part, personal and professional on Destry's. It's an impressive way of binding two unrelated cases into one coherent novel. The South Australia case has the additional virtue of emerging seamlessly from a matter that relates to Challis's family. Challis' personal life is no mere device to add atmosphere or realism, in other words.

Other strong points relate to character as well, or rather to assumptions that Disher has investigators make about characters. I'll leave off, to avoid plot spoilers.

But I will ask you a question about characters. What other authors keep minor or supporting characters fresh by having them do things just a bit differently from other of their type?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Up this beanstalk a boy must climb who is not himself a bean: Crime fiction and children's fiction

Readers of Detectives Beyond Borders may know the tale of how this innocent crime-fiction reader unexpectedly found himself reading and becoming a big fan of Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl books and his Half Moon Investigations.

I was reminded this week of that marvelous discovery as I read the author's note with which Garry Disher prefaces his collection of short stories called Straight, Bent and Barbara Vine. Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski, Disher writes:

"depends upon a community of women friends and is given to examining her conduct in personal and private matters. But ultimately she must act alone. It's a rule of thumb of crime and children's fiction that the solution must lie with the hero, not the cavalry."
That makes sense, doesn't it? One might ultimately forge additional links with the heroic tradition in general, but for now, think about that frisson of excitement you feel when Jack kills the giant, Odysseus makes it home, or your favorite fictional cop or P.I. gets to the end of a novel alive.

Can you see any other connections between crime fiction and children's fiction?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Carnival of the Criminal Minds the XII

I'm a bit late catching up, but Carnival of the Criminal Minds has made its twelfth stop, this time at the excellently named Hey, There's a Dead Guy in the Living Room.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008


A German best-of list

Internationale Krimis occasionally mentions the monthly top-ten list compiled by a panel of German, Swiss and Austrian crime-fiction critics. In a recent post, blogkeeper Bernd Kochanowski discussed the panel's best-of-the-best list, its choices for the ten best crime novels published in German in 2007.

The list includes the books known in English as This Night's Foul Work by Fred Vargas, The Broken Shore by Peter Temple, The Goodbye Kiss by Massimo Carlotto and The Naming of the Dead by Ian Rankin, plus novels by John Harvey and James Sallis.

It also includes books not yet known as anything in English because they appear not to have been translated: Die feine Nase der Lilli Steinbeck by Heinrich Steinfest, Feuertod by Astrid Paprotta, and Kalteis by Andrea Maria Schenkel, all written in German, and Der Grenzgänger by Matti Rönkä, translated from Finnish. I'm especially curious about Matti Rönkä, since so little Finnish crime fiction is available in English.

That's four novels originally published in English, three in German, and one each in French, Finnish and Italian. What does that tell you? Are German-language readers more commendably broad-minded than we are? Should they be up in arms that only three books original to their own language made the list?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008


Saturday, March 15, 2008

The crazy world of Jasper Fforde

"Easter was always bad for him."

Humpty Dumpty's ex-wife

Blurbs I've seen for Jasper Fforde's novels tend toward stunned, amazed cheering, and it's easy to see why. There is nothing else like his Nursery Crimes books. I've just read the first of them, The Big Over Easy, and I'm happy to join the chorus. But I'll also try to suggest a few reasons why the book is far more than yuk-it-up parody of hard-boiled tropes.

1) I wrote tropes rather clichés deliberately. Fforde pokes fun at the hard-working, browbeaten cop, the trusty sidekick, the evil genius, the femme fatale, the hero in peril and more. Nothing is easier than making fun of a cliché; it's like kicking a man when he's down. But Fforde manages the far more difficult feat of making his fun affectionate. He obviously loves the genre conventions at which he pokes such delightful fun. And what a range of genres!

2) His imagination runs riot. The victim in The Big Over Easy is Humpty Dumpty. The investigating officers are Detective Inspector Jack Spratt of the Reading Police Department, Nursery Crime Division, and his sidekick, Mary Mary. Need I say more? I will anyway:

3) The nursery-rhyme motif is ingenious. One can imagine the early Woody Allen building a humorous essay around it, in the manner of his gangster parodies. But Fforde spins it out into a 380-page novel that never flags. How does he manage this? By ringing constant changes. Jack Spratt is not merely a hardworking detective who likes his meat lean. At unexpected moments, Fforde has him evoke other nursery-rhyme Jacks as well, one of them in a highly amusing running joke.

4) So far, Fforde has played with nursery-rhyme characters and crime-fiction conventions. But there's more. He has equally affectionate fun with a science-fiction trope or two and with a thriller-style plague that threatens if not to destroy the world, then at least to make it uncomfortable.

5) Fforde enhances the illusion of a weird but real parallel universe by heading each chapter with a mock newspaper article, usually very funny.

6) Both in the mock articles and in the body of the novel, Fforde shows a sharp ear for vacuously breathless journalistic prose.

7) The novel has at least one serious message about the contemporary world. Here's a well-meaning superior officer urging Jack to gently fudge details of an investigation:
"Times change, Jack, and we have to change with them. Public approval is a currency we cannot afford to fritter away."
If that's not a sobering comment on market-driven pandering in just about every aspect of contemporary life including the mainstream media, well, then, I don't work in the mainstream media.

8) In addition to the ingenuity of its conception, the book is just plain fun to read. Here's one of many examples:

"`Interfering fool!' she spat. `The bastard Jellyman has escaped. Ten long years of planning for nothing. Do you know how long it took me to engineer my little friend up there?'

"`You just said. Ten years – '

"`Don't patronize me!' she screeched."

Maybe this post is just so much more stunned, amazed cheering afteer all. So go see what the fuss is about, and read some Jasper Fforde.

P.S. Does anyone else see a bit of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's Arthur Dent in Fforde's Jack Spratt – and of that book's chapter headings in Fforde's mock newspaper articles?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Welcome to Northern Ireland

I am pleased to add a new site to my links list and a new entry to my roster of labels. Gerard Brennan's Crime Scene NI is "Primarily devoted to the post-Troubles boom in Northern Irish crime fiction" and "also highly interested in all Irish, Euro and international crime fiction."

That sounds good, especially the part about the "post-Troubles boom." Sounds like a phrase that could launch a thousand books.

Check out the site for information about crime writers, Northern Irish and otherwise, and an information-packed set of opening posts that includes the first discussion I have ever seen of gender-based author initials.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Australian Crime Fiction Snapshot, Part V

The indefatigable Australian Crime Fiction Snapshot is back with interviews of James Phelan, Mark Abernethy, Michael Robotham, Angela Savage and Sandy Curtis.

One highlight is Robotham on his tendency to give minor characters in one book a larger role in another:

"When I was a ghostwriter, each time I took on a project I got to look at the world through a fresh set of eyes. That’s what I love about shuffling my main characters around and introducing new ones. I never write a character and think I’ll use them again in another book. I let the story idea decide who the narrator should be."
Join me once again in a round of applause for Karen Chisholm of Aust Crime Fiction, Damien Gay of Crime Down Under and Perry Middlemiss of Matilda for conducting, assembling and presenting this fascinating group of interviews. If Al Gore can win a Nobel Prize for public relations, these three deserve at least the Order of Australia.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Comic relief and tension-breakers: Two examples, and a question for readers

I've recently read two very different crime novels that used a similar device for comic effect. Andrea Camilleri's The Paper Moon and Blood of the Wicked, by Leighton Gage, punctuate their narratives with humorous, sometimes absurd confrontations (or avoidance thereof) between the protagonist and his superior officer.

Camilleri's running joke is a constantly postponed meeting between Inspector Salvo Montalbano and the commissioner he despises. In Gage's grim story about murder and the fight for land reform in northern Brazil, the one comic note is the phone calls between detective Mario Silva and his dim, pompous supervisor, or director, who insists on being updated on Silva's investigation "twice daily, at noon and at six."

Camilleri makes the reasons for the missed meeting grow wilder and more elaborate. Gage has the harried director grow more and more exasperated, enumerating his woes as the news gets worse, the bodies pile up, and the possible repercussions for his own career grow ever more worrisome. The phone calls, made comic by their regularity, begin to affect Silva even when they don't arrive. Each author repeats the joke but varies it just enough each time to keep the reader interested, something like a musical theme and successive variations.

Before I offer one example each from The Paper Moon and Blood of the Wicked, you get your chance to weigh in. What running jokes do crime novelists use to add humor or release tension? How do they hold the reader's interest when repeating a joke throughout a novel?

"He said that 'cause they're having the furinal services for that sinator that died and seeing as how the c'mishner gotta be there poisonally in poisson, atta furinal. I mean, the c'mishner can't come to see youse like he said he was was gonna do. Unnastand, chief?"

"Perfectly, Cat."

– The Paper Moon
"Good evening, Director."


It wasn't the director.

– Blood of the Wicked
© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, March 10, 2008

The Paper Moon, or Salvo Montalbano, vulnerable detective

After reading Andrea Camilleri's The Patience of the Spider last year, I wrote that Camilleri was giving his protagonist, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, "an ever more tender and sympathetic view of the world."

Last week, I was pleased to note than an Italian blogger had made a similar observation apropos of that novel and of Camilleri's most recently translated Montalbano book, The Paper Moon, back when the latter was published in its original language in 2005.

With the aid once again of my scraps of Italian and a moderately trusty translation program, I translated part the discussion as follows:

"Which Montalbano do we find in this book? A man whom Camilleri is aging gradually, book after book, making him more reflective, as in The Patience of the Spider."
The writer notes Montalbano's worries about aging in the new book, in particular his realizing with alarm that his memory is not what it once was. It is significant, though, that the resourceful Montalbano deals with the problem by taking notes and writing himself letters. This is of a piece with narrative devices from earlier novels, such as his mentally casting a difficult case in the form of a script in order better organize his thoughts, but it also shows more of the touching vulnerability I found in The Patience of the Spider.

The new book takes Montalbano up against Italian political corruption, of course. But, as is characteristic of the series, love, obsession and other human perversities are the real occasions of the inspector's wonderment. Once again, he is vulnerable and crotchety at the same time, which is somehow especially touching and makes him more believable than if he'd been one or the other rather than both.

What other detectives are vulnerable without tumbling into cliché?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Aussie humour

Geoff McGeachin, probably a pretty funny guy himself, to judge by the titles of his novels (Fat, Fifty and F**cked, D.E.D. Dead and Sensitive New Age Spy), posted some illuminating comments here recently that included a link to an article about Australian humo(u)r. Not only is the article surprising and entertaining, it's on an official Australian government Web site.

The article is not about crime fiction, but its discussion of such themes as black humor and, especially, anti-authoritarianism, will be no surprise to readers of, say, Shane Maloney.

My favorite bit is this, from the comedian Mark Little:

"The country itself is the ultimate joke; the wave you body-surf into shore after a day at the beach could contain a shark or a rip-tide and, when you get back, your house could have been burnt to the ground in a bush fire. That's where the whole 'no worries' thing comes from."
© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Andrea Camilleri's politics get personal, plus a question for readers

It's nice to see a crime writer let the satirical arrows fly without pretense of diplomacy. Shane Maloney does this, and Christopher Brookmyre does not know the meaning of the word restraint, which is part of the reason he's fun to read.

But neither Maloney nor Brookmyre is as direct as Andrea Camilleri in The Paper Moon, ninth novel in the Salvo Montalbano series:

"During the horrific hurricane `Clean Hands,' he had turned into a submarine, navigating underwater by means of periscope alone. He resurfaced only when he'd sighted the possibility of casting anchor in a safe port – the one just constructed by a former Milanese real-estate speculator-cum-owner of the top three private nationwide television stations-cum parliamentary deputy, head of his own personal political party, and finally prime minister."
That is in the spirit of the passages from Maloney and Brookmyre to which I linked above, but neither zeroes in on an individual the way Camilleri does on Silvio Berlusconi. Even the Brookmyre is about Thatcherism and its publicists rather than about Margaret Thatcher herself.

There is something bracing about satire so clearly directed at a particular powerful person. And that, readers, leads to your question: Who else does what Camilleri does? Which crime stories are not only satirical but aim their barbs at a particular individual?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Australian Crime Fiction Snapshot, Part IV

There may be fewer crime-fiction authors than kangaroos in Australia, but it's close. The latest batch of interviewees in the Australian Crime Fiction Snapshot includes a grand old man of Australian crime fiction, Peter Corris, plus Alison Goodman, Wendy James, Daniel Hatadi, Chris Womersley, Hazel Edwards, Brian Kavanagh, Sophie Masson, Liz Filleul, Alex Palmer, Lindy Cameron, Susan Parisi and Shane Maloney, who just might be Australia's funniest human.
I especially like Parisi's explanation for why she turned to writing thrillers and Maloney's suggestion for how better to promote Australian authors: "Perhaps Peter Temple could strangle Dan Brown with a typewriter ribbon at the top of the Eiffel Tower."

I've read some of these writers and heard of others. Some are new to me, but that's an advantage of this format. You might not read a longer article about an author you don't know, but these short interviews are perfect introductions.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Mining for crime fiction in Mongolia

I don't normally read interviews with general secretaries of people's revolutionary parties, but Michael Walters links to one such interview, from the Moscow News, with Yondon Otgonbayar of Mongolia, that might be of interest to crime-fiction readers of an international bent.

Potential crime and crime-thriller stories fairly jump out: about resentment over incursion of foreign investment combined with eagerness for such investment; about natural resources, and not just of a mineral kind; and all with the looking presence of Mongolia's huge neighbors, China and Russia. There is an unexpected bit of wry humor, too, when the secretary remarks apropos of another of Mongolia's trading partners that Ulan Bator is probably the only capital city in the world with more Korean than Chinese restaurants.

Economic upheaval is in full force in many places, and that's always good for crime fiction, if sometimes uncomfortable and worse for those who live through it. Read the interview and spot the potential Mongolian crime stories in it. While you're at it, what other crime fiction trends or stories may have been sparked, a la Ireland, by money and economic success? What countries and regions are fertile ground for such stories in the future?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

“Holmes on the Range” – Steve Hockensmith

How could you not love a novel with a title like that? The rest of the book, short-listed for the best-first-novel Edgar Award in 2007, is just as good. The surprise to me was that it was not quite the campy riot the title had led me to expect.

Instead, it’s a good mystery and a good Western at same time, full of the sights, sounds and, especially, smells of Montana range life in the 1890s. There is pathos, there is cruelty, there are drama and tasty contrasts between rough-hewn ranch hands and their ranch’s aristocratic English owners. And, yes, there are funny lines. The cowboys’ speech is colorful, some of it wonderfully so, but not over the top:

Blastin’ yourself in the skull ain’t sharpshootin’. You’d have to get your hand right up against your noggin. And if you did that, not only would you end up wearin’ your brains for a glove … "

“I smacked into its mangy hide like a snowball dashed against the side of a barn, coming down hard on my saddle-warmer … "
Gustav Amlingmeyer, called "Old Red," is the Holmes of the title. He has a Watson in his brother Otto, or Big Red, and he eagerly awaits old copies of Harper’s magazine, so Big Red can read him the latest exploits of that great deducifyin’ and detectiving Englishman, Sherlock Holmes. The great detective is both a model and an inspiration for the admirable Old Red.

(Hockensmith has followed Holmes on the Range with two more in the series: On the Wrong Track and the new The Black Dove.)

"`Are you American or British?' Old Red asked.

"Edwards simply glowered for a moment, obviously weighing whether to answer.

"`I'm from Boston,' he finally said.

"`Oh?' Gustav rubbed his chin, his left eyebrow arched up high. `You know, I'm not sure if that really answers my question.'"
© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Australian Crime Fiction Snapshot, Part III

The latest to appear in this excellent series of short interviews with Australian crime writers: Peter Klein, David A. Rollins, Jackie Tritt, Kerry Greenwood, Felicity Young, Sydney Bauer, Goldie Alexander and Leah Giarratino.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Carnival of the Criminal Minds, No. 11

The Carnival of the Criminal Minds is making its eleventh stop, hosted this time by Jungle Red Writers. That group comprises five women who practice a craft essential to crime fiction: They write it.

Drop in and check out their "search for motive in life, love, fiction and reality" as well as for interesting crime-fiction-related reading here in blogland.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008


Australian Crime Fiction Snapshot, Part II

Day Two of the Australian Crime Fiction Snapshot brings further evidence that there is more to Australia than quokkas (right) and didgeridoos.

Matilda interviews Kirsty Brooks, to whom Perry Middlemiss asks: "Does living in Adelaide — sometimes described as the weird crime capital of Australia — have anything to do with your choice of genres? Or is it just the quality of the wine that makes the difference?"; Aust Crime Fiction quizzes Jason Nahrung; and Crime Down Under chats with Geoff McGeachin, Katherine Howell and the great Peter Temple.

As a special bonus, McGeachin, author of D.E.D., the marvelously titled Fat, Fifty & F***ed and Sensitive New Age Spy, has recently posted several comments here at Detectives Beyond Borders about the last of those three books, including its connection with the Asian tsunami of 2004.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Australian Crime Fiction Snapshot, Part I

The Australian Crime Fiction Snapshot, which I mentioned here two days ago, offers a rich selection of short interviews on its first day, a tasty crime-fiction tapas.

Crime Down Under talks to Adrian Hyland, author of Diamond Dove (Moonlight Downs); Matilda interviews Lucy Sussex and Marshall Browne; and Aust Crime Fiction takes Matthew Freeman and P.D. Martin.

My favorite comment from any of the interviews may be Freeman's, that "Australian crime fiction should be about what we do between drinks," but there's lots of other good stuff here, and this is just day one.

Among other questions, the bloggers ask the authors what they think can be done to better promote Australian crime fiction. These snapshots are a hell of a start, and you should visit the three blogs every day to track the project's progress. And you definitely owe Karen, Damien and Perry a round of drinks and some vegemite sandwiches for rendering this worthwhile service.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Slow authors and fast authors

I've recently finished one crime novel by the queen of slow buildups and started another by a writer who can't sit still. The slow writer is Fred Vargas, apt to open a novel with her protagonist stirred by a broken furnace to far-flung contemplation of Arctic winds. The fast one is Giles Blunt, who almost never lets the narrative sit still without introducing a new character or plot wrinkle and who is loath to break up dialogue with reactions.

Two fine crime writers, two distinct ways of telling a story, each of which goes a long way to creating a special texture. How about you, Detectives Beyond Borders readers? Do you have a preference for slow buildups? For relentless action? What does each add to a story? And who are your favorite practitioners of each?
"The little lakeside house with its woodstove and angular rooms was cosy, comfortable. And the location out on Madonna Road ensured that — much of the time, at least — it was blessedly quiet. But tonight the quiet irritated him. He missed the sound of Catherine fussing with her plants, playing Bach on the stereo, chatting to him about photography, about her students, about anything at all, really."

Giles Blunt, Black Fly Season

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, March 01, 2008

Australian crime writers speak

Three of Australia's hard-working crime-fiction bloggers have teamed up over the past few months for a series of short interviews with a wide range of Australia's crime-fiction authors.

Starting Monday, Karen Chisholm of Aust Crime Fiction, Damien Gay of Crime Down Under and Perry Middlemiss of Matilda will present their interviews in a project called the Australian Crime Fiction Snapshot. I'll be eagerly clicking all three links to see what some of my favorite Australian authors have to say, and I expect I may find some new favorites, too.

Perry says the list includes Shane Maloney, Peter Temple, Kerry Greenwood, Lucy Sussex "and a whole host of others." Australia is a thinly populated land, but a disproportionate number of the people who do live there are fine crime writers. Maloney and Temple alone ought to make for some entertaining and informative reading. I hope you'll join me in following these interviews.

(Photo courtesy of Australian Tourist Commission © ATC 1997)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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