Monday, April 28, 2008

Books received and a question for readers

Among the books to cross my desk recently at Detectives Beyond Borders are A Carrion Death by Michael Stanley and a new edition of Derek Raymond's How the Dead Live.

The former is of interest here for at least two reasons: its setting (Botswana) and its title, which comes from The Merchant of Venice. This adds Stanley, who are really the team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, to that roster of crime writers who take titles or other cues from Shakespeare, a subject of occasional interest in this space.

How the Dead Live is part of a recent noirish turn to my crime-fiction experience. First came the delightful whirl of NoirCon 2008, and then came this new edition of Raymond's book, courtesy of Serpent's Tail. Raymond is revered as among the darkest of dark British crime writers, and the novel's opening plays nicely into a subject about which I've been thinking recently: humor in noir. Here's that opening:

"`The most extraordinary feature that psychopaths present,' the Home Office lecturer was saying, `is the painstaking effort they make to copy normal people.' He looked happily at us. `They make a close study of us — you realize that.'"

I suspect more than one reader will smile at that "He looked happily at us."

How about you, readers? Tell me about some of the grimmer or at least more unexpected places where you've found humor in your crime reading.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger Philip Amos said...

I didn't expect to find humour in John Lawton's Second Violin, concerned as it is with war, anti-semitism, displacement, social divisions...but it is certainly in there. One element of that humour, references to literary characters from elsewhere, seems to have been for the most part missed by reviewers. Historical persons feature in the book: Churchill, Freud, Victor Cazalet, H.G.Wells, et al. Other figures introduce a touch of the roman a clef: Lady Carfax is surely Lady Colefax, Lord Fermanagh is Lord Londonderry, and I suspect there are other less well-known personages tucked away in there, always fun. But then we have James Bond, unnamed, cropping up in a casino, and with the same oddity of speech as Sean Connery. John Osborne's Archie Rice is performing at the Holborn Empire. Wodehouse's Lord Ickenham appears in a Who's Who entry. An upper-class twit is named Eynsford-Hill, as in Pygmalion/My Fair Lady. One detective is Steerforth. Another is Onions -- as in Oliver Onions, writer of detective stories? We even have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appropriately playing small parts. Lawton seems to have a bit of a compulsion where this game is concerned, and it made we wonder if he did not intend the name of his Sergeant Troy to resonate with all old Alleynians. (A nod to Crime Scraps there.)

One brief passage in the book still has me chuckling:

'Artist, my arse! It was a load of Chipping Campden, that's what it was.' Chipping Campden had proved such an emotive phrase for Billy, it had all but replaced 'fuck' and 'bollocks' in his vocabulary since he had first heard Herr Rosen utter it. It was the compression of all his contempt for England into four syllables....

The game with literary characters may jar a little at times, given the subject matter of the story, but it is certainly amusing, a little reminiscent of the playfulness of Edmund Crispin.

April 28, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

How does all that humor (laboriously conceived, but effortlessly presented, no doubt!) work against the grim subject matter? All the high spirits remind me a bit of Philip Kerr's fun with Raymond Chandler and humorous drinking at the beginning of his first Bernie Gunther novel. That book opens in Berlin in 1936.

Lord Ickenham (I can't read the name without hearing a crisp bundle of notes being pulled from a waistcoat pocket) likely serves as some sort of comment on the social divisions you mentioned. Whether that comment is bitter, ironic, wry or purely comic, I can only guess. But reading and "decoding" this book sounds like a mix between a light romp and writing a dissertation.

April 28, 2008  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

Peter, my impression is that this mix of literary references is a bit of incidental fun rather than a literary device with any purpose. There is certainly no purpose other than fun I can fathom in the references to James Bond and Archie Rice, so I'm not much inclined to think there is any in the mentions of Ickenham or Eynsford-Hill. The book is a fine one that makes its statement wonderfully well, but it does, I think, rather jar when the Who's Who entry for Lord Carsington notes he is married to the daughter of the 5th Earl of Ickenham, and then on the next page, Carsington says this:

"Do you really want to stand on my doorstep and talk to me of dead Jews? Do you really think I give a damn about dead Jews? Do you really think one dead Jew or a million dead Jews would cause me to lose a moment's sleep?"

Lawton states in the Historical Note at the end that he was motivated to write the book because "...we have lived these last few years in a world dominated by a man to whom the rest of the world, other than those from his own green acres in Texas, are just 'kikes and niggers'. A man who cannot even pronounce the name 'Iraq'. If you will substitute 'towelhead' or 'ayrab' for kike and doesn't alter the concept one jot."

And so maybe, just maybe, the references to Ickenham and such are meant to suggest that we tend, by seeing them as clowns and buffoons, to woefully underestimate the danger of such as Carsington or Oswald Mosley or George Bush. But if so, I think it's a bit too oblique to have the desired effect, even assuming the reader recognized the references in the first place.

April 28, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's hard to imagine merely incidental fun in a book that seems to have been written in such righteous anger. But then, I've lived for years in the U.S., and I don't think this country carries off that mix too well.

In any case, I am off to the library, and John Lawton sounds well worth a look. Thanks.

April 28, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter, I can't dredge up any examples, but just to say that I thoroughly enjoyed A Carrion Death -- crime plot a bit obvious but great chracterisation, atmosphere and pace. I recently reviewed it for Euro Crime. High up on my list for the year so far. Check out the 'Steelworks'.

April 28, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maxine, the old to-read pile is getting a bit top-heavy; I don't know what to read next. But I will look at your review, probably after I've read A Carrion Death. Thanks.

April 28, 2008  
Blogger Julia Buckley said...

Peter, I am chasing you beyond borders to blog tag you. Sorry for the silliness, but it is solely the fault of Bill Cameron.

Link here.

April 28, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ha! I may have been tagged by this one already. I know I saw it on another blog and was thinking up the six things I could say about myself. I shall put that thnking to good use in the next day or so, then tag six more people if six people remain in the universe who have not been tagged yet.

There seems to have been a fresh outbreak of meming in the past two weeks, of which I have been both recipent and transmitter. Should someone alert the Centers for Disease Control?

April 28, 2008  

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