Tuesday, September 30, 2008

An interview with John McFetridge, Part I

Crime fiction is largely a fiction of cities. Think of Georges Simenon's Paris, Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles, or Ed McBain's New York. And think of John McFetridge's Toronto, because no crime writer in recent years has imagined a city more vividly. In the first of a two-part interview with Detectives Beyond Borders, McFetridge, author of the novels Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Dirty Sweet, talks about his city, his country and his craft.

(Read Part II of the interview with John McFetridge here.)

(John McFetridge will join Declan Burke at Fergie's Pub in Philadelphia at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, October 8 for a special international Noir at the Bar reading.)

To what extent is your fiction a portrait of Toronto? To what degree, if any, do you try to create a Toronto of the imagination, as so many others have done for New York, Los Angeles and so on?

A big extent. It was really my intention to write a book about Toronto. In fact, when I started writing Dirty Sweet, I wasn't thinking about writing a crime novel. I really wanted to write something about what I saw as Toronto's main characteristic – that it was a city of opportunity. Having a murder set things off was the easiest way I could find to then follow a diverse group of characters that all tried to benefit from the situation.

I was after as complete a picture of the city as I could get. The other day a friend of mine paraphrased the science fiction writer, A.E. van Vogt, something about, `Don't save anything for the next book, put everything you've got into the one you're working on,' and that's certainly what I did. And still do. I wrote Dirty Sweet as a kind of last resort – I had been sidetracked by screenplays for years, and that kind of writing is all about compromise and getting notes from so many different sources (producers, director, distributor, in Canada Telefilm give you notes, sometimes a provincial agency, usually a TV broadcaster is in on it, too ... ) so when I finally came to my sense and decided to just write exactly what I wanted, it had to be a novel.

What difficulties, if any, do Canadian crime writers have breaking through in the U.S.? In Canada?

Canadian writers, especially crime writers, I think, often get bad advice, particularly about setting. I had a few agents tell me that a book set in Canada would never sell outside of Canada, and Canada was too small a market to be stuck in. I've always thought of crime writers and their cities, not their countries: Robert B. Parker – Boston, Ian Rankin – Edinburgh, James Ellroy – L.A., Louise Penny – Three Pines, so the country of origin never seemed important to me, but the attitude persists.

I think when people follow that advice and set their books some place they don't know well they run the risk of having a main `character' being underdeveloped. We may also have a tendency in Canada to worry about a shandze fer de goyim, worry about looking bad in front of the rest of the world. All part of that Canadian insecurity thing. I'm still waiting to find out if Canada is mature enough for a warts-and-all look at itself.

So that's the problem getting published. By now, though, I think there have been enough Canadian successes like Louise Penny and Giles Blunt to put an end to the setting issue so, we have the `breaking through' problem. That's just as tough as getting published, I think. So far the breakthrough Canadian writers in Canada have been of the `lone detective solves the crime' genre, like Louise, Giles and Peter Robinson, and they have written very consistent series. Louise started out with a big success her first book, it may have taken Giles a couple or three to really get going, and Peter Robinson spent quite a few years and many books paving the way for the rest. I think in most cases in crime fiction producing a steady supply of books is almost as important as producing really good books. It takes a while to build an audience and to be found by readers.

Canada, as in most things, is somewhat in between the American and British sensibilities, so that complicates things.

I think the only way to approach all this is to ignore it, just not think about it, and write books that you really like yourself. The old clichés are true in this case: write the best book you can, the book you want to read, and then write another one.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere has multiple protagonists. Why is this attractive for an author? The ensemble approach will naturally evoke thoughts of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels. What, if anything, do those books mean to you as a reader and a writer?

I have to admit to also being very influenced by TV shows like NYPD Blues, The Wire and The Sopranos, which, even if they don't know it, were influenced by the 87th precinct books (I don't know for sure, but I'd guess that [Steven] Bochco was familiar with the books before he created Hill Street Blues.)

As a reader, I still have a lot of the 87th Precinct books to read, but I just read Ed McBain's short-story collection, Learning to Kill, and it's really, really good. As a writer I learned so much from the way the characters are all so well-developed in just a few words and what an incredible eye for a story he has.

Maybe it's odd that TV writers and producers seem to have taken to Ed McBain's ensemble idea a lot more than novelists and publishers. Maybe readers prefer the single protagonist more than TV viewers. I have felt lately that many crime writers are under-appreciated as character writers because those characters develop over many books. Most reviews are of a single book, so the focus seems to be more about plot than character, but taking the series as a whole, and this is even more so for Ed McBain's 87th Precinct books, the characters are very well-developed. Maybe that's why crime writers have to wait till they're dead to get the critical investigations of their work they deserve. The academics have to be sure the work is complete.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere leaves a number of subplots unresolved. What does this add?

I hope it adds the readers' imaginations.

And, you know, real life is complicated and doesn't always work out, and there are no easy answers or simple solutions, so there shouldn't be in art, either. I thought it would be cheating to wrap everything up. I hope that if anything good can come out of the recent financial crisis in the U.S., it's that maybe we'll start to see the end of the era of offering easy answers to very complicated situations.

The shift in power from Montreal to Toronto is a major theme in Dirty Sweet and a source of pathos, too. I’d like you to talk about that great demographic movement and what it means to you and to your writing.

It's probably one of the most significant and under-written about things to happen to Canada in the last thirty years. I'm not sure if there's irony in it being kicked off by a “silent revolution” or not, but we don't talk about it very much, and almost no art in this country – movies, TV or books, anyway – talks about it at all.

For both Montreal and Toronto, I see it as both good and bad. Montreal in the 1970's was a fantastic place to be. From Expo 67 to the Olympics in 1976, it was all optimism. It seemed like the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup every year, and the Expos joined the National League and improved every year.

When the Parti Quebecois got elected in 1976, things changed overnight for us working-class English. Suddenly we no longer existed. The official government line was that every English person in the province was rich and lived in Westmount. That, combined with a worldwide downturn in the economy, really ended the era of optimism. Montreal seemed to clear out, and immigration dried up. I went to Alberta for a few years, but I returned to Montreal and lived there through the '80's. It wasn't always fun and, of course, I missed the Montreal of the early '70's just like I missed being a carefree teenager with my whole life ahead of me.

At the same time, a lot of those people who left Montreal went to Toronto. At that time Toronto was a very Victorian, Protestant, white city. The joke in Montreal, of course, was that Toronto had no nightlife at all, and that wasn't far from the truth. But that all changed. In addition to people moving in from Montreal – almost the whole movie business that sprang up in Toronto was built by guys like Robert Lantos from Montreal – a large amount of immigration that previously would have gone to Montreal went to Toronto.

So, on the one hand, by living in Toronto I really benefit from that new vibrancy, but sometimes I wonder what would have happened to Montreal if it had continued to grow and become as international as Toronto has.

On the whole, I feel we've come through most of our rather mild `troubles' and now have two pretty vibrant cities, so I see the benefits to both. Two cities of a good size and very different.

For my writing, though, I think it gave me the chance to be an outsider. The movement in Montreal and Quebec was all about becoming “Maitres chez nous,” masters of our own house, and that clearly meant people like me from the Irish working class (and other non-Quebecois backgrounds: Jewish, Italian, Caribbean) were something else. Then, coming to Toronto I was again an outsider, but in Toronto most people are.

(Read Part II of the interview with John McFetridge here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Morality plays

What's comedy? It's what makes us laugh, but more high-toned definitions come to mind as well: Comedy exposes the foibles of others and lets us enjoy their pratfalls. Comedy is that form of drama in which all the right couples pair off in the end. And comedy, in a definition also often applied to crime fiction, may end in a restoration of social order or equilibrium.

That last has a strong moral element, which I mention because I have just finished the most strongly, insistently and amusingly moral crime novel I can remember: Garbhan Downey's Running Mates.

Here's Tommy `Bowtie' McGinlay, a lawyer with chronic irritable bowel syndrome, on the novel's protagonist:

"As you and I are both aware, Stanley is a lifelong believer in the Fuck-up Factor. He knows that if you do something bad, you're going to get caught. No matter how clever you are or how many angles you close down, your inner idiot will always escape."
And here's Stanley himself:

"If you only ever get to know one thing about me, Sonny, let it be this — I only ever take on one woman at a time. Two on the one page — no matter how far they are apart — is too much for me. I don't like being played for a sap, so I wouldn't do it to anyone else. But the bottom line is, if you do mess about, you always get caught."
Have a character make such strong declarations, and you've created suspense and comedy, the delicious guessing as to just how the malefactors and other messers-about will get caught. It's no wonder that when Downey dropped a note to your humble blogkeeper last week, after reflecting on the ugliness he had seen as a reporter, he wrote: "Any wonder I packed in the day job and started writing comedy?" Not fiction, or comic crime, but comedy. Sounds to me as if Garbhan Downey has a definite world view.

And now, while you head to the library or the bookshop to look for Downey's books, I'll ask you to think about comedy in that sense: funny stories with a firmly moral basis in which order is restored, and characters good and bad get what they deserve. What are your favorite examples of this in crime fiction?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Cool Hand Luke

I'm sipping a mug of Newman's Own-brand coffee reflecting on the life of the man who lent that product its name.

I've seen few of Paul Newman's movies, so I was pleased to see that a post I made on this blog last year picked up on a quality others are singling out now that he's gone. An Associated Press headline announcing Newman's death said: "Paul Newman, actor who personified cool, dies." My subject had been Newman's relatively calm presence amid the scenery-chewing of the 1966 movie Harper, based on Ross McDonald's novel The Moving Target. I wrote:

"Just about anyone with more than thirty seconds' screen time spends some of it mugging or otherwise going over the top. ... 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.)"
Here are two takes on the movie, neither of which is pleased about the protagonist's name change from Archer to Harper, whatever Newman's role may have been in the change.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Mukasey warns of global crime; Detectives Beyond Borders asks a question of readers

This article has been rattling around in the files almost five months, and God knows Americans have plenty of newer problems to worry about. Still, it offers one of my two favorite takes on globalization. (The other was an article that pointed out the irony of anti-globalization protesters mobilizing via the most powerful, visible and widespread example of globalization — the Internet.)

WASHINGTON — Organized crime has emerged as a top global threat as mobsters conspire worldwide to prey on everything from energy markets to victims of identity theft, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said yesterday.

No longer just the stuff of mafia lore, organized-crime groups are particularly dangerous when they hook up with terrorists to turn a profit, Mukasey said in touting a new government focus on mobsters.

Speaking to an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, he said that the “United States faces a new and more modern threat, from international organized crime. We can’t ignore criminal syndicates in other countries on the naive assumption that they are a danger only in their homeland.” Earlier this year, Mukasey convened the first meeting of the U.S. Organized Crime Council since 1993. — AP

With your indulgence for reproducing an old article, I'll ask two questions: What current crime fiction best explores phenomena made possible by globalization, and what opportunities, as yet unexplored, does globalization offer crime authors?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008


Friday, September 26, 2008

Garbhan Downey's scoop on journalism and crime fiction

Garbhan Downey, a subject of discussion here in recent days, weighs in on journalism, fiction, the constraints of the first, and the freedoms of the second:

"I think you've a good point about fiction being the second draft of history. I worked as a reporter and newspaper editor for 15 years, and the main reason I started writing fiction was to tell the stories (and voice opinion) I could never print as a working hack. All heavily disguised, he added (not entirely truthfully). About 70 percent of my short-story collection Off Broadway derived from unprintable stories I'd garnered as a hack — as did the central plot of my latest, Yours Confidentially — though in fairness, I made my land developers a lot more crooked and murderous.

"Also, I don't think the public have any idea how scared and over-regulated journalism has become — so much so that the editor is now de-facto third in line in dictating newspaper content, after the lawyers and the advertisers.”

I’d referred Downey to my interview with Matt Rees, who had similar thoughts about the freedom fiction gave him to tell stories he could not tell as a reporter. Here’s Downey on that subject:

“I identify a lot with what he said. One of the worst things about being a journalist covering atrocities is that often you feel your reportage is cheapening the pain of the people affected. That you are pandering to your public and/or your employer by capitalising on someone else's misery. A large part of that is because of the unspoken strictures that media owners place on you as a witness. You are expected to sanitise brutality into handy clichés, and categorise and quantify pain to such a degree that the extinguishing of life fits into a five-word headline or a five-second soundbite. (No blame on the copy-editors!) Anybody who's ever had to doorstep a grieving relative and ask them to describe what their loss means, into a mike, knows what I mean. (Could you give me your name and title till I test the sound levels ... ?)

"Peculiarly, and I don't know if Matt Rees finds this, there are even two or three incidents I was unlucky enough to come across regarding the unearthing and murdering of informers in the North that I could never talk about in fiction, even now, because I wouldn't want to dishonour the dead or their families. These stories/events tend to be so sordid, sad and personal that to re-tell them for any form of profit — even critical approval — would seem like a betrayal. If it allows families to salvage a tiny bit of dignity, then what harm that a big-shot reporter keeps his mouth shut about a few dirty little secrets? There were days, honest to God, that I had to go home and shower at lunchtime just to get the grime off me.

"The late eighties and early nineties were not pleasant in the North.

"Any wonder I packed in the day job and started writing comedy?"
© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

All the news that's not fit for newspapers to print

I'm all for a bit of old-fashioned broadening with my crime fiction, just one of the ways my most frequent class of reading can transcend its genre. Running Mates, Garbhan Downey's novel of cross-border political shenanigans in Ireland, contains a nice example. Here's a savvy newspaperman/politician from Derry in Northern Ireland talking to a political operative from the Irish Republic:

"Stan took a small sip of his Powers and sighed into the phone. `Look, Sonny,' he said, `I'm no innocent. I know most of you guys down there would like to tie a big plastic bag around the Six Counties and hold it till our feet stop kicking. Let's face it, we're the child you gave up for adoption when you got knocked up too young. But like it or not, the secret's out now — and we want our mummy.'"
I read something like that, and I flatter myself that I've learned a bit about Ireland, about the weariness that conflict can produce. I can well imagine Irish people feeling this way, yet I have trouble imagining such a statement turning up in a newspaper, at least not without a counterbalancing quote to give Both Sides of the Story. Perhaps the folks who organized the Books 2008 Crime Writing Series had examples like Downey's in mind when they asked: "Journalism is the first draft of history. Is crime fiction its second draft?"

How about you, readers? What can crime fiction say that newspapers can't, particularly in the realm of politics?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Is that a great title, or what?

Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead is not crime fiction. It's not even fiction, in fact, though a guide to surviving and investigating a zombie attack is not quite non-fiction either, despite extensive contributions from scientists, law-enforcement personnel, academics and other serious folks.

Author Jonathan Maberry, also a novelist and multiple winner of the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association, loves zombies and takes them seriously as entertainment, as metaphor and as guides to the zeitgeist. And he'll be the guest of honor at Noir at the Bar V in November, reading from his novel Patient Zero.


In the meantime, I am pleased to announce that two of my favorite non-zombies will be in Philadelphia for a special international Noir at the Bar in October. So drop everything and high-tail it to Fergie's Pub on Sansom Street at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 8, to hear and meet John McFetridge, author of Dirty Sweet and Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, and Declan Burke, he of The Big O and Eightball Boogie.

What's the big deal about these guys? One has virtually invented a major city as a setting for crime fiction, and the other is author of one of the two or three funniest crime novels ever written. Come meet them, celebrate their new U.S. book releases, and hobnob with them before their appearances at Bouchercon 2008.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The mysteries of newspapers

Three recent events have me thinking about mysteries set in newspapers. First, I started Garbhan Downey's Running Mates, a comic political crime novel in which newspaper editors and publishers are part of the political web.

Then Gregory McDonald, author of the Fletch novels, died. Finally, a colleague and I talked about Black and White and Dead All Over, a mystery novel by the New York Times reporter John Darnton that he had just read.

When newspapers mattered in America more than they do now, movies, plays and novels were often set in newspapers. That is not to say that these movies, plays and novels were about newspapers. Mostly they were about reporters and, since I'm a copy editor, those fictional worlds had little to do with my real one.

When was the last time you read a newspaper novel or saw a newspaper movie that had a copy editor in it? I thought so. When was the last time you read a newspaper novel or saw a newspaper movie that offered an accurate picture of newspapers? Same answer.

Anyhow, McDonald has stuck in my mind since I read a scene from one of the Fletch books that recounts the character's failure as a newspaper obituary writer. Why did he fail? Because he made the mistake of writing an accurate obituary. I don't have the book at hand, but I believe the fictional obit included the phrase "a life distinguished by absolutely nothing."

Darnton, meanwhile, though a reporter, takes the highly unusual step of acknowledging, at least implicitly, that copy editors exist. His novel's first victim is an editor found dead with a spike bearing a note driven into his chest. The note is a mocking imitation of memos this editor used to send when he wanted to find out who had written a particularly good headline: "Nice. Who?" Since copy editors write the headlines, that note, even if it is the extent of copy editors' involvement in the book, is still a hell of a lot more acknowledgement than fictional depictions of newspapers usually give us.

Of course, Darnton doesn't take this accuracy thing too far. According to my colleague, the novel includes a reporter who lost his job because he wrote poorly. If Darnton thinks any reporter ever lost a job because of poor prose style, he has moved beyond fiction into fantasy.

What's your favorite novel, movie, story or play set in a newspaper? It it's a crime story, so much the better.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, September 22, 2008

"No offence, Taoiseach ... but you're talking out of your hole"

It's easy to be charmed by a line like that, addressed to the Irish prime minister.

The line, which opens Garbhan Downey's novel Running Mates, confirms my suspicion that Downey might interest readers who enjoy Shane Maloney's novels about the put-upon Australian politico Murray Whelan. I am one of those readers.

The book is also the only comic crime novel I can think of that acknowledges the assistance of a political science professor.

More to come.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

What is hurling?

If you're curious about that exciting game, here's a set of three video clips that lay out the sport's basic rules and tactics.

And here's my gobsmacked account of my first hurling match. Not every game will feature a performance as swift and skillful as Kilkenny's against Waterford that day, just as not every short, bossy guy is Napoleon. But I did see enough to convince me that hurling is faster and potentially more accessible to the uninitiated than soccer. And don't get me started on NFL football, which can be exciting during late-game drives or when viewed on television but which, seen in person, is best regarded as a mild form of torture.


And a (possibly) final what-I-did-on-my-vacation note: Among the companionable crowd at the Books 2008 Crime Writing Series was Stuart Neville, whose first novel, The Ghosts of Belfast, is due out in 2009. I mention this because he's an intelligent chap, a nice fellow, and surprisingly well-adjusted for someone whose book drew a rave from James Ellroy.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

What I saw on my vacation

(At right, Carrickfergus Castle, Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. Built by John de Courcy, c. 1178-1190/95; additional construction thirteenth, fourteenth, sixteenth, eighteenth, nineteenth centuries.)

(At left, Joymount Arms pub, Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. Operated by sister of noted crime writer Adrian McKinty. Guinness ordered c. 12:35; lunch finished c. 13:08.)

And a blush of thanks to the excellent Arlene Hunt, who referred to me on her blog as "the terrifically bearded Peter Rozovsky." Ms. Hunt, you are a credit to your profession and your country.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, September 19, 2008

The stones of Ireland and a metaphysico-archaeological question for readers

I feel particularly anthropocentric this morning. At left is part of the Giant's Causeway, in Country Antrim, Northern Ireland. Below are some of the Beaghmore Stone Circles and stone rows, in the Sperrin Mountains, County Tyrone.

The former is a celebrated collection of basalt columns formed 60 million years ago by volcanic activity and passed into legend as the walkway the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) built to cross to Scotland and fight Benandonner. More recently it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the only such in Northern Ireland. The stone circles date to the Bronze Age, about 3,600 years ago.

As weird as the causeway is, I found the stone circles more moving, as I almost always do with man-made ancient monuments. Why? Precisely because they are man-made. Giant's Causeway came along millions of years before the first humans, may well exist long after the last human has gone, and would have existed had humans never come along. That's a vaguely disquieting thought.

The Beaghmore circles, rows and cairns, on the other hand (and Stonehenge, Avebury, Newgrange and their Paleo-, Meso-, Neolithic and Bronze Age cousins), are visible evidence of humans expressing themselves and impressing themselves upon nature in ages when they may have had few other means of doing so. There's something touching and maybe even romantic about that. And the monuments' frequent settings on dramatic windswept plains help.

How about you, readers? What's your preference when it comes to wonders: natural, or man-made?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Neo-Carnival of the Criminal Minds

My two-week escape from Philadelphia has left me huffing and puffing to catch the carnival train, so here's news of two editions of the Carnival of the Criminal Minds, Nos. 21 and 22.

Brian Lindenmuth's edition 21 of the Carnival gives visitors a whole lot to look at even before they start reading. A collection of news items follows, and some are odder than the fantasy illustrations the precede them. When you're done, tale a look at Brian's Observations from the Balcony and see why I think it could just as well be called A Compendious Guide to Everything. Then take a look again tomorrow and each day thereafter.

Carnival No. 22 brings Declan Burke back for a second stint as host, and he turns introspective, reflecting on the state of crime fiction and crime-fiction bloggery:

"By the same token, and speaking only for myself, the last thing I need or want is a pat on the head from the literary establishment. What I AM saying is that the critical work on crime fiction needs to develop of and through its own metier, that the Johnsons of the crime / mystery community require their Boswells, and that I believe heart and soul that crime / mystery fiction needs and deserves the kind of widespread, top-to-bottom critical work that would in turn inspire the writers to strive towards ever-higher standards of work."
As always, a tip of the old hat to the mother of the Carnival, Barbara Fister, and a reminder that you can visit her archive for a look at all 22 Carnivals.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Two songs, two crime writers, one question for readers

Two of my favorite Irish crime writers fall nicely into analogies with two of my favorite Irish folk songs:

Declan Burke's humorous caper novel The Big O is like the humorous caper ballad "Whiskey in the Jar," and Adrian McKinty's harsh, sometimes grimly funny Michael Forsythe novels are like the harsh, sometimes grimly funny "Rocky Road to Dublin."

Readers: What crime novels match up with songs in a similar manner? (In a match-up of a different kind, "Rocky Road to Dublin" is something like an Irish "Living for the City," especially the more-intense album version of that Stevie Wonder song.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Whiskey in the Jar: An Irish noir ballad

Two posts here this summer elicited scores of good crime songs, tunes that pack the punch of a good crime story. Your suggestions (and mine) included "Long Back Veil," "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," "Mack the Knife," Eminem's "Stan," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and many, many more.

My trip to Ireland turned up another classic: "Whiskey in the Jar." This humorous noir story tells of a highwayman who robs a captain, then brings the money to his (the highwayman's) girlfriend or wife. Here's where the noir comes in: This Jenny is in league with the captain. She disarms the protagonist while he sleeps, then calls in the captain "to be ready for the slaughter."

Where's the humor? In the song's rollicking, sing-along beat, in the protagonist's bluff attitude, and in the song's desperately hopeful ending, at least in the versions available today. (In one form or another, the song dates to the middle of the seventeenth century.)

Want to hear "Whiskey in the Jar"? Visit any pub in Ireland. By my reckoning, it's the most popular song in the country. Or listen to The Dubliners sing it here.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, September 15, 2008

I lost my heart to "The Galway Girl"

I have a nice set of posts about authors from three continents lined up for the near future, but for now you'll have to put up with a bit more about Ireland, this time about its music.

Two comments on this blog a while back alerted me to a controversy that broke out when the manager of an Irish bar in New York banned "Danny Boy" because its composer was English. (Quizzed about this in a Northern Ireland radio interview, apparently, he claimed to have banned the song not because of its origins but because he was tired of drunks butchering the song. Imagine that: a bartender shocked — shocked! — to find that drunks sing badly.)

Happily, Irish music in Ireland seems to shun such ideological purism. In more than one pub, I found myself singing and stamping along with the crowds to "Galway Girl," a smash hit that has become an Irish standard though composed by an American, Steve Earle. How thoroughly have the Irish embraced this wonderful tune? The singer Mundy, who recorded the song in English with Sharon Shannon on accordion, also recorded a version in Irish.

But cultural influences move in multiple directions, and Shannon and Mundy told an Irish radio interviewer how Earle had written the song after spending time at traditional music sessions in Galway. I like to think of the tune, then, as Earle's ode both to the girl whose "hair was black and her eyes were blue" and to Irish music itself.

The musical ecumenicism is no new thing, either. Luke Kelly of The Dubliners did not hesitate to tell audiences that the beautiful "Peggy Gordon" was of Scottish origin and had been a hit in America.

My exposure to Irish music is no deeper than one could expect of any acquaintance less than three weeks old. So far, though, the apparent avoidance of identity politics, whether among The Dubliners, among the pub musicians of Dublin and Belfast or among today's international stars, seems to have enriched this already rich music. Now, click on these links and start dancing.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

How the Irish saved civilization

(Ulster blue plaque, 16 High Street, Belfast)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Calling all fans of Irish crime fiction

He's a novelist. He's a blogger, a father and gracious host. And now, Declan Burke of Crime Always Pays is turning midwife to a fascinating collection of perspectives on Irish crime fiction. Why fascinating? Because he's asking the authors themselves to contribute essays on various aspects of this fascinating topic, and quite a number have responded, including John Connolly, Colin Bateman, Declan Hughes, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Gene Kerrigan, Gerard Donovan, Brian McGilloway, Neville Thompson, Adrian McKinty and Gerard Brennan.

Get the full scoop here, where you can also weigh in with suggestions for the project.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Shopping for books

Did I mention that I've been visiting Ireland and that I've acquired a book or two? In any case, I've had a shopping experience in Dublin to bookend the exceedingly pleasant one I had a week ago at Belfast's No Alibis.

My host this time was Michael Gallagher's Murder Ink on Dawson Street, attractively situated near Trinity College and some of the city's best shopping. Like No Alibis, this shop reflects a commitment to crime not to be found in chain bookstores. As is the case in Belfast, the stock is both comprehensive and reflective of what I take to be the owner's own tastes. No Alibis stocked few if any mysteries that would be called cozy, for instance, and Murder Ink has a separate shelf for historical mysteries.

Like No Alibis, too, Murder Ink repays all the love that a crime-fiction fan has to offer. I stopped by the shop well after closing time one evening, for example, and doors were flung open and inventory searched purely for my convenience.

So tonight, on my final evening in Ireland, I'll drink a pint of Bulmer's to two of the most pleasant and welcoming experiences this crime-fiction reader and shopper has had. To Murder Ink and No Alibis: Sláinte! May your customers always leave your stores with their shopping bags heavy and their wallets light.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Books, books, books: Liam O'Flaherty and Gene Kerrigan

The first of these authors supported the Republicans against the government of the Irish Free State in 1920. The second is writing today.

O'Flaherty, who may be best known in North America as the author of the novel on which the movie The Informer is based, caught my eye with this staccato, non-nonsense opening to his novel The Assassin:
"At three o'clock in the afternoon, Michael McDara alighted from a tram-car at the corner of Findlater's Church. He crossed the road and moved northwards until he came to the corner of Hardwicke Street. He halted there and looked around him cautiously."
I'd say those sentences do a good job of creating suspense through their rhythm even more than through their content, perhaps surprising for a thriller published in 1928.

Gene Kerrigan's Hard Cases is a collection of true-crime stories from the novelist and journalist who also has written Little Criminals and The Midnight Choir. I'm not normally a fan of true crime, but Kerrigan brings a storyteller's delight to these tales:
"There was a knock on the door. Conlon had a story ready when he answered the knock. He didn't live there, he would say. No, it wasn't that he lived there, because the flat was derelict now, what he was doing here, you see, he was collecting his grandmother's furniture from the flat. Which is why he was here, sorting through the furniture, OK?

"It might have worked, had the guy who knocked on the door not been the one who owned the flat. And it wasn't Conlon's granny who lived there, it was this guy's aunt."
The last sentence of the first paragraph in particular attracts me the way a good piece of comic crime fiction would. I hope to provide a fuller report once I can mount a more ambitious attack on the imposing pile of books that is occupying ever more space in my luggage.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The books of Trinity College

Irish crime writers have been known to complain about a lack of respect from Irish readers and critics. On Tuesday, though, I visited the library at Trinity College to see the Book of Kells and the Long Room. There, in the gift shop, alongside the Kells books and the Yeats and Joyce and the postcards and the books of Irish legend and history were Ken Bruen's Dublin Noir anthology and two books by John Connolly: The Reapers and The Unquiet.

Irish crime fiction may not get the respect it deserves at home, but it keeps some good company.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, September 08, 2008

Political incorrectness

There's a fair bit of it on display in Ruth Dudley Edwards's Matricide at St. Martha's, one of the books I've harvested on this book-heavy vacation.

A rich patroness has died and left a sizable bequest to the struggling St. Martha's College at Cambridge, and factional battles have broken out about how to use the gift. "The decision has to be taken by the end of the term," writes protagonist Martin Amiss, "and the Fellows are at war over what it should be. With her customary delicacy, Jack describes the two main tribes as the Virgins and the Dykes, with a minority party called the Old Women."

The first group, Amiss explains, "are devising the Alice Toon Postgraduate Scholarships in Theology, Paleography, Medieval Law and so on. Dame Maud Theodosia is compiling a definitive list at present of the most unpopular subjects anyone can think of.

"The second lot, the Dykes, are fewer in number but they're better street-fighters ... Her lot want to spend the money on a centre for Gender and Ethnic Studies." And the "Old Women are in fact men." I'm not far into the book, then, but I am prepared to have my sensibilities joyously offended.

Edwards said more than once during her appearances at the Books 2008 Crime Writing Series that she writes about institutions, so what she's up to is not sexism or cheap shots. Rather, it's a little thing called satire, and so far it's been nice to read.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Overheard on O'Connell Street after the hurling final ...

... though the second remark may have had nothing to do with the game:

"The first two minutes were excitin'. Then it got a bit shite, didn't it?"
-- Waterford fan enjoying a reflective sip outside a pub
"Ah, you better believe it. He must be on the piss today again."
-- Older lady into a cell phone, her rooting interest uncertain

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, September 07, 2008

Kilkenny shatters Waterford to claim third straight All-Ireland hurling title

Hurling aficionado and crime novelist Declan Burke had described this Kilkenny team in terms that made them sound like the Ballets Russes, Patton's Third Army and the 1927 New York Yankees rolled into one, and he was right. Today was my first hurling match, and I had never seen one team so thoroughly dominate another in any sport, Kilkenny taking a 2-16 to 0-5 lead in the first half at Dublin's Croke Park on the way to winning, 3-30 to 1-13.

For baseball fans, the matchup might have resembled the Yankees versus the Red Sox back when the Yankees were still good and before the Red Sox became preening, strutting -- in other, words, the Yankees. Waterford was trying for its first All-Ireland title in more than 40 years, much as the Red Sox went from 1919 to 2003 without winning a World Series. Kilkenny, on the other hand, has dominated the sport the way the Yankees ruled baseball in the waning years of the 20th century, and it looks set to continue doing so, as its under-18 team also won an All-Ireland title today.

Hurling is an odd game to North American eyes because players can advance the ball by just about any means: striking it with the hurley, running with it balanced on the hurley, slapping it forward, even kicking it. Kilkenny had Waterford's number in all those ways and more, and Waterford's frustration showed early, with players whining about non-calls and making impotent passes to the side of the field rather than attacking the goal.

For those not up on their hurling, a player scores a goal, worth three points, by striking the ball past the goalkeeper and into a soccer-like net, or a point, by batting it with the hurley through two North-American-football-like goalposts above the net. It's the latter that impressed this first-time spectator most, the players sending the ball through the posts from long distances and steep angles with flicks of the wrist that looked as effortless as tennis forehands -- or at least as effortless as tennis forehands looked before it became fashionable for tennis players to grunt to show how hard they're working.

I sat in the middle of a large group of Waterford rooters at Croke, and I learned a bit of Gaelic, a phrase that sounded like "Ahfer foegh's sake!" If any Irish speakers know the meaning of this phrase, please let me know.

The final is major news in Ireland, and the country's taoiseach and president attended. Toward the end of the match, the public-address announcers asked safety stewards to take their places and fans to refrain from running onto the field after the game. When fans ran onto the field after the game, the P.A. laconically announced: "Safety Plan B." The stewards, rather than linking arms in a show of strength and thereby inviting a confrontation, as their American and most of their European counterparts would have done, allowed the fans onto the field to mingle in celebration, keeping watch to ensure that no one got out of hand. No one did.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

"In that moment of joyous intimacy, men wear socks"

That's what John Connolly (center) said at this afternoon's discussion on Sex and Violence: How Far is Too Far? at the Sunday (Irish) Independent Books 2008 Crime Writing Series.

The comment, about one of the unsexy problems Connolly encounters writing sex scenes, was typical of the event's orientation. The authors came together in four panels over two days, and, amid all the good craic, a lot of practical, no-nonsense discussion emerged. For this post, I'll offer a selection of authors' comments from the event. Over the next few days, I'll follow some of them up with more detailed discussion. And now, readers, please welcome our panelists:

Declan Hughes on his early attraction to crime fiction: "A book without a mystery isn't a proper book."

Ruth Dudley Edwards on the start of her writing career: "Having got the check, I thought I ought to write a book. And I found I had a good time doing it."

Gene Kerrigan on one of his early inspirations, Richard Stark (Donald Westlake): "You start off in awe of someone else and trying to be as good as they are."

Alex Barclay (right): "I thought the story wasn't complete if there wasn't a mystery."

Tana French: "I actually have the narrator before I have the plot."

Edwards: "My hero is P.G. Wodehouse."

Paul Johnston: "I'm not even Irish, so I don't know why I'm here, either." (Laughter from audience.)

Hughes on his love for intricate, Big Sleep-esque plotting: "I like getting confused."

Hughes on a protagonist's personal entanglements: "I hate when the detective has a girlfriend."

Declan Burke (left) on his novel Eightball Boogie: "I thought it would be good to do a kind of Humphrey Bogart character set in rural Ireland."

Arlene Hunt (second from left) on how she tried to make her protagonists stand out: "They're terrible. ... Two detectives, they're just not that bright."

Brian McGilloway (second from right) on where Northern Ireland ends and the Irish Republic begins: "On the back roads, it's impossible to tell."

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Vote early, and vote often

This blog blushingly announces that it has been nominated for its first award. Head on over, and remember: Vote for me, and I'll set you free!

Friday, September 05, 2008

This one's called "P.S.N.I., I Love You"

I wish I could claim authorship of the gorgeous quip that gives this post its title, but I heard it from one of the musicians last night at Fibber Magee in Belfast, which offers traditional Irish music live every evening. P.S.N.I. stands for Police Service of Northern Ireland, so you'll well understand why the joke would go over well with a celebrating crowd.

In a future comment, I'll discuss that versatile and thunderous Irish handheld drum, the bodhrán. For now, I'll say that the traditional Irish music I've heard the last few evening is what country music was or could have been before it turned shite: simple, direct, rowdy, wistful and beautiful.

The crowd at Fibber Magee also included a prodigiously endowed and well-balanced woman confident enough of her serving skills to carry open bottles of beer in her pockets without spilling a drop. Last I heard, the National Trust had purchased her cleavage, slung a rope bridge across it, and shipped it up the North Antrim coast, where visitors were paying £2 each to walk the precipitous divide.


© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Good craic, No Alibis

How plugged-in are David Torrans and his Belfast house of books, No Alibis?

I learned from Torrans this afternoon that Philadelphia's own Duane Swierczynski, who had an actress friend read for him at Philadelphia's first Noir at the Bar reading in June, could probably be persuaded to do the job himself if offered enough beer.

"What kind of beer does he like?" I asked.

"Anything," Torrans said.

Now, I don't know Swierczynski's drinking habits, but I am impressed that Torrans was conversant enough with crime fiction and the people who write it that he could even feel comfortable discussing such matters. (Torrans had a copy of Swierczynski's novel The Wheelman on a shelf of signed books in case you wonder how the subject came up.)

So, how plugged-in is Torrans? "He knows guys that haven't even written yet," said a customer whom Torrans pointed in my direction.

That same customer, "A Tyrone man," gave a rousing big-up to Declan Burke's The Big O, a copy of which he was buying for a friend and whose dialogue he loved, especially that between its male and its female characters, with a special hosannah for co-protagonist Karen: "This is the way real men and women talk over breakfast," he said.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Ian Sansom has a good ear

I noted in an early post about Ian Sansom that engaging author's tendency to have the characters of his novels set in Northern Ireland use the word just at the end of a sentence. I contrasted this to the usual North American English practice of placing just before the word or phrase it governs. This feature of Sansom's dialogue, I wrote, "punctuates the novel and lends it a suggestion of authenticity."

Today I am pleased to be able to report that people in Northern Ireland really do adhere to that pattern, as in the following, from the taxi driver who took me from Cookstown this afternoon to view the stone circles of Beaghmore:

"I'm from an island a mile that way just. Originally."
And why shouldn't a visitor enjoy a country's speech as well as its sights? My favorite of many examples on my current trip has been this exchange between a man and a woman on the bus to Cookstown:
"It's the wet season in my country."

"End of the summer." (Understanding nod)

"A lot of tropical storms there."

"Oh, aye."
 Why did I like this so much? Because the woman who uttered that ubiquitous Northern Irish interjection/affirmation "Oh, aye" was from the Philippines.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Northern Ireland crime fiction: Shopping and sources


I remarked to my host for today's shopping that the vicissitudes of Irish history offered rich source material for Irish crime writers. I don't remember if he actually said, "Aye!" but he certainly agreed vigorously with the sentiment.

To illustrate my point, here's a passage from one of the day's purchases:

"Mick Quinn and Houston represented not only different wings of the IRA but also different eras. Mick struck out blindly at all things English, Houston only killed when it was to his personal advantage. Mick had joined the IRA at a time when people gave to the cause willingly; Houston came in late enough to regard those contributions as an enforceable right."
Fair material there for dramatic conflict, I'd say. The book is Line of Flight, the author John McAllister.

The day's host was that first minister for Crime Fiction Gerard Brennan, keeper of Crime Scene NI, and a better guide to Irish crime fiction and where to shop for it is not to be had. Among our stops was Belfast's No Alibis bookshop, which, to judge from its Web site, offers much besides lots of Irish crime fiction.

And now, since there's more to travel than books, I'm off. Look for me on the Web cam at the Crown Liquor Saloon.


© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, September 01, 2008

Belfast and America

Here's one of the funnier and more telling takes on the United States, as telling about its author as about its subject. It's from The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien:

"`He has no personal name at all. His dadda is in far Amurikey.'

"`Which of the two Amurikeys?' asked MacCruiskeen.

"`The United Stations,' said the Sergeant.

"`Likely he is rich by now if he is in that quarter,' said MacCruiskeen, `because there's dollars there, dollars and bucks and nuggets in the ground and any amount of rackets and golf games and musical instruments. It is a free country too by all accounts.'"
O'Brien left out a few details, but other than that, he's got America down, I'd say.

So much for an Irishman on America. Now for a North American on Ireland, and that North American is me.

The world has heard much of Belfast from the 1970s on, but one rarely heard what a stunning setting the city has. From my guesthouse, I can see Cave Hill and its companions of the Lagan Valley.

It was a pleasant shock to be able to see such natural beauty looking down my own street. It was a jarring and an emotional experience to see those same verdant hills up the Shankill Road and the Falls Road, and to think of the violence and rage that divided those streets during the Troubles. I wonder if residents of those passionate and benighted streets ever paused to contemplate those green hills during the years of violence and perhaps to take a moment of solace from them, perhaps even to be shamed out of committing a violent act.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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