Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Vampire of Ropraz

I get a special kick out of that authorial magic that updates an old genre while remaining chillingly true to its time-honored form. In Jacques Chessex's The Vampire of Ropraz, nominally a crime novel, since it is published by Bitter Lemon Press, the genre is horror.

Chessex's (and translator W. Donald Wilson's) little feat of alchemy is to be just a bit more explicit – all right, sometimes more than a bit – about hidden horrors and forbidden appetites than, say, Bram Stoker, while preserving the same sense of foreboding and isolation:

"Ropraz in the Haut-Jorat, canton of Vaud, Switzerland, 1903. A land of wolves and neglect in the early twentieth century. ... Dwellings often scattered over wastelands hemmed in by dark trees, cramped villages with squat houses. Ideas have no currency, tradition is a dead weight, and modern hygiene is unknown. ... You have to take care when employing a vagabond for the harvest, or to dig potatoes. He is the outsider, the snoop, the thief. ... In the remote countryside a young girl is a lodestar for lunacy ... Sexual privation, as it will come to be called, is added to skulking fear and evil fancies. ... But I was forgetting the astounding beauty of the place. ... "
During the harsh winter of 1903, three women in the Swiss village of Ropraz are dug up from their graves, sexually assaulted, and horribly mutilated, and the search for suspects, narrated in spare prose, turns up fresh secrets and perversions. A suspect is arrested, released, then jailed again. In prison he receives visits from a mysterious woman in white, who bribes the suspect's jailers and slips in for assignations far more explicit that Victorian horror writing would have allowed. The man may or may not be the dreaded Vampire of Ropraz, but the visits trigger new violence on his part.

His ultimate fate, after he escapes, joins the French Foreign Legion, and dies amid the mud and rain of trench warfare, is a grimly humorous comment on the notion of buried secrets.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Hyland flings

Kerrie of Oz Mystery Readers and Mysteries in Paradise puts me in the way of two entertaining interviews with Adrian Hyland, author of Diamond Dove (called Moonlight Downs in the U.S.).

Hyland and his debut novel have long been favorites here at Detectives Beyond Borders, and I also reviewed the book for my newspaper. I thought I knew everything about author and novel. I was wrong.

The first interview is courtesy of Barbara Fister, who asked students in her international crime-fiction class to submit questions for Hyland. The result yielded some lively and surprising answers, of which my favorite is Hyland's disarmingly straightforward explanation for why he wrote in the voice of a young half-Aboriginal, half-white woman:

"I originally wrote the story from the perspective of a young whitefeller coming up from down south, discovering his roots, etc. However, whatever I did to it, it seemed too autobiographical – a roman a clef – and nothing could be more boring (especially to me) than me."
Fister also links to Hyland's conversation with Stuart MacBride in Shots Ezine, a discussion made especially enjoyable by MacBride's freewheeling interviewing style. The chat includes, among other things, an amusing riposte from the Australian Hyland to the Scotsman MacBride on the subject of dialect and slang.

MacBride's fiction has a harder edge than Hyland's, which makes this funny, enlightening interview a productive exercise in boundary-crossing. Don't miss this entertaining and instructive opportunity to watch a couple of writers sitting around talking.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, November 28, 2008

All hail Allan Guthrie

First I received a note from that crown prince of Northern Ireland crime, Gerard Brennan of Crime Scene NI, that the first chapter of his novel Piranhas is available online. My only complaint is that the selection makes me want to call Belfast, reach through the phone lines, grab Gerard by his Carlsberg-swilling gullet, and throttle him until he reveals what happens when Liam and Wee Danny face off.

Then I browsed the site that hosts Gerard's excerpt, Allan Guthrie's Noir Originals. Guthrie's an author. Guthrie's an agent. And now I find that Guthrie is an ingenious promoter of good, tough, hard-edged crime fiction. The site offers news, excerpts, interviews and profiles featuring all kinds of authors I know and like (Scott Phillips, Christa Faust, Sandra Ruttan, Vicki Hendricks, Adrian McKinty) and, more to the the point, with those I think I might like just because I trust the company they keep on Guthrie's site.

And then the topper of all toppers: Ken Bruen's 2004 interview, in which he tells Ray Banks that:

"I abandoned British crime years ago except for Bill James, who I love. His 1988 novel Protection just won the European Crime Novel of 2004 in France. His Iles and Harpur series is magnificent."
Oh, man, does that Bruen have good taste in crime fiction. Readers of this blog may know that my admiration for James' dark, funny, gorgeous writing knows no bounds, that I consider him perhaps the best prose stylist ever to have written crime fiction in English. Mr. Bruen, you have made my day.

(Click here for another link between Allan Guthrie and your humble blog keeper.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Serious stuff: Existentialism and politics in crime fiction ...

... considered separately, I mean, as this post has two parts.

The existentialism part is thanks to an essay Ali Karim posted on his new Existentialist Man blog. His main concern is crime fiction and the capacity it affords for moral introspection. This fits nicely with my recent reading of Naguib Mahfouz's The Thief and the Dogs, whose protagonist cannot escape from the consequences of his own acts.

The politics comes by way of Mike Nicol, whose recent guest post here at Detectives Beyond Borders about South African crime writing reflects on the country's tumultuous recent history and that history's effect on crime fiction:

"Initially serial killers – or to put it in a broader perspective, crimes of deviancy – were the subjects of choice for both English and Afrikaans writers. Perhaps in this there was a desire to steer away from the political issues dominating a nation in transition, although this attitude is changing. Social and political concerns are back on the agenda, and the bad guys are now as likely to be politicians, business moguls, and figures of authority as perverts, drug dealers, serial killers and gangsters."
Crime fiction, then, can offer windows on the self and on the nation-state.

So, when I become king of the world, no one will be allowed to say a crime story "transcends its genre" unless he or she can also explain why an author capable of transcending the genre chose to write within it.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Egyptian noir, and by a Nobel Prize-winner no less

A back-cover blurb to The Thief and the Dogs calls Naguib Mahfouz "not only a Hugo and a Dickens, but also a Galsworthy, a Mann, a Zola, and a Jules Romains." He was a Jim Thompson and a David Goodis, too, in this 1961 tale of a wronged man released from jail, bent on revenge, and bound for destruction.

Parts of the story will be familiar to fans of American hard-boiled and noir; Said Mahran's beloved wife has left him while he was in prison, for example, and married one of his old criminal colleagues. But other aspects must have resonated especially with Egyptian readers, helping explain, perhaps, why the brave and admirable Mahfouz ran afoul both of the Egyptian government and of Islamic fundamentalists during his long career.

One target of Mahran's widening circle of revenge and obsession, for example, is a one-time preacher of theft from the rich as a political act who has now himself become rich. At the time of the novel's writing, Egypt was still under the rule of a youngish colonel who was turning strongly toward socialism. A revolutionary-turned-fat cat may well have struck a chord with readers, the protagonist's impotent rage and humiliation at such a figure even more so.

God, too, plays a strong supporting role, a presence unthinkable in most American crime writing. Mahran seeks shelter and food in the home of a sheikh to whom his father had taken him when Mahran was a boy. The sheikh is merciful, but God is a haunting and all-pervasive presence in every answer he offers to the increasingly desperate Mahran. I don't know what Mahfouz's own religious beliefs were, but he took God seriously in his fiction.

(A tip of the tarboosh to Adrian McKinty for pointing me toward this book.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What are your favorite literary references in crime fiction?

Among the pleasures of John Lawton's Second Violin are its literary references, cleverer and more elaborate than most such.

One example concerns co-protagonist Frederick Troy's search for murder suspects amid a group of British bluebloods early in the Second World War, one of whom is identified as a descendant of Frederick, fifth earl of Ickenham.

Readers of P.G. Wodehouse will recognize the allusion to Uncle Freddy, bane of poor Pongo Twistleton's existence in "Uncle Freddy Flits By," a figure in several other stories, and just possibly Wodehouse's funniest creation.

Lawton picks up the Wodehouse theme in Troy's interrogation of the next blueblood on the list:

"`The evening [diary] entry is blank.'

"`I stayed on. A rare opportunity for a quiet evening with a good book.
Uncle Fred in the Springtime. Ask me anything you like about the plot.'"
Clever? Yes, but something more as well. The first blueblood is an incarnation of evil, which makes the invocation of Uncle Fred grotesquely humorous, or humorously grotesque. The real topper comes in Troy's interview with the second blueblood, though.

The light, Wodehouse-like tone of his banter with Troy is a deliberate contrast to Troy's previous encounter. The tone is almost enough to persuade the reader that this second figure, one Geoffrey Trench, M.P., is not the devil Lawton has led us to expect – almost, that is, until he lets slip a remark reasonable in its tone, evil in its implication, and goes on to suggest that his poisonous attitude is common among Conservative members of parliament and even prime ministers.

The juxtaposition of light (or low) comedy and dark tragedy is characteristic of Lawton's satirical method, effective in its shock value. In this instance, it might also be a reference to Wodehouse's own complicated war.

Now, tell me about your favorite literary references in crime fiction. Let me know, if you like, how and why these references work.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Amara Lakhous' house of mysteries

For a moment I thought that after fifty-eight years, critics had found a new touchstone for discussing the elusiveness of truth. I'd read several references on blogs to Amara Lakhous' novel Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, and not one had invoked Rashomon. I needed to verify my impression, though, so I did a quick online search. Sure enough, two American newspapers, cautiously and safely erudite, reliably behind the times in that way that American newspapers have, compared the novel to Akira Kurosawa's movie. I am unsure whether this is testament more to the movie's power or the critics' laziness.

In the book, an obstreperous tenant of a Roman apartment block has been murdered, another tenant has disappeared, and, one at a time, ten neighbors and a police officer tell their stories, comment about one another, and speculate about whether the missing man is guilty of the killing. The neighbors include immigrants, internal and external, and their mutual misperceptions form the book's comedy and its mystery as well. Some of the stories are heartbreaking, though the comedy predominates.

The mystery inheres in the clashing interpretations the tenants offer based on circumstantial evidence and on their own imaginations, backgrounds and prejudices. And the mystery only intensifies after the vanished man's fate is revealed.

Lakhous was born in Algiers and, according to his publisher, recently completed a Ph.D. thesis on “Living Islam as a Minority.” I'd suspect, though, that of his novel's immigrant characters, he has special affection for Johan van Marten, a young Dutchman who wants to make a movie about the apartment building and its residents. (Clash of Civilizations ... is one of the titles he proposes for his film.) Van Marten offers a simple and highly amusing solution to a linguistic puzzle that others had misinterpreted, and Lakhous also has him give voice to one of the great sports metaphors in all crime fiction.

Sport also figures in the book's most amusing example of Italians' suspicions of migrants from elsewhere in their own country:

"Sandro told me that Naples fans can't stand the Olympic Stadium because of the banners of the Roma fans, which display a special welcome. For example, last year during the Roma-Naples game there was a banner that said `Welcome, Naples fans, welcome to Italy!'"
© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, November 23, 2008


Like many another movie adaptation, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen makes alterations to its source, in this case the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. Some of the changes may have been well-intended extrapolations from the story. Among these were adding Tom Sawyer and Dorian Gray to the cast of fictional Victorian adventurers.

At least one change, though, seems to have been a taming, not to say censoring, of the comic. Moore explained in an interview that Allan Quatermain's attachment to the narcotic drug taduki might have rendered him vulnerable to opium addiction had the taduki supply dried up. Thus the comic has a soon-to-be fellow league member finding a sick and withered Quatermain half-dead in a Cairo opium den. In the movie, Sean Connery's robust Quatermain makes a rather more dashing entrance. Whether this change is due to Connery's role as an executive producer is a matter for speculation.

In another notable change, the movie has a male British functionary act as agent in recruiting members for the league. Moore had given that key task to a female character, the league's first member, Mina Murray. Moore's Murray is more prickly and more fully rounded a character than her screen counterpart. The comic also has an especially evil character refer to Murray as a "smelly lesbian," an edgy reference absent from the movie.

What's your take on these changes? What other notable book-to-movie changes can you think of? Feel free to speculate about the thinking behind those changes.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, November 21, 2008

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest: Millennium trilogy, Vol. 3

Reg Keeland/Steven T. Murray, translator into English of that worldwide phenomenon known as Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, sends word in a comment that the third volume will be called The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest in its U.K. release, scheduled for 2010. The novel's title in its original Swedish is Luftslottet som sprängdes, which means "The air castle that blew up."

The English title is rather dynamic, I'd say, and I'd like to know what you think of it, especially if you've read one or more volumes in the trilogy, which also includes The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire. The title is evocative, promising action and letting us know who will be the center of that action. What other titles are similarly evocative? In what other ways do crime titles appeal to readers? Through atmosphere? By appealing to series loyalty? You tell me!

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

More crime songs

I've heard two folk songs recently that share something of the darker, Thompson/Goodis/Woolrich strain of noir and hard-boiled, yet remain two of the happiest, toe-tappingest, jolliest ballads you'd ever want to hear. This seeming contradiction captures the appeal of a certain school of crime story, and I invite your thoughts on the matter when you're done with this post.

The narrator of "Nancy Whisky" (known in some versions as "The Carlton Weaver") celebrates his "seven long years" in the thrall of the bottle, personified as a woman with "a playful twinkle in her eye." In some versions, such as this one by Shane MacGowan and the Popes, the singer "ran out of money, so I did steal."

In that way that folk songs and stories have, the song exists in multiple versions. In some, the narrator repents of his errant ways. In others, he pines away for his lost "Nancy Whisky." In still others, such as the version by Philadelphia's own Patrick's Head, the ending is more ambiguous: "As I awoke to strike my first (Or "slake my thirst"?) / As I went crawling from my bed / I fell down flat and could not stagger / Nancy had me by the legs," trailing off into the repeated, celebratory chorus: "Whisky, whisky, Nancy Whisky / Whisky, whisky, Nancy-o."

And how about this verse?:

"I bought her, I drank her, I had another
Ran out of money so I did steal
She ran me ragged, lovely Nancy
Seven years, a rolling wheel"

If that's not a Bonnie and Clyde or The Big O or a Barry Gifford story waiting to happen, I don't know what is. Of course, since "Nancy Whisky," though Scottish, is beloved of Irish bands, perhaps Big O author Declan Burke liked the song in his youth. Comment from said Mr. Burke is welcome.

The amazing "Weila, Weila, Waila," with its sing-song chorus and horrific subject matter, invites comparison with a form of literature darker and more violent than crime fiction: nursery rhymes. Have a listen here.

"And there was an old woman and she lived in the woods
A weila weila waila
There was an old woman and she lived in the woods
Down by the River Saile

"She had a baby three months old
A weila weila waila
She had a baby three months old
Down by the River Saile ... "

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Spring carnival

The wind is slicing through my jeans, and temperatures below freezing are forecast for the weekend. So I think I'll warm up with a visit to the latest Carnival of the Criminal Minds, hosted by Karen Chisholm's AustCrime.

The indefatigable Karen, hosting the Carnival for the second time, flings bouquets toward some Australian female crime writers and the people who support them and highlights a couple of fine Australian sites, crime fiction and otherwise. She also points the way to what look like intriguing sources of information on crime fiction from Southern Africa and New Zealand, both of which are probably a good deal warmer than Philadelphia at the moment.

As always, stop by Carnival Queen Barbara Fister's archive for a review of all twenty-six carnivals.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Alan Moore makes the familiar strange

Remember that line about making the familiar strange? There's a witty example in Watchmen in which Jon Osterman has returned from the accident that dematerialized him and become Dr. Manhattan, able to dematerialize himself and others.

The trope of a man gaining super powers from an accident and becoming a costumed crime fighter will be familiar to anyone who has read a Marvel comic. In author Alan Moore's world, however, the transition is not direct. It takes image consultants, government handlers, cooperative media and a willing public to create Dr. Manhattan, a notion that amuses Osterman/Manhattan's wife to no end.

"I mean," she says, smiling widely, "you wear an old double-breasted suit for that photo session, and next thing, everybody's talking about its fashion significance! Can you imagine?"
Can you imagine? Next thing, people will be taking seriously what U.S. presidents, presidents-elect and their wives wear.
P.S. Alan Moore is British, so I'm not becoming cool or changing my focus or succumbing to hype for the upcoming Watchmen movie. Moore fits right in here at Detectives Beyond Borders.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Enter ... the Visitor

I'm feeling like a benevolent superhero these days, one whose power consists in his ability to take on the interests of anyone he visits.

Thus a recent stay with a comics-loving friend introduced me to some fine crime-fiction titles: Scalped, The Punisher and, just yesterday, that stunning, multi-layered, symphonic, operatic piece of storytelling known as Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons.

The comic maven's partner (and my co-host) loves Ian Rankin's writing and is fascinated by music in crime fiction, a frequent and well-commented-upon topic of discussion here at Detectives Beyond Borders, so our talk naturally turned to those subjects. This led to some thoughts and questions that I'll pass on to you:

Music has been a part of crime fiction at least since Sherlock Holmes started scratching at his violin and of crime movies at least since the 1950s (think moody saxophones and lonely skylines). I have an idea, though, that it was baby-boomer authors who really popularized music references in crime fiction, often to rock and roll, in a big way. Why is this the case? And was Ian Rankin any kind of an innovator in his use of music in general and rock and roll in particular, or might it just seem that way because his Rebus novels are so popular?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Fresh noir

It's been a recurring motif of my thinking about crime fiction: the occasional work that finds some new theme, setting or technique to bring back the kick that noir and the hardest of hard-boiled used to have.

Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera's Scalped did this for me most recently. Novels by Megan Abbott and Declan Burke had done so earlier. The three works accomplished this in different ways, primarily (though not exclusively) through setting and artwork in the first case, character in the second and action in the third.

What about you? What relatively recent crime writing has found new ways to deliver that nasty kick of a Hammett, a Chandler, a (Paul) Cain, a Jonathan Latimer, a Goodis or a Jim Thompson? How did it do so?
P.S. I was remiss yesterday in not thanking Brian Lindenmuth for bringing Scalped to my attention and letting me read his bound collection of the first five issues.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Comics, comics, comics

I've spent two days surrounded by more comics than at any other time since I was 10 or 11 years old. And guess what? Some of this stuff is pretty good.
As I was saying before I was distracted by an evening of wholesome family fun, Duane Swierczynski and Michel Lacombe's The Punisher opens with a disquisition on spearing a human being:

"Harpooning a man isn't as easy as you think. ... You've got to catch bone. ... Otherwise the hook will just rip away. ... So you aim for the ribs. ... Avoiding the heart. ... Especially if you want your catch ... to make it back to shore."
Makes you want to keep reading, doesn't it? And that's what a good prologue ought to do. Oh, and the first three panels are wordless. Lacombe's art carries the action alone and does so as simply, dramatically and economically as one could imagine: nothing but a rope unfurling against an aquamarine sky.
Jason Aaron's Scalped both updates and remains staunchly faithful to noir. Updates? The story takes place on an Indian reservation, a category of setting largely if not entirely unexplored in noir. Faithful? The protagonist is named Dashiell Bad Horse, and the tribute to Dashiell Hammett has not a trace of the cute or the nostalgic about it. This is dark stuff: violent, full of the hardest kinds of choices between bad and worse, and all richly abetted by R.M. Guera's dark art work, redolent of night, blood and arid plains.
Part III of my Great Comics Adventure was a visit to Geppi's Entertainment Museum in Baltimore, a vast repository of American cultural artifacts from the dawning of the mass-media era. That era started earlier than one might think, but that's material for another post. For now, I noted with interest the occasionally dark shadows amid the garish colors and sharp, stiff lines on comic-book covers as early as the 1930s. Noir influence found its way into comic book early on.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, November 14, 2008


John Lawton is a big-picture guy, as you may have gathered from my discussion of Second Violin or from overviews of Lawton's earlier novels about wartime and postwar England.

But a big picture is built of details, and Lawton deploys several to canny, devastating satirical effect. My favorite so far concerns the spunky, adorably bluff tailor Billy Jacks, who was, however, born with a different name. Here, he and the novel's upper-class co-protagonist Rod Troy are stating their names upon arrival at an internment camp for enemy aliens:
"And I'm Rod Troy ... of Hampstead."

"It helps," said Drax, "and it will not detain us long, if we state for the record our city of origin. ... Arthur Kornfeld, of Vienna, keeps records for us. We all feel it helps to know where we all come from. To have something written down by us rather than by the British. Helps us not to ... not to lose touch. A matter of identity. No small matter you will agree."

Rod did agree. It was a matter of identity that had brought him here in the first place.

"In that case," he said, perfectly willing to play the game, "I'm Rodyon Troy, also of Vienna. Indeed, I think you'll find more than a few of us are."

Drax stuck out both hands to shake one of Rod's, beaming at him as though he'd found a long-lost son. Behind him Rod heard Jacks plonk his gladstone bag on the table and say, "Billy Jacks, Stepney Green."

Kornfeld said, "It won't hurt, you know. And we're all in the same boat."

Billy shot a surly glance in Rod's direction, looked back at Kornfeld.

"OK, OK, whatever `Ampstead says. Abel Jakobson, Danzig. Now, where's me bleedin' tea?"
That these two emblematic English characters – upper-class toff and plucky cockney – have been deprived of their freedom by their own government ought to make readers squirm. That the latter reveals his "alien" origin in the most earthy and emblematically English speech imaginable is funny, of course, but also the most moving declaration of national character I can think of in any recent fiction.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

A graphic interlude with raw fish

Tony Chavira sends notice of an online P.I./noir comedy comic strip on which he's been collaborating for the last few months. Click here for the adventures of the suave, confident, powerful and inept Tuna Carpaccio P.I.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

John Lawton on Winston Churchill, time machines and American crime fiction

John Lawton has said he resists being marketed as a crime writer, and he said so again Tuesday evening at Partners & Crime in New York. Lest you write him off as a genre basher and a literary snob, however, consider this list of his favorite writers: Loren D. Estleman, Elmore Leonard and Robert B. Parker.

And consider his reply when I asked about the occasional wisecrack amid the grim subject matter of his novel Second Violin: "I think Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues) raised the bar of what you can get away with combining serious" with humorous.

This novel, sixth in Lawton's series about wartime and postwar London, is a prequel to the first five. This time the story begins in 1938, and Lawton's usual protagonist, the here-young police officer Frederick Troy, does not appear until page 124. Why a prequel and why Troy's late appearance? Lawton says that "I love time machines" and that he loved the chance to explore a different, earlier time in the lives of his country and his main character: "If you can write the same books fifty times over, you'd be Robert B. Parker." (And remember, Lawton is no genre snob. He likes Parker's work and says he regards the novels as variants, if not repetitions.)

And consider Lawton's reason for writing the novel: Britain's wartime roundups of aliens born in enemy or potentially enemy nations. This even though many had been in Britain for decades or were refugees, many Jewish, from the very countries with which Britain was at war. To paraphrase Lawton's opinion of the policy gently, he believes it was not Churchill's finest hour.

Beginning the action in 1938 lets Lawton unfold slowly the awful experiences of those refugees who made their way from Hell and Austria to Britain, only to be shunted off to internment.

More to come, including discussion of the murders, of which there has been one so far about halfway into the novel, almost an afterthought amid the book's tragic and absurd historical sweep.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Hear and see authors speak

Krimi-Couch ("Denn lesen ist spannender"), host of the video interview with Colin Cotterill highlighted here, has put up three more interviews: one with Mark Billingham and Martyn Waites, one with Karin Slaughter and one with Linwood Barclay.

Some highlights: The Billingham/Waites interview opens with each author introducing the other and then a discussion of both authors' backgrounds as stand-up comedians, and Barclay talks about the surprising benefits of having one of his novels published in Germany before it came out in the English-speaking world.

I've heard Billingham, and the man is a formidable toastmaster. I can well believe that he could sustain the patter long enough to keep a crowd laughing and buying drinks. What other authors have done stand-up comedy?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Garbhan Downey's politics as unusual

Here are some of the observations on post-Troubles Irish politics that Garbhan Downey gives his characters in Yours Confidentially:

– "In the old days, our methods of winning (and wiping people out) were, admittedly, quite crude – but they were effective. But we've supposedly stopped all that now and are in the business of learning real politics – craft, guile and deceit – as perfected by our Southern neighbors over the last century or so."

– "Word is that the Loyalist Action group – or whatever they call themselves now they've scrubbed off their ACAB tattoos – were very annoyed that Bent had studiously avoided dealing with them over the road. ... One of my dodgy loyalist friends informed me that Vic was so annoyed at Bent's proposed route that he was considering gifting the MP his own little portion of mountain bogland, free gratis. But he was overruled on the grounds that we all love one another again (at least as long as the checques keep coming in)."

– "The problem with the South at the moment is that for the first time in almost two decades there's a fear sneaking back into the economy. They're so worried about losing their new-found wealth that they're cutting back on everything. And they certainly won't want to waste their savings on a prospect as volatile and thankless as the North."

– "But given that we've got equality, of a sort, our constituents are soon going to realise that the prospects for both communities are equally bad. Now that the focus is off their own petty squabbles, they are going to discover just how hard it is to compete in a world where plasma TVs can be produced for a tenner apiece in China and where call-centre workers in India will do the job for a fifth of what people are paid here. And our Get Out of Jail card, which was effectively `Give us extra or we'll blow up your Stock Exchange', is no longer valid. The question for our new masters is: will we still all be happy to sing off the same hymn sheet when the collection boxes are empty?"

What other crime novels have commented so acidly on politics, recent history, and current affairs?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

A new book shows there's life in an old literary form

Garbhan Downey is a kind of literary archaeologist in addition to being a pretty funny writer. Last month I wrote about his 2005 story collection Off Broadway, in which, among other things, he dusted off and revitalized Damon Runyon. Earlier, I'd written about the strong moral slant of the comedy in his novel Running Mates, a moral interest that smacks more than a little of classical and Shakespearean comedy.

Downey's book Yours Confidentially, published earlier this year, is not only cast in another old literary form, that of the novel written in letters, but it also captures something of the moralizing spirit of 18th-century classics of the form. I'm no scholar of the epistolary novel, but I do know that such classics as Samuel Richardson's Clarissa and Pamela and such burlesques as Henry Fielding's Shamela are characterized by introspection, moralizing and, in the burlesques, satire.

Here, Downey's subject is, as always, the hilarious world of post-Troubles Northern Irish politics, and the mood is, as always, high comedy. Once I've got a bit of sleep, I may return with some samples. But what most impresses me so far is the earnestness and introspection some of the letters. Take this, from the randy Catholic politician Shay Gallagher to the randy Protestant politician Sue McEwan, who is also his fiancée, after opponents begin leaking stories and rumors about Shay's pre-engagement romantic life:

"I am terribly, terribly sorry about all this and the embarrassment it causes you and Danielle – and even your mother. By way of excuse, all I can say is that up until Uncle Shay died six years ago, I never imagined that I'd spend my life as anything but a private citizen. And I behaves as such."
Quite apart from the high jinks and shenanigans revealed slowly in the other letters, I find that sentiment touchingly open and worthy of an eighteenth-century rake with a good heart. I was tempted to guess that Downey concentrated on literature in university, but he has captured the spirit of several types of story too well to have actually studied them. There is nothing of the deadening hand of the A-grade English major here.

Here's your question: Garbhan Downey has captured the forms and moods of Shakespearean comedy and 18th-century English epistolary novels. Elsewhere, I find echoes of the Odyssey and of Dante in Adrian McKinty 's Michael Forsythe novels. What other contemporary crime writers have recast or found inspiration in old literary forms?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Sandra Ruttan's effective use of an obnoxious expression

My half-cocked theorizing about evolution crowded out at least one other thing I wanted to say yesterday about What Burns Within, so here it is now:

Author Sandra Ruttan makes effective use of one of the most grating locutions in recent English: "You don't get it." That expression embodies many pernicious qualities and practices: snobbery, condescension, sloganeering, infuriating obstinacy, pig-headed stupidity, substitution of put-down for argument, and often sneering political correctness as well.

The character whom Ruttan has utter the expression is a panicked, driven, victimized, vindictive. scheming, manipulative, dangerous sort, just the kind who would shake her head and say, "You don't get it." And she says it at her most panicked, dangerous and manipulative moment. The expression captures the essence of the character, and the character captures the essence of the expression. Ruttan gets it.

What other authors make effective use of grating expressions in this way?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, November 07, 2008

Evolution (Sandra Ruttan)

Odds are that many people reading this post nourish a lingering fondness for Hill Street Blues, Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels or both. McBain's novels and, later, Steven Bochco's TV series pioneered the ensemble approach to the police procedural, with liberal doses of the characters' personal lives thrown into the mix on an unprecedented scale.

But be honest. As momentous as both are in the history of crime fiction, don't they feel a bit if not dated, then at least like products of times different from today? Don't the domestic vignettes, as memorable as they are (Steve Carella's tender relationship with his deaf wife, Teddy, in the books; Furillo and Davenport's pillow talk on the show) seem somewhat grafted onto rather than organically integrated into the stories?

The next stage in ensemble procedurals is here, and Sandra Ruttan is in its vanguard. What Burns Within offers three protagonists and a host of significant secondary characters. These characters' personal problems, while not extravagantly and theatrically complicated, are intense, and they are present at all times, whether the officers are investigating arsons, murders or a string of child abductions, or dealing with vicious office politics. Equally, the cases are on the characters' minds even in those moments that Bochco or McBain might have reserved for homely domestic vignettes.

The strands of investigation – into child abductions, rapes, arsons and murders – intersect and overlap while somehow managing to pick up speed toward a violent climax. The density and complexity build when one of the officers becomes a victim. And Ruttan manages to keep the suspense going even during the denouement, when things are supposed to be winding down.

There's a lot going on in this novel, and I may post more about it later. For now, I'll say that the book takes up at least two especially sensitive crimes, rape and child abduction, and deals with each in ways that are surprising and that subvert easy judgments. And I'll add that I can think of no other crime novel so dense with incident and yet so fast-moving. Highly recommended.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Be a character; chow down with two authors

Sandra Ruttan, one of that long list of folks I was pleased to meet at Bouchercon 2008, holds forth at her publisher's Web site on the process and occasional difficulty of naming characters and choosing titles for her novels.

You can help her with the first of those difficulties. Sandra and her publisher, Dorchester, are running a contest, and if you win, Sandra will name a character in her next book for you. Details at the publisher's link above, and good luck to you in the contest if I don't win.

Meet authors Cordelia Frances Biddle and Dave Zeltserman this Sunday, Nov. 9 at 1 p.m. for the Robin’s Book Store Crime Fiction Book Club's Sunday brunch. It happens at Les Bons Temps, 114 S. 12th Street, Philadelphia.

My favorite blurb details for the two authors: "Cordelia Frances Biddle is a member of one of Philadelphia's oldest families, and this series uses many of her actual ancestors as characters."

and, for Zeltserman's Small Crimes:

"Crooked cop Joe Denton gets out of prison early after disfiguring the local district attorney, which doesn't help his popularity."

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Carnival the twenty-fifth, or the case of the puking pumpkin

Halloween, the Day of the Dead and the World Series have passed, but you can relive the memories of the first two at the latest installment of the Carnival of the Criminal Minds. Your host for this, the twenty-fifth Carnival, is that top-shelf blogosphere library, In Reference to Murder.

Host BV Lawson gets mischievous while remaining highly useful. Thus, you'll find the worst Halloween costumes of all time and a picture of a baleful Pop-Tart cheek by crust with handy information for writers. You'll find an introduction to some of the events planned for Edgar Allan Poe's bicentennial year of 2009 and a whole lot of Halloween-related goodies that will stay fresh long after that odd-looking but harmless light-brown flecking has coated your leftover Mars bars.

My favorite may be a link to a discussion of conspiracy theories and why we love them that includes this credo: "I believe in stupidity, randomness and chaos. That's what causes most of the misery in the world."

As usual, you can browse previous Carnivals, including the eighth, hosted by your humble blogkeeper, thanks to Carnival Queen Barbara Fister's handy archive. And what about the title of this post? Visit the carnival and look at the pictures to find out.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008


Monday, November 03, 2008

Noir at the Bar V: Beyond Genre Borders

Genres can be useful things. What else would authors subvert, transcend or have fun with? But genre labels can also scare readers off, even those of us who spring to the defense of genre fiction – as long as it's in our genre.

Jonathan Maberry has won awards for horror writing (though he said at last night's fifth Noir at the Bar reading that books with the horror label sell poorly in the United States – "We call them `supernatural thrillers.'"). Whatever the label, no crime-fiction reader ought to be scared off. For one thing, Maberry says he's loved crime writing from a young age, and he hangs out with crime writers in Philadelphia's Liars Club. For another, his new novel, Patient Zero, is not horror, but a bio-terrorism thriller. For a third, based on the selections Maberry read last night, the book will contain much to delight crime readers.

Maberry's protagonist, Joe Ledger, a former soldier and a Baltimore police officer, can crack as wise as the best fictional PIs, even when enlisted by a secretive government agency to help battle a grave security threat. Indeed, Maberry said after the reading that John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee was one of his models, both as a wisecracker and as a protagonist with intellectual interests.

Maberry says the novel will also invoke terrorism and feature international and corporate villains in addition to its threat to all life. Much of this is new territory for a hero who talks like a Travis McGee or a Philip Marlowe or an Elvis Cole. And I'm going to explore that territory because the genre-mixing sounds like fun.

Maberry says: "I wrote the book that I would like to read," a deceptively simple thought and a liberating sentiment. Think of the book as a mat laid at the doorstep of thrillerdom with the friendly words: "Welcome, crime readers."

Patient Zero will be published by St. Martin's Press in March.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, November 02, 2008

Top that, Mr. Goldfinger!

Paul Davis, last heard from in these parts when he called my attention to Ian Fleming's 1958 interview with Raymond Chandler, weighs in this time with links to an article from Science Daily about James Bond's evil adversaries and to an earlier piece of his own.

Are Fleming's Dr. No, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and Goldfinger really over the top in a world that has given us Al Capone, Martin Borman and Osama bin Laden? "And how about Manuel Noriega?" Paul writes. "Here was an island military dictator and major drug smuggler who wore red bikini underwear to ward off evil spirits. Top that, Mr. Goldfinger!"

Paul adds in a follow-up note that the BBC is rebroadcasting Alex Jennings reading You Only Live Twice and keeping each installment available for seven days. You can also catch most of Casino Royale – as I am doing at this moment. And this reading of the book, I will say, makes Le Chiffre's motivation rather clearer than does the recent movie remake with Daniel Craig. That motivation is simple, fiendish, and ingeniously human.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, November 01, 2008

How do you say "pulp" in German?

Fruitful intercultural exchange is happening at Christa Faust's Deadlier Than the Male and the German crime-fiction blog Internationale Krimis. It started when Faust travelled to Germany to promote Hardcore Angel, the German translation of her novel Money Shot, and found a surprising attitude to the kind of crime fiction she loves :

"(I)n Germany hardboiled pulp (vintage or modern) is basically considered lowbrow trash on the level of supermarket romance. I had several interviewers ask me about how it feels not to be taken seriously, and I honestly didn’t get what they meant at first. ... (T)he Germans have this idea that crime fiction ought to be much more literary and `serious.' Apparently this means no explicit sex or violence, just lots of depressed, angst-ridden (male, of course) detectives brooding and contemplating the meaning of life."
Bernd Kochanowski of Internationale Krimis replied with a nuanced picture of fragmented German crime-fiction traditions that encompass both "pulpy" and "high end" and make sweeping references to "the Germans" problematic. One difficulty, he wrote, is that some German critics fought hard to get crime writing taken seriously and are unprepared to accept pulp and hard-boiled crime fiction. He also takes up the discussion, in German, on his own blog.

Follow the exchange for an incisive view of crime fiction's audience in one major country, for Faust's take on her own work, and for a tale of literary culture shock.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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