Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Voices: Arnaldur Indriðason's parallel inner lives

Yesterday I compared Voices unfavorably to Arnaldur Indriðason's other novels about Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson. Today I'll highlight some of the good things and talk a bit about what I think Arnaldur was up to in that book.

I wrote that the novel's constricted setting (almost all the action happens inside a Reykjavik hotel) de-emphasizes the connection with Iceland and its soil that is usual in Arnaldur's books. But this does not preclude his customary wry observations about his country and, given the hotel setting, about its visitors,
"Tourists who were planning to spend Christmas and the New Year in Iceland because it seemed to them like an adventurous and exciting country. Although they had only just landed, many had apparently already bought traditional Icelandic sweaters, and they checked into the exotic land of winter."

There is Erlendur's spare, pointed retort to a hotel manager more concerned about business than about justice:

"I hope you're not disturbing my guests," he said.

Erlendur took him to one side.

"What are the rules about prostitution in this hotel?"

And there is Arnaldur's delightful deadpan slapstick. Here, Erlendur's investigation has him interviewing a prostitute whose stitches from her recent eye-catching breast-enhancement surgery are bothering her. The manager sees Erlendur and the woman, misinterprets their meeting, and tries to throw the woman out:

"Watch her tits!" Erlendur shouted, not knowing what else to say. The hotel manager looked at him, dumbfounded. "They're new," Erlendur added by way of explanation.

One reader complained here that the victim in Voices was especially pathetic and therefore less interesting. I think this is due to Arnaldur's narrow focus on the victim. Furthermore, he also focuses in more detail than usual on Erlendur, and the two characters form a pair of solitary bookends.

I respect Arnaldur for choosing bravely to turn his back on interaction, the stuff of which most novels are made, and concentrate so heavily on the victim's and Erlendur's parallel inner lives. I just don't think it works as well as his other novels do. It will be interesting to see if he tries this strategy in the future.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dennis Tafoya/Pete Dexter in Philly tomorrow!

If you're within driving, biking, walking or public-transportation distance, or if you can catch a cheap flight, come out to America's oldest press club Wednesday evening for Noir at the Bar with Dope Thief author Dennis Tafoya and columnist/screenwriter/National Book Award-winning author Pete Dexter.
When: Wednesday, September 30th at 6:00 p.m.
1522 Latimer Street, Philadelphia, 215-731-9909
© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Indoors and out in Arnaldur's Iceland

I've been reading more of Arnaldur Indriðason, one book that I think is his weakest, and another that seems likely to be up there with his best.

The weaker book is Voices, and I believe its weakness stems from its reliance to a greater extent than Arnaldur's other books on melodrama. More than usual as well for Arnaldur, the action, the pivotal events especially, happens indoors.

The site is a Reykjavik hotel where an employee has been found murdered and where Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson stays for the course of the investigation because he does not feel like going home. The employee is an ex-hotel doorman and holiday Santa and a former child star with a number of financial, personal and family entanglements.

In The Draining Lake, Silence of the Grave and Arctic Chill, bodies are found outdoors. In the first two, especially, this reinforces the intimate connection with Iceland and its soil that is the most distinctive feature of the Erlendur books. In Voices, everything happens inside, and the melodrama has to carry the book. This melodrama is sharper, sadder and more affecting than most, but I miss the connection with the land.

The connection promises to be present in Silence of the Grave, second of the five Erlendur novels and winner of the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger in 2005. As in the superb Draining Lake, Iceland's soil yields up the body that sets the story in motion. Here, its discovery is odder and funnier:
"He knew at once it was a human bone, when he took it from the baby who was sitting on the floor chewing it."
At least two of Arnaldur's characters share their names with characters from the Icelandic classic Njal's Saga. Arnaldur has said the sagas influenced his prose style. Perhaps they influenced him in other ways as well.

On the other hand, Iceland is a small, historically homogeneous society. Perhaps it's no surprise that traditional names are especially prevalent. The names Arnaldur gives his characters may be no more significant than those of fictional characters such as Hieronymus Bosch or Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Out of English, into French: A translation question

I hadn't read Michael Connelly before. Now I'm reading him in French in preparation for my panel at Bouchercon 2009.

Deuil Interdit (The Closers in the original version) brings Harry Bosch back to the Los Angeles Police Department after a three-year retirement. Among other things, I learned in the opening chapter that the French word for badge is badge.

Elsewhere, the police chief asks Harry if he had heard talk of the décret dit de consentement (roughly decree — that is, of consent) under which the department now operates. The term has the air of something the translator thought needed explaining to French readers, and I presume it means consent decree. This raises an interesting question: When translating legal and other technical terms, how does one strike a balance between fidelity to the original sense, and comprehensibility to readers in the target language?

(Michael Connelly's French translator, Robert Pépin, will be a member of my panel on crime fiction and translation at Bouchercon 2009.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bouchercon 2009: Quiz the translators

I'm cramming for the panel I'll moderate at Bouchercon 2009 in less than three weeks. The panel is called Lost in Translation?: Translators and writers discuss the challenges of translating the crime novel, and it features Steven T. Murray, Tiina Nunnally, Robert Pépin and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. We take the stage Thursday, Oct. 15, 10:30 a.m.-11:25 a.m., with yours truly asking the questions and lending a firm but gentle guiding hand.

The group's three translators have impressive lists of credits, including such works as Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy and Peter Høeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow rendered into English and such authors as Michael C0nnelly, Jonathan Kellerman, Deon Meyer, Charles Bukowski, T.C. Boyle and Joseph Wambaugh translated from English into French. Yrsa's novels have been translated into at least ten languages, and I'm developing a nice list of questions for all four panelists about the joys, sorrows, anxieties and surprises of translating and being translated.

What about your questions? What would you ask? What should I ask? Come up with a good suggestion, and I just might bring a book back for you.
The panel happens the Thursday of Bouchercon. If you're around Friday, check out the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Awards banquet, for which extra seats have just opened. That happens at the Slippery Noodle blues bar Fri. Oct. 16, 6:30 to 9:00. Tickets are $50. E-mail Bob Randisi at by Oct. 1 for details.

Click here for a complete Bouchercon program.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

James Ellroy, Part II

I don't know if anyone could justly accuse James Ellroy of humility, but he did show some candor when a member of last night's audience in Philadelphia asked if he had a favorite among movie adaptations of his novels.

L.A. Confidential was a fine movie, he said, and I believe he remarked that sometimes one gets lucky with adaptations, and sometimes one does not. But, he said, "I would never criticize an adaptation, because I took the dough."

Ellroy read from his new novel, Blood's a Rover, at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library. Perhaps because the library had recently survived a city budget crisis and the threat of closure, he stressed the formative roles that public libraries and reading had played in his life. And he repeated, amid many plugs for the new book, that "if you don't have the cash, the gelt, the dinero" to buy the novel, you can read it free at the library.

He also told the crowd that the pillars of his upbringing were the Lutheran Church and Confidential magazine, where he could read "who was a homo, a nympho, a dipso, a lesbo," and he invited "the most invasive questions" the audience could come up with.

These questions naturally concerned sex and money, and Ellroy neatly, gracefully and amusingly sidestepped them. A showman he is, and one who, at least last night, knew for every second exactly what he was up to.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Friday, September 25, 2009

A Cool Six Thousand

Yes, James Ellroy could have read with drums and a saxophone behind him tonight at Philadelphia's Central Library. The jazz cadences were there — great streams of words, startling verbal BLAAATS! and outrageous proclamations. Oddly enough, the only musical reference he made was to Beethoven, whom he called "my greatest teacher."

The man is capable of great hyperbole and verbal music, but I believe his invocation of the titanic Beethoven was sincere, and it was certainly quite moving. How can he, Ellroy, complain, he said, when Beethoven wrote such music while mired in poverty and imprisoned by deafness?

"What about Thomas Pynchon and Inherent Vice?" someone asked.

"SNORE!" replied Ellroy.

"Why did you end the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy just before Watergate?" someone else (me) asked.

"Watergate?" said Ellroy. "The biggest SNORE! since Thomas Pynchon."

In short, Ellroy gave the happiest, most buoyant, most joyously self-aggrandizing performance I can remember from an author, perhaps because of a new love whom he mentioned several times and to whom he blew a kiss as he took the stage. And yet he was capable of moments of great earnestness, as with Beethoven, or in reply to the inevitable question about his writing process. Such a question often induces groans. Here, Ellroy somberly outlined his procedure: For Blood's a Rover, his new book, a four-hundred page outline, research reports, then sitting down and making the stuff up.

Of special interest, perhaps, was his answer to the questioner who asked "Why Los Angeles" as the archetypal noir city?

"Because Raymond Chandler wrote there," he said, and because that's where the movie studios were, and that's where the great films noirs were made.

More, perhaps, to come.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Camilleri and the geography of insults

Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Salvo Montalbano is not a bad driver, though his occasional preoccupation and sudden, blinding insights do sometime imperil his fellow motorists. Two such instances in The Paper Moon call forth bursts of invective that are, like Camilleri's scenery, food and dialect, reliable guides to Sicily (as always, with the aid of translator Stephen Sartarelli's informative end notes*):

He got in the car and left, but after he'd gone a hundred yards, he slapped himself on the forehead, cursed, began a dangerous U-turn, and the three motorists behind him vociferously let him know that:
One, he was a tremendous cornuto*.
Two, his mother was a woman of easy virtue.
Three, his sister was worse than his mother.
And, seventy-nine pages later:

(H)e crept along at barely five miles per hour, driving everyone who happened to be behind him crazy. Every motorist, when each managed to pass him, felt obliged to insult him. Thus, he was a(n):
faggot, according to a trucker;
asshole, according to a priest;
cornuto, according to a nice lady;
ba-ba-ba-, according to a stutterer
Sartarelli's decision to retain the Italian cornuto does much to convey the novel's local flavor. It was a laudable decision.

What memorable crime-fictional insults have you read?
* cornuto: Italian for "cuckold," cornuto is a common insult throughout the country but a special favorite among southerners, Sicilians in particular.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Camilleri and Pirandello

"The rules of the game. Wasn't there a play of the same name by the above-mentioned Pirandello?"
That's from Andrea Camilleri's The Paper Moon, and, if memory serves me well, it's not the only time Camilleri mentions Pirandello. The two were born fifty-eight years apart in the same area of southwestern Sicily, Pirandello in Grigenti (Agrigento), Camilleri in Agrigento's port, Porto Empedocle (which appears under the name Vigàta in Camilleri's Montalbano novels). By various accounts, Pirandello knew Camilleri's grandparents or parents or was even a distant relative.

The mention may also be of thematic interest. Pirandello "is always preoccupied with the problem of identity," and so, in The Paper Moon, is Camilleri's Salvo Montalbano:
He knocked a third time. Still nothing. He turned around, cursing, and was about to descend the stairs when he heard a woman's voice call from inside the apartment.

"Who is it?"

This question is not always so easy to answer. First of all, because it may happen that the person who's supposed to reply is caught at a moment of identity loss and, second, because saying who one is doesn't always facilitate things.

"Administration," he said.
The theme was: During an investigation, does a real policeman take notes or not?
I've also seen Montalbano's favorite olive tree referred to as a Pirandellian element. I haven't read or seen Pirandello's work except in parodies, but it interested me that a playwright and novelist so well-known for his avant-garde narrative technique could be so rooted in his native soil. But then Italo Calvino, that creator of fantastic meta-narratives and member of the Oulipo group, also compiled a pioneering collection of Italian folk tales.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Monday, September 21, 2009

The Sign of the Three

Detectives Beyond Borders is three years old today, and I'm celebrating by awarding books to at least three lucky readers. All you have to do is name your favorite crime tales in which the number three figures in the title or the plot. One novel or story is sufficient. Three would be fine, too.

(I decide who wins and which books the winners get, though I'll try to meet requests. This contest is not entirely altruistic, you see. By accepting books, you will help me tidy up my living quarters and bring them one step closer to fitness for human habitation.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

Sunday, September 20, 2009

On Camilleri's settings, human and geographic

Clive James, whose views on international crime fiction I have not always endorsed, was right about Andrea Camilleri.
"Montalbano’s bailiwick is Sicily," James wrote in 2007. "If mainland Italy is corrupt, Sicily is corrupter, and Montalbano has some plenty-mean streets to walk down. He does so at a brisk pace, and it is because Camilleri knows his background too well to be impressed. He speaks the language. ... Camilleri can do a character’s whole backstory in half a paragraph ... "
I like that because it recognizes that setting, such a big part of the attraction of crime novels from outside the reader's home country, is human as well as physical. Two gorgeous bits of setting, one of each kind, from Voice of the Violin (English translation 2003), the fourth of Camilleri's novels about Inspector Salvo Montalbano, reminded me of this.

One bit describes a road from Vigàta to Calapiano,
"a sort of mule track that received its first and last coat of asphalt fifty years ago in the early days of regional autonomy, and finally reached Calapiano via a provincial road that clearly refused to be known as such, its true aspiration being to resume the outward appearance of the earthquake-ravaged country trail it had once been."
And this:
"`Are you cops?'

"The inspector laughed. How many centuries of police tyranny had it taken to hone this Sicilian woman's ability to detect law-enforcement officers at a moment's glance?"
Where does the human stop, and the geographic and historical begin? In Camilleri, nowhere. For him, the three are mutually inextricable.

And now a question perhaps harder than the usual questions for readers. Who else does what Camilleri does? In what other crime writers are the characters inseparable from their setting and its history?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Enough with the jokes

Last week I promised a post on small ways Arnaldur Indriðason articulates big themes. Here's one example, from the opening pages of Arctic Chill, where police are at a loss for information about a murder victim:

"Could be Thai, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Chinese," Sigurður Óli reeled off.

"Shouldn't we say he's an Icelander until we find out otherwise?" Erlendur said.
Later, Arnaldur puts these words in the mouth of a character who is not quite the anti-immigrant yahoo he seems at first:

"I've got nothing against immigrants ... But I'm against changing everything that's traditional and Icelandic just to pander to something called multiculturalism, when I don't even know what it means."
This character expresses revulsion at crimes against immigrants and full support for government programs to help integrate newcomers into Icelandic society.

One character says: "This is all so new to us. Immigrants, racial issues."

Another muses on the problem of immigrant children who refuse to integrate: "Same problem with the Icelanders living in Denmark. Their children refused to learn Danish."

Finally, any number of crime writers might have delivered lengthy exposition on the dreary conditions under which immigrants live. Here's how Arnaldur does it: "Erlendur was astonished there was no lift in such a tall building."

No diatribe, no ringing indictment. Instead, Erlendur and his creator, in their customary manner, making a heartfelt effort to understand their country.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

More of James Ellroy's gentle humor

I'll let this example stand for all the laugh lines in The Cold Six Thousand because there are too many such lines to pack into one post, and I still have half the book left to read:
Littell coughed. "Bobby Kennedy will probably resign. The new AG might have plans for Vegas, and Mr. Hoover might not be able to curtail them. I'll try to do some favors for him, learn what I can and pass it along."

Sam said: "That cocksucker Bobby."

Moe said: "That bad fucking seed."

Santo said: "That cocksucker used us. He put his faggot brother in the White House at our expense. He fucked us like the pharaohs fucked Jesus."

Johnny said: "The Romans, Santo. The pharaohs fucked Joan of Arc."

Santo said: "Fuck Bobby
and Joan. They're both faggots."

Moe rolled his eyes. Fuck this goyishe shit.
At least one excellent movie has been made from an Ellroy novel, but it's hard to imagine this scene being played in a movie without seeming ridiculous. And that's one more reason for you to read the book.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

James Ellroy, P.G. Wodehouse and Barack Obama

James Ellroy is not commonly regarded as a laugh-a-minute type of guy, but I liked this bit from The Cold Six Thousand, part of an exchange between Howard Hughes and mob lawyer/ex-FBI man Ward J. Littell:

HH: Only Mormons and FBI men have clean blood.

WJL: I'm not much of an expert on blood, Sir.

HH: I am. You know the law, and I know aerodynamics, blood and germs.

WJL: We're experts in our separate fields, Sir.
That's pure P.G. Wodehouse in its gentle putdown/evasions, more than worthy of Jeeves and Bertie, though a lethal Jeeves and a warped, racist, power-mad, billionaire, drug-injecting Bertie.

Earlier, Ellroy has J. Edgar Hoover say: "Las Vegas is a hellhole. It is unfit for sane habitation, which may explain its allure to Howard Hughes." That's not Wodehouse, but it's pretty funny.

President Obama was in Philadelphia today. If you know anything about The Cold Six Thousand, you'll know why I smiled as I carried the book through a crowd of pro- and anti-Obama demonstrators on the way to work.

I could not help thinking that protest is much less spontaneous now than in Ellroy's 1960s. There were the "Health care now!" chanters with their neatly printed signs, and there was the obligatory anti-abortion placard with a bloody fetus. But my favorite was a smaller sign, on what looked like brown corrugated cardboard, that demanded: "UFO disclosure now!" Sounds like something Howard Hughes might have looked into had he lived.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Thought for food

Little says as much about cultural differences as contrasting attitudes toward food. To crime writers from North America or from Europe's colder countries, food is an indicator of squalor, an objective correlative of bachelor solitude, or a sign of eccentricity.

Get closer to the Mediterranean, and food is life. Here's an example from The Terra-Cotta Dog, Andrea Camilleri's second novel about Inspector Salvo Montalbano. A sympathetic journalist friend rescues the hapless Montalbano from the ordeal of a press conference that follows the mysterious arrest of a mobster named Tano:

And just to make things even harder, there were the adoring eyes of Corporal Anna Ferrara, staring at him from the crowd.

Niccolò Zito, newsman from the Free Channel and a true friend, tried to rescue him from the quicksand in which he was drowning.

"Inspector, with your permission," said Zito. "You said you met Tano on your way back from Fiacca, where you'd been invited to eat a
tabisca with friends. Is that correct?"


"What is a

They'd eaten
tabisca many times together. Zito was simply tossing him a life preserver. Montalbano seized it. Suddenly confident and precise, the inspector went into a detailed description of that extraordinary, multiflavored Italian pizza.
And there the chapter ends.

No authors combine food and crime with greater zest than Camilleri, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and Jean-Claude Izzo. And few crime writers can have been as committed men of the left as these three. Izzo wrote with great sympathy of Marseilles' Arab population, and he worked for Pax Christi, a Roman Catholic peace movement. Vázquez Montalbán was active in anti-Franco movements. Camilleri joined the Italian Communist Party, and his books are filled with funny, bitter denunciations of Italian politicians and their service to the Mafia.

This must seem especially exotic to American crime-fiction readers, for whom the words food and mystery are likely to evoke thoughts of cozies with recipes, and for whom commitment of any kind is likely to seem antithetical to anything so hedonistic as good food.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Grace note

"After turning the key in the lock, he had, for all intents and purposes, opened the door onto nothingness: a horrific explosion, triggered by an ingenious device linking the door to an explosive charge, literally pulverized the house, the businessman, and his wife, Giuseppa née Tagliafico. Investigations, the newsman added, were proving difficult, since Mr. Brancato had a clean record and did not appear in any way involved with the Mafia.

"Montalbano turned off the television and started whistling Schubert's Eighth, the `Unfinished.' It came out splendidly, he didn't miss a note."

Andrea Camilleri, The Terra-Cotta Dog

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

James Ellroy and the Hollies

I was eating breakfast at my local café this week when a verse of telegraphic lyrics came floating over the stereo system:
"Bus stops. Bus goes. She stays. Love grows."
Its clipped cadence, if not the story it told, reminded me of a passage from a book I was reading at the time:
"Clouds imploded. Buildings weaved. People blipped."
Name the song and the novel from which these two pieces of terse storytelling are taken, and you win my respect.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Friday, September 11, 2009

A guest post about Fred Vargas, good books and crime-fiction awards

Loren Eaton, who maintains the I Saw Lightning Fall blog and who comments on this blog from time to time, is taking a break from both pursuits — some nonsense about caring for a new baby. While he takes the 3 a.m. feedings, I'm helping out with a guest post on his blog about Fred Vargas, Siân Reynolds and the ripple of dissatisfaction in some circles when the pair won their third International Dagger Award in four years for The Chalk Circle Man.

Loren has lined up an interesting group to fill in for him while he fulfills his fatherly duties. Read my contribution here. And congratulate Loren on the new arrival.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Icy jokes

Let's put to rest for good the base canard that the Nordic peoples are dour. Sure, they commit suicide a lot, and those long winter nights let them do so under the cover of darkness. ("`It was about eight o'clock,' she said. `Still pitch black, of course,'" runs one off-hand but telling bit of dialogue in Arnaldur Indriðason's Arctic Chill, italics mine.)

There are no knee slappers in Arnaldur's novel, but there is plenty of wit from this artful Icelandic crime writer. Here's the closest the book gets to a bawdy nudge in the ribs, protagonist Erlendur Sveinsson and his girlfriend, discussing whether two formerly married partners can find true love:

Perhaps, says the girlfriend. "Yes," says Erlendur, "but what if one of them finds this true love at regular intervals?"

In a similar vein is another joke that may not even be a joke in the original Icelandic but works nicely in English. A well-dressed colleague of Erlendur's is knocking on doors questioning neighbors the killing that has set the story in motion. One of the neighbors mistakes him for a Jehovah's Witness and politely but firmly closes the door in his face. He knocks again and, when the woman she opens the door a second time, says "You haven't heard the news, have you?"

"The news" is the killing, and "You haven't heard the news?" is a sly, amusing reproach to a woman who thinks she has just shut the door on a Christian proselytizer.

More tomorrow, perhaps, on small ways Arnaldur articulates big themes.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Noir at the Bar with "Dope Thief" author Dennis Tafoya

Noir at the Bar


Dennis Tafoya

author of

Dope Thief

Dope Thief
is first-rate literary noir, the hardest-core crime novel I’ve read this year. It manages to be funny without ever descending into the trivial, and at its core it’s harrowing. An amazingly assured debut by Dennis Tafoya.”
Scott Phillips, author of The Ice Harvest, The Walkaway and Cottonwood

“The plotting is solid, and the action has a hard, violent edge that recalls Richard Price.”

“A boy `born into the life’ makes a wrenching attempt to change course or die trying in a first novel that marks Tafoya as a writer to watch.”
Publishers Weekly

“An impressive debut by a writer savvy enough to understand that the way to a
reader’s heart is often as not through flawed characters.”
Kirkus Reviews

Read an excerpt from Dope Thief

When Dennis is done, stick around for legendary columnist, novelist and screenwriter Pete Dexter reading from his new novel, Spooner.
When: Wednesday, September 30th at 6:00 p.m.
Where: The Pen and Pencil Club,
1522 Latimer Street, Philadelphia, 215-731-9909

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Monday, September 07, 2009

The return of Pufferfish

Pufferfish is coming back in a new book, and I couldn't be happier, because that means a return of one of the more entertaining and original crime-fiction protagonists of the 1990s.

David Owen's prickly Tasmanian police inspector, Franz "Pufferfish" Heineken, previously appeared in four novels:
Pig's Head (1994), X and Y (1995), A Second Hand (1995) and The Devil Taker (1997). The new book, to be published in December, is called No Weather for a Burial.

Here's a bit of what I wrote about Pufferfish back in the early days of Detectives Beyond Borders. It should give you an idea of why I'm glad the series will resume:

"I want to be Inspector Franz Heineken of the Tasmania Police Force, protagonist of David Owen's 1990s series and proud bearer of the nickname Pufferfish (`An ugly, poisonous scavenger known to bloat in times of distress,' according to one description). OK, I want to be everything but the `ugly' part.

"Pufferfish knows his boss is an oily, backstabbing careerist. Pufferfish recognizes that colleagues are vindictive and possibly bent. In
X and Y, the third of the four books in the series, Pufferfish has been shot at and set up to take the fall for a drug bust gone wrong. But he's not bitter, and he's not haunted. John Rebus and Matt Scudder would sidle away from this guy at a bar. He's too psychologically healthy.

"And that's what makes him such a standout protagonist. He works in a nest of vipers, but he's an amiable zoo guide, telling the reader about the snakes' habits, rather than worrying all the time about being swallowed up by them. His attitude of amusement leavens the contempt and anger enough to set him apart from the legions of police-procedural protagonists in similar situations. At the same time, he can survive very well among the reptiles, and he's not afraid to tell his boss where to get off, only in language a good deal coarser than that."

Here's a link to my previous posts (scroll down) about the series. Here's the entry on Owen at the Australian Crime Fiction Database, including reviews of the first four books.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Significant names plus a question for readers

Yesterday I awarded a copy of Arnaldur Indriðason's The Draining Lake to a reader who knew that the name of Arnaldur's protagonist, Erlendur, is also an Icelandic word meaning foreign.

The coincidence struck me and not just because Arnaldur occasionally writes about Iceland's uneasy accommodation of its recent immigrant population. More to the point, Erelendur is not always at ease in his own country. Thus, I thought, his name may be thematically significant.

Imagine my excitement last night when I read the following, in Arctic Chill, about a boy named Niran:

"`Niran,' Erlendur said to himself, as if to hear how the name sounded. `Does that mean anything in particular?'

"`It means
eternal,' the interpreter said.


"`Thai names have literal meanings, just like Icelandic ones.'"
Niran is nowhere to be found at this point in the story, and his brother has just been found dead, likely the victim of a stabbing. Eternal is a bitterly ironic name for a child who at this moment may be anything but, just one more piece of evidence that a name is more than just a name for Arnaldur.

(Arctic Chill was short-listed for the 2009 CWA International Dagger Award for best translated crime novel. The award went, as this award often does, to Fred Vargas and translator Sîan Reynolds, for The Chalk Circle Man.)
And now your question: You've just met characters whose names mean foreign and eternal. Both these names are at least partly ironic. What other characters have significant names?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Saturday, September 05, 2009

Win The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indriðason

Nothing in the opening pages of Arnaldur Indriðason's Arctic Chill dissuades me from my opinion that Arnaldur is one of the world's best crime writers — a master at portraying setting and conveying emotion through spare, thematically powerful details.

Now, thanks to the good people at Picador Books, one fortunate reader can win another of Arnaldur's novels, The Draining Lake, the fourth Inspector Erlendur mystery.

The protagonist's name is also an Icelandic word. Tell me what that word means, be the first to send the correct answer ...

(Here's what I wrote last year about The Draining Lake.)


A reader from the great state of Texas knew that Erlendur, the name of Arnaldur Indriðason's protagonist, is also an Icelandic word for foreign. A copy of The Draining Lake will be in the mail next week. Congratulations.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Friday, September 04, 2009

Unspoken: Swedish mystery offers two neat solutions

That ABBA song finished, and so, a few hours later, did Mari Jungstedt's novel Unspoken. Though both have their moments, I liked the book better.

As a mystery, Unspoken is just fair. Jungstedt plants some nice red herrings, but her choice of perpetrators for the novel's two main crimes is surprising to the point of feeling rushed and arbitrary. Elsewhere, though, she comes up with elegant solutions to a pair of problems I've occasionally found in mysteries. I'll call one of these the domestic problem and the other the professional.

The first happens when an author tries too hard to flesh out a character by giving him or her a domestic life. The second happens when an author, often a reporter, assumes that his or her profession is sufficiently interesting to constitute a compelling plot element. Either or both can often be too big a burden for a protagonist to sustain while still moving the story forward.

Unspoken avoids this simply by allocating the domestic and professional angst to subsidiary characters, with a just a brief hint of domestic discord in the life of the chief police investigator, Detective Superintendent Anders Knutas. The burden of professional griping falls to Johan Berg, a television reporter sent to the Swedish island of Gotland to cover the crimes Knutas and his team investigate. The domestic travails fall to Emma Winarve, a teacher with whom Berg has had an affair. This lets Jungstedt, herself a television reporter, air her frustrations and hold forth on the heroism of conscientious reporters without slowing the narrative pace or sinking into whining or self-pity. The novel's structure of short sub-chapters, each told from a different character's pont of view, helps.

This construction is one of the more intriguing and practical I've seen in a crime novel, and it encourages me to seek out more of Jungstedt's work. (Read another discussion of the book here.)

And now, a question for readers: What crime novels can you think of where domestic description or other non-mystery elements got in the way of the story? What novels did a good job of integrating these elements?

(Mari Jungstedt's English translator, Tiina Nunnally, will be a member of my panel on crime fiction and translation at Bouchercon 2009.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Thursday, September 03, 2009

Unspoken by Mari Jungstedt

Early signs are good for this second of Mari Jungstedt's six novels and the second of three to be translated from Swedish into English.

I like the spare prose and the shifting points of view, with the reader only gradually learning who are minor characters and who major, who are sidekicks and who will have smaller roles. This is bracing, unexpected, and arguably truer to life, where one is never sure who the main characters are until the story is at least into its middle chapters.

Here's a bit of that spare description that I like: "Henry had been given the nickname Flash because he had worked as a photographer for Gotlands Tidningar for many years before alcohol took over his life full-time."

I like, too, that one of the characters, a television news reporter, complains of the haste, sloppiness and decline forced upon his profession by management cutbacks.

(As I write this, ABBA's "Take a Chance on Me" is playing softly in the background. I am unsure that Jungstedt would appreciate the coincidence.)
(Mari Jungstedt's English translator, Tiina Nunnally, will be a member of my panel on crime fiction and translation at Bouchercon 2009.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

West Coast Blues: A classic crime novel goes graphic

Jean-Patrick Manchette (1942-1995) was one of the great crime writers, and his novel Le petit bleu de la côte ouest (translated previously as Three to Kill) may be the essential European crime novel of the last forty years.

Now the book has made its way into graphic-novel form, as West Coast Blues, adapted and illustrated by Jacques Tardi and published by Fantagraphic Books. The story follows with hallucinogenic clarity a young businessman named Georges Gerfaut (anglicized here as "George") through an accidental encounter that leads to: beating, killing, hit men, privation, wandering then salvation in the woods, sex, revenge, voluntary uprooting from his family, clashes with a Latin American torturer on the run — and then back to the same ring road in Paris where he began, wondering, perhaps, whether it was all real and whether it will happen again. There is no catharsis, no happy ending. There is no sad ending, either. The story simply runs out.

The book is slyly funny without being jokey; thrilling without ever seeming manipulative; cool, distant and ironic in its narrative voice; immediate in its depiction of violence.

What do Tardi's illustrations add? Mostly a crowded sense of daily life, an ironic, sense-sharpening departure from the dark, shadowy atmospherics that sometimes nudge noir toward mere style. Tardi's scenes of Gerfaut and his family at a holiday resort are notable here, full of packed beaches, spilled ice cream, traffic jams, and an attempt on George's life.

(The new title presumably refers to Gerfaut's perferred music, the cool West Coast jazz that Gerfaut listens to as he unwinds and the tension builds.

Here's what I wrote about Manchette last year in a post called
"Who is the most influential crime writer?" Here's a roundup of the year's mystery and crime comics from Brian Lindenmuth. And here's what one current crime writer, a admirer of Manchette's who has paid tribute to him in his own work, has to say.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Score some Kiwi crime books

Keeping things in the British Commonwealth, Craig Sisterson of the Crime Watch blog is offering readers the chance to sample crime writing from New Zealand, and all you have to do is leave a comment.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009


Just in time for Labour Day ...

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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