Sunday, January 31, 2010

Hi, Chicago

My landsman Howard Shrier's High Chicago opens with protagonist Jonah Geller landing in Chicago from Toronto and tumbling into the bearlike embrace of a newly large old friend.

Whether this is a metaphor for Canada's fear of being swallowed up by its neighbor, I don't know. But, like Shrier's earlier Buffalo Jump, High Chicago plunges across a border.

That first book begins with story strands on each side of the U.S.-Canada line, then brings them gradually together in a fine piece of suspense-building. And that's a neat paradigm for crime-writing in today's globalized economy.

More later.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Saturday, January 30, 2010

No cats allowed ...

... but I'm going to make one more post about a dog, and you can't do a thing about it.

1) Recent discussion here came down against the covers of J.F. Englert's three novels narrated by a literate, reflective Labrador named Randolph. I complained that the covers might mislead readers into thinking the books cuter and cozier than they are.

In the covers' defense, though, they reproduce skillfully executed artwork, apparently commissioned for the books, if one can judge by Englert's thanks to illustrator Dan Craig. I've taken part in discussions of copycat covers, the phenomenon that results when different publishers rely on the same stock of photographic images. Why can't the publishers spend a few extra dollars for an artist, illustrator or photographer, and avoid looking cheap and cheesy? I asked. Englert's publishers do this. More power to them.

2) I also like a couple of bits inside the book, A Dog About Town, including:
"He crammed what looked like a Maryland crab cake into our deeply troubled refrigerator, the interior of which had remained a shadowland of petrified broccoli and pizza since the bulb burned out months before."
"His reputation in the writing life had been launched and sustained by this pedigree of mid-twentieth-century entitlement and superiority, which by the time of his death in the twenty-first century, was anachronistic."
and, for what it says about Randolph as a palatable contemporary vehicle for sentiments that might seem precious, dated or eccentric in the mouth of a twenty-first-century human fictional detective, this:
" ... the detective is the last true humanist, standing at that intersection where observation and reason meet emotion and intuition revealing the secrets that measure our fragile, inconstant, but extraordinary beings."
© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Friday, January 29, 2010

Niche marketing

What's your favorite example of blatantly money-grubbing niche marketing in the book trade? (Your title need not include chicken soup.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Crime Factory and classical gas

Who's in Issue #1 of Crime Factory? Ken Bruen, Adrian McKinty, Scott Phillips and Dave White, for a start. (A hat tip to Crime Scene NI.)

Bruen offers an excerpt from an upcoming novel, Killer, that looks to be as good as anything I've read by him, and it contains as pertinent a bit of self-reference as any I've read in crime fiction.

McKinty's contribution is a "making of" journal about his novel Fifty Grand, and Phillips offers an appreciation of Charles Willeford and what Willeford meant to his own writing. Lots of places publish crime fiction. Crime Factory offers glimpses of some of the sharp minds that create the stuff. May it live long.

Over at A dead man fell from the sky ... , meanwhile, blogkeeper/author/classicist Gary Corby has been soliciting nominations for song titles of antiquity. My humble suggestions include:

"Get Bacchae (to Where You Once Belonged)"

"You Can Call Me Alcestis"

"Liver and Let Die" (This one's about Prometheus)

"Saturday Night's All Right for Phaëtōn"
You might also like a contribution from another reader that I wish I had come up with:

"I Want A Girl Just Like The Girl That Married Dear Old Dad" by Oedipus
© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The greatest (darkest? most disturbing?) noir song ever

I've posted often about crime songs, but not until tonight did I hear the greatest noir song ever.

The song was written and produced by three of the more celebrated names of the rock and roll era and recorded by a wildly popular girl group — in 1962.

So why had I never heard it until 10:30 on a Tuesday night in 2010, when many of us have had oldies shoved down our throats almost all our lives? Maybe because I'm not as cool as I thought I was. But maybe because of good, old-fashioned, do-gooding American censorship. Fear of the truth. Misconstruction, deliberate or otherwise, of protest as endorsement. Or maybe the subject matter is just too upsetting for people to deal with, and damn it, can I blame them?

This may be the most chilling recording I have ever heard. Listen, and tell me what you think.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Monday, January 25, 2010

O, mother, where art thou?

I don't remember the details or the source, but I think Rebecca Cantrell once told an interviewer that becoming a mother had influenced her writing.

I admit a slight temptation to roll my eyes at this, a temptation, that disappeared, however, soon after I started reading Cantrell's novel A Trace of Smoke. Cantrell sets the book in the least relaxing of cities — Berlin — in the least relaxing of times — 1931. The Nazi party is on the rise, and people disappear daily, their photos to turn up in the city's Hall of the Unnamed Dead.

Hannah Vogel finds a photo of her brother there and, for a reason particular to the time, must conceal this fact as she searches for information about him. And then 5-year-old Anton turns up, claiming Hannah is his mother. Thus a second mystery for Hannah: Who are the child's real parents?

More later, but for now:

What other crime stories feature mothers, would-be mothers or motherless children? And, in a genre where victims disappear permanently by being killed, is it a surprise that more authors don't write about children and others the victims leave behind them?

(Read a short excerpt from A Trace of Smoke here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Wallace, Gromit and a cereal killer

Salient facts about A Matter of Loaf and Death, in which Aardman Animations hops on the Jason Voorhees/Lou Ford/Hannibal Lecter bandwagon and has Wallace and Gromit face down a serial killer:

1) The movie, actually a short film for television, "references" Aliens, Psycho, Batman, and Ghost, according to Wikipedia. Hitchcock lovers might also detect allusions to Blackmail, Foreign Correspondent and Vertigo.

2) Nick Park, Wallace and Gromit's creator, calls A Matter of Loaf and Death "kind of a bread-based murder mystery." Its first murder victim, Baker Bob, is based on co-writer Bob Baker.

3) The "making of" feature included on the DVD (on which Park calls A Matter of Loaf and Death a "who-doughnut") is one of the better examples of its kind, with fascinating detail about how the animators get plasticine faces with no eyebrows and some with no mouths to express such a range of emotions.

4) The term Anglo-Saxon gets bandied about pretty loosely, but Park is one of the few people I know of who has a real Anglo-Saxon name: Wulstan. (It's his middle name, according to various Internet sources.)

5) One of the characters looks like one of my colleagues. No, I won't tell you which character or which colleague.

(Read about Detectives Beyond Borders' visit to Wallace and Gromit's home town here, including a real-life tour guide who would be perfectly at home in a W&G movie.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Something new ...

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö blazed a number of crime fiction trails, among them those of social criticism, a multiplayer cast of detectives, and elevation of the investigator's personal life to importance comparable with that of the mysteries he or she investigates.

(Whether, in fact, they blazed the trails or were early followers is immaterial here. At any rate, they were among the first to tread the paths in question.)

Here is some of what I've noticed in Roseanna:

1) The team approach to the police procedural.

2) The occasional jab at military regimes, though these have been far less frequent that I'd expected.

3) Great stress on the protagonist's everyday problems.

4) And, what I consider the book's most impressive innovation, one cited by Henning Mankell in his introduction and handled beautifully by Sjöwall and Wahlöö: its portrayal of an investigation that moves in fits and starts, with long stretches when nothing happens.

If you've read Sjöwall and Wahlöö, which of their innovations most impressed you? Which have held up best? Which seem less exciting now that they might have in the 1960s? If you haven't read them, what crime-fiction innovations have impressed you most? Who introduced those innovations? Who perfected them? And what crime fiction innovations are less exciting now than they must have seemed when new?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Honey, I think the Sixties are over

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sjöwall and Wahlöö: My late start on an early source

This post is by way of atonement. If Henning Mankell is a father to the current boom in international crime fiction, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö are grandparents. Their ten Martin Beck novels, from 1965's Roseanna to The Terrorists in 1975, were among the first to examine a society critically as well as tell a crime story, and authors to this day cite them as influences.

Despite this, I had not read Sjöwall and Wahlöö until now. Mankell's introduction/appreciation to the 2008 Vintage Crime/Black Lizard reprint of Roseanna is a brisk review of its highlights, its influence, and its remarkable freshness despite the apparent distance of its world from Mankell's and ours. I am especially impressed that the first adjectives Mankell applies to the book are "straightforward" and "clear," and that he says "Even the language seems energetic and alive."

So far he's right. The first two chapters are like an operatic overture or prelude, sounding, one by one, miniature versions of the themes that will follow until, in Chapter 3, we meet Beck — the same Beck whose ordinariness as a human being, along with that of his colleagues, was such a revelation to Henning Mankell forty years ago. I have a heady feeling that I am exploring a source of much that has become familiar to me.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Monday, January 18, 2010

One more word about four-legged protagonists ...

... and then I'll return to my anthropocentric focus tomorrow.

Why read a book narrated by a dog without concealing the fact from your friends? If J.F. Englert wrote the book, because he chooses his words carefully. He narrates hilarious events in deliberately everyday language. He understates that which he might easily have overstated.

His Randolph, canine narrator and protagonist, is of scholarly temperament — a great reader when the opportunity presents itself, eager to communicate with humans but unable to do so save with great difficulty. Quite naturally, his contemplative turn of mind and bookish preferences result in occasional formality of speech in his address to us, the readers.

He has a voice, in other words, about all one can ask of a fictional character no matter how many legs he or she has.
Check this space tomorrow for a post about humans.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Good books, bad covers

Yesterday's post about J.F. Englert's A Dog at Sea mentioned in passing the book's cloying cover.

The covers to Englert's first two novels are borderline cutesy, I told a commenter, but the current cover goes over the top. More than that, it's misleading. Readers looking for a cute doggie book might be disappointed, and the cover might repel readers who would otherwise enjoy the intelligent story that lies within.

To ensure that you don't judge this book by its cover, here's an excerpt from A Dog at Sea. Here's a bit from Englert's A Dog About Town. Here's some graceful, amusing prose from A Dog Among Diplomats. Here's what I wrote about that last book.

And here's your question: What good books that you've read were ill-served by off-putting or misleading covers?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Good dog book!

(Photo © Susan Stava)

Back in 2008, I risked obloquy and ostracism when I read a book with an animal protagonist. But J.F. Englert's A Dog Among Diplomats was a pleasant surprise, a sharp, intelligently written tale leavened with enough wit and even melancholy to elevate it above the run of mysteries narrated by non-humans.

I am happy to report that, barring the cutesy cover with which its publisher has saddled it (not pictured here), Englert's new A Dog at Sea is off to just as promising a start. Never have I known an author so able to wring suspense and menace from an approaching plate of shipboard hors d'œuvres:

"The crew member sensed the pack movement in his direction and looked ready to retreat, but then a two-footed animal — a used-car salesman from Pasadena, California — gestured for him to approach ... "
(Read more about Englert and his protagonist, Randolph, here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Police and thieves

Confinement must give one lots of time to think and observe, or so I am told, and I bet John Lawton would agree.

His 2007 novel Second Violin puts co-protagonist Rod Troy in one of Winston Churchill's internment camps for internal aliens. There, Lawton offers the funniest and most moving portrait of national character I have read in any crime novel.

A Little White Death, published nine years earlier, has Rod's brother Frederick, Scotland Yard's chief detective, in a sanitarium recuperating from tuberculosis. Troy knows he will hate his confinement, yet two of his fellow inmates — a sharp-tongued workingman and an old general — are both more than they seem and vehicles for Lawton to poke and probe English class structure.

Why do you think Lawton set the scenes where he did? What makes confined settings attractive to a writer?

A Little White Death takes place in 1963, just before "The Sixties" hit Britain with full force. The characters, of course, have nothing more than ominous presentiments, but we — and Lawton — know everything: Carnaby Street, sexual openness, the reaction against sexual openness, the rapid commodification of personality, police brutality and more.

Lawton finds several ways to foreshadow this — retrospective foreshadowing, one might call it — most effectively in understated accounts of police brutality and in references to police lying. In the latter cases especially, we readers are clearly meant to reflect bitterly that 1963 England could still be shocked at such a possibility. More on this interesting subject, perhaps, later.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

What a difference a word makes

I was boosting my spirits with some rock and roll two days ago, and I came across this, which I then compared with this. The first is the Clash doing "I Fought the Law (and the Law Won)." The second is the same song by Bobby Fuller Four, who first made the song a hit.

"I Fought the Law" occasionally comes up in discussions of crime fiction and music, but I'd never considered it a noir song until last night. That's when I listened again to the Clash's version, and I heard the one-word alteration that plunges into noir hoplessness. See if you can find that word.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Montalbano and the slip of the sheets

Thanks to resolution of technological and delivery issues, I'm again watching the Italian television series based on Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano novels.

The Snack Thief, from the book of the same name, offers something missing from the TV versions of The Shape of Water and The Terra-Cotta Dog: Montalbano dining at the Trattoria San Calogero. I'd wondered if the director had dispensed with such scenes as part of the trimming necessary when adapting a book. But a short scene at the San Calogero about a quarter of the way through this episode has all the easy intimacy and food-loving joy of the books.

One minus: Television is less able than books to supply information for a gastronomic illiterate like me, and I can't always tell what Luca Zingaretti, as Montalbano, is eating on screen. One plus: Perhaps better than books, television can convey the pleasure that Montalbano takes in his food even when eating alone.

I complained in November about Katharina Böhm's performances as Livia, and comments on my post suggested interesting reasons for the complaint. Böhm gives a better account of herself in The Snack Thief, possibly because the story makes greater demands on her.

And a simple slip of the sheets in one of her scenes highlights a difference between Italy and America. Livia and Montalbano are talking in bed, and they are fully awake as they do so. That means they're sitting up rather than lying down, and that means none of that nonsense one gets on American television with the woman pulling the sheets up to cover herself.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Ten Lays That Shook the World

I've been writing about John Lawton's novel A Little White Death, whose plot includes a scandal similar to the Profumo Affair of 1963, a sex-and-spies caper that contributed to the downfall of a government in the United Kingdom.

At the same time, Adrian McKinty has written about Iris Robinson (left), a Northern Ireland politician whose hot pants he suggests could derail the peace process there.

(That Iris Robinson is a born-again Christian who has railed against homosexuality and proclaimed that "the government has the responsibility to uphold God's laws" makes her own downfall especially delicious. Robinson has said she has been treated for mental illness. If she's telling the truth, I wish her well. I am also suspicious about the timing of her revelation, since she has also been linked to financial scandals, and mental illness, like addiction, is a convenient excuse for politicians caught with their hands in the till or other places where they don't belong.

(One of McKinty's comments also includes a well-deserved slap at the New York Times which, in a desperate grab for both relevance and snob appeal, takes a gratuitous shot at bloggers and "local newspaper headlines" for their coverage of the Robinsons' affair. We at the Times, reporter John F. Burns as much as sneers, would never descend to the level of "local" newspapers.)

I'll invoke Lawton's novel to claim this post's relevance to international crime fiction. And I'll ask your help: What are the most influential sex scandals in history? Extra credit for scandals that do not involve conservative politicians.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Won't you help?

The following appeared in Saturday's Boston Globe newspaper about the Celtics basketball team (the sportswriter was one Gary Washburn):
"For those who question gambling among teammates, you can do only so much sleeping, listening to music, watching movies, and eating while on long flights."
Can you think of anything these college-educated professional athletes could do to while away their time in the air when not playing cards and pulling guns on one another?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Verbal champagne and the other kind, too

I wrote yesterday about verbal champagne in the prologue to John Lawton's A Little White Death. I had no idea at the time that the first chapter proper would offer the real stuff, too. Here are the protagonist, Frederick Troy, and his brother Roderick after the latter has fled their game of Monopoly in disgust:
"`What have you found?' Troy asked.

"Rod wiped the label with his sleeve.

"`The paper's a bit perished, but it says 1928 and I'd lay odds of ten to one it's Veuve Clicquot.'

"`Does champagne keep that long?'

"`Haven't the foggiest. But there's only one way to find out.'"

"Pure," as loyal reader Loren Eaton likes to say, "gold."

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

What makes a novel worth reading?

I don't mean all that stuff about a compelling story and vivid characters and giving your protagonist an obstacle to overcome. I mean the bits of verbal champagne that make you want to tell your friends or put up a blog post.

The prologue of John Lawton's A Little White Death, third of his Frederick Troy novels, offers at least two. The first is in the book's very first paragraph:
"She knew revolutionaries. Short men, serious men, men who marked their seriousness physically by being bald or mustachioed or both."
The second follows some amusing byplay between two characters, one of whom is a physician come to the United States to treat John F. Kennedy for Addison's disease who hooks up with his fellow Brit just before leaving the U.S. Here are the lines with which the physician ends the prologue:
"`Fine. I understand. Now why don't you hop in a cab. We can have one last drinkie before I dash to Idlewild.'"
(Read about John Lawton's Second Violin here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Friday, January 08, 2010

Updates, schmupdates

I wrote two weeks ago about the new Sherlock Holmes movie and why it works. More recently, comments on this week's post about "Jim Thompson's happy ending?" including the following exchange:
If Marlowe is going to remain relevant I think we'll have to let directors update him as they see fit, the way Guy Ritchie plays around with Sherlock Holmes, for example.
I'm not really interested in seeing anybody's update of Marlowe or any other period detective. I don't think Marlowe could be made "relevant" to the present. Heck, he was out of place in his own 1940s-50s. Even Chandler himself said many times there would never be a real p.i. the way he wrote Marlowe. There are plenty of contemporary detectives who would make, do make, wonderful novel-to-screen transitions, however.
The floor is now open. Which crime fiction authors, stories and characters are ripe for updates? Why? Why not? Which updates work? Which do not? And why or why not?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Thursday, January 07, 2010

Thrillers and character

I may be back later with a more detailed post about Identity Theory by Peter Temple (also published as In the Evil Day.) For now, though, a question for thriller readers:

How unusual is it for a thriller to focus as much attention, if not more, on the personalities and problems of the protagonists as on the plot?

Here, an intelligence dealer, a mercenary, and an ambitious reporter become involved with a piece of film that could have worldwide repercussions, in the time-honored thriller manner, but we come to know the characters better than we do the politics of the piece. I haven't read many thrillers, but this struck me as novel.

As always with Peter Temple, the book is full of gorgeous prose, such as:
"Once Gastarbeiter from Anatolia, Anselm thought, now wealthy. Their teenage boy and girl followed, citizens of nowhere and everywhere. The pair were listening to music on headphones, moving their heads like sufferers from some exotic ailment."
© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Jim Thompson's happy ending?

Nope, Walter Hill's, apparently at the behest of Steve McQueen. McQueen, who controlled the production company for the 1972 movie The Getaway, based on Thompson's novel, "objected to the depressing ending" of Thompson's screeplay and had Hill replace him.

I haven't read the book, and I don't know what kind of an ending Thompson concocted for the screenplay. But he was not a happy-ending type, and I'd guess his version did not finish the way the movie does: with McQueen and Ali MacGraw emerging like transfigured lovers from a pile of garbage and trucking off to live happily ever after down Mexico way.

What are your favorite, most shocking, most surprising, most inappropriate or just plain weirdest Hollywood happy endings imposed on movie versions of novels or stories?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010


A pleasant surprise awaited me in the blogosphere today. Click here, and scroll to the bottom of the post, just before the comments.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010


This South Africa thing ...

I've raved about Peter Temple's Jack Irish novels and The Broken Shore. But he also wrote a standalone thriller released under two titles, Identity Theory and In the Evil Day, whose opening pages include an exchange pertinent to recent discussion here about South Africa and crime fiction:

"`You always look so fucken clean,' said Zeke...

"`That's because I'm white,' said Niemand. He had known Zeke for a long time.

"`You're not all that white,' said Mkane. `Bit of ancestral tan.'

"`That's the Greek part of me. The Afrikaner part's pure white. You kaffirs get cheekier every day.'

"Ja, baas. But we're in charge now.'

"'We? Forget it. Money's in charge. Took me a long time to understand that. Money's always in charge.'"
© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Monday, January 04, 2010

Global Reading Challenge: Africa

Here in North America, I've been asked by a reader in Europe to prepare a list of crime fiction from Africa for a Global Reading Challenge. In the interest of promoting understanding in this globalized, interdependent, multipolar world, I'm happy to comply. Here's a selection of African crime writers and stories I've written about here at Detectives Beyond Borders.

I've recently featured Roger Smith, Meshack Masondo, Richard Kunzmann, Deon Meyer and Michael Stanley from South Africa. Mike Nicol, a novelist and keeper of the Crime Beat South Africa blog, has contributed to Detectives Beyond Borders as well. Crime Beat will also serve as a guide to far more African crime writers than I can mention here.

But there's more. From Algeria (actually from France, where he went into voluntary exile) Yasmina Khadra writes bleak, occasionally grimly humorous detective novels set amid the strife and carnage of 1990s Algiers. The Congolese author Alain Mabanckou wrote the satirical, creepy inside-the-killer's head African Psycho.

Daliso Chaponda, born in Malawi and subsequently a resident of Canada and the United Kingdom, offers a broadly satirical vision of dictatorship in his short story "Heroic Proportions."

Africa also gave the world one of the most distinguished authors ever to turn his hand to crime writing: the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. His novel The Thief and the Dog is a bleak yet touching noir tale worthy of Jim Thompson or David Goodis.

Africa has also attracted the attention of crime writers from elsewhere, including Patricia Highsmith and Michael Pearce, who set his Mamur Zapt series in late colonial Egypt. Among Australia's fine crime writers, Peter Temple was born in South Africa, and David Owen was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in Malawi and Swaziland. Both are worth reading whether or not they satisfy the rules of this Global Reading Challenge or any other.

Happy reading wherever you may roam.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Sunday, January 03, 2010

Meshack Masondo

Let's stay in South Africa awhile longer, this time with Meshack Masondo's "The Love of Money" from the Bad Company anthology of short South African crime fiction.

The author says in an introduction to the story that "While based to an extent on the English model, the Zulu detective novel adds its own themes ー related to social problems caused by the meeting of modern life and Zulu traditional customs ー to the `classic recipe.'"

In time-honored manner, the detective protagonist of "The Love of Money" relates his solution to the crime. But his account has an edge that must make South African readers smile ruefully: "So many security firms springing up all over the place, you'd think there was room for all of them with this crime wave, but no. Your husband needed money."

Masondo writes for the most part in Zulu; I'm not sure if he wrote "The Love of Money" in that language or in English, but, like Roger Smith's Wake Up Dead, the story manages the difficult task of conveying in one language the cadences of another:
"Magwegwe replied feebly, `Nobody was injured, my wife. It is just that... "
"Popi persisted: `What is wrong, love?'"
Omitting a contraction goes a long way. South Africa is a country of many languages. Perhaps hearing this Babel of tongues makes authors sensitive to the rhythms of languages other than their own.

Masondo's Detective Themba Zondo is capable of delicious deadpan, and there's the hint of amusing interplay between him and his sidekick, Sgt. Thulani Zungu. Masondo's 1987 novel The Hunter and the Snakes features the two and is to appear soon in English translation, according to the introduction in Bad Company. I'll look forward to it.

(Click here for discussion of another short story from a non-traditional crime-fiction country that adopts a traditional crime-fiction form.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Roger Smith's urban dystopia

I've come under the sway of graphic-novel readers and urban-fantasy lovers in the past year, and I've dipped into a dystopian comic or two myself. Maybe that's why I pick the following as an emblematic sentence from Roger Smith's South African thriller Wake Up Dead:
"A woman in a Muslim headscarf scuttled across the road, carrying a plastic shopping bag and a tub of Kentucky chicken, and disappeared into Dark City. Otherwise the road was empty and silent."
Smith's Cape Town slums are as grim as any steam-punk Victorian hell hole, and none of his characters ー rich, poor, black, white or colored ー has anything better than a bleak present and an infernal past.

The novel's flashbacks, narrative asides and occasional political jabs, even the inflections of its characters' speech, contribute to a vivid sense of place. The only question is whether that place is Cape Town or hell.

Here are two more bits I like:
"But he would rather give his life for that dream. ... Or, rather, the lives of the ragtag army of boys who had come to believe in him as some kind of hip-hop Selassie."
"Two years before, Billy Afrika had stood there, over Clyde Adams's gutted body, and made another promise. Swore he'd take care of his friend's family. He'd handed in his badge and become a mercenary. No one had used the word mercenary, of course. You were a contractor, skilled in close protection."
© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Friday, January 01, 2010

Bullitt: Sounds of the '60s

I've just watched Bullitt for the first time, and I don't remember ever having seen a movie so self-conscious about its sound editing.

Footsteps clatter loudly and significantly. Characters gesticulate and argue behind glass, seen but unheard. Pumps pump menacingly. Characters breathe loudly, and if you know Jacques Tati, you know where the movie makers got their idea for the hospital lobby scene with its busy ambient sound and utter absence of dialogue.

A lot of this stuff comes across today like '60s artiness, but it works better than do the period touches in other '60s movies I've written about here. For one thing, the filmmakers took music more seriously and used it a good deal more effectively than did the makers of Harper. And they did just about everything better than did the folks who turned Modesty Blaise into an unfunny proto-Laugh-In sketch in 1966.

All right, folks, what defines period style for you, whether in movies from the 1960s or from any other period? If you behave and answer this question, I'll let you watch Bullitt's famous car chase. (One feature of the scene's soundtrack struck me as odd, another as interesting. I'll be interested to see if anyone else notices them.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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