Saturday, February 27, 2010

Piece work

Carolyn Friedman of the Forensic Scientist Blog sends notice of an article called "8 Body Parts Forensic Scientists Use to ID a Body."

I'd say six of them surprised me at least mildly. See how many you can guess before you read the article.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010


Friday, February 26, 2010


I don't know what to read, so I'm reading two books at once. Here's a good line from the beginning of each:
"Gustav the Ripper? Werthen doubted it."

"We had hit the inevitable impass (sic), that stage in marriage when each day is like a long drive through Nebraska."
(See a related post on the joys of reading here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Scottish crime in song

Scott Monument,
Edinburgh. Photo
by your humble

It's not my fault I keep posting about crime songs; there are so many good ones, and they trigger all kinds of insights into American history and European history and the places where the two meet and converge into something deeply human and beyond what we normally mean by "history."

Here are a few versions of "MacPherson's Lament." Here's some information about James MacPherson, the seventeenth-century Scottish outlaw who composed or inspired it.

Here's another song (or try here) that, while not about crime, is one hell of a hard-boiled noir melodrama. And here are all my posts about crime songs. Happy listening.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Do you suppose they read as fast as they type?

I've always had a soft spot for court reporters and I wondered, back in the days before text messaging, how anyone could type so fast on anything so small.

Now that good kharma has been returned, and this blog has made it onto a list of 50 Best Blogs for Crime & Mystery Book Lovers at
The site is designed principally for aspiring court reporters, which leads to the question: If you spent all day transcribing court testimony, what kind of crime reading would you do when you got home?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

R. Austin Freeman

A buckling of the geological strata at the Detectives Beyond Borders Archives has brought a book of R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke stories to the surface.

Freeman (1862-1943) was the first master of the scientific detective story, and he is said to have tested in his laboratory the science he used in his fiction. He is the reputed inventor of the inverted detective story, in which the reader seen the crime, and the action lies in seeing the investigator figure it out.

The Wikipedia article on Freeman also offers this:
"Raymond Chandler had this to say in a letter to Hamish Hamilton, the British publisher: 'This man Austin Freeman is a wonderful performer. He has no equal in his genre, and he is also a much better writer than you might think, if you were superficially inclined, because in spite of the immense leisure of his writing, he accomplishes an even suspense which is quite unexpected ... There is
even a gaslight charm about his Victorian love affairs, and those wonderful walks across London ...'."
But back t0 the inverted detective story or, as we might feel more comfortable calling it, the Columbo story. Who else wrote stories of this type?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Get Carter gets American — and English

The second Newcastle scene of Mike Hodges' 1971 movie Get Carter has Michael Caine climbing a dingy stairwell of peeling wallpaper and, I think, crumbling plaster.

The scene is quintessentially American, and I doubt that any previous English crime movie had included anything comparable. Moreover, Hodges and Caine knew they were bringing an American sensibility to British moviemaking; check out the book Caine's character reads on the train from London to Newcastle.

But as obvious and as bracing as the American influence is, the movie conveys a strong sense of place. Streets crammed with rows of attached houses are dwarfed by a mammoth, steaming, exhaling industrial complex. And the camera lingers on silent, time-worn faces in the local pub, in the manner of a good documentary. I don't know if this picture of Tyneside in the early '70s is accurate, but it is convincing, and that's what matters.

I also don't know how big Newcastle's Irish population was at the time, but if my uneducated ears don't deceive me, the movie is full of Irish accents, and not bad ones, either. This, too, makes the setting all the more convincing and convincingly English.

This naturally puts me in mind of the debt that current Irish crime writers acknowledge to Americans who went before. Perhaps the strongest such acknowledgement comes from Ken Bruen, who has said that "All my influences are American. That's how I learned to read. That's how I learned to write." And that doesn't make Bruen or Declan Hughes or Declan Burke or any of them any less Irish in my eyes.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

A peek down Gunshot Road

This one has a very cool title, and the novel that follows is off to a pretty good start, too.

Gunshot Road is the follow-up to Adrian Hyland's 2007 debut, Diamond Dove (published as Moonlight Downs in the U.S.), which I called
" something wonderful ... an unabashed amateur-sleuth whodunit that works seamlessly as character study and as portrait of a setting that is probably unfamiliar to many Australians, much less to readers like me on the other side of the world."
The character is Emily Tempest, a young half-Aboriginal, half-white woman who has returned to live among her “mob,” the shifting clan of Aborigines with whom she spent her youth in Australia’s Northern Territory. The group’s leader is killed soon after Emily arrives, and circumstances force Emily into investigating.

The new novel brings Emily back, less amateur a sleuth than before, and the first chapter has her taking joyous part in a women's celebration bidding young men farewell on the eve of an initiation ceremony. It's a gorgeous chapter that will have you fantasizing about taking long voyages unless you live in Australia, in which cases the voyages will be shorter.

(Here's my review of Diamond Dove/Moonlight Downs. Soho changed the title, presumably because it already published Peter Lovesey's Peter Diamond novels, among them Diamond Dust. Diamonds are worth their weight in gold; Lovesey is one of the best and most versatile of crime writers.)
Gunshot Road will be published this spring by Soho in the U.S. and Text Publishing in Australia.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Isn't that pretty?

That urban scene of delicate nocturnal beauty was my street at the height of last week's second snow storm.

Now snow is melting, schools are reopening, streets are being cleared, and by sometime next summer, local media should stop writing and broadcasting about the storms. Here, snow is news. Back home we called it winter.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Customer service PayPal style

Bouchercon 2010 accepts "two types of payment—a check, or PayPal."

PayPal invites questions from prospective customers:

Don't have a PayPal account?
Of course you can still contact us.
(emphasis mine) Just click Continue to get to our Customer Service phone number.

Contact Us
Customer Service:
1-402-935-2050 (a U.S. telephone number)
That phone number demands the last four digits of the credit or debit card or bank account "on your PayPal account. (emphasis mine) "

See you in San Francisco. Maybe.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Chandler in South Africa

A year and a half ago I published a short international list of crime writers indebted in various ways to Raymond Chandler or who paid tribute to him. The list included Matt Rees, who is from Wales and who sets his novels in the Palestinian territories, Ireland's Declan Burke and Declan Hughes, Bolivia's Juan de Recacoechea, Algeria's Yasmina Khadra, Australia's Peter Corris and Garry Disher and, in his delightful social history of English crime fiction, Colin Watson.

Readers' comments added to the list, and this week I've come across a clever tribute in Roger Smith's Mixed Blood. Here's the famous opening of Chandler's "Red Wind":
"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot, dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge."
Here's Smith's opening:

"Jack Burn stood on the deck of the house high above Cape Town watching the sun drown itself in the ocean. The wind was coming up again, the southeaster that reminded Burn of the Santa Anas back home. A wind that made a furnace of the night, set nerves jangling, and got the cops and emergency teams caught up in people's bad choices."
Smith repeats the motif throughout the novel, as here, on page 226:

"The wind howled across the Flats, picking up the sand and grit and firing it at Zondi like a small-bore shotgun. He felt it in his ears, up his nostrils, and it sneaked in and found his eyes behind the Diesel sunglasses."
This and other bits like it may describe accurately the brutal Cape Town Flats, but they also constitute an extended homage to one of Chandler's best-known passages.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Monday, February 15, 2010

From the mouths of ladies, poets and dogs

The Lady is Baroness James of Holland Park, also known as P.D. James; the dog is J.F. Englert's Randolph, narrator and reflective co-protagonist of three novels; the poet is W.H. Auden, and I've come across interesting words from each recently on the appeal of mysteries.

Englert, via Randolph, gives us this in A Dog About Town:
"W.H. Auden ... He too had faced a New Year filled with doubt and dark musings—the New Year 1940 when a great war loomed over the world. ... His words now flowed through my mind, a sad and graceful music:

The situation of our time
Surrounds us like a baffling crime.
There lies the body half-undressed

We all had reason to detest.
And all are suspects and involved
Until the mystery is solved.

And under lock and key the cause
That makes a nonsense of our laws ... "
James' Talking About Detective Fiction has any number of observations that will compel further reading, and that's based just on a short foreword and the first chapter. To wit:
"Because of its resilience and popularity, detective fiction has attracted what some may feel is more than its fair share of critical attention, and I have no with to add to, and less to emulate, the many distinguished studies of the last two centuries."
"So what exactly are we talking about when we use the words `detective story,' how does it differ from both the mainstream novel and crime fiction, and how did it all begin?"
© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

We have a winner!

We have a winner of last night's competition.

First across the finish line with the correct answer that 27 U.S. states are at least in part north of Canada's southernmost point was Philip in— well, not far from others names in last night's post. He wins a copy of Let it Ride by John McFetridge.

Vasanth and Michael also came up with the correct answer. They get the silver and the bronze, respectively, along with my congratulations.

The 27 states at least in part north of Canada include the frozen wastelands of California and Nevada, so you have a good answer the next time someone says "The Great White North" and thinks he's being clever.

The book is on its way — once Philip passes the post-competition drug test.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Take a ride and win a book

Blurbsters and reviewers often invoke Elmore Leonard when talking about John McFetridge, but McFetridge is also a distant relative of such crime writers as Fred Vargas and Janwillem van de Wetering. His cops, bikers and drug dealers are always ready to stop and offer dryly humorous observations:

"They walked into McVeigh's, Andre Price the only black guy in the place, thinking every black guy who ever came in was carrying a badge and gun.

"At least a gun.

"He said to McKeon, `Good thing I have my Irish escort.'

"She sat down with her back to the wall under two rows of black-and-white pictures of men's faces, looked like blown-up mug shots to Price, and said, `I'm the wrong kind of Irish.' "
That's from McFetridge's Let It Ride, released as Swap in Canada in the fall and out next week from Minotaur Books in the United States. I'll send a copy of this border-hopping novel to the first reader with the correct answer to a simple geography question:

How many U.S. states are at least in part north of Canada's southernmost point? Closest answer without going over gets the book.

In the name of Michaëlle Jean, Leonard Cohen, k.d. lang, Roméo Dallaire, Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky and Nancy Greene, I declare this competition Open!

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Accent on Belfast

From the sewers to the streets, Carol Reed excelled at depicting hunted men fleeing through dark cities. In The Third Man, it was Orson Welles' Harry Lime in Vienna. In Odd Man Out, it was James Mason negotiating dark passages and scary accents in Belfast as he seeks safety after a botched bank robbery.

That is, the city looks like Belfast, though it is never named. Nor is "The Organization" for which Mason's Johnny McQueen plans the robbery named. Nor are the words England, English, Britain, British, IRA, Republican or Irish Republican Army uttered, if my memory serves me well.

Was an English audience unprepared for political explicitness in 1947? Was the British Board of Film Censors unprepared to allow it? Does anyone out there know whether F.L. Green's novel, on which the movie is based, is more explicit on such matters?
Wikipedia says Odd Man Out's cast was drawn largely from Dublin's Abbey Theatre, but Mason sounds like his upper-class English self, only intermittently trying some well-enunciated stage Irish. Robert Beatty, fine as a member of "The Organization," doesn't even try to sound Irish. I thought he was American, but he turns out to have been from Hamilton, Ontario, in Canada. As Wikipedia puts it, "Few of the main actors in the film actually manage an authentic Ulster accent."
A further oddity, and a question for Irish readers, especially: One scene takes three of Johnny's friends into Belfast's entries, the atmospheric alleyways that slice through the city's center, only to bring them out by a row of fine brick houses like the ones in South Belfast, up the hill and a fair distance away. Was that artistic license, or did Belfast's center once contain similar grand red-brick homes? I'll guess the former, because there's an obvious cut between the "entry" shot and the shot with the houses.

See Mason hallucinate here. See Orson Welles chased through Vienna's sewers in The Third Man here. And here's a story about efforts to track down Odd Man Out's child actors sixty years after the film was released.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Bye-bye, bloggers

A hat tip to the Rap Sheet for linking to an Associated Press report that “young people are losing interest in long-form(sic) blogging, as their communication habits have become increasingly brief, and mobile.” To supplement Mr. Sheet's worthwhile sentiments, I'm bringing back a post I made on December 17, 2008. Everything I said then remains valid today, except that I use Twitter now — to post links to my "long-form" blog.
I've never Twittered, and I try not to twitter in the word's previous senses: to titter, giggle; to utter a succession of small, tremulous sounds, as a bird; to talk lightly and rapidly, esp. of trivial matters; chatter.

I have, however, noticed that Twitter has caused several intelligent bloggers to re-examine their function. In recent days at least two have decided that Twitter has taken over much of the work blogging once did: spreading bite-size chunks of information quickly.

Except that's not what I do with my blog, and the blogs I most enjoy don't do it either. Rather, we entertain or inform readers, or we explore topics large or small, and we generally do it by coming up with an idea, developing it at greater or lesser length, and reaching a conclusion. We write, in other words, and if doing it on a blog allows easier communication between writer and reader, that's all to the good. But it's still writing.

These two bloggers, chastened into introspection by Twitter's success, are coming around to that way of thinking. They appear to have decided to leave Twittering to the Twitterers and to concentrate in their own blogs on "long-form" writing. Writing, in other words.

It's good to have them back.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cold case

That's the scene here at Detectives Beyond Borders world headquarters: 30 to 45 cm. of snow (12-18 inches) since yesterday, 70 cm. (28 inches) over the weekend, and all this on the heels of 59 cm. (23.5 inches) in a day a month and a half ago.

I think I'll head to the Southern Hemisphere for my next bit of crime reading.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

We have lots of winners ...

... but only two get books. So many eye-opening and thought-provoking replies poured in for Friday's competition about fallen cities that I'll award two copies rather than one of Annamaria Alfieri's City of Silver.

Alfieri sets her tale of murder and metal in Potosí, little known today (though a UNESCO World Heritage Site), but in the seventeenth century an immensely wealthy city whose silver mines were the economic engine that drove the vast Spanish empire.

I asked readers for examples of other cities whose positions in the world had fallen and promised a copy of Alfieri's novel for the best nomination.

Suggestions flooded in, and I wound up with eyes opened toward parts of the world I had not considered much before, as well as a list of new travel destinations.

In the end, I chose José Ignacio Escribano for his twin suggestions of Manaus, in north Brazil, and Córdoba, Spain, once the capital of the Caliphate of Córdoba, of which it has been said that
"in the latter half of the tenth century Córdoba, with up to 500,000 inhabitants, was then the most populated city in Europe and, perhaps, in the world."

Jerry House for Lowell, Massachusetts, once the largest industrial complex in the United States. Honorable mention to Barbara Fister for suggesting Timbuktu, once a religious, intellectual and economic center, and today a byword for way-to-hell-and gone. Honorable mention to the lot of you, really, for the exciting reminders that history is all over the map: North and West Africa, South America, Central Asia, the United States ...

Congratulations to José and Jerry. If they'll send postal addresses to me at detectivesbeyondborders (at) earthlink (dot) net, I'll put their books in the mail. Thanks again to all who contributed to this most enjoyable thread.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Monday, February 08, 2010

Fresh spies

The pace of geopolitical change must make thriller writers tear their hair out. The Soviet Union is gone, and terrorism, as wise commentators point out, is not a country. What does the fight against it mean, and what is a fictional spy to do in this multipolar world?

Lots, according to Olen Steinhauer's The Tourist, in whose world the collapse of the Other Side has given birth to a range of Other Sides: Chinese industrialists, Russian mafias, Islamic insurgents among them.

This fractured geopolitical scorecard is just one of the things that make The Tourist seem new, at least to this infrequent reader of thrillers. Here are a few more:

1) Frequent mention of characters' ages, many of those characters in their twenties or early thirties. This has an internal purpose, but I suspect it's also Steinhauer's way of reminding the reader that the international thriller is alive, well and still a young man's and woman's game two decades after the U.S.S.R.'s collapse.

2) An occasional wryly mocking attitude:

"Milo decided that while his coworkers devoted themselves to finding the Most Famous Muslim in the World somewhere in Afghanistan, he would spend his time on terrorism's more surgical arms."
3) An amusing poke at one of the dumbest songs of the last thirty years:

"`Why `the Tiger'?'

"`Precisely! However, the truth is a disappointment. I have no idea. Someone, somewhere, first used it. Maybe a journalist, I don't know. I guess that, after the Jackal, they needed an animal name.' He shrugged—again it looked painful. `I suppose I should be pleased they didn't choose a vulture—or a hedgehog. And no—before you think to ask, let me assure you I wasn't named after the Survivor song.'"
Do political and spy thrillers have a shorter shelf life thanks to events such as the end of the Soviet Union and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001? What does it take to keep such a story fresh? What are your favorite classic spy stories?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Saturday, February 06, 2010

Stuck in Mitteleuropa with you

The TBR pile is situated between wars these days, or between Europes, or as close as one can get to between centuries.

First came Rebecca Cantrell's A Trace of Smoke, set in 1931 Berlin. Now are J. Sydney Jones' Requiem in Vienna, which opens with Gustav Mahler conducting a rehearsal of Vienna's Court Opera in 1899; David Downing's Stettin Station, set in Berlin in November 1941; and Olen Steinhauer's The Tourist, which shows that wars (and spy novels) don't end when walls come down.

As I read these books, I'll think about a Europe as exotic and unfamiliar as any African or Asian clime. I'll think about what draws authors to those agitated times and places where eras, civilizations, cultures and religions clash.

These stories all happen where East meets West. What are your favorite borderlands for crime fiction?

While you're thinking, here's the first sentence of Steinhauer's book:
"Four hours after his failed suicide attempt, he descended toward Aerodrom Ljubljana."
Happy reading!

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Friday, February 05, 2010

Win a book about a pivotal city

The TBR pile is high with books set in turbulent cities of the highest historical importance: Berlin, Vienna, Potosí.

Potosí? These days it's not noted for much except being possibly the highest city in the world — 13,420 feet above sea level in the mountains of Bolivia. Once, though, slaves died by the thousands in its silver mines, and the metal they extracted kept the Spanish empire in business, paying that vast empire's entire military budget for years.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, Potosí was one of the world's biggest and most opulent places, in the words of the excellent Larry Gonick, a "weird and lawless city." Oh, and there was the Inquisition, operating with vigor from a new South American seat established in Colombia in 1610.

A weird and lawless city sounds like a promising place to set a mystery, and Annamaria Alfieri has done so with City of Silver.

You can join me in finding out how promising. I'll send a copy of City of Silver to the person who provides the best example of a city sunk from great prominence to a humbler state. (Real cities only. Atlantis doesn't count.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

The bomb

Michel Foucault yesterday, a leading American public intellectual today, but I promise crime fiction tomorrow including, possibly, a visit to the most surprising crime-fiction city you'll have heard of.

Today's subject is Garry Wills, a visitor to the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library last night to talk about his new book, Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State.

Wills says the American presidency arrogated for itself extraordinary powers amid the Manhattan Project, then kept those powers once the emergency of World War II had passed. The results include extraordinary secrecy, disrespect for the Constitution, the undermining of Congress, "the era of undeclared war, presidential war," and the development of a massive national security apparatus not at all times zealous about the truth.

Unlike the other 300 million Americans, Wills worries about the institution of the presidency, rather than about this Democrat or that Republican, and here's where a crime fiction or thriller plot suggests itself: A president takes office and finds out from his national security apparatus about secret, perhaps dirty projects around the world. He tries to end them. What happens?
Wills' talk was crisp and to the point, and the program finished early. Perhaps one should expect no less from the author of a much-honored book about the Gettysburg Address.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Where is the justice in crime fiction?, or Noam Chomsky gets his ass kicked

We were talking about Madness and Civilization the other night, and not as commentary on our fellow drinkers at Philadelphia's press club.

The talk got me interested in Michel Foucault, that French historian, philosopher and public intellectual (though he might have rejected the intellectual designation), and I realized that he belongs here. He wrote and talked about crime, punishment, madness, sex and death, after all.

It's his invocation and critique of justice, though, that caught my attention because I realized how rarely crime writing concerns itself with justice, at least in the social, society-building sense. How many crime novels take the perp through the criminal justice system, for example? What does it imply about Western crime stories that they generally end just before the justice system swings into action (or before it gets a chance to do so)?

(See Foucault debate Noam Chomsky here and here. See Chomsky shrink before your eyes, especially around 3:50 of the second clip. Click here for the only effort I know to bring justice into the crime-fiction discussion.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Monday, February 01, 2010

Here's to you, Mr. Robinson, or the real secret of Nordic crime fiction

(Photo © Katja Gottschewski 2002)

Uriah Robinson of Crime Scraps published a piece of common sense the other day about why Scandinavian crime fiction is so popular.

He invoked an anecdote about a question to Atlanta students on a high school history exam: Why did the South lose the Civil War?

"Most of the class wrote reams and reams on the military, economic, social, political and demographic reasons," Uriah reported, "apart from one student who answered with one sentence: 'I think the Yankee Army had something to do with it.'"

"Scandinavian crime fiction is popular," he continued, "because it features good writing, usually excellent translation, well-thought-out plots and interesting characters."

Search his blog post from top to bottom, and you'll find no sociology, no commonplaces about Nordic stoicism, nothing about suicide or vodka or long nights. (You'll find precisely the opposite, in other words, of Laura Miller in the Wall Street Journal.)

It was a pleasure to see good writing, rather than sociology, invoked as a reason for popularity. Nordic crime writing is good? I think Arnaldur Indriðason (Or Jo Nesbø. Or Karin Fossum. Or ...) had something to do with it.

What are your favorite or least favorite takes on international crime fiction in the English-speaking world?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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