Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Caryl Férey, or more crime fiction from South Africa, and a bit of soccer, too

My latest dip into the international book bag comes up with Caryl Férey's Zulu, another novel set in South Africa, and you read here — possibly first — that South Africa is the next Scandinavia. (Deon Meyer is already shortlisted for this year's CWA International Dagger, and if Roger Smith doesn't get consideration for the big awards next year, then I'm — well, then I'll be surprised.)

Zulu's opening scene is a flashback to an act of violence by members of Inkatha, a Zulu movement and political party that developed into an opponent of the African National Congress. This makes me suspect the novel will look back at a country's tortured past and its echoes in the present, à la Ghosts of Belfast. So maybe South Africa is the next Northern Ireland, too.
Férey's novel has won a bushel of prizes in his native France, and I come to it via another thumbs-up from that author and energetic promoter of South African crime writing, Stanley Trollip.

Finally, lest you think you can avoid mention of soccer's World Cup, go to the 11:15 mark of this Guardian podcast for a South African commentator's thoughts on what the world's biggest sports tournament means for his country — and what it doesn't.

I like the Guardian's coverage even though one of its commentators misused mitigate on a podcast and another misused replete in an article — common errors, perhaps, but such careless usage imperils my latent Anglophilia.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The World Cup of ... Humo(u)r

The current World Cup has proven that the United States is better than England in soccer, but the English may retain their traditional advantage in the wit department.

The Guardian's World Cup Daily podcast is an engaging mix of information, silliness, hard-headed analysis, blunt speaking, reporting, and jokes that American sports journalism would never allow.

My favorite quips have come from Barry Glendenning (who's Irish, actually). One was a comment on Landon Donovan's odd behavior when he dropped to his knees and looked skyward before a penalty kick:
"But he’s American. He was probably praying to the Lord Jesus."
Imagine the politico-religious explosion that would result if anyone said that in America.

And here's Glendenning on Uruguay's celebrated but distant soccer history, most of which, he said, came “before Sky invented football in 1992.” Few in American journalism would take ESPN's name in vain in such fashion.

Glendenning also offers blunter assessments of players and teams than is usual in the U.S. On one of England's starters and the team's chances: " ... the mistakes I think John Terry will make throughout the tournament. I don't rate John Terry as an international defender. ... [England] just don't have the spine."

And here's Barney Ronay's pre-World Cup assessment of England's chances:
"What kind of message would it send to the world if England did win the World Cup? ... Have a bloated, overinflated league ... have a rubbish coaching structure, don't look after your youngsters, get a foreign manager in, and you, too, can be the best in the world. I mean, it just seems wrong that England would win the World Cup."
And the show's host, James Richardson, on advertising-fueled jingoism, "this deluge of crap adverts telling us that this is `we.'" And the references to various teams as "rubbish" or "shocking," a degree of bluntness that would be welcome when appropriate but will never cross the lips of any American sports commentator who might, if roused to a passion, allow that an American team may have disappointed high expectations.
In late-breaking listening to podcasts from early in the World Cup, the sex jokes are getting a bit old. And then was a remark about Japan's lack of offense that, perhaps especially understandably, would never pass an American's lips:
"Their scoring columns have more zeroes than the the attack on Pearl Harbo(u)r."
© Peter Rozovsky 201

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Monday, June 28, 2010

James McClure's Kramer and Zondi split up ...

The Gooseberry Fool (1974) is the third of James McClure's Kramer and Zondi novels, following on The Steam Pig and The Caterpillar Cop, and it may be the best of the three.

McClure splits Kramer and Zondi up, keeping the former in Trekkersburg fighting bureaucratic battles and sending the latter into a series of chilling encounters that may well explain why McClure did not start publishing mysteries until after he left his native South Africa for England.

Zondi tracks a murder suspect to a poor Zulu settlement, only to find it being destroyed by police, "an eviction. An ordinary Black Spot eviction, one of hundreds, an everyday event—and he had allowed his imagination to distort his vision."

I'm not sure apartheid-era South African governments of McClure's 1970s would have wanted the population reading such things.

Nor might everyone have felt entirely comfortable with the following, though it is pretty funny:
"Colonel Du Plessis lived with his unlovely family in a large bungalow on a small holding two miles west of Trekkersburg along the Tierkop road. There he boasted of maintaining the great agricultural traditions of his pioneer forefathers by employing three Kaffirs to grow flowers for market. His specialty was delphiniums."
© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Sports announcers beyond borders, or, a new nickname for the U.S. soccer team

The American television network broadcasting soccer's World Cup had the happy idea of bringing in former great players from around the world to act as pregame, postgame and halftime commentators.

I know too little about the sport to evaluate their work properly, but the multinational cast has offered interesting cultural contrasts. Bob Ley, the American host of one discussion, thought it noteworthy that a Danish player was romantically involved with a baroness twelve years his senior. "I hear she's worth half a billion dollars!" Ley cried.

Ruud Gullit, a former Dutch superstar who obviously thought his role as a game analyst was to analyze the game, displayed great tact at Ley's inane ejaculation. After a moment of shocked silence, he said, "Wellll, I'm not sure it's that important she's twelve years older."

But the most emblematic exchange happened when it became clear that the United States would play Ghana, a team it outranks by eighteen spots in FIFA's most recent world rankings, in the knockout phase. Despite the superior position, American commentator Alexi Lalas declared with great zest that "The U.S. will be the underdog in the game," to which his German co-commentator Jürgen Klinsmann as much as responded, "Who are you kidding with that Scheiße?"

The United States is the world's mightiest nation by most measures, and it is a strong up-and-comer in soccer, yet it defies the world and bravely calls itself an underdog at the World Cup. OK, Alexi Lalas. OK, America. I accept the challenge. If you insist on claiming the underdog role, then follow the tradition of Cameroon's Indomitable Lions and adopt a colorful nickname. May I suggest The Mighty Underdogs ©?

(Contrast Lalas' joyous embrace of the underdog role with Barry Glendenning's prematch assessments in the Guardian that "I expect the Americans to dominate tonight ... The bookies make the USA 6-4 favourites" and that "in Landon Donovan [the Americans] have one of the players of the tournament thus far."

(Of course, the U.S. lost to Ghana, so maybe Lalas was right. Visit Adrian McKinty's for more discussion of spurious sports underdog claims.)
Did you think the French team was nothing but a gang of underachieving, fractious, immature cheats and bad sports? You're wrong. They were also paranoid, imperious and contemptuous of their South African hosts, according to this report from someone who was there.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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More prizes for Peter Temple's "Truth"?

The crime-fiction world is understandably excited that Peter Temple's novel Truth has breached a literary barrier and won Australia's Miles Franklin Award.

England's Guardian newspaper wonders if the Man Booker Prize could be next to go to a crime novel.

Probably not, says John Sutherland, a former chairman of the Booker judges' panel. "The twice I've been on the Booker panel they weren't submitted," he told the newspaper. "There's a feeling that it's like putting a donkey into the Grand National."

Temple's UK publisher, Quercus, plans to submit Truth for this year's Booker, according to the article, to which Temple says: "Just to make the the Booker longlist would be a wonderful thing."

So, could Truth win? With passages like this, why not:
"One spring morning in 1970, the bridge's half-built steel frame stood in the air, it crawled with men, unmarried men, men with wives, men with wives and children, men with children they did not know, men with nothing but the job and the hard, hard hangover and then Span 10-11 failed."
An early exchange between the protagonist, Inspector Stephen Villani, and his daughter has just a hint of the byplay between Bill James' Colin Harpur and his daughters. A tribute? Perhaps; Temple has called James "a star."

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Friday, June 25, 2010

The World Cup of soccer, crime fiction and beer

The official ball of soccer's World Cup, currently reaching the end of group-stage competition in South Africa, is called the Jabulani. Its name means celebration in Zulu.

Imagine, then, how pleased I was to come across the following earlier today in The Gooseberry Fool, third of James McClure's Kramer and Zondi novels:

"Jabula is a word with more than one meaning in colloquial Zulu: It is used for happiness, and for beer."
Who said crime fiction is not educational?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why James McClure's South African crime fiction is still fresh

James McClure's The Steam Pig violates one rule against which guides to mystery writing sometimes warn would-be authors, but in the end it doesn't matter much.

Why not? For one thing, the literary device in question may have been in greater fashion in 1971, when McClure published the novel, than it is now.

For another, as incisive as the book is in its portrayal of apartheid-era South Africa and the people who live in it, as worthy a winner as it was of the CWA Gold Dagger, it's a first novel. McClure may simply have been in the early stages of developing his craft. And finally, the writing, even in the passage in question, is vivid and compelling.

McClure may remind readers of William McIlvanney, with his breaks in the action for passages of description or reflection. That's a risk in a plot-driven genre such as a crime; the author has better have the writing chops to pull it off. McClure has them.

In his case, the breaks contribute to a sense of ironic amusement and detachment. These form a surprising, dynamic, occasionally shocking contrast with the harsh portrayals of apartheid-era life and hints of police violence. That contrast remains exciting almost four decades after the books' initial publication.
What other older crime fiction remains fresh today? What keeps it that way?
Read about the second Kramer and Zondi novel, The Caterpillar Cop. Read more on South African crime fiction at Detectives Beyond Borders. (Click link, then scroll down.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Genre writer Peter Temple wins literary award

From several quarters comes the news that Peter Temple has won Australia's Miles Franklin Award, given annually to "the best Australian published novel or play portraying Australian life in any of its phases." Nothing about best crime, just best.

Previous winners include Tim Winton, Peter Carey, and Patrick White.

Read Detectives Beyond Borders' discussions of Peter Temple and his work here (click link, then scroll down), including several witty interviews and reviews.

Says one newspaper account of the award: Temple's Truth "makes history for being the first work of genre fiction to win the award, which was established in 1957." And that's good crime news.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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The Steam Pig: James McClure's South African reality check

How's this for a breathtaking bit of local setting? (It's from The Steam Pig, first of James McClure's Kramer and Zondi South African police procedurals, first published in 1971 and newly reissued in the U.S. by Soho):
"You were born in the Cape?"

Her scornful laugh brought his head up sharply in surprise.

"Why do you people always think coloreds are all born in the Cape?"

Again, that curious overreaction on her part.

"Where then?"



Kramer's ballpoint hovered, ready to set the date down. But the pad slid unheeded from his knee a moment later.

"And I was born white," Mrs. Francis said. "We were all born white. The whole family. And we lived white, too."
Not bad for a first novel, I'd say. It must be passages like that that moved a contemporary reviewer to call McClure "a writer of great skill and humanity."

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of McClure's apartheid-era novels to readers almost forty years later is the blend of breezy banter in the English style with acute portraits of the period's ugliness. The result may shock today's more sensitive readers, at least American ones, but I call it an impressive achievement.

Here's one example:
The Colonel was flattered.

"Put it this way, Lieutenant—I never allow a wog to touch my delphiniums," he said.
Here's another, the opening of the novel's second chapter:
A suspect in the next room screamed. Not continuously, but at irregular intervals which made concentration difficult. Then the typewriter unaccountably jammed. The report was not going to be finished on time.

That's good stuff, and more damning than a straightforwardly angry polemic would have been.

The Steam Pig won the CWA Gold Dagger for best novel of 1971. Read about the second Kramer and Zondi novel, The Caterpillar Cop, here. Read more about South African crime fiction at Crime Beat, and browse the table of contents and selected articles from Mystery Readers Journal's Spring 2010 issue on African mysteries. Finally, read this touching obituary of McClure, who died in 2006.

McClure was born in Johannesburg and educated in Pietermaritzburg, seen by many as the model for his fictional Trekkersburg. He moved to Britain with his family in 1965. Here's an intriguing footnote from Wikipedia's article about the Kramer and Zondi series:

Perhaps inevitably the books received lukewarm reviews in his home land. The mystery of McClure's Trekkersburg mysteries: Text and non-reception in South Africa Peck, R; English in Africa; May95, Vol. 22 Issue 1, p48, 24p
© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Discarding the Post-Colonial Other: A Vindication of Plain Speaking

I'm going to quote two excerpts today, and I hope their bracing common sense will excuse the fact that they have nothing to do with crime fiction:
"For at a time when ten thousand dissertations and whole shelves of Subaltern Studies have carefully and ingeniously theorized about orientalism and the imagining of the Other (all invariably given titles with a present participle and a fashionable noun of obscure meaning—Gendering the Colonial Paradigm, Constructing the Imagined Other, Othering the Imagined Construction, and so on—not one PhD has ever been written from the Mutiny Papers, no major study has ever systematically explored its contents."
"The British histories, as well as a surprising number of those written in English in post-colonial India, tended to use only English-language sources, padding out the gaps, in the case of more recent work, with a thick cladding of post-Saidian theory and jargon."
Those are from the introduction to William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal, about the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the fall of India's Mughal empire, and the touching fate of its last emperor. I had not previously been interested in that part of history, but a colleague recommended the book, and it looks so far like a vindication of how thrilling history can be when buttressed by solid research and free of reductive intellectual bullying.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Saturday, June 19, 2010

David Owen's Pufferfish and other long-interrupted crime-fiction series

No Weather for a Burial, David Owen's long-awaited fifth novel about Detective Inspector Franz Heineken of Tasmania, known to some as Pufferfish, is now history.

It packs a bit of mystery into its 150 or so pages, a fair piece of suspense into a climactic confrontation, and a nice twist that brings the reader back to a mystery he or she might have forgotten.

There are brief, loving descriptions of Tasmania's natural life, a longtime interest of the author, who also writes about natural history. And there is the Pufferfish prickliness, both from the man himself and from his blunt assistant, Detective Rafe Treadway:

"Jay Ho's Sandy Beach Road property ... hides behind a thick and leaning three-metre high sandstone wall, probably built by convicts in the dwindling years of transportation. But the electronic gate gives a hint of something other than wealth. Down here at forty-two degrees south very few individuals feel the need to lock themselves away from the great unwashed."

"`What a knob,' Rafe says, buttoning down his driverside window and pushing the buzzer on the intercom."
Though the settings are vastly different — one contemporary urban and rural Tasmania, the other 1960s and early '70s suburban England — readers of Colin Watson's Flaxborough Chronicles series might enjoy Owen's gently and sometimes not so gently mocking humor.

David Owen went from 1997 to 2009 between the fourth and fifth Pufferfish books. Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) went twenty-three years between his sixteenth and seventeenth Parker novels. What other crime writers have gone many years between books in a series?

(Read about the 1990s Pufferfish novels here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Friday, June 18, 2010

Buy an iPrude © and support censorship!

With a hat tip to Things You May Have Missed, news that Apple censors Ulysses. Now, what was that about the heavy hand of government?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Kick this ball clean from my hand: Which crime novel best represents the World Cup?

(At left, a blue vuvuzela. See and hear the Vuvuzela Orchestra performing "Shosholoza.")

France made it into this year's soccer World Cup on the strength of Thierry Henry's illegal hand ball against Ireland (right).

That's why I liked a commenter's invocation of Fred Vargas' Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand in my post about the World Cup of Crime Fiction.

Henry is French; so is Vargas. Henry committed an illicit act; Vargas' title invokes the cleansing one's self of the taint of such an act. And the hand – what a hoot!

That makes Vargas' book the crime novel of the World Cup so far. What other books deserve the honor?

To help you decide, here's Jeff VanderMeer's World Cup of Fiction, to which this post owes its existence.

Switzerland beat Spain Wednesday in the World Cup's biggest upset so far.

That was soccer; in the World Cup of Crime Fiction, Friedrich Glauser's diving header past Spanish goalkeeper Manuel Vázquez Montalbán plunged the food-loving, politically committed, Barcelona FC-supporting creator of Pepe Carvalho into a lengthy bout of dissipated introspection. Glauser displayed great compassion for the losers.

(Click here for P.J. Brooke's look at the past and present of Spanish crime fiction.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

No Weather for a Burial: The Return of Pufferfish

The crime-fiction hero who proves that his species can live alone, chafe at one's bosses, be haunted by dark memories and deprived of a wife (or fiancée), and still be in full, brimming psychological health, is back.

He's David Owen's Franz Heineken, known to some as Pufferfish, scourge of Tasmania's criminals and back in a new book after four of the more entertaining crime novels of the 1990s.

A declaration that "There's nothing like a bit of long service leave to put the pips back in a Detective Inspector's core" opens both the new book, No Weather for a Burial, and Heineken's meditation on why he has not retired after a long vacation (three months for Heineken, since 1997 and the previous Pufferfish book for Owen).

The answer, he tells us, lies in the nickname Pufferfish,
"which they gave me soon after I cut my teeth as a dour young migrant from Rotterdam, an unhurried outsider of few words, hard to get to know, prickly, feeder off detritus in murky shallows, ability to inflate and even explode under severe provocation. Not the best CV if you want to get along with your new vrienden of the Tasmanian Police Force, but effective attributes for the job at hand. Outthinking crims. Outwaiting them. Being a dirty bastard when necessary. Being a cop."
That's a damn sight better than looking in the mirror when he gets up in the morning and describing what he sees, and I'm looking forward to more amused irony in the pages that follow.
Read my discussions of the first four Pufferfish novels: Pig's Head, A Second Hand, X and Y and The Devil Taker.

No Weather for a Burial is published by Forty Degrees South Publishing in Tasmania. I'm unsure if the first four books are in print, but you might find copies on ABE, the Book Depository or The effort will be worthwhile.

An omnibus of the first four books is expected in 2012, according to this article, which also includes surprising thoughts from Peter Temple about prizes.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Group of Death

Jeff VanderMeer has organized a World Cup of Fiction, which groups the thirty-two nations of this year's soccer World Cup and asks readers to handicap the field in fiction instead of football. I'm refining his terms and restricting myself to crime writing.

Group A is the tournament’s Group of Death (and where is that term more meaningful than in a crime-fiction competition?)

For South Africa, Roger Smith, Deon Meyer, Margie Orford, Richard Kunzmann, James McClure (no one said the players had to be alive), Michael Stanley and Jassy Mackenzie head a lethal group of strikers that could be deep for years.

The French have Dominique Manotti, Fred Vargas and Tonino Benacquista in a midfield that plays a less attacking style than the vuvuzela-tooters but is capable of deadly surgical strikes.

France could wangle for Yasmina Khadra on its side, too, though he could make a dangerous striker for Algeria in Group C.

In Group D, Peter Temple, Shane Maloney, Leigh Redhead, David Owen, Chris Nyst, and Adrian Hyland are just a few of the names on an Australian side that is a strong dark-horse contender, just as the Socceroos were in the real World Cup – at least until the competition started. (Temple, by the way, was born in – you guessed it – South Africa.)

Italy has Group F wrapped up, and I'll tab New Zealand to sneak into the knockout stage.

The Netherlands and Japan should fight it out in Group E of the Crime Fiction World Cup, hampered only by the fact that their stars, Janwillem van de Wetering and Seicho Matsumoto, are both dead.

England and the United States could make some noise in Group C.

Who do you think wins the 2010 World Cup of Crime Fiction?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Monday, June 14, 2010

Win "The Ice Princess"

Camilla Läckberg has made it to the United States, and two American readers can win copies of The Ice Princess, newly out from Pegasus Publishing. All the two of you have to do is answer this question correctly:

The Ice Princess' English translator has translated books under at least three names in addition to the one he uses here. Tell me at least one of those names along with the title of at least one book translated under that name.

A reader in Washington State knew that Steven T. Murray translated Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo under the name Reg Keeland, and a California reader knew that he translated Karin Alvtegen's Shadow under the name McKinley Burnett. They win Camilla Läckberg's The Ice Princess, which Steven T. Murray translated under the name Steven T. Murray. Congratulations.

Now, based on the above, can you guess what kind of music Steven T. Murray likes?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Saturday, June 12, 2010

Meet the man behind crime fiction's most despicable character

Some good miscellaneous material in recent days, including this video interview that Roger Smith did with the man he says inspired the character Piper in Smith's novel Wake Up Dead.

Piper is the worst fictional human being I have met, a killer, a rapist, an utterly callous gang leader, and a perpetrator of the most despicable acts.

He does most of his fictional thing in Cape Town's Pollsmoor Prison, as close to an earthly hell as anything in crime fiction. And the man whose prison tales inspired his creation, who says he committed in real life acts as horrific as the fictional Piper's, looks and sounds like the kindliest old man you'd ever want to meet.
From Bob Cornwell comes word that Crime Scene: Italy is now available, following on similar comprehensive portraits of the crime fiction scenes in France, the Netherlands and Switzerland. These are thorough and compact packages, covering authors, publishers, magazines, Web sites, bookstores and history. And all are available free to view online or download as pdf files.

High fives to Cornwell and the International Association of Crime Writers. They deserve a public service award of some kind.
And, from Jeff VanderMeer, a proposal for funding translation of “non-realist" fiction into English — "non-realist or whatever term denotes the totality of fantasy/SF/horror/surrealism/magic realism/etc. without dividing things into the false camps of genre and literary."

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Friday, June 11, 2010

Does anyone know a good replacement for "Blogger"?

"Blogger" has been doing weird things with comments for a couple of months. I will receive e-mail notification that a comment has been posted, but the comment does not appear.

Sometimes the comments will appear in the "Post a comment" box but not in the main window. Sometimes the comments take minutes, even hours to appear. All bloggers hope to get tons of comments, but if your blog stops displaying them after they hit a certain number, what's the use of hoping?

Blogger has ignored repeated complaints, so I'm going to look for a new host. For any of you who have blogs on WordPress or any other host, are you satisfied with the product?


© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Men without hats: James Ellroy and Eddie Muller on "Crime Wave"

I rented this movie for the extras.

Eddie Muller and James Ellroy, who provide the commentary on the DVD release of Crime Wave, know and love their subjects (noir, movies, Los Angeles), enjoy one another's company, and plainly enjoyed watching the movie together. More to the point, they enhance the movie, not always the case with DVD commentary tracks.

Ellroy is a wild man, announcing himself as, among other things, "the White Knight of the Far Right." Over the movie's opening sequence, shot at a gas station, he says: "This is a righteous gas station."

Muller is the most engaging of commentators, bringing a fan's love and an expert's knowledge to the job. (He calls himself a writer and a cultural archaeologist. Among other credits, he's written non-fiction books about noir, and he founded the Film Noir Foundation.)

The two love the movie's look, Muller highlighting its extensive use of location shots, rare for the time (the movie was shot in thirteen days in 1952, and released in 1954) and Ellroy, that man who sometimes seems not to know the meaning of restraint, panted not just at Phyllis Kirk's beauty, but also at gorgeously composed shots and quiet camera work. (That's Ellroy's word, quiet.)

Watch this movie, and you'll learn which actresses of the time Muller and Ellroy would have dated. But you'll also get a nostalgic tour of 1950s L.A., and some astute comments about the choices directors make.

Curtis Hanson was right to have the male characters go hatless in his film of Ellroy's L.A. Confidential, Ellroy said. Real detectives would all have worn hats in the 1950s, but hats would have created too much distance from a 1990s audience.

And wait till you hear what Ellroy says about Chinatown.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

A lexicon of South African crime or, Don't move, or I'll klap you

Nice sense of place in Deon Meyer's Thirteen Hours, shortlisted for the Crime Writers' Association International Dagger award, some of it due to expressions left untranslated from the original Afrikaans:

"No blood on the floor, no bullet holes in the walls or bookshelves ... She didn't klap him here."
or, as two detectives talk about a call one has received from their furious boss:

"Did the Commissioner call you?"

the moer in."

"Benny, it's nobody's fault."
Isn't learning fun?

(Go here for more South African expressions. I'll bring the Mrs Balls' Chutney. And tell me how you feel about dialect and untranslated slang in crime fiction from countries not your own.)


P.S. to the publisher if you read this: It's vocal cords, not chords.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Monday, June 07, 2010

What's so unfunny about crime fiction, and why?

Colin Bateman holds forth on the Guardian book blog about why crime writing lost its sense of humor. Apart from oddly including Ireland's Declan Burke on a list of British crime writers, he has much of interest to say.

Bateman, a longtime writer of comic crime novels himself, notes the sly humor of British Golden Age writers and the one-liners of their hard-boiled American counterparts. These degenerated into formula and parody, he says, and "crime fiction was forced to reinvent itself. ... Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs and Patricia Cornwell's Postmortem became super sellers 20 years ago – laughs were out, torture porn was in."

The way back out, he suggests, is humor. Robert Lewis, Charlie Williams, Malcolm Pryce, Chris Ewan, Len Tyler and the non-British Burke "are at the vanguard of a new wave of young writers kicking against the clichés and producing ambitious, challenging, genre-bending works."

Now, humor in crime fiction is a frequent topic here at Detectives Beyond Borders, but I'd never thought of the stuff as a wedge for the avant garde.

What do you think of Bateman's thesis, particularly that graphic violence forced humor out? Is humor really the future of crime fiction? And who else belongs on Bateman's list?
From Declan Burke: "I think Bateman is talking about books that are equally crime and comedy/humour, as opposed to crime novels with comic flourishes."

Again, what do you think?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Sunday, June 06, 2010

James McClure's outsider's eye on South Africa

It's probably inevitable that sociology barge in when the discussion turns to South African crime fiction.

The Caterpillar Cop (1972), second of James McClure's novels about the Afrikaner police Lieutenant Trompie Kramer and the Zulu Sergeant Mickey Zondi, is full of the telling glimpses at race relations in apartheid-era South Africa we outsiders will look for, and the glimpses are richer than what Americans usually get.

There is the sharp separation between black and white, of course, blacks addressing whites as "father" or "boss." There is the jovial familiarity with which Zondi interviews black witnesses, contrasted with Kramer's more formal interaction with whites. Beyond this, the shabby treatment of South African Indians is graphically invoked, as is the burning contempt of some English South Africans for the Dutch-descended Afrikaners.

There is the casual indignity to which a white cop subjects Zondi ("`Sorry, I can't think straight,' he said. `This cold is a bastard. Can Zondi go out for some tissues?'" The resolution of this tissue issue is a nice example of Zondi and Kramer's partnership.) And there are the novel's closing words:
"But Kramer laughed. `Don't blame me, Captain — blame Professor Aardvark.'

"And he thoroughly enjoyed his little in-joke.

"Zondi was able to share his amusement. It was he who had shown the Lieutenant that the first word in any English language was, in fact, Cape Dutch."
Now, that's a passage that could not have come from a crime novel set anywhere else.

Back to outsiders. McClure was born in Johannesburg and began his journalistic career in South Africa before moving to England in 1965. His first crime novel, Steam Pig, won the 1971 CWA Gold Dagger for best novel. Thirteen books followed. McClure died in 2006.

I wonder whether he found it easier (and safer) to cast a critical eye on South African society once he had left the country. (Caterpillar Cop also contains bits that the Dutch Reformed Church could not have been happy with.)
Read Detectives Beyond Borders' discussions of South African crime writing here (click link, then scroll down). Read James McClure's obituary and browse a list of his books. Soho Crime will reissue Steam Pig and Caterpillar Cop this summer, but I found my copy in Hay-on-Wye on an excursion from Crimefest 2010. Thanks to young Emily Bronstein for spotting it.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Thursday, June 03, 2010

Tamil pulp

The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction promises "mad scientists!", "hard-boiled detectives!", "vengeful goddesses!", "murderous robots!", "scandalous starlets!" and "drug-fueled love affairs!", and if that doesn't sound like hours of innocent springtime pleasure, I don't know what does.

I'll get to the authors later, the prolific Rajesh Kumar among them. For now, some highlights of translator Pritham K. Chakravarthy's immensely informative introduction. The author Sujatha's detectives, she writes, "were suddenly speaking a kind of Tamil that was much closer to our Anglicized language than anything we had seen before on paper."

Tamil pulp stories were published in weekly magazines, and "households would meticulously collect the stories serialized in these weeklies and have them hard-bound to serve as reading material during the long, hot summer vacations."

The introduction takes brief excursions into the ancient history of the Tamil language, its revival in a twentieth-century literary renaissance, and separate traditions of the British "penny dreadful" and the American crime novel that all contribute to the Tamil pulp tradition.

"From the days when our English reading consisted of Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys up until we grew out of Earl (sic) Stanley Gardner, Arthur Hailey, and Hadley Chase," Chakravarthy writes, "we also had a parallel world of Ra. Ki. Rangarajan, Rajendra, Kumar ... "

Parallel worlds. Literature that readers like so much, they collect and bind it themselves. An ancient language revivified by contact with English. Sounds to me as if interesting things are happening in Tamil fiction.
(Read an excerpt from The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction and browse Detectives Beyond Borders' discussion of Surender Mohan Pathak's The Sixty-Five Lakh Heist.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Idol days in England

I did more than just Crimefest on my recent trip. At left is a friend of whimsical mien but serious purpose from the British Museum. At right is a fellow not to be messed with, from the same institution.

Back in Bristol, one more photo (below) that nicely captures the Crimefest atmosphere, especially when the panel's moderator is the entertaining Simon Brett (center).

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Tonino Benacquista's "Someone Else" plus a provocative question

Tonino Benacquista's Someone Else poses a problem for category mongers.

This tale of two Parisians who meet on a tennis court and agree to shed their identities features crime only incidentally. The plot sounds in outline like a Patricia Highsmith-style psychological thriller, yet the novel is much more a social comedy, though occasionally of a heart-rending kind. And, though the author is French, the novel is no frothy farce.

But call Someone Else a meditation on love, aging, and the cruelties of the corporate world, and you're apt to paint too solemn a picture.

I was carried away with reading the novel and so took few notes. One passage that I did highlight comes close to capturing the book's appeal:

"Trying to find predictable aspects in everyone was to deny the irrational element in each of them, the hint of poetry, absurdity and free will. Some kinds of madness were beyond any logic, and most — like Thierry Blin's — were not recorded in the great books on pathology."
That may not be the world's freshest philosophical statement, but it's quite another matter to take the theory and put it into practice in the form of a story, and an entertaining, occasionally affecting one at that. Benacquista does it here.
Tonino Benacquista (right) was a guest of honor at Crimefest 2010, where he made the provocative statement that "It must be understood that the dominant source of innovation (in crime fiction) is the U.S."

His interviewer, Ann Cleeves, disagreed. What do you think?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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