Monday, May 31, 2010

Cop some Kiwi crime fiction

The third giveaway at Craig Sisterson's Crime Watch blog offers a chance to win Alix Bosco's Cut & Run, a debut thriller on its way to becoming a television mini-series. (Read the first chapter here. The opening line is a grabber.)

Read what Craig has to say about Alix Bosco here, and enter the contest here.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Home, James, or Harpur & Iles get back to basics

Readers of long-running crime-fiction series like to talk about how authors keep their series fresh, with love, death and alcohol being primary instruments of change. But authors can be better off sticking with what they do best.

Hotbed, twenty-sixth in Bill James' Harpur & Iles series, dispenses with such recent novelties as Eastern European competition for the series' established drug dealers (Girls) or the absence of Harpur (In the Absence of Iles). Instead, James concentrates on what he does so well: deceit, mistrust, evasion, and fear of betrayal, lavishly rendered in gorgeous, flamboyant, theatrically self-conscious prose.

Here the antagonists are Mansel Shale and (Panicking) Ralph Ember, the drug barons of long standing whose uneasy alliance is threatened, as successful businesses will be these days, by mutual fear that one will try to achieve a monopoly by eliminating the other. Here, too, the rivalries and mutual jealousies of Harpur, the detective chief superintendent, and his manic boss, are highlighted, the accent a bit more on Harpur's thoughts about Iles and a bit less on Iles' manic rage and froth.

Ember, fearful of Shale's possible ambition, plants a spy in Shale's rival drugs firm, the spy disappears and comes to a bad end, and the dance of deceit begins. Ember's susceptible teenage daughter longs for the vanished underling. Shale fears that his off-stage ex-wife will disrupt his pending wedding. Shale's fiancee and the victim's actor brother are the latest in James' string of bothersomely clever outsiders threatening the uneasy peace by asking disturbingly probing questions.

James is more conscious than ever of the series' theatricality, a theatricality of words more than of gestures. The invokes Jacobean drama, as critics and reviewers have done in discussing the Harpur & Iles series. Here are few of those words:
"Harpur had often heard Iles quote that guru he'd mentioned, Sartre, who said, `Hell is other people,' though that, apparently, didn't stop him shagging oodles of them. Naturally, Iles said it in French first, and then generously translated for Harpur. And sometimes Harpur would think, Yes, hell is other people, such as Iles."

(Read Part I and Part II of the
Detectives Beyond Borders interview with Bill James.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

A beyond-borders crime event I'd have liked to see

(National Portrait Gallery, London)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Behind the scenes at the UK's highest court

(Middlesex Guildhall, London, home of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom)

Wednesday's highlight was a private tour of the United Kingdom's Supreme Court building from that jovial and energetic fixture on England's crime-fiction scene, Ayo Onatade. (She works for the court when she's not writing for Crime Spree or Shots or judging CWA Dagger competitions.)

Yes, Supreme Court, which the UK has had since October, as part of a move toward a separation of the judicial and legislative branches of government. This was quite naturally of interest to a visitor from the United States, since the separation of powers has been at the heart of American political life since the Founding Fathers borrowed the idea from a Frenchman in the eighteenth century.

The highlight of the tour? Probably seeing the chief justice of a British Commonwealth nation waiting in the lobby to be escorted into the main part of the building. (Ayo got on the phone and made sure he would be shown in promptly.)

Or maybe the gentleman who wandered into Ayo's large, airy shared office space looking like a judge, which is because he was. Yep, he was one of the Supreme Court justices.

Or maybe it was the surprisingly low prices in the quiet, clean cafeteria. The justices' own dining room is pretty nice, too, and to my learned friend who wonders where he left his wig, it's in the lawyers' room.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010


Monday, May 24, 2010

Crimefest goes to the world capital of used books

The Hay-on-Wye festival doesn't start until Thursday, so we were able to beat the crowds today.

Your humble blogkeeper's haul in the secondhand-book capital of the world included The Ice Princess by Camilla Läckberg, Strange Loyalties by William McIlvanney and The Caterpillar Cop by James McClure for the modest total of just £8.95.

Thanks for the last of those to Stanley Trollip, one half of the Michael Stanley writing team, whose praise for McClure's seminal Kramer and Zondi series reminded me that it was time to get off my keister and read him. Thanks, too, to my fellow browser Emily Bronstein, who came across the McClure on our Hay expedition and said, "Look what I found."

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Crimefest pictures, plus why other festivals should get with Crimefest's program

(Contestants in Crimefest 2010's Criminal Mastermind quiz game. From left, Peter Guttridge, Ali Karim, Martin Edwards and Cara Black. In the festival's least surprising development, Edwards won again this year.)

Crimefest 2010 is done except for Monday's excursion to Hay-on-Wye. A tip of the hat to organizers Adrian Muller and Myles Allfrey for another well-organized and exceedingly convivial event, sparked this year by some creative programming that other crime festivals might do well to study.

(Ruth Dudley Edwards and Bill James)

Today's example was a hands-on translation workshop with Ros Schwartz, Dagger award-winning translator of Dominique Manotti. This joins Saturday's self-defense clinic with Zoë Sharp as a clever and worthwhile supplement to panels, signings and discussions.

I'll be back to highlight some of past four days' thought-provoking panels, including Andrew Taylor on writing about the past, Ruth Dudley Edwards on sex and food, and Chris Carter on a bold, clever and free feat of marketing and self-editing.

For now, though, I'll have an early night to recover from three days and nights of crime and carousing. Until then, enjoy the pictures.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Crimefest V: Hit 'em where it hurts

Zoë Sharp (far right), author of the Charlie Fox series, offered some practical advice at Crimefest Saturday: Go for the throat.

If an assailant grabs you by the neck with both hands, Sharp said, swing one of your forearms down hard on his wrists, then pivot so your back is to the attacker and whack him in the windpipe with your free elbow.

Using elbows rather than fists confers the dual advantages of disabling the attacker and leaving the innocent victim's fingers and thumbs safe from injury and free to write realistic mystery thrillers.

Sharp spoke at a mini-workshop on self-defense, and this creative bit of programming sparked a discussion at the evening's gala dinner (left): How might future conventions go even further in supplementing the usual fare of panel discussions and interviews?

A lock-picking demonstration, suggested one author whose protagonist is a thief, though the dubious legality of such an undertaking under U.K. law put the kibosh on the possibility.

But you can help! What sorts of practical demonstrations would interest crime-fiction readers, writers, reviewers, editors, agents, fans, and folks who are just there waiting for the hotel bar to open? What would interest you?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Crimefest, Day II, Part II: Dagger shortlists announced

[Maxim Jakubowski (left) and director/screenwriter Mike Hodges at a Crimefest screening of Hodges' Get Carter]

Day Two of Crimefest saw the announcement of shortlists for five of the Crime Writers' Association's Dagger awards. Of chief interest here is the list for the International Dagger, awarded to the best crime novel translated into English and published in the United Kingdom. The nominees are:
Badfellas by Tonino Benacquista, translated by Emily Read (Bitter Lemon Press)

August Heat by Andrea Camilleri, translated by Stephen Sartarelli (Picador)

Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indriðason, translated by
Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker)

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest by Stieg Larsson, translated by Reg Keeland (MacLehose Press)

Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer, translated by K.L. Seegers (Hodder and Stoughton)

The Darkest Room by Johan Theorin,
translated by Marlaine Delargy (Doubleday)
Winners will be announced in July at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival.

Canadian, Australian, Scottish and Irish writers are represented on the other shortlists announced today. Visit the CWA Web site for a complete list of nominees.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Crimefest 2010, Day II, Part I: Sex, violence and vuvuzelas

What's a vuvuzela? I'm glad you asked. A vuvuzela (above/right) "is a blowing horn, approximately one metre in length, commonly blown by fans at football matches in South Africa."

I learned about them this morning from Stanley Trollip, one half of the team that writes as Michael Stanley, as we discussed South Africa's upcoming hosting of soccer's World Cup. He says vuvezelas have every chance of driving opposing teams nuts.

In Crimefest 2010 news more directly related to crime fiction, the great Bill James opened this morning's sex and violence panel with the declaration that "I try to smooth [violence] out with style. I think of it as very good boxing journalism ... make it sound like ballet, which it ain't."

That's an apt declaration, and unsurprising from the man who wrote:
"If you knew how to look, a couple of deaths from the past showed now and then in Iles' face."
© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Crimefest I: If this is England, where's the rain?

Everyone remembers who won tons of gold at the Olympics: Michael Phelps. Mark Spitz. Don Schollander (Come on, you remember Don Schollander.)

But who remembers the folks who won silver?

My team finished has just finished second at the Crimefest pub quiz for the second year in a row. This time my teammates were two of the ubiquitous names on the British crime fiction scene, Maxim Jakubowski and Ayo Onatade, but they were not enough to overcome the jet-lagged lump of North American baggage that joined them at the table.

We lost to a team that included Martin Edwards, Ann Cleeves and Karen Meek, just as last year's winning team did. And there were no prizes for runners-up this year, which means fewer books to carry home.

Quizmaster Peter Guttridge said this year's questions would be easy. Lying sack of &(^%!; they were ball-busters.

Tomorrow: Bill James, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Lindsey Davis, Donna Moore, Mike Hodges, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and more.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Rajesh Kumar: Man of (more than) a thousand novels

(Detectives Beyond Borders is not an official site for Rajesh Kumar's novels; the photo is from

Monday's post about Surender Mohan Pathak's The Sixty-Five Lakh Heist led to a nice note from Rakesh Khanna of Blaft Publications about a truly prolific author.

Rajesh Kumar is said to have written more than 1,500 short novels and 2,000 stories. Here are some snippets from an article about “the superstar of the Tamil pulp fiction industry”:
"The classic Tamil pulp novel runs between 100 pages and 150 pages and is printed on cheap paper as a monthly magazine. ... The flavours of this genre are uniformly sensational but otherwise eclectic. They can include the science-fiction thrillers—more fiction than science—of Kumar, the romances of Ramani Chandran, the detective knockabouts of Pattukottai Prabhakar and Suba, the religious tales of Indira Soundara Rajan and the social dramas of Pushpa Thangadorai.

“`But many authors have, of late, shifted to writing for films and television,' Kumar says. `Not me, though. I’m allergic to cinema, and I don’t want to move to Chennai. Plus, I find these movie producers highly immoral people.'”
And, perhaps most interesting:
"For those treading water financially, a teashop will even act as an informal lending library, charging Rs2 to take a book home for a day or two.

"It is heartening that people who cannot afford a Rs15 novel are still willing to put down Rs2 to read, and Kumar takes no little pride in that fact. `It was us writers who made sure that there were books hanging from shop ceilings instead of shampoo sachets,' he says. We led people to read, he preens ..."
Imagine that: Popular books at affordable prices in handy formats where readers can find them. Radical!

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Do hard-edged crime series get harder as they progress?

I've just read back-to-back Ken Bruen: The Killing of the Tinkers and Sanctuary, second and seventh of the Jack Taylor novels.

I don't have the books at hand, so I could be talking through my hat, but it seems to me The Killing of the Tinkers had a harder edge. Taylor often muses about people dying because he screwed up. Here we see an example of it. Perhaps this accounts for my impression.Check Spelling

Do harder-boiled crime series fall into any sort of pattern with respect to the grittiness of their stories? Do novels get harder-edged as a series progresses? Does the opposite happen, or does the answer vary from series to series?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Monday, May 17, 2010

विमल, or meet Vimal, India's pulp hero

Oh boy, have I learned a lot from The Sixty-Five Lakh Heist, fourth of Surender Mohan Pathak's many Vimal novels.

I have learned that the author tired of his first series after the first hundred books or so before he created Vimal. I have learned that Vimal is an elusive thief and a master of disguise, a kind of Punjabi mix of Richard Stark's Parker and Frank McAuliffe's Augustus Mandrell.

I have learned, among many new words, dacoit: "robber, usually one who attacks in broad daylight, in a group." I have learned that lakh in the novel's title means hundred thousand; the title refers to the 6.5 million-rupee bank robbery in which Vimal is stiffed by a colleague before embarking on a violent quest to recover what's his.

And I have learned that Surender Mohan Pathak had better slow down to a stately Simenon-like pace, or he'll soon have to express his own output in lakh. At age 70, he has written about 300 novels and translated Ian Fleming and James Hadley Chase into Hindi, the latter while working full-time for the Indian phone company.

Check out Vimal and more at the publisher's Web site, Blaft Publications. And check out this essay on Vimal by Brian Lindemuth, to whom I owe my acquaintance with Vimal.

ਬੱਲੇ!, which means, roughly speaking, "Vimal is one righteous dude!"

P.S. Vimal apparently means "clean, pure, spotless" in Sanskrit, and yet Vimal is just one of the hero's many names ...

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Raymond Chandler's Irish novel? or, When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a hurley in his hand

It could have happened, according to an article cited by Declan Burke at Crime Always Pays.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Grim laughs: A question on humor and crime fiction

It's early in The Killing of the Tinkers, Jack Taylor has just been beaten up, and his client/employer asks what happened:
"They surprise you?"

"They bloody amazed me."
Bruen's characters don't applaud their own wit or the author's. This makes the dialogue less stand-up yuk fest, more real conversation, and all the funnier and more poignant for it. Bruen adds a clever spin on slightly different meanings of surprise, so you know the man is a nimble wordsmith as well.

That's how Ken Bruen does it; what do you think about the touchy combination of humor and crime? When does it work? When doesn't it? What are your favorite examples?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Friday, May 14, 2010

Canada, the civilized

I made a caustic post in 2008 about Philadelphia fans' destructive rampage after the Phillies won the World Series. It's only fair that I report fans in my native Montreal are no better, and they have no championship to show for it — yet.

(Back in 2008, an acquaintance tut-tutted and brushed aside my complaints about those Philly fans, who overturned cars and looted a luggage store. "Just having a little fuuuuuun," he insisted in his infuriatingly condescending nasal drone. This was the same pirla who insisted that English is not a Germanic language.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

What's the worst crime song ever?

I've asked readers to choose the greatest crime song ever, but what about the worst?

I owe this one to Sean Patrick Reardon, who was joking – I think – when he called "The Night Chicago Died" the best crime song.

(I have just discovered that the same germ-spreaders who wrote "The Night Chicago Died" also composed "Billy, Don't Be A Hero," its only rival for worst song of my youth. The Wikipedia entry on the former song convinces me that however head-cracking a strongman he may have been, Chicago's first Mayor Daley had excellent musical taste.)

Can you name a crime song as bad as "The Night Chicago Died"? Is your musical sensibility as finely calibrated as Richard J. Daley's? What's your choice for worst crime song ever?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Crimefest 2010: Blame it on Yrsa

I met Yrsa Sigurðardóttir for the first time at Bouchercon 2008 in Baltimore. While we were there, Iceland's banking system crashed.

We met again at Bouchercon 2009 in Indianapolis, when Yrsa was on my translation panel and everyone's economy had crashed.

Now my attendance at Crimefest 2010 in Bristol next week is imperilled by ash from that damn volcano in Yrsa's damn country. Yrsa, quite naturally, is scheduled to attend the fest.

Here are today's questions: Has any country as small as Iceland ever produced so many good crime writers and so much natural and financial disaster in so short a time? And is it all Yrsa's fault?

And here's the list of Crimefest attendees. It includes Bill James, Colin Dexter, Maxim Jakubowski, Donna Moore, Malcolm Pryce, Martin Edwards, Ruth Dudley Edwards, and many, as the saying goes, more.

I'll join them and provide entertaining and informative accounts, geological upheaval permitting.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

R.I.P. Peter O'Donnell, the man behind Modesty Blaise

The Rap Sheet wrote last week about the death of Peter O'Donnell, creator of Modesty Blaise, the beautiful, mysterious action heroine who enjoyed a long life in comic strips, novels, and a ludicrous 1966 movie.

I had written about creator and character from time to time, including an observation that Modesty Blaise reminded me of Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander.

I also enjoyed a collection of the comic strips as examples of brief, punchy storytelling, and I linked to an excellent interview with O'Donnell in Crime Time that revealed the real-life inspiration for Modesty.

And here's part of my answer to a challenging comment on my post about Modesty Blaise and Frank McAuliffe's Augustus Mandrell:
"What makes her a hero a reader can identify with? She does everything you wish you could do, only she does it better: retired from a successful business she started herself, lives an independent life, has money, has sex and love on her own terms, etc. Maybe my earlier reader's comment about wish fulfillment was more to the point.

"In fact, if I were to expand on my comments (but blog posts are best kept short), I'd have noted all the folklore elements that play into her story: the foundling, the wandering child, etc.

"Re gadgets, I'd say they figure into the plot more than now and then, at least in
Modesty Blaise [the first novel]. Remember the exploding tie?

"But maybe there's a very subtle message in O'Donnell's use of gadgets. Yes, he'll have Modesty and Willie use them, in part, perhaps, to lull an audience accustomed to such things from James Bond. But, in the end, the deciding factors are more down to earth: Modesty's body and Willie's knife, especially when Modesty uses her body, say, to distract a sadistic jailer, then whacks him with a concealed gadget."
© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Ask for this one by name!

Some tasty bits so far in Fat, Fifty & F***ked, Geoff McGeachin's sheila-and-Clyde tale of a bank manager who loses his job, robs the bank, and hooks up with a woman whose profession is not what you'd think.

There's the biker gang that runs a clean, efficient motel and a relaxed and caring old-people's home on the side, complete with wine cellar and motorcycle-maintenance classes. There's the sympathetic small-town cop who offers tips to the nervous, novice robber/protagonist. And there's the story's wistful fantasy of hitting the road to escape from an indifferent family life and a career that was one big lie.

A shadowy spy agency lurks in the background, more menacing than the one in McGeachin's D*E*D Dead!, and I'll be interested to see how that element works with all the sweeter stuff.

And it is sweet, sweeter than the Vegemite that came with the book.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Sunday, May 09, 2010

Sex for Salvo

What does the future hold for Salvo Montalbano? More sex.

Author Andrea Camilleri tells an Italian interviewer that as his protagonist moves into his sixties, after a life too full of nettlesome chastity, he realizes opportunities passed up may now be lost for good and so begins a much more active sex life.

In a metaphor that transcends barriers of language, Camilleri says Salvo will, "one might say, shoot his last cartridge."

That's just a livelier continuation of something the sensitive Camilleri has incorporated in novels such as The Wings of the Sphinx and The Patience of the Spider: Montalbano's increasing consciousness of his own mortality.

The interview is not all sex. Camilleri also talks about the friendly editorial blackmail that led him to continue the Montalbano series beyond Book Two, The Terra-Cotta Dog. (Eleven of the series are now available in English.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Friday, May 07, 2010

More sketches of Spain: P.J. Brooke on Spanish crime fiction, Part II

P.J. Brooke is the husband-and-wife team of Philip J. O’Brien and Jane Brooke. A Darker Night, their second novel featuring Sub-Inspector Max Romero, is due from Soho/Constable this summer. Part II of their survey of Spanish crime fiction for Detectives Beyond Borders takes in well-known names, prize winners, regional writers and foreign authors who set their work in Spain. (Read Part I here.)

Problems of identity play an important role. The fiercely independent regions of Catalunya, the Basque country and Galicia have produced crime novels first written in local languages: Itxaro Borda’s in the Basque language and Carlos G. Reigosa’s in Galician. Women novelists have, for the first time, also come to the fore. Borda’s investigator is (good heavens) lesbian.

Since the 1990s, Arturo Pérez-Reverte has dominated the Spanish mystery scene. The Dumas Club is a Gothic tale about rare books that strays into Dan Brown territory but does it far better. It was filmed by Roman Polanski as The Ninth Gate with Johnny Depp. The Flanders Panel, The Fencing Master, The Seville Communion and The Queen of the South are all strong, meticulously researched, historically based tales, a little ornate at times, but never boring.

Liberty vs. social responsibility
Lorenzo Silva, one of Spain’s most successful crime writers, has produced two very modern Guardia Civil officers in the Basque Ruben Bevilacqua and his assistant, the Mallorcan Virginia Chamorra, both of whom grapple with conflicts between individual liberty and social responsibility in a democratic Spain and reflect changing perceptions of cops. Unfortunately his novels are not translated into English.

Juan José Millás parodies the detective form to explore the relations between appearance and reality. And Eugenio FuentesDepths of the Forest, Blood of the Angels and At Close Quarters revert to the more traditional psychological investigation.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s novels deserve special mention. The Shadow of the Wind, set in Barcelona in 1945, explores the psychological pressures of fascism. and censorship. A thriller, the book isn’t perfect, but in translation, extremely popular.

At the more literary end of the scale, José Carlos Somoza won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for The Athenian Murders, a re-creation of a deeply strange but utterly believable ancient Athens. Javier Marías won the Dublin IMPAC award for A Heart so White. It’s a thriller, but slow and subtle, unravelling how a young translator is drawn into a mystery in his own family.

Foreign crime writers in Spain
After years of foreign tourists, Spain is now coming into its own for foreign crime writers. American Rebecca Pawel’s series is set immediately after the Civil War. Her Lieutenant Carlos Alonzo y León comes from one of the families that did well out of the war. Robert Wilson ’s Inspector Falcón explores modern Seville, while our own Inspector Max Romero uncovers both the beauty and the dark side of a cosmopolitan Granada. Others are sure to follow.

Spanish crime novelists grapple mostly with Spain as it is, its problems of social mobility, migration and dislocation, endemic corruption at local, regional and national levels, the economic boom and now the bust, new immigrants crossing the narrow straits that separate Spain from Africa and flying in from Latin America, the drugs and people-trafficking. Spain inclines more to the American hard-boiled social criticism tradition than to the English whodunit and is the better for that.

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Thursday, May 06, 2010

What do you mean by "Chandlerian"?

Do you mean trenchcoats, wide-brimmed hats, moody rain and moodier saxophone music, or do you mean this:

"The Filipino's legs began to jump on the floor. His body moved in sudden lunges. The brown of his face became a thick congested purple. His eyes bulged, shot with blood.

"Delaguerra let the wire go loose again.

"The Filipino gasped air into his lungs. His head sagged, then jerked back against the bedpost. He shook with a chill.

"`Si ... I talk,' he breathed."
— "Spanish Blood," 1935

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

War, crime and politics: P.J. Brooke looks at Spanish crime fiction

"Only after Franco’s death in 1975 did mystery novels come in from the cold, when writers used them to ask tough questions about Spanish society and question state-sponsored police procedures."

P.J. Brooke is the husband-and-wife team of Philip J. O’Brien and Jane Brooke. They divide their time between Scotland and Granada. Their second novel featuring Sub-Inspector Max Romero, A Darker Night, is due from Soho/Constable this summer. In Part I of a two-part survey, they look at Spanish crime fiction from its beginnings until its liberation, with the death of Francisco Franco in 1975. (Read Part II of P.J. Brooke's survey of Spanish crime fiction here.)
Medieval Spain was Jewish, Christian and Muslim, a culturally diverse, vibrant patchwork of Muslim and Christian principalities.

But in 1492, the Catholic kings defeated the last Muslim kingdom, and Columbus discovered the Americas. Los Reyes Catolicos celebrated by expelling Jews who did not convert to Christianity, and later, the Muslims. Church, crown and military created a repressive Catholic state that lasted, almost without let-up, until the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975. Spain was not the easiest place to be a writer.

Despite civil wars, censorship and a small reading public, some good novels were produced in nineteenth-century Spain. In 1853, 13 years after Edgar Allan Poe invented the genre, Pedro Antonio de Alarcón wrote Spain’s first mystery, The Nail and other Tales of Mystery and Crime. Translations of the Sherlock Holmes stories led to local imitations, but the mystery novel never really caught on, and Alarcón, Peréz Galdós and their contemporaries were more influenced by Sir Walter Scott, Dickens and Balzac than by Wilkie Collins.

Civil War turned back the clock
The Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 turned the clock back as writers went into exile. In the 35 years of Franco’s dictatorship that followed, Spain was isolated from Europe and North America. Mysteries were published but heavily censored, and, of course, they were conventional police procedurals.

Francisco García Pavon wrote novels featuring local Police Chief Manuel Gonzalez “Plinio,” and his Dr. Watson, the veterinarian Don Lotario. The Plinio novels, set in a Spanish provincial town, were very popular and were made into a TV series. But they are mild in a Miss Marple way, where Franco’s cops were brutal and corrupt. Only after Franco’s death in 1975 did mystery novels come in from the cold, when writers used them to ask tough questions about Spanish society and question state-sponsored police procedures.

Breakthrough in Barcelona
The breakthrough happened in Barcelona, with a clutch of novels that depict a city riddled with corruption, violent and raw. Francisco González Ledesma’s Commissioner Ricardo Mendez stories were originally banned under Franco. Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s series has an ex-Communist private investigator, Pepe Carvalho, and a call-girl assistant (Murder in the Central Committee). Eduardo Mendoza’s investigator is paranoid-schizophrenic.

In Madrid, Juan Madrid’s Chandlerian hero, Toni Romano, was an ex-cop, boxer and debt collector. Madrid’s other books featured Manuel Flores, a gypsy police officer coping with prejudice. Jorge Martínez Reverte ’s journalist investigator, Julio Galvéz, investigated crimes all over Spain, illuminating social and political problems. Galvez en Euskadi dealt with the Basque terrorist ETA.

Younger writers have carried on this tradition, among them Teresa Solana in A Not So Perfect Crime, a stylish and witty portrait of Barcelona’s nouveau riche, and, in Madrid, novels by Elvira Lindo, David Torres and Antonio Jiménez Baza.

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Monday, May 03, 2010

Ahistorical fiction?

A Quiet Flame, Book 5 in Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir trilogy, has Bernie Gunther sailing to Argentina with two very high-ranking Nazis after World War II.

"Don't mind me," Gunther says. "I'm not quite as rabid as our friend here wearing the bow tie and glasses, that's all. He's still in denial."

I have read that the concept of denial originated with Freud and that 12-step programs started in 1939. The term also may have gained popular currency in Germany before it did elsewhere.

Still, were ordinary people, non-psychiatrists, really saying "in denial" as early as 1950?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Sunday, May 02, 2010

Has Declan Hughes written the greatest P.I. novel ever?

City of Lost Girls does not so much surpass the classics of hard-boiled P.I. fiction as it invokes them and brings their spirit back to thrilling life.

In Declan Hughes' fifth novel featuring Dublin private investigator Ed Loy, Hughes:
  • Sets major parts of the story in Los Angeles, complete with breathtaking and melancholy scenery.
  • Gets inside the head of a serial killer.
  • Sends great torrents of yearningly romantic prose tumbling onto the page.
  • Offers up any number of wisecracks and world-weary observations.
Crime writers have done all that for years, so how does Hughes keep it fresh? By the sheer exuberance of his prose, including some gleeful stomping on Bono's reputation. By the angry topicality of his observations ("'re the only one who gave a damn about them, Ed. Nobody else noticed they were lost. Although no doubt once the TV gets going on the Three-in-One Killer, all manner of traumatized parents and siblings will emerge, weeping and wailing for the cameras like a bunch of bought-and-paid-for whores.") And mostly by the high respect he has for mystery.

Hughes pays subtle, effective tribute to the old-time mystery tradition of lining up suspects one by one, but it's mystery of a deeper kind that underlies the story:
"You can't extrapolate from someone's childhood and background that he would step over the edge and act in this particular way," Loy tells us. "That's what I find so problematic about criminal profiling: it's magical thinking, when you boil it down, a kind of elaborate system of guesswork and hunch-playing. Nothing wrong with that, I operate pretty much the same way. Every detective does. ... We just don't dress it up the way the criminal profile boys do, calling it behavioral science and making claims for its near infallibility."
That's a nicely contemporary expression of the traditional hard-boiled P.I. world view. More to the point, it's just one example of the book's touching philosophical humility. Nothing human is ever certain or definite in Ed Loy's world or the killer's.

The tentative reconciliations at novel's end are all the more affecting for that fragility. And that is one hell of an update of the hard-boiled P.I.'s romantic side.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Saturday, May 01, 2010

2010 Spinetingler Award winners

This year's list of winners in the Spinetingler Awards has an international flavor. OK, an Irish flavor. All right, Northern Irish.

Stuart Neville's The Ghosts of Belfast won for best novel by a new voice and Adrian McKinty's Fifty Grand for best novel by a rising star. (Spinetingler breaks down its categories by the number of books the author has published. Michael Connelly's The Scarecrow won in the "legends" category, for authors who have published lots and lots of books. He beat a field that had international presence of its own, in The Complaints by Ian Rankin and Tower by Reed Farrel Coleman & Ken Bruen.)

My favorite international contender, Jacques Tardi & Jean-Patrick Manchette's West Coast Blues, fell short in the comic/graphic novel category, and a guy named Peter Rozovsky did the same in his bid for a historic second Spinetingler victory, losing as best reviewer after sharing last year's award for special services to the industry.

I'll be brave. Meanwhile, congratulations to the winners.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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