Monday, January 31, 2011

Scandinavian crime writing goes to school

From co-editor Paula Arvas at the University of Helsinki comes news of Scandinavian Crime Fiction, a collection of articles that calls itself the first English-language study of the subject. The book has apparently been in the works awhile and is about to see the light of the day (th0ugh I'm not sure how much light there is in the Nordic lands this time of year.)

According to the cover blurb,

"This collection of articles studies the development of crime fiction in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden since the 1960s ... Scandinavian Crime Fiction identifies distinct features and changes in the Scandinavian crime tradition through analysis of some of its most well-known writers: Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Anne Holt, Liza Marklund, Leena Lehtolainen and Arnaldur Indriðason, among others. Focusing on Scandinavian crime fiction's snowballing prominence since the 1990s, articles concentrate on the transformation of the genre's social criticism, study of significance of cultural and geographical place in the tradition and analyse the cultural politics of crime fiction, including struggles over gender equity, sexuality, ethnicity, history and the fate of the welfare state."

I've written about geography in Arnaldur's novels, and I've been reading those pioneers in the genre's social criticism, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, so I'll look forward to this one. You should, too.

(The book appears to be the third in the University of Wales Press' European Crime Fictions series. Earlier volumes featured French and Italian crime fiction.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Scarlet Pimpernel

From a pair of Marxist crime writers to an author who had a nobler lineage and more names than both of them put together: Baroness Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála "Emmuska" Orczy de Orczi, known, to the relief of printers and book-cover designers everywhere, as Baroness Orczy and to readers as the author of The Old Man in the Corner (1909) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905).

The opening chapter of the latter, combined with the circumstances of Baroness Orczy's life, roused my interest. Here's a bit of the book:

"During the greater part of the day the guillotine had been kept busy at its ghastly work: all that France had boasted of in the past centuries, of ancient names, and blue blood, had paid toll to her desire for liberty and for fraternity."

Here's a bit from the life:

"Her parents left Hungary in 1868, fearful of the threat of a peasant revolution."

(I figured out the Scarlet Pimpernel's identity before Marguerite St. Just did even though she is supposed, in the novel, to be the most brilliant woman in all Europe.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011


Friday, January 28, 2011

A post about Marlowe

A recent comment at Detectives Beyond Borders alluded to Colin Dexter's novel The Wench Is Dead, and a bit of research revealed that title's source in this passage from Christopher Marlowe's c. 1590 play The Jew of Malta:

FRIAR BARNARDINE. Thou hast committed—

BARABAS. Fornication: but that was in another country;
And besides, the wench is dead.
Leaving aside for the moment knotty questions of anti-Semitism (Marlowe may not have been that great a friend to Christians and their clerical representatives, either), the passage is a stunning evocation of callousness with ample hints of practical evil. Its chilling concision would not be out of place in the harder-boiled Black Mask stories or even in, I don't know, Derek Raymond or Bill James.

This makes it one of the fresher, rawer entries in that long roster of literature of the past that draws from the same well as the best crime fiction. (Find more such examples at DBB; scroll down after clicking. Read a free e-text version of The Jew of Malta.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mon pays, ce n'est pas un pays ...

... c'est l'hiver.

That's French for No whingeing from Australia or California about the weather where you live.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Were Sjöwall and Wahlöö the last romantics?

Why not? Their observations about urban decay wrought by technology are less polemical than wistful (or, at most, gloomy), whether about factory-produced bread putting an end to local bakeries or, as in The Fire Engine That Disappeared, about cars and highways:
"It was not exactly a scintillating panorama that lay spread out before his eyes. A dismal industrial area and a motorway, of which all lanes leading into the city centre were crammed with vehicles jerking along at a snail's pace. Martin Beck loathed cars."
How could such a pair of Marxists be so philosophically Romantic? (That unimpeachable source, Wikipedia, quotes a definition of Romanticism as "In part ... a revolt against aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment and a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature.")

And then it hit me that Marx flourished smack in the heyday of High Romanticism in music. His most productive period coincided almost perfectly with Wagner's, for example, and they died the same year. (That year, 1883, was a watershed for artists and thinkers who made our view of modern life. Édouard Manet died then, too.)

So now I can relate Marx to Romanticism in one direction and to Sjöwall and Wahlöö in another. Who says crime writing is not educational?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Monday, January 24, 2011

The hero in the bathtub

A few months ago, I wrote about a charming tribute Andrea Camilleri paid Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö in his novel The Track of Sand. Sjöwall and Wahlöö accord similar tribute to another crime writer in The Fire Engine That Disappeared (1969), fifth in the Martin Beck series:

"He also drank some coffee and cognac and watched an old American gangster film on television. Then he got his bed ready and lay in the bathtub reading Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake, every now and then taking a sip of cognac which he had placed within reach on the toilet seat."
Who said Swedes don't know how to live? A recent Detectives Beyond Borders post asked "Who is the hero in a Sjöwall and Wahlöö novel?" There's your answer: If you know what a character likes to read, he's your protagonist.

On the other side of the Atlantic, I wonder if Every Bitter Thing, Leighton Gage's fourth novel featuring Inspector Mario Silva of Brazil's Federal Police, has been translated into Spanish and, if so, how well the book sells in Venezuela. Not that the novel names Hugo Chávez, at least not early on, but Chavistas might frown at several references to "the Clown."

How do you feel about such topical references in crime fiction? What are some of your favorites?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

More of Hammett's life

A few thoughts on Shadow Man, Richard Layman's 1981 biography of Dashiell Hammett:

  • Chapter 13 ends with Hammett's assessment of The Thin Man. That novel is the last of the work for which most readers know Hammett today, yet the chapter comes barely halfway through Layman's book. Conclusion: Hammett led an an interesting life beyond his writing.
  • Layman's judgment is sound on his rankings of Hammett's novels and short stories, and he's unafraid to call a story "very bad." But he sometimes fails to acknowledge the strengths of the weaker stories. Hammett may indeed be "too subtle in his characterization of Inez, the most dangerous criminal" in "The Whosis Kid," but the characterization of the kid in the stories opening segment is is superb. Layman calls the story one of Hammett's best attempts, but I'd have liked him to discuss, however briefly, what makes the story's opening so compulsively readable. I think I'll go back and reread some of the stories in light of Layman's assessment.
  • One could compile an illustrious Who's Who of Hammett's drinking companions and visitors, William Faulkner and S.J. Perelman among them.
  • Layman is efficient. The book checks in under 300 pages, including introductory material, index and appendices.
Now for Part 3, "Movies, Politics and the Army."

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Colin Dexter on Sjöwall, Wahlöö, and Swedish sex

I've just has a couple of beers and a plate of fish and chips at my local, and I'm ready for a snooze, so I'll let Colin Dexter do the honors for today.

Dexter is yet another of the current crime authors who wrote introductions to the (relatively) recent editions of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Martin Beck mysteries (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard in the U.S., Harper Perennial in the U.K., at least in paperback).

The Fire Engine That Disappeared (1969) came fifth in the series and, writes Dexter, "My first preconception was that this husband-and-wife team, with a political stance well to the left, had become rather too bitterly cynical in the sixties and seventies of what they saw as the betrayal of many of their Socialist ideas and ideals."

We took care of that here two weeks ago; Detectives Beyond Borders readers know that strong political sensibilities do not preclude acute observation and sensitive, entertaining storytelling.

We also know about Sjöwall and Wahlöö's wit, though I am pleased to add such a distinguished witness for the defense as Dexter against the canard that Scandinavians aren't funny. "What struck me" about The Fire Engine That Disappeared, writes Inspector Morse's creator, "was the gently underplayed humour of the writing."

One of Dexter's preconceptions involved Ed McBain's influence on Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and I'll save that matter for another post. Another was his belief that anything coming out of Sweden in the 1960s must be saturated with explicit sex.

Instead, he writes, "Sex plays only a very small part in the novel; and what sex we do find is handled with an almost serene simplicity." And if that isn't a beautifully sane (and accurate) assessment, I don't know what is.

Thanks, Colin; and goodnight, readers.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Friday, January 21, 2011

Biographies of crime writers: Who deserves to get a life?

I cross a new border this week, into literary biography, with Richard Layman's Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett.

What makes someone a fit subject for biography? Towering achievement, for one, and Hammett has that in spades. But he also appears to have been entertaining and elusive quarry. Here's the beginning of Layman's short preface:

"Dashiell Hammett seemed, for most of his life to crave privacy."
Standard celebrity stuff so far. But the paragraph goes on:

"Unlike many literary celebrities, he never took his fame seriously. He never relied on it, never expected it, and he was always contemptuous of those who treated him with deference because of his literary reputation. When he was in certain moods, he delighted in fooling interviewers, interested listeners, and sycophants with fabricated tales about his past and his future plans."

And here's the 1924 extract from Black Mask, in Hammett's own words, with which Layman heads the first chapter:

"I was born in Maryland, between the Potomac and Patuxent rivers, on May 27, 1894, and was raised in Baltimore.

"After a fraction of a year in high school ... I became the unsatisfactory and unsatisfied employee of various railroads, stock brokers, machine manufacturers, canners, and the like. Usually I was fired."
One can tell Hammett had fun writing that — no surprise to readers who delight in the wit of his fiction.
In November I heard Joan M. Schenkar talk about her biography of Patricia Highsmith. And the British crime fiction and film critic Barry Forshaw has written a life of Stieg Larsson.

What other crime writers have been subjects of a biography? What crime writers should be? Whom would you like to read about — and why?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What's the capital of Washington?

Here's a clue: Its newspaper has just published a guide to international crime fiction that included a gratifying mention of Detectives Beyond Borders. Viva journalism!

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Detectives Beyond Borders in a book, Part II

I like The Cultural Detective: Reflections on the Writing Life in Thailand by Christopher G. Moore for its street-level yet outsider's view of Bangkok, for its unsentimental takes on Moore's craft and country, and for the contents and titles of its essays. (My favorite is “The Culture of Complaining.”)

I'm especially attached to this item from its table of contents, though:

Introduction by Peter Rozovsky ... vii

Moore, author of the Vincent Calvino crime novels about an American P.I. in Bangkok, probing commentator on and questioner of his adopted country, and member of one of my panels at Bouchercon 2010, has given me my second appearance between covers, following on Following the Detectives: Real Locations in Crime Fiction.

Here's a recent bit of Moore's writing to give you an idea of what you'll find in the book.

Here's a bit of my introduction:

“I once was a prisoner in the cult of authenticity, skeptical of crime writers who wrote about countries other than their own. (Tourist that I am, I sneered at tourists.)

“Christopher G. Moore plugs that attitude between the eyes early in the collection of essays you’re about to read. `There is a tradition of pundits saying foreigners can’t understand how Thais think,' he tells us. `That is in itself an interesting theory of mind, suggesting that non-Thais are basically rendered autistic when it comes to understanding how Thais form intentions and the true nature of their beliefs.'

“That’s a neat trick, isn’t it? With a few taps on his keyboard, Moore demonstrates that authenticity snobs of the kind I once was are nothing more than upscale propagandists for the old belief that Orientals are inscrutable.”
Here's some info on ordering the book. Stay tuned for your chance to win a copy.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Monday, January 17, 2011

Besieging for Dummies, or Bill James on hostage talks

I.J. Parker, author, Detectives Beyond Borders commenter, and acid-tongued critic of writing she doesn't like, disagrees with me on the merits of Bill James. For her, "There is such a crazy abundance of words as characters contemplate absolutely everything at great length, whether it's relevant or not, that I want to strangle the author and his characters."

She'd likely not want to strangle James if she met him. He's a cheerful, soft-spoken sort, more than willing to pose for photos with admiring fans. But Parker is an acute reader; words do flow in crazy abundance in James' books, at least the more recent ones. The difference is that I like the effect. Here's Colin Harpur in James' newest, I Am Gold, contemplating a hostage negotiation with an armed kidnapper who calls himself John:

"Harpur thought the greeting, regreeting, fizzled with emptiness and formula. Naturally it did. It came from the manual — Besieging for Dummies, or something like. And, just as naturally, this boy, this boy `John' in there could recognize smooth-textured bullshit. Very likely these calls would contain nothing but. In fact, perhaps ultimately there'd be so much he would get disorientated by it, half smothered by it, gently and mercilessly chinwagged into collapse and surrender by it. But, maybe he recognized this hazard and left the phone dead for spells while he got his breath back."
That's a bigger step into contemplation than is usual in a police procedural, with perhaps more irreverence than is the custom, but the effect is all the stronger for this. ("mercilessly chinwagged into collapse and surrender" is nice because unexpected.) And, for all the baroque smother of verbiage, it's a plausible thought about such a negotiation. It's relevant, in other words, pace Parker. And I giggled like an idiot at this:

"`You're trying to soften me, aren't you, Olly?' ...

"Rockmain mouthed: `Fuck, fuck, the smartarse fuck.' Harpur took that to be an admission John read the psychotactics right. Iles leaned over and tapped Rockmain on the arm. When Rockmain turned towards him Iles pantomimed a lavatorial scene, holding his nose with one hand and pulling an imaginary flush chain with the other: his thoughts on Rockmain's intervention."
That's relevant. More to the point, it's fun.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Peace to Tunisia!

(Photo of Roman ruins at Dougga, Tunisia, by your humble blogkeeper)

Back in 2006 I visited Tunisia and wrote about it in one of my earliest posts.

A commenter on that post replied that

"In Algeria, they used to say: When Algeria is a man (a warrior), Tunisia is a woman (peaceful) ... "
I hope that pacific reputation survives the country's current political upheaval.

My adventures in Tunisia included a retired English archaeology professor breaking into a show tune from Oklahoma to help explain rivalries between herders and farmers in Punic and pre-Punic times.

An Eid Mubarak! (Blessed Eid!) uttered at the conclusion of any transaction went a long way toward generating good will, earning me smiles, at least one slap on the back, and accurate directions from a shopkeeper who led me out of his store and into the street so he could be sure of steering me right. And I saw a henna-haired woman in a sleeveless top, as slender and graceful as a cypress in the Mediterranean breeze, loading her shopping cart with booze in the liquor section of a supermarket in Tunis.

Peace and good wishes to the sane, hospitable nation of Tunisia!

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

New Bill James novel arrives!

How many crime writers give us a detective mourning and contemplating the special horror of a child's death? Lots, and almost always to show the detective's sensitivity to the brutal world out there and hence his or her bravery in taking up arms against it. How many would give us this:

"One of the notable things about Iles was he'd get very upset over the death of any child, but especially a child who'd been shot. He gazed at this lad on the floor of the Jaguar, and Harpur could read the self-blame, anguish and despair in Iles's face. It had happened on his territory, and in daylight — that's how he would think: a damned affront, a stain; someone, or more than one, monkeying with him, with him, Desmond Iles.
A tragic event, a little portrait of Desmond Iles' monstrous vanity, and Colin Harpur's wry, clear-eyed observations of his borderline unbalanced superior. And the passage is just plain fun to read — no surprise from the author of such gorgeous prose as that cited here, here and here.
(I Am Gold, newly arrived by mail, is Bill James' twenty-seventh novel in the Harpur and Iles series. Here's a checklist of the books. Peter Temple has called James a star. Ken Bruen has praised him. So have I; here's my 2009 interview with James.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Adverbs of gloom, or Humor in Nordic crime writing

Discussion here has turned once again to Nordic crime writers and their reputed lack of humor — on a post called What do your favorite writers do less well?, no less.

On the one hand, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö elevated the adverb to heights unseen in crime fiction since the Black Mask days, and those adverbs are generally gloomy. Characters are forever gesturing helplessly and slumping dejectedly. On the other hand are Kvant and Kristiansson:

"Outside police headquarters on Kungsholmsgatan stood two persons who definitely wished they had been somewhere else. They were dressed in police caps and leather jackets with gilded buttons, they had shoulder belts diagonally across their chests and carried pistols and batons at their waists. Their names were Kristiansson and Kvant.

"A well-dressed, elderly woman came up to them and asked, `Excuse me, but how do I get to Hjärnesgatan?'

"`I don't know, madam,' Kvant said. `Ask a policeman. There's one standing over there.'

"The woman gaped at him.

"`We're strangers here ourselves,' Kristiansson put in quickly, by way of explanation."

(Kristiansson and Kvant are officers in Solna whose eagerness to avoid work takes them over the municipal border into neighboring Stockholm and smack into the scene of the novel's central crime. Their ignorance of the lay of the land is thus plausible.)

Read more about humor in Nordic crime fiction in Mystery Readers Journal.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What do your favorite writers do less well?

I've finally found something Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö did not do well: routine description.

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966), second of the ten Martin Beck novels, takes Beck to Budapest to look for a missing Swedish journalist. His reflections on arrival are potted history and travel-guide boilerplate, the only time I have been tempted to skim rather than read Sjöwall and Wahlöö. Apologists might call the flat prose a comment on Beck's alienation or on the economics of tourism, but that would be out of character for Beck, who we are told enjoys travelling. Besides, alienation ought not to alienate the reader.

In any case, the bad bits were brief distractions, paling next to Sjöwall and Wahlöö's compelling portrayal of Beck's feeling at a loss in a country about which he knows little, whose language he cannot speak, investigating a case as baffling as the novel's title.

But that's a distraction from the day's question: What have your favorite writers tried that did not work?
The Man Who Went Up in Smoke is broadly similar to Henning Mankell's The Dogs of Riga, which takes Kurt Wallander to Latvia. Each novel is the second in its series in order of original Swedish publication.

Mankell has acknowledged Sjöwall and Wahlöö's formative influence on Swedish crime writing. Could The Dogs of Riga be in part a tribute to his great predecessors?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

South Africa from on high

A good chunk of the recent South African crime fiction I've read has focused on street-level violence and struggles to survive.

Wessel Ebersohn's The October Killings looks set to reveal glimpses of a different kind of jockeying for position:

"Almost everyone present was a member of one of two groups, each with its own agenda. One group was made up of very rich white men who were determined to keep what they had by enriching a small band of influential black men beyond any possible imaginings. The other group was made up of influential black men: politicians, senior bureaucrats, one former cabinet minister who had recently resigned to pursue richer pickings, all determined to be part of the group that was being enriched by the very rich white men."
I don't know yet what role this passage will play, whether it will figure in the main action, or function more as scene-setting, background, or color. But at this early stage, I can't help reading it as partly comic. Not all violence and strife, it reminds me, as if with a wry smile, need be carried out with guns, knives, burning tires or sharpened bicycle spokes.
(Read an interview with Wessel Ebersohn at the Crime Beat @ South Africa Web site.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Monday, January 10, 2011

Memorial day

Dashiell Hammett died fifty years ago today. Time magazine included his 1929 novel Red Harvest on a list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005, and Declan Hughes called Hammett "the Bach, the Louis Armstrong" of crime fiction. "Everything started with him." I think he was right.

Courtesy of the Thrilling Detective Web site, here are some assessments of Hammett from three guys who knew a thing or two about crime writing:

  • “If not the greatest, Dashiell Hammett is certainly the most important American mystery writer of the twentieth century, and second in history only to Edgar Allen Poe, who essentially invented the genre.”
    Tony Hillerman
  • “When I was 14 or 15 I read Hammett's The Thin Man (the first Hammett I'd read) and it was a defining moment. It was a sad, lonely, lost book, that pretended to be cheerful and aware and full of good fellowship, and I hadn't known you could do that: seem to be telling this, but really telling that; three-dimensional writing, like three-dimensional chess. Nabokov was the other master of that.”
    Donald Westlake
  • “As a novelist of realistic intrigue, Hammett was unsurpassed in his own or any time. ... We all came out from under Hammett's black mask.”
    Ross Macdonald
More recently I was stunned by the immediacy of Ned Beaumont's beating in The Glass Key. The novel is eighty years old; the scene could have been written yesterday.

Again with a hat tip to Thrilling Detective, here's a Hammett bibliography to get you started reading Detectives Beyond Borders' nominee as the greatest crime writer ever. You could do worse than the Library of America's volume of Hammett's Crime Stories and Other Writings.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Saturday, January 08, 2011

Bread, butter and crime

Or margarine rather than butter, to be frank. My recent post about Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's The Man on the Balcony singled out a meditation on the disappearance of small bakeries as a symptom of social decay.

That was the third novel in the ten-book Martin Beck series. Here's how the second novel, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, opens:
"The room was small and shabby. There were no curtains and the view outside consisted of a gray fire wall, a few rusty armatures and faded advertisement for margarine."
A grim slice of urban color? Yes, but perhaps more, as well. Back when the novel first appeared, in 1966, margarine was — at least where I came from — a weirdly artificial creation, a chemical intrusion of a ghastly white color that came in small tubs with an orange pill one could dissolve in the margarine to impart what the makers hoped was something closer to butter's natural color. So margarine could function easily as a sign of social decay, of the industrial and the chemical replacing the natural.

One need not read the passage that way, of course. (To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a greasy tub of bread lubricant is nothing more than that.) That the passage could function equally well as description and as social criticism, though, is one more sign of how good Sjöwall and Wahlöö were.
My copy is part of the excellent reissue of the entire series by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, each volume of which includes an appreciation by a noted current crime writer.

I was chuffed to find in Val McDermid's discussion of The Man Who Went Up in Smoke some of the same points raised here apropos The Man on the Balcony: that Beck was no maverick, rules-defying hero; that he functioned as part of a team; that he was no genius and possessed no extraordinary powers. McDermid also praises Sjöwall and Wahlöö's skill as plotters, a quality especially apparent to me in the first Beck novel, Roseanna.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Friday, January 07, 2011

Lone wolf or cast of thousands?

Yesterday's post, which asked Who is the hero in a Sjöwall and Wahlöö novel?, has given rise to a vigorous, ongoing discussion that suggests some practical advantages to deploying a cast of protagonists rather than a lone-wolf hero in a long-running crime-fiction series:

"As I.J. notes, it's simple common sense. The "lone wolf" detective (à la Harry Bosch), as appealing as this type can be, is not very realistic. Eventually, it's a dead end."

"another `why' might be: to keep characters and plots from growing stale."

Do multiple protagonists make it easier for an author to keep a long-running series fresh? How? Why? How do series with lone-wolf protagonists compensate?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Thursday, January 06, 2011

Who is the hero in a Sjöwall and Wahlöö novel?

Sure, Alan Blair's translation of The Man on the Balcony (1968), third of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Martin Beck mysteries, includes several instances of the word society and one of the welfare state, but much of its social observation is homelier than that:

"Kvist ... inhaled the smell of fresh-baked bread, thinking that these small bakeries were getting rare.

"Soon they'll vanish altogether and you'll be able to buy nothing but mass-produced bread in plastic wrapping and the entire Swedish nation will eat exactly the same loaves and buns and cakes."
These days Kvist might have added "... and drink the same coffee, talk on the same phone, and read the same book on the same e-reader from the same company," but the sentiment remains pertinent today.
The novel gives the thought not to Martin Beck or even to his close colleague Lennart Kollberg, but rather to Kvist, a low-ranking officer who makes an important discovery in the scene and plays no role otherwise. Later in the book, two similarly low-ranking officers make an even more important discovery purely by accident.

What is a reader to make of the juxtaposition of serendipitous breaks by underlings and the lengthy, draining, sometimes heart-rending work put in by their superiors? Is this merely a more realistic account of how investigations work? A polemical attack on the convention that a novel must have a central figure? A raspberry aimed at authority by a pair of mischievous leftists?

Whatever the reason, other Scandinavian crime writers, Karin Fossum and Håkan Nesser among them, followed Sjöwall and Wahlöö's lead, dispersing the focus away from a central figure and distributing it among a larger cast.

Why do they do this? What other authors focus more on a cast of characters than on one central figure? What effect does this have? (Please remember to write your name on your blue books before you hand in your test papers.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Alto Songo

Listening to this, can you believe that its lyrics mean this? (Here's another version, with vocal improvisations that wander from the song's narrative subject.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Monday, January 03, 2011

The Summer of the Ubume, or crime writing and ghosts

This novel crosses two borders for me, one to Japan, the other to horror.

The publisher, Vertical, calls Natsuhiko Kyogoku's The Summer of the Ubume, mystery/horror. The author loves Japanese folklore, Vertical says, especially that of the paranormal and preturnatural, with special interest in the supernatural entities called yokai . This book, Kyogoku's 1994 debut, "gives birth to a new form of Japanese fiction," according to the publisher. Vertical also calls Kyogoku "the Neil Gaiman of Japanese mystery fiction."

Now, horror is not generally my cup of reading tea, but I do like the wry humor and sense of dislocation in The Summer of the Ubume's opening chapter. The opening perches on the verge of excess without going over:

"At the very top of the hill, where the lackadaisical, interminable slope petered out at last, sat my destination: Kyogokudo."
Want to know what Kyogokudo is? You'll have to wait til the bottom of the page. I've met no yokai yet, as far as I know, but Kyogoku knows how to build suspense from the beginning.

This will be a rare excursion in the world of ghosts for me. How about you? What are your thoughts on ghosts, spirits, and other other-worldly matteres in crime witing?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Sunday, January 02, 2011

Crime fiction that sticks up for the little guy

This bit from Lord Jim:

"I pointed out to him that the skipper of the Patna was known to have feathered his nest pretty well, and could procure almost anywhere the means of getting away. With Jim it was otherwise: the Government was keeping him in the Sailors' Home for the time being, and probably he hadn't a penny in his pocket to bless himself with. It costs some money to run away."
reminded me of this from The Big Sleep:

"Carol Lundgren, the boy killer with the limited vocabulary, was out of circulation for a long, long time, even if they didn't strap him in a chair over a bucket of acid. They wouldn't, because he would take a plea and save the county money. They all do when they don't have the price of a big lawyer."
Both are matter-of-fact recognitions of money's power to buy or evade justice. What's your favorite example of crime writing that sticks up for the little guy or at least recognizes his plight?

A search preparatory to this post turned up this oddity: a bilingual edition of The Big Sleep with facing text in English and Russian. Here's
how to say

"`What’s your name?'

"`Reilly,' I said. `Doghouse Reilly.'"

in Russian:

- Как вас зовут?

- Рейли, - ответил я. - Догхауз Рейли.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Saturday, January 01, 2011

Season's greetings!

नया साल का अभिनन्दन!

새해복 많이 받으세요!

Godt nytår!


Prost Neujahr!

Kia hari te tau hou!

Kali xronia!

שנה טובה

Gott nytt år!

Feliz ano novo!

عام سعيد

Bonne année!

புத்தாண்டு வாழ்த்துக்கள்!

Farsælt komandi ár!


Gelukkige nuwe jaar!

Itumelele ngwaga o mosha!

Yeni yılınızı kutlar, sağlık ve başarılar dileriz!


Unyaka omusha omuhle!


Bliain úr faoi shéan is faoi mhaise duit!


Felice anno nuovo!

or, as we say in mine country:

Happy New Year! (And why not celebrate with this New Year's song, my first discovery of 2011?)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011