Monday, February 28, 2011

Damon Runyon is hard-boiled more than somewhat

Contractions run rampant in my newspaper; we could use a man like Damon Runyon again.

But the writer whose stories of Prohibition-era Broadway inspired Guys and Dolls was more than just colorful nicknames and eccentric grammar, and even that grammar may have had a point.

I'm giving Runyon another try on account of a blonde doll who is putting her hands on her hips and giving me the eye and saying: "Big Pete! I am reading Damon Runyon's stories, and I am liking them, and I am very much wanting to know what you intend to do about this."

The story she suggested begins like this:
"One night I am standing in front of Mindy's restaurant on Broadway, thinking of practically nothing whatever, when all of a sudden I feel a very terrible pain in my left foot."
and ends— well, the ending, has the same off-beat grammar and syntax and rough good humor, but it's a whole lot darker. And that's why Runyon, at least some of him, still makes it as a crime writer today. But why take my word for it? You can read the story, "Sense of Humor," yourself.

And then you can take a look at a contemporary Irish crime writer's homage to Runyon.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Sunday, February 27, 2011

A message from New Zealand

"Kia ora from shaky New Zealand,

"As many of you will know, on Tuesday at 12:51pm NZT the city of Christchurch, which suffered a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in September last year, was struck by another massive earthquake - this time much shallower and more violent. This earthquake is completely different to last year's one, which caused massive property and infrastructure damage, but we were blessed with no loss of life. As of this morning NZT, more than 100 are dead, and another 220+ missing, and hundreds badly injured. There have been no signs of life from under any rubble for more than 36 hours, which is heartbreaking for the more than 1000 rescuers, from several countries, who are working their way through what is a pretty dangerous environment.

"I now live in Auckland, but I went to University in Christchurch, so have many, many friends living in what is/was a wonderful city. Those I have talked to/emailed/texted/FB-ed are safe but badly shaken, but there are several I've not yet heard about.

"As the days go on the people of Christchurch will need a lot of help. There will be months, even years, of rebuilding, and as of today more than half the city is still without power/water. Organisations like the Red Cross and many others are doing some fantastic work, supported by caring people from all over New Zealand, and all around the world.

"I know this is meant to be a crime writing discussion group, and I apologise for using it for something else - but I just thought I should share with you some ways you could help, if you felt like doing so. All of us down this end of the world would appreciate it, that's for sure.

"California mystery writer and Professor Margot Kinberg is setting up a charity raffle — "Do the Write Thing" — of signed mystery novels, to raise funds. Several authors have already donated signed copies of their books, and she is looking for more, so she can create the biggest/best raffle possible. People will enter the raffle by donating to the Red Cross. If you are a mystery author willing to help out, please contact Margot at

"You can read more about Do the Write Thing here:

"I have also placed on my website information about various ways to donate/get involved here:

"I know we are all busy with many things in our lives, but I would urge you all to consider helping in any way you can, and feel comfortable doing. The crime and mystery writing community — writers, readers, and reviewers etc — is a very connected one, with a great sense of community and camaraderie. Christchurch was the home of NZ's most well-known mystery novelist, Dame Ngaio Marsh, and the current home of several NZ crime writers (the three I have contacted, including Paul Cleave who some of you met at Harrogate, are all safe, but badly shaken). It would be terrific if we could all pull together and help them out.

"Thanks for reading. Again, I apologise for doing a non-review, mystery discussion post. I hope you understand that at the moment for me and many others in NZ, some other things just take precedence right now.

"Kia Kaha from Aotearoa.

"Craig Sisterson"

© Peter Rozovsky 2011


Saturday, February 26, 2011

A bit about Russel D. McLean's "The Lost Sister"

One of the stupider complaints when Peter Temple's Truth won Australia's Miles Franklin literary award was a blog comment that no crime novel could ever deserve such a prize. And Truth is not only a crime novel, it even has a damaged cop in it!

Russel D. McLean's protagonist is an ex-cop-turned PI who quit the force, punched a superior, lost a fiancée, and hurt his leg. The dude is so damaged that he's even lost his first name (we know him only as J McNee). So McLean must be shite, right?

But he isn't, and The Lost Sister, the young Dundonian's second book, is a reminder that genre conventions can be useful templates, themes on which an interesting, interested writer can build variations.

McLean's theme is emotions. McNee struggles with his own and wonders about everyone else's. He makes wrong guesses, and then he wonders why. He gets the job done, albeit messily, and, without resorting to the easy out of a happy ending, McLean ends this sometimes sad book on a note of modest, small-scale optimism. And if the theme is emotions, one of McLean's variations is that not all McNee's emotions are of the alcohol-fueled, revenge-bent, self-pitying kind. I don't remember him taking a drink anywhere in the book.

McLean does a fair job of building suspense, too, and for a good part of the book I was as puzzled as McNee was about the title character. And that means McLean is a dab hand at misdirection.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Have you ever seen the rein?

I'm reading a crime novel now that has someone "reign(ing) back" her behavior when the correct word would have been rein(ing). The book also spells a character's name two different ways in its opening chapters and goes on to alternate between the two spellings.

This is a book I like from a largish house that publishes an excellent crime-fiction list. When even high-quality publishers get this sloppy, I believe we are seeing proof of what has long been evident to those of us in the publishing industries: Cut back on quality control, and you cut back on quality.
N.B. Though I received this book from the publisher, it is between hard covers, and there is no indication that it is an uncopyedited proof or advance readers' copy (ARC), and therefore not to be quoted from. Still, I'll check a copy on a store's shelf before I get any more specific.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

They won me in a book!

Christopher G. Moore has lived in and written about Thailand for more than twenty years. His new book of essays reveals what he has learned about the country, about writing, and about writing about the country.

What's the book about? Here are the titles of its four sections:
  • "Perspectives on crime fiction writing"
  • "Clues to solving cultural mysteries"
  • "Observations from the frontlines"
  • "Outside the Southeast Asia comfort zone," in which Moore leaves Thailand for odd adventures in India
The book's introduction is called "Introduction." I wrote it, and you can read it, along with the rest of the book, in your own free copy. Just be one of the first three people to answer this skill-testing question correctly:
Japan is the Land of the Rising Sun. Korea is the Land of the Morning Calm. What is Thailand's amiable nickname?
Readers in England, Oregon and Australia knew that Thailand is nicknamed "The Land of Smiles." Copies of The Cultural Detective will soon he headed their way. Congratulations, and enjoy the book.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Monday, February 21, 2011

William Gibson's crime-inflected science fiction

Science-fiction has never been my genre, and it may not be after I'm done with Burning Chrome, either. But the gritty urban settings and fatalistic attitudes in this collection of early short stories by William Gibson ought to make interesting reading for crime fiction fans.

The opening pages of "Johnny Mnemonic" especially read like a good-natured nod to hard-boiled detectives, with the protagonist preparing for a meeting in sleazy bar with a man who owes him money. ("The meet was set ... " Where else would you see meet for meeting but in a hard-boiled crime story?)

The preface by Bruce Sterling, while acknowledging the importance of pop culture in Gibson's work, does not acknowledge crime fiction. But it does include this description of Gibson's world:
"Rather than the usual passionless techies and rock-ribbed Competent Men of hard SF, his characters are a pirate's crew of losers, hustlers, spin-offs, cast-offs and lunatics."
That could describe David Goodis' world or Jim Thompson's or Ken Bruen's. The stories intersect with noir writing in one other interesting way: their general refusal to offer death (or, in its sci-fi version, apocalypse) as an easy way out.

So, Gibson's cyberpunk shares elements with the harder, darker, grittier end of crime writing. What are your favorite examples of genre mixing, jumping, and crossbreeding?
The book's introduction by Gibson himself has already debunked one popular misconception for me. Gibson did, indeed, coin the word cyberspace, but not in his 1984 novel Neuromancer. Rather, the word first appears in "Burning Chrome," written in 1981 and published in 1982.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Words, words, anachronistic words

A crime novel I am reading now that was copyrighted in 2010 but set in 1953 includes the following:
"He had personally and with great deliberation planned a mission that even the most naive GI could see was a clusterfuck waiting to unfold."
The problem (other than that I've never liked the word clusterfuck) is that its occurence in 1953 appears to be an anachronism. Wiktionary says the word was "Reportedly coined by the hippie poet Ed Sanders in the 1960s." Another source traces the first usage to 1966.

What anachronisms have you come across in your reading? How badly did they bother you?
(Here's a post I made a few months ago on how vocabulary contributes to a novel's sense of time and place.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

A lecture that wasn't and a South African murder that was

Every sturdy, pug-faced man looked like a proud Afrikaner made good, every tall, cool, fur-swathed blonde woman like a trophy wife out from her gated, electrified, alarmed Cape Town palace.

Except F.W. de Klerk's Philadelphia speech turned out to be scheduled for Monday and not tonight, as I had thought when I accepted the tickets from a colleague who couldn't use them, and the crowd was there to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra play Wagner, Beethoven and Prokofiev. There probably wasn't an Afrikaner, Zulu, Xhosa, Indian or Englishman in the place.

The evening was not a total loss from a crime perspective, though. I'd heard de Klerk speak before -- in 1993, with Nelson Mandela, when the two men received Philadelphia's Liberty Medal for engineering South Africa's transition from apartheid to democracy. But I didn't know until tonight that de Klerk's ex-wife had been murdered in 2001, in a crime that drew high-level outrage in South Africa. A young security guard received two life sentences for the killing and, as nearly as I can gather from my brief, casual research, thus ended the case.

But one can imagine what passion and paranoia the crime must have stirred even seven years after South Africa's first democratic elections. Who would want to kill the ex-wife of the country's last apartheid-era president? White nationalists enraged that de Klerk had given away the store? Black nationalists enraged by apartheid-era oppression?

Now, since my knowledge of the crime's history is approximately zero, everything in this post could be sheer nonsense. But the affair has me wondering how long it takes for a society shaken by revolution or war to become "normal" when it comes to crime. How long before the public stops seeing crimes as aftershocks of history and instead attributes them to "normal" causes like greed, lust and random violence?
I did buy a newish South African crime novel by an author whose work I have not read. More, possibly, to follow.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Friday, February 18, 2011

The week's best line

"She shook her head slowly, lowering it, so that now her dark eyes looked up at me under the thin arcs of her brows.

"`You speak only of money,' she said. `I said you may have whatever you ask.'

"That was out. I don't know where these women get their ideas."

— "The Gutting of Couffignal"
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Why books are better than TV, Part II

I copy-edited a review this week of a new television show about killers whose work "is frequently horrific beyond anything any normal TV writer would ever think up."

"Thankfully," the reviewer wrote, "we don’t see [the murderer] killing the tykes, just their remains, unearthed along with the poor dead kids’ dollies. We do get to spend quality time, however, with the lunatic, as he torments some of his still-living 8-year-old victims."

"Disgusting," he concludes, and I'm apt to agree. But that's not the point. Rather, the point is that his review sounds like a rerun of the torture-porn debate that has cropped up in discussions of crime fiction for a few years now. Once again, television follows where crime fiction has already trod.

Where else has it done so? Think of The Wire. What inevitably capped the litanies of praise for that much-praised show, with its large cast and season-long story arcs? "It's just like a novel!"

Why is fiction the standard by which dramatic television is judged? Does TV inevitably follow trends rather than set them? If so, why? Has any critic ever said that a novel is "just like television!"? Was this meant as praise?

My paper's critic also wrote that the show's investigator-protagonists "will pursue the evildoers, constantly explaining to each other, and to an audience that apparently abhors ambiguity, exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it."

Here's part of what I wrote two years ago in my original "Why books are better than television" post:
"That shortcoming is especially noticeable in shows about forensic investigation, where characters will recite aloud to one another lines like "In some respects, he meets the typical profile: White male, 30 to 35 years old, lives alone, good job, some graduate school. You know, I bet he tends not to have many friends and has trouble forming relationships with women." Real investigators would know this stuff and would not need to spout it to each other. The actors' delivery is invariably wooden, and the scenes destroy the suspension of disbelief that is necessary for drama or fiction to work. In fiction, this sort of thing is called an information dump. In television, it's called Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The key to Hammett

"I don't like eloquence: if it isn't effective enough to pierce your hide, it's tiresome; and if it is effective enough, then it muddles your thoughts."

— The Continental Op in
Dashiell Hammett's story
"Zigzags of Treachery" (1924)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Will `indy' e-books kill translated fiction?

The estimable Christa Faust wonders what the rise of electronic and independent publishing will mean for translated fiction:

“If `indy' eBooks are the wave of the future, will translation and foreign editions become a thing of the past? Will each country (or each group of people who share a common language) become like a literary island, reading only their own books?”
Christa's apprehensions appear to me plausible, at least in the short term. The exacting labor of translation seems ill-suited to the supposedly liberating amateurism of electronic self- and independent publishing.

Will translators want to bring their skills to bear on a publishing model whose financial return is uncertain at best? If not, what will happen to the market for translated writing?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Monday, February 14, 2011

This day in crime fiction history

The Maltese Falcon was published in book form eighty-one years ago today, which makes it the perfect gift for the crime-loving loved one in your life. (The novel had previously been serialized in Black Mask.)

Here's a trailer for John Huston's 1941 film version
, the third, best-known, and best movie made of the novel.
A first edition of The Maltese Falcon in near-fine condition might be a bit pricey for your beloved. If you don't have $136,000 (plus $7.25 for shipping), you might try the Library of America Hammett volumes instead (one containing his crime novels, the other short stories and other writings), or Hammett books from Vince Emery Productions that have guided me through Hammett's fiction and through the streets of his San Francisco.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Crime on stage

Peter Lovesey's next Peter Diamond novel, Stagestruck, is set in and around Bath's Theater Royal.

The stage seems a natural setting for a crime story, doesn't it, thriving as it does on disguise and deception. Lovesey, that most ingenious of crime writers, does something else as well. He has a supporting player on the police force whose only dialogue is clownishly baroque wordplay.

The verbal games remind the reader that the simplest statement can be twisted into any number of meanings — surely appropriate for a mystery story. And they drive Peter Diamond entertainingly batty.

Such over-the-top verbal business might be a distraction in an otherwise realistic police novel. Here, the character is like a commedia dell'arte clown, thrown into the mix to stir things up.

Now, here's a question you'll likely be able to answer more readily that I could: What other crime writers have set stories in the world of the theater? Why did they choose those settings? What do such settings add to the story?
I'll start you off: Dame Ngaio Marsh.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Friday, February 11, 2011

Why Edgar Allan Poe crossed borders

Here's the sort of unexpected answer I had in mind when I asked yesterday why crime writers set stories overseas:
"`There's something about Poe's work that's not very American. He's not a naturalist. He's not a realist.' The French were ready and waiting for what Poe had to offer: `Maybe it takes an older civilization to feel comfortable with the dark side and be able to enjoy it.'"
That was Poe scholar Shelley Costa Bloomfield one morning bright and early in the town of Baltimore (at Bouchercon 2008). The subject was why the American Poe chose a French hero (C. Auguste Dupin) and setting (Paris) when he invented the detective story, and why the real-life Mary Cecilia Rogers, who disappeared in New York in 1838, became Marie Rogêt, found dead in the Seine in "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt."

That's my favorite reason for setting a crime story abroad. What's yours?
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Why do crime writers set stories overseas?

My recent immersion in Dashiell Hammett implies no abandonment of international crime fiction. Hammett set "Ber-Belu" in the Philippines and "The Road Home" in Burma, and his friend Raoul Whitfield spent part of his life in the Philippines and set an entire series of stories there.

Henning Mankell took Kurt Wallander to Latvia in The Dogs of Riga, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö sent Martin Beck to Budapest in The Man Who Went up in Smoke, and Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole does some far-flung travelling in a pair of books not yet available in English.
What other crime writers send their protagonists overseas? Why do they do this, and what does it add to a story? Have crime writers' reasons for setting stories overseas changed over time? (Keywords: Wanderlust, exotica, curiosity, exploration, Edgar Allan Poe.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The BBC gets it wrong on hard-boiled fiction

(At right, poster for a movie based on Ernest Hemingway's effort in a genre previously pioneered by Carroll John Daly and perfected by Dashiell Hammett.)

In a recent BBC program about Raymond Chandler, John Sutherland asserts that Ernest Hemingway invented the hard-boiled story with "The Killers." He makes this assertion even though Dashiell Hammett had already published more than twenty Continental Op stories when "The Killers" appeared in 1927 (Not 1928, as Sutherland says. He gets the year wrong, too.)

Hammett had already written and published "The Girl With the Silver Eyes," "The House in Turk Street," "The Golden Horseshoe," "The Whosis Kid," "The Gutting of Couffignal" and "The Big Knockover" by the time Ernest Hemingway "invented" the hard-boiled story, in other words.

Why do you think the BBC got it wrong? Is John Sutherland so insecure or such a snob that he has to invent a noble lineage for hard-boiled writing to justify his own affinity for it? Or is the man who shoots Princess Zafrina in the leg at the end of "The Gutting of Couffignal" really soft-boiled in some essential way that Hemingway's characters were not?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Monday, February 07, 2011

Malcolm X and Dashiell Hammett

Malcolm X used to relate an exchange he had with a black academic that went something like this:

"`Do you know what white people call a black man with a Ph.D.?'

"He said something like, `I do not believe I happen to be aware of the term in question.'

"`Then I laid the word down on him as brutally as I had ever done: Nigger.'"
Dashiell Hammett's 1933 short story "Night Shade" ends with a similar confrontation (though the tone is more rueful than harsh), and it had some influential readers. Twenty years after the story appeared, according to Hammett's Lost Stories (published in 2005 and not to be confused with the new batch of lost stories), Roy Cohn quizzed Hammett about it. Yes, the infamous lawyer's questions included "When you wrote this short story, `Night Shade,' were you a member of the Communist Party?"

"Night Shade" demonstrates Hammett's skill at imagining and executing a surprise twist, and that's a double accomplishment. He wrote a short, atmospheric tale, recognizably of the nocturnal, criminal Hammett milieu, about a pressing social problem, and he carried it off without a hint of the sanctimonious, the didactic or the preachy. And the ending, contrived as it seems, works. The man could have been O. Henry had he wanted to.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Saturday, February 05, 2011

Catch me in the Guardian ... while you can!

That man of the world Adrian McKinty alerted me to Noam Chomsky's commentary on Egypt this week on the Guardian's Web site. Whatever one thinks of Chomsky's politics, his prose style leaves much to be desired, and I wrote as much in a comment at the Guardian's site yesterday.

By today, my comment had been replaced by a notice that "This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn't abide by our community standards."

So I hardly expect my reply to last any longer. In case it, too, has been deemed to fall short of the Guardian's community standards by the time you get around to clicking the link at the beginning of this sentence, here it is:
6 February 2011 2:28AM

I have learned much about the Guardian's editorial policy from this debate. One may safely accuse authors and commenters of communism, fascism, anti-semitism, anti-Arabism, anti-Americanism, pro-Americanism, depravity, degeneracy, illiteracy, stupidity, and bad spelling, but dare suggest — not state outwardly, not even imply, but merely
suggest — that a prominent author gets hands-off treatment from editors, and your comment will be removed faster than if you criticized the British Royal Family at Speaker's [sic--author's error] Corner.

Recommend? (2)
Right on schedule, the Guardian has deleted that comment, too. So it's official: Criticism of the Guardian on the Guardian's Web site is verboten.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Thursday, February 03, 2011

James McClure and why I want to read his biography

I asked recently which crime writers deserve to be subjects of biographies. Here's someone I want to read about: James McClure.

Why McClure? Because he's a seminal figure in South African crime fiction, cited and paid homage to by such disparate authors as Michael Stanley and Roger Smith. Because he was born and began his professional life in South Africa but published no crime novels until after he'd left for the U.K. But mostly because he combined unsparing looks at apartheid-era South Africa with an obvious affection for English village mysteries, and because he did all this in suspenseful, skillfully written police procedurals. His books include amusement, irony and reflection that might remind readers of William McIlvanney. If nothing else, I want to know what books McClure liked.

The immediate occasion for this post is 1975 story "Scandal at Sandkop," available at Crime Beat (South Africa). It's not quite up there with the Kramer and Zondi mysteries, but its combination of village-mystery devices (the story even includes arsenic) and convincing local detail, hard edges included, is typically McClure.

Soho Crime has reissued The Steam Pig and The Caterpillar Cop, the first and has plans to reprint the remaining six. That worthy house has rendered to greater service to crime-fiction readers.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

A James McClure story online

Mike Nicol, whose mother probably cried, "He's indefatigable!" when she gave birth to him, has come up with another special treat on his Crime Beat (South Africa) Web site: a short story by James McClure, author of the seminal Kramer and Zondi mysteries. The story is called "Scandal at Sandkop," and you can read it by clicking on the title.

I've written quite a bit about McClure in the past year. Read those posts and discussions here.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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