Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Matt Rees' latest, plus a question about outsiders in America

(Apologies for the possibly unsightly paragraphing. Thanks, Blogger.)

Matt Rees said at a reading a few years ago that his novels offered a tour of the Palestinian world. The first three were set in Bethlehem, Gaza and Nablus; next up, he said, were Beirut and Brooklyn.

Turns out he was joking — about Beirut. He set The Fourth Assassin, his fourth novel about a Palestinian schoolteacher named Omar Yussef, largely in Brooklyn's Bay Ridge section, with detours to the United Nations.

The book only slowly works its way to the central mystery: Who killed a friend of Omar's son, and how will Omar get his son off the hook?

In the meantime, Rees, a Welshman who lives in Jerusalem writing about a Palestinian in New York, offers a hundred pictures of the city through unfamiliar eyes: "the slippery, unwelcoming seats" of the N train, the Palestinian Americans, one a police officer, whom Rees uses as mouthpieces for any number of equivocal opinions about the old country and the new one, and my favorite of the bunch:

"Outside a store selling greeting cards and bumper stickers, Khamis Zeydan stopped to read aloud: `"Hatred is not a family value–Koran 49:13." The Koran says that?'

"`In that verse, Allah says he "made you into nations and tribes, so that you might get to know each other,"' Omar Yussef said.

"`So this is the dumb American version?'

"`What do you want from them? It's only a bumper sticker.'"

Read the Detectives Beyond Borders interview with Matt Rees. Then think about this:

Who are your favorite outsider protagonists and why? What are the attractions for a reader of a story about a stranger in a strange land? What are the attractions for an author?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Yang Hengjun is missing

Chinese Australian spy novelist and blogger Yang Hengjun has disappeared in China after reporting he was being followed. Here's a creepy excerpt from his Fatal Weakness.

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Monday, March 28, 2011

Sumer time, and the living is easy

After yesterday's post about Babylonian law codes, crime, and beer, I'm bringing back this old post (with some new thoughts added). I originally titled it "A noir story set in Iraq," and it's about a proto-crime story even older than the Babylonians.

And it includes an invasion of Lebanon.

OK, it's not all noir, and its setting was not called Iraq 4,600 years ago, when the title character lived, or 2,700 years ago, when the most complete version of the tale was set down.

The story is The Epic of Gilgamesh, called simply Gilgamesh in Stephen Mitchell's 2004 version, and, in addition to being one of the most stirring stories ever told, it offers what is likely world literature's first femme fatale.
In this scene, Ishtar, played by Joan Bennett or Mary Astor, says:
"Come here, Gilgamesh ...
marry me, give me your luscious fruits
be my husband, be my sweet man ... "
to which Gilgamesh, played by Sterling Hayden or Humphrey Bogart, replies, in part,
"Which of your husbands did you love forever?
Which could satisfy your endless desires?
Let me remind you of how they suffered,
how each one came to a bitter end,"
rejecting her advances as surely as Sam Spade rejected Brigid O'Shaughnessy's at the end of The Maltese Falcon. And then:
"Ishtar shrieked, she exploded with fury."
Not all Gilgamesh's femmes are fatales. Shamhat seduces Gilgamesh's future sidekick, Enkidu, in one of the sexiest scenes in any ancient epic, but the sex civilizes the feral giant rather than threatening his downfall. Still, the scary Ishtar and the stoic Gilgamesh earn the epic a place on history's list of proto-noir and proto-crime classics.

Ishtar, or DINGIR INANNA in Akkadian, kicks even more butt in "Descent of Ishtar to the Nether World," threatening the gatekeeper that:
"If thou openest not the gate so that I cannot enter
I will smash the door, I will shatter the bolt,
I will smash the doorpost, I will move the doors,
I will raise the up the dead, eating the living,
So that the dead will outnumber the living."
Needless to say, she gets in. She also does a slow strip along the way, and whoever called the netherworld "the house which none leave who have entered it ... the road from which there is no way back" had not met Ishtar.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008, 2011

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Babylon, I'm going to babble on

Lawyers are well represented among the pirlas who bedevil my evenings at the Pen & Pencil Club, but I always love reading about the law in older societies.

Most recently the Laws of Eshnunna and the Code of Hammurabi got me thinking about the societies of ancient Mesopotamia — and about what kinds of crime stories one could set in those societies.

As nearly as I can tell, legal life in the ancient Near East involved property, contracts, and beer. The forty-first article of the Laws of Eshnunna, for example, specifies that
"If an unbarum, a naptarum or a mudum wants to sell his beer, the sabitum shall sell his beer for him at the current price."
And what are unbarum, naptarum and mudum? "Social classes who seem to be entitled to a ration of beer." *

(Sumerian beer tablet)

Not that Eshnunnites were entirely licentious. The forty-second article provides penalties for possible results of excessive consumption of that price-controlled brew:
"If a man bites the nose off another man and severs it, he shall pay 1 mina of silver ... "

The edict of Hammurabi's great-great-grandson Ammisaduqa, meanwhile, suggests that beer was a valued, carefully regulated commodity and that Mesopotamian barmaids were not to be messed with:
"A taverness who has given beer or barley as a loan may not collect any of what she had given as a loan. A taverness or a merchant who ... dishonest weight shall die."
I don't know about you, but I see vast potential for Prohibition-like gangster tales and strong female characters.
* Pritchard, The Ancient Near East (Princeton 2010), page 153, note 10.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Emotional rescue: Russel D. McLean talks about The Lost Sister

Russel D. McLean is a young crime novelist and thrifty tippler from Dundee, Scotland. His second book, The Lost Sister, is newly out in the U.S. from St. Martin's, and Russel is doing a round of the blogs to promote it. In the latest installment of his tour, he talks about a notable aspect of his writing and his one-named protagonist, J McNee.

Ladies and gentlemen, Russel D. McLean.
Being a Scotsman, I was the perfect person for Peter Rozovsky to ask about the price of a gin and tonic at 2010’s San Francisco Bouchercon. After all, we do like to know where our money’s going and I can tell you this: those drinks were expensive.

How did I know?

I didn’t need two litres of Irn Bru* to recover after a night in the bar.

But I admire Peter for more than just his ability to sense when he’s being overcharged at a bar. His dedication to the world of crime fiction is to be truly admired, so when he asked me to guest here on DBB as part of my blog tour promotion for the US release of The Lost Sister, I jumped at the chance.

After all, he’s one of the people who got the book, in my humble estimation. In his recent critique of the novel, Peter picked up on more than a few points that I felt were absolutely vital to what I was trying to do with the novel. In particular, he picked up on the book being about emotions.

I am not – and this will be clear to anyone who’s heard me wax lyrical on the subject – a fan of what I see as “puzzle” mysteries, where the object is to solve whodunit or to merely catch the killer (you might as well be trying to catch the pigeon along with Dick Dastardly and Mutley for all that it eventually matters). While these things can indeed be part and parcel of a good crime story, I’ve always been more interested in the emotional states of the invested parties. If there’s a mystery I’d like to solve, it’s the mystery of why people react the way they do in certain situations.

The thrill of a good crime story for me is seeing the ways in which characters react to unusual and unsettling situations. The measure of a character for me is in the way they are affected either by direct involvement with or being witness to something unusual, something that breaks the status quo. Whether or not that status quo is eventually restored is less important to me than uncovering the ways in which people try to pick up their lives.

I guess that’s why I don’t write about a police officer. There is a natural degree of detachment that comes with the police officer as an authority figure that never appealed to me as a writer. A private investigator falls midway between being a civilian and having a professional interest in a case. They have a clear goal, a mission, and yet they are not so bound by rules and procedure as the copper might be.

They can walk where uniforms fear to tread.

There’s also the fact that having an investigator as your protagonist means you can come at a case sideways. A copper will always have to investigate after a crime. They are rarely in the midst of the transgression. A PI can never start with a body. They are not police and they should not be used as a rogue substitute. Their professional remit is different.

More personal.

More emotive.

More involved.

The eye allowed me to adopt an investigative stance while still looking at the way in which people are affected by crime and transgressive acts. McNee’s own emotions are as much of a puzzle to him as those of others. His own motivations require as much interrogation as those who fall under his professional gaze.

I’ve said it many times before that crime fiction is the perfect genre. That it allows authors to not only tell a story that moves, that twists, that surprises and thrills, but also to lay deeper groundwork. The nature of crime is naturally emotive and through characters and their attitudes, crime can explore issues of personal morality, of value, of empathy and so much more. In short, if we want to, we can beat the literary boys at their own game (and we often do).

So yes, The Lost Sister is a novel about a man searching for a missing girl. It is a novel about some very dangerous people. There are scenes of violence. There are plot twists and misdirections.

And at the same time, as Peter said, The Lost Sister is a novel about emotions. About loss. About the search for a kind of redemption and whether such a thing is even possible.

You can read it as one or the other. Or both. I just hope you enjoy it.
The Lost Sister is out now from St Martin’s in hardback and e-book. In the UK, Russel’s books are available in paperback from Five Leaves Publications.
*Irn Bru is Scotland’s best hangover cure. Unofficially. Officially it’s a delicious fizzy beverage. The hangover cure’s just a side effect.
Visit the previous stops on Russel McLean's blog tour for The Lost Sister:Tomorrow he visits:

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Gimme Shelta: Win a copy of Falling Glass

Adrian McKinty's novel Falling Glass is, as readers of this blog may know,
  • A meditation on aging
  • A dream of escape from urban life
  • An expression of love for Ulster
  • An expression of disdain for professional `Oirishness'
  • A hard look at what economic disaster means to those not at the top of the heap
  • A scathing attack on the cynical oligarchy of money, power and protection that crosses Northern Ireland's sectarian lines
  • A similarly scathing attack on the cult of the self-made millionaire
  • A reminder that politics is personal
  • A series of homages to Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, the Coen brothers, Ken Bruen, Ernest Hemingway, The Godfather, Sergio Leone, and Warren Zevon
  • A globe-hopping tale of quest that manages the difficult feat of seeming alternately leisurely and fast-paced, as necessary
Now you can win a copy of the book, signed and personalized by McKinty himself, if you're the first to answer this skill-testing question:

What is Shelta? (Hints: 1) The answer is relevant to the novel, and 2) Be as specific as possible.)
We have a winner! Kathy from Texas knew that Shelta is a language spoken by Travellers in Ireland and also Great Britain. The protagonist of Falling Glass is himself an Irish Traveller and spends a fair bit of quality time among an encampment of Travellers in the book. Congratulations to Kathy, and here's a bit about Shelta and its history.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Do first-time novelists outline too much?

I'm about fifty pages into a debut crime novel that's full of evocative description, especially of observations about urban rise, gentrification and decline that probe deeper than the usual run of such things.

Characters show promise of interacting in unexpected ways even as they fill roles familiar for the genre. (The book is a police procedural.) So what's my complaint? Well, it's no complaint, just an observation.

As the author moves the building blocks of the story into place, I can too easily, er, see him moving building blocks into place. An observation here seems designed to set up a conflict there. Characters make references that seem obviously calculated to create obstacles for the protagonist later on.

Now, a novel is a complex undertaking, and I suppose everything should make sense in some way or other. But I want to be able to suspend my disbelief and to be able to feel that I am seeing a story unfold naturally.

So, I suspect that the author may have outlined and planned a little too carefully, which is why I'll read his second book with special interest when it appears to see if he loosens up a little.
I'm not revealing the name of the author or the book yet because I'm still early in the reading, and everything I have written could turn out to be nonsense. But I have this idea, without any evidence to back it up, that excessive outlining may be an occupational hazard for first-time novelists. What do you think? (Comments from authors welcome. Did you over-outline in your first book?)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

“Nerts, you're scared to.”

This post's title is a line from Raymond Chandler's story Killer in the Rain,” much of which later found a home in The Big Sleep.

Chandler often reused characters and situations this way. Among other things, the practice encourages readers to compare the stories to the novels and to wonder, “What if Chandler had done things differently?"

“Killer in the Rain” includes the smut bookstore, the blackmail, the shooting on Laverne Terrace, the car plunging off the pier, and the wayward daughter readers will know and love from The Big Sleep. The young woman's name is Carmen in both versions. In the novel, she's Carmen Sternwood, daughter of Gen. Guy Sternwood, an oil millionaire. In the story the father is a more quintessentially American self-made man:

“Dravec, Anton or Tony. Former Pittsburgh steelworker, truck guard, all-around muscle stiff. Made a wrong pass and got shut up. Left town, came West. Worked on an avocado ranch at El Seguro. Came up with a ranch of his own. Sat right on the dome when the El Seguro oil boom burst. Got rich. Lost a lot of it buying into other people's dusters. Still has enough. Serbian by birth, six feet, two hundred and forty, one daughter, never known to have had a wife. No police record of any consequence. None at all since Pittsburgh.”
That's a character I'd like to have known more about.

Sadly, nerts has lost the currency it enjoyed in Chandler's day. I'll try to say “Aw, nerts” at least once this month. Won't you do the same?

In the meantime, what expressions have found their way from your books into your vocabulary? I've always loved one picturesque way that Andrea Camilleri has his protagonist, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, express exasperation:
“The inspector cursed the saints.”
— The Wings of the Sphinx

“Cursing the saints, he flipped onto his back and did the dead man’s float.”
— Rounding the Mark

“Cursing the saints, he got up, went into the bathroom, turned on the shower, and lathered himself up. All at once the water ran out.”
— The Snack Thief
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Monday, March 21, 2011

Down These Green Streets

You've read about it here, and now Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century is finally here. Read more here.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

"As inarticulate as the feeling of a Newfoundlander for rum"

Here's a bit from Murder Over Dorval (1952) by David Montrose, second in Véhicule Press' Ricochet series of vintage Canadian hard-boiled reprints:
"You take these great, over-engined, chrome-bedizened American monstrosities of cars … they now have gears that change themselves. To someone who likes to drive a car, that’s about as sensible as a machine for making babies would be to anyone who likes to manufacture them naturally.

“My Riley is different. My Riley takes a delicate hand on the gear lever, like a good jockey's grip on a racehorse’s reins. And the results are about the same. About the time I’m going fifty, when I’m just ready to shift into high, I can look in the rear-view mirror and the American cars that got away from the stop light the same time I did are a blur in the distance."

The Riley was a British car, yet the prose here would not be out of place in a U.S. paperback original. A blend of British and American. That's one good way to think about Canada, at least in the middle of the last century.
For a uniquely Canadian touch, here's how protagonist Russell Teed loves the car he has just described for you:
“ … I’d tell you how much I love it if I could, but the feeling of a car-lover for his machine is as inarticulate as the feeling of a Newfoundlander for rum: you just have to sense it.”

Here's my post on The Crime on Cote des Neiges, the first of the David Montrose reprints from Véhicule.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

From the city of angels: Bangkok Noir

If you happen to be near the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand on April 2, why not drop in on a book signing for Bangkok Noir from Heaven Lake Press?

The collection's twelve short stories include contributions from John Burdett, Colin Cotterill, Timothy Hallinan, Pico Iyer and others, Thai and non-Thai. (See the complete contents here.)

Here are some excerpts from Christopher G. Moore's introduction:

"The potential list of subjects is long, but the stories in this collection will give more than a few insights into the Thai noir world. The idea of the national sport, Muay Thai — a combination of ballet, boxing, kicking and kneeing — is pure noir." [Take note, Christa Faust.]

"If noir is looking a little tired in the West, in Thailand it has all the energy and courage of a kid from upcountry who thinks the Khmer tattoos on his body will stop bullets."

"[A] stab in the heart of noir darkness suggests that while many Thais embrace the materialistic aspects of modern Western life, the spiritual and sacred side draws upon Thai myths, legends and customs, and remains resistant to the imported mythology of the West. In the tension between the show of gold, the Benz, the foreign trips and designer clothes, and the underlying belief system creates an atmosphere that stretches people between opposite poles."
Here's my interview with Timothy Hallinan. Christopher G. Moore needs no introduction, but I wrote one anyway, for his most recent book.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ideological zeal and "ordinary" crime

Those good folks at Soho Crime, who have done so much to bring international crime fiction to U.S. readers, have sent along their latest sampler.

The slim volume offers excerpts from some of the books Soho and Soho Constable will publish this fall, and it includes new work from a number of authors you may have read about here: James R. Benn, P.J. Brooke, Leighton Gage and Martin Limón as well as The Boy in the Suitcase, a Danish mystery by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis.

I was especially interested in the bit from Stolen Souls, the third novel from Stuart Neville, following on The Ghosts of Belfast (The Twelve in the UK) and Collusion. I've been thinking about Northern Irish crime writing recently, about how one of its big themes is that tentative sectarian peace leaves paramilitary gunmen on both sides of the Troubles unemployed — and ready to move into "ordinary" crime.

Stolen Souls picks up a thread of that "ordinary" crime from Collusion — the, er, collusion between Loyalist gangs and Lithuanian human traffickers in Belfast's prostitution trade. A Ukrainian prostitute manages a bloody escape from her captors and, according to the synopsis that you'll find by clicking on the novel's title in the paragraph above, her flight provokes a bloody gang war.

From what I know of Northern Ireland, gleaned mainly from crime novels but also from one hair-raising article in the Derry News, the ideological zeal of the Troubles led to a certain Puritanism on both sides, Catholic as well as Protestant. Paramilitaries would make a great show of executing drug dealers in an effort to burnish their bona fides as defenders of the community. And the notion that righteous warriors would sublet prostitution rights to foreigners induced a certain unease in Collusion.

So, however the exciting escape in Stolen Souls turns out, I suspect the book will lay bare hypocrisy and maybe, just maybe, teach some of us to be skeptical of killers, drug dealers, gunmen and pimps who proclaim the righteousness of their cause.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Falling Glass: A review

Falling Glass, the new novel by Detectives Beyond Borders friend Adrian McKinty, is:

  • A meditation on aging
  • A dream of escape from urban life
  • A mini-course on Ireland's Pavees, or travelers, or tinkers
  • An expression of love for Ulster
  • An expression of disdain for professional `Oirishness'
  • A hard look at what economic disaster means to those not at the top of the heap
  • A scathing attack on the cynical oligarchy of money, power and protection that crosses Northern Ireland's sectarian lines
  • A similarly scathing attack on the cult of the self-made millionaire
  • A reminder that politics is personal
  • A series of homages to, among others, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, the Coen brothers (don't blame me; it's McKinty's book), Ken Bruen, Ernest Hemingway, The Godfather, Sergio Leone, and Warren Zevon
  • A globe-hopping tale of quest that manages the difficult feat of seeming alternately leisurely and fast-paced, as necessary
  • Possibly — just possibly — a meditation on the art of telling stories
The hero this time is Killian (just one of his names), an enforcer with brains who has been forced back into the life by Belfast's real estate crash. His job is to find an Irish tycoon's wandering wife, only he winds up being pursued himself, and we find out why the millionaire really wants his wife back. Among the pursuers is a very scary Russian, and it's part of the book's story that, for all his cool savagery, he's not the scariest thing in the novel.
Killian is a hard man, violent, a killer when he has to be, yet redeemed for readers by his heart, his brains, and because he is pursued by people worse than he is. He's a bit like Alan Guthrie's Pearce or McKinty's own Michael Forsythe or maybe even Stuart Neville's Gerry Fegan that way.

McKinty and Neville are from Northern Ireland; Guthrie is Scottish. Is that coincidence, or is there a reason crime writers from that part of the world specialize in hard men with a heart? And who's your favorite protagonist of that type?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Chandler channelers

Over at Crime Always Pays, Declan Burke talks about the e-book edition of his novel Eightball Boogie and the state of publishing, electronic and otherwise. Over at Detectives Beyond Borders archives, I talk about Eightball Boogie in part thus:
"Once he's created a sense of menace, the wisecracks resonate all the more, as here: `If I squinted I could make out the bench where I'd been sitting just before taking my header into the river, so I didn't squint.' Or this, faithful to the spirit of a resilient Chandler protagonist but with a dangerous edge that hinges on one four-letter word: `Adrenaline, the cleanest drug of them all, charged through my veins.'"
I called that post "Channeling Raymond Chandler." Read the full post to find out why.
Elsewhere in the Chandler channeling department, Chapters 10 through 14 of Adrian McKinty's new Falling Glass are called, in order, "The High Window," "The Big Sleep," "Farewell My Lovely," and, chillingly, "The Lady in the Lake" and "The Long Goodbye."

More anon.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Hard-boiled Canada: The Crime on Cote des Neiges

David Montrose's 1951 novel The Crime on Cote des Neiges, first in a series of vintage Canadian hard-boiled reprints from Montreal's Véhicule Press, would fit comfortably into Hard Case Crime's list alongside books by Richard Powell, David Dodge, and Mickey Spillane (though without Spillane's frothing jingoism).

At the same time, small differences in language and larger ones in sensibility make it a treat for native Montrealers like me and, perhaps, an interesting study for readers from exotic places like Europe, Australia and the U.S. A sofa is a chesterfield in Montrose's world, as it was in my childhood. Characters flee not to the hills, the mountains or the shore, but "up North," to the Laurentian mountains. A woman trying to discern if a house is occupied will call out not "Anybody home?" but "Who's home?"

Other differences are more noticeable. Our hero, Russell Teed, encounters beautiful, mysterious women, as would any wisecracking American P.I., only Montrose's descriptions are racier than their American counterparts.

And how about this, from Teed's client:
"In days like these, when the government has taken over most social responsibility, wealth doesn't carry social obligation any more. It's wicked to be wealthy, in the eyes of the majority, and young rich people too often act as though they were trying to live up to that reputation."
The wealthy client is a staple of American hard-boiled writing, but would an American crime writer use words like "social responsibility"? Would an American crime character talk of "social obligation"?
You likely smiled when you read the phrase "vintage Canadian hard-boiled" in this post's first paragraph. But think: Prohibition was a staple of American crime and crime fiction in the 1920s and '30s, and any number of U.S. crime novels and stories refer to cross-border booze-running from Canada. Who wrote about the Canadian side of the trade and the open cities that developed from it? One answer: Montrose.
My Montreal compatriot and age-group cohort John McFetridge offers some thoughts on Montrose's interesting use of Montreal weather.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

How David Park pushes beyond details

I have a feeling technique will match content in David Park's 2008 novel The Truth Commissioner.

The book's subject is a fictional truth commission set up to investigate cases stemming from Northern Ireland's sectarian Troubles, along the lines of a similar commission that examined abuses committed during South Africa's apartheid era. It also looks as if the protagonist, Henry Stanfield, will wind up probing more personal truths as well. Sounds a bit melodramatic, doesn't it?

I don't think things will turn out that way, though, because an early scene shows Park and his protagonist pushing beyond details, looking for meaning, just as Stanfield presumably will have to do in his role as truth commissioner:

"There are times like this when the sad reality that he is of a different generation impinges sharply on his consciousness, reminding him that he is in fact more than old enough to be the father of most of them. It's not just ... their incessant texting on mobile phones that are also constantly brandished in the air like badges of honor to take some photograph; it's not even their laptops and iPods and their curiously innocent embrace of technology like children who have found Hornby train sets under the Christmas tree. It's in their use of language that he feels it most, the way when they are excited they revert to a minimalist vocabulary that spins on a few self-consciously faux and wearisomely trite examples of adjectival slang ... "
If I guess right, the texture of Park's prose matches the subject of his book. What books or stories have you read in which form similarly matches content?


A discussion at Crime Scene NI captures nicely the flavor and texture of what I've read so far in The Truth Commissioner.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Wednesday, March 09, 2011

John Lawton, or Which title is better?

Today I bought John Lawton's Flesh Wounds (published as Blue Rondo in the UK). I also flipped through his Riptide (published in the U.S. as Bluffing Mister Churchill).

I've written about novels whose titles change from country to country before. Once again, I'll ask you to weigh in, only this time you have to some up with novels that have different titles from country to country and tell which title you like better and why.

(For the record, I like Blue Rondo better than Flesh Wounds and Bluffing Mr. Churchill better than Riptide.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Saturday, March 05, 2011

Sian Reynolds: An interview with Fred Vargas' translator, Part II

Blogging may be lighter than usual for the next day or two. In the meantime, here's an interview from 2008 with Sian Reynolds, translator of Fred Vargas' crime novels, with a brand-new comment from another prominent translator of crime fiction.
In Part II of our interview, Sian Reynolds discusses the challenges of rendering colloquial French into colloquial English and her approach to a text she is about to translate. She also reveals that readers can look forward to at least one more Fred Vargas translation. (Read Part I of the interview with Sian Reynolds here.)

What is the most difficult problem you have encountered as translator?

In fiction, as already mentioned, I think it has to be dialogue. and particularly such aspects of it as dialect, extreme colloquialism, slang, expletives (of the ‘good grief’ sort) and of course puns and wordplay. You have to find convincing speakable equivalents without sounding either too fuddy-duddy or using current colloquialisms that might date. A particular problem for example, is the common French word ‘un type’ which just means ‘a man’, but the register is more the equivalent of ‘bloke, fellow, chap’ – all of which are today a bit marked as old-fashioned in English, because so many people both sides of the Atlantic now say ‘guy’. On the other hand, peppering the text with too many ‘guys’ runs the risk of making it sound like an American intrusion into otherwise British English, which is what I write. (Of course many French books are translated ‘into American’ as the French say, that is entirely into American English.)

Swearing is another potential pitfall. French colloquial speech uses a number of terms which if translated literally sound rather stronger in English (merde, je m’en fous, etc.) Given what we know about the characters, you have to save four-letter words for times when the context calls for them. The reverse can be true: French translators of say, James Kelman, have been known to tone down the language, arguing that a French equivalent of the character wouldn’t have every other word in the sentence the same f-word.

How do you approach a text you are about to translate? Do you read it through one or more times to get a sense of the work before beginning the formal job of translation? What is your primary task as a translator of fiction?

I always read the text first if it’s fiction. For non-fiction it’s not so essential – you’ll get there in the end. But much crime fiction, as you know, is constructed backwards – as a rule you move back from the discovery of a crime to what occasioned it. You need to know the end to understand the beginning. Then in the course of translating a novel, I probably read the text tens of times in both languages, always noticing more things – (sometimes minor inconsistencies that have slipped in, but are probably only noticed by me, since most readers don’t read a novel many times over.) Your task in general is to do as good a job of conveying the original as possible – but no translation is ever perfect or ‘definitive’, and no two translators will come up with the same solutions.

Translators of poetry often speak of the tension between trying to produce a faithful translation and one that will flow smoothly in its "host" language. To what extent is this tension present in translating fiction?

The biggest question in translating poetry, according to the translators I know, is whether or not to preserve the form of the poem: its metre, rhyme, line length and so on. Views differ strongly. As it happens, in the latest Vargas (This Night’s Foul Work) one character sometimes speaks in 12-syllable alexandrines, (a pastiche of Racine’s plays,) and they were the devil to translate because 12 syllables, with a break after the sixth what’s more, is not at all common in English verse; but it seemed important to keep it, because of all the text references.

On the general question of ‘readability’, all translators in my experience face the same old dilemma: ‘whether to take the reader closer to the author, or the author closer to the reader’, i.e. make it more faithful to the original, or more ‘at home’ in the target language. It’s a matter of genre in some ways. My view is that it’s important that the reader should be aware that he/she is reading a translation, and not imagine that the book was originally written in English. Hence my decisions to keep things like street names and occasional French words in the original. But Fred’s books are very readable – if quirky! – in French, and I try to get as much of that across as possible, so that reading them is (I hope) fun.

A personal note: As a non-fluent speaker and reader of French, I find it easier to read social science than fiction and easier to read the philosophes and publicists of the 18th and 19th centuries than I do Montaigne, whose work I love in English translation. Is this often the case with non-native speakers of French? If so, why (other than Montaigne's meandering sentences)?

You’re right, Montaigne is very, very hard to read in French. Sixteenth-century authors are much more difficult generally than seventeenth and eighteenth because they wrote before French grammarians had set about rationalising the language. Eighteenth-century texts are written in much clearer French. Montaigne’s vocabulary and syntax as well as his own style, make it a real challenge. There are some modern French editions which have ‘modernised’ his French to make it more comprehensible for today’s French readers – worth a look.

With the publication of This Night's Foul Work, four of Fred Vargas' books about commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and one of three about the Three Evangelists will have been translated into English. Can readers expect more translations of Vargas into English?

You’ll have to ask the publisher that – but at least one more is in the pipeline: I have just finished translating the first Adamsberg story, originally published in 1991.

(Read Part I of the interview with Sian Reynolds here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, March 04, 2011

Rev. Derek Coates does not believe in transubstantiation! or, what's your favorite graffiti?

Two good bits from books I've started this week:
"In the bed-and-breakfast ghetto the shutters squeaked and banged and a chill low-season wind blew old newspapers down the road."

— Malcolm Pryce, Last Tango in Aberystwyth

And here's Colin Bateman's Mystery Man on a graffiti vandal's trail in Mystery Man:
"A footpath on the Malone Road bore the legend Alan McEvoy beats dogs; a gable wall on the Andersontown Road had Seamus O'Hare plays away from home; on Palestine Street the front door of a student flat had been daubed with the words Coke dealers live here and a parish house in Sydenham decorated with Rev. Derek Coates does not believe in transubstantiation."
What's your favorite graffito ever? I saw my two in neat, bold, large letters in Boston's Charlestown section more than twenty years ago:
Eat shrimp for better function!
Kevin has his priorities
I wonder to this day if demolition of an adjacent building robbed the second of a punch line we shall sadly never know.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Thursday, March 03, 2011

A non-crime post — or is it?

I'm taking a break from crime fiction with an essay by Joseph Brodsky.
I interrupt the post to bring you, verbatim, this sentence from a story by Joe Biddle of the (Nashville) Tennessean just transmitted on the Associated Press sports wire:

"For every positive Newton presents, there are questions about his ability to transcend his game to the highest NFL level."

Who needs Biff Burns when we have Joe Biddle?
Back to Brodsky. His essay "Ninety Years Later" has this to say about Rilke's poem "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes": "For all the obvious attractions of a round-trip story, the origins of this conceit are not literary at all. They have to do, I believe, with the fear of being buried alive."

Brodsky writes of Orpheus "literally dogged by fear," of underground dwelling places, and I think of all the cellars in David Goodis, dark places of violence, fear and death, but also, in "Black Pudding," of shelter. And what is a good, chilling noir story if not the narration of the protagonist's trip to and return from the world of death, fear and darkness?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Hooray for Pete Hamill

Pete Hamill's long literary and journalistic career includes at least one crime novel that crosses borders (The Guns of Heaven, Northern Ireland), but that's not what gets him mentioned here.

He makes it because his introduction to the Penguin Classics Damon Runyon collection, Guys and Dolls and Other Writings, contains in the space of two paragraphs three salient attributes of Runyon's work that I noticed in his story "Sense of Humor":
  • "Sometimes we can hear Runyon's people talking above their stations, playing social roles that are lies, but we certainly don't mistake them for characters out of Edith Wharton, who do the same thing."

  • "This is, of course, a fictional world. The gangsters don't speak the way real gangsters spoke in that era, or in ours."

  • "Runyon is often accused of sentimentalizing his gangsters, and is sometimes guilty as charged. But a close reading of most of these stories shows us a clear darker side. His people often do terrible things to each other, and out of base motives."
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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