Friday, April 29, 2011

Deadlier than the mail: A list of books received

I'm suffering a surfeit of newly acquired books. They've come new, and they've come secondhand. They've come from bookshops in New York, Philadelphia, and Montreal, and by mail from authors, publishers and publicists. Today I found a crime novel on the window sill at my local bakery with a sign that said: "Take me. I'm free."

I enter a contest to win a book, my correct answer is not the one drawn, but the author sends me the book anyway as a consolation prize.

They're comics and they're traditional books, and they're by Garry Disher, Georges Simenon, Jason Aaron, Greg Rucka, and the authors I wrote about here. And it all leaves me with a vertigo of indecision over what to read next.

Some notes from my browsing:
  • Queen and Country: The Definitive Edition, Volume 4 is not so blessedly free, but it's a fine book anyway, with exciting back stories for key characters and, as always in this series, settings recent enough to lend a frisson of immediacy. Espionage fiction exists after the Cold War.
But the following, from Crash by J.G. Ballard, may be my favorite of the lot:
"He thought of the crashes of honeymoon couples, seated together after their impacts with the rear suspension units of runaway sugar-tankers."
Now, off on dinner break — with four books.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Noir, melodrama, and Scalped

I smiled when I first read that the American movies later called films noirs were once known as melodramas.

That's because melodramas are melodramatic, and noir is, you know, serious. Rightly or wrongly, I'd associated melodramas with cliffhangers, and noir is about endings, the bleaker the better.

Except what could be bleaker than to keep running into bleak endings, tragedy after tragedy, loss after loss, without ever a happy ending or escape into death?

Jason Aaron's Scalped is responsible for my little epiphany, particularly a story in Rez Blues, the seventh and most recent trade paperback that collects issues of this darker than dark comic set on a South Dakota Indian reservation. The story features Shunka, previously seen only as an enforcer for Lincoln Red Crow, a chief and casino owner who runs everything on the reservation. (Red Crow's resemblance to the ruthless barons of stories like Red Harvest is not Aaron's only tribute to the Black Mask-era. One of his protagonists is named Dashiell Bad Horse.)

Give every central and significant supporting figure a doomed quest, with every apparent resolution turning into a new, more hellish species of damnation, and pretty soon the quests stop seeming like excuses to keep the story going and start forming coherent pieces of an inescapably grim world.

As in much noir, the prevailing darkness makes a marvelous, ironic background for the occasional flash of humor. My favorite here comes when Shunka confronts a casino owner whose bad-mouthing has kept the big acts away from Red Crow's casino. The bad-mouthing owner/chief replies:
"So wait, let me get this straight. Red Crow sent you all the way out here to threaten me...over Wayne Newton and Cirque du Soleil?"
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bill James, first-person viewpoint, and a bit of wit

In January I called a bit from Bill James' I Am Gold “a bigger step into contemplation than is usual in a police procedural.”

The protagonist of Off-Street Parking, a 2008 novel not part of James' Harpur and Iles series, takes an even bigger step into alternating hubris and self-doubt, jumping so wholeheartedly into intense observation of herself and others that I whispered, "Hamlet!"

James being James, the self-contemplation is leavened by satire. Here's the protagonist, a young police detective named Sharon Mayfield, at the scene where a man, possibly a police informant, has been found dead and horribly carved up:
"`This isn't the kind of thing we expect in the Avenue,' another woman said. `I was devastated.'

"I could see into the car by then and thought of saying, `Not as devastated as he is,' but didn't. Many people took their crisis vocabulary from bystander remarks made to TV news cameras. `Devastated' figured often. Perhaps TV reporters handed out a list of suitable words to vox pop for their response to a disaster/crisis. In a minute, I'd probably hear someone tell me, `They kept themselves
to themselves but seemed a very pleasant couple.'

"`No, it doesn't look too good at this juncture,' a man said."
I'd read thirty or so pages before I realized what made this introspection more intense than that in the Harpur and Iles books: It's written in the first person — heady when combined with James' customary ironic detachment. But for now your assignment is simple: Think of your favorite or most memorable first-person crime stories. What does the first-person viewpoint add? Why do you like it? Or why don't you?
James is one of the most mordantly funny crime writers ever, and one example from Off-Street Parking demonstrates that wit can make a routine scene memorable. In this case, it's the set piece of an older man recapturing his youth by hitting on a younger woman at a club. Here's the James version:
"As I prepared to leave, a very cheerful grandfather-type grappled with me, evidently keen I should stay and help make his night a time to remember and cherish, against his looming Eventide Home future. He wore an excellent flame-coloured toupee ..."
(Read the Detectives Beyond Borders interview with Bill James.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011


Monday, April 25, 2011

Kaddish and crime fiction

The book opens like this:
"Everything struck hard."
and continues like this:
"The door slamming behind me in the black car. The shovel stabbing the mound of soil. The wooden box hitting the floor of the pit."
Tell me that first sentence, from its substance to its abrupt staccato rhythm, doesn't scream hard-boiled, and not just hard-boiled, but good hard-boiled. Maybe that's why a review quoted on the book's cover calls it "A detective story of the spirit."

But the book is Leon Wieseltier's Kaddish, a meditation on and investigation of the Jewish prayer of mourning.

(Go here for a graveside invocation of the Kaddish and crime fiction at a memorial for David Goodis. )

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , ,

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Yesterday and today

I wasn't going to post any more Montreal pictures, but I found the photo at right on Wikipedia only minutes after I'd taken the one below. They depict the same scene on Ste. Catherine Street at Phillips Square 121 years apart: Morgan's department store in 1890, and the same store under its new name (La Baie/The Bay, short for Hudson's Bay Company) in 2011.

The view hasn't changed much, perhaps appropriate, since the parent company is the oldest commercial corporation in North America, according to Wikipedia, dating to 1670, with a history that crosses some interesting national borders.

My favorite is the story of the company's founding. Two French traders learned of rich territory around Hudson's Bay and sought French government backing for a fur-trading venture. Colbert said no, so the traders sought and received backing from England instead. The resulting company became the largest landowner in the world and altered the face of North American history. Oops!

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , , ,

Friday, April 22, 2011

Garry Disher's Wyatt comes to America

Parker is Richard Stark's professional thief, Wyatt is Garry Disher's.

Similarities between the two protagonists are obvious, including everything from their names to their personalities to the targets of their heists to the titles of the books. And, though Disher has paid amusing tribute to Stark, the influence may extend from Disher as well as to him.

My posts on the subject in this blog's early days drew passionate comments from some Australian readers angry at what one called a "cultural cringe" — excessive imitation by the Australian Disher of an American source. Disher himself weighed in on my Parker/Wyatt questions, though his comments seem to have disappeared from the State Library of Victoria's Web site. (No conspiracy need be inferred. He posted the comments four years ago, and they may have been removed to clear space.)

If I recall correctly, Disher said he wanted Wyatt to be a more fully rounded character than Parker. Indeed, the fifth Wyatt novel, Port Vila Blues, has Wyatt displaying remorse, which Parker never did.

American readers will soon get their chance to meet Wyatt; Soho Press is publishing the seventh and latest novel in the series, called simply Wyatt. A first glance at the book finds Wyatt sizing up a potential human obstacle to a heist, much as Stark often had Parker do, but with a good deal more psychological analysis than Parker was given to. One way is not necessarily better than the other, but it's good to find differences between two protagonists in many ways so similar.

Wyatt follows Disher's previous Wyatt book, The Fallout, by thirteen years. The series' resumption after a long layoff may remind readers of another crime series.
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, April 21, 2011

When the whip came down ...

... Manish lowered his left shoulder and went for the overseer's knees.

The overseer yelled and toppled backward into the sand. Manish grabbed a rock and brought it down on his head. The overseer didn't yell this time.

Manish caught his breath behind a granite block and wiped his hands on his white linen blazer. There was a long, jagged rip up its right sleeve, where the overseer had grabbed just before he died.

He'd leave the ruined coat behind; his cover was blown, and Ramsey would want him dead. Even if Manish made it to Median City alive, he could say good-bye to the money and power he'd accumulated in Ramsey's inner circle. But he'd worry about that later. For now, Manish had work to do.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: ,

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Cop shows that get too personal

John McFetridge would likely disagree with that sign's sentiment, at least if talk turned to TV cop shows.

His latest post at Do Some Damage has me shifting uncomfortably in my seat because it hits hard at the cop-show myths of the bad-ass loner and his apparent opposite, the empathetic hero. This entails questioning the primacy of the lone-wolf maverick hero and the assumption that being a police officer is a bad job, among other crime-television commonplaces.

(Ste. Catherine Street)

And once that's been done, what's left? If I wrote crime fiction, especially police procedurals, and I read McFetridge's piece, I'd be thinking, "Am I nothing but a human recycling machine?" I've read the man's three novels, and I now understand a lot better why they have group protagonists.

For reasons of full disclosure: I know McFetridge, he's a Detectives Beyond Borders friend, and we are fellow natives of the city that produces the world's best bagels. Connoisseurs know that if it's not from Montreal, it's just a hunk of dough.
Over on the other side of the world, if you happen to be in New Delhi on Friday, Blaft Publications and Tranquebar Press invite to the release of four English translations of novels by the late, great Urdu author Ibne Safi.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The "Original" Six

I found The Original Six on a side trip from my bagel pilgrimage to Montreal's Mile End, though I was really interested in only one of its stories, that about the Montreal Canadiens.

That story, by Wayne Johnston, purports to examine events that led to the infamous Richard Riot of 1955. Johnston's story posits a personal and professional friendship between the great Francophone hockey forward Maurice "Rocket" Richard, whose suspension for rough play triggered the eponymous riot, and the story's Anglophone sportswriter/narrator, who ghostwrites a newspaper column for Richard. This is of interest, since the Richard Riot is often cited as a turning point in arousing Quebecois sensibilities and a precursor to Quebec's Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.

(An outdoor staircase on St. Urbain Street. Such staircases mean more space indoors. They're a typical feature of Montreal homes.)

The NHL's president, Clarence Campbell (a longtime enemy of Richard's, in Johnston's version), had suspended the mighty Richard for the rest of the season — and the Stanley Cup playoffs. Montreal was incensed. Richard, though not in uniform, showed up for the game. So did Campbell, fashionably late, as if to call attention to his presence. And then—

(Don't be misled by the subtitle True Stories from Hockey's Classic Era. Johnston's story features a first-person narrator who tells us that "In 1954, I was writing a satirical hockey column." Johnston was born in 1958.)

(Adrian McKinty's old philosophy tutor)

(The "Original Six" is a misnomer for the six teams that constituted the National Hockey League from 1942 through the expansion era beginning in 1967, which put teams in Oakland; Kansas City; Tampa, Fla.; and Disney World, among other non-traditional hockey cities. In fact, the league had been founded twenty-five years before the "Original Six" — and with four teams. Hockey is a subtle game.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, April 18, 2011

Rent a bicycle in Montreal if ...

  • ... you think you'll find an automatic-bicycle-rental stand that works.
  • ... you don't mind being told you can't rent a bike because you already have the maximum number of bikes out.
  • ... you don't mind wondering how many bicycles you'll be billed for when your next credit-card statement arrives.
  • ... you enjoy talking to customer-service people.
And, most important of all, make sure you have good walking shoes or plenty of change for the Metro.
To be fair, the bicycles were sturdy and smooth-riding and, when their balky distribution stations granted me the benediction of transport, they took me first to the Paragraphe bookstore downtown and then to Vieux-Montréal.

The day's purchases included Paul Auster's New York Trilogy and Histoire d'un mot: L'ethnonyme Canadien de 1535 à 1691, which ought to interest all Canadian words guys who occasionally try to read French.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , ,

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Prière de ne pas deranger — Je lis un roman à enigme

(Nephew Beyond Borders #1 (left); Brother Beyond Borders)

In Quebec, as in Ireland, the Roman Catholic Church held great sway for many years. In Ireland, the reaction has included crime novels such as The Magdalen Martyrs and movies like The Magdalene Sisters. In Quebec, it includes an "Intimacy Kit" next to the Pringles and mineral water in my hotel room.

Practical, but not something I think one would have seen in the 1950s.
This post's title means "Do Not Disturb — I am Reading a Mystery Novel," and it comes from the sign that guests can hang on their doors so they can use their intimacy kits in peace. This hotel knows its guests.
"I had to pull myself up to escape your smoking wreckage of parenting."

Nephew Beyond Borders #1, over dinner to his mother

(Nephew Beyond Borders #2, Sister-in-Law Beyond Borders)
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Bridge for sale — cheap!!!

Wrong river, wrong bridge, wrong side of town, but right city, so I still felt a bit like Richard Stark's Parker in the opening scene of The Hunter when I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge this afternoon.

I had just come from the Mysterious Bookshop, so I had company on my stroll over the East River: books by Kate Atkinson, David Corbett, Maureen Jennings, Peter Rabe and Dominic Stansberry, plus the issue of The Strand Magazine that contains a previously unpublished story by Dashiell Hammett, and a pamphlet Ken Bruen wrote about Jack Taylor as part of a series that Mysterious Bookshop released of crime writers discussing their lead characters.

Am staying in a B&B in midtown Manhattan that calls one of its buildings an SRO. Now, I'd always associated that term with loneliness, if not downright decrepitude. But times have changed; my room has a jacuzzi.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, April 15, 2011

Salvation Lite™

(St. John's Baptist Church, 13th and Tasker Streets, Philadelphia)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Comic guy's mother loves Westlake!

Conversation turned to a familiar but endlessly interesting subject at my local comics shop this evening.

"My mom loves everything by Westlake," the clerk said. "No matter what name he writes under."

"Who loves Westlake?"

"My mom."

"You have a pretty cool mom," I said.

"Oh, yeah. She loves sex, violence and humor."

That sounds like one righteous mother.
The day's other Westlake note is on deadpan humor. The Man With the Getaway Face, second of the twenty-four novels Westlake wrote under the name Richard Stark about the deadly and deadly efficient thief Parker, contains three gorgeous examples. The last is a bit of a spoiler and the third is long, so I'll quote the first:
"Skimm was standing by the stove, watching a battered tin coffee pot. He'd spent so much of his life jungled up he didn't know how to make coffee any other way but in an old beat-up pot. There were two heavy china mugs on the table, and steel spoons, but no saucers. A pint of Old Mr. Boston stood next to one mug.

"`Sit down,' Skimm said, `she's almost ready.'

"Parker sat down at the table and lit a cigarette. `You got an ash tray?'

"`Yeah, wait a second.' Skimm looked around and then brought a saucer over to the table. `Here you are.'"

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Gunsel has nothing to do with guns: When crime writers become word makers

Gunsel has nothing to do with guns, or at least it didn't until the mistake became so widespread that the word's meaning changed — and a crime writer is responsible.

The word means catamite, a young man kept by a pederast. (It comes from the Yiddish word for gosling.) The story goes that Dashiell Hammett included it in The Maltese Falcon hoping that editor Joseph Shaw, fastidious about "vulgarisms," would be ignorant of its meaning and let it stay in. He did:
“Hammett laid a trap for Shaw. In his next story he included the term gooseberry lay. Shaw pounced on this and rejected it, though it wasn’t a rude term at all but tramps’ slang for stealing washing off clotheslines to sell. But Hammett also included gunsel in the story, which Shaw left in, thinking it meant `gunman.'”
Here's the passage from The Maltese Falcon:
“`Another thing,' Spade repeated, glaring at the boy: ‘Keep that gunsel away from me while you’re making up your mind. I’ll kill him.'”
Knowing the word's real meaning lends a chilling edge to Gutman's treatment of Wilmer.
I have also read that A White Arrest, title of Ken Bruen's first Brant and Roberts novel, acquired a meaning that Bruen invented in the book: an arrest that can reverse a police officer's bad luck and put his career back on track. And I think I've also read that Donald Westlake made up a term and used it so effectively that readers assumed it was established underworld slang.

Who else has done this? What other writers have fooled us into thinking that usages they made up were, in fact, established terms?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, April 11, 2011

When does the Arabic crime-fiction boom start?

(Blogger's paragraph formatting is malfunctioning yet again. I hope what follows is readable.)

Matt Rees, who sets his crime novels amid the corruption and violence of the Palestinian world, suggests that the current unrest throughout the Arab world will give rise to crime fiction, if not now, then later. "One of the offshoots of the downfall of Arab dictators," he writes, "is sure to be an explosion of thrillers and mysteries." Why?

"I believe Arabs have eschewed crime writing because it’s a democratic genre. One man wants to find out something that a big organization – the CIA, the mafia, the government – wants to keep secret. ... For people who live in democracies, it’s easy to find fiction credible that suggests a man can investigate – and once he fingers the bad guy, the bad guy will be punished."

I wonder when such an explosion of thrillers and mysteries will begin (if it has not done so already) and how we will know about it in today's atomized publishing world.

Much short crime fiction in English is published on the Internet these days, particularly on the darker, more violent end of the spectrum. I suspect that little of this work is translated into other languages. Will such be the case with any future boom in Arabic crime fiction? Will the boom happen on the Web, in Arabic, untranslated and under the noses of the outside crime fiction world? Has it started already? Is someone sitting in Tahrir Square or Benghazi at this moment typing and circulating dark tales of crime, justice and corruption?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, April 10, 2011


We're big on conventions here at Detectives Beyond Borders, namely the ways crime writers adhere to conventions of their genre while still trying to keep things fresh. Here's Barry Maitland's spin on the just-another-day-in-the-protagonist's-life opening in All My Enemies:
"By lunchtime Kathy was reduced to the word-puzzle in the Sunday paper. Form words of three or more letters from the title of The Grubs' latest hit single, `Claim to Dream.' No proper named; target 130; include at least one 12-letter word.' "She had begun the day with good intentions. There were plenty of things that could be done before she started her new job: letters that could be written, bills that could be paid, housework that could be done.

Mad, ran, mat, tic, model, modal, rot."
All but mat and model are promisingly evocative, and even they might turn out to hold clues to the story to come. I particularly like the combination of modal and rot.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, April 08, 2011

Westlake is international!!!

"The hall was full of Scotsmen. Hundreds of them gamboled in the aisles and thronged the lobby, with more arriving every minute."
"Stately, plump Joe Mulligan paused in the privacy of the hallway to pull his uniform trousers out of the crease of his backside, then turned to see Fenton watching him.`Mp,' he said, then nodded at Fenton, saying, `Everything okay down here.' "Fenton, the senior man on this detail, made a stern face and said, `Joe, you don't want any of them princes and princesses see you walking around with your fingers up your ass.' ... A bit of a martinet and a stickler for regulations, he liked the boys to call him Chief, but none of them ever did."
— Donald Westlake, Nobody's Perfect


Here's an interview about Westlake with his friend, the author and screenwriter Brian Garfield. The interview appears in the University of Chicago Press blog in conjunction with the reprint of Butcher's Moon. I link to it here because Garfield explores the roots of a trait I've always loved in Westlake's work: his inventiveness:
"I remember Don's fascination with the way Ira Levin had cleverly concealed the identity of the killer in A Kiss Before Dying, and we all admired the way Mickey Spillane solved the mystery in Vengeance is Mine in the final word of the novel. I don't know that it's ever been done that way before."

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , , ,

Thursday, April 07, 2011

More Westlake

Last week I started rereading a Donald Westlake novel looking for the answer to a contest question. I found the answer and entered the contest. Then I finished that book (The Handle), and I've read four more by Westlake since, each at least for the second time. Here are some of the highlights:
  • The guards in the bank that gets stolen in Bank Shot (that right: stolen, not robbed) work for the Continental Detective Agency, a tribute to the crime writer Westlake acknowledged as his first and virtually only early influence. One of the guards in particular is content to be a guard with the company. He has no aspirations to be a Continental Op.
  • A belligerent driver who threatens to make trouble for Dortmunder and Kelp in the same book backs off when our heroes persuade him that police would be very interested in the piles of soft-core porn books in the back of his car. The books are titles Westlake wrote himself under his Alan/Allan Marshall aliases.
  • Another Westlake book is on the way, even though Westlake died in 2008. It's a "weird little SF mystery" called The Risk Profession that first appeared in a science-fiction magazine in the early '60s, and it stars "an investigator for an interplanetary insurance company, ferreting out the truth behind suspicious ... insurance claims."
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

If he likes Westlake, he's all right

My recent detours into poetry and Parker have not taken my mind off international crime fiction. In fact, they've led me to an Irish crime writer I had not tried before: Benjamin Black (John Banville).

This joint interview Black/Banville did with Parker's creator, Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) in 2007 dispelled any doubts I might have had about whether he takes crime writing seriously. For anyone who doubts that B/B appreciates fine crime writing, read what he had to say about Stark and Parker in Slate in 2006.
The Parker browsing also led me to this wonderful utterance from Westlake:
“I certainly hope Parker hasn’t mellowed. When one of the Kennedys was killed, a group of Hollywood actors formed an organization to swear never again to carry a gun in a film. Of course, these actors were mostly people like Don Knotts . When Lee Marvin was asked if he’d join that group, he said, `They’re trying to put me out of business.' "
That's from the same interview in which Westlake said: "For early influences we have to start, and almost end, with Hammett." Westlake was always one of the most insightful and intelligent of crime writers. It's worth reading the full interview for what else he says about his influences.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, April 04, 2011

No small crimes

Let's begin before the beginning. Here's a bit of Reed Farrel Coleman's introduction to The Lineup 4: Poems on Crime:
"I’ve heard it said many times by veterans of war, by cops, firemen, surgeons, that they never felt more alive than when death was close at hand. Humans are never more human or less human than when mortality is on the line. ... When viewed through that prism, the marriage of crime and poetry makes perfect sense. Poetry has its roots in heightened emotion, in crystal clarity. Poetry has always been about life’s lines and edges, the tensions between love and hate, ugliness and beauty, exaltation and despair. The poet’s job has always been to focus the laser, to distill, to sharpen, to filter and translate for the rest of us."
The poet focuses the laser. Makes sense, doesn't it? Joseph Brodsky once said as much. Americans too busy to read poetry? Nonsense, he replied (if I recall correctly); poetry, packing so much truth into so few words, is perfect for today's busy reader.

Poetry is efficient; poetry gets to what's important, and it gets there fast. Maybe that's why The Lineup's poems feel intimate, like David Goodis' non-heroes huddled in lonely Philadelphia cellars. Here's John Stickney's "Creation":

Make me a long coat of a dark cigarette color
Make the cities dark
No one will notice I am ash
Make me a dark fist
Clenched and subtly bitten
Watching the village’s one prostitute show a vast
Though never sentimental
See what I mean?

No one saves the world in these poems, no one takes over an entire town, knocks over a bank, terrorizes a city, or slaughters a classroom full of students. That would be too easy; that stuff is for the newspapers. These poems are about small crimes or about the quiet, intimate moments before and after big ones. Or rather, they remind us that for those most intimately involved — victims, perpetrators, survivors, a son who prays for vengeance on the man who mugged his father — any crime can radically alter the world. There are no small crimes.
The Lineup 4, edited by Gerald So, Reed Farrel Coleman, Sarah Cortes and Richie Narvaez, is available from Poetic Justice Press.

Gerald has asked members of the crime-fiction community to write about The Lineup each day in April, National Poetry Month in the United States (and Canada). Kevin Burton Smith, Bill Crider and Patti Abbott were up before me. Here's the full month's schedule.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , , ,

Sunday, April 03, 2011

"Facebook" revolutionaries

(At right: Not a Facebook revolutionary)

The great Bill James (the great baseball thinker, not the great crime writer) committed a sin years ago that would be positively heretical in today's America: He was sober and clear-eyed about information technology.

That's right. The father of the new generation of baseball statistics, the author of studies and projections involving mounds of data that would have been impossible without computers, knew that computers were nothing more than tools. There's no such thing as "computer information," he wrote, just good information, bad information, true information or false information.

Today, I find it comical and vaguely pathetic that news outlets report on "Facebook revolutionaries" in the Middle East, treating social upheaval as if it were the next-generation smart phone — just one more consumer product. At best, this smacks of middle-agers' desperate eagerness to be down with what the kids are thinking. At worst it implies a will to ignorance of the historical, political, religious, economic, personal and other social forces that really drive revolutions. Either that, or an easy hook on which media outlets can hang their stories.

So, to paraphrase Bill James, I'll say that, as useful as social media may be to activists in the Middle East, there's no such thing as Facebook revolutionaries, just oppressed revolutionaries, religious revolutionaries, violent revolutionaries, peaceful revolutionaries, maybe even good and bad revolutionaries. The medium is not the message.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011


Saturday, April 02, 2011

A dose of Stark reality

A contest entry this week turned into a busman's holiday for me with Donald Westlake, writing with his Richard Stark hat on. Here are some of the highlights:
"In a world gone mad, self-interest approached the level of a sacrament, so it was with a will that Baron launched himself into his new found vocation: Looking Out for Number One."
The Handle
"Littlefield leaned closer to him. `You're a young man, you can still learn. Pay attention to this. You can steal in this country, you can rape and murder, you can bribe public officials, you can pollute the morals of the young, you can burn your place of business down for the insurance money, you can do almost anything you want, and if you act with just a little caution and common sense you'll never even be indicted. But if you don't pay your income tax, Grofield, you will go to jail."
The Score
"Casey went, reluctantly, and all the way he kept trying to explain to Grofield that Grofield didn’t have to do any of this. Grofield took him around into the darkness beside the dormitory and hit him with the pistol butt and Casey lay down on the ground and stopped explaining things."
The Handle
"`You’re all right, Parker.’ Scofe raised his head and smiled. He was filthy, and his eyes were covered by a white film, and his teeth were brown. When he smiled, he looked like a parody of something unspeakable. `You’re all right,’ he said again. `You don’t mean all those things you say to me.’"
The Score
Trent Reynolds hosts the contest, and Wallace Stroby supplies the prize. The question involves Stark and Dashiell Hammett. That's good, because, as Parker will tell you, any job that requires more than four or five men is no good.

Visit Reynolds' Violent World of Parker site to enter.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , , ,

Friday, April 01, 2011

Murdoch Mysteries, or gritty Victorians

This is one I should have got to before now: a boost for Murdoch Mysteries, an atmospheric detective series set in 1890s Toronto.

I don't know much about the series or about the novels by Maureen Jennings on which it's based, but my first experience with the show finds a highly moral hero with a bent for science, up-to-date production values, and a grittier look than one might expect from even current mysteries set in the Victorian era.

Among other things, the series will be a reminder for crime fans that London was not the only city in the English-speaking world in 1890. I'll be off to watch a bit more once I've made this post, and you should be, too.

(An interesting touch is the lack of respect Toronto's rich show Murdoch. This accords nicely with a theory I've read about the late development of the police procedural in English crime fiction. The theory suggests that a police officer would not have made a credible fictional hero because his social standing would not have made him a believable inquisitor of the nobility. ... Another is a chilling rendering of "She Moved Through the Fair," not the first time that Irish folk song has been invoked in recent crime fiction or television.)

The protagonist, Police Detective William Murdoch, uses the word criminalistics a time or two in at least one episode. I suspected anachronism, and one source says the word was first recorded in 1943 — decades after the era in which the series is set.

Another source, however, traces the word to the German Kriminalistik, coined by Hans Gross, a pioneer in the field whose work would have been new precisely in Murdoch's time. So I'd call the anachronism permissible. (Gross is a character in author J. Sydney Jones' Vienna historical mysteries set in Vienna.)
P.S. A comment below from Murdoch/Jennings fan Iden Pierce Ford points out that my post refers in fact to one of three Murdoch Mysteries TV movies from 2004 and 2oo5, rather than to the television series that followed, now in its fourth season. It appears that I have lots of watching and reading ahead of me.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , , ,