Wednesday, June 29, 2011

History and mystery: Three authors of historical crime fiction on what they do and why they do it

When talk turned to anachronism a few months back here at Detectives Beyond Borders, several authors of historical mysteries weighed in both privately and in the public discussion. I have always been in awe of the task that writers of such fiction set for themselves. In addition to writing a satisfying and entertaining crime story, they must serve the muses of history and of accuracy. They can't screw up details, and they must convey the flavor a bygone period while holding contemporary readers' attention.

As a good historian would, I went to the source and asked three authors of historical crime fiction to talk about what they do and how they do it. Let's meet our three guests and get to the questions.
Rebecca Cantrell writes the Hannah Vogel mystery series set in 1930s Berlin, including A Trace of Smoke, A Night of Long Knives, and A Game of Lies. Her short stories are included in the First Thrills anthology. She also writes the YA iMonsters series, including iDrakula, as Bekka Black. She lives in Hawaii with her husband, her son, and too many geckoes to count. She is online at and
Gary Corby has been fascinated by ancient history since he was a teenager.  "What happened for real, thousands of years ago, was as exciting and even more bizarre than any modern thriller," he writes. " I also love the puzzles of murder mysteries.  So I combined the two to create an historical mystery series set in classical Greece.  The Pericles Commission was released last year,  The Ionia Sanction is out in November. I live in Sydney, Australia, with one wife, two daughters, and four guinea pigs.  My daughters tell me I must now include the two budgies we've adopted.  You can catch me on my blog at" 
I. J. Parker was born in Munich, Germany, and attended German and American universities.  Her Akitada mystery series, set in eleventh-century Japan, was partially the outcome of research into Asian literature.  She writes both novels and short stories, the latter published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine In 2001, "Akitada's First Case" won the Shamus award.  Her books have been translated into ten foreign languages. She is also a contributor to the recent Shaken: Stories for Japan. 
How important is period detail to a successful historical mystery?

Rebecca Cantrell: "Crucial. The reason I read historical mysteries is to time travel within the pages of a book. If the detail isn't there, or if it's incorrect, the time machine breaks, and I'm thrown out of the story into my own time. This makes me a cranky reader. So, as a writer, I take great pains to make sure that everything is as accurate as I can make it so that the readers stay safely inside the time capsule. If I must deviate from history for plot reasons, I am always careful to note that in the Author's Notes at the end of the book. That said, don't read those notes before you read the novel, as they sometimes contain spoilers. If you do, don't say you weren't warned." 

Gary Corby: "Period detail is essential. Some people read historical mysteries because they like mysteries, and the exotic background is a bonus. There are others who read because they want to be immersed in a different time and place; those people don't really care `who done it.'  For them, the puzzle aspect of the story is merely a device to keep the plot moving so they can explore more of the world. I've been surprised and gratified by the number of people who've told me they enjoyed reading my book, and then add that they picked up more ancient Greek history from reading a light whodunit than they ever learned at school."

I.J. Parker: "Very important, provided it doesn’t interfere with the story.  The setting in a historical novel takes in much more than the background. It also involves customs and mindset of the time (and place). The author must guess at just how much and what detail the reader needs without knowing his education or experience. Putting in too much will ruin the book." 

What kinds of anachronisms can kill a historical mystery?

RC: "Modern attitudes and language." 

GC: "There's the classic wristwatch-on-the-chariot-driver type of error. Those are relatively easy to catch. There are anachronistic phrases, and they can be deadly. My characters in 460 BC should not be quoting either Shakespeare or the Bible. You would not believe how many stock modern phrases come from Shakespeare and the Bible. On the plus side, it stops me from using clichés. Finally, there are the more subtle historical errors which only an expert is likely to catch. To prevent those you have to become a pseudo-expert yourself."

IJP: "Factual ones.  Here again, the problem of the unknown reader.  How much does the reader know?  Best not to take any chances and do the research. Historical novel web sites are full of readers mocking authors for making silly mistakes (like having thirteenth century Venetian cooks prepare potato dishes)." 

How do you juggle the tasks of portraying a historical period faithfully and making a story inviting and accessible to contemporary readers?

RC: "I research and research until I know the era fairly well and have far more details in my head than I could cram into a novel. Once I know enough to do so, I put myself in Hannah's shoes and see only what she sees and know only what she knows. This means that I cannot have her make comments about events that haven't happened, guess about future events without evidence, or go into long soliloquies about how the Olympic Stadium was constructed (even if the details of the construction are fascinating to me personally)." 

GC: "Any detail you mention has to be directly to do with the problems your characters face in the story. Never explain anything, unless it genuinely needs to be explained to a character. Any dialogue that begins, `As you know...' is a red alert.

"For example, I know in classical Athens sewerage pooled in gutters running down the middle of the street. I could write a couple of pages on the drainage system of Athens in 460 BC, but somehow I have a feeling you're not going to read it. Instead, when my hero Nicolaos is dragged off down the street by a couple of thugs, something squishy that doesn't bear thinking about gets caught between his sandal and his foot, and he has to hop on the other foot while shaking the first to get it clear. A whole day's research on drainage has devolved into two lines of book text about a messy foot. That's good, because a foot with poo on it is story and character, a treatise on drainage is not."

IJP: "There’s the trick.  The story becomes accessible through the characters, not the other way around.  Make your characters fully developed human beings that readers can relate to, and the rest follows.  However, modern readers do not relate well to certain historical customs. Those must be handled carefully." 

Which authors of historical mysteries do you admire? Why?

RC: "I love Kelli Stanley's Miranda Corbie series. (A City of Dragons is the first; start there.) She has a wonderful voice and a strong sense of the place and time. I also think Laurie King, Anne Perry, and Charles Todd write evocatively of the era between the wars. For a lighter touch, I like Rhys Bowen's Royal Spyness books." 

GC: "I'm going to cheat by starting with three historical authors who did not write mysteries: The Flashman stories of George MacDonald Fraser. Fraser is the gold standard for accuracy in historical novels. Also, his Flashman is hilarious. The Greek novels of Mary Renault, because they're the best novels of ancient Greece ever written. Patrick O'Brian wrote the best sea adventure stories ever, set during the Napoleonic Wars. They're generally known as the Aubrey-Maturin novels, after the two heroes.

"There are so many excellent historical mysteries these days, it's hard to know who to include without doing injustice to many others. Ruth Downie writes a series set in Roman Britain, starring a doctor named Ruso. The books are very funny, Ruso is a wonderful character, plus we get to see a Roman doctor at work. Rebecca Cantrell's mysteries are set in Germany at the height of the Nazi party, starring a reporter named Hannah Vogel. A tough subject, and she carries it off brilliantly. The mysteries of John Maddox Roberts, Steven Saylor, and Lindsey Davis were the first to be set in the ancient world. C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake is an investigator in the time of Henry VIII, working for a chap named Cromwell. Very high-quality writing."

IJP: "Robert Van Gulik, of course.  To a lesser degree, Lindsey Davis.  Both have the trick of drawing the reader into the book.  Van Gulik relies more on the exotic setting.  Davis portrays her protagonist much like the modern hard-boiled detective."

Why did you choose to write about the period you did? If you were to write historical fiction about a period other than the one you do, which period would you choose? Why?

RC: "I've been toying with the idea of writing something set in Berlin during the Cold War, maybe even the 1980s. I lived there then, so I could remember details about popular songs and political events. But the thought of writing about an era of my own life as historical document makes me feel so old that it gives me pause."

GC: "Nicolaos begins his adventures in 460 BC, right at the start of the Golden Age of Athens. Democracy was invented about five days before his first murder investigation begins! It was a period packed with tales of adventure, war, conspiracy, lust, love, corruption, power politics, assassination. . . . you name it, and it happened, all at one of the most critical periods in human history. If he can survive his highly hazardous missions, Nico will live to see the founding of western civilization.

"I can tell you three I definitely would not write: ancient Rome (and Roman Britain), mediaeval England, and Victorian London. All three have been done extensively by many fine writers, and fun as they are, there's no need for me to add to the existing corpus. There are so many fascinating periods. I might be tempted to go further back in history, for example, to somewhere like Mesopotamia. Renaissance Italy would be fun too."

IJP: "I loved Van Gulik’s books and the literature of eleventh-century Japan.  As for other periods, I have written a book set in eighteenth-century Bavaria.  I like the eighteenth century and will probably do more of this.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

E-books on the march in a new blog, at a new press

One sign that e-books have arrived, or at least that they have their seat backs and tray tables in their full upright and locked positions, is a newish (since March) blog devoted to them.

The blog, Allan Guthrie's Criminal-E, offers short interviews with crime writers whose work is available as e-books. In addition to his own work as an author, Guthrie is an agent and an editor. He knows the business side of books, and the discussions on the blog reflect that knowledge. So, in addition to "Sum up your book in 25 words," "How important is a good title?" and James Henderson on his own strengths and weaknesses, you'll get Roger Smith on e-book pricing,  Christa Faust on "reviews" in the Amazon age, Guthrie himself on pricing and self-publishing, and many, many more.

Looks like a good chance for readers to get authors' perspectives on some important questions — and to learn about some good books.
Also in the e-world, there's a new outlet for dark fiction. It's called Snubnose Press ("Compact. Powerful. Classic."), it's brought to you by the folks from Spinetingler Magazine, and it's devoted to publishing stories of 20,000 to 60,000 words that "that could, within the broadest definitions of genre possible, be categorized as crime and horror."
FLASH: From Bitter Lemon Press, June 30, 2011:
E-books now have their own page on our site. The eBook catalogue has 20 titles and is growing quickly. The books are available on most platforms, Apple, Sony, Nook, etc. and, via our site or directly, on Kindle. Click here for our list.
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, June 27, 2011

Nordic crime is more than just a barrel of laughs

Nordic crime fiction has been in the spotlight here at Detectives Beyond Borders, notably the question of what, if any, characteristics are common to crime writing from the Nordic countries.

With that in mind, two bits from Helsinki Homicide: Against the Wall, by Finland's Jarkko Sipila, typify what I suspect many people would regard as typically Nordic:
"Finland was home to one of the top per capita homicide rates in Western Europe, but most slayings were the result of drug and alcohol addicts solving their disputes with whatever weapons they could get their hands on."
"Over a million semi-trucks passed from Finland to Russia every year. It was impossible to track all the imports and exports. ... The incidents of fraud were numbered in the thousands, or tens of thousands, but investigators were numbered in the tens."
Resignation. Fatalism. What does Nordic/Scandinavian crime fiction mean to you?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , , ,

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Nesbø in my newspaper

My review of Jo Nesbø's The Snowman appears in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer. I had a bit of fun writing this one, and the headline writer picked up the fun rather nicely.

Here's what Nesbø had to say about that fun topic in my interview with him:
There's a big wave of Nordic crime fiction. Do you consider yourself part of that?

I am part of that whether I consider myself part of it or not because it's sort of a commercial label. It doesn't necessarily have much to do with Scandinavian writers having the same style. When I've been asked what I think are the similarities between Scandinavian authors, I would say that they were either from Denmark, Norway or Sweden.

I think my style is probably closer to some of the American writers — Bukowski, Hemingway — than to other Scandinavian writers. Then again, I write from Oslo, so the atmosphere would probably be similar to Stieg Larsson or Henning Mankell.

For me, my inspiration doesn't come mainly from Scandinavian crime writers. It comes from Scandinavian literature, like Knut Hamsun, Henrik Ibsen, lots of other Norwegian and Danish and Swedish writers.
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A look at Declan Hughes' second novel

I've gone back to read The Color of Blood, second of Declan Hughes' novels about Dublin investigator Ed Loy, after having read the first, third, fourth and fifth in the series.

I like to think that this book offers early examples of a tendency Hughes exploited more fully later : that of dealing with Raymond Chandler's themes, only more explicitly than Chandler ever did. This applies to sex, pornography, drugs, and family secrets, but also to issues of class, especially the class divide between investigator and clients. This almost always works, though in one instance the explicitness leads to the grave sin of telling rather than showing. (I could be wrong about the path from Chandler to Hughes, though, since I'm unfamiliar with one of the stops Hughes made along the way: Ross Macdonald.)

In the meantime, some lines from the book's first quarter or so, all but one of them good:
"Tommy being sober wasn't easy for me either, since he'd asked me to act informally as his sponsor. I explained that, since I had no intention of stopping drinking, this mightn't be the wisest idea."

"I'm not sure if there are ideal conditions to watch porn, but sober before midday doesn't even come close."

"I looked at Tommy, who was lying about at least some of it, of course, but who had worked himself into believing that he had told the whole truth and nothing but."

"Mr. Loy, mathematics scholars are not exactly coming down with offers of twosomes, let alone, ah, exponentials thereof."

"His Trinity manner had become grander, his voice a fluted drawl. I could feel the class boundary rising to divide us."
Hughes also quotes almost directly at least one line from The Big Sleep and has some self-referential fun doing so:
"`I make many mistakes,'" he said in an arch, ironic tone, as if he was quoting a line from a movie."
(Read my discussions of Hughes' novels City of Lost GirlsAll the Dead Voices,  The Price of Blood, and The Wrong Kind of Blood)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: ,

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Finnish crime novel that's all deadpan, all the time

I like my cold, gray Nordic crime fiction sprinkled with a bit of humor, and Harri Nykanen obliges in Raid and the Blackest Sheep.

Deadpan humor is plentiful in crime fiction from countries in the Scandinavian cultural sphere, but the first third of this Finnish crime novel  is all deadpan, and the effect is novel, as if a joke is liable to break out at any moment.

One nice touch: Further evidence that Nordic writers' are willing to poke fun at their countries' reputations for vigorous good health. Here's Helsinki Police Lt. Jansson moping his way through a stay at a health center:
"The decision to stay in bed had nothing to do with a hangover. Having only drunk moderately, he felt reasonably alert. He simply had no desire to submit to the hazing of another physical therapist. `Doesn't Jansson's back bend?'  `Jansson, tuck in your belly.' `Jansson, breathe deeply.'"
That's a nice companion piece to the stone-massage ordeal Iceland's Yrsa Sigurðardóttir puts her protagonist through in My Soul to Take.
Raid and the Blackest Sheep come from the commendable newish publishing house Ice Cold Crime, an American publishing house dedicated to translating and promoting Finnish fiction,

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dust Devils

Roger Smith knows how to play up the good, old-fashioned virtues of honor, persistence, redemption, and love of adventure. He also keeps the bullets flying, the blades flashing, and the spinning tires kicking up dust on sun-baked South African roads.

The result in Dust Devils, Smith's third novel after Mixed Blood and the superlatively good Wake Up Dead, is as much unabashed fun as I can remember having had reading a crime novel.

This book offers one protagonist driven inexorably back to his home and another wrenched irreversibly from his. It's a tale of father and sons, and just maybe of daughters. It's a tale of the old South Africa and the new, and of the striking, amusing, touching and tragic ways the two intersect.  It's a tale told in the sights, the sounds and, far more than in most fiction, the smells of its setting.

It also may blaze a bit of a publication trail. It's available as e-book now, three months ahead of its publication in hardback from Serpent's Tail. Whatever the format, I can see massive popular and critical success for this guy. You should be reading him.
Roger Smith talks about Dust Devils, contemporary South Africa, and e-book pricing on Allan Guthrie's Criminal-E blog.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , ,

New York Times, you're one of us now

For some time now, the clincher in any discussion of declining standards of literacy in American newspaper and book publishing has been "I'm even seeing mistakes in the New York Times." Now I can make the same declaration.

Here at my newspaper, I used to play a little game when reading or editing stories from wire services, including the Times' service. Whenever I'd come to a bit of mangled grammar or an ugly, sloppily executed sentence, I'd think, well, this can't be from the Times, and I'd scroll to the top of my computer screen to verify this. Until recently, I was always right.

Then, a few weeks ago, I edited a story by a Times writer who did not know the difference between nominate and appoint. (Think the difference is academic? Not when the story is about presidential nominations subject to Senate confirmation.)

Today there was this, from the Times' Bill Pennington:
"Last weekend he was talked about in entirely different contexts: to note that McIlroy was almost the same age as Woods was when he won his first major..."
In fact, Rory McIllroy, who won golf’s U.S. Open on Sunday, is not almost the same age as Woods was when he won the 1997 Masters, he's 10 months older. Sure, you can figure out what the Times meant, but not so long ago that extra step would have been unnecessary. The Times' reporters knew what they meant and the right words to say it, and if they didn't, its copy editors were good enough or given enough time to fix the mistake. No longer.

The Times is still better written than many newspapers, though it's not as good as the Wall Street Journal or the Economist. It's probably also a better source of news than most, so you won't be clueless if you read it. As for me, though, I'll have to find a new game to play at work.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Monday, June 20, 2011

A spy novel with a fairy-tale ending ...

... Well, except for the people who died. Still, who'd have thunk it?

A few last thoughts about David Ignatius' Bloodmoney (previously discussed here and here), whose action centers on Pakistan, and whose main players are the CIA, an organization within the CIA, Pakistan's ISI agency, and various figures attached more closely or less to those intelligence services:
  • The book strikes a nice balance between geopolitics and human interest. I cared about the characters, but always for reasons related to their roles in the main action.
  • Ignatius has characters muse a time or two on the ubiquity of American power. These musings are never obtrusive.
  • Ignatius manages the impressive feat of eliciting sympathy and goodwill toward a billionaire who, furthermore, made his money in high finance. Read the book, report back to this space, and we'll discuss this character.  
  • I found two small typographical errors in the novel, though nothing like the mistakes one friend of DBB found in one of Ignatius' previous books. That reviewer, though, called Ignatius a "gifted and intelligent" thriller writer. He was right.
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, June 18, 2011

How to build pace into a thriller

Bloodmoney progresses apace, and its pace is one of the things I like about David Ignatius' tale of espionage in Pakistan.

CIA operatives are disappearing, and the head of their unit needs to find out who's killing them. Two agents have vanished, and Ignatius quickens the pace nicely from the first disappearance to the second.

We meet the first agent over the course of three chapters, gradually coming to know his mission, his cover story, and the personal insecurities that let us know all may not go well with him.  Here's how we meet the second agent: "Alan Frankel had every reason to think he was safe."

With an introduction like that, you know this guy's life insurance had better be paid up. Moreover, it's a nice example of building momentum. Compressing the narration is a neat way to quicken the pace and to avoid monotony when relating a succession of similar events. And pace, it seems to this inexperienced reader of thrillers, is precisely what a thriller must master.

What are your favorite examples of well-paced thrillers or crime stories? How do they achieve their good pacing?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , ,

Friday, June 17, 2011

Fear in Pakistan, or Who says the spy novel is dead?

David Ignatius' novel Bloodmoney is ripped straight from today's headlines — in fact, it anticpates some of them — and its opening chapters do a better job than those headlines in illuminating just how scary Pakistan must be for those compelled to work there.

Ignatius is a journalist turned novel writer who, unlike some members of that breed, can incorporate a telling detail without shouting out its importance. Here's a CIA operative on his way to a rendezvous in Karachi:
"They wouldn't like that neighborhood. It skirted Ittehad Town, the districts where migrants from the tribal areas had settled."
Here's that operative reflecting on his boss's advice about carrying out a mission:
"Gertz loved to say it: Safety first, brother. If it feels wrong, it is wrong. Bail out. But he didn't mean it. If you aborted too many meetings, people began to suspect you were getting the shakes. ... Which meant it was time to send out someone younger, who hadn't lost the protective shell of stupidity that allows you to believe, in strange city. that you have vanished into thin air."
Ignatius has extensive experience writing about espionage; the magazine where I first read about him said his columns are eagerly read at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. His novel Penetration received a new title when Ridley Scott adopted it into the movie Body of Lies.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Early novels and late novels

Donald Westlake's first novel, published in 1960 as The Mercenaries and reissued by Hard Case Crime as The Cutie, offers a protagonist for whom crime is just a job he does well.

Conflicts result from this, some professional, some personal; some comic, some not, but the core of the book, and the source of its action, is a man doing his job.

The comedy is not quite as well-integrated into the main action as it is in Westlake's later books, and the ending is melodramatically reminiscent of the early work of Westlake's friend Lawrence Block. But this longtime Westlake fan was astonished at how consistently Westlake stuck to his main thematic concerns over a hundred or so novels written under various names over almost fifty years.

So here's your question: If Westlake's main thematic interest, like Dashiell Hammett's, was the man whose mission is to do his job well, what are the main interests of other writers with long, productive careers?  In what ways do such authors' early books foreshadow their later ones?  

(Read an excerpt from The Cutie.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

"Why do you think Norwegians are so skeptical about George Bush?"

Jo Nesbø has called Norway "a very young nation, and it is trying very hard to find itself. Like any nation, it needs pillars to build an image of a nation on."

In The Snowman he has a character make a similar point more provocatively:
"`Why do you think Norwegians are so skeptical about George Bush, Arve Støp?'

"`Because we're an overprotected nation that has never fought in any wars. We've been happy to let others do it for us: England, the Soviet Union and America. Yes, ever since the Napoleonic Wars we've hidden behind the backs of our older brothers. ... That's been going on for so long that we've lost our sense of reality and we believe that the earth is basically populated by people who wish us — the world's richest country — well. Norway, a gibbering, pea-brained blonde who gets lost in an alley in the Bronx and is now indignant that her bodyguard is so brutal with muggers."
The passage in incidental to the story, but it adds to the novel's flavor. What are your favorite such passages? And what are your favorite bits of political commentary in crime stories?
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, June 13, 2011

The trouble with Hole: An interview with Jo Nesbø, Part II

In preparation for a review of Jo Nesbø's novel The Snowman upon its U.S. release, I bring back this second part of my interview with Nesbø from last year. His recent anointing in some quarters as the next Stieg Larsson makes his comments here perhaps more pertinent than ever.

In the second part of his interview with Detectives Beyond Borders, Jo Nesbø discusses future English translations of the first, second and eighth Harry Hole novels [the five translated to date are books three through seven], philosophical musings on celebrity and revenge in Nemesis, and his place in Scandinavian crime fiction. He also talks about how Hole (pronounced approximately HEU-leh in Norwegian) got his first name — and did not get his second.

(Read Part I of the interview with Jo Nesbø.)
Detectives Beyond Borders: Can you talk a little about why you chose the name Harry for your protagonist?

Jo Nesbø: It's like the most corny name you can think of. It's even an expression in Norwegian, to be Harry. It's like the cliché of a redneck.

In the Seventies what we meant with Harry was someone who dressed like Elvis. It was someone from the rural areas coming to the city not knowing how to dress. That was why I wanted the name. `How can you call somebody Harry?' It's not a funny name, but it's an uncomfortable name. It's a normal name in one way, but on the other hand, a guy living in Oslo named Harry, it gives the character character.

There was an English musician born in Norway that suggested the name really was `Hairy Hole,' that I was playing with that. I told him no, I wasn't. I really laughed hard when he suggested that. No, I didn't think about that, but I wish I had, you know.

There's a big wave of Nordic crime fiction. Do you consider yourself part of that?

I am part of that whether I consider myself part of it or not because it's sort of a commercial label. It doesn't necessarily have much to do with Scandinavian writers having the same style. When I've been asked what I think are the similarities between Scandinavian authors, I would say that they were either from Denmark, Norway or Sweden.

I think my style is probably closer to some of the American writers — Bukowski, Hemingway — than to other Scandinavian writers. Then again, I write from Oslo, so the atmosphere would probably be similar to Stieg Larsson or Henning Mankell.

For me, my inspiration doesn't come mainly from Scandinavian crime writers. It comes from Scandinavian literature, like Knut Hamsun, Henrik Ibsen, lots of other Norwegian and Danish and Swedish writers.

What have readers in English missed by not having The Batman, The Cockroaches (Books 1 and 2 in the series, which take Harry to Australia and Thailand) and The Leopard (Book 8) available in their language?

The Leopard will be translated, hopefully next year. The first two books, there are enough references to them in the third and the fourth and the fifth books. That's why we decided we can start with the third book, because you will get the rest of the story.

The series is now so established in the UK, they want to translate the first two, also.

Also by Don Bartlett?

I hope so.

Are you deliberately more philosophical in Nemesis? And do Americans prefer a simpler, more compact, less complex story like Nemesis [shortlisted for the best-novel Edgar Award for 2010]?

[Laughs] The first part of the question, the short answer is, I don't know.

Number two, no, I don't necessarily think so. I think that nominations — I have to answer this carefully — nominations sometimes tend to be the result not only of what you did in your last novel, but in the novel before that.
(Read Part I of the interview with Jo Nesbø.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A hundred shades of emerald: Down These Green Streets

Down These Green Streets, newly published by Liberties Press under the editorship of Detectives Beyond Borders friend Declan Burke, bears an ambitious, ambiguous subtitle: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century.

Is this a book of Irish crime writing, or is it about Irish crime writing?  It's both, plus memoir, interview,  criticism, literary and film history, and a useful reading list, and that's just on my first dip into the book. Oh, and the collection does not confine itself to the 20th century, either. Early highlights:
Stuart Neville offers a tear-jerking punch in the gut of a  story called "The Craftsman," and Ken Bruen has an emotional Jack Taylor piece I can't discuss objectively because I knew the main character.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Friday, June 10, 2011

Karin Slaughter on crime fiction beyond borders

Besides having a fine name for a crime writer, Karin Slaughter has a tantalizingly dark, self-conscious sense of humor. Asked during a panel at Bouchercon 2010  for  a happy book-tour story, she demurred.  "All of my nice stories are tinged with personal horror," she  replied, to much laughter from the audience.  

I remembered that reply when a publicist asked if I'd host Slaughter on a blog tour to promote Fallen, her eleventh novel and the third in her Georgia series. I also remembered — or thought I did — that one of her anecdotes at that Bouchercon panel involved a sauna in one of the Nordic countries. This moved her closer to normal Detectives Beyond Borders territory.   "Fine,"  I told the publicist —  if Slaughter  could come up something that crossed national lines.

Ladies and gentlemen, Karin Slaughter.

Being an American crime writer comes with its perks, namely that no matter how violent or shocking you make a novel, European audiences will totally believe that any atrocity is possible in an American setting. I suppose we have our pop culture to blame for this. If aliens are monitoring our planet through American media, they will no doubt perceive our men as either highly violent or henpecked, and our women as raging, alcoholic sluts or nagging girlfriends and wives. Which might help explain why the aliens haven’t bothered to come here.

For many years, American crime writers used our perceived violent society as shorthand for character development. There was no bad guy an American detective or PI couldn’t take down. There was no crime so horrific that our white knight couldn’t prevail. And no matter whether he was shot, tortured, beaten or stabbed, he always found time to make love to the tragic heroine in his life. Dashiell Hammett gave way to Raymond Chandler. Mickey Spillane begat Ross McDonald begat Elmore Leonard and Walter Mosley and so on and so on.

Our overseas counterparts haven’t had it as easy. Their pop culture does not work as shorthand. Sure, James Bond always got his man—and his woman—but the brutality of Fleming’s anti-hero was dumbed down for the masses when Bond made the transition to the big screen. It was as if the filmmakers had to Americanize him to make it believable that a British spy would have such a pivotal role in international crime-fighting. Bond was Superman using the Queen’s English.

While American crime writers were mining the familiar tough-guy tropes, Europeans were cobbling together a more nuanced vision of the world. Let’s keep in mind that post WWII, many countries were struggling to make sure there was enough food on the table. The Marshall Plan in all its wisdom created a set of homogenous countries that saw their national identities unchallenged for over a quarter of a century. Thus, European literature became more focused on the day-to-day struggle of existence and what it meant to be British or German or Swedish. By the late fifties, the French had almost completely erased plot from their literature. Stripping away action to make room for strife became the standard by which “good” authors were judged. The excesses of their cross-Atlantic counterparts seemed lush and full of spectacle compared to the small stories of struggle that native authors were creating.

By the sixties, we saw an amalgamation of these cross-Atlantic forms. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones weren’t our only artistic imports. I think the greatest American beneficiary of the European literary influence was Patricia Highsmith, whose work hit its stride during this tumultuous decade. An ex-pat living in suburban Moncourt, she successfully married American-style plotting with European pathos. While Hollywood eagerly produced adaptations of Highsmith’s work, her books were considered too dry, too introspective and too European by most American audiences. While they accepted this sort of thing in Daphne Du Maurier, they never embraced Highsmith’s take on the form. This is the sort of snobbery that still exists in America today, where critics will celebrate the work of Europeans over Americans because our ruling elite believe that everything sounds better with an accent.

Of course, our ruling elite don’t often deign to read crime fiction, or at least not the books labeled as crime (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lovely Bones, Alias Grace—these are literature, not crime fiction novels about a rape trial, a pedophile and a murderess, respectively.) The everyday reader of crime will tell you that we have all benefited from globalization. One look at the bestseller lists show many familiar names alongside foreign ones. Current American crime writing is far more nuanced than the tough guys of Chandler’s noir. Women are no longer props, only there to be saved or screwed. European crime has changed as well. They’ve not only found the plot, but morphed their work into tense studies of humanity’s response to violence. We influence each other even as we influence ourselves. The relationship is simpatico in every sense of the word.

Every form of art is cyclical, but I think there are no finer examples of good American-born writers than Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Megan Abbott and Gillian Flynn. When I look across the pond at writers like Mo Hayder and Denise Mina, then farther still at Sara Baedel, Liza Marklund and Tomas Ross, I think that we’re seeing the true evolutionary vision of crime stories. There is no longer such a thing as big American crime fiction and little European stories. Neither is there English nor German nor Scandinavian crime, though people seem desperate to put them all into different, market-driven categories. We’re living in a golden age of good literature, where setting is neither exotic nor foreign; it exists as an omniscient narrator pulling the reader into the author’s world vision.

Labels: ,

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Dust Devils: An early look at Roger Smith's latest

Roger Smith has a thing for dust, grit, and sand, usually baking under a searing sun and driven by a hot, dry wind.  Here's a bit from his first novel, Mixed Blood:
"The wind howled across the Flats, picking up the sand and grit and firing it at Zondi like a small-bore shotgun. He felt it in his ears, up his nostrils, and it sneaked in and found his eyes behind the Diesel sunglasses."
Smith's Cape Town is a gritty place, literally and figuratively.  Wake Up Dead, Smith's grim, funny, hyper-violent thriller of a second novel, was one of my favorite books of 2010, and it was pretty gritty, dusty, and sun-basked, too.

His third book elevates the dust to a title position. I haven't read enough to know how the dust figures in Dust Devils, but the early chapters are full of grit, violence, and a pace that's breakneck and touchingly human at the same time. One early highlight: a Zulu tourist village that's a loony melange of past and present and a zinger of a comment on contemporary South Africa, with a spot of menace to keep us from chuckling too hard.

(Smith owes his depiction of hot, dry, nerve-crackling weather principally to Cape Town's climate. But he owes a bit to Raymond Chandler, too. )

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Shaken: Stories for Japan available now!

Timothy Hallinan, the Japan America Society of Southern California, and twenty talented authors have teamed up to produce Shaken: Stories for Japan,  available now for just $3.99. One hundred percent of the proceeds of this e-book will benefit the society's 2011 Japan Relief Fund.

Contributors include Hallinan, Adrian McKinty,  I.J. Parker, Brett Battles, Cara Black, Vicki Doudera, Dianne Emley, Dale Furutani, Stefan Hammond, Rosemary Harris, Naomi Hirahara, Wendy Hornsby, Ken Kuhlken, Debbi Mack, Gary Phillips, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Jeffrey Siger, Kelli Stanley, C.J. West, and Jeri Westerson.

Most, but not all, of the pieces are crime fiction. McKinty's is a touching account of Matsushima Bay before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, for example. The book's distribution through Amazon promises prompt release of proceeds, Hallinan says, so buy now. The cause is good, the gratification instant.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

I enter the Do Some Damage "Noir at the Beach House" challenge!

Over at Do Some Damage, Steve Weddle, last seen in these parts asking fellow Noircon attendees to sign his bat, challenges readers to write crime stories with a summer-vacation theme. Here's my entry. How about yours?

Down the Shore

by Peter Rozovsky

Sally took the Lavender Room and left the Leather ‘n’ Spice Suite for me. I thanked her for that much; a guy’s got a reputation to keep.

Sally was all right. Sure, she’d cooed over the scented candles and chintz-covered throw pillows. But she drew the line at the teddy bears – five on the overstuffed settee in the parlor, seven tumbling over each other on a second-floor notions table, and one that scared the hell out of her when it fell on her head from the top shelf of an ivory-inlaid cabinet in the breakfast nook.
That’s why I suspected her when I found a bear with its guts ripped out the next morning. She just looked at me funny as we headed out for an iced coffee before hitting the beach.
Two more teddy bears disappeared that evening, though one turned up under the porch swing soaking in a puddle of spilled mint tea. The glass pitcher that had held the tea lay on its side, next to a knocked-over white rattan table.

Diane shook her head as she mopped up the mess, muttering that some guests lack the simple good manners to come forward when they have an accident. But no one can stay grumpy for long and still run a successful bed and breakfast. “I’m no escapee or anything,” she said, laughing. She slapped the puddle with her mop. “I won’t rip their heads off.”
“Let me do your neck,” Sally said.
I winced as we sat in the Mexican coffee shop reading our newspapers the next morning. “Did you see— Damn!” I threw the paper down and rubbed my left forearm hard. “Itching. We stayed out too long yesterday. Pass the Gold Bond, will you?”

A skinny guy with a faded green baseball cap and a laughing gull tattooed on his left temple stared at the little white clouds as I slapped the powder over my arms.
I recognized the tattoo when I saw it again late that night. Its owner lay face down on the bed and breakfast’s porch, his hands cuffed behind him and a police sergeant kneeling none too gently on his back.

“It was the bears,” the sergeant’s boss said. “This guy’s been a small-time heister for years. He heard a load of heroin was coming down the Shore in one of them teddies, and somehow he got it into his head that this was the town.” He nudged the perp thoughtfully in the ribs with his boot. “It gets pretty shitty for a guy like him in the winters here, and this was his chance to get away. I don’t know what we can charge him with; B&E and cruelty to animals, maybe.” He bent down and hauled the skinny perp up by the arm pits. “Come on, Grizzly Adams. We don’t have much of a downtown, but we’re taking you there.”
If the dope was in Cape Friendly, the skinny guy never found it. Maybe he’d be no worse off than he was before. But maybe whoever had paid for the heroin would make an example of him. Either way, I didn’t envy the skinny guy with the laughing-gull tattoo.

They’d taken him away when Sally came down the stairs. Her mouth made a silent O. “What happened? What is all—” She waved her arm out over the guts of a dozen toy bears.

"It’s nothing, baby, just the stuffing that dreams are made of. Now, let’s go to bed. Your suite or mine?”
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: ,

Monday, June 06, 2011

Dominique Manotti, apolitical political novelist

The recent discussion of Dominique Manotti's Affairs of State in this space has leapt from grammar to gender and sex, and that means politics can't be far behind.

That's appropriate for Manotti, who writes about greed and decadence among France's ruling elites. Though Manotti is decidedly of the left politically, her books shun politics in the everyday sense of policies, debates, and party affairs. The bad guys in Affairs of State are Socialists, but that's only because the Socialist Party, in the person of Francois Mitterand, held the French presidency in the mid-1980s, when the book is set (though certain details of Mitterand's past may have fired Manotti's imagination). In Manotti's world, money is all that matters. (She's an economic historian when not writing award-winning crime novels.) Here's how she begins a short afterword to Affairs of State:
"In France, the 1980s were commonly referred to as the `years of easy money,' because during this decade money came to represent, for an entire political class and regardless of whether they were in power or in opposition, an end and a value in itself, at a time when entrepreneurs and financiers became the new heroes of modern times."
Manotti is not quite as bleak as Jean-Patrick Manchette, but she shares with him an aversion to overt partisanship that makes her books all the sharper as social critiques — and all the more effective as fiction.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Translations and transgressions

Page 59 of Dominque Manotti's Affairs of State has a police-officer protagonist musing that "This is my patch. If that person's out there, I can find them."  The same page includes a description of the Belleville neighborhood of Paris, where a narrow street "glistens with a dampness that permeated your lungs," and this:
"Set back on the left, is a huge social housing block, at least ten storeys high, with a flat, uniform façade, the very worst of urban architecture, typical of the unbridled renovation of the Belleville district begun back in the 1970s."
In each case, I regard the boldface portion as less than perfect English. Them is plural, Sting notwithstanding. Your is jarring in a passage otherwise entirely in third person. The apartment block's description is wordier than I'd have expected for a setting the author clearly wants us to regard as grim and stark.

Blame may lie with the inevitable differences between two languages, differences unbridgeable by literal translation. Proper French would not permit a mismatch of number like that person's ... them, and French writers concerned with such matters presumably find other ways to fight sexism. In some politically correct quarters, however, English does permit such mismatches.  French also has the impersonal pronoun on, whose English counterpart, one, sounds stilted these days, especially in North American English. In general, French is more comfortable with impersonal sentences than English is.

French readers and authors may also find terseness less essential to hard-boiled writing than their North American counterparts do.  I'd have done less telling and more terse showing in describing the Belleville apartment block.

This is no knock on the translators, Amanda Hopkinson and Ros Schwartz, just a reminder of the many masters the translator must serve: accuracy, readability, fidelity to the author and to the host and target languages.
Schwartz herself might appreciate this post, and if she reads it, I hope she weighs in. I took part in her translation workshop at Crimefest 2010, where she had participants work on another section of Affairs of State. Her goal was not to teach correct translation, but rather to get us to appreciate the many factors translators must consider.
Affairs of State is the fourth of Manotti's novels available in English. Its predecessors include Dead Horsemeat, Rough Trade, and Lorraine Connection, the last of which won the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger for translated crime fiction in 2008.

Manotti's cool depiction of France's political, business, security and journalistic elites gives chilling new life to the concept of decadence. She also writes with unsentimental compassion of those manipulated, sometimes fatally so, by the elites, and she juxtaposes her depictions of high and low to suspenseful effect.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, June 03, 2011

Who do you like?

Jon Cleary's Scobie Malone has to be among the most likable crime fiction protagonists ever set to paper, and Cleary uses the likability to considerable effect in The High Commissioner, building dramatic tension out of the sympathy Malone develops for the man he has been sent to arrest.

Today's question is simple: Who are your favorite likable protagonists? I don't mean admirable, brave, or morally upright. I mean the sorts about whom you might say, "Oh, him. Nice guy." or "She's all right!" How does likability help (or hurt) a crime-fiction protagonist?

(Oddly enough, the one other likable crime-fiction protagonist who comes immediately to mind is also Australian: Peter Corris' Cliff Hardy. Comment welcome, especially from Australians.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Delicious details

A detail in Jon Cleary's The High Commissioner made me cheer quietly. I neglected to note the passage, but its substance is that the protagonist, Scobie Malone, sees a subordinate police officer smile sardonically at a superior's remark and can tell from that smile that the subordinate will not advance far in the force.

I thought that a humorous insight into organizational behavior and one with which I have particular sympathy. Without having anything to so with the main action, it nonetheless told me something about where Malone's sympathies lie and enhanced the pleasure of reading.

What are your favorite delicious details? What do such details add to a story?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , ,