Sunday, July 31, 2011

Ray Banks' hard world and a question for readers

Ray Banks' novella Gun is more Bosch than Botticelli. Here's how Banks describes some of the characters (though not the protagonist):
"He wore a silk Aloha shirt that framed chilled, pale skin and clung to a spare tyre that belonged on a monster truck."

"Another one wore a cap, had box-whites on his feet and a hare lip."
And this, about a gangster who claims to have lost a leg in the Falklands war:
"A lot of thoughts running through Richie's head, the same old story about a lost leg on Goose Green when everyone knew what really happened — stupid bastard mainlined an artery."
Those are nice examples of a world defined by grotesquery and stupidity — morally defined, I mean. The grossness is neither titillation not the butt of jokes, not something for you, me, the author, or a pretty hero to laugh at. Banks' world really is as harsh as its inhabitants look.

The novella's ending seemed standard-make, but I'll be eager to see what Banks gets up to in his novels. Now, how about you? Who creates the harshest, hardest, toughest worlds you have visited in your crime-fiction reading? Which authors create characters whose physical appearance reflects their world?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Television program examines Nordic crime fiction

If you have a television handy, MHz Networks will examine the question of what makes Scandinavian crime fiction so popular. The show will be telecast tomorrow and then repeated severval times over the next few days.

I'd call modern Nordic crime writing's birth in Naj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Martin Beck novels spectacular, rather than humble, as the program notes say. But that's a quibble. Here's the information

Lone Wolves & Dragon Tattoos: How Scandinavian Crime Fiction Conquered The World
Air: Sunday, July 31, 9:00 pm on MHz1 WNVC-DT 30.1
Future Airs: 08/01/11, 12:00 am MHz1 WNVC-DT 30.1; 08/02/11, 9:00 pm MHz1 WNVC-DT 30.1; 08/03/11, 12:00 am MHz1 WNVC-DT 30.1
  Broadcast In: OTHER
With Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy topping the bestseller lists and Kenneth Branagh starring as Henning Mankell's Detective Kurt Wallander on TV, Scandinavian crime fiction has never been hotter. But what is it about these characters and the worlds they inhabit that hold such universal appeal?
Lone Wolves & Dragon Tattoos traces the evolution of Nordic crime fiction, from its humble beginnings with Sjöwall-Wahlöö's Martin Beck novels of the 1960s straight through to the worldwide phenomenon of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, featuring interviews with some of the genre's brightest stars — authors Henning Mankell (Wallander), Gunnar Staalesen (Varg Veum) and Håkan Nesser (Van Veeteren) — as well as the actors and producers who bring these mysteries to life on-screen.

Produced by MHz Networks and Nordic Blast Entertainment. In English, Swedish and Norwegian with English subtitles.

Run Time: 02:00:00

Rating: TVPG Format: SD Source: MHZ

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Win Colin Cotterill's new book

Colin Cotterill, author of the Dr. Siri  Paiboun mysteries about the aging chief (and only) coroner in post-revoltionary Laos and his odd cast of helpers, has begun a new series about an eccentric family in Thailand.

The series opens thus: "Old Mel hired one of Da's nephews — the slow-witted one with the dent in his forehead — to sink a well in his back acre."

That's typical Cotterill in form and substance, and if you shudder a politically correct shudder at slow-witted, don't. Cotterill is the most human, compassionate and generous of authors in his depictions of the elderly and of a character with Down syndrome in his Dr. Siri books. I'm confident he won't make cruel or gratuitous fun of anyone here.

But why trust me? One lucky reader in the U.S. only can win a copy of the book, Killed at the Whim of a Hat, courtesy of the good people at Minotaur Books, and judge for her or himself.  All you have to do is answer the following skill-testing question.

Cotterill's novel The Coroner's Lunch tells us a bit about Dr. Siri's reading habits:
"During his stay in Paris decades before, he'd taken his delight in the weekly serializations of one Monsieur Sim in the l'Oeuvre newspaper ... Siri had been able to solve most of the mysteries long before the inspector had a handle on them."
Who is Monsieur Sim?
   Liz from Maryland knew that "Monsieur Sim" was Georges Simenon. He used the alias early in his career, and Liz wins a copy of Killed at the Whim of a Hat. Congratulations, and thanks to Liz and to Minotaur Books. 
 (Read Colin Cotterill's blog for information about his books and samples of his cartoons. Watch an entertaining interview with Cotterill here, and read my previous posts about Cotterill; just click the link, and scroll down,)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Friday, July 29, 2011

Best of New Zealand crime fiction, Year II

 The Kiwi crime king, Craig Sisterson, sends word that a shortlist has been chosen for the 2011 Ngaio Marsh Award for best New Zealand crime novel. The 2011 finalists are:

Blood Men by Paul Cleave (Random House);

Captured by Neil Cross (Simon & Schuster);
Hunting Blind by Paddy Richardson (Penguin);
Slaughter Falls by Alix Bosco (Penguin).

I was a judge in last year's contest, and novels by Cross and Bosco were among my choices for the shortlist (Bosco's Cut & Run won). Cleave is a respected name in New Zealand crime writing, and Richardson is new to me, so I have a nice mix of the old and the new to look forward to on this year's list.

The winner will be announced Aug. 21.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

A newspaper's list of international crime fiction

Not so terribly long ago, the Christian Science Monitor published a list of Top 7 detective series set in foreign locales. Here's the list:

  1. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, by Alexander McCall Smith
  2. Andrea Camilleri's novels about Salvo Montalbano.  
  3. The Dr. Siri Paiboun series, by Colin Cotterill 
  4. The Yashim the Eunuch series, by Jason Goodwin  
  5. The Omar Yussef mysteries, by Matt Beynon Rees  
  6. Qiu Xiaolong's Inspector Chen Cao novels set in Shanghai 
  7. The Nayir Sharqi and Katya Hijazi novels, by Zoë Ferraris
 © Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Cover stories

A post about the covers of James R. Benn's Billy Boyle novels in this space last year generated a lively discussion of art, war, publishing, history and aesthetics, among other interesting subjects.

Benn, kind enough to remember that discussion, sends a new article of his own about the cover of his latest book, A Mortal Terror, the sixth Billy Boyle World War II mystery.

It's good stuff, full of photos, drawings, and glimpses of how artist, author and designer thought at various stages. Like the earlier discussion, it offers a link to the wonderful Web site maintained by designer Daniel Cosgrove.
Benn was a member of my "Flags of Terror" panel at Bouchercon 2010, which makes this an appropriate time to mention that Bouchercon 2011 approaches rapidly. This year's conference happens a month earlier than usual — Sept. 15-18 — and if anyone wants to hold Bouchercons every eleven months instead of every year, I won't complain.  Visit the Bouchercon Web site for information, and I'll see you in St. Louis.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Monday, July 25, 2011

Black and Burke

Declan Burke's and Benjamin Black's latest novels just happened to fall into my lap around the same time, but the coincidence is apt.

Burke was probably the first person to get me thinking that Black (who calls himself John Banville when creating art) might be something other than a condescending shit when it comes to crime writing.  His interview of Banville in Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century reveals the two writers' common ambition to do something different with the crime novel, and Banville comes across as almost charming, which is not always the case with him.  This suggests to me that Burke and Banville are to some extent kindred spirits.

The circumstantial evidence is there. Banville says that when he adopted the Black persona, he vowed to avoid clichés. Burke says that
"you won’t find in [Absolute Zero Cool] what seems to me to have become, if I may be so bold as to make sweeping generalisations, the defining characteristic of the vast majority of contemporary crime novels, which is, however well written any book is, the simplistic pieties of some liberal sadist masquerading as an authentic exploration of modern society, but which is first and foremost designed to ring bells on cash registers."
 Black steers clear of clichés for the most part in A Death in Summer, which makes the occasional lapse all the more noticeable. One such mars the novel's most nervously beautiful scene so far.

The oddest coincidence, and one that may mean absolutely nothing, is that an unusually high number of scenes in both books end with "But he/she/name of character wasn't listening."

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Absolute cool

Absolute Zero Cool, Declan Burke's latest, is not the easiest book to discuss, which doesn't matter because it's so much fun to read.

An author matches wits and wills with a character who won't leave him alone. Author and character clash over the latter's plan to blow up a hospital. Character starts out as nihilistic, dope-smoking hospital porter. comes more to the fore, and turns into something more interesting.

Author and character together and individually ponder and confront the very biggest moral and ethical questions in ways occasionally touching and always hugely entertaining.

That metaphysical game of character meets author is an old one, but Burke pulls it off with panache. Not once, even when the possibility looms that the character may be writing the author, does it seem forced.
Burke's Crime Always Pays blog offers a raft of testimonials from fellow writers for Absolutely Zero Cool. And here's the author with some illuminating comments on this bracing book.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Friday, July 22, 2011

Benjamin Black, crime craftsman?

One reviewer wrote of John Banville's crime novels, written as Benjamin Black, that
"Black has improved with every book, and the latest, A Death in Summer, is his best yet. Reading the books leading up to this one was to watch a writer—a very skillful writer at the outset—learning the rudiments of a new genre. Sometimes you got too much information and sometimes not enough. The narratives were often less than fluid. Not this time. Black wears the formulas of his genre casually, like a trenchcoat tossed over one shoulder."

The article appears under the headline "The New Master of Noir."  Black is not that, but he does evoke a noirish setting, a stifling 1950s Dublin in which suicide is not spoken of, Jews are not welcome in the best circles, and gossip rules.

He handles another crime-fiction convention less well: that of the the apparent suicide that may not be what it appears. How would a shotgun blast have lifted the victim backward from his chair and across his desk? And why doesn't the first police officer on the scene, a detective inspector by no means stupid, notice the obviously difficulty of suicide via shotgun. Maybe Black is poking fun at the convention; I think he just handles it poorly.
Banville told the Paris Review that
"One of the reasons I love doing journalism—that is, reviews and literary articles—is that I can do it quickly. It gives me a craftsman’s pleasure. Fiction doesn’t do that."
Is crime writing like journalism to Banville?  I'll be looking for signs of Black's craftsmanship as I read A Death in Summer.

And he pays tribute to Richard Stark and Georges Simenon here.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Irish openings

Last week I promised a return to some current crime fiction by authors from a country that plays a role in the Icelandic and Old Norse sagas, and here it is.  (That country is Ireland, and the authors are Benjamin Black, known as John Banville when not writing crime novels, and Declan Burke.)

A Death in Summer, Black's fourth novel about the pathologist Quirke, opens thus, on the death of a newspaper tycoon:
 "When word got about that Richard Jewell had been found with the greater part of his head blown off and clutching a shotgun in his bloodless hands, few outside the family circle and few inside it, either, considered his demise a cause for sorrow."
A newspaper tycoon who was a bad guy. Who'd have thought such a thing possible in this day and age? The opening pages offer detached, amused observation, a poke at the intrusive excesses of tabloid journalism (No!), and a secretary who has a better grasp of English than an editor-in-chief. That's not a bad start.

Burke's Absolute Zero Cool is more recently arrived than the Black, and I've read even less of it. But this blog is a sucker for good opening lines, and Burke's is not at all bad: "The man at the foot of my bed is too sharply dressed to be anything but a lawyer or a pimp."

More to come on both.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The way some writers date

(Ross Macdonald wearing a fedora)
I spent my previous post excoriating the obtrusively amateurish Freudianism in Ross Macdonald's The Galton Case. Another aspect of that novel has dated almost as poorly, and that got me thinking about why some themes date better than others.

That second aspect is the depravity of the dog-eat-dog American suburbs. Here are four extracts from The Galton Case:
"Flowers bloomed competitively in the yards."

"Arroyo Park was an economic battleground where managers and professional people matched wits and incomes."

"The commuters in their uniforms, hat on head, briefcase in hand ... It was a junior-executive residential section."

"You wouldn't want to to get around that I didn't do my share ... You don't want to shame me in front of my friends. [this from a housewife trying to talk into her husband into buying cake for a church supper. And where does she want him to buy the cake? "You know the bakery at the shopping center."]
The first image is striking even if the sentiment is dated. The next two extracts can have little impact on later generations whose views of the suburbs were shaped by "Pleasant Valley Sunday." The fourth is just wince-makingly bathetic today, however it may have seemed to readers when The Galton Case was published in 1959.

Once upon a time in America, starting sometime after World War II and fizzling out in the mid-1960s, suburbs and their new accessibility to middle-class homebuyers were objects of fascination, horror, and fevered imaginings. The Galton Case appeared three years after the novel Peyton Place. I'm just old enough to remember Dave Berg poking amused fun at the suburbs in Mad magazine.

But the novelty wore off, generations grew up in the burbs, and their depravities and social pathologies were absorbed into popular culture and forgotten.

I reflected several times while reading The Galton Case how odd it was that the trappings of a story published in 1959 should feel stale, while those of Dashiell Hammett's stories, from thirty and more years before, should feel fresh. Why is this? It's not enough to suggest that Hammett was a better writer than Macdonald, because chip away the social trappings, and The Galton Case is a thrilling family drama with a virtuoso twist.

I'm just old enough to remember the tail end of the world for which Ross Macdonald wrote The Galton Case. Hammett's world, on the other hand is remote and hence new. Is that why it seems fresher to me than Macdonald's? Why do some old stories date poorly? Why do others seem thrillingly fresh?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Ross Macdonald, amateur psychologist

I really did want to get back to more exotic climes for this post, but I got sidetracked by a sort-of Canadian.

An article called "The Second Generation of Hard-Boiled Writers" tells us that "Ross Macdonald brought Freudian analysis from the university, where millions of students were learning it, to explain to a mass public why good people do bad things."

In The Galton Case (1959) , some of the analysis is right out of a freshman class:
"But she held herself with adolescent awkwardness, immobilized by feelings she couldn't express."
"She walked away from me and her fear."
How does the protagonist/narrator, Lew Archer, know this on first meetings with people he has never seen before?

Elsewhere, Macdonald, the eager amateur psychologist, shows, tells, and interprets what Macdonald the author would have been better off just showing:
"She tried to go on, but the words stuck in her throat. She plucked at the skin of her throat as if to dislodge them."
A laconic author in the Hammett mode would have let the reader guess the reason for the throat-plucking. So, I suspect, would a Macdonald more comfortable with psychoanalysis and more confident that his readers would be, as well.  Freudian psychology must have seemed more novel, more darkly exciting, in 1959 than it does today.

And how about "I had a delayed gestalt after I'd given up on the subject"? I think that's Macdonald's attempt to update the old something-bothered-me-but-I-couldn't-put-my-finger-on-it.-It-didn't-hit-me-till-later trope.  But delayed gestalt? Delayed-effing-gestalt?    

It may be significant that two of the wittier, less forced bits of psychological analysis in the book's first half come from characters other than Archer. Old Mrs. Galton "likes to dramatize herself. It's the only excitement she has left," the family lawyer says."She lives on emergencies," remarks a family servant.

But it's a hell of a story so far, and I can see why later crime writers worship Macdonald. Previous authors had made the long-buried family secret a motif. Macdonald made it the substance of this story, and he unfolds the suspense slowly and relentlessly.

This is my first real crack at a Macdonald novel, so my guesses could be dead wrong. But I suspect that his books got even better once he, er, internalized his psychological interests, got more comfortable with them, and learned how to have Archer express them more naturally and less like an enthusiastic recent convert.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Joe Puma is no ****-up

The Thrilling Detective Web site calls William Campbell Gault's Joe Puma "the fuck-up as P.I." I don't see that based on the five stories collected in Joe Puma, P.I.  

The same site says Ross Macdonald dedicated his last novel to Gault. That makes better sense. The stories have the same bitter attitude toward wealth, especially unearned, not to mention a whole lot of Chandlerian knightliness, plus compassionate description and dark, hard-boiled observation in about equal measure. We know that Puma is a knight, because he tells us in "Stolen Star" that "I was no knight."  As for the rest, we get:
  • "I can never find the proper comment for the wailings of the wealthy. I tried to put some sympathy into my smile."
  • "She lived in a beach shack south of there, out of the high-tax area."
  • "It was a clear and beautiful day, a day for loafing, but I didn't have a rich or talented wife."
  • "And if I told Duffy ... who would benefit? Not Gina Pastore and not Mrs. Alan Engle.  Justice might, but justice was only a word. The other two were people."
  • "Money is only unimportant when you have a bank full of it."
  • "You have to believe in somebody, Miss Pastore."
  • "There was one suit, right out of a Fresno bargain emporium..."
  • "His clothes were a bit frayed, but he wore them well."
  • "Charles smiled and said nothing, as good bartenders do."
  • "He had the kind of a face that looked naked without a number under it."
  • Of a high-class pimp who has gone into the movie business: "If a man can afford it, buying a small studio is a fine way to keep supplied with dames."
One odd bit was the description of "a short, fat man, and his language seemed a little pompous," odd, because Puma, in his role as narrator, says things like "We're all victims of our own environment to a degree, you know" and "Her toughness was not inherent."

Gault, writing these stories in the late 1950s, also peppered them with self-conscious popular culture references before the practice became widespread ("Sam reads too much Mike Hammer," "The rube sees too many movies.").
So, maybe I'll read some Ross MacDonald.  But first, some current crime writing from a country that figures in the Old Norse sagas.  
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Friday, July 15, 2011

A good name is better than precious ointment *

Unn the deep-minded. Thorun the Horned. Men's Wit-Breaker. And those are just the women.  The Laxdale Saga proves that if Old Norse sagas have nothing on hard-boiled crime novels when it comes to male characters' nicknames, they take the prize when it comes to distaff monikers.

Not that their male character were slouches either. Those three women are the daughters of Ketill Flatnose and the granddaughters of Bjorn the Ungartered in the  great Icelandic saga, which also mentions in passing one Ulf the Squinter. Those are right up there with Itchy Maker and the Whosis Kid.

Here's a list of Viking names and nicknames (and here's one that concentrates on the sagas). You'd probably want to cross the street if you saw Horse gelder or Blood axe coming your way, but you have to feel sorry for the Scandinavian schlemiel nicknamed Awkward poet.
Translator's note: Bernard Scudder, who translated crime novels by Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir from Icelandic into English before he died in 2007, also translated Egil's Saga from Old Norse for the selection available in Penguin's The Saga of Icelanders. Arnaldur has said that the sagas influences his terse prose style, so if you like his work, why not grab yourself some sagas?
* Ecclesiastes 7:1

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

The trouble with Harald

I've posted from time to time about elements of the Icelandic sagas and other world literature that would be at home in crime fiction.  Few, if any, are as noir as a short section from the middle of King Harald's Saga. Here are a few chapter titles from that section: "Murder." "The Mission." "Death in Denmark."

King Harald Hardrada of Norway lures a political enemy into a dark room, where he has him stabbed and hacked to death. Hated after the murder, he enlists a strong warrior to help him win back the people's favor, promising to allow the warrior's brother back from exile as the price of the warrior's cooperation. He sends the warrior on a diplomatic mission, where he wins a truce from the dead man's friends.

The exiled brother then returns to Norway but Harald, having in the meantime achieved his aim of a truce, sends the man out to his death at the hands of an enemy army. It may be the most treacherous act since King David said: "Uriah, would you mind dropping this note off for me?"

Moralists who want the good guy to win in the end will be happy to know that before the story ends, Harald gets his from King Harold Godwinson of England at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, bringing the curtain down on the Viking era, by traditional reckoning. Of course, Harold's forces lose the Battle of Hastings three weeks later.

History. It's a tough game.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

What would your name be in an old Scandinavian saga?

Chapter 30 in my edition of King Harald's Saga introduces us to Einar Paunch-Shaker, and a footnote to Chapter 37 tells us that Jon the Powerful was the father of Erlend the Flabby. What would your name have been in an Old Norse or Icelandic saga?
Medieval Norsemen didn't have family names, just patronymics and epithets, so their authors didn't have to go far for colorfully significant monikers. But even contemporary writers, burdened with the necessity of conventional first and family names, can sneak attributes into character names, too.

Walter Mosley has created protagonists named Ezekiel (Rawlins) and Socrates (Fortlow).  Michael Dibdin gave us Aurelio Zen. And Declan Hughes' series character, Ed Loy, is surnamed for an implement made for digging deep into hard, stony land — a kind of spade, in other words, and that's auspicious for a fictional private eye.

What are your favorite significant crime-fiction names?

(This old post and its comments offer more examples of significant names.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Monday, July 11, 2011

Reading fun from Faust to the Federalist

My reading has been both eclectic and promiscuous in recent weeks. Here are some highlights:
  • Fiction from outside one's own country comes with a burden of greater expectations. We expect such fiction to contain clues to the essence of the country where it originates, and I sometimes wonder if this is unfair to authors who may just want to show the reader a good time. I don't know yet what Mike Nicol's thriller Black Heart says about South Africa, but it sets a fine mood of tension, suspense and paranoia.

  • Christa Faust's Hoodtown is as much alternate-universe fantasy as it is crime. In this case, the universe is a neighborhood populated entirely by luchadors and luchadoras (masked Mexican wrestlers) and their descendants. Sure, fetish sex is part of the mix, but this is mainly a story of outcasts, a protagonist with a dark past, thwarted love, and this bit of musing on the decadence of today's youth: "It was easier back then. Not like now when you got joints all through Hoodtown with Hood girls in máscaras that might as well not exist, string bikinis for the head that cover barely more than a Halloween domino. You couldn't pay me enough to leave the house like that."

  • Frederick Nebel's writing has not dated as well as that of his fellow Black Mask authors Dashiell Hammett, Paul Cain, or Raymond Chandler. Period slang and dated locutions weigh more heavily on his work than on theirs. But Nebel was at least as good as the big three at creating an atmosphere of  menace and uncertainty, and his writing at times has as hard an edge as Cain's. He deserves to be better known and more widely published.

  • But the hardest-edged writer I've read this week, the one with the bleakest (or most clear-eyed) view of humanity, may be Alexander Hamilton. Here are some selections from Federalist Paper #6:
"(M)en are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.  ...

"Have republics in practice been less addicted to war than monarchies? Are not the former administered by
men as well as the latter? Are there not aversions, predilections, rivalships, and desires of unjust acquisitions, that affect nations as well as kings? Are not popular assemblies frequently subject to the impulses of rage, resentment, jealousy, avarice, and of other irregular and violent propensities? Is it not well known that their determinations are often governed by a few individuals in whom they place confidence, and are, of course, liable to be tinctured by the passions and views of those individuals? Has commerce hitherto done anything more than change the objects of war? Is not the love of wealth as domineering and enterprising a passion as that of power or glory? Have there not been as many wars founded upon commercial motives since that has become the prevailing system of nations, as were before occasioned by the cupidity of territory or dominion? Has not the spirit of commerce, in many instances, administered new incentives to the appetite, both for the one and for the other?
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Sunday, July 10, 2011

The fjord foundation: Forthcoming book to examine Norwegian crime fiction

"On a slow news day [Friday]," writes Barry Forshaw, "here's the Norwegian Noir piece I've done in today’s Independent," drawing on research he did for his book Death in a Cold Climate: Scandinavian Crime Fiction, due early next year.

Forshaw writes that "Norway remains, in most people's consciousnesses, the most imposing of the Nordic countries, with the ancient legacy of the Vikings still casting a shadow over the country."

That's interesting; I'd have thought Sweden was the big boy on the local block, with Norway insecure about its relatively recent North Sea oil wealth. The man Forshaw calls "the uncrowned king of Norwegian crime fiction" called Noway "a young and, in a way, an insecure nation" when I interviewed him.

I'm also not sure Jo Nesbø is uncrowned these days, but let's wait to hear what Forshaw's book has to say. I'll also be eager to see how the book expands on Forshaw's contention in the Independent that
"despite the proximity to one another of the various Scandinavian countries, their individual identities are remarkably pronounced. The patience generally shown by the inhabitants when the British and Americans lazily lump all the Scandinavian nations together is both surprising and admirable."
While you wait for Forshaw's book, catch up on Norwegian crime fiction at the Scandinavian Crime Fiction database and blog.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Saturday, July 09, 2011

I hold this Truth ...

... to be self-evident: that every writer's work, howsoever great be the natural powers with which his Creator has endowed him, can be improved by a good copy editor.

Thomas Jefferson was generous or vain or fair-minded enough to include in his memoirs the Declaration of Independence as he wrote it (right here in Philadelphia, in a house at Seventh and Market Streets), allowing readers to compare Jefferson's words with the changes made by the committee that had charged him with the job.

Here's an example:

Jefferson's original:
"The history of the present king of Great Britain is a history of unremitting injuries and usurpations, among which appears no solitary act to contradict the uniform tenor or the rest, but all have the direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world for the truth of which we pledge a faith yet unsullied by falsehood."
Final version:
"The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world."
The committee substituted "repeated" for "unremitting," thereby saving readers a bit of breath. It boiled down "among which appears no solitary act to contradict the uniform tenor or the rest, but all have" to "all having," thus concealing from the world a clue that, for all his reputation as a scholar, architect, scientist, and philosopher, Jefferson trained as a lawyer. It excised "for the truth of which we pledge a faith yet unsullied by falsehood" and made the last sentence far more vigorous.

So, along with Jefferson, let the world honor Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and, especially, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams for the copy editing that made a momentous document even better.
Here's another bit of Jeffersonia that for some reason seems not to be quoted much these days:
"Whereas the preamble [to Virginia's Act for Establishing Religious Freedom] declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the words `Jesus Christ,' so that it should read, `a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;' the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination."
Here's a Declaration of Independence quiz that appeared this week in the Christian Science Monitor. If you've read this post, you know the answer to the first question.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Friday, July 08, 2011

Frederick Nebel

I've been reading stories from three series the prolific Frederick Nebel wrote for Black Mask and Dime Detective in the 1920s and ‘30s, and one result, aside from my enjoying the stories, has been some thoughts about the demands of writing for a monthly or weekly magazine.

I'd previously read some of Nebel's MacBride and Kennedy stories, featuring police Capt. Steve MacBride and his ubiquitous bane and sidekick, the alcohol-sodden reporter Kennedy of the Free Press. Tough Dick Donahue, a private-investigator Nebel creation who came along a couple of years after MacBride and Kennedy, had a reporter sidekick of his own named Libbey. But Nebel came up with the nice trick of making Libbey a more annoying character than Kennedy, and thus added a bit of variety while satisfying the public's taste for drunken newsmen.

The weekly and monthly pulps are long since dead, and with them, presumably, some of the conflicting pressure on authors to keep things fresh from story to story while at the same time maintaining the formula that holds a series together. Today’s closest counterpart to the pulps is probably weekly television, where the creators of, say, Law & Order, might jiggle the camera a bit more or less one week, or have Sam Waterston and gang vary slightly the pitch in which they delivered their somber, issue-of-the-week headlines.

Even though the pulps are gone, series are still a staple of crime fiction. How do authors change things up even while they stick to the series formula?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Discovering Americans

An incidental exchange in Mike Nicol's novel Black Heart, probably just a bit of color, offers an amusing version of the hearty, optimistic American:
"In English he advised a young American couple to take a booze cruise on the Spree. They looked like kids, early twenties at best. `Not long ago there were gunships on the canal,' he told them, `now it is a tourist pleasure. The world changes.'

"The couple laughed. The boy-man said, `Great, hey, thanks, man.' The girl-wife doing a full-length teeth display. ...

"Richter smiled. What was great? The world changing? The gunships? The outing? Perhaps it was George Bush-land that made them peculiar."
Granted that youthful (over)optimism is a stereotypical American characteristic. Granted, too, that George Bush is an easy target. Still, the proverbial bluff good cheer of Americans lives on, and Nicol does a nice job of capturing its rhythms.

(Don't think the stereotype is accurate? Try getting served by a waiter, waitress, bartender or bar owner under age 35 in my gentrifying South Philadelphia neighborhood. The awesomes! and absolutelys! will explode around your head like desperate fireworks.)

What's your favorite glimpse of Americans and their ways in crime writing by a non-American author? If you're not American, what's your favorite glimpse at your country in crime fiction by an author from another country?

When not writing crime novels, Mike Nicol is an energetic promoter of South African crime writing at the Crime Beat blog. He has also written about South African crime fiction here at Detectives Beyond Borders and also here.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Flashman and America

(Photo by your humble blog keeper.)
The Fourth of July is a day of quiet reflection in the United States.

Families gather over frugal meals to debate the legacy of the Federalist Papers, and when darkness falls, the populace comes together to discuss such topics as French influence on the doctrine of the separation of powers and to sit in rapt awe at the number of vowels in Montesquieu's name.

Independence Day is wrapping up here in America, and that may be why some passages in Flashman on the March, set though the book is in Abyssinia in the nineteenth century, resonate in the United States of America in the twenty-first:
"I've a sight more use for him and his like than for the psalm-smiting Holy Joes who pay lip-service to delivering the heathen from error's chain by preaching and giving their ha'pence to the Anti-Slavery Society, but spare never a thought for young Ballantyne holding the sea-lanes for civilization and Jack Legerwood dying the kind of death you wouldn't wish for your worst enemy."
That's as least as fine a burst of rhetoric as "Support the troops."

Flashman's misgivings about "a campaign which, to judge from the gloom at tiffin, promised to be the biggest catastrophe since the Kabul retreat" might provoke a shock of recognition, as will this exchange, about a leader known for his massacres of thousands:
"This makes it simple; the bastard'll have to go."

"You will try him, in a court, and put him to death?"

"Oh, I doubt that. ... "

"But you said of Theodore, `he will have to go'!"

"So he will, one way or t'other. Bullet in the back o' the head, shot trying to escape, dead of a surfeit of lampreys, who knows?"
If Larry Gonick, who writes and draws The Cartoon History of the Universe, is the new Herodotus, then Flashman's creator, George MacDonald Fraser, was the new Thucydides. And each is probably funnier than the original.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Sunday, July 03, 2011

Flashman on the March: A hero's credentials

Last week's endorsement in this space by Gary Corby was just the most recent recommendation I'd received of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series of comic historical adventures, but it's the one that pushed me over the edge to try them myself (though I'm starting not at the beginning, but with Flashman on the March, last of the twelve books).

The series takes Flashman, the scapegrace schoolboy of Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857), and puts him in the middle of just about every British military engagement of the nineteenth century and a number of American ones. The books, published between 1969 and 2005, won praise for their historical accuracy,  and here's what P.G. Wodehouse had to say: “If ever there was a time when I felt that ‘watcher-of-the-skies-when-a-new-planet’ stuff, it was when I read the first Flashman."

Flashman needs no more praise after an endorsement from P.G. Wodehouse, so I'll confine myself to a few items from the biographical note appended to the beginning of Flashman on the March. (The books purport to be Flashman's diaries):
"FLASHMAN, Harry Paget, brigadier-general, V.C., K.C.B., K.C.I.E. ... Order of the Elephant, Denmark (temporary) ... San Serafino Order of Purity and Truth, 4th class ... occasional actor and impersonator. Hon. mbr of numerous societies and clubs, including ... hon. pres. Mission for Reclamation of Reduced Females ... (performed first recorded `hat trick,' wickets of Felix, Pilch, Mynn, for 14 runs ... )"
Yep, I can see why Wodehouse liked this guy. I think I will, too.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Saturday, July 02, 2011

The real world meets The Shark-Infested Custard

I copy-edited a story this week at work about new rules governing the number of consecutive hours physicians can work during the residency stage of their professional careers.

The new rules say 16 rather than as many as 30 without a break, and not everyone is happy about the change. I thought of this when I came to a passage in Charles Willeford's novel The Shark-Infested Custard. The viewpoint character is Hank, a pharmaceutical salesman who muses upon the tendency of doctors to abuse drugs:
"`I can handle it,' they thought, and they would pop a bennie to get through a six a.m. operation, and then another bennie at ten a.m., to get through their hospital rounds, and then, because they were bone-tired, and beginning to get sleepy by one or two p.m., and they had an office full of waiting patients to get through, they would take a couple of more bennies that afternoon. And so it would go, with emergency calls at night, and the first thing they knew they would be hooked--on bennies, or dexies, or nose candy, and eventually, on horse."
My early impressions of this book are that Willeford does a stunning job of portraying the lives of working men in the United States, and that he paints a convincing picture of Miami. (The book would make a nice companion for Stuart M. Kaminsky's Lew Fonesca stories, set in Sarasota, Florida.)  The prelude to Hank's attempted seduction of a woman who is not what she seems goes on a bit too long, but that's a quibble.

Here's a bit about Willeford at Wikipedia. And here are your questions: Who else has written about working men in ways that make you say, "He's got it!"? David Mamet? Donald Westlake? And has any novel ever had a better title than The Shark-Infested Custard?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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