Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Walkaway

(Scott Phillips)
I'm just a few chapters into The Walkaway (2002), Scott Phillips' second novel and both a sequel and a prequel to The Ice Harvest, his first.

It's been a pleasure to read, and if all crime fiction were this good, there would be none of this nonsense about genre fiction and serious fiction and literary fiction, and none of the slumming that leads reviewers to think they're paying a compliment when they call a novel a thinking man's crime book.  Instead, readers, reviewers, and critics would just accept that a novel's action can spring from a heist, and that that novel can still be touching and funny, unsentimental, harsh, and sometimes violent, and have much to say about the changing lives and times of its setting and characters.

Now, back to my reading.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012


Sunday, January 29, 2012

Resurrection Man

Eoin McNamee’s 1994 novel Resurrection Man took me across the ocean, past the checkpoints, and straight into the cerebral cortices of the killers, comrades, lovers, friends, family, and pursuers of the murderous Belfast sectarian killers called the Resurrection Men in the book, the Shankhill Butchers in real life

But this is no middlebrow sociological novel, seeking the roots of criminality in childhood or other trauma. Nor, despite its basis in real events and real deeds, is it a cheap straight-from-the-headlines-style exposé. (Indeed, the novel muses upon the power of media to rub the sharp edges off tragedy, smoothing everything into well-practiced phrases.) McNamee’s excursions into his characters’ heads serve only to show how isolated each is from everyone else.

Despite the intimate familiarity the novel gives us with the mind of gang leader Victor Kelly (apparently modeled closely on the real-life Lenny Murphy), McNamee never resorts to the easy out of making him sympathetic. Kelly's psychological disintegration and his delusions of grandeur are stark and terrible, but not redeeming in the least. That would be too easy.

Like Adrian McKinty's The Dead Yard, this book makes its killers terrifying and pathetic at the same time, a bunch of losers hanging around pubs talking about "units" and "operations" before going out to slaughter lone, defenseless civilians. Like McKinty's The Cold Cold Ground, this book is likely to make you feel like you were there. Like that book as well, it would not be out of place in a course on recent and contemporary Northern Irish history, a scary, traumatic history but one well worth knowing.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Friday, January 27, 2012

In sight or out of sight: What's the best way to be a fictional detective?

"You have to be able to walk around in plain sight. What I’m talking about is being invisible in front of everyone’s eyes. You have to learn to be a ghost, and not like Casper. I mean fucking gone. ... Only your words will make you invisible. You got to make people uncomfortable, make them want to look somewhere else. And I’m not talking about the ‘Fuck you’ shit you tried. When you want to stay invisible, you have to use remarks that put people on the defence. Put something mean and uncomfortable out there, then fade back. People will be glad to ignore you then."

— Mike Knowles, In Plain Sight

"Yes, and your office should be in a Georgian or very modernistic building in the Sunset Eighties. Suite Something-or-other. And your clothes should be jazzy, very jazzy indeed, Steve. To be inconspicuous in this town is to be a busted flush."

— Raymond Chandler, "The King in Yellow"

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

More on Mike Knowles' literary caffeine jolts

I'm making my way through Mike Knowles' Wilson novels at a good clip. I read Darwin's Nightmare and Grinder earlier this week, and I thought I'd post a few thoughts before going back and finishing In Plain Sight, the third in the series (A fourth book, Never Play Another Man's Game, is due in the spring.)

  • Readers who like Richard Stark's Parker might like these books. Same with readers of Andrew Vachss' Burke novels or Mickey Spillane. The books might also appeal to fans of The Fugitive or Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai.
  • The books demonstrate that the tried-and-true hardboiled gambit of describing urban change and decay has life left in it. Knowles' descriptions -- of Hamilton, Ontario -- work better than many because Wilson, a tough, free-lance fixer and investigator who works for criminals, gets behind the faded doors and shabby facades and meets the people urban exodus has left behind.
  • Wilson inhabits a violent world, but Knowles can write cold, cruel, heart-rending scenes without having his characters resort to physical violence.
  • Knowles is good on the psychological and temperamental flaws and strengths of his characters.  Igor, a violent, unhinged, impotent Russian gangster, is not nearly as funny as that description makes him sound.
A final thought: the three books have Wilson on the run from a series of nemeses, sticking to the outsider's role that appeals both to him and to the criminals (or cops) who put him to work. He plays off one set of dangerous characters against another. He reflects on the harsh but vital lessons he learned from his criminal uncle.  The books so far are like caffeine jolts, but how long will Knowles be able to keep up the energy?     What will he do to keep the series fresh?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Proofread your favorite songs!

While listening to "Just One of Those Things" this week ("It was just one of those things ... One of those bells that now and then rings"; the last word should be ring; the subject, those bells, is plural), I thought, "What other songs commit sins that would earn the lyricist or singer a slap on the wrist from a fastidious editor?

The two I always notice are "Bitch," in which Mick Jagger sings that his heart is beating louder than "a big bass drum," pronouncing bass as if he meant the fish rather than the deep musical tone, and "Jet," in which Paul McCartney thought the major was a lady suffragette, pronouncing the last syllable with great emphasis and with a hard g. (I presume the mispronunciation is by way of establishing emphatic contrast with the j sound of Jet at the beginning of the line and is therefore deliberate. I mean, the man's a knight of the British Empire. He has to be able to speak proper English, doesn't he?)

What such transgressions do your favorite songs commit in the name of poetic, melodic, or lyrical license?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Darker than Parker

Mike Knowles, author of four novels about a criminal mercenary and off-the-books investigator named Wilson, told an interviewer  a few years ago that
"For a while, I had been noticing that most popular crime fiction was starting to narrow its focus. There were a lot of do gooder reporters, police procedurals, and smart talking private eyes. What there weren’t enough of were the mean, pulpy, hard-boiled crime novels I read as a kid. I set out to write the kind of book it was getting harder to find."
I've just found his books, and I can tell you that the action never stops. Wilson is always in motion: on the job, evading pursuers, recovering from injuries, planning his next move.  He's a bit like Mike Hammer but without the hyperventilating political rants. He's darker than Richard Stark's Parker, as if Parker had descended a circle or two into the world where Andrew Vachss' Burke lives. And he and his creator are Canadian! I'm proud that my polite, self-effacing native land has given the world such dark, action-filled crime writing.

I've read Darwin's Nightmare and a good piece of Grinder. In Plain Sight is up next, and Never Play Another Man's Game is out this spring. If you can wait until May, Knowles's publisher, ECW, will release an omnibus edition containing the first three books.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Our decaying changing language

Why say "the number of murders is up" when "the murder rate is up" has the zingy cachet of science, rate conveying an aura of precision because of its association with statistics and physics?

Because a word's meaning has a way of haunting those who are ignorant of it.   I recently came across the following:
When adjusting for population, City X’s homicide rate was three times higher than City Y’s.”
That’s redundant, and it indicates that the writer does not know what rate means. Rate in this context adjusts for population by definition, 8 per 100,000 or whatever. The most useful of several definitions of rate is this, from Merriam-Webster:
a : a quantity, amount, or degree of something measured per unit of something else
Use rate as if it meant simply quantity or number, and you may be taking part in the evolution of English. But for now, at least, you'll be using the word incorrectly — and driving me nuts.
Read an October DBB post for another example of the kind of redundancy that results when writers remember a word but forget what it means.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

James McClure on television

A skeptical commenter yesterday asked for a few more excerpts to justify my enthusiasm for James McClure.  I'll suggest an entire category: McClure's descriptions of South African landscapes. Here's one, from The Sunday Hangman:
"Apart from some thorn scrubs, there were no trees except those gathered  together for a definite purpose: to shade a tin-roofed homestead, or to provide a trading store with its windbreak. The sort of God's own country where every farmer began his day with a very deep sigh."
The same commenter mentioned that television came to South Africa only in 1976 and presumed that McClure's novels reflected this. I had noticed no such reflection, I replied. But when I picked up The Sunday Hangman to resume my reading, I came across a series of comic set pieces involving television no surprise in a novel published in 1977 and possibly written in the crucial television year:
"`Tomorrow night the TV's in Afrikaans,' she said, keeping hold of his hand, and they went automatically through to the kitchen for their coffee. `They've invited us again, so can you come over?' 
"`What's on?' 
"`An Australian baritone singing translations form real Italian opera. I'm going.' 
"That, thought Strydom, was exactly what the old Minister of Posts and Telegraphs had warned against when describing television as the Devil's instrument. Not once that week had they sat down together as man and wife and talked over his more interesting cases."
Elsewhere we get scenes of Strydom haggling over the price and features of a television set and amazing onlookers with the weird results of his fiddling with the color dials. But that one excerpt will suggest that McClure has an eye for social history and gentle comedy as well.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

More James McClure on the way

I'd already known that Alan Glynn's Bloodland and Donald Westlake's The Comedy Is Finished were due in February. I now have in my hands Soho Crime's upcoming reissue of James McClure's The Sunday Hangman (1977), fifth of the late, great South African crime writer's eight Kramer and Zondi mysteries, and it's due on the 7th. February is the coolest month.

I've read four of Kramer and Zondi novels, and I know of nothing else like them in crime fiction. The writing sparkles with the wit and concision of the best traditional mysteries even though the subject matter is sometimes as dark as that of the darkest hard-boileds. The social criticism is of a deftness that Stieg Larsson could never have managed if he'd written a thousand books, and the sympathetic eye for character is something like Andrea Camilleri's.

It helps that McClure had a dramatic background against which to set his stories: apartheid-era South Africa. They pair a white Afrikaner police lieutenant (Kramer) and his Zulu assistant (Zondi), and McClure does not spare the reader the harsh words that swirl around, about, and sometimes between the two.

"Perhaps the most surprising aspect of McClure's apartheid-era novels to readers almost forty years later," I wrote after reading The Steam Pig, "is the blend of breezy banter in the English style with acute portraits of the period's ugliness. The result may shock today's more sensitive readers, at least American ones, but I call it an impressive achievement."

So I'm excited about The Sunday Hangman. Here are two few samples that ought to give a fair idea why:

"The veld all around them was as parched as an old tennis ball and much the same color."

"Tollie Erasmus looked at the room in which he was about to die, and saw there the story of his life. Nothing had ever turned out quite the way he'd imagined it."
Good stuff, ja?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Friday, January 20, 2012

Lawyers and ***holes: Carofiglio and Higgins

A typical passage in George V. Higgins' Cogan's Trade runs thus:
"I swore when I got out I was gonna make every minute count, the rest of my life. ... And am I doing it? No. Of course I’m not. I’m just as big an asshole now as I was before.
That's one character, Amato. But assholes run through the novel like the motto theme through a Romantic symphony:
"`Some time, I hope,' Russell said, “you got over being an asshole.”

“`I’m not sure,' Frankie said."
And that sort of self-doubt and introspection, though expressed in earthy terms, is what readers must mean when they praise Higgins for making even violent lowlife characters human.
I remarked in yesterday's post that Higgins has a surprisingly large bibliography for an author so strongly associated with a single novel (The Friends of Eddie Coyle.) An alert commenter pointed out that a movie version of Cogan's Trade is due out this year, starring Brad Pitt.

Here's a quick rundown of Higgins' novels that may prove useful to readers unfamiliar with his work beyond The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
Higgins is not the only lawyer-turned-crime writer whose work I'm reading these days. Gianrico Carofiglio's Temporary Perfections offers a typical Carofiglio observation that may help explain why he no longer practices law.

Carofiglio's protagonist, Guido Guerrieri, is called on to defend a young man who tries to kill himself by turning on a gas oven in a sealed room, is rescued by carabinieri (Italy's military/civil police), and unexpectedly finds himself in legal trouble:
"They found the young man unconscious on the floor but, miraculously, still in and of this world. In other words, they saved his life. But, after checking with the magistrate on duty at the time, they also arrested him. On charges of mass murder."
The gentle dissection of the absurdity of the Italian law in question that follows is, in its mix of bemusement, matter-of-fact analysis, and quiet crusading, typical of the Guerrieri books. I once asked if Guerrieri might be the world's sanest crime fiction protagonist. That was just another way of saying he might be the most likable and endearingly human.
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Cogan's Trade by George V.Higgins

Here's another American book, but one I'm reading thanks to a pair of European authors.

Cogan's Trade is George V. Higgins' third novel, following The Friends of Eddie Coyle by four years. Like that venerated classic, Cogan's Trade is almost all dialogue as it begins, punctuated by brief descriptions to establish a scene.  I realized a few chapters into this book what a brave move this was on Higgins' part. Write chapters and chapters of dialogue, with little or no intervening description, and you'd better be damned sure that dialogue can hold the reader's attention. How much of the dialogue you come across in your reading is that good?

So far, it works. So, who are those European authors? The first is Garbhan Downey, who offered some thoughtful replies to critical comments I posted about The Friends of Eddie Coyle a few years ago. Among other things, he expanded my awareness of Higgins' work beyond that one book, which is all I had known of Higgins before.

The other is Bill James. My post this week about James' new novel, Vacuum, took me back to my 2009 interview with James, which included his declaration that
"I’ve said it boringly often, but the one book that influenced me above all was The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, by George V. Higgins, for its dialogue and its subtle treatment of the fink situation."
Here's a list of Higgins' novels -- more than twenty, a surprisingly long bibliography for an author who died youngish and is so widely known for his just one book, and that his first.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Christa Faust NSFW* update

Double-D Double Cross is the book Raymond Chandler would have written had his protagonist been a high-libido lesbian who kept a sex toy rather than a bottle of whiskey handy in the office.

Actually, the opening chapters of this raunchy slice of hardboiled, over-the-lop lesbian erotica by DBB friend Christa Faust deserve the Chandler invocation more than some books do. Faust cops a line from Farewell, My Lovely but, more than that, the book is filled with touches of the sympathy that characterized Chandler and bits of righteous anger, too.

And parts of those opening chapters are just plain funny:
"She was the type who got all juicy over the idea of slumming with a rough and tumble blue-collar butch like me, but couldn’t stop lecturing me about how I was internalizing oppression because I cut my hair like Tony Curtis."

And, when P.I. "Butch" Fatale keeps her clothes on, this is one righteous, thrilling ride, including the best nude skateboarding scene you're likely to read in a crime novel this year.
* Not Safe for Work.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012


Monday, January 16, 2012

New Bill James novel arrives!!!

Bill James' twenty-eighth Harpur and Iles novel is in hand, and all is right with the world.

Vacuum has drug dealer Mansel Shale finding religion and stepping back from (though not abandoning) his trade in his grief over the shooting deaths of his wife and son. Manic ACC Desmond Iles and scheming DCS Colin Harpur worry about solving the crime. More than that, they wonder whether Shale's retreat will shatter the fragile peace with rival dealer Ralph Ember and bring chaos to the streets.

That's the story through the first three-plus chapters.  As usual with James, though, the real pleasure is the dark, rich, sometimes very funny prose. Here's a sample:
"This pair had to deliver peace on the streets and preserve it: no turf fights, no drive-by salvoes to hail the New Year and/or mark the Queen's official birthday, no domestic torchings, no body-part severances or desocketed eyes. Desocketed eyes really riled Iles. `Desocketed eyes get up my nose,' he'd told Harpur a while ago."
The opening chapters have a bit more of a contemporary edge than other recent books in the series; James' half-mocking portrayal of the rival drug gangs in terms straight off the business page is more acidic than usual, and the author has not neglected the times in which he writes:
"People had less money, yes. As a result, many prioritized their spending more ruthlessly than before, went with absolute, steely dedication for the essentials. That is, they lashed out generously on stuff which would for a while blur the crisis pain and complement their Jobseeker's Allowance, although, of course, it ate into their Jobseeker's Allowance, because prices of the commodities stayed high on account of this increased demand."
So my early verdict is that Vacuum may turn out to be one of the stronger recent entries in the series.
I've long been in awe of the Harpur and Iles novels. If you don't want to take my word for it, listen to Ken Bruen, who
"abandoned British crime years ago except for Bill James, who I love. ... His Iles and Harpur series is magnificent."
or Tim Hallinan, who wrote that
"If I were told I could only read five writers for the remainder of my life, and I had to name them at that moment, both Bill James and Anthony Powell would be on the list." 
Here's a checklist of the Harpur and Iles novels. While deciding which ones to look for, read my 2009 interview with Bill James, Part I and Part II.
Vacuum is published by the Creme de la Crime imprint, now a branch of Severn House, about which Martin Edwards had some nice things to say last year. Join me in thanking them for having the good taste to publish Bill James.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

McKinty in America

Like a wide-eyed immigrant clutching his flat cap and wiping his nose on the sleeve of his Aran jumper as he gazes upon Manhattan's skyline for the first time, Adrian McKinty's The Cold Cold Ground has landed in America, at least electronically.

This hard-hitting and very human crime novel, published by the wise and discerning folks at Serpent's Tail, is now available in the U.S. for your Kindle (or free downloadable Kindle application).  That's good news; the book made my best-of-2011 list because I read an advance copy just before the New Year. It will surely be one of this year's best as well.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, January 14, 2012

History, humor and violence

How does an author of historical fiction evoke momentous events and famous names without growing turgidly self-important?

James R. Benn' s most recent Billy Boyle mystery, A Mortal Terror, opens with a giant wink to the reader that promises a fair bit of fun along with the human drama and military history: "Kim Philby owed me one."

That's a wonderfully disarming invocation of one of the twentieth century's most notorious celebrity spies.
Back in the American West, I've read a few more of Edward A. Grainger's Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles stories, and I can add pulp appeal to the reasons crime readers might like these Westerns:
"Cash cleared leather first and opened a dark hole in the rapscallion's forehead. A third blast came through the shattered door and then a stream of small fire joined in the dance."
"Miles rolled sideways, ignoring the pain, and popped the third man in the right eye, sending chunks of brain out the back of the man's head."
If you like Mickey Spillane's action but are leery of his politics, try some Cash Laramie!
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

DBB reads a Western!

Edward A. Grainger's Cash Laramie stories are full of mysterious origins, lawmen both upright and crooked, cowboys and Indians, and saloons with bat-wing doors.

But they're also hard-boiled crime stories, and why not?  What is Sam Spade but a lone wolf riding into town wearing a trench coat and a fedora?

The stories portray a West more fraught with racial conflict than I expected from Westerns, and they treat sex more frankly. At the same time, there is nothing jokingly or preciously revisionist or politically correct about them; they feel like old-time Westerns.

But they feel like crime stories, too. So, while Grainger pays tribute to such Western classics as The Searchers, "Maggie's Promise" gives chilling new meaning to the line "It was a wandering daughter job."

I'll read the first collection of Laramie/Miles stories next, and I'll be thinking about Westerns that might appeal to crime-fiction readers. Any suggestions?
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Allan Guthrie's black shorts

Allan Guthrie, that sharp noir author, scholar, editor, agent, and impresario, is back with a collection of cheap shorts.

Hilda's Big Day Out offers four gut- and heart-wrenching slabs of noir, including the title story, which is atypical in at least two ways: It has an arguably happy ending, and its narrator is a dog.

Of the remaining tales, "Bye Bye Baby," which gave rise to Guthrie's novella of the same name, may wring tears of pity from even the hardest-hearted reader. Like David Goodis' novel Cassidy's Girl, its noirness inheres not in a tragic ending, but rather in an inconclusive sort of non-ending. Not every tragedy has the easy out of catharsis or death. Sometimes the nightmare just goes on.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Monday, January 09, 2012

Nipples and Spinoza

Donald E. Westlake's The Comedy Is Finished put me in a Hard Case frame of mind. I'm reading Lester Dent's Honey in His Mouth now, with Westlake's Memory on deck.

Dent wrote Honey in His Mouth in 1956, toward the end of a career spent largely writing Doc Savage, and the book is full of South American dictators, tight dresses that stay on, and frank one-word delineations of what lies beneath. It also shows an intellectual streak reminiscent of Woody Allen's essays and hard to imagine in popular culture today:
"Harsh listened with a black expression. Jesus, he thought, who had ever heard of such stuff being sprung on a man. However, Miss Muirz had a reading voice that was low and cultured and musical, and her dress had an interesting way of snuggling up when she took a deep breath so that her nipples stuck out at him. But he did not care greatly for Spinoza."
The book is obviously a product of its time, in other words, but without seeming dated. How does Dent manage this? With a light touch, a wild plot, and a grifter protagonist, Walter Harsh, refreshingly upfront about his life's goal: money.

More, perhaps, later.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Sunday, January 08, 2012

David Goodis on drinking

Its plot wanders, and some of its dialogue is wooden, but these two bits of high melodrama from David Goodis' 1951 novel Cassidy's Girl are worth the price of admission:
"She sat there with an empty glass in front of her. She was looking at the glass as though it were the page of a book and she were reading a story."
"`You're young and you're little and it's a shame.'
“`What's a shame?'

“`Drinking. You shouldn't drink like that.” He raised his hand slowly and tried to form it into a fist so he could hit it on the table. His hand fell limply against the table and he said, `You want a drink?'”
Heartbeaking, and good evidence for the proposition that compassion is an essential ingredient of noir.
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Thursday, January 05, 2012

Politics and crime

In honor of this week's first vote in the long American presidential election season, some quick remarks about two crime novels shot through with American politics.

It's a bit scary to think that Bill Clinton loved Ross Thomas' writing, as Tony Hiss reports in his introduction to The Fools in Town are on Our Side, Thomas' 1970 novel of political manipulation. The book's central plot line is the deliberate corruption of an American city in order to facilitate its political takeover. Allies are surrendered up for humiliation and ruin in order to lull the opposition into complacency

Why is this scary? Because Clinton, whatever one thinks of his policies, was widely admired and detested for being such a superb politician. How much did he learn from Thomas? How much of a kindred spirit did he recognize in Thomas' fixers and PR men?
The Comedy is Finished, due out next month from Hard Case Crime, is Donald Westlake's last novel.  The story is that Westlake wrote the book decades ago but decided against publishing it in the 1980s for fear that readers would think it too similar to Martin Scorcese's 1983 movie The King of Comedy. Westlake apparently gave Max Allan Collins a manuscript of the book, and Collins passed it on to Hard Case, so the world gets one more novel from the prolific Westlake, who died Dec. 31, 2008.

Westlake's comedian is Koo Davis, a star of radio, television, and stage shows who made his name on USO tours during the Korean War and continues into the Vietnam era, filled all the while with questions about the world and how it's changing around him.

The format allows Westlake much room for amused observations about American entertainment of the 1950s from the perspective of the late 1970s. Unsurprisingly for a book set in the '70s, a kidnapping figures prominently. Davis' question-and-answer sessions with his kidnappers yield some unexpectedly moving introspection on his part and, I suspect, on Westlake's as well.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Alexander Cockburn visits the projects

Alexander Cockburn's post-mortem attack on Christopher Hitchens appears in a column that includes a reference to "The EU `project,' a very irritating word that should be tossed in the dumpster along with `iconic,' `meme,' `parse' and `narrative' ..."

Maj Sjöwall might disagree, because the Project is what she called the crime novels (The Laughing Policeman, Roseanna, et al.) she wrote with Per Wahlöö. The Project, she says in a BBC documentary about Nordic crime fiction (go to the 25:30 mark), "was our way of creating a realistic crime novel that would look at society from a left-wing perspective."

The Project sought to expose the lies and hypocrisies of Sweden's post-war utopia: "The fact of the matter is that the so-called `welfare state' abounds with sick, poor and lonely people living at best on dog food who are left uncared for until they waste away and die in their rat-hole tenements."

I'd have thought Cockburn would like that sort of thing. I guess one's feeling about project depends on who's doing the projecting.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Tuesday, January 03, 2012

“Tell him he can have my title, but I want it back in the morning”

That Jack Dempsey-attributed quotation marks today's release of Affairs of Steak, fifth of Julie Hyzy's White House Chef mysteries. I claim a kind of sous-chef's role in bringing this confection to the literary table, having suggested to Hyzy a title that, in a modified version, made it into print.

Naturally I liked my original suggestion (Secretary of Steak), though the final version is pretty good, too. But I like the title of the first in the series even better: State of the Onion.

The titles work like miniature deadpan jokes, with serious openings that get you thinking of grave political matters, then hit you with a comic punch line. What are your favorite funny titles? What makes them funny?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Monday, January 02, 2012

Nordic not-really Noir: The BBC documentary

(Cheerful blogger with non-
gloomy Icelandic crime writer
Arnaldur Indriðason)
Hat tip to Adrian McKinty, who posted a link to the BBC documentary Nordic Noir: The Story of Scandinavian Crime Fiction. A few comments:

First, the title. Alliteration to the contrary, none of the authors interviewed or discussed really writes noir, not Stieg Larsson, not Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, not in the books of hers that I've read, Karin Fossum. The central characters are not losers. The books are about anger, compassion, isolation, or resignation. They don't encompass the essentially noir emotion of depair. Gloom, yes. Doom, no.
Val McDermid noted the cold, gloomy landscape in Nordic crime writing and suggested this makes a wonderful stage for crime.  She gets no quarrel from me. Here's some of what I wrote about Arnaldur Indriðason in the book Following the Detectives: Real Locations in Crime Fiction:
"People disappear in Arnaldur Indriðason's Iceland, but the soil has a way of yielding them up again. An earthquake cracks the land, drains a lake, and uncovers a body; a victim turns up on a construction-site excavation; in spring, corpses come to light in a lake, where winter ice had concealed all signs of their disappearance. ... The landscape swallows up victims, whether of murder, accident or natural disaster; geological disruption lays them bare again."
Iceland, says one expert interviewed for the BBC piece, is "a place where people can disappear." Rozovsky said it first.
I was glad to hear McDermid note that Arnaldur's books are shot through with "these dark and awful bits of humor." And I loved a remark from Håkan Nesser, always amusing in a way not normally associated with Scandinavians, that "We're not supposed to talk like I do, we're supposed to just sit there and stare blankly out into the, whatever, darkness."
The program offered lots of Larsson but also a bit of Ibsen, intriguingly citing the nineteenth-century Norwegian playwright as a prototype for Scandinavian crime fiction's tendency to explore the outward, social manifestations of inner trauma. Jo Nesbø, among the program's featured authors, numbered Ibsen among his influences when he spoke with Detectives Beyond Borders last year.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Sunday, January 01, 2012

Detectives beyond the stars

Happy New Year to all. For the year’s first post, I’ll cross borders I’ve rarely crossed here at DBB: those to science fiction.

For all the usual sci-fi hater's reasons, I’ve never been attracted to the genre: It’s silly. It’s far-fetched. It takes itself way too seriously. But I’d read good things about Alfred Bester, who wrote some classics in the field in the 1950s. I figured that if William Gibson thought he was cool, the man might be worth a look.

Neil Gaiman’s introduction to Bester’s 1956 novel The Stars My Destination (also published as Tiger! Tiger!) says Bester “was one of the only—perhaps the only—SF writers to be revered by the old timers (`First SF’), by the radical `New Wave’ of the 1960s and early 1970s, and, in the 1980s, by the `cyberpunks.’”

That’s good. So is this:

“When he died in 1987, three years into the flowering of cyberpunk, it was apparent that the 1980s genre owed an enormous debt to Bester—and to this book in particular. ... But what makes The Stars My Destination more interesting—and ten years on, less dated—than most cyberpunk, is watching Gully Foyle become a moral creature.”
So, how does the novel look so far? It's got a hell of a lot more humor than I expected, and that counts for much:
 "A researcher named Jaunte set fire to his bench and himself (accidentally) and let out a yell for help with particular reference to a fire extinguisher. Who so surprised as Jaunte and his colleagues when he found himself standing alongside said extinguisher, seventy feet removed from his lab bench."
He exercises that humor in paragraphs full of absurd situations, comically open-ended tales, and words that tumble over themselves in the verbal equivalent of a long, cackling tenor saxophone solo:

"Despite all efforts, no man had ever jaunted across the voids of space, although many experts and fools had tried. Helmut Grant, for one, who spent a month memorizing the co-ordinates of a jaunte stage on the moon and visualized every mile of the two hundred and forty thousand-mile trajectory from Times Square to Kepler City. Grant jaunted and disappeared. They never found him. They never found Enzio Dandridge, a Los Angeles revivalist looking for Heaven; Jacob Maria Freundlich, a paraphysicist who should have known better than to jaunte into deep space searching for metadimensions; Shipwreck Cogan, a professional seeker after notoriety; and hundreds of others, lunatic-fringers, neurotics, escapists, and suicides."
I don't know if I'll finish the novel; the above is just from the prologue, after all. But I love that paragraph.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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