Thursday, May 31, 2012

Travel quiz

What's the longest any of those wheeled suitcases has lasted?

 a) One month
 b) One week
 c) Twenty minutes
 d) One and three-quarters legs of a two-leg journey
 e) None of the above. No piece of wheeled luggage has ever lasted that long.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

After Crimefest: York at night

... your humble blogkeeper
All photos by ...
At left and right, please find some of the many sculpted heads that decorate the chapter house of York Minster. All I can say is that standards of meeting-room decor have declined since the  English decorated Gothic period.

The church's western towers are impressive, too, especially when they loom like giant queens about to crush a city full of sleeping pawns.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Weather or not in crime stories

Valerio Varesi doesn't know enough to come in out of the fictional rain, and the opening pages of his novel River of Shadows are none the worse for it.

Those pages, in which a drenching rainstorm weighs heavily on the thoughts of a group of boatmen, are a good answer to anyone who insists a crime story should not begin with weather. Use weather to create suspense, let drumming rain or the wind-blown clatter of signs in a deserted square work their way under the characters' skins — or the reader's — and you'll pull the reader right in. Simenon did it in The Yellow Dog, and Varesi does it here.

(Photo by your humble blogkeeper)
(Varesi's The Dark Valley has been shortlisted for the Crime Writers' Association International Dagger for translated crime fiction. The short list was announced at Crimefest 2012. Here are the shortlists for the six awards announced at Crimefest.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Monday, May 28, 2012

I'm in an Old York state of mind

(A singular street)
(Photos by your humble blogkeeper)

Too pooped to post this evening, so I'll put up some pictures from my post-Crimefest excursion to York.

The energetic Roman emperor Septimius Severus died here, where he had come to fight the Caledonians.

A century later, Constantine was proclaimed emperor in York, where he had come to help fight the Picts. Once Constantine consolidated his power, he tolerated Christianity in the empire, and the rest is history.

And now I am, too. Goodnight.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Crimefest 2012 highlights

A gentle spring wind dissipates the gin fumes over College Green, and Bristol is an eerily quiet place now that Ali Karim has left town.

With Crimefest 2012's remaining stragglers marshaling their strength before the Sunday dinner, here are some highlights of my third Crimefest, one of the most enjoyable crime festivals I've been part of:

1) Declan Burke's Absolute Zero Cool wins the Last Laugh award, for best comic crime fiction published in the U.K., besting a field that included hacks and pikers like Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen.

2) Your humble blogkeeper loses the Criminal Mastermind quiz to Peter Guttridge on the crime-fiction equivalent of penalty kicks. Guttridge and I each answered fifteen questions correctly in general crime-fiction knowledge and our specialty categories. (His was Richard Stark's Parker novels; mine was Dashiell Hammett.) Guttridge won the prize of Bristol blue glass and a free pass to next year's festival because he had passed on only five questions whose answers he did not know while I passed on seven. I think, however, that my showing may be the best ever by a North American, and proof to the Brits that there's more to America than bluff good humor, rustic colonial manners, and a flair for tall stories.

3) A post-dinner discussion with Gunnar Staalesen, who agreed with a Detectives Beyond Borders commenter's suggestion that the Anders Breivik case will halt fruitful, honest discussion of immigration and integration in Norway for a generation.

4) Finding a crime writer (William Ryan) for whom Isaac Babel (Odessa Tales, Red Cavalry) is both an inspiration and a character.

5) Reunions with the delightful floating cast of authors, organizers, critics and fans who spend their vacations criss-crossing the Atlantic Ocean to attend every crime festival they can in England and America, and the addition of Alison Bruce, Laura Wilson and Stav Sherez to the cast. See you in Cleveland or Harrogate or Bristol or Albany or Long Beach or ...

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, May 26, 2012

P.D. James at Crimefest

(P.D. James in conversation with Barry Forshaw at Crimefest 2012)

I've read very little of P.D. James' work, but I should only be that cheerful, alert, productive, and optimistic when I'm nearing 92 years of age.

"I'm trying to tell the truth about men and women," she said in a guest-of-honor interview at Crimefest 2012. "I try to write well with respect for what I think is the most beautiful and versatile language in the world."

If James' declaration that "The thing about (the Golden Age of crime fiction) is that everyone knew how to write English" sounds stodgy (though I find her sentiment admirable), consider her views on the liberalization of divorce laws in the United Kingdom to benefit women since James' writing career began: "Divorce happens, and it is necessary," she said, "but there is a price." I'd call that an admirably clear-headed, non-Utopian view. Changes in sexual mores can also make life difficult for mystery writers, the Baroness James said:

"In the Golden Age you could consider murder if you were having an affair with your secretary and wanted to avoid exposing it. Nowadays if you have an affair you write about it in the Sunday papers. Motive is very difficult for a modern crime writer."
Other revelations of the day included Anne Zouroudi's that the somber, grand, handsome appearance of her mysterious protagonist, Hermes Diaktoros, is based on that of a local bank manager and Peter James' that he was once Orson Welles' housekeeper.

 © Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Friday, May 25, 2012

Crimefest Day 2: Fire and Iceland

"You never hear anyone telling Norwegian jokes anymore, and I think it's because of the money," Swedish crime writer Åsa Larsson said during today's Crimefest 2012 panel on Scandinavian crime fiction.

"Now it's the other away round," Norwegian crime writer Thomas Enger replied. Norway's oil wealth has apparently muted at least one outward expression of Sweden's superiority to its neighbors.

But the panel was not all doleful observations and good-natured gloating. Gunnar Staalesen gave a plausible answer to a question I'd long had about Scandinavian crime writers: Why did Satanism and the fear thereof figure in a number of their crime novels in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, Jo Nesbø's The Devil's Star, Helene Tursten's The Glass Devil, and Åsa Larsson's Sun Storm (a.k.a. The Savage Altar) among them? Tursten appeared to take umbrage when I put the question to her a few years ago, apparently thinking I implied she had copied Nesbø. I implied no such thing, and I'll chalk Tursten's impatience up to fatigue from a gruelling tour schedule.

Larsson said a church figured in her book simply because, while secular now, she had had a religious upbringing; churches were simply a part of her background. But Staalesen suggested that a real-life wave of church burnings in the 1990s by a black-metal musician who wrote about Germanic neo-Paganism might have brought Satanism to the fore as an issue of public concern.

The intriguing thing about the resulting novels, at least the three I named, is that Satanism and satanists tend to be suspects and sources of fear rather than the actual villains of the piece. The books do not decry or praise Satanism, they merely take it up as one aspect of Swedish and Norwegian social and spiritual life.

I asked Staalesen after the panel whether an amusing, geographically specific metaphor for oral sex in the English translation of his 1995 novel The Writing on the Wall was an accurate rendering of the Norwegian original. He did not remember the line, which he'd have written seventeen years ago. But he did say the metaphor would work just as well in Norwegian as in English.

Finally, Ragnar Jonasson paid tribute to the trail blazed by his fellow Icelandic crime writer Arnaldur Indriðason. That Arnaldur did not publish his first novel until 1997 indicates how new Icelandic crime writing is. "Prior to that," Ragnar said, echoing a battle that crime writing has had to wage in a number of countries, "crime fiction was looked down upon by the public."
 The panel's moderator was Barry Forshaw, who really has written the book on Scandinavian crime fiction.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Juicy bits at Crimefest

Sounds better than "pulp."
"Juicy bits" is what they call citrus pulp here in the UK, and I'm probably not the first North American who has enjoyed a salacious snicker at the breakfast table over the expression.

Crimefest 2012 begins this afternoon, and this young crime fiction festival must have arrived. This years's lineup includes Frederick Forsyth, P.D. James, and Sue Grafton, plus more Scandinavians than you could shake a plate of lutefisk at and a passel of old Detectives Beyond Friends, including Declan Burke, Anne Zouroudi, Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström, Chris Ewan, and Michael Stanley.

It was the latter two ("Michael Stanley" is the nom de publication of the writing team of Stanley Trollip and Michael Sears) who suggested a hair dryer and a tiny Phillips screw driver might salvage my camera from a minor aquatic accident suffered on the train yesterday.

Here the Crimefest program, complete with juicy bits. More to come.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

No time for crime

(Photo by your humble blogkeeper)
No time for crime yet, though this view from my Paddington hotel puts me in mind of a good rooftop chase.

I also realized today that Elizabeth II became queen the same year The Mousetrap opened, and both are still going strong sixty years later. Coincidence, or something more mysterious?

I think I'll look for backers for a baseball-themed musical about Prince Charles. I'll call it Reign Delay.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Monday, May 21, 2012

A short history of crime fiction in Israel, Part I

A chat in Tel Aviv earlier this year convinced me that not only does Israel have an intensely interesting and little-known crime fiction history, but that that history could rapidly grow even more interesting.

My learned interlocutor was Uri Kenan, a discriminating reader of crime fiction (he likes Kevin McCarthy and James Ellroy) and of this blog who outlined a history of Israeli crime writing dating back to the 1930s. The history includes secret authorship and anti-genre snobbery, as well as an Israeli past and present that are more urban and more diverse than traditionally thought. I immediately invited Uri to prepare a guest post for Detectives Beyond Borders. Here's the first of two parts.

(Read Part 2 of A Short History of Crime Fiction in Israel.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012
“We will be like a nation like all others only after we have a Hebrew thief and a Hebrew harlot.”
Haim Nachman Bialik
(David Tidhar: Police officer, private detective, scholar, activist, crime-fiction protagonist)
By Uri Kenan
Israelis have always considered themselves unique. This is partly the legacy of the anomalous history of Jewish communities, and partly due to the fact that all national movements must emphasize their own uniqueness.  This outlook has shaped much of the history of Israeli literature.

The story of crime writing in Hebrew is part of the much larger story of writing fiction in modern Hebrew. Popular fiction for Jewish audiences existed for years in Yiddish. This included the staples of pulp such as detective, suspense, romance, and erotica. By the late nineteenth century it was a booming market, but Yiddish wasn’t the holy tongue. It was a kind of pidgin created by European Jews for day-to-day life.

One of the earliest tasks of the Zionist movement was to modernize Hebrew from a language of prayer to the language of day-to-day life so it could replace Yiddish. Although this was intended to secularize, and to some extent vulgarize, Hebrew, some hard taught traditions didn’t die. Though not viewing Hebrew as a holy tongue anymore, many still maintained that some subjects or styles weren’t fit for Hebrew. A clearly defined distinction between low and high culture was maintained for decades. Hebrew fiction was supposed to either inspire Jews in the project of building their own nation state or else help them deal with the many dilemmas and hardships this project entailed. In this world view there was no real room for genre fiction. For several decades the gap between canon literature and non-canon would shape Israeli literature and deny detective fiction its place in the sun.

For the Kids

It is no surprise, therefore, that the first attempt at writing detective fiction was justified as an attempt at education. 1931 saw the appearance of a series of short detective stories published as individual booklets called “Sifriyat Habalash” (The Detective Series). These works were written for a young-adult audience to which it was presented as a valuable lesson in the need for cunning ingenuity and self-defense. Another feature of these booklets was that they all starred an actual detective, rather than a fictional one: David Tidhar was an officer in the British mandate police force of the early twenties until he retired and became the first Jewish private detective in the country. Shlomo Ben-Israel (Gelfer), the author of most of these booklets, was experienced in writing detective fiction in Yiddish and decided to see whether their success could be repeated in Hebrew. The stories themselves were thinly veiled imitations of pulp tropes transplanted  to the setting of British-mandate Palestine.

In an attempt to make him a role model for youth, Tidhar was envisioned as the epitome of the “New Jew”: strong, brave and self-reliant.  A Jewish Sherlock Holmes who doesn’t shrink from using his fists when he needs to. Arabs, by contrast, were depicted as nefarious, cowardly and brutish. British police officers were depicted as fans of Tidhar’s detective skills whereas in reality Tidhar himself had a quarrelsome, troubled relationship with Mandate Police.

Despite its faults (or maybe due to them) “Sifriyat Habalash” was a huge commercial success selling several thousands of copies at a time when the totals number of Jews living in the country no more than two hundred thousand. Ben-Israel was hailed by some prominent writers and poets such as Bialik, Hameiri and Bash as the originator of Hebrew popular fiction. At the same time his booklets were vilified in prominent literary magazines as corruption of the youth.

Tidhar himself found his new celebrity status difficult and after a year requested his name be withdrawn as the main character. The series continued by switching to Tidhar’s former sidekick as the star, but its  sales were hurt. Rival publishers also tried to cash in on the success by publishing detective fiction of their own and also by translating works from other genres such as the Tarzan and westerns.

“Sifriyat Habalash” was discontinued in 1932 after more than fifty booklets had been published. Ben-Israel became a journalist and moved to Europe, where he covered many of the events leading to World War II. He also translated his stories to Yiddish and even wrote a full-length novel in Yiddish staring Tidhar, both endeavors achieving commercial success. The novel was translated in the 1962 to Hebrew but was only moderately successful. By then the mood had changed.

In the late forties the British Mandate in Palestine ended, and the state of Israel was born amidst war. At the same time the search for legitimacy and commercial success through the guise of education infantilized detective fiction in Hebrew. The target audience had changed from young adults to children and the protagonists weren’t grownups but kids themselves. It would be years before complex original genre stories with multi-faceted characters and moral maturity would be attempted in Hebrew.

The Pseudonym Years

In the meantime translations would prove popular through the coming decades. In this way the works of genre greats such as Hammett, Chandler, Christie and others were translated into Hebrew. Even so the old distinction between low and high brow prevailed, and these translations were all published as pulps. Detective, spy, suspense, and genre fiction in general were still deemed good entertainment, but not proper literature.  This attitude was so prevalent that in the small, close-knit literary community of the early years of Israel, association with non-canon literature could harm a writer’s career. Some translators attempted to distance themselves from their work by signing with a pseudonym, but more interestingly pseudonyms were used to hide original local fiction and mask it as foreign.

Many Israelis had read the stories of the detectives “Slim” O’Donnell or Inspector Pierro as well as the super spy Patrick Kim and the cowboys Buck Jones and Ringo in their Hebrew translations. Their authors, with names like Abie Costine, Jacques Martel and Bert Witford were supposedly American or European. Few readers knew that these Hebrew versions were in fact the originals. Israeli writers seeking to write non-canon literature, whether out of love for it or just as a way to make a living, would use pseudonyms.  Some posed as the works’ translators. Others hid any clues leading to their identities. In some cases, such as that of the name Bert Witford, several writers would work under the same name for decades eventually amassing a bibliography of over two hundred works. On the other hand, prolific writers such as Meiron Uriel and the publicist Uri Shalgy, used tens of pseudonyms each to serve them in the novel series they worked on, spanning a variety of genres.

In such a way it was possible to make a living out of writing. The pulp writers never got credit for their work, but they did manage to avoid infamy and the ire of the hypocritical society that Israel was at the time. Though many read the pulps, none would admit to it freely. Literature was seen as a tool for mobilization and national morale, not as a means of entertainment or escape. In this claustrophobic, puritanical environment, with its many taboos and sacred cows, genre fiction could only exist distanced from its surroundings. The Hebrew reading audience could be thrilled by the stories of cops, robbers and femmes fatales so long as it could safely say none of it could happen here.

(In writing this post I relied upon the works of Professors Yaacov and Zohar Shavit, who edited and prefaced The Return of the Hebrew Sleuth – An Anthology of Detective Stories; the translator and scholar Inbal Sagiv-Nakdimon, who studied the history of Hebrew science-fiction and pulps, and the blogger Eli Eshed, who writes about Israeli pulps and comic books, plus several news articles about past and current detective fiction, particularly Amnon Jackont. Perhaps most important, I have relied upon the works of David Tidhar himself: his autobiography In and Out of Uniform, his novel Crime and Criminals in Palestine and his Encyclopedia of Founders and Builders of Israel. I would also like to thank two friends for their insight and help: Lior Oryan of Bar-Ilan University and the writer Nir Yaniv.)
(Read Part 2 of A Short History of Crime Fiction in Israel.)

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

What Hammett means

Dashiell Hammett's very first Continental Op story, "Arson Plus," twice uses the word meaning or a form thereof early on, both times in a negative sense:
"I had never known him to miss an opening for a sour crack, but it didn't mean anything."
"Mr. Coons was a small-boned, plump man with the smooth, meaningless face, and the suavity of the typical male house servant."
What does Hammett mean by this? I say he's stating clearly and with breathtaking concision the proposition that appearances are not only deceptive, as they would be in a conventional detective story, but utterly and existentially unrelated to whatever truth the detective pursues.

Hammett's readers and critics have long seen touches of existentialism in his writing, notably in the celebrated "Flitcraft Parable" from The Maltese Falcon. But I say these striking little examples from "Arson Plus" show that he knew what he was doing and what he wanted to say almost from the start of his writing career.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012


Saturday, May 19, 2012

Hong Kong movies on China's mainland?

Back to Iron Monkey for a moment: What, I wonder, would Communist Party officialdom think of this Hong Kong movie?

On the one hand, the movie’s heroes are based on real-life revolutionaries against China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing. On the other, the immediate villains are corrupt officials, quite possibly a sore point in Beijing these days. And the movie’s dénouement sounds a hopeful but decidedly cautious note about the arrival of a new governor to replace his venal predecessor. This, in other words, is no rousing allegory of communism coming to save the oppressed peasants.

I’m a tyro when it comes to Hong Kong cinema. Are Hong Kong movies distributed on the Chinese mainland? Does the wider Chinese population get to see them?

(The Wikipedia entry on Iron Monkey, citing as its source the Los Angeles Times, offers information about technical and other changes to the movie for its American release.)

I visited Hong Kong in 1990, three years before this version of Iron Monkey was made. I remember: an intoxicating afternoon at the Luk Yu teahouse, two young lovers walking down a busy sidewalk hand in hand, each chatting away on a mobile phone, and a visit with Gigi from Macau at the Bottoms Up Club in Tsim Sha Tsui. Years later, the even-then much experienced bar girl will surely look back on that evening as one of the least memorable of her long career.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Friday, May 18, 2012

Super heroes out of uniform, or This is a job for...

The 1993 Hong Kong martial-arts movie Iron Monkey is marginally more realistic than some others that I've seen. There's a bit of blood now and then, and characters occasionally appear injured from chopping, kicking, and bashing hell out of each other with hands, fists, feet, bamboo poles, office equipment, and household objects, for example.

All four main characters are physicians, druggists, or apprentices or assistants thereto, including Yang Tianchun, a benevolent doctor by day, the benevolent roof-hopping, rich-robbing Iron Monkey by night.

This got me thinking about which occupations cultures see as heroic. Superman was a reporter when not fighting crime (Christ, I wonder what newspaper he'd work for today). Spiderman was a news photographer, and Batman was a 1 percenter. It takes no genius to see echoes of American belief in the power of muckraking and the moral obligations of wealth (though Clark Kent never did do much reporting that I can recall, which will come as— but never mind.)

What did other super heroes do out of uniform, and what do their civilian occupations say about the culture that spawned them? Here's a list of what some superheroes did for a living. And here's a quiz that will test your knowledge of Marvel superhero day jobs.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Émile Zola: Precursor to crime?

An exhibit of fashion illustrations at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston offered this wistful, sobering explanatory note from the collector who had assembled the drawings, mostly originals of advertisements:
"I think our familiarity (at least until recently) with holding and flipping through magazines and newspapers gives these works an intriguing intimacy."
That makes a nice case for printed books, magazines, and newspapers over whatever machine you're using to read this now. Forget the advantages of e-books for a moment; what have we lost?

Zola: Ancestor of hard-boiled crime?

A wonderful little book called Un Certain Style Ou Un Style Certain? Introduction a l'etude du style francais includes excerpts from Émile Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin (1867). "Here is a tale of adultery, murder and madness," according to an introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel, "set mainly in a single location and with a cast of four leading characters and four minor ones."

And here's an excerpt from the first chapter:
"Built into the left wall are dark, low, flattened shops which exhale the dank air of cellars. There are secondhand booksellers, toyshops and paper merchants whose displays sleep dimly in the shades, grey with dust. The little square panes of the shop windows cast strange, greenish reflections on the goods inside. Behind them, the shops are full of darkness, gloomy holes in which weird figures move around."
Sounds like 1950s crime melodrama to me. Has anyone ever cited Zola among those authors whose work includes elements of crime fiction?
I'm up on the Likely Stories blog talking about Detectives Beyond Borders as part of Booklist's celebration of Mystery Month. Sorry for the old picture that illustrated the piece; it's the only one I could get my hands on at short notice.               

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Bruen's "Blitz" on screen

I was apprehensive when I heard Ken Bruen's 2002 novel Blitz was being made into a movie. The book's centerpiece, Southeast London police officer Tom Brant, is a feral, funny wild man, maybe Bruen's best creation, and I thought it would take a gifted actor and daring filmmakers to manage the transfer to a new medium, if the transfer were possible at all.

The movie, directed by Elliott Lester, released last year, and featuring Jason Statham as Brant and the excellent Paddy Considine as Porter Nash, could have been worse. It drops at least one major subplot and adds a narrative element that's not obtrusive but not necessary either.  It softens Brant's character, notably in the opening scene. The pruning results in a character a bit more believable but also a bit more conventional, a bit less maniacal, and a bit less funny, and a world not quite as dark as the novel's.

The movie also tones down Nash's reaction to the flak he gets from fellow officers because he's gay.  In the movie, he's a tough, righteous cop. In the book, he's a tough, righteous cop with jaw-droppingly funny chutzpah. And that's the movie, really: a milder version of a highly spicy book. Oh, and Bruen has a cameo role — as a priest.

(I discuss the appeal of the Brant and Roberts novels here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Monday, May 14, 2012

D.B.B. watches The Big Lebowski

I finally watched The Big Lebowski from beginning to end. The Coen brothers know their Dashiell Hammett (and they want you to know that they do), and the movie beautifully captures the melancholy and excitement of Raymond Chandler when the Coens want it to.

But all that good stuff takes up about five minutes, and it's not what the Coens are interested in. The rest is cheesy fantasy sequences, stoner humor, pointless zaniness, weird art-house flourishes, and bowling.  I haven't smoked enough dope in my life to get the nuances.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Smithers to David Huddleston's Montgomery Burns and, in the rare moments when he isn't hamming it up as a repressed nerd, he's stunningly good. The story has a number of plot similarities to The Big Sleep, but the acting more closely resembles the group hamfest of Harper, which also borrows much from The Big Sleep. The Coens love to pepper their movies with references to other movies and to books. Could The Big Lebowski's assemblage of acting tics and shticks be one more such reference?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Grab bag: Pufferfish, TV, good writing

Another reason to like David Owen's Franz "Pufferfish" Heineken:

"`So, Rafe,' Walter says when we're all seated. `Do you want to talk to the Bellyard affair?'

"And that's another thing that gets my goat, Walter's shameless use of corporate speak. I hope he asks me to talk to Rory Stillrock, because I'll reply I can't, the poor bastard's dead."

That's an amusing line with a righteous target. I should add, too, that while crime fiction offers plenty of acerbic protagonists and plenty of introspective protagonists and quite a number of funny protagonists, Pufferfish is among the few who are all three. The Pufferfish novels are: Pig's Head (1994), X and Y (1995), A Second Hand (1995), The Devil Taker (1997), No Weather For a Burial (2010), and the new How the Dead See.
In one episode of The Thick of It, a civil servant catches a government minister in a lie, the minister tries to deflect the accusation, and the following exchange ensues:
"Are you inferring that I—"

Misuse of infer for imply has long been a common mistake, and correcting it can get a copy editor in trouble. I loved the exchange.
As good as the actors are on The Thick of It, the show has me thinking about writing.

Discussion here at Detectives Beyond Borders and on Adrian McKinty's blog, which introduced me to show, has elicited comparisons with celebrated television comedies of recent years, including Seinfeld.

What made Seinfeld the show that it was? Look at the post-Seinfeld television careers of some of that show's principals. Jason Alexander, who played George, and Michael Richards, who played Kramer, each starred in a show shunned by viewers and panned by critics as among the worst ever. Series co-creator Larry David, on the other hand, went on to make the excellent Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Conclusion? Writing matters. Maybe that's why another Seinfeld cast member, Julia Louis-Dreyfus. chose a show with a distinguished writing team behind it for her latest TV series: Veep, created by Armando Iannucci, who also created The Thick of It.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, May 12, 2012

The return of the return of Pufferfish

David Owen is back with a sixth novel about Tasmanian Detective Inspector Franz Heineken, known to readers as:
"The nickname's Pufferfish. A prickly, toxic bastard, ability to inflate and even explode when severly provoked."
This one comes with a big, fat review blurb from me; click here then scroll down for my previous posts about Owen and his prickly protagonist. Click here for  Crime Factory: Issue Ten, which includes an interview with David Owen.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Cut!: Popular anxieties in crime novels

Even if I hadn't known that postwar masculine anxiety was one of the staples of American pop culture and psychology, I might have guessed it from Lester Dent's Honey in His Mouth (1956) and Charles Runyon's Color Him Dead (1963); each has a castrated character.

From the same period, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is famously supposed to have played on the era's political fears. Were movies and crime novels of the 1950s and 1960s especially rife with political, sexual, and social anxiety? What crime novels (or movies or TV shows), whether from that time or any other, make contemporary fears and anxieties part of the story?
Celebrate Mystery Month over at Booklist's Likely Stories blog, which will feature posts from a wide variety of crime fiction blogs, journals, and magazines throughout the month. Guest posters talk about their publications and what they have to offer, and they point readers' way to even more blogs and websites. Have a look, won't you? Support your local library, and let it support you!

 © Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, May 09, 2012

News flash!!!

I've singled out Alan Glynn's fine novel Bloodland for recognizing narrative as a contemporary weasel word. So I was especially pleased just now when, 8 minutes, 51 seconds into Series 3, Episode 4 of The Thick of It, the jargon-spouting political spin doctor Stewart Pearson says: "Let's imagine here a narrative—" at which Peter Mannion MP rightly and righteously rolls his eyes and replies: "Oh, goodie." 

Sorry, The Onion and P.G. Wodehouse. Pack it in, S.J. Perelman. We can still be good friends, but I have a new love: The Thick of It.
I've just watched the first 3 minutes, 43 seconds of Veep, the new American TV series created by The Thick of It creator Armando Iannucci, and that was enough to send me back to The Thick of It. A Wikipedia article on Veep says the show uses "the same cinéma-vérité production style" as the TToI, and all I can say is what was that particular publicist watching?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Tuesday, May 08, 2012


A recent discussion of Horace McCoy's 1948 novel Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye blurbs the novel thus:
"Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is narrated by Ralph Cotter, a hardened convict who’s serving time, and when we meet  him, he’s just about to break out of jail with fellow prisoner Toko."
I took special note because I'm reading Charles Runyon's 1963 novel Color Him Dead, which begins with a prologue from the point of view of Drew Simmons, a hardened convict who's serving time and who, when we meet him, is just about to break out of jail.

Prison breaks have long been a staple of crime fiction and film. Did something about postwar America inspire fantasies of breaking out and away?

(Read an interview with Charles Runyon. And browse a Web site devoted to Gold Medal Books, publisher of Color Him Dead and countless now-classic paperback originals.)

 © Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Monday, May 07, 2012

I have seen television's future ...

... and it isn't fucking Leave It To Beaver, now is it? Lots of viewers have apparently told BBC America just that, so it will be interesting to see if the cable channel continues its policy of bleeping out swear words from its broadcasts of The Thick of It.

I never watched this British political comedy/drama until Adrian McKinty's blog post yesterday about the bleeping; I've now watched all of Series 1 and a good chunk of Series 3 (in their uncensored versions). McKinty calls the show's invective "some of the best and most creative swearing that we've seen in the English language since Chaucer" and, while he unaccountably omits to mention Shakespeare, his head is in the right place.

The show, a purported look at the inner workings of the British government, is a symphony of swearing, with strings of ingeniously baroque invective from Malcolm Tucker, the brilliant and much-feared government communications director, punctuated by four-letter grace notes from him and the rest of the cast. The swearing is just part of the reason I'm more impressed by The Thick of It than by anything I've seen from Seinfeld, The Wire, The Sopranos or Curb Your Enthusiasm.

But I'm really here to ask for your favorite examples of published or broadcast fictional insult and invective. They need not involve sexual or bodily functions or even dirty words of any kind; one of my favorite invective set pieces in crime fiction is Salvo Montalbano's habit of cursing the saints at moments of tension in Andrea Camilleri's novels. That's up there with Thersites, the "deformed and scurrilous Greek" in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, whose lines include:
"I would thou didst itch from head to foot and I had the scratching of thee; I would make thee the loathsomest scab in Greece."
Those are my favorite examples; what are yours? And what distinguishes good swearing from tedious, offensive swearing in books, movies, and plays and on television?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, May 05, 2012

National Comic Book Day: "The only fat super hero ..."

I bought a comic book today, got one free (That's what National Comic Book Day is all about; it happens the first Saturday in May every year in case you missed it, though readers in western time zones can still get their free books), and, as a bonus, I got my old comics shop back.

Most of the free books for adults had been scarfed up by the time I arrived, but I bought Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns because it's a classic and because I could not resist the idea of Superman as the tool of a fascist government.

The store itself was the real treat, though. It had vanished without a trace a few months before, as if sucked into a parallel universe. Last night, looking for shops taking part in today's festivities, I found that the parallel universe was two blocks away; the store had moved, and the old location's evil landlord had taken down the signs that directed customers to the new address, the clerk ("Comics Guy") said.

It's good to have a comics shop in the neighborhood again, because where else could I have heard Comics Guy tell a colleague that "I'm going as Bouncing Boy from the Legion of Super Heroes because he's the only fat super hero who's not, you know, embarrassing."?

 © Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Friday, May 04, 2012

Into the '50s, with a stop in Japan first

I finished Keigo Higashino's The Devotion of Suspect X last night, and I'm impressed by how Higashino built his story. The book offers not just rationality against emotion, but, among the characters governed by their rationality, mathematics against physics. The head investigator has not just a subordinate with whom he forms an amusing team, but a friend and semi-amateur sleuth who is the real force behind the investigation. All this forms a nice background for a tale of seething emotions and their consequences.

The clues all make sense at the end, and Higashino does a nice job planting details that let me flatter myself when I spotted their significance many pages later.
Speaking of emotions, they're spilling out all over the pages of my other recent reading, and not just of one book, either. I've stocked up on American paperback originals from the 1950s, as reissued by Wonder eBooks and Prologue Books, and all I can say is that all that liquor characters drank in the 1920s and '30s and '40s finally started to hit in the 1950s. If the '20s, '30s and '40s were the boozy party of American crime writing, the '50s were the morning after, with the hangover, the empty pockets, the strange bed, the gutter, the torn clothes, and the utter lack of prospects -- not that some American crime writing of the time wasn't pretty funny. Here are a few bits from some of the books I've been browsing trying to decide what to read next:
"She had been somewhere with someone, but she couldn’t quite remember the place or the person. As a matter of fact she had a feeling that she had been a number of places with a number of persons, but she couldn’t quite remember that for certain either."
Park Avenue Tramp, Fletcher Flora

"(I)t it was a small, sad, lovely face of fine structure in which sadness and loveliness would survive as a shadow of themselves after the erosions of gin and promiscuous love and nervous breakdowns."

"She was tall, blackhaired, with creamy skin and what I thought of simply as `Mexican' eyes. Dark eyes, soft, big, shadowed eyes with both the question and the answer in them."
The Sleeper Caper, Richard S. Prather

Before you sneer at "Mexican eyes," think about the words that went before: "what I thought of simply as." Sure, Prather has his protagonist, Shell Scott, engage in what some might call ethnic stereotyping and objectification of women today, but by God, he's redeemed by his awareness of what he's doing and by Scott's enjoyment of this Elena's beauty. And who could resist the melodramatic appeal of a pair of eyes that contain not just answers but also questions? Damned efficient, I'd say.
"You never can tell what a big, tough Polish boy will do when he finds a nude blonde in his bathroom."
To Kiss, Or Kill, Day Keene

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, May 02, 2012

"The fact that," or Is it possible to be a good translator but a bad writer?

The classic handbook Elements of Style (Strunk and White) includes the injunction that "the expression the fact that should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs," and I see no reason to disagree.

I started tallying the number of the fact thats in Anne Holt's 1222, but I stopped when I got to fifty. 1222 is a fine novel, but I wish translator Marlaine Delargy had avoided that clumsy phrase, which is easily replaceable, never necessary, and wholly characteristic of slapdash, amateurish writing.

There's more weirdness in the book, too, writing that's not exactly bad, but that lacks the polish I expect and generally want. The narrator calls one character "A thief, without a shadow of doubt" — not beyond, but without. When the book's trainload of passengers settle into the hotel where they have been stranded by a derailment, we are told, "Basically, everything was more or less OK." Coffee is described as "red hot," which liquids don't get, except maybe molten steel. A character receives supplies "on a daily basis" (Why not "every day"?) A crowd panics, and "total chaos" ensues. How does "total" chaos differ from any other kind?

Elsewhere Delargy gives us scenario when the right word would have been sceneScenario means script — something written down, in other words, and not something visual. And no, the narrator does not describe a scenario being played out before her. She uses the word as if it meant scene, which it does not. And then "The noise level was rising." Why level?  A character "has been tasked" with keeping everyone calm. And why "With every harrowing experience that occurred ..." rather than "With every harrowing experience ..."?

The narrator recalls an earlier conversation, and "I could literally hear his tense, high-pitched voice." Literally? Really?  Not unless Holt intended an infusion of the paranormal or the narrator was having auditory hallucinations. If you're still with me, you won't be surprised by "This person must also carry within them a hatred powerful enough to make them murder Cato Hammer ..."

Is it possible to be a good translator but a bad writer?

(By comparison, The Devotion of Suspect X, translated by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander, offers only a character "vainly attempting to do some damage control," unnecessary words italicized by me; tarp and prepping rather than tarpaulin and preparing; and three gottas, which is three too many.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Tuesday, May 01, 2012

More McKinty! (U.S. publishers take note)

Why does The Cold Cold Ground, Adrian McKinty's novel of life during low-intensity wartime, struggle to find a U.S. publisher when David Peace's Tokyo Year Zero, Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther novels, and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis have to fight off the critical accolades, Edgar nominations, and One City, One Book designations with a stick?

Are those books insulated by their exotic or historical settings?  Are post-war Tokyo or ayatollah-era Iran safer for American readers because they're remote? Does Northern Ireland hit too close to home? Are American publishers afraid to offer American readers a tough, scary, funny, very human look at life on the streets during the hunger strikes of 1981?

I don't know, and, happily, international online shopping offers readers a way around U.S. pubishers' timorousness. In the meantime, McKinty has posted four chapters from the follow-up to The Cold Cold Ground on his website. The book is called I Hear the Sirens in the Street, and already it's one of the best things I've read this year.

 Picture Vladimir and Estragon strolling through the landscape of Blade Runner, and you'll get an idea of the first chapter. And if you like your international crime fiction to give you more than a postcard view of the countries where it's set (and I don't mean your gentle Swedish epiphanies about the imperfections of the post-war welfare state, either), you'll like bits like this:
“`Get out of here!' a voice replied. `I’ve had enough of you hoodlums!'”  
“It was a venerable voice, from another Ireland, from the 30's or even earlier, but age gave it no weight or assurance — only a frail, impatient, dangerous doubt.”
 © Peter Rozovsky 2012

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