Tuesday, July 31, 2012

New magazine launches

The Detectives Beyond Borders publicity department sends words of a new multilingual Australian publication of international writing called Contrapasso Magazine.

Of special interest to crime-fiction readers may be the first issue's inclusion of a 2005 interview with James Crumley in which Crumley's first words are:
"It’s September 21st, the last day of summer in Missoula, Montana, and I can see the snow in the future!"
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Monday, July 30, 2012

Sara Gran in the City of the Dead

Sara Gran's Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is, among other things, a vivid and haunting evocation of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It never mentions the words Katrina or hurricane, however, which only adds to the feeling of authenticity.

I imagine that if I'd been trapped in that swampy, rootless, mud-coated hell, I would not talk like a breathless CNN report, either. Instead, I suppose, I would do what the returned, the uprooted, and the left-behind do in Gran's novel and speak, with understandable fear and reticence, about "the storm."

Claire DeWitt ... is a most unconventional PI novel, and I don't mean merely that Gran gives the title character/protagonist a package of quirks, though she does do that. Claire de Witt has lived in a number of cities, imbibing deeply of the eccentricities of all. She's got a bit of Jack Kerouac to her, a bit of Nancy Drew, and a bit of Ghost Dog.

As much fun as the book is, it is immensely moving in places and it constitutes a serious examination of the nature of guilt, good, and revenge and a touching testimony to the importance of friendship. Along the way, it overflows with compassion. But mostly, Gran knows how to tell a story. I'll leave you with one of my favorite examples of the book's verbal zest:
"In the afternoon I went back to Congo Square. This time I went as Elmyra Catalone, African-Italian American recovering crack addict from Memphis, Tennessee, raised Baptist, now occasionally Pentecostal, occasional sex worker, victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a cousin, mother of four children, one dead, one in foster care, one in Angola, one living in the town of Celebration, Florida, with a wife and two children. Elmyra is off the crack cocaine but she likes her liquor and has a schnapps now and then to be sociable."
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Larsson-y: I review Lars Kepler in the Philadelphia Inquirer

My review of The Nightmare by Lars Kepler in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer posits the existence of a school of Nordic crime writing called Stieg Larssonism (its practitioners are Larssonists) that
"combines potboiler thrills and righteous anger in a fat, sprawling tosh-filled package, often with 475 or more pages plus a didactic, statistics-filled epilogue in case the reader doesn’t get the point – or in case he or she thinks the point was just to have some fun. That way the reader get dirty thrills but feels morally uplifted at the same time."
While preparing the review, I came across a comment by Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril, the female half of the couple that writes as Lars Kepler, that Stieg Larsson had revitalized crime fiction and that the Lars part of their pen name was a tribute to him.

At the same time, I was reading Barry Forshaw's Death in a Cold Climate, which includes a chapter on the Larsson phenomenon but also another called "The Anti-Larsson Writers."  Finally, my post on realism, naturalism, and their opposite in crime fiction elicited this comment in Larsson's defense:
"[Larsson] was doing something different. He loved potboilers. He wrote fanfic when he was young and omnivorously consumed pop culture. He wrote a mashup of everything he loved and borrowed from Modesty Blaise to Sarah Paretsky but he also threw in everything he cared about in his day job as a journalist."
That commenter and I analyze Larsson and Larssonism in substantially identical terms, in other words, though her assessment is more positive than mine.

This, plus Forshaw's chapter on anti-Larsson writers, leaves me with a bracing feeling that I and the world now understand Nordic crime fiction better than we once did and the hope that we'll be spared further silly invocations of this, that, or the other utterly un-Larssonian writer as the next Stieg Larsson.

But mostly I liked writing the review because I got to define Stieg Larssonism as "potboiler plots with didactic political intent; call it Harold Robbins meets Noam Chomsky."

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Olympic fact, fiction, and crime

"Even before the 2012 Games formally opened Friday night, east London, an area with some of the highest unemployment and crime rates in the country, had been visibly transformed by the world’s biggest sporting event. More than $14 billion has been poured into the London Games, for building Olympic facilities, upgrading public transportation and scrubbing the high streets near venues, the government says. The new shopping mall alone has brought about 8,000 jobs."
New York Times News Service
"(H)e went looking for a taxi in paseo Maratimo, a street seemingly frozen in time and place as it waited for the extension which would link it to the Olympic Village. In the distance, the houses that had been demolished for the construction of the Olympic sports facilities looked more like a set for a film about the bombing of Dresden, The new city would no longer feel like the city he knew ..."
Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Off Side
The Times strikes a note of authenticity for its American readers, calling main streets high streets. More interesting is that the most trenchant of its responses from the Other Side of the Story comes not from an activist or area resident or member of a leftist think tank, but rather from Colin Ellis, senior vice president for credit policy at Moody’s Investor Services. “Looking at the big picture," says Ellis, “we think that corporate sponsors will benefit most. The Olympics are unlikely to provide a substantial economic boost.”

I wonder

a) whether Mr. Ellis would have been brave enough to utter such a prediction seven years ago, when London was awarded the Olympics,


b) what Vázquez Montalbán, that man of the left, would have thought of such an utterance from an executive of “an essential component of the global capital markets.”
Here's a previous Detectives Beyond Borders post that touches on the London Olympics. And here's a post about Shane Maloney's novel Nice Try, set during Melbourne's failed bid for the 1996 Olympics. What other Olympics-related crime fiction can you think of?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Friday, July 27, 2012

Truth and ... that other stuff

The debate about Ryszard Kapuściński's fabrications looks to have been a dreary affair, at least immediately following his death in 2007, perhaps because I-was-there journalism in which the journalist could not possibly have been there had gained prestige, and perhaps because many of his defenders and attackers did not bother citing examples of  his truth or his lies. The anti-Kapuścińskis found it sufficient to invoke Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, and the pros answered with Tom Wolfe but also John Hersey and Daniel Defoe in a high-toned game of name-calling. 

I don't know where The Emperor, Kapuściński's retrospective look at the downfall of Ethiopia's Haile Selassie, fits in that controversy. It looks to me as if Kapuściński may gradually have abandoned the pretense of reportage over the course of the book. 

Who could possibly believe that anyone really said
"A kind of mania seized this mad and unpredictable world, my friend: a mania for development. Everybody wanted to developed himself! ... Yet our Empire had existed for hundreds, even thousands of years without any noticeable development and all the while its leaders were respected, venerated, worshiped. The Emperors Zera Jakob, Towodros, Johannes all were worshiped. And who would ever have gotten it into his head to press his face in front of the Emperor and beg to  be developed?"
as Kapuściński has an interlocutor say in the book's middle chapter, "It's Coming, It's Coming"? (The first chapter is called "The Throne," the last "The Collapse." That should you give you an idea of how things end.)

Yet the comedy is frequently shot through with acid-tongued reminders that the lives of a country and its people are at stake, and with plausible diagramming of a revolution's progress.

Debates about journalistic ethics in America tend to become shrill, puritanical, and, when the debaters are in the newspaper business, desperately and self-laceratingly so, and I can't stand that sort of thing when I'm out of the office. So, what should readers do if they want to read 
Kapuściński in good conscience? I'm just one book into my Kapuściński-reading career, but I think one could do worse than to start with an observation from the Economist quoted in Wikipedia's Kapuściński article:
"[Kapuściński] creates an Africa of his own. It is a fascinating place. Whether it ever existed as he tells it is another matter altogether."
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Funny, you can't hide your lion eyes: When Detectives Beyond Borders met Haile Selassie

Today I cross a border that another border-crosser set up. That crosser recommended Ryszard Kapuściński's The Soccer War in a comment on my recent post about Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's novel Off Side.

I found Kapuściński's The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat instead. While I can't yet comment on the various controversies surrounding Kapuściński's alleged collaboration with Poland's Communist government or his crossing lines between fiction and non-fiction, I smiled when I read this account of the book's subject, Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, passing among petitioners in one of his twenty-seven cars:
“You see, it was known that His Majesty, not using his powers of reading and writing, had a phenomenally developed visual memory. On this gift of nature the owner of the face over which the Imperial gaze had passed could build his hopes. Because he could already count on some passing trace, even an indistinct trace, having imprinted itself in His Highness's memory. Now, you had to maneuver in the crowd with such perseverance and determination, so squeeze yourself and worm through, so push, so jostle, so position your face, dispose and manipulate it in such a way, that the Emperor’s glance, unwillingly and unknowingly, would notice, notice, notice. Then you waited for the moment to come when the Emperor would think, `Just a minute. I know that face, but I don’t know the name.'”
I  smiled because I was part of the crowd that surrounded Haile Selassie upon his visit to Montreal's Expo 67 world's fair. My memory tells me that he was a little guy, that his car was white, that the emperor wasn't smiling, that he sat in the left rear passenger seat, and that I was close enough to the car that I could look right down on him. (Those were different times.)

If Kapuscinski's interlocutor in The Emperor was right, I could have hit His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings (Emperor) of Ethiopia, Elect of God up for a few favors before he was deposed in 1974. But would he really have remembered my youthful face? Haile unlikely, I say.
In re Kapuscinski's supposed embellishment of facts, I learned from the Wikipedia article about Kapuscinski that he wrote gawęda szlachecka,
“a traditional Polish anecdotal narrative exercised throughout the literary history of the 17th to the 19th centuries by segments of lower nobility and sometimes referred to by the irreverent as the art of elegant mendacity.”
I must pursue this attractive genre further, maybe even write some gawęda szlachecka beyond borders of my own.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Happy birthday, Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler turns 124 127 years old today, so I thought I'd bring back some old posts about his influence on crime writers beyond his own American (and English) borders.
Four years ago the Los Angeles Times asked writers what they would give Chandler as a birthday gift, but I'd like to discuss taking rather than giving, namely what other writers have taken from Philip Marlowe's great creator.
Two years ago, in a post called "Chandler in South Africa," I noted Roger Smith's graceful extended tribute to Chandler in his novel Mixed Blood.

Last year I discovered Claudio Nizzi, Massimo Bonfatti, and their loving, amused, and amusing tribute to Chandler (and just about every other crime, movie, and pop-culture trend) in their Leo Pulp comics.

Matt Rees, Welsh-born and Jerusalem-based author of mysteries set in the Palestinian territories, told Detectives Beyond Borders that: "My primary interests in specifically detective writers are Chandler and Hammett." Moreover, he said the social chaos of the territories reminded him of the worlds those two authors portrayed so well: "In the lawlessness and the corruption of the police force – which is often involved with the gangs – I see many parallels with the San Francisco and Los Angeles of Hammett and Chandler."

In Ireland, Declan Hughes invoked Chandler in discussing his own country's Celtic Tiger economic explosion and concurrent boom in crime and crime fiction: "The hardboiled novel always depended on boomtowns where money was to be made and corners to be cut: twenties San Francisco for Hammett, forties LA for Chandler.”

Also in Ireland, your humble blogkeeper noted the debt to Chandleresque plotting and wisecracking in Declan Burke's first novel, Eightball Boogie. Colin Watson's delightfully opinionated social history of English crime writing, Snobbery With Violence, cites Chandler, who "never produced a dull line," for his observations about crime writing and English writers.

An afterword to Juan de Recacoechea's Bolivian crime novel American Visa noted the author's references to Chandler, Hammett, Chester Himes, and movies based on their work. I've also detected more than superficial signs of Chandler's influence in novels by Australia's Peter Corris and noted the traces of Chandler some have found in the work of Algeria's Yasmina Khadra. Finally, Chandler is one of many crime writers upon whom Australia's Garry Disher muses in his wildly self-referential and wildly funny story "My Brother Jack."
And now it's your turn. What other crime writers from outside the United States have felt Chandler's influence? How has the influence shown itself?
Late-breaking Chandler tribute: I've just read the following in William Campbell Gault's Murder in the Raw (also published as Ring Around Rosa):
"Well, what had I brought to this trade? Three years in the O.S.S. and my memories of a cop father. Along with a nodding acquaintanceship with maybe fifty lads in the Department. That didn’t make me any Philip Marlowe."
 © Peter Rozovsky 2008, 2012

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Gault, pulp, and professionalism

I've read a bit more of William Campbell Gault's Murder in the Raw (or Ring Around Rosa), the American half of yesterday's European/American football crime-fiction double bill.

My compadre Kevin Burton Smith writes on the Thrilling Detective Web site that Gault
"was never particularly flashy as a writer, but his simple, straightforward style made him one of the most dependable and solid P.I. writers to have written for the pulps ... His stories were always good reads, and if there were sharper stylists, there were few who were as consistent. A Gault story is always worth reading."
That observation feels right. The protagonist, Brock Callahan, is a former football player just starting out as a private investigator. He's boiled, but not too hard. He waxes bitter toward a police officer friend, but he never lapses into moodiness, isolation, or self-destruction. The self-deprecating wit never goes over the top; I haven't laughed out loud yet, but I've enjoyed every joke. None has been off-target.

Callahan and his creator walk firmly in the middle of the hard-boiled road, and the book has me considering, for the first time in my career as a crime reader, the delights of competence and professionalism.

Like many pulp writers, Gault wrote across genres. He gave up crime writing for years to write juvenile sports fiction, according to Smith, and also wrote hot-road stories for young adults. His affection for sports and cars shows effectively and unobtrusively here. Not every pulp writer was a Hammett or a hack, and it's nice to see one of the in-betweeners, a solid, highly skilled, competent professional at work.
Here's a bit I've liked, Callahan questioning a dead man's former business partner about the deceased:

“He’s been described to me as sensitive and talented and bitter and broke.”

“He was bitter. Maybe he was sensitive; I’m not sensitive enough to judge. He wasn’t talented and only a wealthy person would consider him broke.”
© Peter Rozovsky 2012


Sunday, July 22, 2012

Political football: Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and sports mysteries

When FC Barcelona's Jordi Alba scored the second goal in Spain's demolition of Italy at the Euro 2012 soccer championships earlier this month, and Andrés Iniesta, who also plays for Barcelona, was named the tournament's best player, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's friends, relatives, and readers must have smiled.

The late Barcelona-born crime writer was a huge fan of the soccer team, so huge that the FC Barcelona Foundation has sponsored a journalism award in his name since 2004. (Crime fiction readers may be more impressed that Andrea Camilleri named his protagonist Salvo Montalbano in homage to Vázquez Montalbán, possibly for the Spanish author's love of food as well as for his politics.)

Off Side, a 1989 novel first translated into English in 2000 and now reissued by Melville House, has protagonist Pepe Carvalho called in to protect FC Barcelona's newly signed English center forward against a death threat. (That probably dates the book because these days, English football is long on money but apparently short on world-class home-grown players. Top continental footballers are likelier to sign with English clubs than vice versa.)

Vázquez Montalbán was a sharp observer of the high and the low, and my favorite bit so far is of the high, namely of the Barcelona team's chairman at the news conference where the English star's signing is announced:
"He had been on the point of becoming, variously, a minister in the Spanish government, a councillor in the autonomous government of Catalonia, and mayor of Barcelona. At sixty years of age he had suddenly discovered tiredness, and a feat that this tiredness would cause him to disappear from the public stage that he had occupied continuously ever since he had become the great white hope of the progressive business community under Franco."
While commuting home to my copy of Off Side, I browsed Murder in the Raw (also published as Ring Around the Rosa (1955) by William Campbell Gault, which begins thus:
"THERE IS AN OLD GRIDIRON WHEEZE that states a guard is only a fullback with his brains knocked out. I have met some rather bright guards and some extremely stupid fullbacks, but what is a fact measured against the generality? I’d played a few years of guard, myself, the more prominent years with the Rams and made a lot of friends in Los Angeles. So it figured that when the boys began to clobber me, Los Angeles was the logical place to open up a business."
Since fate has me reading about football on both sides of the Atlantic, I'll ask what your favorite crime novels set in the world of sports are. That may be tricky, at least for readers of American crime fiction. Sports was once a popular category of pulp fiction, alongside crime, military, romance, and adventure, but no longer. So, your alternate question: When did sports lose favor as a crime-fiction category, and why?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

McFetridge, McKinty, and the Stieg Larssonists

Yesterday’s post about Lars Kepler’s novel The Nightmare took shape when I was struck dumb by the utter contrast between that book on the one hand and two tantalizing excerpts from new work by two of my favorite crime writers on the other.

The Nightmare, I write in an upcoming review, is an explicit example of Stieg Larssonism – a potboiler plot harnessed to didactic political intent. Its potboiler aspect means that everything notable that happens to every notable character is at the very least extraordinary. Nothing in the novel is impossible, but I never believed for a second that anything in the book was really happening to real people.

On the other hand are the bits from I Hear the Sirens in the Streets by Adrian McKinty and Black Rock by John McFetridge. Each features as its protagonist a young police officer just growing into maturity at a time of civil unrest. (Bombs figure in both books, McKinty’s, set amid Northern Ireland’s Troubles in the early 1980s, and McFetridge’s during Montreal’s turbulent year of 1970.)

Each book is, I believe, a serious effort to convey what a real person living through those troubled times must have felt like, a delicate balance between quotidian narrative and social history. More to the point, I read those bits (and McKinty’s current book, the excellent Cold Cold Ground), and I think, damn, that’s what it was like. These guys bring the history alive.

The debate between realism and naturalism on the one hand, and whatever their opposites are on the other, has probably been going on since those terms were invented. Which do you prefer? Or, to put the question perhaps more meaningfully, which is more important to you in your crime reading, the real, or the fantastic? Or do you prefer that more difficult feat, the fantastic within the real? Examples welcome.
(Go to McKinty's blog to take your shot at winning I Hear the Sirens in the Streets in manuscript.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Why Lars Kepler are the real next Stieg Larsson

The Stieg Larsson school of Swedish crime writing doesn’t go in for guilty pleasures. Instead, it combines potboiler thrills and righteous anger in a fat, sprawling tosh-filled package, often with 475 or more pages plus a didactic, statistics-filled epilogue in case the reader doesn’t get the point – or in case he or she thinks the point was just to have some fun. That way the reader gets dirty thrills but feels morally uplifted at the same time.

The Nightmare, second of Lars Kepler’s novels to be translated from Swedish into English, offers one protagonist haunted by deep secrets. The novel is fascinated with Paganini and with great old violins. It equates moral rectitude with musical ability, and it does so with a straight face. Talk about far-fetched, potboiler-y notions.

The solution to the central mystery, though that mystery concerns a political issue torn from today’s headlines and involves government and corporate corruption, is straight out of Columbo. Quite naturally, the novel includes one especially horrible death. And then its prologue ranks the world’s top arms-dealing nations, of which Sweden is in the top nine.

There's nothing wrong with potboilers, and there's nothing wrong with politically engaged crime fiction. But it's always fair to ask whether the politics and the potboiling are organically intertwined, or whether they appeal, separately, to two separate aspects of what the reader wants. Dominque Manotti, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and the great Leonardo Sciascia tell stories in which the politics and the thrills seem to emerge, inextricably bound, from the same reality. Among current Swedish crime writers, I would argue that Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström come close to achieving this in Three Seconds.

The Stieg Larssonites don't do this, and I don't think they try. I find their achievements less impressive than I do those of the authors I've just named, but it doesn't mean the Larssonians are any worse, just different. I can't blame an author for failing at what he or she may never have tried to do.
The invocation of Stieg Larsson is especially apt in the case of The Nightmare because Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril, the female half of the couple that writes as Lars Kepler, has said that the Lars part of the nom de plume is a tribute to Larsson. Crime writing previous to the late author of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was fine, she said, but it had grown a bit stale.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Steven Torres' serious, funny short stories

I once had a colleague who had been born in Puerto Rico and who would hold forth at the drop of a hat on race and ethnicity in America. In fact, he wouldn't wait for the hat to drop; he'd speechify whether his listeners wanted to hear him or not.

His saving graces were considerable intelligence and a bracing questioning of our industry's orthodoxy at a time when diversity was a corporate buzzword. He dismissed the Miami Herald's Spanish-language edition, for example, insisting that Latinos in the United States wanted to read and speak English.

I thought of this when reading one of Steven Torres' stories about Ray Cruz, the most dangerous man in New York City:
"The man holding Carver thought for a second, then started shouting in Italian again.
"`Speak English, maricon!' Ray roared. At the same time he pulled the trigger. The bullet hit the gunman’s right shoulder. He let go of Carver and went from crouching to sitting, and Ray Cruz took a step closer, put another bullet in the man’s chest, six inches below his chin."
That's humor about which could write a paper or at least rub one's chin thoughtfully after one got done laughing.

Another thing I like is Torres' juxtaposition of stories about Ray Cruz with others about a counterpart named Viktor Petrenko. Without providing too much of a spoiler, I'll say I read each as the flip side of the other, or else as contrasting perspectives on the moral destiny of men who do bad things.

(No, Torres says, he did not know when he wrote the Petrenko stories that there was a celebrated figure skater of the same name. There are no double Salchows or triple Axels in these stories, and the protagonist's landings are anything but smooth.)
Steven Torres is author of the Precinct Puerto Rico novels, The Concrete Maze, and the short-story collections Killing Ways, Killing Ways 2, The Box and Other Odd Stories.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Friday, July 13, 2012

John Lawton

I'm no surer now than when I first read one of John Lawton's Troy novels how Lawton wound up being labelled a crime writer. He reminds me more of Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell or P.G. Wodehouse than of any detective, thriller, or crime author I can come up with off the top of my head.

Lawton's fiction is comedy, social history, acute, amused (and sometimes angry) commentary on English life in, depending on the book, the 1930's, '40s, '50s, or '60s, and the Troy novels are the books I'd recommend first to a literate, intelligent person who asked, "What's England?"

Currently on my reading docket are Lawton's Flesh Wounds (published as Blue Rondo in the U.K.), set in 1959, and the story "East of Suez, West of Charing Cross Road," in Otto Penzler's Agents of Treachery collection.

Here's Lawton's Web site.   And here are posts about Lawton and history, Lawton and English identity, and Lawton and Wodehouse.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Meet Mike Knowles

Mike Knowles' Wilson is a bit like Richard Stark's Parker, and that's not a bad thing to be.

But the differences between the two one-named heist planners are more interesting than the similarities. Wilson is not nearly as distant a figure as Parker, for one thing, in large part because he's the novels' first-person narrator as well as their protagonist. And Knowles, through Wilson's eyes, explores supporting characters', er, character, more than Stark/Parker ever does.

My previous blog posts about Knowles have titles that include "More in Mike  Knowles' literary caffeine jolts" and "Darker than Parker," which may give you some idea of what you're in for.

Never Play Another Man's Game is the most recent of the four Wilson novels, preceded by Darwin's Nightmare, Grinder, and In Plain Sight. The latter three are available in an omnibus edition.

Read an excerpt from Another Man's Game.

Speaking of Richard Stark (Donald Westlake), today would have been his seventy-ninth birthday. Here's a video tribute from friends and collaborators to the creator of Parker, Dortmunder, Grofield, and the screenplays of The Grifters and The Stepfather. And here are four posts I put up about Westlake after he died on New Year's Eve, 2008.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I walk in the footsteps of giants

My newspaper's new newsroom occupies a floor of Philadelphia's old Strawbridge's department store. It's a spooky feeling to walk to my desk through a corridor identical to the one where, one floor below, I had once pawed piles of socks, T-shirts, and boxer shorts.

The Beaux-Arts-style building dates to 1931 and was the second store the Strawbridge & Clothier company built at the site. Before that, Thomas Jefferson had his office here when he was secretary of state, across the street and a block up from where he had earlier written the Declaration of Independence (with some judicious copy-editing help).

But neither Jefferson nor his doubtless stream of important visitors captures my imagination as immediately as does another figure who once worked here and who is even more intimately associated with Philadelphia.

(That's an introduction to my new newsroom. Read and see my farewell to my old one.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Maynard Soloman takes the bus

Benjamin Sobieck may be the great American urban author, at least when it comes to that part of American urban life led, willingly or unwillingly, on buses and subways, especially at night.

I use public transportation, and I've worked evening for years, so I had a certain sympathy with Sobieck's story "Maynard Soloman Takes the Bus to a Strip Club," and not just for its opening line: "A gas station corn dog is the only thing in life that won’t lie to you."

No, I like the story for its gritty, no-bull urban realism:
"I tromp to a bus stop a block away. I hope my old saying about public transportation isn’t still true:
“`Public transportation is great unless you have to use it.'
"I flip a shiny nickel to the bus driver and scoot down the aisle before she can say anything. She can keep the change, see. I lug around enough loose coin already.

"The place is gal-damn packed. Smells worse than I thought, too. Like old fish reheating on a car radiator. Could be whatever that one guy over there is eatin’ outta that gun boat. Shit, that smells something awful.

"But it don’t smell half as bad as how that abomination on that other guy’s face looks. It could have its own Social Security number. Next to him is a gal looking ready to chuck a dummy.

"Oh, and have a look-see over there. It’s another road sister reading from a Bible. Loudly. I hear every other word, because some jackass with a boombox has this horseshit thug music at full volume. The thing cuts in and out. Either that or he’s listening to the edited version. I can’t tell.

"Still, a boombox? This freak musta hopped on in 1985 and never got off.

"Seems to be the state of most of the human wreckage in here. This bus, it isn’t taking them anywhere. They’re already here. This is the cheapest hotel in town."
Read my first rave about Sobieck and his noble, dyspeptic protagonist.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Sunday, July 08, 2012

Bye, Bye Broad Street, or my newspaper's moving experience

Tonight my newspaper moves from the building it owned and occupied, and that has borne its name, for eighty-seven years to new, rented quarters.

(R2D2 lends a hand to the
Philadelphia Inquirer's move from
400 North Broad Street to 801
Market Street
. All photos
by your  humble blogkeeper)
Movers have been at work for weeks, so hard at work that Friday night they tried to cart away the possessions of one of my colleagues while he was still trying to lay out the newspaper.

Twenty-two years for me, eighty-seven years for my paper. That's a lot of stories, folks, and if the mood strikes me, I'll tell you one or two of those stories as the Inquirer and I settle into our new professional homes. Don't worry; I'm a copy editor, so my stories will duplicate none of those in the official accounts. 

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, July 07, 2012

What makes a Swedish crime novel Swedish? (Or an Italian crime novel Italian? or ...)

I've just finished reading a fat Swedish crime novel that I'd have guessed was Swedish even if you deleted every set of eyebrows from above every a and o in the book. (You know what I mean: all the ö's and ä's, not to mention the å's.)

What was the giveaway? It wasn't cold weather or earnest leftist politics, and it wasn't a dour protagonist with bad digestion. Rather, the clue in this book (The Nightmare, by Lars Kepler) was that the lead police investigator does not make his first appearance until after the action is well under way and, once he does show up, he's less prominent than many police protagonists are.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who elevated the diaeresis to a position of prominence unprecedented in crime fiction, did it first, and writers including Norway's Karin Fossum have followed suit. Since then I've always thought of the late-appearing police protagonist as a Nordic thing, perhaps as an example of Sjöwall and Wahlöö's politics.

What makes a Swedish crime novel typically Swedish for you? An Italian crime novel typically Italian? An American novel typically American? Pick a country, and tell me what you regard as typical features of that country's crime fiction.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Thursday, July 05, 2012

Andrea Camilleri and Stephen Sartarelli win the CWA International Dagger

Andrea Camilleri and Stephen Sartarelli have won the 2012 CWA International Dagger for translated crime fiction for Sartarelli's translation of Camilleri's novel The Potter's Field. Here's part of what I wrote about the book last year:
“Typically for a Montalbano novel, the investigation becomes one of mob connections, heated emotions, and family secrets. But crime, investigation, and solution are the least of the Montalbano novels. Every word is a commentary, sometimes wry, sometimes righteously angry, sometimes touching, on the protagonist’s political, social, professional, and personal worlds. To choose just one typical example, `Ingrid’s husband was a known ne’er-do-well, so it was only logical that he should turn to politics.'”
Camilleri becomes the first non-French non-Swedish author to win the award, following Fred Vargas, Fred Vargas, Dominique Manotti, Fred Vargas, Johan Theorin, and Anders Roslund & Börge Hellström.

For those on the lookout for sexism in crime fiction, the estimable Sartarelli becomes the first male translator ever honored by the CWA, following Sian Reynolds for her Vargas translations, Amanda Hopkinson and Ros Schwartz for their work with Manotti, Marlaine Delargy for translating Theorin, and Kari Dickson for translating Roslund & Hellström's Three Seconds. Congratulations to Camilleri and Sartarelli.

Read my complete posts about The Potter's Field. And read Sartarelli's account of one of Salvo Montalbano's favorite curses in this comment thread.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Who's your favorite minor crime-fiction character?

Roger Smith's Capture includes a pampered wife whose rough-hewn Serbian lover gives her the sex, glamour, and excitement that her sensitive husband cannot.

No big deal; that happens every day. But the lover leaves the scene in a most unexpected manner and his departure sharpens the plight of the wife, herself a strong supporting character.

You'll have to trust me because this is a spoiler-free blog, but Smith turns a potentially stock character into an instrument of dramatic punch. What other minor characters do this? Who's your favorite minor or supporting character in crime fiction? What does he or she add? Comic relief? Commentary on the main action? Color? Tension? What do strong minor characters bring to a story?
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Out in the streets with Roger Smith

Roger's Smith's Capture gets out into the streets in and around Cape Town's forbidding Flats more than his previous novels do, and the results make Capture feel more sociable than its predecessors.

The grim shacks remain, and grim things happen inside them (and in rich sea- and hillside houses, too), but characters also punch out drunks in crowded strip clubs or risk their health dodging cars. There's more hustle and bustle than I remember from Wake Up Dead, Dust Devils, Mixed Blood or the novella Ishmael Toffee, more scenes with lots of people in them.

But in the main, the story is Smith's customary mix of damaged characters interacting in dangerous ways, then rushing hellbent to redemption, romance, or messy death. And Smith even offers some laughs along the way:
"When a series of girls accused the guru of messing with their lower chakras he was banished."
And wait till you see what one of those protagonists gets up to with his computer.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012 

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Monday, July 02, 2012

Did I praise Portis prematurely? — A view from the copy desk

I'm working on a real post to get this blog's second 2,000 posts off to a real start, but the book in question and the comments I'll want to make require some thought. In the interim, I'll follow a practice long established by those of my fellow journalists who write columns, and I'll rattle off a few paragraphs about what I happen to be thinking about at the time.

A few paragraphs about what I happen to be thinking about at the time

by Peter Rozovsky

My pathetic need for professional approval may have led me to impute to Charles Portis a sentiment he never intended.

I was so stunned by a brief but believable sketch of a newspaper copy editor in Portis' novel The Dog of the South a few months ago that I neglected to consider that Portis, rather than paying my profession the honor of a rare mention, may have been indulging in an old, tired prejudice.

The Portis passage told of a copy editor who
"was not well liked in the newsroom. He radiated dense waves of hatred and he never joined in the friendly banter around the desk, he who had once been so lively. He hardly spoke at all except to mutter `Crap' or `What crap' as he processed news matter, affecting a contempt for all events on earth and for the written accounts of those events."
The description was accurate and clear-eyed, much more so than the typical depiction of copy editors in newspaper novels and movies (Just kidding. You've never seen a copy editor depicted in a novel or movie, except maybe the one in which Drew Barrymore plays a copy editor who, someone told me, has her own office and is assigned a story to write. And that shows how much those filmmakers cared about getting newspapers right.) Portis made me so grateful to see a copy editor's point of view recognized, as it never is even in newspapers' coverage of newspapers, that it never occurred to me I may have been duped.

The critical words are "processed news matter." I assumed that was the narrator (and hence Portis) sympathizing with the ill-tempered copy editor. But what if I was wrong? What if "processed news matter" is meant to reflect what Portis regards as the copy editor's objectionably cranky tone? What if Portis indeed regards copy editors as contemptibly negative and, like some newroom folks, mistakes analysis for criticism and criticism for subversion?

If I see him, I'll ask. In the meantime, I'll recast the passage and ask how you'd feel about it if you were a reporter:
"He was not well liked on the copy desk. He radiated flabby waves of laziness and arrogance, a vacuous verbal chameleon who riddled his unpunctual prose with the jargon of his beat, a self-dramatizing, self-imporant, questionably literate prima donna who thought nothing of demanding the most trivial changes to his copy long past deadline."
Now, would that be fair?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Sunday, July 01, 2012

Danish noir(ish) plus my 2,000th post

He was no crime writer, but if Kierkegaard were still around, his publicists and agent might urge him to jump on the Scandinavian crime-fiction bandwagon. And why not? Can you think of a proto-existentialist better suited to noir with a touch of bleak humor than the man who wrote the following:
"Adversity draws men together and produces beauty and harmony in life’s relationships, just as the cold of winter produces ice-flowers on the window-panes, which vanish with the warmth."
The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard: A Selection, no. 37, entry for Jan. 1836

"At one time my only wish was to be a police official. It seemed to me to be an occupation for my sleepless intriguing mind. I had the idea that there, among criminals, were people to fight: clever, vigorous, crafty fellows. Later I realized that it was good that I did not become one, for most police cases involve misery and wretchedness—not crimes and scandals."

Journals and Papers, vol. 5, entry no. 6016 (1840-42)

"I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations—one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it—you will regret both."
 — Either/Or, vol. 2, “Balance between Esthetic and Ethical”

"I do not care for anything. I do not care to ride, for the exercise is too violent. I do not care to walk, walking is too strenuous. I do not care to lie down, for I should either have to remain lying, and I do not care to do that, or I should have to get up again, and I do not care to do that either. Summa summarum: I do not care at all."
Either/Or, vol. 1, “Diapsalmata”
What crime writers do those selections remind you of?

And here's a Kierkegaardian treat for my Irish crime-writing friends:
"If I did not know that I am a genuine Dane, I could almost be tempted to explain my self-contradictions by supposing that I am an Irishman. For the Irish do not have the heart to immerse their children totally when they have them baptized; they want to keep a little paganism in reserve; generally the child is totally immersed under water but with the right arm free, so that he will be able to wield a sword with it, embrace the girls."
Journals and Papers, vol. 5, entry no. 5556, 1840–42.
This is Detectives Beyond Borders' 2,000th post. And Happy Canada Day, everybody!

© Peter Rozovsky MMXII

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