Monday, December 31, 2012

All arts aspire to the condition of Musil

I'll end 2012 by finishing Volume 1 of The Man Without Qualities and begin 2013 by awaiting Volume 2, due at my local independent bookstore Wednesday. My latest collection of favorite excerpts from Robert Musil's twentieth-century classic will concentrate on violence, ethics, morality, psychic balance, and other matters of especial interest to crime-fiction readers:
 “But how, Diotima wondered, can humanity provide itself even with roast chicken without violence?"
“Moosbrugger’s experience and conviction was that one could not pick any one thing out all by itself, because each one hangs together with the next one." [Moosbrugger is a murderer.]
“And yet such examples of lying ‘between’ are provided by every moral maxim, for instance by the well-known and simple one: thou shalt not kill. One can see at the first glance that it is neither a verity nor a subjective statement. We know that in many respects we keep to it strictly; in other respects certain very numerous but precisely defined exceptions are admitted. But in a very large number of cases of a third kind, as for instance in the imagination, in our desires, in the drama, or in the enjoyment of newspaper reports, we roam in a quite unregulated manner between abhorrence and allurement."

“Man’s feeling towards this maxim is a mixture of blockheaded obedience (including the ‘healthy nature’ that refuses even to think of such a thing, but, if just slightly deranged by alcohol or passion, instantly does it) and thoughtless splashing in a wave of possibilities."

“But I’m just trying to show you that people like that, who lose their balance so easily, are extremely unpleasant. Impartiality is an attitude one can only really adopt towards them when it’s someone else who is taking the beating. Then, I grant you, they bring out the very tenderest feelings in us, then they’re the victims of a social system, or of fate. You must admit nobody can be blamed for his faults if one looks at them through his own eyes. For him, at the worst they’re mistakes or bad qualities that don’t make the person as a whole any the less good. And of course he’s perfectly right.'"
“All the same, the result was that crime, love and melancholy had fused in her to form one circuit of ideas, one that was highly dangerous."
I'm not the only one who thinks this great Austrian writer has something to say to crime fiction readers and writers. Here's a comment David Whish-Wilson posted on one of my previous Musil posts:
Re Musil and crime (and more broadly, the human condition), I chose this quote of his to open my first novel:

"And with one foot beyond the frontier I declare myself incapable of going further. For one step beyond the point where we have halted - and we should move out of the realm of stupidity, which is even still full of variety, and into the realm of wisdom, territory that is bleak and in general shunned..."
Happy New Year!

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Sunday, December 30, 2012

A New Zealand crime writer in the Philadelphia Inquirer

My review of Paul Cleave's The Laughterhouse appears in today's Philadelphia Inquirer.

This New Zealand crime writer knows what he's doing, and I had fun with this review. Take a look.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, December 29, 2012

New-media distribution systems, Philadelphia-style

(The same block where I shot this, close to Detectives Beyond Borders World Headquarters, though a different time of day)
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Friday, December 28, 2012

Authors as anthropomorphic animals, plus more Musil

And now back to crime fiction, The Left Bank Gang. Well, it's a comic book. And it brings Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and James Joyce together in Paris—as anthropomorphic animals who plan a bank heist. And the four, joined by Gertrude Stein and Zelda Fitzgerald in supporting roles, are cartoonists rather than writers. That allows dialogue like:
"Did you see the piece by Stein in `This Quarter'?"
"Naw, I can't stand her comics."

 "They are unreadable."

"I kind of like them."

"They're shit."

The book, by the one-named Norwegian cartoonist Jason, is like Woody Allen's "A Twenties Memory," only flatter, more matter of fact, and just is a funny in its poking fun at our fascination with the Lost Generation.

But you didn't think you were through with Robert Musil, did you? Here are a few more gems from The Man Without Qualities:

"Now, as it happened, Ulrich was not accustomed to regard the State as anything but a hotel in which one was entitled to civility and service, and he objected to the tone in which he had been addressed."
 “Such a composer cannot be either a conspirator or a politician. If he were, his genius for light music would be unthinkable. And nothing irrational happens in the history of the world.”
"Understanding reality is exclusively a matter for the historico-political thinker. For him the present time follows the battle of Mohács or of Lietzen as the entrée follows the soup."
"It was perhaps not only Count Leinsdorf’s feelings that were given wings by a certain vague metaphorical quality that lessened the sense of reality. For there is an elevating and magnifying power in vagueness."
 “I give you my solemn word,” Ulrich replied gravely, “that neither I nor anyone else knows what ‘the true’ is. But I can assure you it is on the point of realisation.”
And, most contemporary-seeming in 2012 from this book written between 1930 and 1942:
“`Tell me, what do you understand by ‘true patriotism’, ‘true progress’ and ‘true Austria’?”

"Startled out of his mood and yet still in the spirit of it, Ulrich answered in the style in which he had always carried on conversation with Fischel: `The P.I.C.'

“`The P.I.C.?' Director Fischel repeated the letters in all innocence, this time not thinking that it was a joke, for although such abbreviations were then not yet as numerous as today, they were familiar from cartels and trusts, and they were very confidence-inspiring." 
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Detectives Beyond Borders Night at the Movies

Remember when the family would gather round the television set for Saturday Night at the Movies, seeking to recapture the atmosphere of the big screen? Now you can simulate those golden days here at Detectives Beyond Borders! Here are this evening's presentations:

1) The Glass Key. The 1935 adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel, starring George Raft, not the 1943 version with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. It features good performances by Raft and by Edward Arnold as political strongman Paul Madvig and lots of knuckle-gnawing by the female leads to indicate nervousness. In spots it captures the narrative intensity of Hammett's great novel, but its ending must be one of the weirdest in Hollywood's long history of tacked-on happy endings.   And why did both movies change the protagonist's name from Ned Beaumont to Ed Beaumont?

2) Private Hell 36. (1954) The cast includes Ida Lupino and Howard Duff, trying his best to look like Sterling Hayden.  The set-up: Two cops split thousands of dollars they recovered from a dead counterfeiter, and complications ensue. The movie is noir until its last two or three minutes, and then it either wusses out and capitulates to the era's demand for moral uplift, or it gets even more noir, depending on one's interpretation. It's a fine, ambiguous ending, in other words, and I wonder if director Don Siegel and the rest of the movie's creative team intended it that way.

3) Once Upon a Time. This 2008 Korean heist comedy is set during Japan's wartime occupation of Korea, which makes the slapstick antics of its Korean freedom-fighter heroes something of a brave move. Several scenes nicely portray Japanese condescension toward even Koreans loyal to the occupying government. Several characters go by both their Korean names and the Japanese names forced upon them by Japanese decree. Surprisingly affecting and resonant for a movie with so much slapstick in it.

4) (Jet Li's) Fearless. This 2006 Hong Kong film is apt to get viewers cheering. A romanticized biography of Huo Yuanjia, a martial artist who took on and defeated foreign challengers at a time when Chinese national pride was at a low ebb and foreign domination at a high.  In the movie, he wins their hearts and friendship in addition to kicking the crap out of them. China's current rulers probably like the character of Nong Jinsun, a businessman friend of Huo's who sells his highly successful restaurant and donates the proceeds and his time to the athletic association Huo founds.

(NB: I'm a Robert Osborne, not a TCM. I'll talk about the movies entertainingly and informatively, but you have to track them down yourselves. The Glass Key is available on YouTube, the rest on Netflix.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

How crime writer R.D. Cain avoids cliché

I'm an impatient reader, apt to put a book down if it does not grab me with its first ten words. I also grow weary of crime fiction tropes that I run into over and over, most recently the chapter narrated from inside a killer's head and set in italic type.

At the same time, I'm impressed when a crime writer manages to make a hoary set-up fresh. That's why I think Dark Matter, by the Canadian crime writer R.D. Cain, just might work.

The novel opens with a young woman slowly recovering consciousness to find she has been imprisoned in basement. Now, if the author were Scandinavian, you know what would happen to the young woman, and the only question is whether her demise would be even bloodier than you imagine. And you would never hear her voice except in a scream that seemed to consume her entire being and echo forever. etc, etc.

Such chapters, (lovingly) intent as they are on portraying the victim's agony, never do her the honor of giving her a voice, much less a sense of humor. Cain does both. First the humor:
"The feeling she had was familiar, high and weightless like vapor floating in infinite blue sky. She had tried oxys before and this felt similar. It was a warm, cozy feeling, like being wrapped in a warm blanket and having every inch of her body hugged by someone she loved. This kind of drug didn't appeal to her."
The voice comes when the woman discovers she has two fellow prisoners, also young women. The three talk, and not entirely with teeth-chattering fear. Whatever Cain intends to do with the young victims, they feel like characters for whom a reader might feel empathy. And that's a lot more than one can say for the endless succession of mangled straw men and women thrown up in so many first chapters.
That's how one author makes something fresh out of a set-up that risked tumbling into cliché. Who else does this? And how do they do it?

(Dark Matter is published by ECW Press, one of the publishers I highlighted in my recent Philadelphia Inquirer article "Eight Crime Writers Worth Tracking Down.")
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Monday, December 24, 2012

Robert Musil, Derek Raymond, and some fat guy on the roof breaking into my house

My proto-crime fiction posts, in which I discover antecedents for crime fiction in the world's great literature, are sometimes a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I‘m deadly serious when it comes to The Man Without Qualities. Consider the introduction of Moosbrugger in Chapter 18 of Robert Musil’s great unfinished novel:
"Moosbrugger was a carpenter, a big, broad-shouldered man without any superfluous fat, with hair like brown lamb’s-skin and harmless-looking great fists. His face also expressed good-hearted strength and the wish to do right, and if one had not seen these qualities, one would have smelt them, in the rough-and-ready, straightforward, dry, workaday smell that went with this thirty-four-year-old man, from his having to do with wood and a kind of work that called for steadiness as much as for exertion.

"One stopped as though rooted to the spot, when for the first time one encountered this face so blessed by God with all the signs of goodness, for Moosbrugger was usually accompanied by two armed gendarmes and had his hands shackled before him to a strong steel chain, the grip of which was held by one of his escorts."
That's a lot more effective than the scores of chapters told from inside a killer's head, usually in italic type, that fill contemporary crime novels.

I happened to flip through the opening chapter of Derek Raymond's How the Dead Live recently. That chapter, in which a crowd of bored, restless detectives thoroughly take the piss out of a lecturer who presumes to know how psychotic killers think, would make a nice companion to Musil's Moosbrugger passage. Both confront the salient fact that, for most authors and most readers, the gap between death and killing on the one hand and ordinary experience on the other is unbridgeable, unimaginable, even.

Musil and Raymond embrace the gap and make it part of their stories. Most crime writers, on the other hand ignore it, which is why all those passages from inside the killer's head are so much cheap and showy play-acting, more skillfully executed or less depending on the author's (and editor's) skill with words. It's also why not just Musil, acknowledged as one of the twentieth century's great authors, but also Derek Raymond, is infinitely greater than— well, you know who those writers are.
Here's another passage from Musil that I hope you'll enjoy as much as I did:
"She was capable of uttering the words ‘the true, the good and the beautiful’ as often and as naturally as someone else might say ‘Thursday’."
And now, it's a quiet night, but I hear strange noises on my roof: whispered orders, the skittering of small feet, the thump of larger ones, someone trying to break in. Time to reach for a shotgun and defend my castle.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Musil, (Joseph) Roth, and Hammett

David Whish-Wilson got me reading Joseph Roth, and from there it was a short leap to Robert Musil.

The Man Without Qualities (1930-1942) is not a crime novel, but bits of it will interest crime readers (and I haven't even got to Moosbrugger yet):
"THIS man who had returned home could not remember any time in his life that had not been animated by his determination to become a man of importance; it was as though Ulrich had been born with this wish. It is true that such an urge may be a sign of vanity and stupidity; it is no less true, however, that it is a very fine and proper desire, without which there would probably not be many men of importance.

The only snag was that he did not know either how one became such a man or what a man of importance was. In his schooldays he had taken Napoleon for one; this was partly out of youth’s natural admiration for criminality..."
These aren't bad, either:
"It is a fundamental characteristic of civilisation that man most profoundly mistrusts those living outside his own milieu..."
"For some time now such a social idée fixe has been a kind of super-American city where everyone rushes about, or stands still, with a stop-watch in his hand."
"Like all big cities, it consisted of irregularity, change, sliding forward, not keeping in step, collisions of things and affairs..."
I noticed, too, that Roth and Musil, those acute witnesses to the traumatic birth of modern Europe, make their astonished remarks about the noisy vitality of American cities in precisely the years (1922-1930) when Dashiell Hammett was perfecting hard-boiled crime fiction, an urban-based genre if there ever was one.
The Man Without Qualities was on the reading list of a course I took in college on the twentieth-century European novel. How any 18-, 19-, or 20-year old, much less one as callow and stupid as I was at the time, can be expected to appreciate such a book is beyond me. I think Musil was the one author the class never got around to reading. At least I might have been able to appreciate its outrageousness and jokes, as I did for The Confessions of Zeno and Journey to the End of the Night.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Eight crime writers in the Philadelphia Inquirer

My article on "Eight crime writers worth tracking down" appears in Saturday's Philadelphia Inquirer. This one was close to my heart, a chance to big-up some of my favorite crime writers and their publishers, to put their names before a wider public, and to help out eight authors who suffer the handicap, for a crime writer, of not being from Sweden or Norway.

Readers of Detectives Beyond Borders know them already, but if you're joining us for the first time, the Big Eight are, in alphabetical order:

Declan Burke. Allan Guthrie. Vicki Hendricks. John McFetridge. Adrian McKinty. Scott Phillips. Giorgio Scerbanenco. Charlie Stella.

I recommend all eight as the perfect stocking stuffer. Now, get reading.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Friday, December 21, 2012

Bill James and the dark art of verbal evasion

I was preparing a simple list of excerpts from Undercover, Book 29 in Bill James' Harpur & Iles series, when I realized that almost all the selections shared a theme: verbal evasion.

Political and criminal functionaries self-consciously use buzzwords and jargon, and undercover police slip into similar jargon when deceiving their spouses. Euphemism and deception feature in much of the dialogue and, in one section quoted below, James takes the piss out of what may be the most widely and disingenously abused English word of the last twenty-five years: community.

What's more, the characters know what they and their fellow characters are doing, and the resulting self-loathing and mutual mistrust build up and build up until they lead to verbal explosions, usually from Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles or from James' other favorite bullshit detectors, the wives and girlfriends of endangered cops and low-level criminals.

James told me three years ago, apropos of his notable evasive cross-talk between Harpur and Iles, that:
"I tend to get bored reading books where the dialogue is very sequential and reasonable. I like the talk to obscure at least as much as it tells. I don’t want the reader dozing off, so I introduce the seeming breaks from sense. ... Opaque dialogue can be an avoidance of a troublesome topic. The reader would spot that it’s troublesome, which means the dialogue is doing its job while appearing not to. People may be obsessed with their own concerns and will try to dominate the conversation to get these across, despite the other person’s probable wish to do the same. We get a nice helping of chaos, evasion, dead-ends, just like at home."
Undercover, whose plot revolves around another pet James theme the physical, psychological, and moral dangers of undercover police work carries the evasions and deceptions into every aspect of the narrative, and the result lends the book much of its tension as well as its humor. Here are some examples plus one bit unrelated to the matter at hand but included because it's so deliciously funny.
"Your replies to questions needn’t be too detailed, though: they could be ‘redacted’, to borrow a modish term."
"The course he’d attended had as its official, magnificently uninformative title, ‘Actual Progressive Policing’ (APP). Those selected were instructed to tell anyone outside who asked about it that the object was to improve police integration within the community. The last phrase – ‘within the community’ – should be used verbatim and with a pious tone, his tutor said, because the word ‘community’ had lately developed a kind of gorgeously holy tinge, and to be ‘within’ that blessed fold made things even holier: the curious would consider it crude to go on nosing if once blocked by this cosy, sanctified formula. He’d tried it on Iris, and she’d replied: ‘Rubbish. You’ve been learning how to spy, haven’t you, Tom?'"
"Iris had one hell of a down on jargon – assumed always that its purpose was concealment and evasiveness, not communication; anti-communication."
" ‘He was ambushed,’ Harpur said. ‘No blame on him for that, surely. Who could have dodged it?’

"Maud said: ‘Well, who? Yes. And who could have laid it on?’

"‘The Home Office loves blame – blaming, that is, not getting blamed,’ Iles said."

" ‘But that’s rather negative, isn’t it?’ Maud said.

"‘No. Not “rather”. It’s totally fucking negative,’ Iles replied."

"Tom felt it vital to go along with the half-baked nature of this conversation. It suggested geniality and friendship, beyond mere business concerns."
" ‘This is interesting,’ Tom said. It was the best he could come up with. He felt almost smothered by guff. He said it pretty matter-of-fact, no heavy, fascinated trill laid on, otherwise it would sound like sarcasm – apparently admiration, but really piss-taking words that stood in for the true meaning, which amounted, approximately, to, ‘Fuck off, Leo, you verbose, anti-grammatical cunt.’"
"They know about it, live on it, Vogue-clothe themselves on it, smart-shoe themselves on it, status themselves on it, but there needn’t be too much definition of what it actually is. That would disturb and even upset them." [On the self-deception of high-level gangsters' wives.]
"‘A couple of cabbages and four Jaffas give him or her a social background?’ Iles asked.

" ‘Undercover needs its methodology, Desmond,’ Maud said.

"‘Its methodology couldn’t keep him alive,’ Iles said."

"His trousers, socks and shoes were blood-drenched and muddy. In one sense he did well to crawl at all.’

" ‘Which sense would that be?’ Iles said."

"‘This is very high-class shooting,’ Maud replied."

" My mother used to cry out gleefully to me, even as a child, `Desmond, you’re such an internationalist!'”
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Bill James on Stieg Larsson, the Krays, and what the modern hit man wears

Like all right-thinking readers, I'm wary of contemporary pop-culture references in crime novels. Jo Nesbø's recent Phantom, for example, drops the names of Don Draper and Mad Men to no great effect.

But I'll make an exception for the following, from Undercover, the latest installment in Bill James' Harpur and Iles series:
"‘You’ll remember that moment in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson,’ she replied.

"‘Oh?’ Harpur said.

"‘Where the investigative reporter, searching for clues about a missing girl, finds a group photograph of her glancing off-picture at somebody or something that shocks and/ or fascinates her,’ Iles said. ‘It’s a kind of revelation. Actually, the reporter comes over as thick as shit, so he needs revelations.’"
Another reference earlier in the book, to an English cultural phenomenon not quite so contemporary, shows that James does not just write funny things, but write things funny. The discussion has turned to the business wardrobes of hit men, and:
"For instance, people wouldn’t put on a decent suit for today’s type of mission, not because the smartness would seem freakish at a killing and a bit too Kray, but on account of the vulgar, showy bulge of shoulder holsters."
"A bit too Kray" rather than, say, "a bit too much like the Kray twins," is a nice touch and an example of why Bill James is a delight to read.
(Read Detectives Beyond Borders' 2009 interview with Bill James.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Joseph Roth on a deadly barbershop bore

I finally found something less than delightful about Joseph Roth's observations of Berlin. His descriptions of the mechanization of daily life in the 1920s seem a bit less fresh than his observations of people and institutions, but that's probably because such descriptions have grown familiar over the years.

But other observations are as fresh now as they were ninety years ago:
"Here in Germany expert understanding tends to go hand in hand with barely comprehensible jargonizing. Expertise lacks style, knowledge stammers just as if it were ignorance, and objectivity has no opinions."
And, funniest and most chilling of all, his long description of a nationalistic bore in a Berlin barbershop, of which I present just excerpts here:
"His sentences grow ever shorter, he rattles subjects together, his words puff out their chests and march: one-two, one-two. It’s a nightmare. ...

"The ginger-haired gentleman has killed off the summery singsong atmosphere in the barbershop with his crashing sentences. His voice rattles along like a yellow weathervane. ...

"His words rattle, clatter, and bang. Batteries, mortars, rifles, running fire, all come spewing out of his larynx. World wars slumber in his bosom. ...

"...Herr Trischke is silent. Who isn’t? Even the fly, buzzing in so summery a fashion a moment ago, now adheres lifelessly to the ceiling, awestruck. ...

"No motor rattle, no belt drive, no clatter of horses’ hooves. He is the trench digger, the wire cutter, the whetstone, the insect powder, the coffee machine, the guaranteed-infallible lighter, the dry fuse. Only:

"He’s my friend from way back. He’s the aunt who scoured me every Saturday with a stiff brush. He’s the Kratzbürste.

"My neighbor was a glazier. His wife was a scold. He’s my glazier’s whining wife.

"Our living room had a clock in it that used to clear its throat before striking the hours. He is that harrumphing.

"My schoolmate was at the head of the class, and he had an impeccably neat notebook: The man in the barbershop is the neat notebook of my school friend; my school master’s class log; simultaneous equations; a book of logarithms!

"He is my headmaster’s address at assembly; the kiss of my old-maid aunt; dinner with my guardian; an afternoon in an orphanage; a game of dominoes with my deaf grandfather.
"He is duty and decency, sour-smelling and clean.

"One does run into people like that, in our part of the world, even in midsummer. It feels like encountering a schoolbook in the middle of a suitcase packed for the beach."
Roth had an eye for grating bores that I could never develop if I spent the next thousand years on a nightly pirla hunt. He may be the funniest observer of human character since Theophrastus, and certainly the funniest I've read since S.J. Perelman called some whiny bore "the most oppressive nudnik that ever abraded an eardrum."

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Sunday, December 16, 2012

An impeccably edited crime novel—I hope!

Sandrone Dazieri's In a Heartbeat is a wild ride of a novel about a successful advertising executive deprived by a severe electrical shock of fourteen years of memories.

This takes him back to his youthful past as a small-time cocaine dealer, and naturally he can't remember how he got all this money, a fine house and sports car, and a beautiful girlfriend—or why someone wants him dead. This is a thriller, a kind of time-travel book, a story about the sometimes humorous confrontation between selves, a bit of a satire of adverting.

Professional ethics prevent me from reviewing the book formally, but I hope that it reads well, that it has few or no typographical errors, and that its punctuation is impeccable.
In a Heartbeat is published by Hersilia Press, specialists in English translations of Italian crime fiction. Hersilia earlier published Giorgio Scerbanenco's A Private Venus, the event of the year in translated crime writing.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Dickens, Whish-Wilson and loud lawyers

Does anyone love the sound of his or her own voice as much as a lawyer does? (I add her advisedly. One of the loudest, most obtrusive lawyers I've ever run into, whose clownish antics destroyed my quiet efforts to enjoy a baseball game on television, was a woman, and a public defender, no less, just as high on adrenaline, self-importance, and lack of sleep as her more mercenary male colleagues.) From my experience in bars, cafés, and other places of public relaxation, I'd say actors, salesmen, and political operatives give them a run for their money, but lawyers win on sheer weight of numbers; there are so many of them.

Two of the books I'm reading now note this vocal brand of lawyerly self-love. Charles Dickens' Bleak House tells us that the deliciously named Chancery lawyer Conversation Kenge
"appeared to enjoy beyond everything the sound of his own voice. I couldn't wonder at that, for it was mellow and full and gave great importance to every word he uttered." 
And this, from Line of Sight, by David Whish-Wilson, about a lawyer's son who takes after Pop:
"The same class as Cooper [a lawyer] too, no doubt, western suburbs all the way. A consideration in the speaking; a pleasure in hearing the sound of your own voice. ... Cooper himself came from an old settler family, whose generations had increased their wealth and power despite bouts of bankruptcy and madness and the occasional imprisonment for fraud."
Bleak House is all about a legal case of infernal length and is thus full of gibes at lawyers and their profession:
"...that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar."
"This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means."
"I expect a judgment. Shortly. On the Day of Judgment."
I can pay Charles Dickens no higher compliment than to say that he gives lawyer jokes a good name. But, as advertisers like to say, it's all about you. What are your favorite fictional depictions of loud or self-important lawyers? How about your (least) favorite real-life loud or self-important lawyers?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Friday, December 14, 2012

Joseph Roth and the unnamed dead

Not crime writing, you say? Here's more from Joseph Roth's What I Saw: Reports From Berlin 1920-1933. These selections are from "The Unnamed Dead," about the photographs of the anonymous dead displayed at police headquarters:
"This is the hidden side of the city, its anonymous misery. These are her obscure children, whose lives are put together from shiftlessness, pub, and obscurity, and whose end is violent and bloody, a murderous finale."
OK, that's a bit melodramtic, the sort of thing a TV reporter or newspaper columnist might come up with during charity appeal week. But Roth probes further:
"It shouldn’t be in the corridor of the police station at all, but somewhere where it is very visible, in some public space, at the heart of the city whose true reflection it offers. The windows with the portraits of the living, the happy, the festive, give a false sense of life—which is not one round of weddings, of beautiful women with exposed shoulders, of confirmations. Sudden deaths, murders, heart attacks, drownings are celebrated in this world.

"It is these instructive photographs that should be shown in the Pathé Newsreels, and not the continual parades, the patriotic Corpus Christi processions, the health spas with their drinking fountains, their parasols, their bitter curative waters, their terraces from Wagner myths. Life isn’t as serenely beautiful as the Pathé News would have you believe."
Or how about:
"These dead people are ugly and reproachful. They line up like prickings of conscience."
Do you know any newspaper columnist literate, honest, and insightful enough to write a sentence like that? Any editor courageous enough to print it? Any newspaper that would publish such a sentence without an earnestly self-debasing and self-congratulatory "Note to readers" about how we are aware the words might disturb some readers, but they are of such imporance that we are publishing them in the interest of serving the public?

And is humor permissible when discussing the dead? Probably not in your local newspaper, and if it is, the reporter will tell you that he or she is being grimly humorous, in case you don't get it. No, for that sort of thing, you have to turn to real life, to crime fiction, or to Joseph Roth:
"Futile to wait for cranes, like the legendary cranes that once revealed the identity of the murderer of Ibycus. No cranes swarm over the waste ground off Spandauer Strasse—they would long ago have been roasted and eaten."
I first encountered Berlin's unnamed dead in Rebecca Cantrell's novel A Trace of Smoke. After I read Roth's piece, I asked Cantrell if she had used it as a source. "Roth was absolutely a source for that," she replied. "As soon as I read it, I knew I had to use it in the book.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

When authors blow their chance to use a cliché

I'm reading a crime novel now whose author passes up a tremendous chance to use a cliché, and I'd like to ask you for examples of crime writers who do the same.

In this case, the novel's narrator offers a passing observation about a supporting character's absence from a given scene, another character explains why that character is missing, and the scene goes on.

I realized as I read that the author had placed the missing character in a situation common for the type of crime novel in which he appears. Except that by relegating the exchange to a minor role, he made the situation seem fresh, like something real people could be doing, rather than like something Characters in a Crime Novel would do. You can bet that when the book is published, I will highlight the scene in question and hail it from the rooftops as an example of writing that revivifies a crime-fiction a convention.

After all, crime fiction is a fiction of conventions. Or is it?

Now, your job: What other crime writers pass up the chance to use clichés? And how do they do it? Do they write novel characters, situations, or scenes? Do they resolve typical situations in surprising fashion? Do they frame a typical scene, situation, or character so cleverly that it seems new?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What Joseph Roth saw

They're not crime, but Joseph Roth's newspaper reports from Berlin, collected under the title What I Saw: Reports From Berlin 1920-1933, are essential for readers and authors of the city-is-a-character school of crime writing. They are also very much more than that. A few examples, the first from the introduction by translator Michael Hofmann:
“`Berlin is freezing,' he said, `even when it’s sixty degrees.'”
“Nor can I imagine nights in dives without...the police spy, in mufti but uniformed, incognito and unmistakable...”
“Reese’s is an establishment you visit. The others are bars you drop in. When you go to Reese’s, you first take a deep breath. And generally you go after 8 p.m. And the band is called `orchestra.'”
“(I)n the world of dives, even housebreakers’ tools have their nicknames. A picklock is a little alderman, a crowbar is a jimmy, and a drilling tool—which admittedly has become almost obsolete as a tool of civilization—is a ripper. A man who works with rippers cannot gain my respect. He’s a dinosaur. A self-respecting man earns his living with explosives, oxygen and dynamite. A ripper—get away!”
“Anyone called upon to supervise misery will view criminality differently. All state officials should be required to spend a month serving in a homeless shelter to learn love.”
“Grotesque-looking figures, as though hauled from the lower depths of world literature. People you wouldn’t believe. Old graybeards in rags, tramps hauling a motley collection of the past bundled up on their crooked backs. Their boots are powdered with the dust of decades...Some of these people have walked all their lives.”
“I don’t know if people in hell look as ridiculous as they do here.” (From an essay on Berlin's bathhouses.)
“The great historical error of the younger generation in Germany was that it subjected itself to the Prussian drill sergeant, instead of joining forces with the German intellect.” (Roth wrote that in 1933.)
“I challenge the Third Reich to come up with a single example of a gifted `pure Aryan' poet, actor, or musician who was kept down by the Jews and emancipated by Herr Goebbels! It’s only the feeblest dilettantes who flourish in the swastika’s shadow, in the bloody glow cast by the ash heaps in which we are consumed.”
Now, before you say that the above reminds you of Cabaret and Berlin Stories, know that Hofmann refers to the Weimar Republic as “popularized by the somewhat superficial and touristic versions of Christopher Isherwood.”

A review of What I Saw says “Roth writes as if Walter Benjamin had teamed up with Monsieur Hulot,” and that seems about right. I don't know if writing like Roth's is even conceivable today. Certainly the United States can't have experienced upheavals like that of post-World War I Berlin, at least not since its own Civil War. And it's hard to imagine newspaper editors with the courage and reporters with the imagination to portray the grotesqueries that Roth did. And humor when portraying such grotesqueries would be verboten under the journalistic decorum that prevails today.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A good sign

Photo by your humble blogkeeper
 1) Kudos to the folks at Plenty on East Passyunk Avenue in Philadelphia for using correct Italian grammar. Panino is the singular form; panini is plural. The grammar is perfect. The sandwich is pretty good, too.

2) Elsewhere, attended a "Drinking With Dickens" celebration at the Dark Horse Inn, this being 200 years since Dickens' birth. The evening featured good fellowship, carols, readings from A Christmas Carol, and, of course, wassail and smoking bishop. The former has long been one of my favorite words, since I first encountered it in the writing of Stephen Leacock. (You know Leacock. It was he who wrote: "Lord Ronald said nothing; he flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.") Either drink would make fine accompaniment for a smoked-brisket panino.

A Christmas Carol, you may know, is neither hard-boiled nor noir, though its opening would not be out of place in a murder mystery: "MARLEY was dead: to begin with."


© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Monday, December 10, 2012

Crime Factory: Hard Labour

That's right, labour. It's how they spell the word in Australia and the rest of the Commonwealth of Nations. Here in America, labour is under attack, letter by letter. It's labor now, and God knows whether the word will even exist once America becomes a nation of Apple store iPhone hawkers — if we're lucky enough to have jobs at all.

Hard Labour is a collection of noir and hard-boiled stories from Australia put together by the folks at Crime Factory, and it has some good people in it, including some you've read about here.

Here's the opening of "In Savage Freedom," the contribution by David Whish-Wilson, a subject of recent discussion here at Detectives Beyond Borders:
"A father is God to his son. 
"My father said that before I killed him, but he wasn't talking about us."
Then there's "The Dutch Book," by DBB favorite Adrian McKinty, the tale of a bookie's runner and his friend who try to pull a fast one on a vicious mobster. The story does not end the way you probably think, and that is reason enough to read it, and the rest of the stories in the collection, and McKinty's stunningly good Cold Cold Ground and I Hear the Sirens in the Street (the latter out Jan. 7 in the UK). They're the best there is even if you won't see splashy ads for them or read about them in your local newspaper.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Sunday, December 09, 2012

Now, that's an opening

I wrote yesterday that the opening chapter of David Whish-Wilson's novel Line of Sight reminded me of Leonard Sciascia. Here's the passage from Sciascia I had in mind, the opening of Equal Danger:
District Attorney Varga was conducting the prosecution in the Reis trial, which had been going on for almost a month and would have dragged on for at least two more, when, one mild May night, after ten and not later than twelve, according to various testimony and to the autopsy, they killed him.
Read that sentence slowly and think how how Sciascia has laid out the story it tells. Then read the sentence that follows immediately, in the same paragraph:
The testimony, in point of fact, did not strictly coincide with with results of the autopsy…
Not a bad way to start a crime story, I'd say.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, December 08, 2012

When you Whish upon a star

Line of Sight, second novel by Australia's David Whish-Wilson, bears an epigraph from Leonardo Sciascia, and the tone of the novel's opening pages reminds me of that great Sicilian writer and social critic.

It also reminds me of Jean-Patrick Manchette, a bit of Dominique Manotti, and of Alan Glynn. That means the tone is deadpan. It also means there's no slowly dawning realization for the book's cop-against-the-cops protagonist that the world is set against him; we (and he) know that from the first. And that's a hell of a set-up for suspense. How will he get out of this?

Here's a sentence from the first chapter: "Before the news was days old the rumour was that Ruby Devine had been murdered by the police." Here's one from the second, as far as I've read so far: "It had been a long afternoon watching the fix come in."

Now, that makes me want to keep reading.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Friday, December 07, 2012

"Take this, Job, and shove it"

So, how is the Book of Job like a crime novel, anyhow? Like many crime novels, not all of them Scandinavian, it has an ominous prologue before it gets to the good part.

And here's some of that good part, from Stephen Mitchell's translation:
"Why is there light for the wretched,
life for the bitter-hearted,
who long for death, who seek it
as if it were buried treasure,
who smile when they reach the graveyard
and laugh as their pit is dug."
That's noir, but it sounds more like a noir author or reader than a noir protagonist, most of whom go more meekly or at least resignedly to their fates.  It's as if one of David Goodis' wretched protagonists sat down to write his own story instead of letting Goodis do it.
And now, turning from the substantive to the atmospheric side of noir, here's a view right around my corner, photo by your humble blogkeeper.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Declan Burke's Job search

Over at Crime Always Pays, Declan Burke highlights three readers' assessments of his novel Slaughter's Hound. The three discussions read, in part, thus:
“This is a dark tale, and it gets progressively darker as it goes along.”  
 “This novel is a tragedy, which takes place in a town called Sligo, a location that could be Thebes or any other place in the world where the frailties of good men and women are exploited by the eternal cynics and they become the playthings of the gods ... the hero’s every good intention or action goes wrong, and Harry Rigby reminds you at times of Job and at other times of Oedipus.”  
“SLAUGHTER’S HOUND is yet another ‘How the hell does he do that?’ offering from author Declan Burke.” 
Not bad, eh?

Burke himself cites his debt to Horace Kallen's The Book of Job as a Greek Tragedy. I have no philosophical weight to add to that considerable discussion, but I will note that Burke sustains the serious tone without abandoning the wisecracking that has been a hallmark of his previous books. And the wisecracks never clash with the prevailing seriousness. It's as if Burke had taken a cheerful musical theme, then rendered it in a minor key. And it works.
"To date we'd had nearly a feel of sunny days and mild nights, and the sunset earlier on had been a ruddy shepherd's weight. Which meant it'd be a bright, warm and beautiful morning when I told Herb his cab was a write-off, this courtesy of Finn, his flaky fuck du jour."
"I knocked the stereo off and drove on. Shuddering from a bad case of the grace of Gods and but fors."
are just two examples of the sort of balance (or reconciliation) Burke maintains between the tragic and the funny. I've read the book before, and I'm reading it again, and I say that it can't be easy for a novelist to be so in control of his material and so aware of what he wants to do that he can maintain a tone so consistently. Good job.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Monday, December 03, 2012

Magazine devotes issue to non-Scandinavian crime fiction

The backlash is on. "You'll find no dragon tattoos or icy fjords here," proclaims this month's issue of Words Without Borders, a publication whose contributors in the past have included your humble blogkeeper, writing about Carlo Lucarelli. "This month we're defying current trends and publishing crime stories from everywhere but Scandinavia."

You'll find writing here from South Korea, Brazil, Mauritius, and Morocco, among other places. You'll find crime comics and piece about Bitter Lemon Press, that fine publisher of translated crime fiction, and selections from Andrea Camilleri's "Mafia Dictionary."

So why not take a look and do what you can to support crime writing not from Scandinavia.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Sunday, December 02, 2012

In praise of long sentences

I've been accused of prejudice in favor of brevity, and the accusation is just. I love Dashiell Hammett, and I live by Strunk & White's injunction to omit needless words. Some writing is so bad that chopping it down to size is an act of mercy.

But now I'm reading two books (rereading one, actually) that go in the opposite direction. Their long, baroque sentences are both gorgeous places in which to get lost, and fine settings that emphasize the punch of the brief sentences that surround them.

Here's the protagonist of That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda:
"Of medium height, rather rotund as to physique, or perhaps a bit squat, with black hair, thick and curly, which sprang forth from his forehead at the halfway point, as if to shelter his two metaphysical knobs from the fine Italian sun, he had a somnolent look, a heavy, lumbering walk, a slightly dull manner, like a person fighting a laborious digestion; dressed as well as his slender government salary allowed him to dress, with one or two little stains of olive oil on his lapel, almost imperceptible, however, like a souvenir of the hills of his Molise."
And here's just part of the first sentence of  Declan Burke's Slaughter's Hound:
"It was a rare fine night for a stroll down by the docks, the moon plump as a new pillow in an old-fashioned hotel and the undertow in the turning tide swushing its ripples silvery-green and a bird you’ve never heard before chirring its homesick tale of a place you might once have known and most likely now will never see ... "
If I tell you that the novel's second sentence is "It was that kind of evening, alright," you'll know what delightful fun long sentences can be.

Long sentences: Good or bad? Discuss.
I go crazy when novels are described as "plot-driven" or, more usually these days, "character-driven." Among other things, such odiously simplistic shorthand neglects the possibility that a novel may be language-driven, that its effects and a good bit of its meaning may lie in the way the author tells it. That's the case with David Peace and also with the two examples cited above. Call the Gadda excerpt "character-driven," and you miss a good part of the point.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, December 01, 2012

Another famous Philadelphia first

"Oleg had found out that the expression 'junkie' was more than a hundred years old, from the time when the first heroin addicts stole junk metal from the harbor in Philadelphia and sold it to finance their consumption."
— Jo Nesbø, Phantom
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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