Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What is the sound of one gun shooting?: David J. Schow's Gun Work

David J. Schow's 2008 novel Gun Work is a perfect "new" hard-boiled novel in significant ways.  It captures the hard edge of post-war pulp without seeming campy or nostalgic on the one hand or veering into smirky self-consciousness or jokey, over-the-top violence on the other. (Happily, or sadly, events obliged Schow. Gun Work is set in Mexico, the country's explosion in kidnapping last decade permitting a plausible recycling of that old hard-boiled stand-by, the dangerous trip south of the border.)

Schow's handling of violence is especially nice.  On the one hand, one bit of violence perpetrated on the protagonist is horrific, much more so than what Schow's predecessors in previous decades would have depicted. On the other, the act happens off stage and is revealed to the reader (and the protagonist) in such a way as to banish any possibility that Schow is peddling torture porn.

As a longtime copy editor of metropolitan newspaper stories, whose reporters somehow always know that gun fire "rang out" even though they did not hear the shots, I was especially tickled by Schow's dissertation on the sounds a gun really makes:

“Contrary to entrenched cliché and what nitwits repeatedly say on the evening news, shots do not `ring out,’ and anybody who tells you they do has never heard gunfire. Report is more akin to the startlement of a heavy door slammed by a gust of wind; you know how that makes you jump, and no matter how prepared you think you are, the sound always comes as a surprise. It stops time for a millisecond and obliterates all other sound. Ignition and launch of a bullet evacuates the air from around your head in a phenomenon called blowback. If you’re not ready for it, the noise jump-starts the human fight-or-flight reflex in some small primitive corner of the brain. You freeze momentarily until the gunshot allows the rest of the world to come back. Once you’ve gotten past that first shot, subsequent shots are easy — you can even make them without blinking because your mind has processed that initial speed-stop, which no way, nohow, never in history, `rings out.’”
Finally, a quirk of Gun Work that should have driven me nuts but did not: Schow's more than occasional odd, if not downright incorrect word usages, cognate as a verb, for instance, or iterations, which Schow iterates more than once, or ultimata, which is a correct plural of ultimatum, but ultimata? Give me a respite!

But Gun Work is so good that I half-think the half-baked erudition (ingresses for entrances is another example) is a nod to the occasional flashes of learning Jim Thompson gives his characters, especially Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me. So let me iterate that Gun Work is smart, fun, and probably one of the best books on Hard Case Crime's list.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Jim Thompson's take on Agatha Christie; plus Willeford and Schow

1) Is The Kill-Off Jim Thompson's version of an English village mystery: Get a bunch of warped characters together in a small town, let each tell his or her own story, and let the reader figure out which of the suspects is likeliest to have killed the local gossip?

2) Funniest bit so far in Charles Willeford's The Way We Die Now:
"There were two bologna sandwiches wrapped in oil paper and two hard-boiled eggs in the sack. [Tiny Bock] unwrapped one of the sandwiches, noticed that the lunch meat had turned green on the outer edge. He rewrapped the sandwich, put it back in the sack, took one of the hard-boiled eggs."
followed a couple of pages later by:
"Bock folded the bills and put them into his back pocket. `There’s a couple of bologna sandwiches left in the sack if you want ’em.'”
3) Early chapters of David J. Schow's Gun Work (2008) suggest he's a pretty good successor to the hard-boiled writers of the past.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Jim "1280" Thompson

I needed some leisure reading to match the mood into which I'd been plunged by one of the stories I had to read for my job, so I turned to Jim Thompson, The Kill-Off. Here's part of its first chapter, boldface mine:
"Manduwoc is a seacoast town, a few hours train-ride from New York City. It is too far from the city for commuting; there are no local industries. According to the last census, the population was 1,280 and I doubt that it has increased since then."
What was with Thompson and the number 1,280

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Thursday, July 25, 2013

John Lawton and James R. Benn: When Americans go to war

John Lawton's Bluffing Mr. Churchill has some fun with Cal Cormack, a young American embassy man by way of Berlin plunged into London in 1941, puzzled by Cockney rhyming slang and staggered by the sight of solitary houses left standing after German air raids. Since other responsibilities keep me from my normal blogging today, I'll bring back an old post about another novel that similarly placed an innocent American in war-stricken London, and I'll ask you what other crime novels or stories have exploited the theme of wartime innocents abroad, whether American or otherwise?

Yesterday I wrote about neat use of period speech in Rag and Bone, James R. Benn's fifth novel about Boston cop-turned-army-investigator Billy Boyle.

Today I reproduce two passages from the first book in the series, Billy Boyle. The selections are a touching portrayal of war's sobering effect on a brash young American when he sees it up close for the first time.
"We had been briefed in OCS on language differences and how to make nice with the Brits. Don't flash your money around, GIs are paid more than British officers, stuff like that. Me, I couldn't have cared less. The English had had their time in the sun when they conquered Ireland and ran it like their private preserve, killing and starving out my ancestors. If I hurt a few feelings waving around a sawbuck or two, big deal."
But then:
"People parted and formed a narrow corridor as three stretchers were carried out of the destroyed building. Two held blanketed, inert forms. The third carried a person covered in soot highlighted by rust-colored dried blood along a leg and a hasty bandage wrapping a head. A thin female arm rose from the stretcher with two fingers raised in the V-for-victory sign as she was gingerly carried into the ambulance. There were murmurs of appreciation from the crowd, and then they drifted back into the morning routine. Another day at the war. The other two stretchers were left on the sidewalk for a journey to a different destination.

"`Welcome to London,' Harding said as the traffic moved forward.

"`Yes, sir.' Maybe I wouldn't wave those sawbucks around for a while."
© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Happy 125th, Raymond Chandler, or What does Chandlerian mean to you?

As the world celebrates Raymond Chandler's 125th birthday by spouting extravagant similes, I'd like to quote an excerpt from Farewell, My Lovely, the bit that immediately follows the oft-quoted introduction to Moose Malloy, who, "Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food."

 The description continues:
 "His skin was pale and he needed a shave. He would always need a shave. He had curly black hair and heavy eyebrows that almost met over his black nose. His eyes were small and neat for a man of that size and his eyes had a shine close to tears that gray eyes often seem to have he stood like a statue, and after a long time he smiled."
Notice how the mood grows readily more somber, even as the wit remains, until, by the end,"a shine close to tears that gray eyes often seem to have" gets you right there, doesn't it?

I wrote recently that William McIlvanney's "emotional engagement with Glasgow ... is one of the few facets of any crime novelist's writing that really is in the spirit of Chandler's with Los Angeles."  How about you, readers? Which writers rise about the promiscuous and silly cover-blurb invocations of Chandler and really do capture Chandler's essence? What does Chandlerian mean to to you?
Here's a Detectives Beyond Borders post about Chandler's influence on crime writers worldwide. Whom can you add to that list?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Monday, July 22, 2013

The English, they are a funny race

I've been reading three Englishmen in recent days, and, without purporting to analyze English character, I will say that each of these examples shows considerable wit, and that the wit cuts deeper than mere jokes.

The first is from a short story by Michael Gilbert:
"Mr. Behrens said, raising his voice a little, `If I were to lift my right hand a very well-trained dog, who has been approaching you quietly from the rear while we were talking, would have jumped for your throat.' 
 "The colonel smiled. `Your imagination does you credit. What happens if you lift your left hand? Does a genie appear from a bottle and carry me off?' 
"`If I raise my left hand,' said Mr. Behrens, `you will be shot dead.'  
 "And so saying, he raised it."
— "The Road to Damascus" 
The second is from a novel by John Lawton:
 "Interned, released, enlisted, trained and promoted all in less than three months. The insignia of rank barely tacked onto his sleeve. If the next promotion were as swift as the first he’d be a Flight Lieutenant by the end of the month. This had baffled Rod. He had tried to explain it to his father some time ago. ‘I said the obvious thing. “Are you sure I’m ready for this?” Sort of expecting the genial “Of course, old chap” by way of answer – and they said “Ready? Of course you’re not ready. Ready’s got bugger all to do with it. You’re thirty-three, man, you’ve held a pilot’s licence for ten years. We need people who can fly, people who can command a bit of authority, people who might look as though they know what they’re doing even if they don’t. You couldn’t grow a moustache, could you?’” 
Bluffing Mr. Churchill 
The third is from a poem by Philip Larkin:
"Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout
Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on:"
— "Toads" 
Aren't those fun?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Grifters on screen: Naked noir

The 1990 movie adaptation of Jim Thompson's novel The Grifters has much going for it: strong performances all around, a script by Donald Westlake, bit parts for character actors who look as thuggish and dangerous or thick and greedy and vulnerable and stupid as the characters are supposed to be, nicely staged cons, and the joy of seeing Annette Bening naked (she just seems to be having so much fun, rare for any performer.)
Mostly, though, the book, despite dropping one of Thompson's dark little subplots, offers a simple two-point definition of noir:
  • The characters who die are neither deserving villains nor innocent victims.
  • No one who's let alive is any better off at the beginning than at the end.
That's noir.

The movie's Wikipedia article reports some overheated, self-important tosh about the film, some of it possibly true. One advantage books have over movies is that their creators don't usually call them projects or report breathlessly that they cried during the creation of certain scenes or say anything as silly about symbolism as Wikipedia reports Martin Scorcese as saying. (Scorcese was the movie's producer.)
I enjoyed the movie especially because the novel, which I did not finish, was not among the highlights of my recent burst of Thompson reading (click the link, scroll down). Perhaps this is a case where a movie is better than the novel on which it is based.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The French are coming! The French are coming!

Amid fascinating new theories I've been reading about the origins of English (Stephen Oppenheimer's Origins of the British: The New Prehistory of Britain could easily include chapters called "No Saxons, Please; We're English," "All Angles," or "Some of My Best Friends are Jutes"), comes crime fiction news about the French:

Fred Vargas' The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, translated by Sian Reynolds, and Pierre Lemaitre's Alex, translated by Frank Wynne, were named joint winners this week of the International Dagger Award for translated crime fiction by the Crime Writers' Association in the UK. The news release announcing the award says the CWA plans to establish a French chapter "in the near future."

Wynne, Lemaitre, and fellow French authors Antonin Varenne and Xavier-Marie Bonnot attended Bristol's Crimefest 2013 along with your humble blogkeeper, so perhaps French crime writing is about to start enjoying a higher profile in the UK and then, perhaps, in America (Alex is to be released in the U.S. in September.)

Whatever its profile in the UK at large, French crime writing has enjoyed an outsize profile at the Daggers. This year marked the fifth time in the International Dagger's eight-year history that the award had gone to a French novel or novels. The award was the fourth for Vargas/Reynolds, following on The Three Evangelists in 2006, Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand in 2007, and The Chalk Circle Man in 2009. Dominique Manotti's  Lorraine Connection, translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Ros Schwartz, was the other French winner, in 2008.
Your humble blogkeeper interviewed Fred Vargas last month and Sian Reynolds in 2008. It was Reynolds' solution to a bit of untranslatable wordplay in The Three Evangelists that spurred me to start interviewing authors and translators in the first place. I also reviewed The Ghost Riders of Ordebec in the Philadelphia Inquirer in June.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Bastille Day post: Tocqueville on France and Algeria

I somehow neglected this in my springtime frenzy of reading about the French-Algerian War, but its ringing words may be even more relevant in the waning moments of Bastille Day than than they were in April.

I still don't know why France treated Algeria differently from Tunisia and Morocco, making of it a full-fledged colony while holding the others as protectorates. It couldn't really be because of a fly swatter, could it?

It transpires, though, that some of the impetus for France's decision about how to proceed after its invastion of Algiers came from the guy better known for writing about America:
"Tocqueville himself had sought such an incorporation when, in his 1847 report, he described the goal that would guide France's elusive, destructive, and ultimately failed project in Algeria:

"`We should set out to create not a colony properly speaking in Algeria, but rather the extension of France itself across the Mediterranean.'"
I don't say that makes him a perp, but he is at least a person of interest.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Saturday, July 13, 2013

William McIlvanney in a nutshell

My current reading is a hodgepodge of crime and noncrime. Here's a highlight from the crime part, The Papers of Tony Veitch, second of William McIlvanney's Laidlaw novels:
 "It was Glasgow on a Friday night, the city of stares. ... There were a few knots of people looking up at the series of windows where train departures were posted. They looked as if they were trying to threaten their own destinations into appearing." 
The line needs no analysis, but you'll get one anyway. The description's humor does nothing to soften its portrait of Glasgow. That's McIlvanney in a nutshell.
Cover blurbs often compare crime writers to Raymond Chandler, and the comparisons are generally superficial, fatuous or, I suspect, outright tongue-in-cheek. McIlvanney's emotional engagement with Glasgow, on the other hand, is one of the few facets of any crime novelist's writing that really is in the spirit of Chandler's with Los Angeles.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Alan Glynn nails youth

Alan Glynn's Bloodland showed a sharp eye for the anaesthetizing power of buzz words. His new Graveland takes on an even bigger target than people who use words like brand and narrative seriously: Youth.
"They're nice guys, friendly, reliable. and a lot more savvy about all the tech stuff here than he is, but at the same time there's something about them that he doesn't get. It's a sort of dumb, uninquiring compliance..."
I don't know how large this motif will loom in the book, and I'm not sure this passage is all that hard on youth.  Glynn may simply be uttering the heresy, counterintuitive to lots of Americans, that youth are more. not less ready than older people to surrender to corporate control. (Put down your iPhone 5; I'm talking to you.) Still, it's not the sort of sentiment one is likely to encounter in everyday productions of the media-social media-industrial-advertising-entertainment complex.

It's early in the book, but Graveland has done nothing yet to dissuade me from a suspicion that Glynn may have more to say than any other crime novelist about the world in which I live.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Monday, July 08, 2013

How William McIlvanney beats the stereotypes

The first thing that strikes me on my second reading of William McIlvanney's 1977 novel Laidlaw is how much better the book is than the many crime novels that have followed it in form but fallen short in spirit and execution.

Here's how an outline of Laidlaw might begin:
First chapter: Narrated from killer’s point of view as he flees murder scene.

Second chapter: Crusty police officer sits at his desk, feeling bleak.

Third chapter: Father of missing girl feels frustrated and powerless.
Forget, for a moment, that those tropes may not have been so tired back in 1977. The question on the floor is why McIlvanney's versions seem so fresh now that Canongate books has rereleased Laidlaw in 2013 (along with its follow-ups, The Papers of Tony Veitch and Strange Loyalties), other than that McIlvanney avoids the deadly trap of setting the inside-the-killer's-head chapter in italic type.

Start with compassion and humor. End with such telling detail that one feels one is reading novel observation rather that obligatory place-holders. Here's how the novel opens:
"Running was a strange thing. The sound was your feet slapping the pavement. The lights of passing cars batted your eyeballs. ..."
Find me a better description of alienation than that, of feeling inside one's body and removed from it at the same time. If you do, I bet it won't end on McIlvanney's humorous note:
"A voice with a cap on said. `Where's the fire, son?'"
Yes, quibblers, a voice with a cap on, a convincing subjective description of how the world might appear to a panicked young man fleeing through a crowded city's streets. Subjectivity here translates into empathy, which, in turn makes itself felt in McIlvanney's compassion for his characters, even the most unpleasant. That compassion, perhaps even more than his depictions of hard city (Glasgow), marks out his affinity with Goodis, Guthrie, and other great names in noir.

Then there's McIlvanney understated humor, of which the following bit about a clownish drunk is just one of my favorites (and it gives a nice picture of McIlvanney's Glasgow at the same time):
"He was circulating haphazardly. trying different tables. In Hollywood films it's gypsy fiddlers. In Glasgow pubs it isn't. With that instinct for catastrophe some drunk men have, he settled for a table where three men were sitting. Two of them, Bud Lawson and Airchie Stanley, looked like trouble. The third one looked like much worse trouble."
Here's an example of McIlvanney's compassion for his characters. Here's another that also exemplifies how McIlvanney gets beyond a crime-fiction trope by digging deeper into it. In this case, the trope is that of the introspective detective.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Saturday, July 06, 2013

"Sort of an anarchist with syndicalist tendencies," plus William McIlvanney

Elisha Cook Jr.
38 years before
This post's title is a bit of dialogue from Wim Wenders' movie Hammett, based on Joe Gores' novel of the same name. That the line is uttered by Elisha Cook Jr., such a memorable presence in The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and Phantom Lady, still zesty at age 78 in 1982, makes a fine line even more delicious:
"Are you really a Wobblie?" 
 "Ah, no. That's just Hammett talking. What I am now is sort of an anarchist with syndicalist tendencies."
Cook appeared in Hammett forty years after he began making his name as a Hollywood fall guy. What are your favorite late-career cameo appearances?
Speaking of good lines, Canongate's rerelease of William McIlvanney's three Laidlaw novels (Laidlaw, The Papers of Tony Veitch, Strange Loyalties) may be the happiest event since this blog started, and one of the very few that deserve the name of event.

Laidlaw appeared in 1977, the other two in 1983 and 1991, and their author has since become recognized as a father figure to Scottish crime writers who have followed.  He has begun appearing at crime fiction festivals, including Crimefest 2013, celebrated by all and a genial presence for a literary demigod.

The Laidlaw books are the answer to anyone who needs proof that literary fiction can be tough, gritty, and unpretentious, or that crime writing can be beautiful, affecting, and a portrait of its time and place that deserves to last. (The place is Glasgow. That Glasgow is McIlvanney's adopted city is of interest. Does being a nonnative sharpen his perception?)

In addition to the books, McIlvanney has a website called Personal Dispatches, where bits of his writing appear from time to time, including a recent discussion with Sean Connery.

 © Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Thursday, July 04, 2013

Desmond Doherty's Valberg: A sort-of Swede in Northern Ireland

I haven't seen a finished copy of Derry's own Desmond J. Doherty's novel Valberg yet, and even if I had, professional ethics would prevent me from reviewing it. (I did a bit of editing on the book.)

I can tell you, however, that
  • The author has an interesting professional background.
  • The book comes to you from Guildhall Press, who also bring you the excellent Garbhan Downey.
  • The grim story will afford readers glimpses of Derry's history, recent and not so recent, that might make them want to explore that history.
  • The city makes a fine background for a serial-killer story.
  • The novel's plunging of a grim detective of Scandinavian descent into the roiling passions of Derry's history is one of the more surprising and thought-provoking bits of authorial strategy I can remember in crime fiction. I like the idea of a sort-of Swede in Ireland.
  • The protagonist's choice of music to listen to when he goes into a tailspin works for me. My antipathy for his favorite musical group — at least in the manuscript — makes the protagonist seem even more alienated than he might otherwise have. And if you like the group, so much the better. Get down with Valberg.
© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Wednesday, July 03, 2013


One thing I like about Barry Cunliffe's popular-science writing is that he does not open his prefaces, introductions, or first chapters with a personal anecdote. He does not, in other words condescend to the reader (and, not incidentally, amplify his own importance) with some forced or touching incident of doubtful relevance to the matter at hand.

That's not to say Cunliffe effaces his personality. Rather, he expresses it through his enthusiasm for his subject. Britain Begins and now Europe Between the Oceans leave me with an impression of Cunliffe's lively intelligence as well as awe and fascination with the range and depth of European geography, archaeology, and history.

Cunliffe's books led me to a book by another author on a related subject that opens with a long anecdote whose point is debatable. The anecdote would make a charming inclusion in a memoir of My Summers in Wales, but its relevance to the subject — population genetics — is questionable.

That's the preface. In the main body of the book, the text abounds with clearlys and significantlys and to summarizes, sure signs that the author lacks confidence in his ability to tell a story so feels he must keep repeating it.

I learned early in my career as a copy editor that even the most cack-handed word-butcher can produce elegant, affecting prose when writing personal memoir. Good writers can make the leap, bringing the freshness and natural flow of memoir to their exploration of other subjects. Cunliffe can; his inferior follower cannot, so I wish he'd stuck to the first until he could master the second. (Of course, with the advent of the god-awful coinage journaling, personal writing may have turned to crap, too.)

A few tips for would-be science writers who feel they must relate to the reader: Don't talk about your long-ago summers. Stay away from crusty but beloved aunts or grandfathers. And never, ever mention idylls, Welsh or otherwise.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Tuesday, July 02, 2013

The longue durée of crime

Sometimes I may reach a bit for a crime-fiction connection in my non-crime reading, but this time the connection is clear: the archaeologist Barry Cunliffe's invocation of the historian Fernand Braudel's three-level scale of time and history, roughly translated, in ascending order of duration, as events, underlying trends, and geography and environment (longue durée), reminded me of a discussion here two years ago about crime crossing national lines in a repetition of ancient patterns.

The authors in question were Sweden's Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström, and I noted the multiple border crossings that lay at the heart of their Dagger-winning novel Three Seconds. (The police protagonist's name means border, for one thing.) Here's part of what I wrote at the time:
"I like to think that globalization in their world (and in that of Agnete Friis and Lene Kaaberbøl, where Lithuanian streetwalkers are part of the Danish human landscape) is neither new nor monolithic, but rather a reawakening of old, even ancient economic ties previously obscured by wars and revolution. In this case, the ties are those that bind the Baltic and North Seas and the nations that surround them. Once they traded herring and salt; today's commodities are methamphetamine and hookers.

"The authors rarely make this point explicitly or didactically, and that's part of what makes their books exciting. They really do take readers into a new/old world."
Discuss without, if possible, submitting an academic-style paper on crime as a medium of economic and social exchange.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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