Thursday, October 31, 2013

Liam McIlvanney; plus the way some presidents lie

As was the case last Friday, I'm too lazy to assemble and develop a coherent string of thought, so I'm going to play newspaper columnist again. If I were a real columnist, I'd try to make a virtue of my failure, and I'd call this post "While I was cleaning out the cobwebs of my mental attic" or "Stuff I wish I woulda thoughta." But, as that recently departed former journalism student Lou Reed sang in lines that could have been a copy editor serenading a columnist, "Some people, they like to go out dancing / And other people like us, we gotta work."  So, let's get to it.

1) Liam McIlvanney's All the Colours of the Town squarely confronts an issue I've long thought lurks beneath the surface of crime stories, especially those set during wartime: the queer, in-between situation of taking part in the action and, at the same time, observing it from the outside. McIlvanney's protagonist, Gerry Conway, is a Glasgow journalist sent to Belfast to dig up information on a Scottish politician's connections with sectarian paramilitaries in Northern Ireland:
"Maybe the News-Letter staffer was right. I was here to pick at scabs. I was greedy for all the old badness, the past’s bitter quota of hurt.

"I wasn’t alone. Across the West of Scotland, in the clubs and lodges, the stadiums and bars, people missed the Troubles. They mightn’t admit it, but they rued a little the ceasefires’ durability, the Armalite’s silence. We had followed the Troubles so closely for so long. There is something narcotic in watching a war unfold on your doorstep, knowing all the while it can’t harm you."
 Liam McIlvanney is William McIlvanney's son, and he shares something of that fine writer's penchant for long, loving descriptions of his protagonists' physical and human surroundings.

2) H.R. McMaster's Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam got me thinking about changing fashions in presidential lies, evasions, and deceptions. McMaster's (and also Thomas E. Ricks') censure of Gen. Maxwell Taylor's close personal and social ties with the Kennedy family and of President Lyndon Johnson's preference for hand-picked advisers who would tell him what he wanted to hear reminded me of President Clinton and the Friends of Bill.  Johnson's insecurity reminded me of Richard Nixon and, reading how Johnson took advantage of instability in the Dominican Republic to divert attention from (and funding to) Vietnam in 1965 reminded me of the Iran/Contra scandal. I wonder if Reagan's advisers learned from Johnson's fate to make sure the president was well insulated from any dubious activities his administration might get up to.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"There's no question that he wanted to sotto-voce the whole thing"

Jack Valenti (far left), Lyndon Johnson,
Jacqueline Kennedy
One of the small joys of H.R. McMaster's Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam was that two of the most vacuous utterances McMaster quotes come from the mouth of a man who would later head the Motion Picture Association of America.

The man is Jack Valenti, an aide to Lyndon Johnson when Johnson was ushering in the modern era of presidential lying, misleading Congress, and evading the Constitution.

McMaster quotes Valenti several times in the book's final chapters, once in the stilted declaration that LBJ was "in the middle of the biggest legislative fight of Johnson's history" and another time admitting that "There's no question that he wanted to sotto-voce the whole thing."

Sotto-voce the whole thing, presumably said with a straight face? The man was born to be a macher in movies.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Monday, October 28, 2013

Strange Loyalties: William McIlvanney in words and a picture

Your humble blog keeper (right) explains things
to William McIlvanney at Crimefest 2013
, Bristol.
Photo courtesy of Ali Karim
. Once again I'm rereading a novel by William McIlvanney, and once again I am struck immediately by how different he is from the legion of crime writers who acknowledge his influence.

This time the novel is Strange Loyalties (1991), third of McIlvanney's three Laidlaw novels and, like its predecessors, Laidlaw and The Papers of Tony Veitch, rereleased in trade paperback by Canongate.

A hard-drinking detective or police officer comes slowly to himself after a binge and boy, does his head hurt. You're read that scene a few hundred times, but probably not the way McIlvanney writes it. Here's the opening of Strange Loyalties:
"I woke up with a head like a rodeo. Isn't it painful having fun? Mind you, last night hadn't been about enjoyment, just whisky as anaesthetic. Now it was wearing off, the pain was worse. It always is."
First, McIlvanney comes with a funny, inventive, eye-catching way of saying, "I was drunk, and my head hurt." That's a good way to grab a reader's attention, a good thing to do in a novel's first sentence. Second, the humor is a welcome change from the pain and self-pity with which many another crime writer endows such first-person hangovers.

Third, McIllvanney immediately leavens the fun with somber self-realization that to me, at least, tugs at the heartstrings without getting maudlin.  If you've never read the Laidlaw novels, read that opening again. Don't you want to know the character who thinks those lines? Doesn't that mix make Laidlaw seem more real, more human?

So, who is like unto William McIlvanney? Allan Guthrie probably comes closest in his mix of humor and compassion, but even that top-flight crime writer doesn't do it with the concentration of his fellow Scotsman McIlvanney. Ken Bruen does something like it in Priest, though its characters lean more toward martyrdom and away from humor.

Ian Rankin calls it doubtful that he'd be a crime writer without McIlvanney's influence but, other than that McIlvanney's Laidlaw and Rankin's Rebus both work the streets of a tough Scottish city, I don't see striking similarities between the two. So I'll dump the question in your laps, dear readers: Which crime writers best combine humor and compassion? Which authors, if you want to put the question this way, will make you laugh and cry in the same book?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Military and civilian language / Goodbye, Lou Reed

H.R. McMaster's Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam is full of military acronyms and zippy abbreviations, but the language that sets my teeth on edge (and, sadly, has most deeply penetrated everyday speech and writing) comes from the civilian leaders and their lickspittles who are McMaster's real villains.

McMaster's own prose is lucid and easy to read, but he's writing history based on extensive archival research about the planning of a war, so his prose is naturally dotted with the jargon of its subject: ECXOM, SEACOORD, CINCPAC, OSD (Office of the Secretary of Defense), and so on.

To my surprise, I adjusted easily to the alphabet soup. Not so to obfuscation such as:
"Taylor had to contrive an assessment of the South Vietnamese government that was more optimistic than the one contained in his report two days earlier. The delay ostensibly permitted `thickening the fabric of the Khanh government in the next two months,' a task that Taylor had described as virtually impossible." 
"Bundy ... expressed hope that the `pretty high noise level' might threaten North Vietnam with the possibility of `systematic military action' in the future."
Thickening the fabric? What the hell does that mean? What does it say that shoring up or strengthening does not?  Why noise level rather than noise? And is it mere coincidence that such wordiness and pomposity crops up when leaders are deliberately deceiving the public. (The civilian leaders and Taylor were seeking to postpone action on Vietnam until after Lyndon Johnson could be reelected president in 1964.)

The answer doesn't matter, of course, because obfuscation and wordiness have won. Noise has lost out to noise level, just as no news or sports reporter or jabbering lawyer or business person will write skill when skill level sounds so much more impressive.
I found out while writing this post that Lou Reed had died. My favorite tribute to Reed came a few years ago from the excellent guitarist/songwriter/singer Alejandro Escovedo, who said that when he was growing up and someone would ask, "Beatles or Stones?" he would reply, "Velvet Underground."

Here's the first Lou Reed song I became aware of in the version I heard first.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Friday, October 25, 2013

A post about McGilloway, McMaster, and me

I have nothing to say today, so I'm going to write a newspaper column. You know the kind I mean: the ones the columnist calls "Not that it really matters but..." or "Sudden thoughts and second thoughts," unless he abandons all pretense and simply reproduces great chunks of previous columns. Here's my version of what I'd do if I were a columnist rather than merely what a reporter of pedestrian literary talent once termed "editorial support":

1) The first three words of Brian McGilloway's The Nameless Dead, available in paperback from the folks at Pan (the entire novel, not just the first three words), are a pretty damn good first three words that would make a fine title: "The cadaver dog ... " That makes me want to keep reading.

2) As a follow-up to Thomas E. Ricks' The Generals, I'm reading H.R. McMaster's Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam. McMaster, a career military man and a scholar, shows a nice reporter's eye for detail in this vignette of the rivalry between Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Curtis LeMay, in 1963:
"LeMay’s bushy eyebrows, sagging jowls, and jutting jaw advertised an irascible personality. Aware of Taylor’s aversion to tobacco smoke, he hung his ever-present long dark cigar out of the left side of his mouth and intentionally puffed the thick smoke in Taylor’s direction."
3) Dana King has posted the second in his series of Bouchercon interviews, this one with me in my capacity as a moderator of panels. I've been moderating for five years now, and Dana's questions gave me the chance to think about interesting aspects of this most enjoyable pastime. I am especially pleased at his declaration that I am "among the Bouchercon moderators whose panels are worth attending even if you don’t think you have an interest in the topic." That's the highest compliment a moderator can receive. Thanks!

Dana's interview with those superb panel organizers Judy Bobalik and Jon Jordan appeared last week, and further interviews with authors, organizers, and readers, all talking about what goes into a successful crime-fiction convention, will appear weekly through December.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Who is your favorite trained, professional, but normal crime-fiction protagonist?

"I don't care for amateur sleuth stories, but characters such as this—a trained, yet normal person—are not common enough."

That's what author/reader/friend of Detectives Beyond Borders Dana King wrote in a reply to my comments about Owen Laukkanen's co-protagonists. I had written that
"Laukkanen offers as protagonists a married, male, mid-career state police officer and a beautiful, younger female FBI agent who wind up on the road a lot as the crimes cross state lines. Romantic tension? Sure, but no soap opera, no mid-life crisis, no over-the-top, should-I-or-shouldn't-I angst. Laukkanen's Officer/Agent Stevens is much closer to Brian McGilloway's Benedict Devlin than he is to the male crime protagonists who lie by your bed in messy, unhappy, poorly dressed, divorced, alcoholic heaps."
That's two authors whose main law enforcement characters are highly trained professionals, skilled at what they do and yet believable without going over the top into domestic bathos. Their domestic lives are more than window-dressing. They're heroes and believable characters at the same time.  Stuart M. Kaminsky's Abe Lieberman was like this. Helene Tursten tried for such a balance in the first of her novels about the Swedish police inspector Irene Huss to be translated into English and achieved it in the third, The Glass Devil.

What other crime-fiction characters achieve that delicate balance?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Finn du siècle, or Owen Laukkanen's balancing act

Finno-Canadian, really, but who's counting?

I very briefly regretted reading The Professionals, Owen Laukkanen's first novel, only after I'd read (and thought highly of) his second, Criminal Enterprise. References in the second book rob the first of a bit of its suspense. But I quickly adjusted and concentrated on how Laukkanen built that character in a way that held my interest even though I knew more or less what would happen to him.

Built is an important word in this discussion because Laukkanen assembles his ingredients with the care of a skilled pastry chef, though the result is a pretty explosive pastry.

Here's what I mean: The kidnappers in The Professionals (like the bank robber in Criminal Enterprise) turn to crime because their college educations are useless in today's job market. Laukkanen gives us enough of that background to distinguish them from other fictional criminals, but not so much that he whacks us over the head with sociology.

On the right side of the law, Laukkanen offers as protagonists a married, male, mid-career state police officer and a beautiful, younger female FBI agent who wind up on the road a lot as the crimes cross state lines. Romantic tension? Sure, but no soap opera, no mid-life crisis, no over-the-top, should-I-or-shouldn't-I angst. Laukkanen's Officer/Agent Stevens is much closer to Brian McGilloway's Benedict Devlin than he is to the male crime protagonists who lie by your bed in messy, unhappy, poorly dressed, divorced, alcoholic heaps. Stevens is an ordinary guy occasionally called upon to do extraordinary things. And then are the two rich college girls who fall in with the gang and don't do quite what one might expect without, however, behaving exactly counter to type, either.

But really, the books are thrillers. Heists happen, cops investigate, and Laukkanen lets us know just enough about each to hold our interest until the two collide.

(Laukkanen's third novel, Kill Fee, is due for release in March.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Gitana, or a wallow in Dominic Martell's world

was listening to Camarón de la Isla when I received Sam Reaves' e-mail about the novels he publishes under the name Dominic Martell.  The coincidence was a happy one; the novels are set in Barcelona, the third of the three is called Gitana, and Camarón was a Gitano (a Spanish Roma, or Gypsy) and one of the greatest of all flamenco singers.

So I began with Gitana, and, sure enough, Camarón gets a mention early on, and so does the great Carmen Linares. Lots of crime novels are suffused with atmosphere, but  Gitana is almost entirely atmosphere through its opening pages — not a bad thing if the setting is Barcelona and the atmosphere is in large measure music.

Camarón de la Isla (Hear and see Camarón sing 
"Soy Gitano")
The first two chapters—and Martell works lots of short scenes into a chapter—only reveal gradually that one of the characters, Pascual Rose, has a past. For most of the opening chapters, the characters hang around bars and clubs and talk about their city or about breaking away to flamenco's big time in Madrid or Seville. Even the opening scene, in which Pascual narrowly escapes a severe beating that leaves the assailants much the worse for their efforts, comes off as just one more incident in the flow of incident and conversation:
"Hours of proximity, long stretches of sociability in agreeable company, shared tedium and fatigue."
© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Friday, October 18, 2013

How historical fiction chronicles linguistic change, or What the hell is an air-port?

Historical fiction ought to create a convincing illusion of the period in which it is set. If it can reveal strangeness in our own time, so much the better.

Here are two short passages, about twenty pages apart, from the closing chapters of Black Out, set in 1944 and 1948 and the first of John Lawton's Troy novels:
"`And where would I land?' 
"`West London. There's a new airfield under construction on the far side of Houndslow. They call it Heath Row.'"
"Heathrow was referred to as an air-port. Troy presumed that this fiction was in some way meant to distinguish it from such places as Croydon which had always been called an aerodrome or Brize Norton which remained an airfield."
Have you ever thought how odd it is that the word port should be applied to a place where no harbor or ships are to be found? I had not until I read the passage in Lawton.

(Heath Row as two words in the first use, one in the second is a nice touch, too.  Presumably this reflects the process by which two words, expressing distinct ideas, fuse with increasing use and become a compound word to express a new idea. Either that, or it's one hell of a thought-provoking typographical error.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Prose Wars™ II: The Articles of Confederation vs. the Constitution

Yesterday's inaugural Prose Wars™ post pitted a page from Eliot A. Cohen's Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen And Leadership In Wartime against a parenthetical remark from Adrian McKinty's upcoming novel In the Morning I'll Be Gone, with McKinty winning handily.

Today, two of the founding documents of the United States of America face off, with the Constitution kicking the Articles of Confederation's butt. No shock there; the Articles are the Wally Pipp of founding documents to the Constitution's Lou Gehrig.  Here's the preamble to the Articles, preserving the spelling and inconsistent punctuation as reproduced in the Library of America's Debate on the Constitution:
"To all to whom these Presents shall come, we, the undersigned, Delegates of the States affixed to our Names, send greeting: Whereas the Delegates of the United States of America in Congress assembled, did on the fifteenth day of November, in the year of our Lord One Thousand Seven hundred and Seventy seven, and in the second year of the Independence of America, agree to certain articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts-bay, Rhodeisland and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North-Carolina, South-Carolina, and Georgia, in the Words following, viz. "Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts-bay, Rhodeisland and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North-Carolina, South-Carolina, and Georgia."
Here is the preamble to the Constitution:
"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
Case closed.
A previous Detectives Beyond Borders post shows how editing made the Declaration of Independence better.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Two little pieces of prose: Cohen and McKinty

1) His picture of Abraham Lincoln's wartime military leadership is brisk and exciting, but I am sorry to say that Eliot A. Cohen is not the prose stylist that Thomas E. Ricks is. One Maj. John J. Key, Cohen tells us in Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen And Leadership In Wartime, "made the greatest sacrifice a man could to the Union cause" and, on the same page, "had just made the greatest sacrifice imaginable to the Union cause."

A good writer might have avoided the overdone "greatest sacrifice" trope. A careful editor allowed to do his or her job would surely not have let Cohen use it twice on the same page. Even if the expression were not a cliché (or even if it bothers you less than it bothers me), repeating the phrasing so closely creates a monotonous effect, not to mention the unfortunate impression that author, editor, or both did not pay careful attention to what they were doing.

2) Then there's Adrian McKinty, the first page of whose upcoming novel In The Morning I'll Be Gone contains as neat a parenthesis as you'll ever see. Now, the em-dashes with which McKinty sets off the remark may become commas or even parentheses by the time the book is published, so I can't reveal details here. But the remark's commentary on what went immediately before suggests a wry, disillusioned humor that I think I will like.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Another good bit from John Lawton

John Lawton is so good that I don't want to stop reading his novels long enough to take notes. That makes blog posts a nuisance, but I have found one bit from his debut novel, Black Out, that I think encapsulates some of what makes him special:
"The warden looked from Troy's face to the card and back again. 
"`When I was your age I was in the trenches.' 
"Troy looked into the man's face. He was almost entirely in shadow, but his age seemed clear enough; the clipped mustache, the received pronunciation, the creaking joints all bespoke a man in his fifties — a generation Troy had come to loathe, with their constant justification of what they had done in the war, their jingoistic fervor that their sons should also risk their lives in another German war — a generation of drawing-room drones, League of Nations naïves, chicken-farming chunterers. Troy had long ago ceased to regard the ARP and the Home Guard as anything but a patriotic nuisance."
That passage tells us something about Lawton's series protagonist, Frederick Troy. It gives us, in the person of the officious civil defense worker, a memorable human portrait. It gives a vivid, small-scale picture of life during wartime (London, 1944), and, as Lawton often does, the small-scale anecdote expands into a barbed comment on English character and manners.

As a bonus, we North American readers may learn a bit of English slang and social history from the passage. ARP stands for Air Raid Precautions, a British civil defense organization. A chunterer is someone who grumbles and scolds, and I say it's a fine word.
John Lawton was part of my "World War II and Sons" panel at Bouchercon 2013.  

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Friday, October 11, 2013

Military history, sharp thinking, and good writing

I expect I'll like Eliot A. Cohen's Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen And Leadership In Wartime almost as much as I liked Thomas E. Ricks' The Generals, and not just because I came to Cohen through Ricks' approving citations.

The two share a talent for incisive analysis and clear, elegant writing. That each writes about a subject of continuing vital and contemporary interest is a bonus. (In Ricks' case, the subject is the rise and precipitous decline in American military leadership from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan. In Cohen's case, the subject is the military leadership of the civilian heads of state Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, and Ben-Gurion during wartime.)

I'm going to like Cohen because he attacks the commonplace that a civilian leader's job during wartime is to get out of the military's way, and I'm predisposed to like attacks on commonplaces. Cohen's introductory chapters range well beyond his specialty (He's a professor of strategic studies). His discussion of the pervasiveness with which the idea of military supremacy in wartime has penetrated popular culture, for example, includes a slyly funny putdown of the movie Independence Day.

I'd recommend these books for readers interested in current affairs, military history, and world politics. More to the point, I recommend them to that tiny minority to whom good writing and clear argument matter.

(If recent discussion here at Detectives Beyond Borders has got away from crime fiction, know that it was a short story by Martin Limón, crime fiction all the way, that first got me thinking about military leadership and the consequences of leadership policies whose goals are to protect the leaders.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Thomas Ricks knows "transition" is not verb

"Petraeus and Odierno reversed some of Casey’s directives. ... formally demoted `transitioning' to Iraqi security forces from the top American priority to number seven on their mission list. Replacing it as the number-one task was the mission of protecting the Iraqi people."
 As I take my leave of the most thrilling, important, trenchant book that I've read since The Man Without Qualities, I highlight a small but significant additional reason to treasure it: The author, Thomas E. Ricks, clearly thinks good writing important, and he is unafraid to say that others should do so as well.

The sneer in those inverted commas around the odious transitioning above made me cheer, and it's worth noting that Ricks sneered in the context of commending two generals who de-emphasized "transitioning" in their effort to salvage a sloppy, directionless U.S. military effort in Iraq.

Ricks concludes his analysis of U.S. military leadership since World War II with an  epilogue of suggestions for undoing the damage wrought by incompetent generals and the diseased culture that the Army had become. Among these is better education (as opposed to training) for generals.
"As an added benefit," Ricks suggests, "many would learn to write clearly, a skill notably lacking in many American generals in this era of PowerPoint bullet-point briefings that lack verbs and causal thinking and all too often confuse a statement of goals with a strategy for actually achieving them."
Thomas E. Ricks, you are the man.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Monday, October 07, 2013

Thomas E. Ricks on the Vietnam War

I'm back to my pre-Bouchercon reading, and my respect only grows for Thomas E. Ricks' The Generals. I read Ricks' sections on World War II and the Korean war for my Bouchercon panel on wartime crime fiction. Here are some excerpts from his section on the Vietnam War, the first from another author whom Ricks cites:
"From corporals to colonels, the men whose main job it is to train fighting soldiers and forge them into fighting units find themselves instead mere cogs in the vast machinery of the `system'; martyrs to the American devotion to the idea that the American businessman is the most efficient individual in the world and therefore all American institutions should be `run on business lines.'"
George Fielding Eliot on the Korean War-era U.S. Army 
"'We were beautifully managed and inadequately led,' O'Meara wrote." 
"A popular myth, persisting even in today's military, is that senior civilians were too involved in the handling of the war. In fact, the problem was not that civilians participated too much in the decision making but that the senior military leaders participated too little. President Johnson, Maxwell Taylor, and Robert McNamara treated the Joint Chiefs of Staff not as military advisers but as a political impediment, a hurdle to be overcome, through deception if necessary." 
"Unlike what happened in Hue City, the My Lai massacre has lived in in American memory — but only as an instance of a rogue platoon led by a dimwitted lieutenant. What has been forgotten is that the Army's subsequent investigations found that the chain of command up to the division commander was involved either in the atrocity or in the cover-up that followed." 
"They were led by Lt. Calley, a short, pudgy 1963 dropout from Palm Beach Junior College who had drifted into the Army while down on his luck in Albuquerque and has somehow been sleeked to be an officer." 
That last bit exemplifies one of Ricks' main strengths as a writer. Ricks is a reporter, but his touches of color are light years beyond the typical hyperventilating to which most journalists resort when they follow the dreary rule that says they must humanize their stories by giving the reader more than just process. Ricks' description of Calley could be the sketch of a character in a neo-noir novel.

(Here are my previous posts about The Generals. Click on the link, then scroll down.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Saturday, October 05, 2013

McKinty, Ciaran Carson, and Belfast Confetti

My panel on wartime crime fiction at Bouchercon 2013 got me thinking of the heavy responsibility attendant on writing about war: How does one do justice to the weight of the subject while writing a compelling, entertaining piece of work? How does a writer fulfill aesthetic as well as moral and ethical responsibilities?

Here's how Ciaran Carson does it in "Belfast Confetti," writing about the sort-of-war that was Northern Ireland's Troubles:
Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining exclamation marks,
Nuts, bolts, nails, car keys. A fount of broken type.
And the explosion
Itself – an asterisk on the map. This hyphenated line, a burst of rapid fire …
I was trying to complete a sentence in my head, but it kept stuttering,
All the alleyways and side-streets blocked with stops and colons.

I know this labyrinth so well – Balaclava, Raglan, Inkerman, Odessa Street –
Why can’t I escape? Every move is punctuated.
Crimea Street. Dead end again.
A Saracen, Kremlin-2 mesh. Makrolon face-shields.
Walkie-talkies. What is
My name? Where am I coming from? Where am I
going? A fusillade of question-marks.
I first heard of Carson through Adrian McKinty, and I found that several of Carson's poems reminded me of the opening chapters of McKinty's novels I Hear the Sirens in the Street and The Dead Yard. And lo, it transpires that the prologue to Dead I Well May Be, the book that got me reading McKinty in the first place, is called "Belfast Confetti." I attached no special significance to that title when I read the novel, however, because I had not read Carson at the time.

Sample Carson's poetry here, read a bit about him, and hear him read "Belfast Confetti."

Troll McKinty's blog or a bookseller's site to read the openings of those three novels and see what I mean about similarities to Carson. Better yet, read the books.

 © Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Wednesday, October 02, 2013

A Bouchercon moderator at work, plus why Johnny Shaw is righteous

For anyone who wonders what a Bouchercon panel moderator looks like in action, that's me at right, calmly steering my "Goodnight, My Angel: Hard-Boiled, Noir, and the Reader's Love Affair With Both" panel at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany two weeks ago (seems like years ago already. I'm just about ready for Bouchercon 2014.)

The gentleman to my right is Jonathan "Bad Juju" Woods, who was part of the panel. The photo is courtesy of Rita McCauley, whose husband, Terrence, was also a panel member. Thanks, Rita.
I've just finished reading Johnny Shaw's Big Maria, and I admit I teared up a bit at Shaw's resolution of his three screw-up protagonists' fates. The old-fashioned virtues of faith, determination, loyalty, and staying true to one's friends and family and self are much manipulated and abused by governments, corporations, the media, and a thousand people we all meet every day to the point that's easy to mock them or to grow cynical. But irony is easy. Shaw gets a reader believing in this stuff even as that reader laughs.

Furthermore, I suspect Shaw does this deliberately. Here's a bit from near the book's end, XXX substituted for a character's name to avoid a spoiler:
"The same pit that (XXX) had imagined as his grave had become just that. Some might have found it funny, but the irony would have pissed (XXX) off. Irony is only amusing when it happens to someone else. Death isn't funny to the dead."
I'm not entirely sentimental about this book, though. Among the many things to like are Shaw's subordination. His supporting characters are just as memorable and wacky as its three protagonists, but Shaw knows when to pull them back and let the main characters take center stage. He brings those subsidiary characters part way toward resolving obstacles he had put in their way, but he avoids the monotony-inducing trap of resolving their problems as thoroughly as he does the main characters'.  Shaw has chops, and he also knows how to build a story.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Johnny Shaw, all-American

I'm also quite enjoying my second piece of post-Bouchercon reading, Johnny Shaw's Big Maria. Shaw is the man behind "Blood and Tacos, featuring Chingón, the World's Deadliest Mexican," and anyone capable of coming up with that title, much less a story to go with it, is worth watching out for.

Big Maria is the story of a mammoth caper planned by three of the biggest screw-ups in all of crime fiction. The novel's first three sections have the outsize japery of "Blood and Tacos," but Shaw makes his misfit gang touchingly self-aware and endows them with optimism that is positively all-American.

And he does it all without losing the book's hard edge. When the characters get hurt, man, do they get hurt. When they get drunk, man, do they get drunk.  But somehow you'll wind up laughing.

I hope I'm not overanalyzing if I detect tributes to David Goodis in those early chapters as well as to Donald Westlake's Drowned Hopes and the Parker novels he wrote as Richard Stark. Overanalysis or not, the influence hunting is just a small part of the fun.

Now, back to my reading.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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