Friday, February 28, 2014

Seven Pillars of Inexpensive Wisdom

Another atmospheric hideout 
on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Yesterday's prize acquisitions at Market Street Books in Salisbury, Maryland: The Seven Pillars of Wisdom in a U.K. Penguin edition for barely 28 cents per pillar and Volume Two of Francis  Parkman, France and England in North America, in a Library of America edition with slipcase for $12.50.

I shall try to tease some crime out of my reading of history.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Not that it really matters, but I was just thinking that when I'm king of the world ...

Today I play newspaper columnist again and delight you with random observations disguised as work.

1) Based on the open chapters of Irregulars, Kevin McCarthy would have made a splendid member of my wartime and its aftermath panel at Bouchercon 2013.

2) Dashiell Hammett is popularly thought of as the antithesis of the old-style, rationalist, traditional mystery, and he made great fun of, say, S.S. Van Dyne. But an old-fashioned mystery-type solution lies at the heart of the mystery in Hammett's splendid 1924 story "Women, Politics and Murder." That solution takes up maybe a single paragraph, though. Rather than steamroll or satirize or eradicate the tradition, Hammett's early stories build around it, in the manner of a great city growing up around a settlement of rude huts.

3) Moshe Halbertal's book Maimonides: Life and Thought, discussed in this space Tuesday, suggests that Maimonides in some ways anticipated 20th-century ideas about the limits of language. I reflected on my own experience, and I thought, "Some people reach those limits earlier than Halbertal, Maimonides, and Wittgenstein thought." 

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Friday, February 21, 2014

A few more reasons Maimonides ought to be every crime fiction reader's favorite medieval Jewish sage:

  1.  Samuel Ibn Tibbon, who translated Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed from Arabic into Hebrew (and quite a translator he seems to have been), called Maimonides: "a wise artisan with an understanding of mysteries."
  2. He carried out his philosophical work by means of deduction.
  3. He believed the goal of religious law is to know, and he "went so far as to make rationality into a religious obligation."
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Is your favorite crime fiction hero Kantian, or Aristotelian?

Don't be bad because
that would feel good
Be good, but not too good
My current reading, Moshe Halbertal's Maimonides: Life and Thought, has nothing to do with crime fiction. Or does it?

Maimonides has to be one of the more fascinating humans who ever lived, and reading about his life is good mental exercise. He was a 12th-century Jewish sage infused with Aritotelian philosophy and Muslim learning, and he sought bold and controversial syntheses and reconciliations among those systems. He wrote in Hebrew. He wrote in Arabic. He wrote treatises on Jewish law and on philosophy, and, in his capacity as court physician to Saladin's vizier, on hemorrhoids and asthma. He was among the early advocates of good nutrition as a pathway to good health. He, in other words, rather than that guy on the beer commercials, may be the most interesting man in the world.

Halbertal discusses two moral traditions with which Maimonides grappled as he sought to define what constitutes a good man. One, of long standing but later exemplified in Immanuel Kant's work, is that morality consists in doing one's duty. "Kant's philosophical position," Halbertal says, "reflects in many ways a venerable approach that sees the moral life as one in which a person successfully resists his desires."

The alternative is to develop one's character to the point that "one will act virtuously by reason of his personality and will have no need to use his will to suppress his inclinations," to develop a middle way between extremes, a la Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

This got me thinking that modern crime-fiction good guys, at least in hard-boiled crime fiction, are more Kantian than Aristotelian, and Chandler's man walking down these mean streets may be more Aristotelian. Fighting demons seems more in tune with the times than does striving for a balanced character. (Think Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor or Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder fighting their own demons as much as or more than they fight crime.)

What do you think, readers? Is your favorite crime-fiction hero a fighter against his or her own urges, or a well-balanced human being? What does being a good person mean in crime fiction? And do readers even care about good guys anymore?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Hammett, his granddaughter, his editor, and me in The Philadelphia Inquirer

A long-lost work by Peter Rozovsky surfaces in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer: my review of Dashiell Hammett's The Hunter and Other Stories, interspersed with comments from my interview with Julie M. Rivett, a co-editor of the volume and also Hammett's daughter's daughter.

Yes, it was a wandering granddaughter job.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Friday, February 14, 2014

Delta Fourth and Marwan Muasher on democracy and gangsters in the Arab world

Marwan Muasher's The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism has much to say about the necessity of expanding the breadth and inclusiveness of politics in the Middle East.  The Murder of Yasser Arafat, by "Delta Fourth" (Matthew Kalman and Matt Rees) suggests what can happen when the possibility of dissent is squelched.

Muasher, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Jordanian diplomat and government minister, offers a number of bracing assertions and recommendations.

One is that revolution, reform, and rebuilding take time. Observers should not be too quick to write off the so-called Arab Spring. Opening Arab politics will take decades, Muasher says. Another is that uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere since 2011 have already shattered several myths, among them "that food must be put on the table before political reform can move forward." Muasher's target is economic liberalization unaccompanied by democratization in the Arab world, but I can't help recalling voices here in the United States that used to blandly insist that political reform would inevitably follow loosening of economic strictures. Such a stance is no doubt good for corporate profits, but somehow one does not hear those voices much anymore, and if China has become democratic, I missed it.

The Murder of Yasser Arafat suggests what can happen when gangsters run a government, or an organization that ostensibly aspires to government. Palestinians, especially capable members of the PLO leadership kept from the highest-level jobs by Arafat's jealousy, knew the Old Man salted away millions and was an obstacle to their personal and professional aspirations. The result is apparent in the book's title. And who is the real villain? A hint: It's not Israel.

Rees and Kalman have made their short book into a mix of inquiry and hard-boiled crime. But at least one bit sounds as if it could have come from Marwan Muasher's pen::
"When the gunmen killed someone like Adnan Shahine, it looked as though they were upholding the morals of the struggle against Israel. But there was something stronger at work: the lack of democracy and due process that eventually turned everyone against the Authority, including Arafat’s own ministers."
Rees is also a novelist whose work includes the Omar Yussef novels, set in the Palestinian world. He says he and Kalman wrote The Murder of Yasser Arafat as hard-boiled crime. Here is my favorite such example, a nice evocation of the book's morally shadowy world:
"Muhammad Dahlan ... is officially a man without a job or any visible means of support. But he glides through the West Bank in a bulletproof black Chevrolet Suburban supplied by his friends at the CIA bearing the official red and white license plates of the Palestinian Authority. Everywhere he goes, a phalanx of armed bodyguards surrounds him, sealing off the floor of his Ramallah Hotel and waiting on him with food and drink. The source of their salaries is unclear. Their loyalty is unquestioned.

"Dahlan is on a break from an extended visit to Cambridge, where he is perfecting his English, courtesy of the British taxpayer."
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

How Dennis Tafoya and Richard S. Prather keep it fresh

Some days the USPS knows just what to do. Monday's delivery brought an advance reading copy of Dennis Tafoya's The Poor Boy's Game and a package from a friend that included Richard S. Prather's Shell Scott novel Gat Heat.

I would not normally associate Tafoya's harrowing urban trips with Prather's light-hearted, action-packed hedonism, but early, brief glimpses suggest that each provides an answer to that favorite Detectives Beyond Borders question, How do authors keep their material fresh?

I've twice heard Tafoya read from The Poor Boy's Game, and this brief exposure suggests that he reinvigorates that old standby in which a character takes a drug- or alcohol-addled, barely-in-control trip through a dangerous urban environment, usually streets, bars, or both. I'll know more once I read the novel, but in the portions he read, Tafoya is emotionally invested in the character taking the trip. And that saves the scene from cliché, that and the sheer weight of the character's dissipation.

In Prather's case, the convention the author reinvigorates and pokes fun at is one he had made his own: that of the over-the-top description of usually pneumatically endowed women. This bit of Always Leave 'em Dying will serve as a fair example:
"...she'd just turned twenty one, but had obviously signaled for the turn a long time ago.... she wore a V-necked white blouse as if she were the gal who'd invented cleavage.”
That's why the opening of Gat Heat is so much fun. The book appeared in 1967, when the Shell Scott franchise had been around for more than fifteen years. Prather, presumably, had to strike a balance among giving the readers what they had come to expect, making each book different enough from what had gone before to keep the readers buying, and maintaining his own interest in a character who had been around a long time.

Readers of Gat Heat who knew their Prather and their Shell Scott must have delighted in such lines as: "You could say she was so thin she had to wear a fat girdle" and "Her complexion was the delicate tint of poisoned limeade."  They could enjoy the lines for their own sake, they could enjoy the fun Prather had at his own expense. And the lines work as references to the author's more familiar descriptions. Prather's usual descriptions are present by their absence.

So much for theorizing. How do your favorite crime writers reinvigorate conventions that in lesser hands might have seemed stale?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Monday, February 10, 2014

From Syria to Jalisco to Noir at the Bar in Baltimore

(Feasting Scene, Jalisco, Proto-
Classical 200 BC-AD 250. Earthen-
ware, red-slipped resist painting,
appliqué 20 1/4 x 19 3/4 x 17 in.
Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.)
(Bearded Figure
With Necklace
Syrian, 2400-
2000 BC. Terra-
cotta. H: 5 3/8
x W: 2 3/4 x
D: 1 5/16 in.
Walters Art
Museum, Baltimore.
Good fun Sunday at Noir at the Bar in Baltimore (That's a few of us at right, gathered around one of the evening's early readers.)

Some good stuff got read by Dennis Tafoya, Art Taylor, et al., not all of it unquotable on a family blog, but my favorite part was just hanging out and talking about writing and writers, notably with Dana King. Talk turned to James Ellroy, and author/Thuglit editor Todd Robinson said Ellroy made him nervous when they met.

Now, Robinson is wide, he's bald, and he's tattoo'd — not the first person I'd picture getting nervous in the presence of others. I took this as an endearing surprise, and also as evidence that despite Ellroy's intelligence, sensitivity, hard work, wide reading, and sometimes intense self-awareness, perhaps the man really does get close to the edge sometimes.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Sunday, February 09, 2014

James Ellroy on Hammett, Chandler, America, and how young writers ought to act

James Ellroy's Paris Review interview from a few years ago contains a bit of advice that every young writer ought to call up on his or her smartphone immediately:
“[Ellroy] exhorted a class of aspiring screenwriters to quit smoking, get rid of their tattoos and piercings, and always address their elders as Mr. or Mrs. `Do this, and people will say to themselves, This kid knows his shit and understands that there is a social contract.'”
Also of note: Ellroy's  comment on why crime is important in American writing:
"We’re a nation of immigrant rabble. A great rebellion attended the founding of this republic. We’ve been getting into trouble for two-hundred-and-thirty-odd years. It’s the perfect place to set crime stories, and the themes of the genre—race, systemic corruption, sexual obsession—run rife here. In a well-done crime book you can explore these matters at great depth, say a great deal about the society, and titillate the shit out of the reader."
And his preference for Dashiell Hammett over Raymond Chandler:
"Chandler wrote the kind of guy that he wanted to be, Hammett wrote the kind of guy that he was afraid he was. Chandler’s books are incoherent. Hammett’s are coherent. Chandler is all about the wisecracks, the similes, the constant satire, the construction of the knight. Hammett writes about the all-male world of mendacity and greed. Hammett was tremendously important 
to me."
One might disagree with Ellroy's choice, and one might argue that writing about what he wanted to be rather than what he was is the whole point of Chandler's writing: "Down these mean streets a man must walk who is not himself mean."  But I was relieved to see a Chandler vs. Hammett comparison based solely on the two authors' work, rather than on politics.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Friday, February 07, 2014

Where have you gone, Bill Shankly?

Bill Shankly
A few decades ago, one of the U.S. television networks began offering what it called "Up Close and Personal" looks at athletes.   Now no newspaper, large or small, is without its inspirational feature stories about athletes who battled long odds to get this far.

A few years later, ex-athletes began to go into television in big numbers, at first those who had had only marginal success as players or coaches, but increasingly, in recent years, former stars. Schooled in the power of TV and public relations, they maintained eye contact with their interviewers or interviewees and addressed them by their first names, voices carefully modulated to suggest empathy.  That the empathy more closely resembled the kind deployed by a human resources director, a real estate agent, or a mutual funds salesman than that of a friend with whom you'd schmooze over a drink or a meal or a cup of coffee didn't matter. Sincerity, and its close relative, personality,  were commodities, packaged for quick sale in a crowded market.

As transparently calculated as those trends were, they made perfect sense. As increasing salaries moved athletes in the major sports stratospheres out of their fans' social and economic orbits, teams, networks, and newspapers had to fabricate substitutes for the social bonds that no longer existed. Broadcasters began referring to players by their first names. Fans who could no longer afford to come to games would be given The NFL/MLB/NBA/NHL Experience. Reporters were only too happy to overpraise as great human beings any athlete in the top American sports leagues who had never been in prison, to laud as a family man any male athlete who did not beat, mistreat, or cheat on his wife or girlfriend, or whose agent managed to keep the misdeeds out of the papers. (Read the great Onion parody "Pro Athlete Lauded for Being Decent Human Being" for all you need to know about this trend.)

And that's why Red or Dead, David Peace's novel about the former Liverpool FC soccer manager Bill Shankly, is so moving an experience. It is a reminder that things were not always this way, that a celebrated coach once existed for whom dedication to the job, love for team and its fans, and devotion to his family were more than slogans or easy hooks. It is a vindication of generosity, hard work, loyalty, and all those concepts cheapened by noxious waves of political and commercial hucksterism.

Peace deploys any number of techniques to create his version of Shankly, some of them stylistic and technical quirks that he admits might drive some readers nuts. (The novel's first three words, "Repetition. Repetition. Repetition," are an apt summation of both Shankly's technique and Peace's.) Others are more subtle, such as his relegation of notable historical events and milestones in Shankly's life to allusion rather than direct mention, the better to focus attention on Shankly's single-mindedness. Sure, commentary on Peace tends to focus on his technical tricks, but in Red or Dead, the man — Bill Shankly — is the thing.

Lest you think that Red or Dead wallows in nostalgia, that other great salable commodity in popular culture, know that if Shankly, who died in 1981 and who deplored what had begun to happen to sports in his last years, were to look over my shoulder at this post, he would not despair. Rather, I think, he would slap me on the back, give me an inspirational lecture, and tell me to buck up and get back to the task at hand. And I would listen and believe him.
I'm too tired to start discussing politics, but it's worthwhile to note that, while the virtues David Peace's Shankly displays — the hard work, the determination, the devotion to family and colleagues, the love of community — are those we consider conservative today, Shankly considered himself a socialist, though with disdain for or lack of interest in theoretical socialism.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, February 05, 2014

David Peace, cliché killer

OK, so David Peace's novel Red or Dead is stylistically bold (perhaps infuriating to some), with its jump cuts and its repetition—uncompromising "to near pathological levels," according to one UK review. But he uses all the tricks to highly traditional end: a convincing, realistic, moving portrayal of one man, Liverpool soccer manager Bill Shankly.

And that's why I tear up at the mutual tenderness of Shankly and his wife, Ness, and I tremble slightly at his sudden eruptions of anger at players who question his judgment.

I was going to mention how impressed I was that Peace makes so fresh a story that, in summary, sounds like a string of clichés: the hard-working coach, the obsessive, the family man, and so on, but Peace says it better, in this illuminating interview.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Monday, February 03, 2014

What I read for the NFL championship game

The National Football League' played its championship game yesterday, but I spent a good chunk of the day reading a book about another kind of football — Red or Dead, David Peace's stylistically single-minded, idiosyncratic novel about a soccer manager named Bill Shankly and his revival of the Liverpool Football Club from the early 1960s on.

I will likely have more to say later, especially about Peace's prose style, notably his repetition of words, names, and phrases. And I'll compare those repeated words, names, and phrases to themes in a piece of symphonic music, because no immediate literary parallels to Peace come to mind.

A few thoughts on Red or Dead:

1) I commented last week that:
"The only thing that turned me off a bit in the early pages was that repetition of `In the winter-time. In the night-time.' It was not clear to me why Peace did that. Perhaps it will become so later."
It has.

2) Is Red or Dead historical fiction? It does as convincing a job of capturing the spirit of a place and of a time before that author's own, yet it is in no sense the story of Bill Shankly set against the cultural upheaval soon to burst forth from Liverpool and shake the world.  The only reference through the novel's first 280 or so pages to that other Liverpudlian cultural phenomenon of the early 1960s is indirect, and all the funnier for that.

3) The repeated phrases, one of which I mentioned above, are like themes in a symphony, or like leitmotifs in an opera by Wagner. Each accompanies a repeated action on Shankly's part, coming to stand for that action. Peace so ingrains the leitmotifs in the reader's mind (or at least in mine) that the slightest variation has great effect, opens my eyes wide, lets me know that something big is happening.

4) Red or Dead is no crime novel (though Peace is the author of the four novels collectively called The Red Riding Quartet). But the one death so far in the book is infinitely more affecting than a thousand crime-novel prologues that shove the victim's agony or innocence down the reader's throat.  That Peace deals with the death so sparingly and that Shankly resumes his work routine so soon afterward makes the death all the move effective, and all the more revealing of Shankly's character.

5) Shankly was known as an obsessive coach, and the novel is full of scenes of Shankly working late, Shankly planning strategy, Shankly thinking ahead.  Yet Shankly, or Peace's version of him, is miles removed from the cliché of the American football coach so dedicated to his job that he sometimes sleeps in his office (but not so dedicated that he does not quit after just a few years to work for ESPN).  The book reads as if Peace had deliberately taken on the challenge of making something compelling and original of a figure who, in the deadening, simplifying hand of American sports journalism, would be the sum of clichés (obsessive worker, man of the people who thanks the fans, family man).

6) The humor, as in Shankly's reply to a fan who begged for tickets to an important match with the argument "But I was born in Liverpool."
"Then you should have stayed here!" replies Shankly. "You should never have moved to Birmingham."
7) The soccer. Peace gradually works discussions of soccer strategy into the book, so telling and so sparing that they held my attention, and worked as part of the novel's action, even though I'm no particular soccer fan.

OK, it's early days. I have 400 pages yet to read. But if Red or Dead were a soccer team and my reading of it a game, it would be ahead, 4-0, with four minutes still to play in the first half.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Saturday, February 01, 2014

The great and the good, Part III

Raoul Whitfield's 1931 story "About Kid Deth" (that's not a spelling mistake. Deth, not death, is correct.) is as chilling and hard-edged as anything this side of his fellow Black Mask writers Paul Cain (Fast One) or Dashiell Hammett (The Glass Key). 

Whitfield's story takes its place alongside Cain's and Hammett's novels on my list of crime fiction written in the early 1930s that reads, entirely or in part,  as if it could have been written today.  But, like some of his colleague Frederick Nebel's writing, Whitfield's story is rife with verbal quirks that have dated badly and that keep its author out of the Hammett-Raymond Chandler pantheon. (Cain might be part of a hard-boiled Big Three had he written more than just Fast One and Seven Slayers.)

In "About Kid Deth," these quirks often take the form of periphrasis — a fancy, though scientifically and grammatically precise word for wordiness. Current preference in American English (and, damn it, in stories that come across my desk at work) calls for the car's engine rather than the engine of the car, the girl's body rather than the body of the girl. Not so in Whitfield's story.

Then there's Whitfield's weird penchant for the word tone. No one ever speaks bitterly in "About Kid Deth." No one ever says anything, his voice casual. No one ever speaks grimly or easily. Rather:
"She spoke in a low, bitter tone."

“`Hello, Deth,' he said in a casual
“`Think so?' he said in a strange tone." [ed. note: What is "a strange tone"?]

"`You can’t—not that way,' he said in a hard

“`At Old Andy’s,' he replied in a low

"He said in an uncertain
tone: `Watch what you do, Kid.'”

"He spoke in a low, easy

"He said in a grim
tone: `Yeah? Did he do that job?'”
By today's standards, that's the stuff of an early, rough draft. Then there's swearing. Publishing mores in the 1930s did not permit curse words, and the results can look odd to readers today, our eyes and ears assaulted by four decades of artistic and literary cursing. "The skunks!" exclaims a character in Nebel's Crimes of Richmond City, and a reader today can't help but smile.

Here's how Whitfield handles his era's prohibition on swearing:
"The Kid swore."

"Joey Deth lowered his hands and

"Kid Deth

swore hoarsely."

swore shakily."

"Then he sat back and
swore softly and more steadily."
Granted, the brisk, monosyllabic swore conveys the right, er, tone for a hard-boiled story, but at the risk of a certain sameness. Chandler, on the other hand, turned the prohibition on swearing to entertaining, creative advantage in The Big Sleep in 1939, as Hammett had in "The Girl With the Silver Eyes" in 1924 — seven years before "About Kid Deth."

I may be lazily leftish in my politics, but I'm a cultural conservative in one respect: I believe in artistic discrimination and artistic standards, with absolute, if hard to define, differences between bad and good, and between good and great. Whitfield and Nebel are good, and worth seeking out today. Hammett and Chandler are great. 

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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