Sunday, June 29, 2014

It looks like the formation of a new galaxy, but it's just neighborhood fireworks

 © Peter Rozovsky 2014


Friday, June 27, 2014

A few thoughts about a writer named Macdonald

What might a reader of crime fiction find interesting in Dwight Macdonald's 1960 essay Masscult and Midcult and the essays collected with it in this 2011 New York Review of Books edition?

For one, while he appears to have considered "the detective story" Masscult, Macdonald discriminated between good and bad and made clear the basis of his judgment:
"The difference appears if we compare two famous writers of detective stories, Mr. Erle Stanley Gardner and Mr. Edgar Allan Poe. It is impossible to find any personal note in Mr. Gardner’s enormous output ... His prose style varies between the incompetent and the nonexistent; for the most part, there is just no style, either good or bad.   Like Mr. Gardner, Mr. Poe was a money-writer. (That he didn’t make any is irrelevant.) The difference, aside from the fact that he was a good writer, is that, even when he was turning out hack work, he had an extraordinary ability to use the journalistic forms of his day to express his own peculiar personality, and indeed, as Marie Bonaparte has shown in her fascinating study, to relieve his neurotic anxieties. (It is simply impossible to imagine Mr. Gardner afflicted with anything as individual as a neurosis."
He's willing, that is, to accord respect to "detective stories." (That's what he calls them. The term crime fiction was not in wide use in 1960, which leads to the question of then and why it became popular. Did crime writers begin writing stories about characters other than detectives? Did crime fiction sound more respectable than detective stories to the producers and marketers of the stuff? ) Anyhow, here's Macdonald, from a harsh assessment of Ernest Hemingway that, nonetheless, acknowledges his stylistic influence:
"The list of Hemingwayesque writers includes James M. Cain, Erskine Caldwell, John O’Hara, and a school of detective fiction headed by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. It also includes Hemingway."
That last sentence is just one example of the wit that makes Macdonald so much fun to read.

He was also a cultural prophet in some ways, alert to current trends and able to make intelligent guesses based on them.  He notes, for example
 "the recent discovery —since 1945 —that there is not One Big Audience but rather a number of smaller, more specialized audiences that may still be commercially profitable. (I take it for granted that the less differentiated the audience, the less chance there is of something original and lively creeping in, since the principle of the lowest common denominator applies.) ... The mass audience is divisible, we have discovered— and the more it is divided, the better. Even television, the most senseless and routinized expression of Masscult (except for the movie newsreels), might be improved by this approach. One possibility is pay-TV, whose modest concept is that only those who subscribe could get the program, like a magazine; but, also like a magazine, the editors would decide what goes in, not the advertisers."
Had he lived on into the age of cable television, Macdonald would not likely have lamented, as some did, the decline of the television networks as unifying forces in American life. Since the book's subtitled is "Essays Against the American Grain," though, I suspect he'd have been skeptical of the frequent claims in recent years that this is a golden age of television. But what would he have thought of the incredible stylistic fragmentation of rock and roll music, a form for which he had nothing but disdain?

As for the Internet, I suspect he'd lament the unprecedented speed with which it can turn folk art forms, for which he has kind words, into Midcult and even Masscult, of which his opinion is less kind.

Finally, a remark that put me in mind of sportscasters' increasing tendency in recent years, a tendency that has begun to seep into newspapers, to call millionaire athletes by their first names:
 "Since in a mass society people are related not to each other but to some abstract organizing principle, they are often in a state of exhaustion, for this lack of contact is unnatural. ... But people feel a need to be related to other people. The simplest way of bridging this distance, or rather of pretending to bridge it, is by emphasizing the personality of the artist."
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

What a free-King book deal!

Dana King is pleased to announce that his four novels will be available free on Kindle from June 25 – 29.

Detectives Beyond Borders is pleased to announce that the books are worth reading and that he does not at all regret having paid for them.  King writes hard-hitting, funny crime with a real sense of place and, now and then, a clever spin on an old crime fiction trope.

He is also an eloquent speaker about P.I. fiction and the importance of the Chandlerian hero; his talk on that subject was an unexpected highlight of Bouchercon 2013 in Albany. Here's a bit from a scene with a detective and a Russian mobster in Grind Joint.
"`I talk when I want. Who knows? In five minutes, maybe not want to. Better ask quick before I change my mind, police man. Someone tell me once I am volatile. I like that word. I am volatile."  
"You are peckerhead, Doc thought, kept it to himself."
Make this a Shamus Award-nominated Dana King summer!

© Peter Rozovsky 2014 

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Friday, June 20, 2014

(Dan J.) Marlowe plus more noir shots

I resume my reading of hard-boiled American crime fiction from the weird, twisted 1950's with Doorway to Death by the great Dan J. Marlowe. The book is loaded with sex and adverbs, it's the first crime novel I've ever read whose protagonist is a hotel bell captain, and it's a terrific piece of hard-boiled crime writing. More to come.

First, though, just a few more noir shots from your humble blogkeeper's new camera. I call the first one The Ladies' Room From Shanghai. And no, I did not shoot it where you think I did.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Fletcher Flora, or Why American P.I. fiction from the 1950s is like Late Roman art

American P.I.  fiction
from the late 1950s.
American P.I. fiction from the late 1950s—and I know you'll agree with me on this—is like Late Antique art. Each grew out of a tradition that established enduring standards of perfection (Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in one case, Classical Greek and Roman art in the other). The weight of each tradition, part of the past yet still exerting powerful influence in the present, drove some of its inheritors into self-consciousness and bizarre exaggeration as they tried to create something new while at the same time remaining faithful to what had gone before.

Late Antique art
Fletcher Flora's 1958 novel Leave Her to Hell is as self-conscious as all get-out. Here are just a few examples from the first three chapters:
"The door was opened by a maid with a face like half a walnut . You may think it’s impossible for a face to look like half a walnut, and I suppose it is, if you want to be literal. But half a walnut is, nevertheless, all I can think of as a comparison when I think of the face of this maid."
"Nine times out of ten, when someone tries to describe a woman who is fairly tall and has a slim and pliant and beautiful body, he will say that she is willowy, and that’s what I say. I say that Faith Salem was willowy."
"I woke up at seven in the morning, which is a nasty habit of mine that endures through indiscretions and hangovers and intermittent periods of irregular living."
In the last two examples, especially, Flora has his hard-boiled P.I. narrator/protagonist question standard scenes of P.I. fiction (the description of the beautiful female client, the narrator/protagonist's description of himself) even as he lives those scenes. I'll save the rest for a dissertation, but for now, suffice it to say that a novel that questions itself and its conventions on every page (so far) is a compelling but hardly restful experience.. Here's the novel's opening:
"A woman wanted to see me about a job. Her name, she said, was Faith Salem. She lived, she said, in a certain apartment in a certain apartment building ... "
Now, let's go see what the rest of the book is like. In the meantime, what crime writers, novels, or stories have reminded you of a period or a genre from another art form?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Sunday, June 15, 2014

More shots with the new camera

Still playing with my camera. Here's some of what I've shot:

© Peter Rozovsky 2014


Saturday, June 14, 2014

Milton K. Ozaki, plus a few more night shots

My street, tinkered with so it looks contemporaneous with the
paperback originals I've been reading from the 1950s and '60s.
(Photos by your humble blogkeeper)
Milton K. Ozaki is the only crime writer I know of who was also a reporter, a hair dresser, and, according to at least one source, a tax lawyer, as well.  A private note from a prominent student of American crime fiction recently called Ozaki "possibly the most bizarre writer of the '50s pulps."

Ozaki's entertaining 1954 novel Dressed to Kill got me thinking more than I have before about the role formula played in what readers and publishers expected — and circumstances demanded — of writers in the paperback original and pulp eras, from the 1930s through the 1960s.   

The Lit Brothers Building, Philadelphia.
Ozaki, for example, seems to have been particularly fascinated by grapes, making of them a stock device to which he could turn when in need of a vivid or odd metaphor, as in:
"The bright yellow of the Caddy made it stand out like a banana in a bowl of grapes."
"His pale eyes, excited by the anticipated kill, had the translucent quality of seedless grapes, yet seemed more shiny, as if oiled by hate."
From my newspaper's office
looking across Market Street,
Have you ever compared anyone's eyes to a seedless grape? Neither have I.  Ozaki probably hit on phrases and situations readers liked, and made a game of seeing how far he could stretch the metaphors without snapping them entirely. My preliminary assessment, based on just the one novel, is that Ozaki sits somewhere between the hyperventilating extravagance of Robert Leslie Bellem and the calmer atmospherics of, say, Helen Nielsen.

Bill Crider notes the extravagance and the occasional repetition in Ozaki's work, which I'm guessing are results of having to turn out so much work so fast. At the same time, I especially like this observation of Crider's, which fills me with respect for talented writers who worked under difficult conditions:
"You can almost see the improvement happening in Ozaki’s steady progression up the ladder of paperback publishers. He started at the bottom with Phantom and Handi-Books, moved to Graphic, then to Ace, and finally to Gold Medal."
And now I'm off to learn more about the pulps and hacks who wrote for them. 

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Friday, June 13, 2014

What I shot with my new camera

I haven't read much the past two days because I've been too busy getting acquainted with my new camera, with results such as these.

Two of them could fake it as moody noir pictures. The third is just cute, though that pigeon looks alert to whatever perils a big city has to offer..

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Five Detectives Beyond Borders-approved soccer books

If you want a skeptical view of FIFA, world soccer's governing body, on the eve of the sport's quadrennial World Cup but can't stand the pubic-hair jokes, manic shimmying, and celebrity pandering of John Oliver, try Soccer in Sun and Shadow (published in the appropriate countries as Football in Sun and Shadow) by Eduardo Galeano.

Galeano writes with a palpable yearning for the days when soccer was a wide-open game, of the joy with which Hungarians, Brazilians, and his own Uruguyan compatriots once played the sport.  He excoriates FIFA's shameful banning of Hungarian players who supported that country's doomed uprising against its Soviet-imposed government in 1956. And he structures the book in extremely short, thematically organized essays, which makes it exceedingly easy reading for non-experts. (I'm only the most casual of soccer fans, and I've made just one visit to South America.)

(I will give Oliver points for including in his anti-FIFA rant a reference to Qatar, the host — for now — of the 2022 World Cup, as a slave state. For some reason, the Gulf states' treatment of dark-skinned peoples seems not to get much play in the American media. I'd hate to think said media are afraid of offending anyone.)

In the meantime, here are four more recommendations from the Detectives Beyond Borders soccer/football/fútbol desk of books that will take you miles from the moronic wasteland of American late-night television:
  1. Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer, by David Winner. Odd theories and insightful observations that tie the Dutch school of "total football" tactics to the country's geography.
  2. Red or Dead, by David Peace. A moving, stylistically demanding, immensely satisfying novel about former Liverpool soccer manager Bill Shankly and his love for his adopted team and city.
  3. Across the Line, by Garbhan Downey. A riotous slapstick comedy about the lengths to which rival former paramilitary men in Northern Ireland will go to best one another in a soccer competition.
  4. Off Side, by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. Even more satisfying as an ode to the back streets of Barcelona than it is as a mystery.
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Monday, June 09, 2014

Helen Nielsen

DOWN AT THE EDGE of Mexican town, where the pavement gave out and the yellow dust drifted ankle-deep over the hard-packed adobe, a radio was moaning a dreamy beat into the night. It was the kind of music that needs two people, but only one was listening ...
Obit Delayed, Helen Nielsen
That's the opening of the first novel I'm reading by Helen Nielsen, and I hope you'll agree that it demonstrates the woman had chops.

Nielsen wrote around eighteen books from the 1950s through the 1970s as well as television scripts. She had studied commercial art and, according to one account, worked as a draftsman during World War II contributed to the designs of B-36 and P-80 aircraft.

What I like in Obit Delayed are the intelligence and wit Nielsen brings to what otherwise might be routine bits of mystery business. Here's one nice mix of wit and pulpy raciness:
"Now that Mitch noticed, the man did have a newly wedded look— but he didn’t fit. He was too common, too Mr. Average Man. Not that a man couldn’t look like a grocery clerk and still be a murderer, but how, Mitch wondered, could he be married to a number like the blonde?"
And then there's this description of a man who, from a young age, did not maintain himself in top physical shape: "Even in so old a photo Frank Wales showed sighs of an impending bay window."  That is the most creative synonym I've ever seen for "spare tire," and it makes me want to read more by the mysterious Helen Nielsen.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014


Friday, June 06, 2014

Howard Engel's Memory Book, or What happens when a writer loses his ability to read?

(The graphically brilliant
and thematically relevant cover

of the Canadian edition of
Memory Book)
The Crime Writers of Canada announced the winners of the Arthur Ellis Awards this week, an honor my landsman Howard Shrier has won twice in the past. This year's awards inaugurated a Grand Master category, and the first winner is the author of what must be one of the most unusual crime novels ever published. In honor of the award here's a post I put up some years ago about Memory Book, by grandmaster Howard Engel.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

This was the first crime novel I can remember that comes with an afterword by a neurologist. That neurologist, Oliver Sacks, writes of his acquaintance with Howard Engel, which came about because of Engel's alexia sine agraphia, a condition in which the sufferer loses the ability to read but not to write -- a difficult affliction to bear for a novelist.

Sacks tells us about some of the surprising ways Engel overcame this condition and resumed his writing career. The first product of this resumption was Memory Book, the eleventh novel featuring private eye Benny Cooperman, and the first in which Benny must, like his creator, overcome alexia sine agraphia. (Engel's condition was the result of a mild stroke. Cooperman's was the result of -- but you'll have to read the book to find out.)
Confined to a rehabilitation hospital as he is, Cooperman must, like Alan Grant in Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time, solve a mystery from his sick bed. Cooperman is alive to the world of the hospital, to the personalities of his fellow patients, his nurses and his doctors.

The mystery Cooperman must solve is how he wound up in the condition in which he finds himself. This leads him back into the case that had brought him from his home town of Grantham, Ontario, to Toronto, where he was hospitalized. He must solve these dual mysteries as he struggles with neurological conditions that leave him constantly tired and unable to retain names and words. His discoveries of his own slowly returning cognitive abilities as he chases down the people who put him where he is add an intriguing dimension highly unusual in crime novels to say the least. Handicapped detectives have been around for almost a hundred years, if not longer, but I don't know of any others who have shared an affliction with their creator.

I also found myself wondering if Engel's cognitive struggles accounted for my one quibble with the novel's style. In at least two places, long stretches of dialogue are uninterrupted by reaction on Cooperman's part. In at least one of these, the lack of reaction was obtrusive. Is this a quirk of Engel's style unrelated to his condition? I'll tell you after I've read more of his books.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, June 05, 2014

Of Cops and Robbers: Now, THIS is the way to integrate reality into a crime novel

This new thriller by Mike Nicol is both tangled and straightforward, so chilling and so entertaining, that I don't know where to start.  Perhaps its most impressive accomplishment is that it offers a rich and credible account of what South African government and society are really like behind the headlines, both before and after 1994.

It can't be easy for an author, especially in popular genres such as crime and thriller writing, to work real events into the story without turning the book into a Movie of the Week. Nicol gets around this by choosing events less likely to be familiar, at least to readers outside South Africa. The novel never mentions Nelson Mandela, for instance, though one of his highest-profile colleagues figures in a subplot.

And he endows real events with the magic and imagination of fiction, whether they be the overseas assassination of an anti-apartheid activist, or the Miss Landmine Angola beauty pageant.  He knows, in other words, that his job is to tell an entertaining story.  That's a hell of a lot more effective than didactic, statistic-spouting chapter headings.

What should an author keep in mind when making real events parts of a novel? What crime novelist are best at it, other than James Ellroy?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Tuesday, June 03, 2014

On American characters and British (or South African) usage

If you read the previous Detectives Beyond Borders post, you know I nearly exhausted myself coming up with superlatives for Mike Nicol's novel Black Heart. "If you like your thrillers drum-head tight, sharply observed, with a keen satirical edge, thoroughly entertaining even as they offer serious commentary on the countries of their setting," I wrote, "you want to read Mike Nicol."

I loved the whole book, in fact, except for three words:
"‘We’re not doing a runner, Vee.'"
The trouble with doing a runner is that the speaker is American, and so is the character to whom he is speaking, and doing a runner is simply not American English. The Oxford Dictionaries and Merriam Webster Web sites define it as British, and my experience with the word suggests this is correct (though the expression has spread to Australia and Nicol's South Africa, among others).

If you're American or Canadian, would one American character's use of doing a runner to another bother you? If you're South African or British, would "skipping town" or "taking off" have made you scratch your head? How faithful must an author be to language his characters would use in real life?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Black Heart, or Why you should spend your pennies on a book by Mike Nicol

Oh, man, did I like Mike Nicol's 2011 Cape Town thriller Black Heart. Here are a few of the reasons:

1) It is quite literally impossible at times to say who--the protagonists or the principal villain--is chasing whom. That's because each is chasing the other, and has good reasons for doing so.

2) And that's leaving aside the secondary villains--or are they secondary good guys?

3) The main good guys, a pair of security-company owners named Mace Bishop and Pylon Buso, are very clearly good, yet they have done dreadful things.

4) The principal villain, one of the more memorable in recent crime fiction, is evil beyond all doubt, yet she is given a chilling back story rooted in South Africa's recent past:
"Mace had watched her taken away to the Membesh camp. Nights of rape ahead of her as the big boys had their way. The big boys now MPs, government men, oligarchs. Was hardly a wonder he and Pylon went off to run guns. The camps weren’t a picnic."
One could discuss that passage at some length. For now, suffice it to say that Nicol avoids the easy temptation of making her horrible past an easy pop-psychological excuse for her evil present. Oh, and has any villain ever had a better name, with a more resonant first syllable, than Sheemina February?

5) The Hammett-like terseness that bursts into occasional rueful Chandlerian acid, as in this observation about Sheemina February's building:
"a cliff of expensive caves owned by film stars, rich business machers, trust babies, highflying models with too much money too soon."
6) The reference to "Government men, all the old strugglistas" who "get fatter by the minute with their deals and schemes." Strugglistas is my word of the week.

7) The humor:
"‘That’s your name? I call you Dancing Rabbit?’" 
 "‘That’s what I answer to. Also Veronica.'"
8) The humor at the tensest moments, as here, when Mace and Pylon confront Dancing Rabbit and her husband who, it turns out, are Native American casino entrepreneurs eager to swing a deal in South Africa:
“‘Maybe you should have told us. Sort of thing puts you in a different category for us … `In our books,’ said Pylon, ‘you were rich and famous coming here for a good time. Just needed the edge taken off the street life. No big deal.’” 
“‘Still not,’ said Dancing Rabbit. ‘In our experience people say they’re going to scalp you, they’re generally blustering.’  
 “‘Not here,’ said Mace. ‘People here say that’s their intention, most often it is exactly.’”
9) A comic set piece that does extra duty as local color and entertaining lesson in how vernaculars mix in a multi-ethnic country:
 "He rapped his knuckles on the lid. ‘Ja, hell man, this old biddy, this’ – he shook his head – ‘I’d say, hell man, I’d say, ja,’ – he folded his arms – ‘I’d say the way it is with your car, ag man, short and sweet like a beet, the fucking fucker’s fucked, ek se. Finish ’n klaar. Know what I mean. End of story.’"
In short, if you like your thrillers drum-head tight, sharply observed, with a keen satirical edge, thoroughly entertaining even as they offer serious commentary on the countries of their setting, you want to read Mike Nicol.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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