Thursday, July 31, 2014

Hopscotching back to 1975 with Brian Garfield (and why fellow authors must love him)

With a hat tip to Sarah Weinman, I'm reading Hopscotch, which won Brian Garfield the best-novel Edgar Award for 1975.

Like his poker partner and occasional collaborator, Donald Westlake, to whom Hopscotch offers at least one explicit tribute, Garfield is a thoroughgoing professional who, moreover, has thought deeply about the work of his predecessors in crime writing. And he likes to poke gentle fun at the publishing business. (The protagonist of Hopscotch is a former spy who teases the world and his publishers by sending out, piecemeal, chapters of his tell-all political and professional memoir. A sample line: "Don't count on publishers to act logically. I've seen them pay a fortune for a boo and then drop it right down the gratings.")

Other good jokes include this, on the protagonist' disdain for the FBI:
"The Bureau had its talents—like establishing Communist cells so that its agents would have something to report on—but the FBI wasn’t likely to track him down unless he stood in Constitution Avenue waving a Soviet flag."
and this:
"Jaynes had a deep suntan and a huckster’s compulsion to touch anyone to whom he spoke. He was a film producer ..."
My only quibble is with Garfield's use of French words at odd times in the book's Paris section. Characters don't get out of elevators on the third floor, but on the third étage. They drop jetons, rather than tokes, into public phones. Pour the hell quoi, Brian?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Hollywood ennui with British elan, plus a question for readers

Last week's "Noir but not crime" post elicited the gift from a friend of Alfred Hayes' 1958 novel My Face for the World to See, and indeed, the book's protagonist suffers from the jaded weariness, a disgust with fame and material goods but tempered by inertia frequent in American writing of the time (though nowhere near as wince-makingly so as some books from the period can seem all these decades later.)

But what has surprised me most is that the narrator/protagonist (a screenwriter in, naturally, Hollywood) leavens the self-absorbed disgust with a witty detachment. That makes the book seem American and English at the same time, and I like to think I'd have made that observation even if I had not learned shortly before beginning the book that Hayes had been been born in England but came to the United States as a child.

He went on to work on a number of notable movies in the U.S. and Europe, so he presumably wrote with some knowledge of the ennui that Hollywood success can induce, but he writes about it with more wit that I'd have expected.

My Face for the World to See's noir-but-not-crime credentials received a fine double-barreled boost when Nelson Algren called it "The most vivid picture of Hollywood since Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust."

While I go read more, what books have you read that seem both American and English (or otherwise European) at the same time? What makes them seem that way?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

History, memory, fiction

I’m reading a crime novel, not yet published, that packs a dense mass of historical and other noteworthy events into the action, yet manages at the same time to keep the story moving on a personal, even intimate scale. How does the author manage this?

By remembering at every moment that the characters do not know that what they are experiencing will one day be regarded as historic. By introducing such crime-fiction conventions as the story does contain at odd moments and in understated ways. By believably dramatizing little-known divisions within well-known historical movements, but avoiding the temptation to turn the principals into era-defining symbols, and this for a historical period especially vulnerable to symbol-mongering.

That’s how one author keeps the narration of historic events fresh. Go here, here, here, and here for more discussions of history, fiction, and what happens when they meet. Here, too.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Manchette's The Mad and the Bad: Suspense, anti-consumerism, and nostalgia

Jean-Patrick Manchette wrote his novels at a time when the Situationist movement had gone political. He had first become attracted to the movement, though, when its focus was more artistic and less theoretical, and his novels, at least the ones translated into English, as politically pointed as they are, almost never let the politics get in the way of a good story.  Thus, after a shoot-out in vast department store,
"Julie strove to extricate them. Fortunately other victims came tumbling out, bemoaning their singed perms ..."
That's from The Mad and the Bad, an English translation of Manchette's 1972 novel O dingos, O chateaux! newly published by New York Review Books, and at the worst, it reads as a mildly nostalgic reminder of a time before the triumph of consumerism, corporations, celebrity, and "content" was complete, before a time when multibillion-dollar corporations like Facebook and Apple were considered cool.

But the novel still hits hard for its fugitives-on-the-run theme, for its avoidance of a tidy ending, and for moments like this, when one criminal henchman seeks his colleague and brother shot dead, and thinks this might be a good time to give up:
"Nénesse sighed, and two large tears sprang from his little eyes.  He tossed his weapon aside and waited to be arrested. At that moment the café's owner crossed the terrace in three strides and emptied both barrels of a shotgun into Nénesse's ear."
Manchette, who died in 1995 translated into French works by a number of American crime writers, including Donald Westlake and Ross Thomas. I don't know if he had worked on Westlake when he wrote The Man and the Bad, but the novel shares a narrative strategy with Westlake used often: that of, sometime around mid-novel, relating an event already narrated by another character, and thus whose outcome the reader already knows. Manchette also loved Hammett and Chandler, so you know he was righteous.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Donner after party: More from Kevin Starr on California's noir history

I made my travel reservations this week for Bouchercon 2014, and I celebrated by reading a bit more of Kevin Starr (click the link, then scroll down), that lively chronicler of California history whose work I discovered when I visited the state last year.

Starr ranges widely, writing not just about events, people, and phenomena, but also about California's image of itself and about the state's place in the psyche of Americans everywhere. It's no accident that each book in his multi-volume history of California has the word dream in its title.

Starr occasionally invokes noir as a reflection of the disillusionment that must necessarily result when a person, place, or thing becomes the focus for such desperate dreams as California does, and I opened Americans and the California Dream: 1850-1915 at random on one of the most horrible episodes in American history, though horrible for a reason one might not expect. That episode is the Donner party, and Starr's account makes clear that the lingering horror lay not in the cannibalism and privation of the stranded party of would-be California settlers, but in its afterlife.

Survivors of the party, Starr wrote, resumed normal lives, and in time "became respected for what they had undergone."  The real victim, in Starr's version, was a survivor named Lewis Keseberg, discovered by a party of rescuers-cum-scavengers out for $10,000 in cash the Donners were said to be carrying. Convinced that Keseberg knew where the money was, Starr writes, the reward-seekers beat him and accused him of killing Mrs. Donner. Keseberg protested his innocence, and, years later, did so before Donner's daughter Eliza, who had survived the party. She believed him, Starr writes.

In the meantime, though, the scavengers' accusations made the newspapers, and Keseberg became a pariah and a tragic figure, the scapegoat for the collective barbarities of the party.  He sued for slander, won -- and was awarded a dollar in damages. "In 1895, after fifty accursed years," Starr writes, "Keseberg died in Sacramento--peacefully, saying nothing, asking nothing of anyone, like those who have long lived beyond the reach of human sympathy."

That sounds pretty noir to me.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Noir but not crime: What books make your list?

Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Journey to the End of the Night is no crime novel, but someone once included on a list of great noir novels.  Curzio Malaparte's The Skin and Kaputt may deserve similar honors.

The shocking, lyrical, satirical, violent, funny novel/memoir/at times near-hallucinatory accounts of World War II (the first set largely in Naples, the second mostly in Eastern Europe) are a trip through a reality as dark as anything Jim Thompson came up with at his most fevered.

How about you? What books or stories that you've read are noir but not crime?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Get Carter, or what crime movies are just about as good as the novels from which they are adapted?

I've started reading Syndicate Books' reprint of Ted Lewis' 1970 crime novel Get Carter (first published as Jack's Return Home), and I'll want to read it slowly because it's so good.

Few crime writers could inject menace and desperation into small talk the way Lewis did, and he had a fine eye for period detail — the Hammond organ in the bar at the Cecil, for instance. Does anything say 1960s like the cheesy warbling of a Hammond?

This new edition of the novel, to be published in September, includes an introduction by Mike Hodges, who directed the celebrated 1971 film adaptation, starring Michael Caine and chosen by the Guardian/Observer in 2010 as the seventh-best crime movie of all time. (Its top crime film is Chinatown, so the list is by no means perfect, but still ... )

Hodges is both forthright about the changes he made and highly respectful and deeply admiring of Lewis' novel. And that raises this interesting question: What other crime movie adaptations rank as high in critical and popular esteem as do the novels on which they are based as do Lewis' Get Carter and Hodges'? The closest example I can think of is The Maltese Falcon. How about you?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

OK, now what's this? — Win another book

A reader from Pennsylvania long fascinated by bright lights recognized yesterday's photo as a very dusty neon sign and not, as I hoped readers would guess, a Mandelbrot set or a preserved web of veins and arteries. She wins a selection of books from the Detectives Beyond Borders crime library.

You can do the same if you can identify today's photo correctly. Send your guesses and a postal address to detectivesbeyondborders (at) earthlink (dot) net.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Monday, July 14, 2014

What is that thing? — Your chance to win a book

I've spent my time shooting instead of reading this past month, and such reading as I have done ain't no crime. (Still, Herodotus on Egypt is worth reading for the pleasure of seeing a sharp, critical mind at work. His guesses about Egypt's geological origins, for example, are breathtaking.)

But it's my new camera that has been keeping me from the books. Here's a photo I took earlier this week. Tell me what the photo shows, and win my respect and maybe a free book.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Torture porn in the Middle Ages

"When they wish to torture people by a base death, they perforate their navels, and dragging forth the extremity of the intestines, bind it to a stake; then with flogging they lead the victim around until the viscera having gushed forth the victim falls prostrate upon the ground. Others they bind to a post and pierce with arrows. Others they compel to extend their necks and then, attacking them with naked swords, attempt to cut through the neck with a single blow. What shall I say of the abominable rape of the women? To speak of it is worse than to be silent."
Pope Urban II, Speech at the
Council of Clermont, 1095

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Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Rapa Nui and the classic rock of apocalyptic thinking

Moai "Hoa Hakananai'a"
from Rapa Nui  (Easter
Island), British Museum.
Photo by your humble

Fashions change in apocalyptic villain-mongering as they do in clothes. Yesterday's communists or Japanese or American capitalists are today's Taliban or Chinese or American capitalists (though Jews are classic and always in style when it comes to scapegoating).

The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (2011), by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, sets out (and succeeds, it says here) to debunk the theory that ecological catastrophe wiped out Easter Island's population, that the island was denuded of trees to make apparatus with which to haul the island's famous moai, one of which appears at right.

Rather, the archaeologist authors point out, based on geological and archeo-botanic evidence, deforestation began before humans populated the remote Polynesian island. In the process, they cite experiments demonstrating that the islanders could well have moved the massive stone statues by rolling them slowly on their bases a step at a time, the way one might move a refrigerator across a room. The resulting rolling and lurching movement, they suggest, supports folklore about the statues walked; hence, the book's title.

Hunt and Lipo argue that disease and other social ills brought by Europeans starting in 1722, rather than "ecocide" (the authors put that term between inverted commas, and I like to think they do so to mock its voguishness), decimated the island's population, driving it as low as 110 from possibly 3,000.  What's interesting is that the white-man-spreads-disease-and-exterminates-darker-skinned-peoples explanation topped the apocalyptic blame charts for so many years (never mind that the Black Death originated in China), displaced in recent years by fears of environmental apocalypse: You know, climate change, as if climate change were not and had not always been constant.

Hunt and Lipo take an unfashionably optimistic view of Rapa Nui's potential to meet their latest challenges, those posed by tourism and development. And their displacement of one culturally fashionable apocalypse scenario with another that was equally fashionable just a few years before. It's like those albums the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix kept releasing and topping the charts with for years after they died, broke up, or both.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Get Carter is coming to America

I have on my desk as I type this post the upcoming U.S. rerelease of Ted Lewis' 1970 novel Get Carter (originally published as Jack's Return Home), the first U.S. publication of the influential, gritty, downbeat British crime classic in many, many years.  The new edition arrives in September from Syndicate Books, an imprint distributed by Soho Crime and "focusing on out-of-print or neglected mystery and crime fiction of cultural relevance." 

Syndicate also plans to publish two more Lewis novels this year, one of them for the first time in North America, according to the company.  While you wait to read them, here's a post I first put up a few years ago about Jack's Return Home/Get Carter and Mike Hodges' celebrated movie version. The new edition of the novel includes a foreword by Hodges that offers illuminating discussion of his feelings about the book and of changes he made when filming it.  And here's a link to another post I put up after hearing Hodges speak at Crimefest 2010 in Bristol.

Mike Hodges' 1971 movie Get Carter is rich with a sense of place. So is the 1970 Ted Lewis novel on which it is based though, so far, in a somewhat different way.

Jack's Return Home, later rereleased under the same title as the movie, is full of angry observations on the North England city to which tough-guy Jack Carter return to investigate his brother's death. (The setting is Newcastle in the movie, the Doncaster area in the book.)

Hodges' movie is full of gritty interiors, rows of housing apparently foreshortened by a long camera lens to emphasize the degree to which they are squashed together beneath giant belching smokestacks. Hodges and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky also offer up a gorgeous gallery of deeply etched local faces drinking in a local pub. That first pub scene and the shots of houses and smokestacks look straight out of a gritty documentary. (Go here for a rundown and photos of real locations used in the movie.)

Lewis' social portraits are more cutting, here in a dissection of the crowd at Cyril Kinnear's club:
"The clientele thought they were select. There were farmers, garage proprietors, owners of chains of cafés, electrical contractors, builders, quarry owners, the new Gentry. And occasionally, though never with them, their terrible offspring. The Sprite drivers with the accents not quite right, but ten times more like it than their parents ... Not one of (the wives) was not overdressed. ... They'd had nothing when they were younger, since the war they'd gradually got the lot, and the change had been so surprising they could never stop wanting ... "
"The dark, close trees came to and end and I was back bathing in the rateable value of the yellow street lights. ... The California-style homes were still and silent, tucked away beyond the yards and yards of civic-style lawn. Where a house showed signs of life naturally the curtains were drawn well back to inform the neighbours of the riches smugly placed within."
The second bit is more sneering and less specific than the first and therefore has dated less well. But by God, they both give the novel an attitude.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010, 2014

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Monday, July 07, 2014

In praise of Jamesian high jinks

I am pleased to report that Snatched, a comic novel by Bill James that includes art theft, revenge, malicious flashing, and trenchant social comedy, is shaping up as worthy company to the author's Harpur and Iles novels. Here's a sample of the opening chapter:
"In a throaty, not quite panic-driven voice, Jervis, one of the economy-measure, hourly paid, part-time porters, said: `Ladies and gentlemen officers of the Hulliborn Regional Museum and Gallery, we have got what could be designated in my opinion a fucking riot at the Fire Department, pardon the demotic. ... "
(Photo by your humble blogkeeper)
In short, this seems the sort of book for which the term high jinks was invented, and that's good.

I have long been in awe of the Harpur and Iles novels. If you don't want to take my word for it, listen to Ken Bruen, who
"abandoned British crime years ago except for Bill James, who I love. ... His Iles and Harpur series is magnificent."
(Photo by your humble blogkeeper)
or Tim Hallinan, who wrote that
"If I were told I could only read five writers for the remainder of my life, and I had to name them at that moment, both Bill James and Anthony Powell would be on the list." 
Here's a checklist of the Harpur and Iles novels. While deciding which ones to look for, read my 2009 interview with Bill James, Part I and Part II.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Saturday, July 05, 2014

Dan J. Marlowe excelled at his job

(Photo by your
humble blogkeeper)
If more pulp and paperback-original writers were as good as Dan J, Marlowe, there would be less talk about transcending the genre, not because Marlowe tried to transcend hard-boiled, but because he was so good at his job.

Take the series of sequels he wrote to The Name of the Game is Death and One Endless Hour, in which Marlowe, responding to his publishers' demands, turned the face-transplanted heister Earl Drake into a kind of international secret agent.  I've just read two of those novels, and in those, at least, Marlowe resisted any temptation to sulk or to turn Drake into a James Bond imitator.

In one such book (and I won't say which, to avoid spoilers), Marlowe includes a late turnabout thoroughly in line with the era's geopolitical zeitgeist, yet well prepared for with clues and observations planted judiciously throughout the novel. It's easy to imagine Marlowe sucking it up, swallowing any disappointment he might have felt at not being able to write the book he'd have liked to write, and doing the best job he could with the one he had to write.  But then, what else could one expect from an author so thorough in his descriptions of men at work, no matter their profession?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014


Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Dan J. Marlowe plus an urban hideout

I've been reading much Dan J. Marlowe on this vacation. Among other things, the man's career spanned the transition from the nervous 1950s to the more permissive 1960s, and Marlowe negotiated the shift better than he might have.  I'll be back with a full report, but in the meantime, here'a vintage hideout perfect for laying low in the heart of New York compact yet bustling state capital!!!

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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