Saturday, August 30, 2014

A first look at the new Donald Westlake non-fiction miscellany

I have long admired Donald Westlake's musings on his chosen genre of crime fiction, on memory, media, popular culture, and other subjects, but I had to glean the observations from interviews, articles, and citations in the work of others. Levi Stahl and the good people at the University of Chicago Press apparently agree that Westlake was an interesting guy, because they're bringing out a collection of  his non-fiction called The Getaway Car. Release is slated for October.

The book offers insight into Westlake's many alter egos (Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, et. al), a list of Westlake's favorite crime fiction, his reflections on his own work, letters, recollections, and May's famous tuna casserole recipe, among other things. Also included: an introduction by Stahl, a foreword by Westlake's friend Lawrence Block, and an epigraph from Westlake's widow, Abby: "No matter where he was headed, Don always drove like he was behind the wheel of the getaway car."

While I wait for a final copy of
The Getaway Car, here's an old blog post that explains why I'm excited about the book. And here's a link to all Detectives Beyond Borders posts about Westlake.
Donald Westlake, who died Dec. 31. 2008, at 75, was not just a prolific, creative, original and endlessly entertaining crime writer, he was also a thoughtful, intelligent observer of the world around him.

He once lamented the reduced distribution of foreign films in the U.S., calling the superb 1958 Italian heist movie Big Deal on Madonna Street a laboratory for comedy writers and mourning that future Americans might miss similar opportunities to absorb and learn from foreign influences.

He also noted mass media's tendency to telescope the past into a timeless present/past accessible to all. This meant, he remarked, that Americans could assess the accuracy of a movie scene set on a train even though most had never been on a train. I suspect he underestimated the number of Americans who had travelled by rail, but his point was valid, and it anticipated such phenomena as retro fashions, digital sampling/recycling of old pop songs, and the Beatles churning out new records long after they had broken up and begun to die off.

Those statements, one in an interview, the other in a preface to one of Westlake's books, if I recall correctly, rank among my favorite Westlake moments. They're right up there with Parker out of jail and walking across the George Washington Bridge in The Hunter or Joe Gores' D.K.A. gang meeting up with Dortmunder and his crew in Drowned Hopes or all of The Score or the stoic Parker finally losing patience with his lighthearted sidekick's antics and snapping, "Shut up, Grofield."

I always said Westlake differed from most authors in one respect: Most writers might come up with a wild story idea from time to time. Westlake turned his wild ideas into books. That's why even some of his less successful stories were always exciting and worth admiration for the man's gumption, imagination and industry.

Sarah Weinman's remarks include a library of Westlake links and a rolling list of Westlake tributes. Leap in. The man offers some terrific reading.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Talkin' (and talkin' and talkin') 'bout my generation: Tony Judt on the 1960s (plus a bit of Michael Gilbert)

(Detail of a giant revolving sign at Hard Rock
Cafe, Philadelphia. Hard Rock Cafe International,
founded in London in 1971. Photo by Peter 
Rozovsky, your humble blogkeeper)
This could turn into a Tony Judt Postwar blog if I'm not careful. For now, though, I'll restrict myself to a few favorite bits from Judt's chapters about the 1960s:
"Moments of great cultural significance are often appreciated only in retrospect. The Sixties were different: the transcendent importance contemporaries attached to their own times — and their own selves — was one of the special features of the age."
And here's Judt's delicious account of the end of possibly the most self-regarding episode of the age, the events of May 1968 in France:
"In the ensuing parliamentary elections, the ruling Gaullist parties won a crushing victory, increasing their vote by more than a fifth and securing an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly. The workers returned to work. The students went on vacation."
Finally, Judt's discussion of Western European students' complaints about their universities, overburdened and unprepared for the postwar flood of young people seeking places, makes excellent reading alongside the British crime writer Michael Gilbert's story "The Decline and Fall of Mr. Behrens" (in the collection Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens). Now that I've read Judt, the surprising ending to Gilbert's story makes even better sense as a piece of social observation, not bad from a writer who insisted his job was to entertain readers.

(See also "Rock and roll is here to pay.")

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Tony Judt, film noir, and American movies in Europe

(A Czech edition of Tony Judt's
"Postwar." As suggestive as it is
that the book should have been
translated into Czech, I included
this cover only because the English
edition I was going to use carries
a cover blurb that calls the book
"awesome." Such a word has
no place here.)
Tony Judt's Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 offers observations that might interest fans of crime movies and novels. Here are a few from the final chapter of Judt's section on the immediate postwar years, when American cultural influence was at a peak in Europe:
"Only intellectuals were likely to be sufficiently moved by Sergei Eisenstein's depiction of Odessa in the Battleship Potemkin to translate their aesthetic appreciation into political affinity, but everyone--intellectuals included--could appreciate Humphrey Bogart."
I'm not sure how historically valid it is to compare a silent film from 1925 (Potemkin) with a talkie-era star who made his first well-known film only in 1934 (The Petrified Forest) and whose real stardom came in the 1940s. Still, the suggestion that intellectuals could appreciate Bogart provokes thought, if only because its perspective is unusual in discussions of American popular culture.

The very next page offers this, on the industry's business practices after World War II:
"(W)hen European governments after 1949 took to taxing cinema receipts in order to subsidize domestic film producers, American producers began investing directly in, foreign productions, their choice of European Venue for the making of a film or group of films often depending on the level of `domestic' subsidy then available."
Among other things, Judt suggests, American domination of European movie markets meant that U.S. movies of the time can be better guides to European viewers' experience than domestic movies are. In addition, he writes, it was Europeans who were likelier to make escapist movies in this period while American directors and producers were turning out the melodramas the French would later call film noir.  I suspect most of us would say American movies took over the world merely because they were more glamorous or better made  (Judt recognizes the latter possibility). But the idea that American movie makers were better judges of European taste that were European movie makers is a good deal more exciting and opens the door to all sorts of interesting questions.

Your thoughts, please.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Monday, August 25, 2014

Off the Cuff and on the clock: What makes a noir image noir?

(Clock in Reading Terminal Market. Photo by your humble blogkeeper):
Dietrich Kalteis once again uses one of my noir photographs to illustrate his Off the Cuff conversation with fellow novelist Martin J. Frankson. The photo above is the one he chose, so I thought I'd ask you, dear readers, what makes a noir image noir? Here's why I stuck this one in my noir photos folder on Facebook:
  1. It looks good.
  2. It's black and white.
  3. The suggestion of a ticking clock conveys a hint of anxiety.
  4. The cropping of the image enhances feelings of tension and suspense, in part by focusing on just the two numbers. What is going to happen in those five minutes, of which more than one and a half have already elapsed?
  5. The image of a clock face is highly familiar but, I hope, still packs a visual punch. That means it carries a rich set of associations.
Your job, readers, is to choose an image that strikes you as noirish and to think about why it does and post your thoughts here. The image can be from a photo, a book cover, a newspaper, online, anywhere. (The real-life suspense behind this photo was whether I would make it to work on time.  I did.)
Kalteis' chat with Frankson covers character and originality and includes the following:
"(W)hat makes a book original includes:

"Characters with lifestyles and attitudes that have been rarely portrayed before. The alcoholic, divorced middle-aged male detective with a drinking problem was once the most popular character in the genre. It’s still popular, but readers wanted fresh detectives with fresh lifestyles to reflect the times we live in. Along came young female detectives which was a breath of fresh air, but writers now need to look at society and see its diversity in the round. There are very few gay or non-white detectives in modern day crime literature I’ve noticed. I say ‘few’ as opposed to none at all. They do exist, but you have to go looking for them."
Read the entire conversation at Off the Cuff,

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Hard-hitting post-war zest from Tony Judt

I left my copy of The Historian's Craft home today; what a blochhead! Instead, I'll offer one of many provocative passages from Postwar, Tony Judt's history of Europe since 1945 (and I still have almost 700 pages left to read, so expect more):
"Writers and journalists, having left a written record of their wartime allegiance, came off worst. Highly publicized trials of prominent intellectuals--like that of Robert Brasillach in Paris in January 1945--provoked protests from bona fide resisters like Albert Camus, who thought it both unjust and imprudent to condemn and execute men for their opinions, however ghastly these might be.

"In contrast, businessmen and high officials who had profited from the occupation suffered little, at least in western Europe. In Italy the Allies insisted that men like Vittorio Valletta of FIAT be left in place, despite his notorious engagement with the Fascist authorities. Other Italian business executives survived by demonstrating their erstwhile opposition to Mussolini's Social Republic at Salo--and indeed they
had often opposed it, precisely for being too 'social.'"
I like this passage for several reasons, not least the zest with which Judt wrote it. As for its politics, I wonder what crime writers including Didier Daeninckx and Andrea Camilleri would think of it. Would they, like Camus, protest the execution of a man whose politics they surely abhor?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Why I'm making Craig Rice part of my crime fiction diet

If a crime writer made the cover of a major news magazine these days, the event would probably divide the crime fiction community because the honoree would be someone like Stieg Larsson or "Robert Galbraith."

I don't know where Craig Rice (Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig) stood in the public mind when she made the cove of time in January 1946, but my first reading of a solo Rice story suggests that not only did she belong on Time's cover then, but she belongs on the cover of reprints now (much of her work appears to be out of print). Working with raw ingredients well established in the crime canon, she managed to fashion work that feels like nothing else in crime writing until then or since.

The story in question, "I'm A Stranger Here Myself," first appeared in Manhunt in February 1954, has Rice's impecunious lawyer protagonist, John J. Malone, moving like a dream through as unlikely a mix of humor, snappy dialogue, and dread as anything I've read in crime fiction. I cannot remember the last time before this story that I'd read a crime story that made me think, "By God, I have read nothing like this before."

I don't quite know why, but I find dialogue such as this absolutely beguiling:
"`That Malone, he thinks good,' Joe the Angel said proudly, delivering the rye.  
 "`Go away," Malone said dreamily."
What's so special about that exchange?  The bartender's humorous nickname and diction? The unexpected proudly?  And what about dreamily, not the sort of word one normally associated with hard-boiled crime protagonists? For me the word worked like a bang-up ending to a miniature short story, like a pail of ice water to the face, leaving me alert and needing to know what happens next.

And now I'm off for dinner with a side dish of Rice. While I sip sherry at the local press club, I leave you with this question: What was the last crime novel or story you read that made you feel you were in the company of something utterly new?

 © Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The collective will and the collective won't, or should Dominique Manotti say no to nostalgia?

A cover blurb on one of Jean-Patrick Manchette's novels once referred to the author's "post-1968 leftism."  It has taken several years and the work of another politically oriented French crime writer to make me realize that the phrase is more than an ungainly and vacuous neologism.

The novelist in question is Dominique Manotti, whose Escape includes the following:
"There was an initial forging of collective thinking and a collective will."
"`That open letter could be the starting point for a collective analysis. We need to read it and discuss it, together and with other left-wing organisations.'" 
The second bit is dialogue, if you can believe that anyone would ever talk, as opposed to write, like that. Sure, that's a character speaking, not the author. But Russel McLean's interview with Manotti suggests that Manotti's own nostalgia and regrets figure in the book. "We were passionate," she tells McLean, "and a large part of France's far left was influenced by the Italians." (Much of the novel's early action, at least, takes place among Italian political refugees in France.)

Having read Manotti's previous work, with its astringent observations about the depravity of the French elite and that elite's horrifying exploitation of migrant workers, and having found nothing in that work approaching the clumsy political speech sprinkled through the opening pages of Escape, I wonder if Manotti is better off sticking to dispassionate analysis and avoiding nostalgic recollection of her own activism.

That's where Jean-Patrick Manchette's "post-1968 leftism" comes in. The three latest of the four novels of his that have been translated into English, published in their original French between 1976 and 1981, have moved well beyond the possibility of talking seriously about collective anything. I don't recall the word struggle occurring in any of the books.

The earliest of Manchette's novels available in English, though the most recently translated, suggests, as does Escape, that nostalgia and politically pointed fiction do not always go well together. The novel is called The Mad and the Bad, 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 Manchette got the nostalgia out of his system, and 3 to Kill (original publication 1976), Fatale (1977), and The Prone Gunman (1981), are three dark, stark noir classics, the last of them in particular chilling for its dissection of how powerful elites can exploit, debase, and discard an individual no longer of use to them, an individual, that is, who has no recourse to collective action or the struggle.

And now, in a collective spirit, I turn the question to you, readers, and ask: Is sharp political crime fiction incompatible with authorial nostalgia?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Discussion by Kalteis and Frankson, photo by Detectives Beyond Borders

(Photo by your humble blogkeeper, Porto, Portugal, 2011)
Dietrich Kalteis, a novelist whose debut I reviewed earlier this year, also has a penchant for verbal mano-a-mano and an eye for atmospheric scenes, and he has chosen to illustrate some of the former with some of the latter. His newish Off the Cuff site pits Kalteis and fellow author Martin J. Frankson in a series of discussions that include the kinds of questions I like to ask and, in its current edition, some thoughts on crime-novel titles that I suspect you will enjoy reading. And now Kalteis, whose Facebook feed regularly includes stunning photography, plans to illustrate his posts with my noirish photos. The current Off the Cuff discussion unfolds under a photo I shot in Porto in 2011 (above/right). So feast your eyes and feed your head.

And read what I had to say about Kalteis'
Ride the Lightning: 

I read Dietrich Kalteis' debut novel, Ride The Lightning, as an uncorrected galley, so no quotations allowed. But trust me: The book is pretty good.

What I like best is that it sustains a breakneck pace without sacrificing character to action, or action to character. Kalteis made me care about his cast of lowlifes, screw-ups, and marginals without stopping the action too often for endearing moments of humanity or self-conscious wit. What these characters show of themselves, they show in the act of doing what they do. 

What they do is grow, develop, and sell drugs; rip each other off; try to stop each other from growing, developing, and selling drugs; and seek revenge. Even the worst of the main characters is good enough at what he does that he earns a reader's respect. He gets kicked around and beaten up and gets his leg caught in an animal trap, all of which he deserves, and his very resilience is admirable. I also like Kalteis' understated nude-beach scenes.

This novel, appropriately for a book under consideration at Detectives Beyond Borders, crosses the U.S.-Canada border, from Seattle to Vancouver, where most of the action happens. So Karl, the bounty hunter who loses his job and has to shift from the U.S. to Canada, muses that he expects less violence as compensation for his reduced income. (Karl states this in a more entertaining fashion, but this was an uncorrected galley, so no quotations allowed.)

I also like characters' references to Medicine Hat, Alberta, as "the Hat," as well as the mostly downmarket setting, not so much because I got to go slumming, but as a reminder that peaceful, low-key Canada has its lowlifes, too. 

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Celebrity then, celebrity now: What's the difference?

"People are ambivalently amped up on celebrities. They wildly worship them. They aim their adolescent adulation at them and get bupkis back. It's depressingly disassociative. It's idiotic idolatry. Fan magazines fan the flames of fatuous fancy and reinforce the fact that your favorite stars will never fuck you. Scandal rags rip that reinforcement and deliriously deconstruct and deidolize the idols who ignore you. It's revisionistic revenge. It reduces your unrequited lovers to you own low level of erratic erotics. It rips the rich and regal and guns them into the gutter beside you. It fractiously frees you to love them as one of your own." 
James Ellroy, "Hush-Hush" 
That's James Ellroy in the voice of gossip columnist/sleuth Danny Getchell. Ellroy wrote the story in the 1990s, and the passage refers to an earlier generation of gossip magazines, presumably the ones from the 1950s and early 1960s that Ellroy says were a formative aspect of his upbringing.

Today's stars, of course, have made it out of Scandal Town and moved on up to Take Me Seriously City (originally settled as Clooneyville, before it seceded from itself, seeking greater control of its own publicity). They have taken ownership of their own personas and have left the scandals to the Snookis and Kardashians, selling empathy instead.  But the connection is no more real now than it was then. Or is it?

What is the difference between celebrity in the 1950s and celebrity now?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"He’s a sleekit wee bastard": A meditation on a mystery, a dictionary, and the mysteries of dictionaries

My biggest surprise reading Tony Black's Gutted last week was that the dictionary built into my e-reader defines thrawn*, but not sleekit, gadgie, pagger, or other words apt to be unfamiliar to readers outside the British Isles and Ireland.

Not that the words threw me; I'd come across some of them in my reading (William McIlvanney, Adrian McKinty, Gerard Brennan, et al.), and I knew others thanks to Hamish Imlach and a visit of my own to Glasgow and Edinburgh. Besides, I like encountering new words, creatively and skillfully used. I like the challenge of figuring out, by context, what a word means. I am not, that is, part of the Grammar Girl generation — or, rather, the Grammar Girl market.

But why thrawn and not cludgie? Do the lexicographers think American readers need the former defined for them, but not the latter? (I'll be back to complete this post after a visit to the can.)

Have you even been surprised, readers, by what a dictionary included or left out?
* thrawn adj. SCOTTISH perverse; ill-tempered: your mother's looking a bit thrawn this morning. twisted; crooked: a slightly thrawn neck. late Middle English: Scots form of thrown (see THROW), in the obsolete sense 'twisted, wrung'.
 © Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Saturday, August 09, 2014

Felony Fists will knock you on your can, then have you bouncing back up for more

I like the novellas I've read in the Fight Card series because they do such a convincing job of capturing the feeling as well as the form of boxing stories from the 1920s, '30s, '40s, and '50s. This is true even for the stories set in the present day, as in the imprint's stories about mixed martial arts (MMA).

Felony Fists, written by Paul Bishop, published under the house byline of Jack Tunney, and set in the Los Angeles of Mickey Cohen and Police Chief William Parker, is no exception. Honor, hard work, overcoming long odds, digging deep within one's self, good winning out ... all are part of this and other Fight Card stories, and not in any smirking, ironic, post-modern way, either. Bishop and his fellow authors clearly love the old-time tales, and clearly believe today's readers can enjoy stories in that vein. And they're right.  Felony Fists is fast-paced, full of intersecting plot lines and narrative climaxes that read as if they were meant to leave the reader panting for the next month's installment. That's good stuff for an impatient generation, isn't it?

I've never stepped inside a ring, and my guess is that you have not, either. But no matter; Bishop  fills the novella with the sort of boxing detail that creates a convincing milieu and teaches you something about the sport as well. Boxing is not called the sweet science for nothing.
Felony Fists contains one jarring verbal anachronism:
 "Both Tombstone and I were actually fighting the uncomfortable feeling of country cousins visiting upscale relatives."
Not only does the first recorded use of upscale date only to 1966, according to Merriam-Webster, but the word feels utterly wrong for the period of the book's setting. I would wager that upscale did not come into widespread use until the late 1970s at the very earliest. Its use is a glaring mistake in a story set in the early 1950s. But it's the only one. The judges here at Detectives Beyond Borders say — and it's a unanimous decision — that you should read Felony Fists.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Friday, August 08, 2014

@*&%!%^%$ Tony Black!

Sure, this Scottish writer's novel Gutted is funny and violent, apt to remind readers of Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor books, though more packed with incident than those (and though the novel's one explicit Bruen tribute I've found is to the Brant and Roberts novels).

Sure, the book is packed with Edinburgh patter (unless Black is taking the piss and titillating we foreigners with made-up slang) and dark observations about the underside of the city's bright, tourist-attracting facade (though the protagonist, Gus Dury, admits a soft spot for some of the attractions.)

No, why I really can't stand Black is that I'll never be able to write a novel set in an incredible shrinking newspaper without being haunted by the thought that Black describes such a milieu better than I ever could:
"The newsroom had been decimated. I remembered the days when this place hummed with activity. Now it was a sorry reflection of its former glory. The staff numbers must have been cut by fifty per cent, padded out a bit by a few kids chasing work experience. I shook my head." 
"The paper used to be based in one of the city’s old baronial buildings. They sold it, turned it into a hotel. The office is now housed in one of Edinburgh’s many chucked-up-in-five-minutes jobs. I hear if times get tough the building can be quickly converted into a shopping mall. Forget about the workers that spend all their waking lives in there – best to keep those options open. The way newspapers were going since the web came along, I could see a Portakabin on the horizon." 
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Why Icelandic sagas are like Richard Stark's Parker

The Icelandic sagas remind me a bit of Richard Stark's Parker. Their characters talk no more than they need to (except when reciting poetry),  they engage in minimal introspection, and their heroes know how to get the job done.  And Egil's Saga has its title character wreaking single-handed havoc on an opponent's stronghold in way that may remind readers of what Parker, Grofield, and company do to the island casino in The Handle.

I read Egil's Saga in a translation by the late Bernard Scudder, the much respected translator of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Arnaldur Indriðason, and the bracing informality of his version makes it lot more readable than one might suspect from the witty aura of airbrushed sword-and-sorcery fantasy balderdash that surrounds the idea of Vikings. Two favorite examples:
"As he grew up, it soon became clear he would turn out very ugly and resemble his father ... " (and that's the hero of the story.)
"Helga replied, ‘Even though you are so stupid that you cannot look after yourself, I will bring it about that this duel never takes place.’"
That's another thing about the sagas: the protagonists are men, but the women could inherit property, talk tough, and kick ass in a way I'm not sure was common in other 13th-century European literature.  Maybe that brisk directness is a feature of the original Old Norse, but if that's the case, Scudder wisely highlights it. No wifty swords and sorcery here.

And you want stories that cross borders? Egil's Saga is set in Iceland, Norway, England, Scotland, Lapland, Finland, around the Baltic Sea, and Eastern Europe, with additional mentions of journeys to France and Ireland (the Vikings founded Dublin and other Irish cities, after all.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Hanging out with Olvir Hump and Eyvind the Plagiarist

Just call me Kveldulf. Like that wise, stolid, capable patriarch of Egil's Saga (that's Egil himself, at right), I want to be capable of pissing a king off by my inscrutability and refusal to act.

I want to have a friend named Olvir Hump. And I want to live in a world populated by Audun the Uninspired, Finn the Squinter, Thorvald the Overbearing, Bjorn the Landowner, and Eyvind the Plagiarist. And it would be cool to have a son who, after being robbed by the hired guns of a grasping monarch, has the bluff good humor to remark that "It’s good to have a king to share your money with."

Click here for more Detectives Beyond Borders posts about the Icelandic sagas, the rootin'-tootinest collection of proto-crime, proto-Western stories in all the European canon.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Saturday, August 02, 2014

"Hell ... with a good electrician"

You know that nighttime view of Los Angeles from the Hollywood Hills that you've seen in a million movies and television shows? (At right, if your memory needs refreshing.)

Here's how the narrator of Alfred Hayes' 1958 novel My Face for the World to See assesses that view:
"Besides, she’d heard it before: I was sure she’d heard it all before . Possibly in a scene that was a close duplicate of this: the car parked in the hills, and two cigarettes, and the town below looking as hell might with a good electrician."
That ought to be enough to persuade anyone that the book, which appeared when disillusion with Hollywood was becoming a staple of American popular culture, is a good deal more that just another self-pitying rant. Even at his most morose and detached, the narrator can crack wise in even better than the best hard-boiled style. And, while the novel is not crime, it is hard-boiled, noir, even.

Elsewhere, I've picked up Brian Garfield's Checkpoint Charlie, a collection of spy stories, hard-boiled but with a touch of the British-style eccentric detective to its protagonist, somewhat in the manner of Frank McAuliffe's wonderful Augustus Mandrell or Michael Gilbert's equally wonderful Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens.  Garfield's creation is not quite up that level, but I like very much the author's description of the character in the volume's introduction (highlighting mine.)::
"He really enjoys only two things: eating, and practicing his trade."
Eating--rather than the more delicate food or, the even delicater fine dining--lets the readers know that their just may be an edge to this Charlie.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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