Monday, December 29, 2014

You know I've been reading Roy Foster; here's why

Tell someone you like crime fiction, and odds are you’ll get asked “Oh, yeah? Who do you like to read?” Tell someone you like history (god knows, that word can mean so many things), and you’re likelier to be asked not who your favorite historian is, but rather what historical period you like best. Why should this be? Historians are writers, too; the just-the-facts school of history went out of fashion once Herodotus came on the scene.

And that brings up (again) Roy Foster, this time his book of essays called The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland. Are you fed up with theoretical gobbledygook? You might like this bit:
“As a general rule, the more hermeneutic and convoluted the post-colonial theorizing in the text, the more reductionist, naive and reactionary the political views expressed in the footnotes.”

Tired of the sentimentalization of victims? You might like
“One of the fundamental stories of the Irish diaspora is of Irish emigrants choosing to do unto others what others had already done to them. In neither case was that a matter of kind and tender mercies.”
but only not if you’re an unreconstructed Irish nationalist.

Wary of touchy-feely microhistory but wish your unease had an empirical basis? How about

“The dangers of new, deconstructed history, with its stress on the personal and the unmediated, include complacent anti-empiricism and aggressive sentimentalism, often reinforcing each other, and often relying on assumptions that actually contradict recorded experience.”
“The process has also led to some well-qualified scholars endorsing (intentionally or not) an odd view of the historians' task: redefined as a duty to reinforce the self-understanding of a `people', no matter how it relates to the historical record (or the self-understanding of other people).” 
"But the effect of the [Famine] commemoration year (or years) was to highlight the issues of guilt and pain, driven by the idea that some sort of empathy could be achieved, and a therapeutic catharsis brought about. The language of popular psychotherapy replaced that of historical analysis. This was popularized by a strange alliance of populist journalists, local political wheeler-dealers, erratic rock stars and those born-again newly Irish Eng. Lit. academics again. Performance artists staged presentations where they wept for hours in public to demonstrate what they felt about the Famine."

Looking for thrill of new light cast on an intractable problem you'd taken for granted (I could use more of that every day)? You can't do better than
"It was not simply a `Protestant' versus `Catholic' tradition: varieties of identification certainly took religious labels, but as often as not the religious identification was simply a flag for a whole range of attitudes and values."
I know little to assess the validity of Foster's judgments about Irish history. (Read Terry Eagleton's review of The Irish Story for a dissenting judgment.) But my first experience with that history predisposes me toward Foster's approach. Like many in America, especially those who had not thought carefully about Ireland or its history, I had a vague idea that Irish = Catholic = Republican = good, and English = Protestant = Unionist = bad. I knew nothing of the Irish Civil War, nor did I know there had ever been such thing as Irish-speaking Protestant nationalists.  Then a friend took me to the Irish Republican Museum off the Falls Road in Belfast, where I saw mentions of Wolfe Tone but nothing about Michael Collins, and I thought, "Aha! This is an interesting country."  I think the same when I read Foster.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Friday, December 26, 2014

More from Roy Foster, or Irish history can be fun, especially when Charles Haughey is part of it

Roy Foster’s Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change Since 1970 picks up where his Modern Ireland: 1600-1972 leaves off. It grew out of a series of lectures, and its more informal tone brings Foster’s delight in wordplay and verbal zest, his own and others', to the fore. Here are some of my favorite examples:

“Gerry Adams, his gaze at this point still firmly fixed on the past, liked to claim that Irish profits were being sucked away by `England', but in fact it was America that predominated.”
“(I) one looks at the Republic of Ireland over the last thirty years in religious terms, it is hard not to think of that standard exam question for students of Irish history: `Why did the Reformation not succeed in Ireland?' And answer: `It did, but it took four hundred and fifty years.'”
“…that other power struggle going on south of the border, down Merrion way: the battles within Fianna Fail.”
“To catch a vote, the playwright Hugh Leonard wrote, [Charles Haughey] would unhesitatingly `roller-skate backwards into a nunnery, naked from the waist down, singing "Kevin Barry" in Swahili'.”
“As power was assumed by a figure variously compared by his opponents to Salazar, Nixon and Dracula, the shape of a new kind of New Ireland came into view.”
“[Conor] Cruise O'Brien once remarked that he would not believe Haughey's political career was over until he saw him buried at a crossroads with his mouth full of garlic and a stake through his heart. Politically speaking, that point had finally been reached.”
“O'Neill's clipped, pragmatic, patrician tone … owed far more to the style of metropolitan Conservative Party cabals than to the sclerotic huddles of Ulster village politics.” 
Charles Haughey
Foster is no mere comedian, though, and the book is no mere cartoonish collection, like those slim volumes one finds at the cash register of bookstores full of zany things said by or about Sarah Palin or George Bush or Bill Clinton.  Foster’s good jokes are always in service of his theme, as when he quotes an outrageous eulogy to Haughey’s sympathies to Northern Ireland, which extended to running guns to the IRA, and contrasts this with the later noticeable cooling of Haughey’s zeal for the North. Rather than merely cite this as one more instance of opportunism by a political crook on a scale unimaginable in most countries, Foster ties his antics and his shifting sympathies to a changing mood in Ireland, and thereby makes him more than an adorable, venal rogue.
Thirty-six years after the 1970 trial precipitated by Haughey’s gun smuggling, Foster writes:
“what seemed much clearer was how quickly he had distanced himself from the `problem of the North'. This strategy had enabled him to return to the forefront of politics by 1979 – and, once in power, his Northern policies diverged more and more from traditional pieties. Haughey's own story reflected events and movements in the nation at large.”
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Sights and sounds of crime fiction

Sarah Weinman. Photo by Peter Rozovsky
Erik Arneson has uploaded three podcasts (Parts 1, 2, and 3) of the Noir at the Bar readings for which I was MC at Noircon 2014. Readers include Duane Swierczynski, Sarah Weinman, Jonathan Woods, Jon McGoran, and Arneson himself, who weighs in with a killer cat story.

Erik Arneson. Photo
by Peter Rozovsky
I introduced the authors and shot pictures of them as they read.
Photo by Peter Rozovsky
Over at the Off the Cuff Web site, meanwhile, Dietrich Kalteis and Martin J. Frankson get crowded, bringing in authors Samantha J. Wright and Sam Wiebe for a discussion of short stories and debut novels.  Once again, Dietrich illustrates the post with one of my shadowy shots, this one a late-afternoon view outside an exhibition hall at Bouchercon 2014 in Long Beach.
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Authors new to me in 2014

It's a little early, and the list could still grow, but here are the authors whose books I've read for the first time in 2014. Special thanks to the members of my "Beyond Hammett, Chandler, and Spillane: Lesser Known Writers of the Pulp and Paperback Eras" panel at Bouchercon 2014, who got me reading a number of those authors.

Donald Hamilton
Charlotte Armstrong
Milton Ozaki
Helen Nielsen
Dolores Hitchens
Ennis Willie
Roy Huggins
Lester Dent
Joseph Nazel
Marwan Muasher
C.V. Wedgwood
Frank Gruber
Amartya Sen
Theodore A. Tinsley
Diale Tlholwe
Alexandre Moret
Eduardo Galeano
Brian Garfield
Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo
Dietrich Kalteis
Tony Black
Paul Charles

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Dana King's Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of, by Detectives Beyond Borders friend Dana King, is a tribute to The Maltese Falcon through and through, from its title, to one of its plot strands, to explicit references to Hammett's novel and the Bogart-Astor movie version.

That's pretty high-concept, or at least it would be had King not made a compelling, even touching story out of it.  King obviously loves The Maltese Falcon (Raymond Chandler, too), mid-century hard-boiled stories, their moral urgency, and their cultural legacy, and there is nothing jokey or campy about the tributes. He doesn't hammer home the Falconisms, either, instead just bringing them in when they advance the story.

And the tributes themselves are delightful, and delightfully clever, going beyond obvious plot parallels, famous lines, and explicit mentions and extending to appropriation of speech patterns, in some cases. I'll refrain from giving examples, so you can have the pleasure of discovering them yourself.

It's a kind of authorial magic that The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of works as a tribute and as a story, and that neither aspect interferes in the least with the other.
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Monday, December 15, 2014

McKinty's voice: An early look at the fourth book in the Troubles trilogy

Sean Duffy is the narrator as well the protagonist of Gun Street Girl, just as he is in the previous three volumes in McKinty's trilogy about a young Catholic officer in the overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary at the height of Northern Ireland's Troubles. And an engaging narrator he is, too.

Here are some examples from the book's first few chapters:
"Oscillating waves of sound. A fragment of Dutch. A DJ from RFI informing the world with breathless excitement that `EuroDisney sera construit à Paris."

" ... as soon as the word `Inspector' has passed my lips I can see she has lost interest.  There are assistant chief constables and chief superintendents floating around and I'm well down the food chain."

"Fireworks behind. Darkness ahead. And if that's not a metaphor for the Irish Question I don't know what is."

"Twelve-year-old Islay. Good stuff if you liked peat, smoke, earth, rain, despair, and the Atlantic Ocean, and who doesn't like that?"
"Home. The music on the turntable was classic Zep, and I let the plagiarizing bastards take me through a shower and a shave."
I expect exciting things will happen to Duffy, as they do in The Cold Cold Ground, I Hear the Sirens in the Street, and In the Morning I'll Be Gone.  But even more important than coming up with a good story is knowing how to tell it well, and McKinty can do that.  So yes, the Duffy books will teach you something about the grit and everyday tension of living in Northern Ireland amid murderous sectarian strife. More important than that, they're also lots of fun.
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Saturday, December 13, 2014

What I learned staring at the walls (of California restaurants)

Photos by Peter Rozovsky, your formerly
humble blog keeper.
It was no shock to discover on my recent Bouchercon-and-after travels that restaurant food is spicier in Southern California than it is in my part of the country; I'll chalk that up as a benefit of Mexican influence. Eaters here also know their hot sauce and will express preference for Tabasco or Cholula without in the least sounding like an East Coast foodie.

I was surprised, however, that those nostalgia photos that constitute the decor of so many restaurants on the East Coast actually mean something in California. Rather than the patently generic, sepia'ed after the fact, "instant ancestors" obtained in bulk from a restaurant design house, photographs here might depict surveyors laying out the town that became the city that would eventually include the restaurant where you're eating your chipotle steak.

That, I suppose, is because California is so new and its history so fresh in the minds of the people who live there. Pennsylvania and Massachusetts might have been the same had photography been around in the seventeenth century. As it is, I was happy that California restaurant walls offer something to study rather than sneer at.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Friday, December 12, 2014

Tony Judt's Postwar Europe, with another side trip to Brazill

I've resumed reading Tony Judt's magisterial, awesome, sweeping, magnificent Postwar, a history of Europe since 1945, wrapping up the book's third section, "Recessional: 1971-1989," and beginning its final part, "After the Fall: 1989-2005."

Here's a favorite bit from that third section, Judt summing up Margaret Thatcher and her successor:
"Riding on Thatcher's coat-tails, Tony Blair shared many of her prejudices, albeit in a less abrasive key. Like her, he intensely disliked the old political vocabulary. In his case this meant avoiding all talk of `class,' an antiquated social category displaces in New Labour's rhetorical boilerplate by `race' or `gender.' Like Mrs. Thatcher, Blair showed very little tolerance for decentralized decision-making or internal dissent. Like her, she preferred to surround himself with private-sector businessmen. And although New Labour remained vaguely committed to `society,' its Blairite leadership group was a viscerally suspicious of `the state' as the most doctrinaire of Thatcherites."
His jabs at "rhetorical boilerplate" ought to give pause to anyone tempted to write Judt off as a leftist) (though I think even conservatives have been cowed into using gender as if it were anything other than a grammatical category).    Elsewhere, Judt's respect for Thatcher's accomplishment shines through, whatever horror he may feel at its effect (A publisher's blurb sums up another of his books, Ill Fares the Land, this way: "As the economic collapse of 2008 made clear, the social contract that defined postwar life in Europe and America--the guarantee of security, stability, and fairness--is no longer guaranteed; in fact, it's no longer part of the common discourse.")

Judt wrote with a zest that lets his sympathies shine through, but without ever letting the historian in him degenerate into partisan polemics. But my favorite passage so far is his Gibbonlike footnote to the above observation about Blair's and Thatcher's shared propensity for surrounding themselves with business people:
"With perhaps this difference: whereas Margaret Thatcher believed in privatizaion as something akin to a moral good, Tony Blair just likes rich people."
Who says history can't be fun? (Read all my Postwar posts at
Here's a bit more from Paul D. Brazill's Guns of Brixton,  discussed in this space earlier this week, about a feel-good euphemism so widespread that even people older than 30 use it without blushing:
"‘You see, they call them issues these days,’ said Bilko, as he fiddled with an unlit cigarette. ‘Not like issues of comics like The Beano or Shoot or Whizzer and Chips or Razzle, though. Naw, these are things like anger management issues, relationship issues, substance abuse issues. What that means is that these issues are stuff that’s wrong with you. Stuff that fucks you up. And fucked-up people are called people with issues. See?’"
Finally, a thumbs-up to Brazill for knowing that that long chair on which you might relax in sunny weather is a chaise longue.

 © Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Guns of Brixton, or the boys from Paul Brazill

Paul D. Brazill explains the title of his novel Guns of Brixton thus:
"When I decided to write a faux London gangster story..."
Faux ... gangster story says much about Guns of Brixton's appeal. The London gangster movies that made a splash a few years back tended to be over-the-top, smirking affairs, and Brazill confronts the over-the-topness by making fun of it, by not pretending his story is anything but a comic romp, a kind of high-spirited musical without music, albeit one full of violence, the threat thereof,  and all sorts of unpleasant bodily effluvia, whether the result of gun blasts or not.  Here are two examples I liked:
"A group of elves holding cans of Special Brew raced past, chased by a wheezing Santa Claus."
"If Mad Mack was startled when he saw the shining barrel of a Glock 29 pointing straight at him through the lattice grid, he was certainly too shocked to react before Father Tim Cook muttered: `Sic transit Gloria friggin' Gaynor,' and blasted Mack's brains all over the confessional."
Here's more of Brazill explaining why he chose the title Guns of Brixton:
"... it seemed the sensible thing to take a title from a song by The Clash, that most London of all London bands – even though only one of them was actually born ‘dahn The Smoke.’...And I had plenty of cracking titles to choose from and reject, too – London Calling (been done to death), London’s Burning (reminded me of the naff TV show about firemen), Guns On The Roof ( a silly song about when The Clash were told off for shooting pigeons with an air rifle), Somebody Got Murdered (too obscure), The Last Gang In Town (close, close …) Police & Thieves (Maybe …)"
Now, I was not alienated enough a suburban kid to have regarded the Clash as seminal avatars of anything, but I sure did read a lot or reverent tosh from the typewriters and word processors rock and roll "critics" in the late 1970s and early 1980s, so I love Brazill's irreverence.

Any British author setting out to write a gangster story must confront the towering example of Ted Lewis.  Lewis' three  Jack Carter novels are dark, grim, and deadly serious, yet punctuated by grim, delightful humor. Few crime writers can manage that; Derek Raymond, who acknowledged Lewis' influence, is the only other example who comes immediately to mind.

Guns of Brixton does the next best thing: It has tremendous fun with the form while at the same time acknowledging Lewis' fictional world both implicitly (in the novel's several gay or lesbian minor characters) and explicitly (a brief discussion of Michael Caine and the celebrated movie adaptation of Get Carter toward the novel's end). If you love Lewis and the movie, but find Guy Ritchie irritating, you might like Guns of Brixton.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Sunday, December 07, 2014

Donald Hamilton, The Ambushers, and books with veterans in them

The Ambushers (1963), sixth of Donald Hamilton's many Matt Helm novels, is a weaker book than his non-series Line of Fire, in part because two, and perhaps all three, of its last-chapter plot twists seem arbitrary.  One of these is arguably out of character for a competent hit man/espionage operative of the kind Matt Helm is supposed to be.

Still, the two books got me thinking about how badly Sylvester Stallone. Chuck Norris, and Steven Seagal have damaged the reputation of the men's adventure story, specifically the kind whose protagonist is a veteran. Lazy liberal that I am, I had come to regard the genre, rightly or wrongly, as a field where lazy right-wingers could live out action fantasies they would never come within a million miles of in real life.  From the other side of the political spectrum, I'd begun to fear that any story featuring a veteran was thin disguise for anti-war polemic.

Paul Davis, a few years older than I am and a veteran, has given me a schooling on the shifting depiction of Vietnam veterans in popular culture. For Paul, the Tom Selleck TV show Magnum P.I. marked a turn away from depictions of Vietnam vets as damaged psychopaths. And my recent reading has convinced me that thrillers and adventure novels need not be marred by polemics, whether from the left or the right, just because their protagonists are veterans, at least not if the writer is as good as Donald Hamilton.

Of course, the two Hamilton novels I have read recently appeared in 1955 and 1963. I will be eager to see if the political tone changed in the Helm novels that appeared after public anger against the Vietnam Wat began to build.
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Saturday, December 06, 2014

"Merry Christmas to All, and to All a Goodis Night"

By Peter Rozovsky

"Turn over, baby. You’re burning up," she cooed. "Let me do your front.”

The fat red man purred contentedly. Then he opened his mouth and screamed. He awoke from the dream jammed down the chimney, flames licking at his back. From above, a shaft of weak, sooty light and murmured voices.

“But, Rudy, what about—“

“Leave the fat guy. I’m out of here. Who’s with me?”

“I’m in,” a voice said.



"You on, Dancer? Prancer? Vixen? Comet? Good. Let’s go.”

Back down in hell, the fat red man shut his eyes and heard them exclaim as they drove out of sight …

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Friday, December 05, 2014

Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon

The third in Syndicate Books' reissues of Ted Lewis' three novels about Jack Carter is a bit like Raymond Chandler's The Little Sister: a lesser work marked in places by what I suspect are the author's complaints, in Chandler's case about his (presumed) disillusionment with Los Angeles, in Lewis' about art school.

Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon (1977), the second of two prequels to Get Carter (original title Jack's Return Home), is less a fleshed-out novel than a set-up that never quite comes together: Carter is dispatched by his feckless bosses to their Spanish villa for a vacation that turns out to be a job minding a Mafia turncoat.  And that's about it, except for an orgy of violence at the end and some bits of comedy and cruelty on the way.

But some of the the bits are delicious, the funniest probably the arrival of the janitor/butler's daughter, the grimmest the treatment of the janitor/butler by everybody, his daughter included.  Read this book by all means, but after you've read Get Carter and Jack Carter's Law.

Ted Lewis
Here's Brian Greene on Lewis and why you should read him. And here is a slew of Lewis posts from Nick Triplow, who wrote an afterword for Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Noir at the Bar: The History

Over at LitReactor, Keith Rawson presents an oral history of Noir at the Bar-- interviews with me and with some of the people who took the N@B idea and ran with it: Jed Ayres in St. Louis, Todd Robinson and Glenn Gray in New York, Eric Beetner in Los Angeles. Duane Swierczynski, the reader at the first Noir at the Bar ever, right here in Philadelphia, weighs in with a highly entertaining excerpt from the piece he read at the first L.A. N@B.

The photo above, from October 2008, which I sent Keith for inclusion with his article, captures a seminal moment in Noir at the Bar history.  Scott Phillips (lower left, miming the theft of a bicycle) had dropped in to the fourth Noir at the Bar to hear John McFetridge (top left) and Declan Burke (center) read. (That's me behind the perp.)  Scott liked the idea, took it back to St. Louis, where he organized a Noir at the Bar with Jedidiah Ayres, and the rest is history, Noir at the Bar spreading across North America like a slow-moving, persistent, incurable virus.

It's nice to see how much the event has meant to writers all over North America, and the Noirs at the Bar Keith writes about were just some of the early ones. Toronto. Vancouver. New Hope. Texas. New Jersey. Portland. Baltimore. You name it, Noir at the Bar has conquered it.  And, like the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, it started here in Philadelphia.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Monday, December 01, 2014

Donald Hamilton, Line of Fire

I'm in that happy after-vacation state where I have recovered both from post-travel disorientation and from the giddy panic over which book to read from among the many I bought or otherwise acquired at Bouchercon and after.

This year's first post-Bouchercon reading, Donald Hamilton's 1955 novel Line of Fire, is an adventure story, a love story, a mob story, a political story, a revenge tale, and a buddy story at the same time, with a fair amount of dry, dry wit.

I'm still a novice when it comes to mid-twentieth-century paperback originals, but I'm guessing there may have been a school of writers back then who wrote crime/adventure stories narrated in a deadpan style without, however, going over the edge into comic crime. Hamilton did so in Line of Fire, and Richard Powell did it in Say It With Bullets, republished a few years ago by Hard Case Crime.

Line of Fire is a beautiful piece of storytelling, its central conflicts laid out early, but their origins revealed only gradually. Another writer may have foamed and salivated over those origins and turned the protagonist, a gunsmith named Paul Nyquist, into a bloodthirsty killer. Hamilton makes of Nyquist a amiable, if serious sort who shoots only when he has to, and not always for reasons the reader might expect.

The novel is driven to an unusual extent by the revelations alluded to above, so I'll shut up on the subject of plot, for fear of introducing spoilers. The novel's low-key wit that manages always to remain hard-boiled as jell.  is easier to discuss, and there's plenty of it. Here are some examples:
"There were a couple of jerks in the outer office. There were always a couple of jerks in the outer office."

"It was a good face except for the mouth ... under other circumstances I suppose I'd have had no complaints about the mouth, either.  The weakness it betrayed--the slight, moist fullness to the lower lip that any man would recognize--was not, I was aware, considered a handicap in the circles in which she moved. It was all in the point of view."

This, as Nyquist enumerated the types one is likely to find at a hunting lodge: "There'll be the get-away-form-it-all boys who simply want to commune with nature for a couple of weeks each year--I don't know why this always involved leaving the razor at home."

"Being surprised at Marge is always a waste of time"
Read Bill Crider's review of Line of Fire. Read John Fraser's "Writer at Work: Donald Hamilton" at and a shorter piece at

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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