Saturday, January 31, 2015

On Frederick Nebel, plus who was the best Black Mask-era writer after Hammett and Chandler?

Read Frederick Nebel's Black Mask stories, and you're apt to notice two things: 1) How good Nebel was, and 2) How far short he fell of Dashiell Hammett, his friend and Black Mask predecessor.

On the one hand, Nebel's prose is not always, pace an admiring introduction, "as fresh today as it was in the 1930s."  It can't be, not filled as it is with "clipped, "chided," or even "gritted"  rather than "said."  That method of jazzing up prose wears decidedly less well today than when Black Maskers routinely indulged it.

On the other, the wit, the pace, the plotting, and some of the descriptions remain fresh. This little word picture, for instance, matches a clumsily archaic job title with a sardonic observation that would not be out of place in Hammett: "District Leader Skoog, nursing a bottle of Cointreau and trying to give the impression he had a refined taste."

Photos by your humble shooter, Peter Rozovsky
That's from "Ten Men From Chicago," one of Nebel's many stories that paired Capt. Steve MacBride and Kennedy of the Free Press (though Kennedy, an alcohol-sodden sounding board, conscience, and comic foil to MacBride in some of the stories, has little to do in this one). Another bit from the same 1930 story shows that Nebel could match the era's best when it came to observational wisecracks:
"Sergeant Otto Bettdecken sat at the desk in the central room eating a frankfurter-on-roll, A clock ticked on the wall behind him. Bettdecken was a large man, with fat rosy cheeks and heavy jowls that overlapped his tight standing uniform collar. From time to time he raised a bottle of home-brew from behind the desk, cast searching eyes around the large room, and took a generous swallow. After each swallow he sighed with that profound air of a man serenely at peace with the world and thankful for the small creature comforts which it bestows upon mankind—and especially police sergeants."
That would not have been out of place in Hammett's first story about the Continental Op, "Arson Plus."  That Hammett's story appeared seven years before Nebel's makes Hammett's accomplishment all the more impressive without, however, detracting from Nebel's.

Now, here's your question: Who is the best hard-boiled crime writer of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s other than Hammett and Raymond Chandler? And why?

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Friday, January 30, 2015

Guess who

Photo by your humbler blogkeeper/shooter,
Peter Rozovsky
I've been too busy to do much blogging the past few days, but here's a bit from a hard-boiled American crime novel of the middle of the twentieth century. See if you can guess who the writer is:
"It was an old rooming house a few blocks behind the Ambassador Hotel. ... The light in the lower hall was dim, barely illuminating the lower steps; at the top of the stairs the darkness was cut only by a narrow knife of light coming from beneath the first door. 
"Behind the door was one man, and a voice ... "
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

How Donald Westlake was funny

The same box that brought Ross Thomas' Missionary Stew also contained an old paperback of The Hot Rock, Donald Westlake's first Dortmunder novel. That was one hell of a USPS flat-rate package.

Here are some favorite bits of The Hot Rock, along with the reasons I chose them:
Photo by your humble blogkeeper/
photographer, Peter Rozovsky
"They passed over Newark Bay and Jersey City and Upper Bay and then Murch figured out how to steer and he turned left a little and they followed the Hudson north, Manhattan on their right like stalagmites with cavities, New Jersey on their left like uncollected garbage."
"`Take him,' Dortmunder said over his shoulder and turned the other way, where a stout cop with a ham and cheese sandwich on rye in his hand was trying to close another door. ... The cop looked at Dortmunder. He stopped and put his hands up in the air. One slice of rye dangles over his knuckles like the floppy ear of a dog."
Do you like those passages? Tell me why, and then I'll tell you if we like them for the same reasons.. 

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Sunday, January 25, 2015

More on Ross Thomas, plus a visit to Regrub King

I think "Regrub King" is a fine name for a restaurant, don't
you? (All photos by Peter Rozovsky, your humble blog keeper.)
Friday's Ross Thomas post wound up being mostly about George V. Higgins, so here are some things I liked about Missionary Stew, the 1983 Thomas novel that sparked the post:
  • "An hour later, Draper Haere's secretary called Citron and told him she was, to use her participle, `messengering' him out $ 2,000 in cash." The scorn embodied in those inverted commas is delicious. How many crime writers today would use participle in a novel? How many people know what a participle is? What would Ross Thomas have done in a culture that thinks texting is a word?
  • "Instead of one, there were two of them. There was the tall skinny one in the cheap suit, and the other one, not quite so tall, wearing the banker blue suit and looking as if somebody had just run over his dog."
  • Two recurring tag lines, which I won't repeat here, that are all the funnier because the characters who hear them are never in on the joke.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Friday, January 23, 2015

Why George V. Higgins but not Ross Thomas?

Crime writers and readers revere George V. Higgins for The Friends of Eddie Coyle, but we don’t talk much about Ross Thomas these days. This puzzles me, since Thomas was better than Higgins at some of the things Higgins is celebrated for: gritty looks at men at work, including criminals, and razor-sharp dialogue cleverly contrived to convey character and create the illusion that this is how people really speak.

 I base these remarks on Thomas' Missionary Stew, which appeared in 1983, thirteen years after The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and that's where the caveat comes in. Though an experienced novelist by the time ... Eddie Coyle appeared, could Thomas have been influenced by the younger writer, the way the similarly older, more experienced Elmore Leonard was?

I ask because the three previous Thomas novels I had read (Cast a Yellow Shadow, The Seersucker Whipsaw, and The Fools in Town Are on Our Side) either predate The Friends of Eddie Coyle or appeared the same year, and I don't remember those books bringing Higgins or Leonard to mind.

Though I don't get the esteem in which Higgins was held, I have no desire to knock him. But I would like to see a revival of interest in Thomas, and not just because he wrote with such wit about politics.
A wise commenter on my skeptical 2009 post about Eddie Coyle wrote: "I think it's comparatively rare for pioneering texts to stand up in the long term." Maybe Higgins is an example of that pioneer phenomenon, surpassed by his followers. I should like the guy, because I enjoy authors who look up to him and whose works is often compared to his: Bill James, Garbhan Downey, Dana King, Charlie Stella.

I'd hate to think that readers and critics might be scared off by Thomas because he wrote about politics. Don't be; he makes his subject real and funny/
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

French Connection II: What's the best sequel ever, and why?

I watched French Connection II this week, not bad as sequels go, but kilometres short of the original. I don't remember The French Connection having to fall back on clichés the way the sequel did, for one thing (The disaster-movie scene at the dry dock, Hackman rescuing his French colleague/adversary, the "but now it's personal" ending, and one or two more).

One nice touch: Bernard Fresson's Henri, as the colleague/adversary, physically resembles Eddie Egan's Simonson, the supervisor with whom Hackman clashes in the first movie. That's a much subtler tribute to the original than is the window-glancing in the foot portion of the sequel's climactic chase scene.

Now, here are your questions: 1) What are the best crime-movie sequels ever? (Extra points if you don't mention the obvious Godfather, Part II), and 2) What are the ingredients of a good sequel?
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Bad guys and good pictures at Off the Cuff

Photo by Peter Rozovsky in some
big city not far north of here.
"Is it just my nature?" asks Linda L. Richards. "Why am I suspicious of everyone?"

Linda talks about good guys, bad guys, and unreliable narrators as part of the latest discussion at Dietrich Kalteis' Off the Cuff site. But can you believe her?

Fellow author Sam Wiebe joins the discussion, hosted by Kalteis and Martin J. Frankson.

Once again, Kalteis, a fan of photography, illustrates his virtual roundtable with one of my noirish shots (above right). So go on over, feed your head, and feast your eyes.
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Harry Whittington, Part I

Bill Crider, who knows Harry Whittington's work a lot better than I do, calls A Night for Screaming "probably my favorite" of Whittington's novels.  He doesn't call it the best, though, which is good, because I read it and Whittington A Ticket to Hell this week, and I thought the latter a much stronger book.

Crider rightly highlights Screaming's skillful plotting, especially Whittington's practice of making things as bad as possible for his protagonist, and then building suspense by making them worse.  But a sameness of descriptions makes me suspect the prolific Whittington dashed this one off even faster than usual. A few examples, emphasis mine:
"He winced, turning his head quickly as if he was afraid I’d see the sickness in his face."

"There was a sickness in his face."

"Evans grinned at me, even through the gray sickness in his own face."

"I paced the floor in my room. The sickness was worse than ever."

"I felt nothing except the sickness, the emptiness."

"I brought the gun up, held it where he could see it. His face showed his sickness."
That's a lot of sicknesses in a lot of faces for a novel about 150 pages long, and that's not even all of them. Funny thing is, A Night For Screaming's opening chapter includes this terrific bit of description:
"You have to see these rich, young, small-town dames to know what she was really like. They might have come out of a family of migrant workers subsistence farmers , or maybe the bankers’ home. They went to school in these small burgs, growing into something so lush, so luscious that every woman hated them and every man coveted them. They had everything they could ever want long before they were ripe. It made them hard and demanding, and looking for the big take. They had love when they were thirteen, and now they wanted everything their beauty would buy. And when they got their hooks in the richest man in the area, they truly began to live. Shopping trips west to Denver, east to Kansas City and St. Louis, and at least twice a year into New York and Chicago to see the shows. They believed their beauty indestructible, the fun was going to last forever. Only it didn’t work that way. The oldest saw was the truest: when you’ve seen one circus, you’ve seen them all."
The novel reads as if Whittington wrote a intricately plotted first draft, polished the first chapter, then submitted the manuscript. I noticed no such thinness of description in Whittington's A Ticket to Hell. That novel appeared in 1959 from Gold Medal; A Night for Screaming appeared the next year from Ace. Could the change in publishers have something to do with the change in style? Comments from Whittingtonians and other readers of paperback originals welcome.

In the meantime, watch Bill Crider's slide show of Whittington covers.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Saturday, January 17, 2015

Modesty Blaise and graphic storytelling, plus a question for readers

I'm reading Modesty Blaise again, so here's an old post from back when I first read the original Modesty comic-strip stories collected between covers under the title Yellowstone Booty.  Before you read on, a few questions: Would today's readers have the patience for a story told in 126 three-panel installments, having to wait a full day from one installment to the next, as was the case with the Modesty Blaise series? When was the heyday for serial comic strips, especially crime and adventure? When did their popularity wane? And why?
This one's from back in the days when men were men, women were lethal weapons, and graphic novels were comics.

I'd written about the first Modesty Blaise novel and the godawful 1966 movie, but Yellowstone Booty was my first experience with Modesty's original medium. I already knew about Modesty's platonic relationship with sidekick Willie Garvin and about her beauty, her physical prowess, her ingenuity, and her skill with odd weapons, so I paid special attention in these stories, collected from the "Modesty Blaise" daily comic strip, to author Peter O'Donnell's technique: How did he sustain a longish narrative when he had to tell his story in tiny, daily-comics-size chunks?

Here are lines or dialogue exchanges with which O'Donnell ended some of the 126 installments of the story "Idaho George":


"So where's the sting? Who gets conned?" / "That comes later, honey ..."

"Holy bloody smoke ...! The crazy old biddy means it!"

"Get back! No — !"



Something is always happening, in other words, and that's the strip's lesson in storytelling: Always leave the reader wondering what will happen next.
Back when I read the novel Modesty Blaise, whose publication followed the comic strip's inception by two years, I wondered how daily newspapers had got around the occasional nudity in the book and some of its sequels. The answer is that they didn't — except in America, of course.

Yellowstone Booty, a three-story collection that contains "Idaho George," also includes a portfolio of Modesty Blaise art by John Burns, one of several artists who drew the strip over the years. Three of the drawings include a topless Modesty.

Yet a Wikipedia article on Modesty Blaise says that "The strip's circulation in the United States was erratic, in part because of the occasional nude scenes, which were much less acceptable in the U.S. than elsewhere, resulting in a censored version of the strip being circulated."

One can only speculate what depravity Americans would have got up to had they been permitted to see a naked cartoon breast from time to time.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Max Allan Collins, Tim O'Mara, and other professionals, plus a question for readers

You have to figure that someone with something over a hundred books to his credit knows how to get the job done, and Max Allan Collins does.  I first made the acquaintance of Collins' Quarry novels as I prepared to moderate a panel at Bouchercon 2014 of which Collins was a member, and I reacted, in part, thus:
"His three most recent Quarry novels, the latest in a series that began in the 1970s, suggest that Collins shared the savvy professionalism of the pulp and paperback-original writers who will be the panel's main subject."
The three most recent Quarrys at the time were numbers eight, nine, and ten, and book eleven, Quarry's Choice, is newly out from Hard Case Crime.  How does an author keep faithful readers coming back to a series without, however, boring them? By retaining familiar set pieces, but putting a slightly new spin on each.  By occasionally introducing major changes in the protagonist's life without ever deviating from his or her essential character markers.

Collins does it again in Quarry's Choice. Quarry readers, for example, will know the character's backstory, how he returned from Vietnam, found his wife in bed with another man, and killed the man the next day. They will be familiar with Quarry's telling of the story near the beginning of each book, complete with the lover's coarse dismissal of Quarry just before his own death, how Quarry wound up being recruited to work as a contract killer.  That coarse dismissal is always the same, and it's a pretty funny line, a familiar old friend to readers. And yet the story varies in the manner of telling just enough from book to book to avoid putting readers off.

And I like, too, the balance that Quarry manages to maintain between nice guy and the sort of amorality characteristic of a man who kills people for a living.  Even when Quarry does the sort of thing to melt one's heart, Collins is savvy enough to infuse the situation with just enough menace to create suspense and tension.
I knew I was likely to like Tim O'Mara's Dead and Red when it opened with the narrator/protagonist not hearing the shot that killed the man sitting next to him in a taxi, and with everything fading not to black, but rather to white as the narrator lapses into unconsciousness. And I like the combination of menace and comedy that characterizes the relationship between the protagonist, Raymond Donne, and a fellow ex-cop.  Small touches, perhaps, but the sort of thing likely to keep me reading..

(O'Mara is a teacher by day, and a crime writer when not teaching. Could his protagonist's name be a tribute to Raymond Chandler and John Donne?)
And now your turn, readers: What does professionalism mean to you in crime writing? Forget inspiration and genius for the moment, and just tell me which writers are simply good at their jobs.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

More pics, plus a couple of novelists sitting around talking

All photos by Peter Rozovsky
Those two good guys, Dietrich Kalteis and Belfast's own Martin J. Frankson, talk about bad guys in the 13th installment of  Kalteis' Off the Cuff discussions. Once again, Dietrich illustrates the noirish palaver with a photo by your formerly humble blogkeeper photographer, shot right here in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago (right). 

Says Kalteis: "I love dialogue and there’s nothing better than some foulmouthed bad guy to lend color to the page."

Kalteis knows something about writing bad guys. Here's part of what I wrote last year about his novel Ride the Lightning:

"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."
Here are all the Off the Cuffs, at Here, too, are some more recent photos.

 © Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Monday, January 12, 2015

The permeable borders between crime fiction and history

The latest frisson of crime-fiction recognition I got while reading Irish history comes thanks to Ronan Fanning's Fatal Path, specifically its discussion of the controversy and violence that attended establishment of the border between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland.

That lends even greater historical resonance to, say, the title of Brian McGilloway's first novel, Borderlands. And that, in turn, is all the more poignant because McGilloway never set out to write a political  novel:
"As for the Troubles — I wanted to write a non-Troubles book but, around the Border, it would be unrealistic to assume that they're not there somewhere — thus the only representation of the Troubles in Borderlands is the disembodied voice, talking about the past. It's there, but increasingly insubstantial. Or that was my intention, at least."
And now I'll take a break and read some crime fiction, though the author shares a last name with an important figure in modern Irish history.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Saturday, January 10, 2015

I've never been to Poughkeepsie, but I did watch The French Connection this week, plus a question for readers

I watched The French Connection for the first time this week, and it was every bit as good as its reputation.  OK, you already know how good it is, but what makes it stick out more than forty years later, other than fine performances by Gene Hackman and some of his supporting cast?
1) It's subtle, at times, for an action movie, no more so than when Hackman's "Popeye" Doyle engages in an arguably foolhardy action in the film's climactic scene. Any number of inferior TV and movie successors would have hit us over the head with the conflict of it all: a colleague trying to talk Doyle out of what he is about to do, or reaction shots of the colleagues shaking their heads after Doyle does it anyway, or both. Director William Friedkin just lets Hackman do his thing--a crowded scene, and then a fast cut to Hackman alone. It's a breathtaking moment, my favorite of the movie.
 At Bouchercon 2013 in Albany, I point out the
name of another New York city, whose
prominence in American popular culture
may have peaked with
The French Connection.

2) The absence of hub-bub and police sirens as Doyle chases the sniper who had tried to kill him. (Doyle got down from the building's roof too quickly to have been able to follow the shooter so closely, a minor continuity problem that ought to hamper no one's enjoyment of the movie.) Quiet--I mean, regular, realistic quiet, not breathing or the sound of running feet, obtrusively over-amplified against a background of silence--can work a hell of a lot better than noise.

3) How much of that quiet was Friedkin's choice, and how much was due to the absence of cellphones in 1971? In 2014, Doyle would probably have called in police reinforcements before or during the chase of the sniper, which might have meant sirens and hub-bub.
What was the last classic movie you got around to seeing only years after everyone else had seen it already? How did it compare with its reputation?

 © Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, January 07, 2015

More Irish history and why you should read it

Here's some more of what I've learned about Ireland's history, this time mostly from Ronan Fanning's Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922:
1) German arms shipments to Ireland date back at least to April 1914—to the Ulster Volunteer Force; unionists, not nationalists.

A much smaller German arms purchase by Irish nationalists, co-led by Erskine Childers a month later for maximum publicity, resulted in a bloody a crackdown by a British regiment.

Yes, that Erskine Childers, author of the early spy novel The Riddle of the Sands.

The Irish tradition of secret societies and volunteer groups long predates the alphabet soup of organizations that became familiar during the sectarian Troubles that began in 1969.

That "The IRA’s initial focus in what is known either as the ‘War of Independence’ or the ‘Anglo-Irish War’ of 1919–21 was the ostracisation of the police."
What does this have to do with contemporary crime fiction set in the present, or a lot closer to it than 1910 to 1922? Not much, unless one is reading Stuart Neville or Adrian McKinty or Eoin McNamee or Garbhan Downey, or Kevin McCarthy, or Anthony Quinn, or Andrew Pepper, or ...

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Monday, January 05, 2015

Bill James in the absence of Harpur and Iles

More Bill James (though not Harpur and Iles), more Irish history (Ronan Fanning on the U.K. Parliament's mishandling of the Unionist revolution. That's right, Unionist revolution), and a crime novel about hockey that, despite its subject, appears to have real teeth.

The James is his 2009 novel Full of Money, in which drug gangs from rival territories clash, an investigative journalist's murder is reviewed, a television presenter gets close to the wrong woman, and Detective Chief Superintendent Esther Davidson worries about her bassoonist husband. Some highlights so far:
"The mad indirection and gibber of most of this demoralized Esther."

"Being arty they thought they could speak their piece at full volume if they wanted to. And such people, liquored up, would want to, convinced that loudness helped prove they were not timorously, narrowly or miserably bourgeois. "

"She was as good as soccer, better than TV cookery."

"Of course, nobody among this crew present tonight would ask him what he thought of the programme. In their eyes, he was still and only the bottles bloke."

"He steepled his hands before his chest for a moment to emphasize the undoubted church qualities of churches, evident inside a church."

"Betty Grable insured her legs, and Esther often told him to do the same for his lips because her left lacked the absolute accuracy to avoid them always. Her right, better. Her right usually chinned."

"`They talk too loud, draw attention, possibly antagonize. They’re middle-class, professional/ artistic/ media, I think. I try to avoid.' Gerald imitated a quibbling donnish voice : `" Oh, yes, William Boyd can describe room interiors well enough in his novels, but let me recount what happened to me one day in Tasmania.”' `That’s fucking Ince. Do I want to line myself up on the screen with such people?’ Yes. But Esther didn’t say so."
Hmm. Maybe I'll save Ireland and hockey for tomorrow.

 © Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Thursday, January 01, 2015

The new Harpur and Iles novel from Bill James!

For Disclosures, Number 31 in the Harpus and Iles police procedural series, Bill James gives Panicking Ralph Ember a new origin story and makes his best use yet of Esther Davidson, a high-flying police officer who appeared first in James' non-Hapur and Iles novel Tip Top, written under the same David Craig.

Most of the novel is told as a series of flashback chapters, narrated alternately by Ember and Davidson. I'm not sure what the technique contributes to the story, but James again manages nicely to recapture Ember's pathetic ambitions for his club, the Monty, whose social standing is, now and forever, "admittedly not quite as he would have it, owing to present high yob, slob, slapper and villain membership levels."  And one has to admire the sang-froid of Davidson, who, begins Chapter 30 thus:
"In the morning at The Mandrake Esther went downstairs first, leaving Gerald patching himself up while she looked for the manager to apologize and settle the account. ... `There are some breakages in our room, three-twelve,' she said. `Obviously inadvertent, but I hope you can give me a quick estimate of the cost and I'll do a checque to cover our stay and the accidents with the curtains, the basin in the en suite, and the TV set. I think the sheets will wash out fine if you put them through twice, and the mattress is absolutely OK."
Your humble blogkeeper
(left); Bill James (right)
Davidson and her husband like a bit of rough sex, you see (tastefully kept off-stage), and I don't care what you say, that excerpt is funny.

Though recent Harpur and Iles novels have fallen short of the level established in, say, the first sixteen books, the wordplay is as exuberant as always, and Ralph's patent combination of cowardice and tactical intelligence come to the fore as well as it did in the early novel Panicking Ralph.  James completists will want to read Disclosures, and other readers might like it as well, though I'd advice beginning with the earlier novels.

(Read the Detectives Beyond Borders interview with Bill James at

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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