Thursday, July 30, 2015

Betcha didn't know ... The real Rashōmon Effect

"Movies are the new opiate of the people. They’ll believe anything we can get on the screen.”
— James Ellroy, The Big Nowhere
As is often the case when I want to read something but I don't know what, when I'm itchy and anxious and grabbing books off the TBR pile, then flinging them aside, I have turned to Ryūnosuke Akutagawa's short stories. You might call Akutagawa my ideal discomfort reading.

You may not have read Akutagawa, but you have likely seen a movie that takes its title, but not its plot, from one of his stories: "Rashōmon." Another thing that Rashōmon, the movie, does not take from "Rashōmon," the story, is "the Rashōmon effect," the phenomenon of different witnesses' offering mutually contradictory versions of the truth. That, and the multiple-witness murder-rape plot, come instead from another Akutagawa story, "In a Bamboo Grove." (The only element of  "Rashōmon" that Akira Kurosawa appropriated for Rashōmon appears to be the picturesque setting of the decrepit Rashōmon, or "Rashō Gate.")

In Kurosawa's movie, the gate is merely the setting where the characters offer their testimony about a rape and killing. Akutagawa's story, on the other hand, makes of the gate a dumping ground for dead bodies, where an unemployed servant on the verge of becoming a thief encounters an ancient scavenger, and each offers justification of his or her ghastly acts.  If not itself a noir story, it's at least a wry commentary and questioning of the nature and roots of criminal behavior, and it appeared a decade and a half before the Flitcraft Parable in The Maltese Falcon. As such, it ought to interest any reader of noir and hard-boiled crime writing.

As for that stuff about contradictory versions of the truth, it should really be called "The Bamboo Grove Effect," but I won't hold my breath.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

I, the Narrator, by Mike Dennis

  Mike Dennis (Photo
by Peter Rozovsky)
Mike Dennis (right) is a Key West-based crime writer and a musician. He also combines sound and words in his latest professional incarnation. Here's Mike's pulse-pounding story of how he became an audio-book narrator and landed the gig reading and producing the new version of Mickey Spillane's I, the Jury, published by Simon & Schuster Audio.
First and foremost, I want to convey my deep appreciation to Peter Rozovsky for giving me the opportunity to appear on DBB. He has a lot of followers, and I'm very grateful for the chance to tell my little story on his great site.

And what a story it was! Well, for me, anyway. Since my latest reinvention of myself (and there have been many over the long years) as an audiobook narrator, I was hot to move up the ladder. Of course, I didn't kid myself. I knew I had to have a worthy product, skillful storytelling, quality sound production, and knowledge of my own strengths and weaknesses as a narrator if I was to achieve any success at all. The first thing I learned was the learning curve is steep.

So after a couple of years, I get a handle on sound crafting, and I hone my natural ability to tell a story. Then one day in the summer of 2014, I was trolling Amazon and came across Mickey Spillane's I, The Jury. The cover was typical Spillane: a gorgeous doll coming out of her clothes while a guy holds a gun on her. Then whoa! I noticed there was no audiobook attached to it.

Positive I had made a mistake, I looked again. No audiobook. I went to and typed in the title. No results. There was an audiocassette on Amazon dating back to the Paleolithic Era for sale by a third-party vendor, but no modern downloadable audio version. Could this be true? I, The Freaking Jury, the first Mike Hammer novel and the biggest selling book of Spillane's entire career, does not appear in audiobook form?

Well, it was true, all right. I looked up the other Hammer books. Nearly all of them were available as audiobooks, and those were all narrated by Stacy Keach, who played Mike Hammer on TV for years. I mean, the guy is Mike Hammer!

I set out to become the narrator for this novel. First, I had to find out who held the audio rights. I wrote to my friend Max Allan Collins, novelist and Spillane collaborator, and he essentially told me to forget it. Simon & Schuster had the audio rights to all the Hammer novels, he said, and they had released them with Stacy Keach's powerful voice driving them. He said it would probably be just a matter of time before they got around to I, The Jury.

OK, not good news. But I kept after it, anyway. Fruitless efforts at contacting Simon & Schuster yielded nothing. After a lot of digging into the bowels of their website, however, I turned up the name of the head of their audiobook division. I called S&S, asked for him, and to my surprise, I had him on the line.

Once I collected myself, I explained who I was: an audiobook narrator/producer operating out of my home studio in Key West, and I wanted the chance to narrate and produce I, The Jury.

Now, this is the point where a guy like him would tell a guy like me, "We don't work with home studio narrators," or "We use movie stars to narrate our audiobooks," or "Buzz off, kid." And you know, you couldn't blame him if he did. Not even I could blame him. But instead, he said, "Do you deliver a finished product?"

Knowing that I had now arrived at my date with destiny, I said "Yes. But how about if I send you a brief recorded excerpt of I, The Jury? That way you can not only get an idea of how I would approach the material, but also of my sound quality." He paused for what felt like forever, then said, "OK." And he gave me his e-mail address.

I carefully prepared a recorded piece from the novel and sent it off to him. Frankly, though, I was sure that the minute he hung up the phone, he was shouting into his intercom, "Get me Stacy Keach!"

A couple of months went by. I was certain the game was over. But one day I opened my e-mail to find a response. He had sent my sample to the head of their production department for her opinion. My God, I still had a shot!

Two more months go by (they sure move slowly up there in New York), and one day I get an e-mail from the head of S&S audio production. She liked my sample, but she asked if I wouldn't mind submitting a finished version of the entire first chapter, so they could get a better idea of my sound and my consistency, as well as how I would handle more dialogue. I really couldn't believe it!
Of course, I did the first chapter, laboring over it lovingly and with great precision. Another month later, she writes back and offered me the job. We agreed on the terms and I narrated and produced the audiobook. It'll be released in unabridged form Wednesday, July 28. And you know, I still can't believe I'm actually the voice of Mike Hammer.

Mike Dennis' narration of I, The Jury, from Simon & Schuster Audio, is available on Amazon.

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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Don Winslow's Savages: James Ellroy meets Woody Allen on dope

Don Winslow's 2010 novel Savages reads as if James Ellroy and Woody Allen were one person, and that person took careful notes while hanging around with people who did lots of drugs.

(Woody Allen, you ask? A bit of description on Page 30 could,  but for one word, have come straight from Allen's early comic crime parodies:
"John Sr. was a founding member of the Association, the legendary group of Laguna beach boys who made millions of dollars smuggling marijuana before they fucked up and went to prison.")
The social observation  in Savages is unbeatable, the characters managing at the same time to represent social types and to seem full-blooded, three-dimensional, and sympathetic, even the worst of them.

The satire of ruthless young entrepreneurs and their trickle-down moralizing is priceless ("Money isn't enough [says a multi-multi-multi-millionaire young drug dealer who spends his spare time working on Third World development projects], you have to commit your heart, soul, and body.")

My only gripe with Savages so far, other than that it ruined a trip I planned to New York today because I stayed up till 5:45 a.m. reading the damned thing, is that once that main conflicts have been set up and Winslow has to resolve them, the plot elements begin to fall into place just a bit too mechanically.  Now, let's go finish the novel and see if I can prove myself wrong.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015


Thursday, July 23, 2015

Dashiell Hammett, father of the wisecrack, plus questions for readers

Dashiell (accent on the second syllable)  Hammett was not the first to introduce humor; Edgar Allan Poe had already done that by 1844, in "The Purloined Letter." (First publication in December of that year, right here in Philadelphia.)

But Hammett may have been the first to incorporate wisecracks, and he was almost certainly the best.

The scene in "The Girl with the Silver Eyes" in which the  Continental Op tries to pry information about the vanished Jeanne Delano from her would-be lover Burke Pangburn ought to be read in its entirety, but this excerpt gives something of the flavor:
"`What color hair?' 
"`Brownso dark that it's almost blackand it's soft and thick and 
"`Yes, yes. Long or bobbed?'
"`Long and thick and'
"`What color eyes?'
"`You've seen shadows on polished silver when' 
"`I wrote down gray eyes ... '"
Hammett's wisecracks are entertaining for their own sake, wittier than most, and, unlike most wisecracks by the generations of hard-boiled writers who have followed, they are always thematically apt. They advance the story; they never seen designed to attract attention for their own sake. Hammett did it first, and Hammett did it best.

And now, readers, who are your favorite wisecracking hard-boiled writers? Why? What do wisecracks contribute to a story? What makes for a good wisecrack in the context of a story, as opposed to a mere funny line?

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Dashiell Hammett, copy editor's friend

Dashiell Hammett is better known these days for his novels and the movies made from them than he is for his short stories. But he had established himself as one of the great crime writers ever at least six years before his first two novels appeared. While I delve once again into the Library of America's volume of Hammett's Crime Stories and Other Writings, here's an old post about just one more reason to admire Hammett.

In recent posts, I've taken one book to task for misusing a word, another for its surfeit  of dialogue tags, and a third for using a word not coined until the 1960s though its story takes place in 1953.

More recently, I picked up a book that uses a word in a sense it did not acquire until years after the date when the book is set, and last night, a misused homophone/heterograph  momentarily marred my enjoyment of one of the most moving, exciting crime novels I have read in years.

Since you're likelier to hear tales of ludicrous copy editing changes than thanks for errors caught before publication, we proofreaders and copy editors must blow our own horns or rely on critics to say what we would say if we thought anyone would listen.

Discovering the Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade, another invaluable book about Dashiell Hammett from the good folks at Vince Emery Productions, offers some delightful examples from Hammett's days as a mystery-fiction reviewer for the Saturday Review of Literature and the New York Evening Post.

Here's Hammett on The Benson Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine:
"This Philo Vance is in the Sherlock Holmes tradition and his conversational manner is that of a high-school girl who has been studying the foreign words and phrases in the back of her dictionary. He is a bore when he discusses art and philosophy, but when he switches to criminal psychology he is delightful. There is a theory that any one who talks enough on any subject must, if only by chance, finally say something not altogether incorrect. Vance disproves this theory: he managed always, and usually ridiculously, to be wrong."
Can you imagine caring enough about what you read that you would write something like that?

Here's Hammett on Sydney Horler's 1926 novel False-Face. Besides lampooning Horler's ludicrous plot and his contempt for seemingly every nationality but his own, he makes fun of Horler's sloppy sentences:
"Scotland Yard promises to `safeguard the safety' (page 29, if you think I spoof) of an American inventive genius who has business with the British government."
Now, what is a reader to do, especially if that reader happens to be a copy editor in his professional life and, moreover, a copy editor who has heard authors complain that publishers expect authors to pay for editing that publishers would have paid for twenty years ago? Shrug off mistakes with the bland acceptance that nothing is perfect? Bang one's head against the wall and shout that the world is going to hell?

I don't know the proper course, but I sure wish reviewers and critics would follow Hammett and highlight defects in the form as well as the substance of books they write about, because there really is no difference between form and substance when it comes to writing.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Early Ellroy, politics, and perspective

I've been reading James Ellroy's earlier work, first The Big Nowhere (1988), second novel in the L.A. Quartet; and now Because the Night (1984), second of Ellroy's three Lloyd Hopkins novels, and Clandestine, a standalone novel from 1982. Here are some highlights, first from Clandestine:
"She was starting to like me, so I couldn’t bring myself to tell her she was nuts."
"I laid on the more gentle, picaresque side of police work: the friendly drunks, the colorful jazz musicians in their zoot suits, the lost puppies Wacky and I repatriated to their youthful owners. I didn’t tell her about the rape-o’s, the abused kids, the stiffs at accident scenes or the felony suspects who got worked over regularly in the back rooms at Wilshire Station. She didn’t need to hear it. Idealists like Sarah, despite their naiveté, thought that the world was basically a shit place. I needed to temper her sense of reality with some of the joy and mystery. There was no way she could accept that the darkness was part of the joy. I had to do my tempering Hollywood-style."
Hindsight is perfect, of course, but it's easy to see in that first the line a microcosm of Ellroy's transition from something like conventional hard-boiled to the harsher and weirder stuff that he would write later. That "nuts" hits pretty hard.

For that matter, the second selection is, in retrospect, transitional, too.  The passage reads as if its narrator, a young cop, is just talking about the sort of violence and corruption into which later Ellroy protagonists would plunge headfirst and wholeheartedly.

Meanwhile, over at The Big Nowhere, the following suggests that for all Ellroy's gleeful proclamation that he is the White Knight of the Far Right, his books set in the 1950s poke far more serious fun at anti-Communist witch-hunt madness than it does at fellow travelers:
"A flick of the overhead light; the living room jarring white— walls, tables, cartons, shelves and odd mounds of paper— Loew and company’s once-in-a-lifetime shot at the political moon. Graphs and charts and thousands of pages of coerced testimony. Boxes of photographs with linked faces to prove treason. A big fuckload of lies glued together to prove a single theory that was easy to believe because believing was easier than wading through the glut of horseshit to say, `Wrong.'”
Not that he loved those fellow travelers:
"Hollywood writers and actors and hangers-on spouting cheap trauma, Pinko platitudes and guilt over raking in big money during the Depression, then penancing the bucks out to spurious leftist causes. People led to Lesnick’s couch by their promiscuity and dipshit politics.




© Peter Rozovsky 2015


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

"Ellroy’s a dipshit"

I'm not always a fan of self-reference in crime writing, but I found this bit hard to resist. It's from James Ellroy's Shakedown: Freddie Otash Confesses:
"They want to prime my prose and mold my moral vision. They’ve put me in telepathic touch with an earthling writer named James Ellroy.

"Ellroy’s a dipshit. I knew him in my waning months alive. I’ve been granted
tell-all telepathy. I will know that cocksucker cold." 
The real-life Otash was a police officer, private eye, and affiliate of the Hollywood scandal sheet Confidential, and Ellroy used him as a character in several of his novels. This novella-length book is useful and even illuminating as a companion to Ellroy's novels, with their conflicted cops and low-down losers:
"A fragmenting frustration set in. I had the dirt. It would take an armada of shakedown shills and photo fiends to deploy it. I racked my brain. I knocked my noggin against the bruising brick wall of unknowing. Extortion as existential dilemma. A confounding conundrum worthy of those French philosopher cats. 

"My cop life could not compete with the lush life. I was a double agent akin to that Commie cad Alger Hiss."
or how about this, which bespeaks an empathy readers may not associate with Ellroy:
"I scanned for boosters and looked down at legions of the lost.

"Their pathos pounded me. Bit actors buying stale bread and Tokay. Six-foot-two drag queens shopping for extra-long nylons. Cough-syrup hopheads reading labels for the codeine content. Teenage boys sneaking girlie mags to the can to jerk off. I watched, I peeped, I lost myself in the losers."
Or this:
"Confidential presaged the infantile Internet. Our gobs of gossip were repugnantly real. Today’s blowhard bloggers and their tattle texts? Pussyfooting punks all. We stung the studios and popped the politicians. We voyeur-vamped America and got her hooked on the devilish dish. We created today’s tell-all media culture."
© Peter Rozovsky 2015
 Read about Fred Otash and other interesting subjects in Ellroy's 2010 discussion with that other challenging and immensely entertaining novelist David Peace.

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Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Executioner pursues me across California, finds me in Philadelphia

Selfie at California Citrus State Historic Park,
Riverside. All photos by Peter Rozovsky, your
not so humble blog keeper.
Don Pendleton's first Executioner novel, War Against the Mafia, turned up free as an e-book earlier this week.  In honor of the discovery, here's a post from my trip last year to that mecca of action-adventure stories, Southern California, where I could not, however, find a copy of War Against the Mafia. Early chapters suggest that the book might make interesting collateral reading to Richard Stark's The Hunter and The Outfit.
Not much to note from yesterday's crime reading, except that Don Pendleton's second Executioner novel, Death Squad, takes its hero and his cast of associates on a path through Southern California nearly identical to that I have followed in recent days. Yesterday that took them to the citrus groves around Riverside, where I had just spent the day, and let me tell you: Having one's steps dogged by Mack Bolan and his gang of Mob-hating, authority-snubbing, police-respecting gang of expert killers gives a jasper a screwy feeling.

Mission Inn Riverside
Yesterday's book yield, from the Downtowne Bookstore in Riverside: a collection  of secret wartime cables between Dwight Eisenhower and George C. Marshall.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Why Frank Kane is better than Stieg Larsson

Frank Kane's 1955 novel Liz, newly rereleased by Stark House Press, is about a sexy, smart woman who kicks ass, takes revenge on sexual sadists, and has great breasts. Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its follow-ups are about a sexy, smart woman who kicks ass, takes revenge on sexual sadists, and acquires great breasts through surgery.

What are the differences between Kane's Liz Allen and Larsson's Lisbeth Salander, besides two syllables, three novels*, and 2,260 pages?  Liz does not pretend to be about big issues; at least one of Larsson's novels, on the other hand, feels compelled to include alarming statistics about violence against women as chapter epigraphs.  Why Larsson or his publishers chose to do this other than as a flagrant bid to have the book regarded as a thinking person's thriller, I don't know, but the following excerpt, typical of one strand of Larsson criticism, makes the point well:
Larsson's detractors, that is, accuse him of wanting to have it both ways: to condemn violence against women while using that same violence to attract readers. Kane makes no such pretense; I suspect that sort of pandering was left to higher-brow authors in 1955.

Speaking of having it both ways, Salander is bisexual, which I think readers are meant to take as a sign that she is a complex, modern character, though the real reason may lie elsewhere. The discussion to which I link above notes the apparent breast fixation of Larsson's co-protagonist Mikael Blomkvist. Big tits and female bisexuality. Sound like any set of male fantasies you know?

Kane's Liz, on the other hand, endures then deflects a lesbian encounter with a mix of fascination and repulsion. It's a sexy scene, yes, but believable and utterly without self-congratulation or self-importance.
Ed Gorman's blog reprints Robert J. Randisi's introduction to the Stark House reissue of Liz, which also includes Kane's Syndicate Girl.

* Including the post-Larsson novel due out in the U.S. in September

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Manhattan Mayhem in The Philadelphia Inquirer

My review of Manhattan Mayhem, a star-studded collection of short crime fiction that celebrates Manhattan on the occasion of the Mystery Writers of America's 70th birthday, appears in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer.

The 17 contributors include Lee Child, Jeffery Deaver, Mary Higgins Clark, T. Jefferson Parker, and others, and each story takes place in or on a different Manhattan neighborhood, building, or river.

Highlights include Julie Hyzy's proving she can write chilling suspense as well as the cozy novels for which she is known, and a prime contender for greatest title ever: S.J. Rozan's  "Chin Yong-Yun Makes a Shiddach."

Read the entire review at

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Monday, July 06, 2015

Where does Spillane stop and Collins start?: A job for the style detective and some questions for readers

I've read a few crime fiction collaborations by authors who have also established literary identities on their own, and I sometimes play the idle game of trying to guess which partner in responsible for a given narrative passage or line of dialogue.

The Consummata is not a typical collaboration. Mickey Spillane began the book as a sequel to a novel of his that had appeared in 1967, and he gave the unfinished manuscript to Max Allan Collins years later. Collins then completed the novel, which finally appeared under the Hard Case Crime imprint in 2011.

I don't know how complete the book was when Spillane handed it over, and I don't know what changes Collins made over the many years it was in his custody. But I detected a few small stylistic changes in the novel's climactic section that could suggest a different hand at work, or perhaps the same hand many years later.  This was mostly a matter of repetition of words, one in particular, and a mildly political jab I fancy likelier to have come from the liberal Collins than the right-wing Spillane. Some of the wit in the section is also slyer than what I associate with Spillane, more a wink than a hearty clap between shoulder blades.

(My favorite sentence in the novel, however, does not figure in this discussion: "He conked his head on the porcelain edge of the crapper.")

Have you ever read a collaboration between two authors?  Have you ever tried to guess which author wrote what? What is likely to make you attribute a given passage to one rather than the other? Tone? Prose style? Something else?
(When you're done, read an interview from the Rap Sheet in which Max Allan Collins talks about Spillane, his own work, and a lot more. And read Collins on anything and everything at Collins was on a panel I moderated at Bouchercon 2014 in Long Beach. The man would be worth listening to on the subject of crime fiction and its history even if he hadn't written any of the stuff himself. Collins was my intro to Roy Huggins and Ennis Willie, for example.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Sunday, July 05, 2015

Mickey Spillane could write for the critics, whether he admitted it or not

"`A man of such determination I must kiss,' she said."
"From nowhere. From everywhere. ... She is a rumor. A wisp of smoke. A legend."
They just don't write like that anymore, and that's good. Not too many people write like the following anymore, either, which is too bad:
"The coin flips again, comes up tails, and an intern looking for a gold star goes to the trouble of fingerprinting an accident victim whose I.D. somehow got lost in the shuffle, and those prints get sent to a local precinct house and on to Washington, and you? You're not even awake yet." 
All three examples are from The Consummata, started by Mickey Spillane as a sequel to his 1967 novel The Delta Factor, abandoned, completed by Max Allan Collins, and published by Hard Case Crime in 2011.    I don't know if the first two examples are bad writing as much as they are badly dated; perhaps they would have seemed fresher a half-century ago.  The third example, though, is wryly comic and works just as well today as it could have when it was written. (All three examples are from the first half of the book, so I'm guessing they're Spillane's rather than Collins'.)

Spillane may have sneered at critics, but the hell with him; the man had chops even if not every sentence has aged well. (Here's a post about Spillane's late-career novel Dead Street, also published by Hard Case. The book is a worthwhile mix of bluster, nostalgia, and, I suspect, Spillane having a bit of fun with his own tough-guy reputation. The book's cracks about 21st-century events rendered in typical tough-guy Spillane style are great fun and a reminder that, though people may think of him as a 1950s writer, he wrote almost until his death in 2006 and he still had something left in the literary tank at the end.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Saturday, July 04, 2015

Weegee and Brassaï: Two great night shooters

First of all, Happy Fourth of July, because you don't have to be American to enjoy good fireworks. The photo above is a bit of Thursday's pyrotechnics in South Philadelphia.

Second, here's my newest book, arrived in the mail yesterday. Weegee is the most famous of crime photographers, and his work continues to appear on crime novel covers and at least one Noir at the Bar poster to this day.

Two initial observations: Weegee (pseudonym of Arthur Fellig, b. 1899, d. 1968) apparently wrote his own copy to accompany the photographs in Naked City, the 1945 collection that made his name. The writing is rough, vigorous, and at times melodramatic, just like the American movies of the 1940s that would later be called film noir.  And it's a hell of a lot more refreshing than the elevated twaddle that museum curators, art critics, and artists themselves often use.

I also liked the simplicity of Weegee's photographic technique, as outlined in the book's final chapter, called "Camera Tips."  His exposure time, he says, was always 1/200 of a second. He always shot with a flash bulb. He always used the same aperture, except for close-ups, when he stepped it down by half. And those apertures were small, which allowed maximum depth of field. That means he was ready for anything, that he let his camera serve him rather than vice versa.  This is a book I will read as well as look at.

By Weegee
By Brassaï
The Wikipedia entry on Weegee says he "can be seen as the American counterpart to Brassaï, the 20th-century photographer famous for his nighttime photographs of Paris. I bought a book of Brassaï's work earlier this week, and I'd never have made the connection. But Wiki could be right.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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