Thursday, December 31, 2015

My favorite tree-and-temple photo of 2015

(Photo by your humble blogkeeper)
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

Labels: ,

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Another one from Cambodia

(Photo by your humble blogkeeper)

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

Labels: ,

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Detectives Beyond Borders best book of 2015: Dirtbags

Eryk Pruitt's 2014 novel Dirtbags is a tall tale, a couple-on-the-run story, a moving noir story as Jim Thompson or, especially, David Goodis might have written it, a rural roman noir, a dark comedy with a touch of Southern Gothic, and satire without hitting the reader over the head to make its point.  It's also a serial-killer story for readers who hate serial-killer stories, thanks to its blessed absence of interest in abnormal psychology.

One review calls the novel "sort of like a book about a serial murderer written by Carl Hiaasen, only a lot darker," but don't let the Hiaasen comparison stop you; this book is funny without, however, degenerating into a cheap yuk-fest.

I'm as urban and suburban as readers get, so for me, tone is all important in rural noir. The story has to take me to an unfamiliar place, full of unfamiliar, colorful characters without, however, patronizing those characters or turning them into caricatures in the name of country or Southern color. Dirtbags manages this balancing act, and that's why it's a Detectives Beyond Borders best book of I read in 2015.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

Labels: ,

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Parker project: Re-readng Richard Stark

I’m 10 books into the idea I stole from Heath Lowrance of rereading all the Parker novels Donald Westlake wrote under his Richard Stark alias. In order, I’ve reread Breakout, The Hunter, The Man With the Getaway Face, The Outfit, Butcher’s Moon, The Sour Lemon Score, Plunder Squad, The Seventh, The Mourner, and Deadly Edge.

The experience offers an impressive answer to a question I pose occasionally at Detectives Beyond Borders: How does an author keep a long-running series fresh? Stark did it by radically reconceiving the series repeatedly. The lone-avenger plot of the first three books bleeds gradually into stories of heists gone wrong, the seed of the latter sown as early as Book Two, The Man With the Getaway Face.

Once he began writing the heist books, Stark stayed constantly ahead of what his fans expected of them. Parker, the unemotional user of women? Stark got good mileage out of that motif before introducing Claire in The Rare Coin Score (1967), then making her a part of Parker's life and a driver of the plot in Deadly Edge four years later. Claire was no calculated, pro-forma addition, either. Her interaction with Parker and the hapless heist planner Billy Lebatard shows that Stark had assimilated every lesson postwar novels of nervous American masculinity and sexual jealousy had to teach. And Deadly Edge shows Stark doing a creditable job with the frightened-woman-alone-in-a-house motif even as he makes sure readers know why she so strongly loves the house and refuses to leave it.

Parker the silent? Stark laid that one to rest, giving Parker pages of nonstop dialogue in The Black Ice Score. That is easily the weakest of the Parker novels, but I respect Westlake for doing something different. And anyone who scorns the idea that Stark had a sense of humor needs to read The Score or The Seventh. The latter book especially uses humor like the minor-key variation on the main theme in an opera. The book is grim and violent, which makes the humorous touches stand out all the more.

Think of any shorthand tag by which readers and commentators refer to Parker, and the chances are that it's accurate, but also that Stark went way beyond it.

(Read all about Parker at the Violent World of Parker Web site.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

Labels: , , ,

Friday, December 25, 2015

A Detectives Beyond Borders best book of 2015, reissue department: Laura

Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940a and '50s, edited by Sarah Weinman for the Library of America, is probably the year's most celebrated set of crime fiction reissues, and for me, Vera Caspary's 1943 novel Laura is the collection's novel worthiest of celebration. Here's what I wrote about the book in a review of the entire collection for the Philadelphia Inquirer:
 "And what of Vera Caspary's unclassifiable Laura? The title character of Otto Preminger's 1944 movie version is a gauzy, unattainable mystery woman who drives men to fascination, even obsession. Johnny Mercer's lyrics to the film's much-recorded theme song include lines such as `Laura is the face in the misty light' and `That was Laura, but she's only a dream.' Great stuff, but not much to do with Caspary's novel. 

"Her Laura Hunt, unlike Gene Tierney, who played her in the movie, is not especially beautiful. Rather, she is a successful advertising copywriter to whom three men — a detective, an essayist and newspaper columnist, and Laura's unworthy fiance — are attracted without her having to do much about it. Far from a temptress or a scheming femme fatale, she's a kind of maypole around whom the men dance, and she behaves, all told, with remarkable self-possession.
"Each of the three men (the fiance in the form of a police report), and Laura herself, gets a turn as narrator, the fiance the least reliable, the columnist the funniest:

 "`I have never stooped to the narration of a mystery story. At the risk of seeming somewhat less than modest, I shall quote from my own works. The sentence, so often reprinted, that opens my essay 'Of Sound and Fury' is reprinted here:

 "'When, during the 1936 campaign, I learned that the President was a devotee of mystery stories, I voted a straight Republican ticket.' "
And here's Sara Paretsky writing about Laura at the Library of America Web site.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Detectives Beyond Borders best book of 2015: Pierre Lemaitre's The Great Swindle

A jacket blurb on Pierre Lemaitre's novel The Great Swindle says something like "just as he does in his crime fiction, Lemaitre ... "  The Great Swindle tells of two epic-scale swindles in post-World War I France sparked by two especially odious murders, so why is it something other than crime fiction?

Perhaps because is at least as much a social novel about post-World War I France, about class fissures and political and business corruption, as it is about crime.  Perhaps because the build-up to the central swindles is so leisurely (and so beautifully done and so thoroughly explores the lives of its two central characters and a host of minor ones).  Perhaps because of its ending, which is atypical of crime fiction. Or perhaps because Lemaitre, a two-time winner of the International Dagger Award for translated crime fiction from the Crime Writers Association in the UK, won France's Prix Goncourt for The Great Swindle (Au revoir là-haut in its original French).

Nonetheless, The Great Swindle may remind crime readers of Dominique Manotti in its examination of corruption in France or of Daniel Pennac or Fred Vargas in its portrayal of eccentric households. And it generally avoids the twin dangers of sentimentality and whimsy when it does the latter.The villain of the piece is a weaker character than he could be, too villainous at times, a bit too thoroughly black when a bit of gray might have been called for.  The rest of the characters, even when engaged in outlandish actions, nonetheless--or perhaps because of those actions--combine to present convincing and moving picture of the messiness and the social gaps and broken promises of postwar life.

The translation's English prose is elegant and unobtrusive, a credit to translator Frank Wynne, who is not, a proclamation on his Web site notwithstanding, a terrible man.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, December 21, 2015

A Detectives Beyond Borders best book of 2015, reissue department: GBH

The toughest parts of Ted Lewis' 1980 novel GBH make Jim Thompson look like a bit of a wuss, yet the book is filled with the same sort of mordant, observational humor that marks Lewis' other crime classic, Get Carter (Jack's Return Home).
That Lewis maintains the humor through the novel's horrific events, building tension, and explosive conclusion is the book's most distinctive feature; call it the Ted Lewis touch.

The novel's short chapters alternate between the narrative present and the recent past; George Fowler, a ruthless gangster who makes his money from pornography, narrates both. In the "past" chapters. Fowler and his diminishing band of minions in London are desperate to find out who is betraying Fowler. In the present, Fowler has gone  to ground under an assumed name in an English seaside town. And that's where the cutting comedy comes in. Lewis is no likelier to have been hired to promote Grimsby or Mablethorpe than he would have been to tout Scunthorpe or Newcastle.

That Lewis is able to induce a certain pity or sympathy for what has to be to be the most morally bankrupt gang of characters ever assembled between covers is not the least of his magic. (In Get Carter, for example, Jack Carter is activated by the noble passions of avenging his dead brother and saving his niece, who may in fact be his daughter.  George Fowler, by contrast, wants nothing more than to save himself, no matter how many of his subordinates he has to have tortured or killed to do so.) And that's why GBH is a Detectives Beyond Borders best book of 2015/
Jordan Foster discussed Ted Lewis as part of a panel I moderated at Bouchercon 2015 in Raleigh, N.C.,  called "Beyond Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, and Macdonald."

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

Labels: , , , , ,

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Detectives Beyond Borders best book of 2015: Nathan Ward on how Hammett became Hammett

Nathan Ward's book The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett proposes that Hammett's experience as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency was a formative influence on his writing.

Ward is not the first Hammett scholar/researcher to make the connection; Richard Layman titled his 1981 Hammett biography Shadow Man. Ward, too, notes Hammett's writing about being a good shadow man — that is, being good at tailing someone without himself being detected.  One key, Hammett wrote, is to note the quarry's physical attitude. The way a person moves or wears clothes can be vastly more important in identifying one's quarry than can his or her face.

Commentary on Hammett's work as a detective generally suggests that the experience lent his stories verisimilitude, that he could write more convincingly about fictional detectives because he had been a real one.  Ward is the first Hammett scholar I can remember who suggests that the most valuable lesson Hammett learned was concision. He and other Pinkertons had to be brief and no-nonsense in their reports for the agency, a contention supported by Ward's research in Pinkerton archives, and this, Ward says, helped form Hammett as a writer.

Good prose style has never been valued less than it is now, and it does not figure prominently in discussions of authors. If you have even a passing familiarity with themes in Hammett biography and criticism, you'll know that scholars have focused on his politics, his love life, and his drinking. Ward's book is not, as reviewers and others have maintained, a biography. (Layman, on our Hammett panel at Bouchercon 2015 in Raleigh, recognized this.) Rather, it is something rarer: A book about a writer that concentrates on writing. And that's why it's a Detectives Beyond Borders best book of 2015.

Fresh off reading Ward's book, I picked up The Maltese Falcon again, to find Hammett turning his detective's eye on Sam Spade.:
"The steep rounded slope of his shoulders made his body seem almost conical—no broader than it was thick—and kept his freshly pressed grey coat from fitting very well."
You'd know that man if you saw him again* and, having shown than he can do it, Hammett puts description to brilliant thematic use right from the start. But that's a subject for a future post.
* Hammett's Spade is blond and "quite six feet tall." He looks, that is, about as far from Humphrey Bogart as it is possible for a human being to look.
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

More good words from Bill James

Thirty years on, Bill James' Harpur and Iles crime novels ("His Iles and Harpur series is magnificent," raved Ken Bruen.) may have fallen off a bit from their peak. The series was terrific from its beginning, with You'd Better Believe It (1985), then caught a thematic wave that lasted from Club (1991) through, say, Eton Crop (1999).

Commentators love the books' savage humor, occasionally invoking Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge plays.  The novels also create touching and hilarious portraits of aspirations to respectability on the part of low-life gangsters, notable the great Panicking Ralph Ember.

But James is such a good prose stylist that even the least of the books contains lines you'll want to quote to your friends. Perhaps the weakest of the novels, The Girl With the Long Back, contains one the series' very best lines. (The line concerns the title character's offer to show Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles her butterfly; she's a swimmer, you see.)

The latest in the series, Blaze Away, published this spring, looks so far to rank fairly high among recent entries. And, as does every book in the series, it contains the sort of dialogue you won't read elsewhere. Here Detective Chief Inspector Colin Harpur replying to a query from his informant, the shady art dealer Jack Lamb:
"‘It’s the ochre that speaks to my centre, too,’ Harpur said. ‘I thrill to that drumbeat.’ He knew Jack prized this kind of ramshackle, barmy conversation. Lamb obviously thought it made Harpur a more or less happily enmeshed associate of Jack’s brilliantly prosperous, profoundly dodgy vocation as fine arts huckster, sales online or by appointment.
Here me and Bill James. And
here's my two-part interview
with him
The novel also nails a voguish usage much favored by corporate executives and politicians who want to avoid scrutiny:
"They wanted all their dealings to be entirely transparent – a modish term that George found deeply unreal."
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

Labels: ,

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Douglas Sanderson and Canadian exceptionalism

Douglas Sanderson, a hard-boiled writer who spent the middle of his life in Montreal and set several books there, got good mileage out of turning Canadian stereotypes on their heads.

In The Deadly Dames (1956), protagonist Bill Yates sweats his way through a 100-degree Montreal summer and comments on the old joke about the American who arrives in sweltering weather with skis strapped to his car, wondering where all the snow is. "It's a story good for two laughs per summer," Yates remarks. "It makes us feel superior."

Later Yates comments on the Quebec law that forbids shorts on the grounds of indecent exposure: "When we're not feeling superior we're feeling virtuous."

Finally, he notices the gambling club that operates openly despite laws against such activity:
"The sign was large. It possessed a unique property. Officially it wasn't there. I, the cops and maybe a quarter of the city's inhabitants knew that gambling went on in the club's second floor. Gambling is illegal. We don't like it. Therefore the club doesn't exist and there's no sign. When we're not feeling superior or virtuous we're being blind."
Oh, and then there's
"We're nice, kindly, superior and virtuous, the newspapers insist. They add with a touch of pride that we're maybe drab and colorless. It's a great thing to see the kindly types kicking in each other's heads every night. Once in a while, like when they suspend the local hockey star. thousands of polite drab people go on a screaming, howling rampage twenty-hour hours of smashing and looting."
The last is, presumably, a reference to the Richard riot of March 17, 1955. Popular memory regards the riot as an example of Montrealers' love for hockey or a watershed moment in French Canadian nationalism. It's part of Canada's "heritage," that self-preening substitute for history, and I like Sanderson's knocking it off its sentimental pedestal.

(Read more about Douglas Sanderson courtesy of my landsman Kevin Burton "Thrilling Detective Website" Smith.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Kansas City Confidential: Good, evil, and Donald Westlake

Kansas City Confidential (1952), a movie about an innocent man caught up in a heist who must then fight to clear his name, has to be an interesting case study in the conflicting pressures American movie makers faced in the 1950s.

On the one hand, its plot is as noir as noir gets: Innocent man with a blot on his past gets caught up in a heist, is arrested, is brutalized by police, loses his job, and must fight to restore his reputation. John Payne does decent work as the innocent man, fairly believable when he has to get tough. (And the movie's punch-up scenes are more convincingly tough than corresponding scenes in other movies of the time.)

On the other, the movie's love interest and redemption-soaked ending are so thoroughly unconvincing, so obviously at odds with everything else, that it's easy to disregard them and to enjoy the good stuff.   The gulf between the redemption and the evil got me thinking about, and appreciating, the balance that moviemakers of the time must have had to strike between getting their dark visions on the screen, and making them morally acceptable in a conservative age.

Neville Brand
Maybe the era's social pressure to clearly delineate good and bad is responsible for the movie's splendid trio of heisters, played by Neville Brand, Jack Elam, and a young Lee Van Cleef. These guys are like crowd figures in a Northern Renaissance Crucifixion painting. You know they're evil just by looking at them.

Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about Kansas City Confidential for crime fiction readers is spotting the bits that Donald Westlake had to have picked up from the movie: The discord among criminals. The getaway car that drives up inside a tractor-trailer after a heist.  The caper masterminded by a disgraced former high-ranking police officer, a device Westlake used to great effect in The Score.   The movie's narrative arc is also similar to those of many of the Parker novels Westlake wrote under his Richard Stark name: We see a robbery being planned, but the real action happens after the heist. I wouldn't call Kansas City Confidential a heist film, though, because the pre-heist planning part of the story is given little attention.

(Westlake was a sharp observer of and commentator on popular culture. I don't know if he wrote about Kansas City Confidential, but I do know that the first place I'd look is The Getaway Car,  that recent collection of Westlake's nonfiction from the University of Chicago Press.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

Labels: , , , , ,

Saturday, December 05, 2015

William McIlvanney is dead

William McIlvanney and me at Crimefest Bristol
in 2013. Photo courtesy of Ali Karim.
I am shocked and saddened that the great Scottish author William McIlvanney has died.

McIlvanney's three novels about Glasgow Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw — Laidlaw (1977), The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983), and Strange Loyalties (1991) — are the answer to anyone who needs proof that literary fiction can be tough, gritty, and unpretentious, or that crime writing can be beautiful, affecting, and a portrait of its time and place that deserves to last.

McIlvanney's sympathy with his low and not so lowlife characters was heart-rending and funny at the same time, and he made Glasgow his own in a way no other crime writer has done with a city, not Chandler with Los Angeles or Lawrence Block with New York or Jean-Claude Izzo with Marseille.

And oh, how he could make the oldest of hard-boiled crime fiction clichés seem new. The protagonist waking up drunk. The murder scene narrated from the killer's point of view. The police officer who sits around feeling bleak. The angry, nervous, fretting parent of a missing child. McIlvanney could make all seem like something you'd never read before.

He was a fluent and commanding speaker on stage at conventions, and a modest and jovial presence at the hotel bar, and I know of no other author regarded with such respect and affection by his fellow writers. Here's the Telegraph's obituary and appreciation. Here's a link to all Detectives Beyond Borders posts about McIlvanney. And here are a few of my favorite bits from the Laidlaw books:
"(H)e recognized the inimitable decor of Milligan's poky flat, a kind of waiting room baroque. 
"The walls were dun and featureless, the furniture was arranged with all the homeyness of a second-hand sale room and clothes were littered everywhere. It wasn't a room so much as a suitcase with doors."
 -- The Papers of Tony Veitch

 "It was Glasgow on a Friday night, the city of stares. ... There were a few knots of people looking up at the series of windows where train departures were posted. They looked as if they were trying to threaten their own destinations into appearing."
-- The Papers of Tony Veitch

" ... his anger was displaced. It was in transit, like a lorry-load of iron, and he was looking for someone to dump it on. His jacket had been thrown on over an open-necked shirt. A Rangers football-scarf was spilling out from the lapels.

 "Looking at him, Laidlaw saw one of life's vigilantes, a retribution-monger. For everything that happened there was somebody else to blame, and he was the very man to deal with them. Laidlaw was sure his anger didn't stop at people. He could imagine him shredding ties that wouldn't knot properly, stamping burst tubes of toothpaste into the floor. His face looked like an argument you couldn't win."
 -- Laidlaw 

 "I've seen it go about its business all too often — all those trials in which you can watch the bemusement of the accused grow while the legal charade goes on around him. You can watch his eyes cloud, panic and finally silt up with surrender. He doesn't know what the hell they're talking about. He can no longer recognize what he's supposed to have done. Only they know what they're talking about. It's their game. He's just the ball."
 -- Strange Loyalties
"`Ma lassie's missin.' 
"`We don't know that, Mr. Lawson. ... She could've missed a bus. She wouldn't be able to inform you. She could be staying with a friend.'
"`Whit freen'? Ah'd like tae see her try it?' 
"`She is an adult person, Mr. Lawson.' 
"`Is she hell! She's eighteen. Ah'll tell her when she's an adult. That's the trouble nooadays. Auld men before their faythers. Ah stand for nothin' like that in ma hoose. Noo whit the hell are yese goin' to do aboot this?'" 
-- Laidlaw
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

Labels: , ,

Don't tinker with Parker unless you're Richard Stark

Here's an old post about a problematic movie adaptation of Richard Stark's Parker instead of the new post I wanted to write about one of the Parker novels. What's the connection? One of my complaints about Parker, the 2013 Jason Statham movie based on Stark's 2000 novel Flashfire, is the filmmakers' efforts to make Parker more sympathetic. Stark made occasional such efforts when he brought Parker back to life in 1998 after a 24-year hiatus. One of the most notable is the final chapters of Breakout, which, however, are harrowing and wistful in the manner of a lonesome country ballad, rather than cheap, in the manner of a shitty romantic comedy.
I don't know the politics of Hollywood movie making, but it sure looks to me as if Parker, based on Richard Stark's novel Flashfire, was designed less to render Stark faithfully on screen than it was to show off Jennifer Lopez's character (and her ass).

There's nothing wrong with that justifiably celebrated rear end. But those lower-body close-ups screamed not so much "Sexism!" as they did  "Look at me! No matter what part of me! I'm  a star!"

It's Lopez's presence in the movie, I'm convinced, that accounts for most of the unconvincing light-comic, cheap humanizing, and romantic elements. They're designed to show Lopez off: the reaction shots, the freak outs, the teary bits. She's not terrible, but she can't carry a movie, especially not one whose focus should be elsewhere. Similarly, the movie's not terrible, but it's a lot more a conventional action movie, complete with pro-forma efforts to show that the tough-guy hero is a good guy at heart, than Stark/Westlake/Parker fans probably hoped for. Read the books instead.

(For a scathing review of Parker, complete with links to dissenting opinions, view the excellent Violent World of Parker Web site. Even the positive reviews make exceptions for some of the elements I singled out here: Lopez and the cheap efforts to make Parker more sympathetic.)  

© Peter Rozovsky 2013, 2015

Labels: , , , , , , ,