Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Unfortunate Englishman: Another historical hit from John Lawton

Does John Lawton write spy novels? If so, when did espionage fiction edge over from geopolitical thrills to meditations on identity and personal and national character? Which authors and books are responsible? And does it matter?

John Lawton's Unfortunate Englishman takes thief-turned-spy Joe Wilderness to Berlin at the height of the Cold War, where he is to mediate an exchange of prisoners between Great Britain and the U.S.S.R. The title character is a schlemiel nabbed for his ineptitude as a spy for the British, and the action consists of efforts to swap him for his opposite number and of flashes back and forward between the early and the mid-1960s.

Along the way, we see the Berlin Wall rise before our eyes and Wilderness encounter Nikita Khrushchev on the Soviet leader's (imaginary) solo tour of the city. Two supporting characters in the novel are shot by the Soviets for their activities, but the executions happen off-stage and they make their presence felt through the schlemiel's brief but intense reaction to them. The reticence of the portrayal makes the executions all the more chilling.

This character-based storytelling works in a kind of alchemy with Lawton's closely observed period detail to reinforce the status Lawton built in his Frederick Troy books as quite possibly the best historical novelist we have. Fans of those novels will be happy to know that Troy and his brother Rod make brief appearances in The Unfortunate Englishman.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Monday, May 30, 2016

Join the museum. Beat the crowds. See the good stuff. Ignore the hype.

Photos by Peter Rozovsky
I spent a pleasant late Sunday afternoon at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where I renewed my annual membership and was glad to do so. We owe much of what we know about the ancient world to scholars and archaeologists who worked out of that institution, notably James B. Pritchard and S.N. Kramer, and, if the museum were in New York or Chicago, it would be even better known. (Philadelphia would rather brag about being the headquarters of a company with possibly the worst reputation for customer service in the country and for being home to a lot of restaurants with hipster names.)

The only sobering bit of the visit was more evidence of what American museums must resort to in the face of declining public support and a population that would rather send text messages. Museums have naturally had to temper their educational and aesthetic concerns in favor of commercial considerations, which has led science museums to mount special exhibitions with titles like "The Science Behind Pixar," presumably with hefty support from the corporations involved.

At art museums, it means special exhibitions devoted to what sells, which means the Impressionists in every possible combination of artists, patrons, subjects, and sub-subjects. And at the Penn Museum, it means calling its exhibition of art from ancient Phrygia (the heart of what is now Turkey), where teams from the museum have excavated for decades, "The Golden Age of King Midas" and promoting it with a headline that caters to an audience whose attention span has been diminished by click bait: "What was behind the legendary story of King Midas and his Golden Touch?"

Add a trend toward multimedia interactivity (which doubtless means lucrative fees to the consultants that recommend the interactive features and the companies that install them), and it can be difficult to find, contemplate, and be held by the objects. You know, the things that one comes to the museum to look at. And I was not surprised to discover that the books section of the museum shop had been moved to s smaller area, its former corner taken over by souvenirs and other non-book merchandise.

I don't condemn American museums for doing that they must do to survive, but I do mourn the necessity for doing it, and I urge visitors not be discouraged by the flashing lights. Buy museum memberships so you can pop in for an hour or two of quick aesthetic enjoyment. Remember that there is very much more to a good museum that its headline exhibitions. Join the museum. Beat the crowds. See the good stuff.  Ignore the hype.

 © Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Anne Holt, or which crime writers should be in politics?

Anne Holt (Photo for Detectives 
Beyond Borders by Peter Rozovsky)
Kati Hiekkapelto said during a panel on Morality, Society And Justice In Crime Fiction at Crimefest 2016 in Bristol last week that laws were made for middle-class white people. Anne Holt disagreed, invoking the Ten Commandments in citing laws as setting standards toward which humans can aspire.

Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the two authors' résumés might expect as much: Hiekkapelto is an activist for immigrants' and refugees' rights when she's not writing her Anna Fekete crime novels, and Holt's CV includes a stint as Norway's minister of justice. It would be easy to tag Hiekkapelto as the rebel and Holt as the representative of the establishment, especially by the constricted standards of what passes for political discourse in the United States.

One could almost think that Fear Not, whose plot turns in part on an asylum seeker's death, is a Hiekkapelto novel. But it's not; Holt wrote it. Elsewhere during Crimefest, Holt said she bristled at descriptions of her as leftist. Instead, she said, her political passion is human rights.  That tells me that she's no doctrinaire politician, and Wikipedia describes her party, Norway's Labour Party, as social-democratic.

Wouldn't it be cool if Holt were American? She could run for office as a Democrat, and Republicans would find it difficult to attack a candidate who cited the Ten Commandments among the touchstones of her conception of the law.  Even a Republican Senate might be unable to stonewall her nomination forever. And wouldn't it be nice to have a crime writer in the cabinet or the White House?

I wrote after last month's Edgar Awards that Walter Mosley and Sara Paretsky might make a good president-vice president ticket. Anne Holt, provided she could get the citizenship thing straightened out, could be attorney general. What crime writers would you like to see as presidents, prime ministers, or heads of government departments? Call it the Shadow cabinet.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Saturday, May 28, 2016

Back from a land where people read books

A small slice of the history section at Waterstones
Piccadilly bookshop in London. The section extends
to the left beyond the frame of this photo and into
and beyond the range of the next picture. (
Photo by
Peter Rozovsky)
I trekked to Waterstones Piccadilly in London Tuesday evening to see Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Ragnar Jonasson interviewed by Andy Lawrence about their work and about Icelandic crime writing in general, but I was sidetracked by the breadth and height of the store's history section.

Ragnar Jonasson and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir amid more
evidence that  England more literate than the United
States. Note the small sign immediately to Yrsa's
right. She and Ragnar spoke in a part of the store
one over from that in the photo at upper left but
still in the history section.
What you see above/left is larger than the history section of my city's big bookshop, and that's just a part of the section on British history. Other countries, regions, periods, and subjects in history occupy even more space. And Waterstones is not some egghead independent or academic bookstore, it's part of a chain.

It was a pleasure to visit a city that buys books. As a commenter who was visiting the UK at the same time wrote on Facebook:
"B&N whines about Amazon, but I can see that in the UK, they treasure printed books and brick and mortar more because the experience is so very different from the U.S."
The store also has a bar and restaurant on its fifth floor. London is not just more literate than Philadelphia, it also knows better how to show a reader a good time.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Friday, May 27, 2016

Happy birthday, Hammett: Three characters who stay true to their natures

On the occasion of Dashiell Hammett's 122nd birthday, I'll bring back this post a few years ago that takes a common observation about Sam Spade and the Continental Op and applies it to two of The Maltese Falcon's major supporting characters, as well. May this stimulate you to read one of Hammett's great novels or short stories. Happy birthday, Sam.
 Trent Reynolds of the fine Violent World of Parker site mixed criticism and high compliment last month when he wrote of my Dashiell Hammett memorial post that "The Maltese Falcon is the greatest crime novel ever written. Not mentioned in this otherwise excellent post on Hammett."

I'd just read The Glass Key for the first time, so that book dominated my thinking about Hammett. And testimonials from crime writers, including Reynolds' own Donald Westlake, that I included in the post indeed did not mention Hammett's most famous work.

But I'd like to reassure Trent and everyone else that I love The Maltese Falcon, that it induces just as chilling an effect in the reader as does The Glass Key, and that I regard it as at least as great a book. (I'd also suggest that The Maltese Falcon's greatness is so universally acknowledged that the novel may simply be taken for granted in discussions of the best crime novel ever.)

And I'd like to add a thought to the discussion based on my recent rereading of the novel (I finished it last night.)

It's a commonplace that a Hammett hero is defined by his job, and that the job is more than just a way to bring in money. Here's Joe Gores, for example, in Dashiell Hammett Lost Stories:
"Hammett saw the private detective as a manhunter. ... The Hammett hero is on the side of the law but not particularly law-abiding. He has a job to do."
When it came to Sam Spade or the Continental Op, in other words, Hammett made his plan, and he stuck to it.

I realized last night that he did just the same with Brigid O'Shaugnessy and Casper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon. Brigid is a liar from the beginning, her rigid cleaving to her nature reinforced by Spade's early, pointed, and repeated assessments: "You're good." "You're very good." "You're a liar." "That is a lie." She adheres as rigidly to the degenerate moral code that Hammett has drawn up for her as Spade adheres to his more upright one.

Gutman, his composure only fleetingly shattered when he finds the falcon is a fake, is positively joyous when he realizes this means he can resume his globe-hopping quest for the real falcon. He is as true to his nature as Brigid O'Shaugnessy and Spade are to theirs. (Of course, his global quest extends no further than a few blocks from Spade's apartment on Post Street; he gets blown to hell and gone by Wilmer Cook a few pages later.)

But consistency of character, that sense that there is no escaping from one's nature, is part of what makes the book so gripping.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Augustus Mandrell is coming back

Top news from Mike Ripley (left), my table mate at Crimefest 2016's gala dinner: Frank McAuliffe's great international fixer Augustus Mandrell is coming back, courtesy of Ostara Publishing.

Here's part of what I've written about McAuliffe and Mandrell:

I've mentioned the bracing mix of British manners and American sensibilities in Frank McAuliffe's books about Augustus Mandrell. McAuliffe, an American, made Mandrell a kind of outsider, apparently British. This gave him the luxury of observing American ways with amused detachment. Here are some examples from Shoot the President, Are You Mad?:
"There was certain to be some grumbling regarding the issue of `conspiracy' since the American people, despite their impressive history of individual action, appear rather keen on attributing dramatic events, particularly those of an anti-social nature, to shadowy groups."
"[A]s the days passed with still no apprehension of the despicable manufacturer of air conditioners, the president, now enjoying the role of spiritual leader to the electorate ... " 
"`But no class, Man, no class,' the Doctor objected. `They underbid each other. "If Tony will do-a da job for 300 bucks, I'll tell-a you wot. I'll do it for 250, if you buy da bullets." How you going to get class when you're shopping around for the lowest bidder?'

"`My dear Doctor, are you questioning the "free enterprise" system? The very cornerstone of America's greatness?"
McAuliffe also pokes delicious fun at insecure Americans' worship of culinary luxury, having Mandrell issue elaborate instructions to a chef that include "a quarter pound of lean Argentine beef. You chop it into an even consistency and form into into a patty. Fry, over a natural gas flame for eleven seconds per side ... A folded leaf of California lettuce ... place just under the top bun a slice of Bermuda onion, one sliced within the past 12 hours."
"`Clifford,' says Mandrell's puzzled companion, `that concoction you ordered, do you know what it sounded like? One of those dreadful hamburgers the Americans are always eating in their backyards.'

"`Of course, my dear,' I smiled. `I've been dying for one all day. I was but attempting to spare the man the embarrassment of writing `hamburger, with the trimmings' on his pad. He'd have been the laughing stock of the kitchen.'"
Here are all my posts about Mandrell and McAuliffe.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Monday, May 23, 2016

Some pictures from Crimefest 2016

From left: Ian Rankin, your humble blogkeeper, Ali Karim, 
Mike Stotter. This photo by our courteous, efficient, and aesthetically
sensitive waitress. All others by Peter Rozovsky
I'm back in London after the most enjoyable of the six Crimefest I've attended. Highlights included:

Anne Holt
1) Anne Holt's wisdom.

Gin and tonie
2) Hendrick's gin.

Crimefest T-shirts
3) Crimefest's T-shirts, and ...

Susan Moody, Laura Wilson,
Alison Bruce
Ali Karim, Steve Cavanagh
Alan Glynn
Kati Hiekkapelto, Ann Cleeves
Ruth Dudley Edwards
Thomas Mogford, Ian Rankin, Andrew Taylor
Alan Glynn and an inadvertent, unidentified woman
Albert the Gorilla
© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Your humble blogkeeper swings like a pendulum do

Lisa Brackmann
Lisa Brackmann, author of, I think, five crime novels for Soho Press and an energetic and entertaining member of panels I've moderated at Bouchercon, put up a photo of Trafalgar Square on Facebook similar to one I had just posted.

"Are you also here in London?" I asked her in a comment. Turns out she was here to do some events, and I met her and some friends of hers for drinks, dinner, and a club Tuesday night--first time I had visited a club in years. It was an enjoyable and highly unexpected evening on the road to Crimefest, which starts Thursday.

You'll see Lisa in the first photo, but don't be alarmed by her bluish tinge; she's not dead. That was just the lighting at London's 229 club. (I don't have ID's for the musicians, but if anyone from the 229 would pass the information along, I'd be happy to add it.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

London shots

© Peter Rozovsky 2016


Thursday, May 12, 2016

A reason I liked The Sympathizer, or diversity is unity is diversity

A big reason I liked The Sympathizer:

Author Viet Thanh Nguyen's occasional jokes about the cultural differences between the north and the south of Vietnam, including this:
"Besides the simple yet elegant cha-cha, the twist was the favorite dance of the southern people, requiring as it did no coordination."
That makes me want to know about who is what in Vietnam. There's more to the North-South dynamic than communist vs. its opposite, us vs. them, colonial vs. indigenous, or all the rest of the usual dichotomies. Portrayals of tensions and rivalries within cultures unfamiliar to me always make those cultures seem more real and more human. It's why I like Henry Chang's Chinatown novels and Joe Nazel's Street Wars, and also why I like Isaac Babel's Odessa tales and Dashiell Hammett's story "Dead Yellow Women," which, despite a title unlikely to be allowed today, says more on its first page about Chinese social and political diversity in China and in the United States than I suspect many readers are accustomed to thinking about.

 I can well imagine that a minority group might be skittish about presenting divisions to the wider world, but to me that makes those populations seem that much more human. Reminders that no group is monolithic seem especially important in a time when religious and cultural differences are so easily exploited.

Years ago, I staggered into a restaurant in London late one morning, near-exhausted by jet lag. I was the only customer at that hour, Arabic-sounding music was playing, and the waitress was a curvy, henna-haired beauty, so I chatted her up.  The encounter happened several years after after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and as the month of Ramadan drew to a close. Both facts are relevant to what followed:
Me: "What is that music?"|
Waitress: "It's Arabic music."
Me: "I know it's Arabic music. From where?"
Waitress: "It's from my country."
Me: "Where is your country?"
Waitress: "I came from Paris, actually."
Me: "Where were you before you were there?"
Waitress: "Beirut."
Me: "Christian or Muslim?" 
Waitress: (Nervously) "Muslim."
Me: "I ask because it must be hard to serve food all day while you're fasting."
Waitress: (Relaxes and bursts into hearty laughter) "I don't fast during the day, but I sure do party at night."
That might offend some Muslims and make some white liberals squirm, and I'd have hesitated to name the woman or her restaurant in a newspaper story. But I cannot imagine a better lesson in common humanity. And no, she did not party with me that night.

(Read my posts on The Sympathizer and Portnoy's Complaint: One man's squid is another man's liver and The Sympathizer, Part II: Genre, politics, and genre politics.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Sympathizer, Part II: Genre, politics, and genre politics

I've finished reading Viet Thanh Nguyen's Pulitzer- and Edgar-winning novel The Sympathizer, and, while I still don't see how it fits any reasonable definition of crime fiction, I'm still glad Mystery Writers of America gave it the best first novel Edgar Award last month because it's a funny, exciting, and thought-provoking book that I might not have read otherwise.

First, the genre question: Much of The Sympathizer's action is related in the form of a confession written by the narrator-protagonist, but the crimes of which he is accused are political, not criminal. The novel includes two killings of the kind that presumably would have been investigated by local authorities had they happened in the real rather than a fictional California, but there is no such investigation in The Sympathizer. Nor do the protagonist's reaction to and thoughts about those crimes constitute a major component of the narrative. Significant, yes. Thematically dominant, no.

Rather, the novel's generic affinities are from the very first sentence with the espionage novel, which has long led a comfortable co-existence with crime fiction.  Still, I suspect that few readers will regard The Sympathizer as a spy story. Indeed, the subject does not come up in an interview with Nguyen included as an appendix to the Grove Press trade paperback edition of the novel. Rather, the book is a political novel, a novel of immigration, a novel about Vietnam, a novel about the United States, about the perils and exigencies of moving between the two, about the equivocal (at best) nature of revolutions, and, most important, about the illusory nature of binary opposition, whether between American and Vietnamese, European and Asian, communist and its opposite, or what have you.

So how did the book come to the attention of the crime fiction community? One is tempted to imagine genre readers hankering for respectability and grasping a literary novel into their midst, but I think it's at least as likely that publishers and other promoters of "literary" novels grasp at genre labels because they want people to read their books.  I'm not sure that strategy benefits crime readers all the time, but in this case, the result is all to the good, because The Sympathizer is a hell of a book.
Here's Part I of my comments about The Sympathizer. In Part III, I'll tell you why I liked the book, with possibly a quibble or two.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Sunday, May 08, 2016

Heresy at the comics shop

I'm starting to feel more at home when I visit comics stores these days, by which I mean that I can comfortably swap artists' and writers' last names with the proprietors and clerks, and I often know who we're talking about.

But I committed a heresy today when checking out with my purchases of the two hardcover collections you see here. One thing I like about these two books, I said to the woman working the cash register, is that they're nothing but story: no extra crap.

I understand that extra material in hardcover comics collections and trade paperbacks may interest hardcore comicheads, but, as I wrote after reading the "definitive edition" of the fine Queen and Country espionage/soap opera comic, the third omnibus of which collects four fewer issues than do the first two omnibuses:
"The modern comic-book industry sells and resells the same stories, publishing `special editions' and bundling books into collections and collections into mega-collections, adding scripts, sketches and other extras at each step to flesh out the page count and entice potential buyers who have already read the stories elsewhere."
But that didn't matter because the clerk still gave me the sort of frozen smile I'd have got if I'd broken wind at a formal dinner. I got a kick out of her discomfort, but maybe you should be careful about what you say when buying comics.

Back to the books I bought before I farted in the temple: If You Steal by the one-named Norwegian cartoonist Jason, whose Left Bank Gang, which I read a few years ago, brings Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and James Joyce together in Paris as anthropomorphic animals who plan a bank heist (I dare to try to resist that premise), and the first volume of Jacques Tardi 's The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec. Crime fiction readers may know Tardi for his graphic-novel adaptations of Jean-Patrick Manchette's noir classics. I'll report back when I've read them.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Friday, May 06, 2016

The Sympathizer and Portnoy's Complaint: One man's squid is another man's liver

The last time the question of literary vs. genre came up, I suggested that if literary has any meaning with respect to crime fiction, it might apply to crime novels that work as something else as well, whatever that something might be. Qiu Xiaolong's Death of a Red Heroine deserved its place on one recent list of "literary" crime novels, as did Hammett's Red Harvest and James Ellroy's White Jazz,  though the novels are not especially similar. (One thing I'm pretty sure literary does not mean, or at least with which it is not synonymous, is written in ravishing prose. That's why I was skeptical of one fellow commenter's suggestion that James Crumley and James Lee Burke belonged on the list.

(The Barnes and Noble nearest to me shelves Ellroy in mystery and Lee Child in fiction and literature. I'll mention that the next time anyone talks about literary and genre.)

Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer, winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction and Edgar Award for best first crime novel, is one current Great Obliterate the Distinction Between Literary and Genre hope, championed as such in a recent piece that hyperventilated more frantically than most without—naturally—offering any definition of literary. If I can find a link to the damned thing, I'll post it here.

I'm about a third of the way through the novel, and here are some reasons I think it might qualify as something in addition to (not more than) a genre book:
1)  It works its way into its genre-like plot, in this case espionage rather than crime, only slowly, telling us much along the way about the narrator/protagonist and his adventures in Saigon and California (if you say either character-driven or plot-driven, I'll shoot you between the eyes.)

2) Its humor is not just funny, but it also sheds entertaining cultural light, Here the protagonist, a native of northern Vietnam, observing a wedding celebration in California:
"Besides the simple yet elegant cha-cha, the twist was the favorite dance of the southern people, requiring as it did no coordination."

3) It pays tribute to, or at least echoes, another novel of American ethnicity, Portnoy's Complaint, using a squid where Philip Roth used liver.
Read an interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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