Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Stupid blurb bait, thoughtless shorthand comparisons

A recent exchange with Benjamin Whitmer on social media included the following:
Nope, nothing like me.
"An invocation of [Raymond] Chandler in a crime fiction review is often more a reflex than it is a thought, like a knee jerk, a fart, or a belch." 
Me neither.
"[Cormac] McCarthy's almost one on his own now. I mean, I love him, but every damn book that's not set in a major city is McCarthyian." 

Now it's your turn: What authors are fatuously invoked by reviewers who lack the time or the brains to think about what they read? What is the silliest comparison to another author you have read in a view?

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Monday, June 27, 2016

My cover arrives, with a book attached

My copy of Love and Fear, by Reed Farrel Coleman, arrived today, its cover a photo I shot a block from where I work.

I'll be interested in what's under that cover, too, both because Coleman is good at writing emotionally wounded P.I.s, and because the book is part of Orca Books' Rapid Reads line. The series consists of short novels for adults, inspired, Orca says, by the success of its previous books for younger, reluctant readers.

Allan Guthrie's 2007 novella Kill Clock persuaded me that such books can coincide nicely with my own fondness for concise narration in the Hammettian style. So I'll read this book with special interest, though probably more slowly than some readers, because I'll be busy sneaking peeks at the cover.

The first link in this post will take you to the spring 2016 Rapid Reads releases. I also shot the cover for a second book in the series, Linda L. Richards' When Blood Lies.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Man, that Gil Brewer could write

I'm reading The Erotics, a previously unpublished 1970s novel by Gil Brewer, part of a three-fer from Stark House Press. I once ranked Brewer behind Charles Williams and Peter Rabe in my small pantheon of Gold Medal paperback original writers, but Brewer may be moving up. He's almost as good as David Goodis at portraying doomed men, and his prose style is very much better than those of most other writers America was reading in the middle of the last century. (Despite its late date, the novel reads as if if had been written in the 1950s, and I mean that in the best possible way.)

By comparison, I've also been reading some Mickey Spillane and, while Spillane was indeed capable of noir poetry, he can also read like a first draft by a newspaper reporter who had something else on his mind while he was writing. Brewer was a better writer, and he could come up with lines that Spillane might have liked. Here's an example from The Erotics:
"Her name's Bernice. She's a sex-pot. I saw her once. Somebody pointed her out to me. Wow, is all I can say. And Wow again. She's a walking mattress."
 © Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Welcome to Wales, or Malcolm Pryce's alternate crime universe

The 2016 European soccer championships have been a boon for small, unheralded soccer nations. Northern Ireland, Hungary, and Iceland (and now the Republic of Ireland!) have all made it to the tournament's knockout stage, but no team has been a greater surprise than Wales, which, playing in its first major tournament since 1958, won its group. In honor of this small nation's sporting achievement, here's a repeat of one of this blog's small number of posts about Welsh crime writing.
I've discussed fantasy novels from time to time, notably Jasper Fforde's, as well as a science fiction story or two, and I've discovered that I may just have finished one without knowing it, at least if alternate-universe books fall under the rubric of fantasy.

A Wikipedia article describes Malcolm Pryce's Aberystwyth novels as "set in an alternative universe," a description I found helped my thinking about these odd, comic, sometimes poignant books.

I've just finished the second in the series of five, and its title gives a fair sense of the books' tone: Last Tango in Aberystwth. (The rest are Aberystwyth Mon Amour, The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth, Don't Cry for Me Aberystwyth, and From Aberystwyth With Love. The Day Aberystwyth Stood Still is due out this summer.)

The real Aberystwyth is a Welsh university and holiday town whose recorded history dates to 1109. In Pryce's world, it's a summer resort where it's always the off-season, the fashions are never the latest, and a whimsical melancholy pervades everything. ("I walked up Great Darkgate Street and through the castle grounds towards the bed-and-breakfast ghetto down by the harbour. This was where the ventriloquists tended to stay, along with the out-of-work clowns, the washed-up impresarios and the men who ran away from the bank to join the circus. ... Down below I could see Sospan's new kiosk — repositioned and re-established after the short-lived fool's errand of selling designer coffee to a town that hungered only for vanilla.")

Like many hard-boiled worlds, it has its disappointed young women who flock to the big city hoping for stardom but wind up doomed to grimmer fates. Only here, the girls hope to model for the fudge boxes sold to tourists but wind up in "What the Butler Saw" movies. And the diversions available to the residents of this world as they spiral downward manage the difficult double of seeming ridiculous to us (but never to the residents themselves) and affecting at the same time.:

"`Where does someone go in this town when they've reached the bottom and and have nowhere left to go?'

"There are lots of places.'

"`For you, yes! For you there are the bars and the girls and the toffee and the bingo and the whelks. For you there is a great choice. But for her. Ah! but for her? You cannot imagine what this girl was like.'"
If you're a fan of the genre, what are the ingredients of a successful alternative universe?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Monday, June 20, 2016

It's a famille affaire, or What's with all those eccentric alternative households in French crime writing?

My knowledge of French literature is thin, so maybe someone can tell me the reason for and the history of French crime writing's fascination with plucky, eccentric, down at the heels households.

Daniel Pennac's Malaussène novels, Fred Vargas' Adamsberg novels, and, especially, her books featuring the "Three Evangelists" come to mind. More recently, Pierre Lemaitre's The Great Swindle won France's Prix Goncourt for its story of an epic swindle and counter-swindle that revolve around two wretched veterans of World War I who come together for mutual support.

That sort of thing can get precious and sentimental (though Lemaitre weaves it into a harsh look at social fissures and abuse of power in post-war France. Think of The Great Swindle as a meeting of the Pennac-Vargas and the Manchette-Manotti strands of French crime writing.)

But the eccentric-household novels also include something hard to imagine in American or British crime writing: Economically precarious characters, depicted in all their poverty, but without desperation, horror, sloganeering, or proletarian victimhood or nobility. The closest that Vargas' Dog Will Have His Day comes to the last of these is a passing reference to the protagonists' having come together in a tumble-down house after a recession. (Dog Will Have His Day, published in French in 1996 but not translated into English until 2014, is a sequel to The Three Evangelists, two of whom appear here.)

These characters don't drink themselves to death, and they don't turn up frozen in the street. A character loses her home, and she simply moves in with another character. Unlike their unfortunate counterparts in crime writing from other countries, these characters have driving passions, or eccentricities, that earn them a modest living, keep their minds engaged, or both.  The protagonist of Dog Will Have His Day is a former government functionary who is driven to compile journalistic dossiers and solve mysteries.  Each of the three evangelists, so called because their names are Marc, Mathieu, and Lucien, is a historian with a greater than usual devotion to the period he studies. (I like to think Vargas uses Marc, the medievalist who is a featured sidekick in Dog Will Have His Day, to poke some good-natured fun at her own work as an archaeologist of the Middle Ages.)

So, what's with the eccentric households? Are they too twee for words? Or are they brave declarations that poverty need not mean intellectual or physical death?

Read the Detectives Beyond Borders interviews with Fred Vargas and with her translator, Sian Reynolds.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Stuart Neville isn't as good a writer as you think he is; he's better: A look at his next book

Back in 2010, I wrote about the clever and effective chiasmus in Stuart Neville's second novel, Collusion.

A chiasmus, as I wrote at the time, is a literary figure in which a phrase includes a list of concepts, and the following phrase repeats those concepts in reverse order — the old A-B-B'-A' form (or A-B-C-D-D'-C'-B'-A' and so on). The Bible uses chiasmus all the time, and so did Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson. And Alexander Pope ("His time a moment, and a point his space," Essay on Man, Epistle I. ). Neville's extended chiasmus in Collusion ran thus:
"`I've been called lots of things. Smith, Murphy, Tomalty, Meehan, Gorman, Maher, I could go on.' He leaned forward and whispered, `There's some people say I'm not even really a Pavee.'

"A dead mask covered O'Kane's face. `Don't get smart with me, son. I'm a serious man. Don't forget that. I'll only warn you the once.'

"The Traveler leaned back and nodded. `Fair enough. But I'm a serious man too, and I don't like answering questions. You'll know as much about me as I want you to know.'

"O'Kane studied him for a moment. `Fair enough. I don't care if you're a gypsy, a traveler, a knacker, a tinker, or whatever the fuck you lot call yourselves these days. All I care about is the job I need doing. Are you the boy for it?'"
Collusion was Neville's second book; So Say the Fallen, to be published in September, is his seventh, and I have yet to discover a chiasmus in it. But I did find, in the novel's very first paragraph, further evidence that Neville pays more attention to writing well than most writers do, that the themes commenters note most often in his writingguilt, sin, suspense, racking internal conflict—make themselves clear not just at story level, but in the very structure of his sentences.

I haven't seen a finished copy of the book yet, so I can't quote the paragraph here. What I can tell you is that it achieves exactly what I said the Collusion chiasmus does. It lends the passage in which it occurs
"weight and rhythm and a fair bit of grim humor, too. Most of all, it makes the reader sit up and pay attention, alert for what comes next."
Reviewers, readers, and blurbsters quite rightly praise Neville for the ends he achieves: the suspense, the emotion, the characters for whom sins of the past are anything but dead. Why do so few people notice the means by which he achieves those ends?
(Adrian McKinty, Neville's friend, co-editor, and fellow Northern Ireland crime writer, sheds some light on this question in a post called "Genre Fiction and Bad Prose" at his Psychopathology of Everyday Life blog, http://adrianmckinty.blogspot.com/2016/06/genre-fiction-and-bad-prose.html)

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Thursday, June 09, 2016

Why you should cop The Plea

Steve Cavanagh, seen previously in this space as author of the hyper-kinetic legal thriller The Defence (published in the U.S. as The Defense) and as an enthusiastic participant in highjinks at Crimefest, is back with The Plea, another legal thriller that is just as fast and just as much fun as both.

It's tempting to compare The Plea's construction to its protagonist's personality. That protagonist, Eddie Flynn, is a con man turned lawyer who makes good use of the tricks he learned in his former profession. Cavanagh loves to put Flynn in ticking-clock situations, making him work with a time bomb strapped to his chest in The Defence, or under the gun to avert a federal indictment hanging over his wife's head in The Plea.

Steve Cavanagh (right) in conversation with Ali Karim at Crimefest 2016. (Photo by Peter Rozovsky for Detectives Beyond Borders)
That means Flynn must do much of his legal work at the last minute and by the seat of his unpressed pants. Though he occasionally guesses wrong, Flynn is a brilliant lawyer and advocate. (Cavanagh is a lawyer in  his day job, albeit in Northern Ireland rather than in New York, where he sets the books. He knows how to convincingly capture the texture, the give and take, and the dilemmas of legal procedure.)

That's Eddie Flynn, the lawyer. Steve Cavanagh, the writer, plants twists and surprises at the end of almost every action-jammed chapter, ramping up the pressure on the characters and speeding the reader along like Eddie Flynn with a bomb on his bod. But, like Flynn, who almost always has a brilliant legal stroke lurking beneath the mayhem, Cavanagh plots his novels with great cunning, liberally sprinkling the story with small observations that bear narrative fruit many chapters later. He also knows just when to slow the action down for a bit of back story or exposition. 

Though The Plea is primarily a thriller, it has enough misdirection and wrong guesses to qualify as a mystery. More than most crime novels, it gives the lie to the silly distinction between plot-driven and character-driven.  Flynn, highly moral if ethically dubious, brilliant, subject to wrenching crises that, however, take place mainly off the page, is a lovable, admirable protagonist and pretty near an ideal hero. But the attributes would be nothing without the action, and the reverse is also true.
In addition to The Defense and The Plea, Cavanagh has a fine story in Akashic Books' Belfast Noir collection, edited by Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville. His Eddie Flynn novella The Cross is available in the UK.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Wednesday, June 08, 2016

What Kirkus didn't tell you: Three more new crime novels you can read this summer

Kirkus Reviews recently published a list of twenty crime novels due for publication this summer and recommended for your consideration. It's not a bad list, but here are three novels that it missed:

1) Paradime, by Alan Glynn (Picador U.S. August/Faber U.K. May) Reviewers have invoked James Ellroy and John le Carré when discussing Alan Glynn, and if I squint and hold my head at the right angle, I can see resemblances. But Glynn's new novel is a lot more like David Mamet's 1997 movie The Spanish Prisoner than it is like anything by Ellroy and or le Carré. The novel's fever-dream narration is intoxicating, its first section in particular a kind of contemporary nightmare picaresque. (A worker for a private military contractor in Afghanistan witnesses a shocking incident, comes back to New York City, discovers that the incident won't leave him alone, and finds aspects of the result a strangely attractive escape — addictive, even.)

The novel shares some themes with Glynn's previous books, The Dark Fields (also published as Limitless), Winterland, Bloodland, and Graveland: alienation, paranoia, helplessness in the face of corporate and government power, and the uncertainty of boundaries between the two. But the action centers more on the protagonist than it does in the earlier novels, with distant but distinct echoes of mid-twentieth-century American noir. The book also seems carefully constructed, full of epiphanies that shed shocking new light on earlier scenes. And that may be one more mark of its kinship with The Spanish Prisoner.

2) One or the Other, by John McFetridge (ECW Press, August). I know of no crime writer who writes about suburbs and people who live there with the respect that McFetridge does, even though his books are set mostly in cities: Toronto and, in his three most recent novels, Montreal. But I also know of no crime writer who writes more vividly about cities, and who integrates character, crime, and history as seamlessly as McFetridge.

McFetridge's empathy with his protagonist, a young police constable named Eddie Dougherty, may remind readers of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels, but McBain never had anything like McFetridge's eye for the way big events and individual lives intersect, the lives always more important than the events. McFetridge's Dougherty books, of which One or the Other is the third, following Black Rock and A Little More Free, don't try to transcend any genre, but I can easily imagine that they would appeal to readers who love to empathize with characters and wonder about everyday lives lived in tumultuous times, whether or not the stories involve crime.

3) A Quiet Place, by Seicho Matsumoto (Bitter Lemon Press, August U.S./June UK) Too many invocations of one crime writer to describe another are silly, but Matsumoto really is reminiscent of Georges Simenon. This is true especially in his portrayals of dogged, unexceptional characters, bewildered, sometimes to the point of pathos, as they navigate the consequences of crimes they understand only dimly.

Matsumoto died in 1992, and little of his large output has been translated into English, so any new publication is welcome. A Quiet Place is a noirish tale full of sparing but sharp observations and pointed critiques of postwar Japanese society. The novel is reminiscent in that respect of Matsumoto's Points and Lines, which I named one of my favorite international crime novels in the first Detectives Beyond Borders post back in 2006.  The novel's close examination of a setting observed by the protagonist as he travels through it may remind readers of Akira Kurosawa's classic crime movie Stray Dog or of work by the contemporary Japanese crime writers Keigo Higashino and Fuminori Nakamura.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Thursday, June 02, 2016

A Quiet Place: More Matsumoto to be released in English this summer

Too many invocations of one crime writer to describe another are silly, but Seicho Matsumoto really is reminiscent of Georges Simenon. This is true especially in his portrayals of dogged, unexceptional characters, bewildered, sometimes to the point of pathos, as they navigate the consequences of crimes they understand only dimly.

Matsumoto died in 1992, and little of his large output has been translated into English, so any new publication is welcome. A Quiet Place, out this summer from Bitter Lemon Press, is a noirish tale full of sparing but sharp observations and pointed critiques of postwar Japanese society.

The novel is reminiscent in that respect of Matsumoto's Points and Lines, which I named as one of my favorite international crime novels in the first Detectives Beyond Borders post back in 2006.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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