Tuesday, August 30, 2016

My Bouchercon 2016 panel: Charles Williams: Out of luck because he wrote too well?

Why is Charles Williams not better known? Could it be that his writing was too good?

Anthony Boucher wrote that Williams'
"striking suspense technique ... may remind you of [Cornell] Woolrich; the basic story, with its bitter blend of sex and criminality, may recall James M. Cain. But Mr. Williams is individually himself in his sharp but unmannered prose style and in his refusal to indulge in sentimental compromises."
"Sharp but unmannered." Williams' novels don't abound in quotable lines (there are no bad lines, either, at least in the eleven of Williams' twenty-two novels that I've read), but he knew that a writer's job is to write good books, not good sentences. His novels lack the political pandering that found its way into books by, say, Mickey Spillane and Stephen Marlowe, and he didn't write from hell, the way Jim Thompson or David Goodis or Harry Whittington (sometimes) did. His protagonists are more or less regular guys, physically strong, good at working with their hands, but they don't hit you over the head with what regular guys or what brutes they are, either. Williams' books are full of good jokes without ever patting themselves on the back for their wit, and they show no signs of the haste that sometimes appears in even the best books from other terrific Gold Medal authors.

Williams wrote suspense with an edge hard enough to make himself a star at Gold Medal books, and he wrote fluently, cleanly, and well enough to have written for the slick magazines. It's hard to imagine any of the other Gold Medal authors, with the possible exception of John D. MacDonald, writing books as good, as convincing, and as far from their authors' normal hard-boiled style as Williams' The Diamond Bikini and Uncle Sagamore and His Girls.

The Wikipedia entry on Williams is notable for who talks about Williams and what they say. And Bill Crider is right that "there’s no such thing as a bad Charles Williams novel."
Eric Beetner will offer some remarks about Charles Williams n as part of a panel I'll moderate at Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans in September. The panel is called "From Hank to Hendrix: Beyond Chandler and Hammett: Lesser Known Writers of the Pulp and Paperback Original Eras," and it happens at 9 a.m., Thursday, Sept. 15, at the Marriott, 555 Canal St., New Orleans. The room is LaGalleries 1. See you.  

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Saturday, August 27, 2016

Elevator to the Gallows and jazz in movies: What a little soundtrack can do

"Elevator to the Gallows" poster, photo by Peter
Rozovsky for Detectives Beyond Borders
Louis Malle's first feature film, Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l'échafaud), released in 1958, has to be one of the better mixes of noir substance and stylish noir trappings ever.

In the realm of style, there are night scenes, rain, Jeanne Moreau walking the streets of Paris on a fruitless quest, and a roadside motel (charmingly explained and defined by one character for another, presumably for the benefit of mid-century French audiences unfamiliar with the phenomenon of motels), and a score by Miles Davis.

In the realm of gut-clenching noir substance, there are misunderstandings that push people over the edge, doomed runaway lovers, low-life thieves, and characters whose alibis for crimes of which they are falsely accused put them squarely in the fame for crimes they committed.  (Bits of the movie may remind Dashiell Hammett fans of "The Golden Horseshoe.") Elevator to the Gallows is one of the rare films noirs I have seen that I thought would make a good book. (It is in fact based on a novel by Noël Calef, otherwise unknown to me.)

In re stylish noir trappings, the score and Malle's use of it especially impressive. Miles Davis wrote the music, played by a five-piece band that included Davis and drummer Kenny Clarke, so you know the soundtrack was bound to be good. Cool jazz, just because it is cool and understated, makes a nice, ironic counterpoint to moments of high tension on the screen.    The long stretches without music, in which the only sounds are dialogue and ambient noise, compel attention to the action. And when the music comes in, it trusts the viewer to experience the story without any sonic nonsense such as furious pounding on the cymbals to let the viewer know he or she is supposed to feel tension.

(Hear Miles Davis play and Louis Malle discuss (in French) the soundtrack to Elevator to the Gallows.  And here's a list of the twenty best jazz soundtracks in movie history. The list ranks Elevator to the Gallows fourth.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Detectives Beyond Borders writes intro to hot new crime book!!!

Does Nordic crime leave you cold? Do you like your beach reading sandy rather than Scandi? The sun better than lots of guys named -sson? 

Maybe you prefer your protagonists heat-baked and lethargic rather than shivering and morose? Or perhaps you want your crime fiction to do more than rip away the gleaming facade of the welfare state to reveal the hypocrisy that lies beneath. If so, boy, do have the crime fiction collection for you.

Sunshine Noir hits e-readers near you next week and bookstores in mid-September. If you're going to Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans, you just might find some copies there.

Annamaria Alfieri and Michael Stanley put the volume together, and the book includes stories by Robert Wilson, Jason Goodwin, Colin Cotterill, Paul Hardisty, Nick Sweet, Leye Adenle, Susan Froetschel, Greg Herren, Barbara Nadel, Richie Narvaez, Tamar Myers, Kwei Quartey, Ovidia Yu, Timothy Williams, and Jeffrey Siger, plus a word from Tim Hallinan and, in the British edition, from Peter James.

I'm in there, too; I wrote the book's introduction, a little thing I called "Clime Fiction." I quite like it, and I hope you'll enjoy it, too, along with some pretty good stories.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016


Monday, August 22, 2016

Detectives Beyond Borders makes the news in Australia

The Mercury Sunday Tasmanian I've never been to Tasmania, but I made it into this week's Saturday Mercury newspaper of Hobart, capital of that hospitable Australian island. 

The occasion is a profile of David Owen, a Tasmania-based crime writer whose novels featuring Franz "Pufferfish" Heineken I have enjoyed for years.  The writer, Sally Glaetzer, overstates my radio experience, but she does a hell of a job with the article, very much better than what newspapers generally do when they deign to notice crime writers. I thought I knew Owen and his work fairly well, but Glaetzer's piece told me things I had not known before, about his political activity in South Africa, for instance.

Here's the article. Here's my review of Owen's most recent novel, 13-Point Plan for a Perfect Murder.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Michael Gilbert, Charles Williams, and writing what you know (My Bouchercon 2016 panel)

The estimable Laura Lippman once said that the old advice to write what you know had served her poorly in one of her own embryonic, excessively autobiographical early efforts. "Write what you know," Lippman said, is "well-intentioned, but it's poorly put. [Better to] write what you want to know about."

But knowledge, wielded with discretion and with the aim of telling a good story always in mind, can serve crime writers well. Michael Gilbert was both a lawyer (a solicitor, to be precise), and a prolific and much-honored crime writer. Gilbert's novel Smallbone Deceased (1950), about a dead body that turns up in a solicitors' office, not only wrings a convincing mystery out of the minutiae of conveyancing, but it also includes some delightful jabs at the foibles of law as practised in a Lincoln's Inn solicitors' firm. And that makes of the novel a social comedy in addition to a mystery.

Back in America, that great writer of paperback originals (and some hardbacks, too, I think) Charles Williams devoted a considerable chunk of his output to crime novels set in the world of sailing and featuring lone-wolf, man-on-the-run sailor protagonists. His titles in this category include Scorpion Reef, Aground, Dead Calm, And the Deep Blue Sea. and The Sailcloth Shroud.

A boat with two or three people aboard (or three at first, then two) makes a great setting for a locked-room mystery. If the ship sails between and outside various nations' territorial waters, one has built-in ingredients of international intrigue. The tension between the different demands of life on ship and life ashore adds another element not present in mysteries set solely on dry land. And the minutiae of shipboard life, like the minutiae of the law in Michael Gilbert's novels, become both a plot element and an exciting new setting for the reader.

Williams served ten years in the Merchant Marine and later worked at a shipyard. Is the picture his novels offer not just of shipboard life, but of life aboard several distinct types of ships authentic? Who knows; authenticity is not fiction's job. But the books sure are convincing. Now, your turn: What are your favorite crime stories in when the author's mastery of given subject makes the book what it is?
Martin Edwards will discuss Michael Gilbert and Eric Beetner will say a few words about Charles Williams on a panel I'll moderate at Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans next month. The panel is called "From Hank to Hendrix: Beyond Chandler and Hammett: Lesser Known Writers of the Pulp and Paperback Original Eras," and it happens at 9 a.m., Thursday, Sept. 15, at the Marriott, 555 Canal St., New Orleans. The room is LaGalleries 1. See you. The Fantastic Fiction Web site includes bibliographies for both Michael Gilbert and Charles Williams.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Monday, August 15, 2016

Richard S. Prather and Stephen Marlowe, or What are your favorite author team-ups and cross-overs?

As much as I love Richard S. Prather's extravagant descriptions of luxuriantly appointed women ("She'd just turned twenty one, but had obviously signaled for the turn a long time ago."), they can wear thin over the length of a novel. And the one book by Stephen Marlowe I had tried to read before last week gave me a headache with its political yammering.

But when Prather's Shell Scott and Marlowe's Chester Drum teamed up for Double in Trouble in 1959, the excess flew out the window, each author concentrated on what I presume he did best, and the contrast between the ebullient Scott and the somber Drum provides extra fun.  Marlowe's descriptions of women who catch Drum's eye seem touchingly chaste next to Prather's enthusiasm, for one. (The novel alternates chapters narrated by Scott and Drum. I assume Prather wrote the Scott chapters and Marlowe the Drums, but who knows? Maybe each took a stab at the other's style.)

I don't know Marlowe's style well enough to judge whether he altered it all for Double in Trouble. But one of Prather's descriptions leavens the joy with a bit of concern. The result is just beautiful, screwy but affecting and empathetic, and it may be my favorite description of them all:
"She was a big, healthy tomato with plenty of tomato juice in her, but somehow without all the usual seasonings."
Your turn now. What are your favorite crime-fiction collaborations, particularly if they involve both authors' characters teaming up? Why do you like them?

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Tommy Red and Charlie Stella

New Jersey's own Charlie Stella holds unsound views about bagels, but he writes good books.

His latest, Tommy Red, is a bit more somber than his previous eight novels, but that only adds to the impression that Stella's low- to mid-level gangsters and cops are people, too, worried about their families, about the future, about the jobs they have to do.

Charlie Stella. Photo by
Peter Rozovsky for
Detectives Beyond Borders.
By no means, though, is Stella any kind of a believer in moral equivalence. His anger against law enforcement use of informants is an undertone throughout his books, sometimes boiling over into righteous explosions.

But the situational jokes outnumber the explosions. I've written about all his novels; read my blog posts here. Then read the books and enjoy the jokes. And pity their author, who has yet to taste a Montreal bagel.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016


Sunday, August 07, 2016

My Bouchercon 2016 panel: Meet Peter Rabe

Peter Rabe's gangster/fixer characters seem driven toward confrontations with their bosses that do not generally end well (though Daniel Port, the political fixer of the Glass Key-like Dig My Grave Deep, [1956] survived his confrontation long enough to feature in a series of novels.)

The Box (1962), A Shroud for Jesso (1955), and, believe it or not, Kill the Boss Good-By (1956), also turn on conflicts between ambitious underlings and the top men who punish them or stand in their way.   Can you imagine what sort of father-figure  psychobabble Ross Macdonald would have wrung out of material like that?  Rabe, a trained and practicing psychologist, on the other hand, avoided Macdonald's embarrassing amateur Freudianism, concocting instead stories of men who, while not necessarily trapped, just do what they have to, as dictated by their temperament, or circumstances, or ambition.

It's harder to find crime-fiction parallels for Rabe than it is for some authors, perhaps because, with two exceptions, Rabe said his influences came from outside crime fiction. (One of those two exceptions was Dashiell Hammett, so you know he had good taste.)

If you don't know Rabe or his work, this 1989 interview with him is a good place to start. If you do know Rabe, you may find his admiring comments about Donald Westlake especially interesting. Rabe also comes across as surprisingly genial for a man whose life included escape from Germany to avoid the Nazis, a false diagnosis of a terminal disease, several marriages and divorces, and ups and downs in his writing career that eventually led him so stop writing for publication. The man seems to have been pretty well adjusted for a psychologist.

Rick Ollerman will talk about Peter Rabe as part of my panel called "From Hank to Hendrix: Beyond Chandler and Hammett: Lesser Known Writers of the Pulp and Paperback Original Eras" at Bouchercon 2016. It happens at 9 a.m., Thursday, Sept. 15, at the Marriott, 555 Canal St., New Orleans, Room LaGalleries 1.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016 

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Friday, August 05, 2016

DBB meets Dolores Hitchens

I first read Dolores Hitchens while preparing for a panel I moderated at Bouchercon 2014 in Long Beach, the first of my Beyond Chandler and Hammett sessions focusing on lesser-known crime writers from the middle of the twentieth century. Hitchens will be among the subject of this year's version of the panel at Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans next month, and this pre-Long Breach post captures nicely why I like these panels so much: I get to read, experience, and come to grips with authors new to me.

A friend sent along Dolores Hitchens' 1955 novel Sleep With Strangers because of its setting in Long Beach, site of Bouchercon 2014. Indeed, the book is even more evocative of its setting than is that other great Long Beach crime novel, Paul Cain's Fast One.

Hitchens is new to me, so naturally I start out thinking of her in terms of other crime writers her work evokes, and those writers are two of the best.  Hitchens' compassion for characters who lead marginal existences reminds me of David Goodis, particularly The Street on the Corner [At this late date, I don't remember if I meant The Blonde on the Street Corner or The Street of No Return. The latter, I suspect.] and Cassidy's Girl, and her dissection of family life in California brings to mind The Big Sleep. (Ed Gorman's discussion of Sleeps With Strangers invokes Ross Macdonald. I've never warmed to Macdonald, but I suspect that what Gorman sees as Macdonaldish is what I see as Chandlerlike. In any case, that's another illustrious name associated with Hitchens.)

The novel's opening is an atmospheric, moody, tension-filled inversion of the usual scene in which a P.I. meets a client, and it hooked me on Hitchens right away. (The client is named Kay Wanderley.  "Wonderly," of course, is the name Brigid O'Shaughnessy uses when she first calls on Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Homage? Coincidence? Either way, it's more good fictional company for Dolores Hitchens.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2014, 2016

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Thursday, August 04, 2016

My Bouchercon 2016 panel: Odds Against Tomorrow

The New York Times was right: William P. McGivern's 1957 men-on-the-run novel Odds Against Tomorrow is "a powerfully exciting action-melodrama." Let's look at the last part of that description.

Melodrama fell out of favor in the middle of last century, perhaps after French movie critics came up with a fancier name for the mid-century American movies that were called melodramas when they first appeared. The French called them films noirs and unleashed a wave of cultural cachet that swept up everything in its path.

So, what's melodramatic about Odds Against Tomorrow?: Two men, one white, one black, thrown together when a bank heist goes wrong and forced to overcome mutual hatred and suspicion and yadda, yadda, yadda (McGivern's novel was the basis of the 1959 movie starring Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan and produced by Belafonte.)  What saves the novel from being a brave, dated relic? Astonishing characterization like this:
"He wasn't worried about failure, because he didn't have the imagination to picture disaster in vivid and personal terms."
The taut professionalism of McGivern's work. The repetition of certain words that work through, with, under, and around the narrative, reinforcing it and building suspense: Confused. Confusion. Unconscious (impressions).  Co-protagonist Earl Slater's invocation of his military background. Johnny Ingram's cool. Some delicious plotting, much of it involving the interpersonal dynamics between Slater and Ingram.  The canny decision to add a brief coda so the novel does not end on the somewhat schmaltzy note that brings the main action to a close.  McGivern knew what he was doing.

(Poster by Jon Jordan)
(McGivern also wrote the novels on which the movies Rogue Cop and Fritz Lang's classic The Big Heat were based.)
Eric Beetner will discuss William McGivern as part of a panel I'll moderate at Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans in September. The panel is called "From Hank to Hendrix: Beyond Chandler and Hammett: Lesser Known Writers of the Pulp and Paperback Original Eras," and it happens at 9 a.m., Thursday, Sept. 15, at the Marriott, 555 Canal St., New Orleans. The room is LaGalleries 1. See you.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Tuesday, August 02, 2016

My Bouchercon 2016 panel: The Scene, by Clarence Cooper Jr.

Clarence Cooper Jr.'s 1960 novel The Scene is so harrowing and so heartbreaking in places that a careless reader might be tempted to call the novel authentic and leave it at that.

Cooper was a heroin addict who spent much of his short life in prison, and the scene of the novel's title is a neighborhood and a state of being not just controlled but defined by heroin.  Cooper may well have written out of firsthand knowledge, but what makes The Scene great are the sympathetic detachment it displays toward its many significant characters, its cunningly fragmented narrative, and its sly allusions to crime fiction conventions.

It takes a gifted writer to get away with all that. It takes a writer at least bordering on great to get away with all that and make it serve the story the novel has to tell.  It's early days yet, but The Scene may be my crime fiction discovery of the year.

Poster by Jon Jordan
Gary Phillips will discuss Clarence Cooper Jr. as part of a panel I'll moderate at Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans in September. The panel is called "From Hank to Hendrix: Beyond Chandler and Hammett: Lesser Known Writers of the Pulp and Paperback Original Eras," and it happens at 9 a.m., Thursday, Sept. 15, at the Marriott, 555 Canal St., New Orleans. The room is LaGalleries 1. See you all there.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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