Sunday, January 29, 2017

What are you reading to help you cope?

Among my slice of the American population, recent events appear likely to benefit the ACLU and real newspapers. Could they also spark interest in the liberal arts and the humanities in general and history in particular? I mean the sort of thing that offers perspective beyond the capacity of even the most penetrating Tweet.

Montaigne's Essays have been an even greater balm than usual, and Edward Gibbon and Thomas Paine have helped, too. WHAT HAVE YOU READ to help you cope with and at the same time escape the current tumult?

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Stop the presses: Crime stories are no longer just whodunits, or crime novels that transcend transcending the genre

Professor David Schmid has posted a link to an interview whose headline announces that "there's nothing crime fiction can't do." The statement came from Ian Rankin, who proceeds to offer some interesting thoughts on his evolution as a crime novelist, notably his coming more and more to ponder what makes humans commit crimes:
“I think at first my books were whodunits, but as I got more confident about the form and about what the crime novel could do, I thought, ‘Well there’s nothing it can’t do.’ If you want to talk about politics, if you want to talk about society, if you want to talk about good and evil, if you want to talk about big moral issues, big moral questions: here’s the perfect form for doing that.” 
That's an unexceptionable thought, but why, fifty-two years after Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Roseanna first appeared, after decades and decades and decades of Dominique Manotti and Jean-Claude Izzo and Andrea Camilleri and Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and Didier Daeninckx and Carlo Lucarelli and Adrian McKinty and Jean-Patrick Manchette and Leonardo Sciascia and Ross Thomas and Garbhan Downey and Stuart Neville and John McFetridge and Gary Phillips and Alan Glynn, do the article's author, Daneet Steffens, and publication, Lit Hub, think crime novels' ability to do more than tell a whodunit story is so newsworthy as to be the story's main subject and the subject of its headline? And that's not even to mention, say, Georges Simenon, who probed human psychology and the margins of society long before Daneet Stevens discovered that crime stories can be more than whodunits.

This is no knock on Rankin, who singles out some of the authors on my list as noteworthy practitioners of the crime story. The problem is that Steffens and Lit Hub are either ignorant of crime novels' evolution over the past fifty or or so years, or, worse, assume that their readers are so ignorant. At least Lit Hub did not tell us that Rankin's work transcends its genre.

Much more interesting are those crime novelists whose books work as character studies and dissections of society and all those things that intellectually respectable crime novels are supposed to do these days and at the same time are so confident of their writerly chops that their books work as locked-roomed mysteries or whodunits or some other traditional form at the same time. You might say that they transcend transcending the genre.  Adrian McKinty does this in In the Morning I'll Be Gone and Gun Street Girl, part of his Sean Duffy novels.

Or take the traditional English mystery, a genre so out my wheelhouse that I was surprised when I discovered that Martin Edwards, that award-winning practitioner of and expert on traditional mysteries, dealt with certain social problems much more subtly than, say, Stieg Larsson.
"I've just opened Martin Edwards' Waterloo Sunset," I wrote a few years ago, "and I've noticed reflections on urban growth and boosterism, not to mention a character who just might be disturbingly demented. I hadn't expected this from an author who has proclaimed his allegiance to traditional mysteries. Heck, the man even named his novel for a song by the Kinks. 
What are your favorite crime novels that are thoroughly contemporary in subject and tone yet brave enough to explore traditional crime fiction forms at the same time?

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Saturday, January 14, 2017

What makes this great beginning great?

Here's how Lester Dent opens Chapter Three of his 1956 novel Honey in His Mouth:
"The hospital was as noisy a place as Harsh had ever been in."
To my mind that's one of the best opening sentences ever. Do you agree? If so, why? Disagree? If so, why?

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Why "Underworld, U.S.A." is better than "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (the movie)

My recent observation on Facebook about two crime movies turned into a symposium on movies, books, style, history, and other interesting subjects with comments from some of the sharpest crime fiction minds I know. The movies were Underworld, U.S.A. and The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I called the former superior because it wastes fewer words. Here are highlights of what ensued:

Michael Carlson attributed my observation to the writing style of the novel on which Eddie Coyle was based. "That's [George V. ] Higgins," he wrote. "There's more words, but I wouldn't call them wasted."  Fair point, except that the movie isn't Higgins, or at least not just Higgins. It's also Peter Yates, who directed the movie, and Robert Mitchum, who starred. among others.

Mike Dennis, commenting in his Don Donovan persona, called the movie version of Eddie Coyle "IMHO, one of the greatest noirs of all time ... without question, Robert Mitchum's finest hour." He's half-right. Mitchum does what words on a page cannot: His physical eloquence and facial expressions alone make the character. As good as the rest of the movie is, nothing else in it comes close to doing what movies alone can do.  The rest of the movie is at best a good adaptation of a good or great or seminal crime novel.

Underworld, U.S.A., on the other hand, is full of cinematic touches: shots lingering on nervous eyes, atmospheric lighting, and such. Scott Adlerberg, a novelist who lectures regularly on movies, understood this when he wrote:
"I like the Eddie Coyle film, but Underworld, U.S.A. is definitely the better film, in my view. But Sam Fuller is indeed a great director, one of the best crime/action directors of them all, and solid as Peter Yates is, he's no Fuller when it comes to packing a cinematic punch. Still, those two movies are hard to compare because their styles are so different. Fuller's the master of pulpy tabloid style, very kinetic crime stories, and Eddie Coyle is, as said here, the flip side, to all that."
I take Scott's comment as supporting my position for two reasons: One is that he speaks more knowledgeably than I can about Samuel Fuller's superiority as a director. The other is that with the exception of Scott's comments and, to a lesser extent, Mike Dennis/Don Donovan's, the commenters replied to my (perceived) slight of Eddie Coyle the movie by defending Eddie Coyle the book. What does that tell you about the movie?

And that gets to my problem with Higgins and, to a lesser extent, Elmore Leonard. I love any number of crime writers who swear allegiance to Higgins and Leonard -- Charlie Stella, Garbhan Downey, John McFetridge, and Declan Burke, to name a few -- but I've never warmed to Higgins' crime novels, and I don't know why.   Have I grown so accustomed to working-stiff gangsters who can crack a joke without necessarily knowing they're being funny that I fail to appreciate the writer who created the type? Has Higgins perhaps not aged as well as he night have? Your thoughts on the matter are welcome.

In the meantime, here's some of what Stella posted on Facebook:
"You know where I stand on Higgins (you fucking communist!) :) but to be fair, there are a number of his other works I had (to quote William Buckley discussing Atlas Shrugged) “to flog myself” to finish (and some never were finished). That said (you fucking communist!), I’ll have to read the other author you mentioned. The musings on the Boston common, if I’m thinking about the same scene, I’m pretty sure is Dillon (not Doyle) … I read a bio on Higgins last summer (I think) … the guy had issues, no doubt, and he probably would’ve hated me and my politics, but I remain a sycophant to his dialogue and ability to portray what the real world of organized crime was like (very different from the horseshit in The Godfather, for instance)."
And here's what he has to see about Higgins, in a guest post at The Rap Sheet .

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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