Monday, June 26, 2017

My visit with Dashiell Hammett, tough guys' corner, and short-pantsed tourists awed into respectful silence

Dashiell Hammett, who wrote a few good crime novels and stories, served in the Army in World Wars I and II and thus earned himself burial at Arlington National Cemetery.  He's not the only figure buried there who made his name outside the military.

Tough in the ring and out
Lee Marvin is buried right next to Joe Louis. The Wikipedia entry on Marvin makes a statement about Marvin that will seem Marvinlike to fans of his movies. Marvin, Wikipedia says, had been a corporal in the Marines but was busted down to private first class after "causing trouble."

Elsewhere, have you ever seen a crowd of tourists silent, not even yapping away on cellphones? If not, you haven't visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. 

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

Friday, June 16, 2017

James R. Benn, Billy Boyle, and the corporate side of World War II

Jim Benn was a member of a panel I moderated at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany on the subject of "World War II and Sons," and he deserved to be there. His Billy Boyle novels look at World War II through the eyes of a brash but unworldly young man who finds himself on Dwight David Eisenhower's staff during the war. This affords him the chance to travel throughout the war's European and North African theaters and, as Benn says below, to "investigate the lesser-known aspects of the war." The 12th Billy Boyle novel, The Devouring, will be published in September. Benn talks here about the book and what he learned while researching it.

I never imagined the twelfth book in the Billy Boyle series would be set in Switzerland. After all, as Harry Lime told us in the noir classic The Third Man, the only thing the Swiss are famous for is cuckoo clocks. My novels are set during the Second World War, and feature military detective Captain Billy Boyle, who investigates low crimes in high places for General Eisenhower. So how did Billy get to Switzerland in The Devouring (set for release in September 2017)?

This journey began when I was researching the French underground for the 2016 release, Blue Madonna. I stumbled across a brief mention of a group of young Jewish resisters in occupied France who worked to smuggle Jewish children into Switzerland. I’d never heard of that, and it piqued my interest, since I try to investigate the lesser-known aspects of the war. More research led me to Nancy Lefenfeld’s excellent 2013 book The Fate of Others; Rescuing Jewish Children on the French-Swiss border.

What I learned was chilling. 

The Swiss were almost as much the enemy as the Germans. The smuggling operation had to evade German patrols, mines, and barbed wire, and that was only half the trip. The Swiss were not fans of refugees, especially Jewish refugees. At the beginning of the war, Jews on the run from Nazi Germany were defined as non-political refugees and denied entry to Switzerland. In fact, the infamous red J stamped on the passports of German Jews was put there at the request of the Swiss government, to make it easier to sort out Jewish refugees at the border and send them back.C
Entire families who had made the hazardous journey across occupied France and made it across the doubly-guarded border were usually sent back when apprehended in Switzerland. They were even charged car fare to the border, where they were turned over to the Nazis and certain death.

Finally, the Swiss relented somewhat, and decreed that children under sixteen years of age, traveling alone, would not be sent back if they made it across the border alive. Hence the smuggling operation, led by Mila Racine, Simon Lévitte, and others involved in Jewish scouting organizations and Zionist youth movements. They escorted hundreds of children to safety. These valiant efforts were ended by 1943, due to stepped up German patrols and the capture of Mila Racine as she led a group of children.

So, this is not the story I tell in The Devouring. In the world of Billy Boyle it’s June 1944, shortly after D-Day. He’s sent to Switzerland to work with OSS Chief Allan Foster Dulles on Operation Safehaven, a plan to keep German assets in Swiss banks from being used for any post-war Nazi resurgence and to channel such funds into reconstruction efforts.

By German assets, I mean looted gold. Gold looted from conquered nations, gold torn from the teeth of concentration camp victims, gold from crates and crates of wedding rings, gold extorted from the powerless across Europe. Swiss banks colluded with the Third Reich to launder looted gold and enabled Germany to purchase war materials on the international market.

Louis Richard Sosthenes
By Source, Fair use,
Nowhere is the intersection of big business and Nazi Germany more bizarre than that of International Telephone and Telegraph and Focke-Wulf. Created in 1920 by Sosthenes Behn, ITT quickly grew into a giant corporation. Behn acquired a number of German firms in the 1930s, and in 1933 he met with Adolf Hitler. Behn understood how the politics of the Nazi regime worked, and he arranged for cash payments to be made throughout the war, via his German and Swiss contacts, to Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS. His purpose was to ensure that the Third Reich not take over his German holdings. While a US citizen, Behn was not going to let something like a world war interfere with profits.

One of the German firms ITT had a substantial interest in was Focke-Wulf. ITT owned 29% of the German aircraft manufacturer, which produced fighter planes for the Luftwaffe, including the Focke-Wulf 190, a fighter particularly effective against allied bombers. Behn saw substantial profits from Focke-Wulf, and elected to plow them back into the company, making Focke-Wulf even more effective in its production of fighter planes.

Behn may have been betting on a German victory, although his real motivation is unproven. What is known is that he pursued profit above all. In the 1960s, ITT presented a case for compensation from the US government for the damage caused to Focke-Wulf plants (by those allied bombers that survived attacks by the Fw-190 fighter). ITT was awarded $27 million dollars in compensation. Ford and General Motors also won large amounts.

This is the upside-down world of corporate loyalty and greed that Billy Boyle finds himself in as he navigates the mean streets in the old town of Bern, Switzerland, home to Swiss bankers, Gestapo agents, spies of all nations, and Moe Berg, the smartest man in baseball. But that’s a story for another day. 

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

What mistakes do audiobooks make?, Part II

My current audiobook's narrator keeps pronouncing "cache" as if it had two syllables and were spelled "cachet."

I wonder what scrutiny ebooks get. With manuscripts written and stored on computers, it's easy to go back to the beginning of a book and correct an error that occurs throughout. But I don't know how easy it is to correct misreadings in an audiobook. One book I listened to recently had occasional sections obviously recorded separately from the rest. The insertions were noticeable but unobtrusive, and, assuming they correct mistakes, I'm glad the publishers took the time to make them. I'd have been happier if such an insertion had been made in the case of the reader who confused "cache" and "cachet" or in that of the narrator who read "psychic" for "physic."

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Thursday, June 08, 2017

"Yes, I have been drugged, but not by any psychic": What mistakes do audiobooks make?

The quoted bit from this post's title is taken from an Audible audio edition of John Buchan's novel Greenmantle, as read by Felbrigg Napoleon Herriot. The passage is apt to conjure entertaining visions of a storefront card reader conjuring spells, but it's not what Buchan wrote. Here's the passage as it appears in print, highlighting mine:
"'Drugged,' he cried, with a weary laugh. 'Yes, I have been drugged, but not by any physic.' "
But there's more. That book and the same narrator's reading of Mr. Standfast, third of Buchan's Richard Hannay novels, after The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle, include the following:
  • Indegefatigable where Buchan wrote indefatigable
  • Factum where Buchan wrote factotum
  • St. Pacreas at least twice for St. Pancras
  • "Every Boy Scout is am amateur detective and hungry for knowledge. I was followed by several who piled (sic, instead of plied) me with questions."
  • The pronunciation Ameans for Amiens, and Louis Kwinz for Louis Quinze
  • Portmant-yew and tonn-yew for portmanteau and tonneau
  • Chamonoy for Chamonix
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The fifth item on the list reflects English pronunciation of French names. The sixth and seventh are pronunciations neither English nor French. Are they regional pronunciations I don't know? Misapplied erudition on the narrator's part?

Elsewhere, Herriot pronounces row, for a noisy disturbance, correctly, to rhyme with now, but also as in the first part of rowboat. The latter may be carelessness, or it may reflect an inconsistency of pronunciation that anyone might fall into.   This raises my questions to you, readers: What sorts of lapses and distractions are audiobooks uniquely vulnerable to? Conversely, what pleasures do audiobooks afford that printed books cannot?

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Tuesday, June 06, 2017

A bit about Buchan, new and old

I've turned to the comfort of old-school spy stories in the form of John Buchan's Richard Hannay novels: The Thirty-Nine Steps and, next up, Greenmantle and Mr. Standfast. These novels. a century old now, can seem familiar and comfortably archaic for Hannay's bluff attitude, occasionally shocking (to today's sensibilities) social attitudes, and, at time, acute and even prescient. I'm listening to the books now; here's a post back from when I read them. 

(Buchan, who served as governor general of Canada from 1935 through 1940, will be on the program as "ghost of honor" at Bouchercon 2017 in Toronto.)

Greenmantle is greatly enjoyable as it enters the homestretch. It's full of disguises, last-second escapes, hair-raising dangers, and all the other things a good thriller is made of. It also feels surprisingly up to date with its assessments of Germany's war aims and its discussions of religious revival in the Muslim world.

Its contemporary feel is all the more noticeable because the book is in so many respects a thoroughgoing product of its time. Without necessarily expressing contempt for commoners, it is shot through with the attitude that war is really a contest between those few, rare men of noble soul and exceptional ability. The German Col. von Stumm is brutal, thuggish and depraved, for example, but the kaiser is a high-minded man whose responsibility weighs heavily upon him.

Buchan is also acutely sensitive to the joys and sorrows of travel. Exhausted and depressed when he reaches Constantinople, the protagonist, Richard Hannay, finds the city "a mighty disappointment. I don't quite know what I expected -- a sort of fairyland Eastern city, all white marble and blue water, and stately Turks in surplices, and veiled houris, and roses and nightingales, and some sort of string band discoursing sweet music. I had forgotten that winter is pretty much the same everywhere. It was a drizzling day, with a south-east wind blowing, and the streets were long troughs of mud. The first part I struck looked like a dingy colonial suburb -- wooden houses and corrugated iron roofs, and endless dirty, sallow children."

Later, however, refreshed, in new clothes, and after an unexpected rescue by an unexpected colleague, Hannay makes this sage observation: "What had seemed the day before the dingiest of cities now took on a strange beauty ... A man's temper has a lot to do with his appreciation of scenery. I felt a free man once more, and could use my eyes."

And the novel's humorous touches, particularly in the form of the American, Blenkiron, are delightful. His bluff manner of speaking will awaken readers to the joys and peculiarities of Americans and the ways they talk.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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