Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Democratically conventional post

Photos by Peter Rozovsky
for Detectives Beyond Borders
Sixteen years ago, when the Republican National Convention came to Philadelphia, I used a one-day press pass from my paper to spend a day on site. I saw placards being placed beneath chairs on the convention floor in preparation for that evening's spontaneous  displays of enthusiasm. I walked through the media tent and saw Michael Medved at his table, though Oliver North was away from his.

I rode on the back of a golf cart with Linda Chavez, conservative commentator and future failed nominee for labor secretary. She was intelligent and an eager conversationalist and, showing bipartisan openheartedness rare since Richard Nixon, said she had been to national conventions of both major parties and admitted that Democrats party better than Republicans.

No such one-day passes were available for this year's Democratic convention, thanks to security reasons, so my closest contact with the convention has taken the form of traffic jams, detoured buses, and the observation that a subway car full of Democrats looks much like a subway car full of Republicans, except that the Democrats have healthier complexions. Oh, and signs and other political bric a brac around town, including the T-shirt I bought from a vendor on Market Street for a surprisingly low price. Here are a few photos of my experience, at several removes from reality, of the 2016 Democratic National Convention.



© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Hammett wrote "It"; you should read it

Dashiell Hammett's story "It" appeared in Black Mask in November 1923, a month after "Crooked Souls," two months before "The Tenth Clew," and five months before "The House in Turk Street" kicked off the high point of Hammett's short fiction.

Three of those stories are included in the Library of America's volume of Hammett's crime stories and other writings. "It" is not included, which is one reason to look for it in Mysterious Press' reissue of all Hammett's Continental Op stories.

"It" is a bit talkier than some of Hammett's short stories, but the talk has the Op and his interlocutors trying to hash out the case in question (a man's disappearance), and Hammett makes of it a pretty good mystery. In this case, the talkiness is, arguably, a plus. The story also offers the novelty of placing the big summing-up-the-crime scene (remember Sam Spade's speech to Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon?) at the beginning of the story rather than near the end.

Throw in the deadpan wit that Hammett had already perfected from his earliest published work, plus a wry existential final line, and you have a story that deserves a place with Hammett's best short fiction.
*
“`Yes, we were pretty good friends, but not especially thick. You know what I mean: we had a lot of fun together but neither of us meant anything to the other outside of that. Dan is a good sport—and so am I.'

“Mrs. Earnshaw wasn’t so frank. But she had a husband, and that makes a difference.”
 © Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Monday, July 25, 2016

Rabe on (It's a crazy feeling)

I'm about to begin reading Time Enough to Die, which Donald Westlake called the only good novel of the six books by Peter Rabe that featured a tough guy and political fixer named Daniel Port. (Westlake regarded Rabe as a formative influence on his own crime writing. He just didn't like the Port books much.) In the meantime, here's a post from back when I first read Rabe.
================
 I'm a book and a half into my career as a Peter Rabe reader, and I've reached two tentative conclusions: 1) Rabe was an heir to early Dashiell Hammett, and 2) He worked psychology into his novels a hell of a lot better than Ross Macdonald did.

Rabe had a master’s and a doctorate in psychology. He incorporated psychology in his crime novels with an expert’s knowledge and an author’s restraint. Macdonald, on the other hand, at least in The Galton Case, was more like a yammering cultist on the subject.

The Hammett connection is more pertinent, though, to a discussion of Rabe’s The Box and Kill the Boss Goodbye. (I’m told that only one or two of Rabe’s novels appeared with a title he suggested. The Box is one of them. I would bet a dozen Montreal bagels that Kill the Boss Goodbye is not.) Each novel reminded me a bit of Hammett’s portrayals of men doing their jobs. More particularly, each portrays with cool detachment, deadly power struggles at the head of a criminal or quasi-criminal enterprise, in the manner of Red Harvest. But they read more like Patricia Highsmith's The Tremor of Forgery, no surprise given that both that book and The Box are set in North Africa.

(A post on the Violent World of Parker Web site discusses Donald Westlake and an essay he wrote about Rabe. Read Westlake on Rabe in the Westlake nonfiction volume The Getaway Car. Read more about Rabe at Mystery File and Stark House Press.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Lionel White and definitely established mathematical odds: A classic heist novel revisited

Sixteen months after I made this post about the wince-making first scene of Lionel White's novel Clean Break (filmed by Stanley Kubrick as The Killing), I went back and read the whole novel; it's a hell of a novel. Rick Ollerman was right to invoke Richard Stark's Parker books in his comment below. The Killing (1955), and also White's The Big Caper, from the same year, are like Parker novels such as The Score, with their emphasis on the build-up to a heist and the ever present danger of interpersonal complications. White's story stays closer to film noir's roots in melodrama than Stark does, and the narrative pace is faster, but if you like one, you're liable to like the other. White appears to have published at least four novels in 1955. Perhaps the haste of publication deprived the book of the editorial scrutiny that would have remedied to faults I highlight in the post. \
 ==================
 The occasional lapses in prose style in paperback original novels get me thinking about the conditions under which their authors wrote. I remind myself that the verbal lapses may be due to those conditions rather than to lack of talent. But here's the opening of Lionel White's 1955 novel The Clean Break, which Stanley Kubrick filmed as The Killing (the novel, not just its opening):
"The aggressive determination on his long, bony face was in sharp contrast to the short, small-boned body which he used as a wedge to shoulder his way slowly through the hurrying crowd of stragglers rushing through the wide doors to the grandstand.

"Marvin Unger was only vaguely aware of the emotionally pitched voice coming over the public address system. He was very alert to everything taking place around him, but he didn’t need to hear that voice to know what was happening. The sudden roar of the thousands out there in the hot, yellow, afternoon sunlight made it quite clear. They were off in the fourth race.

"Unconsciously his right hand tightened around the thick packet of tickets he had buried in the side pocket of his linen jacket. The tension was purely automatic. Of the hundred thousand and more persons at the track that afternoon, he alone felt no thrill as the twelve thoroughbreds left the post for the big race of the day.

"Turning into the abruptly deserted lobby of the clubhouse, his tight mouth relaxed in a wry smile. He would, in any case, cash a winning ticket. He had a ten dollar win bet on every horse in the race.

"In the course of his thirty-seven years, Unger had been at a track less than half a dozen times. He was totally disinterested in horse racing; in fact, had never gambled at all. He had a neat, orderly mind, a very clear sense of logic and an inbred aversion to all `sporting events.' He considered gambling not only stupid, but strictly a losing proposition. Fifteen years as a court stenographer had given him frequent opportunity to see what usually happened when men place their faith in luck in opposition to definitely established mathematical odds."
I'll give White "aggressive determination," though I think the phrase weak, bordering on repetitive. But every other word or string of words I highlighted crosses that border or is at best unnecessary and at worst grammatically ludicrous.  "Emotionally pitched"? What does that mean? Did the announcer sound as if he were about to break into tears? Why "everything taking place around him" rather than just "everything around him"? Why slow a sentence down by beginning it with an adverb ("unconsciously"), especially when White repeats himself in the next sentence, telling us the tension was "purely automatic"? And why "purely automatic" rather than "automatic"?

"Turning into the abruptly deserted lobby of the clubhouse, his tight mouth relaxed" is not only a dangling participle, it's wordy. Why tell us that the stragglers were rushing if you've just told us they're hurrying? And "the course of," "very," "in fact," and "at all" are throat-clearing. White should have cut each in his second draft or his editor on a first pass. As to "definitely established mathematical odds," all odds are mathematical, and "definitely established" is doubly redundant, each word with respect to the other, and the two when set against "mathematical."

OK, these guys churned it out, and their work probably did not get the care most novels got at hardback houses or that one associates with novels today, when authors will turn out maybe a book a year rather than a book a month. If  he'd had more time, Harry Whittington might occasionally have substituted another word for sickness in A Night for Screaming. Charles Williams might have found other ways to say "thoughtfully" in All The Way (also known as The Concrete Flamingo).  But those guys saved the repetition for later in their books, and it's easy to imagine them so caught up in the stories they were telling that verbal polish fell by the wayside. They didn't bog things down on the very first page, never a good idea, particularly not in thrillers or suspense novels.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"Kamilla grinned and head-butted him": A look at Paul Brazill's latest

Back in December 2014, I praised Paul Brazill's Guns of Brixton for not pretending to be "anything but a comic romp, a kind of high-spirited musical without music, albeit one full of violence, the threat thereof, and all sorts of unpleasant bodily effluvia, whether the result of gun blasts or not."

I'm not yet finished reading that novel's follow-up, the brand-new Cold London Blues, but a few snippets suggest that this one will be as much fun as GOB:
"A group of drunken middle-aged men in Manchester United football shirts staggered out of a Thai restaurant shouting racial abuse at an angry looking chef who was chasing them out and wielding a machete.

"‘Ah, Northern scum,’ said Tim. ‘Cultural ambassadors.’

"‘Indeed,’ said Gregor, in the clipped RP English usually only found in 1940s public information films. ‘Unfortunately, at certain times of year, they infest the streets of this great city like lice.’"
and
"Father Tim slammed one of them in the Adam's apple with his fist and then kicked him in the groin."
and
"Kamilla grinned and head-butted him."
Add an occasional jab at Cool Britannia and at noisy cafés, and I feel like I know England even better than I do when I'm there.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Sunday, July 17, 2016

Pufferfish: Return of the world's prickliest detective

David Owen's Franz "Pufferfish" Heineken, the prickly detective inspector in Hobart, capital of the Australian state of Tasmania, is back, his prickliness mellowed into wry, sardonic observation and acceptance that just rarely flare into open rebellion. In compensation, 13-Point Plan for a Perfect Murder is a terrific mystery and a tragedy and a comedy at the same time, with amusing and affecting allusions and references to George Eliot thrown in.

As always, the wit is here. as in the description of a polo club as
"a strange but beguiling rather than tacky mixture of showy wealth and understated environmentally conscious good taste."
or
"Another little session of silence, which seems to bemuse Brody Hearn somewhat. It;s calling thinking, son."
As a bonus, the novel answers my one complaint about Devil Taker (1997), the fourth Pufferfish novel and the last before the character returned in 2009. Owen is also a naturalist who has written several book on endangered species in Tasmania, where he lives, and I thought Devil Taker let that interest crowd out the crime.

13-Point-Plan
, by contrast, introduces interesting information about the animal and plant life of Tasmania unobtrusively and always in ways relevant to the plot. Readers might be amused that his description of Tasmanian devils, related in an utterly straightforward way, is very close to the fictional Tasmanian devil that many of us know.
====================
I've liked Pufferfish for years, since I read the character's explanation of the moniker thus: "The nickname's Pufferfish. A prickly, toxic bastard, ability to inflate and even explode when severely provoked." Read my previous Detective Beyond Borders posts about Pufferfish (click the link, and scroll down.)

And should you happen to be near Hobart this Thursday, July 21, visit Fullers Bookshop for the novel's launch.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

How a book for reluctant readers might help reluctant writers, plus a cover photo by me

My latest cover photo with accompanying novel has landed.  Linda L. Richards' When Blood Lies, like the book that supports  my previous cover shot, Reed Farrel Coleman's Love and Fear, is part of Orca Books' Rapid Reads line.

I've known the author for a few years, and I wrote about her 2008 novel Death Was the Other Woman, a Sam Spade-like story told from an Effie Perrine-like character's point of view. The Dashiell Hammett love continues here. The protagonist is named Nicole Charles, and the book's epigraph is a nod to The Thin Man.

Linda L. Richards
Rapid Reads target "a diverse audience, including ESL students, reluctant readers, adults who struggle with literacy and anyone who wants a high-interest quick read," and I can add reluctant writers to that potential audience.

I am one such, and the brevity of these books, plus their stripped-down narrative, vocabulary, or both make it easier for me to see how the authors build their plots and what they do to keep the story going. Since plot is not the strong point of my occasional efforts at fiction, I took mental notes as I read Richards' and Coleman's books. Perhaps other would-be writers who want to learn how to build a story could do the same.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Marlon James and Viet Thanh Nguyen: Why is one's work considered crime fiction and the other's not?

I recently read two novels that won big literary awards, and I thought highly of both. One of the books is very much a crime novel, the other is not, yet it was the non-crime novel that won this year's Edgar Award for best first novel from the Mystery Writers of America.

That novel, Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer, I wrote:
"includes two killings of the kind that presumably would be investigated by local authorities if 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."
Yet the MWA gave the novel an Edgar Award that the author can hang on his wall next to his 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The action of Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings, on the other hand, is set in motion by a real-life crime reimagined: the 1976 assassination attempt against Bob Marley. It includes scenes of gang and drug violence in Jamaica and New York, and its story of a crime's ripple effects is something like that told in James Ellroy's A Cold Six Thousand or perhaps Don Winslow's Savages, yet James has no Edgar or Dagger Awards to hang next to the 2015 Man Booker Prize he won for A Brief History ...

I don't suppose it matters much in which category one places these two fine books, but I wonder why Nguyen's achieved purchase in the crime fiction world while James' achieved none, at least in that part of the crime fiction world that gives out awards. Did Nguyen's publishers make a conscious decision to promote the book as crime? Did James' make a conscious decision not to do so? And does it matter?

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Monday, July 11, 2016

The Longue Goodbye and more photos from Noir at the Bar in New York

Rick Ollerman enjoys a
moment of nail-biting
suspense. Photos by
Peter Rozovsky for
Detectives Beyond
Borders.
Here are more photos from Sunday's Noir at the Bar in New York along with the other story I read there. I've included a face from earlier in the day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that would not have been out of place at the reading. (See if you can spot the interloper.)  See my other story and the first batch of photos on the previous post here at Detectives Beyond Borders.)
===================

The Longue Goodbye


Nick Kolakowski, Suzanne Solomon.
I pushed open the door to the pool deck and inhaled chlorine and death. Fen slumped in the chase lounge. He looked smaller and sicker than he had when I'd seen him three days before.

Hellenistic dramatic mask
Spit and blood caked around his broken mouth, and for a moment I thought he was dead. "Got anything to tell me, Fen?" I knelt by the chair.


Jeff Markowitz
His lips cracked when he tried to talk, and I knew Fen was more than halfway to where he was going. I leaned closer.

"It's chaise longue, not chase lounge, you illiterate fuck," he said. "It means long chair."


Jen Conley
He died happy.
— Peter Rozovsky


Albert Tucher, Jen Conley, Suzanne Solomon, Terrence McCauley
© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Noir at the Bar NYC with a (new) story by me

Juliet Fletcher, Charlie Stella, Rory Costello
(Photos by Peter Rozovsky for Detectives
Beyond Borders)
Even more fun than usual was had at Sunday evening's Noir at the Bar at Shade Bar in New York. Why? Because I:

1) Met a couple of folks whom I had previously known only through social media and e-mail, notably Charlie Stella.

2) Met some new folks from the United States and elsewhere.

3) Had enjoyable reunions with all kinds of crime fiction folks and my favorite bartender in New York.

4) Stayed late, by Noir at the Bar standards, and still managed to make my bus back to Philadelphia.

and

Scott Adlerberg Jen Conley, the
evening's hosts.
5) Read a story that I had assembled for the occasion, because Jen Conley invited me to read, and it would not have done to show up with an old story, would it?

The storythe opening section of a story, reallyis a distillation of some fragments that I wrote years ago and that finally may come together as a coherent whole. Here we meet the characters and set the stage for the  main action.

Before we go, thanks to Jen for inviting me to read and to Scott Adlerberg for MCing the event with her.

Oh, the story's title. West Fourth Street is the nearest subway stop to Shade. Beyond that, if you don't recognize the allusion, you've got a a lot of nerve to say you are my friend.

===============
 Negatively Fourth Street

by Peter Rozovsky
 

Fifteen miles outside NEWark, Delaware, the woman next to me started crying into her phone. I commiserated, I kept silent. Then I slammed my book down and headed for the café car.

On my way back, the train took a curve. I bobbled my coffee and sandwich, and the heavy metal doors between the cars clanked open. From in front came the last voice I wanted to hear. From behind, a voice I wanted to hear even less.


Suzanne Solomon
The train pulled out of NEWark with a long, shrill whistle. I rolled down the grass embankment, mopped the coffee stains and tuna flecks from my shirt, and watched the train disappear.

*
Blake wore a red T-shirt and blue jeans. He hunched forward, hands jammed in his pockets, and he moved fast. Fetch held a rolled-up Rangers jacket in the crook of one elbow, a Tim Horton's bag half falling out of one pocket. He ambled and shambled, but he still kept up with his friend somehow. He put a hand on Blake's shoulder, and they stopped.

Fetch indicated a door, and Blake shook his head. Fetch held up one finger and ducked into the doorway. Blake shrugged, leaned against a pillar, and lit a cigarette.

*
Terrence McCauley
Kasey Thompson's voice told a smoky tale of cigarettes and whiskey, but it lied. She never touched either.

"Think I'd be able to do this if I wasted my time in bars?"  She whacked the speed bag and made me feel sorry for the leather. Chin tucked, knees flexed, back straight. Elbows in, her back heel lifting slightly each time she struck. Her two fists became four, then six. Her breath came in short, spitting wheezes with each punch. I got tired watching her.

But she did waste time in bars, and I wanted to know why. "What's with the gym stuff?" I said. "You don't fight."

She stopped punching, and she smiled as she blew a wisp of platinum hair from her left eye. "Would you want to be whipped by a fat dominatrix?"

*
I jabbed the .45 at the base of Fetch's skull, and I cackled as his eyes grew wide.

"Out of the car. And leave the boxes."

I jerked the gun to the right as Blake went for his jacket. "Hold it right there, Tiger."

"The fuck?"

"What am I going to call you? Paddy? Mick? Now, out of the car, Celtic, and keep your hands away from your — "

"From my Marlboros, you gobshite. All right, I'm getting out."

I waved out the window of Fetch's black 2008 Lexus as I pulled away.

"See you later, gents. Put this in your books."

*

Albert Tucher
Two nights later I'm shouting to be heard over the crowd at the Grand Hyatt.  We're hooting and cheering as a small, curvy woman dressed in black lifts her blouse to reveal her tattoos: Kasey Thompson. The crowd pushes in around her, all except two guys looking the other way, toward the door.

The snake tattoo is flicking its tongue at Kasey Thompson's scapula, but I've got one eye on the two guys.

One of them says: "I'M OUT OF HERE FOR SOME CIGARETTES."

His friend, a husky, saltish-pepperish dude with a Rangers jacket and a Tim Horton's bag, shrugs, and they head my way.  Shit. Fetch and Blake
.

============================
© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Look who's reading at Noir at the Bar in New York

Get a load of those quiffs!

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Sunday, July 03, 2016

Marlon James knows the difference between adjectives and nouns

I'm still loving Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings 232 pages in, not least because in a passage meant to make fun of bad, overheated writing, a character singles out the phrase "unending vortex of ugly" for special scorn. James knows the difference between adjectives and nouns. He also knows that that piece of poolside furniture on which people stretch out and relax at this time of year is a chaise longue, not a chaise lounge or a chase lounge.

On the other hand, he does have a character think that someone has "another fucking thing coming." The expression is "another think coming," not "thing." But James has two possible outs: One of the book's delights is the multiplicity of its narrative voices, and many of the characters, including this one, do not speak the King's English. The other is that the book is so good that one such lapse, if it is that, doesn't bother me.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Saturday, July 02, 2016

Charles Willeford's noir profiles, plus more stupid critical descriptions

In a different time, under different circumstances, Charles Willeford might have written lifestyle profiles for the New York Times rather than crime novels.

High Priest of California is the first of Willeford's early noir novels I've read, and it's less an unfolding plot than it is a grittier, funnier version of those retch-making Times pieces about where young urbanites like to do their produce shopping on a weekend.

The urbanite in this case is Russell Haxby, and the premise is the simplest of any novel I've ever read: Haxby, who likes to seduce married women, seduces a married woman.

And that's it.  But the details are so perfect, and, occasionally, so surprising, and they are so deftly revealed and at just the right time, and Haxby's cruelties so casual, and the simplicity of the plot and the brevity of the book (fewer than 100 pages) enable so tight a focus on Haxby that I felt as if I'd come to know the man and his world. Maybe High Priest of California is more like those book-length profiles by John McPhee, notably A Sense of Where You Are.

Some of Haxby's observations are hysterically funny, which reminds me one again how undervalued humor is in popular fiction. My current reading, Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings, contains some excellent satirical gibes, but the review snippets quoted on the front and back covers ignore these and instead include such descriptions as "A prismatic story ...,"  "Epic," and, inevitably, a "tour de force."

Do these reviewers look down on humor? Are their solemnity and reverence signs of their own security about popular fiction's behavior in the company of its literary betters?

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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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." 
and
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?

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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?
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(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)
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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.
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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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