Thursday, August 28, 2014

Talkin' (and talkin' and talkin') 'bout my generation: Tony Judt on the 1960s (plus a bit of Michael Gilbert)

(Detail of a giant revolving sign at Hard Rock
Cafe, Philadelphia. Hard Rock Cafe International,
founded in London in 1971. Photo by Peter 
Rozovsky, your humble blogkeeper)
This could turn into a Tony Judt Postwar blog if I'm not careful. For now, though, I'll restrict myself to a few favorite bits from Judt's chapters about the 1960s:
"Moments of great cultural significance are often appreciated only in retrospect. The Sixties were different: the transcendent importance contemporaries attached to their own times — and their own selves — was one of the special features of the age."
And here's Judt's delicious account of the end of possibly the most self-regarding episode of the age, the events of May 1968 in France:
"In the ensuing parliamentary elections, the ruling Gaullist parties won a crushing victory, increasing their vote by more than a fifth and securing an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly. The workers returned to work. The students went on vacation."
Finally, Judt's discussion of Western European students' complaints about their universities, overburdened and unprepared for the postwar flood of young people seeking places, makes excellent reading alongside the British crime writer Michael Gilbert's story "The Decline and Fall of Mr. Behrens" (in the collection Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens). Now that I've read Judt, the surprising ending to Gilbert's story makes even better sense as a piece of social observation, not bad from a writer who insisted his job was to entertain readers.

(See also "Rock and roll is here to pay.")

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Tony Judt, film noir, and American movies in Europe

(A Czech edition of Tony Judt's
"Postwar." As suggestive as it is
that the book should have been
translated into Czech, I included
this cover only because the English
edition I was going to use carries
a cover blurb that calls the book
"awesome." Such a word has
no place here.)
Tony Judt's Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 offers observations that might interest fans of crime movies and novels. Here are a few from the final chapter of Judt's section on the immediate postwar years, when American cultural influence was at a peak in Europe:
"Only intellectuals were likely to be sufficiently moved by Sergei Eisenstein's depiction of Odessa in the Battleship Potemkin to translate their aesthetic appreciation into political affinity, but everyone--intellectuals included--could appreciate Humphrey Bogart."
I'm not sure how historically valid it is to compare a silent film from 1925 (Potemkin) with a talkie-era star who made his first well-known film only in 1934 (The Petrified Forest) and whose real stardom came in the 1940s. Still, the suggestion that intellectuals could appreciate Bogart provokes thought, if only because its perspective is unusual in discussions of American popular culture.

The very next page offers this, on the American.film industry's business practices after World War II:
"(W)hen European governments after 1949 took to taxing cinema receipts in order to subsidize domestic film producers, American producers began investing directly in, foreign productions, their choice of European Venue for the making of a film or group of films often depending on the level of `domestic' subsidy then available."
Among other things, Judt suggests, American domination of European movie markets meant that U.S. movies of the time can be better guides to European viewers' experience than domestic movies are. In addition, he writes, it was Europeans who were likelier to make escapist movies in this period while American directors and producers were turning out the melodramas the French would later call film noir.  I suspect most of us would say American movies took over the world merely because they were more glamorous or better made  (Judt recognizes the latter possibility). But the idea that American movie makers were better judges of European taste that were European movie makers is a good deal more exciting and opens the door to all sorts of interesting questions.

Your thoughts, please.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Monday, August 25, 2014

Off the Cuff and on the clock: What makes a noir image noir?

(Clock in Reading Terminal Market. Photo by your humble blogkeeper):
Dietrich Kalteis once again uses one of my noir photographs to illustrate his Off the Cuff conversation with fellow novelist Martin J. Frankson. The photo above is the one he chose, so I thought I'd ask you, dear readers, what makes a noir image noir? Here's why I stuck this one in my noir photos folder on Facebook:
  1. It looks good.
  2. It's black and white.
  3. The suggestion of a ticking clock conveys a hint of anxiety.
  4. The cropping of the image enhances feelings of tension and suspense, in part by focusing on just the two numbers. What is going to happen in those five minutes, of which more than one and a half have already elapsed?
  5. The image of a clock face is highly familiar but, I hope, still packs a visual punch. That means it carries a rich set of associations.
Your job, readers, is to choose an image that strikes you as noirish and to think about why it does and post your thoughts here. The image can be from a photo, a book cover, a newspaper, online, anywhere. (The real-life suspense behind this photo was whether I would make it to work on time.  I did.)
*
Kalteis' chat with Frankson covers character and originality and includes the following:
"(W)hat makes a book original includes:

"Characters with lifestyles and attitudes that have been rarely portrayed before. The alcoholic, divorced middle-aged male detective with a drinking problem was once the most popular character in the genre. It’s still popular, but readers wanted fresh detectives with fresh lifestyles to reflect the times we live in. Along came young female detectives which was a breath of fresh air, but writers now need to look at society and see its diversity in the round. There are very few gay or non-white detectives in modern day crime literature I’ve noticed. I say ‘few’ as opposed to none at all. They do exist, but you have to go looking for them."
Read the entire conversation at Off the Cuff, http://dietrichkalteis.blogspot.ca/2014/08/off-cuff-4.html

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Hard-hitting post-war zest from Tony Judt

I left my copy of The Historian's Craft home today; what a blochhead! Instead, I'll offer one of many provocative passages from Postwar, Tony Judt's history of Europe since 1945 (and I still have almost 700 pages left to read, so expect more):
"Writers and journalists, having left a written record of their wartime allegiance, came off worst. Highly publicized trials of prominent intellectuals--like that of Robert Brasillach in Paris in January 1945--provoked protests from bona fide resisters like Albert Camus, who thought it both unjust and imprudent to condemn and execute men for their opinions, however ghastly these might be.

"In contrast, businessmen and high officials who had profited from the occupation suffered little, at least in western Europe. In Italy the Allies insisted that men like Vittorio Valletta of FIAT be left in place, despite his notorious engagement with the Fascist authorities. Other Italian business executives survived by demonstrating their erstwhile opposition to Mussolini's Social Republic at Salo--and indeed they
had often opposed it, precisely for being too 'social.'"
I like this passage for several reasons, not least the zest with which Judt wrote it. As for its politics, I wonder what crime writers including Didier Daeninckx and Andrea Camilleri would think of it. Would they, like Camus, protest the execution of a man whose politics they surely abhor?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Why I'm making Craig Rice part of my crime fiction diet

If a crime writer made the cover of a major news magazine these days, the event would probably divide the crime fiction community because the honoree would be someone like Stieg Larsson or "Robert Galbraith."

I don't know where Craig Rice (Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig) stood in the public mind when she made the cove of time in January 1946, but my first reading of a solo Rice story suggests that not only did she belong on Time's cover then, but she belongs on the cover of reprints now (much of her work appears to be out of print). Working with raw ingredients well established in the crime canon, she managed to fashion work that feels like nothing else in crime writing until then or since.

The story in question, "I'm A Stranger Here Myself," first appeared in Manhunt in February 1954, has Rice's impecunious lawyer protagonist, John J. Malone, moving like a dream through as unlikely a mix of humor, snappy dialogue, and dread as anything I've read in crime fiction. I cannot remember the last time before this story that I'd read a crime story that made me think, "By God, I have read nothing like this before."

I don't quite know why, but I find dialogue such as this absolutely beguiling:
"`That Malone, he thinks good,' Joe the Angel said proudly, delivering the rye.  
 "`Go away," Malone said dreamily."
What's so special about that exchange?  The bartender's humorous nickname and diction? The unexpected proudly?  And what about dreamily, not the sort of word one normally associated with hard-boiled crime protagonists? For me the word worked like a bang-up ending to a miniature short story, like a pail of ice water to the face, leaving me alert and needing to know what happens next.

And now I'm off for dinner with a side dish of Rice. While I sip sherry at the local press club, I leave you with this question: What was the last crime novel or story you read that made you feel you were in the company of something utterly new?

 © Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The collective will and the collective won't, or should Dominique Manotti say no to nostalgia?

A cover blurb on one of Jean-Patrick Manchette's novels once referred to the author's "post-1968 leftism."  It has taken several years and the work of another politically oriented French crime writer to make me realize that the phrase is more than an ungainly and vacuous neologism.

The novelist in question is Dominique Manotti, whose Escape includes the following:
"There was an initial forging of collective thinking and a collective will."
and
"`That open letter could be the starting point for a collective analysis. We need to read it and discuss it, together and with other left-wing organisations.'" 
The second bit is dialogue, if you can believe that anyone would ever talk, as opposed to write, like that. Sure, that's a character speaking, not the author. But Russel McLean's interview with Manotti suggests that Manotti's own nostalgia and regrets figure in the book. "We were passionate," she tells McLean, "and a large part of France's far left was influenced by the Italians." (Much of the novel's early action, at least, takes place among Italian political refugees in France.)

Having read Manotti's previous work, with its astringent observations about the depravity of the French elite and that elite's horrifying exploitation of migrant workers, and having found nothing in that work approaching the clumsy political speech sprinkled through the opening pages of Escape, I wonder if Manotti is better off sticking to dispassionate analysis and avoiding nostalgic recollection of her own activism.

That's where Jean-Patrick Manchette's "post-1968 leftism" comes in. The three latest of the four novels of his that have been translated into English, published in their original French between 1976 and 1981, have moved well beyond the possibility of talking seriously about collective anything. I don't recall the word struggle occurring in any of the books.

The earliest of Manchette's novels available in English, though the most recently translated, suggests, as does Escape, that nostalgia and politically pointed fiction do not always go well together. The novel is called The Mad and the Bad, and
"at the worst, it reads as a mildly nostalgic reminder of a time before the triumph of consumerism, corporations, celebrity, and "content" was complete, before a time when multibillion-dollar corporations like Facebook and Apple were considered cool."
But Manchette got the nostalgia out of his system, and 3 to Kill (original publication 1976), Fatale (1977), and The Prone Gunman (1981), are three dark, stark noir classics, the last of them in particular chilling for its dissection of how powerful elites can exploit, debase, and discard an individual no longer of use to them, an individual, that is, who has no recourse to collective action or the struggle.

And now, in a collective spirit, I turn the question to you, readers, and ask: Is sharp political crime fiction incompatible with authorial nostalgia?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Discussion by Kalteis and Frankson, photo by Detectives Beyond Borders

(Photo by your humble blogkeeper, Porto, Portugal, 2011)
Dietrich Kalteis, a novelist whose debut I reviewed earlier this year, also has a penchant for verbal mano-a-mano and an eye for atmospheric scenes, and he has chosen to illustrate some of the former with some of the latter. His newish Off the Cuff site pits Kalteis and fellow author Martin J. Frankson in a series of discussions that include the kinds of questions I like to ask and, in its current edition, some thoughts on crime-novel titles that I suspect you will enjoy reading. And now Kalteis, whose Facebook feed regularly includes stunning photography, plans to illustrate his posts with my noirish photos. The current Off the Cuff discussion unfolds under a photo I shot in Porto in 2011 (above/right). So feast your eyes and feed your head.

And read what I had to say about Kalteis'
Ride the Lightning: 
========

I read Dietrich Kalteis' debut novel, Ride The Lightning, as an uncorrected galley, so no quotations allowed. But trust me: The book is pretty good.

What I like best is that it sustains a breakneck pace without sacrificing character to action, or action to character. Kalteis made me care about his cast of lowlifes, screw-ups, and marginals without stopping the action too often for endearing moments of humanity or self-conscious wit. What these characters show of themselves, they show in the act of doing what they do. 

What they do is grow, develop, and sell drugs; rip each other off; try to stop each other from growing, developing, and selling drugs; and seek revenge. Even the worst of the main characters is good enough at what he does that he earns a reader's respect. He gets kicked around and beaten up and gets his leg caught in an animal trap, all of which he deserves, and his very resilience is admirable. I also like Kalteis' understated nude-beach scenes.

This novel, appropriately for a book under consideration at Detectives Beyond Borders, crosses the U.S.-Canada border, from Seattle to Vancouver, where most of the action happens. So Karl, the bounty hunter who loses his job and has to shift from the U.S. to Canada, muses that he expects less violence as compensation for his reduced income. (Karl states this in a more entertaining fashion, but this was an uncorrected galley, so no quotations allowed.)

I also like characters' references to Medicine Hat, Alberta, as "the Hat," as well as the mostly downmarket setting, not so much because I got to go slumming, but as a reminder that peaceful, low-key Canada has its lowlifes, too. 

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Michael Gilbert, plus what is your favorite political jab in a crime story?

Thc occasional politically tinged passages that work their way into Michael Gilbert's stories about Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens are not always the most subtle, the hyperbole put in the mouths of young, speechifying men of leftish inclination especially wince-making (“Freedom,” said Tabor. “You’re prepared to accept inefficiency, selfishness, slackness, lack of purpose, timidity and greed – provided you have on the other side of the scales a fictitious thing called freedom.”).

But the books appeared in an unsubtle time (1966 and 1967) and besides, politics and ideology are small presences in these tightly plotted, delightfully told stories. And, since today's readers want positive news, I thought I'd share a jab as pertinent today it was 47 years ago . It's from "The Spoilers," which appears in the collection Games Without Rules:
“`We’re getting so security-minded,' said Miss Nicholson, `that we might as well be living in a totalitarian state, under the control of the Gestapo.'

“Miss Nicholson, who was an intellectual liberal, often said things like this in letters to the Press and at public meetings, possibly because she had never lived in a totalitarian state and had no experience of the Gestapo."
Now, good readers, tell me your favorite political jabs from crime stories. Be a good sport, and tell me especially about lines with whose point of view you may disagree.
***
As noted above, ideology does not bulk large in these stories. The powers against whom Calder, Behrens, and their fellow intelligence officers work are referred to far more often simply as Russia or China than as communists or commies, never, that I can recall, as "evil" or "Rooskies" and only once as "reds." More typical are non-ideological barbs such as this, from "The Spoilers":
"Mr. Calder, considering the matter, was inclined to agree. He knew that in certain branches of the Security Services, sexual irregularity was considered a good deal worse than crime and nearly as bad as ideological deviation."
or jabs at features of English life that Gilbert probably wished were in a higher state than they were. From "The Cat Crackers":
“`Splendid,” said the professor. `We will sit all afternoon and talk.'

“`Not in an English pub, you won’t,' said Tabor."
or this, from "The Headmaster," which sounds more than a bit like P.G. Wodehouse:
"The Hambone Club in Carver Street is the offspring of that eccentric aristocrat, Sir Rawnsley Clayton. Having been turned out of the Athenaeum for giving dinner there to a troupe of clowns, he had founded it as a place where he could meet his more bohemian acquaintances. It was still much used by actors and writers, but had acquired a solid addition of politicians who found the Carlton too stuffy and of soldiers who found the Senior too exclusive."
Gilbert, an Englishman who died in 2006, was both a Cartier Diamond Dagger winner and a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master. This link from the Rue Morgue Press will offer a compelling introduction to readers who, like me, wish to know more about Gilbert, including his time as POW during World War II. And here's Martin Edwards on Gilbert. The highest compliment of all, however, and the most pertinent to thiw post, may come from Joe Gores who wrote:
"A critic once remarked that Maugham's Ashenden is the finest collection of espionage fiction ever written. That critic is wrong. The honor goes to Michael Gilbert's Game Without Rules, and to its twelve-story sequel, Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens."
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Celebrity then, celebrity now: What's the difference?

"People are ambivalently amped up on celebrities. They wildly worship them. They aim their adolescent adulation at them and get bupkis back. It's depressingly disassociative. It's idiotic idolatry. Fan magazines fan the flames of fatuous fancy and reinforce the fact that your favorite stars will never fuck you. Scandal rags rip that reinforcement and deliriously deconstruct and deidolize the idols who ignore you. It's revisionistic revenge. It reduces your unrequited lovers to you own low level of erratic erotics. It rips the rich and regal and guns them into the gutter beside you. It fractiously frees you to love them as one of your own." 
James Ellroy, "Hush-Hush" 
That's James Ellroy in the voice of gossip columnist/sleuth Danny Getchell. Ellroy wrote the story in the 1990s, and the passage refers to an earlier generation of gossip magazines, presumably the ones from the 1950s and early 1960s that Ellroy says were a formative aspect of his upbringing.

Today's stars, of course, have made it out of Scandal Town and moved on up to Take Me Seriously City (originally settled as Clooneyville, before it seceded from itself, seeking greater control of its own publicity). They have taken ownership of their own personas and have left the scandals to the Snookis and Kardashians, selling empathy instead.  But the connection is no more real now than it was then. Or is it?

What is the difference between celebrity in the 1950s and celebrity now?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"He’s a sleekit wee bastard": A meditation on a mystery, a dictionary, and the mysteries of dictionaries

My biggest surprise reading Tony Black's Gutted last week was that the dictionary built into my e-reader defines thrawn*, but not sleekit, gadgie, pagger, or other words apt to be unfamiliar to readers outside the British Isles and Ireland.

Not that the words threw me; I'd come across some of them in my reading (William McIlvanney, Adrian McKinty, Gerard Brennan, et al.), and I knew others thanks to Hamish Imlach and a visit of my own to Glasgow and Edinburgh. Besides, I like encountering new words, creatively and skillfully used. I like the challenge of figuring out, by context, what a word means. I am not, that is, part of the Grammar Girl generation — or, rather, the Grammar Girl market.

But why thrawn and not cludgie? Do the lexicographers think American readers need the former defined for them, but not the latter? (I'll be back to complete this post after a visit to the can.)

Have you even been surprised, readers, by what a dictionary included or left out?
=================
* thrawn adj. SCOTTISH perverse; ill-tempered: your mother's looking a bit thrawn this morning. twisted; crooked: a slightly thrawn neck. late Middle English: Scots form of thrown (see THROW), in the obsolete sense 'twisted, wrung'.
 © Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What does history mean to you?

While I take a history break, here's an old post about history and fiction.  (The history break consists, so far, of reading Marc Bloch and Jules Michelet. So, who knows? I may return with posts about France, revolution, and grand style.)
=====
The Charlie Stella interview to which I linked on Thursday is full of references to history.

"I prefer reading history-based novels (crime or otherwise), which is why Craig McDonald’s Lassister series strikes such a terrific chord with me," for example, or this:
" I’ll read pretty much anything that presents a past I see slipping away, but the new stuff that seems to top the bestseller lists I find mostly boring horseshit.

"That’s not to say the writing is bad. I’m sure some of it is wonderful, but if there is no or little basis in reality or some sense of history (i.e., the first three George V. Higgins novels – The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Digger’s Game and Cogan’s Trade – and James Ellroy’s American Tabloid)."
The comments hit home, not least because the books he names are not generally considered historical fiction, and because Higgins set his books, at least The Friends of Eddie Coyle, in his own time. So, what does history mean? A sense of time and a sense of place and a wide streak of romance as an optional extra.

Stella's comments neatly take in the attractions of one crime novel that I've read recently, one I'm reading now, and another I expect to read soon. Adrian McKinty's The Cold Cold Ground plunked me right into the middle of Belfast and environs at the time of the hunger strikes. Ronan Bennett's Zugzwang is doing something similar for St. Petersburg in 1914, and I have every hope that Donald Westlake's The Comedy is Finished will do the same for the late 1970s in the U.S.

What do those books have in common, other than gifted authors? Turbulent historical periods. Narration that enhances the personal aspects of the story (first-person in the McKinty and the Bennett, free indirect speech that's as personal as first-person in the Westlake.) An eye for what's particular to the period that never degenerates into mere sightseeing or detail mongering.

What does history mean to you when it comes to fiction? Stella talks about "history-based novels;" What do you think he means by that? Are "history-based novels" different from historical fiction? 

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Saturday, August 09, 2014

Felony Fists will knock you on your can, then have you bouncing back up for more

I like the novellas I've read in the Fight Card series because they do such a convincing job of capturing the feeling as well as the form of boxing stories from the 1920s, '30s, '40s, and '50s. This is true even for the stories set in the present day, as in the imprint's stories about mixed martial arts (MMA).

Felony Fists, written by Paul Bishop, published under the house byline of Jack Tunney, and set in the Los Angeles of Mickey Cohen and Police Chief William Parker, is no exception. Honor, hard work, overcoming long odds, digging deep within one's self, good winning out ... all are part of this and other Fight Card stories, and not in any smirking, ironic, post-modern way, either. Bishop and his fellow authors clearly love the old-time tales, and clearly believe today's readers can enjoy stories in that vein. And they're right.  Felony Fists is fast-paced, full of intersecting plot lines and narrative climaxes that read as if they were meant to leave the reader panting for the next month's installment. That's good stuff for an impatient generation, isn't it?

I've never stepped inside a ring, and my guess is that you have not, either. But no matter; Bishop  fills the novella with the sort of boxing detail that creates a convincing milieu and teaches you something about the sport as well. Boxing is not called the sweet science for nothing.
Felony Fists contains one jarring verbal anachronism:
 "Both Tombstone and I were actually fighting the uncomfortable feeling of country cousins visiting upscale relatives."
Not only does the first recorded use of upscale date only to 1966, according to Merriam-Webster, but the word feels utterly wrong for the period of the book's setting. I would wager that upscale did not come into widespread use until the late 1970s at the very earliest. Its use is a glaring mistake in a story set in the early 1950s. But it's the only one. The judges here at Detectives Beyond Borders say — and it's a unanimous decision — that you should read Felony Fists.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Friday, August 08, 2014

@*&%!%^%$ Tony Black!

Sure, this Scottish writer's novel Gutted is funny and violent, apt to remind readers of Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor books, though more packed with incident than those (and though the novel's one explicit Bruen tribute I've found is to the Brant and Roberts novels).

Sure, the book is packed with Edinburgh patter (unless Black is taking the piss and titillating we foreigners with made-up slang) and dark observations about the underside of the city's bright, tourist-attracting facade (though the protagonist, Gus Dury, admits a soft spot for some of the attractions.)

No, why I really can't stand Black is that I'll never be able to write a novel set in an incredible shrinking newspaper without being haunted by the thought that Black describes such a milieu better than I ever could:
"The newsroom had been decimated. I remembered the days when this place hummed with activity. Now it was a sorry reflection of its former glory. The staff numbers must have been cut by fifty per cent, padded out a bit by a few kids chasing work experience. I shook my head." 
and
"The paper used to be based in one of the city’s old baronial buildings. They sold it, turned it into a hotel. The office is now housed in one of Edinburgh’s many chucked-up-in-five-minutes jobs. I hear if times get tough the building can be quickly converted into a shopping mall. Forget about the workers that spend all their waking lives in there – best to keep those options open. The way newspapers were going since the web came along, I could see a Portakabin on the horizon." 
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Why Icelandic sagas are like Richard Stark's Parker

The Icelandic sagas remind me a bit of Richard Stark's Parker. Their characters talk no more than they need to (except when reciting poetry),  they engage in minimal introspection, and their heroes know how to get the job done.  And Egil's Saga has its title character wreaking single-handed havoc on an opponent's stronghold in way that may remind readers of what Parker, Grofield, and company do to the island casino in The Handle.

I read Egil's Saga in a translation by the late Bernard Scudder, the much respected translator of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Arnaldur Indriðason, and the bracing informality of his version makes it lot more readable than one might suspect from the witty aura of airbrushed sword-and-sorcery fantasy balderdash that surrounds the idea of Vikings. Two favorite examples:
"As he grew up, it soon became clear he would turn out very ugly and resemble his father ... " (and that's the hero of the story.)
and
"Helga replied, ‘Even though you are so stupid that you cannot look after yourself, I will bring it about that this duel never takes place.’"
That's another thing about the sagas: the protagonists are men, but the women could inherit property, talk tough, and kick ass in a way I'm not sure was common in other 13th-century European literature.  Maybe that brisk directness is a feature of the original Old Norse, but if that's the case, Scudder wisely highlights it. No wifty swords and sorcery here.

And you want stories that cross borders? Egil's Saga is set in Iceland, Norway, England, Scotland, Lapland, Finland, around the Baltic Sea, and Eastern Europe, with additional mentions of journeys to France and Ireland (the Vikings founded Dublin and other Irish cities, after all.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Hanging out with Olvir Hump and Eyvind the Plagiarist

Just call me Kveldulf. Like that wise, stolid, capable patriarch of Egil's Saga (that's Egil himself, at right), I want to be capable of pissing a king off by my inscrutability and refusal to act.

I want to have a friend named Olvir Hump. And I want to live in a world populated by Audun the Uninspired, Finn the Squinter, Thorvald the Overbearing, Bjorn the Landowner, and Eyvind the Plagiarist. And it would be cool to have a son who, after being robbed by the hired guns of a grasping monarch, has the bluff good humor to remark that "It’s good to have a king to share your money with."

Click here for more Detectives Beyond Borders posts about the Icelandic sagas, the rootin'-tootinest collection of proto-crime, proto-Western stories in all the European canon.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Saturday, August 02, 2014

"Hell ... with a good electrician"

You know that nighttime view of Los Angeles from the Hollywood Hills that you've seen in a million movies and television shows? (At right, if your memory needs refreshing.)

Here's how the narrator of Alfred Hayes' 1958 novel My Face for the World to See assesses that view:
"Besides, she’d heard it before: I was sure she’d heard it all before . Possibly in a scene that was a close duplicate of this: the car parked in the hills, and two cigarettes, and the town below looking as hell might with a good electrician."
That ought to be enough to persuade anyone that the book, which appeared when disillusion with Hollywood was becoming a staple of American popular culture, is a good deal more that just another self-pitying rant. Even at his most morose and detached, the narrator can crack wise in even better than the best hard-boiled style. And, while the novel is not crime, it is hard-boiled, noir, even.

Elsewhere, I've picked up Brian Garfield's Checkpoint Charlie, a collection of spy stories, hard-boiled but with a touch of the British-style eccentric detective to its protagonist, somewhat in the manner of Frank McAuliffe's wonderful Augustus Mandrell or Michael Gilbert's equally wonderful Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens.  Garfield's creation is not quite up that level, but I like very much the author's description of the character in the volume's introduction (highlighting mine.)::
"He really enjoys only two things: eating, and practicing his trade."
Eating--rather than the more delicate food or, the even delicater fine dining--lets the readers know that their just may be an edge to this Charlie.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Hopscotching back to 1975 with Brian Garfield (and why fellow authors must love him)

With a hat tip to Sarah Weinman, I'm reading Hopscotch, which won Brian Garfield the best-novel Edgar Award for 1975.

Like his poker partner and occasional collaborator, Donald Westlake, to whom Hopscotch offers at least one explicit tribute, Garfield is a thoroughgoing professional who, moreover, has thought deeply about the work of his predecessors in crime writing. And he likes to poke gentle fun at the publishing business. (The protagonist of Hopscotch is a former spy who teases the world and his publishers by sending out, piecemeal, chapters of his tell-all political and professional memoir. A sample line: "Don't count on publishers to act logically. I've seen them pay a fortune for a boo and then drop it right down the gratings.")

Other good jokes include this, on the protagonist' disdain for the FBI:
"The Bureau had its talents—like establishing Communist cells so that its agents would have something to report on—but the FBI wasn’t likely to track him down unless he stood in Constitution Avenue waving a Soviet flag."
and this:
"Jaynes had a deep suntan and a huckster’s compulsion to touch anyone to whom he spoke. He was a film producer ..."
My only quibble is with Garfield's use of French words at odd times in the book's Paris section. Characters don't get out of elevators on the third floor, but on the third étage. They drop jetons, rather than tokes, into public phones. Pour the hell quoi, Brian?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Hollywood ennui with British elan, plus a question for readers

Last week's "Noir but not crime" post elicited the gift from a friend of Alfred Hayes' 1958 novel My Face for the World to See, and indeed, the book's protagonist suffers from the jaded weariness, a disgust with fame and material goods but tempered by inertia frequent in American writing of the time (though nowhere near as wince-makingly so as some books from the period can seem all these decades later.)

But what has surprised me most is that the narrator/protagonist (a screenwriter in, naturally, Hollywood) leavens the self-absorbed disgust with a witty detachment. That makes the book seem American and English at the same time, and I like to think I'd have made that observation even if I had not learned shortly before beginning the book that Hayes had been been born in England but came to the United States as a child.

He went on to work on a number of notable movies in the U.S. and Europe, so he presumably wrote with some knowledge of the ennui that Hollywood success can induce, but he writes about it with more wit that I'd have expected.

My Face for the World to See's noir-but-not-crime credentials received a fine double-barreled boost when Nelson Algren called it "The most vivid picture of Hollywood since Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust."

While I go read more, what books have you read that seem both American and English (or otherwise European) at the same time? What makes them seem that way?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

History, memory, fiction

I’m reading a crime novel, not yet published, that packs a dense mass of historical and other noteworthy events into the action, yet manages at the same time to keep the story moving on a personal, even intimate scale. How does the author manage this?

By remembering at every moment that the characters do not know that what they are experiencing will one day be regarded as historic. By introducing such crime-fiction conventions as the story does contain at odd moments and in understated ways. By believably dramatizing little-known divisions within well-known historical movements, but avoiding the temptation to turn the principals into era-defining symbols, and this for a historical period especially vulnerable to symbol-mongering.

That’s how one author keeps the narration of historic events fresh. Go here, here, here, and here for more discussions of history, fiction, and what happens when they meet. Here, too.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Manchette's The Mad and the Bad: Suspense, anti-consumerism, and nostalgia

Jean-Patrick Manchette wrote his novels at a time when the Situationist movement had gone political. He had first become attracted to the movement, though, when its focus was more artistic and less theoretical, and his novels, at least the ones translated into English, as politically pointed as they are, almost never let the politics get in the way of a good story.  Thus, after a shoot-out in vast department store,
"Julie strove to extricate them. Fortunately other victims came tumbling out, bemoaning their singed perms ..."
That's from The Mad and the Bad, an English translation of Manchette's 1972 novel O dingos, O chateaux! newly published by New York Review Books, and at the worst, it reads as a mildly nostalgic reminder of a time before the triumph of consumerism, corporations, celebrity, and "content" was complete, before a time when multibillion-dollar corporations like Facebook and Apple were considered cool.

But the novel still hits hard for its fugitives-on-the-run theme, for its avoidance of a tidy ending, and for moments like this, when one criminal henchman seeks his colleague and brother shot dead, and thinks this might be a good time to give up:
"Nénesse sighed, and two large tears sprang from his little eyes.  He tossed his weapon aside and waited to be arrested. At that moment the café's owner crossed the terrace in three strides and emptied both barrels of a shotgun into Nénesse's ear."
***
Manchette, who died in 1995 translated into French works by a number of American crime writers, including Donald Westlake and Ross Thomas. I don't know if he had worked on Westlake when he wrote The Man and the Bad, but the novel shares a narrative strategy with Westlake used often: that of, sometime around mid-novel, relating an event already narrated by another character, and thus whose outcome the reader already knows. Manchette also loved Hammett and Chandler, so you know he was righteous.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Donner after party: More from Kevin Starr on California's noir history

I made my travel reservations this week for Bouchercon 2014, and I celebrated by reading a bit more of Kevin Starr (click the link, then scroll down), that lively chronicler of California history whose work I discovered when I visited the state last year.

Starr ranges widely, writing not just about events, people, and phenomena, but also about California's image of itself and about the state's place in the psyche of Americans everywhere. It's no accident that each book in his multi-volume history of California has the word dream in its title.

Starr occasionally invokes noir as a reflection of the disillusionment that must necessarily result when a person, place, or thing becomes the focus for such desperate dreams as California does, and I opened Americans and the California Dream: 1850-1915 at random on one of the most horrible episodes in American history, though horrible for a reason one might not expect. That episode is the Donner party, and Starr's account makes clear that the lingering horror lay not in the cannibalism and privation of the stranded party of would-be California settlers, but in its afterlife.

Survivors of the party, Starr wrote, resumed normal lives, and in time "became respected for what they had undergone."  The real victim, in Starr's version, was a survivor named Lewis Keseberg, discovered by a party of rescuers-cum-scavengers out for $10,000 in cash the Donners were said to be carrying. Convinced that Keseberg knew where the money was, Starr writes, the reward-seekers beat him and accused him of killing Mrs. Donner. Keseberg protested his innocence, and, years later, did so before Donner's daughter Eliza, who had survived the party. She believed him, Starr writes.

In the meantime, though, the scavengers' accusations made the newspapers, and Keseberg became a pariah and a tragic figure, the scapegoat for the collective barbarities of the party.  He sued for slander, won -- and was awarded a dollar in damages. "In 1895, after fifty accursed years," Starr writes, "Keseberg died in Sacramento--peacefully, saying nothing, asking nothing of anyone, like those who have long lived beyond the reach of human sympathy."

That sounds pretty noir to me.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Noir but not crime: What books make your list?

Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Journey to the End of the Night is no crime novel, but someone once included on a list of great noir novels.  Curzio Malaparte's The Skin and Kaputt may deserve similar honors.

The shocking, lyrical, satirical, violent, funny novel/memoir/at times near-hallucinatory accounts of World War II (the first set largely in Naples, the second mostly in Eastern Europe) are a trip through a reality as dark as anything Jim Thompson came up with at his most fevered.

How about you? What books or stories that you've read are noir but not crime?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Friday, July 18, 2014

I Got Carter: What movie adaptations can and cannot do

OK, so Get Carter was too good to read slowly; I finished it in one evening, and that spurred one more observation about books and movies, namely the rather obvious one that the page is a better place for getting inside a character's head than is the screen.

Mike Hodges, who directed the celebrated 1971 movie adaptation of Get Carter, explains in a foreword to the new Syndicate Books edition some of the changes he made from Ted Lewis' novel. (The book was published originally as Jack's Return Home, should you find an old copy.)  Hodges explained that he wanted to include locations in the north of England that had opened his eyes to poverty and social equality during his naval service. He also wanted a more visually interesting location for a key confrontation in the novel.

But he does not explain his most obvious and, arguably, most sensible choice: not to attempt a straightforward transcription of Carter's thoughts, mostly about the brother whose death he has come to avenge and that make up a large part of the novel. The movie gives us less than the book does about the dead Frank Carter, less of Jack's mix of fondness and embarrassment about his brother, almost none of the latter. That makes the movie feel less personal than the book. This is no argument for book over movie or vice versa. In this case, both are excellent. It's just a recognition that each form can do some things better than the other can.

Now it's your turn. What do books do better than movies? Movies better than books? (Read Detective Beyond Borders posts on Why books are better than television.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Get Carter, or what crime movies are just about as good as the novels from which they are adapted?

I've started reading Syndicate Books' reprint of Ted Lewis' 1970 crime novel Get Carter (first published as Jack's Return Home), and I'll want to read it slowly because it's so good.

Few crime writers could inject menace and desperation into small talk the way Lewis did, and he had a fine eye for period detail — the Hammond organ in the bar at the Cecil, for instance. Does anything say 1960s like the cheesy warbling of a Hammond?

This new edition of the novel, to be published in September, includes an introduction by Mike Hodges, who directed the celebrated 1971 film adaptation, starring Michael Caine and chosen by the Guardian/Observer in 2010 as the seventh-best crime movie of all time. (Its top crime film is Chinatown, so the list is by no means perfect, but still ... )

Hodges is both forthright about the changes he made and highly respectful and deeply admiring of Lewis' novel. And that raises this interesting question: What other crime movie adaptations rank as high in critical and popular esteem as do the novels on which they are based as do Lewis' Get Carter and Hodges'? The closest example I can think of is The Maltese Falcon. How about you?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

OK, now what's this? — Win another book

A reader from Pennsylvania long fascinated by bright lights recognized yesterday's photo as a very dusty neon sign and not, as I hoped readers would guess, a Mandelbrot set or a preserved web of veins and arteries. She wins a selection of books from the Detectives Beyond Borders crime library.

You can do the same if you can identify today's photo correctly. Send your guesses and a postal address to detectivesbeyondborders (at) earthlink (dot) net.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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