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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Monday, July 14, 2014

What is that thing? — Your chance to win a book

I've spent my time shooting instead of reading this past month, and such reading as I have done ain't no crime. (Still, Herodotus on Egypt is worth reading for the pleasure of seeing a sharp, critical mind at work. His guesses about Egypt's geological origins, for example, are breathtaking.)

But it's my new camera that has been keeping me from the books. Here's a photo I took earlier this week. Tell me what the photo shows, and win my respect and maybe a free book.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Torture porn in the Middle Ages

"When they wish to torture people by a base death, they perforate their navels, and dragging forth the extremity of the intestines, bind it to a stake; then with flogging they lead the victim around until the viscera having gushed forth the victim falls prostrate upon the ground. Others they bind to a post and pierce with arrows. Others they compel to extend their necks and then, attacking them with naked swords, attempt to cut through the neck with a single blow. What shall I say of the abominable rape of the women? To speak of it is worse than to be silent."
Pope Urban II, Speech at the
Council of Clermont, 1095

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Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Rapa Nui and the classic rock of apocalyptic thinking

Moai "Hoa Hakananai'a"
from Rapa Nui  (Easter
Island), British Museum.
Photo by your humble

Fashions change in apocalyptic villain-mongering as they do in clothes. Yesterday's communists or Japanese or American capitalists are today's Taliban or Chinese or American capitalists (though Jews are classic and always in style when it comes to scapegoating).

The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (2011), by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, sets out (and succeeds, it says here) to debunk the theory that ecological catastrophe wiped out Easter Island's population, that the island was denuded of trees to make apparatus with which to haul the island's famous moai, one of which appears at right.

Rather, the archaeologist authors point out, based on geological and archeo-botanic evidence, deforestation began before humans populated the remote Polynesian island. In the process, they cite experiments demonstrating that the islanders could well have moved the massive stone statues by rolling them slowly on their bases a step at a time, the way one might move a refrigerator across a room. The resulting rolling and lurching movement, they suggest, supports folklore about the statues walked; hence, the book's title.

Hunt and Lipo argue that disease and other social ills brought by Europeans starting in 1722, rather than "ecocide" (the authors put that term between inverted commas, and I like to think they do so to mock its voguishness), decimated the island's population, driving it as low as 110 from possibly 3,000.  What's interesting is that the white-man-spreads-disease-and-exterminates-darker-skinned-peoples explanation topped the apocalyptic blame charts for so many years (never mind that the Black Death originated in China), displaced in recent years by fears of environmental apocalypse: You know, climate change, as if climate change were not and had not always been constant.

Hunt and Lipo take an unfashionably optimistic view of Rapa Nui's potential to meet their latest challenges, those posed by tourism and development. And their displacement of one culturally fashionable apocalypse scenario with another that was equally fashionable just a few years before. It's like those albums the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix kept releasing and topping the charts with for years after they died, broke up, or both.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Get Carter is coming to America

I have on my desk as I type this post the upcoming U.S. rerelease of Ted Lewis' 1970 novel Get Carter (originally published as Jack's Return Home), the first U.S. publication of the influential, gritty, downbeat British crime classic in many, many years.  The new edition arrives in September from Syndicate Books, an imprint distributed by Soho Crime and "focusing on out-of-print or neglected mystery and crime fiction of cultural relevance." 

Syndicate also plans to publish two more Lewis novels this year, one of them for the first time in North America, according to the company.  While you wait to read them, here's a post I first put up a few years ago about Jack's Return Home/Get Carter and Mike Hodges' celebrated movie version. The new edition of the novel includes a foreword by Hodges that offers illuminating discussion of his feelings about the book and of changes he made when filming it.  And here's a link to another post I put up after hearing Hodges speak at Crimefest 2010 in Bristol.

Mike Hodges' 1971 movie Get Carter is rich with a sense of place. So is the 1970 Ted Lewis novel on which it is based though, so far, in a somewhat different way.

Jack's Return Home, later rereleased under the same title as the movie, is full of angry observations on the North England city to which tough-guy Jack Carter return to investigate his brother's death. (The setting is Newcastle in the movie, the Doncaster area in the book.)

Hodges' movie is full of gritty interiors, rows of housing apparently foreshortened by a long camera lens to emphasize the degree to which they are squashed together beneath giant belching smokestacks. Hodges and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky also offer up a gorgeous gallery of deeply etched local faces drinking in a local pub. That first pub scene and the shots of houses and smokestacks look straight out of a gritty documentary. (Go here for a rundown and photos of real locations used in the movie.)

Lewis' social portraits are more cutting, here in a dissection of the crowd at Cyril Kinnear's club:
"The clientele thought they were select. There were farmers, garage proprietors, owners of chains of cafés, electrical contractors, builders, quarry owners, the new Gentry. And occasionally, though never with them, their terrible offspring. The Sprite drivers with the accents not quite right, but ten times more like it than their parents ... Not one of (the wives) was not overdressed. ... They'd had nothing when they were younger, since the war they'd gradually got the lot, and the change had been so surprising they could never stop wanting ... "
"The dark, close trees came to and end and I was back bathing in the rateable value of the yellow street lights. ... The California-style homes were still and silent, tucked away beyond the yards and yards of civic-style lawn. Where a house showed signs of life naturally the curtains were drawn well back to inform the neighbours of the riches smugly placed within."
The second bit is more sneering and less specific than the first and therefore has dated less well. But by God, they both give the novel an attitude.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010, 2014

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Monday, July 07, 2014

In praise of Jamesian high jinks

I am pleased to report that Snatched, a comic novel by Bill James that includes art theft, revenge, malicious flashing, and trenchant social comedy, is shaping up as worthy company to the author's Harpur and Iles novels. Here's a sample of the opening chapter:
"In a throaty, not quite panic-driven voice, Jervis, one of the economy-measure, hourly paid, part-time porters, said: `Ladies and gentlemen officers of the Hulliborn Regional Museum and Gallery, we have got what could be designated in my opinion a fucking riot at the Fire Department, pardon the demotic. ... "
(Photo by your humble blogkeeper)
In short, this seems the sort of book for which the term high jinks was invented, and that's good.

I have long been in awe of the Harpur and Iles novels. If you don't want to take my word for it, listen to Ken Bruen, who
"abandoned British crime years ago except for Bill James, who I love. ... His Iles and Harpur series is magnificent."
(Photo by your humble blogkeeper)
or Tim Hallinan, who wrote that
"If I were told I could only read five writers for the remainder of my life, and I had to name them at that moment, both Bill James and Anthony Powell would be on the list." 
Here's a checklist of the Harpur and Iles novels. While deciding which ones to look for, read my 2009 interview with Bill James, Part I and Part II.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Saturday, July 05, 2014

Dan J. Marlowe excelled at his job

(Photo by your
humble blogkeeper)
If more pulp and paperback-original writers were as good as Dan J, Marlowe, there would be less talk about transcending the genre, not because Marlowe tried to transcend hard-boiled, but because he was so good at his job.

Take the series of sequels he wrote to The Name of the Game is Death and One Endless Hour, in which Marlowe, responding to his publishers' demands, turned the face-transplanted heister Earl Drake into a kind of international secret agent.  I've just read two of those novels, and in those, at least, Marlowe resisted any temptation to sulk or to turn Drake into a James Bond imitator.

In one such book (and I won't say which, to avoid spoilers), Marlowe includes a late turnabout thoroughly in line with the era's geopolitical zeitgeist, yet well prepared for with clues and observations planted judiciously throughout the novel. It's easy to imagine Marlowe sucking it up, swallowing any disappointment he might have felt at not being able to write the book he'd have liked to write, and doing the best job he could with the one he had to write.  But then, what else could one expect from an author so thorough in his descriptions of men at work, no matter their profession?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014


Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Dan J. Marlowe plus an urban hideout

I've been reading much Dan J. Marlowe on this vacation. Among other things, the man's career spanned the transition from the nervous 1950s to the more permissive 1960s, and Marlowe negotiated the shift better than he might have.  I'll be back with a full report, but in the meantime, here'a vintage hideout perfect for laying low in the heart of New York compact yet bustling state capital!!!

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Sunday, June 29, 2014

It looks like the formation of a new galaxy, but it's just neighborhood fireworks

 © Peter Rozovsky 2014


Friday, June 27, 2014

A few thoughts about a writer named Macdonald

What might a reader of crime fiction find interesting in Dwight Macdonald's 1960 essay Masscult and Midcult and the essays collected with it in this 2011 New York Review of Books edition?

For one, while he appears to have considered "the detective story" Masscult, Macdonald discriminated between good and bad and made clear the basis of his judgment:
"The difference appears if we compare two famous writers of detective stories, Mr. Erle Stanley Gardner and Mr. Edgar Allan Poe. It is impossible to find any personal note in Mr. Gardner’s enormous output ... His prose style varies between the incompetent and the nonexistent; for the most part, there is just no style, either good or bad.   Like Mr. Gardner, Mr. Poe was a money-writer. (That he didn’t make any is irrelevant.) The difference, aside from the fact that he was a good writer, is that, even when he was turning out hack work, he had an extraordinary ability to use the journalistic forms of his day to express his own peculiar personality, and indeed, as Marie Bonaparte has shown in her fascinating study, to relieve his neurotic anxieties. (It is simply impossible to imagine Mr. Gardner afflicted with anything as individual as a neurosis."
He's willing, that is, to accord respect to "detective stories." (That's what he calls them. The term crime fiction was not in wide use in 1960, which leads to the question of then and why it became popular. Did crime writers begin writing stories about characters other than detectives? Did crime fiction sound more respectable than detective stories to the producers and marketers of the stuff? ) Anyhow, here's Macdonald, from a harsh assessment of Ernest Hemingway that, nonetheless, acknowledges his stylistic influence:
"The list of Hemingwayesque writers includes James M. Cain, Erskine Caldwell, John O’Hara, and a school of detective fiction headed by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. It also includes Hemingway."
That last sentence is just one example of the wit that makes Macdonald so much fun to read.

He was also a cultural prophet in some ways, alert to current trends and able to make intelligent guesses based on them.  He notes, for example
 "the recent discovery —since 1945 —that there is not One Big Audience but rather a number of smaller, more specialized audiences that may still be commercially profitable. (I take it for granted that the less differentiated the audience, the less chance there is of something original and lively creeping in, since the principle of the lowest common denominator applies.) ... The mass audience is divisible, we have discovered— and the more it is divided, the better. Even television, the most senseless and routinized expression of Masscult (except for the movie newsreels), might be improved by this approach. One possibility is pay-TV, whose modest concept is that only those who subscribe could get the program, like a magazine; but, also like a magazine, the editors would decide what goes in, not the advertisers."
Had he lived on into the age of cable television, Macdonald would not likely have lamented, as some did, the decline of the television networks as unifying forces in American life. Since the book's subtitled is "Essays Against the American Grain," though, I suspect he'd have been skeptical of the frequent claims in recent years that this is a golden age of television. But what would he have thought of the incredible stylistic fragmentation of rock and roll music, a form for which he had nothing but disdain?

As for the Internet, I suspect he'd lament the unprecedented speed with which it can turn folk art forms, for which he has kind words, into Midcult and even Masscult, of which his opinion is less kind.

Finally, a remark that put me in mind of sportscasters' increasing tendency in recent years, a tendency that has begun to seep into newspapers, to call millionaire athletes by their first names:
 "Since in a mass society people are related not to each other but to some abstract organizing principle, they are often in a state of exhaustion, for this lack of contact is unnatural. ... But people feel a need to be related to other people. The simplest way of bridging this distance, or rather of pretending to bridge it, is by emphasizing the personality of the artist."
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

More on the great Dan J. Marlowe

(Photo by your humble blogkeeper; has
nothing to do with Dan J. Marlowe)
Last week I called Dan J. Marlowe's first novel, Doorway to Death, "loaded with sex and adverbs," and for a while there I thought Marlowe, who published the book in 1959, was simply using the hard-boiled syntax that might have come naturally him from reading crime writing of the 1930s and '40s.  Then I started coming across examples like these:
"He sighed, stretched lengthily..."

"He stripped the bed, walked stiffleggedly to the bathroom.."

"Inside the panelled doors he rushed softfootedly past the drowsing drinkers..."

"Manuel’s dark eyes lingered fascinatedly..."

“`Come in, come in!' Lieutenant Dameron barked irritatedly..."

"Resignedly he dried his face and took down the electric razor."
and I began to suspect that Marlowe was having fun, bidding a fond farewell to the adverb-laden hard-boiled prose of his younger days, deliberately taking it over the top. A sentence from the great Name of the Game Is Death confirmed the impression:
"I backed out tanglefootedly under Mrs. Newman’s bright-eyed inspection."
to which I smiled not just amazedly, but also appreciatingly.  In any case, by the time Strongarm appeared in 1963, the extravagant-adverb count was way down, from Doorway to Death's 73 words ending in -dly to 43.

But Marlowe was more than just adverbs and odd word choices (“'You’re in trouble, Jerry!' she accused her husband.")  If you like Richard Stark's Parker, you might like Marlowe. If you like Stephen King's "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," you might like Marlowe. If you like revenge stories and you want to see how a master wrote them, you might like Marlowe. If you like man-on-the-run stories, you might like Marlowe. If you  like your sex scenes with a bit of an edge, you might like Marlowe. A blog post by Ed Gorman sums up nicely Marlowe's ability to evoke so many of the great hard-boiled crime writers.

I haven't read one important chunk of Marlowe's oeuvre: the "Drake" novels, follow-ups to The Name of the Game Is Death and One Endless Hour that transformed their hero into an international secret agent. But based on what I have read, Marlowe is the great semi-forgotten name in American hard-boiled crime writing.
Chaarles Kelly has written introductory notes for reprints of several of Marlowe's novels and also a full-length biography, Gunshots in Another Room, that relates what must be one of the odder lives of any great crime writer.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

What a free-King book deal!

Dana King is pleased to announce that his four novels will be available free on Kindle from June 25 – 29.

Detectives Beyond Borders is pleased to announce that the books are worth reading and that he does not at all regret having paid for them.  King writes hard-hitting, funny crime with a real sense of place and, now and then, a clever spin on an old crime fiction trope.

He is also an eloquent speaker about P.I. fiction and the importance of the Chandlerian hero; his talk on that subject was an unexpected highlight of Bouchercon 2013 in Albany. Here's a bit from a scene with a detective and a Russian mobster in Grind Joint.
"`I talk when I want. Who knows? In five minutes, maybe not want to. Better ask quick before I change my mind, police man. Someone tell me once I am volatile. I like that word. I am volatile."  
"You are peckerhead, Doc thought, kept it to himself."
Make this a Shamus Award-nominated Dana King summer!

© Peter Rozovsky 2014 

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Friday, June 20, 2014

(Dan J.) Marlowe plus more noir shots

I resume my reading of hard-boiled American crime fiction from the weird, twisted 1950's with Doorway to Death by the great Dan J. Marlowe. The book is loaded with sex and adverbs, it's the first crime novel I've ever read whose protagonist is a hotel bell captain, and it's a terrific piece of hard-boiled crime writing. More to come.

First, though, just a few more noir shots from your humble blogkeeper's new camera. I call the first one The Ladies' Room From Shanghai. And no, I did not shoot it where you think I did.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Fletcher Flora, or Why American P.I. fiction from the 1950s is like Late Roman art

American P.I.  fiction
from the late 1950s.
American P.I. fiction from the late 1950s—and I know you'll agree with me on this—is like Late Antique art. Each grew out of a tradition that established enduring standards of perfection (Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in one case, Classical Greek and Roman art in the other). The weight of each tradition, part of the past yet still exerting powerful influence in the present, drove some of its inheritors into self-consciousness and bizarre exaggeration as they tried to create something new while at the same time remaining faithful to what had gone before.

Late Antique art
Fletcher Flora's 1958 novel Leave Her to Hell is as self-conscious as all get-out. Here are just a few examples from the first three chapters:
"The door was opened by a maid with a face like half a walnut . You may think it’s impossible for a face to look like half a walnut, and I suppose it is, if you want to be literal. But half a walnut is, nevertheless, all I can think of as a comparison when I think of the face of this maid."
"Nine times out of ten, when someone tries to describe a woman who is fairly tall and has a slim and pliant and beautiful body, he will say that she is willowy, and that’s what I say. I say that Faith Salem was willowy."
"I woke up at seven in the morning, which is a nasty habit of mine that endures through indiscretions and hangovers and intermittent periods of irregular living."
In the last two examples, especially, Flora has his hard-boiled P.I. narrator/protagonist question standard scenes of P.I. fiction (the description of the beautiful female client, the narrator/protagonist's description of himself) even as he lives those scenes. I'll save the rest for a dissertation, but for now, suffice it to say that a novel that questions itself and its conventions on every page (so far) is a compelling but hardly restful experience.. Here's the novel's opening:
"A woman wanted to see me about a job. Her name, she said, was Faith Salem. She lived, she said, in a certain apartment in a certain apartment building ... "
Now, let's go see what the rest of the book is like. In the meantime, what crime writers, novels, or stories have reminded you of a period or a genre from another art form?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Sunday, June 15, 2014

More shots with the new camera

Still playing with my camera. Here's some of what I've shot:

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Milton K. Ozaki, plus a few more night shots

My street, tinkered with so it looks contemporaneous with the
paperback originals I've been reading from the 1950s and '60s.
(Photos by your humble blogkeeper)
Milton K. Ozaki is the only crime writer I know of who was also a reporter, a hair dresser, and, according to at least one source, a tax lawyer, as well.  A private note from a prominent student of American crime fiction recently called Ozaki "possibly the most bizarre writer of the '50s pulps."

Ozaki's entertaining 1954 novel Dressed to Kill got me thinking more than I have before about the role formula played in what readers and publishers expected — and circumstances demanded — of writers in the paperback original and pulp eras, from the 1930s through the 1960s.   

The Lit Brothers Building, Philadelphia.
Ozaki, for example, seems to have been particularly fascinated by grapes, making of them a stock device to which he could turn when in need of a vivid or odd metaphor, as in:
"The bright yellow of the Caddy made it stand out like a banana in a bowl of grapes."
"His pale eyes, excited by the anticipated kill, had the translucent quality of seedless grapes, yet seemed more shiny, as if oiled by hate."
From my newspaper's office
looking across Market Street,
Have you ever compared anyone's eyes to a seedless grape? Neither have I.  Ozaki probably hit on phrases and situations readers liked, and made a game of seeing how far he could stretch the metaphors without snapping them entirely. My preliminary assessment, based on just the one novel, is that Ozaki sits somewhere between the hyperventilating extravagance of Robert Leslie Bellem and the calmer atmospherics of, say, Helen Nielsen.

Bill Crider notes the extravagance and the occasional repetition in Ozaki's work, which I'm guessing are results of having to turn out so much work so fast. At the same time, I especially like this observation of Crider's, which fills me with respect for talented writers who worked under difficult conditions:
"You can almost see the improvement happening in Ozaki’s steady progression up the ladder of paperback publishers. He started at the bottom with Phantom and Handi-Books, moved to Graphic, then to Ace, and finally to Gold Medal."
And now I'm off to learn more about the pulps and hacks who wrote for them. 

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Friday, June 13, 2014

What I shot with my new camera

I haven't read much the past two days because I've been too busy getting acquainted with my new camera, with results such as these.

Two of them could fake it as moody noir pictures. The third is just cute, though that pigeon looks alert to whatever perils a big city has to offer..

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Five Detectives Beyond Borders-approved soccer books

If you want a skeptical view of FIFA, world soccer's governing body, on the eve of the sport's quadrennial World Cup but can't stand the pubic-hair jokes, manic shimmying, and celebrity pandering of John Oliver, try Soccer in Sun and Shadow (published in the appropriate countries as Football in Sun and Shadow) by Eduardo Galeano.

Galeano writes with a palpable yearning for the days when soccer was a wide-open game, of the joy with which Hungarians, Brazilians, and his own Uruguyan compatriots once played the sport.  He excoriates FIFA's shameful banning of Hungarian players who supported that country's doomed uprising against its Soviet-imposed government in 1956. And he structures the book in extremely short, thematically organized essays, which makes it exceedingly easy reading for non-experts. (I'm only the most casual of soccer fans, and I've made just one visit to South America.)

(I will give Oliver points for including in his anti-FIFA rant a reference to Qatar, the host — for now — of the 2022 World Cup, as a slave state. For some reason, the Gulf states' treatment of dark-skinned peoples seems not to get much play in the American media. I'd hate to think said media are afraid of offending anyone.)

In the meantime, here are four more recommendations from the Detectives Beyond Borders soccer/football/fútbol desk of books that will take you miles from the moronic wasteland of American late-night television:
  1. Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer, by David Winner. Odd theories and insightful observations that tie the Dutch school of "total football" tactics to the country's geography.
  2. Red or Dead, by David Peace. A moving, stylistically demanding, immensely satisfying novel about former Liverpool soccer manager Bill Shankly and his love for his adopted team and city.
  3. Across the Line, by Garbhan Downey. A riotous slapstick comedy about the lengths to which rival former paramilitary men in Northern Ireland will go to best one another in a soccer competition.
  4. Off Side, by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. Even more satisfying as an ode to the back streets of Barcelona than it is as a mystery.
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Monday, June 09, 2014

Helen Nielsen

DOWN AT THE EDGE of Mexican town, where the pavement gave out and the yellow dust drifted ankle-deep over the hard-packed adobe, a radio was moaning a dreamy beat into the night. It was the kind of music that needs two people, but only one was listening ...
Obit Delayed, Helen Nielsen
That's the opening of the first novel I'm reading by Helen Nielsen, and I hope you'll agree that it demonstrates the woman had chops.

Nielsen wrote around eighteen books from the 1950s through the 1970s as well as television scripts. She had studied commercial art and, according to one account, worked as a draftsman during World War II contributed to the designs of B-36 and P-80 aircraft.

What I like in Obit Delayed are the intelligence and wit Nielsen brings to what otherwise might be routine bits of mystery business. Here's one nice mix of wit and pulpy raciness:
"Now that Mitch noticed, the man did have a newly wedded look— but he didn’t fit. He was too common, too Mr. Average Man. Not that a man couldn’t look like a grocery clerk and still be a murderer, but how, Mitch wondered, could he be married to a number like the blonde?"
And then there's this description of a man who, from a young age, did not maintain himself in top physical shape: "Even in so old a photo Frank Wales showed sighs of an impending bay window."  That is the most creative synonym I've ever seen for "spare tire," and it makes me want to read more by the mysterious Helen Nielsen.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014


Friday, June 06, 2014

Howard Engel's Memory Book, or What happens when a writer loses his ability to read?

(The graphically brilliant
and thematically relevant cover

of the Canadian edition of
Memory Book)
The Crime Writers of Canada announced the winners of the Arthur Ellis Awards this week, an honor my landsman Howard Shrier has won twice in the past. This year's awards inaugurated a Grand Master category, and the first winner is the author of what must be one of the most unusual crime novels ever published. In honor of the award here's a post I put up some years ago about Memory Book, by grandmaster Howard Engel.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

This was the first crime novel I can remember that comes with an afterword by a neurologist. That neurologist, Oliver Sacks, writes of his acquaintance with Howard Engel, which came about because of Engel's alexia sine agraphia, a condition in which the sufferer loses the ability to read but not to write -- a difficult affliction to bear for a novelist.

Sacks tells us about some of the surprising ways Engel overcame this condition and resumed his writing career. The first product of this resumption was Memory Book, the eleventh novel featuring private eye Benny Cooperman, and the first in which Benny must, like his creator, overcome alexia sine agraphia. (Engel's condition was the result of a mild stroke. Cooperman's was the result of -- but you'll have to read the book to find out.)
Confined to a rehabilitation hospital as he is, Cooperman must, like Alan Grant in Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time, solve a mystery from his sick bed. Cooperman is alive to the world of the hospital, to the personalities of his fellow patients, his nurses and his doctors.

The mystery Cooperman must solve is how he wound up in the condition in which he finds himself. This leads him back into the case that had brought him from his home town of Grantham, Ontario, to Toronto, where he was hospitalized. He must solve these dual mysteries as he struggles with neurological conditions that leave him constantly tired and unable to retain names and words. His discoveries of his own slowly returning cognitive abilities as he chases down the people who put him where he is add an intriguing dimension highly unusual in crime novels to say the least. Handicapped detectives have been around for almost a hundred years, if not longer, but I don't know of any others who have shared an affliction with their creator.

I also found myself wondering if Engel's cognitive struggles accounted for my one quibble with the novel's style. In at least two places, long stretches of dialogue are uninterrupted by reaction on Cooperman's part. In at least one of these, the lack of reaction was obtrusive. Is this a quirk of Engel's style unrelated to his condition? I'll tell you after I've read more of his books.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, June 05, 2014

Of Cops and Robbers: Now, THIS is the way to integrate reality into a crime novel

This new thriller by Mike Nicol is both tangled and straightforward, so chilling and so entertaining, that I don't know where to start.  Perhaps its most impressive accomplishment is that it offers a rich and credible account of what South African government and society are really like behind the headlines, both before and after 1994.

It can't be easy for an author, especially in popular genres such as crime and thriller writing, to work real events into the story without turning the book into a Movie of the Week. Nicol gets around this by choosing events less likely to be familiar, at least to readers outside South Africa. The novel never mentions Nelson Mandela, for instance, though one of his highest-profile colleagues figures in a subplot.

And he endows real events with the magic and imagination of fiction, whether they be the overseas assassination of an anti-apartheid activist, or the Miss Landmine Angola beauty pageant.  He knows, in other words, that his job is to tell an entertaining story.  That's a hell of a lot more effective than didactic, statistic-spouting chapter headings.

What should an author keep in mind when making real events parts of a novel? What crime novelist are best at it, other than James Ellroy?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Tuesday, June 03, 2014

On American characters and British (or South African) usage

If you read the previous Detectives Beyond Borders post, you know I nearly exhausted myself coming up with superlatives for Mike Nicol's novel Black Heart. "If you like your thrillers drum-head tight, sharply observed, with a keen satirical edge, thoroughly entertaining even as they offer serious commentary on the countries of their setting," I wrote, "you want to read Mike Nicol."

I loved the whole book, in fact, except for three words:
"‘We’re not doing a runner, Vee.'"
The trouble with doing a runner is that the speaker is American, and so is the character to whom he is speaking, and doing a runner is simply not American English. The Oxford Dictionaries and Merriam Webster Web sites define it as British, and my experience with the word suggests this is correct (though the expression has spread to Australia and Nicol's South Africa, among others).

If you're American or Canadian, would one American character's use of doing a runner to another bother you? If you're South African or British, would "skipping town" or "taking off" have made you scratch your head? How faithful must an author be to language his characters would use in real life?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014