Saturday, September 30, 2006
The History of Crime Fiction In Australia
International Crime Fiction Reading Lists
Friday, September 29, 2006
Garry Disher and "Meta"-Mysteries
-- Raymond Chandler
-- V.I. Warshawski
-- Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone
-- Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder
-- the difficulties of naming characters
-- His own work
-- Richard Stark's Parker
-- Inspectors Morse and Wexford
-- the art of creating a convincing private eye
-- Stanley Kubrick's The Killing
-- John D. MacDonald
-- Ross MacDonald
-- the flip tone of American crime writing
-- the gorgeous, formulaic language of crime stories
It's clever, it's an academic exercise (no shock from someone who's been a university writer-in-residence), and it's like a Woody Allen spoof except that it works perfectly as full-fledged fiction. A brief sample:
"It was about 10:30 and I was in bed, reading. There was no wind but those chimes rang out with the kind of abrupt discordancy that made me think prowler ... The love/sex interest in this story flung down her Sisters in Crime newsletter, revealing her small but high, low-slung but pointed, melony but round, sloping but curved, tanned but creamy breasts and said, `What the fuck was that?'"
P.S. This collection also has stories by Pentti Kirstila and Ian Rankin that I've praised elsewhere, along with a lot of good stories from the early days of Western crime fiction almost to today. It's worth looking for.
Australian crime fiction
humorous crime fiction
© Peter Rozovsky 2006
British Readers: Who Are These Stories REALLY About?
Labels: short stories
Thursday, September 28, 2006
Did you know . . .
from In Good Hands:
"If you knew how to look, a couple of deaths from the past showed now and then in Iles' face."
from The Detective is Dead:
"When someone as grand and profitable as Oliphant Kenward Knapp was suddenly taken out of the business scene, you had to expect a bloody big rush to grab his domain, bloody big meaning not just bloody big, but big and very bloody. Harpur was looking at what had probably been a couple of really inspired enthusiasts in the takeover rush. Both were on their backs. Both, admittedly, showed only minor blood loss, narrowly confined to the heart area. Both were eyes wide, mouth wide and for ever gone from the stampede."
A Thrilling Reference Site
Looking for Lovejoy
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
An Entry About Australia That Won't Call it "Down Under"
What about it, readers? Does a country's rough and ready past lead writers to create rough and ready protagonists? Hmm, a top Australian crime-fiction award is named after a bush ranger and outlaw ...
© Peter Rozovsky 2006
Ken Bruen Short Story Online
Classic International Crime Fiction in the Public Domain
Project Gutenberg has thousands of free, public-domain books of all kinds online, including works by Gaboriau, Wilkie Collins, Poe, and many more.
(I'll try to update this if I come with more sites. Let me know if you find any. Thanks)
Squashed Crime-Fiction Writers
A little block next to each writer's weirdly foreshortened head has a handy link to a discussion of some of his or her best books.
© Peter Rozovsky 2006
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
An International Literature Site With Some Crime Fiction
The question of the day: Who, if they exist, are the non-American counterparts to Richard Stark's Parker?
© Peter Rozovsky 2006
Manuel Vazquez Montalban
Beyond Borders? What About Writers Who Cross Them?
Robert van Gulik introduced Western readers to a crime literature that was fully fledged centuries before Lupin burgled, Dupin purloined, or Sherlock Holmes shot up. Yet he acknowledged that he had to choose carefully to find and translate a Chinese detective novel he felt would be accessible to Western readers, the eighteenth-century Dee Goong An, or Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. The book differs in several respects from most of the old Chinese detective novels, and it's delightful (less supernatural emphasis, criminal's identity not revealed at the beginning).
When Van Gulik went on to write his own Judge Dee stories, he made further alterations to the Chinese tradition. He showed a personal, private side to Judge Dee that the old stories never did, for instance. Would he have opened himself to charges of arrogance or cultural imperialism if he did the same today? I think not. Van Gulik was a scholar, a diplomat and a linguist, and the explanatory material he included with each book is almost as much fun as the stories themselves. If you want a painless and entertaining way to learn about Tang Dynasty China, this is it. Furthermore, he declared that he translated the Dee Goong An in order to give Western readers something more authentic than Fu Manchu or Charlie Chan.
Or what about Arthur W. Upfield? Upfield was a white Englishman who lived most of his life in Australia. His wonderful protagonist, Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, was half white, half Australian aborigine. On the one hand, the books could express racial attitudes that would be unfashionable today, to say the least. On the other, Upfield was capable of an almost heartbreaking sympathy for his clever, talented half-caste in a white-dominated society. The "Bony" books appeared between 1929 and 1966. Did the times account for some of the questionable attitudes? Or was the cultural gap just too wide to be bridged fully?
And how about Lindsey Davis? The two of her Marcus Didius Falco short stories I've read were delightful. The "private informer" Falco wisecracks his way through the streets and houses of first-century Rome in stories that offer just enough detail to make for a superbly convincing and unobtrusive setting. And make no mistake: Davis knows her history and archaeology. That may have something to do with why I found the one novel that I tried less satisfying. As light a touch as Davis has, the book had so much period detail, so much interesting period detail, that either the detail detracted from the story, or the story detracted from the detail. I'm still not sure which.
© Peter Rozovsky 2006
Monday, September 25, 2006
More New Looks at Old Sites
Crimezone.nl, in Dutch. Karin Slaughter fans may be pleased that two of her books are in the Netherlands' Top Ten list of bestselling thrillers. There is a nice tradition in the Netherlands, a "free book week" in which one title each year is chosen and published in a special edition to be given free to anyone who makes a certain minimum purchase (15 euros, maybe) at any bookshop in the country. My man Janwillem van de Wetering was the book-week author one year.
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection is a guide, scholarly in tone, to, um, classic mystery and detection. There's good historical material here and insights on British and American writers, including some names that may surprise you.
Mystery Readers International, which refers to itself as MRI, though it has nothing to do with elaborate medical-imaging procedures. Among other things, you can link to online versions of selected articles from the print version of Mystery Readers Journal, including articles on mysteries set in Italy and mysteries set in the Far East.
Bloody Foreigners is a notice of a United Kingdon tour earlier this year by some non-British writers. It contains some pertinent words that may interest fans of international crime fiction.
A Fine Guide to International Crime Fiction
Saturday, September 23, 2006
The Politics of Killing a Victim by Decapitating Him and Shoving His Head in a Bidet
Double Blank, the second of the four, makes my list because -- stop me if you've heard this before -- it takes special advantage of its setting. Setting is everything here, in the physical, political, social and psychological senses. Squalor abounds. Uncertainty pervades all. Fear and corruption seep into characters' work, into their diets. In the first book of the series, they even invade the protagonist's sleep. So, how does Khadra's Inspector Brahim Llob survive? He's honest. He's compassionate, yet without illusions. He's wary of power, but he confronts the powerful when he has to. He has a dry sense of humor. He's a North African Philip Marlowe. (He's not quite that, though several reviewers have seen stylistic parallels with Chandler. Hammett is a pertinent comparison, too. Double Blank's final pages are a distant echo of The Maltese Falcon's.)
The first murder victim, whose grim fate I borrowed for the title of this post, is a senior diplomat. This is Algeria in the 1990s, so Islamic fundamentalists must be responsible, right? Llob is not so sure, and his investigation takes him in surprising directions. Not that Llob is sentimentally disposed toward Islamic fundamentalists. One such character is called "the Hairdresser" -- because he has a history of chopping off his victims' heads.
The novel's two dark forces -- murderous fundamentalism, and spectacular official corruption -- hover like specters above everything, and a third force creeps into play before the villain gets his in the end. Llob must work against and around all three, without illusions and with a grimly humorous attitude, to solve the crime. Here's Llob with a powerful figure in the government who has called him in for a secret assignment:
"I must admit, I'm taken by surprise. Why me?"
"Why not you?"
That's not good enough for me. After thirty years of hand-to-hand combat with disappointment, I'm certain that nothing in our country happens by coincidence.
And here he is with a sleazy character, a possible small-time terrorist who has been evading him and withholding information:
I address Big Chief Standing Yak: "I've got an idea. Let's play Arabian Nights, okay? You be Scheherazade and I'll be the sultan. You can tell me all about your little pals, their hideouts, their plans. Ewegh, over there, he can be Damocles. If you stop talking, he'll hit you over the head until your brains start leaking out of your nostrils. If you survive, you earn a reprieve until tomorrow night. What do you think?"
For all its wisecracking, Double Blank is a serious book. It is also elliptical, with shock chapter endings and days- or weeks-long leaps of time that leave out much of the detail one would find in a conventional police procedural. These two traits of the Llob novels account for a rather spectacular piece of literary snobbery in a blurb on Double Blank's back cover from a Washington Post review of Morituri, the first Llob novel:
"Khadra is often able to finesse the prosaic bits of information-gathering and interviews with suspects that hobble less intelligent mystery writers." (The highlighting is mine.)
May the odious prig who wrote that sentence spend an eternity of sleepless nights on a mattress filled with the collected works of Ed McBain.
© Peter Rozovsky 2006
Britons are from Christie, Americans are from Chandler?
Here's another question of the day: Who are the European (or Asian, African, South American or Australian) counterparts of the American "regular guy" (or regular girl) detectives? I mean American series characters such as Les Roberts' Milan Jacovich, Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum, and Joseph Hansen's Dave Brandstetter. The first is a divorced father, the second a zany single woman, the third a gay man, but they share a number of characteristics: They have quirks, but not pathologies. They worry, but they don't brood. There's not an alcoholic or a psychological cripple in the bunch. And add Stuart Kaminsky's Abe Lieberman to the list. He has family problems, but the man is happily married.
The only comparable European character I can think of -- a character whose personal life is an important part of the story and who is still sane and balanced -- is Helene Tursten's Detective Inspector Irene Huss. Can you think of any others?
© Peter Rozovsky 2006
Friday, September 22, 2006
The British are Different
Edward Marston's "The St. Valentine's Day Massacre" and Anthony Mann's "Esther Gordon Framlingham" are meta-mysteries -- mystery stories set in the world of mystery writers. The former is about a gathering of crime writers, of whom one is especially successful and especially obnoxious. The latter is about a writer who competes to become the new ghostwriter for a looooooooong-running series of historical mysteries. The Mann, especially, has some delicious jabs at the field's penchant for ever-more outlandish sleuths. Here's one snippet of tasty dialogue:
"How about a late seventeenth-century Russian peasant?" I asked.
Across the room, my agent Myra raised an eyebrow. "North or south?"
"Ah, I meant north," I said quickly.
Myra shook her head. "Sorry, been done," she said. "Sheila Trescotchick's Ivan the Irascible series. Ivan's an irascible Russian peasant, disliked by all and sundry in his small northern Russian village, tolerated only because of his extraordinary ability to solve the most perplexing of crimes."
That's wonderful stuff, a little gem of comic timing. So why did the two stories make me shift uncomfortably in my chair? That's easy: A mystery about a mystery, even one as clever as Mann's, strikes me as arch and excessively self-referential. OK, but why? Is it a matter of taste? Is it some natural British flair for zany and self-deprecating satire that I don't quite get? Or is crime fiction so much more a part of everyday discourse and taken so much more seriously in Britain that it makes a fine target for satire?
There, blog readers, are your essay questions. Discuss.
© Peter Rozovsky 2006
Turkish (Not-Quite) Delight
Arjouni's Kemal Kayankaya is a German private detective who wisecracks with lowlifes, hangs around sleazy sex shops when work calls for it, and gets beaten up a lot. Sound familiar from countless books and movies? The kicker is that Kayankaya is of Turkish descent, and he takes grief for it -- obviously a resonant theme in Germany. This tension shoots through his novel One Death to Die. But a novel premise does not always make for a novel novel, and when Kayankaya bursts in on a wretched group of asylum seekers in a wretched room, for example, you'll feel deja-vu along with the sympathy. You've seen the scene before.
Better are Kayankaya's encounters with obstructionist officials, a more subtle way of portraying racism. Best is Kayankaya's searing verbal assault on a neighbor who he finds out supports a "moderate" right-wing party that doesn't want to kick Turks out of Germany but won't accept them either. The poor neighbor thinks himself humane and morally superior to Germany's "real" racists, and all it takes is two words from a furious Kayankaya to not just puncture his complacency, but utterly shatter him. The words? "Heil Hitler!" Longtime readers of this two-day-old blog will recognize that this fulfills my top criterion for "international" fiction: It takes full advantage of its setting. Such a moment could not happen, or at least not with the same dynamic effect, anywhere but in Germany.
An interesting note: I'd thought Arjouni himself was of Turkish descent, and I could swear that I'd read that he was. Not so, according to No Exit Press, which publishes his books.
© Peter Rozovsky 2006
Ranking on Rankin ...
I've read and heard some harsh opinions of Ian Rankin's writing recently, notably on The 10 Greatest Detective Novels, and, to tell the truth, I'm not the world's biggest fan of his novels. They can be plotty, joyless, willfully morose, and glutted with detail. Oddly enough, the first Rankin that I read, the short story "The Dean Curse," was precisely the opposite: pointed, witty and sharp. I mean, you can tell by the title that the man has a sense of humor. That tells me he's capable of wonderful things.
So, Rankin fans, what's the deal with him? Has he been writing so prolifically with so much success for so long that he sometimes feels an irrepressible urge to try something different? Is the wit of "The Dean Curse" an occasional break from the gloom and detail that he shovels on elsewhere? Or is the reverse the case? And what is Celtic noir, anyway? Does the term have any meaning beyond the blurbs? If I recall correctly, I've seen the term applied to Rankin, to Ken Bruen and maybe even to Bill James, and I don't see a heck of a lot in common among those writers.
Is there an anti-Rankin backlash? I mean, we couldn't possibly be jealous of the man because he's been an acclaimed novelist since he was in his mid-twenties and has already won an award for lifetime achievement and is still probably younger than a lot us are, could we?
© Peter Rozovsky 2006
Links You Might Like
Labels: Web sites
Thursday, September 21, 2006
Detectives Beyond Borders
– What are your favorite crime novels and stories set in countries other than your own?
– Why do you like these stories?
– Is living in a country a prerequisite for writing a successful crime story set in that country?
– What makes crime stories especially attractive to the armchair traveler?
– Do people even read in armchairs anymore?
Setting has been integral to some of the finest crime fiction through all periods. Think the misty docks and streets of Conan Doyle's London. Think Hammett's San Francisco, Chandler's Los Angeles, Lawrence Block's New York. Or think Georges Simenon's Paris, its suburbs, and the villages where Maigret loves to relax, drink white wine, and play cards. Given the importance of setting, it seems natural that crime stories should prove especially attractive to those of us who like to travel in our minds as well as in trains, planes, cars, buses and boats. Indeed, this is a good time for such readers, with Soho Crime, Bitter Lemon Press and Serpent's Tail, among others, offering much of interest.
I'll begin with some of my favorites, along with a few books I don't much like. Feel free to disagree with me, especially on the latter. Nothing would please me more than to be talked into recognizing virtues I had not seen before in an author – or to be forced to better understand and justify my dislike.
In no particular order, here is some of my favorite non-American crime fiction:
1) Lovely Mover, by Bill James, though several of the other novels from the middle of James' Harpur & Iles series are about as good. The series hits its stride around its seventh book and becomes a kind of grand and cracked portrait of Britain's shifting urban and social landscape, of the murky boundaries between police and criminals, of suburban social climbers who happen to be killers and drug dealers, of the strange ways people build families in changing times. The books are violent, dark, and often very funny. And James just happens to be the best prose stylist who has ever written crime fiction in English.
2) Death of a Red Heroine, by Qiu Xiaolong. A clear-eyed view of 1990s Shanghai that meets every traditional requirement for a full-blooded crime novel. The setting is evocative, the protagonist is unusual (though not the strongest feature of the book), the supporting characters are compelling, and the story has a surprise ending that could only have happened in China.
3) Cosi Fan Tutti, by Michael Dibdin, is an exception to my general distaste for novels set in "foreign" countries by writers not from those countries. Such books often degenerate into travelogues. This novel is formally daring, and talk about surprise endings! Dibdin, an Englishman, spent several years teaching in Italy, according to various accounts, and his charmingly named protagonist, Aurelio Zen, offers a kind of Baedeker's guide to official Italian corruption and internecine rivalry, each novel set in a different region: Naples here, the Vatican, Venice, the south in other books. And Rome. Always Rome. "Zen" is a name characteristic of the protagonist's native Venice, but it also has overtones of the detachment with which this Zen moves through the sometimes deadly worlds of Italian officialdom and gangsterdom. Of course, the character's other name, Aurelio, is another clue that he is wise and given to occasional musing, if not outright meditation.
4) "Brown Eyes and Green Hair," a short story by Pentti Kirstila available in "The Oxford Book of Detective Stories (An International Selection)." This delightful, deadpan, at times almost surreal story by the Finnish Kirstila is an exception to the rule that writers from Scandinavia, the Baltic countries and Iceland are morose -- and is the only Kirstila to have been translated into English. Let's raise a fuss and get more of his work translated and published. (Some of his writing is available in German and in some less widespread European languages.)
5) Points and Lines, by Seicho Matsumoto. This Japanese police procedural is a kind of road movie on the rails, a look at people and places in 1960s Japan through the eyes of a police inspector who travels the length and breadth of the country by train as he tracks down clues to a young couple’s death.
6) No Happy Ending, by Paco Ignacio Taibo II. The protagonist shares a cramped Mexico City office with a plumber, an upholsterer and a sewer engineer. The book begins with a Roman soldier found dead in a bathroom. What more could you ask for? Like Dibdin's Aurelio Zen, Taibo's one-eyed hero, Hector Belascoaran Shayne, bumps up against official corruption and violence. Unlike Zen, Shayne attacks it headfirst. He also has a profound sympathy with victims of police and other official and corporate brutality.
7) The Prone Gunman, by Jean-Patrick Manchette. Another author with a distinct political viewpoint. His short, grim novels have a certain formal similarity to Jim Thompson's. But Manchette's protagonists are not fortunate enough to die. Rather, they are brought low, chewed up, and spit out, destroyed or disoriented but still alive, by powerful forces who use them to achieve their own ends before discarding them.
8) Thumbprint and Fever, by Friedrich Glauser. This 1930s Swiss writer, translated and brought back into print by Bitter Lemon Press, offers that rarest of detective protagonists: a man who has hit rock bottom professionally without lapsing into alcohol and self-pity. Sgt. Studer works in small corners of a big world: Villages, prison cells, cramped apartments. An insane asylum. An isolated Moroccan Foreign Legion post. He is mordant and humane in a world of which his creator takes a deadpan view. Some say Glauser influenced his countryman Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Maybe, but Glauser was better.
9) The Amsterdam Cops series, by Janwillem van de Wetering. This Dutch author has been a businessman, a world traveler, a reserve Amsterdam police officer, and a student at a Zen monastery in Kyoto. All, especially the last three, figure prominently in this series, which includes 14 novels and two overlapping short-story collections. Detective twosomes are a nickel a dozen; Van de Wetering offers the only three-headed protagonist I can think of: the grumpy Adjutant Henk Grijpstra, the younger and sometimes vain Sgt. Rinus de Gier, and their unnamed commissaris, or chief, an elderly mentor with sometimes excruciating knee pains who is a sly collaborator and a kind of guru to Grijpstra and de Gier. Start with Hard Rain, in part for the larger role it gives the commissaris. Van de Wetering has an interesting approach to translation: He does his own, and he regards the results as versions, rather than translations, of the original. The one book in the series that I read in Dutch has slightly different chapter divisions from the English version and an opening chapter with more physical description. And the first in the series, An Outsider in Amsterdam, reflects the Dutch language's more frequent use of the present perfect where English would use the simple past. This results in occasional odd sentences such as "I wonder if he has done it."
10/11) Tales From Two Pockets by Karel Capek and The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka by Josef Skvorecky. These books of tales are full of sharp observation, wry and wistful humor, and detection of the classic and other kinds. Both just might lay to rest the notion that "literary" crime fiction equals bad crime fiction.
OK, what do these stories have in common, other than that none is set in the United States or in an English village and each offers a vivid sense of place? Damned if I know. Maybe I'll know better once I hear from you.
What about books that didn't make my list? Ruth Rendell's superb The Veiled One seems far more interested in its killer's psyche than in the story's setting. The great Ken Bruen's Brant and Roberts novels are like Ed McBain 87th Precinct gang whacked out on beer and cocaine. Their violent, good-hearted, hilarious characters clang and crash together in stories that are all action, all character, without much focus on the setting. By all means, read them. (Bust, on the other hand, Bruen's excellent collaboration with Jason Starr, could qualify for this list with an asterisk, as an Irish writer's view of New York.)
Two books I did not care for helped form my thoughts on international crime fiction. The one Magdalen Nabb "Marshal Guarnaccia" story that I read got the details of its Florence-area setting convincingly right, but the story could have happened anywhere. John Burdett's Bangkok 8, on the other hand, was all local color, all weird exotica, all too much like a travelogue, albeit an especially weird one, for my tastes.
A last note: I've omitted Murder Must Advertise, the one Dorothy Sayers novel that I've read, though it is set in a country where I've never lived. Yet I might include Peter Lovesey's fine The Last Detective, which takes place in the same country. The reason is simple: In crime fiction, the past is not a foreign country. Sayers, and perhaps Christie, Chesterton and all the rest, created worlds so familiar to crime-fiction readers that they are no longer foreign.
Thanks, and keep those posts coming,
© Peter Rozovsky 2006
Labels: Bill James, Capek, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Friedrich Glauser, Japan, Manchette, Mexico, Michael Dibdin, Netherlands, Pentti Kirstila, Qiu Xiaolong, Seicho Matsumoto, Skvorecky, Taibo, van de Wetering