Friday, February 29, 2008

Gay-porn twins charged in burglary (or, the Mid-Atlantic states lead the way)

I don't mean to make this a true-crime blog, but this story was too good to pass up. Its first words are "Taleon Goffney made a name for himself in two disparate professions," and the headline, reproduced as the first part of this post's title, tells the reader exactly what those professions are.

The brothers, the story tells us, "are suspects in 45 burglaries – stretching across New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware – in which intruders hacked through the rooftops of businesses."

The real action came after the arrests, though, and I don't mean in "the gay-porn industry, where the brothers were known as Teyon and Keyon, the twins who shared an infamous sex scene with porn superstar Marc Williams."


"Clementon officers doing surveillance work admired Taleon's athletic ability in 2006 when they saw him running up the walls of an apartment building and doing backflips. Then they saw him make an open-air drug deal.

"They arrested him, loaded him in a cruiser, and drove off.

"`The officer heard a loud bang and saw Goffney jettison out the side rear window, head first,' Clementon Police Chief Dave Kunkel said. `He landed on his face, but within seconds he was already on his feet and running. The officer hadn't even had time to put the car into park.'

"Taleon had broken out the glass with his head. He then jumped into a lake while still handcuffed.

"`He was using flipper action with his feet. And when he got to the other side, he taunted the officers, saying, "You'll never catch me,"' Kunkel said."

Someone, somewhere, has to be writing a comic crime novel inspired by these guys. And you can help. Pick a good title for a story based on the exploits of this light-footed and -fingered pair.

Starting tomorrow, crime fiction returns, with posts in the pipeline about Giles Blunt and Fred Vargas – unless anything really weird happens in Philadelphia, that is.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

A contest for nutters only, Part I

Not so long ago, I promised to keep readers in the U.K. posted periodically when Philadelphia's mayor, the marvelously named Michael Nutter, made headlines.

I lied; you get just one headline, but it could win you a prize. The headline appeared in a Philadelphia media outlet. Your job is to supply, in no more than two short paragraphs, a news story that belongs under it. Especially creative answers will be rewarded with a book. Contest open to readers everywhere. Decisions of the judges at 1 Detectives Beyond Borders Corporate Center are final.

Here goes:

Nutter to be inaugurated as Philadelphia mayor amid high hopes

Good luck.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Crime in Ireland and elsewhere

A few weeks ago, my newspaper published the following small item under the headline "Murders reach record in Ireland":

DUBLIN – Homicides in Ireland rose to a record last year, increasing 25 percent and prompting calls for tougher sentences for murder and gang crime. Murders and manslaughters rose to 84 from 67 in 2006, while drug offenses rose 22 percent to 4,423, according to the Cork-based Central Statistics Office.

"While the rise in headline crime has to be seen against the background of the unprecedented rise which is taking place in our population, the fact is that each crime is a crime too many," Justice Minister Brian Lenihan said. Ireland's population has risen almost 17 percent in the last decade, to 4.2 million.

"The cheapening of human life evident in the crime figures demands an urgent response," said Charlie Flanagan, justice spokesman for the opposition Fine Gael party. – AP

Philadelphia, on the other hand, has averaged about 400 killings a year the past two years.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Fred Vargas' physical and human geography

I wrote a few months ago about Fred Vargas' keen and amused interest in the physical and human geography of her native country. My comment concerned Seeking Whom He May Devour and its road trip through southeastern France, but I could as easily have discussed Have Mercy On Us All, with its old Breton town crier in Paris.

The tour continues in This Night's Foul Work, one of whose early chapters takes commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg to Normandy, where,"When men foregather for a drink in the evening, the newcomer is inevitably spotted, weighed up and rejected or accepted. In Normandy, like everywhere else, and possibly a bit more so than anywhere else."

The chapter also takes a lighthearted look at the particularism of France's innumerable regions:

"Caen's in Lower Normandy,"Anglebert explained. "Here you're in Upper Normandy."

"And that's important?"

"Let's just say you don't compare them. The real Normandy's the Upper one, here."

... "But you watch out," Robert added. "Over there in Calvados, they'll tell you different. But don't you listen to them."
That same gang of sturdy Normans out for an evening's drink makes an observation or two about Parisians and about natives of Adamsberg's own region in the Pyrenees. Once again, Vargas accomplishes the considerable feat of giving a reader a feeling of intimacy with a large and widely varying country.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, February 25, 2008

The taste of crime

If you've read Andrea Camilleri, Jean-Claude Izzo, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán or Giampiero Rigosi, you know that fictional police, private investigators and killers can eat well, sometimes even while on the job. Now readers can get in on the act, at least the eating part, thanks to Novel Food #3.

Your hosts, briciole and Champaign Taste, ask that you:

1. Prepare a dish of your choosing that has a connection to a published literary work (novel, novella, short story, memoir).

2. Post it on your blog by March 22, 2008.

3. Send an e-mail either to (webrina AT gmail DOT com) or (simosite AT mac DOT com) and include your name, blog name and blog address, and a permanent link to your post. Non-English submissions are welcomed. If possible, please include an introduction in English.

Visit the blogs for further details. And bon appétit.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008


Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Telegraph's top-fifty crime-author list: Who belongs? Who doesn't?

It's nice to see a newspaper acknowledge the existence and popularity of crime fiction. The Telegraph offered a list a couple of weeks ago called "50 crime writers to read before you die." The list contains the usual suspects (Poe, Conan Doyle, Hammett and so on), a surprise or two (notably – and commendably – Jonathan Latimer) and a few writers who may be of special interest to readers of Detectives Beyond Borders. I have one complaint: A list of crime writers (and not of crime novels) should recommend more than one book by each writer.

Well, two complaints: Like James Fallows on the Atlantic's Web site late last year, the Telegraph misspells Janwillem van de Wetering's name, though the Telegraph misspells it differently. It's van de Wetering, not der.

Here are some excerpts from the list, with an occasional comment from me:

Janwillem van de(!!) Wetering (1931- ): "The capers of Grijpstra and de Gier, aka The Amsterdam Cops, are oddly appealing. One plays the drums; the other the flute. They frequent canals. There's a cat. Unique and very Dutch. Read: Outsider in Amsterdam (1975)" (Detectives Beyond Borders says: Outsider in Amsterdam may exemplify the "very Dutch" side of van de Wetering. Hard Rain highlights the "unique" side, delightfully reflecting the author's experience with Zen Buddhism and my favorite in the series.)

Georges Simenon (1903-1989): "His greatest creation was Maigret, an unassuming detective with a brain like a sponge and the quiet moral determination of a true hero. Other detectives deduce; Maigret absorbs. The best of the novels drop Simenon’s detective into a social environment in which, by doing very little, he unravels a whole world of secrets and interconnections. So it is in The Yellow Dog, in which a small town in the gloomy off-season gives up its private passions one by one to the detective’s patient observation. A whole school of modern detectives still walks in Maigret’s large footprints."

Jonathan Latimer (1906-1983): "Admired for his William Crane novels of the 1930s, which parodied hard-boiled crime fiction. Where most private eyes drink like fish with little effect, boozy Crane is more often found sleeping it off than detecting. JK Read: The Fifth Grave (1941)" (DBB says: The Fifth Grave is known in the U.S. as Solomon's Vineyard and was for years available only in a bowdlerized edition. It still hits hard almost seventy years after its publication. Among the lighter-hearted but still occasionally very hard-boiled William Crane books, try The Lady in the Morgue, The Dead Don't Care or Headed for a Hearse.)

Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990): "The most famous of this Swiss author's chilling novellas is The Pledge, in which a policeman finds his Holmes-like powers are useless for dealing with the real world's random brutality." (DBB says: I suspect this writer earns respect among those who would not normally read crime fiction because he showed no sense of humor. Try his older compatriot Friedrich Glauser. Glauser, said to have influenced Dürrenmatt, could be just as chilling but also mordantly and sometimes puckishly funny.)
Andrea Camilleri (1925- ): "Camilleri's writing suits his hero Inspector Montalbano, a Sicilian with a broad sense of humour. Camilleri's real subject is the state of Sicily, but his characters are vivid and their dilemmas eternal."

Henning Mankell (1948- ): "Each book finishes with fatty Wallander crashing about the bushes in a tracksuit, but the Swede's existential misery is delightful and every novel is absorbing and satisfying."

Now I'll ask you the same question the Telegraph asked its readers: Who should have been on the list? Who should have been omitted?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008


Saturday, February 23, 2008

Jo Nesbø on alcohol

Once upon a time, I posted some comments about middle-aged loner detectives. That led me to the inevitable thoughts about genre conventions and how an author adheres to them.

I found out how one writer handled this question thanks to an interview with Jo Nesbø (and a big, fat hat tip to Euro Crime for pointing the way). Here's what Nesbø had to say about one of the generic traits of such detectives:

"From the outset I knew that the main character had to have an Achilles heel, an inner demon, to ensure that he not only experiences tension outside, but on the inside, too. And that was to be alcoholism. But I didn't want the standard, cliché, American hard-boiled detective ... (w)ith a cool thirst. This had to be uncool thirst with alcoholism as his kryptonite. He is derailed by it."

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Good names for bad guys

Christopher Brookmyre named one of his villains Stephen Lime. That's a good name for at least two reasons. It echoes the name of Harry Lime, villain of the Carol Reed/Graham Greene movie classic The Third Man. Indeed, the two Limes practice related forms of villainy.

The name is good also because of what happens when you reduce the first part to an initial. The result describes its bearer well and is all the funnier because the reader shares the pleasure of getting the joke.

What are your favorite character names, be they appropriate for the character, over the top in the manner of Dickens, or as much of a hoot as Brookmyre's S. Lime?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Simenon and other sympathetic subjects

In Reference to Murder is almost as prolific as Georges Simenon. Thus, it was fitting that blog keeper B.V. Lawson mark the 105th birthday of Inspector Maigret's creator last week with a roundup of information including links to lists, to one of the great crime-fiction Web sites, to serious discussions, and to information about how to buy a Simenon T-shirt. I'd like to weigh in with comments about Maigret as a sympathetic investigator.

Simenon attracted the attention of fellow crime novelists at least as early as the 1930s, when Friedrich Glauser observed in The Chinaman that "detective novels seemed popular in Pfründisberg," novels by Edgar Wallace, Agatha Christie, and, yes, Simenon.

One critic wrote that "Glauser has Simenon’s ability to turn a stereotype into a person, and the moral complexity to appeal to justice over the head of police procedure." That moral complexity manifests itself in a deep sympathy for downtrodden characters. Simenon shows a similar sympathy, or at least Maigret does. (See this review for a possible explantion of Simenon's sympathy.)

And that leads to today's question: Who else falls into that tradition? Which crime-fiction authors have the deepest sympathy for their most wretched characters? Which fictional investigators?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"In Bruges," or how do you feel about misleading movie trailers?

Why the trailer and not the movie? Because the two are only distantly related, a blatant act of dishonesty on the part of whoever produced the trailer, and thus ought to be considered separately.

The trailer, formerly available here, is a hysterical romp. The movie, on the other hand, is a sometimes moving meditation on the psychic cost of murder, a tale of two hit men laying low in Bruges, mulling the consequences of their chosen profession as they await instructions from their boss.

Brendan Gleeson is stunning as Ken, hit man number one. Ralph Fiennes, as the Godot-like boss whose instructions the two hit men wait for, is a nervous bad guy. The movie makes sensitive and evocative use of gruesome Flemish Renaissance art, notably that of Hieronymus Bosch. And a climactic scene has Colin Farrell's tender-hearted Ray, hit man number two, running past a monument to the tender-hearted Charles the Good, count of Flanders, murdered in Bruges in 1127.

Since In Bruges and its trailer are so radically dissimilar, I'll take a break from fiction and ask if you've ever been misled by a movie trailer and, if so, how you felt once you'd seen the movie.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Eliot Pattison's ultra-outsider detective

Outsider detective-fiction protagonists do not constitute the world's most exclusive club, but Eliot Pattison's Shan Tao Yun is more profoundly an outsider than most.

He's Han Chinese, but he lives and works in Tibet, where the Chinese are not universally loved, to state the case mildly. Not only has he lost his job as a police investigator in Beijing because he crossed Communist Party officials , but he has been exiled to a brutal labor camp in Tibet as punishment. In the first Inspector Shan novel, the Edgar-winning Skull Mantra, he is still a prisoner when officials reluctantly call on him for help to solve an urgent case. They are so far from anywhere that there is simply no other competent investigator to be found.

Shan's work on that case earns him an uneasy and unofficial freedom that he spends in a secret, illegal Buddhist monastery with monks he met while in prison. He continues in this semi-hidden, shadowy state in Prayer of the Dragon, the fifth in the series.

In this latest novel, he and the monks Gendun and Lokesh have been summoned to an isolated Tibetan village where Beijing's rule had not managed to penetrate thoroughly, but no matter; some of the village traditions are brutal enough on their own without Chinese help. "It was a strange gray place," Shan thinks, "in which the worst of both worlds was combined."

All this makes Shan Tao Yun more of an outsider than your average cop who's impatient with his boss. For one thing, Shan's outsider status is far more dangerous than that of most crime protagonists.

I'll stop now and let you go read the books yourselves. You'll find a list of them here. While you're on your way to the bookshop or library, ponder this question: Of all the outsider crime-fiction protagonists you know, who is the most outside, the most precarious, the most alienated? What makes him or her that way?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Carnival of the Criminal Minds, No. 10 – The Voyage to Love

The latest edition of Carnival of the Criminal Minds sees the light of day just after Valentine's Day, and host B.V. Lawson of the compendious In Reference to Murder offers a guide to hearts, flowers, love, murder and chocolate.

Let B.V. be your guide to kissable characters, the appeal of romantic mysteries, a guide to new crime/love stories, and more. B.V.'s last entry strays from crime fiction, and I can guarantee it will have you seeing stars.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

One more post about “Thirty-Three Teeth”

A few months ago, I invoked D.H. Lawrence’s poem “A Sane Revolution” when posting about Colin Cotterill's novel Anarchy and Old Dogs. The poem begins "If you make a revolution, make it for fun," and I thought it captured nicely the political attitudes of Cotterill and his protagonst, Dr. Siri Paiboun.

Now I'm reading Cotterill's Thirty-Three Teeth, and I thought of Lawrence's poem once more when I came to the following:

"Haeng ... let loose with one of his renowned maxims.

"`That's the spirit, Siri. It's moments like this that make the socialist system so great. When the call to arms comes the committed cadre, even on his honeymoon, would gladly climb off his young wife at the crucial moment sooner than let down the party.'

"If that were so, Siri thought to himself, it might explain the frustrated look he'd often seen on the faces of so many Party members."
If there's a better writer of gently humorous, satirically tinged, politically edged, occasionally spiritual, exotically set crime novels than Colin Cotterill, I can't think of who it might be.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Politically disillusioned crime-fiction good guys

A humorous passage in Thirty-Three Teeth plus a comment from Matt Rees in an interview here last week got me thinking about disillusioned crime-fiction characters whose disillusionement is political. Here’s the passage:

“`All right, then. Let's see if we can get any information from the information department.' ...

"[Siri] was a remarkably patient man, but he had no time for incompetence in the government sector. He and Boua had fought for most of their lives to end corrupt systems and he had no intention of being part of one. In his most officious voice, he belted out: `Good god, man! What do you think you're doing? This is a government department, not a rest home. What if there was some sporting emergency or something?'"

Here's the comment, about a character named Khamis Zeydan, police chief of Bethlehem:

"He's typical of high-level Palestinian military men – though not those with the absolute top jobs. Most of them are very disillusioned. They thought they'd come back from exile to be policemen, and suddenly young gunmen took over the streets and they weren't allowed to do anything about it. Khamis Zeydan is based on a friend of mine who introduced me to many of his colleagues in this discontented echelon of the Palestinian military."

The characters, one a protagonist, the other a protagonist's dangerous friend, are both disillusioned revolutionaries who have not let their disillusionment carry them over to the dark side, at least not entirely. That old formula about walking the mean streets who are not themselves mean proves adaptable to cultural and political circumstances different from Raymond Chandler's.

That's two disillusioned revolutionaries who nonetheless stayed on the good side. Can you think of any more crime-fiction heroes or helpers whose disillusionment was political?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

A bonza birthday to Oz Mystery Readers

The estimable crime-fiction reading and discussion group Oz Mystery Readers, of which I am a member, turned five years old this week. Why not celebrate by joining up? It costs nothing, and you’ll participate in in-depth book discussions, weigh in on specialized themes, and get to chat with an author or two.

You’ll discuss crime fiction from Australia and elsewhere, and if you yourself are from elsewhere, the group’s Australian perspective on your home country can be interesting.

(Photo courtesy of Tourism NT)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008


Ladies and gentlemen, meet your protagonist

Colin Cotterill’s novel Thirty-Three Teeth gives its hero a deliciously unheroic entrance:

“On his way to the back, [Civilai] passed a small room where piles of clothes told him he was nearing a primitive life form. In the back yard, he discovered it. Dr. Siri Paiboun, reluctant national coroner, confused psychic, disheartened communist, swung gently on a hammock strung between two jackfruit saplings. A larger man would have brought them both down.”
That beautiful little piece of writing ought to make any reader smile. It’s also wonderfully efficient, telling us everything we need to know about Dr. Siri’s profession, his attitudes, his mental state, and even his size.

And now, readers, how about you? What are your favorite first glimpses of an important character in crime fiction? What does the author do in just a few words to make you feel you know well a character you may never have met before?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Studying Studer (A bit more about Friedrich Glauser's "The Spoke")

I speculated recently that The Spoke, fifth and last of Friedrich Glauser's novels about Sgt. Studer of the Bern cantonal police to be published by Bitter Lemon Press, might be even more humorous than its predecessor, The Chinaman. In fact, that turns out not to be the book's distinguishing attribute. Rather, the novel seems more than the previous books to reflect Glauser's struggles with opium and morphine addiction and his time in an insane asylum.

Glauser had touched upon these subjects before, notably in In Matto's Realm, set in an asylum. With The Spoke, though, I made the guess that I did not because of the subject but because of the tone. Studer has fevered dreams in this novel, and he talks to the dead. In addition, parts of the book are written in a summary, telegraphic style, as in "The dead man: young, tall, very slim, wearing light grey flannel trousers and a dark blue polo shirt, his long arms covered in blond hair sticking out of the short sleeves." Since Studer is the point-of-view character, he seems to be talking to himself in such passages.

I'm no psychologist or addiction specialist and still less a biographical determinist; I could be dead wrong to connect the increased focus on Studer's state of mind to Glauser's own history. Perhaps Glauser was simply trying narrative techniques that he had not used before. Still, they remain more suggestive than they might have been had the author led a different life.

The delightful, sometimes low humor from the other four Studer books is here, as is the tender, almost heartbreaking empathy with downtrodden characters that was especially strong in The Chinaman and In Matto's Realm. The scorn for the predator/villains is especially righteous in this novel, and the denouement is especially merry. Troubled though he may have been, I suspect that Friedrich Glauser must always have been capable of a wry grin.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Surprises in historical mysteries, or, "Hey, those folks are just like us"

I've just read a story that raises questions of Larger Significance, as stories sometimes will. The story is Anthony Price's "The Boudicca Killing," in the Winter's Crimes 11 anthology, published in 1979, and it has everything a short story ought to have, including a surprise ending and a double-edged title. That title is a key to the surprise as well as a reminder that crime fiction can bring history alive.

The killing in question is financial (though the story is full of references to killings of the more literal kind, as befitting a tale of events occasioned by a famous revolt). The action begins with suspicions arising from a Roman speculator's huge gains in Britain at a time when everyone else was losing money.

Now, I suspect that most people don't associate ancient Rome with finances, speculation, investments, syndicates and allegations of insider trading, yet here they are, believably presented in fictional form. I don't know the Roman empire's financial history, but a quick search for "Boudicca's revolt" yields numerous references to the calling in of loans, so the connection is plausible. And, boom! Thanks to a short piece of crime fiction, I may think about the Romans a bit more realistically from now on.

And now, your questions: What historical crime fiction made you think: "Wow, I didn't realize they did that back then"? More broadly, what historical crime fiction left you feeling you had been taught some history?

(Read Tacitus' account of Boudicca's rebellion here. Also, "The Boudicca Killing" appeared in the UK in 1979, at the dawn of the Margaret Thatcher era. Its clear-eyed discussion of speculation as well the hand-rubbing glee of its last line lead me to suspect strongly that the author was commenting on what he suspected was about to happen. Any comments, British readers?)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Fred fest

Euro Crime is marking the UK release of Fred Vargas' latest novel, This Night's Foul Work, with a roundup of everything the Euro Crime stable of reviewers has had to say about the Vargases translated into English to date. That's eleven reviews of five novels by five reviewers, unless I've lost count (plus a kind heads-up about my interview with Vargas' translator, Sian Reynolds).

I noticed two comments in particular: Maxine Clarke's on Seeking Whom He May Devour ("I've never read a book quite like this one") and Fiona Walker's on Have Mercy On Us All ("I can guarantee it's like nothing you've read before").

I noted those remarks with interest because I wrote about my own first Vargas novel, Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, that "I have never read an opening chapter like this before in a crime novel." Now, if that many people think Vargas is original, she's original.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

The crime side of "serious" fiction

A pair of professors from Amherst College are the latest to notice that "serious" fiction has a crime side. Or did they notice that crime fiction has a serious side? You can decide when you read their article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The piece is a series of one-paragraph mock newspaper articles in the style of a roundup of crime news. I got a special kick out of the following, for reasons that will be obvious to readers who remember this, this and this from Detectives Beyond Borders:

Prince Runs Amok; Many Feared Dead

(Elsinore, Denmark) – The heir to the Danish throne went on a rampage yesterday, killing, it is feared, most of the members of the royal family. Details remain sketchy, but persons close to the scene report that the Danish prince killed his stepfather, the king; one of the king's leading ministers; and the minister's son. The prince's mother also is said to have died in the rampage; the assailant himself was killed in an all-out assault by authorities. The prince, believed to be in his mid-20s, had recently been placed under suicide watch after the death by drowning of his fiancée. A college acquaintance confirmed that the killer had been haunted by visions and nightmares since the death of his father some years ago: "He liked to talk about death and killing and stuff, but no one really took him seriously. He'd been saying the same thing for years." Said another unnamed source, "Everyone knew he was a little off, but he seemed pretty harmless. I guess we were wrong."
You might also like the item about – But why should I ruin the fun? Click on the article, and see which literary classics you recognize from their criminous descriptions. (As a newspaperman, I compliment the professors on their good eye for headlinese, that sometimes weirdly compacted turn of phrase seen only in newspaper headlines.)

(image from

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Carnival of the Criminal Minds, No. 9

Get ready to gawk at geeks and chow down on cotton candy; it’s carnival time again.

Graham Powell’s CrimeSpot is the site to visit to find out what other sites are saying. These days, he says even more than usual as host of the ninth edition of Carnival of the Criminal Minds. February is Black History Month in the U.S. (a pity, as others have remarked, that one should shunt this aside to just one month), and CrimeSpot has made it Black Mystery Month as well, offering a roundup of articles and profiles.

Mr. Powell promises more carnival treats this weekend, and now he has delivered, with a novel listing of podcasts and promotional videos. (Clicking the Carnival link above will take you back to notices of the first eight carnivals, as well. It's worth the trip.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, February 08, 2008

Crime fiction and unfortunate events

I’ve rhapsodized about Frank McAuliffe and his three amazing books about Augustus Mandrell, that sly international spy and master of disguise who must nonetheless work for a living. But did you know a fourth Mandrell book, never published, predates the others? Its title is They Shoot Presidents, Don’t They?, and when I tell you that McAuliffe apparently submitted it to his publisher not long before Nov. 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, you may understand its failure to appear. (Read this enlightening account and this discussion about the astonishing, brash, satirical and very funny Mandrell series.)

Thirty-eight years later, just before Sept. 11, 2001, the acidically satirical Christopher Brookmyre published A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away, one of whose characters is a terrorist who blows up a plane. Brookmyre’s own Web site breaks down critical reaction to the novel into “Pre September 11th” and “Post September 11th” groups, and it’s natural to wonder how the terrorist attacks affected the novel’s popular and critical reception.

Each author ran full speed, smack-dab, face first and unaware into a historical event beyond his control. What other crime authors have experienced similar tricks of fate?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

An early look at Friedrich Glauser’s “The Spoke”

The last of the superlatively great Glauser’s Sgt. Studer novels to be translated into English looks as if it may be even more slyly humorous than its predecessor, The Chinaman. And that book, in its turn, was just a bit more touched with absurd humor than the three Glausers previously translated by Bitter Lemon Press.

A body is discovered during a wedding banquet. The first words out of Studer’s mouth – after his deadpan consideration of the odd murder weapon – are these: “Just look at this, Bärtu. Why the hell did we listen to our womenfolk?” Who is Bärtu? A fellow police officer. Studer’s new son-in-law. The wedding banquet was that of Studer’s daughter, and Glauser relates these essential facts in the same order that I have here.

Sometimes humor lies not in what one says but in how one says it.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Love, war, crime fiction, and a question for readers

I posted more than a year ago about the chilling opening chapter of Yasmina Khadra's Morituri, in which the ravages of fighting in Algeria have sapped the protagonist even of the consolation of sexual desire:

"Today my wife, my poor beast of burden, has regressed – she holds no more attraction than a trailer lying across the road, but at least she's there when I am afraid of the dark."
The next day, I found a discussion of Chaucer's Troilus and Cressida that said: "Chaucer was creating a work that could help bring a declining society back to a state of health. The whole perpetual love theme in Chaucer relates to this, because love is one of the first relations to go awry in an unhealthy society."

In A Grave in Gaza, Matt Rees' protagonist is haunted by deaths he has witnessed:

"Omar Yussef dreamed of death ... Death wasn't following him anymore. It was sharing his bed, not like a wife, but like an illicit lover, jealous and angry, giving him no sleep."
Once again, war is a destroyer of love (though only in his dreams for the eminently well-adjusted, decidely non-screwed-up, warped, embittered, cowed or otherwise damaged Omar Yussef). What other modern crime stories use this ancient theme?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

An interview with Matt Rees

Matt Rees spent a decade as a reporter in the Palestinian territories and wrote a nonfiction book, Cain's Field: Faith, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East, before deciding he needed another, richer way to tell the stories he found there. His two crime novels, The Collaborator of Bethlehem (The Bethlehem Murders in the U.K.) and A Grave in Gaza (a.k.a. The Saladin Murders) portray a harsh world, populated by villains as callous, venal and brutal as any in crime fiction. But Rees finds beauty in that world, too. He wrote last year in Mystery Readers Journal that:

"By learning [Arabic], I was able to give my characters some of the formalized greetings and blessings that are an important part of Palestinian speech. I translated them, rather than just putting the original Arabic phrase in italics, because I wanted readers to get the poetry of everyday speech. For example, to wish someone good morning my characters say `Morning of joy,' and the response is `Morning of light.' When someone gives them a cup of coffee, they tell them `May Allah bless your hands.' Isn't that beautiful?"
In a new interview with Detectives Beyond Borders, Rees talks about his immensely appealing protagonist, Omar Yussef; the models for his characters and stories; and his own favorite crime-fiction writers. One of the latter may surprise you. He also offers good news about the third Omar Yussef mystery. If you're within travelling distance of New York, you can hear Matt Rees read and discuss A Grave in Gaza on Tuesday, Feb. 12 at Partners & Crime Mystery Booksellers in Greenwich Village.

Omar Yussef is a high school history teacher. Why a teacher? And why history?

People are always suggesting to me that Palestinians are stuck in the past. Of course many are, but I've found a lot of Palestinians to be far more forward-looking than that. I wanted Omar Yussef to be a Palestinian who understood the past – a historian – but whose focus was on the future, the next generation – a teacher.

You write that the crimes in your novels are based on real events. What event or events made you decide, "Aha, I'm going to write a novel"?

When I was Time magazine's Jerusalem bureau chief, I was in a cabbage field near Bethlehem in 2003, interviewing the mother and wife of a Palestinian gunman who'd been killed by Israeli snipers as he crept home to break the Ramadan fast with his family. They talked about discovering his body in the moonlight and touching his blood to their faces, but they also told me in very profound emotional terms what it had been like to go through such an extreme experience. I remember thinking: "This is too good for Time magazine." That death formed the basis for the first killing in The Collaborator of Bethlehem, the first of my novels.

Why are the Palestinian territories, Bethlehem in the first book, Gaza in the second, ripe settings for crime stories?

Particularly during the intifada, there was no law and order for Palestinians. Gunmen ruled the towns and refugee camps as gangsters. If they occasionally shot at an Israeli, they could operate their rackets freely, and of course Palestinians were the victims. In the lawlessness and the corruption of the police force – which is often involved with the gangs – I see many parallels with the San Francisco and Los Angeles of Hammett and Chandler. Unfortunately for the Palestinians they have very real bad guys, too, many of whom I've met.

In your first novel, Omar Yussef uncovers truth but does not achieve justice. What does this say about life in the territories? About your own conception of what a crime story can and should do?

Mainly it says that I'm not an idealist, but that I am an optimist.

What is your take on the breach of the Rafah border crossing? Hamas emerges having appeared to face down both Israel and Egypt. Will this enhance its standing among ordinary Palestinians, or will people regard it as a cynical power play against Fatah? More to the point, how might it influence your planning for possible future Omar Yussef stories?

Ordinary Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, are sick of Hamas. They elected them to punish Fatah, which was corrupt. They didn't elect them because they believe in an Islamic state. They expected Hamas to negotiate with Israel, but to do so more toughly than Fatah. Instead Hamas allowed itself to be pushed into a corner and continued to behave like an opposition militia. Palestinians want Hamas to behave like a government, and governments don't blow up border fences. As for how this affects Omar Yussef, the book I'm finishing now, in which Omar goes to Nablus, involves Hamas and the kind of tribal/neighborhood conflict that never seems to make it into the newspapers.

The character Khamis Zeydan is a police officer with a dangerous past, yet one who knows his way around the hazards of the territories and is conscious of the corruption around him. How typical a figure is he? What role do men like him play in the territories today? What role will they play in any future Palestinian government?

He's typical of high-level Palestinian military men – though not those with the absolute top jobs. Most of them are very disillusioned. They thought they'd come back from exile to be policemen, and suddenly young gunmen took over the streets and they weren't allowed to do anything about it. Khamis Zeydan is based on a friend of mine who introduced me to many of his colleagues in this discontented echelon of the Palestinian military.

One reviewer invoked Batya Gur's name in discussing your first novel, but I'd call your work a distant cousin of Yasmina Khadra's Brahim Llob novels as well. His writing is far bleaker than yours, but the two of you share the theme that when factions fight, ordinary people get it in the neck. Have you read his work? What crime novelists have made a particularly strong impression on you?

I'm glad you find him bleaker than me, because one American journalist said my books were the bleakest mysteries she'd ever read. I told her I thought they were quite optimistic. I don't know Khadra's books, though I shall pick them up. My primary interests in specifically detective writers are Chandler and Hammett, while I love all of Graham Greene's books, including his mysteries. I'm also a fan of Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano, which proves that I'm not bleak and am in fact rather a breezy sort of guy. Well, maybe not – I also love Inspector Morse.

In the video you made to promote your second novel, you fling aside a copy of Time magazine. Was that just a bit of whimsy at a former employer's expense, or are you commenting on the inability of media accounts to portray the reality of life in the territories?

We originally intended to have a voice-over for the video where I would, at that point, say "You won't find the reality of Palestine in a newspaper or a magazine. For that, you have to read my books and imagine you're looking down the barrel of one of these." Then I lift a gun to the camera. In the end, we liked the music so much that we kept the talking to an absolute minimum, but you can see why I tossed Time. Of course it was also a bit of revenge for all those nights I had to watch my stories being gutted.

A piece in a French newspaper said your work had a "typically colonialist perspective." The writer cited your caustic comments in the first book about the Arab revolts of 1936. How do you answer such criticism? More broadly, what does it feel like to be a crime novelist who is probably questioned more often about politics than about crime writing?

The comments you're referring to were that during the Arab Revolt the "freedom fighters" degenerated quickly into gangs and ended up killing more Arabs than British soldiers or Jewish immigrants. So I would answer that particular French journalist by saying that (a) the numbers don't lie and (b) that's also what Palestinian historians of the period say. And (c) I'd say that if a character says something in a novel that sounds colonialist, that makes that character a colonialist (maybe), but not necessarily the author. Which leads me to the next part of your question: essentially that people look at my novels as non-fiction dressed up as fiction. I wrote these novels to escape politics. When people ask me about politics, I use it as an opportunity to demonstrate that my novels aren't actually political and that the realms of Middle Eastern diplomacy and politics are far closer to fantasy than the fiction I write.

Early in the second novel, after Omar has arrived in Gaza, he asks Khamis Zeydan: "Why are you killing each other?" Is there some significance to that you? Does the Bethlehemite Omar Yussef regard Gaza and Gazans as a place and people apart?

No, he means the senior Fatah people like Khamis Zeydan are killing each other. As they indeed continue to do rather spectacularly throughout the novel. The infighting among the people who were supposed to govern the Palestinians and lead them toward statehood and peace with Israel is one of the main subjects of A Grave in Gaza, my second novel.

Can readers look forward to future Omar Yussef novels?

In a year, Omar Yussef Book III will be out. It's being edited now. It'll be called The Samaritan's Secret and its set in Nablus, mainly in the old casbah.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, February 04, 2008

Matt Rees' Palestine film noir, plus a question on the universality of crime stories

Matt Rees, author of The Collaborator of Bethlehem (The Bethlehem Murders in the UK) and A Grave in Gaza (a.k.a. The Saladin Murders), has joined the ranks of authors using video to promote their work. Rees writes on his blog that: "I was the first to bring detective fiction to Palestine – I'm pretty sure I'm now the first to bring film noir to the Holy Land."

That claim about detective fiction is one to which Rees has given some thought. I told him I'd failed to find any crime fiction on a trip to Tunisia, to which Rees replied:

"Interesting you mention the lack of crime fiction in the Arab world. There are two separate issues: One is that the book market is very small; second, the genre is virtually unknown to Arab literature. My first novel was reviewed in Al-Ayyam, a Ramallah newspaper, a few months ago, and the review was essentially an introduction to detective novels (`So the detective must discover who is really responsible for the crime ...')

"My theory is that the Arab world is very prone to conspiracy theories, but the uncovering of the truth is generally not encouraged by governments or religious establishments – in political terms. Though the detective novel grows out of situations of corruption (Hammett's San Francisco or Chandler's Santa Monica), it also depends on a conception that when right is uncovered it can also be carried through. Unfortunately the Arab world suffers from a lack of that freedom."
And that leads to a difficult but endlessly interesting question: The detective story, essentially an Anglo-French-American creation, has taken up residence in many other cultures and countries. What makes it so adaptable? What adjustments have authors made when introducing it into new countries? And could crime stories potentially find a home in any country?

The video is a noirish trip, with terrific music and perhaps a bit more whimsy than the novel it promotes. And you'll never guess how it ends.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, February 02, 2008

A crime story that hit close to home, a question for readers

I started Giles Blunt's The Delicate Storm ten days ago, eager to see how Blunt wrote about Quebec's October Crisis of 1970, a period through which I lived. It transpires that he wrote about it with near-journalistic accuracy.

Though the novel's setting is contemporary (it was published in 2003), its crimes have their roots in 1970. Blunt's narrative of that time is a roman à clef . Pierre Laporte, the federal labor minister murdered by the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), becomes in The Delicate Storm a provincial politician named Raoul Duquette. James Cross, the British trade commissioner kidnapped by the FLQ, becomes a British consul named Stuart Hawthorne, though Blunt had the clever idea of making Hawthorne younger than Cross, so he can come back thirty years after the fact, still vigorous, to talk about his kidnapping.

Other events are similarly referred to, thinly disguised by name changes and, if my memory serves me well, I went to summer camp with a member of one family referred to by its real name in the novel.

How about you, readers? What fictional accounts have you read of periods or events that you experienced firsthand? How did you feel reading such accounts?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Viva Vargas!

I try as a rule to avoid those debates about whether crime fiction is real literature or not, but I did enjoy the headline on an old newspaper article that I found this evening through the Detectives literarios blog. The article, from the Spanish newspaper El País, is an interview with Fred Vargas, who has been on my mind in recent days.

I can't read Spanish beyond guessing at words here and there, but no great knowledge is required to understand the headline, which may make crime-fiction readers proud:

"La novela policiaca deriva de la literatura épica"

With a bit of help from my scraps of French and Italian and a bit more from a translation program, I gathered that Vargas has some highly interesting thoughts about the phenomenon of the recurring series protagonist. She links it to ancient and medieval tales, in which one hero embarks on a series of adventures that take up almost his entire life.

She also reveals her first two literary loves: Rousseau and Proust.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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