Monday, April 30, 2012

The Coffee Ceremony

No one is going to read The Devotion of Suspect X for laughs, but bits have made me smile. My favorite is probably this scene of a physicist welcoming a visit from his police investigator friend:
“Yukawa walked over to a nearby sink, filled a kettle with water, and set it on a gas burner—the start of his usual instant coffee ritual.”
Nothing will convince me that Higashino is not poking a bit of irreverent fun at the Japanese tea ceremony.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Sunday, April 29, 2012

東野 圭吾's tribute to 江戸川 乱歩 and 松本 清張

It may be coincidence, but a district and a park on the first page of Keigo Higashino's The Devotion of Suspect X bear the names of two pioneering Japanese crime writers.

The page takes a character on a walk to Seicho Garden Park that passes a road leading to Edogawa. Edogawa is one of Tokyo's twenty-three special wards. More to the point, Seicho Matsumoto (1909-1992) and Edogawa Rampo (1894-1965) were two of the most popular and influential crime writers in twentieth-century Japan. Edogawa Rampo (it's a pen name, and yes, it really is a Japanese rendering of Edgar Allan Poe) promoted Japanese crime fiction tirelessly and founded the group that later became Mystery Writers of Japan.  He admired Arthur Conan Doyle in addition to Poe, and his fiction, criticism, and organizing "played a major role in the development of Japanese mystery fiction," according to Wikipedia.

Seicho Matsumoto was a kind of Jean-Patrick Manchette, a writer of spare, bleak, socially acute narratives credited with breaking new ground in narrative technique:
"Dispensing with formulaic plot devices such as puzzles," Wikipedia says, "Seichō incorporated elements of human psychology and ordinary life. In particular, his works often reflect a wider social context and postwar nihilism that expanded the scope and further darkened the atmosphere of the genre. His exposé of corruption among police officials as well as criminals was a new addition to the field."
Seichō Matsumoto memorial museum,
Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan
The solitary walker of Higashino's opening chapter is a mathematics teacher who engages in amateur sleuthing that will remind readers of Edogawa Rampo's man Sherlock Holmes. And his profession just might mark another point of affinity with Matsumoto, who wrote a novel called in English Points and Lines. (How much more mathematical can one get?) Higashino's emphasis on geography may also bring Matsumoto to mind.

If all this is mere coincidence, the coincidence is suggestive. Let's assume it's deliberate and once again ask this diverting question: How have crime writers paid tribute in their stories to predecessors and colleagues?
***
The Devotion of Suspect X was shortlisted for best novel at this week's Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, one of four books by a non-American author on the five-book shortlist and one of two translated novels. The winner was Gone by Mo Hayder.

(Here's an old post about Seicho Matsumoto, my reading of whom predates this blog. Rereading the post reminds me of what a bracing writer Matsumoto was.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, April 28, 2012

I heard voices ...

... in the elevator up to the Grand Hyatt ballroom for the Edgar Awards dinner Thursday evening — rich, sonorous voices resonant with seriousness and importance, and no way to change the channel.

Yes, the Grand Hyatt in New York has installed televisions in its elevators for those guests, room-service waiters, bellhops and maids who can't stand to be without television for the amount of time it takes to get from the lobby to the room. You can draw your own conclusions about what this says about our culture; I'll just say that I hope I never get stuck in an elevator at the Grand Hyatt. And if I ever stay at the hotel, I'm requesting a room on a lower floor to minimize the duration of my forced exposure to smarmy televised punditry. Or else I'll take the stairs.
***
Once I escaped into the ballroom, my only beef was Wellington, and it was on my plate at dinner, and it was just fine. The wine flowed freely, the speeches were short, and the only one that wasn't — Martha Grimes', on her recognition as a grandmaster by the Mystery Writers of America, who bestow the Edgars — was funny and, in its tribute to Stuart M. Kaminsky, touching. I took special note of Joe Meyers' remarks upon accepting the Ellery Queen Award. Meyers writes for the Connecticut Post newspaper, and he thanked his editors for bucking the anti-books trend in American newspapers and increasing the space the Post allots to books coverage. I just wept quietly in my Pinot noir.

Neil Gaiman, up for a best-short-story Edgar, has the air of the cool, shaggy math teacher you liked in high school and, thanks to the drunken Poe enthusiast at the next bar stool this evening who recognized the face that illustrates this post, I'm reminded that the Edgars also included a message from John Cusack and a trailer from Cusack's new Poe action/mystery movie The Raven, which looks worth a look.

I was pleased to renew acquaintances over dinner with editors, authors and assorted honchos from Soho Press, which played such a big role in my introduction to international crime fiction. And when Sarah Weinman, ex of Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, currently of Publishers Marketplace, and seated across the table from me, sent out her as-they-happen Edgars Tweets, I felt like I was at the center of the crime-fiction universe.

 © Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Friday, April 27, 2012

The Edgars, Part I

Anne Holt was both gracious and jovial when I told her after last night's Edgar Awards dinner how much I was enjoying her novel 1222, but she kept addressing me as "sir."

She's about my age, so there was no call for such formality. "Typical Scandinavian reticence and reserve," I thought, until I noticed sometime afterward that I'd lost my name tag. So all Holt, whose book had been short-listed for the best-novel Edgar, had to go on was an empty plastic card-holder with a yellow strip dangling from it that read "Press." Anyone who detects irony in the juxtaposition can take it somewhere else, pal. I have a job to do.

I finished reading Holt's book on the train home from New York, and I remain impressed by her boldness in taking an old Agatha Christie formula and infusing it with tension and a thoroughly contemporary feel. The novel's dénouement may have just a touch of the anti-Americanism that makes some readers of Scandinavian crime fiction roll their eyes, but if it does, Holt's handing of the matter is nuanced and humane.

(Mo Hayder's Gone won the best-novel Edgar. Here's a list of winners. And here are the nominees.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Charlie Stella's polemical porno pizzazz and a handful of Holt

I've finished Johnny Porno by Charlie Stella and started 1222 by Anne Holt, the latter because it's up for a best-novel Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America on Thursday night, and the former because no one in crime fiction is more fun to read than Charlie Stella.

With Stella the fun starts before the novels proper do; how can you not smile at an author's note that addresses readers as amici (friends)? The note that follows is a zesty polemic on the historical moment in which the novel is set: 1973, after a New York judge ruled Deep Throat obscene.
"As films go," Stella writes, "one has to acknowledge Deep Throat was nothing more than a campy, cheaply made porno that showcased the `sexual talent' of a young woman stage-named Linda Lovelace. With a soundtrack comprised of silly parodies and jingles and a plot born of male fantasy, the movie might well have come and gone without the slightest notice had the government ignored it. Instead, political directives from the White House launching a moral crusade that had much more to do with distracting the public from the war in Southeast Asia and an ever growing Watergate scandal guaranteed the film’s iconic success. What it also did was provide organized crime with a new way to make a fast buck. It is fittingly ironic that the name given to the secret informant (FBI agent William Mark Felt) who provided information that would eventually take down the Nixon White House itself shared the name of the film."
That polemical thread runs judiciously through the novel that follows, adding social and historical oomph to Stella's cast of hard-working guys, reluctant gangsters, cops, bookies, wives, girlfriends, and families, almost all of whom the author means us to view with a sympathetic eye.
***
1222 is the first novel of Holt's that I've read (she's published about sixteen), and I'm impressed because she has given herself the challenge of taking a well-worn crime-story set-up (group of people trapped by a snowstorm in an isolated hotel; one of them is found dead) and making it fresh. She has succeeded so far, in part by making the narrator/protagonist not especially likable, in part by doling out information about her characters only gradually.

1222 is one of at least six novels by a non-American author up for an Edgar (Holt is from Norway) and, based on what I've read of it so far, I won't complain if it wins.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Who the hell is Arbogast?

Raymond Chandler liked the name Arbogast so much that he used it at least three times (The High Window, "Trouble Is My Business," Farewell, My Lovely). The hero of S.J. Perleman's detective-story spoof "Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer" has his office in the Arbogast building.

Milton Arbogast is a private investigator in Robert Bloch's novel Psycho and a movie based on it that you may have heard of. And the guy in the Studebaker who picks up the hitchhiking Vince Parry in David Goodis' Dark Passage? You guessed it: He's another in the honorable line of crime- and horror-fictional Arbogasts.

Arbogasts have been Frankish generals and Irish saints, but does anyone know why the humorously euphonious name (at least to non-Arbogasts) crops up so often in the work of celebrated crime writers? Have I missed any Arbogasts? What are your favorite odd character names in crime or other fiction?

  © Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Edgars abroad

This week is Edgar week in New York, with the Mystery Writers of America to announce the winners of their annual awards Thursday at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York.

I'll be there and, while the phenomenon of Detectives Beyond Borders dressed for dinner is worth noting, the real story is the international flavor of the short lists, including four of the five best-novel contenders. The non-American nominees include:

Gone by Mo Hayder (Britain), The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino (Japan), 1222 by Anne Holt (Norway), and Field Gray by Philip Kerr (Britain), for best novel and Death of the Mantis by Michael Stanley (South Africa) and Vienna Twilight by Frank Tallis (Britain) for best paperback original.
Congratulations to all the nominees, and I'll see you at dinner. (Browse the complete list of nominees at the MWA Web site.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Sunday, April 22, 2012

The secret life of traffic jams

Here are two more bits from Christopher G. Moore's Zero Hour in Phnom Penh that give a fair picture of how Phnom Penh must have looked to an outsider in the 1990s:
“Winded, she explained to Ratana, Calvino’s secretary, that she had been delayed in a massive traffic jam on Sukhumvit and then got lost. The traffic jam was the big, easy lie everyone used and just about no one ever got called on. The lie that allowed a couple of hours for a busy executive to spend with his mia noi while assured that his major wife wouldn’t question the heavy traffic excuse. No one with a mistress in Bangkok ever wanted the city’s traffic jams fixed.”
and
“Singh was no more than in his early 40s; he had been assigned from his unit—the New Delhi Anti-Terrorist Squad—to UNTAC Civ Pol and found himself in charge of the seven police districts in Phnom Penh. ...  `How much does a Cambodian cop make a month?' [Calvino] asked.

"Det. Supt. Singh glanced over at Calvino.

“`Nine dollars a month. When they get paid,' he replied.

“`And how much does an UNTAC cop make?'

“`One-hundred-thirty a day. Rain or shine' smiled Det. Supt. Singh. `Who said that life was always fair? It wasn’t an Indian or a Khmer.'”
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Goodis the great

Some of the borders I've crossed recently have been ones of time, into American crime writing of the 1940s and '50s.

Based on my first readings of all three authors, I like Bruno Fischer and Fletcher Flora a little better than I like Day Keene. But none was as good as David Goodis.

I'd read some Goodis before, the short story "Black Pudding" and the 1951 best-seller Cassidy's Girl, and I'd been impressed, notably by the heart-breaking compassion he mustered for his characters. But Dark Passage (1946) is, in its opening chapters, even better, a knockout of a book.

I'll likely have more to say later, but for now it's interesting to view the novel as an argument for the old proposition that the way to become a good writer is to write, and write, and write. Dark Passage was Goodis' second novel, and it appeared seven years after his first. In between, Goodis wrote prodigiously for pulp magazines, more than five million words in five years in the early 1940s, according to his own estimate. (See Robert Polito's notes to David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 1950s.)

The result may not tug at the heartstrings quite as hard as some of Goodis' later works do, but it is self-consciously stylish without going over the top, a difficult feat for any writer, much less one not yet thirty years old. The book's first chapters are full of words repeated to amusing effect. And if you like how Ken Bruen and Allan Guthrie use humor at dark moments and somehow make it seem right, you'll find the roots of the practice in protagonist Vincent Parry's conversation with the taxi driver in Chapter Seven.

But first, my favorite line of the book so far, tough, naive, funny and touching at the same time:
"Being good to people sounds nice but it's hard work."
***
Mingle with Goodis-heads and noir fans this Nov. 8-11 at Noircon 2012 in Philadelphia.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Crime in the canon

Remember a few years ago when everyone was getting all worked up about literary canons and whether or not they were good things?

Geoffrey O'Brien sidesteps such matters neatly when talking about David Goodis. The American literary canon, he said -- and he used the word without hesitation or explanation -- exists, but it's expanding constantly into the future, as time passes, and also into the past.

O'Brien's remarks carry considerable weight because he's editor-in-chief of the Library of America, probably the closest thing to an American literary canon, and because LoA has just published David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 1950s. O'Brien joined the Library of America in 1992 and has been editor-in-chief since 1998, and he says he's been reading Goodis since he was 14 years old. I don't know about you, but I like the idea of genre fiction having a mole on the inside of high American culture. During his tenure, Philip K. Dick had joined the canon, as have Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, James M. Cain, Patricia Highsmith, and now, with his own volume, Goodis.

So, any more Goodis on its way to the canon? "We will continue to talk about Goodis," O'Brien told a questioner at the Free Library of Philadelphia. "That's for sure."

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Descent into Death: A glimpse at 1950s American crime fiction

Are the 1950s the most luridly masochistic, twisted, self-obsessed, self-voyeuristic decade in American history? Based on the period's crime fiction, yep.

I've been reading a fair number of crime novels and stories from the 1950s, reissued by Wonder Publishing Group with suitably lurid covers after original publication in magazines of the time, notably Manhunt. Two highlights have been "As I Lie Dead" by Fletcher Flora and We Are All Dead by Bruno Fischer. In each, a first-person narrator relates a tale that takes him exactly where you'd expect from the title, and it's hard to imagine anything more self-involved than imagining one's own death.

Why did these authors have their characters do it? Is lurid embrace of death really more prevalent in American crime writing of the 1950s (and late 1940s) than in that of previous and succeeding periods? If so, why?  As a gross generalization, I'd say that characters in 1950s crime melodrama embraced the forbidden when doing so could still exact a tremendous toll in guilt, psychological dissolution, even death, and that this lends stories of the time their giddy, nasty kick. Shed one's inhibitions, as we've all been doing since the 1960s, and you shed the possibility of writing such stories.
***
This is a fine time to ponder such questions. On Thursday I'll attend two events celebrating the Library of America's publication of David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 1950s.  The durable, handsome volume includes Dark Passage, Nightfall, The Burglar, The Moon in the Gutter, and Street of No Return, and you can meet the book's editor, Robert Polito, for a program at the Free Library of Philadelphia. The fun starts at 5:45 with a screening of The Burglar, for which Goodis wrote the script, and Polito takes the stage at 7:30. Visit the library's website for information.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

“Time walks fast”

Here's a bit from Christoper G. Moore's novel Zero Hour in Phnom Penh or, more precisely, from the author's introduction to a 2005 reissue of the book, which had first appeared in 1994.

Moore calls the introduction "Genocide to Latte," the jarring contrast meant to suggest the jarring strangeness of his return to a country once ruled by terror and human extermination, then by a nervous, edgy post-war sense that anything could happen, and now by tourists in expensive hotels and Cambodians hungry to rejoin the world:
“`Time walks fast,' said the young Khmer woman DJ with a breezy California accent. She might have been in a shopping center in Los Angeles. But she had never been outside of Cambodia. And she was young, broadcasting in English to the generation of Cambodians born after the Khmer Rouge had been defeated. `Time walks fast,' she said again.”
and
“On the 7-dollar ride from the airport, the driver had tuned to an English language station in Phnom Penh. He understood English. The whole country was studying the English language. The bookshops stocked Madonna, An Intimate Biography and John Grisham’s Summons. How to do tapes for Chinese, French, and Japanese were displayed on the shelf. A little more than a generation earlier the Khmer Rouge had been killing anyone who spoke a foreign language or read foreign books. Now the streets were filled with students in their white shirts and black trousers carrying books and dreaming of riches.”
That's a nice portrait of post-war strangeness. How does one capture in words the strangeness of seeing frenzied consumer-fueled optimism in a land that had only recently known the horror of mass murder? How does one mind encompass both? How does one who knows the first look upon the second without experiencing a queasy sense of unreality? Damned if I know, but Moore makes a nice start.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Charles Portis' (non)fiction: The update

I've received an exciting update to this post I first put up earlier this month. I was told today that Charles Portis is a long-ago former colleague of my newspaper's former managing editor and was best man at his wedding. More to the point, this former managing editor brought the Inquirer's copy desks into the modern age, converting them from pre-retirement way stations for burned-out reporters into a unit with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Did my ex-M.E. get his interest in copy editors from Portis? Did Portis learn to respect copy editors from my ex-M.E.? Or did they imbibe together from a wellspring of respect for copy desks that runs deep beneath the Arkansas soil?
=================================

  I first heard of Charles Portis' 1979 novel The Dog of the South from a Detectives Beyond Borders reader who thought I might be interested because the book's protagonist is a newspaper copy editor who has recently quit his job.

Here's the paragraph that persuaded me to buy the book:
"I had sat next to Dupree on the rim of the copy desk. In fact, I had gotten him the job. He was not well liked in the newsroom. He radiated dense waves of hatred and he never joined in the friendly banter around the desk, he who had once been so lively. He hardly spoke at all except to mutter `Crap' or `What crap' as he processed news matter, affecting a contempt for all events on earth and for the written accounts of those events."
Now, what the hell does Charles Portis know about newspapers? Why would a copy editor complain, especially about the news matter he processed? That sort of thing can only foster disunity in the newsroom.
***
(Portis is probably best known as the author of True Grit, which became the basis for two movies. Read more at the Unofficial Charles Portis Web site.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Sunday, April 15, 2012

What I've bought on my sort-of vacation

1) White dress shirts and black dress socks. I'll bridge the considerable fleshy lacuna between them with charcoal-gray suit pants, as the social functions for which I purchased the shirts and socks call for business attire.

2) A book of poems by Tomas Tranströmer, random browsing through which suggests that Swedes, contrary to their reputation, suffer just as passionately as your garden-variety Greek, Italian, Irishman, or biblical prophet, though they may do so more quietly. Here's one stanza (translated by Joanna Bankier) that hit home, and not just because of my recent clothes shopping:
"In the middle of life it happens that death comes
 and takes your measurements. This visit
 is forgotten and life goes on. But the suit is
 sewn in the silence."
3) Yasmina Khadra's memoir L'écrivain. I've wanted to read this since I read an excerpt in which this Algerian author resident in France (he writes the Brahim Llob crime novels, among other books) explains why he writes in French rather than his native language:
"I wanted to write. In Russian, Chinese, Arabic. But to write! At the beginning, I wrote in Arabic. My Arabic teacher ridiculed me, whereas my French teacher encouraged me."
4) A book of maxims and reflections by La Rochefoucauld. Expect this blog to become more pithy, witty, and jaded under its influence. And expect me to try to sneak one of the maxims into the blog, uncredited, in the next year.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Gained in translation

Here's one difference between the two translations of The Táin  that I've been reading. Where Joseph Dunn's 1914 version has
"`It was a wealth, forsooth, we never heard nor knew of,' Ailill said; `but a woman's wealth was all thou hadst, and foes from lands next thine were used to carry off the spoil and booty that they took from thee.'"
 Ciaran Carson's 2007 version offers
"`If you were, I never heard tell of it,' said Ailill, `apart from your woman's assets that your neighbour enemies kept plundering and raiding.'"
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Thursday, April 12, 2012

What I'm about to read on my sort-of vacation

I'm off to Boston tomorrow accompanied by Ciaran Carson, Cú Chulainn, Thomas Pynchon and, in case I get too cheerful, Dead Man Upright, part of Melville House's new editions of Derek Raymond's Factory novels.

I'll read Pynchon's Inherent Vice curious about why he chose the hard-boiled-detective form to tell a story set in the psychedelic 1960s and, according to a cover blurb, about the end of an era. (Reviewers call the novel noir, but I assume that most people who call a crime story noir really mean hard-boiled. If I'm wrong in this case, I'll say so.)

There's no such doubt about Derek Raymond. He's noir, and I've heard tell that next to Dead Man Upright, his previous bleak, funny, touching Factory novels are light entertainment.

Here's some of what I've written about Raymond:
"He was a latter-day Hammett, I thought when I read Derek Raymond's I Was Dora Suarez. He was a new Chandler, I thought when I read the opening chapters of  The Devil's Home on Leave.

"With one novel-plus of Raymond under my belt, I say he's a bit of both. His nameless detective-sergeant protagonist is as dedicated to his job as was Sam Spade or the Continental Op, and he yearns like Philip Marlowe, only there's not a trace of nostalgia about him. He's as hard and as heart-breaking as the best of the dark crime writers who followed him and who invoke his name as reverently as they do Hammett's and Chandler's."

And here's some of what you'll find about Derek Raymond on the Melville House Web site.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Mystery Táin: How Ireland's epic is like a crime story

(Cuchulain heads
for military school
)
So, how is The Táin like a crime story? (And yep, I know Táin doesn't rhyme with train, but I couldn't resist.)

Its protagonist is a fearsome physical specimen, but mainly he's clever. I mean, you don't want to mess with a guy who
"struck off their four heads from themselves Eirr and Indell and from Foich and Fochlam, their drivers, and he fixed a head of each man of them on each of the prongs of the pole."
but it's his cunning that makes him stand out. When just a child, he overhears from a great distance a priest's instructions to his pupils, then uses those instructions as the authority to obtain arms not normally available to one of his age. "Hey," he as much as says when caught, "the priest said so," earning him in my edition the angry epithet of "bewitched elf-man."

My edition gives the English translations of some of character names in brackets after the originals. Some of those names are epithets, and the effect is like that of colorful Mafia nicknames: "Bascell ('the Lunatic')."

And finally, after mentioning Declan Burke's allusions to Irish myth in his more than fine new novel Slaughter's Hound, I noted this passage in The Táin: "And Culann came out, and he saw his slaughter-hound in many pieces."

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Irish proto-crime tale is a lot of bull

[Road sculpture, Táin Bó Cúailnge (the Cattle
Raid 
of Cooley), County Louth, Ireland.
From the blog
"Pictures of Ireland."]
----------------
I like to post, seriously or not so seriously, about classics of world literature that remind me of crime fiction. These range from Voltaire's Holmesian interlude in "Zadig" to speculation that Herodotus was the father of the gentleman thief and a post about the Epic of Gilgamesh that I called "Sumer time, and the living is easy."

I am pleased to add Táin Bó Cúailnge  (The Cattle Raid of Cooley or, simply, The Táin) to the list, and Cúchulain hasn't even started doing his thing yet.

The opening of this old Irish tale is a heist story, Ailill and Medb, king and queen of Connacht, planning to steal Donn Cúailnge, the great brown bull of Cooley, and assembling their crew with all the care of Richard Stark's Parker. And Ailill and Medb (Maeve) themselves have to be the most fun fictional couple I've run into since Nick and Nora Charles. The tale begins in one of its two main recensions, or versions, with pillow talk between the two, a disagreement over which is richer. (Women could hold onto their own property in old Ireland.)
***
The Táin is available in several English translations, including versions by the Irish poets Ciaran Carson and Thomas Kinsella. Several older versions are available free online. For evidence that Irish myth can still excite Irish crime writers, look no further than Requiems for the Departed (Morrigan Books, 2010)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Monday, April 09, 2012

Crime fiction and the power of myth

Declan Burke's forthcoming novel Slaughter's Hound is full of characters named Finn and Gráinne and Saoirse, and invocations of Queen Maeve, and a short prefatory note hints at wolf hounds' rich role in Irish mythology.

One need not recognize the allusions to enjoy and appreciate the dark, serious, and occasionally funny story (and I may well have missed more of them than I caught), but it doesn't hurt, either.

While waiting for Burke's book, why not dip into Mike Stone and Gerard Brennan's Requiems for the Departed,  a collection of short stories by seventeen contemporary Irish crime writers based on Irish myth?
***
That's Ireland. What myths from other cultures have contemporary crime writers used? The Oedipus story? Cain and Abel? Which could they use? What ancient myths and tales would make good crime stories?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Sunday, April 08, 2012

Nykänen in my newspaper

My review of Harri Nykänen's novel Nights of Awe appears in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer under the headline "A Finnish thriller stars a Jewish cop."

Click the link to find out why I call Nykänen
"part of the blinding ice storm of Nordic crime writing that has buffeted the world since Stieg Larsson died and went to publishing heaven"
and add that
"he stands out from the crowd for at least two reasons: his deadpan humor, and his thrilling ability to sustain narrative pace on little but routine details, personal interactions, and professional observations over the course of a police investigation."
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, April 07, 2012

30 Days of the 5-2: A Month of Crime Poetry

April is National Poetry Month, and crime has a place at the table once again, thanks to Gerald So.

Gerald assembled a list of bloggers, authors, and other persons of interest and asked each of us to write about a poem from The 5-2: Crime Poetry Weekly and pick a day to post our thoughts.

My choice was simple, because Randall Avilez's "Outlaw at Peace" combines the resignation and grim humor that makes real noir fiction so attractive with the simple but deep self-knowledge that characterizes some of the Westerns I've been reading recently. And, like much of the rawest noir, particularly the melodramas of the 1950s, Avilez's poem is narrated by a first-person protagonist whose forthrightness is inextricable from his less-admirable traits. He may be a bad guy, but he knows himself, his world, and his place in it.

Some crime writers muse at great length upon justice, law, and the differences between the two. Avilez wraps that up quickly: "I asked what exactly an outlaw was / they gave me vague answers." And the self-knowledge and blunt assessment of the world don't get more much concise than they do in Avilez's last two stanzas.

If you lack the time to lead a life that brings you to resignation, doom, and perfect insight, read a Gold Medal paperback. And if you don't have time for that, try "Outlaw at Peace."

OUTLAW AT PEACE

when they asked me about the law
i told them i was an honest man
i swore on the bible but they did not care
life for them must be hollow

i asked what exactly an outlaw was
they gave me vague answers
i lit a cigarette not particularly worried
they read my sentence

a few years on drug possession, trafficking didn't stick
no one chokes on swallowed pride
the judge looked hard and mean
as i walked, i said, i regret nothing and god is forgiving

nobody tells a drug addict to be a drug addict
they just let him commit suicide in silence
and i liked that
slowly dying under blue skies

(Here's a full schedule for the 30 Days of the 5-2 Blog Tour.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Thursday, April 05, 2012

Detectives Beyond Borders schmoozes the elite

Still working too much, reading too little, so I'll keep this brief.

I hope I violate no confidences by saying that Declan Burke's latest novel, Slaughter's Hound, is shaping up as funny, melancholy, and angry at the state of Ireland all at the same time. And that's good, very good.
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Schmoozed with my newspaper's new owners this week, a step or seven above my usual social circles. The new guys include a former NBA team owner, a man widely considered the most powerful political figure in Southern New Jersey, and a philanthropist so ubiquitous in Philadelphia that I welcomed him to the last remaining institution in the city that did not have his name on it. All in all, they don't seem bad sorts, and I hope they do good things with and for my beleaguered paper.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Mike Nicol on South African crime writing

Circumstances will cut into my blogging time for the next few days, and I've read a pair of South African crime novels recently, so I'm bringing back Mike Nicol's guest post about South African crime fiction. Matters have changed since I first put up the post; several of the authors he mentions have published new books, and at least one has died. Most notably, perhaps, that excellent Cape Town thriller writer, Roger Smith, has come into the picture. But Nicol's essay remains a valuable introduction to and outline of one of the world's most interesting and vibrant crime-fiction scenes. Thanks again, Mike.
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Despite the vibrancy of thriller and crime fiction elsewhere, not much has happened in SA crime fiction over the last five decades. Until recently that is. This isn’t exactly surprising as the cops have been more or less an invading army in the eyes of most of the citizenry since forever. Certainly, come the apartheid state in the late 1940s no self-respecting writer was going to set up with a cop as the main protagonist of a series. It was akin to sleeping with the enemy.

So to get round this, in the late 1950s, a young woman named June Drummond found a way to enter the genre with a novel called The Black Unicorn that used an amateur sleuth to solve the mystery. Hers was the first crime novel in English, although some four years earlier, a popular magazine, Drum, that had a vibrant readership in the townships, ran a series of short stories featuring a character called the Chief. The author, Arthur Maimane, was hugely influenced by the US pulps and the stories were derivative but highly entertaining. Unfortunately they’ve never been collected although there is one to be found in the Crime Beat archives.

In Afrikaans crime fiction also took decades to reach maturity. During the 1950s there’d been cheaply printed novels featuring steak-loving, hat-wearing detectives investigating single murders. Often these stories were set in small towns and tended more towards pulp fiction than noir. After that Afrikaans crime fiction all but disappeared during the height of the apartheid era.

In English the thriller side of the genre was taken up by, most notably, Wilbur Smith and Geoffrey Jenkins, during the 1960s but it was not until the end of that decade that a major figure emerged – James McClure with a novel called The Steam Pig. This book introduced two cops, Tromp Kramer and Mickey Zondi. They would feature in a series that spanned the 1970s, disappeared for the 1980s, and finally ended with a prequel in 1993, The Song Dog. McClure’s twosome have gone some way to setting a convention for SA writers: the clever underling Zondi, the unsubtle Tromp with his built-in racism. In fact the books were highly satiric yet only one was banned, The Sunday Hangman. McClure died [in 2006] , after spending most of his life in the UK in Oxford.

McClure’s absence during the 1980s was filled by a different sort of crime thriller, a series written by Wessel Ebersohn, featuring a prison psychologist, Yudel Gordon, as the protagonist. Ebersohn published five Gordon novels up to 1991. The 1990s, however, were to see a number of changes, not least the change in the country to a democracy with the 1994 general election that ended the apartheid state. Overnight, well, almost overnight, the cops became the good guys and our literature started taking on a different perspective. But it takes some time for a country to mature and give itself permission to write and read escapist books, especially as we’d been used to writing and reading as an act of protest.

For the current crime thriller writers, the 1990s were significant because of a man called Deon Meyer. His novels first appeared in Afrikaans and made it to the top of Afrikaans best-seller lists. Meyer not only revolutionised Afrikaans literature but he was well translated into English and these books opened the genre to new voices. All the same it took a number of years – six in fact – before Meyer was joined on his lonely platform. In 2005 Richard Kunzmann published the first of his Harry Mason and Jacob Tshabalala series, Bloody Harvests, and Andrew Brown won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize for his Coldstream Lullaby – proving that a krimi could out-write the literary reputations. Also new Afrikaans figures appeared: Francois Bloemhof, Piet Steyn, Quintus van der Merwe, and Dirk Jordaan among them.

As for the sort of topics that have engaged these writers, well, initially serial killers – or to put it in a broader perspective, crimes of deviancy – were the subjects of choice for both English and Afrikaans writers. Perhaps in this there was a desire to steer away from the political issues dominating a nation in transition, although this attitude is changing. Social and political concerns are back on the agenda, and the bad guys are now as likely to be politicians, business moguls, and figures of authority as perverts, drug dealers, serial killers and gangsters.

Recent titles include Margie Orford’s Like Clockwork and Blood Rose, Richard Kunzmann’s Salamander Cotton and Dead-End Road, Angela Makholwa’s Red Ink, and Jassy Mackenzie’s Random Violence.
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Meet Mike Nicol and his mates from Crime Beat here. For more information, reviews and interviews with SA crime novelists, check out the Crime Beat blog, which includes a who's who of South African crime writing.

Reliable online book shops selling South African crime fiction are:
Kalahari.net, Loot.co.za and Exclusive Books.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008, 2012

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Monday, April 02, 2012

Among the liars, and a bit more James McClure

I made no post yesterday because I spent the afternoon with Philadelphia's Liars Club when I could have been reading.

The Liars Club is a group of writers, associated professionals, and people who want to join them. That means that its monthly writers' coffeehouses tend to be at least as much about agents, copyrights, and shifting business models as they are about muses. That means the attendees are serious about writing and know the value of editing. And that means I got to pitch my freelance editing services. I even came pretty damn close to exhausting my supply of business cards.
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Back in the reading world, I found that James McClure knows how to keep a running gag going: He uses it sparingly, and he builds it up a bit each time.

On Friday, I wrote about this amusing, non-politically correct bit from Page 17 of The Blood of an Englishman
"`Boss Bradshaw is a tall tree,' Zondi remarked primly, `and there is saying among my people—""`Bullshit,' interrupted Kramer, `you're making this up!'"They laughed together, then peered over the cars in front of them..."
One hundred sixty-three pages later comes this:
"`So now you know the meaning of Black Man's Choice, which is a saying among my—""`Bullshit!' said Kramer, and they both laughed."
I like that McClure waited so many pages before using the joke again, and I like the effect he achieved by having Kramer interrupt Zondi before he could get to the word people the second time.

The man knew a good joke, and he knew how to build it up for comic effect. That's another reason to enjoy this great South African crime writer.

If McClure repeats the gag yet again, he could have Kramer cut Zondi off even earlier, both increasing the humor and reinforcing the good-natured intimacy between the two characters.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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