Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Getting ready for the Edgars

The Detectives Beyond Borders wardrobe department is busy kitting me out for Thursday's Edgar Awards dinner at the Grand Hyatt in New York, hosted and presented by the Mystery Writers of America.

Overseas nominees (several from Ireland, naturally) are up for awards in several categories: Alan Glynn, for best paperback original (the excellent Bloodland); Declan Burke and John Connolly for best critical/biographical book (Books to Die For); and Jane Casey's The Reckoning, for the Mary Higgins Clark award. Teresa Solana (Spain) is up for best short story with "Still Life No. 41."  Malla Nunn's Blessed are the Dead (South Africa) is on the shortlist for best paperback original.

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French is up for best fact crime book. (See French in conversation with Parker Bilal and Adrian McKinty at the Adelaide Writers' Festival.)

Read my reports on the 2012 Edgars. See a complete list of the 2013 Edgar nominees.

(This just in: The wardrobe committee has made its decision. We're going with the charcoal gray suit, the white shirt, and a silk tie with a splash of purple.)
Meanwhile, Open Road is celebrating the Edgars with contests, news, and low-priced e-book versions of selected past winners.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, April 29, 2013

The End of the World in Breslau: Krajewski, Kafka, and aspic

The good folks at Melville House, whose international crime list includes Detectives Beyond Borders stalwarts such as Derek Raymond and Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, among many crime writers you ought to be reading, hit the street today with Marek Krajewski's The End of the World in Breslau.

End of the World ... is the second of Krajewski's five novels about about cop and counsellor Eberhard Mock to be translated from Polish into English and the first that I'm reading. A Wikipedia article calls the books "Chandleresque," but the opening pages are both stark and deadpan funny, more like Kafka meets Ken Bruen.

In particular, Krajewski has a knack for juxtapositions humorous in their oddity:
"`Turn it down and stop jumping about at the wheel,' the passenger said ... `We're not in Africa, on some banana plantation.'

"`Motherfucking racist.' Mynors' words were drowned out by the happy chorus ..."
"Rast sprang away as Erwin all but demolished the door as he fled the room. The boy thrust a cap onto his head, wrenched on his somewhat too tight coat and ran into the street.

"`Here is the dessert, ladies and gentlemen: Silesian poppy cake.'"
This, I think, is what critics mean when they write that a novel has texture. I think I'll enjoy reading more of it. (Speaking of texture, one of Melville House's irrepressible marketing force has this to say about the Breslau series: "One of these days I'm just going to go through those books and count how many things embedded in aspic they eat.")

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Camilleri in my newspaper

My review of The Dance of the Seagull, latest of Andrea Camilleri's novels about Salvo Montalbano to appear in English, appears in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer.
"The title," quoth the Inquirer, "refers to a seagull's dance of death that Salvo witnesses from his seaside home and that haunts him and his dreams throughout the novel. Camilleri integrates this dream into the mystery more skillfully than he has done in earlier books. He's beginning to get the hang of this Montalbano thing.

"... introspection and empathy need not imply surrender or resignation. Indeed, Salvo not only solves the murders and arrests the murderers, but he also manages to exact a bit of revenge from a powerful target."
Spoiler alert: Salvo does not curse the saints until Page 104.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

Labels: , , , , , ,

Saturday, April 27, 2013

On the waterfront and elsewhere in Toronto with Cary Watson

Parts of downtown Toronto's lakefront look as if someone dumped the world's biggest, shiniest, most expensive Erector set on the shore of Lake Ontario, put up the Gardiner Expressway to keep the pile from sliding onto Yonge Street, shrugged, and said, "Don't look at me. I don't know what to do with it, either."

I suspect Cary Watson, an occasional commenter here and at other fine blogs, might agree because his novel Dead Bunny is full of mordant, resigned descriptions of Toronto such as:
"We ended up at a mini-mall on Yonge Street, on the southern edge of Richmond Hill, which is indistinguishable from the northern edge of Toronto. Once there was a thick barrier of farms between the two, but now there’s only a gauntlet of big box superstores."

"It was pissing rain and the winding road through the development was crisscrossed with tan rivers of mud streaming off the building lots. No one seemed to be working anywhere, and the half-completed homes dotted across the torn-up landscape seemed to make the scenery even bleaker."
"the ultra-trendy nightspots mushrooming up along College Street in what was once a Little Italy and is now Italian-themed ..."
The closest Watson's descriptions get to anger is this:
"Highway 7 is a Hadrian’s Wall across the top of Toronto. It separates the city from the land of two-car garages and golf courses named after the natural features they’ve obliterated."
But the novel does not take the easy path of railing against development as a despoiler of all that is good.  Mostly, I thank, Watson has that ability, apparently unique to Toronto crime writers, to observe urban change without rancor or apocalyptic rants. (See John McFetridge's comments on the subject in his 2008 interview with Detectives Beyond Borders.)

It's not necessary to know Toronto to get a sense of the city from Watson's book. Equally accessible are the suspects in the killing alluded to in the title, as reprehensible and pathetic a gang of insecurely macho dickheads as any set down on paper.

But you have to be Canadian to enjoy this line as much as I did:
 "I thanked Carver and left him disappointed that I wasn’t going to stick around for his précis of his projected one-man show on the life of Pierre Berton."
And now, your turn. What are your favorite and most unusual descriptions of setting in crime fiction?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, April 25, 2013

In France, as Cara Black said, it's complicated

I've reached a convenient temporary stopping point in my Franco-Algerian reading. Before I go, though, here are some thoughts I found today about the Algerian War's lingering effects in Algeria and France from a crime writer who sets her books in the latter.

The crime writer is Cara Black, author of the Aimée Leduc novels, and her post on the Murder is Everywhere blog begins "They killed our cook, threw her body down the well and stuck her head on the fence post."

Lest you think the post is all partisan wailing, its title is "In France it's Complicated."

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Day of the Jackal and the Continental Op

So, what does my recent Algeria obsession, in the form of having just read Alistair Horne's A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, have to do with crime fiction, anyhow?

For one thing, it reinforces how strongly Frederick Forsyth's Day of the Jackal, for all its thriller trappings, is really a police procedural that has marked affinities with hard-boiled P.I. stories as well (No wonder it won the best-novel Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1972).

The villains of Forsyth's classic 1971 novel are the leaders of the OAS, the breakaway paramilitary organization that, enraged by French President Charles de Gaulle's concessions to Algeria, hires a hit man known as the Jackal to kill him. The OAS were (and perhaps still are) dissident military men who constituted themselves as a group in Francoist Spain, then turned self-destructive fanatics and terrorists both in Algeria and in France.

The OAS and their followers were a complex bunch, not least in that they explicitly adopted tactics and organization from their principal opponents, the Algerian FLN, or National Liberation Front. Some had fought in the French Resistance against Nazi Germany. Not all were racist. And there was ample anxiety, suspicion, and contempt on the anti-de Gaulle side between some in the OAS on the one hand, and the ultras among the civilian pieds noirs on the other.

Forsyth wisely sketches this background very lightly or not at all. Instead, after setting the stage with the story of a real-life plot against de Gaulle, he has a council of French ministers and other big shots bring in  Claude Lebel, "the best detective in France," and if that sounds like the leading citizens of a Wild West town desperately seeking a new sheriff — or like the Continental Op being called in to clean up Poisonville in Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest — there's more to come.

Lebel is an ordinary cop, and his belittling by pompous, condescending, artistocratic ministers with whom he meets nightly is a running motif of The Day of the Jackal. This may remind readers readers of a thousand stories about P.I.s or cops who have trouble with authority. One passage near novel's end even calls Lebel "the little detective," which would also work as a description of Hammett's squat little Op.

On the plot side of things, Forsyth alternates sections describing the Jackal's maneuvers all over Europe, and the authorities' efforts to catch him. The idea, of course, is to build suspense by getting the reader wondering if the cops will get to the Jackal before the Jackal gets to de Gaulle, and the chapters devoted to the authorities are an exciting, convincing story of a criminal investigation, only in this case of a criminal who plans to kill the president of France.

(Hear Frederick Forsyth talk about The Day of the Jackal in an interview with the BBC.)
A Savage War of Peace has one passage in particular that, whether or nor Alistair Horne intended so, may remind readers of a famous passage from Raymond Chandler. Take it away, Sir Alistair:
"Then, suddenly, with the least warning, the sky yellows and the Chergui blows from the Sahara, stinging the eyes and choking with its sandy, sticky breath. Men think, and behave, differently. It is a recurrent reminder that this is indeed Africa."
© Peter Rozovsky 2013

Labels: , , , , ,

In that case, books and newspapers are worth more every day

Monday, April 22, 2013

“Algérie montait à la tête”

Charles de Gaulle in Aïn Témouchent,
Algeria, December 1960
  Sorry, folks, but, as Alistair Horne remarks several times in A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, “Algérie montait à la tête” — Algeria went to one's head (or, one might say, got under one's skin), and it's gone to mine. I'm not sure I'll visit any time soon (though Morocco or a return trip to Tunisia are not out of the question), but I bought a biography of Charles de Gaulle today and also Algerian White, by Assia Djebar.

Here are some of the small and large delights and surprises of Horne's book for me, who had known little about Algeria, particularly about that savage period in its history:
  • Almost seven years into the bloody Algerian war, crowds of Muslims shouting: “Algérie algérienne… Vive de Gaulle!” in Aïn Témouchent — and the event that precipitated the deminstration: de Gaulle's astonishing reference in a 1960 speech to “an Algerian Republic, which will one day exist."
  • That same year, as plots against de Gaulle's life by disaffected members of the military and pieds noirs mount by the minute, “A handsome young pied noir playboy, tired of life, decided to ram de Gaulle’s helicopter with his private plane.” He didn't do it because he couldn't figure out which helicopter was de Gaulle's.
  • Horne's quotations from Frantz Fanon, known previously to me only as the apologist for revolutionary violence, the author of The Wretched of the Earth, and the revolutionary whose éclat was second only to Che Guevara's, on women's roles the Algerian uprisings.The mentions are brief, but the effects of women taking active roles where they had never done before must have been even more cataclysmic in Algeria's traditional Arab and Kabyle cultures than was the influx of women into the workforce in America during World War II.
I should note, too, that Assia Djebar, mentioned above, who is still around today, writes both in French and under an alias (she took the nom de plume because she feared her father's disapproval, her Wikipedia biography says.) Algerian White, according to a blurb, "weaves a tapestry of the epic and bloody ongoing struggle in her country between Islamic fundamentalism and the post-colonial civil society," which makes her seem like a woman worth reading.

It also sounds a bit like Yasmina Khadra, who writes in French under an assumed name and who criticizes both the state of Algeria and what he sees as Western misunderstanding of the Islamic world. Sounds to me like Algeria is one pretty interesting country, though I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable visiting these days.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

Labels: , , , , , ,

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Algeria in the '50 and the '90s: Yasmina Khadra and Alistair Horne

I'm still burrowing into the complicated history of France and Algeria in the mid-twentieth century via Alistair Horne's A Savage War of Peace,  In the meantime, here's an old post about an Algerian crime novel that paints a grim picture of the country a few decades after the events Horne recounts.
Yasmina Khadra's novels about an Algiers police inspector named Brahim Llob owe much to the tradition of the alienated detective, but Khadra's wit is more bitter than is usual for that wisecracking tradition, and his target is his own country. Thus the opening pages of Dead Man's Share offer this:

"I try to catch the wall doing something wrong so I can investigate it."
but also
"We Algerians react only to what happens to us, never to forestall something that might happen to us.
"While waiting for the storm, we carry on with our rituals. Our patron saints take good care of us, our garbage cans are overflowing with food, and the planet's impending economic crisis is as distant as a comet—to us."
The novel's opening pages are full of bitter reflections on what Algeria does to its thinkers, how it consumes people of talent, how its leaders want to keep the people dumb. There may be a touch of autobiography to such passages; "Yasmina Khadra" is a pen name that the author, whose real name is Mohammed Moulessehoul, adopted to avoid censorship when serving as an Algerian army officer. He now lives and writes in France.
Dead Man's Share, published in French in 2004 as La part du mort and translated in 2009, is the fourth Brahim Llob novel. Khadra's comprehensive Web site (in French) includes excerpts, summaries, news, interviews, and the author's explanation of why he writes in French rather than Arabic.

A 2007 article surveys Khadra's work, including the Llob novels and non-series books that constitute a travelogue the Muslim world's miseries and agonies (The Attack, The Swallows of Kabul, The Sirens of Baghdad). And here are previous Detectives Beyond Borders posts about Khadra (click the link, then scroll down.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012, 2013

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior is a different kind of kick

Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003), released as Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior in the U.S., is the first Thai martial arts movie your humble blogkeeper has watched following a host of movies from Hong Kong and South Korea.

I mention this because the fighting style is so noticeably different: more compact, close-in, with much greater use of elbows and forearms. And, when the combatants fly through the air, as combatants always do in such movies,  they often do so horizontally, parallel to the ground.  A fighter is apt to move in close to his opponent, looking about to fly past him, before reaching almost backward to strike with an elbow.

Here's a primer on the muay Thai fighting style that helped me understand why this movie looks different from Chinese and Korean martial arts movies. The movie also is free, for the most part, of Hong Kong-style wire fu.
Many Asian martial arts movies send a hero from a rural village to a big city to get his job done. Here, young Ting (Tony Jaa), from a village in the northeastern region of Isan (ภาคอีสาน). volunteers to recover the head of the village's Buddha, stolen by a crime lord's henchman and taken to Bangkok.  The evil big-city trope is an old one, and I wonder when it became a part of Southeast Asian popular culture. In any case, this movie's first shots of Bangkok are among the most visually effective I can remember at conveying the frightening cacophony any big city, much less Bangkok, might seem to a newly arrived country boy.
The movie includes graphic scenes of the use and effects of yaba, which Wikipedia calls "a mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine." At least, that's what Wiki says the drug in question is. The fighters here smoke or inject the drug, though the Wiki article on yaba says it is not commonly injected. In any case, yaba's effects are unpleasant, and the scenes in which it appears constitute a strong anti-message.

Finally, the Buddha. I have only a passing acquaintance with East and Southeast Asian art, but I always had the idea that Southeast Asian Buddhas tended to be more heavy-lidded than their Chinese counterparts, with facial attitudes of pleasantly relaxed, drowsy contemplation (right). The huge head of one such figure forms striking background to the movie's climactic fight.

OK, enough with the sociological and aesthetic blather. I hope I've convinced you that there is much of interest in Ong-Bak even if your movie viewing does not normally include heroes who face down crowds of stick- and knife-wielding thugs and somersault over their heads while kicking the crap out of them. Recommended.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A savage war of reviews

My recent reading of The Day of the Jackal has led me to A Savage War of Peace, Alistair Horne's history of France's Algerian War.

The vast majority of the book’s free customer reviews on Amazon are five-star, but I was most interested in the two two-star reviews. Here's an excerpt from the first:
“Alistair Horne … is first and foremost hopelessly biased in favor of the Algerians.”
Here’s one from the second:
“This epic work … remains a remarkably racist work loved by State Department officials and neocons alike … Alistair Horne describes in gory detail atrocities committed by the FLN, or Algerian nationalist rebels, while skimming over far worse atrocities committed by the nice white-guy French.”
See also: Albert Camus, Yasmina Khadra, Rachid Taha

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"The 5-2 : Crime Poetry Weekly": Charles Rammelkamp

April is National Poetry Month, and Gerald So, of The 5-2: Crime Poetry Weekly, marks the occasion once again with a blog tour. Gerald asked a host of crime-fiction bloggers to choose a poem from The 5-2's archived list of poems and discuss it on their sites. My choice is "Home Again" by Charles Rammelkamp, and I'd like to single out three parts of the poem that, for me, bring it close in spirit to the dark, achingly human noir that I love so well.

Here's the blog tour's complete schedule. But first, the poem:
We didn't exactly rape her,
but Harlow did bring Susie to the New Year's Eve party
with the idea that we'd all fuck her,
Susie one of those girls who "pulled trains."
Why not? I was a college freshman
home like a returning warrior
from my first year on my own
at the state university a hundred miles away,
reuniting with the locals who'd stayed behind.

"Why do I always end up in the bedroom?"
Susie asked plaintively as I pulled on my pants
and Danny entered the bedroom.
I felt like a sneak thief zipping my jeans,
grabbing my boots and easing out the door.
I never saw her again.

Now, forty years later,
I come home for Christmas
from across the country
to find Susie pushing my mother
in a wheelchair,
helping her bathe and dress,
cooing soothing words to the frail old lady,
a day care provider for the elderly.
We do not acknowledge our acquaintance —
does she even recognize me? —
but my self-consciousness hangs
between us like a curtain,
suffocating as cotton.
Notice the shocking first line. I'm an impatient reader, often putting a book down if the first line does not grab me. Rammelkamp's makes me want to keep reading.

Next, the opening lines of the second stanza. How would many crime writers portray such a victim? Beaten, perhaps; bloody and dazed into pain, helplessness, or self-reproach, possibly; shocked into muteness, maybe. But Rammelkamp loosens her tongue instead of tying it, and her introspection is touching.

Finally, the third stanza. I don't much like self-consciousness; it's too self-conscious. But that unsettling, anti-climactic ending, the sort of thing that lingers in my mind after I close a David Goodis novel, makes this noir, because no one gets the easy out of dying.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Frederick Forsyth and the day of the talking point

Frederick Forsyth famously wrote The Day of the Jackal in thirty-five days and, he says, the book was published without changes. Assuming my fortieth-anniversary edition of the 1971 novel was produced from the original printing plates or prepared from Forsyth's own typescript, the book shows occasional signs of haste: minor punctuation errors, an infelicitous word choice or two, and, on Page 286, Columbia for Colombia, though that might reflect English usage common in 1971.

But these don't rise even to the level of annoyances; that's how highly I think of the novel, which I'll probably have finished reading before I put up my next post.

One unexpected linguistic touch is Forsyth's use of talking point, which I did not know had entered the language as early as 1971, though he uses it somewhat differently from the way American political handlers and reporters do: "The President's instructions were that it must not become a press sensation and public talking point."

Forsyth is fine at handling the rivalries and enmities among French security officials, and his lampooning of the most pampered or self-seeking of them is over the top but great fun to read.

And now, the Jackal has just eaten a magnificent meal of speckled river trout grilled on a wood fire and tournedos broiled over charcoal with fennel and thyme. Let me join him, why don't you, before he trots off to shoot the president.
Carlos the Jackal got his nickname because a copy of Forsyth's novel is said to have been found near his belongings. What other real people have been named or nicknamed for characters from crime or spy fiction?
N.B. My apologies to readers who read transcript in the first version of this post's opening paragraph. I had typed, as I intended to do, typescript, but auto-correct overrode my correct choice. That's one curse Frederick Forsyth did not have to worry about in 1971.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

Labels: , ,

Friday, April 12, 2013

Frederick Forsyth at Crimefest: Thirty-five Days of the Jackal

Crimefest 2013 in Bristol, England, is coming up next month, and I plan to make my fourth appearance in the festival's six years. So this is a good time to start reading a classic thriller that I first got excited about at Crimefest 2012.

The opening hundred or so pages of The Day of the Jackal offer measured, chilling background to fanaticism from two French sides in the Franco-Algerian War. (The Jackal is an assassin hired  by right-wing military figures to kill French President Charles de Gaulle, incensed by De Gaulle's grant of Algerian independence after having declared "Vive l'Algerie Francaise!" De Gaulle proclaimed "Long live French Algeria!" then granted the country its independence, and "Vive le Quebec libre!" or "Long live free Quebec!" without, however, wrenching my native province out of Canada--at least not yet. He had a bit of a problem with this liberation thing.)

Now, why not listen to some Franco-Algerian music, read about the real aborted Algerian military coup against De Gaulle, and join me in The Day of the Jackal?
 Thirty-five days. That's how long Crimefest 2012 honoree Frederick Forsyth said it took him to write his classic 1971 thriller The Day of the Jackal. And he said the novel was published as he had written it, without changes.

This and the rapidity of the book's composition earned him the good-natured jealousy of Peter Guttridge, who quizzed Forsyth in the first of the festival's six guest-of-honor interviews.

I had seen and liked the 1973 film version of The Day of the Jackal, but I had not read a word of Forsyth's work before today. His interview turned me into a fan, though, and I bought the book. My favorite bit of the interview was probably Forsyth's response to Guttridge's question about whether the world had grown more complicated since the Jackal's Cold War days.

"Very much so," Forsyth replied. "Al-Qaeda is here, there, everywhere. ... It's a weird world. It's a dangerous world. It's a bewildering." (And yes, Forsyth's tendency to speak in threes lends his speech a pleasantly rhythmic effect.) He also, by his own account, has led a fortunate and engaging life, so yes, I'm a Forsyth fan starting today.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012. 2013

Labels: , , , , , ,

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Who needs copy editors?: I get the distinctive feeling...

The photograph below and its accompanying caption appeared this evening in the Christian Science Monitor's newsletter. Is the, er, distinction between distinct and distinctive breaking down, or has the Christian Science Monitor decided that literate copy editing is too legacy for online news?

Masters green jacket and other distinct(sic) uniforms: Take our colorful sports fashion quiz

(Read more Who needs copy editors?)

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

Labels: , ,

Euphemisms for the sacred name

Pious Jews will not pronounce the names of God. I have read, too, that the word bruin originated as a euphemism for bear, substituting a quality (the color brown) for the whole, whose name was too fearsome to be uttered. Nor, I learned this evening, will an Apple store employee utter the name of Steve Jobs.

I visited the store because my computer's flimsy power adapter had predictably cracked, frayed, and stopped working after less than two years, and I had to pay eighty-five dollars for a replacement. (Apple would have replaced the adapter free — had I paid $249 for an AppleCare protection plan. Technology is not the only area in which Jobs was a genius.)

This led to a civil discussion with the clerk who sold me the adapter. I pointed out what a smart business practice it was to sell shoddy — and proprietary — but necessary extras for expensive computers. As outrageous as it is to charge eighty-five dollars for a power cord, what choice do buyers have, once they've already spent hundreds or thousands for the machine? Apple computers take only Apple cords; the company would be a fool to make a sturdier cord and charge a reasonable price for it.

I mentioned Jobs to the clerk, a rueful tribute to the founder's business acumen as well as his engineering smarts. And the clerk replied: "As you said about our late boss ... "  The juxtaposition of the familiar our with the substitution of the epithet boss for Jobs' name was creepily similar to the way monotheistic religions refer to God.

One amusing note: The clerk asked where I'd heard that Apple power cords tend to break. "From a friend in a café," I said.

"A friend in a café," he repeated, his right eyebrow rising.  The irony of an Apple employee displaying disdain for café habitués was almost worth the eighty-five dollars I had to pay for a ten-dollar power cord. Count the number of Apple laptops the next time you visit a café. You'll see what I mean.
The number of hits I got searching for Apple and worship is scary. Any number of people, presumably some of them at least half-serious, detect parallels with religion in the fervor of Apple product worship. I do not find this reassuring.

In what ways is Apple/Steve Jobs worship like a religion? Like a cult? How is it different?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

Labels: , , , , , ,

Monday, April 08, 2013

Is The Killer Inside Me an anti-anti-intellectual manifesto?

Discussion at Adrian McKinty's blog has turned to anti-intellectualism in American popular culture.  One comment links to an article that traces anti-egghead prejudice to World War II; other sources say the tendency has been around longer.

Smart. Very smart.
What, if anything, did Jim Thompson have to say on the subject? Here's Lou Ford, the psychotic, aw-shucks protagonist of Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, published during those post-World War II years (1952):
"I took down a bound volume of one of the German periodicals and read a while. I put it back and took down one in French. I skimmed through an article in Spanish and another in Italian. I couldn’t speak any of those languages worth a doggone, but I could understand ’em all. I’d just picked ’em up with Dad’s help, just like I’d picked up some higher mathematics and physical chemistry and half a dozen other subjects."
Ford is simple on the outside but in fact reads at least five languages and uses reason and scientific knowledge to bamboozle less-sophisticated adversaries. On the other hand, he did not acquire his knowledge at school. Rather, he just picked it up reading his father’s books (and his father turns out to have been pretty warped, too). And, of course, he's a sadist, a psychopath, and a killer.

Is Lou Ford's clandestinely acquired knowledge, which lurks beneath the cornpone exterior, subversive? Is Thompson saying that in America in the 1950s, to be literate, multilingual, and acquainted with science was to be an outcast?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013


Sunday, April 07, 2013

Dogs, psychologists, fear, and Ross Macdonald

"She walked away from me and her fear." 
Ross Macdonald, The Galton Case (1959)

"I could smell the fear on Donny: there's an unexplained trace of canine in my chromosomes." 
—  Ross Macdonald, "The Imaginary Blonde" (1953) 

I like Macdonald better as a dog than as a psych major.

"The Imaginary Blonde," which appeared first in Manhunt, was also known as "Gone Girl," the same title Gillian Flynn used for her 2012 novel. Do any Flynnheads out there know if the title is a nod to Macdonald?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, April 05, 2013

The copy editor inside me

I'm about halfway through The Killer Inside Me, and I can now state with some confidence that Pop. 1280 is Jim Thompson's best book.

There's nothing wrong with Killer's narrator/protagonist, the notorious Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford, or the depravity and calculating intelligence that lie beneath his boring exterior—nothing, that is, except that he's no Nick Corey, the less-celebrated but greater protagonist of Pop. 1280.

I haven't finished reading The Killer Inside Me yet. But I do have a few thoughts:

1) Is the horrifying beating scene in the 2010 movie version of Killer too much? The very existence of the controversy may answer the question. The corresponding scene in the book is, indeed, horrifying, but it is nowhere near as graphic or as central to the novel as the discussion and promotion surrounding the scene are to the movie.

In Thompson's world, deadpan humor, intense self-examination on the protagonist's part, and criticism of all manner of social hypocrisy are more central to the story than sex is. The Killer Inside Me is the study of a psychotic man. It's not a sex book, despite its sexual frankness and gleeful profanity. All it takes is comparison of the three editions of the novel shown at the top of this post with the cover of a movie tie-in edition (left) and, especially, with a poster from the movie itself (right) to illustrate that the filmmakers, producers, and promoters had a vision different from Thompson's.

2) Back in January 2012, I jocosely pointed out a grammatical error in a Cole Porter song. "One of those bells that now and then rings," I wrote, should be "One of those bells that now and then ring." (Porter, of course, writing to the dictates of rhyme and music, was exempt from rules of formal prose. Besides, he was Cole Porter.)

Well, some readers didn't get it, expressing benign condescension or amused  exasperation at what they imagined was my error.

Thompson, on the other hand, has Ford tell us at one point that
 "It’s one of those things that are so plain and simple you don’t see ’em."
This alcohol-sodden hack, banging out his novels on a manual typewriter in the bathroom, in other words, writing a book full of Southern dialect pronunciation, nonetheless recognized a plural subject ("those things") and knew that such a subject takes a plural verb ("are"). As I like to imagine the deceptively shambling but, in fact, highly intelligent, literate Lou Ford saying, "Just parsing through, ma'am."

I am pleased to enshrine Thompson alongside Dashiell Hammett as a copy editor's friend. Good grammar is nothing to be ashamed of. Even tough guys do it.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

What sin a name?

Why does Steve Carella become Steve Carelli in Cop Hater, the movie based on Ed McBain's novel of the same name? Why does Lew Archer become Lew Harper, other than Paul Newman's possible predilection in the 1960s for characters and titles beginning with H?

I can guess why Carmen Sternwood became Camilla in Michael Winner's 1978 remake of The Big Sleep; England is probably not exactly crawling with Carmens. But why does Ned Beaumont become Ed Beaumont in both movies based on Hammett's The Glass Key?

What are your favorite or most eccentric character name changes from the page to the screen? Bonus points if you know why the movie makers changed the name. In two cases I know of, authors wanted to retain the rights to a character's name.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Jim Thompson, Benjamin Whitmer, Daniel Woodrell, mood-breakers, a question for readers

I wrote earlier this week that Benjamin Whitmer's novel Pike reminded me of Daniel Woodrell with a tougher edge, maybe with a bit of Jim Thompson mixed in. I had never seen those writers mentioned together, so I was pleased when I picked up a copy of Thompson's Pop. 1280 yesterday and found that it came with a foreword by Woodrell.
"Sheriff Nick Corey is Jim Thompson's greatest creation," Woodrell writes. "Pop. 1280, set in Texas, is so directly a southern novel, so clearly from that tradition, that it would stand high on the Southern Lit shelf (which means high on the Lit Shelf, period) if it were not so consistently misidentified as a work with its roots genre, and therefore arbitrarily reduced in stature. ... The vision is dark but the writing bizarrely hilarious, utilizing the strain of downhome joshing I love so well and learned at the knees of my old ones."
Now, I've been to Texas just once in my life, to Houston and Galveston, and, while my charming hostess does like to say, "Y'all, hush!" I can claim only the most cursory acquaintance with the state, the region, and their quirks and folkways. But I have to think Woodrell is right because fourteen chapters in, Pop. 1280 is dark, hilarious, a stunning performance that sustains its mood in every word, far and away the best of the limited amount of Thompson's work that I've read (Savage Night,  The Getaway, part of The Grifters).

I may have more to say on this astonishing book later, but for now some thoughts on why hard, dark writing may the most difficult kind of crime writing to do well. Here's what I mean: I've read plenty of the hard stuff recently, Thompson, Whitmer, Jedidiah Ayres' Fierce Bitches, Crime Factory's Lee Marvin-themed short-story collection Lee, Eric Beetner, and Blood and Tacos. Lots of that writing is good, some better than that, but what interested me were those stories where a not-quite-right word threw the atmosphere off just enough to take me out of the story, if only for a moment. No author wants to do that, but I suspect the stakes may be especially high in noir, hard-boiled, Southern Gothic, or any other genre that depends heavily on mood.

The slip-up need not be large; all it takes is a bit of jargon or psychobabble, a grammatical error ("Lying still, strapped down tight, the hostage's eyes meet his."), or some annoying quirk of contemporary speech creeping in (level, say, as in "his confidence level" rather than "his confidence.")  

That's me; What are your mood-breakers? What lapses will take you out of a story?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, April 01, 2013

Benjamin Whitmer, Talmage Powell, E. Howard Hunt

1) Pike.  I'm no more than a third of the way through this 2010 novel by Benjamin Whitmer, but it has my heart beating faster already. The book is like Daniel Woodrell, but with a tougher edge, maybe with a shot of Jim Thompson mixed in.

2) Talmage Powell's 1962 novel Start Screaming Murder offers, among other things, a compassionate, if somewhat melodramatic, view of "little people" in Tampa, Fla. There are references to midgets and dwarves having flocked to Tampa in the heyday of carnivals and then to some being left flat with nothing to do when the carny era ended.

“Ed, what’s going on amongst the little people in this town, the midget and dwarf citizens who colonized here in the days of the carnies?” one character asks, and I can't help thinking that that relegation of the physical condition to adjective from substantive (dwarf citizens rather than dwarves) is an early example of the verbal sensitivity — political correctness, some would say — under which people with retardation, say, has replaced retarded people in everyday writing.

And I could not suppress a smile when narrator/protagonist Ed Rivers tells the reader that "The midget population of Tampa is sizable."

3) E. Howard Hunt's House Dick (1961) is the best crime novel I've read by anyone who went to become a Watergate burglar. It offers good, tough-guy observations such as:
"It was standard hotel coffee shop food with the usual decorative sprigs of defrosted parsley, but he hadn’t much appetite."
I might not have noted the following had I not known which president Hunt went to work for a decade later:
"Judges are fine; some folks think they’re even necessary. For me they’re guys you tell the story to after all the action’s over. And even then most of the bastards couldn’t tell a crook from a Congressman.” (highlighting is mine)
not to mention:
"Too early in the year for open-air concerts at Watergate."
© Peter Rozovsky 2013

Labels: , ,