Thursday, January 30, 2014

Roger Smith in America

New Pulp Press, whose roster includes Jonathan Woods, Les Edgerton, Anonymous-9, and Crime Factory, is bringing two novels by South African chill- and gritmeister Roger Smith to America in print editions: Dust Devils and Capture.

Detectives Beyond Borders raves:
"Roger Smith knows how to play up the good, old-fashioned virtues of honor, persistence, redemption, and love of adventure. He also keeps the bullets flying, the blades flashing, and the spinning tires kicking up dust on sun-baked South African roads. 
"The result in Dust Devils ... is as much unabashed fun as I can remember having had reading a crime novel."
"Roger's Smith's Capture gets out into the streets in and around Cape Town's forbidding Flats more than his previous novels do, and the results make Capture feel more sociable than its predecessors. 
"The grim shacks remain, and grim things happen inside them (and in rich sea- and hillside houses, too), but characters also punch out drunks in crowded strip clubs or risk their health dodging cars. ... 
"But in the main, the story is Smith's customary mix of damaged characters interacting in dangerous ways, then rushing hellbent to redemption, romance, or messy death. And Smith even offers some laughs along the way."
Release date is Feb. 20.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

More DBB visits ALA (If I'd stopped by the Tor/Forge booth, I could have called this post Tor and Peace)

Melville House's display at the American Library Association's 2014 Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia included Giorgio Scerbanenco's Traitors to All (published in Britain under the title Betrayal), a welcome reminder that Scerbanenco, the Father of Italian Noir, will finally be easily available in the U.S. for the first time in more that forty years. The novel appears later this year, as will Scerbanenco's A Private Venus, the appearance of whose U.K. edition had to be the event of of the international crime fiction year in 2012.

Scerbanenco may be Melville House's greatest gift to America since it reprinted Derek Raymond's Factory novels.
Scerbanenco may be Melville House's greatest gift to America until it publishes U.S. editions of David Peace's The Damned United, Red or Dead, and GB84 later this year. The publisher offered a 30-page excerpt of Red or Dead at its ALA booth, and the first few pages make me want to read more.  The novel is the story of a soccer manager's revolutionary salvaging of the then down-on-its-lick Liverpool F.C., but it reads like James Ellroy.

Old meets new in a cool chair
at the ALA 2014 Midwinter
Meeting. Photo  by your
humble blogkeeper.
The relentless prose suggests Ellroy, whose American Tabloid, Blood's A Rover, and The Cold Six Thousand I've read in the past month. Peace's novel, like Ellroy's trilogy, is based on history, though of a man, a city, and a soccer team, rather than of a tumultuous era in a nation's history. I expect I'll find myself comparing how the two authors make fictional sense out of reality.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Friday, January 24, 2014

Writers who set books away from home — and why they do it

I started Detectives Beyond Borders in 2006 with a wariness of crime writers who set books in countries other than their own or where they did not live. They must be arrivistes, I suspected, tourists in search of tax write-offs who had no more understanding of local conditions and attitudes than does CNN. Americans (or Brits) parachuting in to tell the locals how to solve their problems.

Over the years I've asked such authors what they see in their chosen settings that a local might miss, or what they might miss that locals take for granted, and I wrote the introduction to a book of essays on the subject (Christopher G. Moore's The Cultural Detective). But not until last night did I think to ask such a writer why she had chosen the country she did.

Turns out that Cara Black, currently in Philadelphia for an American Library Association convention, has ties to France that long predate her Aimée Leduc novels. Her father introduced her to Jacques Tati movies. An uncle had literary ties to the country. Nuns from the Society of the Sacred Heart taught her a mildly archaic French that would later bemuse the children of her hosts on visits to France. There's more to her attraction to Paris, that is, than the Eiffel Tower and bargains on designer clothes.

So now I'll assume that every such writer has stories of his or her own, that there is a reason he or she writes about the Greek islands rather than the south of France, or Italy rather than Spain, or vice versa.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is a Bouchercon panel waiting to happen.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

OK, now WHO's great, and WHO is just very good?

Monday's post here at Detectives Beyond Borders speculated on what separates the greatest of crime writers from the merely very good. I cited, naturally, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett as the greatest, with a suggestion that Paul Cain might have made it if he'd written more.

A couple of readers provided a couple of replies, but now come the hard part: WHO are the very greatest crime writers, musicians, artists, or what have you (and why?), and the even harder part: WHO are the very good, (and why?).

I nominated some of the top second-rank Black Mask writers, particularly Frederick Nebel, as very good, illustrating the discussion with some examples from Nebel's work and contrasting these with citations of how Hammett and Chandler had solved similar problems. Novelist and gauntlet-flinger Dana King provides a fine example (from the history of music). Now it's your turn.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Monday, January 20, 2014

What separates the superlatively great from the merely very good? Nebel is like a great hamburger or pepperoni pizza; Dashiell Hammett is steak au poivre that melts in your mouth, followed by a fine aged tawny port. Raoul Whitfield is a Lexus, Raymond Chandler a Bugatti (though given Whitfield's output of aviation stories, maybe he's the Spirit of St. Louis and Chandler a Concorde). Hammett is Giotto and Chandler, Babe Ruth; George Harmon Coxe and Erle Stanley Gardner are—  But you get the idea.

I'm reading one of the superlatively great Black Mask writers, one who would be right up there if he'd written more, and one of the mere very goods. (The superlatively great is Hammett, the would-have-been is Paul Cain, and the very good is Frederick Nebel, in the form of Crimes of Richmond City, five loosely connected stories that appeared in Black Mask in 1928 and 1929.) 

The Nebel has great moments of tension and even psychological insight, and one of the great comic crime fiction foils in Kennedy, of the Free Press. It also has archaisms that induce a smile in today's readers:
"`The skunks!' exclaimed Kerr. `Can't we run the pups down?'"
"`Drive to that old brewery,' he clipped."
It won't do simply to chalk up the first example to its era's greater reticence than our own with respect to swearing. Chandler in The Big Sleep and Hammett in "The Girl With the Silver Eyes" devised entertaining, evocative ways to suggest swearing without the archaically comical touch of "The skunks!" Perhaps one definition of greatness in a writer is the ability to solve narrative problems in ways that would not occur to lesser authors, and to turn those problems to his or her advantage. So here is your philosophical question, readers: What distinguishes a great author from one who is merely good, even very good? Examples welcome.

(Granted Nebel was near the start of what would be a prolific career that lasted into the 1960s. He may have lacked the confidence or the juice to blaze creative trails early on. But Hammett was still in his twenties when "Arson Plus" appeared and barely 30 when he wrote "The Secret Emperor.")

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Saturday, January 18, 2014

A hazard of historical crime fiction, and a question for readers

I recently started reading but then put down a historical crime novel. The book’s opening was superb, evocative of the story’s premodern setting, but without dopey signposts to history. No Saxons musing about how quiet it is in Hastings on the pleasantly cool afternoon of Oct. 13, 1066 here.

The novel proposes amusing alternative backgrounds for its historical characters, and it sets up tension between the foremost of those figures and the novel’s protagonist. That protagonist is an amateur sleuth (the novel’s setting predates professional investigators, whether public or private), and his summoning to the murder in question is atmospheric, bawdy, and entertaining. The scene where the body lies is suitably eerie and, again, evocative of its time.

And then comes the detection. The sleuth pauses; something bothers him. He looks at the victim’s hands and finds a clue, either gripped tightly between clenched fingers, or caked under fingernails; I forget which. And I stop reading because I have been yanked out of the illusion that the author has maintained until now, not, strictly speaking, by anachronism, but by a convention I'd seen a hundred times before in modern detective stories.

How might this author have written the scene differently to keep me reading? What extra burdens do writers of historical crime fiction face? 

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Friday, January 17, 2014

Ellroy book got O.J. wrong

Contrary to "Sex, Glitz, and Greed: The Seduction of O.J. Simpson," in James Ellroy's Crime Wave, Simpson never rushed for 2,033 yards in a season. The correct figure for Simpson's record-breaking year (1973) is 2,003 yards.  The book's  introduction, by GQ's then-editor, Art Cooper, also notes the passion of Ellroy's Simpson essay, observing that
"Several months ago, James was in moral high dudgeon again, this time outraged at Bill Clinton's sexual dalliance with Monica Lewinsky and his rather bizarre pronouncement that a blow job really isn't sex. James was itching to rip Bubba, and I, perhaps unwisely, declined."
Why "rather bizarre"? Was Clinton's pronouncement bizarre, or wasn't it? And where's the introspection beyond the suggestion that Cooper "perhaps unwisely" declined Ellroy's offer to write about Clinton? A neutral observer might suspect fear or political partiality.

The Simpson piece is full of incisive observations that would be banned for their accuracy from family newspapers. My favorite:
"O.J. Simpson will have truly transcended race at that moment when Blacks and Whites get together and recognize him as a cowardly piece of shit who may or may not have murdered two innocent people and left two Black and White children devastated for the rest of their lives."
My other favorite moment so far in this 1999 collection of fiction and reporting reportage is what purports to be a 1998 article from the Advocate about the fictional columnist for Hush-Hush, Danny Getchell. Scandal sheets, according to the article, "destroyed the lives of many gay and lesbian Americans, and Hush-Hush was arguable the worst of the lot."

"Gay and lesbian Americans" suggests that Ellroy has a sharp ear, that he was ahead of the semantic curve (or that I was behind it). The story first appeared in GQ in 1998. I was surprised six years when New Jersey's then-governor, Jim McGreevey, told the state not "I am gay," but "My truth is that I am a gay American."

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Nelson Algren: The answer, plus what the ancients can teach us

Yesterday's post here at Detectives Beyond Borders asked What ever happened to Nelson Algren, and why? The good people who run the Nelson Algren Twitter account suggested I might find some answers here. The article's headline:
"Despite his literary brilliance and humanist resolve, Nelson Algren was the type of loser this country just can't stomach."
 I miss the medal stand in the How Many Books Do You Own? Olympics (fourth place, behind Ali Karim, Jon and Ruth Jordan, and the Library of Congress), but I still can't take three steps anywhere in my house without tripping over a pile of mid-listers. So I took two bags of books to a used bookstore today and traded them for credit and three books.

Two of the three have some connection to crime: James Ellroy's Crime Wave, and Sophocles' Oedipus plays. Everyone knows about Oedipus Rex's sublime plotting, but what grabbed me was Oedipus' declaration in the prologue that
"I would not have you speak through messengers
"And therefore I have come myself to hear you."
That has to be as good a job as any writer has ever done getting right to the heart of the action without, however, resorting to desperate action for the sake of action. It's a perfect balance among action, atmosphere, and suspense.  The ancients have much to teach us.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

What ever happened to Nelson Algren, and why?

Nelson Algren was not a crime writer, but he wrote about hustlers and gamblers and addicts and hoods and corrupt politicians. While such non-crime writers as Charles Bukowski and John Fante and Jim Tully occasionally find their way into discussions of crime fiction, however, I have never heard Algren's name at a crime convention or read it on a crime blog. Why is this?

(Nelson Algren Fountain base with part of 
inscription from Chicago: City on the Make)
I have not read Algren, but last month I stayed in the heart of Algren country in Chicago's West Town, a block from the small, boarded-up fountain in the "Polish Triangle" that I think is the neighborhood's only memorial to Algren. The inscription at the fountain's base reads: "For the masses who do the city's labor also keep the city's heart" — a sentiment perhaps out of step with contemporary America.

(The Nelson Algren Fountain)
(The Man With the Golden Arm was the first winner of the National Book Award for fiction and was made into a celebrated film starring Frank Sinatra as the splendidly named Frankie Machine. Algren was Simone de Beauvoir's lover for years, when she could get that pesky Jean-Paul Sartre out of the way, and I'm guessing Lou Reed read Algren's novel A Walk on the Wild Side. The inscription on the fountain's base comes from Algren's essay Chicago: City on the Make, a copy of which I could not find in Chicago.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Monday, January 13, 2014

Dana, Starr, and "the land of knives and forks and tea-cups"

"The territory of Alta California, a network of scattered settlements on the lower edge of an empty American West, had a number of visitors during the Spanish and Mexican period." 
— Kevin Starr, Americans and the California Dream: 1850-1915
"F——— went forward into the forecastle as a common sailor, and lost the handle to his name, while young foremast Jim became Mr. Hall, and took up his quarters in the land of knives and forks and tea-cups." 
— Richard Henry Dana Jr., Two Years Before the Mast
Today's selections are not just not crime, they're not even fiction. But they are taken from works of great imaginative power (Starr's preface invokes the imagination, a wonderful thing for a  historian to do), and they would not be out of place in a kind of crime novel I especially like to read—hard-boiled with a humorous edge.

Starr's first. The sentence above is not just the first in his book, but the first in his multivolume history of California. Read the sentence, and I hope you'll agree that "had a number of visitors" is a delightfully understated way to begin a history, particularly of an area so dominated by people who arrived from elsewhere.

And can you think of a more entertaining way to portray the difference between living conditions of a ship's officers and its ordinary sailors than Dana's reference to officers' quarters as "the land of knives and forks and tea-cups"? The description is not just amusing, it's supremely economical. Its eight (or nine) words tell you all you need to know about how both classes live.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Friday, January 10, 2014

Dashiell Hammett: Secret Viking?

On this, the fifty-third anniversary of Dashiell Hammett's death, I'll resurrect a post about my favorite reference to Hammett in a work by another writer. Did the Icelandic sagas really influence Hammett?  I have never read such a suggestion anywhere else, but I call this an apt and imaginative tribute to a great author and to a great body of writing from the Middle Ages.

. Oh, boy, was this an exciting discovery. A bit less than halfway into Josef Škvorecký's Two Murders in My Double Life, I found this exchange between the narrator/protagonist and a student at the Toronto college where he teaches:
"I asked his permission and sat down beside him. Then I looked into his book and was able to read the page heading: NORDIC SAGAS. ... Beside Freddie, on the bench, I saw a paperback with a loudly coloured jacket: Dashiell Hammett, The Continental Op. ...

"`Any connection?'

"`I think there is,' said Freddie with some enthusiasm. `I think that the Old Nordic sagas were the source for Dashiell Hammett's style, and his inspiration in general.'

"`Really? Usually it's assumed that he was influenced by the harsh realities of American big cities, and by Hemingway.'

"`I'm not saying he wasn't,' said Freddie, as if he were already defending his M.A. thesis. But his
main inspiration came from the Nordic sagas.' ... 
"I spent the next half hour on that bench, and Freddie, quoting from Song of Eric the Red and from the Hammett stories featuring a detective called Continental Op, demonstrated how identical were the respective poker-faced killers of those works, and how the authors presented their bloody brutalities with equal lack of comment or show of emotion."
Why do I enjoy that so much? Because Arnaldur Indriðason also cited the sagas as an influence on his own laconic prose style, and because I've posted about crime-fiction-like features in Njal's Saga, commonly considered the greatest of the genre. It seems that Škvorecký was on to something.

(Link to free online versions of some of the sagas here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009, 2014

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Thursday, January 09, 2014

The Score: Actors who act as actors acting

You know that old commonplace that an actor's surest path to an Oscar is to play a handicapped character (Jon Voight, Daniel Day-Lewis, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Holly Hunter, Patty Duke, Harold Russell, et al.)? Edward Norton does something even more ego-gratifying in The Score, a 2001 heist movie that was also Marlon Brando's last film: He plays someone who plays at being handicapped.

Norton is a thief who uses a bogus handicap as cover to get a janitor's job at Montreal's Customs House so he can case the joint for a heist. (Wikipedia delicately calls Norton's character "intellectually challenged," ludicrous for its euphemism, and misleading, because the chief characteristics of Norton's guise are physical: distorted speech, a lurching walk, and a withered, clawlike way of holding his right arm.   He's an actor playing an actor. His role is self-conscious exhibitionism to the core, and he does a decent job of it. But then, he was playing opposite Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando, so maybe he felt like he had to do something to keep up.)

There's nothing terribly wrong with this workmanlike heist movie, but:

  1. The salient aspect of its first half for me was its interior scenes. I'm from Montreal, and I got to see the gorgeous modern interiors of the gorgeous stone buildings of Old Montreal.
  2. The heist, of a precious golden scepter, involves computer hacking, electronics, underground mapping, physics, and De Niro's character hanging like a spider from a ceiling.  I've always thought simplicity was best. What proportion of real-life big heists involve such elaborate gimcrackery?
  3. The movie transfers to screen one of the hoariest cheats in crime fiction, that of withholding information from the reader/viewer to build suspense when such withholding is out of character with what has gone before. One scene has Norton's character reading aloud plans for the heist as De Niro shows them to him. I find it unlikely that a person would do this in real life, but it's an acceptable solution to the problem of how to convey large chunks of information. Later, though, when De Niro shows Norton the coup de grace that will let them overcome increased security at the Customs House, Norton just says something like, "Are you sure this will work?", leaving the audience guessing. It's a cheap tease.
  4. A later trick is much less obvious and hence, more effective. It also makes narrative sense. I won't spoil things for you, but it has to do with Norton's character's deliberate temporary inaction after it becomes obvious he will double-cross De Niro during the heist, and it's a lovely touch.
  5. De Niro's character owns a jazz club. This is a perfunctory excuse to get a nice song or two on the soundtrack. He could just as easily be a mechanic, an office worker, a lawyer, or anything else. His profession is at best irrelevant and at worst a distraction.
  6. Again according to Wikipedia, Roger Ebert called The Score "the best pure heist movie in recent years."  Peter Travers, on the other hand, wrote that when "two Don Corleones team up," he expected "the kind of movie that makes people say, 'I'd pay to see these guys just read from the phone book.'"  Travers concluded, however: "There's nothing you can't see coming in this flick, including the surprise ending. Quick, somebody get a phone book." Travers was right
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Tuesday, January 07, 2014

A Shaw-King development: Two authors join my list of year's favorites

Here are two enjoyable additions to my favorite books of 2013. along with some of what I wrote about them earlier this year:

I've just finished reading Johnny Shaw's Big Maria, and I admit I teared up a bit at Shaw's resolution of his three screw-up protagonists' fates. The old-fashioned virtues of faith, determination, loyalty, and staying true to one's friends, family, and self are much manipulated and abused by governments, corporations, the media, and a thousand people we all meet every day to the point that's easy to mock them or to grow cynical. But irony is easy. Shaw gets a reader believing in this stuff even as the reader laughs.

Furthermore, I suspect Shaw does this deliberately. Here's a bit from near the book's end, XXX substituted for a character's name to avoid a spoiler:
"The same pit that (XXX) had imagined as his grave had become just that. Some might have found it funny, but the irony would have pissed (XXX) off. Irony is only amusing when it happens to someone else. Death isn't funny to the dead."
I'm not entirely sentimental about this book, though. Among the many things to like are Shaw's subordination. His supporting characters are just as memorable and wacky as its three protagonists, but Shaw knows when to pull them back and let the main characters take center stage. He brings those subsidiary characters part way toward resolving obstacles he had put in their way, but he avoids the monotony-inducing trap of resolving their problems as thoroughly as he does the main characters'.  Shaw has chops, and he also knows how to build a story.

I like Dana King's Grind Joint for its local color; its humor; its lack of sentimentality about its decaying urban setting; its ending that comes out of nowhere, but in a good way; and its tribute to a late star of King's beloved Pittsburgh Pirates.

A teenager who figures peripherally in the story is given the name Wilver, and if that's not a tribute to Wilver Dornell "Willie" Stargell, I'll eat your silly vintage-style 1979 Pirates baseball hat.

The novel's ending is harder to discuss because I don't want to spoil the surprise. Suffice it to say that I did not see it coming, that it hits with a melancholy punch, that I'd have said, "Wow!" had anyone been around to hear me say it, and that it made perfect sense.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Monday, January 06, 2014

I learned quite a lot when I was young: Youth, fiction, and history

At what age is a writer most susceptible to impressions that later find their way into his or her fiction?

Adrian McKinty sets his Sean Duffy trilogy (Cold Cold Ground, I Hear the Sirens in the Streets, and the new In The Morning I'll Be Gone) in a time when the author was 13 and 14 years old and growing up in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. John McFetridge's forthcoming Black Rock takes place in Montreal in 1970. McFetridge was 11 and living in Montreal at the time. And James Ellroy was 10 and 11 during the years that are the setting for American Tabloid, first of his Underworld U.S.A. trilogy.

Three authors, three bodies of work set in turbulent periods of  their countries' history, the turbulence coinciding with the authors' pre- and early adolescence. Happenstance? Here's Dana King, from a comment on this week's historical-fiction post here at Detectives Beyond Borders:
"You're right about the images the writers grew up with; I see it in my interest. I enjoy recent historical fiction more than that of more distant periods for a couple of reasons. A lot of this happened when I was of an age to understand it, but not to place it into context. To me, growing up, it was natural for mills to close and for one or two American cities a year to burn with riots; it's what I knew. These books help me to re-examine these periods and events with some context.
"They also allow me to see how the roots of today's problems were always there; many things have changed at their core very little, though they look different now. I remember how upset people were in the 80s and 90s when it was reported the black drug gangs were killing innocents with drive-by shootings, and recruiting grade school kids as runners, as they'd do no time. It wasn't like they thought of the idea; organized crime had done both for years."

None of the works under discussion is a coming-of-age book. Though the authors were 11 to 14 at the times when the novels are set, the protagonists and all significant characters are adults. Did McKinty, McFetridge, and Ellroy just happen to be the right age when their countries and cities, were going through changes (the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the October Crisis in Montreal, the Cold War in the United States)? Or does something about ages 11 to 14 make authors want to re-examine the worlds of their post-childhood, pre-teenage youth? Comments from historians and developmental psychologists welcome.
McFetridge's protagonist is a young cop named Eddie Dougherty called to the scene of an explosion that blew a car apart on Montreal's Champlain Bridge:
"Dougherty watched the police photographer, Rozovsky, take a hundred pictures of the wreckage and dozens of every body part they could find and then stop and change lenses on the camera and then turn and aim it back towards the skyline of Montreal.
"One of the detectives said, `What's that for?' and Rozovsky said, `It looks like a postcard.'
"`You can't sell a picture you take while you're on the clock.'"
"Rozovsky snapped off a few more shots and said. `It's for my personal collection.'"
"`Yeah, your personal collection on the rack in every drugstore on town,' and Rozovsky said, `From your lips ...'"
So yes, I have a special reason to like this book. And now, for your listening pleasure, the Animals.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Sunday, January 05, 2014

Curzio Malaparte's The Skin: Life during noir time

Commentators lapse into cliché or trivial vulgarity when discussing Curzio Malaparte's 1949 novel The Skin, and it's hard to blame them. Almost anything one can say about the book comes off as incomplete, as a stance, or an attitude.

 Milan Kundera comes closest to the mark among the comments attached to the new NYRB translation of the book with an assessment that reads, in part, "suddenly, good and evil have veiled their faces; the new world is still barely known." But even that brief excerpt, quoted on the back cover, does not take in the novel's dark humor.

The novel has a character named Curzio Malaparte accompanying American forces in and around Naples after Italy signed the Armistice of Cassibile and went over to the Allied side in World War II. This is no crime novel, but its scenes of desperation, self-laceration, pity, and squalor will make any crime reader think about what noir really means.

I'll post an excerpt or two in the coming days, and I hope it will be clear why I choose the excerpts I do:
"General Cork was a real gentleman—a real American gentleman, I mean. He had the naïveté, the artlessness and the moral transparency that make American gentlemen so lovable and so human. He was not a cultivated man, he did not possess that humanistic culture which gives such a noble and poetic tone to the manners of European gentlemen, but he was a `man,' he had that human quality which European men lack: he knew how to blush. ... Like all good Americans, he was convinced that America was the leading nation in the world, and that the Americans were the most civilized and the most honorable people on earth; and naturally he despised Europe....
"Then he had asked me which gods the Americans would have to respect in Europe if they were to be saved.
"`Our hunger, our misery, and our humiliation,' I had replied."
 I have suggested that The Skin might interest my Bouchercon WWII panel friends James Benn and Martin Limón. J. Robert Janes might be interested as well.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Friday, January 03, 2014

How do authors keep history fresh? How about bloggers and old posts?

Damn me, but has it really been three years since this post first appeared? Must be; Blogger doesn't lie. Anyhow, I've been thinking so much about fiction and history recently that I thought I'd bring back this post on that stimulating subject.
 Authors of historical fiction have a problem: Readers know how the story ends, at least the historical part, but the writer still has to keep them reading.

How do they do this?

Here's what John Lawton does in A Little White Death, third of his novels about Frederick Troy. A physician has come to the United States to treat John F. Kennedy for Addison's disease and has met up with a fellow Brit just before returning to England. Here's how the doctor who has just treated Kennedy ends the meeting with his friend:
"`Fine. I understand. Now why don't you hop in a cab. We can have one last drinkie before I dash to Idlewild.'"
That's a powerful little chapter-ender. The speaker of that line carries the weight of the history that the reader already knows about. And he does this without ever ruining the illusion that he exists in a world innocent of that history, which had not yet occurred at the time Lawton portrays. At the very least, that's a neat bit of fun on Lawton's part.

He does something similar in Black Out, the first novel in the series. I won't give that example because it's a bit spoilerish, coming as it does near the end of the book. I will reveal, for those who have not read the novel, that it reinforces the series' status as a social history of mid-twentieth-century England, critical, personal and unsparing.

In other words, you should read the book. Until you do, ponder this question: How do historical novelists get around the annoying fact that the reader knows how the history turns out?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Thursday, January 02, 2014

Comments on and one correction to James Ellroy's American Tabloid

1) The item of jewelry one pins to one's clothing, sometimes as a fastener, is a brooch, no matter how many times American Tabloid spells it broach.

2) I don't like pat critical phrases, but American Tabloid really is compulsively readable. I've tried to get to bed early the past few nights, slipping under the covers by 2 a.m., intending to read a few pages, then get up early and work the next day, but I was still reading at 4 and 5 a.m. Here are a few examples of what makes the novel so much fun:
"Hoffa said ` ... don't make Kennedy sound like Jesus handing God the Ten Commandments on Mount Fucking Vesuvius.' 
"Ryskind said, `Santo was just making a point.' 
"Rosselli said, `It's Mount Ararat, Jimmy. Mount Vesuvius is in fucking Yellowstone Park.'"
— A list of Marilyn Monroe's lovers, as turned up by FBI surveillance, that includes "David Seville of David Seville and the Chipmunks," but not John F. Kennedy.
"Kemper sat down. `You speak excellent English, too.' 
"`I speak the slow and exaggeratedly formal English of the laboriously self-taught. Native speakers tell me that I sometimes lapse into hilarious malapropisms and mutilations of their language.' 
"Stanton pulled a chair up. `Would you mind talking with us now? We've got a nice apartment ready for you, and Mr. Boyd will drive you there in a little while.' 
"Paez bowed. `I am at your disposable.'"
See you soon. I have work to do.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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