Friday, May 30, 2014

Theodore Tinsley's multivalent pulp patter

I was ready to prepare a post on Mike Nicol's tight-as-a-drumhead South African thriller Black Heart when I came upon this bit of patter, action, and narration from "Park Avenue Item" (1932) by Theodore A. Tinsley, a Black Mask writer whom I did not know about until this week, but am glad I know now:
"`If you wanta slip me the dough—I'm his babe.'"

"She was his babe—and he left two days ago—he must have come back and left all over again according to the Swede in the cellar. What the hell were they all lying about?

"Tracy looked keenly at her eyes, the nervous hands, the pale lips with the sagging flesh-lines at their corners.

"He said, coolly: `Nix. This is Johnny's dough. I'll hold it for him. I'm not staking his babe to a trip through Switzerland.'"

"She grinned at that. Her right fingertips jerked suddenly to her left forearm with a slow rotary movement of which she was entirely unconscious."

"She said, sneeringly: `You're a pretty wise jasper, at that. Only I don't sleigh-ride. Morph's my dish, dearie.'"
First I was dizzy with the heady fizz of the slang. Then the pathos hit me, and the harshness, before a return to the hard glitter of the slang, with the final line. I'd call that a nice summation of the pleasures to be derived from pulp writing. Good job, Ted Tinsley.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Detectives Beyond Borders discovers a Black Mask writer

One of the catcher's
masks looked like this.
Good fun in New York yesterday at a party HarperCollins threw for book bloggers in conjunction with BookExpo America (BEA) 2014.

I didn't meet any other bloggers, but I did renew acquaintances with James Hayman, an author who was part of a panel at Bouchercon 2013 that struck me with its commonsense stance on e-books and electronic publishing.  A chat I had with Hayman's editor could eventually lead to posts on editors and book promotion and ways to keep midlist authors from leaping out of high windows. The sliders and little hot dogs and other hors d'oeuvres were just fine, too, and the wine flowed like water.

HarperCollins is a subsidiary of Nosh Corp., and the bash happened at the NoshAmerica Building in Midtown Manhattan, in a room normally occupied by the sports division of Nosh News. The decor was all photos and exhibits, including a display of baseball catcher's masks from the 1880s through the 1950s, including one that looked like the famous helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship burial,  but with a turban on it.

I made a pre-party stop at Mysterious Bookshop, where I bought a fat volume of stories by Theodore A, Tinsley, a Black Mask author new to me, about Jerry Tracy, celebrity reporter, a character also new to me. The book grabbed me from the first line:
"Jerry Tracy opened a ground glass door and stepped into the dingy little Broadway office maintained for him by the Planet, New York's goofiest Tab."
The first few stories have all the wisecracking I've come to expect from detective pulps of the early 1930s, and little or none of the dated prose style I sometimes find obtrusive in such stories. And the story "South Wind" includes a brand of heartstring-tugging tragedy and humanity rare in any crime fiction, much less the kind that features speakeasies, hard-drinking reporters, and hard-boiled dames.

Tinsley wasn't Dashiell Hammett; no one was, and no one ever will be. But my early reading suggests he ought to be at least right up there with Frederick Nebel and Raoul Whitfield.

Finally, I also bought the complete stories of Paul Cain, one Black Masker who might well be up there with Hammett if he'd written more.  I have a good deal of this material elsewhere, but the volume has an illuminating introduction that's especially good in its assessment of Cain's critical reception as compared to Hammett's.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Dash and flash

(Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Photo by
your humble blogkeeper)
One of the few pieces of fiction I've written is a flash-fiction tribute to Dashiell Hammett three years ago. It's still Hammett's birthday on the West Coast, so here's the story again. Happy birthday, Dash.

Down the Shore

by Peter Rozovsky
Sally took the Lavender Room and left the Leather ‘n’ Spice Suite for me. I thanked her for that much; a guy’s got a reputation to keep.

Sally was all right. Sure, she’d cooed over the scented candles and chintz-covered throw pillows. But she drew the line at the teddy bears – five on the parlor settee, seven on a second-floor notions table, and one that scared the hell out of her when it fell on her head from the top of an ivory-inlaid cabinet in the breakfast nook.
That’s why I suspected her when I found a bear with its guts ripped out the next morning. She just looked at me funny as we headed out for an iced coffee before hitting the beach.
Two more teddy bears disappeared that evening, though one turned up under the porch swing soaking in a puddle of spilled mint tea. The glass pitcher that had held the tea lay on its side, next to a knocked-over white rattan table.

Diane shook her head as she mopped up the mess, muttering that some guests lack the simple good manners to come forward when they have an accident. But no one can stay grumpy for long and still run a successful bed and breakfast. “I’m no escapee or anything,” she said, laughing. She slapped the puddle with her mop. “I won’t rip their heads off.”
“Let me do your neck,” Sally said.
I winced as we sat in the Mexican coffee shop reading our newspapers the next morning. “Did you see— Damn!” I threw the paper down and rubbed my left forearm hard. “Itching. We stayed out too long yesterday. Pass the Gold Bond, will you?”

A skinny guy with a faded green baseball cap and a laughing gull tattooed on his left temple stared at the little white clouds as I slapped the powder over my arms.
I recognized the tattoo when I saw it again late that night. Its owner lay face down on the bed and breakfast’s porch, his hands cuffed behind him and a police sergeant kneeling none too gently on his back.

“It was the bears,” the sergeant’s boss said. “This guy’s been a small-time heister for years. He heard a load of heroin was coming down the Shore in one of them teddies, and somehow he got it into his head that this was the town.” He nudged the perp thoughtfully in the ribs with his boot. “It gets pretty shitty for a guy like him in the winters here, and this was his chance to get away. I don’t know what we can charge him with; B&E and cruelty to animals, maybe.” He bent down and hauled the skinny perp up by the arm pits. “Come on, Grizzly Adams. We don’t have much of a downtown, but we’re taking you there.”
If the dope was in Cape Friendly, the skinny guy never found it. Maybe he’d be no worse off than he was before. But maybe whoever had paid for the heroin would make an example of him. Either way, I didn’t envy the skinny guy with the laughing-gull tattoo.

They’d taken him away when Sally came down the stairs. Her mouth made a silent O. “What happened? What is all—” She waved her arm out over the guts of a dozen toy bears.

"It’s nothing, baby, just the stuffing that dreams are made of. Now, let’s go to bed. Your suite or mine?”
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Happy birthday, Hammett

The greatest crime writer of all time, Dashiell Hammett (left), was born 120 years ago today. (Yes, the greatest, notwithstanding the Times of London's bizarre ranking a few years ago, which had Hammett 13th and Ian Rankin ninth, possibly because Rankin, unlike Hammett, had a serving British prime minister ready to write an appreciation to accompany the list.)

Hammett is probably best known for his five novels and for the movies made from two of them:
The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, but I'll celebrate his birthday with a post about one of his short stories. And here all my posts about the real greatest crime writer ever. Click the link, then scroll down.)
"And I praise the dead who have already died, more than the living who are still alive."

Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) 4:2
In these troubled times, when uncertainty walks to and fro in the land and up and down in it (and when outside commitments again cut into my reading and blogging time), I seek consolation in scripture, and I open those books from which everything that followed derives.

Take the beginning of "The Big Knock-Over":
"I found Paddy the Mex in Jean Larrouy's dive.

"Paddy an amiable con man who looked like the King of Spain showed me his big white teeth in a smile, pushed a chair out for me with one foot, and told the girl who shared his table:

"`Nellie, meet the biggest-hearted dick in San Francisco. This little fat guy will do anything for anybody, if only he can send 'em over for life in the end.'"
What does that passage give us? Lean, smart, tough-guy prose, of course, the best that anyone has written in crime fiction, but also deadpan, almost surreal humor: What is someone named Paddy doing with a nickname like "the Mex," and vice versa?  I'd also argue that Hammett's granting Paddy a personality and a prominent role in the scene, and thereby contributing to the illusion of a coherent, believable world and not just a cops-and-robbers story, is a dim, distant forerunner of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's similar accomplishment. Far-fetched? It's not the most outrageous claim ever made on behalf of a foundational text.

Then there's the nickname itself. Strip "The Big Knock-Over" of everything but its monikers, and it's still better than most crime fiction that went before and came after: Itchy Maker. Bluepoint Vance. The Dis-and-Dat Kid. Spider Girrucci. Alphabet Shorty McCoy. Bull McGonickle, "still pale from fifteen years in Joliet." Toby the Lugs, "Bull's running mate."  L.A. Slim, "from Denver, sockless and underwearless as usual, with a thousand-dollar bill sewed in the each shoulder of his  coat." Big Flora. The Motsa Kid.

That's at least as good as all the begats and lists of warriors in those other foundation texts.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012


Monday, May 26, 2014

Mike Nicol on South African crime writing

I've been back on the South African crime fiction bandwagon in recent days, with James McClure, Mike Nicol, and Diale Tlholwe, all of whom who have reminded me how exciting South African crime fiction can be. What better time to bring back 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. As a further update, here's a list of twenty top South African crime novels, from the Crime Beat Web site. 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.

(Since soccer's World Cup begins in a couple of weeks, here's an illustration to bring back memories of South Africa 2010. Anyone remember what that instrument at the upper right is?)

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.

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:, and Exclusive Books.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008, 2012

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Saturday, May 24, 2014

More highlights from Diale Tlholwe's Counting the Coffins

A few more things to know about Diale Tlholwe's novel Counting the Coffins, discussed in this space yesterday:

1) The protagonist, Thabang Maje, and his bosses, Thekiso and Ditoro, work in the Bedlam Building in Johannesburg.

2) An anonymous bar, away from where "the trendy congregate to congratulate themselves with expensive drinks," is on Nugget Street.

3) Maje tells of meeting another character "at one of those debauched parties that were held every day under the pretext of celebrating our new democracy."

4) A variation on the theme:
"`Nothing is certain or permanent in this world, especially in this country.'

“`Even our new democratic system?'

“`Especially that,' Thekiso said firmly and rose to leave."
5) This exchange, which could serve as the novel's thematic statement:
“`What are you then, now?' Tau Ditoro asked just as suddenly as he had appeared at my side.

“`What do you mean?'

“`A true believer or a sceptic?'

“`A true believer.'

“`In what?'

“`In scepticism.'

“`The only true faith!' he bellowed as he bundled me into the car ..."
6) Followed shortly thereafter, however, by:
"`Too much scepticism can be bad for your eyesight.'"
"Yes," you'll be saying to yourself about now, "this book looks worth reading." And you'll be right.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Friday, May 23, 2014

Diale Tlholwe, an exciting new (to me) South African crime novelist

Diale Tlholwe reminds me of his late, great countryman James McClure.  Like McClure, South Africa's greatest crime writer, Tlholwe writes with an amused, detached narrative voice that makes his social observations all the sharper.

McClure wrote during South Africa's apartheid era. Tlholwe sets his books amid the hangover after the euphoria of apartheid's overthrow, thus observations such as the following, from his second novel, Counting the Coffins:
“`Oh, Jacky. He used to be a journalist too. Now he is a spokesperson for some high official.'

“`Which one? The official, I mean.'

“`There’s been so many of them. Jacky is always moving around, advocating one cause today and another the next. He is a typical new South African. Right now, I think it’s small-business enterprise. After the mall mess he was in public works. Anyway, the same people are usually involved in all these things in different ways – public, private and everything in between.'”
or this, in which the protagonist, an investigator named Thabang Maje, indulges in high spirits on the job:
“`Evening, ladies and gents of the majority, as we used to say a million dark years ago just before looting and burning down your houses. I’m . . . I’m Lebogang.' For some reason my mind was back at the blazing season of my school days when we would terrify ineffectual people like these whom we suspected were fence-sitters in the liberation struggle.” 
That's funny and sad and scary at the same time, I'd say, enough by itself to make the novel worth reading.  The book so far also reminds me of the best of Northern Ireland crime fiction, in its invocations of ghosts that remain, however, very much alive.

I still have about half the book left to read, but Counting the Coffins bids fair to be my most exciting crime fiction discovery this year. I'll also look forward to reading Tlholwe's Ancient Rites.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Back to South Africa in James McClure's shorts

Detectives Beyond Borders has long been a fan of James McClure's Kramer and Zondi novels, which pair a white Afrikaner police lieutenant and his Zulu assistant in apartheid-era South Africa, and do not spare the reader the harsh words that swirl around, about, and between the two. (Read all Detectives Beyond Borders' McClure posts; click the link, then scroll down.)

So I was especially excited to hear from the good folks at Crime Beat (South Africa), about God It Was Fun, a collection of McClure's short stories and scripts. These include the screenplay for a film adaptation of his novel The Steam Pig, a production "halted in circumstances that remain a mystery to this day," according to a short, informative biographical introduction by McClure's children.

It has been a while since I've read South African crime fiction, a body of work I've called second only to Ireland's in international crime writing, and it's good to be back.
Want to join me in exploring South African crime fiction? Here's a Crime Beat list of twenty top South African crime novels. I might have chosen different books by Mike Nicol and Roger Smith, but it's an exciting list, including a few authors new to me, one of whose novels I have just bought.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Monday, May 19, 2014

An ordinary not decent movie, or what's the secret to making a criminal a compelling protagonist?

To paraphrase Prince Rogers Nelson, this week I've been been watching violent comic crime movies as if it were 1999.

Here's what's wrong with Ordinary Decent Criminal, originally scheduled for release that year but withheld until 2000:
1) Kevin Spacey's character, Michael Lynch, is far too cuddly to be believable as a criminal.
2) The movie contained no surprise not telegraphed from five miles off.
3) The climactic art heist wants to be seen as madcap and zany, but isn't.
4) The movie is all concept and no story. Crook lives with two women, is a good family man, and likes to taunt the cops. And that's it. One knows from the start that Lynch won't be killed, won't be caught, and will get the girls.
Anything offensive about the movie? Maybe this: It lacks the guts to show Lynch committing any truly despicable acts. Doing so would have forced it to work harder to make him a compelling character.   That the real Dublin gangster on whom Lynch was at least partly based is said to have been a torturer and a bully who shook down hot dog vendors may make the movie a sin against truth as well as against fiction.

So here's a question for you readers: How does a novel, story, or movie make a criminal protagonist compelling without slipping into the opposite extremes of torture porn or excessive cuteness?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Sunday, May 18, 2014

A schmuck in New York

Last night I bought a crime novel called Schmuck.  It's a cozy.

But seriously, folks.  I was a great audience.

The Schmuck writer is Ross Klavan, and he read at New York's Beach Cafe, as did Charles Salzberg, Richie Narvaez, my old Bouchercon panel mate Terrence McCauley, Tim O'Mara, and Suzanne Solomon.

Not only was the pizza free, but the writing was good, and the readings began at 10 p.m., a more sensible hour for crime fiction than all those genteel 7 and 7:30 p.m. starts. I liked the evening's format, too: two authors reading, then a short break before the next two. This allowed socializing, blogging, and unobtrusive bathroom breaks, and organizers of future events would do well to follow the format.
Narvaez is president of the New York chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, which is bringing a daylong crime-writing workshop called MWA University to Philadelphia June 28. Manhattanites are an insular lot, and they get nervous when they have to leave their skinny island. Come on out to the workshop (whose cost is surprisingly low), and make them feel at home.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Saturday, May 17, 2014

The golden age of hyper-violent crime comedy

I watched Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and The Boondock Saints (1999) again this week. (Has it really been that long since the golden age of ultra-violent comic crime movies?)

As much as I hesitate to say anything good about anyone who married Madonna, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (directed by Guy Ritchie) holds up better. The script is intelligently assembled, the story accommodates and makes good narrative use of its own quirkiness, and clever sound engineering makes the movie more than a highly kinetic music video.  I especially like the simple device by which the movie makes the crook protagonists more sympathetic than the competing gangs of crooks who surround and come into conflict with them.

The Boondock Saints? I'll tell you about that one tomorrow. For now, Willem Dafoe steals the movie as a brilliant eccentric, only to turn fritter away some of his gains when the movie suddenly can't figure out what to do with him. First he becomes merely eccentric, and then the script humanizes him, with disappointing results.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Why bookshops are important, or how Detectives Beyond Borders discovered the source of the Nile

I'd never taken any but the most casual interest in ancient Egypt until I came across Alexandre Moret's classic 1926 study The Nile and Egyptian Civilization.  Thanks to Moret, I now know something about the social upheavals that led to the downfall of Egypt's Old Kingdom and about the resulting social and religious differences between the Old and the Middle Kingdoms.

I learned about the political organization of Egypt before the Pharaohs from Moret, and about how Egypt came together as a centralized polity. His book introduced me to the great boasting and the touching laments of the pyramid texts. Perhaps best of all, Moret communicates the excitement that attended Jean-François Champollion's decipherment of the Rosetta Stone.

And it was Farley's Bookshop in New Hope, Pa., that introduced me to Moret. I'd gone in to buy Scott Phillips' new novel, Hop Alley, flipped through Moret's book, found it a readable exciting account of a subject about which much twaddle has been written, bought it, and have found as exciting a discovery as any I'd made in some time.

Try doing that on Amazon.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Poor Boy's Game: Dennis Tafoya reads

(Photo courtesy of Jon McGoran)
That's Dennis Tafoya at the far right, reading from his new novel The Poor Boy's Game, in New Hope, Pa.,  and me just to the left of the author's head, appearing to be ignoring him, but really just acting fast to keep my steak sandwich from leaping off the plate.

I suggested a few years ago that Tafoya, along with authors such as John McFetridge, David Corbett, and Wallace Stroby, might constitute a school of crime writers who "share certain features: yearning emotion, stories at least as wistful as they are tragic, and empathy with characters whatever their orientation on the legal or even moral compass." and here's part of what I wrote when I first ran into The Poor Boy's Game.

Hear Tafoya and Jon McGoran read, this Thursday at 6:30 p.m., at Mysterious Bookshop in New York. Support good authors and independent bookshops.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Scott Phillips is full of creosote and horseshit*

Scott Phillips' novels Cottonwood and the new Hop Alley take farmer/salonkeeper/photographer Bill Ogden through Kansas, Nebraska, and into Denver in the 1870s, and Hop Alley's final chapter suggests that a sojourn in San Francisco is not out of the question:
"And what would you say is the worst part of [California], Mister? South or north?"

"I'll tell you, I've never encountered a worse or baser bunch than those in San Francisco. Debauchery and vice, and all in the name of mammon. It was gold that cursed that town, sir, and the more gold they brought up from the ground, the more Satan smiled."

"I nodded and thanked him ... and as I boarded the train I found the idea growing in me:
William Sadlaw, Photographic Gallery, San Francisco, Cal., Sittings by Appointment Only."
That's where Kevin Starr comes in. Phillips writes fiction so rich and detailed that it could be history; Starr writes histories of California so vivid that they could be fiction, and he singles out San Francisco for its blend of frontier lawlessness and the hastily imported cosmopolitan sophistication of an Atlantic trading port. It's the perfect destination for Ogden (who here calls himself Bill Sadlaw, in an effort to escape the law's attention).

Phillips' version of the American West is richer, bawdier, and funnier than most, but there's no hint of the self-congratulatory alternative about it. Phillips simply has a breathtaking sense of the possibilities open to a young man on the run, plunked down amid wide-open spaces and credulous populations. There's even a whodunit at the heart of Hop Alley: Ogden/Sadlaw knows the real killer of a pressman for the local newspaper (It wasn't the Chinese residents of Hop Alley, attacked by angry mobs.) He saves an innocent victim from lynching, but he moves on rather than going to the law and trying to set things right. Hop Alley is no conventional crime novel, after all, but if you're looking for a richly detailed picaresque crime Western of America, you won't go wrong with Scott Phillips.

(The Ogden name will be familiar to readers of Phillips' novels set in more recent times. Wayne Ogden is the protagonist of The Adjustment, a spiritual as well as a familial descendant of Bill Ogden.)
* "With the eastern range of the Rocky Mountains in the near distance and the smell of creosote and horseshit mingling in my nostrils I sat on the flat rooftop, exposing prints and idly contemplating the great rectangles of glass that comprised the skylights of my studio."
Hop Alley, page 33
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Friday, May 09, 2014

Grave Descend: Suspense at its most efficient

Grave Descend reads as if it were written in urgent, economical haste, the sort of thing a post-doctoral fellow in medicine might squeeze in among lab sessions and clinical rounds. And that’s a good thing.

Michael Crichton was, indeed, studying medicine when he wrote the novel around 1970 under the name John Lange, and he was so loath to waste words and time that he cut straight to the cliffhangers and surprising set-ups. Descriptions are brief. Placed in pain and peril, the protagonist, a salvage diver named McGregor, simply and efficiently works his way out of them without narrative hyperventilation about what will happen if he fails. Nothing about extra-terrestrial micro-organisms or dinosaur DNA here.

 The plot is simple and its narrative engine simpler: McGregor, who lives and works in Jamaica, is hired to retrieve something from a sunken boat, and nothing is what it seems. Crichton followed the plan strictly, and every deviation from the expected is one more cliff-hanger, one more suspense-builder, one more reason to make the reader keep turning the pages. And then, when Crichton decided it was time to end the story, he threw in a coda that, if arbitrary, is plausible and even a bit shiver-inducing.  Grave Descend is an entertaining way to pass a couple of hours, and its stripped-down mechanics probably make it a worthwhile textbook for writing suspense.

 Grave Descend is one of two early Crichton novels Hard Case published some years ago under the John Lange name. It has now reissued all eight Lange books under the author’s real name, credited to “Michael Crichton writing as John Lange.” Read a sample of Grave Descend on the Hard Case Web site, where you will also find samples of all the publisher's books.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Johnny Shaw is a hardass with a tender heart

Johnny Shaw is a Scott Phillips of the American Southwest, like Phillips setting his novels in bleak, flat landscapes, and populating them with dangerous, violent characters who, call them bad or call them immoral, are almost always endearingly human. Oh, and, like Phillips', his books will always make a reader laugh out loud while only rarely descending into jokiness.

What redeems Shaw's characters? Their cleverness, even when they seem stupid at first. Their self-knowledge, and the zest with which they screw up. The funny things they say without seeming to pat themselves on the back for being funny.

Here's a favorite example, all the more endearing because it occurs at what could be an awkward moment of truth between two characters, without undercutting the seriousness:
"`Look,' Buck Buck said, `I know you're used to sidekicking for Bobby and not me. And I'm used to Snout being my sidekick. But I'm sure we can work it out. Batman usually's got Robin, but I'm sure he teamed up with Aqualad or Speedy and they still beat the bad guy.'

"`Am I Aqualad in that scenario? I don't sidekick for Bobby,' I said. `I can't believe people can't see this. He's my sidekick. Which means you're Aqualad, I'm Batman.'

"`I'm really more of a leading man.'

"`Okay, how 'bout this? You're still Batman. I'll be Superman. They teamed up all the time. Snout and Bobby are the sidekicks.'

"`I can work with that. But I want to be Green Arrow instead.'"
You'd never guess the two are about to infiltrate a colony of dangerous bikers. Other things to like about Plaster City:
  • Like The Simpsons, it stands four-square for family values, a beautiful thing, despite the shameful appropriation of the term by political opportunists..
  • It condemns the exploitation of young women without, however, reducing the characters in question to titillating victimhood.
  • Like Shaw's novel Dove Season, it uses the word fiasco in the title, and I'm for anything that has fiasco in it.
(Read Detectives Beyond Borders' posts about Johny Shaw's Big Maria.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2014  

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Monday, May 05, 2014

Reed Farrel Coleman's reconciliation street, or, the ways authors end a series

Reed Farrel Coleman's The Hollow Girl is full of characters who turn out not quite as awful as the reader has been led to expect, and its protagonist, Moe Prager, achieves, if not redemption, then reconciliation with his past.

Fair enough; the novel comes billed as the last of the nine Prager books, and a number of its features, not least the novel's ending, point in that direction. I'll spoil little if I reveal that Prager spends good chunks of the book coming to terms with, and getting himself clear of, aspects of his old life.

That's how Coleman decided to end a series. How do other writers do it? How have your favorite crime writers brought series to an end?
The Hollow Girl looks to Moe Prager's past with its plentiful references to Prager's previous cases. It reminded me in this respect of Richard Stark's Butcher's Moon, which brought back a number of character's from Stark previous Parker novels and looked for a while as if it were going to kill off one of the main supporting characters. Indeed, Butcher's Moon was the last Parker novel for 23 years.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014  

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Saturday, May 03, 2014

Mystery training with the MWA in Philly

Not much has happened in Philadelphia since Thomas Jefferson left town, but that will change on Saturday, June 28, when the Mystery Writers of America come to town with MWA University—Philadelphia, a full-day writing workshop with the experts for just about anybody.

Teacher/leaders include Hallie Ephron, Reed Farrel Coleman, Edgar winner Daniel Stashower, and more, and topics include everything from turning an idea into a story to the business of writing. The cost is low, just $50 for MWA members, $75 for non-members, with $25 deducted from the membership fee for those who join within 30 days of the event, and the price includes lunch.

This one looks so good that I might even sign up myself.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014  

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Friday, May 02, 2014

Detectives Beyond Borders is the luck of the Irish

Want to win an award (says John Connolly)? Then talk terrorism with me. Before this evening's 69th Annual Edgar Awards Dinner, I grilled Connolly about Gerry Adams' arrest. I had Northern Ireland in mind; Connolly talked a bit about the IRA (and its offshoots) in Ireland south of the border and north.

An hour and a half later, Connolly was called to the podium to accept the Edgar for best short story. (Read a complete list of the winners.)

My fellow diners included Bill Alder, up for an Edgar for his book Maigret, Simenon and France: Social Dimensions of the Novels and Stories. I learned as much from him about Simenon's early career as I did from Connolly about the afterlife of the Troubles in the Irish Republic, and that's not even counting some juicy tidbits about World War II and France.  This most stimulating of Edgar dinners may keep me posting for weeks.

Oh, and the food was good, too. Thanks, MWA.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014 

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Thursday, May 01, 2014

Thursday Night at the Edgars

By the time you read this, I should be on my way to New York for Thursday's Edgar Awards.

Nominees for best novel are:

Sandrine's Case by Thomas H. Cook (Grove Atlantic – The Mysterious Press)
The Humans by Matt Haig (Simon & Schuster)
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger (Simon & Schuster – Atria Books)
How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny (Minotaur Books)
Standing in Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin (Hachette Book Group – Reagan Arthur Books)
Until She Comes Home by Lori Roy (Penguin Group USA – Dutton Books)

For best first novel, it's:

The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn (W.W. Norton)
Ghostman by Roger Hobbs (Alfred A. Knopf)
Rage Against the Dying by Becky Masterman (Minotaur Books)
Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews (Simon & Schuster - Scribner)
Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight (HarperCollins Publishers)

And for best paperback original:

The Guilty One by Lisa Ballantyne (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow Paperbacks)
Almost Criminal by E. R. Brown (Dundurn)
Joe Victim by Paul Cleave (Simon & Schuster – Atria Books)
Joyland by Stephen King (Hard Case Crime)
The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood (Penguin Group USA - Penguin Books)
Brilliance by Marcus Sakey (Amazon Publishing – Thomas and Mercer)
Nominees from beyond U.S. borders include Haig, Penny, Rankin, Cleave, Brown, Marwood, Ballantyne, and John Connolly (for best short story).

Robert Crais and Carolyn Hart will be named Grand Masters by the Mystery Writers of America, and Aunt Agatha's Bookstore, in Ann Arbor, Mich., gets the Raven award.. Read the complete list of nominees here, and I'll be back later, God and this crap computer willing.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014 

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