Saturday, April 25, 2015

Satyajit Ray, crime writer

You may know Satyajit Ray as India's most famous movie director, but he was also a crime writer, composing a series of wildly popular novels and stories about a sleuth named Feluda. The stories, which appeared from the mid-1960s on, combined wit, liberal sprinklings of Holmes and Poirot, and a sharp eye for contemporary social problems.  I suspect one could do worse than reading these stories as an introduction to modern India. Or at least I think so based on the novella A Killer in Kailash, which first appeared in 1973

First, the story's form. Ray read and admired Sherlock Holmes, and A Killer in Kailash is full of delightful nods to Holmes and to Hercule Poirot. Feluda's cousin Tapesh narrates the stories in an amused, sometimes bemused, manner, like a Bengali Watson. Feluda, surprised by Tapesh's  failure to grasp a clue's significance, tells him that "Even the few grey cells you had seem to be disappearing, my boy. Stop worrying and go to sleep."

(Photo by your humble blogkeeper)
So Ray was a Christie-loving, Doyle-worshiping Anglophile, right?  Not so fast.  A Killer in Kailash is about the despoiling of India's cultural heritage for gain, specifically the theft of a yakshi's head for sale to an American collector. (This made rub my chin thoughtfully, for only weeks before I had ogled and taken pictures of a gorgeous example—in an American collection, above/right.)

So Ray was a Hindu nationalist, right?  Not so fast. At various times in the story, Feluda admits he can't speak Hindi, and Tapesh overhears two men arguing, but "They were probably speaking in Marathi, for I couldn't understand a word."  When Feluda and company board a plane for Bombay, Tapesh notes that none of them had visited that city before. Without anything like didactic intent, the story is a refreshing reminder of the glorious d-------y of Indian society.

A Killer in Kailash offers amused references to Hare Krishnas,  and, quite naturally, a vocabulary lesson or two. Chowkidar (from the Urdu language) is a fine word for night watchman. I'd always liked cheroot, but I never knew until looking it up that the word derives from Tamil, yet another language spoken in India (also in Sri Lanka).  How can a simple detective novella be so thought-provoking, so educational, and so much fun?

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Charles Williams' Man on the Run: Unpacking a lesser book by a great paperback-original crime writer

Man on the Run (1958) is the weakest of the nine novels I've read recently by that excellent writer of paperback originals, Charles Williams, but those weaknesses stimulated some thought about what we mean by weak writing, what makes some books worse than others, and possible explanations for why those books fall short.

First of all, Man on the Run is a pretty good book; it just suffers by comparison with Williams' Nothing in Her Way (1953), A Touch of Death (1954), or his classic comedy Uncle Sagamore and His Girls (1959). I'd give those books five stars each, and maybe three to Man on the Run, with The Hot Spot (1953),  Aground, (1961), The Concrete Flamingo (1958), The Big Bite (1956), and The Diamond Bikini (1956) somewhere in between.

So, what makes Man on the Run weaker than the rest? For one thing, an occasional tendency to talkiness. For another, repetition of mildly odd phrases, including "intensely silent" and "sobbing for breath."  That this repetition occurs with greater frequency toward the end of the book suggests to me that Williams may not have had his heart in it.

I noticed this especially because Williams' work (and also Peter Rabe's) had previously stood out for me precisely because it avoided such repetition. That's part of why I considered Williams a more polished writer, if not necessarily a better one, than Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer, and Day Keene.

The plot of Man on the Run also stands out. Williams was at his best writing about duped, infatuated, deluded men, but this book, as one might guess from its title, is instead about a fugitive. It was also published in 1958, and that's where things get interesting: 1958 was also the year of 77 Sunset Strip, a republication of three novellas by Roy Huggins, one of which I would bet the take of my next heist was the germ of the idea that Huggins later turned into The Fugitive. Men on the run were in the air in 1958.

My tentative conclusion: Whether urged by a publisher or agent, or whether on his own initiative, Williams wrote Man on the Run to satisfy a perceived market demand for fugitive stories and, in so doing, painted himself into a corner where he was less accomplished and less comfortable (hence the repetition).

To be sure, the suspense is well written, and Man on the Run contains elements of Williams' more customary infatuated-man tales. It also has one of the odder endings in noir fiction and, if that end seems a bit contrived, Williams had laid careful groundwork for it throughout the book. Even here, he remained an admirable plotter.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

It's almost time for the Edgars

It's almost time for the Edgar Awards, presented by the Mystery Writers of America and recognizing the best in crime fiction published in the U.S., and the 2015 awards dinner ought to be especially entertaining: James Ellroy is one of this year's two MWA Grand Masters.

I'll also be pleased to see Charles Ardai receive his Ellery Queen Award. Ardai is an entrepreneur, a publisher, an editor, and an award-winning author who changed the look of American crime fiction when he founded Hard Case Crime with Max Phillips. He's thoughtful, he's intelligent, and he's a nice guy to boot.

I'll get to see Jon and Ruth Jordan accept the Raven Award for outstanding contributions to crime fiction in an area other than creative writing, and, as I wrote when they won an Anthony Award at Bouchercon in 2009, "I feel quite sure that no one has deserved an award more."

Jon and Ruth publish Crimespree Magazine, and they organize Bouchercons. They are friends to authors everywhere, inspirations to all who know them, and they live in the world's coolest house: over the family machine shop, housing more books than the Library of Congress, with fresh sausage on the stove 24 hours a day, a bathtub filled with beer, and nooks and crannies even they probably have never seen.

The awards dinner happens Wednesday, April 29, at the Grand Hyatt in New York, and it's just part of a slew of events this week and next; here's a page with links to everything that's happening. Here's a bit about the Jordans, Ellroy, and their fellow special-award winners.  And here's a complete list of nominees, including Stuart Neville, whose Final Silence is up for the best-novel Edgar.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Off the Cuff in Canada, with Canadians

Over at Dietrich Kalteis' Off the Cuff, talented crime writers, organizers, and editors from Canada talk about crime writing in that country, their discussion illustrated by a Canadian who lives in this country.

The participants are Jacques Filippi, Sam Wiebe, and John McFetridge, and the illustrator (photographer, really) is your humble blogkeeper, with the noirish shot reproduced above right

Talk turns to Canadian identity in crime fiction, and both Jacques and John (the latter of whose gifts include a flair for naming minor characters) suggest that Canadian crime writers can best get themselves noticed by writing novels that could be set nowhere but Canada. 

But Canada's immensely long border with the United States, and the cultural ties between the two countries, are part of Canada's uniqueness. That may be why a fair amount of Canadian crime fiction, including John's, Dietrich's, and Howard Shrier's, straddles the border and embraces the geographically equivocal position. That, I think, is part of that makes their writing special.

Elsewhere in the discussion, Jacques muses on clichés, and I hope he won't mind if I quote him at length:
"Clichés are usually bad, but hockey, poutine, maple syrup, the Québécois swear words and bad driving; our politeness; our bilingualism (when in fact we are bilinguals in only 2 provinces and part of a third one out of 10), etcetera, are all aspects of who we are. If some of these Canadian attributes end up in your story, should you edit them out to avoid clichés? I don’t think so if it’s not just decorative to your story. I don’t think Louise Penny would have the same success if Three Pines was a village in North Dakota, Wyoming, or any other states for that matter. Penny inserts some of the Québécois clichés in her novels, but they are clichés only to those who know about the Québécois way of life in small villages. To Penny’s readers, the so-called clichés are Québécois and Canadian ‘flavours’."
Finally, as I wrote in a comment to their post, Canada is by reputation polite, progressive, and civilized, and its crime writing has not had the international impact deserves. Sweden, on the other hand, is by reputation, polite, progressive, and civilized, and we all know what its crime writers have done.  Why is this?

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

The mystery of Sherlock Holmes

This Arthur Conan Doyle guy has a future in crime writing. Sherlock Holmes' deductive powers are, of course, tosh, and it is to laugh to think that they may in the past have been mistaken for a model of scientific reasoning. But his dark side, and the atmosphere with Doyle endowed certain scenes, make him a plausible forerunner of noir.

I may know less about Holmes and his creator than anyone else alive, but it seems to me significant that Doyle was interested throughout his life in mystical subjects, because that's where Holmes, the unparalleled observer, belongs.  In today's terms, his props should be mask, cape, and colored tights, or maybe long beard and magic wand, rather than deerstalker and pipe.

But if Holmes was half machine ("He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen," Watson tells us in "A Scandal in Bohemia."), he was angst-ridden enough to serve as a precursor of noir fiction, and it's no shock that Hard Case Crime has reprinted a Doyle novel.

"To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. " "He had risen out of his drug-created dreams ... " "Holmes ... remained in our lodgings in Baker Street, buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature."  Each of these is from the opening paragraphs of "A Scandal in Bohemia," first story in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and each suggests Gothic horror more than it does rational crime solving.  Maybe the stories are really about their era's nervousness about the progress of science and what this might do the emotional side of humanity.

Like I said, I know little about Holmes and his creator, but the gulf between the place the Holmes stories occupy in the public imagination on the one hand, and what is most interesting about the stories today on the other is ... a mystery.  

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

(Mostly) Humans of Fifth Avenue (Main entrance at 82nd Street), New York

Here are a few more of the non-crime faces I shot in New York on Sunday. From the Metropolitan Museum to Noir at the Bar New York is not a bad way to spend a day.

For reference, here's is that other group I shot.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Monday, April 13, 2015

Noir at the Bar New York in words and pictures

Noir at the Bar has covered the globe like a fast-growing but benign fungus since I staged the first ones in Philadelphia back in 2008. Sunday night I had good fun at Noir at the Bar New York.

Suzanne Solomon
Joe Samuel Starnes
The venue was Shade in the West Village, the MC was Thomas Pluck, the food, the beer, and the company were good, and the readings were damn good. As a bonus, Henry Chang, that most amiable author of hard-hitting crime novels set in Chinatown, showed up even though he wasn't on the bill;  those New York crime writers have a cozy little community on their cozy little island.  Here's part of what happened (all photos by your humble blogkeeper):

Alex Segura, Todd Robinson
(One of these pictures does not depict a crime writer. Rather, it's a face I saw earlier in the day, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,  but I thought it fit the evening's noir theme. It looks like a small-time hood who is beginning to worry his plan to rip off the boss and flee with the boss' woman may not go as well as he planned.)
Gerald So and his reflection. I call
this photo So and So.

Thomas Pluck, Jeff Soloway
Clare Gilliland Toohey. I wonder if she
likes this collection of stories
by Gil Brewer.
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Friday, April 10, 2015

More shots in the dark, and a round-up of the usual crime suspects at Off the Cuff

(All photos by your humble blogkeeper)
Over at Off the Cuff, Dietrich Kalteis and Martin J. Frankson talk about crime fiction influences. They get to the usual suspects (Chandler, Hammett, and so on), but not before the discussion takes an interesting detour or two. Their exhange takes up a question I asked a while back in a post called "End of story, or what ever happened to plot?"  Read theirs, read mine, and discuss.

Dietrich again illustrates the post with one of my noir photographs (above/right), this one from especially close to home. And here's another recent shot of mine, not noir, but weird all the same, I think:

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Thursday, April 09, 2015

Crimefest memories: Mike Hodges on how to make a classic movie for £7,000

Ted Lewis' great crime novel Get Carter (along with the rest of Lewis' work) is or soon will be back in print and easily available, thanks to those good people at Syndicate Books/Soho Press.  Five years ago, at Crimefest 2010 in Bristol, England, I had the chance to meet Mike Hodges, who directed the excellent and influential movie version of Get Carter. (This is one in an occasional series of blog posts about Crimefests past and present leading up to Crimefest 2015, which takes place May 14-17.)
Seven thousand pounds. That's how much money Mike Hodges made for writing and directing Get Carter, the classic 1971 hit-man movie starring Michael Caine, and not a penny more.

Hodges made that surprising statement during Friday's pre-screening conversation with Maxim Jakubowski at Bristol's Arnolfini cultural center. He also said the many humorous touches in the otherwise bleak tale encouraged him in the making of his 1972 follow-up, Pulp: "I really thought I would like to hear laughter."

Hodges said after a panel discussion today that yes, there had been pressure from producers and other heavies to have Michael Caine's title character walk away at the end of Get Carter. But Hodges resisted, and Carter gets— but you'll have to watch the movie to see what happens.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Why you should be at Crimefest 2015

I always enjoy Crimefest in Bristol, England, not least for its stellar lineup of guest authors.  P.D. James appeared there. So have Bill James, Peter James, and Dan James. 

Maj Sjöwall
I met that affable superstar of Scottish crime writing, William McIlvanney, at Crimefest, and I heard Declan Hughes sing country and western to a fellow author at the hotel bar. (As a singer, Hughes is a damn good author and playwright.) It was Frederick Forsyth's entertaining and informative presentation at Crimefest 2012 that finally got me to read his classic Day of the Jackal.

Your humble blogkeeper
with the great Bill James,
author of the Harpur & Iles
novels, at Crimefest 2010
But this year's special guest is as special as any guest at any crime festival anywhere. Maj Sjöwall wrote the classic Martin Beck series of crime novels with Per Wahlöö, and she'll be at Crimfest 2015 to be interviewed by Lee Child and to present the Petrona Award for best Scandinavian crime novel.

Your humble blogkeeper (right) explains things
to William McIlvanney at Crimefest 2013
Sjöwall and Wahlöö blazed a number of crime fiction trails (or at least were there at the very start), among them those of social criticism, a multiplayer cast of detectives, and elevation of the investigator's personal life to importance comparable with that of the mysteries he or she investigates. Their ten Beck novels, from 1965's Roseanna to The Terrorists in 1975, were among the first to examine a society critically as well as tell a crime story, and authors to this day cite them as influences.  

The best photo ever of Ali Karim
(right), with Peter Guttridge at
Crimefest 2013. Photo by
your humble blogkeeper.
So this is big, a chance to hear and meet one of crime fiction's modern greats, and I'll be there, May 14-17 in Bristol. (The award  Maj Sjöwall will present is named for the blog maintained by the late Maxine Clarke, a longtime reviewer and supporter of crime fiction. She posted the first ever comment here at Detectives Beyond Borders, back in September 2006.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Tuesday, April 07, 2015

The hunted man in American crime writing, plus some questions for readers

Saturday's post about Gil Brewer's novel The Three-Way Split prompted some thoughts about the hunted-man motif in American crime writing of the 1950s.

The Fugitive was on television from 1963 through 1967, for example, but the idea belongs to the previous decade. The series' creator, Roy Huggins, had written a virtual prototype for The Fugitive as one of three novellas published in 1958 under the title 77 Sunset Strip.

In the 1950s, Gil Brewer wrote novels about men trapped and on the run. So did Charles Williams, Day Keene, and Harry Whittington, and those are just the authors I've been reading recently.

Here are the names of magazines where the stories collected in Brewer's Redheads Die Quickly first appeared: Manhunt.The Pursuit Detective Story Magazine. Hunted Detective Story Magazine. Accused Detective Story Magazine. Trapped Detective Story Magazine.

I had previously heard of none except the celebrated Manhunt, and I have no idea if they were issued by one publisher or several, or of who started the craze. But something about the hunted man captured the fancy of the American public in a big-way for a few years there. Why? If you're up on your crime-fiction and American cultural history, who started the rage for such stories, and who were its leading publishers?

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Saturday, April 04, 2015

Noir, while you stand on one foot

I've found the quintessential noir sentence. It's from Gil Brewer's 1960 novel, The Three-Way Split, and it goes like this:
"For the first time, I felt a sense of real fear."
The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Monday, March 30, 2015

The partition of Ireland, ca. 999,997,987 BC

I have just begun reading The Origins of the Irish, which uses archaeology, geology, and linguistics to trace the beginnings of the people who would one day give the world Luke Kelly and Ronnie Drew.

The author (J.P. Mallory) and publisher (Thames & Hudson) begin their narrative in the deepest geological past, but the editing displays a delightful awareness of recent politics and history. The sub-section on the billion-year-old split of the earth's then single land mass is headed "Partition," for instance.

The next subsection, about the coming together of the two land masses that now form roughly the island's northwestern and southeastern halves is headed "The unification of Ireland."

No other headings that I can find display similar cheek, though I suspect that some observers of the Ireland of recent decades could have fun with "Age of dinosaurs."

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Saturday, March 28, 2015

What do comics do better than, er, non-comics?

I read a few comics last week, which got me thinking about how comics tell stories. Here's an old post that asks a similar question.
I recently read a crime novel whose one distracting quirk was an occasional paragraph of dialogue or exposition that read like an editorial comment or an information dump.

I've also been reading Greg Rucka's Queen & Country, a comic set in the contemporary world of British intelligence, and it occurred to me that comics can sometimes convey information more efficiently than non-graphic books — verbal information, I mean.

Say an author decides the contents of a report about complex, high-level, multinational drug, arms and financial transactions are essential to his or her story. How is the author to convey that information without dragging the story to halt?

Queen & Country's characters spend good chunks of their time at their desks discussing intelligence and other data, but the discussion is never boring. One reason is that we can see their reactions.

A spy chief might slap a report on his desk in disgust or grit his teeth as a superior shoots down his plans. It's a lot easier on a reader to see a skilled graphic rendering of such reactions than it is to read: "He slapped the report on his desk in disgust, grinding his teeth as his superior shot down his plans."
What else can comics do better or more efficiently than traditional novels and stories? What can traditional stories do better? Have you ever read a scene in one medium that you thought would work better in another?

Rucka himself provides an opportunity to test these questions. He has written several novels based on the graphic-novel series. Read excerpts here and here.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Black Hood, or how comics tell stories

(Clockwise from upper
left: Black Hood #1,
Black Hood #1, Black
Hood #1, and Black
Hood #1)
I almost never buy individual issues of comics because I don't like working myself into a state of excitement over something that will take me five minutes to read, then having to wait a month before I can resume the story. That's why I prefer trade paperbacks that compile five or six or eight issues. (Most recently I bought and read the two books that collect the 11 final issues of Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera's awesomely good Scalped.)

Philadelphia's own Duane Swierczynski and his artist collaborator Michael Gaydos compensate for the small number of pages in a typical comic by packing a whole lot of beautifully spare storytelling into those pages. The climax of the opening scene in their new Black Hood series, for example, is one panel, one color, and 19 words: "And as the dark came down over my head, I couldn't help but wonder: Would anyone give a shit?"

That's a lot of storytelling, mood-setting, and existential-doubt establishing for one little panel about two inches high and three inches wide, and Gaydos and the colorist didn't have to vary their palette much; the panel's all black, except for the two little white rectangles where the character's thoughts appear.

As often with good comics, I like the way the two media — words and pictures — play off one another, sometimes together, sometimes one (usually the picture) offering ironic commentary on the other. The Black Hood is something like a masked-avenger tale, the story of a guy, here a wounded police officer, who dons a mask and assumes a new identity before going out into the world to attack criminals, but the first glimpse of the protagonist in his hood is anything but heroic.

And Swierczynski is a hell of a technician and craftsman if he can get the hero to refer to "the 15-year-old inside my head" without even coming close to breaking the dark mood.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Talaash, India, and language(s)

The 2012 Indian suspense/noir/police movie Talaash includes too much supernatural wiffle and at least one crappy pop song. I’d have known the song was crappy even without the English subtitles – soaring bathos comes across just as well in Hindi as it does in English.

English also comes across in Hindi, the actors' lines sprinkled with please and thank you and investigation and case and Shut up! Just shut up! in a way that makes me not chauvinistic about the primacy of my language, but tickled by the flexibility of theirs.The mix of languages is beguiling. I love it as much as I love those multilingual, multigenerational conversations I hear in which the elders speak Chinese or Spanish, and their interlocutors answer in English, and everyone speaks in calm and perfect mutual comprehension.

I'm not sure what India's ruling Hindu nationalists think about such matters, but I like the headlines that accompanied an essay by the author Vikram Chandra some years ago: "The Cult of Authenticity: India’s cultural commissars worship `Indianness' instead of art." (Read about Chandra in these Detectives Beyond Borders posts about language and India.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Gun Street Girl is out in the U.S., or Adrian McKinty and the fourth Sean Duffy novel: Are you series?

Since Gun Street Girl is recently out in the United States, here are some comments I posted a few months back.
 Adrian McKinty has expressed skepticism of series fiction, but he does a fine job writing it.  Gun Street Girl, fourth in his Troubles no-longer-a-Trilogy (following The Cold Cold Ground, I Hear the Sirens in the Street, and In the Morning I'll Be Gone), shows McKinty laying the groundwork for further books, whether consciously or not.

The novel lays down plots and subplots ripe for development in future books, and it continues at least one subplot (or is it a leitmotif?) from the previous novels. (This book is set against the background of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, and includes thinly disguised versions of other historical events of the time, including one that will be of especial interest to Americans.) Moreover, it proposes a vision of Northern Ireland's post-Troubles history as a long-range game, so a long-range series could well carry Detective Inspector Sean Duffy along with that history, reacting to it and commenting, sometimes acerbically, on his place in it.  In Gun Street Girl, that commentary includes McKinty's customary good jokes and one of the funniest Beatles references you'll read anywhere.

Most important, perhaps, for its long term-prospects, the trilogy series has, in Duffy, an engaging protagonist/narrator with personal and professional triumphs and defeats that never, however, get in the way of the story. So sorry. Adrian. You may be in this for the long haul.

(Hear and see McKinty talk about Gun Street Girl and its sources at

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Concrete Flamingo, a.k.a. All the Way, by Charles Williams

Nothing in Her Way remains the best of the five Charles Williams novels I've read in recent weeks, but each of the other four has impressed me. A Touch of Death, especially, is almost as good as Nothing ... . The Diamond Bikini wins points because it's not just a comedy, but one that manages not to condescend to its rural setting.

The Concrete Flamingo (1958), also published as All the Way, is not rural, and it's no comedy. But, like The Diamond Bikini, it demonstrates the author's versatility and sheer professionalism.

In bare outline, The Concrete Flamingo sounds like many mid-century paperback original novels: Down-on-his-luck but handsome man falls for woman who involves him in a plan to kill, steal, or both, and violent or tragic complications ensue.

The intricate plot works itself out nicely and with high suspense. No surprise there; Williams has to have been one of the better plotters who has ever written crime fiction. What impressed me most, though, was the plot's unexpected resolution. To avoid spoilers, I'll say no more. But I admire Williams for taking the chance that he did.
The Concrete Flamingo does, indeed, include a concrete flamingo, but All the Way is a more suitable title. I don't know why or when the title was changed, but it's hard not to suspect the publisher of trying to capitalize on Ross Macdonald's popularity. The Concrete Flamingo sounds as if it should be a Macdonald title. (The cover of the edition included here is unusually faithful to the novel's plot, though I don't recall that any of the book's cars were green. )

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Lionel White and definitely established mathematical odds

The occasional lapses in prose style in paperback original novels get me thinking about the conditions under which their authors wrote. I remind myself that the verbal lapses may be due to those conditions rather than to lack of talent. But here's the opening of Lionel White's 1955 novel The Clean Break, which Stanley Kubrick filmed as The Killing (the novel, not just its opening):
"The aggressive determination on his long, bony face was in sharp contrast to the short, small-boned body which he used as a wedge to shoulder his way slowly through the hurrying crowd of stragglers rushing through the wide doors to the grandstand.

"Marvin Unger was only vaguely aware of the emotionally pitched voice coming over the public address system. He was very alert to everything taking place around him, but he didn’t need to hear that voice to know what was happening. The sudden roar of the thousands out there in the hot, yellow, afternoon sunlight made it quite clear. They were off in the fourth race.

"Unconsciously his right hand tightened around the thick packet of tickets he had buried in the side pocket of his linen jacket. The tension was purely automatic. Of the hundred thousand and more persons at the track that afternoon, he alone felt no thrill as the twelve thoroughbreds left the post for the big race of the day.

"Turning into the abruptly deserted lobby of the clubhouse, his tight mouth relaxed in a wry smile. He would, in any case, cash a winning ticket. He had a ten dollar win bet on every horse in the race.

"In the course of his thirty-seven years, Unger had been at a track less than half a dozen times. He was totally disinterested in horse racing; in fact, had never gambled at all. He had a neat, orderly mind, a very clear sense of logic and an inbred aversion to all `sporting events.' He considered gambling not only stupid, but strictly a losing proposition. Fifteen years as a court stenographer had given him frequent opportunity to see what usually happened when men place their faith in luck in opposition to definitely established mathematical odds."
I'll give White "aggressive determination," though I think the phrase weak, bordering on repetitive. But every other word or string of words I highlighted crosses that border or is at best unnecessary and at worst grammatically ludicrous.  "Emotionally pitched"? What does that mean? Did the announcer sound as if he were about to break into tears? Why "everything taking place around him" rather than just "everything around him"? Why slow a sentence down by beginning it with an adverb ("unconsciously"), especially when White repeats himself in the next sentence, telling us the tension was "purely automatic"? And why "purely automatic" rather than "automatic"?

"Turning into the abruptly deserted lobby of the clubhouse, his tight mouth relaxed" is not only a dangling participle, it's wordy. Why tell us that the stragglers were rushing if you've just told us they're hurrying? And "the course of," "very," "in fact," and "at all" are throat-clearing. White should have cut each in his second draft or his editor on a first pass. As to "definitely established mathematical odds," all odds are mathematical, and "definitely established" is doubly redundant, each word with respect to the other, and the two when set against "mathematical."

OK, these guys churned it out, and their work probably did not get the care most novels got at hardback houses or that one associates with novels today, when authors will turn out maybe a book a year rather than a book a month. If  he'd had more time, Harry Whittington might occasionally have substituted another word for sickness in A Night for Screaming. Charles Williams might have found other ways to say "thoughtfully" in All The Way (also known as The Concrete Flamingo).  But those guys saved the repetition for later in their books, and it's easy to imagine them so caught up in the stories they were telling that verbal polish fell by the wayside. They didn't bog things down on the very first page, never a good idea, particularly not in thrillers or suspense novels.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Gil Brewer: Squalid, but funny

Some things that surprised me about Gil Brewer's 1961 novel A Taste of Sin:
1) The protagonist drinks too much, but his drinks are absinthe and Pernod. 
2) The morbid (and mordant) humor, as in the ending of the first chapter: 
"In my mind there was the sound of broken glass."  
and its segue into the beginning of the second: 
"I got in the Volks and sat there. 
"Well, a sane woman could be a bore." 
3) The virtuosic sarcasm of some of the best of that humor, as this observation about the cop who questions the protagonist: 
"He was very bright. He sighed brightly."
 4) That no one could write squalid, desperate sex like Gil Brewer could. Lots of books of the time tried, and their scenes often read like something out of a sex version of Reefer Madness. Not Brewer's
© Peter Rozovsky 2015 

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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Shot in Philadelphia (and Long Beach)

And then there's this shot, with which Dietrich Kalteis illustrates his current discussion withSam Weibe and John McFetridge. That's John in the photo at lower right. His current novel and his next one include a photographer named Rozovsky.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015 

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