Friday, April 18, 2014

So, which comics do you like?

I'll never be current with comics, because I don't want to pay four or six or eight dollars for something that will take me five minutes to read, then leave me hanging for a month.  But the volumes that collect multiple issues between hard or trade paperback covers are a good deal, as long as they're not too padded with collectible extras.

I was precious close to being late for work today because I was absorbed in a volume of Scalped (written by Jason Aaron, illustrated by R. M. Guéra), some of the hardest-hitting, non-stop dramatic, visually arresting noir in any medium in recent years.

I'm also enjoying, somewhat to my surprise, the first bound collection of Chew. That acclaimed series is about as high as high-concept gets: Detective hero can learn anything there is to learn about any person or thing by eating it. He's cibopathic, that is, and I assume the book's creator, John Layman, invented the word.

On the one hand, the opening stories (the series is up to about 40 issues by now) are cheekily arch and jokey. The first bound collection of the book is called Taster's Choice, for example, and the series' protagonist is named Tony Chu (say it out loud, then remember his cibopathic power). On the other, the jokiness and genre self-awareness somehow work nicely with the story's dystopian universe, in which chicken and other poultry are illegal.

Finally, I browsed a bound volume of World's Finest Comics that collected issues from my day, when a copy cost 12 cents.  Man, that stuff was for kids!
Which comics, or graphic novels, do you like, and why? What do they give you that movies or television or books can't?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Burnable Book gets its time and its crime right

"In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At nyght was come into that hostelry
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye ... "

— Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
Bruce Holsinger's crime novel A Burnable Book is full of history. John Gower is its protagonist and narrates parts of it; Chaucer is a central personage; John Hawkwood cuts a figure something like Al Pacino's in the remake of Scarface. Richard II and John of Gaunt figure in the book; the Avignon papacy is invoked. So are Wycliffe, Wat Tyler, Boccaccio, and the Bardi family of Florentine bankers. In short, if you missed the Late Middle Ages, read this book, and you'll catch up.

Holsinger is a scholar. One expects lots of history from him, and the few examples that I fact-checked suggest that he gets his history right. But he gets the atmosphere right, too. Medieval London is a natural setting for hard-boiled crime, with its lawless precincts just outside the city, its cruel masters and mistreated apprentices, its fetid streets, its premature deaths, its maudlyns plying their trade in Gropecunt Lane, and Holsinger describes it vividly and well..

More important for the reader of crime fiction is that he makes of Gower a credible investigator and hard-boiled protagonist without, however, giving him the anachronistic mannerisms of a Philip Marlowe.  (Getting the essence right without slipping into genre cliché has to be one of a historical crime novelist's toughest tasks. The farther back in time the story is set, the greater the pressure on the author to avoid having his or her protagonist do things a modern fictional detective would do. One crime novel with a medieval setting was ruined for me when its otherwise vividly rendered main character turned without warning into Columbo.)

Holsinger gets around this by telling instead of showing. Gower examines in a straightforward manner his role as investigator and in doing so, makes himself both credible in the role and familiar to readers of hard-boiled crime: "If you build your own life around the secret lives of others ... Information becomes your entitlement. You pay handsomely for it; you use it selectively and well."

The book establishes Gower as temperamental kin to every flawed crime fiction protagonist who exists in a morally compromised world, and Chaucer, the liveliest of all great poets, underlines this nicely, challenging Gower not to be such a stuffed shirt in his own writing: "Do you write this way because you see yourself as some white-clad incorruptible?"
The novel's title refers to a manuscript that falls into the wrong hands, a book so subversive that it deserves burning.  Just as The Canterbury Tales begin in Southwark, a district across the Thames and just outside London in the Middle Ages, significant parts of A Burnable Book are set there. By happy coincidence, I bought my copy of The Canterbury Tales in the old Philadelphia district of Southwark which, like its English namesake, lay outside the city centuries ago but has since been absorbed by it.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Monday, April 14, 2014

Dr. Johnson was a great lexicographer, but he could have used a copy editor

April 15 marks the 259th anniversary of the publication of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language:
"I have, notwithstanding this discouragement, attempted a dictionary of the English language, which, while it was employed in the cultivation of every species of literature, has itself been hitherto neglected, suffered to spread, under the direction of chance, into wild exuberance, resigned to the tyranny of time and fashion, and exposed to the corruptions of ignorance, and caprices of innovation."

Samuel Johnson, from the preface to A Dictionary of the English Language
Awfully prescriptive, isn't it, not the sort of thing one would would see today.

I bought an abridged edition of the great book a few months ago. In honor of the book's birthday, here is a surprise I found within:
"asshead n.s. [from ass and head] One slow of apprehension; a blockhead.

"Will you help an asshead, and a coxcomb, an a knave, a thin-faced knave, a gull."
Shakesp. Hamlet.
The remarkable thing, other than the word's beguiling punch, is that the line is not, in fact, from Hamlet, but rather from Twelfth Night, Act V, Scene i

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Dalkey Archive: Flann O'Brien says things funny

I like writers who don't just write funny things, but write things funny.  I'll save the narrative high points of Flann O'Brien's last novel for a later blog post, the deadly substance that can end all life, the underwater meeting with Saint Augustine, and the discovery of James Joyce alive, well, and tending bar in a seaside resort years after his supposed death.

For now, what I like best about The Dalkey Archive is that O'Brien seemed incapable of writing a non-funny sentence.  Even purely expository passages and the most routine actions are funny:
"It was near six when they stopped a tree."
"My goodness, the Bishop of Hippo!"
"I implore you not to be facetious, the unsmiling Crabbe replied. The funny thing is that I like the name Nemo. Try thinking of it backwards. 
"Well, you have something there, Hackett granted, 
"Poetic, what? 
"There was a short silence which Dr. Crewett broke. 
"That makes you think, he said thoughtfully. Wouldn't it be awful to have the Arab surname Esra?"
Who else is like that? Who else is funny no matter what he or she is writing?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

John McFetridge in my home and native city / Ville de mes aïeux

I'd like John McFetridge's Black Rock even if I were not in it, in the person of an enterprising police photographer named Rozovsky, who appears to have a nice little business going on the side. (This proves that McFetridge borrowed nothing but my name. For me, initiative means dragging myself out of bed early enough in the afternoon to have lunch before I have dinner [we called it supper back home in Montreal].)

What I like about Black Rock is that even though I lived in Montreal at the time of the book's setting and so did McFetridge, my Montreal was not his, and neither of our Montreals was that of the events that made headlines at the time and form the background to the novel's real action.

Those events are the FLQ terrorist bombings of 1970, the investigation of which punctuate the life and work of a young police officer named Eddie Dougherty as her pursues his real professional interest: the murders of a string of young women. (Read a newspaper clipping about the killings that sparked the novel at McFetridge's blog.)

So, while bombs go off downtown and in Westmount and Old Montreal,  the action also takes Dougherty to crowded apartments off the Main and to bars in Point St. Charles, a local boy returning to his turf, this time as a cop seeking the killer of a murdered woman:
"They walked half a block to Dougherty's squad car, and Carpentier said, `They know you.' 
"`But you're not one of them?' 
"`English can be pure laine, too."
The past can be a foreign country, but so can one's own country. (For another crime-fictionalized look Canada's October Crisis, see Giles Blunt's novel The Delicate Storm.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Augustus Mandrell is as American as hamburger

I'm rereading Shoot the President, Are You Mad?, Frank McAuliffe's long-awaited fourth book Augustus Mandrell. How long awaited? The book appeared in 2010, twenty-four years after the author died and following collections of Mandrell "commissions" (he's an international hit man) that had appeared in 1965, 1968, and 1971.  Here a post I made back when I first read Shoot the President, Are You Mad? When I'm done with it (the book, not the post), I just may reread the first three Augustus Mandrell books. They're that good.

I've mentioned the bracing mix of British manners and American sensibilities in Frank McAuliffe's books about Augustus Mandrell. McAuliffe, an American, made Mandrell a kind of outsider, apparently British. This gave him the luxury of observing American ways with amused detachment. Here are some examples from Shoot the President, Are You Mad?:
"There was certain to be some grumbling regarding the issue of `conspiracy' since the American people, despite their impressive history of individual action, appear rather keen on attributing dramatic events, particularly those of an anti-social nature, to shadowy groups."
"[A]s the days passed with still no apprehension of the despicable manufacturer of air conditioners, the president, now enjoying the role of spiritual leader to the electorate ... "
"`But no class, Man, no class,' the Doctor objected. `They underbid each other. "If Tony will do-a da job for 300 bucks, I'll tell-a you wot. I'll do it for 250, if you buy da bullets." How you going to get class when you're shopping around for the lowest bidder?'

"`My dear Doctor, are you questioning the "free enterprise" system? The very cornerstone of America's greatness?"
McAuliffe also pokes delicious fun at insecure Americans' worship of culinary luxury, having Mandrell issue elaborate instructions to a chef that include "a quarter pound of lean Argentine beef. You chop it into an even consistency and form into into a patty. Fry, over a natural gas flame for eleven seconds per side ... A folded leaf of California lettuce ... place just under the top bun a slice of Bermuda onion, one sliced within the past 12 hours."
"`Clifford,' says Mandrell's puzzled companion, `that concoction you ordered, do you know what it sounded like? One of those dreadful hamburgers the Americans are always eating in their backyards.'

"`Of course, my dear,' I smiled. `I've been dying for one all day. I was but attempting to spare the man the embarrassment of writing `hamburger, with the trimmings' on his pad. He'd have been the laughing stock of the kitchen.'"
Historical notes: It has been reported that McAuliffe submitted the manuscript of Shoot the President, Are You Mad? to his publisher just before John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963 and that the unfortunate coincidence was responsible for the decades-long delay in the book's appearance. But an afterword from McAuliffe's daughter says McAuliffe wrote the book in 1975. Even then, she wrote, "the mutual consensus was that the American people ... were not ready to make light of the demise of an individual who held possession of the highest office in the land."

The third Mandrell book, For Murder I Charge More, won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for best paperback original in 1972. A second award would not be out of place in 2011.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010, 2014

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Words, words, nice, easy words

The folks who administer the SAT announced last month that they were dropping from the test what one news account called "some vocabulary words such as `prevaricator' and `sagacious' in favor of words more commonly used in school and on the job." (Emphasis mine.)

As much as I relished the thought that this nation wants to raise a generation to talk like schoolyard show-offs and human-resources professionals, I moaned at the dumbing-down of it all. (In grade school I had a vocabulary book called Words Are Important. Might be time to revise that title.  And has anyone else noticed that, unlike a few years ago, corporate executives no longer bother to lie to interviewers that they value liberal arts graduates for the thinking skills they bring to the job?)

As evidence that we have been getting dumber at least since the year I was born, however, I'll bring back a blog post from 2011. You'll have to read to the fourth paragraph to get to the evidence, which is kind of long-form for contemporary attention spans, but you can do it!
© Peter Rozovsky 2014 
Though they lived in the fictional town of Bayport. the Hardy Boys occasionally were called out of the country to solve mysteries.

Language was never a barrier. Even though the boys rarely if ever appeared to attend their language classes (or any other classes) at Bayport High School, all it took was a few words and phrases, and they could sleuth unobtrusively among the natives. (I always wondered if they simply muttered rhubarb* over and over.)

The books never revealed what those magical words and phrases were, but by God, I believed in the Hardy Boys!  Now I'm asking you to do the same:  Pick a country, and tell me what words and phrases you would learn if you wanted to pass as a resident.
Wikipedia's article is full of good stuff about the Hardy Boys. I'd long known that the books were revised to remove odious racial stereotypes, but I was chagrined to learn that beginning in 1959, they were written more simply, to compete with television, that "Difficult vocabulary words such as `ostensible' and `presaged' were eliminated."

This was news to me; I once startled my third-grade teacher by knowing what a taxidermist was; I'd learned the word from a Hardy Boys book, and if taxidermist isn't a difficult vocabulary word, I don't know my difficult vocabulary words.
This is the second post this week whose idea came to me in the shower. If I worked from home,  could I move my desk into the shower and claim my bathroom as a business expense?
* The word rhubarb was used by radio actors to imitate the sounds of raucous crowd. The actors would murmur “rhubarb, rhubarb” in the background to simulate crowd noise. 

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Saturday, April 05, 2014

Trevanian and the slice o' life, or McFetridge, Montreal, Toronto, and Hamilton

I'm not sure I'd have compared Trevanian's 1976 novel The Main with John McFetridge's novels had McFetridge not written about it in Books to Die For.  Knowing of McFetridge's love for the novel, and having just finished reading it myself, though, I recognize The Main as an earlyish example of a kind of crime writing at which McFetridge excels: that in which the protagonist's life is at least as integral to the story as are the crimes he solves or commits.

The Main's Lt. Claude LaPointe has a problematic domestic situation and trouble with his boss, as do a million other fictional cops. But Trevanian delves so deeply into LaPointe's inner life, and he so efficiently but fully fleshes that boss out as a character, that the conflicts seem fresh and deeply felt. The same goes for a number of the novel's other minor characters. They may be minor, but they feel like more than just plot devices. Like McFetridge's Toronto novels, The Main offers an affectionate, unsentimental look at the city where it is set. As in McFetridge's Black Rock, that city is Montreal. Unlike Black Rock, The Main lacks a police photographer named Rozovsky,

In what other crime novels is the protagonist's life as important as the crimes he or she solves? In which novels are the alcoholism, troubled relationships, and clashes with authority more than mere window dressing?

Here's a bit of my recent non-crime reading that is ripe with potential for a dark crime story:
"For it is a truth, which the experience of ages has attested, that the people are always most in danger when the means of injuring their rights are in the possession of those of whom they entertain the least suspicion."
Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 25
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Friday, April 04, 2014

You can take the book out of the genre, but you can't take the genre out of the book

I don't know if reviewers were saying "transcended the genre" back in 1976, but they edged awfully close when they discussed Trevanian's novel The Main.

The author himself says he had high ambitions for the book, intending at first to write it under the name Jean-Paul Morin to distinguish it from the thrillers he had written under the Trevanian byline. (His real name was Rodney William Whitaker.):
"Well, The Main came out, and readers who associated the Trevanian name with crisp, shallow action novels blinked and wondered what the ****?!"
I have not read those thrillers, The Eiger Sanction and The Loo Sanction, or seen the Clint Eastwood movie based on the former, but amid its slow buildup and its somber urban anthropology and its study of character, The Main plants two classic thriller time bombs in its early chapters. Each follows the "Will X accomplish Y before Z happens?" formula and, while they're surprising in light of what surrounds them, they work.

What novels can you name by authors who step out of their customary genres or who write in multiple genres? What do you think of such books? Do hallmarks of one genre show up in the author's work in a different genre?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Trevanian's crime classic from my home town

I can see why John McFetridge chose Trevanian's The Main as his Book to Die For.

The Main reminds me especially of McFetridge's new novel, Black Rock. That book departs from McFetridge's Toronto series in several respects. It takes place in Montreal, it views its sweep of character and incident largely through the eyes of a single character rather than from multiple points of view, and it is set in the past, 1970, during Montreal's own wave of terrorist bombings.

Trevanian looks at Montreal's Boulevard Saint-Laurent and its crowded side streets and alleys (known colloquially as "the Main") through the eyes of a tough local cop called LaPointe and, while the novel's setting is roughly contemporaneous with its publication (1976), time and Trevanian's copious research lend it a retrospective, even anthropological air. And that's no bad thing, because his preparation was so thorough, and his writing was so good. Here's an example of research that may not be strictly necessary to the story, but that I loved, because it was so unexpected:
"Guttmann speaks up in his precise European French, the kind Canadians call `Parisian,' but which is really modeled on the French of Tours."
And here's a bit of research that contributes greatly to the novel's atmosphere:
"When LaPointe began on the force, there were almost no Anglo cops. The pay was too law; the job had too little prestige; and the French Canadians who made up the bulk of the department were not particularly kind to interlopers."
Trevanian excels at rendering with complexity characters who could easily be stereotypes. The snooty, careerist police commissioner, a stock figure in police procedurals if ever there was one,  here has the respect of his men, and, Trevanian takes care to point out, has actually read the books that line his office.

Furthermore, Trevanian knew he was doing this. He made the savvy decision to pair the tough, older Francophone cop with a younger, college-educated, Anglo partner, just so he can have the partner think, after the requisite physical inventory ("the wide face with its deep-set eyes that is practically a map of French Canada") that "there are aspects that Guttmann had not anticipated, things that contradict the caricature of the tough cop."  It's pretty clear what Trevanian is up to, but he pulls the strings so well.
(Trevanian talks about The Main at the Web site.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Monday, March 31, 2014

What drives you nuts, and why?

A current social media discussion takes on two of my least favorite American usages: transition as a verb, and issues as a substitute for problems.

One is verbal inflation, the other euphemism. Users of transition intend something more grandiose than change, and people who use issues generally want to avoid offending people who have problems.

To these I'd add channeling one's inner anything and "----ing the world, one ---- at a time." I think, too, we have reached the expiration date on commentators and reporters who refer to the Supreme Court justices as "the Supremes" and think they're being delightfully irreverent.

What usages, words, expressions, and quirks of linguistic fashion drive you nuts, and why?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Wisdom from C.V. Wedgwood

I'm nearing the end of C.V. Wedgwood's The Thirty Years War (hint: The Spanish fought the French, and the Germans lost.) The next time you're at a pub and someone leans over and says, "Say, friend, what do you think is the essential difference between the Middle Ages and the modern world?" you could do worse than to quote this paragraph of Wedgwood's:
"When lust and private interest gain the upper hand of disorganized society, the most religious of crusades must lose its sacred character, but the Thirty Years War lost what little spiritual meaning it had for other causes. `The great spiritual contest,' says Ranke, `had completed its operation on the minds of men.' The reason was not far to seek. While increasing preoccupation with natural science had opened up a new philosophy to the educated world, the tragic results of applied religion had discredited the Churches as the directors of the State. It was not that faith had grown less among the masses; even among the educated and speculative it still maintained a rigid hold, bit it had grown more personal, had become essentially a matter between the individual and the creator."

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Best Supporting Actors

Pete Postlethwaite
want to start a Pete Postlethwaite fan club. I had not heard of the late British actor before I watched The Usual Suspects for the first time this week, but amid Kevin Spacey's award mugging and Benicio Del Toro's lisping and mumbling, Postlethwaite, as Kobayashi, stood out for doing what Laurence Olivier is said to have advised Dustin Hoffman to do. He acted, dear boy.

In the potentially cartoonish role of an evil Japanese henchman, Postlethwaite played it straight-faced and thus did a much better, and much less obtrusive, job of showing he was having fun than did Spacey and Del Toro. Naturally it was Spacey who won that year's Oscar for best supporting actor, not Postlethwaite. (But then, Spacey's character faked not only a physical handicap but also a borderline mental one, surefire Oscar bait.)

Not that Spacey's and Del Toro's performances were bad; those guys are too talented for that. But mugging by a good actor is still mugging.  Maybe he and Del Toro felt they had to stand out from a cast that included Giancarlo Esposito, Paul Bartel, Chazz Palminteri, and Gabriel Byrne, doing no better or no worse a job than he always does playing Gabriel Byrne.

Back to Postlethwaite. His performance was the best I've seen by a supporting actor in some time, up there with Paddy Considine's and Aidan Gillen's in Blitz, even worthy of mention in the same breath as Takashi Shimura's work in numerous films for Akira Kurosawa. 

Now it's your turn.  Do some method acting, become thinkers, and answer these questions: Why do some actors mug? Why do others not? Whose fault is it when they do? Are American movie stars more prone to mugging than British, Irish, Japanese, or other stars? What are your favorite performances by supporting actors (in the non-gendered sense; name some favorite supporting actresses, too.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Throwback Thursday at the Movies

In about twenty years, I'll be a few years short of joining the 21st century in movies. Until then ...

I watched Donnie Brasco for the first time this week, and I liked the bits of comic misunderstanding sprinkled throughout the dialogue ("What's fugazi?") I also realized that that sort of thing is more enjoyable on the page, where one can savor it. So if you like Donnie Brasco, you'll love Charlie Stella and Dana King.

Now I'm watching The Usual Suspects. On the one hand, its narrative is convoluted, so it must be a writer or director's movie. On the other, its stars feign speech impediments (Benicio del Toro), bad accents (Gabriel Byrne), and visible physical and, occasionally, verbal and mental handicaps (Kevin Spacey). That makes it an actor's movie. OK, those of you who have seen it, which is more overdone: This movie's direction, or its acting?

Goodnight for now, and I'll get back to you once I've seen Gone With the Wind.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

"The number of his bastards grew in time to be a Danish problem and a European joke": C.V. Wedgwood shows history is fun

I'm twelve years into C.V. Wedgwood's The Thirty Years War, when the war is about to break out of Germany and onto the larger European scene in a big way.  I'll let you know how it all turns out, but in the meantime, a few samples from the book that prove historical writing can be as entertaining as any other branch of literature:
"In Prague the King and Queen sat at dinner with the two English ambassadors. Both were in good spirits and Frederick asserted confidently that there would no fighting; the enemy were too weak and would soon draw off. He had been told so, and he was in the habit of believing what he was told."
Does that remind you of any of Wedgwood's great predecessors? Me, too. Indeed, Edward Gibbon was a model for Wedgwood, and she wrote a short book about Gibbon and his work. Here's more:
"Christian invested his commonplace political views with an aura of romance by declaring himself passionately, although chivalrously, in love with the beautiful queen of Bohemia."
"Frederick, without armies or possessions, almost without servants, retired to his uncle the Duke of Bouillon at Sedan, there in the intervals of bathing and tennis to search for new allies."
"(H)is life of hard exercise interspersed with hard drinking had left him only the heartier. Monogamy had never suited his exuberant nature, and the number of his bastards grew in time to be a Danish problem and a European joke. In spite of his energetic tastes, he was an intellectual man and made use of his gifts; he had even conducted a learned correspondence in Latin with that prince of pedants, James I of Great Britain."
That last excerpt describes Christian IV of Denmark, who I suspect will now shoot up a few places on many people's lists of favorite seventeenth-century European kings.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

C.V. Wedgwood's Thirty Years War: More than just three guys in a shit pile

Until Saturday evening, I knew little about the Thirty Years' War beyond the picturesque name of an incident that precipitated it (above).

But the war, it turns out, was about much more than three Catholic Habsburg envoys thrown from a window by angry Bohemian Protestants, surviving unhurt only because a dung pile cushioned their fall.

In the first hundred or so pages of C.V. Wedgwood's Thirty Years War (that punctuation in the title is per Wedgwood, or at least per the NYRB Classics edition of the book. In addition to pitting Habsburg and Bourbon, Catholic and Protestant, Lutheran and Calvinist, and France and Spain, a little-known dispute that survives to this day pits supporters of the possessive apostrophe in the war's name against those who prefer to go without), I have learned much about why Germany was such a mess and about how Lutheranism forged ahead. Wedgwood was a brilliant writer and historian of the good, old-fashioned kind, and for this post I'll highlight some of the larger points she makes.

The first is her acknowledgement in an introduction written eighteen years after the book first appeared that "History reflects the period in which it was written as much as any other branch of literature." In her case, that period was the 1930s, marked by economic depression and rising international tensions.

Look at that passage for a moment.  How many historians today would think of what they do, of the product of their research, as literature?  Wasn't history better off, or at least a hell of a lot more readable, before it became a social science?  Then consider Wedgwood's remarks that her own
"knowledge, sometimes intimate, sometimes more distant, of conditions in depressed and derelict areas, of the sufferings of the unwanted and uprooted—the two million unemployed at home, the Jewish and liberal fugitives from Germany. Preoccupation with contemporary distress made the plight of the hungry and homeless, the discouraged and the desolate in the Thirty Years War exceptionally vivid to me."
Sounds a bit like A People's History of Central and Western Europe, doesn't it? But then you get to something like this, from the first chapter:
"The faulty transmission of news excluded public opinion from any dominant part in politics.  ... The great majority of the people remained powerless, ignorant, and indifferent. The public acts and private character of individual statesmen thus assumed disproportionate significance, and dynastic ambitions governed the diplomatic relations of Europe." 
I suspect that these days casual thinkers about history will regard political history and social history as opposites, the "Great Men" theory and "people's" history as irreconcilable.  Not Wedgwood.

But here's the most remarkable thing about The Thirty Years War: Wedgwood was not yet thirty years old when she wrote the book.   Now, I'll see you later. I have some reading to do.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Noir is a state of mind: Giorgio Scerbanenco's A Private Venus

Here are some reflections inspired by my second reading of Giorgio Scerbanenco's 1966 novel A Private Venus, available in the UK from Hersilia Press and in the U.S. from Melville House:
1) The novel is thoroughly noir long before it portrays any violence or criminal acts. This may remind some readers of David Goodis.
2) Its protagonist, Duca Lamberti, is a doctor who has been struck from the register for an act of euthanasia. That sounds like Goodis' ex-singer or piano player protagonists, but unlike them, Lamberti has not hit the skids. He has a sister, a niece, a powerful friend on Milan's police force, and a place to live. Noir is not synonymous with squalor. It's a state of mind, not an economic category.
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Scerbanenco is just as good the second time

Giorgio Scerbanenco's 1966 novel A Private Venus is just as good between American covers as it is between British ones, and the best news on the Melville House edition may be the three words above the title: "The Milan Quartet."

A Private Venus was the first of Scerbanenco's Duca Lamerti novels. Melville House will publish Traitors to All later this year, with the books known in Italian as I ragazzi del massacro ("The Boys of the Massacre") and I milanesi ammazzano al sabato ("The Milanese Kill on Saturday") to follow.

The first four chapters of A Private Venus are as breathtaking and moving an opening as any in crime fiction. Here's part of what I wrote when I first read the novel, and to this list I might add the deadpan observation of Italian neo-realism and the compassion of William McIlvanney:
"I can't quite figure out whom Giorgio Scerbanenco reminds me of most. He can be as dark as Leonardo Sciascia, as deadpan realistic as Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, as probing in his observation of people as Simenon, as humane as Camilleri, as noir as Manchette, as hope-against-hopeful as David Goodis, but with a dark, dark humor all his own."
Among its other high points, the book is rendered into English by Howard Curtis, one of the finest translators of crime fiction.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

America: Red, white, and noir; plus a question for readers

He ran with “bad company.” At 14 years of age, he wrote, "the whole care and direction of my self was thrown on my self entirely, without a relation … to advise or guide me.”

She was "a risk taker given to impulsive behavior and bad decisions — traits that were passed on to her son — took up with James, despite his “indigent circumstances” and the fact that she was still legally married to Lavien."

He was Thomas Jefferson, she Rachel Faucette, mother of Alexander Hamilton, and the quotations are taken from John Ferling, Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation. Even before Hamilton died, paralyzed and suffering following his duel with Aaron Burr, the lives of the Founding Fathers were ripe with hard-boiled material.

And now, dear readers, it's your turn. What characters, circumstances, or events from history would make good hard-boiled or crime stories?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Matteo Strukul writes pulp for adults

Last year after reading advance chapters of Matteo Strukul's The Ballad of Mila, I wrote that:
"Strukul shows his love for revenge comics without degenerating into cartoonishness. He exposes a side of northeastern Italian life unknown to outsiders and perhaps many insiders."
I thought of that comment again today when reading in the finished novel about a Chinese gang boss in northeastern Italy, where the book is set. Not only does the gangster brutalize, extort, and enslave illegal immigrants from China, but
"He had deprived Veneto not only of its factories, closing one after another, nearly two hundred every year, but also of its tradition of craftsmanship: the old tailoring schools were starting to disappear, even those that represented the region's oldest heritage."
"All of that while sucking the blood of north-east Italy: jeans for fashionable people, five Euro rather than twenty-five; shirts for twenty rather than forty."
Now, make no mistake: Strukul is no Stieg Larsson, dishing out improving lectures about the rich world's evil ways. The Ballad of Mila is full of comic-book trappings: over-the-top violence; deadly martial arts; Japanese swords; a lethal, beautiful, revenge-seeking babe; and showdowns between rival gangs. But the observations about globalization anchor the story in reality. And this lends the tale both a moral heft and a menacing edge. The Ballad of Mila is a story Quentin Tarantino might tell if he ever makes an adventure movie for adults.
Strukul is also a publisher and an impresario in the world of Italian pulp and comics who has brought the work of notable Scottish, Irish, American, French, and English authors to the attention of Italian readers. Read Matteo Strukul's interview with Detectives Beyond Borders.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Friday, March 14, 2014

Dashiell Hammett, copy editor's friend, Part II

Dashiell Hammett may have had no formal education beyond his early teens, but he read much, and he wielded his learning with grace and proper English grammar.

I've mentioned the little lesson in Spanish imperial history he weaves into The Maltese Falcon. Today he gets props for having Dinah Brand in Red Harvest use proper English even at her most baldly hard-boiled and greedy:
"Now how about what I was to get for showing you where you could turn up the dope on his killing Tim Noonan?"
The man knew his fused participles, and that's one more reason Hammett was not just the greatest crime writer ever, but also a copy editor's friend.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Which books do you keep going back to, and why?

Statue of the God Horus
as a Falcon
, Egypt,
Ptolemaic period
(335-30 BC), Art
Institute of Chicago
My re-reading of The Maltese Falcon this week sparked a Facebook post that enlarged my TBR list and may have introduced a reader to the delights of Bill James.

I asked readers which books they had read the greatest number of times, and why they keep reading it. Now I'll ask you: Which books have you read most often? And why?
P.S. Among the passages I noted during this reading of The Maltese Falcon was Sam Spade relating the black bird's history to Effie Perrine
"as he had heard it from Gutman, from Charles V's grant to the Hospitallers up to--but no further than--the enameled birds's arrival in Paris at the time of the Carlist influx."
How many crime writers today would feel confident enough to use influx in a novel, much less of the Carlist variety? Thing is, Hammett provides the context that works the reference smoothly into the story, illuminating the falcon's origins for even the reader unfamiliar with Spanish imperial history. He was not, in other words, afraid to show bit of learning.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Eric Partridge and the meaning of death

More from Eric Partridge's Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English that may interest crime readers:

1) Dead, dear, death, debased, and debauched are close enough (about a quarter of a column apart) to suggest any number of hard-boiled story possibilities. Noir, even.

2) Kill is probably related to quell, which, in turn, is akin to German quälen, to grievously torment.

3) Mystery is akin to Greek mustēs, literally close-mouthed.

4) For murder (n,v ), murderer, murderous, see MORTAL

5) Partridge's sly humor at some of his predecessors' expense:
"The transliteration of Greek words, in particular, has been more exact than in several dictionaries one might, but does not, name."
6) And, finally, an enlightened attitude to swearing that heads the dictionary' entry for a word familiar to readers of current hard-boiled and noir writing, emphasis mine:
"f**k, v hence n, is a standard English word classed because of its associations as a vulgarism."
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Saturday, March 08, 2014

Frank Gruber's The French Key Mystery: There's more than a mystery between those covers

Frank Gruber (1904-1969) has to have been one of the most thoroughly professional of all pulp writers. The French Key Mystery hits hard without wallowing in shadows or violence. Its characters are entertaining without being clowns. A gritty undercurrent runs through the book without, however, degenerating into preachy social realism. In short, Gruber knew how tell a story.

At least as fascinating, however, is the supplementary matter in my edition of the novel, another fine purchase last week from the Bucks County Bookshop in Doylestown, Pa. And I don't mean just the cover's calling the book "A $2.00 Mystery for 25¢."

There are the exhortations to "brighten the lives of those who are giving their all" by sending them books and to buy U.S. war stamps and savings bonds because "It will cost money to defeat Germany, Italy and Japan."

The book's more straightforwardly commercial appeals have an earnestness that reads like innocence:
"MURDER OF THE MONTH titles are printed on good paper with bold, clear type and strongly bound with a decorative cover in full color, finished off with a hard, glossy surface. A further innovation are the unusual illustrations throughout each volume by world-famous artists, to add to your enjoyment whilst reading the story."
 They just don't write promotional copy like that anymore. Just try finding all this in a chain bookstore or on an e-reader.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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