Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Happy birthday, Hammett: Three characters who stay true to their natures

On the occasion of Dashiell Hammett's 121st birthday, I'll bring back this post a few years ago that takes a common observation about Sam Spade and the Continental Op and applies it to two of The Maltese Falcon's major supporting characters, as well. May this stimulate you to read one of Hammett's great novels or short stories. Happy birthday, Sam.
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 Trent Reynolds of the fine Violent World of Parker site mixed criticism and high compliment last month when he wrote of my Dashiell Hammett memorial post that "The Maltese Falcon is the greatest crime novel ever written. Not mentioned in this otherwise excellent post on Hammett."

I'd just read The Glass Key for the first time, so that book dominated my thinking about Hammett. And testimonials from crime writers, including Reynolds' own Donald Westlake, that I included in the post indeed did not mention Hammett's most famous work.

But I'd like to reassure Trent and everyone else that I love The Maltese Falcon, that it induces just as chilling an effect in the reader as does The Glass Key, and that I regard it as at least as great a book. (I'd also suggest that The Maltese Falcon's greatness is so universally acknowledged that the novel may simply be taken for granted in discussions of the best crime novel ever.)

And I'd like to add a thought to the discussion based on my recent rereading of the novel (I finished it last night.)

It's a commonplace that a Hammett hero is defined by his job, and that the job is more than just a way to bring in money. Here's Joe Gores, for example, in Dashiell Hammett Lost Stories:
"Hammett saw the private detective as a manhunter. ... The Hammett hero is on the side of the law but not particularly law-abiding. He has a job to do."
When it came to Sam Spade or the Continental Op, in other words, Hammett made his plan, and he stuck to it.

I realized last night that he did just the same with Brigid O'Shaugnessy and Casper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon. Brigid is a liar from the beginning, her rigid cleaving to her nature reinforced by Spade's early, pointed, and repeated assessments: "You're good." "You're very good." "You're a liar." "That is a lie." She adheres as rigidly to the degenerate moral code that Hammett has drawn up for her as Spade adheres to his more upright one.

Gutman, his composure only fleetingly shattered when he finds the falcon is a fake, is positively joyous when he realizes this means he can resume his globe-hopping quest for the real falcon. He is as true to his nature as Brigid O'Shaugnessy and Spade are to theirs. (Of course, his global quest extends no further than a few blocks from Spade's apartment on Post Street; he gets blown to hell and gone by Wilmer Cook a few pages later.)

But consistency of character, that sense that there is no escaping from one's nature, is part of what makes the book so gripping.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Detectives Beyond Borders for The Defence

Steve Cavanagh (left) was an enthusiastic participant in the high-jinks at Crimefest 2015, so it's no surprise that his debut novel, The Defence, is a lot of fun.

A lawyer named Eddie Flynn with a shady past—about which he is disarmingly frank—gets roped into defending a client he hates, with his daughter's life hanging in the balance. But despite the terrible stakes (did I mention that Flynn must do his legal work with a bomb strapped to his body?), Flynn can't help relishing the opportunity to hustle everybody. And just about everyone with whom Flynn comes into contact is, alternately, a potential ally or potential enemy.

OK, murder and kidnapping are no laughing matters, and Cavanagh is savvy enough to insert judicious reminders of what's at stake without, however, lapsing into sentimentality or fear-mongering.  (You may have read a crime novel or twenty-six recently in which peril to a child's life drives the plot. The Defence incorporates this without, however, degenerating into exploitation or fear porn.)

Cavanagh also builds the plot as carefully as one presumes he builds a case in his day job as a lawyer. His version of the something-wasn't-right-but-I-couldn't-put-my-finger-on-it trope is far more fleshed out than most. That, in turn, makes a compelling plot device of what is often a cheap, tiresome suspense-builder in less careful hands.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Crimefest report, Part I

Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square,
London. Nelson was once a 
reporter,
but he decided he wanted to stop
working full time without, however,
giving up a regular paycheck. (All
photos by your humble blogkeeper.

Explanation for the newspaper
humor in the caption and the 
lede first paragraph available
 on request.)
Random thoughts and facts without having to worry about coherence. Not that it really matters, but here are some aperçus upon my return from Crimefest 2015, Bath, and London.
*
Gunnar Staalesen
John Lawton spent just a day at Crimefest, but he offered the welcome news that another Frederick Troy novel is on the way, probably in 2017, and that his next novel, a sequel to the non-Troy Then We Take Berlin, will include a cameo appearance by Troy. The Troy books are the models of how to write fiction about recent history, and how to do so with humor, wit, and bite.
*
K.T. Medina
Kati Hiekkapelto
For some reason, I met more authors and other people new to me at this Crimefest than ever before, including folks with whom I had worked or corresponded for years without, however, meeting them in person. Grouped by the language families of which their native tongue is a member, beginning with Finno-Ugric, these included Kati Hiekkapelto, Alan Carter, Alex Shaw, Craig Sisterson, Karen Sullivan, Steve Cavanagh, Louise Phillips, Sheila Bugler, Craig Robertson, Alexandra Sokoloff, Ewa Sherman, Jackeeta MT Collins, Paul Gitsham,  Kate Lyall Grant, Anthony QuinnHans Olav Lahlum,  and at least one person, I believe from the north of England, whose name slips my mind at the moment, for which I apologize.  These meetings are what makes festivals so much fun.
*
Peter Guttridge, Ali Karim
James Runcie's speech at the festival's gala dinner was funny, barbed, and tailored precisely to his audience. Runcie made a game of it, reading a series of sentences from either crime novels or books that had won the Man Booker Prize, then asking the audience to guess into which category each example fit. All I can say is that some of those Booker winners should never, ever show their faces in public again, at least not if using the names under which they write.
*
Ragnar Jonasson,
who was not one
of the two 
warring authors

The heated exchange at the bar between two authors who set their books in two countries in a state of conflict in the real world. Each hotly defended the country where he sets his novels, citing history recent and more remote.  War on a smaller scale was averted only when one of the authors tactfully retreated behind the line of conflict, leaving me to quiz the other on history going back a thousand years. Neither author is from the country where he sets his books, and I would guess their passion reflects the depth of their devotion to their subjects.
*
Ruth Dudley
Edwards
Robert Olen Butler
Separate political discussions with Ruth Dudley Edwards and Yrsa Sigurdardottir at the same hotel bar including bracing statements by each that I might not have expected from individuals of their political persuasions.

Barry Forshaw, Antonia Hodgson,
Simon Toyne,
 Peter Guttridge
Maj Sjöwall, Lee Child
Such surprises go a small way toward restoring my faith in humanity. It was also nice to see Yrsa win the festival's Petrona Award for best Scandinavian crime novel, for The Silence of the Sea. Yrsa has been pleasant company at many conventions, and Maxine Clarke, for whom the award is named, left the first comment ever at Detectives Beyond Borders.

Selfie outside the hotel where I expect
to return next year for my sixth Crimefest.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Crimefest, Bath, and London: What I did, and what I'll do when I get back

I'm on my way back to America after Crimefest in Bristol, three days in and around Bath, and two days in London. Some highlights for now, with normal blogging and discussion to resume shortly.

Maj Sjöwall. All hotos by
your humble blogkeeper
I met more new authors and other book-loving folks than usual at Crimefest, had more initial face-to-face meetings than usual with longtime online friends than usual, and attended more panels than usual. The only thing usual was the superb job by the organizers: Adrian Muller, Myles Allfrey, and Donna Moore. Well done, and discussion of authors and issues to follow once I get home, get some sleep, and do some laundry.

Next up was Bath, where I resumed my acquaintance with that harmonious Georgian city and, on a day trip to the Neolithic stone circle of Avebury and the West Kennet Avenue, stepped into a muddy furrow and sank up to my knees. The solicitude of my hotel manager, who had the trousers washed, dried, folded, and back in my hands by the next day, was another highlight.  If you plan to fall in the mud at a UNESCO World Heritage site, make sure you're staying at the Kennard in Bath.

Chinatown/Soho, London
Finally, London, where Mike Stotter, Ali Karim, Ayo Onatade, and the galleries of Early Renaissance painting at the National Gallery provided much high-jinks and cultural exaltation. See you all in Raleigh, Bristol, or London.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

My second book cover as a photographer!

I received the excellent news yesterday from the excellent J.T. Lindroos that one of my photos will be used for the cover of Famous Blue Raincoat, by Ed Gorman, a story collection that has one hell of a title. (I found out after posting the news on social media that the title is taken from a song by my landsman Leonard Cohen. Oy, am I proud!)

I shot the cover during some bad weather back home, unlike my cover for Charlie Stella's Eddie's World, which I shot during some good weather back home for Black Gat Books, a new imprint from the good and discerning people at Stark House Press. And yep, I'm excited.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Crime writers and reviewers, as they looked at Crimefest 2015

Martin Edwards
Kati Hiekkapelto
Ali Karim
Jake Kerridge
Anthony Quinn
Gunnar Staalesen
Steve Cavanagh
Ruth Dudley Edwards
Hans Olav Lahlum


© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Monday, May 18, 2015

Crimefest 2015 subsides into pleasant memories, and my computer dies

Lee Child interviews Maj Sjöwall at Crimefest. Photo by your
humble blogkeeper/

Good fun at Crimefest 2015, marred only by computer's apparent death just after everyone left town.

Among the many highlights were the usual voluble high-jinks with Ali Karim, and my first in-person meetings with authors and fellow fans with whom I'd communicated for years online: Craig Sisterson and Anthony Quinn among them.

It was good to renew acquaintances with Barry Forshaw and Ayo Onotade, and a raucous climb up Park Street for dinner with Ali, Craig, Stuart Neville,  Alan Carter, Alex Shaw, and Steve Cavangh will live long in our memories and probably those of the restaurant's staff as well.

I spent pleasant hours at the hotel bar with Louise Phillips and Sheila Bugler (an Irish writer new to me), and I happy to report that everyone's comportment was unbexceptionable.  I made the acquiance of  some folks from Newcastle way, and I hope to attend their crime fiction festival one of these years. And finally, the post-convention unwinding wih a group that included Alexandra Sokoloff and Craig Robertson pointed up what makes these conventions so much fun: The company was good, and the to-red list got longer.

More to come once last rites have been administered to my laptop.
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Saturday, May 16, 2015

Maj Sjöwall at Crimefest 2015

Five years ago I was stunned by the number of crime-fiction trails Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö blazed in Roseanna (1965), the first of their ten Martin Beck novels. This afternoon I heard Maj Sjöwall talk about those books at Crimefest Bristol, and I have to tell you it was a thrill to hear surprising answers to crime-fiction questions, surprisingly matter-of-fact, in some cases, from someone who had done so much to create and popularize crime fiction conventions readers take for granted today.

I shall go into some detail about these later. In the meantime, here's what the event looked like (all photos by your humble blogkeeper).

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Friday, May 15, 2015

Crimefest and tonic

I can't quite remember the sequence of events, and I'm not sure I have all the names straight, but suffice it to say that the first day of Crimefest Bristol has restored my faith in the rationality of the human species. And that's pretty good for a crime convention's first day.

at Friday's debut authors panel.
More to follow after the pitifully meager amount of sleep that remains to me before tomorrow's panels.

Among the day's discoveries--possibly foremost among them--is that 160 ml. of tonic mixed with the gin is the perfect amount for an exquisite Hendrick's and tonic, a conclusion verified repeatedly beyond all possibility of statistical error.

Ali Karim
I have enjoyed being carried along in Ali Karim's wake, and have also had the pleasure of meeting Craig Sisterson in person, years after serving as a judge for him in New Zealand's Ngaio Marsh crime fiction awards.

I also met up with Western Australia's Alan Carter, and thanks to David Whish-Wilson for letting me know about him. Alan: I missed your panel this morning, but I bought Getting Warmer. Stop me if you see me, and I'll ask you to sign it.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The night before Crimefest

I arrived in Bristol a day early to have a kebab and a Hendrick's and tonic and to get rid of my jet lag; I've accomplished two of the three. The rest of the gang a catches up with me tomorrow for Crimefest 2015.

And I brought my camera with me, all photos by your humble blogkeeper.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Monday, May 11, 2015

Crimefest 2015: All hail Bartlett

In preparation for this week's Crimefest 2015 in Bristol, I've been flipping through a number of translated crime novels by authors who will appear at the festival.  One of the books stands out from the rest for the fluency of its English rendering, so here's a salute to the translator, Don Barlett, whom I first met at Crimefest in 2009.

The novel in question is Cold Hearts, by Gunnar Staalesen (whom I first met at Crimefest in 2012), and I am going to buy it on the strength of the easy flow of its English. Not once in its opening pages did I stop at a word or phrase that did not seem quite right, wondering if the fault was the author's, the translator's, the editor's, or the publishers.

(Here's Bartlett discussing his work. And here is a series of Detectives Beyond Borders interviews in which translators of crime fiction talk about their work.)


One edition of Cold Hearts carries a declaration by Jo Nesbø, another author translated from Norwegian into English by Bartlett, that Staalesen is "a Norwegian Chandler."  The novel's early pages suggest that the comparison is a good deal less fatuous than such comparisons tend to be. Those pages are rife with wry humor and romanticism that might not have reminded me of Chandler had I not been prodded (this is no mere Chandler parody to pastiche, that is). But having read Nesbø's testimonial, I can well understand why he said what he did.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Saturday, May 09, 2015

United States of India

I'm reading a book about the formative years of one of the world's great nation-states. The discussion of that nation-states's constitution and how it came to be invokes tension between states' rights and centralization, and political schemes that sought to balance the ideal of democracy with wariness of that thing called "the people."

The word federalism finds its way into the discussion, and the author offers compelling portraits of the men at the heart of the country's formation. I learned who the thinkers were, who gave the most inspiring speeches, and who were the gifted administrators who held everything together.

The country's most revered figure is quoted as having said he would like to see a woman from the most despised class as the new nation's first president, however, so I knew I was no longer in the United States. In other respects, though, the process and problems of constitution formation were strikingly similar in India and the U.S.  It's no wonder that the book quotes one scholar as calling India's constitution "perhaps the greatest political venture since that originated in Philadelphia in 1787" — three short blocks from where I sit as I write this post.

The book — India After Gandhi, by Ramachandra Guha —  offers other surprises, as well (to me, at least). One that might resonate with readers today is that a leading voice against reserving seats in the Constituent Assembly for India's leading minority — Muslims — was herself a Muslim. That's right, herself.  Separate electorates, said Begun Aizaz Rasul, are "a self-destructive weapon which separates the minorities from the majority for all time."

I see no reason yet why anyone who admires the great-spirited secular idealism of the American founders should not admire the similar qualities and the people who advanced them in modern India. As for what eventually happens to those qualities, well, don't spoil my fun. 

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Thursday, May 07, 2015

Crimefest: History, wisdom, and the reek of fermented shark

CrimeFest 

Because it's almost time for Crimefest 2015, and because history is what I read most when I'm not reading crime, I thought I'd bring back a post about history from Crimefest 2010.   
=====================
Andrew Taylor made trenchant observations during Crimefest 2010's historical-fiction panel, just as he had at last year's Crimefest.

"The 1950s," he said, "are a fascinating time because, I think, it was the end of history for most of us, an eternal present." But, he said, "It became clear to me it was a completely alien time," a world that would have been recognizable to someone who had been around in the 1930s.

Edward Marston, the panel's moderator, spoke of his childhood during the Second World War: "I saw no one between the ages of 18 and 40 because they had all been conscripted. I didn't see my father until I was 6. ... My grandfather lived with us. He'd fought in the First World War," and, Marston said, those who remained at home heard much about how "His war was better than our war."

Marston also made a remark that ought to make all crime readers and authors reflect on the world in which fictional detectives live and work: "Your sleuth must have social mobility."

Ruth Dudley Edwards spiced up the sex, violence and bad language panel with the observation that her Baroness 'Jack' Troutbeck, while willing to avail herself of a carnal romp with whatever sex is available, "would be just as motivated, really, by a good dinner." (My question about sex as a motivating factor in crime fiction, as a means rather than an end, won me a book bag for the session's best question. I won another later the same day, and no one was around to take it away from me.)

Elsewhere, Michael Ridpath, an author new to me who sets his recent novels in Iceland, said that country's financial crisis had forced some rewriting. "I had to change `In Iceland everything is expensive' to `In Iceland, everything is cheap,'" he said. Asked at a different session what she thought of Ridpath's choice of settings, Iceland's own Yrsa Sigurðardóttir said: "That's great. That's just excellent."

Yrsa also brought hákarl, or highly pungent fermented shark, an Icelandic specialty she was eager to share with fellow attendees, along with bracing Icelandic schnapps to wash it down. I enjoyed watching the faces of everyone who tried hákarl. You'll enjoy doing so, too. Says Wikipedia: Hákarl "is an acquired taste and many Icelanders never eat it."

I suspect that after Crimefest 2010, some Canadians, Americans, Englishmen and South Africans may join them.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Tumor: How a crime fiction cliché gets knocked on the head and doesn't recover

I bought the graphic novel Tumor on the strength of its introduction by Duane Swierczynski, who begins by noting the absurd prevalence in hard-boiled crime fiction of one-punch knockouts, speedy recoveries, and meticulous recollection by the victims:
"Even modern-crime writers can't resist a good cosh to the brainpan. Check out George Pelecanos' Nick Stefanos in Down By the River Where the Dead Man Go:

"`I felt a blunt shock to the back of my head and a short, sharp pain. The floor dropped out from beneath my feet, and I was falling, diving toward a pool of cool black water.'

"The problem, of course, is that such blows to the head are completely ridiculous. It's not easy to bounce back from a severe concussion, And even if you do, it's unlikely that you'll remember the blow in any kind of detail. ... Plus, it's kind of hard to knock someone out with a single blow."
The center of Tumor, by Joshua Hale Fialkov and artist Noel Tuazon, is a broken-down Los Angeles private investigator named Frank Armstrong who must solve one last case before the book's titular malady kills him. The client is a gangster and the case is to find his daughter, and if that all sounds conventionally Chandlerian, keep your eye on the tumor.

Armstrong blacks out, his sense of time is compressed, stretched, and fragmented in ways that seem far more convincing a rendering of brain injury or disease than one finds in most crime writing. And, through the book's first three chapters, at least, there is no hint of excessive cleverness, no evidence that Fialkov is doing anything so conventional as straining to defy convention. I'm not sure I could say the same for most comics since, say, 1987.

Tumor reminds me in this regard of a comment by Detectives Beyond Borders friend Linda L. Richards when I wrote about her novel Death Was the Other Woman in 2008. The novel's protagonist is a secretary/assistant to a PI, like Effie Perrine in The Maltese Falcon.  Here's the the pertinent part of Richards' reply to my review:
"For me, there was never a nudge, nudge, wink, wink. I wasn't trying to be clever or find a new place from where I could spin on an old tale. As I wrote the book, it seemed to me I was merely stating the obvious. The between-the-wars PIs were so damaged. And they were drunks. There was simply no logical way they could be ingesting all that good Prohibition booze in the quantities stated and still be getting through their cases as calmly as it appeared to happen."
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Sunday, May 03, 2015

Edgar Awards 2015 — James Ellroy on God and dogs

James Ellroy, photos by your
humble blogkeeper.
I got my New York errands done early on Wednesday, slipped into a phone booth to change into my suit, and got to the ballrooms at the Grand Hyatt a few minutes before anything had started at Wednesday night's Edgar Awards.

At the end of the long anteroom outside the banquet hall, a bald man slouched on a bench, looking not nearly as tall as he does when gesticulating behind a podium.

"Mr. Ellroy," I said. "Congratulations."

"I've met you before," he said, extending his hand.

"You have. Otto's store, when you read from Perfidia."

"Did you enjoy it?" he said, straightening slightly.

"I did. I read it in a week, a solid hundred pages a night."

"That's the way to do it," Ellroy said with an approving nod. "Steady reading, a couch, a dog."

"Except for the couch and the dog, just how I did it."

"Well, they want me in there. We'll talk later."

"I'll be running up, getting in people's way, shooting pictures."

"Shoot away." Another approving nod.


Ellroy talked about dogs again when he accepted the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master award. "My life," he told the crowd, "has been one long journey to commune with the talking dog."

This was — in part, at least —  a tribute to his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, whose logo is a borzoi, or Russian wolfhound. Ellroy also said that he sees God in everything, offered the frank literary quotation that "a literature that cannot be vulgarized is no literature at all," and said: "My first words were, `Where's the book?'" and then, with a laugh I took as gently self-mocking, "and `Where's the booze?'"

Oh, and Stephen King swore more than Ellroy did.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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