Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Wyatt and Parker, Part II

My comments about Garry Disher and Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) a few months ago drew some pointed responses from readers puzzled or angry about Disher's use of Stark's Parker character as a model for his own Wyatt.

I've just finished Disher's second Wyatt novel, Paydirt, and, as the novel ends, Wyatt, troubled by a hitman from the mob, called here "The Outfit," vows to take his quarrel to the Outfit personally. Those angry November readers may be unhappy to learn that Stark had written a Parker novel called The Outfit, in which, well, you can guess.

If I were Australian, I might be more sensitive to allegations that Disher was engaging in "cultural cringing" by using an American model. (Of course, I'm not American, either, as readers of this blog might assume.) Instead, I urge everyone to read some Wyatt novels, then a few of the earlier Parkers. Then they should read Disher's clever and funny short story "My Brother Jack," available in The Oxford Book of Detective Stories. In addition to providing some of the best crime writing from any country, this should convince readers that Wyatt is no mere copy of Parker. And "My Brother Jack" should make any reader believe that Disher may have been at once paying homage to a great crime writer and setting himself the challenge of sticking fairly closely to a model while at the same time creating a character of noticeably different temperament.

I have never seen Disher discuss the Wyatt-Parker question. Do any readers know of such a discussion? Better still, if Garry Disher ever reads this, I'd love to hear what he has to say.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Significant character names

I've just finished Plunder Squad by Richard Stark (also known by his real name, Donald E. Westlake) and started Peter Temple's Identity Theory (also known as In the Evil Day).

In each book, the author gives at least one character a highly evocative name. Stark's Jacques Renard is an oily, dangerous middleman, and renard is the French word for fox. Temple's Con Niemand is a former mercenary and a security agent trained to kill. Niemand means nobody in several Germanic languages, including Afrikaans, a language of South Africa, where Niemand works and Temple was born. That's not a bad name for a potential killer whose services are for sale. I'll hope to have a full report on the overtones of this name in a few days.

In the meantime, what characters can you think of with significant or evocative names?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Bolivian noir ...

... or "sweet noir," as one review called American Visa by Juan de Recacoechea. A hundred pages in, that seems a fair description of the 1994 novel, newly translated into English.

The narrator/protagonist proclaims his love of Raymond Chandler and Chester Himes, but American Visa seems closer in form to Jorg Fauser's The Snowman or Night Bus by Giampiero Rigosi. In each, a central character, down on his luck but not yet desperate, falls into a series of wanderings, mostly or entirely in cities, that are part adventure story, part travelogue. Each book's lively eye for its surroundings manages to keep it oddly upbeat despite the straitened or dangerous circumstances in which the protagonists find themselves.

In American Visa, the adventure is Mario Alvarez's quest for a visa to visit his son in Miami. Alvarez travels from his small town to La Paz, "a city I struggled to recognize; half a million hungry peasants had changed its face. These immigrants from the sterile Andean plateau had taken over La Paz's higher-elevation neighborhoods, like ants swarming over a beehive. A wild rustling accompanied their movements. This gray, unruly mass transformed the entire city into a gigantic marketplace."

Of course, an immigrant of a kind is what Alvarez himself is trying to become, a hope more difficult than in the past for a Bolivian trying to get to the United States because, as one character says, "They think we're all potential drug traffickers." The remark is plucky but rueful, rich with possibility of adventure but also tragedy. I'll be back later to tell you how the story turns out.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Norbert Davis and Max Latin

I admit it: Norbert Davis was American. But he qualifies for this blog on two counts: He had a sense of humor, and Max Latin, just one of his creations in a short but busy career writing for American pulp magazines in the 1930s and '40s, had an interesting profession: He owned a restaurant.

Here's the opening of "Watch Me Kill You!", the first of five novellas collected in The Adventures of Max Latin:

"Guiterrez came out of the kitchen in a cloud of steam and slapped the heavy metal swing door violently shut behind him. He was a tall man with a dark, bitterly disillusioned face. He was wearing a white jacket and a white apron, and he had a chef's hat crushed down over his right ear. There was a towel wrapped around his neck, and he wiped his forehead with its frayed end, glaring at Latin.

"`What was the matter with it?' he demanded."

You're a sterner reader than I if you can resist that.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Reviews in the news

Matilda links to this review of novels by Andrea Camilleri, Peter Corris and Ian Rankin. Among the comments that caught my eye:

"Corris employs great skill in choosing the physical settings for [Cliff] Hardy’s adventures, especially those around inner Sydney suburbs such as Glebe, where Hardy lives, and Newtown, where he has an office."

This tallies with Corris' oft-remarked pioneering use of Australian settings.

"World literature is much richer for the input of Italian Andrea Camilleri (translated by Stephen Sarterelli), Australian Peter Corris and Scot Ian Rankin. Indeed, their contributions are so diverse that confining them to a genre seems arbitrary."

"Rounding the Mark differs in tone from the earlier Montalbano novels, and it seems likely that Camilleri has modified the character so that he resembles more closely the television Montalbano played so superbly by Luca Zingaretti."

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

... and the grandfather of Australian crime fiction

Fergus Hume spent his childhood and early adulthood in New Zealand and then Australia before moving back to his native England. While in Australia, he wrote a crime novel that enjoyed unprecedented success. The surprise is that he published the novel, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, in 1886.

"How strange it seems to Europeans, even to Americans, that the first crime novel to sell over half a million copes was written, set and published on the other side of the world in Melbourne, Australia," writes Stephen Knight in an introduction to a 1985 edition.

Knight discusses the novel in surprisingly modern terms: its analysis of nineteenth-century Melbourne society, its emphasis on confusion of identity, and its less than heroic heroes. The characters have a whiff of Dickens about them -- a fussy, complaining landlady, for example, or "a strikingly aristocratic individual" complete with "drooping straw-colored moustache." But the detective Gorby's investigative techniques seem far more realistic and closer to those of a modern police procedural than those of Sherlock Holmes, whose first appearance he precedes by a year.
A more useful comparison is Émile Gaboriau's Lecoq, whom Hume acknowledged as an inspiration and to whom the story alludes occasionally. These and other references within a detective story to other detective stories are another surprisingly modern touch to a story laid in gaslit rooming houses, horse-drawn cabs and cobble-stone streets.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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The father of Australian crime fiction ...

Peter Corris, according to the Australian Crime Fiction Database, "is credited with reviving the fully-fledged Australian crime novel with local settings and reference points and with a series character firmly rooted in Australian culture -- Cliff Hardy." He has also been called the father of Australian crime fiction.

If Corris is the father of Australian crime fiction because of his emphasis on local settings, then Fergus Hume deserves to be called the grandfather for the same reason. Here's Hume from a preface to The Mystery of a Hansom Cab: "Having completed the book, I tried to get it published, but every one to whom I offered it refused even to look at the manuscript on the ground that no Colonial could write anything worth reading."

And here is just one of several similar references from the body of this 1886 novel: "But it is impossible that the body can remain long without being identified by someone, as though Melbourne is a large city, yet it is neither Paris nor London, where a man can disappear in a crowd and never be heard of again."

Seldom can there have been a crime novel more conscious of its setting.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Passport to crime

Euro Crime brings the welcome news of Passport to Crime, a collection of twenty-six stories from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine's monthly Passport to Crime feature. (I recommended that feature here in October.)

I read some of these stories when they appeared in the magazine, and I recommend Luis Adrian Betancourt's "Guilty" and Theo Capel's "The Red Mercedes" especially. Boris Akunin, Rubem Fonseca and A.C. Baantjer are among the authors represented.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Yasmina Khadra and Bill James interviewed

This evening's Web surfing turned up recently published interviews with two of my favorite crime writers. The interviews are more interesting than most and should make good reading even if you don't know Bill James and Yasmina Khadra (and I think you should know both).

Epic India carries this discussion with Khadra, whose work includes crime novels featuring Algiers Police Inspector Brahim Llob. Khadra speaks bluntly about terrorism, Western media, and Arab leaders as well as with passion about his own background and his love for certain Arab writers who may be unknown in the West.

Here's what he says about the Llob novels, which are funny but also chilling in their evocation of violence and corruption:

“I dreamed of writing station books, books funny and without claim that you could read while waiting for the train or the bus, or while gilding yourself with the sun at the seaside. I dreamed to reconcile the Algerian reader with his literature. I had never thought that Superintendent Llob was going to exceed the borders of the country and appeal to readers in Europe, and America.” (The interviewer speaks English, and Khadra speaks Arabic and French, which may account for the very occasional odd-looking word. But trust me: Khadra always makes himself clear. )

Could this sensitive and talented author be guilty of underestimating his own work or perhaps even of condescension toward crime fiction, to which he has made memorable contributions?

=============

Crimespree has just republished this 2oo4 interview with Bill James, author of the Harpur and Iles series. James' topics include his manic co-protagonist Desmond Iles ("He's basically a good cop. But very basically."), the laughable pretensions of his drug dealers, and some interesting thoughts on female characters I have not discussed here.

He also talks about the music he likes (Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong, among other musicians), and his non-crime writing (He's written and published a study of Anthony Powell, author of A Dance to the Music of Time.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Seicho Matsumoto's trains of thought

Seicho Matsumoto (1909-1992) may be one of the more subtle political crime writers ever. His narrative technique is so absorbing that it took this essay to remind me of political dimensions to his work I had forgotten about. The piece also sheds lights on political dimensions that may be unfamiliar to readers who know Matsumoto only for his crime fiction.

I knew Matsumoto from his novels Points and Lines and Inspector Imanishi Investigates, the stories collected in The Voice, and the movie Zero Focus, based on a Matsumoto novel. I learned from these that Matsumoto wrote somber, swiftly paced crime stories notable for sundered lovers, apparent suicides, and, most noticeably, an unusual emphasis on trains. Protagonists travel the country by train. Bodies are found under railway cars, solutions depend on railroad timetables, and clues turn up in dining cars.

I learned from the essay cited above that Matsumoto, "obsessed with conspiracies," was "a radical" and "a keen left-wing observer of his society who knew where the levers of power were located."

Trains, as it turns out, had something to do with all this: According to the essay's author, Wolcott Wheeler, Matsumoto published a nonfiction exposé of a string of violent events in post-World War II occupied Japan and traced these events to the occupation authorities. Wheeler says these events included, among others, "the mysterious and violent death of Japan Railways chief Sadamori Shimoyama in June 1949, run over by a train; the runaway train caused by sabotage in Mitaka in July 1949; and the notorious Matsukawa train wreck of August 1949, an act of sabotage that was blamed on the Japanese Communist Party (resulting in the banning of the party), for which the Communists were completely exonerated by the Tokyo Supreme Court in 1961."

Further, Wheeler writes that Japan "wholly depends on trains for public transportation; trains are to Japan what automobiles are to the United States. Just as cars represent personal freedom to Americans, railways represent to the Japanese a shared, communal existence based on mutual cooperation."

So, in the work of this excellent Japanese mystery writer, a train may be more than just a train.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Meet the real Modesty Blaise

Crime Time, source of that excellent interview with translators that I've cited before and will keep citing every chance I get, offers this interview with Modesty Blaise's creator, Peter O'Donnell. In it, O'Donnell recounts his memorable meeting with the child who became his model for that memorable ex-criminal and supremely talented operative, Modesty Blaise.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Mystery music

What kind of music does your favorite fictional detective listen to? What sounds course through the pages of your favorite crime fiction?

Sherlock Holmes liked to play the violin, even if Watson did not always enjoy listening. Thanks to technology and economics, today's protagonists are spared the effort of learning and practicing an instrument. They can listen to records, tapes and CDs, and I suppose younger fictional crime-solvers are hooking themselves up to their MP3 players even as we speak because their creator wants to set a mood or to reveal something about a character that only Tom Waits or Tupac or Nirvana can say.

Uriah at Crime Scraps notes that Ake Edwardson's Erik Winter likes jazz and asks: "will it be my kind of jazz, Armstrong, Basie, Hawkins, Spanier and Goodman or more modern stuff ?" I'm sure a toot of Ornette Coleman would not put Uriah off a novel he was otherwise enjoying, but his post did get me thinking about how an author uses music to build a fictional world.

Jean-Claude Izzo's Fabio Montale listens to music as hot, as rich, as spicy and as varied as his hometown of Marseilles. That works for me in part because I know some of the music Montale likes, I'm intrigued by the music I don't know, and in large part because his tastes are distinctive. And it's not just newer writers. Jonathan Latimer made sparing and effective use of radio music in his William Crane novels in the late 1930s.

Then there's Ian Rankin, whose detective, John Rebus, listens to the Rolling Stones, sometimes in books that share titles with Stones albums: Let it Bleed, Black and Blue, Beggars Banquet. I don't begrudge Rebus his love of the Stones, but their popularity is so widespread that a taste for their music is not unusual enough to serve as a distinctive character marker. Maybe that's supposed to be part of Rebus' everyman charm. It won't work for me until Rankin can tell me why Rebus' reaction to the Stones is different enough from yours or mine to hold my interest.

The same goes for Ken Bruen's protagonists. Rock and roll is so mainstream these days that it's tough for an author to use it as a mark of distinctiveness, despair or much of anything, really. It's as banal as using brand names to set the tone of a place and time.

N.B. I've had to amend my comment on Ken Bruen. He actually does some nice things with music in his books, and I've mentioned them in comments to this post. I'm still no big fan of the epigraphs from songs and crime novels that he uses as chapter headings. If I recall correctly, Bust, Bruen's hilarious collaboration with Jason Starr, even uses a quotation from another Starr novel as a chapter heading. That doesn't seem quite right, somehow. Of course, it doesn't have anything directly to do with music, either.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sharp, on target and to the point, or Peter Temple and darts

Peter Temple's Jack Irish plays the horses and makes fine furniture. In Black Tide, he also plays darts. He shoots a game with a police officer friend as they chat about the case at hand, the dialogue punctuated by the players calling out the score. (From the shot-by-shot narration, it's obvious they're playing one of the double-out games, probably 301.)

This was a kick for me, as I've recently resumed my darts career, and I know what darts sound like; I mentally supplied the thwack! thwack! thwack! of the darts hitting the board. The scene also contains a nice piece of descriptive writing: "Barry drank some beer, sighted, threw, just a little explosion of fingers." I've seen darts shooters who lurched, bounced, or lunged, and, for all the spectacle they created, they sucked at darts. Temple's crisp prose matches the no-nonsense approach that makes for a proficient darts player and a pleasant darts game.

The particular game Irish and his friend play is a nice touch, too. In the double-out games, the players start with a given score, usually 301, 501, or 701, and have to work their way down to zero, with the final shot being a double. That is, if a player is down to two points, he wins by hitting a double one. Hitting the two does no good. A game in which players must work their way down to zero (subtle echoes of time running out?), then end the game with a shot of special precision seems nicely suited to a thriller.

***

It had been a while between my reading of Bad Debts, the first Irish novel, and Black Tide, and memory can play tricks. It seems to me, though, that in the later book, Temple did a better job of integrating plot elements of staggering complexity into the story. (In Bad Debts, the crooked deal involved land. In Black Tide, it involves laundered money.) I seem to recall occasionally losing interest in the baroque details of the land-development scheme (without ever enjoying the fine novel the less because of it).

I recall no similar reaction to the even more complicated deals in Black Tide, perhaps because Temple has Irish himself express befuddlement. I don't remember his having done so in Bad Debts, though I'd have to check to be sure. If I'm right, that's another nice touch on Temple's part in Black Tide, a clever way of humanizing the protagonist and making the complicated plot easier for the reader to accept.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Cara Black

The author of the Aimée Leduc series of mysteries, each set in Paris and named for a district of the city, posted a complimentary comment here last week. In return, I thought I'd investigate her work. Murder in the Marais, the first in the series, delves into ugly details of World War II and unsettling parallels in 1990s France.

I know that much from reviews of the novel, which I've just begun reading. What I know first hand, from the opening chapters, is that Black has a nice touch for atmospheric dialogue. Leduc's early encounter with the old man who hires her for the job that sets the plot in motion has an edgy intensity. She's reluctant; he never answers her questions directly, communicating the urgency of his request instead with appeals to the memory of Leduc's father. The indirection works, and it captures what many of us must have felt: annoyance at a persistent petitioner, and annoyance at ourselves for somehow being moved, despite ourselves, to hear the petitioner out.

I mentioned that each book in the series is named for a district in Paris: Murder in Belleville, Murder in Clichy, etc. I wonder if Black took her cue from the pioneering French crime fiction writer Léo Malet, who planned to set one book featuring his anti-hero detective Nestor Burma in each of Paris' arrondissements, or districts.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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FREE BOOKS and a protagonist with two interesting lines of work

More FREE BOOKS are available in Euro Crime’s competitions. I urge you to visit and enter often for this fine source of FREE BOOKS – even though I haven’t won any yet.

It's a Crime! (or a mystery...) offers a list of new crime fiction available in the U.K. in 2007. I’ve posted here about villains as protagonists and also about amateur sleuths with interesting professions, so I was especially taken with the description of Chris Ewan's novel The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam: “The main character is one Charlie Howard who writes caper novels about a career thief and also happens to be one.”

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Temple’s mounts

A few months ago I asked readers which crime novels or stories had taught them something about a particular place or field of endeavor. I called Jonathan Gash and his antiques dealer/thief, Lovejoy, "walking librarians who, in the engaging manner of librarians everywhere, love to share their knowledge."

Peter Temple’s Jack Irish books, more than any other novels I can think of at the moment, offer absorbing and convincing glimpses into two such worlds: Irish's twin passions/avocations of furniture making and horse racing. Here’s an especially nice example of the latter, from Black Tide, the second Jack Irish novel:

“We walked about a hundred metres and found an intact piece of fence to lean on. `Largely a waste of time this,’ Harry said. `Not like a race. Nothin’s like a race except a race. But you find out a bit about the animal. Mostly whether he wants to be the boss horse. Horse race’s just a stampede, y’know, Jack. Some horses always want to be the leader. If they’ve got the power, jockey’s job’s the timin. … Then there’s animals that just don’t want to. Give up. Happens with the best bred. Bugger all the jock can do. And some want to be boss when they’re young and then they say, stuff it. Great horses, they never stop tryin, but the opposition keep getting younger. This one gives it away early.”

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

An encyclopedic site

If you read Italian, you might enjoy the Jazz al Nero blog. The biography and bibliography section includes entries about writers whose names you've seen here (Yasmina Khadra, Petros Markaris, Ian Rankin, et al.), plus many more (Léo Malet, Mickey Spillane, Ellis Peters, Cornell Woolrich, etc.). Even if you don't read Italian, it's fun to see all those names on one list.

The entries are good places to pick up basic information on writers about whom you may be curious -- and to practice your Italian.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

The "lonely middle-aged detective" is growing old

I've come under withering attack for my comments about the loner detective. (OK, two readers registered mild dissent, but permit me my little fantasies, will you?)

One reader offered an incisive comment that I'll repeat here. It's from the Camilleri-loving Uriah Robinson at Crime Scraps, who calls the lonesome loner detectives a "sub-genre that has been done so well in the past that it has run its course."

It may have run its course, but it's enjoying an interesting after-life, sort of like the Roman Empire after the Germanic invasions.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Does life imitate art, or what?

Readers of crime fiction have noted similarities between two no-nonsense, thouroughly professional thieves, Richard Stark's Parker and Garry Disher's Wyatt. Disher himself provides tantalizing clues in his story "My Brother Jack." The Crime Down Under blog provides another even more exciting possible source for Wyatt (or was Wyatt the source?)

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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A catalogue of crime

Librarian's place links to an article about the four finest mystery anthologies, and one vital guide from the Wall Street Journal's Opinion Journal. You might be especially interested in the discussion of A Catalogue of Crime by Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, which the Journal calls "the single (sic) best annotated compendium of mystery and espionage literature ever assembled."

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

More about fictional detectives of a certain age (notes on genre)

A reader's critical remarks about my recent post Deadline in Athens, Part II prompted some thoughts about the nature of "genre" fiction.

The reader objected to my inclusion of Peter Temple's Jack Irish on a list of (mostly) middle-aged detectives with bad, sad or questionable marital histories and, in some cases, a tendency toward alcohol and self-pity (and, yes, Jack Irish is a detective, even though he might not list "detective" as his profession if asked to do so on a tax return. There is ample precedent for using the term even if the sleuth in question is not a police officer or professional investigator. T.J. Binyon's excellent history Murder Will Out: The Detective in Fiction includes amateurs of all kinds. For the purposes of my discussion, a detective was anyone engaged in trying to solve a crime or conduct an investigation. Detective seemed more serious and proper a word than sleuth.)

The reader's main objection, though, was to my having lumped Jack Irish in with other crime-fiction protagonists. Jack Irish, he wrote, "has more friends than is natural, and is one of the most interesting and complex characters in the genre." Further, he admonished me to read more Jack Irish novels "before you cram him into a pigeonhole."

He's right -- on the first point. With respect to the admonition, however, a pigeonhole is the last thing I tried to cram Jack Irish into. If anything, I pushed him onto a pedestal. Here is part of what I wrote in October about Bad Debts, the first Jack Irish novel:

"Yes, Jack Irish has lost his wife to a violent killer. Yes, he came close to personal and professional ruin because of it. But no, he does not sink into self-pity. More to the point, he is capable of clear-eyed self-analysis that no self-dramatizing American, self-pitying Scottish or self-conscious Swedish detective-novel protagonist would be able to manage."

Irish's low-key perspective, I wrote, "makes this something quite new in tone."

The larger issue, though, is genre. My light-hearted list included, in addition to Irish, Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander, Paco Ignacio Taibo II's Hector Belascoaran Shayne, Yasmina Khadra's Brahim Llob, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and a few others. That's an interesting and varied group of protagonists, and it is not "pigeonholing" to recognize that they are of a type. Authors themselves often recognize this in ways that are far too numerous to list here. They allude or refer specifically to earlier crime writers or detectives. Their scenes echo illustrious precedents in great detective fiction.

The link can be subtle, as in Brahim Llob's chilling account of how the fear and violence in Algiers have blunted his sexual desire for his wife in Yasmina Khadra's Morituri. Or it can be explicit and hilarious, as in Robert Crais' Stalking the Angel, where Elvis Cole welcomes a beautiful female client to his office, as so many previous fictional private investigators had, only Cole is standing on his head at the time.

Even if the author does not make the connection, the reader does. If someone writes a "mainstream" novel about a divorced, 45-year-old accountant who likes a drink from time to time and has a job to do, no one thinks anything of it. But substitute detective for accountant, and all kinds of associations come into play. The author may move against this type, may move with it, may ring changes on it, or may do all at the same time in a kind of counterpoint between writer, reader and genre, but the type is always there. Even in the face of something as unfamiliar as the eighteenth-century Judge Dee story translated by Robert van Gulik, most readers, maybe all, will invoke the more familiar fictional detectives, if only as examples of what Judge Dee is not. (Note: That book, published in English as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, inspired Van Gulik to write his own series of Judge Dee novels.)

In any case, this story has a happy ending. I'd been thinking of reading more Jack Irish, and the thoughts that led me to write this comment also sent me to a nearby bookshop, where I bought Black Tide, the second Jack Irish novel. I've read the first chapter, and it's brilliant. But then, I expected no less when I paid tribute to Jack Irish by including him on my list of interesting and distinctive fictional detectives who happen to share certain demographic and social characteristics.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Deadline in Athens, Part II

How many countries have given the world disillusioned fictional male detectives with bad, sad or uncertain marital histories and quirkily solitary habits? Let me pose the question another way: How many countries are there in the U.N.?

Kurt Wallander from Sweden, John Rebus from Scotland, Franz Heineken and Jack Irish from Australia, Hector Belascoaran Shayne from Mexico, Pepe Carvalho from Spain, Inspector Espinosa from Brazil, Brahim Llob from Algeria and Sartaj Singh from India come to mind, along with a couple of Americans you may have heard of named Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.


I’m sure that if Kosovo and New Caledonia attain independence one day, they, too, will eventually produce angst-ridden, divorced, alcohol-weakened fictional sleuths sickened by the senseless violence of Pristina and Nouméa. And if those sleuths are police officers, they will clash with their officious superiors as often as they clash with murderers, drug dealers and blackmailers.

Petros Markaris’ Costas Haritos, chief inspector of the Athens CID, is decidedly of the breed, though with slight differences. Twenty pages into Deadline in Athens, for example, he hasn’t taken a drink yet. He also may turn out to be a bit more arrogant than most, and I’ll be anxious to see if this figures in the plot or is merely an incidental aspect of his character.

Markaris offers some interesting observations about journalism in Greece -- no surprise, given the novel’s titles (it's called The Late-Night News in the U.K.). A flashy young reporter, he has Haritos tell us, is “A modern-day Robespierre with a camera and a microphone” who refuses to address Haritos by name: “He believed … that he represented the conscience of the people, and the conscience of the people treated everyone equally: no name or sign of respect, courtesies that only lead to distinctions between citizens.”

This interested me because it's American journalists who have traditionally taken themselves seriously and waxed somber about their responsibilities and principles, sometimes to the amusement of their British colleagues. (Haritos has a wonderful comeback for the reporter: “I ignored him and addressed myself to them all as a body. If he wanted equality, he’d have it.”)

Haritos also tells the reader something that ought to make any newspaper reader or employee nod in sad recognition: “Reporters are always on my back. … Once it was newspapermen and newspapers; now it’s reporters and cameras.”

Even at this early stage, Haritos shows signs of the idealism that lurks beneath the crusty surface of so many fictional detectives. He conforms to type in another way, as well. I alluded to the quirkily solitary habits of middle-aged fictional sleuths; Haritos’ habit may be weirder than most. He reads dictionaries for pleasure.


P.S. I would not want to create the impression that this interesting group of fictional detectives is nothing but a big bag of symptoms. Jack Irish and Franz Heinken, in particular, are low on angst. Must be the air in Australia.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Will somebody please regulate those vegetables?

I edited a story at work tonight about the continuing fallout from last year’s tainted-spinach scare in the United States. It seems consumers are still wary of leafy green vegetables months after spinach contaminated with E. coli bacteria killed three people and sickened nearly 200.

According to the article, “Plummeting spinach sales have also prompted the produce industry to seek federal oversight to assure buyers that fresh produce is safe.”

The italics in the paragraph above are mine. When was the last time an American industry cried to the federal government: “Regulate me! Regulate me!”? Business, it seems, wants government off its back except when a government seal of approval can boost the bottom line.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Camilleri and "mystery"

The cover of The Smell of the Night proclaims the book "An Inspector Montalbano Mystery." The novel is a mystery, all right, but not in the way of Golden Age mysteries or a newer novel like Adrian Hyland's excellent Diamond Dove.

The book's approach to detection is a kind of hybrid. For about the first two thirds of the novel, the focus is very much more on atmosphere, character, characters, and incidental action, in the manner of Georges Simenon, whom Montalbano likes to read when he has time to relax (and is not worrying about his lover, Livia, or enjoying a large and delicious meal). Toward the end of the novel, though, Montalbano gathers two assistants to review the evidence and discuss theories about the disappearance of a crooked financier and his assistant. Sounds like a traditional police-procedural scene, yes? Not quite. Here's Montalbano opening the session:

"All right," said the inspector. "But let me preface this by saying that what I'm about to describe is a novel. In the sense that there isn't the slightest trace of proof for any of it. And, as in all novels, as the story gets written, events sometimes go their own way, leading to unforeseen conclusions."

There is no straightforward unfolding of the facts here. It's almost as if Camilleri grew exasperated first with the potential for observation to solve a crime, so he turned to traditional techniques but realized these, too, were insufficient. Hence, the motif of the investigator as a storyteller, hoping his story makes sense.

In his leisure time, too, Montalbano is attracted to the idea of solving a crime more through observation of character than through conventional techniques, but the approach never seems quite satisfactory. He never does get far in that Simenon novel he keeps trying to read throughout The Smell of the Night.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Not that I believe in omens, or anything, but ...

Readers of this blog may have sensed that the initial bloom is beginning to wear off now that I've spent seventeen years, five months, three weeks and six days as a copy editor at the Philadelphia ******er.

I don't know, maybe it's just me, but something about 101 people being laid off, a new editor-in-chief every fifteen minutes, the loss of company contributions to my pension, being uprooted three or four nights a week from the department about which I care most, seeing some of my favorite colleagues forced out the door, and being compelled to work weekends for the first time in a decade can get to a person. Does anyone outside my family, my immediate circle of friends, and my sympathetic blog readers care, though? I thought not until very recently.

Each night as I left work plotting revenge, then rejecting the idea as insufficiently forward-looking, I'd step out into the cold Philadelphia night and head home or to Philadelphia's press club. This week or late last week, though, I noticed that the world had gone a little darker, and tonight I figured out why: The streetlights in front of the ******er Building had been extinguished. As far as I could see, on both sides of the street and in either direction, every bank of two street lamps had at least one functioning light, and most had two -- no small achievement in a big American city. But not the one directly in front of the ******er Building's entrance. Coincidence? The work of a sympathetic streets department employee? One of the ten plagues being visited on my paper's new owners?

And then there are those yahoos in Boston who posted flashing signs with weird little robot characters all over that city as part of an advertising campaign, to which the city reacted with an all-day security alert that cost something like a million dollars.

It turns out that activism is not dead, because someone has set up a legal defense fund for one of the ad men-cum-pranksters behind the campaign, who face charges of placing a hoax device and disorderly conduct. Bill Crider's Pop Culture Magazine carries a story about the guy with the defense fund, who happens to share my first name. Bill's blog post includes an illustration that plays on the flashing signs that caused the hub-bub. I have included a copy in the top right corner of this post.

Perhaps, having read the first part of my comment, you will understand why I find the sentiment attractive. In fact, I'm thinking of having it blown up to poster size and picketing in front of the ******er Building. Stop by and lend your support. Only do so during daylight. The streetlights are out, and if you show up too late, you may not see me.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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L'odore della notte

I may look for Andrea Camilleri's The Smell of the Night in its original-language version one of these days. I won't stand a snowball's chance in the inferno of understanding L'odore della notte, especially since Camilleri writes in Sicilian dialect, but I'll want to see the original versions of the sayings that in English became "count your chickens before they hatch," "eat like a horse" and "sow your wild oats" in the scene I wrote about yesterday.

The Sicilian or Italian versions could hardly be literal equivalents. I’m guessing that the translator, Stephen Sartarelli, understood the effect of exasperation that Camilleri was striving for, then looked for English expressions whose triteness would affect an English speaker the way Livia's clichés affect Montalbano.

On the other hand, I once hopped into a cab in Rome on a rainy day, and the cab driver, who knew a tourist when he saw one, looked at me intently in the rear-view mirror, raised his eyebrows, and said, with great deliberation and careful enunciation, “Sto piuvendo – cani – e gatti,” literally “It’s raining – dogs – and cats.”

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Saturday, February 03, 2007

Andrea Camilleri's humor

I stopped by Philadelphia's press club after a bad night of work at my newspaper this week (though "bad night of work at my newspaper" is a pleonasm – unless one works there during the day). An acquaintance of mine from Italy's Lazio region sat at the bar chatting with two friends who the bartender told me were from Rome.

I understand enough Italian to pick out a word here and there and even to follow the thread of a conversation if I concentrate hard enough, which I could not do because a vacuous blowhard with an extremely loud voice sat across the bar from the Romans commiserating with his female friend about cruise ships and Jamaica.

Not only did he hear what she was saying, but he knew where she was coming from. If he had decided to not even go there, I would have slapped a twenty-dollar bill on the bar, ordered him to shut up, and paid for their drinks and their taxi home.

What does this have to do with Andrea Camilleri and his protagonist, the unparalleled Inspector Salvo Montalbano? Montalbano also hates clichés and psychobabbling banality. Here's Montalbano on the phone with his lover, Livia, in The Smell of the Night (titled The Scent of the Night for delicate-nosed U.K. readers):


"`Come on Livia, don't get upset, try to be patient.'

"`You would try the patience of a saint!'

"Oh, God, not another cliche! Sow your wild oats, count your chickens before they hatch, or eat like a horse, when you're not putting the cart first!

"He realized he couldn't put up with this conversation much longer. Aside from the clichés and stock phrases, he couldn't stand the sallies of cheap psychoanalysis that Livia all too often liked to indulge in -- the kind of stuff you get in American movies ... "
This by itself would be good enough to make Montalbano an enjoyable version of the gruff but loveable old uncle. But what follows elevates him to something like a great comic creation. As he and Livia argue, parry, thrust, and make plans, Montalbano muses upon their strange contentiousness of their phone conversations:

"The best of it was that this animosity remained independent of the unshakable intensity of their relationship. But then why, when talking on the phone, did they quarrel, on average, at least once every four sentences? Maybe, thought the inspector, it was an effect of the distance between them becoming less and less tolerable with each passing day, since as we grow old ... we feel ever more keenly the need to have the person we love beside us."
That's lovely, I think, an aching and tender insight, and its resonance grows when one reflects that Camilleri was about eighty years old when the novel was published in 2005. But the scene gets better:


"As he was reasoning along these lines (and he liked this line of reasoning, as it was reassuring and banal, like the sayings one finds on the little slip of paper inside Baci Perugina chocolates) ..."
Bellissimo! What a perfect topper! Montalbano is irritable, Montalbano is wistful, and Montalbano slips with comfort into banalities just as bad as those he finds so maddening in Livia. What a perfect little parable of human relations! Has anyone written about love with such tenderness and humorous understanding?

(For more rhapsodizing about Andrea Camilleri and Salvo Montalbano, read Uriah Robinson, the King of Camilleri, on his Crime Scraps blog.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2007Technorati tags:

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