Wednesday, January 30, 2008

An interview with Fred Vargas' translator – Sian Reynolds, Part I

Sian Reynolds is the only translator to win a Dagger from the Crime Writers' Association. In fact, she is the only two translators to win the award. She and Fred Vargas received the first Duncan Lawrie International Dagger in 2006 for Vargas' novel The Three Evangelists and repeated the next year for Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand. Professor Reynolds has also translated several books by Fernand Braudel, the seminal 20th-century French historian.

Sian Reynolds is professor emerita of French at the University of Stirling, Scotland. Her most recent crime-fiction translation is Vargas' This Night's Foul Work. In this two-part interview, she discusses Fred Vargas, the art and practice of translation, and why the merde flies so liberally in French writing. (Read Part II of the interview with Sian Reynolds here.)

You have translated one of the 20th century’s great social, or human, scientists, Fernand Braudel, into English as well as one of the world’s most popular crime novelists, Fred Vargas. How did you make the transition to translating fiction? How does fiction differ from nonfiction from a translator’s point of view?

Until quite recently I translated only works by historians because it fitted my own academic interests. Translating Braudel was an education in itself. You tend to get typecast, so for ages no one asked me to translate fiction. The two are not as different as you might think. In both cases, you are concerned to provide as accurate an equivalent of the original text as possible for readers in the target language, and you need to be committed to the author’s project. Briefly, for history that nearly always means acquiring expertise in the context: doing a lot of reading around the text in both languages, so as not to mislead through ignorance. In fiction, the novel provides its own context, and you have to be attentive to the world the writer has created.

In the particular case of Vargas, that world is partly that of the classic French ‘polar’, or police-novel, but at the same time it has undercurrents from fairy-tale and medieval romance. And translating a detective novel always means being scrupulous about stylistic detail,because such texts are full of hidden references, often verbal, which may be clues.

How did you come to work with Fred Vargas? And how does it feel to be the only translator ever honored by the Crime Writers' Association?

I already knew Fred Vargas’s books well, and had taught them as examples of fiction and translation exercises with my students at Stirling. My former Edinburgh colleague David Bellos, now in Princeton, did two excellent translations of the first of her books to appear in English (Have Mercy On Us All and Seeking Whom He May Devour – shortlisted by the CWA). When his academic work prevented him having time to do more, Harvill Secker, with David’s encouragement, offered me a contract, since the publisher already knew my Braudel translations.

About the awards, Fred’s books weren’t the first translated books to win CWA daggers. For instance, the Icelandic writer Arnaldur Indriðason’s Silence of the Grave won the Gold Dagger in 2005, and his translator, Bernard Scudder, was thus honoured too, though I don’t know whether the prize was shared. And there must have been others. I’m a Henning Mankell fan myself.

The difference with the new arrangement, when the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger was created in 2006, is that for the first time, it included a separate CWA-sponsored dagger for the translator. I felt surprised, grateful and honoured to get it. I think it’s both generous and right of the CWA to recognise translators as a group, since their work is sometimes taken for granted. I’m sure the competition will always be very stiff. There are many terrific translators of foreign crime fiction these days!

I've just spoken of your working "with" Fred Vargas. To what extent is translation an act of collaboration with an author? To what extent is it an act of individual creativity on the translator's part?

With a living author, it’s always possible to have some communication. When I’ve asked Fred questions about particular points she has always been very cooperative. And she reads and speaks English well herself. But in general she has been pretty hands-off, and left it to me. The translator is a kind of representative of the English-speaking readership: Fred’s books are quirky and often fantastical, sometimes with historical elements, and much appreciated in France. They are about French characters usually in a recognizably French environment, and will necessarily seem a bit foreign to anglophone readers, so the aim is to make them enjoyable on their own terms – but in English.

In Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, a group of Parisian police officers travel to Quebec for seminars with Canadian investigators. Vargas makes each group’s occasional misunderstanding of the other’s brand of French a source of friction. You chose not to render this into English. Could you give an example or two that help explain why you decided as you did?

I did aim to have the Canadian – Quebecois – characters speak in a different idiom from the French ones as much as possible, and had a Canadian friend read it through. The French spoken in Quebec is quite hard for French-from-France people to understand the first time they hear it. In the book, the French characters openly express their difficulty at following their Canadian colleagues’ speech. There is a distinct vocabulary, syntax and a set of colloquial idioms, as well as a particular accent. One short example which I cut (there are very few such cuts) is when Danglard is explaining Quebecois idiom to his colleagues, p. 109 in the French edition:

‘Par exemple, répondit Danglard, ‘Tu veux-tu qu’on gosse autour toute la nuitte?’

‘Ce qui veut dire?’ ‘On ne va pas tergiverser là-dessus toute la nuit’
[Eng: We’re not going to dither about it all night’]
The French are also surprised at immediate ‘tutoiement’ which I changed to ‘using first-names straight away’ which is (still, just) a slight European-North American difference. The Canadians on the other hand say that the French officers ‘talk like in a book’, so I tried to mark that too a bit.

The chief problem in this case is that English speakers from Britain have no problem understanding English speakers from Canada or the US and vice versa – we can always understand transatlantic English, even if there are some turns of phrase particular to Canada. The question of linguistic variants or dialects is very tricky in fiction. You could argue, for example, that many English people find it hard to follow Glasgow speech, so the quebecois characters could have been ‘lent’ a Scottish idiom – but in a novel about Canada that would sound pretty unconvincing! It doesn’t affect the plot at all, it merely adds to the atmosphere of ‘dépaysement’ – uprootedness, which Adamsberg in particular has to face in Canada. I felt in all honesty I should put a note in the book saying that I had cut a few examples of incomprehension, but I compensated by referring quite often to this misunderstanding, introducing as many Canadianisms as possible, and pointing up the friction in other ways.

A more humble problem arises in The Three Evangelists, where a character finds a beech tree has materialized in her yard and wonders who or what is haunting her in this strange manner. The uncanniness is magnified by the identical pronunciation of the French words for beech (hêtre) and a being (être). Perhaps, Sophia wonders, she is being confronted by something less innocent than a tree. ("Un hêtre. Un être?") You chose a different sort of wordplay for the English version. What factors guided your choice? How often does Vargas’ writing force you to make such decisions?

In that case an exact equivalent wasn’t possible, though the echo of ‘being’ was one solution. But there is a much more important example in the same book, which I can’t reveal: a clue is left on a car and the wordplay in French is ambiguous, with an effect on the plot. I thought a lot before coming up with my version which I think works OK and doesn’t give the game away too soon, while respecting the original. In the latest book, there is some play in chapter 1 on the word ‘parquet’ which means both the prosecution in a court of law and a parquet floor in French – you’ll have to see whether you think my solution works. This one doesn’t affect the plot.

(Read Part II of the interview with Sian Reynolds here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

You can take the novelist out of TV, but can you take TV out of the novelist? (A note on Giles Blunt)

The jacket biography on Giles Blunt's The Delicate Storm says Blunt spent twenty years writing for television. Coincidentally, I found a blog post today that offers a harsh assessment of screenwriters who try to write novels:

"Many of them are not novelists. Now there are some excellent screenwriters who are also good authors, but making the transition from one medium to (the) other does not usually work.

"The agent, Mary Evans says, `Oftentimes, you shudder when a screenwriter has written a manuscript. Because they tend to be strong with dialogue but crappy with context … Screenwriters are attracted to novel writing because they can let their freak flag fly and just write what they want, but the truly talented novelist-slash-screenwriter is very rare.'"
None of this applies to Giles Blunt. For one thing, The Delicate Storm does an excellent job on mood and setting, which must be at least part of what Mary Evans means by context.

Still, two features of the novel remind me of television, and I suspect that at least one reflects Blunt's TV experience. Broadly speaking, the book is full of incident and potential subplots. More specifically, at least three dialogue passages are just that: all, or almost all, dialogue, with little or no reaction, as if they were lines from a script.

In one, protagonist John Cardinal, a local police officer, snaps at a young-looking Canadian intelligence officer named Squier who has become involved in a murder case. Here's part of the scene:

"You're with CSIS?"

"Canadian Security Intelligence Service," Musgrave said.

"I know who they are, thanks."

"That's right. I've been with them five years."

"They must have hired you when you were nine." Cardinal sat down in a sky-blue chair that creaked like a new show. He turned to Musgrave. "What's the deal here?"

"I'll let him tell you."

"Squier opened his briefcase and set a silvery laptop on the desk ..."
Look what happens here. Or rather, look what doesn't happen. Cardinal has insulted Squier, and Blunt indicates no reaction on Squier's part whatsoever, not even to say "Squier showed no reaction."

Elsewhere, Cardinal's colleague clashes so bitterly with a coroner that the two seem on the verge of at least a shouting match. A sarcastic remark from the coroner proceeds not to reaction on either his of the officer's part, but rather to some small bit of action (a police photographer taking picture of a shoe) before returning to coroner and officer at work, as if they had never argued.

The pattern repeats itself at least once more in the novel, which is neither good in itself nor bad. But it does contribute to the novel's distinctive texture, a texture I'd guess owes something to the author's other writing career.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Domestic intelligence (Giles Blunt, The Delicate Storm, and a question for readers)

I posted a few days ago about The Delicate Storm by Giles Blunt, noting this Canadian author's ability to chart the humor and hopelessness of small-town life "as well as any American or Swede you’d care to name."

I've since noticed a parallel with one Swede in particular: Henning Mankell. Like that author's White Lioness and, especially, Firewall, The Delicate Storm rather nicely blends small-town life with thriller-like elements of international crime (in this case, the elements involve terrorism of the domestic variety, too.)

This leads to the evening's question for readers: What other novels and stories pull off a similar blend of small-town investigation and international terrorism or financial crime? Think of this as the Daniel Woodrell-meets-John Le Carré question.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

You eat like four millstones! — The truth behind Camilleri's clichés

I wrote last year (here and here) about an amusing scene in Andrea Camilleri's The Smell of the Night (published in the U.K. as The Scent of the Night). Camilleri's protagonist, Salvo Montalbano, seethes when his girlfriend, Livia, tells him that "You would try the patience of a saint!"

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

The scene is funny and tender. I also realized that its original-language version must challenge translators. A cliché or, indeed, almost any idiom cannot be translated literally if it is to retain its flavor. What, I wondered, were the Italian originals behind the clichés that so exasperated Montalbano?

Thanks to the delicious blog Briciole, I now know. The Italian for what English speakers mean by "counting one's chickens before they hatch," Briciole reports, is vendere la pelle dell'orso prima di averlo ucciso, literally "to sell the pelt before killing the bear."

That's a good expression and worth repeating. My favorite, though, is the Italian version of "to eat like a horse": mangiare a quattro palmenti, literally "to eat like four millstones." Even better is this variant: macinare a quattro palmenti, "to grind like four millstones, i.e., like a mill that has four millstones." That's voracious. And now you all have something new to say at your next family feast.

I find the specificity of the four beguiling, and I will make every effort to introduce this delightful expression into English.

Mille grazie to Briciole and its keeper, Simona, whose complete comment you can read here.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Happy Australia Day!

If you can't visit Australia on its national day, how about visiting some Australian Web sites instead? Try Aust Crime Fiction, the Australian Crime Fiction Database, Crime Down Under, Matilda and Mysteries in Paradise (and I hope I haven't missed any). That last site offers further links and suggestions for marking the day and learning more about Australia, its rich crime fiction and its richer lexicon. Bonza!

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Fred Vargas on film and a pair of questions for readers

I've just found this trailer for a movie version of Fred Vargas' Have Mercy On Us All. (The movie bears the novel's original French title, Pars vite et reviens tard.) If this short trailer is an accurate guide, the movie plays up the novel's thriller aspects and plays down its portrait of an old-fashioned village enclave within contemporary Paris.

And that leads to two of my more open-ended questions: For better or worse, what notable changes have filmmakers made to crime novels? And are movie trailers always faithful to the films they promote?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Summer reading in Australia

Those of us shivering here in lands where cold winters are the norm (but newspapers nonetheless think cold weather and snow newsworthy) can sigh wistfully at a blog devoted to summer reading. But you just wait. We'll get back at them in six months.

The State Library of Victoria had the delightful idea not just of asking readers what their summer choices are, but of inviting authors to post essays and lead discussions.

Guests so far have included two writers discussed here: Adrian Hyland and Garry Disher. Disher offers detailed discussions of crime fiction, of how he works, and of his own characters. Hyland offers yet more delightful stories behind his novel Diamond Dove and his life amid Australia's indigenous people.

I'd like to see libraries elsewhere follow suit. This is a terrific way to connect authors and readers. (Hat tip to Crime Down Under.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Crime fiction close to home and a question for readers

The latest border I’ve crossed brings me to my native land: Canada, for The Delicate Storm by Giles Blunt. My early impression is favorable. The man can portray small-city humor and hopelessness as well as any American or Swede you’d care to name.

But I’ve also noticed familiar touches: names that reflect Canada’s Anglophone and Francophone mix (Ivan Bergeron, Lisa Delorme), and the jacket’s reference to an investigation that leads back three decades to Quebec terrorists. I lived through that period; I’ll be interested to see how Blunt handles it.

And now, readers, your question: How do you feel about crime fiction set in and around places where you have lived? Examples, please!

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Because Aristotle said so


"(I)t is an instinct of human beings, from childhood, to engage in mimesis (indeed, this distinguishes them from other animals: man is the most mimetic of all, and it is through mimesis that he develops his earliest understanding); and equally natural that everyone enjoys mimetic objects. A common occurence indicates this: we enjoy contemplating the most precise images of things whose actual sight is painful to us, such as the forms of the vilest animals and of corpses. The explanation of this too is that understanding gives great pleasure not only to philosphers, but likewise to others, too ..."
— Aristotle, Poetics
Now, just tell me that this guy would not have been fascinated by crime fiction.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Take a letter, Uriah

The painting to your right is one of Rem-brandt's finest, and that means it is one of the most splendid and moving depictions of tragic emotion ever rendered by human hands.

It also illustrates one of the great proto-crime stories, of the kind that I've discussed before and asked readers to suggest more of. The painting is Bathsheba at Her Bath, and it depicts the story from 2 Samuel, Chapter 11, wherein King David sees Bathsheba bathing, is smitten, and does what it takes to get the woman he loves, even if it means — murder.

Here, Bathsheba has just received the king's summons, and you can tell from her face, her lowered head, and the fateful letter she holds how this one is going to turn out. In case you need to brush up on your biblical knowledge, the story is here. David, having made Bathsheba pregnant, summons her husband from battle and tries to send him home, to sleep with Bathsheba and thereby conceal David's own misdeed (the story, of course, takes place before the advent of DNA testing.) But the loyal Uriah refuses the comforts of home while his brother soldiers are still in the field.

David then sends him back to battle with a letter to the commander Joab ordering Joab to place Uriah in harm's way and thus ensure his death. He dies, Bathsheba mourns, she marries David and gives birth to his son.

What makes this a proto-crime story, other than David's treacherous act? The story's chillingly laconic kicker. Here's the chapter's second-to-last sentence:

"And when the mourning was past, David sent and fetched her to his house, and she became his wife, and bare him a son."

Domestic bliss? Not so fast. Here's the last sentence: "But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD." A man sins, tries to escape his predicament, and only gets himself in deeper. Driven to killing, he is brought low as a consequence of his own acts.

And God said, let there be noir.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

(Image of Bathsheba at Her Bath from
Mark Harden's Artchive)

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Women and history mysteries

I commented in September about the Women in World History Curriculum's Web site and its advocacy of crime fiction as a teaching tool. More recently, I’ve reflected that the Crime Writers Association award for historical crime fiction, probably the leading prize in the field, is named for a woman, Ellis Peters.

I wondered, then, if female authors are or were drawn to historical crime fiction in greater proportion than male authors and if so, why. It would be easy to imagine that until recent decades, female authors (and readers, for that matter) interested in criminal investigation, and finding few female police officers and investigators in their own worlds, might turn to the past, where they could give their imaginations freer rein.

What do you think?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Bad girl, bad boy and a question for readers

Why do authors turn to historical crime fiction? I imagine writers so bursting with erudition and good stories that they need outlets livelier than journals, dissertations and monographs. I like to think such is the case with Peter Tremayne and Lindsey Davis. Both are scholars, the first of early medieval Ireland, the second of early imperial Rome, and scholarship marks their series about Sister Fidelma and Marcus Didius Falco. (The staff at Fishbourne Roman Villa near Chichester in England, a moving and spectacular monument of the Roman world and a scene of one of Davis' books, praises her work.)

Carlo Lucarelli was a scholar, too, working on a thesis with the mid-1960s-Dylanesque title "The Vision of the Police in the Memories of Anti-Fascists" when he "ran across a strange character who in a certain sense changed my life." He abandoned his thesis, and that character became the inspiration for Commissario De Luca, protagonist of Carte Blanche, That Damned Season and Via delle Oche. It's easy to read the dizzying administrative mess of De Luca's Fascist and post-Fascist Italy as commentary on a more current version of the country. And then there is David Liss' stunning The Coffee Trader, the most thorough and convincing work of historical illusionism I have ever read.

But erudition, social criticism and coffee are not the only inspirations for historical fiction. Another is good, old-fashioned dirty fun. I received a note on an unrelated topic this week from Mary Reed, who, with Eric Mayer, writes a series about John the Eunuch, a high official in the Byzantine court of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora. Why, I asked her, had she and Mayer chosen this particular period?

"What happened," she replied, "was Mike Ashley asked us to write a short story for one of his early Mammoth Book historical-mystery collections, but the snag was we had only about three weeks to deadline. As it happened, Eric was interested in the Byzantine period and had a number of books about it, so we thought ... hmmm ... research material to hand, and nobody is working in that field (now, of course, it is beginning to get rather crowded in there), lots of colour and scandal, and so we wrote the first story about John."
Readers, I can tell you that if you ever have a deadline to meet and a desperate need for dirt, you cannot do better than sixth-century Constantinople. Procopius, the great early-Byzantine historian and scandal-monger, inspired several of Reed and Mayer's books, and it's no wonder. The avowed subject of his Secret History is "the folly of Belisarius, and the depravity of Justinian and Theodora."

I'll leave you to read the salacious details yourself. Suffice it for now to note that Reed and Mayer have had "a lot of fun with reference to the business with the geese and Theodora."

And now, readers, it's your turn. What makes a historical period ripe for treatment in crime-fiction form?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Return of the son of things that drive you nuts

Woody Allen was arguably funnier as a writer than he is as a filmmaker. Among the recurring motifs of his early humorous pieces is the deadly, ennui-inducing salesman of life insurance or mutual funds. That early Allen could imagine nothing so boring as being trapped in an elevator with one of those creatures.

Such gibes would lose their sting in today's United States, where the ongoing American Revolution has made personal finance everyone's business, at least those who don't work in benefitless low-wage jobs.

But I think I've found something just as boring: People who talk about their cell phones. I don't mean people who talk on their cell phones; I mean people who gather round a table commiserating excitedly about roaming charges or to whom cell-phone features are a matter of pride. I swear, I once heard a man on a street corner in one of Philadelphia's ritzy shopping areas boast to his companion that "mine is smaller than yours."

Fran Lebowitz once wrote: "Big people talk about ideas. Average people talk about things. Small people talk about wine." Today, I suspect, she'd have to miniaturize her classification even further.

How about you, dear readers? What is the most boring subject you can think of?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Whence Wodehouse?

Book/Daddy offers a recent roundup of interesting miscellany, of which my favorite is this article from the Telegraph about A Wodehouse Handbook: The World and Words of P. G. Wodehouse by N.P.T. Murphy.

The book, according to reviewer David Twiston-Davies, whose own moniker is just one syllable short of Wodehousean, lays open Wodehouse's hard-edged realism (or is it naturalism?) The great humorist, Col. Murphy reveals, based his country-house settings and many of his characters not on fantasy but on experience. Volume two of the handbook, according to Twiston-Davies,

"explains for the new ignorant masses the references to the Bible and Shakespeare, translates arbiter elegantiarum and identifies Ouida and Death Valley Scotty. This may be a good idea, but it threatens the creation of a university course with the dread title 'Wodehouse Studies'."
Why should this interest crime-fiction readers? First because Wodehouse was so brilliant a humorist, but also because he had a special affection for crime stories. In fact, I'll be eager to see if Col. Murphy tracks down a real-life model for the delightfully titled Strychnine in the Soup.

Two mystery bookstores where I have shopped also offer sizable selections of Wodehouse, so mystery readers appear to like Wodehouse as much as Wodehouse liked mysteries.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Ethics and crime stories?

Clea Simon posed some questions on this subject last month on her blog. Her queries included:

Do you think mysteries have or promote ethical systems?
Do you care if justice is served?
and, perhaps most provocative,
can a book be moral or immoral?

I'll pass those questions on to you, but I won't let you off with any yes/no answers. Instead, I'll ask how a crime novel or story can express its ethics in ways other than simply the good guy winning in the end. Is ethics the same as justice? What about stories in which a villain wins or no one wins? What can one say about the ethics systems of such stories? Be sure to give examples!

Such writers as Yasmina Khadra, Jean-Claude Izzo, Jean-Patrick Manchette and perhaps Matt Rees upend or put novel spins on the good-guy-wins-in-the-end ending. One variant is the good-guy-left-standing-alone ending. What others can you think of?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Carnival of the Criminal Minds, No. 8

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for coming. The title of this evening's lecture is –

Wait, this a carnival, not a lecture, isn't it? But a previous host of the carnival as well as its creator have alleged that I have "a brain like the Mekon from the old Dan Dare comics" and "a brain the size of a planet."

So I'll stick with the egghead (or is it fathead?) theme for a moment and take you on a tour of some of my favorite reference sites. If you can read Italian, get over to Jazz al Nero. If you can't, get over there anyway and scroll down the site's list of biographies. There's something exciting about seeing that many crime-fiction names from that many countries all together in one place. It's like a stroll through a well-stocked bookstore or library. Click on the names, read the accompanying bibliographies, and, in some cases, wring your teeth and gnash your hands over titles translated into Italian but not yet into English.

Same with Krimi-Couch and Internationale Krimis, only the language is German. It's always interesting to see what crime-fiction readers in other countries read, and besides, crime is the universal language. I'm sure these blog hosts appreciate efforts to communicate in their language, but they can get by in English, too!

The ne plus ultra, sine qua non and heavyweight champ of crime-fiction reference is In Reference to Murder. Looking for bibliographies, blogs or book clubs? Dictionaries or discussion groups? Magazines, media or miscellaneous? You need look no further than In Reference to Murder. In addition to all the entertaining and useful features, it is also the only blog I know of whose mascot is a fingerprint.

Every good library has a periodicals section full of inviting racks of hanging newspapers. Here on the Internet, visit Euro Crime news, part of the Euro Crime family of fine Web sites, for the latest in news coverage of crime fiction.

Now, let's take a hop, a skip and a jump around the globe, starting in Mongolia. Michael Walters has published two crime novels set in that country, and his blog offers looks behind the books as well as weird bits of news about a fascinating and rapidly changing country. Recent posts bear titles such as "Stolen Nuts and Geometric Haircuts," "A Mad Soft Expanse of Green" and "Sumo Chucks a Sickie."

From Finland, Juri Nummelin holds forth about crime, noir, pulp, hard-boiled, horror, fantasy, erotica, cartoons, writing and publishing at Pulpetti. We in America tend to regard some of those genres as our own. It's fascinating to see how far they've reached. Besides, he knows a hell of a lot more about obscure corners of these genres than just about anybody anywhere.

For reasons I can't recall, my first group of overseas readers and contacts at Detectives Beyond Borders was in Australia. Two from that early group maintain blogs and reference sites that are excellent places to bone up on Australian crime fiction. Say g'day to Aust Crime Fiction, Crime Down Under and the Australian Crime Fiction Database.

For Irish crime, there are no better and no more raucously entertaining guides than Critical Mick and the hard-working elves at Crime Always Pays. Finally, if you like Italian mysteries, you'll like Italian Mysteries.

Let's take one more quick visit to the library before I turn you over to the ninth host of this crime carnival. Uriah Robinson of Crime Scraps has been writing about crime fiction as long as I have, with emphasis on Italian and Scandinavian writers. Recently he has branched into quizzes, and his sweetly named Quirky Quizzes have shrunk my fat green head a notch or two. Drop in, and prepare to have your brains busted.

Since libraries are quiet places, visit Glenn Harper at International noir fiction. He doesn't post as much as some other bloggers do, but no one writes more thoughtfully about international crime fiction. Pester him with comments, and maybe he'll write more.

But there's more to the world than Detectives Beyond Borders, and I urge you to explore that world and visit the previous hosts of Carnival of the Criminal Minds. Then, in about two weeks, get ready for a whole new kind of exploration when your host will be Graham Powell of CrimeSpot.

(Carnival photo from the History of Carnival Web site.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, January 14, 2008

And the award for best line in a supporting role goes to ...

Great opening lines are a frequent topic of discussion, and understandably so. They set a story's tone, they draw in the reader, they set the bar high for the author.

But what about those less conspicuous lines and set-ups that maintain the tone once it has been set? These may not open a story or occur at its climax or some moment of high suspense, but they are the ... well, choose your construction metaphor: the mortar or the bricks or the long-lasting aluminum siding. They contribute to the overall impression without necessarily being the lines you'll repeat to a friend the next day.

I've been reading more of Eoin Colfer's books, which abound in lines of that sort. I'll give you a few, then I'll ask you for some of your own. In Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception, the Opal of the title is an evil genius who lies in a coma in a private psychological clinic run by one Dr. Jerbal "Jerry" Argon. You know what the makes his clinic, don't you?: The J. Argon Clinic. Say it fast, only don't say it if there's a psychologist around. He or she may not have a sense of humor.

And here's a description from a story in The Artemis Fowl Files:

"Mulch found burglary much more suited to his personality than mining. The hours were shorter, the risks were less severe, and the precious metals and stones that he took from the Mud Men were already processed, forged and polished."
The character has already been established; this is just a way of embellishing him in an entertaining fashion. And that, I'd say, is one characteristic of a good storyteller.

Now, readers, it's your turn. Think about the book you're reading now. Think about its mood or tone. Then pick a line or two that, in a modest, inconspicuous way, helps create that tone.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Authors' personalities: What kind of people do you think your favorite writers are?

After the high seriousness of recent Detectives Beyond Borders posts, today I offer an agreeable parlor game. Your job is to imagine what sorts of people your favorite authors are and to tell me why you guessed the way you did.

Was it something from their books? Something they did? Something they said in interview? To start you off, I'll tell you two of mine: I imagine Donald Westlake and Garry Disher to be intelligent and analytical, the former because of his plot experiments and his thoughtful comments about the state of popular culture, the latter because of the highly amusing deconstruction of detective stories in his own story"My Brother Jack."

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

For British readers only, plus a question

In recognition of my city's deliciously named new mayor, I will from time to time reprint headlines from the newspaper for which I work. Today's selection is from a story about his inauguration:

Nutter's New Beginning

Readers: What are your favorite crime-fiction character names, even if they're not as good as that of Philadelphia's real-life Mayor Nutter? Or, if you're feeling especially creative, British readers, compose the first paragraph of a story to go with that headline.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sir Kenneth to be Kurt Wallander

A reader reminds me that Kenneth Branagh will play Kurt Wallander in BBC adaptations of Henning Mankell's novels One Step Behind, Firewall and Sidetracked.

Branagh, according to the BBC, "has had a long time passion for the books." It's nice to know that the actor/director shares a liking for an author who has introduced so many to international crime fiction.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, January 11, 2008

An author weighs in on title changes

I've discussed title changes from time to time, those sometimes odd alterations that a book's name undergoes when translated or otherwise crossing borders.

Ian Rankin's Fleshmarket Close became Fleshmarket Alley in the U.S., presumably because American readers might not know that a close was an alley or closed space. Olen Steinhauer's 36 Yalta Boulevard and Liberation Movements became The Vienna Assignment and The Istanbul Variations in the U.K. And Adrian Hyland's Diamond Dove will be called Moonlight Downs in the United States because his American publisher's list already included Peter Lovesey's Diamond Dust.

Matt Rees, both of whose titles were changed for publication in the United Kingdom, says his U.K. publishers thought The Collaborator of Bethlehem sounded more like a thriller than a mystery. The book appears in the U.K. as The Bethlehem Murders. Rees had the following to say about title changes:

"In the U.K., they've also changed the title for the second book in the series, which will be out in February. In the U.S., they're using my original title, which is A Grave in Gaza. In the U.K., it'll be called The Saladin Murders. In this case, it's because the U.K. publisher thought Gaza conjured up an image of news, nonfiction rather than fiction. I came up with Saladin Murders because the
main road through the entire length of the Gaza Strip, along which much of the action of the novel takes place, is called the Saladin Road. It's certainly a bit confusing.

"Now that my novels are appearing in a number of other languages, it's quite difficult to hold the titles in my head, as different countries choose titles which resonate in their own languages. In Italy and Spain, it's called The Teacher of Bethlehem, in German, Dutch and Portuguese The Traitor of Bethlehem."
Excessive newsiness and local resonance: two more reasons for publishers to change a novel's title. What other reasons can you think of for a publisher to make such a change? What is the weirdest such reason?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Accident Man

The good folks at Viking Penguin were kind enough to send along a copy of The Accident Man by Tom Cain. The novel has drawn attention for its fictionalization of a certain British princess' death, but that's not what caught my eye in the opening pages.

Rather, I have in mind Declan Burke's definition of crime fiction in a current discussion on Crime Always Pays, which reads, in part, thus:

"If a writer understands that the fictions of crime in books or movies serve as a lightning rod to the inevitable fears and paranoias of the modern world, and has wit enough to render our most primal instinct entertaining, then he or she is a crime writer and the book is a crime novel."
Entertaining? The title refers to the protagonist's profession. Sam Carver is an international hit man who arranges the demise of those who deserve it and in such a way that their deaths appear accidental.

Fears and paranoias? Here's how Cain describes one target in a prologue that sets the novel's tone: "The official term for Visar's business was people-trafficking, but Carver preferred a more traditional job description. As far as he was concerned, the Albanian was a slave trader."
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Read an entertaining, wide-ranging interview with Tom Cain on Bookslut.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

"We'll be back on the air when we know anything," or why books are better than television

I don't spend much time around the flashy new medium of television, but when I do, the viewing seems disproportionately often to be Law and Order or one of its numerous offshoots. Tonight the tedium was relieved only by something even worse: an American network's election-night coverage. But more on that, as a portentous anchorperson might say, later.

My beefs with Law and Order are the (faux?) handheld camerawork and the humorless deadpan batting back and forth of sound bites about Important Issues. The former may have been edgy in the late 1960s and seemed edgy in early music videos, but now it's an annoying cliché. The latter is an unsuccessful attempt to get around something that books can do better than television: convey factual information.

That shortcoming is especially noticeable in shows about forensic investigation, where characters will recite aloud to one another lines like "In some respects, he meets the typical profile: White male, 30 to 35 years old, lives alone, good job, some graduate school. You know, I bet he tends not to have many friends and has trouble forming relationships with women." Real investigators would know this stuff and would not need to spout it to each other. The actors' delivery is invariably wooden, and the scenes destroy the suspension of disbelief that is necessary for drama or fiction to work. In fiction, this sort of thing is called an information dump. In television, it's called Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

I watched part of an episode tonight over pizza, interrupted occasionally by NBC's cut-ins about the New Hampshire presidential primaries. These are terrible, because even a short cut-in tries to stretch about four seconds of information ("With 57 percent of the vote counted, Hillary Clinton leads Barack Obama, 36 percent to 32 percent.") over several minutes of air time. So you get television "journalists" who try to make the obvious sound profound ("Jim, I think what we'll see here is that if he gets just 3 percent of the vote in this critical early state, you may see him change his strategy."), and you get panicked commentators who fill dead air with annoying verbal tics, like the guy tonight who said "if you will" four times.

But the evening was not a total waste. NBC's Brian Williams, no doubt wanting to convey the immediacy of the occasion, implied more than he intended when he told viewers as he signed off that "We'll be back on the air when we know anything."

And now, readers, over to you. In what other ways do books tell stories better than television? What advantages does television have as a medium for telling stories?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, January 07, 2008

The Collaborator of Bethlehem, Part II

Yes, he does make mistakes and unwarranted assumptions born of overconfidence, as a good amateur detective should.

He is Omar Yussef, the schoolteacher protagonist of The Collaborator of Bethlehem (a.k.a. The Bethlehem Murders) by Matt Beynon Rees (a.k.a. Matt Rees). Or perhaps the line between amateur and professional is meaningless in an infernal world such as Yussef's, where the distinctions between law, terror, honor, corruption and revenge have just about evaporated. To avoid plot spoilers, I won't discuss his mistakes – or his right guesses, for that matter – except to say that even the wildest among them is, sadly, plausible.

Yussef is a Muslim; the friend and former pupil whose life he fights to save is a Christian. Hamas and Fatah are both mentioned, but clan alliances and rivalries and good, old-fashioned greed figure far more prominently. Israeli tanks make one fearsome appearance, but the Palestinians of this Bethlehem do too good a job destroying themselves to need much help from anyone else.

Yussef, the good guy, wins in a sense – Soho Press is about to publish the second novel in the series, so I'm giving away nothing if I say that Yussef does not die. But his triumph is partial. Still, its particular nature (again, I'll give no spoilers) adds to the attraction of this good, flawed, dogged and enormously appealing protagonist.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Collaborator of Bethlehem

Matt Beynon Rees chose wisely when he made the protagonist of The Collaborator of Bethlehem a teacher; Palestinians are said to revere education. Furthermore, Rees’ Omar Yussef teaches history, which makes him a plausible mouthpiece for harsh judgments on modern Arab and Palestinian history and current events, judgments that make him an object of suspicion in the West Bank.

His skepticism naturally makes him a good detective, an avocation he exercises when a friend and former pupil is charged with collaborating with Israel in a killing.

As one might expect, the novel asks probing questions about Palestinians, about their horrible and self-destructive internecine fighting, and about their daily lives. I suspect that partisans of Hamas or Fatah might not like the book, but I also suspect that the rest of us might come away from it with a good deal of sympathy for Palestinians as people rather than as symbols.

Yussef is plagued by doubts from time to time. Having cited the aptness of his profession for an amateur detective, I’ll keep my eyes open to see whether he also commits a sin to which an amateur detective should perhaps be especially prone: overconfidence in his own judgments.

N.B. The Collaborator of Bethlehem is the U.S. title for the novel published in the U.K. under the less resonant name The Bethlehem Murders. The U.K. edition also drops the Beynon from Rees’ name.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

More Detectives Beyond Borders' 2007 top eighteen (or nineteen)

A few more highlights of the crime-fiction year just past:
The Big O by Declan Burke – A tour de fun from a high-spirited Irish novelist and blogger.

Crook as Rookwood by Chris Nyst – This headlong, comic legal thriller managed the difficult feat of sharing a Ned Kelly Award with Peter Temple's superb The Broken Shore for best crime novel of 2006. Nyst mixes humor and menace, plunges headfirst into the dirtiest of politics, and shows a flair for incisive courtroom drama. No surprise in that last; Nyst is a celebrated criminal-defense lawyer in Australia. The novel is also full of delicious Australian slang.

Macbeth and Hamlet by Christopher Marlowe, Edward de Vere or Queen Elizabeth I – I'll spare you any pronouncements about crime fiction vs. "serious" literature. I will remind you that Shakespeare's unparalleled and chill-inducing insights into human nature include in these two plays explorations of the fragmenting minds of the grandest killers known to English literature.

The Redbreast and The Devil's Star by Jo NesbøThe Redbreast is a chilling, gripping, atmospheric, psychologically acute decades-spanning thriller and mystery spiced with touches of romance and humor. The Devil's Star is rich in incident, in subplot, in deliciously slowed-down narrative passages, but the centerpiece is the protagonist. Harry Hole is the most alcoholic fictional detective I have ever come across. He passes out, he sleeps poorly, and he is tortured by nightmares from his past. Yet he is oddly accepting of his fate, if not passive, and this makes him compelling and sympathetic. Crime-fiction readers can look forward to this Norwegian author's Nemesis, to appear in English translation later this year.

The Flaxborough Chronicles by Colin Watson – Not a novel, but a series of novels, published from 1958 through 1982. Watson casts a loving but satirical eye on English village life while keeping up with the times and remaining thoroughly contemporary. This series was one of the year's big discoveries for me, and I repeat my big thanks to Michael Walters for suggesting Watson and to Karen Chisholm for raving about him. Find a complete list of the Flaxborough novels here.

He Who Fears the Wolf by Karin Fossum – This Norwegian writer offers a lead investigator who enters late, outcast characters treated with sympathy and humor, and a cast of characters in which everyone is a thinker, even the dogs.

The Broken Shore by Peter Temple – You may have heard of this Australian novel, winner of the Ned Kelly Award and the Duncan Lawrie Dagger and deserving of both. In addition to the novel's other virtues, Temple writes beautiful prose.

The Return and Borkmann's Point by Håkan Nesser – One of my big crime-fiction discoveries this year, belatedly translated into English and proof that Swedish crime writers can combine wit and humor with deadpan observation and social concern.

The Chinaman by Friedrich Glauser – Another carefully observed, quiet, mordantly satirical mystery from this great Swiss writer of the 1930s, though warmer, more personal and touched with more wry humor than its predecessors: Thumbprint, In Matto's Realm and Fever. This superlative crime writer is the jewel of Bitter Lemon Press' fine catalogue.

"Watch Me Kill You!" and “You’ll Die Laughing” by Norbert Davis – The first of these stories is from The Adventures of Max Latin, the second from The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. Think those old-time hard-boiled American pulpsters could not go for laughs and succeed? Think again.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, January 04, 2008

The continuing carnival

Come see the BookBitch (yes, BookBitch, one word) climb out from underneath a mountain of reading to host the seventh incarnation of Carnival of the Criminal Minds. Compared to her, Susan Sontag, who once claimed to read a book a day, was a slacker.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Detectives Beyond Borders top eighteen (or nineteen), part I

What’s so great about the decimal number system? Who says base ten rules? And do the Simpsons keep top-eight lists because they have eight fingers rather than our ten?

I can no more trim my list of 2007’s top crime reading to ten than I can restrict it to novels or to fiction, for that matter. So, here's part one of a list of novels, stories, plays and histories that made my crime-fiction reading interesting in 2007.

Nice Try by Shane Maloney – At least as funny as the other novels in this Australian writer’s Murray Whelan series but, it seems to me, more intricately (and tightly) plotted.

Fast One by Paul Cain – This novel by the most enigmatic of the American pulpsters is fast, witty, hard and, perhaps most impressive for a book published in 1932, not at all dated in its language.

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer – A group entry of the first four books in Colfer's series about a young criminal genius, plus Half Moon Investigations, about a 12-year-old private eye. The books are funny, smart, and decidedly not just for young-adult readers.

"Bloody Windsor" by Gwendoline Butler and “An Urban Legend Puzzle” by Norizuki Rintaro – These two stories, the first from The Oxford Book of Detective Stories: An International Selection, the second from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine's Passport to Crime collection, make the list because they surprised me with little acts of authorial magic. Butler sets the scene forcefully at the start and thereby avoids the need to clutter the rest of the story with detail of its eighteenth-century setting. Norizuki, part of the "New Traditionalism" movement in Japanese crime writing, has written a story true to the old tradition of the puzzle mystery yet thoroughly modern in setting and feel.

Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand by Fred Vargas – Funny and written with a deep sympathy for its characters. This and the French author's other three novels published to date in English translation give quirkiness a good name.

Snobbery With Violence: English Crime Stories And Their Audience – Colin Watson’s highly opinionated social history of English crime fiction will make you laugh just as I suspect it made its original audience squirm in 1971. And you may be surprised by what Watson says about George Orwell.

Diamond Dove by Adrian Hyland – This debut, winner of Australia’s Ned Kelly Award for best first crime novel, does a number of things well. It’s a glimpse into a fascinating, exotic, though thoroughly contemporary world, it’s a convincing and well-plotted amateur-sleuth tale, and it’s funny, with a sympathy for its characters something like that Fred Vargas has for hers.
How about you, gentle readers? If you can still remember 2007, tell me about your favorite crime reading from that year.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

No crime in these islands? (Crime fiction in the Philippines)

I don’t know how I missed this when it appeared this summer, but it is emphatically not too late to consider this compelling discussion of crime fiction in the Philippines, or the lack thereof, with subdiscussions here, here, and here.

Among the highlights is this provocative assessment from the Accidents Happen blog:

"So we don't write about it because we think it won't work in the Philippine context; the same way we don't bother to go to a police station when the FX we're riding in is held up by armed men who take our mobile phones, our wallets, our wedding rings. There's a sort of romanticized hopelessness in the way we write about crime, a stoic acceptance that that's the way things are, here in da Pilipins.

"So to sum up a very long ramble: the first reason I think we don't write a lot of crime fiction – to paraphrase [Andrew] Taylor – is that we long ago stopped trying to make sense of our violent society, and quit hoping that evil would not go unpunished."
The prevalence of crime, the pessimistic writer says, inhibits the writing of crime fiction. This makes a thought-provoking contrast with explanations of recent crime-fiction booms in Sweden and Ireland, such as this one, from an essay about Irish crime fiction: “As Ken Bruen, one of our most highly-rated crime writers wrote:`I didn’t want to write about Ireland until we got mean streets. We sure got ’em now.’”

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Conventions of crime

I’m starting the New Year much as I finished the old one: reading a kids’ book. Once again, it’s Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, this time the fifth book in the series, Artemis Fowl: The Lost Colony.

This past summer, I wrote about Colfer’s entertaining spoof of hard-boiled detectives in Half Moon Investigations. In The Lost Colony, Colfer goes beyond spoof to explore and expand upon another crime-fiction convention, which might make this book especially enjoyable for experienced readers of the genre. Once again, Colfer proves not just that he can tell an entertaining story, but that he thinks seriously about crime fiction.

(I won’t say which convention Colfer explores because doing so would arguably constitute a plot spoiler, even though the exploration happens early in the book.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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