Thursday, July 31, 2008

August 3 Noir at the Bar postponed

An annoying but non-calamitous circumstance has forced postponement of this Sunday's scheduled Noir at the Bar III with Dave White.

Look for notice of a rescheduled appearance by Dave, author of When One Man Dies and The Evil That Men Do. Until then, find out about his novels and read his short fiction at http://www.davewhitenovels.com/.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

Borrowed titles?

I thought the same thing you did when I found that Michael Innes had published a mystery novel titled The Long Farewell in 1958: Here is a respectful tribute to Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, published five years earlier.

Is it in fact such a tribute? I don't know, but it did get me thinking about title tributes, and now I'll ask you to join me. What books or stories took their titles from lines in or titles of other works and changed them just enough to make a knowing reader smile?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

An interview with Timothy Hallinan, Part II

In part two of his interview with Detectives Beyond Borders, author Timothy Hallinan talks about the persistence of the Khmer Rouge, Western crime writers in Southeast Asia, and his protagonist's interesting career.

(Read part one of the interview with Timothy Hallinan here.)
==========================

The afterlife of the Khmer Rouge figures in A Nail Through the Heart. Have Khmer Rouge figures in fact slipped into civilian lives in Southeast Asia outside Cambodia?

Absolutely. Madame Wing actually lives in Bangkok, under a different name, of course. The Khmer Rouge stole hundreds of millions of dollars. Some of the murderers simply stayed in Cambodia. Some of them are high up in the Cambodian government, which is the main reason it's taken so long to bring anyone to trial. But some of them slipped away, and she's one of them.

Poke Rafferty is settling down from a life of writing the kinds of travel guides I'd have liked to read. Why did you choose this as a former career for your protagonist? And do such travel guides exist?

You know, at the time I started to write the series, I was sure they did, but now I don't think so. Lonely Planet kind of started out as alternative guides, but now, as we all know, they're publishing guide books by people who have never visited the countries they're writing about. I've thought several times of writing them myself, under Poke's name, just to get people confused. But it would require too much energy. The great thing about fiction is that you can just make it up.

Poke came to me on New Year's 1998, when I walked Bangkok from about 10 P.M. to 9 A.M. I went everywhere, but mostly off the main drags. And Poke came into my mind: a travel writer who writes about the places that are beyond the margins of the well-worn tourist paths. And I immediately realized that this character had already written a couple of books, Looking for Trouble in the Philippines and Looking for Trouble in Indonesia, and that he'd written them from an external, fairly superficial perspective. But when he got to Thailand, the place blindsided him, as it did me, and he suddenly found himself in a culture to which he actually wanted to belong.

But the important thing, from a writing standpoint, was that he didn't belong, and because he didn't belong, he didn't have to understand everything; he could make mistakes about the people and the lives they live. And he spoke only elementary Thai. Those things were very liberating for me. I'd been nervous about writing about Thailand because I knew there was so much I didn't understand. Suddenly, I didn't have to be the guy who could write the Wikipedia entry on Thailand. My character was just another clown trying to find his way in. He was going to get things wrong from time to time.

And I figured writing these guides would give him an interesting skill set, street smarts that would come in handy.

What kind of a community, if any, is there among Western crime writers who live at least part time in Southeast Asia and set their work there, people like you, Colin Cotterill and Christopher G. Moore?

I know Chris Moore and like him very much. I've never met Colin, although I want to because I love his books. Writers tend to be sort of solitary, but Chris and I grin at each other and have lunch from time to time, when we pry our fingers from the keyboards and emerge into the sunlight.

What are the crime-fiction-reading habits of Thai readers? Does Thailand have a native crime-fiction tradition? How much translated crime fiction is available there?

Not much tradition that I know of, although there are lots of thriller films set in Bangkok. Danny and Oxide Pang (are those great names, or what?) have directed a couple.

Poke is of mixed Asian and European descent. Why did you choose to give him this ethnic background? What does this bring to his character?

I always wanted to be part Asian, or even all-Asian. I think Asian people, when they look cool, look cooler than anybody. If I could start over, I'd like to be Korean or Thai, and really killer-looking, as well as somewhat taller than the norm.

I also thought it might be handy if Poke could, on occasion, blend in with the local population, or at least not stand out to the extent he would if he were, say, Norwegian. I used that in the first book I wrote about him, which I never showed to my agent (I wrote it just to get my feet wet in Poke's world) and it came in very handy in that story because he had to disappear. And here I am writing the third, and guess what? He has to disappear. So those Asian genes are going to be very helpful.

(Read part one of the interview with Timothy Hallinan here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

An interview with Timothy Hallinan, Part I

Readers of book-jacket biographies know that crime writers tend to have (or to be given) colorful job histories. Often these include bartender, bouncer, teacher, sailor, deck hand, skip tracer or private investigator. Timothy Hallinan's résumé includes none of these, but his background does include a career in television and an embryonic association with one of the most successful pop bands of the 1970s. He also lives part time in Thailand and sets his novels there, as good a credential for adventure as a crime writer can have.

Hallinan has published two books about Poke Rafferty. This protagonist is the author of travel guides called Looking for Trouble in ... but is himself trying to stay out of trouble by settling down in Bangkok with his bar-girl-turned-businesswoman lover. His tenuous success with this remarkable woman is a running motif and a delight of the novels. When it comes to staying out of trouble, however, he fails dismally.

Hallinan's Poke Rafferty books are A Nail Through the Heart and the new Fourth Watcher. He also wrote six novels about Los Angeles P.I. Simeon Grist. In the first of a two-part interview with Detectives Beyond Borders, Timothy Hallinan discusses the delights and terrors of Thailand as well as the road that led him there. He also delivers a good, solid kick in the pants to a supposedly respectable and authoritative American television network.

(Read part two of the interview with Timothy Hallinan here.)
================================

Forgive this question because I am just old enough to remember when Bread was a pervasive AM radio presence, but what was your association with the group, and how did you get from that to writing crime fiction?

I was in a band called The Pleasure Fair with Robb Royer, who went on to found Bread with David Gates and Jimmy Griffin. We made an album on Uni records, which at the time was Universal Studios' music arm. The LP went nowhere, but it was produced by David Gates, and he and Robb and Jimmy later got together, and the rest, as they say, is history. Unfortunately, I'm not on those chapters of the history book, or I'd be a lot richer.

So I took a day job which evolved into a very nice career in television, but was always writing in my spare time. I had about three partial novels (I was at that stage where you're “writing at” novels rather than writing novels), and my house in the Hollywood Hills burned down. I had backups of everything, but they were all in the house. I underwent one of those realizations: If I'd finished any of those books, it would have been somewhere else – in print, on some agent's desk, somewhere. So I went to Thailand and started to rewrite the book I remembered best. I finished it in eight weeks, and it sold immediately, and suddenly there I was with a three-book contract. The key was finishing. That's why in the Writer's Resources of my Web site, http://www.timothyhallinan.com/, the keynote quotation is Thomas Farber's line, “A writer is someone who finishes.”

How did you wind up in Thailand?

Totally by accident. I was in Japan with the first Western symphony orchestra ever to tour there (I was working on a PBS series about the tour), and I had decided to go to some hot springs when the job was over and sit up to my nose in hot water, reading The Tale of Genji. A bunch of the guys in the string section thought that sounded great and decided to go along. I'd been sitting next to them for weeks and was less than enthusiastic about continuing to sit next to them while on vacation, so I called my travel agent and asked her to book me on a flight to anywhere in Asia where I didn't need a visa. Forty-eight hours later, I got off the plane in Bangkok wearing a down jacket and a scarf (it was February, and cold as hell in Japan), and it was 97 degrees. The immigration guys were falling off their chairs laughing at me. And I fell in love with the place – the contrasts, the energy, the smiles of the people. I took an apartment within a week.

The Poke Rafferty books are not your only novels. Could you talk a bit about your other crime writing?

I wrote six novels set in the other town I know best, which is Los Angeles, featuring an overeducated private eye called Simeon Grist – four graduate degrees and no actual idea about how to make a living. A lot like me. Anyway, the Simeon books got the reviews writers dream of and the sales they have nightmares about. Every book was hailed as my breakthrough by somebody important (this was when newspapers still thought people wanted to read about books). But lightning never struck. So after we put Simeon out to graze, I took a few years off and just concentrated on making money so I could write full-time. And now I can.

What attracted you to Bangkok, Thailand and Southeast Asia in general as settings for crime stories?

Well, I love the whole Southeast Asian thing: everything from the terrible traffic to the temple in the jungle by the sea. Any place that's had continuous and somewhat isolated civilization for, say, 1,200 years, that suddenly collides with the overwhelmingly Western influences of the 21st century is going to be interesting. This is nowhere truer than it is in Thailand and Cambodia, both of which have gone through tremendous societal changes in the past 30 years or so – although there's nothing in recent Thai history to compare with the Cambodian tragedy of the Khmer Rouge.

What I like best is the fact that Westerners, including my protagonist, Poke Rafferty, never really get inside. They're made to feel special and welcome, and after a while they think of themselves as being part of everything, but they're not, and they never will be – the society might as well be a department-store window display with the foreigners on the other side of the glass. They will never get through that pane of glass. And that's the situation Poke's in – he's in love with the culture, he's in love with two Thai females, his wife, Rose, and his adopted daughter, Miaow, and those relationships aren't going to work out in the long run unless he becomes more Thai. The same is true of the scrapes he gets into. Unless he understands the society better, he could wind up dead. It's kind of an interesting situation.

And then, I also get to deduct all my expenses there from my tax return if I write books that are set there.

Child prostitution figures in the Rafferty novels. How widespread is the phenomenon in Thailand, and is it more widespread there than elsewhere in Southeast Asia? If so, why? Is undue suspicion ever cast on Westerners living in Thailand because of it?

The dreadful child abuse – more pornography than prostitution – in A Nail Through the Heart was based on a real guy, a German monster who actually lived in Bangkok and shot there the pictures described in the book. I don't know whether he's dead (although I fervently hope he is), but the pictures seem to have stopped coming.

I think child prostitution exists anywhere you have a very large, very poor lower class. In Thailand and Cambodia, where it used to be quite prevalent, it's either pretty much disappeared now, or it's moved way, way underground. I live in both countries, and there are still lots of street kids, so my guess would be that there's still some child prostitution, but not with pimps and child brothels and all the rest of the institutionalization of the trade that used to exist. And yes, I think Western men who live there are regarded with a certain amount of unfriendly speculation.

Part of the problem is that American television news is so unprincipled. Every year they run the same terrible footage of child prostitutes, taken in Phnom Penh in 2002, as the center of a piece on CNN or MSNBC with a title like House of Shame or something equally maudlin. The fact is, they haven't spotted anything new since 2002, but why let that get in the way of a sure-fire teaser line like "Child Sex at Eleven"?

I was in Phnom Penh the last time Anderson Cooper was there, and he shot his set-up in front of the brothels of Tuol Kork, where most of the women could be charitably described as motherly. All the lighted doors were out of focus behind him. The shadows moving around could have been adults, or children, or Komodo dragons for all anyone could tell. Several bars where freelancers go to meet tourists refused to allow any woman under 5 feet, 4 inches into the bar while CNN was in town because they were terrified of some shot taken from behind of a big guy and a small woman. The most disgusting thing of all was that the whole time CNN was in Phnom Penh, the tribunal to try the Khmer Rouge leaders – who killed two million people – was finally about to get underway, the first time any of these bloodsuckers had ever been brought to account. And CNN never reported a single word about it. Not sexy enough; "Murderers of Millions Brought to Justice" is nowhere near as good as "Child Sex at Eleven."

(Read part two of the interview with Timothy Hallinan here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Exit lines

I've sung the praises of Adrian McKinty's Dead I Well May Be, noting among other things that its ending screamed sequel!!! but nonetheless worked beautifully. I wrote that I had finished the novel with a strong expectation of what the protagonist might get up to in later books, but that this was perfectly consistent with what McKinty had had him doing throughout the novel.

This put me in mind of a cinematic sequel-screamer from 1977 that did feel like a setup. This movie ended with some froggy-voiced dude shot off into space and, as I left the theater, unimpressed, I rolled my eyes and said to my friend: "Sequel!" The movie was Star Wars, which goes to show I know a sequel-screamer when I see it.

More recently, I read an interesting offhand comparison between the endings of 1960s comedies such as The Italian Job and their remakes. The 1969 version left the thieves teetering on a precipice, the outcome of their heist in doubt. The 2003 remake transferred the action to the United States and turned the story into an orgy of greed and wish fulfillment: Everyone gets what he or she wants, with no hard choices about whether to go after the gold if it might mean sending the thieves over the cliff.

And now, gentle readers, I invite you to join me and turn your minds to last things. What endings of books or movies screamed sequel!!! to you? Did the endings work? More generally, tell me about your favorite endings or ones you liked less well.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Around the world (but without Raymond Chandler this time)

A hat tip to In Reference to Murder, who let me know about an article from the Independent called "Crime fiction: Around the world in 80 sleuths."

This guide to crime fiction set in eighty locations around the world is more intelligently written than most newspaper articles on the subject, and it includes at least one comic gem, for its selection set in Glasgow: "If you find Ian Rankin's books a little Miss Marple, try Denise Mina."

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Thigh-high black-leather high-heeled boots our specialty


(Tasker and Juniper Streets, South Philadelphia)

If only there were a sub shop nearby.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

More on Weegee's world of crime

(Simply Add Boiling Water, Weegee, 1937; print, about 1950 Gelatin silver print
© International Center of Photography)


I found an exhibition catalogue Tuesday evening called Weegee's New York that displays the Cop Killer photo on its cover but gives a date of 1939 rather than 1941. (I suppose there are at least three ways to date a documentary photo: by the date of the event, by the date of the negative, and by the date of the print.) The catalogue also includes a photograph of what appears to be the same woman shown in the stripper photo from my "Crime pictures at an exhibition" post, but it gives no date, a disappointing omission for an exhibition catalogue.

The book does, however, begin with an epigraph from Walter Benjamin that reads, in part: "[I]s not every spot of our cities the scene of a crime? every passerby a perpetrator? Does not the photographer — descendant of augurers and haruspices — uncover guilt in his pictures?"

The introduction also cites the humor of Weegee's captions, those "extravagant, callously written witticisms à la Raymond Chandler."

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Dark, epic zest from Adrian McKinty

What do we learn from Dead I Well May Be, Adrian McKinty's first novel about a Northern Irish crook/killer/thinker/survivor named Michael Forsythe let loose in America?

We learn that whoever said revenge is a dish best served cold did not work from Michael Forsythe's recipe book.

We learn that an author can get readers feeling they are inside a first-person narrator's head simply by omitting quotation marks. This heightens the illusion that everything we read is filtered through the narrator rather than quoted by the author.

We learn the virtue of patience and the simple heartbreak of death.

We learn that humor can work even in grim situations, and McKinty's humor is among the grimmer ones in crime fiction. This is one of the lighter examples, but you'll get it anyway because it's also one of the funniest: "Carolyn's her real name, but she wants everyone to call her Linnie. That should have been a clue right there. She's no Bridget, though she is pretty. Pale, thin, blond. fragile. She's from Athens, Georgia, but likes the B-52's rather than R.E.M. Another clue."

Forsythe is under siege from quite a number of hired killers at the time, but he still offers a rock and roll reference that's right up there with Jo Nesbø's all-timer about the Rolling Stones in The Devil's Star.

Michael's grim, sometimes hellish journey through the last two thirds of the book may evoke for the literary-minded any number of the world's great epics. Think of the book as Dirty Harry meets Dante if you must.

That last two thirds also wiped away the one quibble I had with the book's zesty opening chapters: McKinty's use of retrospective foreshadowing, of the "I missed the chance that night, the last chance I would get because the world caved in the next morning" type. I almost always find the device obtrusive and unnecessary. I suspect McKinty used it as a reminder that Forsythe is narrating events that had happened to him before the time in which he is narrating them.

I could have done without such reminders, but I forgot my objections rather quickly once the book moved into the harrowing middle section. Among other things, the events of this section are nightmarish enough that a narrator looking back on them would understandably use them as a point of reference for everything that went before and that followed. So disregard my quibble and read the novel. It's a hell, or an inferno, of a tale.

(Dead I Well May Be is the first of a series that continues with The Dead Yard and ends with The Bloomsday Dead. Based on the first book's conclusion, I would suggest reading the novels in order if possible.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Crime pictures at an exhibition

(Cop Killer, Weegee, negative, January 16, 1941; print, about 1950
© International Center of Photography)


I illustrated my "Crime songs" post with this photograph by Arthur Fellig, known as Weegee, and I've been unable to keep my eyes off the thing since. Now I invite you to join me in considering this striking image.

I suspect that some of you will notice the black and white first, then the haircut and coat of the detective at right and the downcast expression of the man in custody. Like me, you may be struck by how much this looks like a still from a film noir. Except it's not that; it's New York detectives in a police lineup room with a suspect in two real murders, one of a police officer.

Time and nostalgia have taken the edge off many movie images. Weegee's photo restores it.

Here's another photograph credited to Weegee that also resonates of the movies. I don't know when the photo was taken, but the woman has the look of a Hollywood star of the 1940s or '50s. I'm no fashion expert, but the suit of the man shielding his face looks as if it may date from the same time or a bit later.

But no Ava Garder or Rita Hayworth ever showed that much skin on screen, as far as I know. Once again, a photograph restores a gritty edge, an impression of reality, that time, nostalgia and, perhaps, censorship had removed. (I can't find date, copyright and ownership information for this photograph. Can anyone out there supply it?)

Here is a link to Weegee's work available for viewing online. Here's a short biography of the photographer. And here's an excerpt from a book to read as a warning against assuming too easily that photographs and reality are identical.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Yet another place for crime fiction

I should have mentioned this earlier, but Norm of Crime Scraps, one of the foremost former dentists in the world of crime fiction, posted a worthwhile interview here and here with Marek Krajewski a few weeks back. Among the remarks from the author of Death in Breslau:

"In Poland between the wars there was a very faint tradition of crime writing, then, during the communist period authors were writing under pseudonyms [most often English, eg. Joe Alex = Maciej Slomczynski, a popular translator of Shakespeare] or created ideologically loaded police novels.

"The situation changed after 1989, now we have many Polish crime writers, including me."
I'm always interested in the origins of crime fiction in a given country, especially if those origins are recent. I have read a theory that German crime fiction did not get going until the 1960s because the country's dreadful recent history made Germans skittish about portraying lawbreakers. And it was Boris Akunin, if memory serves, who said that the Russian public, who had once read and discussed just the classics, turned to crime fiction only after the Soviet Union fell apart. Then there are the Palestinian territories, where Matt Rees has said an interviewer had to explain to readers the concept of investigating a crime and seeking the truth.

What about you, readers? What interesting stories and theories have you heard about national crime-fiction traditions and how they began?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

A grace note: What song has the best crime-fiction line?

Here's one more ornament to last week's Crime songs post. Your task there was to suggest songs that would make good crime stories. Someone (well, two people, including me) cited Elvis Costello's "Watching the Detectives" for this chilling line: "She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake." That line is a story in itself or at least the germ of one. What other lines from songs pack that kind of condensed narrative punch?

UPDATE: Here's another crime song: Bob Dylan's "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts," about simultaneous bank robbery and romantic exhaustion and betrayal:

"Two doors down the boys finally made it through the wall
And cleaned out the bank safe, it's said that they got off with quite a haul.
In the darkness by the riverbed they waited on the ground
For one more member who had business back in town.
But they couldn't go no further without the Jack of Hearts."

Wikipedia says the song has inspired two screenplays, so I'm not the only one who thinks the song makes a good story.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Zest

Zest has always been one of my favorite words, long before I knew it also meant the peel, esp. the thin outer peel, of a citrus fruit used for flavoring. I love the word because it sounds like the qualities it embodies: Gusto. Flavor. Hearty enjoyment. And that's the opening chapter of Adrian McKinty's Dead I Well May Be, as life-embracing a piece of literary zest as I can remember since I started reading about murder, cheating, robbery, squalor, despair and violent death in my spare time.

Here's the start of Chapter One. Pay special attention to the first four words:
"I open my eyes. The train tracks. The river. A wall of heat. Unbearable white sunlight smacking off the railings, the street and the godawfulness of the buildings. Steam from the permanent Con Ed hole at the corner. Gum and graffiti tags on the sidewalk. People on the platform – Jesus Christ, are they really in sweaters and wool hats? ... I'm smoking. I'm standing here on the elevated subway platform looking down at all this enormous nightmare and I'm smoking. My skin can barely breathe. I'm panting. The back of my T-shirt is thick with sweat, 100 degrees, 90 percent relative humidity. I'm complaining about the pollution you can see in the sky above New Jersey, and I'm smoking Camels. What an idiot."
Just one bit more, because I want to keep the post shorter than the chapter:

"Here I should point out that every time you hear Scotchy speak you must remember that each time I put in the word fuck there are at least three or four that I've left out."
Is that great, or what?

A short prologue, more effective than most examples of its kind, begins "No one was dead." How's that for a grabber?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, July 18, 2008

The Prophet Murders — Community news

A recent commenter on this blog wrote favorably of the tendency in English village mysteries for characters to gather in the local pub and talk things out. Mehmet Murat Somer's The Prophet Murders manages a similar feeling of intimacy, though the center of its universe is a transvestite nightclub in a city of 10 million people.

Somer articulates the feeling of community from the novel's first page, where the protagonist, who manages the club, has just read of a transvestite's death in a fire. "Bad news about our girls always gets me down," he reflects (italics mine).

The protagonist, never named in the book, is not just the manager of the club, he also dresses the part. He is gay and, as narrator and character, he is forthright about his sexual pleasures and practices. By day, he dresses in men's clothing and is an expert in computer security. Nothing like this is likely to turn up in an Agatha Christie novel. Still, the comparison is valid, emphasized by the protagonist's chatty observations about music, television, diets and food and the amusingly chilling gimmickry of the plot (a series of transvestites, each with the given name of a prophet in Islam, turn up dead), and made explicit by references to Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.

Somer makes intelligent, amusing and creative use of at least one additional amateur-sleuth convention: that of the expert who provides skills that the amateur hero lacks. This protagonist has several such helpers, the most intriguing of whom we meet first in a chat room, where he posts inflammatory messages using the handle jihad2000. The name expresses one facet of the character. The other facets may be far more surprising.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Coda: A note on musical references in crime stories

Enthusiastic response to last week's post about Crime songs has had me thinking about music, crime fiction and music in crime fiction.

One of my complaints about the last is that a given song or musician, usually of the rock and roll variety, too often serves as nothing more than a brand name or a label. The song or the performers are simply too popular to serve as a meaningful indicator of a character's uniqueness.

Håkan Nesser uses music in his recently published Mind's Eye, where he has his protagonist, Van Veeteren, slip into his car and put on some Francisco Tárrega. The reference to the great classical guitarist is, like many musical references in crime novels, a label. Nesser does not make music an important part of Van Veeteren's makeup. But at least it's a distinctive label. Not many fictional detectives favor classical guitar.

The music references that really caught my eye recently, though, were in Mehmet Murat Somer's The Prophet Murders. In the scene in question, the manager of a transvestite nightclub insists that the club's record spinner account for his choice of music:

"`What's this music you're playing?' I demanded.

"`Adiemus. New Age. It's a new group. Great, isn't it?'

"To add insult to injury, he was poking fun at me. New Age is one of the forms of music I simply don't comprehend. Paul Mauriat, Franck Pourcel, Francis Lai and even Fausto Papetti have been playing this kind of music for years. The only difference is that they perform with an orchestra, not synthesizers and the piping of a flute. Nowadays, intellectuals have elevated this sort of music into an art form. Why the double standard? What have the others been doing wrong all these years? A succession of critics has slammed them. All right, I don't think much of their work either, but I don't see the difference, do you?"
Now, that's a good string of musical references. The scene is funny. It tells us something about the protagonist's personality. It packs an amusing, self-satirical punch line. The mention of instruments may help you imagine the music. If you know the performers, you may smile (or wince) to memories of soaring, sappy, minor-key string passages. Somer's passage is a hell of a lot more than just a label, in other words. Most important, the scene could work just as well for a reader who has never heard of the performers in question.

And now readers, what are your favorite musical references in crime novels or stories? What makes the references work?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Noir at the Bar: The Bugs Bunny and Edgar Allan Poe edition

My post on Jonathan McGoran's Noir at the Bar II reading last week neglected to mention that Ed Pettit served once again as questioner, as he had for Noir at the Bar I .

Here's Ed's account of the rapid-fire queries with which he peppered McGoran, thanks to which you will learn, among other things, that McGoran, obviously a man of exquisite sensibility, liked to watch Bugs Bunny on Saturdays.

That's Ed at left, by the way, or rather a little friend he carries with him at all times.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Van de Wetering comes back

With hat tips to the Rap Sheet and others comes the news that Soho Press plans to reissue Janwillem van de Wetering's Grijpstra and De Gier ("Amsterdam Cops") books in paperback starting this fall. As the Rap Sheet's J. Kingston Pierce says, "This, folks, is the best way to honor the passing of an author."

See a Van de Wetering bibliography here. I think the list is complete, though it includes The Perfidious Parrot under a miscellaneous "novels" heading rather than with the "Amsterdam Cops" books, where it belongs.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Vive la France!

In honor of Bastille Day, In Reference to Murder posts a guide to French mysteries, complete with links to more sites.

In honor of my nephew Jack's birthday, happy birthday, Jack.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Daggers out

The Crime Writers Association announced the winners of its Dagger awards this week:

Duncan Lawrie Dagger: Frances Fyfield, Blood From Stone
Duncan Lawrie International Dagger: Dominique Manotti, Lorraine Connection
John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger: Matt Rees, The Bethlehem Murders aka The Collaborator of Bethlehem in the U.S. (Read the Detectives Beyond Borders interview with Rees.)
Ian Fleming Steel Dagger: Tom Rob Smith, Child 44
Non-Fiction Dagger: Kesper Aspden, Nationality: Wog – The Hounding of David Oluwale
Dagger in the Library: Craig Russell
Short Story Award: Martin Edwards, "The Bookbinder's Apprentice"
Debut Dagger: Amer Anwar, Western Fringes

Shortlistees include Sian Reynolds (read the Detectives Beyond Borders interview with Sian Reynolds here), Duncan Lawrie International Dagger for her translation of Fred Vargas' This Night's Foul Work; Colin Cotterill, Duncan Lawrie Dagger for The Coroner's Lunch; and Andrea Camilleri and translator Stephen Sartarelli, Duncan Lawrie International Dagger for The Patience of the Spider.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Crime songs

Cop Killer, Weegee, negative, January 16, 1941; print, about 1950
© International Center of Photography


This one began as a post on Declan Burke's Crime Always Pays and continued in a discussion with one of my colleagues at work. The subject as enunciated by Declan: "songs as condensed crime fiction novels – stripped-back and pared-down narratives about losers, loners and the kind of suckers who never caught an even break."

Bruce Sprinsteen's Nebraska came up, and I am proud to say that one of its crimes ("They blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night") happened not far from where I live. Bobbie Gentry’s "Ode to Billie Joe" drew a mention, and someone suggested Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning."

The first verse of Bob Dylan's "Hurricane," the part before the song turns to crap, has the makings of a crime story, but my contribution on C.A.P. was "Ocultei," recorded by the great Brazilian singer Elizeth Cardoso with a last verse (rendered into English for blogging purposes) that runs tremulously thus:

"And my most ardent desire
– May God pardon me the sin! –
Is that another woman by your side
Kill you in the hour of a kiss."

Now, let's hear from you. What songs would make good crime stories?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, July 11, 2008

The Bread line ends

Readers in Northern Ireland, New Mexico and British Columbia knew that author Timothy Hallinan was associated with the 1970s group Bread. That knowledge wins them copies of Hallinan's novels A Nail Through the Heart and The Fourth Watcher.

(A notice here offers a bit of background to Hallinan's musical career, though the last sentence contains an obvious problem of tense.)

Update: In a comment on this post, Hallinan sets the musical record straight and offers a fact I had not previously known about an Oscar-winning mega-hit song from the 1970s.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Crime writers and their odd former careers, plus a chance to win free books!

John McFetridge says he thinks a member of a once-successful rock band in our mutual home town is a poet these days, which reminds me of some comments I'll likely post in the next day or two. The comments will concern a crime novelist whose association with pop music includes writing songs for a fabulously successful soft-rock group of the 1970s.

The author, Timothy Hallinan, writes a series featuring a travel-guide writer named Poke Rafferty who is trying to settle down in Bangkok. The first in the series, A Nail Through the Heart, is shot through with some of the sinister things one might expect of a book set in Thailand. But it also has some of the wriest humor you'll read a crime novel, plus an affecting emphasis on Rafferty's domestic life unusual for a book by a male author.

Three lucky readers will win A Nail Through the Heart plus Hallinan's second Rafferty novel, The Fourth Watcher, if they can answer this question: For which wildly successful 1970s band did Hallinan write? Send your answer with a postal address to detectivesbeyondborders (at) earthlink (dot) net.

While you're at it, what other odd or surprising previous careers have crime novelists had? You can post those answers right here.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

When one crime writer honors another by name

My favorite tribute to the late Janwillem van de Wetering, author of the Grijpstra and De Gier mysteries, came years before his death. Håkan Nesser named the protagonist of his long-running Swedish crime series Van Veeteren in honor of Van de Wetering. Nesser told me last month that he "enjoyed De Gier and Grijpstra a lot, of course, perhaps the way they sort of look in the wrong direction most of the time, not really concerned about their work."

I take his comment as a neat encapsulation of the duo's unorthodox crime-solving techniques, of their seeking answers through contemplation and indirection as much as, if not more than, through forensics. In any case, Nesser's own work has something of the sly humor of Van de Wetering's, and the tribute is apt.

In a post last summer, I discussed other such tributes, including Andrea Camilleri's having named his protagonist, Salvo Montalbano, in honor of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, author of the Pepe Carvalho novels. Readers cited other authors who had offered creative tributes, including Stuart MacBride, Ken Bruen and more from Camilleri.

What other authors have paid tribute in print to their own favorite writers? Who did so in paticularly creative ways? Sara Paretsky has named streets and hotel banquet halls in her V.I. Warshawski books for favorite crime writers, and I believe Carolyn G. Hart gave books by her favorite authors roles in her own work. Add to this list, please.
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On Van de Wetering, here's what the Telegraph wrote in February when it included him on its list of "50 crime writers to read before you die" (complete with a minor misspelling of his name) along with a comment I posted on this blog in reaction:

Janwillem van de(!!) Wetering (1931-): "The capers of Grijpstra and de Gier, aka The Amsterdam Cops, are oddly appealing. One plays the drums; the other the flute. They frequent canals. There's a cat. Unique and very Dutch. Read: Outsider in Amsterdam (1975)" (Detectives Beyond Borders says: Outsider in Amsterdam may exemplify the "very Dutch" side of van de Wetering. Hard Rain highlights the "unique" side, delightfully reflecting the author's experience with Zen Buddhism and my favorite in the series.)
© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Janwillem van de Wetering dies at 77

With a sad tip of the hat to Euro Crime comes the news that Janwillem van de Wetering, author of the Grijpstra and De Gier ("Amsterdam Cops") mysteries, has died.

Here's what I wrote about Van de Wetering back in this blog's first post, where I listed the books among my favorite crime fiction from beyond my borders:
This Dutch author has been a businessman, a world traveler, a reserve Amsterdam police officer, and a student at a Zen monastery in Kyoto. All, especially the last three, figure prominently in this series, which includes 14 novels and two overlapping short-story collections.

Detective twosomes are a nickel a dozen; Van de Wetering offers the only three-headed protagonist I can think of: the grumpy Adjutant Henk Grijpstra, the younger and sometimes vain Sgt. Rinus de Gier, and their unnamed commissaris, or chief, an elderly mentor with sometimes excruciating knee pains who is a sly collaborator and a kind of guru to Grijpstra and de Gier. Start with Hard Rain, in part for the larger role it gives the commissaris.

Van de Wetering has an interesting approach to translation: He does his own, and he regards the results as versions, rather than translations, of the original. The one book in the series that I read in Dutch has slightly different chapter divisions from the English version and an opening chapter with more physical description. And the first in the series, An Outsider in Amsterdam, reflects the Dutch language's more frequent use of the present perfect where English would use the simple past. This results in occasional odd sentences such as "I wonder if he has done it."
Van de Wetering wrote several books about his experiences as a Buddhist, and his chronicle of his life in a Kyoto monastery, The Empty Mirror, is refreshingly down-to-earth about the pleasant and the harsh aspects of a would-be monk's life. Van de Wetering's other work included a biography of the Dutch author and diplomat Robert van Gulik, and Inspector Saito's Small Satori, a book of intensely philosophically minded crime stories.

Van de Wetering was indirectly responsible for the creation of this blog. I was dating a Dutch woman a few years ago, so I took special notice of An Outsider in Amsterdam. I soon read the rest of the Grijpstra and de Gier books, most in editions published by Soho Crime. That was my entrée to Soho's fine line of international crime fiction and to interational crime fiction in general. The rest is blogging history.

Click here for an appreciation and here for Van de Wetering's bibliography.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Things aren't always what they meme, Part II

Oh, all right: Peter Lovesey. Declan Burke. John McFetridge. Megan Abbott. Scott Phillips. Christa Faust.

As before, how about you? Who would you miss the most if they stopped writing?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Things aren't always what they meme

Even the simplest, most seemingly painless of these tagging games can be fraught with questions.

A current meme, for which Karen "AustCrime" Chisholm has tagged me, bears the headline "Three Authors You Couldn't Live Without." Simple, yes? Except that the accompanying text asks a different question: "Who are the three authors whose work you would miss the most if they stopped writing?" What if the authors you couldn't live without have already stopped writing because, say, they've stopped living? I choose to answer the first of the meme's questions.

My first author is also one of Karen's:

1) Peter Temple. The man writes such beautiful, graceful prose, full of sensitivity and wit, that it would be a shame for him to stop.

2) Bill James. His Harpur and Iles series lost a bit of its social-comic edge once the great Panicking Ralph Ember attained his goal of becoming a fairly big-time drug dealer. But the middle books of the series remain gorgeously written, deliciously dark, sometimes hysterically funny looks at British life.

3) Po Chü-I. T'ang Dynasty poet, lived 772-846. The writer whose work to have with you should you plan to become stranded on a desert island and probably the closest thing to a writer whose work I could not live without.

Last year, when I lay sick,
I vowed
I'd never touch a drop again
As long as I should live.

But who could know
Last year
What this year's spring would bring?

And here I am,
Coming home from old Liu's house
As drunk as I can be!
Incidentally, Karen's choices make entertaining reading. Here's what she had to say about Reginald Hill, author of the literate, clever and funny Dalziel and Pascoe mysteries: "I live in fear of his health. If I lived any closer I'd be making chicken soup and offering to knit warm, comfortable socks."

And now, readers, how about you? Who are your three indispensable authors?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Personal thoughts on fictional settings and a chance to out some Canadians

In January I asked how readers felt about crime fiction set in places where they had lived. A week later, I asked how they felt reading fictional accounts of periods or events they had experienced firsthand.

Thanks to my recent reading of two novels and a short story by John McFetridge, I am now prepared to ask myself both those questions. I wrote last week about McFetridge's creation of Toronto as a great city of the imagination in his novel Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. His short story "Barbotte" does something similar for Montreal. So does his first book, Dirty Sweet, though that novel is set for the most part in Toronto.

I am around McFetridge's age and, like him, I grew up in Montreal. Like many of our generation, he eventually decamped and wound up in Toronto. I left for the United States instead, but enough members of my family took off for Toronto that I feel a part of that phenomenon. And if I hadn't so felt already, I would have the first time I sampled credible versions of the best bagels in the world – Montreal-style bagels – in Toronto. And please don't make the ludicrous argument that New York bagels are better.

I suggest that McFetridge's background may account for an undertone of wistfulness in both of his highly entertaining crime books and for his unusual accomplishment in creating a body of work whose setting is not just two cities but the very process of movement from one to the other.

The protagonist's reminiscences in Dirty Sweet naturally include an old girlfriend. But they also include many rock bands, local and international, popular in the Montreal of McFetridge's youth and mine. I even knew the keyboard player for one of the bands cited as having played raucous motorcycle-gang parties.

This protagonist, Vince, has wound up in Toronto, making his way in the criminal world, after a wandering life that has taken him from Montreal's suburbs through the Alberta oil boom to prison to the new Toronto, where there is real money to be made for the man (or woman) willing to fight for it. It's not too much to suggest that he is a personification of English Canada's history from the 1970s until now.

In Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the nostalgia has hardened into a wry and funny realism. The leader of a motorcycle gang remarks that the time has come to move the gang's head offices from Montreal to Toronto. This is an amusing example of the corporate mentality that finds its highest Canadian personification in Toronto. It is especially, and perhaps ruefully, so for those who know that many Canadian businesses of a more legitimate type similarly pulled up stakes and headed for Toronto after the separatist Parti Quebecois came to power in Quebec in 1976.

Both the novels are filled with violence, laughs and characters who are likable despite the violence they get up to. The novels are superb entertainment, in other words, offering credible takes on how crime works now in a rich, sprawling, shifting city just trying to figure out what to do with its money. But – and I hope this scares no one off – they're also moving documents of a major social shift. And, so help me, that combination of the personal, the social and the entertaining makes McFetridge a major author.

And now, let's play Out the Canadians. The keeper of this site is Canadian, though he no longer lives in Canada. So are are the keepers of a number of other popular crime-fiction sites. How many can you name?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Noir at the Bar II: Counteracting the C.S.I. effect

Back in January, I wrote about the excruciating experience of being trapped in front of a big screen showing Law & Order: Special Victims Unit at a pizzeria, and the ordeal had nothing to do with the pizza, which was fine. Rather, my agita was induced by the show's massive information dumps, the scenes in which crime-scene investigators spout facts rather than talk like real people.

That's why I was pleased to host Jonathan McGoran at this evening's Noir at the Bar reading in Philadelphia. Under the pen name D.H. Dublin, McGoran writes carefully researched forensic thrillers, but he never forgets that his job is to tell a story, and that stories are about people.
His series about Philadelphia forensic investigator Madison Cross, now up to three books, adopts the clever strategy of following Cross from the beginning of her police career. This, McGoran says, lets the reader learn along with her. In practical terms, it means there is little need for the globby blocks of story-stopping information that make forensic TV shows hard to watch.

McGoran, while acknowledging that his novels are in essence police procedurals, said he hates the word procedural because it reminds him too much of manual, "something I'd get with my microwave." That's another indicator of the human touch he brings to his work and another indicator that forensic, scientific crime fiction can have heart, and not just severed body parts.
Why not make this a question to readers? What writers manage to make difficult, highly technical, potentially dry material interesting? How do they do this?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Saturday, July 05, 2008

Get smart, but not too smart, Part II, or What makes a good series character special?

So I went to see Get Smart after this blog's freewheeling discussion about crime-fiction bumblers, why we love them, and what happens when movie producers try to make them smarter.

I agree that that the movie was "listless" and "laughless" and that this was likely due to the moviemakers' decision to make Maxwell Smart competent. Once they did that, what was left? An utterly routine action movie with bits of comedy and romance that would not have been a whit better or worse had the characters borne generic names rather than those of the beloved characters from the old Get Smart TV series: Max, Agent 99, Chief, Larabee, and so on.

If thinking about crappy movies is burdensome, think about series characters instead. The makers of the Get Smart movie ruined television's equivalent of a classic series character by robbing him of that which made him special. What makes your favorite series characters special? What could they least afford to lose in any sequel, movie or TV version?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Friday, July 04, 2008

Howard Engel's Memory Book

This was the first crime novel I can remember that comes with an afterword by a neurologist. That neurologist, Oliver Sacks, writes of his acquaintance with Howard Engel, which came about because of Engel's alexia sine agraphia, a condition in which the sufferer loses the ability to read but not to write -- a difficult affliction to bear for a novelist.

Sacks tells us about some of the surprising ways Engel overcame this condition and resumed his writing career. The first product of this resumption was Memory Book, the eleventh novel featuring private eye Benny Cooperman, and the first in which Benny must, like his creator, overcome alexia sine agraphia. (Engel's condition was the result of a mild stroke. Cooperman's was the result of -- but you'll have to read the book to find out.)
Confined to a rehabilitation hospital as he is, Cooperman must, like Alan Grant in Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time, solve a mystery from his sick bed. Cooperman is alive to the world of the hospital, to the personalities of his fellow patients, his nurses and his doctors.

The mystery Cooperman must solve is how he wound up in the condition in which he finds himself. This leads him back into the case that had brought him from his home town of Grantham, Ontario, to Toronto, where he was hospitalized. He must solve these dual mysteries as he struggles with neurological conditions that leave him constantly tired and unable to retain names and words. His discoveries of his own slowly returning cognitive abilities as he chases down the people who put him where he is add an intriguing dimension highly unusual in crime novels to say the least. Handicapped detectives have been around for almost a hundred years, if not longer, but I don't know of any others who have shared an affliction with their creator.

I also found myself wondering if Engel's cognitive struggles accounted for my one quibble with the novel's style. In at least two places, long stretches of dialogue are uninterrupted by reaction on Cooperman's part. In at least one of these, the lack of reaction was obtrusive. Is this a quirk of Engel's style unrelated to his condition? I'll tell you after I've read more of his books.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Noir at the Bar this Sunday

Celebrate America tomorrow; celebrate crime fiction on Sunday at Noir at the Bar II with:

Jonathan McGoran


writing as D.H. Dublin and reading from and answering questions about his latest novel, Freezer Burn


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"Come for the crime fiction; stay for the fried candy bars."
Where: The Tritone1508 South St., Philadelphia, PA
215-545-0475
http://www.tritonebar.com

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Good things from across the border, Part II: John McFetridge


One problem with New York or Los Angeles or Chicago as settings for crime fiction is that they've been around forever. Among other things, this means that the fictional cities have long since supplanted their real counterparts in most readers' imaginations.

That's a tribute to the great writers and movie makers who have taken these cities as their subjects. But wouldn't it be exciting to see a great crime-fiction city taking shape before your eyes, to see a real city becoming a city of the imagination, with all the graft, corruption, population shifts, money, drugs, and tumultuous daily life that implies?

You can do this. Your city is Toronto, your author John McFetridge, your novel Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. And why not Toronto, a city far larger, far more diverse and far richer than the settings of most crime novels? McFetridge manages the difficult feat of portraying a city in constant transition, and he does this without slipping into easy sentimentality about days gone by or easy rants against the ravages of development.

 "It's hard to tell about this neighborhood," one character tells another as they approach a multiethnic strip mall. McFetridge does a nice job of portraying a city that has not just changed but may well be changing even as we read.

So much for urban studies; this is a crime novel, and McFetridge has populated it with at least six characters we can care about on both sides of the law. Among these, detectives Armstrong and Bergeron, a sexy marijuana grower named Sharon, and a mysterious, ambitious operator named Ray eventually emerge, but the book really has multiple protagonists, which lends it a kind of epic feel that matches the sprawl of the city the characters populate.

There are violence, killings, corruption, takeovers, and a plot set in motion by a body that plunges from a roof. Money is the motive force, and cops and gang leaders alike share a bland management-speak upon which McFetridge has his multiple characters comment acerbically. Canadian readers may enjoy McFetridge's take on a motorcycle gang that decides to move its head office form Montreal to Toronto, as so many more legitimate operations did after the 1976 election victory of the Franco-centric, separatist Parti Quebecois in Quebec, but the satire is accessible to anyone.

The action is slam-bang, the characters memorable, the resolution a a surprise on at least two levels. More to come.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Carnival of the Criminal Minds, #18

The summer's first Carnival of the Criminal Minds takes place in the winter, in Australia, with the evocatively named Mysteries in Paradise as host. Step onto Kerrie's specially fitted crime-fiction bus, and get ready for a guide to one of the world's liveliest crime-fiction scenes. The lists of Aussie crime-fiction titles, authors awards and Web sites are longer that a rabbit-proof fence and a lot more fun.

As always with this carnival that never closes, visit the previous carnivals at the Carnival of the Criminal Minds archive.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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