Saturday, March 31, 2012

The way too damn many people die in crime novels

How many crime novels have you read that begin with a prologue in which a character never knew when he or she woke up that fateful day that it would be his or her last?  The only suspense in such prologues is whether the last thing the character sees will be a red mist of pain or a murky pool of blackness.

I read yet another such prologue this week, and it reminded me of one of the great exceptions to the rule, Stuart Neville's Collusion. Yes, that novel begins with a prologue, and yes, that prologue ends with the point-of-view character dying. But here's how Neville writes the death, ends the prologue, and segues into the novel's main action:
"He barely registered the detonator's POP! before God's fist slammed him into nothing."
Besides avoiding cliché and writing a prologue vastly superior to most, Neville is arguably more respectful of and serious about death than many crime writers. Who the hell knows if black pools or red mists are really the last things a murder victim sees? Until some crime writer dies, comes back to life, and reports the proceedings in a prologue, I'll accept Neville's punch into nothingness as a more accurate description of death.

How do you feel about prologues? About death described from the dying character's point of view? Does anyone do it well?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Friday, March 30, 2012

The Blood of an Englishman

Here's a bit from The Blood of an Englishman (1980), sixth of James McClure's novels about his Afrikaner police lieutenant Tromp Kramer, and his Zulu sidekick, Sgt. Mickey Zondi:

"`Boss Bradshaw is a tall tree,' Zondi remarked primly, `and thee is saying among my people—'

"`Bullshit,' interrupted Kramer, `you're making this up!'

"They laughed together, then peered over the cars in front of them..."
How refreshingly unsanctimonious, how unpolitcally correct and yet enearingly human is that?  I wrote a few months ago that I knew of nothing else in crime fiction like the Kramer and Zondi books: "The writing sparkles with the wit and concision of the best traditional mysteries even though the subject matter is sometimes as dark as that of the darkest hard-boileds. The social criticism is of a deftness that Stieg Larsson could never have managed if he'd written a thousand books, and the sympathetic eye for character is something like Andrea Camilleri's."

Nothing has changed my mind since. McClure was one of the great originals in crime fiction, a defier of categories, and very much worth reading for crime-fiction-lovers of all stripes.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Hammett begat Leonard, and Leonard begat Nicol?

finished Payback last night, first novel in Cape Town author Mike Nicol's "Revenge" trilogy, and I realized it reminded me a bit of Elmore Leonard.

Each author will have his protagonists pause amid the main action to engage in something like old-fashioned vaudeville cross-talk, one character cutting the other's verbal legs out from under him as they veer off into comic mutual misunderstanding. It can be great fun, and it does much to humanize the characters.

Then a Detectives Beyond Borders reader pointed out a passage from Dashiell Hammett's early story "Arson Plus" that does something similar. Hammett has the Continental Op stop, step back, and reflect upon the investigation in which he is engaged:
"We poked around in the ashes for a few minutes—not that we expected to find anything, but because it's the nature of man to poke around in ruins."
The humor here is darker and more introspective than Leonard's or Nicol's, but it similarly does much to flesh out the protagonists. The device helps explain what readers mean when they that say the characters are likable or that the authors have created sympathetic heroes (or, in Leonard's case, villains).

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Dashiell Hammett free online!!!

Dashiell Hammett's early story "Arson Plus"  is available free online as the Library of America's story of the week. The story was one of Hammett's first, but it's almost miraculously full of the humor and laconic hard-boiled style of his later work.

Hammett was our best crime writer,  the Library of America may be our best publisher, and and the price is right. What's not to like?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Don't run government like a business

I'd left an important travel document at home on my just-completed trip, but a quick phone call from airport security personnel in Zurich to immigration officials in New York cleared matters up and had me checked in within ten minutes. Once again, a much-maligned U.S. government agency had provided service vastly superior to what private companies offer. And that's not to mention the exceptional help I received from the Internal Revenue Service the one time my dealings with it went beyond routine filing of a tax return.

What would have happened had the two agencies followed the popular injunction that they run their operations like a business? Zurich would have been kept on hold for hours listening to recorded messages about how important your business is to us. If it got through to a live person at all (unlikely, given the hour on the East Coast at the time), that person would have been a call-center robot rigidly trained not to deviate from prescribed order in answering or asking questions. Eventually he or she would have made it down the list to my problem, which would have been solved, but in hours rather than minutes.

Years ago, when run-government-like-a-business was the byword of the day, a wise commentator pointed out that a business has the right and even the duty to shed unprofitable divisions, but government can't just halt services to customers who don't bring in the desired cash  i.e., unprofitable citizens  or at least could not until recently.

Think about this the next time someone says private enterprise is better than government at everything. If in doubt, presume that the speaker is running for office, angling for kickbacks, reciting a mantra, or all three.
***
I'm fresh back from my local pharmacy, where the druggist told me that the private insurance plan offered by my private employer will no longer let me pick up my prescriptions. Instead, I am now forced, against my will, to get my prescriptions via mail order.

Where is this freedom of choice I stand to lose if the federal government assumes responsibility for health insurance?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Monday, March 26, 2012

When spell-check replaces editing

"Back in the house anti-personnel mines, assorted assault rifles, Canadian Sterlings, Mats, Madsens, a few Chinese 79s, sweating in the heat. ... The ordinance (sic) sweated. They sweated." (pg. 19)
and
"The receptionist punched a button on her consul (sic) ... " (pg. 110)
and
"Paulo was hardly out of Global Enterprises than (sic) his phone rang ... " (pg. 153)
and
"I drive a Duetto. You horde (sic) money. ... To invest isn't to horde (sic). .... What we've got in the Cayman's a horde (sic), in case you've forgotten." (pg. 164)
***
Those are all from the UK edition of Payback (2009), by South Africa's Mike Nicol, a terrific thriller marred by shocking errors that suggest the publisher did, in fact, dispense with proofreading in favor of a quick pass with a spell-check program.

Payback is atmospheric, suspenseful, full of dark humor, with likable but dangerous protagonists and as evil (and believable) a villain as you're likely to find anywhere. It's the kind of book one can tell the author had tons of fun writing, and I'm having tons of fun reading it. As much as I enjoy the image of a secretary punching a commercial attaché's buttons, though, I suggest the publishers pay a few pounds, rand, (or dollars) to a good proofreader next time. They owe it to Nicol and to readers.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Hitch in crime (or why you should read crime fiction and not the news)

I inadvertently left at home the crime novel I'd intended to read on my dinner break yesterday, but the substitute was more than acceptable, and it dovetailed neatly with some recent Detectives Beyond Borders posts.

The author is Christopher Hitchens, the book is his essay collection Arguably, and the passage I have in mind is from the book's introduction, in which Hitchens recounts his support and admiration for real revolutionaries in the Middle East and contrasts these with, among others, "the baroque corruption of the `Palestinian Authority.'”

 "It was clear," Hitchens writes, "that a good number of the audience (including, I regret to say, most of the Americans) regarded me as some kind of stooge. For them, revolutionary authenticity belonged to groups like Hamas or Hezbollah, resolute opponents of the global colossus and tireless fighters against Zionism."

Last week I wrote about my eye-opening chat in Tel Aviv about crime fiction in Israel. My informant was decidedly a man of the left, forthright and rueful about, among other things, the Israeli army's bulldozing of houses in Hebron. Yet he was equally forthright about calling Hamas terrorists. And he recounted a naval patrol from his own military service, when he marveled at the white sand beaches of Gaza and at the equally white luxury villas belonging to the Palestinian Authority elite that loomed above, built, presumably, with PA money that did not find its way into Swiss bank accounts.

Like the Israeli Arab driver who shuttled me to Hebron and Bethlehem on the same trip, that informant offered a more nuanced view of Israeli and Palestinian affairs than one is likely to get in America, where Palestinians are good and Israelis bad, or vice versa. And this, in turn, reminded me of Matt Rees' decision to turn to crime writing when he found a story "too good for Time magazine," and of the corruption of Palestinian officialdom that forms an important subtext in his novels but not of media and popular discussion of the Middle East, at least not in the United States.

And what about the Algerian novelist Yasmina Khadra, who once told an interviewer
"Algerian readers like me a lot. They read me in French because I am not translated into Arabic. I am translated into Indonesian, Japanese, Malayalam, in the majority of the languages, except in Arabic. But that has nothing to do with the Arab peoples. It is the leaders who seek, as always, to dissociate the people from the elites so they can continue to reign and cultivate clanism and mediocrity."
There's another sentiment you'll likely not read in the American media, unless the reporters make themselves hip by affixing to it a fatuous social-media-related tag.

And now, readers, a question: "Crime stories reflect reality better than do the media." Do you agree? Disagree? Discuss.

 © Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Thursday, March 22, 2012

South African speech, plus more noir pics

Woozy, jet-lagged, and happy to be back from Israel and Zurich. Yeah, sure I'm happy to be back.

Started reading Mike Nicol's Payback on the plane, and I like his use of what I assume are local South African slang, dialect, and speech patterns: "You got no staying power, my bru. ... Patience, hey." "`You smoke dagga but you don't smoke cigarettes,' Abdul said to Val. `What a stupid. Mikey the moegoe.'" I had no idea what a moegoe was, but I liked the sound of it.

In the meantime, more pictures I like to think might suggest crime stories, photos by your humble blogkeeper.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Zurich, or Who could ask for more?

Zurich offers a lake, distant mountains, a bookstore that shelves Andrea Camilleri next to Albert Camus, another that stocks a fine selection of international crime fiction, a hall that offers music from around the world, and a thriving, legal, well-regulated prostitution industry, all within walking distance of my hotel.

I won't have time to sample all, but it's nice to know they're there. I did browse and buy at a branch of the six-store Zurich-based Orell Füssli bookshop chain, gabbing about crime writing with a fellow shopper and a staff member who eagerly sought my suggestions and accepted my business cards.

Public transportation appears superb and service impeccable, but somehow I expected this.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Crime fiction in Israel

(Ibex mosaic, Caesarea)
A chat over pizza on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv convinced me that not only does Israel have an intensely interesting and little-known crime fiction history, but that that history could rapidly grow even more interesting.

My fellow chatter was a reader of this blog who sketched a history of Israeli crime fiction dating back to the 1930s that includes secret authorship and anti-genre snobbery, as well as an Israeli past and present that are more urban and more diverse than traditionally thought. And that, in turn, suggests an environment ripe for hard-boiled crime fiction.

I won't steal too much more of his thunder because I've asked him to consider writing a guest post for Detectives Beyond Borders. And maybe, if you're lucky, he'll tell you about the guy who invented a criminal-slang vocabulary for his successful translation of Damon Runyon into Hebrew.

(Hippodrome from the time of Herod the Great, Caesarea)
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Monday, March 19, 2012

Akko, or When days were long and knights were short

Fletcher Flora didn't just have one of the more unlikely names in noir; he could also write the stuff.

His story "As I Lie Dead" (1953) reminded me of why the American movies later called films noirs were once known as melodramas. It is overheated with sex and doom from the beginning and, as a bonus, I did not see its end coming.
*
I read "As I Lie Dead" on the train to Akko (Acre), one of the oldest in a land of ancient cities. Akko/Acre was the final stronghold of the Crusader states in the Holy Land, a place where all but the shortest Knights Templar must have taken the lord's name in vain as they smacked their medieval heads against the low roof of what some people today think was an escape tunnel.

The city's real big knights were the Hospitallers, whose "subterranean" Crusader fortress was spectacularly well preserved because subsequent occupiers simply filled its halls with rubble and buried them.

Anyone who was anyone knew about Akko, wrote about it, or invaded it: The pharaohs.  The folks who wrote the Bible. Newcomers like the ancient Greeks, the Romans,  the Crusaders, and Napoleon. I suggest that you follow them.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Eyfoh zeh?

Israel has gone through many demographic changes in recent decades, becoming a much more international country. It was a stirring experience to hear an Ethiopian speak Hebrew in Tel Aviv this evening, though I'd have enjoyed the moment more if the words had not been "Eyfoh zeh? (Where is it?)" and the speaker not a taxi driver to whom I'd just given my destination.

Earlier, a fellow bus passenger had helped me out by asking the driver at a rest stop where the bathrooms were, the first time I'd heard a Nepalese person speak Hebrew. And my hotel clerk was a gregarious Finn. So much for stereotypes.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Friday, March 16, 2012

He walked, I rode

(Confused ass on the road to Jerusalem)
Rented a bicycle, rode along the Sea of Galilee in Tiberias, and fell off just once, in the mud at a Roman archaeological site that will be something to see if Israel ever makes it accessible.

And, in another experience that reminded me of Matt Rees' crime novels,  my driver to Hebron and Bethlehem, asked why rich Arab governments don't pour money into the Palestinian territories the way Jewish benefactors do into Israel, said: "They did. It all wound up in Swiss (bank accounts)."

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Territorial imperatives

(Mosaic floor, Church of the
Nativity, Bethlehem)
Hebron is an occasional flash point of tension between Palestinians and Jewish settlers, and the city's streets are rubble-strewn relics of strife and of shops closed by a straitened economy. Parts of Hebron are probably frightening places to be caught at night.

My driver for the day, an Israeli Arab, said he can't leave his car alone in Hebron for fear that it will be stoned. Yet the only fear I felt all day came when we pulled into a gas station outside Bethlehem, to find the attendant lounging against the pumps smoking a cigarette.  I nervously asked the driver if we ought to pray for the Creator of us all to get us out of there alive.

So, why Hebron? Because it is arguably the world's most important historical site. The Book of Genesis says Abraham bought land here as a burial place for his wife, Sarah, and was later himself buried there, in the Cave of the Patriarchs, to be joined by Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah. This was by tradition the first acquisition of land by Jews in Israel and is thus the seminal site for the entire Judeo-Christian tradition.

Herod put up a fine building over the tombs, to which Salah ad-din (Saladin) added minarets in the twelfth century. The biblical patriarchs and matriarchs are buried in the caves, memorialized in cenotaphs in the building above, where worshipers pray to Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, and Leah in the building's Jewish section and to Isaac and Rebecca in the Muslim section. (Like much else here, the building is divided.)

A bunch of men prayed before Sarah's tomb, one young man pulling at his payot (forelocks) in religious ecstasy. A woman chanted alone before Leah's memorial, bowing and swaying, showing no sign she was distracted by the conversation and occasional clatter of metal from workers maintaining the adjacent synagogue. (Here's a bit about the physical vocabulary of Jewish prayer; read it as a counterpart to the Arabic gestures from Tuesday's post.)

So, what did the day have to do with crime fiction? I'll tell you tomorrow. Blessed be God, who created long lines, Bethlehem drivers, and cliffhangers to teach us patience!

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

History repeats itself in Israel

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Bless your hands!

(Magnificent, Solly)
Matt Rees, who has written four crime novels featuring a Palestinian teacher named Omar Yussef, once explained why he translated certain  greetings rather than giving transliterated versions of the original Arabic:
"I translated them, rather than just putting the original Arabic phrase in italics, because I wanted readers to get the poetry of everyday speech. ... When someone gives them a cup of coffee, they tell them `May Allah bless your hands.' Isn't that beautiful?"
Struck by that everyday poetry, I decided to try it myself this morning, and I wished the waiter who served me breakfast يسلم يدك ("Yislamu eedayk."). From the smile and the profusion of words that followed, I suspected I had said the right thing, but who knows? The man could have had a sense of humor and been calling me a dog and the son of unworthy parents.

But he also placed his right palm on his chest, which was the clincher, because
"Placing the palm of the right hand on the chest immediately after shaking hands with another man shows respect or thanks. A very slight bow of the head may also be added."
and
"Placing the palm of the right hand on the chest, bowing the head a little and closing one’s eyes connotes `Thank You' (in the name of Allah)."
This was the greatest and most gratifying effusion of good feeling I had received since I wished the locals "Eid Mubarak" in Tunisia.  So who says crime fiction can't be educational? Thanks, Matt.

(Learn about Arabic gestures including the ones described here at a Web site that bears the evocative name www.bellydanceuk.co.uk.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Monday, March 12, 2012

Western


I felt right at home  in my first visit to Jerusalem in many years because the shuttle driver from Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport was impatient, as his kind proverbially are, but with a penchant for explaining things to the drivers at whom he raged (though no more than one could possibly have heard him). I didn't understand all his cursing, but the end of one string of invective sounded like simcha, the Hebrew word for happiness.

Spent my first evening wandering around the Old City, and I didn't get lost, at least not in any way worthy of the name.  The Old City is divided into Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim quarters, so I saw:  Orthodox priests who, with just a splash of color in their garb, could have been Piero della Francesca's King Solomon; Chassidic Jews with hats cooler than those you'd see on any American hipster, and young Israeli Arabs who were more than happy to offer spur-of-the-moment advice, including one about 12 years old, who said, "It's closed" when I tried to wander down a side street to see the Al-Aqsa Mosque. "Only for Muslims."

Read some more Elmore Leonard on the plane over, including one story that began with a long, stolid, grimly straightforward description of a buffalo hunt that ended thus (the description, not the hunt):
"Wait until he rode into Leverette with a wagon full of hides, he thought. He’d watch close, pretending he didn’t care, and he’d see if anybody laughed at him then."
The man knows how to create tension.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Saturday, March 10, 2012

The post I wrote

Another verbal habit of some writers:
"I fired two shots that sprouted into big red blossoms across the white cotton shirt he wore."

— "Carrera's Woman" by Ed McBain
writing as Richard Marsten, Masters of Noir: Volume One
Why not "his white cotton shirt"?  What does "he wore" add? What could the victim have been doing with his shirt except wearing it? If yesterday's writing quirk was common in American pulp stories of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, I associate this one with writers of the '40s and '50s, often when describing the attire of an attractive woman. But "the dress she wore" (rather than "her dress") always takes me out of the story, if just for a moment.

Why would Marsten/McBain/Hunter/Lombino use "the white cotton shirt he wore" rather than "his white cotton shirt"? Does one convey something the other does not? Was he merely using the words that came naturally at the time (1953)? If the fashion in words changed in favor of brevity, when? And why?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Friday, March 09, 2012

Stuffed crowdedly with adverbs

Adverbs are out of favor in crime fiction these days, but American pulp writing in the middle of the last century was full of them — stuffedly full.

In Norbert Davis' stories, characters shave, kick, flip, search, punch, stab, fade, and flip through hotel registration cards "expertly." A  street car clangs its way emptily down the street. Raoul Whitfield, too, used adverbs more than is fashionable today and, if my memory serves me well, Raymond Chandler and perhaps even Dashiell Hammett would have a light blinking redly from time to time.

When did adverbs slip out of fashion? And why?
***
Was good grammar ever looked down on in tough-guy crime writing? The first-person narrator of a Mickey Spillane story originally published in Manhunt in 1953 tells us that "But having learned my lesson the hard way, he never got the chance to impose upon me again."
***
Finally, here's a bit from one of Elmore Leonard's stories published in 1951 (yes, the man has been writing for that long) that may be more pertinent today than ever:
"When he was through, he shook his head and silently cursed the stupidity of men trying to control a powder-keg situation two thousand miles from the likely explosion. ... Sometimes things get a bit hot; otherwise you just sit around and watch the desert."
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Scanning Scandinavian crime

Declan Burke asks a provocative question about why Scandinavian Crime Always Pays: Whither the mavericks?

His thesis, to which commenters, including your humble blog host, provide but minor correctives, is that there's a certain sameness to the Nordic crime fiction translated into English, as good as some of that crime fiction may be.

You can find the rest over at his place, but to expand on one of Declan's rhetorical questions, where are the Scandinavian Eoin McNamees, Ronan Bennetts, Eoin Colfers, Adrian McKintys, and Kevin McCarthys?

The hook for Declan's post was the publication of Barry Forshaw's Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction. Forshaw was kind enough to provide some advance material from the book last year when I moderated a panel full of Scandinavian crime writers at Bouchercon.   And here's a post based on some notes Forshaw sent along some months ago about the book.

*
Declan's post may be a message from above, as it comes just when I had picked up his interestingly neo-Chandlerian novel Eightball Boogie for a second reading.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Tuesday, March 06, 2012

"?"

I like to post excerpts that convey the tone and flavor of my recent reading, only this time I'll add a new wrinkle: I'll give the selections without identifying the work or the author, and let you have fun reading, guessing, or throwing your hands up in exasperation at the whole silly enterprise. Here goes (Warning: This post contains adult content):

  • “Louis found Chip in the kitchen making himself a Bloody Mary and asked him, `Who’s Ezra Pound?’

    “Chip said, `Ezra Pound,’ stirring his drink and then pausing. `He was a heavyweight. Beat Joe Louis for the crown and lost it to Marciano. Or was it Jersey Joe Walcott?’”
  • “`Teachers always said reading poetry should be fun.’

    “`It can be—unless you’re reading Ezra Pound.’”
  • “They paid no attention to me and I repaid the compliment. Then how could I know they were paying no attention to me, and how could I repay the compliment, since they were paying no attention to me? I don’t know. I knew it and I did it, that’s all I know.”
  • “Louis said the Shia fixed their hostages rice and shit, but no doubt would have given them TV dinners if they had any.”

  • “To apply the letter of the law to a creature like me is not an easy matter. It can be done, but reason is against it. It is better to leave things to the police.”
  • “`An officer of the law tells an undesirable like yourself to get out of town. It’s done all the time.’”
  • “He had told Joyce last night he couldn’t think of anything he didn’t like to eat, though in the Chinese food line he’d only had chop suey and the other one.”
  • “Four farts every fifteen minutes. It’s nothing. Not even one fart every four minutes. It’s unbelievable. Damn it, I hardly fart at all, I should never have mentioned it. Extraordinary how mathematics help you to know yourself."
  • “`How do you come so much—and so fast? Even for a woman—'

    “`I learned from the nuns. … They told me I’d go to hell for fucking—`impurity’—so I figured if I was already hellbound I’d enjoy every bit of the ride.’”
  • "Cunnilingus in the office is frowned upon certainly, but he hasn’t heard of it as cause for automatic dismissal.”
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Monday, March 05, 2012

MCM

Welcome to Detectives Beyond Borders' 1,900th post. I celebrate the occasion with an homage to beauty. First up are two bits from Roger Smith's new novella, Ishmael Toffee, the title character freshly out of Cape Town's Pollsmoor Prison and surveying his new surroundings:
"When he leaves the shack in the morning the sea of rusted iron that is Tin Town sprawls out into so much space that it robs him of his breath and he almost runs back inside."
 and
"Distant Table Mountain and its cloth of cloud rises up clear and sharp over the endless shanties and box houses of the Cape Flats ..."
The Cape Flats, "apartheid's dumping ground," must be one of the most hellish places on Earth ("Smith's Cape Town slums are as grim as any steam-punk Victorian hell hole," I wrote after reading Wake Up Dead.) Yet the image of a sea of rusted iron sprawling "out into so much space" has a certain desolate beauty. One secret to good noir is keeping the beauty and the dread in perfect tension so the reader is attracted and repelled at the same time. Smith does it.
***
Vicki Hendricks' beauty is of a different kind: hot, steamy, sexy,  and doomed, what the movie Body Heat wishes it could have been on its best day. Everyone's headed downhill in Hendricks Edgar-shortlisted Cruel Poetry, but on their way, Hendricks gives them some lines as funny as Allan Guthrie's:
"He can’t imagine that a woman living at the Moons could write anything, but who knew? Maybe a female Charles Bukowski—frightening thought. He hopes she never asks him to look at her work."
and
"Despite the cold air conditioning of the office, he’s beginning to overheat. He scoots his chair closer to the desk to skim the last essay. He’d shuffled it to the end of the stack, in case he might die and never have to grade it."
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Sunday, March 04, 2012

I polish off Elmore Leonard

I've always hated one kind of self-consciousness in crime stories: the kind that has characters and narrators saying, "It was a foggy day, just like a detective story" or "If this were television, he would have solved the mystery in time for the commercial. But this wasn't television; this was real life." This does nothing but take me right out of the story.

Elmore Leonard's Riding the Rap offers the following:
“`I always wonder what that would be like, two guys facing each other with guns. 
“`Like in the movies,’ Louis said.”
*
“But the man didn’t drop like in the movies when getting hit over the head knocks the person out…”
*
“He had never seen it done in the movies this close.”
*
“Louis raised the Browning, cupped his left hand beneath the grip the way they did in the movies and fired.”
*
“Louis said, `We like in the movies, huh? The two hombres facing each other out in the street.’”
and more. And it would be a shame if readers didn't get the point after Leonard labored so hard to make sure that they do.

The contrast with Riding the Rap's predecessor is instructive. Pronto, published three years earlier, in 1992, evokes the feeling of Westerns without, however, hitting the reader over the head. Leonard trusted the reader to make the connection, and I was so thrilled to have done so that I went out and bought a book of Leonard's Western stories.  After the first reference in Riding the Rap, on the other hand, I wanted him to shut up already, and the references just kept on coming.

I've never written a novel and I can't imagine what it's like to do so, but I'd guess that spinning out a narrative hundreds of pages long requires an author to come up with a few ideas, then develop them. In Riding the Rap, Leonard doesn't develop his ideas, he flogs them. That some of the ideas are good mitigated my frustration only slightly.

One more example: Riding the Rap brings the protagonist, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, into contact with a young woman who claims to be a psychic. Leonard has the wonderful idea of having Givens begin to talk like a psychic himself in his exchanges with the woman. Once I got the excellent joke, I wondered what Leonard would do with it. But he does nothing except repeat it periodically throughout the rest of the novel.

What kinds of self-reference, in-jokes, and undeveloped ideas drive you nuts in crime novels?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Friday, March 02, 2012

A mystery full of question marks

A leading Leonardite among this blog's readers suggested yesterday that Elmore Leonard had shot his literary bolt by the time he wrote Pronto (1993) and Riding the Rap (1995).

I've read too little from Leonard's 60-year career to judge which have been his stronger and which his weaker periods, but Riding the Rap certainly seems a weaker book than Pronto.  Each features as its protagonist Raylan Givens, a courtly U.S. marshal from Kentucky thrown up against some serious criminals in Florida and Italy. The situation is ripe for social comedy, but Riding the Rap violates one of the keys to Leonard's low-key humor: Its characters sometimes seem to know they're being funny, which is a lot less funny than when they play it straight and leave the laughs to the reader.

Hints of romantic tension seem thrown in merely because Leonard felt the need to inject drama. Especially irritating to this copy editor/reader, Leonard tacks on question marks to declarative statements. Presumably this is meant to suggest the rising intonation some speakers use. Leonard makes the interesting choice of giving this stereotypically female tic to male characters as well as female ones, but the tic is still no less annoying in print than it is in real life.

Compounding the superfluous question marks, the book several times omits question marks where they are called for. This may be mischief on Leonard's part, or it may be sloppy copy editing, but whatever the reason, it's a bloody distracting pain. Y'know? 

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Thursday, March 01, 2012

Elmore Leonard's first-person in disguise

An interviewer once noted Elmore Leonard's tendency to get inside his characters' heads without, however, resorting to first-person narration:

"So, when you say it’s character-driven," the interviewer [Martin Amis] asked, "do you mean you’re thinking, `How would this character see this scene?' Because you’re usually third-person. You don’t directly speak through your characters, but there is a kind of third-person that is a first-person in disguise."

Leonard replied that: "it takes on somewhat of a first-person sound, but not really. Because I like third-person. I don’t want to be stuck with one character’s viewpoint, because there are too many viewpoints."

Here's an example from Riding the Rap (1995), the second book to feature U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens:

"He was a rangy kid with the build of a college athlete, bigger than this marshal in his blue suit and cowboy boots—the marshal calm though, not appearing to be the least apprehensive. He said the West Palm strike team was shorthanded at the moment, the reason he was alone, but believed he would manage."
That's a decent bit of description — until it becomes something more in the highlighted portion. Leonard beautifully conjures the flavor of how Raylan Givens would speak and think but without dialogue. That has to be what Martin Amis meant by first-person in disguise. It also achieves the high comic goal of not just saying funny things (that is, cracking a joke), but saying things funny.

That, I think, is a big part what of what readers mean when they talk about Leonard's humor. His books may not about in slapstick, laugh-out-loud moments, but they sure do say lots of things funny. [Disclosure: I'd read just three Leonard novels and one short story before Riding the Rap: Be Cool, The Hot KidPronto (the first Raylan Givens novel), and "3:10 to Yuma," so I don't know how pertinent this post is to his work as a whole. Comment from Leonardians is welcome.]
*** 
Leonard's influence is international. Among writers discussed here at Detectives Beyond Borders, the work of Ireland's Declan Burke, Canada's John McFetridge, and New Jersey's Charlie Stella bears an unmistakable and oft-noted Leonard stamp.

Who else has Elmore Leonard influenced? (Here's a post from the paleolithic age of Detectives Beyond Borders that asked "Who is the most influential crime writer ever?")

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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