Thursday, January 31, 2013

DBB meets Iceberg Slim

Some interesting remarks from pimp-turned-author Iceberg Slim (1918-1992) starting around the 1:30 mark of this clip, particularly his declaration that he liked "to give proper credence to the humanity of underworld people." That got my attention because some of my favorite crime writers (Guthrie, McFetridge, Stella, et al.) write sympathetically about bad people.

And the preface to Slim's autobiographical first novel, Pimp, is a reminder, if one needs reminding, that sympathy need not imply approval:
"The account of my brutality and cunning as a pimp will fill many of you with revulsion, however, if one intelligent, valuable young man or woman can be saved from the destructive slime; then the displeasure I have given will have been outweighed by that individual's use of his potential in a socially constructive manner. ... Perhaps my remorse for my ghastly life will diminish to the degree that within this one book I have been allowed to purge myself. Perhaps one day I can win respect as a constructive human being. Most of all I wish to become a decent example for my children and for that wonderful woman in my grave, my mother."
Another Slim novel, Trick Baby, has Iceberg in jail when the light-skinned con man character whose story the book tells is tossed into the cell. After initial suspicion, his reaction to the newcomer is practical, endearingly human, and pretty funny:
"So, since I was getting rather elderly for the pimp game, I figured I'd pick his brain and play con when I got out. After all, I'd picked Sweet Jones for the secret of the pimp game."
"Within a couple of days," the prologue goes on,
"White Folks and I were like brothers. A prison cell has the strange power to quickly create friendships and trusts that would never happen in the free world. I guess it's the lowliness and misery that draws two cellmates close enough to confide their secrets. And plus, in Folks' case, the sleeping pills."
*
The clip to which I linked above comes from a documentary on West Coast rap that proclaims Iceberg Slim an important influence.  Ice T talks about his debt to Iceberg Slim, from whom he took his name. How many forms of popular music take their inspiration from crime novels?
© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

In a Heartbeat

Sandrone Dazieri's In a Heartbeat (E' stato un attimo in its original Italian), brought to you by the publishers of Giorgio Scerbanenco's Private Venus, is one of the harder to classify crime novels you're likely to read.

Its protagonist, a young, ruthless, highly successful advertising executive named Santo, suffers a traumatic injury that robs him of fourteen years of memory. That takes him back to his time as a young, low-level drug dealer who wouldn't know the Internet if it stood up and bit him on the culo.

The clashes between Santo's past life and his suddenly unfamiliar present offers rich opportunity for drama, comedy, satire, pointed observation on the ways of business, and an ending that's—  But you'll have to read the book.

Professional ethics bar me from posting a review, but I hope its prose is just so and its punctuation perfect.
*
Read a chapter from In a Heartbeat at the Hersilia Press website.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Detectives Beyond Borders dissects a joke

The wait is over. It's been barely a week since I finished reading the first volume of Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, but when the book in question is quite possibly the greatest novel of the twentieth century, a week seems long. But my copy of Volume 2 arrived today, and I shall keep you posted as appropriate. The novel's third part, with which Vol. 2 begins, is called "Into the Millennium (The Criminals)," so I suspect I'll come up with a post or two to interest the crime readers of intelligence and good taste who visit Detectives Beyond Borders.

I made good use of the inter-Musils interval, reading, among other things, one of the greatest Icelandic sagas, Allan Guthrie's funny, violent, touching novella Kill Clock, and a whole bunch of newer writing influenced by pulp, paperback originals, and 1970s and '80s adventure stories.

Along the way, I revisited a previous comment I'd posted about wiseass crime writers, talented authors whose good jokes occasionally obtrude on the story rather than helping it along. Such jokes sometimes seem to me the verbal equivalent of an actor mugging for the camera.

Eric Beetner has an interesting relationship to those guys. I read two of his books while waiting for TMWQ2, the novella Dig Two Graves and The Devil Doesn't Want Me, a novel. Beetner is good at creating entertaining variations on crime themes, such as the prison story and the revenge tale (you might call his takes on the former two, in Dig Two Graves, oral storytelling), the road epic, and the saga of the aging hit man and the hotshot young gun. (The latter works all the more because the young gun is such a little shit.)

I thought some of Beetner's jokes were a bit jokey in the novella, but hell, it's a novella. When he stretched out to novel length, in The Devil Doesn't Want Me, I was pleased to see an occasional rueful tone to some of the jokes, which shows me that the guy has chops and that he knows how to create a range of moods.

And the book is filled with good things: amusing byplay involving FBI agents who never get involved in the main story, and trenchant observations about the new Las Vegas and the old, among them. But a time or two, I think Beetner loved a joke too much to let go once he'd told it. Here's an example: The protagonist, Lars, a middle-aged hit man who keeps body and soul together with yoga, contemplates his superiority to the musclebound thug holding a gun on him:
"Guys like the big brute...smashing Lars' own gun hand into the tile floor cared only about the muscles. Lifting, squatting, pumping. For what? A thick neck like that can't turn to check out a great ass anymore."
That's the kind of touching, surprising, humanizing thought that Allan Guthrie is so good at. But Beetner has Lars continue the thought:
"And why did evolution put a swivel on a neck if not for that?"
That may be funny, but what does it add? What does it say that the preceding lines did not? I say Beetner should have cut the line and saved it for another book. To me that coda to the joke was a bit like being elbowed in the ribs and asked "Get it? Ya get it?" And that was all the more frustrating because the first joke was so good.

Your questions: Am I wrong? And what makes a joke function effectively as part of a story?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

“Finn the Squinter, who was the father of Eyvind the Plagiarist,” or Who would you be in an Icelandic saga?

King Eirik Blood-axe should have the most delicious name in any story in which he appears, but that tenth-century Scandinavian king barely makes the top five in Egil’s Saga, and I still have a good bit of the saga left to read.

The rest of the top five? Thorvald the Overbearing is pretty good, but nowhere near Audun the Uninspired. But the two characters with the best names come from the same family: “Finn the Squinter, who was the father of Eyvind the Plagiarist.”

Epithets are more important in Egil’s Saga than in other Icelandic sagas I’d read previously. The title character, for example, is Egil Skallagrimsson. Egil is his given name, and the –son indicates that the surname is a patronymic. Egil’s father, that is, was Skallagrim. But skalla is yet another epithet; it means bald. The character’s name, then, means Bald Grim. (Skallagrim’s father, by the way, is Kveldulf, which means night wolf.)

The fun with names extends beyond what the author and translator could have intended. This bit:
“Harald Gormsson has ascended to the throne of Denmark on the death of his father, Gorm.”
allows readers to conclude that with Harald’s elevation, the Danish throne was now Gormless.

What would your name be if you were a character in an Icelandic saga?
***
My version of the saga was translated by the late Bernard Scudder, who also translated crime novels by Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. I can’t judge how accurate Scudder’s renderings are, but the poems sprinkled throughout the saga, usually improvised by Egil, are a good deal more readable than similar interludes in other sagas I’ve read.

Scudder was much missed in the crime-writing community when he died. I can see why. Like Don Bartlett, who translates Jo Nesbø’s novels from Norwegian in to English, Scudder knew how to produce, fluent, readable versions in English.
***
Read Egil's Saga in English (in an older translation) and Icelandic at the Icelandic Sagas Database.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Saturday, January 26, 2013

No-nonsense openings then and now

My Nordic kinsman Thjostolf the Thinker is no great shakes as a farmer and too given to moody self-analysis to be a great warrior in the business world. An executive must feign passion where none exists, what most people call lying, and Thjostolf couldn't do it (though when a colleague, in the course of lighthearted office persiflage, called Thjostolf weak rather than morally upright, Thjostolf cleft him in twain, from collarbone to hip, with his great sword.)

One day Thjostolf suggested that similarities existed between the Icelandic sagas and the pulp and paperback-original crime fiction I sometimes read.

"Behold," he said, indicating the opening of Egil's Saga:
"There was a man named Ulf, the son of Bjalfi and of Hallbera, the daughter of Ulf the Fearless."
and "Dig this," pulling out his tattered reprint of Charles Runyon's The Anatomy of Violence:
"Each evening a twilight wind blows through Cutright City."
"And this," voice hushed, as he read from a text we both regard with near-scriptural reverence:
"Kells walked north on Spring.” * 
Thjostolf was right. In each case the author plunges right into the story, wasting no words. Arnaldur Indriðason, the best of the current Nordic crime writers, claims inspiration from the Icelandic sagas, though I edged toward the door as I reminded Thjostolf that Arnaldur attributed their concision to economic necessity rather than love of laconic prose. Ruminations, false starts, lengthy description, useless adverbs, and seventy pages of the hero dipping his madeleine in a cup of tea would have made a prodigious waste of calfskin, the expensive material on which the Icelanders set down their stories.

But Thjostolf just nodded and reminded me, in turn, that Josef Škvorecký once had a character suggest the Nordic sagas had inspired Dashiell Hammett. Škvorecký may have been taking the piss, but Hammett, the sagas, and punchy openings of the kind offered above will appeal to readers who like their stories brisk, their prose clean, and their humor deadpan.

Speaking of clean prose that wastes no words, I reminded Thjostolf, I have to get back to work on the copy desk. Thjostolf, who hates a bad sentence as much as I do, tightened his hand on the grip of his sword but said nothing. Maybe he'll make an executive after all.
======================
* Fast One, by Paul Cain

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Friday, January 25, 2013

Allan Guthrie, funnyman

I recently expressed misgivings about wiseass crime writers: talented authors who can write the hell out of an action scene, who are good at going for the laughs, but who sometimes crack wise when (in my humble opinion) restraint is called for.

I am happy to report that Allan Guthrie is no wiseass. The extended edition of his novella Kill Clock had me laughing out loud and reminded me that the author, often cited for his chilling noir, is not just good at coming up with funny lines, but is a craftsman of the comic. Here's one sample:

"Pearce grabbed the wrist and used Baldie's momentum to pull him forward. His face bounced off the roof of the car with a dull sound like a dropped mug hitting carpet.

"That had to hurt.

"Pearce let go.

"Long time since he'd been behind a wheel. Hadn't had much experience before he went to jail, and since he'd come out, he'd not had the chance.

"First thing, he put on his seatbelt."
That's funny because it's 100 percent deadpan, without the slightest hint that author, narrator, or character know they are up to anything funny. The Guardian recently criticzed a BBC production of P.G. Wodehouse's Blandings stories for breaking the commandments of comedy, the first of which is: "Don't let your cast behave as if they are acting in a comedy. Wodehouse depends on all the characters taking their predicaments very seriously."

Guthrie does not need to be told this, not when he has a 5-year boy curse in amazement at protagonist Pearce's three-legged dog, or the boy's 2-year-old sister curse in imitation of her brother. And not when he has the children's mother plead for Pearce's help in terms that might be objectionable if another character applied them to her but are touching and maybe even a little heartbreaking when the she uses them about herself:
"`Doesn't help that I've spent time in psychiatric care.'  
"`Why should that make any difference?'
"`I was committed, Pearce. I'm a nutjob.'
"`Ah.'
"'My head was all over the place when I was a teenager. Didn't used to have my shit together like I have now.'"
I don't know about you, but I root for a character like that.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Good sentences, period.

Catering to the proverbially shrinking attention span of today's readers (but really to that of this blog's writer), here are some enjoyable excerpts from Detectives Beyond Borders' recent crime reading. Who says context is everything?
"Smolorz, you'll draw up a list of all private menageries in Breslau and the neighboring regions, also a list of eccentrics who sleep with anacondas."
— Marek Krajewski, Death in Breslau 
"The dick books ["Dick books" = true-crime pulp magazines. ed.] are shot. I figured I'd hang on till I retire, but I don't see them lasting five years."
— Joseph Koenig, False Negative 
"The puns and double entendres that he purged from his writing he saved for Greenstein, who mistook him for a wit."
— ibid. 
"He'd considered himself the glue that held the Press together, and was disappointed in a way that it hadn't fallen apart immediately without him."
 — ibid. 
"Sneaking in back doors was for weak men and Canadians."
—Johnny Shaw, "Blood and Tacos,"  featuring Chingón, the World's Deadliest Mexican 
"In ten minutes I had a clean and tight dressing on my ear and he hadn't spoken once about the Bhagavad Gita."
—Eric Beetner, Dig Two Graves 
"(N)either man felt like chatting. Instead their silence included Lars neglecting to tell Trent that the green salsa was the hottest one."
— Eric Beetner, The Devil Doesn't Want Me
© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A grammatical error, or P.G. Wodehouse on American politics

"If Mr. Wilberfloss had been a politician, he would have been one of those dealers in glittering generalities who used to be fashionable in American politics."
P.G. Wodehouse, Psmith, Journalist (1915)
First edition, A&C Black, 1915
What did he mean "used to be" fashionable in American politics? I've generally found Wodehouse's American stories less satisfactory than his English ones, but I like this take on American politicians, even if he puts it in the past rather than the present (or future) tense.

And the following, from the novel's preface, ought to tantalize fans of crime fiction that crosses borders:
"There are several million inhabitants of New York. Not all of them eke out a precarious livelihood by murdering one another, but there is a definite section of the population which murders—not casually, on the spur of the moment, but on definitely commercial lines at so many dollars per murder. The `gangs' of New York exist in fact. I have not invented them. Most of the incidents in this story are based on actual happenings."
© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

False Negative: Where the hell is my newspaper?

I like get a malicious kick out of am scandalized that Joseph Koenig's False Negative has a protagonist who works for the Atlantic City Press and that it  mentions the Philadelphia Bulletin plus at least two newspapers from the Jersey Shore without, however, mentioning  the newspaper I work for. The omission may accurately reflect the time in which the novel is set (the 1950s, possibly though not definitely 1953, if it matters), but I and several colleagues enjoyed it nonetheless.

I'm not sure Koenig ever worked for newspapers, but he writes convincingly about writing, whether for newspapers, novels, or true-crime pulp magazines, and I may be back with more on the novel.

In the meantime, here's an excerpt from False Negative of the Hard Case Crime Web site. False Negative is a newly published book, the first new novel in two decades from the author, who made a splash in crime fiction in the 1980s before dropping from sight. This 2005 article by Sara Weinman makes Koenig out to be a bit of a shit but therefore an interesting character.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Monday, January 21, 2013

Edgar is Irish, or DBB friend lands a nice nomination

Books to Die For: The World's Greatest Mystery Writers on the World's Greatest Mystery Novels, edited by John Connolly and Detectives Beyond Borders friend Declan Burke, has been nominated for a 2013 Edgar Award in the best critical/biographical category.

The Edgars will be presented May 2 in New York. Congratulations to Burke and Connolly for a bit of payoff on their stupendous effort, and good luck.
*
Alan Glynn's Bloodland is up for best paperback original novel, Glynn joining Burke and Connolly as Irish nominees for this year's Edgars. Bloodland has its finger on the pulse of contemporary paranoia and manipulation like no other crime novel I can remember, not least in its invocation of 21st-century Orwellianisms such as "narrative," "brand," and "to the next level."
*
Here's Glynn on  the Golden Age of paranoia.   Here are my previous posts about Bloodland. And here's a list of nominees in all categories, from the Edgars Web site.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Candidates without qualities

Coming soon: Volume 2
You know that American fashion of asking would-be presidents and vice presidents what they like to read? In addition to all the other shorthand with which we label parties and candidates, I now regard Democrats as the party of Walter Mosley and Daniel Woodrell, and Republicans as that of L. Ron Hubbard and Ayn Rand, and my heart overflows with compassion for my intelligent, literate conservative friends and acquaintances.

I thought of this last night as I finished reading volume 1 of The Man Without Qualities, the high-minded business tycoon Arnheim holding forth to the title character, Ulrich, on how a modern corporation operates ("modern," in this case being just as operative today as when Robert Musil worked on the novel, from 1930 to 1942):
"Wherever you find two such forces, a person who really gives the orders and an administrative body that executes them, what automatically happens is that every possible means of increasing profit is used, whether or not it is morally or aesthetically attractive. When I say automatically, I mean just that, because the way it works is to a high degree independent of any personal factor. The person who really wields the power takes no hand in carrying out his directives, while the managers are covered by the fact that they are acting not on their own behalf but as functionaries. You will find such arrangements everywhere these days, and by no means exclusively in the world of finance. You may depend on it that our friend Tuzzi would give the signal for war with the clearest conscience in the world, even if as a man he may be incapable of shooting down a dog, and your friend Moosbrugger will be sent to his death by thousands of people because only three of them need have a hand in it personally."
It's not hard to see why any high official would shift uncomfortably in his or her seat reading that, whether a Republican from Haliburton or Bechtel, or a Democrat sending troops to war or overseeing the execution of a mentally deficient prisoner. (That is predicated on the assumption that the candidate's involvement in the execution was calculatedly and morbidly unreal.)

Here's another bit from the same chapter, this time Arnheim on the film industry:
"`Do you ever go to see a film? You should,' he said. `In its present form, cinematography may not look like much, but once the big interests get involved—the electrochemical, say, or the chromochemical concerns—you are likely to see a surging development in just a few decades, which nothing can stop. Every known means of raising and intensifying production will be brought into play, and whatever our writers and aesthetes may suppose to be their own part in it, we will be getting art based on Associated Electrical or German Dyes, Inc."
With the possible exception that Musil did not anticipate the extent to which the movie industry would itself become a big interest, I'd say there's not much to quarrel with there.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Detectives Beyond Borders tries some "Blood and Tacos"

Let's keep this pulp thing going a while longer, only with a twenty-first-century nod to a 1970s successors to pulp magazines.

I've just read Gary Phillips' "The Silencer," the first story in Blood & Tacos #1, and here's why I think I'll like this quarterly digest of short crime fiction,  whose fourth issue should be out soon:

  • Phillips' title character, a Vietnam veteran, used to run an auto-repair and customizing shop called Danang Drag Motor Specialists.
  • The "former petty street thug Ronnie Brownlee, who now went by Rahim Katanga."
  • Katanga's group, with its "Ministers of Praxis, MPs for short."
  • "Y'all say four kids went missing after they attended your propaganda class."

    "After school program, policeman," a tall MP emphasized. "We help them with their math and reading skills."
  • Any story that makes both a self-styled revolutionary group and The Wild, Wild West part of its literary arsenal has got lots going for it.
That sort of thing makes me wish I'd been around in the 1970s.

Wait a minute, I was around in the 1970s, and it's a hell of a lot of fun to see the era evoked even as a story pokes fun at its excesses and its self-seriousness. I like these guys' attitude.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Friday, January 18, 2013

"Saucer-eyed, skull-grinning, jut-jawed, false-breasted, fake-fannied..."

Mid-twentieth-century hard-boiled American crime fiction abounded in over-the-top physical descriptions of women, with extravagant curves decidedly in favor. Think of Richard S. Prather, author of the phenomenally bestselling Shell Scott private-investigator novels, from whose typewriter
"There was a lot of her already in the room before the rest of her got in."
is one of the tamer examples.

Gil Brewer's 1954 novel A Killer Is Loose, about a down-on-his-luck father-to-be who saves the wrong man's life, shares the predilection for tall, curvaceous women, but its descriptions of them are brief, matter-of-fact, and almost chastely decorous.

Instead, Brewer saves his verbal steam—enough of it to run several turbines, a manufacturing plant or two, and a small city—for the opposite physical type:
"She was one of those ash-blonde, bony, saucer-eyed, skull-grinning, jut-jawed, false-breasted, fake-fannied, angle-posing, empty-thighed in betweens they stamp out like tin slats for Venetian blinds in some bloodless, airless underground factory to supply that increasingly bewildering demand for sexless models such as she for certain women's fashion magazines, where they loll backward gaping and pinch nostriled in tight red and silver sashes, over an old freshly varnished beer barrel, holding long skinny umbrellas, point down in a sand dune. Sometimes you see them swooning pipe-lidded, paper-pale over a swirling Martini in a triple-sized cocktail glass with their long fleshless golden-tipped claws clamped buzzard-like around the stem. Give me curves, dimples, and swollen thighs, every time. I'm an easy man to please."
I'm not sure I like that invocation of buzzards (animal comparisons are often problematic), but the overall description contains much to enjoy and to provoke thought. For one thing, it goes beyond physical description to sketch the woman's character. (She's shrill, cruel at no risk to herself, and not a nice person.) For another, though I don't mean to suggest that such was Gil Brewer's intent, the description might strike a chord today, in a culture suffused with worry over obsessive desire by some women and girls for unhealthy skinniness and of occasional outbursts of anger toward a fashion industry that glorifies such a look. Gil Brewer would have had no trouble agreeing that real women have curves.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

"What did he do with the horse?"

Today's reading and browsing has included Gil Brewer, Robert Musil, and my introduction to another Austrian writer often mentioned alongside Musil and who, in fact, knew him.

But no sentence I read today was more delicious than the one that ends Chapter Two of the fourth of the day's books:
"All I could think to ask her was: `What did he do with the horse?'"
And that leads to today's Detectives Beyond Borders question: What words have you encountered for the first time in books and had to look up in a dictionary?

P.S. My admiration goes out to anyone who recognizes the quotation or who can figure out its source from the clue provided here.
© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Future crime fiction artifacts?

Recent posts here at Detectives Beyond Borders about Fredric Brown's "The Wench Is Dead" (also his The Wench Is Dead) and Dan J. Marlowe's Strongarm raised the question of artifacts.

By artifacts I mean narrative and thematic characteristics or incidental features that make a story seem especially characteristic of the time it was written (In crime fiction a story's time usually means its decade), and I don't mean the term pejoratively.

Earlier this week, an article by Christopher Fowler's article in the Independent was decidedly pejorative about what Fowler sees as the stagnant state of English crime writing. Despite the profound social and demographic changes the country has gone through in recent years, Fowler writes:
"(T)here is a part of England that forever has an alcoholic middle-aged copper with a dead wife, investigating a murdered girl who turns out to be an Eastern European sex worker. This idea might have surprised a decade ago, but it's sold to us with monotonous regularity. It's not gritty, it's a cliché." 
The line about murdered Eastern European sex workers struck a chord. Such a motif is likely to mark recent crime novels as artifacts of their time. What other themes or situations in crime stories of the last ten of fifteen years are likely to mark them as typical of their time?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Fredric Brown: The short Wench Is Dead

I mentioned in Sunday's post about Dan J. Marlowe that I tend to read paperback original crime stories from the mid-twentieth century as artifacts of their time.

I read another one of those artifacts this week, Fredric Brown's story The Wench Is Dead, which, I have just learned from the link in this paragraph, Brown later expanded into a 1955 novel of the same name.

I call this one an artifact because its man-in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time plot seemed evocative of a time when the idea of being trapped (by middle-class morality, suburban conformity, or what have you) was a cultural current. Indeed, the protagonist is a young man of respectable background with a bachelor's degree in sociology who has fled Chicago for a few weeks of bohemian squalor before returning to a job in his father's investment business. (In the novel, apparently, he has hit the road to research his dissertation in sociology and plans to return to a teaching job in that field.)

The story seems artifact-like in the telling because its characters' grubby lifestyle (the protagonist is a wino scraping by on dishwasher's wages barely sufficient to keep him in Muscatel) is a dirty story told in an oddly clean, decorous manner. There is none of of the gritty despair David Goodis brought to stories whose characters led similar lives.

One artifactish aspect of the story serves it well. Brown must have been one of the earlier writers to begin shucking off the era's bars to descriptions of sex (or maybe paperback originals in general were ahead of their time in that respect). In any case, our introduction to the protagonist's girlfriend Billie is beautifully matter of fact about how she earns her living:
"`Jeez, only ten? Oh well, I had seven hours. Guy came here when Mike closed at two but he didn't stay long.'" 
© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Monday, January 14, 2013

More Musil! (With a bit of Lance Armstrong and Oprah)

It's been almost a week, but I have not forgotten Robert Musil (left) and The Man Without Qualities. Today's entries have nothing to do with crime fiction, but the second, in particular, ought to strike a cultural chord:
"The Committee on Public Worship and Education reported on the progress of the definitive suggestion, tentatively announced, to erect a great Emperor of Peace and Austrian Peoples Monument near the Imperial Residence; after consultation with the Imperial and Royal Office for Public Worship and Education, and after sounding out the leading art, engineering, and architectural associations, the Committee had found the differences such that it saw itself constrained—without prejudice to eventual future requirements and subject to the Central Executive Committee's consent—to announce a competition for the best plan for a competition with regard to such an eventual monument."
Some may find that apt commentary on public bidding for government projects; I especially liked "the definitive suggestion, tentatively announced," a reminder that a staement's meaning depends on the whims of whoever utters it. And this:
"Ulrich. who found such displays of naked emotion distasteful, remembered at this point that most people or, bluntly speaking, the average sort, whose minds are stimulated without being able to create, long to act out their own selves. These are of course the same people who are so likely to find, going on inside them, something `unutterable'—truly a word that says it all for them and that is the clouded screen upon which whatever they say appears vaguely magnified, so that they can never tell its real value."
Somehow that reminds me of the unsavory penchant for public confession in our culture, apt the day Lance Armstrong says he is "ready to speak candidly" (sic) to Oprah Winfrey.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Sunday, January 13, 2013

The magnificent, mysterious Dan J. Marlowe

I read older books as artifacts, particularly those from periods that have labels slapped on their foreheads such as the 1950s and early 1960s. You probably do the same, and we can't help it, especially in a genre as saturated with archetypes and prototypes as hard-boiled crime fiction.

That's why I like Dan. J. Marlowe so much. He was no path breaker, like Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. The novels of his that I've read are recognizably products of their time (the late 1950s and early 1960s) unlike, say, Hammett's The Glass Key, parts of which could have been written yesterday rather than in 1931. But Marlowe wrote and told stories and worked the conventions so well that even when he writes a happy ending to a hard-boiled story, it seems fresh.

I've just read Marlowe's Strongarm after previously having read The Name of the Game is Death, One Endless Hour, Vengeance Man, and Four for the Money. Marlowe could write tough, and he could write funny, and by all rights, he ought to be at least as celebrated as Donald Westlake. I'll leave you with a selection from Strongarm before letting you know where you might begin exploring the mystery of why he was not:
“`You’ll dance to a different tune now, buster,' Foley announced with vicious satisfaction. `This is even better than we’d —' his voice died away. He had expected me to run. His popping eyes didn’t believe it when I went after him. `No! No! No!' he screamed, wrapping his arms around his head. I wrenched them away. He started to dive out of the chair, and I smashed him right in the mouth. I hit him twice more. I felt bone go. I didn’t know whether it was his or mine. I don’t think he felt the third one. I looked at him slumped in the chair with blood streaming down his shirt front. It was only a down payment on what I owed him, but for now it would have to do.”
==============
Charles Kelly's Gunshots in Another Room bears the subtitle "The Forgotten Life of Dan J. Marlowe," so I'll pick it up with the expectation of learning why that strange and interesting life has been forgotten. In the meantime, Kelly tells a short version of Marlowe's story over at Allan Guthrie's Noir Originals.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Friday, January 11, 2013

Fun and games from Garbhan Downey

Here's the post I was going to put up a week ago when the author, Garbhan Downey, preempted my plans by offering some comments that I turned into a guest post. The original post was to have been about matters humorous and serious (that is, soccer and politics) in the book, but Downey took care of the serious part with his guest. So this post is  fun and games. And here's a post about another political crime writer who also loved and wrote about soccer (football).
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Garbhan Downey says his novel Across the Line is about politics and football (soccer), the lines being both those on the soccer field and that between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

So it's no surprise that two of the book's best jokes are about soccer, to wit:
"He'd always hated the descent into Cityside Airport. Because of the airport's topography, the little jet had to stay almost five miles up until it was directly above the runway. The first sign you knew it was on its way down was when the London stewardesses, to a man, would belt themselves into their seats, close their eyes and bless themselves. After which the plant hit the ground quicker than an Italian striker."
and
"`The entire squad walked out of Muff Hall last week when they heard I'd been signed as centre-forward.' 
"`You're joking?' 
"`I'm afraid not. Something about mafias taking over football clubs. That they wouldn't go the way of Chelsea."
© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Gisch fest, plus a question about annoying characters

It's just one book, not a fest, but "gish" was always one of my favorite sound effects in Don Martin's cartoons in Mad magazine (usually to accompany a floppy foot squashing an insect), so a crime writer who goes by the diminutive Gisch is bound to evoke a fond glow of nostalgia.

OK, the book. Gun Monkeys is an early Victor Gischler novel, and it's a nonstop, violent action fest that loses me only occasionally with a burst of wackiness. I mean, if you're going to have a character use the word "schlong" when three thugs intent on mayhem are breaking into his house, you'd better be sure the rest of the book is similarly slapstick.
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I've also read the first few chapters of Barry Gifford's Wild at Heart, and it's touch and go whether I'll be beguiled by the low-key humor and rhythm of its dialogue or driven crazy by Lula's ending two out of every three sentences with a question mark. I suppose it's  a testament to Gifford's skill that his mere use of a punctuation mark can so perfectly evoke an annoying vocal quirk.

And that leads to today's question: How do writers successfully create a grating, annoying, or boring character without grating on, annoying or boring the reader? Examples, please.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Anthony Quinn on his Troubled upbringing

With a hat tip to Crime Always Pays come a link to this essay by novelist Anthony Quinn about his childhood in Northern Ireland. (I wrote about Quinn's novel Disappeared here and here.)  The interview will explain much about why Northern Ireland remains fertile territory for some of today's best crime writing.

By coincidence, I read the interview a day after the obituary of a former reporter for my newspaper included this excerpt from his 1981 article about the funeral of Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands:
“In a grimy gray drizzle, under ragged black flags that lifted and waved balefully in the fitful air; to the wail of a single piper, on streets winding through charred and blasted brick spray-painted with slogans of hate; by silent tens of thousands, past fathers holding sons face-forward that they might remember the day, past mothers rocking and shielding prams that held tomorrow’s fighters, past old men who blew their rheumy noses and remembered their own days of rage …  Bobby Sands was carried yesterday to a grave of raw Ulster mud.”
And that, in turn, leads to the even more felicitous coincidence that this week marks the UK release of Adrian McKinty's I Hear the Sirens in the Streets, which would be the best book I've read in 2013 if I hadn't read it in 2012.  Sirens follows on the excellent Cold Cold Ground. Read both, and find out what McKinty fans like Daniel Woodrell and Ian Rankin are talking about.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The Man Without Qualities visits a newspaper

After an excursion into crime fiction in the mild forms of Derek Raymond, Garbhan Downey, and Charlie Stella, I'm back with more from The Man Without Qualities (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, if you prefer the original German), by my man Robert Musil.

Unlike some of the bits I've quoted from this supremely entertaining novel, these latest have nothing to do with crime fiction. One, however, does contain some telling and entertaining reflections on newspapers (and, by extension, media that did not exist when Musil worked on the novel from 1930 to 1942):
"`His Grace believes that we must take our direction from the land and the times,' he explained gravely. `Believe me, it comes naturally of owning land.'"
and
"If he were alive today, Plato—to take him as an example, because along with about a dozen others he is regarded as the greatest thinker who ever lived—would certainly be ecstatic about a news industry capable of creating, exchanging, refining a new idea every day; where information keeps pouring in from the ends of the earth with a speediness he never knew in his own lifetime, while a staff of demiurges is on hand to check it all out for its content of reason and reality. [ed. note: Ha!] ... The moment his return has ceased to be news, however, and Mr. Plato tried to put into practice one of his well-known ideas, which had never quite come into their own, the editor in chief would ask him to submit only a nice little piece on the subject now and then for the Life and Leisure section..." 
© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Sunday, January 06, 2013

Did Derek Raymond know Shane MacGowan?

Did the superb English noir writer Derek Raymond (right) know Shane MacGowan, the superb Irish songwriter and singer who was well into his dissipated career in and out of the Pogues when Raymond died in 1994?

Did MacGowan (left), who has spent a good chunk of his life in southeast England, read Raymond, who began chronicling London's shady half-world in 1962, in The Crust on its Uppers?

Each chronicled low lives with sympathy and compassion that can make you cry, and the temperamental kinship is nowhere as apparent, in my experience, as in Raymond's novel How the Dead Live and MacGowan's song "A Pair of Brown Eyes" (try to ignore the pretentious video by Alex Cox.)

How the Dead Live brings the nameless protagonist of Raymond's Factory novels into contact in several scenes with a old soldier whose experiences in love and war silence the protagonist. Something similar happens in "A Pair of Brown Eyes," where a self-pitying young lovelorn man wanders into a bar and encounters a old man with a far more harrowing tale. "All I could do was hate him," the narrator sings in one line, yet the refrain, in the voices of both characters, tells the real story. (Again, ignore the visuals on the video. They have nothing to do with the song and are clunkily obvious next to MacGowan's performance.)

While you are listening to the Pogues and reading the Factory novels (reissued by Melville House and recommended highly. Raymond is a David Goodis or Jim Thompson for our times), ponder this question: Which crime novels remind you of which songs, and vice versa? And why?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Friday, January 04, 2013

Garbhan Downey on why Northern Ireland crime fiction is so funny — and so serious

I was ready to put up a second post about Garbhan Downey's novel Across the Line, sparked by this bit of dialogue:
"`Those dirty Fenian bastards,' said Harry, shaking his head sadly."
"Harry" is Harry "the Hurler" Hurley, a Catholic paramilitary leader gone (mostly) legitimate, here enraged because his Protestant counterpart, "Switchblade Vic" McCormick, has schemed to sign a squad of players from the traditionally Catholic soccer team Glasgow Celtic to play for Vic's team in an all-Ireland soccer tournament on which Harry and Vic have a sizeable wager. (Harry had previously pulled a similar stunt for his own team, signing players from Manchester United), and he's outraged to have been outfoxed by his rival, particularly with a team of Catholic players.

Harry's use of the anti-Catholic slur did a number of things for me. It exposed Harry's venality and self-interest. It showed me a Catholic writer confident enough to write words he might not have dared set to paper a few years ago — and a belief that readers in Northern Ireland were ready to accept fun being poked at words they may have heard or uttered in hatred not so long ago. And it was damn funny.

Then Downey surprised me with an e-mail about my first post, which I'd called "Garbhan Downey, humor, and (the specter of) violence."  So, instead of my speculations, I reprint, with his permission, Garbhan Downey on humor and violence in Northern Ireland and the relationship between the two.
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As always, you ask very salient questions — in this case as to why Irish writers often use humour as a response to violence.

As I might have said to you before, I have no complete answer, though you've set me thinking again as to why I do it myself.

There are those who often misconstrue our levity as callousness. They believe we've become inured because of prolonged tragedy. “Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart, as Yeats would have it.

But I'd contend it's not quite that simple, and we're certainly not heartless. A large part of our humour, I figure, is a defence mechanism to prove to ourselves (and others) that we're not scared of what is often truly terrifying. I say prove to, but I actually mean convince — because the gallows humour is often little more than a thin veil.

For example, in my next book I have included a character called Clack-Clack, who has two artificial knees as the result of a double kneecapping. It's funny because it's the noise he now makes when he walks.

But I can still remember the chill of fear that shot through me when, as a teenager, myself and a pal took a late-night shortcut and inadvertently walked in on a youth being kneecapped by a gang of men wielding hurleys.

I'm not a psychologist of any ilk, but I imagine that to survive in any conflicted society (as ours was until about twenty years ago), it doesn't do any harm to live in an advanced state of denial.

My own experience is that levity can deflect attention from the macabre and puncture the seriousness that violence so often demands. The humour stops us from staring for too long into the abyss. It forces us back to the superficial.

The black humour in my writing reflects a real response, apparent among survivors (by which I mean the entire island of Ireland and many of our neighbours besides).

But, it's also important to note that there has been considerable softening in this humour as the years wear on and peace beds in. People are much kinder now and much less frightened — if at all. Our jokes are more inclined to be about what politician got caught swiping money from the Peace Fund than the gunman who tried to blow his own brains out but missed his ass by three feet.

Not that we're finished with the darkness by any means. There is still a major job to be done satirising the simplistic brutality which went before. And ridiculing it is perhaps one way of ensuring that it never happens again.

— Garbhan Downey
© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Thursday, January 03, 2013

Charlie Stella is righteous

I read the last two-thirds of Charlie Stella's Mafiya last night, and if roosters crowed in South Philadelphia, I'd have heard them greet the new day.

Among my observations on the latter part of the book are that the humor picks up slightly when Stella introduces a few Italian cops and agents, and that one example of Stella's sympathy for working men and women struck a chord with me even though my collar would be decidedly white if I didn't wear T-shirts or sweaters to work most days.

First, the humor, a special agent comparing traditional Italian mobsters and the new Russian crime gangs from which Mafiya takes its title:
"Of course the risks are real. Worse that can happen to me watching wise guys I get a gravy stain on my shirt. The redfellas will kill you to test a new gun they bought off the street."
The personal chord came in a scene of police interviewing an embittered ex-convict hard at work at one of his two jobs who faces the prospect of raising two children alone now that his hooker/escort wife has been murdered (she was hooking to earn the kids' private-school tuition.):
"I'm out just a few months and working here mostly. I also pump gas closer to where I live. For Indians, you can believe it.' 
"`It's a job,' Moss said. 
"`Yeah, so I shouldn't complain.'"
It's hard to miss the mockery and the bitter humor in that statement, the bitterness of a man told too many times that silence, humility, and gratitude that one is not even worse off are the proper responses to adversity.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Wednesday, January 02, 2013

More Charlie Stella, and a bit of stupidity is turned to good account

I was told I could expect my copy of The Man Without Qualities, Volume 2 to arrive this morning, but when I arrived at the store around 5 p.m., I was told the day's delivery had not yet arrived.

I enjoyed the succession of grimaces and furrowed brows from the store employee who looked up my order even though I was sure all the facial gymnastics meant no good news. Sure enough, she told me the book would now arrive Friday. Then, while I was browsing elsewhere in the store, another employee walked over to tell me that my order had never gone in after all and would now take about a week.

"No thanks," I said, similarly declining her offer for help with anything else. I'd been helped quite enough already, I told her.

But all was for the best, since it transpires that the e-book edition of The Man Without Qualities I'd read included just half of the novel's first volume. So I walked to another store and bought Volume I, and I now have fifty-one chapters and 390 pages to read before I need Volume 2, and by that time the order-challenged folks at the first store may able to come up with a copy.


I took my new purchase to hot dog restaurant, intending to have a bite and some coffee while I typed this post. The two workers in the place said yes, it was a WiFi hot spot, but they did not know the password. Was my chain being yanked, or are the folks who run the place really that lackadaisical and incompetent?
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I've spent part of the rest of the day reading Mafiya, sixth of Charlie Stella's eight novels. It's a bit different from the other seven through its first hundred pages, with less humor and characters more savage and vicious. But the same multiple viewpoints he uses in the other books — Stella loves to show men and women at work, out, and at home, doing what they do in their daily lives — here make the vicious Russian gangsters even more chilling.

As much as I enjoyed Stella's first five novels, Books Six through Eight — Mafiya, Johnny Porno, and Rough Riders — are my favorites. Stella gets better and better.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Garbhan Downey, humor, and (the specter of) violence

I write often about Northern Ireland crime fiction and, from time to time, about humor in crime writing. In the latter discussions, readers sometimes express reservations about whether laughs and mayhem are a suitable combination.

One answer, as long as the author does not make light of violence, is that the combination is true to life. All kinds of people see the absurd or the comical in unexpected situations. Why should criminals, police, or victims be any different?

Another is that humor can sharpen the threat of violence rather than blunt or belittle it. Here's an exchange from Across the Line, the latest novel by Derry's own Garbhan Downey, whose books about Northern Ireland are comic and nothing but comic, but always with an edge of menace understandable in a land so long wracked by bloody conflict and still occasionally shaken by violent aftershocks:
"`One more word and I'll bury you in my back garden. And I'll get Derry's top cop to swear in court that you never got off the plane.'

"`Some republican you are,' laughed Dee-Dee. `Get into bed with the cops one time and you're colluding against your own people.'"
Downey's novels are comic in the classic sense, with resolution coming when lovers pair off with their appropriate matches, but that reference to collusion had to have caused some squirming in Northern Ireland, where the ideological purity of paramilitaries on both sides of the sectarian fighting has long come into question. It's not for nothing that Stuart Neville titled his second novel Collusion.

What do we learn from this, other than that Northern Ireland has some interesting crime writers? Maybe that tragedy and violence are fertile soil for humor that has an edge. What do you think, readers?
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(New Year's fireworks near my house, with color temperature adjusted. If I had a sound file, you'd be able to share my favorite sensory experience of 2013 so far: the car alarm several blocks from the pyrotechnics that went off in sympathy with each blast: Boom! Boom! Whine! Whine! Boom! Boom! Whine! Whine! etc., etc.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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