Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Recommendations for May and June

Late May and early June were hectic, with family visits and my daughter’s high school graduation, so my best reads from May didn’t get posted. (Yes, I know, you were all bitterly disappointed.) Below are my recommendations from the books I read in May and June.

High Season, by Jon Loomis. Loomis walks the fine line between humor and murder with the sureness of Karl Wallenda crossing Tallulah Gorge. Choosing Provincetown, Massachusetts as his setting was inspired; there might not be a truly zanier place to live in the United States. The characters are fun, the plot is complex but not confounding. The humor never dilutes the seriousness of the violence, and the violence doesn’t take the fun away from the humor. A very entertaining read.

Soul Patch, by Reed Farrell Coleman. This book had been on my “I should read this” list since last year’s Bouchercon, but something always seemed to come up. My bad. Moe Prager is close to the perfect hero for Farrell’s dreary but not dismal world. He has the issues a lot of people have, and is smart enough to recognize his limitations. I’m not sure what I expected from Soul Patch, but I enjoyed it even more than I thought I would, and won’t wait so long before giving Coleman another read.

Breathing Water, by Timothy Hallinan. I’d say his third Poke Rafferty book hits the jackpot, but he just keeps getting better, so I have no reason to believe the next installment won’t be even better; I just don’t know how he’d do it. The early leader in the clubhouse for the best book I’ve read this year. (I read an ARC. The release date is, I think, in September.)

Monday, June 29, 2009

Gran Torino

The Beloved Spousal Equivalent and I finally got around to watching Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino last weekend. I wish I could remember what the hell was so important that it kept me from seeing it in the theater. This is a wonderful film.

Truly a character-driven thriller, the story is about a bigoted, retired autoworker named Walt Kowalski, played by Eastwood. Walt is a Korean War veteran and Silver Star winner whose wife has just died. He’s one of the few whites left in a neighborhood gradually being overtaken by Hmong immigrants.

This isn’t a book report. If you want to know what happens, rent the movie. There are several reasons this is a good idea. First is Walt. The script goes out of its way (maybe too far) at the beginning to paint him as an unapologetic racist, and he is. Leaving him at that is too simple, as his bigoted opinions don’t completely blind him to what’s right before his eyes. Walt has a gruff sense of humor, and an old-school sensibility about taking care of things, right and wrong. He learns and grows from the Hmong teenagers next door, just as the young priest learns and grows from Walt, though neither would think it possible at the outset.

Gran Torino is also an expertly crafted thriller of the old school. Eastwood the director knows how to build suspense through implied violence. Contrary to his reputation from his Westerns and Dirty Harry films, almost all of the violence occurring off-screen, and there’s not much of that. Once Walt intervenes in a dispute that spills over onto his lawn from next door, the tension is steadily ratcheted up until the climax. You’ll find yourself not really sure what Walt’s going to do until just before he does it, and the impact of his solution will leave you thinking long afterward.

Eastwood is well aware of the power that can be packed into a quiet movie. Humor is well used, and genuinely funny. It’s been a long time since I was so affected by a movie. How Slumdog Millionaire was voted Best Picture and Gran Torino wasn’t even nominated makes it difficult to take the Academy Awards seriously.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Something Evil's Lurking in the Dark

“Raising the stakes” is the buzzword for thriller writers. Books that purport to tell authors how to write best-selling or breakout novels use the term more than “and” or “it.” Constantly raising the stakes is supposed to intensify the reader’s interest by making a successful outcome more important and less likely all at once. What it’s mainly doing is killing thrillers for anyone looking for more than a comic book.

There are three major symptoms. First is the tendency toward apocalyptic plots. The best example of this is 24, where nothing qualifies as a crisis unless the fate of the nation/world/solar system/galaxy is at stake. It might be fun once, but after that, how far can the tension be ratcheted up before burnout results? The copycats that sprung up are more a reflection of the entertainment industry’s piggyback philosophy than a sea change in taste. Remember, Michael Bay does not make thrillers, no matter what his marketing people want you to think. He blows shit up. Period.

An inevitable side effect of constantly raising the stakes, is the eventual loss of believability. Die Hard was a classic, treading the line between thriller and action movie with a sure touch, and had a manageable group of people in an enclosed space. Die Harder had the people at risk on an airplane that had to land in a blizzard (best case scenario) or blow up (worst case). Die Hard With a Vengeance brought back original director (John McTiernan), who recognized the franchise had crossed over into Bay-like action and treated the whole thing with tongue deep in cheek. Live Free or Die Hard might have been the worst movie ever made. (I’ve not seen Transformers 2, and, if there’s a God, I won’t.)

The Die Hard movies eventually fall apart because the situations become so dire John McClain can’t possibly get out of them. The level of disbelief to be suspended is so great the suspense is killed. You’re back into Michael Bay-land, where all you care about—all you can care about—isn’t whether Bruce Willis pulls it off, but how much shit gets blown up while he does it.

Raising the stakes is a component of the implausibility problem. Another weakness of the modern thriller is used to raise the stakes: the dumbass protagonist. This is a hero/heroine/group of people who, when faced with a decision, will automatically do whatever is calculated to make the situation worse. A perfectly reasonable solution may be in front of them—going to the police now comes to mind—but some reason will be manufactured (lack of trust, bad previous experience) to prevent this.

Let’s say the hero is a middle school English teacher who finds $200,000 misplaced by a killer. The killer wants the money back and promises not to kill the teacher if he gets it. Granted, he’s a killer, so lying is pretty far down his list of transgressions he’s worried about. Still, your choices are: give back the money and (maybe live), or keep the money and use your skills as a middle school English teacher to outwit a professional criminal who kills people for a living. Good luck with that. (If this is a movie, the teacher will be young and hot (think Jennifer Anniston), blind, and confined to a wheelchair.)

Thrillers live through suspense. Suspense is not action; it’s the threat of action. Possibly the greatest thriller ever is Day of the Jackal. While reading (or watching) it, the back of your mind is always aware that the Jackal doesn’t kill DeGaulle, because you know that’s not how DeGaulle dies. Still, how are they going to stop him? Not a lot of explosions, no large body counts, most of the dialog is quiet and terse. Why does it work?

Psycho. Rear Window. Jaws. The Exorcist. Alien The French Connection. How much actually happens in these movies? Hitchcock, Spielberg, Freidkin, and Scott keep you on the edge of your seat because of what might plausibly happen. As soon as it happens, the tension is released. There might be anticipation of more to come, but the story relaxes until it can be revved up again. As men of my age know, this isn’t as easy as it looks and sometimes takes a while.

Do you distinguish between thrillers and blowing shit up? Do you think constantly raising the stakes intensifies the action, or dilutes it by making it unbelievable?

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Glass: Half Full, Half Empty, or Cracked?

Writers’ opinions of their work in progress fluctuate like an amusement park ride with an operator methed to the eyeballs. “This might be the best thing I’ve ever written” can change to “What a piece of shit,” and then to “It doesn’t suck” within the course of three days. (Fewer, if certain substances are indulged.)

Inactivity has its own effect. An entire week was lost earlier this month, due to my daughter’s high school graduation and its preparation. During that time, my current WIP was considered (by me) to wander, have pointless dialog, an unconvincing plot, and outdated characters.

The following week saw my usual allotment of AIC (Ass In Chair) time, and perceptions improved. Feedback from my First Listener (aka my Beloved Spousal Equivalent) was good, the characters were fully formed, and what had been holes in the plot became time well spent on character development, though I changed not a word.

This week saw family and social obligations lead to missing four days, and, as I type this, the book sucks watermelons through a garden hose.

What I read also has an effect, though it’s much more unpredictable. Reading dreck on a good day can be disheartening. (How is this schmuck published and I’m not?) Reading dreck on a bad day can be encouraging. (Hell, even shit I wouldn’t read aloud in an empty room is better than this. There must be hope for me.)

Reading a good book on a good day can be inspiring. (This is the caliber of writing I want to do.) Reading a good book on a bad day can be depressing. (What chance do I have if this is the competition?)

No wonder writers drink.

Friday, June 12, 2009

An Interview with Peter Rozovsky

Peter Rozovsky is the creator of the popular and award-winning blog, Detectives Beyond Borders, which focuses on crime fiction written outside the United States. For those not familiar with Peter or his blog, an anecdote from last year’s Bouchercon will give an idea of the regard with which he is held in the crime fiction community. No less an authority than Ali Karim found himself stuck for the name of a foreign (to Americans) writer, and solved his dilemma by asking if Peter Rozovsky was in the house. Peter was, and he knew the name Ali was searching for. No one was surprised in the least.

His encyclopedic knowledge is matched by his generosity of spirit. Upon learning I was at my first Bouchercon and feeling a little uncomfortable at not really knowing anyone, his response was, “Do you know Scott Phillips? Scott! Come here. This is Dana King. Dana, this is Scott Phillips. Scott wrote The Ice Harvest.” And, just that quick, I knew someone.

Peter recently was gracious enough to take the time to submit to some questions about his blog and international crime fiction in general.

DK: How did Detectives Beyond Borders get started?

PR: Traveling had long been my preferred recreation, and I'd been reading crime fiction from outside the U.S. for a few years. I don't remember what spurred me to begin the blog in 2006, but once I did, my ex-colleague Frank Wilson, my newspaper's book editor at the time and a relatively early entrant in the field of blogging about books, helped me out. That was my first example of camaraderie among bloggers.

DK: You post every day, sometimes more than once. How do you find the time and energy to keep up that pace along with the demands of your full-time job as copy editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer?

PR: Novelists will tell you that the way to get anything written is to write every day. Blogging is my writing; I write every day. I lavish great care on it, but it does not take all that much time. Even a longish blog post is not all that long. Neglecting domestic responsibilities also leaves me more time for writing.

DK: What provoked your interest in international crime fiction?

PR: I mentioned that I'd long enjoyed traveling, so my interest in international crime fiction came naturally. More specifically, love played a role. About eight years ago, I had a Dutch girlfriend, and I happened to notice a book called Outsider in Amsterdam by Janwillem van de Wetering, the late Dutch crime author of the Grijpstra and de Gier (Amsterdam Cops) novels. His cops took a relaxed, sometimes detached philosophical approach that attracted my interest. Soho Crime published many of his books, and that led me to Soho's other authors, people like Seicho Matsumoto, Garry Disher and Qiu Xiaolong.

DK:Which countries currently produce the most interesting crime fiction?

PR: Every country has the potential to produce interesting crime fiction. Recently a lot of good writing has come out of Ireland.

DK: What authors should readers be aware of if they aren’t all that familiar with international crime fiction, both past and present?

PR: That's a tough question because the field is so vast. For a North American reader, the answer might depend also on whether one considers crime fiction from England "international." It is, of course, but when I started DBB, English crime fiction somehow felt too close to what I was used to. Recently I've been reading more of it.

I suppose a hypothetical course on international crime fiction might begin with Georges Simenon and with Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Martin Beck novels. Henning Mankell looks on them as seminal figures, and many of today's Swedish crime authors in turn regard Mankell the same way.

Build a global reading itinerary, and you could read forever. Qiu Xiaolong, Jean-Claude Izzo, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Yasmina Khadra, Naguib Mahfouz (yep, that one, the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner) and Karin Fossum are some of the authors who stand out for me for what they do with that vast form we call crime fiction. I'll also throw in a few heaps of praise for those marvelous prose artists Bill James and Peter Temple. And that's obviously just the beginning of a long list.

One should remember also that crime fiction was international from its beginnings. Poe's C. Auguste Dupin was a French crime solver created by an American. This is no mere accident of history. There is reason to believe, as one Poe scholar says, that an older society such as France was more prepared than the young United States to accept a writer who probed the dark side the way Poe did.

DK: What books do you believe should be on the shelf of anyone interested in getting into international crime fiction?

PR: Criminy, that's a hard question. The words "must-read" will never cross my lips. Note some of the names I've mentioned, and assume that all of those people are good.

DK: The late Stieg Larsson received a great deal of posthumous acclaim for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The book has prompted quite a bit of discussion, as there are many who are confused by its enthusiastic reception. What are your thoughts on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and what do you think has caused all the controversy?

PR: A colleague today accused me of avoiding The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo because of its popularity. She was right. I'll probably wait til the hullaballoo dies down before I make a serious effort to read Larsson. His premature death obviously enhanced his celebrity, and he touches upon some controversial themes. The current fight over his inheritance also will keep his name in headlines for a while. But I'll reserve judgment until I've read him.

DK: It seems to me that the translator is almost as important as the author when producing fiction for a different language, and is especially true of writers who write in a distinctive style. This is kind of an open-ended question, but what are your thoughts on the pros and cons of translators? Are there writers you think are hurt more than others in translation, aside from readers’ lack of familiarity with the location? Are there some writers who are actually helped by their translators?

PR: Translation may be harder than authorship because at least the author is in total control. A good translator, who must be a good writer also, is responsible to the author as well as to the prose styles of both the original language and the language of translation.

Each language presents problems of its own, and I have the highest respect for translators who can find creative ways to deal with this, whether it's Sian Reynolds coming up with English counterparts to Fred Vargas' French wordplay or Mike Mitchell's elegant English solutions to Friedrich Glauser's switches between different dialects of German.

I once complained about clumsy and vague passages in a translated Spanish crime novel. A reader who apparently knew the work of both the author and the translator said the problems were probably the author's fault.

Outsider in Amsterdam, which I mentioned above, has the occasional odd sentence where the translation applies Dutch grammatical practice to English. For example, you'll get one cop saying, "I wonder if he has done it" rather than "I wonder if he did it." Van de Wetering is an interesting case because, at least later in his career, he did his own translations, which he called "versions." But the point is valid no matter who the translator is. The translator needs to be a graceful, elegant prose stylist in his or her own language and have an intimate knowledge of the original language. That's a demanding set of requirements.

I’d like to thank Peter for his time and for the thoughtfulness of his answers.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Long and Winding Road

The current challenge from Patti Abbott's blog is to write a piece of flash fiction (less than 1,000 words) that included "a wedding cake in the middle of the road." The cake could be integral to the story, or peripheral. Here's my contribution; directions to the others can be found on Patti's blog on Thursday, June 4. Many thanks to her for providing these challenges.

The drawstrings weren’t right. The antiseptic luster of the red ties looked flat and artificial on the canvas. Betty thought it was a sad commentary when her painting couldn’t even look as lifelike as plastic.

The sketch was fine. A pile of kitchen trash can liners in the middle of a two-lane road. Proportion good. Perspective faded into the distance as it should.

The other colors worked. The road itself and its surrounding scenery matched up well with her previous efforts. This had given her trouble before—consistency from frame to frame—creating a mural from a series of individual paintings. Personal milestones, placed onto a highway symbolizing the journey of her life. Betty thought it was very Zen.

The birthing room at Citizens’ Hospital. The front of her first school. The back seat of a ’93 Cavalier, representing the loss of her virginity. A mortarboard for high school graduation. The ring Jeff proposed with. Their wedding shown by a cake placed in a bend of the road, signifying her new direction. The cake a little lopsided. “The Wedding Cake of Pisa,” Jeff called it.

Betty saw no need to depict when or how she found out Jeff was screwing Annette Schaeffer. Whether to show Annette’s face as she confessed, or Betty and Jeff’s bed, where he’d done God knows what with Annette for two years. Started six months after the wedding. A calendar maybe.

She’d thought long and hard, decided it was spilt milk. Move on. The best revenge is living well. If you’re not fit company for yourself. She had forty-seven clichés pinned to the walls in the extra bedroom she used as a studio. They taught her not to dwell on the past. On things she couldn’t change. Take action and don’t look back.

Nail polish worked better than paint on the drawstrings for the trash bags. A lot of work was left. Drawstrings partially obscured by bags. The knots would be a bitch to get right. Using trash can liners to symbolize this point in her life not the brightest idea she’d had. Jeff only weighed 180 pounds. How was she to know it would take seventeen bags to carry him to the dump?