Tuesday, August 22, 2017

"We're in a Jam!": My first look at They Live By Night

The Wikipedia article on They Live By Night, Nicholas Ray's 1948 movie based on Edward Anderson's 1937 novel Thieves Like Us, offers interesting observations, and I have some of my own. First, Wikipedia:

Bosley Crowther's review of They Live By Night, included the following, according to the Wikipedia entry:
"Although it ... is misguided in its sympathies for a youthful crook, this crime-and-compassion melodrama has the virtues of vigor and restraint ... They Live by Night has the failing of waxing sentimental over crime, but it manages to generate interest with its crisp dramatic movement and clear-cut types."
 Those italicized bits are likely to raise eyebrows today, and, not knowing much about Crowther except his name, I have to wonder if he really hated noir as much as the first boldface bit makes it appear. I give Crowther a possible pass on the second highlighted portion. Though it seems almost as stridently moralistic as the first portion, many of the early film noirs were indeed sentimental, or at least melodramatic. Many American movies that came to be called film noir were, in fact, once referred to as melodramas.

The Wiki article credits They Live By Night with being the first movie to include action scenes shot from a helicopter and, indeed, its opening sequence is stunning, a gorgeous and compelling in medias res opening. A later shot from above, of fleeing crooks, seems heavy-handed, however, a telegraphing that the crooks are being observed and will be caught and come to a bad end. Here the technique has not dated well, probably no fault of Nicholas Ray's or cinematographer George E. Diskant. We're all so much more visually sophisticated than we were 70 years ago.

I'll save my own comments for later; this post grows long. The comments will likely revolved men and the city, women and the country, and the encounters between the first and the second in American crime novels and movies from the middle of the twentieth century. 

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Philadelphia noir

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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New York noir in color II

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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New York noir in color

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Monday, July 31, 2017

Bouchercon 2017, in which I'll answer questions rather than ask them

Sarah Weinman. Photo by Peter Rozovsky
for Detectives Beyond Borders
Sarah Weinman will step to the microphone to ask me some incisive questions on a panel at Bouchercon 2017 in Toronto this October. The panel is called "History of the Genre," it will be my first gig as a panelist rather than a moderator, and I'll share the stage with Martin Edwards, David A. Poulsen, Margaret Cannon, and Alex Gray.

Sarah is one of the savviest people in crime fiction, and so is Martin. Margaret is one of the more respected crime fiction critics out there, and Alex and David are two authors new to me, which is one of the pleasures of Bouchercon panels. I'm going to have some fun and learn something from this session, and I hope you'll be part of it.
"History of the Genre: Covering decades of good mysteries and its subgenres" happens from 11:30 to 12:30 a.m. in the Sheraton E room at the Sheraton Centre  in Toronto. See you there.

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Sunshine Noir, the CWA Dagger awards, and me

I feel a kinship with the shortlists (one word in British usage) for the Crime Writers Association Dagger awards, announced last week. Two of the six finalists for best short story "The Assassination," by Leye Adenle; and "Snakeskin," by Ovidia Yu   appeared in Sunshine Noir, a collection of short stories set in hot places. Here's what I wrote about Adenle's story in my introduction to the volume (I gave the introduction the title "Clime Fiction," and the indulgent editors, Annamaria Alfieri and Stan Trollip, in his role as part of the writing team of Michael Stanley, were kind enough to let it stand):

"Leye Adenle’s `The Assassination' is a taut tale of death and political corruption that harks back to honorable precedents in crime and espionage writing but is redolent of its setting, which I take to be the author’s country, Nigeria."

Here's what I wrote about Yu's:

"If you want gothic-tinged domestic mystery, you’ll find it in Sunshine Noir. (Family secrets flourish in steamy air. Try Ovidia Yu's `Snake Skin.')"

Three of the remaining shortlisted stories are from Motives for Murder, edited by Martin Edwards, including one by Edwards himself. I have no connection with Motives for Murder, but I will join Edwards on a panel at Bouchercon 2017 in Toronto. So when it comes to Daggers, I know almost everybody's shorts.

(Read about the nominees in all categories on the CWA website: https://thecwa.co.uk/the-daggers/)

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

What was the high point of sound engineering in American movies? plus two questions for readers

James Grady, author of Six Days of the Condor, the
novel on which
Three Days of the Condor is based.
Photo by Peter Rozovsky for Detectives Beyond
Were the late 1960s into the mid-1970s a high point of sound engineering in American crime movies? Bullitt (1967) is noted for its car chase, but, I wrote when I saw the movie for the first time that:
"I don't remember ever having seen a movie so self-conscious about its sound editing. Footsteps clatter loudly and significantly. Characters gesticulate and argue behind glass, seen but unheard. Pumps pump menacingly. Characters breathe loudly, and if you know Jacques Tati, you know where the movie makers got their idea for the hospital lobby scene with its busy ambient sound and utter absence of dialogue."
Last weekend I saw Three Days of the Condor (1975) at the Film Forum, and it used the teletype machine in the CIA front-organization office the way Bullitt used machines (EKGs) in an intensive care unit. Reviewing a DVD rerelease of Bullitt in 2005, the American Cinematographer website wrote of the famous car chase that "the music drops out and the whole scene is `scored' with a cacophony of revving engines and screeching tires."

I like that better than I like thudding music at one extreme and the triteness of echoing footsteps at the other, but I don't know much of the history of sound in movies. So, two questions: What are the high points of sound in American movies, and What are your favorite uses of sound (and why)?

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Good noir at a good bar, Part II: The Photographs

Angel Luis Colón
A few more photos from the Noir at the Bar I wrote about yesterday, all by Peter Rozovsky for Detectives Beyond Borders:
Suzanne Solomon
Nik Korpon, Angel Luis Colón, Nick Kolakowski,
Brian Panowich

Dj Alkimist, Nancy ThiLan Hart-Aymar

Suzanne Solomon (left), Ed Aymar
(right), Todd_Robinson and Rory
Costello (in mirror)

Joe Clifford
© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Good noir at a good bar, Part I

I've complained, most recently in a discussion on Jay Stringer's Facebook wall, that "too many writers (of noir and neo-noir) think sticking their characters in a trailer park and having them crack wise while spitting out teeth near the meth lab is enough." I recently attended a Noir at the Bar at New York's Shade Bar that presented several exceptions. Here's what made some of those readings stand out.

Danny Gardner. Photos by Peter
Rozovsky for Detectives Beyond
Borders, except where notes.
Danny Gardner is also a stand-up comedian and an actor, so he reads well. Beyond that, his story, from an upcoming anthology inspired by Johnny Cash's songs ("Black people love Johnny Cash," he said, citing Cash's employment of black musicians and his refusal to play venues were black people were not admitted), hit on social themes, striking hard without coming on preachy. His story, he said, is about gun violence, its consequences, and who causes it. (Hint: It's not young black males.) When he did address a social problem directly, it seemed more an exciting Brechtian provocation than middle-class slumming, guilt mongering, or do-gooding.

Brian M. Panowich
Brian Panowich, unrecognizable at first because I'd never seen him without his cowboy hat, read with expression and emotion and offered the terrific sight gag of yanking out one of his teeth. The villain of his story was unexpected, as were the MacGuffin and, especially, the story's ending. Like Gardner's story, Panowich's offered unflinching explicit violence. Unlike too much new noir, neo-noir, and recent hard-boiled, both took that violence seriously, again without preaching or anything approaching torture porn.

Eric Beetner
Eric Beetner, who runs Noir at the Bar in Los Angeles, threw a gracious hat tip my way for creating Noir at the Bar here in Philadelphia in 2008. He also read a story that embraced the misty glamour of 1940s Los Angeles in every word without, however, tumbling into schmaltz. That's no easy feat, and it shows the man has chops.

Ed Aymar
Ed Aymar, who organizes Noir at the Bar in Washington, D.C., read a story that centered on looting and packed a contemporary punch even as it harked back in a highly satisfying way to noir's roots in melodrama. And these four writers are four reasons I feel better about new noir and neo-noir than I did last week.

(Jen Conley and Scott Adlerberg organized the New York event, and Gardner, Panowich, Beetner, and Aymar were just four of a large group of readers. I'll write about some of them soon, In the meantime, here's a photo of all the readers plus Jen and Scott, courtesy of Mark Krajnak.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Sunday, July 09, 2017

Le Trou, Donald Westlake, and everything: Atmosphere in noir and elsewhere

"`Don't you see? There's a plan there, but you have to convert it to the real world, to the people you've got and the places you'll be, and all the rest of it. You'd be the auteur."

-- May to Dortmunder in Jimmy the Kid, by Donald Westlake
Photos by Peter Rozovsky for Detectives Beyond Borders.
That photo at right is the closest thing to a noir photo I shot in New York Saturday, and that's only because it's black and white and has some dark shadows. OK, maybe the lack of natural light and the photo's underground setting have something to do with it. Oh, and the walkway in question runs under Times Square, but you might not know that unless I told you or unless you knew New York fairly well. But the point is that noir isn't just a literary form or a fatalistic view of life; it's also atmosphere.

It's Jeanne Moreau wandering through the streets of Paris in the rain looking for her lover in Elevator to the Gallows. It's Alain Delon smoking a cigarette in just about anything; Le Samourai will do for a start. Atmosphere of a different kind was at work in Le Trou, one of two movies that brought me to New York and the Film Forum.

Le Trou ("The Hole") is a 1960 French prison-break drama directed by Jacques Becker, and I suspect that many Americans will find that it doesn't feel like a prison movie. The five (!) prisoners crammed into a small cell at Paris' La Santé Prison don't fight or rape each other. Instead, they share the contents of packages they receive from the outside, and they cooperate on an escape plan.  The atmosphere, that is, is one of teamwork rather than confrontation. And Becker fills the movie with the five men digging and reconnoitering and planning without, however, gimmicky attention boosters and false drama and wrong turns and screeching music to tell viewers how they ought to feel. (J. Hoberman's New York Times article touches on some of these questions, with a hat tip to Suzanne Solomon for putting the article in my way.)
I included the Westlake snippet above because the coincidence of coming to a discussion of auteur theory just when I was preparing a post about a French movie from 1960 was too good to pass up. But Le Trou may remind viewers of Westlake's comic Dortmunder novels and the Parker heist dramas he wrote as Richard Stark. Parker is a planner and Dortmunder is a planner, and so are Roland and Manu, two of the cellmates who plan the escape in Le Trou. The other three are something like the Kelps and Murches and Grofields and Deverses who fill out the teams that execute Parker's and Dortmunder's plans.

I had some quibbles with Le Trou's ending; see the movie, and we'll talk about it.

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Wednesday, July 05, 2017

My sixth cover photo!

My latest book-cover photo is now available, complete with a novel by Philadelphia's own Tony Knighton. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Knighton's Three Hours Past Midnight joins a worthy group of crime novels and story collections whose covers have featured my photography.

That group includes:

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Monday, June 26, 2017

My visit with Dashiell Hammett, tough guys' corner, and short-pantsed tourists awed into respectful silence

Dashiell Hammett, who wrote a few good crime novels and stories, served in the Army in World Wars I and II and thus earned himself burial at Arlington National Cemetery.  He's not the only figure buried there who made his name outside the military.

Tough in the ring and out
Lee Marvin is buried right next to Joe Louis. The Wikipedia entry on Marvin makes a statement about Marvin that will seem Marvinlike to fans of his movies. Marvin, Wikipedia says, had been a corporal in the Marines but was busted down to private first class after "causing trouble."

Elsewhere, have you ever seen a crowd of tourists silent, not even yapping away on cellphones? If not, you haven't visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. 

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

Friday, June 16, 2017

James R. Benn, Billy Boyle, and the corporate side of World War II

Jim Benn was a member of a panel I moderated at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany on the subject of "World War II and Sons," and he deserved to be there. His Billy Boyle novels look at World War II through the eyes of a brash but unworldly young man who finds himself on Dwight David Eisenhower's staff during the war. This affords him the chance to travel throughout the war's European and North African theaters and, as Benn says below, to "investigate the lesser-known aspects of the war." The 12th Billy Boyle novel, The Devouring, will be published in September. Benn talks here about the book and what he learned while researching it.

I never imagined the twelfth book in the Billy Boyle series would be set in Switzerland. After all, as Harry Lime told us in the noir classic The Third Man, the only thing the Swiss are famous for is cuckoo clocks. My novels are set during the Second World War, and feature military detective Captain Billy Boyle, who investigates low crimes in high places for General Eisenhower. So how did Billy get to Switzerland in The Devouring (set for release in September 2017)?

This journey began when I was researching the French underground for the 2016 release, Blue Madonna. I stumbled across a brief mention of a group of young Jewish resisters in occupied France who worked to smuggle Jewish children into Switzerland. I’d never heard of that, and it piqued my interest, since I try to investigate the lesser-known aspects of the war. More research led me to Nancy Lefenfeld’s excellent 2013 book The Fate of Others; Rescuing Jewish Children on the French-Swiss border.

What I learned was chilling. 

The Swiss were almost as much the enemy as the Germans. The smuggling operation had to evade German patrols, mines, and barbed wire, and that was only half the trip. The Swiss were not fans of refugees, especially Jewish refugees. At the beginning of the war, Jews on the run from Nazi Germany were defined as non-political refugees and denied entry to Switzerland. In fact, the infamous red J stamped on the passports of German Jews was put there at the request of the Swiss government, to make it easier to sort out Jewish refugees at the border and send them back.C
Entire families who had made the hazardous journey across occupied France and made it across the doubly-guarded border were usually sent back when apprehended in Switzerland. They were even charged car fare to the border, where they were turned over to the Nazis and certain death.

Finally, the Swiss relented somewhat, and decreed that children under sixteen years of age, traveling alone, would not be sent back if they made it across the border alive. Hence the smuggling operation, led by Mila Racine, Simon Lévitte, and others involved in Jewish scouting organizations and Zionist youth movements. They escorted hundreds of children to safety. These valiant efforts were ended by 1943, due to stepped up German patrols and the capture of Mila Racine as she led a group of children.

So, this is not the story I tell in The Devouring. In the world of Billy Boyle it’s June 1944, shortly after D-Day. He’s sent to Switzerland to work with OSS Chief Allan Foster Dulles on Operation Safehaven, a plan to keep German assets in Swiss banks from being used for any post-war Nazi resurgence and to channel such funds into reconstruction efforts.

By German assets, I mean looted gold. Gold looted from conquered nations, gold torn from the teeth of concentration camp victims, gold from crates and crates of wedding rings, gold extorted from the powerless across Europe. Swiss banks colluded with the Third Reich to launder looted gold and enabled Germany to purchase war materials on the international market.

Louis Richard Sosthenes
By Source, Fair use,
Nowhere is the intersection of big business and Nazi Germany more bizarre than that of International Telephone and Telegraph and Focke-Wulf. Created in 1920 by Sosthenes Behn, ITT quickly grew into a giant corporation. Behn acquired a number of German firms in the 1930s, and in 1933 he met with Adolf Hitler. Behn understood how the politics of the Nazi regime worked, and he arranged for cash payments to be made throughout the war, via his German and Swiss contacts, to Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS. His purpose was to ensure that the Third Reich not take over his German holdings. While a US citizen, Behn was not going to let something like a world war interfere with profits.

One of the German firms ITT had a substantial interest in was Focke-Wulf. ITT owned 29% of the German aircraft manufacturer, which produced fighter planes for the Luftwaffe, including the Focke-Wulf 190, a fighter particularly effective against allied bombers. Behn saw substantial profits from Focke-Wulf, and elected to plow them back into the company, making Focke-Wulf even more effective in its production of fighter planes.

Behn may have been betting on a German victory, although his real motivation is unproven. What is known is that he pursued profit above all. In the 1960s, ITT presented a case for compensation from the US government for the damage caused to Focke-Wulf plants (by those allied bombers that survived attacks by the Fw-190 fighter). ITT was awarded $27 million dollars in compensation. Ford and General Motors also won large amounts.

This is the upside-down world of corporate loyalty and greed that Billy Boyle finds himself in as he navigates the mean streets in the old town of Bern, Switzerland, home to Swiss bankers, Gestapo agents, spies of all nations, and Moe Berg, the smartest man in baseball. But that’s a story for another day. 

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

What mistakes do audiobooks make?, Part II

My current audiobook's narrator keeps pronouncing "cache" as if it had two syllables and were spelled "cachet."

I wonder what scrutiny ebooks get. With manuscripts written and stored on computers, it's easy to go back to the beginning of a book and correct an error that occurs throughout. But I don't know how easy it is to correct misreadings in an audiobook. One book I listened to recently had occasional sections obviously recorded separately from the rest. The insertions were noticeable but unobtrusive, and, assuming they correct mistakes, I'm glad the publishers took the time to make them. I'd have been happier if such an insertion had been made in the case of the reader who confused "cache" and "cachet" or in that of the narrator who read "psychic" for "physic."

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Thursday, June 08, 2017

"Yes, I have been drugged, but not by any psychic": What mistakes do audiobooks make?

The quoted bit from this post's title is taken from an Audible audio edition of John Buchan's novel Greenmantle, as read by Felbrigg Napoleon Herriot. The passage is apt to conjure entertaining visions of a storefront card reader conjuring spells, but it's not what Buchan wrote. Here's the passage as it appears in print, highlighting mine:
"'Drugged,' he cried, with a weary laugh. 'Yes, I have been drugged, but not by any physic.' "
But there's more. That book and the same narrator's reading of Mr. Standfast, third of Buchan's Richard Hannay novels, after The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle, include the following:
  • Indegefatigable where Buchan wrote indefatigable
  • Factum where Buchan wrote factotum
  • St. Pacreas at least twice for St. Pancras
  • "Every Boy Scout is am amateur detective and hungry for knowledge. I was followed by several who piled (sic, instead of plied) me with questions."
  • The pronunciation Ameans for Amiens, and Louis Kwinz for Louis Quinze
  • Portmant-yew and tonn-yew for portmanteau and tonneau
  • Chamonoy for Chamonix
Add caption
The fifth item on the list reflects English pronunciation of French names. The sixth and seventh are pronunciations neither English nor French. Are they regional pronunciations I don't know? Misapplied erudition on the narrator's part?

Elsewhere, Herriot pronounces row, for a noisy disturbance, correctly, to rhyme with now, but also as in the first part of rowboat. The latter may be carelessness, or it may reflect an inconsistency of pronunciation that anyone might fall into.   This raises my questions to you, readers: What sorts of lapses and distractions are audiobooks uniquely vulnerable to? Conversely, what pleasures do audiobooks afford that printed books cannot?

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Tuesday, June 06, 2017

A bit about Buchan, new and old

I've turned to the comfort of old-school spy stories in the form of John Buchan's Richard Hannay novels: The Thirty-Nine Steps and, next up, Greenmantle and Mr. Standfast. These novels. a century old now, can seem familiar and comfortably archaic for Hannay's bluff attitude, occasionally shocking (to today's sensibilities) social attitudes, and, at time, acute and even prescient. I'm listening to the books now; here's a post back from when I read them. 

(Buchan, who served as governor general of Canada from 1935 through 1940, will be on the program as "ghost of honor" at Bouchercon 2017 in Toronto.)

Greenmantle is greatly enjoyable as it enters the homestretch. It's full of disguises, last-second escapes, hair-raising dangers, and all the other things a good thriller is made of. It also feels surprisingly up to date with its assessments of Germany's war aims and its discussions of religious revival in the Muslim world.

Its contemporary feel is all the more noticeable because the book is in so many respects a thoroughgoing product of its time. Without necessarily expressing contempt for commoners, it is shot through with the attitude that war is really a contest between those few, rare men of noble soul and exceptional ability. The German Col. von Stumm is brutal, thuggish and depraved, for example, but the kaiser is a high-minded man whose responsibility weighs heavily upon him.

Buchan is also acutely sensitive to the joys and sorrows of travel. Exhausted and depressed when he reaches Constantinople, the protagonist, Richard Hannay, finds the city "a mighty disappointment. I don't quite know what I expected -- a sort of fairyland Eastern city, all white marble and blue water, and stately Turks in surplices, and veiled houris, and roses and nightingales, and some sort of string band discoursing sweet music. I had forgotten that winter is pretty much the same everywhere. It was a drizzling day, with a south-east wind blowing, and the streets were long troughs of mud. The first part I struck looked like a dingy colonial suburb -- wooden houses and corrugated iron roofs, and endless dirty, sallow children."

Later, however, refreshed, in new clothes, and after an unexpected rescue by an unexpected colleague, Hannay makes this sage observation: "What had seemed the day before the dingiest of cities now took on a strange beauty ... A man's temper has a lot to do with his appreciation of scenery. I felt a free man once more, and could use my eyes."

And the novel's humorous touches, particularly in the form of the American, Blenkiron, are delightful. His bluff manner of speaking will awaken readers to the joys and peculiarities of Americans and the ways they talk.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

No crime in Sicily

Sicily is notoriously the home of the Mafia, but the closest thing to a crime I experienced there last week was Alitalia's kidnapping or murder of my luggage somewhere between Palermo and London, a crime, however, that I retain some hope will be solved. In the meantime, here are some photos from Palermo, Monreale, and their surroundings.

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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