Friday, May 14, 2004

A Forensic Conundrum 

As a would-be forensic biologist, one subject that interests me, and occasionally galls me, is the assumption that DNA is the "magic bullet" of forensic science, that it will solve all and quickly at that. Then there are cases like this:
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) - Police thought they had solved a 4 1/2-year-old rape case when DNA evidence from the assailant matched that of a prison inmate.

Then they realized the inmate, Jerome Cooper, had a twin brother who could have the same DNA.

Both Jerome and Tyrone Cooper, 36, were in the Grand Rapids area at the time of the 1999 rape of a college student, and both are convicted sex offenders.
Since matching Jerome Cooper's DNA, police have been searching for Tyrone Cooper to determine whether the twins are fraternal or identical, and if they have the same DNA. A warrant has been issued for Tyrone Cooper's arrest, charging him with failing to update his address on the state's sex offender registry.

"Our big hope in this case is they are fraternal," police Sgt. Timothy Williams told The Grand Rapids Press.

As the article indicates, identical twins have 100% concordance in their DNA sequence, and so if it turns out the Cooper brothers are identical, the cops are stuck. Same DNA--two different people. How do they get around this?

That the answer might prove to be a difficult find shows that there are severe disadvantages to making forensic science a technology-based, or database-intensive, discipline. My former professor, Peter De Forest, always waxed eloquent, both in class and outside, about how criminalistics--the field of gathering physical evidence and the fundamental science that every other forensic discipline is based on--is in decline, its techniques losing its impact in the wake of new technologies, new toys, and databases. The first time I heard his line of thinking, I blanched, because hey, I loved DNA and thought it to be practically god-like. Thankfully, I came around to De Forest's way of thinking as time went on, and came to the realization that a case cannot be solved by tools alone; there must be an overall framework and context, something that is dynamic and subject to constant change.

So what of the identical twins and how to distinguish between them? The answer, perhaps, lies in a powerful field, but one that has taken a severe beating in the courts in the last little while: fingerprints. Until otherwise proven, each individual has his or her own unique set of prints--even identical twins. So if the original crime scene techs were smart, and the evidence had been kept in storage all this time, perhaps some useful prints were obtained back in 1999. There's also the old-fashioned gumshoe approach, interviewing people, accounting for each of the twins' whereabouts before, during, and after the crime took place.

But chances are, alas, the resolution of this case will hinge on finding that other twin and waiting for the DNA test to show--one way or another--if they are fraternal or identical.

And if it turns out to be the latter situation--well then, things might just get a little more difficult.

It runs in the family 

After much poking, prodding, begging and pleading--mostly by me--my brother, Jaime J. Weinman, has joined the 'sphere. His blog, "Something Old, Nothing New" looks at all sorts of popular and unpopular culture, as filtered through his own personal tastes. In other words, if you think I'm idiosyncratic, well, there's a damned good reason--I learned it all from him.* Anyway, feel free to check it out.

*And we both gleaned much of our own cultural oddities from my father and his monumental record collection. He's threatening to start a blog as well. It could get rather crowded...

You can never get enough kitsch in your life 

In one of the recent backblogs, the conversation has somehow degenerated into a discussion of horrible movies we've seen recently. Olen chimed in with his viewing of Van Wilder (or maybe it was the sequel? Perish the thought) and I dredged up a should-have-been-forgotten memory of watching one of Pauly Shore's lesser efforts*. And since, no doubt, this kind of discussion might fire up your brain to remember all the terrible schlock you have viewed at some point, allow me to make this task all the easier, thanks to the demented genius that is Seanbaby, a Portland, Oregon-based writer (well, he's got a voice, albeit of the anarchic, insane variety) who loves, and I mean LOVES, the 80s in all its horrendous glory. He also has a semi-regular column for THE WAVE, one of the free weeklies over there, which manages to mine the most obscure, outlandish topics into long pieces, ranging from funny to side-splitting.

My favorite, in keeping with this particular discussion, is "The 10 Eightiest Movies," where Seanbaby goes into excrutiating detail on movies that should really be locked in a drawer with the key thrown away:

8. Breakin’, 1984

“For the break of your life! Push it to pop it! Rock it to lock it! Break it to make it!”
This is one of the first films that focused on break dancing and the troubled rec centers that surround it. It’s the story of Turbo and Ozone, played of course by Boogaloo Shrimp and Shabba-Doo, and the trials they go through to not only defeat the evil Electro-Rock breakers, but to be accepted by the established dance community. They’re helped along the way by Kelly, a classically trained dancer who embraces their savage street movements to recreate most of the second half of Flashdance. What made this movie so daring, though, is that it risked angering elitist ballet instructor villains of the world by having an ending where the group’s break dancing saves the community from socially intolerant oppression.

And it just gets worse. On Seanbaby's home site, he has a ridiculously detailed, terribly analytical review of Mr. T's "Be Somebody or Be Somebody's Fool," an idea so lame and silly that, well, it could only have happened in the 80s.

So hunt through this archive. Dredge up those long-forgotten memories. And then, it might be a good idea to imbibe copious amounts of alcohol afterwards.

*UPDATE, 11:30 EDT: Overheard in the ladies' bathroom at work ten minutes ago:

A: Did you ever see that Pauly Shore movie?

B: Which one is that? I don't see a lot of movies, eh.

A: It's that one, THE IN-LAWS, I think? Where he's at the house of the girl he's engaged to?

B: SON-IN-LAW! Yeah I did see that, it was so funny.

A: It's one of the funniest movies I've ever seen, eh. So good.

The Diamond Dagger Award Ceremony 

On May 12, at the Savoy Hotel, Lawrence Block became the latest recepient--and only the third American author--of the CWA's Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement in Crime Fiction. Presenting the award and making a speech was Simon Kernick, a self-professed "huge fan" whose own work is greatly influenced by Block's ouevre. Block, who attended with his wife Lynne, himself gave a speech which was warmly received by the crowd. In attendance were fellow authors like Mark Billingham, John Harvey, CWA President Hilary Bonner, Simon Brett, the gang from SHOTS (Mike Stotter, Ali Karim, Ayo Ontade, Liz Hatherell and her consort Myles Allfrey) and Thalia Proctor, manager of Goldsboro Books. Pictures of the event will, no doubt, be made available in a forthcoming issue of SHOTS, which I'm looking forward to if only to see how dressed up everybody was!

Again, huge congratulations to Larry for the award.

Interview with the #1 Bestselling author in the UK 

And who would this person be? Why, none other than Harlan Coben, whose new standalone JUST ONE LOOK stormed up the charts all the way to the top. In this interview with the Independent, he talks about the new book, New Jersey, and oh yeah, some series characters he may or may not have left behind for good. It's actually a fairly thoughtful piece that puts the standalones in an interesting context (albeit one that, I suspect, might be more "meaningful" than they ought to be:)

One of the differences between Coben's early, slick thrillers about Myron Bolitar and these later ones is the age of their protagonists. Myron was a young man in the sense that he was hoping to settle down, whereas the lead characters of the New Jersey sequence are all people who have reached that level of personal maturity at which you have something serious to lose: the loved ones who are hostages to fortune. What they have in common with Myron is heart, a fundamental decency that means that he and they don't just knock down the ant hills of the lives around them for the sake of it. If they flounder in the course of finding the truth, they do so without malice aforethought. All of Coben's viewpoint characters have a sense of themselves as flawed that stops them acting out of self-righteousness even when they know they are being victimised. No one is more surprised than David Beck in Tell No One to find himself on the run: when he knocks down a policeman, he retains the good moral sense to be sorry for what was a necessity.

I do wonder if this kind of profile would ever be written for a US publication. Just goes to show how differently books--even standalone thrillers--are viewed on both sides of the pond.

Returning to the Stomping Grounds 

First, a heartfelt thank-you to Olen for a marvellous job over the past few days--there was some extremely thought-provoking posts that he put up, stuff that I'm still mulling over and may yet respond to in a fuller fashion--we shall see. As for me, I'm still getting used to being in an enclosed space (behind secure doors, I might add),added responsibilities and completely new surroundings, while juggling yet more interviews and more travel time in the days and weeks to come.

Anyway, some choice links, although fewer than usual:

Newsday's book coverage leads off with a nice interview of Bolivian-American writer Emanuel Paz Soldan, one of many up-and-coming South American writers trying to get out from the long shadow cast by Gabriel Garcia Marquez--although Soldan's a fan of the elder statesman.

I keep forgetting that Michiko's a baseball nut until she comes back with a new review of a baseball-themed book. This time it's Michael Sokolove's THE TICKET OUT, a chronicle of Daryl Strawberry and his fellow teammates on the 1979 Crenshaw High Cougars. I wonder if La Kakutani will tackle Jeff Pearlman's upcoming expose of the seamy side of the 1986 Mets? (A book, incidentally, that I am extremely excited to read.)

Harvey Weinstein will write his memoirs, and the publication date is 2006. I dunno, I think I'd rather read what his brother Bob has to say. Besides, it's not like Harvey's gonna dish about all the starlets he got to play Casting Couch with...

One of these days, I'm going to do a ridiculously long rant about my completely irrational hatred for Plum Sykes and how she's at the forefront of a completely different subgenre. But until then, there's the Independent's take on BERGDORF BLONDES, adorning the book with grudging praise.

One has less-than-high hopes for a profile that immediately begins with an ode to the author's "masses of hair," but that's the price to pay for reading this interview with Jodi Picoult in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Lord knows I've spent enough time here talking about Michael Connelly's THE NARROWS, but this article in the LA Times could not be passed up--as Steve Harvey's "only in L.A." column is devoted to the surreal take on the BLOOD WORK movie, and how Connelly manages to use his characters to voice opinions the author probably couldn't.

Michael Marshall Smith wrote some hybrid SF/thrillers before dropping the last name, writing conspiracy thrillers like THE STRAW MEN and THE LONELY DEAD and becoming a household name in the UK (while languishing in PBO in the US. Go figure) Anyway, he's about to appear in Manchester so the Evening News does a little profile on him.

After only six issues since its launch in November, Ink Magazine has closed up shop due, predictably, to problems in recovering start-up costs.

How'd you like to spend 42 minutes listening to Joe Lansdale expound on whatever comes to mind, especially his new book, SUNSET & SAWDUST? Now you can, thanks to Rick Kleffel's recent interview of the Edgar award-winning author.

And finally, get ready for the newest heir to the HypeMonster (TM) throne: Susannah Clarke, whose 800-page novel JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL is deemed by Bloomsbury as "Harry Potter for grown-ups." Well, they would, since they publish Potter in the UK, and lord knows they can't have too many cash cows--or potential ones....

Thursday, May 13, 2004

No, I'm not really back till tomorrow, but... 

..it behooved me to break in and report that after all the hype, the careful doling out of review copies (and shutting down any possibility of obtaining advance copies months before the publication date) the spiffy DVD (which I finally viewed a few days ago, and it is very nicely put together), and the fervent hope that the book would finally, finally do what no other of his books had done before, the news is finally in:

And goddamnit, that DA VINCI CODE is one tough nut to crack.

So THE NARROWS debuts at #2 on the NYT List. Which, incidentally, is Michael Connelly's best debut in three years (A DARKNESS MORE THAN NIGHT reached the same pinnacle), but in the end, it wasn't quite enough.

Maybe next week...

One Last Gasp 

...before I sign off. Tomorrow, rest assured, that goddess of the criminal netherworld will return to satisfy your daily need for wit and information. It's been fun, but I tell you, it ain't as easy as it looks, and now it's time for me to get back to my day job.

But before I go, I'll draw your attention to three articles -- all, remarkably, from USA Today. The first is a piece on How Israel Lost, by Richard Ben Cramer. No comments necessary, this sort of topic generates its own instant chatter.

The second is simply because I love the man's writing, and even once rashly proclaimed him the greatest living novelist. I'm perhaps too much of a list-maker. It's a look, twenty years later, at Milan Kundera's masterpiece, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

And finally, USA Today makes an attempt to help rejuvenate the sales of mysteries that have slipped off the top-50.

Best to all, it's been a gas.

How Long is too Long? 

In earlier backblog posts, a conversation went on about writing open-ended series as opposed to stand-alones. What does the reader want? How long can an author keep it up with the originality that began the series? A review of Anne Perry's The Shifting Tide in Monday's Boston Globe even asks, with this 14th installment of her William Monk series, "Could Anne Perry be tiring of crime?" January Magazine's 1998 interview with Perry brought up the fact that crime is a personal matter for her, a personal matter brought to the screen in Heavenly Creatures. If she is, in fact, tiring of crime, I don't think anyone could blame her.

I'm not generally a reader of series mysteries, which became clear in the backblogs when I questioned how someone could conceivably keep up good work. In answer, a litany of names were cited that I had to admit I hadn't read. I'm doing a series myself, but with a pre-defined end-point--5, or 6 at the most, books. Knowing where I'm going to end is important for me, because I then know the arc of the whole meta-story that connects all the books. (Also, my books cover a pre-defined historical period that simply has to end.)

Perhaps some series authors can chime in here, and tell us how they view their series. Is there an arc to the whole series? Or is it like a rope with a series of knots, each book its own arc?

Sorry if I'm being vague or tedious, but these are the kinds of questions writers fret over, and perhaps some interesting answers will arise.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Them Other Languages 

In an email exchange with Sarah, she thought it might be interesting for me to talk a little about translations. So I'll give it a shot.

At this point, I'm being published in three other languages--Swedish, French, and Japanese. Someone as fine as Jason Starr has enough for a whole page devoted to foreign editions. Yet Rebecca Pawel, winner of the Edgar for First Novel, hasn't a single foreign edition under her belt. Not even in Spain, the country she writes about. Sarah and I were shocked when she told us this. (The Edgar, though, should right this wrong.) Similarly, Adam LeBor, whose Milosevic biography I mentioned below, has a slew of foreign editions going, but none in Croatian -- a country that would be happy to read a tough retelling of that man's criminal life.

Getting foreign deals seems pretty random to me. The way it works is that I have an excellent agent in New York -- Matt Williams at the Gernert Company. He takes care of all American contracts. He works with a co-agent based out of London, Andrew Nurnberg Associates, Ltd. Nurnberg, in turn, has agents placed in strategic locations throughout the world. So, for example, a Nurnberg agent based here in Budapest covers Hungary and the ex-Yugoslav countries. And the quality of these local agents varies wildly. From what Adam LeBor and I can tell, the woman who's our local agent is doing as little as humanly possible. She hasn't secured him a Croatian deal, and I even gave her number to a publisher I met in a bar here. The publisher left messages on her machine, because she wanted to do a Hungarian edition, but my agent didn't reply. After weeks of trying to coordinate this thing, I finally gave up in frustration.

These frontier agents don't (as far as I've been able to tell) go out and hunt down local publishers. They wait to be contacted. And a publisher only contacts them if they've had the good fortune of running across an English-language edition and loving it, having read that it's made some waves in the States or the UK, or are contacted by freelance scouts who bridge the gap between the publisher and the agent. My agent in NY is contacted now and then by scouts, who have carried my books to Italy and Germany, so far without success.

But there seem to be variations to the whole process. The English edition of Natsuo Kirino's Edgar-nominated Out, I see from looking at my copy, was published by a Japanese publisher, in Japan. They skipped the whole local-publisher route altogether and just went with local distributors. (A friend remarked that the Japanese government subsidizes the translation of authors in other languages, which may explain this.)

Recently, with my French edition, I was surprised by the liberties that foreign publishers can take. Liana Levi, my Paris publishers, have changed the titles of all my books. The Bridge of Sighs is now Cher Camarade, while The Confession is now Niet Camarade. Now, I understand that different markets require different titles to catch the local eye, but the shock was that I was never consulted. In my English editions I'd gone out of my way to come up with titles that didn't reek of the communist motif I use in my stories, because to me the communism is secondary to the characters and their story; but in France they've gone out of their way to do just the opposite.

Can I complain? Yes. Does it do any good? It hasn't, not yet.

So then you have the deal. You're excited. How long do you have to wait before you get to hold that volume you can't understand? Well, I just received my Swedish and French copies this morning. The Swedish edition took a year and a month from signing to book; the French took a mere four months. The Japanese I'm still waiting on, and it's been over two years!

Answer: There's just no telling.

Since I'm new to this, I don't know what follows the foreign publication. Maybe some of the more experienced writers out there can comment on their experiences with the foreign press and perhaps even book tours. (All I know is that I was told that if I didn't speak French, the French press would not interview me. Which does seem strange...kind of.) And maybe there's an agent out there who wants to clear up some of the mistakes I've no doubt made.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Yes, books... 

Today I'm gonna try (ineptly, compared to our beloved maven) to do a proper Confessions post -- i.e. focus on books:

On Saturday, the Boston Globe ran a piece on...guess what?...The Da Vinci Code, which stated a -- to me -- shocking figure:

The theological thriller by New Hampshire's Dan Brown is still [after a year] selling an astonishing 80,000 to 90,000 hard-cover copies per week. Last week, the book went into its 56th printing, bringing the number of copies in print to 7.35 million.

Now, I certainly have dreams of becoming what's termed a "best-seller". However, these kinds of numbers were beyond my imagining. I also lived a year in Florence, and I imagine these kinds of figures would have sent Signore Da Vinci into convulsions of ecstasy.

The Seattle Times has a chat with Morning Edition's Bob Edwards (oh, that voice I remember so well!) about his Edward R Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism. One point he makes is about a bad habit Murrow had: his long silences during interviews. Last year I went with a journalist friend to interview an American officer training Iraqi resistance here in Hungary just before the war began, and I noticed he did the same thing. To me it looked like bad behavior, and I wanted to fill those silences. But then I saw his technique: it was to make the interviewee nervous, to fill the silences in just the way I wanted to do. Did it work with this officer? I'm afraid it didn't.

This is a little old, but I ran across a Houston Chronicle interview with John Grisham about his new film, Mickey, in which Grisham tells, among other things, why this story is a screenplay and not a film:

I wrote about three pages as a novel and found it very difficult to capture in prose the action on a baseball field. A ground ball to short, a sharp curveball that buckles a guy's knees, a long fly ball to center -- it's too visual. The story itself is too visual.

I'm interested in this (even if the answer is rather brief) because I'm in the midst of this sort of decision-making these days. I began work on a screenplay that a friend convinced me was a novel, and then decided that a novella I'd been batting back and forth for years was actually a screenplay. Why did one become the other? My answer would be that it's about the arc of the story, and how it's best represented in the individual scenes. One series of scenes works in a visual medium, the other just doesn't.

And on a different tangent, the San Francisco Chronicle reviews Dark Age Ahead, a treatise on the dangers of modern living by Toronto 80-something Jane Jacobs with the message that "Lazy thinking and a lack of accountability could combine to unhinge many of the advances that fuel our modern life." Another over-the-hill doom-speaker? John King thinks not.

Drew "Bundini" Brown 

Last night I watched the original Shaft for the umpteenth time, and was once again amazingly entertained. Later, I googled the movie, and learned that my favorite character, Bumpy's side-kick, Willie (who uttered such memorable lines as "That's some cold shit, throwing my man Leroy out the window. Just picked my man up and threw him out the goddam window."--and in Shaft's Big Score! his lines are even better), was played by Drew Bundini Brown. (See him facing off with Richard Rountree in the second picture here.) Who is Drew Bundini Brown? Well, he, it turns out, was one of Muhammad Ali's trainers, as well as a speech-writer, credited with "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee". This was news to me (as was the fact that in the Will Smith Ali, Drew was played by Jamie Foxx). Maybe this is old news to everyone else (I imagine it is), but it's enlightenment to me.

Something disjointed, on the Balkans 

(Donna, don't read!)

During my first full day in New York, I went to the W Hotel's "underbar" at Union Square. A friend had told me that it was de rigeur if I wanted a very good martini, which I did. (He also gave a soliloquy on the waitresses there, but that's another subject.) I brought my notebook (later lost, sadly), and sitting at the bar I scribbled notes for the next book, sometimes chatting with the bartender, but generally remaining antisocial. It was afternoon (and these drinks were prepping me for the Partners & Crime Edgars Party, which was a hoot) and the bar was pretty empty. Enter a stocky man, soberly dressed, who joined me at the bar. He seemed to want to chat, but no one (least of all me) was giving him the time of day. So upon ordering my second martini, I finally gave him a smile and we began to chat. His name was Benny. He had an accent, so I asked where he was from.

"From a long way away."

"Yeah, but where?"


"Ok, right. Where in Europe?"

He looked at me strangely, then said, "Kosovo."

Which was a coincidence, because over the previous couple weeks I'd talked a lot with my girlfriend (as mentioned below, a Vojvodina Serb) about Kosovo. I don't know if the US papers carried it, but there was a spate of violence in that southern ex-Yugoslav province, in which local Serbs were attacked and churches burned to the ground. The provocation? An allegation that six Serbian men with dogs drowned three ethnic Albanian children in a lake in mid-March. The violence that followed killed nearly 30 people and drove 3,200 from their homes. Since then, a UN probe has been unable to find evidence that this actually occurred. (See the UN Mission in Kosovo news page.)

Now, the Balkans are a tough thing to get hold of, so I was interested in discussing it with Benny. But he admitted it was just as hard for him to understand, despite having grown up there. History rules the present in the Balkans, and to say that the violence happened simply because of these six men is just foolishness. In reaction, violence pops up everywhere, even in my girlfriend's quite liberal hometown of Novi Sad, where ethnic Serbs attacked Hungarian shops. "Why Hungarian shops?" I asked her. Because, she told me, there weren't any Kosovars around, and at least the Hungarians were "foreign" (despite having lived there all their lives).

The provocation for this recent spate of violence reminded me of an incident cited in the 1990s (which I read about in--shameless plug, I know the guy--Adam LeBor's Milosevic) as a provocation by Serbs: A 56-year-old farmer was injured by a broken bottle while in his field. The story in the Serb papers was that he'd been attacked by ethnic Albanians, who forced him to use the bottle on himself sexually. Later, though, the farmer, upset by the press, admitted that he'd done it to himself, alone. However, this revised news didn't make most of the papers.

Benny's contention is that the UN will never create peace in this region because they refuse to understand that the past cannot be simply cleared away. These grotesque "provocations" are, and have always been, excuses for those who want to see history (or history as they view it) rewritten, to erase a past national shame they feel personally. (And the countries around Hungary feel similar animosity against the long-dead Autro-Hungarian Empire, just as Hungarians proudly point out that back in 15th Century they had "three seas".) As an American, this kind of logic is beyond me. I'm used to cutting away the past when it suits me, which is probably why I move around so much. It's also the luxury of affluence to ignore the past. My girlfriend, though, is seldom surprised, though she's often disappointed, by such outbreaks of Balkan violence. She shrugs and says to me, "What else would you expect them to do?"

And I don't have an answer for that.

The New World in a Bottle 

On May 1, Hungary joined the EU. At the time, I was in New York, and wondered what magical changes I'd return to. At Ferihegy Airport I eyed the passport control behind her glass, suspicious that she'd now point me to a back room to be grilled by sinister intelligence officers. No, that didn't happen. I took the mini-bus service back to my apartment, but on the way the buildings looked the same (though something had been added to the Elizabeth Bridge). My girlfriend still spoke in her heavily accented English (a Vojvodina Serb accent, not a Hungarian one), and only told me that on May 1 she was frustrated because she wanted to get back home, but all the busses and subways were closed during the firework celebrations. And over the next week of going out with friends it's all seemed the same. But today, while browsing the news, I've finally found the meat of the difference, perhaps even the "why" of EU succession. And it can all be boiled down into a single glass I just can't wait to get a taste of.

Monday, May 10, 2004

That Dreaded Subject 

I was reading a piece from the New Republic, on Le Carre's Absolute Friends, which ends up being a critique of his career. The central question: Is he a "literary master", or just a very good genre writer whose works "were so enthusiastically mistaken for literary novels"? James Wood goes for the latter option.

Now I know most readers would immediately toss this off as the superiority complex of academic fiction whenever it turns its head to look at anything with an exciting plot. As a fan of Le Carre, particularly his earlier books, that was my reaction as well.

But I think Wood makes some interesting points.

One is reminded of Arnold Bennet's contention, with which Virginia Woolf had such play, that Sherlock Holmes was a real and rounded literary character. Woolf was right to point out that, in any deep sense, Holmes is just a "sack filled with straw." He functions perfectly, vividly indeed, within the modest requirements of his genre, which is why his characteristics barely change. Le Carré has said that George Smiley changes over the course of the several books in which he appears, but in truth his character remains exactly the same, and is limited to two or three essential elements: he is calm, he is donnish, he is gently crafty.

This kind of critique of character is what he uses, in part, to bash Absolute Friends. I haven't read it myself, so I can't comment. But I've read enough Le Carre to try and consider the critique of his oeuvre. I'm not entirely convinced, but on the other hand I think that, if any novelist is considered part of the elusive literary canon, he or she must be treated roughly by critics.

I recently re-read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I was excited, as I hadn't read it since before I began writing crime fiction, and it had made a lasting impression. It's extremely good, there's no doubt, but is it "literature"? I simply couldn't say. I had criticisms I didn't have before, and some sections felt, of all things, a bit sentimental (though to be fair it was written in a time where it couldn't have been viewed as sentimental, but on the other hand "literature" that lasts is not allowed this kind of excuse).

I bring all this up because it's an obsession with me, this definition of high literature, and because I'm hoping to get others' thoughts on the backblog. I went to grad school with professors and peers who did look down on crime fiction; it took me a while to clearly see their arrogance, and to get rid of my own. But despite my move into crime fiction, the basic impulse to create something lasting has remained, and I think most writers feel similarly.

I suppose my only point, if there is one, is that while it sometimes hurts, if we want our books to last, crime writers should be open to the rigors of intense and sometimes unfair criticism -- this is what all literature must face. We simply have an extra hurdle to deal with, unlike those writing in the accepted domain of academic fiction. But maybe that means we'll be writing better than them when our work makes it "over there". It certainly means that, if we're interested in those kinds of accolades, we'll have to try.

Eastern Bloc Scribblers 

When I've visited the States, I'm often asked about that mysterious netherworld I've just flown from -- namely, Hungary. After the embarrassing question (Do you speak Hungarian well? Uh, no, hardly at all.), I'm asked about the literary scene here. There's a lore around Eastern Europe, comparing it to Paris in the 1920s, which isn't exactly appropriate. There are expat writers here, sure, but not as many as you'd expect.

Attempting to look at this scene, and to see if it even exists, my friend Erik D'Amato (pictured with his wife, Janet) wrote about it in his Budapest Times column, "The Stink". You might be interested in checking out part one, and then part two. The links are to Erik's site, because for some reason they make you sign in to even look at the Budapest Times front page.

The Glamorous Life 

I should probably start my guest-blogging by answering a question that's floated around the back blogs here and over at 4MysteryAddicts since I first showed my face at the Edgars ceremony: What happened to Olen after we all got tired and went home...and why did he not show his face again that week? Did something...untoward happen between him and Ken Bruen that first evening?

(I added the last bit -- I don't think it crossed anyone's minds.)

You can see from Sarah's earlier post what happened up to the time everyone left for home that evening. Afterward, Ken and I remained rooted at the Collins Bar, chatting with the bartender (an Irish camaraderie grew between him and Ken) and stepping outside now and then for cigarettes. While outside, we conversed with some interesting gentlemen who were unable to draw us in on their business propositions, but were pragmatic enough not to let this upset them. Ken and I closed the bar, found a late-night coffee spot, and then stumbled to our respective hotels.

By then, it was 6 in the morning.

The next day I was due to check out of the Grand Hyatt by noon and move to a more affordable place on the Upper West Side. Groggy, hungover, and a little confused, I did just this. I lugged my bags through the subway, getting lost once, and finally made it to a place that, on the web page, looked like a charming, affordable corner of the Great City.

Looks, as we all know, can be misleading.

I should've been clued in when the front desk told me they would only accept cash for the room, up-front -- but I was tired. I began to mutter that I didn't know if I had enough cash, and the man quickly pointed over my shoulder; I looked. An ATM machine sat behind me. So I paid for two nights and, exhausted, took the elevator to my floor. A dark, decrepit corridor faced me, lined with doors that seemed to be falling free of their frames. Then I found my home-away-from-home.

Afterward, I had the distinct feeling people felt I was exaggerating. But I wasn't. It was the kind of room I'd only seen in films, the one that houses the heroin addict. A bed, a television bolted to the wall, and that's it. No table, dresser, phone or chair. There was a visibly grimy, lumpy carpet stapled to the base of the wall, and the wall itself was covered in a sickly-green paint that was, quite literally, peeling. Cracks shuddered through the door and the window, and above me a single fluorescent tube offered illumination. The thing is, it was a heroin addict's room, but without the one advantage of that lifestyle -- I wasn't on heroin.

It was a tough weekend for lodging in New York. The Tribeca Film Festival, psychiatry conventions, and numerous other gatherings had filled the hotels to the brim. So when I went back downtown and lunched with my editor, Kelley Ragland, she made a lot of fruitless calls to full hotels. But at least she was able to feed me. And that gave me the strength to walk many blocks to the Mansfield Hotel, where I knew Ken was staying. It turned out they had a room for me for one night. So I returned to my Upper West Side room, packed again, and asked sweetly at the front desk if I could at least get a refund for the second night. They pointed to a sign on the counter with the rules of the house. A highlighted line said, "No Refunds for Early Check-Outs". This is obviously a recurring theme for them.

The clouds seemed to part once I was back at the Mansfield, though I didn't see them. After a shower I rested in their M Bar, drinking until Ken, predictably, arrived. The night was looking up, but exhaustion caught up with me and I stayed in and slept while the rest of the world went out. The next day, after searching for more lodging, buying jeans and sitting in the Blue Bar at the Algonquin to protect my bald head from the sun, I returned to the M, where (who would've guessed?) I ran into Ken again. That crowd grew, and I had some good talks with Jason Starr (whose stories about Halle Berry kept us all mesmerized), but when they decamped for dinner I again stayed behind, waiting for the car to the Marriott out at JFK, from where I'd be flying home the next day.

And the Marriott was as you'd expect.

The surprising thing was that my stamina for...well, everything...paled next to Ken Bruen's. He's a firecracker, that one, and I look forward to testing my limits with him again. Hopefully next time I'll be up to the challenge.

OK, enough about me. Just wanted to get that out of the way.

Sunday, May 09, 2004


Amazing what can happen in the course of a few days, but tomorrow morning at a bright and early hour, I report for duty at--gulp--my new day job. While it doesn't mean I haven't stopped looking (especially because this is not my much-desired forensic lab position), it's probably a lot better to consider future options while making money than while not earning a paycheck. So suffice it to say, the amount of content many of you have no doubt become so accustomed to will take a hit over the next little while--at least until I figure out how to blog surreptitiously from work...

But since the turnaround time from job application to interview to start date was a little less than two weeks, there's a considerable learning curve I must succumb to. So, I'm taking this coming week off and handing over the keys to Olen Steinhauer, who has kindly agreed to step in.

To make a long story short, he's the author of two highly acclaimed (and damned well-written) historical crime novels, THE BRIDGE OF SIGHS and THE CONFESSION, the latter obtaining a lovely review in today's Los Angeles Times. An American who's lived in a whole host of places around the world, Olen now lives in Budapest, and I'm always intrigued by the stories people have when they live in places that are foreign to them and vice versa. I should think he'll share a few. Or maybe he'll say more about his adventures in New York during Edgar Week. Or whatever comes into his head. In any case, I'm looking forward to what he has to say.

UPDATE: So Blogger seems to have completely stolen features from MT, er, metamorphosed while I wasn't looking. Comments! RSS feed that actually works! New templates! And more importantly, each post can now be permalinked! Anyway, much as I'm tempted to try a brand spanking new template out, well, that wouldn't be a nice thing to do to one's guest blogger. But hell--PERMALINKS! I feel so grownup now. Anyway, enjoy.

Otto Penzler vs. cozies 

Normally, if a link is a week old or more when I first come across it, I don't put it up here. But because this story caused so much controversy in the mystery world when it first ran--probably in part because hardly anyone reads the New York Sun anyway--I thought it a good idea to share.

Otto Penzler, proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop, former publisher, editor of numerous anthologies (and Maxim Jakubowski's Good Twin) has a weekly column in the NY Sun where he talks shop and sundry. Most of the time his opinings are of a benign nature, but in the April 21 column, things get a little more heated:

The books stacked in front of me are the finalists for the Agatha award, given at the annual Malice Domestic conference. This event honors books written in the mode of Agatha Christie, loosely defined as those that contain no explicit sex, excessive gore, or gratuitous violence. Unstated, but clearly of equal importance, is that they must contain not a scintilla of style, originality, or depth. They must have the texture and nuance of an infomercial, lacking only its philosophical power.

My fiancée (
ed. now his wife, though I've yet to track down any announcement in the NY Times as I'd expected to), as kind and generous as she is beautiful, defended them briefly by comparing them to television sitcoms, to be read as pure escapism. “They’re throw-away books,” she says. I agree. We just disagree about timing, as I think they should be thrown away before they are read.

And then he names names. No wonder people got pissed off:

Margaret Maron: “Last Lessons of Summer.” One of the first things an editor tells a writer, and maybe the most important thing a writer will ever hear, is to get the attention of the reader right away. But here, after a prologue about spiders hatching (I’m not making this up), there are numerous chapters about various members of a family squabbling over an inheritance and long-past insults that continue to resonate. I wouldn’t find this remotely interesting if it were my own family,much less this bunch.

Yikes. Although it must be said that Penzler's rant loses some credibility when the title of Jerrilyn Farmer is misspelled, and when (although I'm not totally sure and cannot check this at the moment) Maron's book was a top pick for one of Mysterious's collecting clubs upon its release last year. Never mind that it just reeks of sour grapes--what's the point of it, especially when Penzler goes on to admit in another piece that despite his dislike of cozies, he's still selling them in his shop?

Still, despite his distaste for the genre, Penzler often places culinary mysteries at ''point of purchase'' locations in his store. ''The market for these books is extremely strong,'' he says.

And who does this market consist of? ''I think the books are aimed at a very specific audience -- women, essentially,'' he says. ``. . . They're looking for slight entertainment the way someone else might watch TV or video. There's not anything wrong with that, it's just not my taste.'

Hell, I hardly read cozies myself, so I can't argue with his ultimate point, that it's not to his taste. But I wouldn't exactly use column space to trash folks--by name--in what essentially constitutes an ad hominem attack on an entire subgenre.

(thanks to Michael for pointing me to the NY Sun article.)

Reading the Reader 

Terry Teachout, who has been otherwise incommunicado for the last few days, gets a very nice write-up in the Baltimore Sun for his new collection of essays, THE TERRY TEACHOUT READER. This is the paragraph that jumped out at me:

If Teachout has one consistent topic it is genius - great (Louis Armstrong), middling (Dawn Powell) and small (Randolph Scott) - and the majority of pieces collected here - essays, profiles, reviews - reflect that attraction. One charming trait of Teachout the cultural critic is he appears to genuinely want his readers to enjoy what he enjoys (those who read criticism know how rare that is in a critic) or at the very least understand why he so enjoys it.

Victoria Brownworth, who wrote this review, truly hits the nail on the head with this last sentence. While I may be somewhat biased, that quality of showcasing enthusiasm for a particular work and sharing it with everyone around was what originally hooked me on Terry's blog many months ago, back when I only had a passing awareness of who he was and what he did in the first place. A lot of critics seem to derive pleasure only from coding their reviews, taking great care in covering tracks and almost hiding the fact that they might like a book. In some ways, that's taking the easy way out. I suppose it is also easy to be enthusiastic, but it's quite difficult to go beyond mere praise and excitement and convey why the book, musician, work or art, or whatever is being critiqued merits such enthusiasm.

I wish more critics would put themselves on the line and do that. And from perusing The READER essay by essay, I'm trying to dissect how he does it time and time again so I can put more of that quality in my own critiques.

A Very Special Weekend Update 

Before I launch into the link parade, and even before I launch into the opening rant--Happy Mother's Day to all moms (or those with moms) reading here this morning. Not to get overly sentimental or anything, but it's not been the easiest year for my own, and so I'm glad to be able to celebrate the holiday with her in every way I can.

Now, the rant: what the hell is up with the review convergence at the New York Times? Monday--Janet Maslin reviews Michael Connelly's THE NARROWS. Thursday--she reviews THE RULE OF FOUR. Now along comes Marilyn Stasio with her crime column and oh gee, guess which two books comprise the bulk of the column? In fact, her review of THE NARROWS may be the longest critique she's written of a book in some time, while the other three books (the new Anne Perry and Boris Akunin as well) barely merit a paragraph each. I've never been able to understand why a book that is reviewed during the weekday would get reviewed again on the weekend. Convergence between The Guardian and the Observer? Fine, because technically they do have different staff and freelancers. But any paper that has a Sunday edition (Times, Independent, Telegraph, Scotsman, Herald, etc.) doesn't have to repeat itself, because by doing so, another book gets left out, and lord knows there's a premium on review space in newspapers these days. I wonder how many more times I have to repeat this gripe before someone pays attention. Probably a few hundred more...

Oh, and all those nasty spoilers--Marilyn, oh dear Marilyn, could it be just the teeniest, tiniest bit possible that you were trying to be--gasp!--deliberate in revealing all those plot points? Are you trying to give poor Mr. Connelly a heart attack when he tried so hard to keep all those spoilers under wraps? Although others have suggested you go and stand in a particularly lonely corner of the city, my only suggestion is to take a look at oh, Oline Cogdill's review of the same book--gets all the necessary information out there, with nary a spoiler in sight. See? It's possible!

And speaking of Connelly, check out this long feature in the New York Times Magazine on the man, his creation, and his love of LA from a distance (even though the story ran a week later than scheduled; the May 2 edition of the magazine was, I think, suppose to run the story because it was given out to every Edgar attendee--but oops, it wasn't there.)

Otherwise at the paper of record, I must admit I thoroughly enjoyed Laura Miller's new column about giving up on books--it's hard to do, but frankly, I learned the hard way that it's really no great loss to let a book go after reading 50-odd pages instead of gritting my teeth through the entire thing. Some of my attitude is in part because I read so many books, but no doubt it's a big dilemma for those who only read a select number per year. And then there's Thomas Berger (author of LITTLE BIG MAN and other fine works) who has a new volume out, ADVENTURES OF AN ARTIFICIAL WOMAN--which is skillfully reviewed by one Donald E. Westlake. Maybe some folks here have heard the name before.

Next up: Book World, where Andrew Wylie expounds, and then natters on some more, about how he became a Superagent and takes a global approach to poaching, er, taking on writers' backlists and frontlists and selling them to publishers at exorbitant advances. Or something like that. Snarkiness aside, Wylie does have a point--which is that one can't just look to one nation or one market to get the word out--but it does seem to get lost in his own ego somehow. Otherwise, Les Roberts (author of the Cleveland-based Milan Jacovich PI novels) looks at Jim Lehrer's new book FLYING CROWS, Stephanie Wilkinson rounds up some Mother's Day-related books (albeit, some relate in a very tenuous manner) and THE BONE WOMAN, Clea Koff's fascinating memoir of forensic anthropology in the midst of the Balkan war, gets a nice nod as well.

Over at the Guardian, there's a healthy dose of crime fiction reviewed, starting with Chris Petit's slightly sarcastic take on Mo Hayder's TOKYO. He likes parts of it "very much" and ultimately approves of the book, but there's something about this--and Petit's reviewing style in general--that rubs me the wrong way. Then there's Maxim Jakubowski's roundup of raves, as he looks at new releases from Colin Harrison, George Pelecanos, John Harvey and Boris Akunin. And shockingly, I actually agree with Maxim on one point--I'm also looking forward to Akunin's homage to the Chandler/Hammett visions of crime fiction, too. And finally, E. Annie Proulx offers up a tribute to Edward Hopper, whose work is getting a nice retrospective at the Tate Gallery soon.

I'd immediately move on to the Observer but honestly, there isn't a lot of note--even Robert McCrum's column is all Clinton all the time, and while that's noteworthy and all, well, eh. So next up: the Globe and Mail, where crime columnist Margaret Cannon gets the chance to write a standalone review of Alexander McCall Smith's THE FULL CUPBOARD OF LIFE. Of course she loves it--did you even think otherwise? Other notable reviews at the Canadian PoR include Camilla Gibb's examination of THE SHADOW OF THE WIND, Jane Juska's ode to three maligned moms in literature, and Jessa Crispin, stretching her freelance wings across the border, taking aim at THE MOMMY MYTH.

In the news that doesn't fit the roundups:

The Philadelphia Inquirer loves, I mean LOVES, Rebecca Pawel and her books. Which is as it should be, since she's a fine writer who puts a lot of older, more experienced folks to shame. The paper's review of her newest book, LAW OF RETURN, is full of rhapsodizing and accolades.

I'm a bit surprised to see an article on culinary mysteries now--I thought they were somewhat passe. But evidently, they aren't, and the Miami Herald takes a look at the current practitioners of the subgenre--and even wrings out some cranky quotes from the just-married Otto Penzler (NB: anyone see his takedown of cozies in the New York Sun? Hardly anyone else did, either, but I want a copy...)

As evident by the success of Natsuo Kirino's OUT, which was nominated for the Edgar for Best Novel, Japanese novels in translation attract quite a healthy audience overseas, and the Japan Times examines this new phenomenon in some detail.

ZZ Packer's well-acclaimed debut collection DRINKING COFFEE ELSEWHERE (which has been on my TBR for a while) is now published in Australia, and she speaks to the Sydney Morning Herald about her long road to "overnight success."

Hitler's favorite actress, Olga Chekhova, was the niece of playwright Anton Chekhov--but did she also spy for the Russians? Antony Beevor's biography of Chekhova is fascinating, according to the Scotland on Sunday, but the spy angle isn't the reason for reading the book--her life is.

The Minnesota Crime Wave is a group of area crime writers who have been touring together for years. The Brainerd-Dispatch covers a recent event the group--comprised of Ellen Hart, Carl Brookins, Deborah Woodworth, and William Kent Krueger--appeared at a few days ago.

Rick Riordan's new Tres Navarre thriller, SOUTHTOWN, inspires a mighty nice review in the San Jose Mercury News.

I get the feeling that this review of Donald Westlake's THE ROAD TO RUIN in the Dallas-Fort Worth Star Telegram kind of misses the boat. Westlake as blockbuster? Does he really have to be? He's funny and brilliant and writes awfully well. But overall it's a good review, so I guess that's good. Les Roberts' review in his roundup for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, on the other hand, just tells it like it is, calling the book "funnier than anything else in crime fiction right now."

Speaking of blockbusters, Ann Hellmuth rounds them up for the Orlando Sentinel, including what may be the first North American review of Lee Child's THE ENEMY, which certainly deserves such an accolade.

The Oregonian takes a different approach in reviewing THE NARROWS--no spoilers, but the piece spends much of its time putting the book in context, and how by following up THE POET (which caused much hand-wringing and debate and even provoked Connelly to answer his critics on Amazon) perhaps the writer has put things to right.

And finally, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has a fairly benign interview of Connelly--although there is his acknowledgement of how "surreal" THE NARROWS gets at times:

This incursion of reality into the narrative provides some surrealistic moments. Clint Eastwood, who portrayed McCaleb in the film version of "Blood Work," attends the character's funeral. Another character complains about his portrayal in the movie, and Connelly also references three of his peers -- Ian Rankin, Dean Koontz and George Pelecanos -- in the book.

Connelly says he made a conscious effort to break the "fourth wall" between fiction and reality. Because of a previous novel, "Angels Flight," he was left with no choice. In that book, Harry Bosch talks about an upcoming movie with Eastwood and his portrayal of McCaleb. It was a throwaway line, just banter between two cops.

Then the film version of "Blood Work" appeared in 2002.

"That meant, in my fictional universe, there was a movie about Terry McCaleb in which Clint Eastwood played him," Connelly says. "So in 'The Narrows,' I had to carry that forward. I had to acknowledge there was a movie, so I went with the real movie, and the real movie changed my fictional story quite a bit. It had a different bad guy and a different ending, but I thought that was stuff that should be commented on."

Oh yeah, I'll say they did. Some of the funniest moments in the book, too.

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