Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Peter Rozovsky, Editor and Blogger, Discusses The International Mystery Scene

Peter Rozovsky writes a blog called “Detectives Beyond Borders: A Forum for International Crime Fiction,” because, he attests in a rather sinister subscript, “Murder Is More Fun Away From Home.” You can check out his blog here.

I wanted to ask Peter a few questions about his blog and about international crime fiction, and he graciously agreed.

Hi, Peter! Thanks for chatting with me.

Your blog, Detectives Beyond Borders, focuses on crime fiction that is not written by Americans. Was there a certain work or series that got you interested in mystery fiction that goes beyond the American tradition?

My interest in international crime fiction is a fluke, in a sense. Though I'd long enjoyed travel, I'd never read much crime fiction. One of the benefits of my travels was a Dutch girlfriend. Because of her, I paid special attention when I found a novel called An Outsider in Amsterdam by Janwillem van de Wetering about five years ago. Soho Press published many of this Dutch crime writer's books, and that led me to some of Soho's other crime writers -- Seicho Matsumoto (Japan), Qiu Xiaolong (China), Helene Tursten (Sweden) and Peter Lovesey (U.K.) among them. From that point, my old interest in travel and my new interest in crime fiction dovetailed, and the rest is history.

British mysteries have reigned supreme for many years, perhaps because of those queens of mystery, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, and also because of Arthur Conan Doyle, and some of the wonderful English writers who have carried the torch since then. Do you focus on British mysteries, too, or do you try to find works (and countries) that receive less literary attention?
I gave you a partial answer to this question when I mentioned Peter Lovesey in Question #1. I do gravitate toward works and countries outside the classic crime-fiction tradition, but that can take in British writers as well. Bill James and his superb Harpur & Iles series are one example.

I’ve discovered the books of Henning Mankell, which depict such a cold and lonely Sweden as a setting for Kurt Wallander’s investigations. You blogged recently about Swedish mysteries and certain thematic parallels between them. Do you recommend any particular Swedish crime writers? And what are those parallels that today’s Swedish mysteries share?
If you think Henning Mankell's Sweden is cold and lonely, you should try Åsa Larsson's! I recently read her novel Sun Storm, whose setting is very different from those of other Swedish crime fiction I'd read, including Mankell's. Most Scandinavian crime fiction is set in cities, and Scandinavian cities tend to be in the south of their countries. But Larsson's is set in the far north, in a region where Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia meet. Place names and other features up that way are reminiscent of the Finns and the Sami, the region's ancient people. In all, the atmosphere is very different from the urban crime fiction of Uppsala, Stockholm or Kurt Wallander's Skane province. I found this a refreshing reminder that, as much as we tend to make generalizations about Swedish, Irish or Italian crime fiction, for example, these countries have their own regions, their own rivalries, and their own diversity.

That said, I do notice a common theme of sympathy in the work of Swedish crime writers, a concern for investigators, criminals, suspects and friends, relatives and lovers of all the above. Håkan Nesser shares that sympathy and also the proverbial Swedish concern for social justice. His novels also have a playful sense of humor, which is probably not a generalization many people would make about Swedish crime fiction.

Do you also discuss American mysteries which are set in exotic locales, or would that not meet the criteria for your blog?

I don't have criteria so much as I have tendencies. Those tendencies naturally don't leave time for a lot of American writers, but I have read novels by British writers that would fit your description. These would include Colin Cotterill's The Coroner's Lunch, which is set in Laos, and several novels from Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen series, each one of which is set in a different Italian region.

Do you have a current favorite fictional detective?
I'd get a lot of fictional characters angry at me if I answered that one. Bill James' Harpur and Iles are like leading actors in a dark comedy. No gang of investigators is as hilarous, hysterical, violent and dysfunctional as the police in Ken Bruen's Brant and Roberts novels. Peter Lovesey's Peter Diamond is a superb example of the angry, impatient, brilliant police investigator. See how many authors' works I enjoy and write about? That's how many favorite detectives I have.

You’ve blogged a great deal about Fred Vargas, of whom I had never heard. Can you tell me a little bit about her?
She's a French medieval historian who turned to crime fiction and had made a good job of it. Britain's Crime Writers Association split off its top award two years ago into two awards, one for English-language crime fiction and one for translated crime. Vargas' novels have won the international award both years so far (and their settings are contemporary, despite their creators' medieval background).

Her work is different from any other crime fiction I've read. For one thing, she builds up to the main crime very slowly. She gets away with this because she has such a sure and determined eye for character and for local detail.

You asked people to comment on their favorite crime novel first lines, and you cited Chandler’s “Red Wind,” (which I recently cited myself on DorothyL. Interesting!) as an example. Do you have a particular favorite first line?
Oddly enough, I never had a special interest in first lines until I posted that question. Two that I've noticed recently are from Irish crime novels: "The night of my mother's funeral, Linda Dawson cried on my shoulder, put her tongue in my mouth and asked me to find her husband," from The Wrong Kind of Blood by Declan Hughes and this, from Declan Burke's The Big O:

"In the bar, Karen drinking vodka-tonic, Ray on brandy to calm his nerves, she told him how people react to death and a stick-up in pretty much the same way: shock, disbelief, anger, acceptance.

" `The trick being,' Karen said, `to skip them past the anger straight into acceptance.' "

Outside crime writing, there are James Thurber's classic: "I suppose that the high-water mark of my youth in Columbus, Ohio, was the night the bed fell on my father" and the first two words of Hamlet: "Who's there?"

Oh, yes! My favorite line from that particular story is "Please don't use your chloroform, as this is all I have." :)

Since you are interested in crime fiction from all over the world, I wonder if any of that fiction has made you want to visit the place in which it is set. If so, where would you go first, based on the novel’s description alone?

I've been to quite a number of the places that have been settings for crime novels I've read, but not for that reason. Usually the opposite happens: I visit a place, then I look for crime fiction set there.

You say that Sandra Ruttan (also interviewed here) is a bigger Ian Rankin fan than you are. I would suggest she is the biggest Rankin fan in the world. :) What makes Rankin so addictive, so compulsively readable?
I'm not the person to ask on this one. I've read three of his novels and a couple of his short stories. The outstanding characteristic from that small sampling for me is the dry humor of his story "The Dean Curse," and humor is not a characteristic most readers would normally associate with Rankin. I guess that means I don't get the Ian Rankin phenomenon. This is not the same as saying I don't like his writing. It just means that I can't single out what has made the man the worldwide success that he is.

Let’s say a bunch of us crime and mystery fans were having lunch, and some of us, like me, admitted that they rarely read mysteries that aren’t British or American. Which book would you tell me to run right out and get immediately so I could get a flavor of something beyond my borders?
Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong. I won't even wait for that hypothetical lunch to say that everyone should read it. It gives a superb, convincing picture of Shanghai in the 1990s, physically, politically and psychologically, and it has a surprise twist that would not have been believeable anywhere else.

Great, thanks! What inspired you to begin your blog?
I've given the matter some thought recently, and the answer is that I don't remember. I took the impetus for my first post from David J. Montgomery's greatest-detective-novels list, but I don't remember what had made me look at his blog when I did.

What are you reading now?
I'm flipping among two novels by Fred Vargas, Seeking Whom He May Devour and The Three Evangelists, and The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II by Fernand Braudel. I may have to shake up the crime-fiction portion of that list. I don't what readers to think that there is nothing more to my blog than the great Fred Vargas!

Thanks again for chatting, Peter--this was really interesting stuff!


Sandra Ruttan said...

I don't know Julia, some other people have asserted they're the biggest fan in the world, and I'm not exactly sure how to compete for the title. I'd probably lose anyway. I once saw a woman cry on tv because she was afraid Rebus was going to die. I almost think his death at the end of the series would be fitting. Or, a greater form of torture: he loses his record collection. See, I can joke about this... Many devoted readers can't. Then again, maybe that makes them bigger Rebus fans, and I differentiate between the two. I love the character of Rebus, but I am first and foremost a Rankin fan.

I really appreciate Peter's blog, and his insights. It's also very interesting to get a glimpse of the person behind all of that. Here are my questions, Peter: Have you read AFRICAN PSYCHO by Alain Mabanckou, and if so what did you think? Also, how much do you feel the translation factors into the enjoyment of the book? I'm just wondering if you've ever noticed when work from the same author has been translated by different people, if the translation really has a critical impact on it.

Peter said...

Does anyone remember the old cheer from Bye-bye, Birdie? Something about Sandra's remarks makes me want to adapt it as follows:

We love you, Rankin
Oh yes, we do
We love you, Rankin
And we'll be true
When you're not near us, we're blue
Oh, Rankin, we love you

I have not read African Psycho, but I'll take a look. I like the deadpan opening. The title, too, is attractive. It positively reeks of intercultural literary highjinks.

A translation can factor into the enjoyment of a book in ways that a reader would never notice if not for the translator's notes. Sian Reynolds explained that she omitted from Fred Vargas' Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand passages in which the French Canadian and French characters did not understand one another's French. Some translators might have tried to render this into English slang or dialect. Reynolds did not, and I think she made the right decision.

Mike Mitchell finds elegant ways of dealing with the shifts between different dialects of German in his translations of Friedrich Glauser's books.

I read one of Janwillem van de Wetering's novels in Dutch along with the English translation, a chapter or two in English, then the corresponding section in Dutch. One oddity was that a descriptive passage that opens the book was more fully detailed in the original: One of the police officers has a cold, and his head goes through different kinds of odd lightness, it feels like it's coming loose of his body and floating up to the ceiling, etc. The English is just something like "It was not one of Grijpstra's better days. He had a bad cold," and then it moves into a description of his actions. The odd thing is that van de Wetering did his own translations.

As it happens, I'm flipping through a Fred Vargas novel translated by someone other than Sian Reynolds, so I soon may have more to say on Sandra's question.

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Julia Buckley said...

HI, Sandra!

And Peter, may I just say how impressed I am that you can just casually mention that you are able to read Dutch.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Hi Julia!

Peter, first, very funny. Should I point out that you can now be quoted as saying you love Rankin, while I never said that myself? ;) I like Ian, he's a nice person, but I love his writing.

Thanks for the thoughts on translation. I haven't read as many translated works as you have (unless you count US translations of British English) so it's interesting to hear your opinion on that. One of the things Stuart MacBride said was that in one European language (I think it was Norwegian) they don't have a word for 'shrug' so the action had to be written out every time he'd used that word. It's interesting to think of the challenges of translation and how that can impact a work. A play on words would probably be impossible to carry over as a clue.

Peter said...

No, no, the Rankin lovers are led by the woman who cried on TV.

Norwegian and its lack of a word for shrug is one more in a long line of interesting challenges that confront translators. I post about the subject from time to time; just type "translation" in the "search blog" box at Detectives Beyond Borders. Crime Time published a fascinating interview with a group of crime-fiction translators that I cite frequently. You'll find it at http://www.crimetime.co.uk/make_page.php?id=526.

Learning Dutch was a sacrifice for the woman I loved. Of course, it helped that the courses were free. Of course, too, she was Dutch, which meant her English was virtually perfect, and she spoke French and German, too. What the hell, I made a nice gesture.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

John Scherber said...

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