Monday, November 30, 2009

Harlequin's vintage collection, pt. 2

Harlequin's line of crime and melodrama reprints was met with joy from the enthusiasts. Now that Harlequin's told that the books were slightly revised, maybe even censored, everyone's angry and not wanting to buy the books. See the comments.

Okay, I can understand that. But hey, were the books any good to begin with? I would say that Harlequin did the larger mistake by bringing these six books back to print. The crime fiction community was fooled: what are these hardboiled classics I've never heard of? Yeah, there are books that are very good even though no one's ever heard of them, but these six just are not any of those. Someone's talking about To Kill a Mockingbird and Gone With the Wind in the Harlequin blog's comment section, but that makes no sense to me.

The fact that James Hadley Chase's books are probably the best in the bunch says quite a lot. Not every hardboiled paperback original of the bygone years is good.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Still on Stieg Larsson

Anders Engwall posted a short comment on this post about Swedish crime fiction, and I post the comment here, too:

Pardon this late comment, but I came across a rather interesting take on Larsson's books today.

If you don't want to exercise your Swedish capabilities, the gist of it is that while the writer can understand somehow why the books sell so well, whe can't for her life understand why they are considered to be among the better ones in the genre. She then points out why she thinks they are rubbish, and the way she describes them is basically how I always suspected them to be.

The last paragraph is perhaps the most interesting. She suspects that the reason for the international success is because poor writing may not translate too well; that somehow stylistic awkwardness is smoothed out when presented in another language.

[Juri here: There's been some talk about the first English translation of Larsson's work being not very successful, so the last comment may not be right on the mark, but let it be said that I haven't been very interested in Larsson's books anyway.]

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Scott Phillips: The Ice Harvest in Finnish

I finally got around to posting the interview I made with Scott Phillips, the author of the admirable The Ice Harvest, published in Finnish as Jäätävää satoa by Arktinen Banaani whose paperback series I edit. The cover is by Ossi Hiekkala, who's just as admirable as Phillips.

The Ice Harvest was your first novel. It's a remarkable accomplishment. How long did you write it and what goals did you have in mind?

I wrote the first part of it over the course of a year or so, in fits and starts. Then I decided to finish it and as I recall the second half went much more quickly. All I wanted to do was write the kind of pulpy novel I liked to read.

I've compared your book to David Mamet's writing and his axiom: enter late, exit early. Was this something you tried to do? Can you tell us something about your writing and plotting technique? Based on your other novels, you seem to be changing your technique and style from book to book.

No plotting technique at all, apart from creating a situation that allows oter things (bad ones, mostly) to happen. The styles and techniques change from book to book mostly because I get bored. My latest book is called "Supply Sarge," and it's very much inthe vein of the 1950s chapters of The Walkaway, and it's also very short like The Ice Harvest.

What other influences did you have, besides Mamet (if you had Mamet)?

I love Mamet, but if he's an influence it's unconscious. James Crumley and Charles Willeford, Richard Russo, who adapted The Ice Harvest for the movies, Derek Raymond, were all important to me early on. Lately writers I find myself cribbing from are Jack Pendarvis, William Gay, Ken Bruen...

The Ice Harvest is full of irony and black humour. Is irony something that comes naturally to you?

I don't know about irony, but I do find humor in dark things. I'm always in trouble for making jokes at inappropriate times.

There's been a lot of talk about noir renaissance of the 2000s and The Ice Harvest has been hailed as one of the most important novels of the movement. Do you feel there's a movement and what lies behind it?

There are a lot of good writers working that particular vein at the moment: Megan Abbot, Christa Faust, Vicki Hendricks and Anthony Neil Smith come to mind. There are also a number of people working in what you might call a noirish style writing about rural America: Chris Offutt, Daniel Woodrell, William Gay and Tom Franklin, as well as an up and coming group consisting of Frank Bill, Jedidiah Ayres, Kieran Shea, Greg Bardsley, Malachi Stone, Daniel O'Shea and a few others. In Scotland you have Allan Guthrie, in Ireland Declan Burke, in France any number of practitioners of the genre, loosely defined. So there's a lot of really good noir being written right now; it's just a question of whether the general public starts reading more of it or not.

Do you have any favourite books amongst the new noir books?

I loved Dope Thief, by Dennis Tafoya. He just sent me his latest in manuscript, which I'm very excited to read.

What did you think about the film that was based on The Ice Harvest?

I loved the movie, apart from the change in the ending. I have to admit that I supported that change along with everyone else at the time, because the studio thought they had a big hit on their hands (they didn't), but only if the ending was changed. Harold Ramis had a very good feel for the tension between the humor and the bleakness.

What are you working on now? I hear you have a novel coming out, can you tell us something about it?

The new novel is called "Supply Sarge," it's the story of a corrupt US Army quarter master who comes out of the army in 1946 and finds himself in Wichita trying to lead that quintessential postwar American life: husband, father, businessman. The trouble is that at heart he's a psychopath. His name is Wayne Ogden, and I've written about him before. In my second novel, The Walkaway, he was the villain. I found myself enjoying his voice so much that when [crime fiction publisher] Dennis McMillan asked me a few years later for a short story set in the 30s, I went back to Wayne's adolescence, when he was a bit more innocent but still a villain waiting to be born. Then I wrote another story, set in that same period, where Wayne and his friends kill a bald eagle. In this novel he's teereing on the brink between wanting to be a good citizen and feeling the need to be a pimp and a thug.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Allen Baron's Blast of Silence

A couple friends of mine organized a minifestival last weekend: they watched, I think, twelve films on a big screen, projected from a canon (is this the right word? I'm not very savvy in these). Each participant brought one or two films with them. I brought Roger Corman's Little Shop of Horrors and Blast of Silence by Allen Baron that I recently purchased. (I realized I couldn't've watched it myself, since my DVD player plays only Region 2 discs, and this was Region 1.)

Now, Blast of Silence really holds an interesting place in my movie history. I still remember a tickling sensation I got out of reading the film's entry in Alain Silver's seminal book, Film Noir. This was something like 1987, and I'd lended the book from the library in Pori, my hometown. At the time, there were no copies of the film around - certainly not a film version that I could've seen anywhere and no VHS cassettes were released. It was even hard to find any information on the film and the director, Allen Baron, and I suspected I'd never see the film. When in the late nineties I acquantained Tapani Maskula, a film critic known for his liking of American film noir and gritty B-movies in general, I asked him about the film. Even he hadn't seen it, even though he'd bought every American B-movie available at the time. (Yeah, technically Blast of Silence isn't a B-movie, I know: it was an indie picture, bought and distributed by Universal. But I don't know if it was played as a feature, since it's only 77 minutes long.)

You can guess how enthusiastic I was when I noticed that Criterion had published the film on their DVD series. I bought the film the first chance I got. Watching the film after all these years was a bit of suspense for me. Would the film really be worth the wait?

I think it was, even though I think time had eaten it a bit. There's the voice-over narration by Lionel Stander, which sounds a bit comical and forced today - but it's only because we've grown so accustomed to it, in Sin City and the likes of it. It's become a parody of its self. The actors in the film weren't very good (but Allen Baron, the director himself in the lead, looks a lot like Robert De Niro!). But the cinematography and the dark mood in the film are top-notch. The ending is so dark you don't even want to know why everything happened the way they did. This is a very bleak look into a hired assassin's lone life, and you might compare Blast of Silence to, for example, Kevin Wignall's novels about lone assassins. Blast of Silence is essential to everyone who claims he/she likes film noir.

Here's a very interesting take on the film, linking it to European movements, neorealism and the New Wave of the sixties, and here's another review quoting a historical review from New York Times.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Review of Jarkko Sipilä's book

Steve Lewis provides a guest blogger's review of Jarkko Sipilä's novel Helsinki Homicide: Against the Wall here. More on the book here and here. (The later link leads to another review.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Dave Zeltserman: Pariah

Dave Zeltserman has been getting lots of praise for his novel Pariah that came out earlier this year. All of it is well-deserved. Every bit of it.

Pariah is a novel that's full of violence, some of it very, very grim, but it's never full of crowd-pleasing action, so you don't want to take this to bed as a good night read with which to lull yourself to sleep. The narrator is seriously narcissistic and full of himself, yet he's not actually delusional, like protagonists of, say, Jim Thompson or Jason Starr. This gives the story even more edginess. Zeltserman creates a character a reader won't like or sympathize with, but his is the only view we are ever getting and we just have to get along with it. This makes the book very scary. The last lines of the book left me jittering.

The book is not only a crime novel. It's also a satire of book business, with the protagonist of the book, life-long career criminal Kyle Nevin, getting to be a famous writer with a huge advance for his novel.

There's one thing that seems a bit implausible to me - the point where Kyle Nevin's luck suddenly turns sour, after his book has turned out to be an international bestseller -, but this must be due to my Finnish and European perspective. Writers simply are not that big here and the accusations against them are not that important. But then again, USA is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Monte Hellman: The Shooting

I just saw Monte Hellman's enigmatic western film The Shooting, for the first time on big screen, I think. I had seen the movie earlier at least two times, but both times from television only, and with a wrong picture ratio. I'm loving the film more each time I see it.

There are lots of things to like about The Shooting. It may not suit any western fan's tastes, and I believe there are more people who are not into westerns, but like Hellman's film, than there are people who love westerns and still like Hellman's film. Get it? That might've been a bit convoluted... The atmosphere is very eerie, nothing is ever very clearly explained and there's a feel of absurd theatre. The photography is great, with people running in a distance from one edge of a picture to another. There also lots of extreme close-ups, like when we see Jack Nicholson's eyes for the first time. There's not much action and when there is, it's not exactly very thrilling, but that's not what Hellman has set out to do.

Someone might ask: "What has set out to do then?", and I have to admit the answer is not very clear. There's not much symbolism in the film, which coincides with the feel of absurdism. Someone might get some clues from the names of the characters, which may - or may not - point to some moments in American cultural history. Hellman himself said that the shooting in the end is meant to resemble the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby - there's a newsreel grittiness to the picture, alright, but otherwise I find it pretty far-fetched.

What's the most important thing about this film, to me, at least, is that it's a perfect embodiment of American cinematic art, emphasis on "American". The Shooting, regardless of the absurdist feel to it, is essentially an American film. There are no elements of French New Wave brought to it. The Shooting is not self-reflective, as something by Jean-Luc Godard might be. Even though it's a piece of absurdism, The Shooting is still a B-western, populated with smirking hired guns, saloons, horses, saddles, six-shooters, Indians, a tough lady, deserts. You could watch this in a drive-in and, well, feel cheated, but you wouldn't be able easily to recognize it as art.

The later American art films, of the late sixties and early seventies, have a European feel to them, and I've always thought there's something phony about it, starting from Bonnie and Clyde. Not so with The Shooting. Hellman's western is something Budd Boetticher might have done had he gone on directing westerns in the sixties, and it's also something Elmore Leonard's western novels, like Valdez Is Coming (which admittedly came a bit later), were going to. The idea of one man suddenly standing alone in the desert (take a look at how Leonard's "The Captives", the basis for Boetticher's The Tall T, starts) is something essentially American.

The same could be said about Hellman's other 1966 western, Ride the Whirlwind, and even more so, but The Shooting remains the most important of the two.
This isn't very good, but check it out anyway: a later-made trailer for The Shooting.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

And what Crank and Beat the Reaper have in common?

The usual apology: I've been busy, haven't been able to post anything here. I've seen lots of interesting movies lately and been wanting to write about them, but for now this will have to suffice.

Crank, starring Jason Statham, seems to be a minor cult favourite already, even though it came out in 2006. The movie is no-holds-barred crime flick, with Statham running around for 1:30 hours, drugged almost all the time, trying to find out - well, what? I kind of lost track. The movie is just too over over-the-top, with every scene being full of cinematic, editing, cutting and photographying gimmicks.

I admit there's sort of inventiveness involved, but even for me it was too much. I could've taken most of it, if there had been more sense or depth to the plot. There's a possible tragedy in the movie, but I wasn't touched. In contrast I found myself moved when I saw the last 30 minutes of Luc Besson's Leon the other night. I'm no fan of Besson, far from it, but I've always liked this film. The scene with Jean Reno forcing Natalie Portman to leave is a tear-jerker. Yet the film is overtly violent - over-the-top in its day. Will I cry in 2025 when I see Crank again? I mean, the ages change and what seems to be over-the-top might someday become the norm, but with Crank - nah, no way.

So what's this gotta do with Josh Bazell's hyped crime novel, Beat the Reaper, that was recently translated in Finnish (under the title Niittaa noutaja)? The same sort of over-inventiveness, almost being over-the-top only for the sake of being over-the-top. The plot isn't much, and I thought the backstory with all its Auschwitz connections was very lightweight and felt forced. When I reached the climax I said: "C'mon, that's plain stupid!" But okay, I gotta give Bazell that I hadn't seen that one in any other book.

Same goes for Crank. After we'd watched it, Elina said: "Never seen anything like this." Neither had I, and I'm not sure if this is the way things have to go.

Nevertheless, I was happy Beat the Reaper being translated, since in its own way it's part of the noir renaissance, the neo-noir movement.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

More on e-books

I've been posting some posts about e-books and their affect on publishing - here's one more link, to Peter Rozovsky's ponderings about cuts in author royalties. (He provides a link, so there's more to read there.)

Bud Webster's Past Masters

Here's a site, maintained by Phil Stephensen-Payne, linking to all of Bud Webster's science fiction-related Past Masters columns he's written for the Helix magazine (which is, I think, now defunct). You'll get essays on H. Beam Piper, Leigh Brackett etc. (The site is still preliminary, I believe, but looks pretty okay to me.)

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Fred Zackel and Dave Zeltserman on e-books

There's been a lot of discussion over Kindle and e-books over at the Rara-Avis e-mail list (the list is about noir and hardboiled literature) and I thought that at least two of the posts would be worth to post here. (The Rara-Avis posts are archived here, though, but not many know that.)

The first is writer Frederick Zackel
(Cocaine and Blue Eyes) and the second is writer Dave Zeltserman (Fast Lane, Small Crimes, Pariah, etc.). Dave's post was a reply to Fred's, which kicks off from the recent Bouchercon crime fiction festival. The discussion went on from here, but you'll have to find about that from the Rara-Avis archives. And oh, don't forget to check what Ed Gorman said about the issue here.

Can we start a discussion about Kindle, something deeper than "it's the Beast 666" or "I think the future will be Kindle-licious."

Bouchercon was fun. Went to panels, got free books and bought other books. Got some of them autographed, even.

But what stood out was Kindle. This guy from Amazon had a panel about the Kindle. The room was standing room only ... with writers and not readers or zealous fanatics. The session also went over its hour time limit, got kicked out, and then moved out into the hallway, where it stayed informally for almost another thirty minutes.

I liked what I heard. Kindle seems like the most feasible (most plausible) place for most older books and manuscripts down the line.

A friend of mine has a kindle and uses it on airplanes and for reading in bed at night. He swears by it. Buys ten books at a time.

About an hour or so after Amazon's panel ended, I bumped into the Amazon guy in the hotel lobby. He said -- and this is what got me the strongest - that Kindle would link manuscripts with whatever is listed at Amazon.

Before I met this Amazon guy, I meet some disgruntled, disgusted, frustrated, pissed-off writers at Bouchercon. As soon as their rights revert back to them, these guys were switching their manuscripts to Kindle.

All these manuscripts can get cobbled together as a sort of virtual backlist through Kindle. Maybe one of them ms. can help sell the others.

Kindle was the talk in the hotel bar after hours. Which surprised us.

I met one writer at Bouchercon whose agent is trying to get all thirty (yes, 30!) of his books onto Kindle. Most are out of print, he said, and his publisher won't offer them. He wasn't worried about the book collectors. Collectors will always buy and trade his old hardcover stuff. But his new readers -- until now (maybe) -- will never get a shot at reading them.

One writer said, "Nobody autographs a Kindle." But she had four out-of-print books she was worried about. Whatever's out of print is no longer out of print. And because it's electronic, it has no effect on the collectors who want a hard copy no matter what. And people who read it electronically can also get linked to everything else in your series ... and, if they wish, order hard copies to keep forever.

We also met a writer whose agent shopped a manuscript but couldn't find it a home. The agent told the writer, give it to Kindle, the writer sold 7000 copies, and Simon & Schuster bought it for a future hardcover. I spoke with the guy; he was in shock.

Mister 7000, we started calling him; we saw him everywhere. Oh, I know that story is the old "once upon a time it happened ..." and it only happened once. It's not about that.

I liked what the guy from Amazon told me about Kindle. You upload the manuscripts, then there's more fiddling around, whatever, and you get to set the price for the piece. Prices are kept low so you get those who devour books.

And here's Dave Zeltserman:

E-readers (Kindles, Nooks, Sony, iPhones, what have you) seem to be the future. When this future arrives, who knows? Personally I think it will take eReaders coming down in cost ($50 or less) for that to happen --maybe they'll be like cell phones where the e-book stores sells the readers cheap to lock you into buying e-books from them. As a reader, I don't want to move from paper to spending more time staring at a screen, as a writer, I'm very concerned with the effect this will have on bookstores, especially the independents.

For newer writers, it's the independents who support us -- they're the ones discovering us, recommending us and handselling us. It happened with Michael Connelly, as well as many other authors, and they're the ones now selling Small Crimes and Pariah. My fear is as more and more indies get knocked out of business and books are bought for e-readers, it will make it nearly impossible for newer writers to be discovered and read except by a very small niche of readers.

I suspect over time as 100s of thousands of out of print and self-published books are dumped onto the kindle store and other e-book stores that these stores will more and more resemble Walmart, where only a handful of the biggest bestsellers are given prominent display space and all other books buried deep in the web-site. I also suspect as the volume of books grow on these stores, the chances of any book being bought at high enough volumes to attract a real publisher is going to be close to 0.

So to summarize, I think this trend will be disastrous for most writers (although probably a boon for the biggest names), unless all you're aspiring to is to sell a few hundred copies of your book.

But this is clearly the future. I'm just hoping it takes a while to get here.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Winterbottom directs Thompson's Killer Inside Me!

Check out the promo trailer here.

On Stieg Larsson and Swedish crime fiction

I'm not very interested in the current trend of Scandinavian crime writers, as almost everyone else seems to be. Admittedly I haven't read any of, for example, Stieg Larsson's books, but they just seem too damn long to my tastes. I can take Ellroy, but his stakes are a bit higher than Larsson seemingly has - and I'd like to point out that the American private eye writers, like Stephen Greenleaf and Jonathan Valin, dabbled the same issues with a considerably lesser amount of pages in the late seventies and the eighties.

So, I was pretty pleased to note that Swedish science fiction critic John-Henri Holmberg said this on the Fictionmags e-mail list some days ago:

Two days ago the final vote was taken to finalize the shortlist for the Swedish annual best crime novel and best first crime novel awards. As a member of the selection panel, I've read -- as far as necessary -- over a hundred original Swedish crime novels published this year. It's not been an experience I'm keen to repeat. Why is it that because Stieg Larsson has by now sold 22 million copies of his three books (now contracted for in 41 countries), seemingly every publisher in the country will publish seemingly even the worst manuscripts to be found in their submissions as long as they're crime? In my experience, it is sadly true that the vast majority of readers is blind to stylistic abilities. But I've never found it true, as it seems current publishers believe, that readers are also blind to the absence of any storytelling ability.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Vintage Harlequins

Here's a link to an article about Harlequin's vintage collection of their old crime titles. I wrote about them earlier here. And here's James Reasoner writing about the books, which prompted me to provide the link - and here's James still at it, providing some great vintage Harlequin covers.

I promised to dig up little something about one M. Scott Michel who wrote some private eye novels for Harlequin in the late fourties and early fifties, but that'll have to wait.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Review of the zombie book

Here's a review of my zombie anthology from the Portti magazine. It's pretty positive, for which I'm proud and happy. The main point: "Finland's never had her share of good trashy literature, so this is a step to the right direction!"

Monday, November 02, 2009

Alain Robbe-Grillet: Trans-Europ-Express

I just got back from the Finnish Film Archive's screening of Alain Robbe-Grillet's Trans-Europ-Express (1966), a parody of French spy flicks of the sixties that's both hilarious and theoretical at the same time.

I'm not a big fan of French New Wave films. I suppose I should be, since I'm a young film buff living in Europe, but I've felt for some years now that many of the inventions of the French films of the sixties have become obsolete and not very effective today, even though there might be a dose of Verfrämmedungseffekt, to quote Bertolt Brecht on this. (I hope I spelled that right!) Same goes for Trans-Europ-Express: the metanarrative is clumsily made, the main narrative drags on for quite a while, the direction should've been more dynamic considering the film's theoretical contents. Now the viewer is only distracted, not entertained at the same time. There were some great moments - especially in the erotic scenes, which were pretty much ahead of their time in their kinkiness - which makes me think Robbe-Grillet made those clumsy and awkward moments in purpose. But the question still remains: why?

But don't take my word for it. Here's Senses of Cinema on the film, praising it very highly.

Here's also a very weird scene in which Jean-Louis Trintignant, the pervert smuggler of the film, is being interrogated.

The film, in all its clumsiness, made me think I should take my copy of Robbe-Grillet's Labyrintissa/In the Labyrinthe and read it.

Cthulhu for children

Here's a very cute animation, Lil' Cthulhu. Suitable for even four years old! (I didn't try this on my kids, though - no Finnish subtitles.)

You just gotta love him! (Or "her"? Or "it"?)