Debut Thriller—Conor Fitzgerald’s The Dogs of Rome

February 10, 2010

One of the great pleasures of a book reviewer’s life (this book reviewer, at any rate) is the opportunity to introduce new talent to the mystery-reading public. Problem is, there is some expectation (and understandably so) that upcoming works by bestselling writers will get ink, and there is only so much room each month in the print edition of BookPage ( Solution: I have no such limitations here, and so I would like to take this occasion to showcase the debut of Conor Fitzgerald in The Dogs of Rome (Bloomsbury; ISBN 9781608190157; 400pp; $25.00; March 2010). The series opener, which takes place in the Italian capital, features world-weary Police Commissario Alec Blume. Blume, you say? Um, that doesn’t sound like an Italian name—and indeed it isn’t, for Blume is an American expat, though a longtime resident of Rome, who has built a career for himself as the city police force’s token Yank. Note: this is a career path not terribly dissimilar to author Fitzgerald’s: born in England, lived in Ireland and the US, now resident in Rome since the late 1980s.

The tale opens with the brutal murder of the husband of a Roman senator, stabbed to death in his apartment shortly after his mistress has left the premises, and shortly before his wife and son arrive home from Padua. The senator is well connected, as senators often are, and she makes it clear at the outset that she intends to drive the investigation in the direction she wants it to go, or at least so it seems to the beleaguered Commissario Blume. The thing is, the whole scenario proposed by the Senatrice and her police force go-to guys seems just a little too pat for Blume, so he conducts his own under-the-radar investigation while ostensibly following the leads offered up by the powers that be. Blume pokes one hornet’s nest after another, probing for guilty reactions; what he does not entirely expect is how expendable he is, both to the criminal element of Rome (who clearly have no compunctions about taking a police officer off the playing field) and his own superiors, who are much too busy pandering to the politicians and covering their own broad bottoms to have a great deal of concern for the safety of a too-nosy police officer.

Blume is a well drawn character, sleep-deprived, occasionally cranky, sharp tongued, by times insecure—in other words, quite human. The story is rapidly paced and thoroughly believable, particularly to anyone who is skeptical that politics and justice can coexist in one arena. Fitzgerald deftly displays the expat’s conundrum (a situation with which I have some familiarity): the expectation that you will stand out (hopefully in a good way) paired with the reality that you will always be a foreigner, no matter how long you stay, no matter how well you absorb the language and culture. Well done! I am looking forward to installment two.


The Puns That Would Not Die, Tom Swifties Yet Again

February 7, 2010

“Can you direct me to the men’s room?” Tom asked gently.

“I seem to have set the rear of the attic aflame,” Tom fired back loftily.

“Henry VIII was very fat,” said Tom unthinkingly.

“It will have to wait until the leap year,” he said lackadaisically.

“The cat seems happy now that he’s been fed,” said Tom purposefully

“Phone call for Mr. Greene,” the waiter said forlornly.

“I didn’t intend to send that telegram twice!” she said remorsefully.

“I’ve never had a filling,” she said precariously.

“Why, I’d love some Chinese soup,” he said wantonly.

“You are so much bigger than you were the last time I saw you,” he said gruesomely.

“It seems to have made the grass wet,” he said after due consideration.

“Thanks so much, Monsieur,” he said mercifully.

And my two favorites for the week:

“Who was the Vice President under Bill Clinton?” he asked allegorically.

“Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess,” he began grimly.

Note: Please feel free to send along any good ones you run across. I will publish the ones that are not too racy, and undoubtedly have a good laugh at the ones that are.



Grocery shopping in Japan

February 6, 2010

I take my camera with me everywhere in Japan; for this reason, I carry a tiny Canon point-and-shoot, rather than the “my-lens-is-bigger-than-yours” SLR camera that shouts “TOURIST GEEK” in capital letters. (I have one of those, mind you, for those times when I want to be obnoxiously creative, snapping close-ups of flower petals or nose hairs or some such, but it doesn’t travel with me unless I have a car at my disposal.) Today, I went shopping for cookie fixings; I have had a hankering for chocolate chip cookies for a couple of days, and I was missing a couple of the key ingredients (chocolate chips and baking soda, in case you were wondering). As Japanese supermarkets offer a seemingly endless assortment of weird and wonderful products, I often find myself wandering aimlessly up one aisle, then down another, to see what new oddities I can unearth. For example:

When you're in a snack mood, howzabout a Cream Collon?

Or how about these Moony Man disposable diapers, each variation featuring a different baby, each with a distinctly different attitude:

That last one is my personal favorite; the kid seems to be saying “So what did you expect, potty training awready? I’m only a year old, for heaven’s sake!”

A while back, a friend of mine, Al Brandt, told me a story that had me in hysterics. I may have a detail or two wrong, but this is the gist of it: Another friend, Bob Berg, had come to Tokyo, and Al agreed to serve as Bob’s guide around the city, showing him things he’d never have found easily, if at all, on his own. Bob, quite grateful, offered to take Al out for drinks. Al demurred, citing a prior engagement, upon which Bob asked if there was anything else he could do by way of appreciation. “Well,” Al replied thoughtfully, “You could buy me a cantaloupe.” A cantaloupe? Well, it turned out that Al had been craving a cantaloupe for a while, and just had not gotten around to getting one. Bob, for his part, thought he was getting off quite lightly, considering that he had planned on springing for at least a couple of rounds of drinks. “Hell,” he said magnanimously, “I’ll buy you two cantaloupes.” Al grinned contentedly, knowing full well what was about to transpire, and they headed off together to the supermarket. I will leave you to imagine what happened; have a look at the picture below, and be sure to note the price (the yen-to-dollar exchange rate is about 90-to-1…)

For the mathematically challenged, the 6500 yen cantaloupe pictured here runs about $72 US!

Japanese Woodblock Prints, a Brief Introduction

February 6, 2010
Part of what drew me to Japan (apart from the girls, the food, and the exotic foreign-ness of the place) was a distinctly Japanese art form known as the woodblock print. As the name suggests, woodblock prints are made by carving a design into a block of wood, then printing it onto paper. This would seem to be a fairly straightforward process, at least until you introduce color into the equation, at which point numerous blocks must be utilized, one for each color, each perfectly aligned with the previous and succeeding block (as you can imagine, this makes the undertaking exponentially more difficult). Sometimes dozens of blocks are used, and the results can vary from photorealism to Picasso-esque abstraction. Although color woodblock prints have been around for hundreds of years in Japan, they didn’t come to the attention of Westerners until the late 1800’s, at which time individual woodblock prints were used as wrapping paper (!) for packages sent to Europe and the Americas. The prints caught the eye of painters such as Van Gogh, Mucha, Whistler, Toulouse-Lautrec and many others, and elements of Japanese woodblock images would figure prominently in their paintings from then on (Van Gogh blatantly lifted a couple of designs from Ando Hiroshige’s 100 Views of Edo, essentially rendering in oil what Hiroshige had done with wooden blocks and colored ink).

The prints that tend to catch the eye of this Westerner are largely from the 20th century. They fall into two sometimes overlapping categories: shin hanga, in which the artist creates a design, usually in watercolor, which is then made into a print by a team of professional carvers and printers, thus a collaborative effort; and sosaku hanga, in which the artist creates his own design, does his own carving and printing, and thus is responsible for the whole process from conception to finished result. The shin hanga prints tend to be more accessible to new aficionados, as they are often images of beautiful scenery or attractive kimono-clad women, while the sosaku hanga prints tend to be avant-garde, and thus rather more of an acquired taste. Also, shin hanga prints are often (but by no means always) more carefully carved and printed, as those artisans are schooled in their respective crafts, and do not have to be responsible for other elements of the process. Here is a representative selection of some shin hanga and sosaku hanga prints, dating from the early part of the 20th century up to about the early 1970s. Enjoy!

A shin hanga print by Uehara Konen, pre WWII

A shin hanga print by Hiroshi Yoshida, also pre-WWII

A shin hanga print by Kaburagi Kiyokata, early 20th C.

Japan becomes more westernized; a modern girl by Ito Shinsui

Ito Shinsui again, altogether more traditional

A shin hanga print by a Westerner in Japan, Elizabeth Keith

Some sosaku hanga, by way of contrast; Kihei Sasajima

A sosaku hanga abstract by Reika Iwami

A sosaku hanga street scene by Junichiro Sekino 

A sosaku hanga harbor scene by Fumio Kitaoka

Mt. Fuji, by Hideo Hagiwara

A fanciful cat by Tomoo Inagaki

Stay tuned for my next woodblock print post, where we’ll have a look at contemporary printmakers, both Japanese and Westerners, working in Japan nowadays. 

BookPage Whodunit Overflow Redux

February 2, 2010

This month was painful, and next month will be worse; there were (and are) ‘way too many good books to fit in the print edition of BookPage’s Whodunit column; check it out for yourself at April brings books by perennial favorites Walter Mosley, Jonathan Kellerman, C.J. Box, Benjamin Black, and Lisa Scottoline, as well as a fine-looking group of international novels from Norway (K.O. Dahl’s The Last Fix), Scotland (Denise Mina’s Still Midnight) and WWII Russia (Michael White’s Beautiful Assassin). That’s eight books all begging to be included in a four-book space, the proverbial quart trying to fit in the pint pot (or 946ml trying to fit into the 473ml pot, for readers in Canada and Europe), plus several other new offerings I haven’t checked out closely yet. So keep an eye out in these parts for the ones that don’t fit in the print edition; it promises to be a bumper crop.

First up: Bestselling author Michael Palmer, a personal favorite of former president Bill Clinton, offers up The Last Surgeon, a truly diabolical tale of a professional assassin in the employ of a shady quasi-governmental organization known as Jericho. The killer makes contact with his employer via eBay, of all places, using his bid amount to convey the price of a kill. The hero of the piece (and the aforementioned killer’s nemesis), Dr. Nick Garrity, runs a mobile clinic from the back of an aging RV, tending to the homeless of Washington, DC and its environs. He is an Iraq vet, suffering from PTSD, but on a good day, he is able to keep the demons at bay. Nowadays, he deals with sleep deprivation via an overload of work and his ongoing search for his missing friend Umberto, who disappeared in the wake of a bout with post-Iraq depression. Meanwhile, nurse Gillian Coates has her own set of issues to deal with: her sister Belle was found dead in her bathtub, an apparent suicide, leaving behind a mysterious comic book collection featuring super-hero Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Gillian does not believe for a moment that her sister killed herself, and she is convinced that the comic books, which were well outside Belle’s normal area of reading interest, hold the key to her death. Soon, Garrity’s and Coates’s paths will cross, and their lives will connect in ways neither could have seen coming (although the reader will have no trouble whatsoever predicting at least one sort of connection…). Nick and Gillian are both well-drawn characters, as are the supporting cast members, and the killer, Koller, is a piece of work. At times the prose can be a bit gushy (“Damn you, McCandliss, he barely kept from hollering out, why tonight?” Note: the italics are from the author, not added by me.), but all in all, the tension level remains high, and the tale advances speedily toward its denouement in true time honored page-turner fashion.