An Interview with Peter Rozovsky of Detectives Beyond Borders

By Gwen Florio

To read Peter Rozovsky’s crime fiction blog, Detectives Beyond Borders, is to incur a deep and crippling sense of inadequacy—and also to acquire a decades-long reading list—because Rozovsky apparently has read All The Books. Not only does he read them, but he provides informed, pithy, and often humorous commentary. Who else is going to home in on the best mutton fat simile in crime fiction? (The Big Sleep: “The boy stood glaring at him with sharp black eyes in a face as hard and white as cold mutton fat.”) As important, Rozovsky lets you know when to steer clear, or at least look askance, a welcome respite from reviews that merely recount plot. Oh, and the man started Noir at the Bar. ’Nuff said.

Q:  How many years have you been reviewing books?

A: I started Detectives Beyond Borders in September 2006. I have never thought of myself as a book reviewer, though. I’ll discuss this further in subsequent answers.

Q: Why international crime fiction?

A: I enjoy traveling when I can do it, so my interest is in part old-fashioned armchair travel. I had a Dutch girlfriend at the time, and I saw a book called Outsider in Amsterdam, by the late Dutch crime writer Janwillem van de Wetering. That led me to some of the other non-U.S. crime writers Soho was publishing, and the rest is blogging history.

Q: Do you tailor your reviews in any way for U.S. audiences?

A: The only concessions I make to U.S. audiences is to spell color and humor without a u. But I do like to stay in touch with my roots by thinking of the last letter of the alphabet as zed.

Q: How do you decide what to review?

A: My only agenda is to write about books (or, occasionally stories, musicians, and so on) that I like. More recently, I have been finding out about authors through Noir at the Bar. (I started Noir at the Bar, by the way, right here in Philadelphia in 2008. Scott Phillips, Jed Ayres, and others made it into the phenomenon it has become, but I started it.)

Q: What do you look for when you review a book? Any make-or-break issues?

 A: No make-or-break issues come immediately to mind, though I prefer novels that do not begin with prologues marked “Prologue,” especially if those prologues are about a protagonist recovering consciousness and finding her or himself tied up, unable to move, in a dark room or a damp basement, etc. And especially if the prologue is set in italic type and narrated by a serial killer.

What I look for is excellent writing, surprises, and clever takes on crime fiction conventions.

Q: Do you ever hear from authors about your reviews, if so, what’s the best/worst reaction you’ve gotten?

A: I often hear from authors, and I don’t remember ever hearing a complaint. Maybe that’s because I don’t think of myself as a reviewer. Rather, I’ve always thought of what I do as discussions about books, with contributions invited from all sides. I think authors take what they do seriously, like to talk about it, and like to talk about books, both their own and those by writers they like. I have a lot of books with grateful inscriptions from authors, but no angry notes or death threats.

Another thing is that, aside from an occasional review I’ll write for the Philadelphia Inquirer, I choose what I read, and I read what I like. If I don’t like how a book is going by, say, halfway through the first sentence, I generally will read no further. And that means that I write few negative reviews. That, in turn, means less for authors to complain about, I suppose.

Q: Along those lines, do writers ever try to suck up to you and if so, how? Chocolate, whiskey, unmarked bills? (Asking purely for research purposes, of course)

A: And no slinky hostesses knocking on my room door at Bouchercons, either.

 Q: In addition to international crime fiction, you specialize in noir. My sense is that noir is one of those you-know-it-when-you-read-it things. Can you please help me out with a better distinction?

A: If you ever meet Anthony Neil Smith, go up to him and say, “So, Neil. How do you define noir?” then back away. (He lives in Minnesota, so you can also talk about snow.)

For me, noir is about hopelessness, sometimes about persistence in the face of hopelessness without, importantly, any hope that the persistence will be rewarded. I also found myself thinking about desperation when I think about noir, but also about resignation. That resignation can mean a kind of happy ending, especially in David Goodis.  It’s not just about atmosphere, though, of course, an author such as Megan Abbott can do atmosphere like nobody’s business.

Q: Any trends you’ve noticed in the books you read?

A: I’m not sure I’m focused enough as a reader to notice trends. I have noticed over the life of Detectives Beyond Borders that many, many authors and publishers call what they do noir, but almost no one wants to call what he or she does cozy, even authors who write the stuff. Noir as a word and as a dim, amorphous notion has tremendous cultural cachet. Whether that counts as a trend, I don’t know.

Crime novels with The Girl … in the title are so overdone these days that even the New York Times ought to write something safely and naughtily satirical about the phenomenon if it has not done so already.  That’s nothing but marketing, of course, a desperate attempt to wring maximum dollars out of an inattentive mass audience, but it probably is related to a surge of interest in domestic crime fiction.  There’s the Library of America’s recent two-volume edition of Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 1950s.  And a few months ago I heard Jason Starr describe his latest novel as domestic crime. That was the first time I had heard a man use the term.

Q: You don’t hold back in your reviews, taking aim, for instance, at work by icons Raymond Chandler, Bruce Springsteen, and the Coen Brothers. Do you think reviewers in general are pulling their punches more these days—and if so, what effect does that have?

 A: Well, one only gets worked up about something one feel strongly about. I’m invested in Raymond Chandler, so I notice when he spends too much time complaining in The Little Sister. I demand excellent writing, so I’m hard on an excellent performer like Bruce Springsteen for his occasional throwaway line and less than top-flight songwriting. He’s one of the great performers in rock and roll, but overrated as a songwriter. And I take it personally when an otherwise good novel such as Anne Holt’s 1222 is issued to the public in such sloppy English that I would not be shocked to learn a first draft had found its way into publication by mistake.

And that’s where discrimination is required in reviewing: Who is to blame for a book’s shortcomings? The author? The translator? (Ultimately, of course, the publisher is to blame for signing off on the thing.) So a reviewer should not just say, “This sucks,” but should try to figure out why.

Q: What’s the most rewarding part of reviewing?

A: Finding, reading, and investigating authors and genres and sub-genres I had not known before. In recent years, I’ve read work by newer writers whose characters are down-market: dispossessed working-class or rural. Benjamin Whitmer, Eryk Pruitt, and Johnny Shaw are in that group, and I’ve met and discovered most of those folks through events and conventions. The list of writers I’ve met at such events and whose work I have gone on to read and enjoy is too long for me to remember. Christa Faust. Scott Phillips. Vicki Hendricks. David Swinson. The list goes on. So for me, the question is not what’s the most rewarding part of reviewing, but rather what’s the most rewarding part about participating in a vital crime fiction community?

Gwen Florio is a veteran journalist whose first novel, Montana, won a High Plains Book Award and Pinckley Prize for crime fiction, and was a finalist for an International Thriller Award, Shamus Award and Silver Falchion Award, all in the first novel category. Dakota was published in 2014 and her third novel, Disgraced, comes out in March 2016.

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