I think it takes much greater courage to create things to be gone than to create things that will remain.
I mostly get the question at parties. The answer is something of an icebreaker. Someone will ask me about the craziest, trashiest books I’ve ever read — “the books that made you want to pull your eyes out” — and I relate the following:
I have a thing for bad books. Not just books that are poorly written, incompetently edited, and morally irredeemable, but books that make you question man’s place above the animals. Books that, under most circumstances, would not be missed if they were burned.
Yeah, those books.
My slide into this literary gutter didn’t happen overnight. I didn’t go from reading Wallace Fowlie’s translations of Rimbaud straight to Paul Ross’s Chopper Cop No. 3: Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert.* I was a good kid, a good student. I studied Thomas Pynchon and Donald Barthelme, wrote dense essays on Derrida and deconstructionism. But like the anonymous teen protag of any confessional young-adult memoir, I met a few shadowy people who took advantage of my weakness for pulpy science fiction and European trash cinema. One vice led to another, and before I knew it my bookshelves were filled with titles like Frank Colter’s Death Squad and Phillip Atlee’s Joe Gall, The Nullifier.
I first stumbled across the dreaded “men’s adventure” pulp through a review of the Mack Bolan novels in the back pages of a now forgotten zine. This was the late nineties, and I was looking for anything shocking. Anything outrageous. The Sharpshooter series by Bruno Rossi fit the bill perfectly. Marketed in the mid- to late seventies as men’s crime novels, they were cheap, and most used-book stores had entire shelves bowing under the weight of their gaudy, bloody covers.
Rossi’s Sharpshooter series (after his adoring family is gunned down by mafia goons, Johnny Rock becomes a mobster-eating machine fueled by bullets, pasta, and cheap gasoline)** and its identical twin The Marksman series*** were the gateway drugs. And these Don Pendleton rip-offs soon led to better, more-deranged fare like Marc Olden’s Black Samurai (“The Black Samurai tangles with a human Satan in a hellish den of torrid sex and deadly violence!”),**** Wade Barker’s Ninja Master (“Japan taught him the world’s deadliest art — now . . . vengeance is his!”), William Crawford’s Stryker (“She was a beautiful coed model . . . until she was forced into heroin addiction, pornographic exhibitionism and a gruesome death!”), and Nelson DeMille’s early, outrageous Ryker/Keller series (“The terrorists splashed the streets with innocent blood. It was Sgt. Ryker’s job to seek and destroy them — one by one!”).*****
Two years into my craze, red-eyed and twitching, I found the non plus ultra of trashy crime novels, the craziest, trashiest books I’ve ever read: Dean Ballenger’s Gannon series.******
It had been a while since my last independent travel experience prior to our family trip to Costa Rica this summer with my wife, Ingrid, and my children, Anders, 9, and Annika, 6. A while is an understatement. It was 1998 when Ingrid and I, Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler, LP author Stan Armington and a small group, walked from Nepal into Tibet, around Mt. Kailesh, onto the monasteries of far Western Tibet and then across the country to Lhasa before flying past Mt. Everest as we made our way home. Nice little trip.
[pullquote align=”right”]You definitely can’t beat a well researched and written guidebook when planning an extended trip, and by the time of departure it was full of yellow Post-its and notes in the margin.[/pullquote]As the US General Manager for Lonely Planet during the 1990s, you could say I took travel opportunities for granted. Whether it was snorkeling in the South Pacific or on the Great Barrier Reef, mountain biking in Tahiti or skiing in the Alps, I was out of the country on some adventure at least once a year—but that was all before kids. What’s happened since is a pleasant blur of summer trips to Northern Michigan and Colorado in the winter to visit grandparents and cousins, with a bunch of Northern California weekend getaways and Tahoe ski trips thrown in.
The blur would have continued, except Ingrid earned a two month sabbatical and was determined to make the most of it. We considered Venezuela, Spain and Thailand, but eventually settled on Costa Rica, since it was relatively close and provided a variety of opportunities to keep the kids engaged, including surfing, zip lines, canopy tours, volcanoes, national parks, monkeys, bright green frogs, mariposas, iguanas, and two oceans! Both of our kids had also attended a Spanish-only preschool but stopped speaking it as soon as they started kindergarten. We hoped an extended trip to Costa Rica, and their natural desire to play with other kids, would bring back their Spanish.
Without a sabbatical, I could only join for the first two weeks. In the months and weeks before the trip Moon Costa Rica, written by veteran travel writer, Christopher P. Baker, became our bible—especially for Ingrid who had to plan for five weeks on the road, including three with just her and the kids. You definitely can’t beat a well researched and written guidebook when planning an extended trip, and by the time of departure it was full of yellow Post-its and notes in the margin.
We rented a place in the Pacific coast town of Tamarindo for the first two weeks with the idea that we could explore other points on the Nicoya Peninsula through a series of day trips, including the turtles and pristine sands of Playa Grande, Playa Flamingo, Rincon volcano and surfing at Nosara. I’ve had success finding accommodations with the website VRBO.com in the past, and gave them a try comparing what I found there with other sites. VRBO can be especially good for longer stays.
After a couple of emails, we reserved a two-bedroom, two bath apartment a very short walk to the beach and town. Besides an ideal location it featured a gated entrance, a safe, WiFi, and a small pool for the kids. We flew into Liberia and caught a shuttle for the hour-long trip to Tamarindo.
For the next several days we lived on the beach, and I was thrilled when both kids learned to surf—something I hadn’t done until my thirties. I thought I’d have to talk Anders into lessons, and was surprised when six year old Annika wanted to join. We developed a friendship with the surfing instructor who also had kids and shared information about schools, vacations, what our kids enjoyed, etc. He gave us plenty of suggestions on local places eat and see—as well as recommendations of other parts of Costa Rica to visit.
Getting around was easy. In addition to an extensive and easy-to-use bus system, there are several major car rental agencies in Tamarindo. You can get a reliable car for as little as $40 a day, but it’s worth it to spend an extra $30 for a small four wheel drive SUV as many of the roads are in rough shape.
Our first trip was to the Rincon Volcano, about 80 KM and two hours from the coast, including 20 or so up a long rutted dirt road. When we arrived we embarked on a two hour loop hike that included hot springs, mud baths and a spectacular waterfall. The hike turned out to be more challenging than expected, and Ingrid and I were already taking turns carrying Annika after the first hour when it started to rain. I should have mentioned, if you’re going to visit Costa Rica during the rainy season, expect…rain. Before long, the trail had turned into a muddy river and everything we were carrying was soaked—including my faithful Moon Handbook. At one point Annika and I became separated from Ingrid and Anders and the rain was pounding so hard that they couldn’t hear me although I was yelling at the top of my lungs. I felt like a soldier trudging through the jungle, but instead of schlepping a 100 lb pack I carried a very sad and wet six-year-old.
Eventually we reconnected, and by the time we finished the sun was shining and the nightmare of the previous hour was already transforming into a memorable adventure. Our Moon Handbook had been soaked, but eventually dried out and was completely functional except that the color map, photo and highlights section at the beginning had fused together.
We had several other day trips to interesting destinations on the coast and inland, including a memorable horseback ride through the mountains and down to the beach. The end came way too soon for me when it was time to head back to California. In the nine years I’ve had kids I’d never been away from them for more than a few days, and I wasn’t looking forward to spending the next three weeks in our empty house. Saying goodbye the evening before my morning departure was tough, but I’m so pleased my kids had this early opportunity to experience a different country and culture.
Even after just two weeks, I could tell they were growing as a result of their travel experiences, and I couldn’t wait to hear about the second part of their trip. They are now travelers—and that’s a great thing.
So how has independent travel changed and remained the same over the last ten years? I think it’s almost all for the better. Sure, special, “secret” spots can get overbuilt as they become more popular, but for each of those there are dozens waiting to be discovered. What hasn’t changed is that it’s enriching and exciting to see a country and discover new places on your own and get to know the people that live there. Whether a surfing instructor on the beach in Costa Rica, or a Buddhist monk in western Tibet, people are interested in meeting visitors from other countries and generally like to share knowledge about their community and culture. Something I knew, but didn’t fully appreciate before this trip, is how traveling as a family can remove any social or cultural barriers. Kids have an innate desire to play and interact with other kids, wherever they’re from. It’s an international language, and our desire as parents for them to grow up safe and happy, and gain new skills and experiences is shared by families everywhere.
What stands out for me as the biggest change is the degree to which you can stay connected at practically no cost while on the road. I was surprised at how ubiquitous WiFi connections were across Costa Rica. With my wife’s iPhone, we were able to use the internet to supplement our guidebook and get the latest information. Before I left Costa Rica I downloaded a Skype app onto Ingrid’s phone, and each night I talked with her and the kids and heard about their adventures that day, usually with the clarity as if they were in the same room. Although I brought my bulky HD video camera and SLR back with me, Ingrid takes very good quality videos and stills with her iPhone and then posts them to her Facebook page where they can be instantly shared with friends and family.
Independent travel is just as exciting, inspiring, enriching, and interesting as it has always been. What has changed is that it’s now so easy to stay in touch with your world and those important to you, wherever you choose to go.
As September approaches, and the southern hemisphere winter turns to spring, Argentines walking the streets of Buenos Aires and other cities stop more often to enjoy an ice cream at their neighborhood heladería. Argentine ice cream dates from 1826 but, surprisingly, from the western city of Mendoza – at that time, Buenos Aires had no source of ice that would allow the production of ice cream, but muleteers could haul it down the western Andes, even if some of it melted en route.
Only later, in the 1840s, did ice cream begin to have an impact on Buenos Aires, as the first shipments of ice began to arrive from, of all places, the United States. Not until 1860 did the city have its own, locally produced ice to make frozen desserts and, with the massive Italian immigration of the late 19th century, it underwent a boom that has never subsided.
This is according to the new, very specialized guide to Heladerías de Buenos Aires (Ice Creameries of Buenos Aires). Published by the municipal Ministerio de Cultura, the guide goes beyond the history of frozen treats in a city whose hot, humid summers have made it a staple of the diet. In 255 pages, with color photos, it also provides a thorough rundown of 32 landmark ice creameries around the city, plus a several-pages-long list of other deserving shops.
Not so long ago, though, many of those ice creameries were summer-only destinations. In 1984, when I spent my first winter living in the city’s Congreso district, a walk down nearby Avenida Corrientes found most of them shuttered for the season, and the ones that remained open were not the best of the bunch. Today, that’s changed greatly even though some remain open seasonally.
Several of my personal favorites figure in the book, including Belgrano’s Gruta, the Microcentro’s Vía Flaminia (Florida 121), and Congreso’s Sorrento (Avenida Rivadavia 2051) and Cadore. Cadore, in fact, has made a list of the world’s best ice creameries in the Madrid daily El País, which also included Monserrat’s Pastelería Olímpica (Avenida de Mayo 752), which I had never heard of, just a block from the iconic Café Tortoni.
El País’s list, though, is heavily Eurocentric – all the others it mentions are in Spain, France, and Italy. Still, between the Olímpica and the others depicted in the municipal guidebook, I’ll have plenty of pleasurable research to do on my next trip to Buenos Aires. It’s worth adding that the same series includes Pizzerías de Buenos Aires, as well as El Libro de los Libros (covering the city’s bookstores) and Calesitas de Buenos Aires (about merry-go-rounds). All of them are available in the bookstore at the city’s Casa de la Cultura (Avenida de Mayo 575).
Congratulations must go to crime novelist Peter Temple who last month won the Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s oldest literary prize. But before we seal and send that particular “well done, mate” package, let’s just drop a sharply delivered head slap in there, too. Because as much as Mr. Temple obviously deserves his accolade, he’s also prompted an additional round of Booker bleating.
For those of you not in the know, I’ll keep it brief — the Man Booker Prize is a cash award (originally £5k, now a whopping £20k) for the best novel written in the English language, written by a Commonwealth or Irish citizen, and published in the UK. It’s arguably the most prestigious literary award in Blighty, and for some reason crime writers want in on the act. The difficulty is, of course, that publishers have a limited number of entries, and according to former chairman of the Booker judges John Sutherland, if publishers were to nominate a crime novel, “There’s a feeling that it would be like putting a donkey into the Grand National.”
Now, yes, maybe I’m playing fast and loose with genre definitions there, but I still believe that whatever line there is between literary and genre, it’s easily blurred by quality. Case in point, and homework for you if you want it: compare and contrast the work of Richard Price and George Pelecanos with a particular reference to genre bias. Price’s first novel was a coming-of-age story about gang warfare; Pelecanos’s, a considered contemporary spin on the PI novel. Both have written extensively for The Wire,and both have had their most recent books branded with The Wire graphics, at least in the UK. Price’s novels frequently have cop protagonists and some kind of street-level mystery to be solved; Pelecanos has written variously of cops, PIs, and music-store clerks and tends to eschew mystery, especially in his later novels. So the question is, why does Richard Price have the popular literary label, while Pelecanos remains apparently stuck as a crime writer? Quality isn’t a factor — both are accomplished novelists. Is it a stylistic issue? Are Price’s prose pyrotechnics what make him literary? Do we still attribute being prolific with being poor? Pelecanos has written almost a book a year since his debut in 1992; Price has written four books since that time. Or is it simply geographical snobbery, where New York is seen as more artistically credible than Washington? Or is there an artistic glass ceiling, a real “us and them” situation? Because I have to say, I’m beginning to think it’s more just an “us and us” situation.
Mark Billingham has been a crime-fiction sensation in the UK since his first novel, Sleepyhead, was published in 2001 to great acclaim and success. The protagonist of that book, Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, has appeared in many subsequent novels and is now a beloved figure in British crime lit.
Billingham earned his success. Raised in Birmingham, he has been an actor, screenwriter, and stand-up comedian for most of his adult life. He continues to work in those fields, but it’s obvious from reading his books that his major love is writing novels. He’s ambitious in the best way; he wants to write good books, and, like any author worth a damn, he’s getting better at it over time. I’ve enjoyed all of Mark’s books to varying degrees, but I do think his last few have been flat-out fantastic. Bloodline, which Mulholland Books is bringing out in the States, is one of my favorites.
In Bloodline, a series of violent deaths are linked by relation to the work of an infamous, long-deceased serial killer. Thorne and his coinvestigators (Hendricks, Holland, Kitson, et al.), an intriguing bunch, all finely drawn, methodically go about the task of finding the murderer who is committing the deadly tribute. Mystery and police procedural aficionados will be very satisfied with the proceedings and will also be treated to a rich character study and a heady snapshot of contemporary London. The dialogue is drolly, organically funny, and the plot speeds to a gripping denouement. It’s a boss performance by Billingham, through and through.
This fall a television series based on two of the Thorne novels, Sleepyheadand Scaredy Cat, will be broadcast on British television. It stars David Morrissey as Thorne, Aiden Gillen (Tommy Carcetti on The Wire) as Hendricks, Sandra Oh, and Natascha McElhone, memorable from John Frankenheimer’s excellent Ronin.
Billingham’s books are as compulsively readable as Michael Connelly’s. I’m on record as saying that Connelly is the best mystery writer in the world, so I can’t give you a more respectful recommendation than that. Don’t let the British milieu or slang scare you; trust me, you’ll get it. American readers will be highly rewarded by giving Billingham a try.
George Pelecanos is the author of fifteen crime novels set in and around Washington, D.C. He is an award-winning essayist who has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, GQ, Sight and Sound, Uncut, Mojo, and numerous other publications. Esquire magazine called Pelecanos “the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world.” He was a producer, writer, and story editor for the acclaimed HBO dramatic series, The Wire, winner of the Peabody Award and the AFI Award. He was nominated for an Emmy for his writing on that show. Pelecanos lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife and three children. He is at work on his next novel.
I found the remote mansion of the “living Sherlock Holmes” before noon. Richard Walter was a withered, thin man with the face of Poe and a suit that stank of menthol Kools. I sat in the Victorian parlor where baffled cold-case detectives and federal agents came to glimpse the heart of darkness. My host offered me a “spot of tea,” in his formal English accent. Then he handed me a thick book documenting the la cuisine au beurre of a London cannibal killer. Scotland Yard had rushed the book by diplomatic pouch to the forensic psychologist in the Pennsylvania mountains they know as “the guru of perversity.”
On the shelf was I Have Lived Inside the Monster, the book by legendary FBI agent Robert Ressler, whose work inspired Silence of the Lambs. It was inscribed, “To Richard, my friend and fellow monster slayer.” There was also a flattering inscription in Signature Killers by Dr. Robert Keppel, the PhD criminologist and Seattle investigator famed for developing computer programs to chase down Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer. Keppel and Walter are renowned for describing the personality subtypes of murderers in a scientific fashion a generation more advanced than the FBI. Nearby was the grand piano the thin man plays, classical pieces of his own creation — only when he is alone, only when he can create unique pieces no one else will hear and he will never play again — to stimulate the subconscious mind.
“He had served ten years for murder, then the do-gooders let him out,” my host said, his aquiline nose wrinkled in distaste. “And now this. It’s quite a marvelous tale, actually.”
I began to turn through the pages of photographs, close-ups of the iron skillet sizzling with chopped brain and fillet of scalp with bits of dark hair.
“Young man,” my host said, “would you like some cookies? Chocolate chip. I bake them myself, an old recipe with some modifications, real butter, proper chemistry. They’re quite good.”
Seven years is a long time for anyone to do anything; on the basis of stamina alone you gain a reputation for being some sort of expert. Perform cerebral commissurotomies for seven years, and you lose the right to start sentences with, “Well, I’m no brain surgeon, but . . .” Edit a line of noircrime novels for seven years, and people will look to you for insights on what makes the genre tick, doubly so if you’ve been foolhardy enough to write three of the things yourself.
Which is why I periodically get e-mail asking me to explain what noir is.
It’s a question germane to Mulholland Books because although the line has a much broader mandate than just noir, its initial presentation to the world — even its name — owes much to iconic elements of film noirand noir literature, and several of its authors are ones sometimes thought of as noir writers.
So, what does it mean when people describe a crime novel as “noir”? That it’s dark, to be sure (sometimes, that it’s dark and French). But all crime fiction is dark. Even comic crime fiction concerns matters such as murder, assault and robbery, incidents that are dark in substance, however light the presentation might be. And even the stoniest noir purists wouldn’t deny the existence of noir comedies.
What, then, is the particular shade of darkness that we label “noir”?
The five dozen books I’ve published in the Hard Case Crime series would offer at least five dozen different answers to this question, as would the squabbling denizens of the invaluable Rara-Avis discussion group, who lob competing definitions at each other like soldiers manning mortars on the Maginot Line. But there’s a definition that I haven’t seen bandied about that has grown on me in recent months, and I present it here for your consideration:
One chilly February evening back in 2008, mystery writer Alan Gordon drove me home from a book launch forQueens Noir (Akashic, 2008), an anthology of dark tales set in my home borough. Both Alan and I live in Forest Hills, a pretty serene neighborhood set deep into Queens. As we approached the police precinct at the corner of Yellowstone and Austin that night, we noticed a burst of activity out front, including TV cameras and roving reporters. The next day, Alan e-mailed me: “So, all those camera crews at the precinct last night were about the arrest of the orthodontist’s wife for contracting his murder. My wife said, ‘I always knew she was crooked.’ ”
I knew the case vaguely. Back in October 2007, Daniel Malakov, a local man the newspapers described as a “prominent member” of Forest Hills’s Bukharian Jewish community, had been shot and killed in a nearby playground in full view of his four-year-old daughter. Ultimately, his estranged doctor-wife, Mazoltuv Borukhova, was convicted of first-degree murder and conspiring with a distant cousin to kill Malakov, with whom she was embroiled in a fierce custody battle. The key piece of evidence: a homemade silencer discarded at the scene. The silencer was traced to Borukhova’s cousin, whose fingerprints were on file for evading a subway fare. Shortly thereafter, police found that an astounding ninety-one calls had been made between the cousin and Dr. Borukhova during the three weeks preceding the murder. The jig was up.
In my reply to Alan’s e-mail, I remember noting that the whole story was in fact the classic noir tale — wife hires man to kill husband, only to find herself trapped in her own web of deception. Double Indemnity come to life. But, of course, beneath the genre staples, the case speaks to something far more elemental about the enduring attraction of crime fiction — particularly noir, with its emphasis on the fickle finger of fate. There is a tendency to dismiss crime novels as lurid, as trivial, as escapist. These dismissals always strike me as anxious attempts to diminish the genre’s actual, visceral lure. That, instead of being disposable yarns to be consumed quickly and tossed aside, crime novels speak to our very essence, to the often painfully compelling (impelling) emotions that, for all the layers of “civilization” and modernity that lay atop us, still can’t be soothed. Desire. Greed. Wrath. Envy. Revenge. These are timeless drives. Universal ones.
The other day, as I was leaving my apartment and walking down the stairs, I heard the musical clang clang clang of a triangle being beaten. At the main stairway leading down to the street, I saw a taboqueiro standing on the steps, a thick silver triangle around his wrist. Reaching deep into the metallic container that was hoisted, knapsack-style, onto his back, he pulled out glistening plastic bags filled with long, cylindrical tabocas, and handed them to my neighbor, Roskildes (undoubtedly, a treat for the latter’s two identical twins, Dri and Dré, who were due back from nursery school at any minute).
For years now, I’ve heard taboqueiros’ insistent triangle-ing, and witnessed their steady marching along sidewalks and across beaches in search of hungry customers. However, I must confess (somewhat shamefully) that I’ve never, ever sunk my teeth into a taboca.
[pullquote] The tabocas – resembling cinnamon sticks on steroids – beckoned to me, as did the taboqueiro himself. [/pullquote]
As I stopped to observe the transaction between the taboqueiro and my neighbor – during which three bags, each containing a quartet of tawny, delicate biscuits were exchanged for a mere R$5 – I decided that it was high time to atone for my sins of omission. The tabocas – resembling cinnamon sticks on steroids – beckoned to me, as did the taboqueiro himself, Florival, who announced that he’d been hawking tabocas up and down the streets and sands of Salvador for exactly 41 years.
A traditional street snack throughout the Brazilian Northeast, tabocas (as they are known in Bahia; in other regions they are called biju or cavaco chinês) resemble cigarettes russes (although, in this case, a cigar is a more apt comparison), but the inclusion of chocolate, vanilla, and cinnamon accounts for a color that is darker and a flavor that is richer. The name “taboca” is Tupi and refers to a variety of native bamboo that has traditionally had a wide range of uses amongst Brazil’s various indigenous groups. Later, taboca also became a slang term for the typical flutes or fifes, fashioned out of bamboo, which are played by musicians of the geographically arid, but culturally rich Northeastern Sertão.
As for my tabocas, when I expressed concern they would be crushed by the contents of my already overstuffed bag, Florival didn’t miss a beat – with an elegant flourish, he whipped out a wrinkled plastic supermarket bag from his pocket and offered it to me as I handed over my money.
He needn’t have bothered. By the time, I’d walked two blocks, all four tabocas were safely in my stomach.