Friday, July 31, 2009

Review of M*A*S*H by Richard Hooker, Cassell (1968)

As a teenager I was a fan of the M*A*S*H TV series and the original 1970 Robert Altman movie and I first read the novel in 1989. I was a first year undergraduate and someone I was sharing a student house with had been collecting all the books in the series (of which there are 15). I also made my way through most of them (I seem to remember he was missing 4 of them). I picked up the first in series in Enniskillen a couple of weeks ago for the princely sum of 99p for a brand new copy. Rarely has so little money delivered such value – a few hours of highly enjoyable reading and several belly laughs.

Loosely based on Richard Hooker’s own experiences with the M*A*S*H 8055th (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) in Korean War during the early 1950s, the novel details the tour of duty of Captains Hawkeye Pierce and Duke Forrest, two young surgeons drafted to perform ‘meatball surgery’ on the unfortunate soldiers wounded on the frontline, and how they raise hell and havoc to blow off steam, trying to remain sane after hours and days at the operating table and the periods of boredom in between. Along for the journey are fellow swamp (tent) residents, Trapper John (chief surgeon) and Spearchucker Jones (neurologist), and a gang of colourful characters all in the same boat including Radar O’Reilly (clerk), Hot Lips Houlihan (chief nurse), the Painless Pole (dentist), Knocko McCarthy (nurse), Ugly John (anaesthetist), Father ‘Dago Red’ Mulcahy (chaplain), Mother Devine (cook), Frank Burns (surgeon) and Henry Blake (chief officer).

‘Talk to me anyhow, Captain. Just talk about anything that comes into your head.’
‘Death is an elephant, torch-eyed and horrible, foam-flanked and terrible,’ Hawkeye commented.

Major Haskell lit a cigarette.
‘You nervous or something?’ asked Hawkeye.
‘Not at all,’ the Major replied nervous
‘Hey, Dad, I’ll give you a nice buy on an elephant. Velly clean. Penicillim. Finest kind.’
‘Captain Pierce, what are you up to? Frankly I can’t decide if you’re crazy or just some kind of a screwball.’

‘Well, why don’t you mull it over for a while. You got anything to trade in.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean you want a clean deal on an elephant, or you got some kind of used up elephant you wanta stick me with in return for my best elephant?’

Blending pathos with dark humour, and getting the balance just right, Hooker effectively uses a series of interlinked short stories to unfold the plot. The characterization is superb, as well as the set pieces, and the dialogue is first class. I felt myself smiling often and laughing out loud on a good number of occasions. Unlike the television series, the book lacks an overt political message; it is a book about how people survive and get by in a terrible situation not of their choosing, implicitly an anti-war novel, but not explicitly so. In that sense it lacks the bite of other darkly humorous and satirical books about war such as Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and does little to explore the morality of war or the industries that surround them such as prostitution and black marketeering. Clearly that wasn't Hooker's aim and so the criticism is moot, but for me it would have transformed a very good book into a minor masterpiece.

The other books follow Hawkeye and Trapper John on their return to the United States and has them jetting all over the world on various escapades. The original book was the high point that spawned a media franchise.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Scottish Homecoming

Dorte's post yesterday on DJ's Krimiblog, which included a photo of a pack of shortbread with 'Homecoming Scotland' logo printed on it, reminded me that late last year myself and a couple of colleagues (Mark Boyle and Delphine Ancien) spent a couple of days in Scotland interviewing people involved in managing Scotland's diaspora as part of a project for the Scottish Government - this included those in charge of the Homecoming Scotland project. It also reminded me that there was a Scottish Diaspora Forum held at the Scottish Parliament on July 25th (I've found some coverage in the Scotsman yesterday and some of our work discussed in the comment by Eddie Tait).

I've no idea how Homecoming Scotland has been going - it seemed to me at the time of the interviews that it was being transformed from a project concerned with engaging the diaspora to a tourist one aimed at getting bodies in beds. The outcome of our project was a report - The Scottish Diaspora and Diaspora Strategy: Insights and Lessons from Ireland - for the Scottish Government that compared the Irish approach to its diaspora with the Scottish approach and suggested potential ways forward for Scotland to productively engage with its diaspora.

Our principle arguments were that any diaspora strategy has to focus on both culture and economy; be as inclusive as possible; be productive for both the diaspora and Scotland; and should be light and flexible and not overly managerialist or overly determined. My suspicion is that given the differences in the nature and modes of governance between Ireland and Scotland, that the Scottish approach will largely continue to replicate its current strategy whilst trying to widen the net. We'll have to wait and see how things develop.

Over the past six months we've organised an international workshop on diaspora strategies that brought together policy makers from 8 countries and the World Bank and written three other reports on diaspora strategies including one for the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs. I'll write about those reports at some other point.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Review of Carte Blanche by Carlo Lucarelli, translated by Michael Reynolds, Europa Editions (2006, in Italian in 1990)

April 1945 in Northern Italy and Commissario De Luca has transferred from the Brigata Ettore Muti – the political police - to the civil police force, insisting that he is nothing more than a police man, not a puppet of the fascist regime. His first day in his new job and he’s assigned to the murder of Rehinard, an Italian citizen, member of the Fascist Republican Party with political connections to Il Duce and Count Tedesco (the Minister for Foreign Affairs) and a serial womaniser. As the allies advance northwards and the partisans gain in confidence and take pot shots at the fascist forces, De Luca becomes unwillingly embroiled in a political fight between members of a dying regime, picking his way through the minefield whilst determined to solve Rehinard’s murder.

‘What do you think the Chief will say?’
‘What will the Chief say?’ Pugiese repeated with a wry smile.

‘What I’m about to tell you now.’ De Luca pulled his badge out from inside his trench coat and opened it before a militiaman who was heading towards them with a menacing look. ‘Out of my fucking way, son,’ he said. ‘This here is none of your business. Just forget it.’

Carte Blanche is a novella, less than 100 pages long. The narrative is driven along by what the characters say and do, with little thick description of looks or thoughts or back story. However, the characterization does not suffer from such a writing style and De Luca and his colleagues are brought to life in an economical fashion that lets the story rip along. The book might be short, but the story is complex, full and rounded, and my immediate response on finishing was, ‘I need the next book - now!’ On reflection, I’m trying to decide if that’s partially a response to the book being so thin; that I wanted Lucarelli to flesh out Carte Blanche into a full novel – and I certainly think there was scope to do that. I’m not sure - I really enjoyed this book, and it does work as a novella, but I can’t help wondering if the other two parts of the trilogy are simply the last two parts of the same story split into two further books (they are only another 290 pages between them) , or feeling that there was an opportunity lost to produce a real masterpiece. Nevertheless a fine piece of work and I’ve already ordered the other two parts of the trilogy.

Uriah Robinson at Crime Scraps recommended the book to me - thanks. His review is here.
Also reviewed by Eurocrime.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mapping Murder

I browsing Adrian McKinty’s blog at the weekend and he had a post about an interactive map of homicide in New York. His post mainly concerns the fact that 88 percent of the victims are black or Hispanic and how this reality isn’t reflected in TV cop shows. What I found interesting though was the map itself and the geography of the murders and how the deaths were mapped with respect to the race, sex and age of the victim and perpetrator, weapon used, year committed, and so on, to reveal distinctive patterns concerning the social and racial make-up of the city.

The map below clearly shows a geography to the race/ethnicity of the victim, with most of the victims in Brooklyn black; a strong concentration of Hispanic deaths (in Jackson Heights) and a small cluster of Asian deaths (in Flushing) in Queens; a mix of black and Hispanic victims in Harlem and the Bronx; and a fairly even mix of white, black and Hispanic murders in Lower Manhattan.

This kind of mapping is very common in just about every police force in the Western world at this stage, with each divisional command having its own GIS (Geographic Information System) intelligence unit that maps all crimes with its associated data (crime type, victim and perpetrator details, weapon, drug type, etc) and seeks to understand the patterns in order to help solve cases, allocate police resources, target crime hotspots, help profilers, calculate emergency response routes, and so on.

The three maps below are generated using a commercial GIS crime package – Mapitude – and plot the location of sex offenders vis-à-vis school location; motor theft hotspots; and change in the property crime rate over time (clicking on the image should enlarge it).

Given I’m fascinated by maps, as and when I come across some interesting ones relating to crime, I’ll add them to the blog. If anyone has any pointers to other interesting crime maps I would be delighted to receive them.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Review of Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann, Penguin Classics, (2009, in German in 1947)

If you’ve ever wondered what it is like to live in a fascist regime then you need to read Hans Fallada’s recently translated classic, Alone in Berlin, first published in 1947 (U.S. title is Every Man Dies Alone).

In 1940, the occupants of 55 Jablonski Strasse are all fairing differently in the Nazi regime. On the top floor is the elderly Jewess, Frau Rosenthal, whose lives in fear since her husband was arrested a few weeks beforehand. Under her lives Otto Quangel, a foreman at a carpentry factory, who is looked on with suspicion by his bosses because he refuses to pay party dues, and his devoted wife, Anna. Beneath them are the Persickes, a family of bullies, wedded to the Nazi party, and who like to throw their weight around. On the ground floor is the retired Judge Fromm, who quietly keeps order, and at the basement at the back of the house lives the snitch Emil Borkhausen, his wife, Otti - who supplements their meagre rations with gifts from obliging men – and their five children all of whom have different father. When Otto and Anna Quangel learn that their only son has been killed in the battle for France, they decide to start to undermine the murderous Nazi regime by leaving anonymous postcards around the city, criticising Hitler and the fascist system and urging people to resist in whatever way they can. Then with Judge Fromm they rescue Frau Rosenthal from the thieving hands of Borkhausen and the more malicious Persickes. They have started on a path of resistance that soon captures the attention of the tenacious Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo and his superiors, and so the cat-and-mouse game begins.

'Don't worry, Trudel,' says Otto Quangel, and his calm is such as to immediately help to settle her agitation. 'You know, with Otto Quangel a thing goes in one ear and out the other. I can't remember what you told me a moment ago.' With grim resolve he gazes at the poster. 'I don't care if the whole Gestapo turns up, I don't know anything. And,' he adds, 'if you want, and if it makes you feel more secure, then from this moment forth, we simply won't know each other any more. You don't need to come tonight to see Anna, I'll cook up story for her.'

Primo Levi, for whom I have the greatest respect, said that Alone in Berlin is ‘the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis’. I think it does a lot more than that – it doesn’t simply reveal the mundane and everyday resistances and small transgressions of ordinary people, but also how the fascist system worked in practice on a day-to-day basis for everyone in society including children, parents, relatives, friends, employees and employers, state agencies and the servers of law and order; how fear and terror permeated every facet of life regardless of whether one was ideologically opposed to Nazism or its most fervent advocate. Indeed, Fallada’s story of friendship, love, deceit, betrayal, and redemption, reveals in stark detail the micro-circuits of power (in all its guises – domination, intimidation, coercion, seduction, manipulation, etc) that swirled and eddied around people regardless of their class or rank to maintain the hegemonic social relations that kept people in line; made them self-discipline their behaviour and to discipline the behaviour of others; to comply with a system that bore down on them, exploited them, coerced them into implicitly participating in atrocities against their fellow Germans and other nations; and enabled those that craved power through violence and intimidation to enact their brutal punishments. In this sense, Fallada’s brilliant book is the fictional equivalent to the more academically orientated prison notes of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian communist imprisoned by Mussolini who sought to understand why both the masses and elites tolerated a fascist regime that did not represent their best interests and did not rise up in revolution to depose them.

This is not to say that people simply accepted the system that oppressed them - domination and abuses of power are always accompanied by resistance – but rather such resistance is individualised or small scale, failing to reach a critical mass, and often is enacted in such a way that the perpetrator cannot be identified and punished. And this is what Fallada’s story concentrates on – the small acts of defiance (the writing and distribution of anti-Nazi postcards, the sheltering of Jews and political prisoners, working at a slow pace, sabotaging machines, writing doctor’s notes so that a person didn’t have to serve at the front) and how the state seeks to crush them by turning people against people in the name of some higher ideal (in this case a Nationalist Socialist Germany) and rewarding those who inform, denounce and enforce, whilst at the same time reminding them that they are equally vulnerable if they step out of line. Alone in Berlin, by tracing the interlocking stories of a two dozen people – active resistors, those simply trying to survive, those unwittingly drawn into situations not of their choosing, and the Gestapo and their stooges – reveals the messy, complex and contingent set of social relations existing in the Nazi fascist state. There were Germans who were fanatical, homicidal nationalists that craved a superpower Third Reich free of inferior peoples, but there were also millions of ordinary Germans opposed to such ideology and the madness of war and were also victims of its regime.

Contemporary novels of the Nazi period tend to be Thrillers with a capital T – for example, they focus on a large conspiracy plot or key political figures. Alone in Berlin is a thriller with a small t. It undoubtedly sits within the crime genre, but its core is an exploration of humanity and humanism - how people think and act in extraordinary circumstances. Fallada’s narrative is well paced and expertly plotted – none of the story feels contrived – and his characterization is first rate. While it is often not an easy read, and I felt emotionally exhausted at the end, its story is compelling - it is a book that will haunt the reader long after they have finished reading it in all the right ways.

Thanks to Uriah Robinson at Crime Scraps for the recommendation.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Swallows and Amazon

A swallow chick made its first visible appearance yesterday evening in the nest above the back door. I hope it likes rain as this little corner of Ireland has had more per square foot than the Amazon so far this month! I managed to take this photo whilst being divebombed by protective parents. The forecast is for rain until at least Wednesday. The planet might be getting warmer, but it just feels like wetter in this neck of the woods. At least it gives an excuse to read a book rather than tackle the waterlogged garden - which presently resembles a jungle! I need some reading with a lot of sun and some humour - suggestions?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Review of Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s by Otto Friedrich, published by HarperPerennial (1995, originally 1972)

I got interested in Berlin before the war through reading Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels (I’ve also recently read the excellent The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Peron's Argentina by Uki Goni after reading book five in the series set in Argentina). It’s taken a while to read as its been my breakfast book and I’ve read a fair few novels whilst this has been on the go.

Before the Deluge is a social history of Berlin during the Weimar Republic from 1919 to 1933, covering traditional politics, economics, social conditions, cultural politics, the arts, and the lives of ordinary Berliners and the movers and shakers. It’s rich, dense, insightful, and full of interesting commentary and anecdotes based on the author’s experiences, documentary research, and interviews with key actors still alive in the late 1960s.

Rapidly expanding in population size, Berlin during the 1920s was a city of turbulent and vibrant change – governments coming and going; unions and the army vying for power; communists, socialists and fascists fighting running battles, assassinating rivals, and waging propaganda wars; the currency crashing to worthlessness followed by an economic boom and then another crash; cabaret, theatre, movies and music flourishing; social order becoming liberalised with widespread naturism and promiscuity at the same time that anti-semitism grows steadily; crime, prostitution and drug taking becoming rife; and the intellectual elite in psychoanalysis, physics, architecture and other disciplines flocking to the city.

What Friedrich’s book makes very clear is that there was nothing predestined about the rise of Nazism and the collapse of the Weimar Republic. It was the culmination of a complex set of contingent, relational process, not some teleological inevitability, and in Berlin the National Socialists never received more than 25 percent of the vote despite Goebbels best efforts (nor more than 44 percent nationally). Criminals have always found a route to political power. Usually it is through some kind of coup. Hitler tried this in the earlier 1920s and failed. Where he succeeded was through the democratic process. Ultimately ordinary, innocent people voted criminal minds into office thus ensuring the end of democracy and the descent into megalomaniacal nationalism. What that has tended to do is blind us to the fact that Germany was a cauldron of competing ideologies through the whole period of the Third Reich – we fall into the trap of seeing Germans at that time as a monolithic nation of fanatical fascists. And that’s what is so refreshing about Philip Kerr’s novels - Gunther is an anti-Nazi cop trying to get by in a corrupt regime.

If you want to get a sense of Germany in the 1920s and the path to fascist power, then Friedrich’s book is a great place to start.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Rethinking Maps

A copy of my new book, Rethinking Maps, edited with Martin Dodge and Chris Perkins both at the University of Manchester also turned up in the post this week. The book examines the diverse ways in which maps are now produced given new technologies (including GIS, Sat-Nav, LBS, GPS, remote sensing, Web 2.0 applications), and new ways of thinking about the ontological and epistemological bases of cartography.

Traditionally maps are conceived as portraying the truth of spatial relations of the world. In the book, the contributors consider maps as social constructs, as inscriptions, as proscriptions, as actants, as practices (there are no maps only mappings), seeking to re-imagine the theoretical underpinnings of cartography and how it is philosophically constituted. Page proofs of the opening chapter are available here.

At 80 GBP it’s an absolute bargain! We’re now working on a collection for Wiley – The Map Reader - that will bring together some of the most influential articles concerning how to think about maps published over the 70 or 80 years.

(To paraphrase Rene Magritte) Ceci n'est pas une carte - This is not a map. Discuss ...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Review of The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth by Malcolm Pryce, published by Bloomsbury (2005)

If you like your noir, dark, comic and slightly surreal then Malcolm Pryce’s novels are for you. The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth is the third of the set. I picked it up in Enniskillen at the weekend and promptly shuffled it to the top of the ‘to read’ pile. I’ve now read three of the books (the other two being Aberystwyth Mon Amour and Don't Cry for Me Aberystwyth). Some how I’ve managed to skip book two - Last Tango in Aberystwyth.

There was a stretched Austin Montego parked outside with blacked-out windows. I stood and admired and the rear window wound down in awkward jerks as someone inside struggled with a stiff handle.
‘It’s more impressive when they’re electric,’ I said.

A man in a Swansea suit and aviator shades stared ahead and spoke to me out the corner of his mouth.
‘Fancy a ride, peeper?’


‘Just a little ride and a chat, I’ve got a message from Ll.’

‘From who?’

‘Sorry, I don’t understand.’
The stooge turned to face me. ‘It’s his initial, like “M” or “Q”, the boss right?’

‘That’s not an initial, it’s two letters.’

‘Not in Welsh. It counts as one.’

‘It doesn’t, it’s a phoneme, it’s two.’

‘Just get in for fuck’s sake.’

Private Detective Louie Knight is once again down on his luck and he and his junior partner, Calamity Jane, are having to move office to a more seedy part of town. The only cases on offer are that of Gabriel Bassett, an organ grinder, and his monkey, Cleopatra. Bassett wants a murder case from 1849 investigated, Cleopatra to find her missing son, Mr Bojangles. Knight puts Calamity Jane on the case so that she can obtain her detective’s badge and heads out for a day trip with the woman he loves, nightclub singer Myfanwy, who has regressed into a semi-comatose state at the hands of obsessive and deranged scientist, Brainiocs. A drugged ice cream later and Knight awakens to find Myfanwy gone, seemingly kidnapped. In his efforts to find her he is dragged into the mad plot of gangster Frankie Mephisto and the weird world of Sister Cunegonde and her waifrey.

The Unbearable Lightness is a well crafted book and an enjoyable read. Pryce’s alternative universe – Aberystwyth in geography, but socially kicked left out of kilter and filtered back through a noir and a nationalist parody – is fully worked through and engaging. The book is well plotted and paced, and it is clear time has been spent making sure the atmosphere is suitably noir, the similes are inventive, and the text lyrical. The story itself is meanders along a complex path and the twists are not telegraphed, which made a nice change to some crime fiction I’ve read recently. Like Jasper Fforde, Pryce’s books are nicely intertextual. In particular, I liked the Rimbaud character in this book (although he was underplayed in the plot). Rimbaud is a veteran of the Patagonia campaign – a doomed 1960s war in which the Welsh try to protect their diaspora brethren in Argentina – hassled unjustly by a bigoted local cop, he escapes into the local forestry commission land using his military skills to torment his pursuers. Indeed, the books are nicely intellectual without being pretentious.

I really like Pryce’s work but for some strange reason I’m not in a mad rush to go out and buy books two and five. I know that when I do come across them though I will purchase them and they will bypass the queue to the top of the pile and I'll spend a few hours enjoying myself in an oddly Welsh world.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The monster arrives ...

For the past five years I’ve been working as co-editor-in-chief with Nigel Thrift on the International Encyclopedia of Human Geography. It was officially published yesterday, though I don’t yet have a copy (all I have is this photo!). It has been a mammoth task involving a team of 20 editors, 844 contributors from more than 40 countries, producing 914 entries that together total approximately 5 million words published over 7762 pages in 12 volumes! It covers the broad remit of human geography including cartography and GIS, development geography, economic geography, health and medical geography, historical geography, metaconcepts, methods, nature and environment, key disciplinary figures, philosophy and geography, political geography, population geography, regional development, rural geography, social and cultural geography, transport geography, urban geography. If you're interested in buying a copy or subscription it's the bargain price of USD 3,400, GBP 1,840, EUR 2,320!

It has been an interesting journey to publication, from initial planning meetings, to working with authors and editors, responding to thousands of emails, editing manuscripts, proof reading, and countless other tasks, with the added spice of a small but vociferous campaign against its production mid-task due to a subsidiary company of the publisher’s parent company organising a defence exhibition (which the company disinvested from under pressure, not least from us as editors). The official launch is Manchester at the end of August at the Royal Geographical Society annual conference. It’ll be good to push it off into the world and hopefully not have to think about too much for a while!

The foreword written by Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and United Nations Human Rights Commissioner. For those interested, here’s what she said.

We should reflect more on the increasingly interconnected and interdependent world we live in. Places that a century ago would have taken months to reach by boat can be reached in hours on a plane and at a price affordable to many more people. Changes in financial markets on one side of the globe instantly ricochet around the planet. Decisions taken in one country or at a supra-national scale affect jobs and well-being in another. This is the world we have inherited sixty years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reminds us of the work still needed to implement those shared values.

For while the Earth seems to be getting smaller in space and time, the relative differences between places are often growing apace. The situation in many developing countries is currently regressing with falling life expectancy, rising national debts, and weakening economies. In the developed North there continue to be large differences in the standards of living between rich and poor, core and periphery, rural and urban areas. Consequently, the mobility of people is increasing around the globe with millions of labour migrants and refugees on the move, seeking better lives elsewhere. In addition, humanity is beginning to recognise and address the significant global challenge of climate change which is in part created by the processes of development and globalisation, but will require to be addressed with principles of climate justice.

The International Encyclopedia of Human Geography documents and explains all of these issues, and many more besides. Focused through the spatial lens of a modern geography sensitive to how social, economic, political, cultural or environmental processes work within and between places, the entries cover the full spectrum of issues facing humanity today across the planet. Together the essays provide a fascinating overview of the diverse, complex and sometimes paradoxical relationships between people, places and environments, written in a style accessible to students and interested parties. As well, the vast array of methodologies and theories employed by geographers and others is documented, to make sense of the developments now occurring. Indeed, in the very fact that it contains 914 essays, written by 844 contributors from over 40 countries, it is itself a product of the way in which the geography of communication and cooperation has rapidly evolved in recent years!

The challenges facing all of us, whether they concern the present global economic downturn, survival in a country at war, managing environmental change, and a host of other pressing issues, require a broad and deep knowledge of the fundamental processes shaping our future. The International Encyclopedia of Human Geography provides a comprehensive overview of that knowledge and points to the tools needed to build planetary citizenship and to think through a more ethical version of globalisation. I hope that it will be used extensively by present and future generations so that, as the planet seemingly shrinks in size, so the problems we face and the differences between us shrink too.

The other editors – who all did a fantastic job – were:

Senior editors
Noel Castree, University of Manchester, UK
Mike Crang, University of Durham, UK
Mona Domosh, Dartmouth University, USA

Section editors
Kay Anderson, University of Western Sydney, Australia
Paul Cloke, University of Exeter, UK
Jeremy Crampton, Georgia State University, USA
Brian Graham, University of Ulster, N. Ireland
Costis Hadjimichalis, Harokopio University, Greece
Phil Hubbard, Loughborough University, UK
Robin Kearns, University of Auckland, New Zealand
Mei-Po Kwan, Ohio State University, USA
Sara McLafferty, University of Illinois Urbana, USA
Loretta Lees, King’s College London, UK
Anssi Passi, University of Oulu, Finland
Chris Philo, University of Glasgow, UK
James Sidaway, University of Plymouth, UK
Katie Willis; Royal Holloway, UK
Henry Yeung, National University of Singapore

I'd like to thank everyone involved in the project - editors, authors, and the folks at Elsevier - for all their hard work in bringing the encyclopedia to fruition. I'd especially like to thank my fellow editors who all made enormous contributions well beyond the call of duty to work with authors to ensure we produced a quality product; the NIRSA PhD students and postdocs who helped me with the huge job of proofing; and also Richard Berryman at Elsevier who for the past while has been the pointman at Elsevier and, who with his colleagues, helped us drag it over the line. I believe we will now all be paid for our efforts!

Please can we leave a grace period of at least a year before anyone utters the words 'second edition'.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Review of August Heat by Andrea Camilleri, translated by Stephen Sartarelli, published by Picador (2009, in Italian in 2006)

I ordered a copy of August Heat after reading a Glenn Harper’s review posted on his International Noir blog and it was with some envy that I read about the Sicilian sun while the rain poured down outside in North West Ireland!

In the scorching heat of an August summer, Inspector Salvo Montalbano arranges for his girlfriend’s friends to stay in a villa that overlooks a secluded beach and the cooling, blue waters of the Mediterranean. When the friend’s young son – ‘a master at breaking the conjones of all creation’ – disappears, Montalbano’s hopes for a quiet summer are dashed. It transpires that what seemed like an idyllic villa has a dark past and a hidden secret and Montalbano is soon investigating the murder of a beautiful young girl and the death of an Arab labourer, jousting with the head of forensics, the prosecutor, the commissioner, and a mafia and politically connected owner of a construction company. When his girlfriend and her friends head back to the mainland, the inspector finds himself falling for the victim’s identical twin sister, a young siren more than thirty years his junior. And all the while the blazing sun makes life hot and uncomfortable.

He locked the door to his room, stripped down to his underpants, threw the papers that were on the armchair on to the floor, pulled this up next to the mini-fan, which he turned in such a way that it blew onto his chest, then sat down, hoping to survive.

It is difficult not to like an inspector that strips to his underwear or swimming trunks at every available opportunity! Easy going, sly, witty, sometimes lethargic, and happy to bend the law for the greater good, Montalbano is the urbane cop with loyal underlings and boorish or priggish equals and superiors. Written with warmth and humour, August Heat slips down easily like a fine wine. It was a great antidote to the rain lashing down outside and certainly made me pine for a bit of sun. Camilleri’s dialogue sparkles in places, his characterizations are sharp, and he manages to keep the story light and frothy and rolling along, especially in the first half of the book. Stephen Sartarelli has done an excellent job of translation, even managing to capture accents and dialect. This might have been a four star review except for the ending. The plotting is well paced, but then speeds up at the end to just stop at the closing climax leaving a couple of loose ends, which I won’t detail to avoid spoilers. After some nice work getting there it did feel like a bit of a let down. Regardless of the ending, I enjoyed August Heat and I’ll keep an eye out for others from earlier in the series many of which I’m told do deserve a four star rating.

Other reviews can be found at:
Random Jottings ...
International noir
Crime Scraps

Monday, July 20, 2009

I don’t remember …

I've been reworking a paper I co-authored a couple of years ago into section for a book. Essentially the argument that we’re forwarding is that an era of pervasive computing, in which data about our lives is collected and stored across our life time, needs to be accompanied by an ethics of forgetting. I won’t rehearse the argument here as the paper is online as a working paper and as a published paper, but I thought it was worth listing out the six forms of forgetting that Schacter (2001) identifies as they all make an appearance in crime fiction and I can imagine trying to put together a story that weaves them in and out of each other.

1. Transience (the loss of memory over time)
2. absent-mindedness (the loss of memory due to distractedness at the time the memory relates to)
3. blocking (the temporary inability to remember – ‘it’s on the tip of my tongue’).

4. misattribution (assigning a memory to the wrong source)
5. suggestibility (memories that are implanted either by accident or surreptitiously)
6. bias (the unknowing or unconscious editing or rewriting of experiences).

Schacter notes one other problem with memory – persistence, the recalling of events that would rather be forgotten.

Of course, forgetting should not always been seen in a negative light. As Nietzsche suggests, forgetting will save humans from history, because ‘forgetting turns out to be more benefit than bereavement, a mercy rather than malady … for no individual or collectivity can afford to remember everything’ (Lowenthal, 1999, xi). Forgetting allows people to be fallible, to evolve their social identities, to live with their conscience, to deal with ‘their demons’, to move on from their past and build new lives, to reconcile their own paradoxes and contradictions, and to be part of society. Forgetting enables forgiveness.

If anyone has any good recommendations for some crime fiction that explore various kinds of forgetting – beyond using them as simple plot devices - I’d be grateful to receive them.

Lowenthal D, 1999, “Preface” in Forty A, Küchler S, (eds) The Art of Forgetting (Berg, Oxford) xi - xiii
Schacter D L, 2001 The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Review of Dark Times in the City by Gene Kerrigan published by Harvill Secker (2009)

I’ve read two of Gene Kerrigan’s non-fiction books – Hard Cases: True Stories of Irish Crime and This Great Little Nation: An A-Z of Irish Scandals – and one of his previous novels, The Midnight Choir. I thought latter was a good read and had a great twist, so adding Dark Times in the City to the ‘to read’ pile was an easy choice. I picked it up in Murder Ink in Dublin.

‘I want something – I get it. That’s the way it works. We’re not equals. I say what happens.’ He leaned down, his face close enough so he could smell the fear from Finnegan. ‘I don’t have to make an effort.’ He pursed his lips, made like he was blowing out a candle. ‘Like that, you’re gone. Ten minutes later, I’ve forgotten your name. You’re not even a dead body, you’re just a missing person and your family doesn’t even have a grave to put flowers on.’

In Dark Times in the City Kerrigan gives as a good a portrayal of the relations between the new, vicious and ambitious gangsters and the older generation of Dublin’s underworld, and the ordinary folk caught in cross-fire, as any media investigative report (perhaps not unsurprisingly given he’s a highly experienced reporter). Anybody familiar with Dublin will know there have been on-going feuds between criminal gangs and tit-for-tat killings for a number of years. On Friday another gang member was shot dead at four o’clock in the afternoon in Ballyfermot, despite wearing a bullet proof vest. Kerrigan draws out what motivates the gang leaders, how they operate and the tactics they use to run their operations, and how they exert power over the innocent people living in their principle haunts, forcing them to submit to the gangster’s demands in the knowledge that going to the police will have dire consequences for them and their family and friends.

The novel’s principal character is Danny Callaghan whose has spent eight years in prison for manslaughter when he stepped into help three lads taking a beating. Eight months on the outside and repeats the mistake, intervening when two gunmen walk into a pub looking to kill petty criminal, Walter Bennett - for a short time Callaghan’s cell mate. Unsurprisingly the assassins are not happy at Callaghan’s intervention and coerce him into fulfilling Walter’s role in a struggle for territory and control between two criminal gangs, threatening him with the death of his ex-wife and her new husband if he doesn’t perform as instructed. Aided by his friend and mentor, Novak, Callaghan tries to keep himself and those that matter to him most alive as his life spirals out of control.

The writing is taut, using short half page to two page scenes to drive the narrative along. The prologue is good, but then I struggled to get into the story for the first 15 pages or so. After that the pages kept turning. The reason I think I had trouble with the opening was revealed in part three of the book which jumps back in time to provide the back story as to why Walter Bennett was the target of an assassination. Personally, I think the book would have worked a little better if it had started with this section. I don’t think it would have mattered if the reader wasn’t introduced to Callaghan until 40 or 50 pages in as the back story grabs immediately. Kerrigan is good at writing about the police and I would have also preferred to have had more scenes involving them, particularly Bob Tidey, who looked like he was going to develop into a great character and then all but disappears. Similarly there is a sub-plot with Oliver, Callaghan’s neighbour, that wasn't as fully developed as it could have been. These though are just personal plotting preferences and the book does work as is.

Dark Times in the City was an enjoyable read, though for my money not quite as good as The Midnight Choir (). I’ll be keeping my eye out for the next offering and in the meantime I’ll keep a look out for Kerrigan’s first novel, Little Criminals.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Review ratings

I've been thinking a bit about something that Garbhan Downey said on Ger Brennan's Crime Scene NI blog earlier in the week about writing reviews. To repeat the relevant bit (click here for full text):

'As a former reviewer, I understand entirely the reluctance to tell the reader when a book stinks.

Writers in particular tend to be sympathetic to other writers. You know the hellish amount of work that goes into a) scripting and re-scripting a 70,000 novel, and then b) getting the shagging thing published. And you don’t want to disrespect anyone who’s got that far.

Plus of course, if you do have a slap, you’re worried about being seen as jealous (big one for published writers this); or you’re worried that you’re actually being jealous and are being unfair (big one for conscientious published writers); or, most importantly of all, you don’t want to get sued. (Stop for a minute and think, when was the last time you saw the line “This book is pure shite” in any review?)

Yes, the central problem with being a reviewer, as I discovered in a past life, is that for all these reasons, you wake up one morning and find you’re praising bad books; books you don’t like and books your readers aren’t going to like either.

But as an author you know exactly how much bad reviews sting, discourage and disillusion. So you can’t do that either.

That’s why sites like this one, Peter’s and Dec’s are vital for the industry. They serve, for me at least, as the last remaining quality control on crime books. They assess, fairly, new work and old. They report, encourage, inform and, where necessary, judge. They have teeth – but they also have the authority of their impartiality.'

There's a lot to live up to here, but also some very good advice about providing an honest review of a book that unambiguously sets out what I think about its merits and gives a clear indication of how I rate it vis-a-vis others. The review itself will help but, given I'm right at the start of this blog and only have two reviews written so far, I've decided to introduce a basic rating system to provide an overall verdict. This is as follows:

Outstanding. Get me the full back catalogue ASAP!

Quality stuff. Will be tracking down books by the same author and recommending to friends

Enjoyed and would read other books by the same author

Passable, but in no rush to read the author's other works

Struggled with this and in no hurry to repeat the experience.

no stars - How did this get published?

There will be very few 5 star reviews as I'll be holding this back for books that truly blew me away and probably very few one star reviews as its unlikely the book got as far as the check-out till or I won't have got past the first few pages. We'll see how it goes and hopefully it'll provide a useful verdict.

Friday, July 17, 2009

We're all prosumers now ...

We’re all prosumers now and blogs are a form of what some are calling prosumption – we help produce what we consume …

My plan for most of the summer is to try and complete a book for MIT Press I’m co-writing with Martin Dodge entitled, ‘Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life.’ The book is basically complete bar the final chapte
r and quite a bit of editing and polishing. For the past week I’ve been trying to get a working, full draft of a chapter concerning how software is changing the nature of consumption and trying to think through and devise a taxonomy of different forms of prosumption. Prosumption is the idea that rather than simply purchase or consume a product, we take a more active role in how a product is delivered and consumed. Below is what I’ve written so far followed by some very brief comments relating to the prosumption of fiction.

Consumers have long been active participants in the production of the services or goods they are consuming – such as self-service in a restaurant or at a petrol pump or as members of an audience or sports event. Such participation has led to the notion of prosumption - that customers prosume rather than simply consume a service (Andrejevic 2007, Ritzer 2007) – they fulfil a vital role or add crucial value in the delivery of a service for which they are paying. In the main, prosumers do this additional work for little or no recompense, either getting enjoyment from the task, or a sense of empowerment, or they save money/time as the cost of the service is reduced and often becomes more flexible in nature (such as checking in to a flight from home). As such, a complex set of factors shape prosumption including ‘choice, coercion, enjoyment, false consciousness, manipulation’ (Ritzer, no date: 27). In return the service provider or retailer receives labour, talent, expertise, opinions, and gains efficiencies and valuable information (Ritzer, no date).

Code has deepened and diversified participation by enabling people to interactive with, customize, and accessorize ever more media and products; to move from being a consumer to a prosumer. The nature and level of contribution to the production of goods, media and services consumed by active participants variously enormously from simple feedback that shapes present and future outcomes to the highly involved production of key resources such as the supply of code to open-source projects. As such, for us, prosumption needs to be unpacked to think through the ways in which software re-shapes the relationship between patrons and what they prosume. Code enables at least six forms of prosumption: feedback, customization, content, architectural, market, and self-service.

Feedback consists of prosumers actively contributing information to producers that then helps shape the product being prosumed. For example, voting on reality television programmes actively shapes which contestants stay in the competition and which ones leave, and ultimately who will win. Such a process provides highly detailed information to producers as to which act(s) will succeed in the marketplace, especially since the voters have already invested capital, time and emotional energy into shaping the product. Feedback used to be largely limited to studio audiences, but automated phone services, texting and online voting now allow feedback from any viewer. As a result, huge numbers of votes can be cast. For example, over sixty five million people voted in the final of American Idol, series 3 (580 million over the series).

Customization allows prosumers to actively shape and configure the product they are buying selecting specification, components, colours, materials and so on. In other words, the product is not simply bought off the shelf but is tailored to meet the needs of prosumer. Such services have long been available, such as tailored clothes, but only to those with the wealth to be able to afford it. Now customization is available to cheap, mass produced goods such as running shoes and computers and peripherals, and can be selected at a distance and previewed through online ordering. For example, the Dell laptop used to write this sentence was custom built to the specifications chosen by one of us rather than simply designed and supplied by Dell.

Content prosumption refers to users actively supplying the substantive material for the service they are prosuming. For example, prosumers of social networking sites, such as Facebook or blogs, actively contribute material about themselves and their lives and or write comments in relation to other people or provide remixed content (such as new mixes of songs). Content is not supplied by service provider itself; their contribution is the infrastructure that enables prosumption. Similarly, information sites such as Wikipedia are both passively consumed (e.g. an individual reading an entry) and actively prosumed (e.g. adding, editing and updating entries). Commercial or proprietary sites also enable prosumption such as the adding of reviews to products on or submitting videos, photos, stories to news and entertainment websites. Such is the utility of user-generated content that companies now often run competitions for advert and product ideas taking advantage of free creativity and labour.

Architectural prosumption concerns the active contribution of prosumers to informational architecture that supports an activity or service. The mostly widely practised example is that of open source programming where scores of programmers work collectively to produce a software product that they themselves use. Linux, for example, is collectively produced by volunteer contributors who then use the operating system they have added to. Other examples include mash-ups that enable different capta to be spliced together to create new applications.

Market prosumption relates to the creation of online marketplaces to buy and sell goods. The goods on sale and their details are supplied by the users of the site. For example, ebay and craigslist enables people to sell a product and others to bid on the sale; to take an active part in the marketplace. In other words, the process is interactive with respect to selling and buying.

Self-service prosumption refers to the increasing use of self-service kiosks and online processes that enable a person to access goods or services autonomously. Here, individuals do the labour that was formerly done by others. For example, using an ATM machine to withdraw money rather than using a clerk in a bank, or buying a train ticket using a self-service kiosk rather than from a ticket agent, or using a self-service check-out rather one that is staffed. This transfer saves the supplier significant staffing costs, for example, a grocery store generally aims for one cashier to oversee four self-service registers, thus reducing staffing need by 75 percent whilst serving the same number of purchasers (Dean 2008). In some cases, such as checking oneself onto a flight either online or at a self-service kiosk, failure to act as a prosumer can lead to punitive penalties – for example, failure to self check-in online with RyanAir, Europe’s largest carrier, results in a €40 additional fee.

These six forms of prosumption are significantly altering the relations between producer and consumer, leading to efficiencies and savings for producers and empowering (or encumbering) consumers. Over time, these forms of prosumption – and one assumes new forms as new technologies and innovations are rolled out – will be become increasingly common. That is not to say, however, that such a rollout will be a simple process. As Walker and Johnson (2006, cited in Dean 2008) note, there are several factors that influence the extent to which people are prepared to become prosumers including:

  • personal capacity (ability and self-belief that they can use the prosumption technology successfully);
  • perceived risk (extent to which a user believes the technology is reliable and personal information is secure);
  • relative advantage (extent to which prosumption is believed to be more convenient, faster, efficient, and productive than the traditional mode of consumption); and
  • preference for personal contact (the degree to which the consumer prefers human interaction over interaction with technology).

As Dean (2008: 228) reports, these factors in turn are affected by a person’s:

  • optimism (the belief that technology offers increased control, flexibility and efficiency in daily life),
  • innovativeness (the degree to which the consumer is a pioneer and thought leader),
  • discomfort (perceiving a lack of control over technology); and
  • insecurity (a distrust of technology and skepticism of its ability to work properly).

What this means is that people will vary in the extent to which they embrace the practices of prosumption, and that any company who adopts such a model of delivery will inevitably be circumscribing its market until unsure and sceptical consumers become convinced of its merits (or they are forced to do so by the company offering no alternatives) or gain access to suitable technology such as a home PC. In both cases, age and class are important factors given their relationship to educational competence and likelihood of convenient access. In other words, prosumption will be subject to the same digital divides that have dogged internet adoption and usage.

Anyway, I’m sure that text will mutate a little with some further reflection and editing, but the concept seems to have some utility. I’ve no idea at the minute how the notion of prosumption will pan out with respect to publishing beyond readers being able to post reviews on retail website such as Amazon, or take part in online forums about books, or write comments in relation to blogs like this, but it’ll be interesting to see the ways and extent to which readers move from being consumers to prosumers of books.

Andrejevic, M. (2007). iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas

Dean, D.H. (2008) Shopper age and the use of self-service technologies. Managing Service Quality, 18(3): 225-238

Ritzer, G. (no date) Production, Consumption … Prosumption?

Walker, R.H. and Johnson, L.W. (2006), “Why consumers use and do not use technology-enabled services”, Journal of Services Marketing 20(2): 125-35.