Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Sebastian Rotella

Sebastian Rotella is the author of Triple Crossing, which the New York Times Book Review named its favorite debut crime novel and action thriller of 2011, and the nonfiction book Twilight on the Line. He is a senior reporter for ProPublica, a newsroom dedicated to investigative journalism in the public interest.

His new novel is The Convert's Song.

Last week I asked the author about what he was reading. Rotella's reply:
I alternate among English-language and foreign authors. I try to maintain the foreign languages I speak by reading in the original, even if it induces a headache. There’s a lot of treacherous translation out there. Here are some recent travels in fiction.

A while back I was invited to Festival America, a wonderful literary event in Vincennes outside Paris. I picked up a French book called Arab Jazz, by Karim Miske. It’s a crime novel that takes place in a neighborhood of northeast Paris I know from my work as a foreign correspondent. Fascinating turf: a mix of yuppies, bohemians and immigrants, tough housing projects and hip cafes. In the book, a wild-eyed crew of Islamic extremists, Orthodox Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses get tangled up in a ritualistic murder, police corruption and the trafficking of a designer super-drug. The main protagonist is a troubled young Moroccan immigrant who reads crime novels all day. I enjoyed Miske’s command of sub-cultures and slang. This subject matter, the new France-in-the-making, is more interesting to me than truffles and quaint villages and whatnot.

Then I read The Drop, by Dennis Lehane. It’s now my favorite Lehane, surpassing Shutter Island on my list. I thought this novel was particularly tight and focused. It has a beautifully constructed sense of place: the lonely protagonist wanders his bedraggled Boston neighborhood. He works at its mafia-connected bar. He prays at its empty church. The landscape swirls with ghosts and secrets; you know they are going to rise up and engulf everybody. I need to see the movie; the late great Jim Gandolfini seems perfect for this.

My wife and I like to read short stories aloud in Spanish. We just read Cuento Para Tahures y otros Relatos Policiales (Gambler’s Tale and Other Police Stories) by Rodolfo Walsh. He was a politically-engaged Argentine author and investigative journalist. He died young at the hands of the military dictatorship in the 1970s. When a death squad tried to “disappear” him, he pulled a gun and went down shooting. This book’s recurring hero is a burly, weary detective captain named Comisario Laurenzi. In some of the stories, he sits in a cafe and reminisces. In others, he works cases accompanied by a police reporter. The prose is spare and honed; every word counts. The tone is hard-boiled, compassionate and funny. The locales vary from tenements in Buenos Aires to dusty provincial towns. These stories are gems.

I must confess to a guilty pleasure: the Jeeves series by P.G. Wodehouse. My daughter just gave me Thank You, Jeeves to add to my collection. The world of upper-class British fops of the 1930s and ‘40s is far from my life experience and what I write about. But that’s what I like: it is pure escapism. It makes me laugh out loud. The strength resides largely in the voice. Bertie Wooster’s narration is like a virtuoso musical performance: the goofy obtuse nonchalance, the half-remembered literary quotes, the idle days dedicated to avoiding aunts, nursing hangovers, frequenting the Drones Club. Thank You, Jeeves is about how Wooster moves to a country cottage, and Jeeves quits over Wooster’s incessant banjo playing, and Wooster’s ex-fiancee wants to marry his old chum from school days…the usual silliness. My favorite part is when the new butler gets drunk and chases Wooster around with a knife saying he wants to ascertain the color of his insides.

I recently did a two-man panel with Michael Connelly at the Bouchercon mystery writers convention. We reminisced about our reporter days at the Los Angeles Times and talked books and writing. Mike, who is the hardest working man in show business, just published his 19th Harry Bosch novel, The Burning Room. It gave me another chance to appreciate what a craftsman Mike is. The construction is precise and the momentum is relentless. The plot weaves together two investigations. This is a nice realistic touch, because only fictional cops get unlimited time and resources to work a lone case. Yet it’s presented in a way that the reader can keep track of everything all the way through. The Burning Room has a wistful quality. It shows Bosch—driven and talented and morose as ever--nearing the end of his LAPD career. A new young detective character, Lucia Soto, adds to the sense of a torch being passed.
Learn more about The Convert's Song at the Mulholland Books website.

--Marshal Zeringue