Friday, March 13, 2020

Peter Rozovsky on Scott Phillips

It may not seem kosher to cite an author's personal inscription to a fan when discussing the author's book, but here's how Scott Phillips signed my copy of his 2010 novel The Adjustment:

"To Peter `Fuck Peter Rozovsky' Rozovsky — the real father of NOIR@ the BAR
from your pal,
Scott Phillips"

The profanity is an allusion to the equally earthy thanks Phillips and Jedidiah Ayres sent my way in their first Noir at the Bar anthology, and the repetition of the names is typical Phillips: He writes things funny rather than merely writing funny things. And that's why The Adjustment, an increasingly dark tale of a Wichita man's involvement in addiction, infidelity, blackmail and killing, is laugh-out-loud funny even when the action is not particularly so:

"`Shut your noisemaker,' Red said. `You don't determine what gets discussed.' He gestured to her. `Wayne, this here's my wife, Betty.'"

Sorry, but I horselaughed when I read that, just as I did at:

"I had made a nice illicit bundle off of Uncle Sam. In the little safe in the basement that contained among other things my discharge papers and my Purple Heart — probably the only one ever awarded for getting stabbed by a rival pimp — was a whole lot of illicit cash I'd managed to smuggle back from Europe."

Telling jokes is relatively easy, but only the best crime writers can make a reader laugh in the middle of serious action, and to do so without letting on that the narrator or the author know they are being funny. Jim Thompson did it in Pop. 1280. Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) did it whenever he had Parker say, "Shut up, Grofield." And Scott Phillips is up there with those guys.

..............................Out of the Past...........................

Phillips' novels Cottonwood and Hop Alley take farmer/salonkeeper/photographer Bill Ogden through Kansas, Nebraska, and into Denver in the 1870s, and Hop Alley's final chapter suggests that a sojourn in San Francisco is not out of the question:

"And what would you say is the worst part of [California], Mister? South or north?"

"I'll tell you, I've never encountered a worse or baser bunch than those in San Francisco. Debauchery and vice, and all in the name of mammon. It was gold that cursed that town, sir, and the more gold they brought up from the ground, the more Satan smiled."

"I nodded and thanked him ... and as I boarded the train I found the idea growing in me: William Sadlaw, Photographic Gallery, San Francisco, Cal., Sittings by Appointment Only."

That's where the great historian of California, Kevin Starr, comes in. Phillips writes fiction so rich and detailed that it could be history; Starr writes histories of California so vivid that they could be fiction, and he singles out San Francisco for its blend of frontier lawlessness and the hastily imported cosmopolitan sophistication of an Atlantic trading port. It's the perfect destination for Ogden (who here calls himself Bill Sadlaw, in an effort to escape the law's attention).

Phillips' version of the American West is richer, bawdier, and funnier than most, but there's no hint of the self-congratulatory alternative about it. Phillips simply has a breathtaking sense of the possibilities open to a young man on the run, plunked down amid wide-open spaces and credulous populations. There's even a whodunit at the heart of Hop Alley:

Ogden/Sadlaw knows the real killer of a pressman for the local newspaper (It wasn't the Chinese residents of Hop Alley, attacked by angry mobs.) He saves an innocent victim from lynching, but he moves on rather than going to the law and trying to set things right. Hop Alley is no conventional crime novel, after all, but if you're looking for a richly detailed picaresque crime Western of America, you won't go wrong with Scott Phillips.

Scott Phillips' latest novel That Left Turn at Albuquerque is available now from Soho Books. Grab a copy at your favorite local bookstore through Indie Bound or from

Subterranean Books (they'll have signed editions)

Barnes & Noble


Peter Rozovsky writes about international crime fiction at Detectives Beyond Borders, and is an editor/proofreader for hire. He is patient zero of the Noir at the Bar virus. Fuck Peter Rozovsky.


Peter "Fuck Peter Rozovsky" Rozovsky said...

I'm not swearing at Jed for the rest of the month, but just wait until April 1.

Thanks for asking me to be part of this.

jedidiah ayres said...

can't wait.

thanks, man