Monday, 18 May 2015

DENNIS LEHANE'S WORLD GONE BY

When we left Joe Coughlin at the end of Live By Night, he'd worked his way up to the top of Tampa's gangland, but lost his beloved wife Graciela in a shootout. He seemed ready to take his son and head for a quieter life in Cuba. But when World Gone By opens World War II is on, and Joe is of almost respectability in Tampa society, removed from the day-to-day of the gangster life while acting as the consigliore to the family headed by his old friend Dion Bartolo. But life will not stay quiet.

The war has taken many of the best soldiers who did the mobsters business, and a sort of chaos is brewing, sparked, Joe and Dion think, by an informer within their organisation. Joe's private life is about to get complicated; he's carrying on a dangerous affair, and he's informed, by a hit woman looking to stay safe in prison, that there is a contract out on him. But who would want to kill Joe Coughlin, whom everyone respects and nobody seems to hate? And he's started seeing a ghost.


You may recall Coughlin as a young boy, in The Given Day, where his father was a bigshot in the Boston police and his older brother was working his way up the blue ladder. But none of that was for Joe, and what Dennis Lehane's novel is about is the lure of the gangster life, Joe's inability to leave it behind, and the impossibility of squaring its twisted morality with that of the 'straight' world. 'Our thing' may swear by family, but as Joe knows all too well, his read family has paid a huge price to the other family whose life he so enjoys.

On the one hand, this is a fast-moving thriller. Who is trying to destroy the Bartolo-Coughlin good thing? Who wants Joe dead? And as Joe moves between a series of bad and worse men, you see the crack widening between his personal world outside the business and the business itself. And then slamming together very tightly. Within the pace of the plotting, some of this is Lehane's best writing: any number of chapters could literally stand alone as short stories (see 'Bone Valley' or 'Names On The Wind' as examples), and the punch line of 'Names On The Wind', in which a black gangster kills the man sent to kill him, who has just that day become a father, is telling: 'Who knows if you would have been any good at it?'.

It's like riding a car, which is under control, but just barely, because the driver knows what he is doing, but you know you are headed for a crash. In the end, it's as if Lehane himself is as much in love with the gangster life as Joe Coughlin is, only he's detached enough to see a bigger picture, a picture which includes ghosts. It is a marvellous feat to be able to write a sequel that at first seems to be a lesser version of its predecessor, and then turns out to be both simpler but more profound.

World Gone By by Dennis Lehane
Little,Brown £16.99 ISBN 9781408706695

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Friday, 15 May 2015

TODAY I HAVE THE BLUES: RIP BB KING (BLUES ALL AROUND HIM, THE FT REVIEW)

B.B. King's death was expected, the papers were ready, but the outpouring of both respect for his artistry and importance in music and admiration for the man as well as the artist was well night universal. It reminded me that sometime shortly after I left university, I went back to Wesleyan to catch a King concert. Because I was for some reason well-regarded by one of my ex-professors, I was invited to sit in the next morning as B.B. gave a lecture to advanced music students. Bluesmen, like athletes, have far too often been described as 'natural talents', King was showing how much hard work and study went into his success. I was already a fan, of course, now King had elevated himself further in my personal pantheon. Many years later I wrote the following review of King's autobiography for the Financial Times; it appeared in the 28/29  December 1996 Weekend section pretty much as written, but with the line about King's resentment of his treatment while in the Army excised, for reasons I have never understood. The title was their subs' creation; the reference to Babe the pig dates it somewhat.

HAPPY SINGING THE BLUES

B.B. King's signature tune is "Every Day I Have The Blues", but reading this good-natured biography it's sometimes hard to believe that's true. Despite taking more than twenty years to reach a mass audience, King has always been the most accessible of bluesmen, visibly trying to please his audience. As a ghost-writer's subject that attitude hasn't changed. His story's told as a form of seduction, of love-making, and love appears to be the key to King's life. 

      According to his recollections, B. was six years old when he began making love with his seven-year old sweetheart. He has spread himself wide, if not thin, ever since, fathering 15 children. Although he would appear to have remained true to only one partner, his famous guitar, Lucille, he also reveals that there have been 17 Lucilles: this is like discovering that Babe the pig was really a group of pigs!

     Riley B King began life as a sharecropper: his father left his mother, only to reclaim young BB after his mother's early death. This double-abandonment produced a premature self-sufficiency in King. Apart from an eye-opening stint in the segregated US Army, where he still resents the reality that his country treated German prisoners of war better, and with more respect,  than black soldiers, King found his own work ethic, talent, and attitude rewarded by sympathetic authority figures, both black and white. This gave him the foundation which resulted in his eventual move to Memphis to make it in the music business.

      King's early blues influences were his cousin Bukka White, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Lonnie Johnson. But radio brought all kinds of music his way, and from the first his tastes were eclectic, embracing jazz and white country music and as well as the blues. His easy approach owes much to Louis Jordan, just as today's leading popular bluesman, Robert Cray, owes much to King.

      He began playing that music on the radio, disc jockeying and performing before he took off for the hard life of performing on the road. Although his music was popular from the start with black audiences, he missed the first chance to "crossover" to whites in the 60s because his mix of blues, pop, and jazz was not considered "authentic" enough. He finally was discovered by the mass white audience through the adulation of white musicians, many of whom were British. King's generosity of spirit toward white imitators of the blues like Mike Bloomfield, Bonnie Raitt, or Eric Clapton was seen by many "purists" as a sellout. Yet his gratitude is real, and his generosity of spirit is the keynote of this book.

      King was influenced by many people, and helped by many more, along the way: he acknowledges all of it. Yet it is his remarkable talent for seducing with the blues that made him a worldwide star. This leaves little time for negatives, whether they be the pain of his upbringing in a racist society, or the perils of the music business. Lots of thanks and no regrets. It's not the usual formula for a show-biz biography, and the formula should make it bland. But this is BB King. It works.

      I once sat in on a talk to a small group of music students which Dr. King (he has four honorary degrees, including one from Yale) gave, describing each of his guitar influences, while imitating their styles perfectly. He demonstrated everyone from Charlie Christian to Django Reinhardt to Wes Montgomery, and of course all the blues greats. Then King began to play his own style. A group of highly trained musicians was mesmerized. "The Thrill is Gone" was King's biggest hit. The thrill of B.B. King is never gone. 

BLUES ALL AROUND ME: B.B. KING

The Autobiography

B.B. King with David Ritz

Hodder & Stoughton, 1996, 324pp, £18.99

Thursday, 7 May 2015

WE3 BY GRANT MORRISON & FRANK QUITELY

The US Air Force is working on cybernetics, and Roseanne Berry has created a method of weaponizing domestic pets; she's turned a dog named Bandit, a cat named Tinker, and a rabbit named Pirate into a coordinated weapon with deadly abilities. But the project has moved beyond her; rats working in groups is the latest advance, and the politican behind the whole idea doesn't think he can sell turning people's pets into warriors. So WE3 are supposed to be decommisioned. But Berry has a heart, and she sets her animals free, turning them into a threat, and, away from the medication and support of the base, putting them into a situation they're unlikely to survive.

WE3 works on two levels. The more obvious is the story of animal survival, of the relationship between pets and humans, and it's not hard to see why this graphic novel was a best-seller a decade ago. It raises all the basic questions about the way humans think of and treat the animals they possess, and it appeals to the better side not only of its readers but even a few of the characters in the story.

But it's also a commentary on the callousness of our attempts to de-humanize war itself. I thought of Fred Saberhagen's Beserker series, and I thought also about our drone programs, ways of taking ourselves out of the messy business of killing for profit, power, or ideals. That raises questions about the nature of humans as pets as well.

Grant Morrison's story is, at heart, pretty simple, but it's told in a relatively challenging way by artist Frank Quitely, very much influenced by Manga. I'm tempted to say it tries to work on a non-verbal delivery as much as possible, which helps the reader identify with the nearly speechless main characters. It can be a little hard to follow, particularly in the action scenes (my 11 year old son got lost once or twice, and I had to read very carefully at times), but it is resolved deftly and with great sensitivity, whether you're a kid or adult, whether you come to it from sf novels or from children's tales about pets.

WE3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
DC Vertigo, ISBN 9781401243029, $14.99

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

A SMALL MANIFESTO FOR THE UK ELECTIONS

I actually posted this on facebook today, but I thought I should have put it here first--

Before you vote for who you think is better at running the economy, remember some points Ed Milliband ought to be making, and the media ought to recall because it wasnt that long ago. Ignore the deficit script which has dominated the election and consider:

1. Labour did not cause the collapse. Wealthy bankers and brokers caused the crash. Gordon Brown may have 'saved' both the British and US economies.
2. He did so by finding nearly a billion pounds from the 'emergency fund' that is never used to help the poorest in this society. The only protests from Tories were that he wasnt digging deeply enough.
3. Labour, to their shame, took us into illegal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have cost British taxpayers somewhere between £34 and 37 billion. This money too has come from outside the precious budget, and this time too the only howls of protest from Tories was that not enough was being (borrowed) and spent.
4. The UK has NEVER been anywhere close to financial failure like Greece, though its economy was performing worse than Spain's through most of the past Con'dEm regime. Britain controls its own currency and debt, Greece doesn't.
5. Austerity is a way of transferring more money from poor to rich, of maintaining privilege, and of cutting back on social mobility. It is an excuse, not a rational policy. Were it a rational policy, the Tories would have cut borrowing, not increased it.George Osborne borrowed more in the first 4 years of his regime than Labour had in the previous 13 (source: the communist weekly, the Spectator)

Monday, 4 May 2015

THE BRIDGE AT WHITE RIVER JUNCTION: A POEM

I wrote this poem in 1986, in Ponte di Legno, so it's pretty obvious what inspired it. That I could associate the scene in the mountains of Italy with the place where the White River joins the Connecticut River, which forms the border between White River Junction, Vermont and Lebanon, New Hampshire (nowadays it's better known as the place where I-89 intersects with I-91), says something about how I perceive my expatriate existence...it was intended for a collection I was working on called The Crossing Place; who knows maybe it will get done after all..




THE BRIDGE AT WHITE RIVER JUNCTION

The crux of
a moment

a lifetime
suspended

between

New
Hampshire
&

infinity



Saturday, 2 May 2015

CALVIN PEETE: THE TELEGRAPH OBITUARY

My obit of Calvin Peete is in the Daily Telegraph today, you can link to it here. It's a bit different to the way I wrote it. Usually, when dealing with sports, desks are worried their audience won't understand what's being talked about, but golf, particularly for Telegraph readers, was something I'd thought immune to that. So there was a bit of the technical stuff about golf, and even about the Ryder Cup, which was lost. And interestingly, the idea of a high school equivalency diploma was something of which they'd never conceived.

What was lost was my second paragraph, going into more detail about how Peete was the final bit of the bridge of the post-war struggle for black golfers to compete with whites on the PGA tour. It was lost for space reasons, and here is what I wrote:

Peete also stands as the final link uniting Woods, who joined the PGA tour in 1996, and the half-century of struggle for racial equality in the sport. Competitors in PGA events were, by rule, exclusively Caucasian. When Bill Spiller was barred from an event in California, he and Ted Rhodes, the 1948 US Open winner generally regarded as the first full-time black professional, sued the Association, arguing the denial of work on racial grounds violated the US constitution. The golfers settled out of court, but a verbal promise from PGA president Horton Smith to lift the colour bar was ignored. Not until 1961, under threat from California and other state governments to bar the PGA from public courses, did Charlie Sifford became the first black player on the tour; it was Sifford who taught Tiger Woods' father Earl to play. Pete Brown was the first black man to win a tournament in 1964 but not until 1975 would Lee Elder break the segregation of the Masters; Elder actually played in apartheid South Africa's PGA Championship, invited by Gary Player, four years before he stepped on the course at Augusta.


Peete grew up unaware of this history.

Peete didn't encounter the blatant discrimination even his immediate forebears like Elder did (having to change in car parks rather than clubhouses at some tournaments) but that didn't mean he was fully accepted the way Woods was. But the concentration on Augusta and the Masters was indeed the Telegraph's preference, and part of the description is theirs (the 'genteel racism' is mine).

But Peete's story is really two parallel arcs: the personal struggle and the golfing struggle. There's a movie in that, which might encapsulate some of the changes in American society. And one thing I wanted to mention, but couldn't think of a serious way to do it, was just how perfectly 70s Calvin Peete, and his kangols, always looked on the course. 

Thursday, 30 April 2015

LAWRENCE PHILLIPS AND ME: MY NFLUK COLUMN

Even if you're not an American football fan, the story of Lawrence Phillips, who's recently been accused of murdering his cellmate in prison, is a sad one. My experience with Lawrence, and a preview of the NFL Draft which takes place today, are in my Friday Monthly Tight End column at nfluk.com; you can find it here.

ON THE CLOCK: REACHING FOR A DRAFT PICK

On The Clock opens with a chapter on the 2014 NFL Draft, which the authors call 'the most exciting of all time'. So exciting, in fact, they never even mention who the second player selected in the draft might have been. Instead, we jump from first pick Jadeveon Clowney to draft-dropping Johnny Manziel to draft free-falling Michael Sam, in what is a perfect metaphor for what makes something exciting to today's media world, and what makes this book disappointing.

Clowney was the story because he was a defensive lineman who'd seemed to take his final year of college off. Manziel was a wild-card both on and off the field, the antithesis of the classic great NFL quarterback. And Sam, of course, had come out as gay, and was drafted by his local team, the Rams, only a few picks before the final round came to an end.

These were the stories which drove the media frenzy around the draft, a frenzy amplified by the NFL's decisions to stretch the seven rounds over three days, putting the first day on prime time television, and holding the whole thing later than usual, to add to the build-up's hype. These brought more attention, but it's a value judgement the authors never prove that this was what made the draft more 'exciting'. Indeed, the face they ignore Greg Robinson's going to the Rams with the second pick implies there was little excitement to the part of the process that should generate the most excitement: the battle to be the first pick overall.

It's typical of the book's approach. Although it's billed as 'the story of the NFL draft' it's actually no such thing. In fact, the authors go into the war room of the Cincinnati Bengals for the 2014 draft, and come out with a few paragraphs that not only tell you nothing about their internal processes or debates, but slide through in a couple of lines what was a very good draft indeed. If you're a newcomer to the event, you won't find it explained, or analysed. If you're familiar with it, you won't find very much that's new. It seems to assume you know already an awful lot of what they are telling you. Which is a shame, because where the book is best is on history.

The chapter on Bert Bell, the NFL commissioner who brought the draft into being, is interesting. But it's a chapter about Bell, who's a great story, and his influence on the NFL but not about the draft per se. It also suffers from sloppy writing: in the space of a few pages we are told three separate times that Bell 'came from a wealthy family'. His family story is fascinating enough to be written with less repetition and more clarity.

That's a problem throughout the book, which seems to be an amalgam of separate articles, some of them conceived in click-bait terms (one chapter is 'A Draft Genius and Three Wise Men' another is 'The Lists') which allows for anecdotal story-telling but fails to fit into any meaningful schematic about the draft itself. And as suggested above, there is a distinct absence of copy-editing, as well as structural editing.

Some of the story-telling is interesting, but irrelevant to the draft (the Frank Filchock scandal, for example) and some that is relevant ('the African American Breakthrough', for example) needs to be either examined more deeply, as NFL history, or linked more closely to the draft process itself.

In the end, there are plenty of stories to keep you entertained, if you don't mind the scatter-shot nature of the writing and the structuring. But as a history of the draft, it falls short. As insight into the processes of the draft, of the teams when they are actually 'on the clock' it's lacking. In fairness, most books are; Michael Holley's The War Room had great access to the Patriots, and offered insight into personalities, but never could crack the insider dynamic of what goes on, and how it happens. That book remains to be written.


On The Clock: The Story of the NFL Draft
by Barry Wilner and Ken Rappoport
Taylor Trade Publishing £12.99 ISBN 9781630761011

Friday, 24 April 2015

BOSCH: THE COMPLETE FIRST SERIES

It's not often one's highest hopes are rewarded. Watching the Bosch TV series through to the end on Amazon hasn't changed my opinion of it (see my interview with Michael Connelly and Titus Welliver and essay on the first four episodes here) but it has widened my perspective. I rejoined the series with episode five, Mama's Boy, which again was directed by Ernest Dickerson in the most stunning fashion for the small screen. Dickerson has always been good in darker, shadowy locations, and the way he blends that darker sense with the bright light of Los Angeles is a perfect visual metaphor for what Connelly's books and the series itself try to do.

What's most interesting about the complete series is the way it winds up aligning with that vision in so many ways. It's light on the shootouts and car chases, and it is very heavy on the grind of police work, the slow process of unglamorous detection. Although Harry's relationships, with his daughter, his ex, and with his colleagues are inevitably the focus, the story lines, intertwined admirably (presumably by Eric Overmyer) from a number of Connelly's books, reflect issues that mirror Bosch the person and Bosch the detective, not least those of parenthood. The two major plot threads are connected, with the discovery of the body of a teenager murdered 20 years earlier ( City Of Bones) linking to the serial killer Reynard Waits (Echo Park). Bosch himself is introduced by a smaller storyline taken from The Concrete Blonde. It's a fascinating bit of adaptation, and what stands out is the way they have been combined to reinforce each other. Even Shawn Hatosy as Stokes and Jason Gedrick as Waits seem to reinforce each other.

The ensemble cast is not new to police drama (think especially of Hill Street Blues) and it is very much of a part of modern Scandinavian crime -- like Martin Beck, Bosch's essential isolation plays off the group he works with. But the persistent and upfront conflict with authority is an essential part of Bosch's work ethic. It is helped in this case by another parallel story, detailing the bartering between District Attorney Rick O'Shea (Stephen Culp), who wants to be mayor, and Deputy Chief Irvin Irving (Lance Reddick, in a role that seems an outgrowth of his part in The Wire) who wants to be chief and holds a copy of the video O'Shea thought he'd destroyed, which shows his own, rather than Bosch's culpability in Waits' escape from custody. It's a tremendous cast, with Jamie Hector as Bosch's partner Jerry Edgar and Mark Derwin as his nemesis Harvey Pounds standing out, and the seemingly requisite lesbian kiss signaled by Rose Rollins (fresh from The L Word) as Kiz Ryder. Annie Wersching does an excellent job of mercurial changes in her relationship with Bosch, while Sarah Clarke, as Eleanor Wish (it's not just villains whose names signify things) signals both why she was attracted to Bosch and why the relationship couldn't work. Pat Skipper, as the father of the murdered boy, has some devastating scenes, as does Veronica Cartwright as Waits' mother.

But the essence of good character acting is having good characters, and it is a tribute to the writing of the show that they have so much to work with. It's also writing that takes chances. The main story arc actually resolves itself in the ninth of the ten episodes, and I found it significant that Connelly himself co-scripted the final episode, which is where the series comes full circle back to its focus on Bosch while tying the other story lines together.

And of course Bosch is the centre. I started off admiring what Welliver brought to the part: a fierce internal drive which is the essence of Bosch. As the series went on, I realised he matched by pre-conception of Bosch less and less: he a bit too ectomorphic, too lean, sharp-angled, and hard. He dresses too well, wears too showy a watch, and a bracelet that seemed disconcerting. But then I realised that this is a bit of keeping with the times, and the anachronism is wound up in the turntable, and the jazz LPs that Bosch plays, and the way his daughter marvels at them (and doesn't even have CDs). Times have changed.

Then it occurred to me that my image of Bosch is very close to my image of Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op, an un-preposessing slightly soft around the edges detective, but that this does not have to be what Bosch should be, and what Welliver brought to the character was very much in keeping with where he was going in this show. Moreover, it occured to me that if you were casting for Hammett's Sam Spade (not that the world needs a remake of The Maltese Falcon) Titus Welliver would be the perfect choice for the Bogart part, and that Bogart might have made a decent Harry Bosch in his own time. Welliver as Bogart; I can't think of a much higher compliment. And Bosch: The Series has left me already anticipating the second season.


PAT TILLMAN AND HIS MEMORY

On the anniversary of his death, I received one notice reminding us that Pat Tillman died 'protecting us'.
Couched in the rhetoric of the new American fear, that statement seemed an insult to the reality of what Tillman stood for. Recalling his tragic death should have  reminded us Tillman didn't want to be used as a recruiting tool when he quit football to enlist in the army, and he certainly would not have wanted to be used to perpetuate the world-view he had come to realise was a sham.

Pat Tillman remains a shining example of individual courage failed by the authorities and the very ideals in which he believed. Tillman discovered quickly he wasn't 'protecting' America; he came to the unshakeable conclusion he was fighting in an illegal war.

When he died, he was killed by his comrades, in a firefight that featured no enemies. The military immediately created a story around his death that would let them continue to use Tillman for their own purposes. His superiors lied about what happened. They ordered his fellow soldiers to lie about what had happened. Their superiors, knowing it was a lie, lied about what had happened, and about the lies. They burned his flak jacket and his diary, evidence of who Tillman really was, and what had really happened to him. They lied to his family, which in many ways is more sickening than their lies to America.

When the lies were revealed, they accused Tillman and his family of atheism and other crimes. Like cowards they began a massive coverup.  An epidemic of memory loss --'a near-universal lack of recall' according to the House investigators--struck a huge number of high-ranking officers involved. Men with such shaky mental processes should not be in command of soldiers in the front-lines. They protected their jobs, their pensions, their advancement, and as has become endemic in the tales of the Bush invasions, let the grunts on the ground take the blame.

Still they couldn't stop the truth. Army surgeons testified the three shots that killed him were fired at close range, contradicting the official second version of his death. His mother believes he was murdered. Whatever the truth it is a story of deep incompetence and systemic malfeasance, the poisoned fruit of a very poisoned political tree. Pat Tillman was indeed a hero, a symbol of much of the best of the America we would like to be. But his is a story of deep shame and that is the truth of what America ought to be reminded of whenever they are asked to remember Pat Tillman and his death.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

KILL ME, DARLING: MIKE HAMMER IS BACK

Mike Hammer is back again! I've written about the posthumous Mickey Spillane-Max Allan Collins collaborations before, and indicated my distinct preference for keeping Hammer in period, and in character. And that's exactly what Kill Me, Darling does and does well: it's vintage peak-era Spillane so seamless it's hard to see where the Spillane ends and the Collins picks up.

As Max explains, Kill Me, Darling was originally conceived as a follow-up to Kiss Me, Deadly, published in 1952, and a massive best-seller in both hardcover and paperback. I, The Jury had appeared in 1947, but the next five Hammer novels all were published between 1950 and 52, a surge of creativity which followed a pause which I like to think may have been partially due to Mickey's surprise at his first book's success.

After Kiss Me Deadly no Hammer novel would appear for a decade, and The Girl Hunters (1962) was a different sort of Hammer. This ten-year gap is often explained by Mickey's conversion to Jehovah's Witnesses, but I find that glib. I think it's more likely that he'd written Hammer out for the moment, that the success of Kiss Me, Deadly allowed him to relax, and perhaps that he was tired of defending his writing against fierce critics (not least Robert Aldrich and Buzz Bezzerides, director and writer of the film of Kiss Me, Deadly, which deconstructed Hammer in the last flattering and most apocalyptic way).

But Mickey did start a Hammer novel after Kiss Me, Deadly. It began with Hammer drunk and abandoned by Velda, his secretary/partner/true love, as if he wanted to take away what had made his character work. Mickey reused that opening in The Girl Hunters, and it may be the best part of the book, but he took that story in a different direction. Here Collins has borrowed a different, but similar, beginning from another Spillane fragment, then followed the original story line, taking Hammer, after the murder of the vice cop who brought him and Velda together, to Miami in pursuit of his love, who's shacked up with a vice-lord, the kind of guy who should be her natural enemy.

Hammer is as out of place in Miami as he is at home in New York: a number of times he stands out to the point of literally seeming like a target. The story follows some familiar arcs: he hooks up with a friendly reporter and cop to help his investigation, and some less familiar ones, including an offer from the heads of Mafia families. He survives one beating and two attempts on his life, but one of the two most interesting parts of the story is the way the violence is toned down: Hammer is practical here, never reaching that white heat of rage, and having dried himself out, given up Luckies and restricted himself to a sobering four beers a day, seems like a more rational, if not cerebral character.

But the key to the story is sex. 'Sex was always in it somewhere,' as Hammer himself notes. Nolly Quinn ran a brothel in New York, but with reform taking place in Miami, he's looking to branch out in other directions. Quinn's handsome, fastidious, smokes with cigarette holder, and possesses a stiff sort of charm: I kept seeing George Montgomery playing him. Hammer's convinced Velda's actually undercover, and he becomes convinced that Quinn (whose very name seems ambiguous) isn't a 'threat' to her because he must be 'queer'. Here he presents an amazing rationale: Quinn must be queer because he hasn't tried to consummate his relationship with Velda. 'No guy with factory wiring could shack up with a sensuous female like Velda and not lay a glove on her,' is his logic, but of course one of the oddities of the Hammer/Velda relationship is that Mike himself has always been waiting to make 'an honest woman' of Velda before laying the big glove on her. The layers of ambiguity are almost priceless here.

It builds to a denouement which actually surprises, with a fairly predictible betrayal and a shock revelation that gives the book its title. Oddly enough, this finish would be even better had not Hammer been so true to Velda; had he given in to the charms of Quinn's former lovers who offer, as he might have in previous years, the shock ending would have carried even more impact. But this is, in some ways, a kinder gentler Mike Hammer, a white knight reborn. It works better in many ways than The Girl Hunters did, and is enough to make one wonder how Hammer and Velda might have progressed had Spillane decided not to take a break from his archetypical character.

Kill Me, Darling by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins
Titan Books, £17.99 ISBN 9781783291380

Note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Thursday, 16 April 2015

THE UNWRITTEN FABLES

This graphic novel is a crossover between The Fables and The Unwritten, two long running Vertigo comics. I've read a number of the Fables stories, written by Bill Willingham and drawn by Mark Buckingham; in them the characters of fairy tales live real lives—and I suppose you can read a lot of the influence here of Neil Gaiman, both in American Gods but also in the Sandman series. The Unwritten, by Mike Carey and Peter Gross, is about Tommy Taylor, a boy turned into a Harry Potter-type hero in a series of novels, who becomes his character, as it were. I hadn't read any of them before, but it's easy to see how close the connection is.

Now the Fables are fighting their last stand against The Dark Man, who wishes to wipe away their power, the power of story, and as they suffer defeat after defeat, Tommy Taylor appears from his world where story is real, to help.

The story appeared as five issues of The Unwritten, and Carey and Gross are the primary creators (the Fables creators are credited with only three pages each, though oddly not the same three pages; Buckingham is also credited as the 'continuity cop' for the storyline) but it seems to flow smoothly in the Fables universe. As in those stories, the real pleasures are in the more human sense of evil that lurks behind the friendly familiar faces: this of course is where the Fables' traction arose, the reality that our fairy tales are dark and fearsome at their core. Seeing the Big Bad Wolf as a human; Boy Blue as a Galahad hero; or Frau Totenkinder as the ambiguous force behind the fables resonates with deeper meanings.

And on the other side, the beautiful conceit of Snow White, having gone over to the Dark Man, and given her children by the Big Bad Wolf to him, gives the story a human depth appropriate for our times. It reminds us how those archetypical stories not only reflect our consciousness, but help form it.

Or it's just a lot of apocalyptic fun. Which it is.

The Unwritten Fables


by Carey, Willingham, Gross and Buckingham
DC Vertigo $14.99 ISBN 9781401246945