Sunday, 14 December 2014

THOMAS H. COOK'S DANCER IN THE DUST

Ray Campbell runs a risk assessment business in New York City, where he lives a life of quiet loneliness. But twenty years before, Ray had been an aid worker in the African country of Lubanda, where he fell in love with Martine Aubert, the child of Belgian colonists, but a woman who considered herself a native Lubandan, with all the contradictions and risks that entailed.

Ray lost Martine, his only love. Two decades later, his old boss in Lubanda, Bill Hammond, who now runs a major aid fund that distributes millions of dollars of largesse, gets in touch with Ray. There has been a murder in New York, and the victim is Seso, the man Bill had assigned to Ray as his assistant when he'd first arrived in Africa. Lubanda has had its second change of government since Ray arrived; in the first Martine was lost, and an Amin-like dictator too over the country. There's a new government back in Lubanda now, but in New York Seso has been tortured before he was killed, and was supposedly bringing a message to Bill, and Bill wants Ray to look into it, because the police are not very interested. For Ray it means opening up a locked box of memories, and, more importantly, feelings.

If you're familiar with Thomas Cook's writing, you will know that emotions are the dangerous fulcrum on which lives rest. Small decisions reverberate, and the echoes of those decisions, their influences, stay with his characters forever. It is immensely fitting that Ray works in risk assessment, the perfect metaphor for Cook's characters' view of life, as risk to be assessed. Typically they are thoughtful, and self-examining if not always self-aware, and Ray is like that. He is a classicist, and his reflections are full of aphorisms, as when Ray reflects on “that elusive, perhaps unknowable but always painful line that in every life divides what we should have done from what we did.”

In order to examine that line, Cook tells this story with multiple flashbacks: to Lubanda twenty years earlier, and ten years earlier, when Ray made a solitary trip back to visit the spot where Martine had lived, and the one where she had died. Within those three time frames multiple flashbacks occur, as Ray's thoughts drift into memory, his and Cook's way of reminding us that the past is still very much part of the present. It's a brilliant piece of structure held together by Cook's perfectly crystalline prose, a prose that's able to convey both the beauty and brutality of the land, the people, and of life. As Ray reminds us, "some things, once lost--innocence, for example, and sometimes hope--are irrecoverable." And it ends with a slight anti-climax; little changes except perhaps Ray himself, but it ends with a scene of such touching beauty A Dancer In The Dust might be one of the very best of Cook's remarkable career. Compelling, engrossing, and beautiful.


A Dancer In The Dust by Thomas H Cook
Head Of Zeus £18.99 ISBN 9781784081652

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

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

THE CIA, TORTURE, HISTORY AND AMERICAN EXCEPTIONIALISM

This morning, discussing the report on American torture, my friend Michael Goldfarb quoted Senator Frank Church, when his Senate committee's report was issued, in the wake of the Rockefeller and Pike reports, the latter not released but leaked by Daniel Schorr in the Village Voice.  Lest we forget, Church was marginalized, lost his Senate seat to a well-funded campaign, and as we know the domestic surveillance by the CIA and NSA and whoever else continued unchecked, at least until the Snowden revelations. Church's committee was regularly lied to by its witnesses and obstructed by the Ford administration; this was a committee that included such radicals as Barry Goldwater, Richard Schweiker, John Tower, and Howard Baker.  

At the time Church said: 'I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over ...'

Remember, the US was coming out of Vietnam, and the protests of the Sixties, and Nixon and Watergate. It was headed into the Tehran Embassy crisis, a revolution the trillions of dollars of US intelligence never saw coming, and the fall of our buddy in democracy, the Shah. Jimmy Carter took the blame for that, and America launched itself into twenty years of living in a fairy-tale world, followed by ten years of fear happily stoked by the very people who'd sold America the fairy tale Kool-Aid.

When people talk about the legacy of the 'Vietnam Syndrome' which is supposedly a fear of using American power to pursue American ideals (sic), they continue to ignore reality, which is that the US has fought an almost continuous series of undeclared wars, but unlike Vietnam, it no longer asks its citizens to send their sons to do the fighting. Instead, professionals and mercenaries go to war. We stage more and more elaborate ceremonies of fealty to the military during our circuses, designed to entice the jobless young as much as comfort the affluent who will never get near combat, then we retreat into the placidity of entertainment while our heroes kill and torture and steal to enrich their masters on our behalf.

This Orwellian (and to an extent Heinleinian) reality was obvious from the first moments 911 turned into an invasion of Iraq, but it has been in the cards constantly in my lifetime: the Congressional oversight in the 70s led only to an October Surprise in 1980 and then the Iran-Contra abuses. Our current permanent War Of Terror has led to our losing the last shreds of our moral standing, pissed away when we had most of the world standing with us after 911.

Senator Feinstein may have got the report out into the public, but Senator Feinstein refuses to even call torture by its name. Senator Feinstein has fought for additional powers of surveillance for the intelligence establishment over us, and has fought to protect those already caught with the fingers in the digital cookie jar. 

This report may seem shocking if your head has been in the sand for the past 13, or 35 years, but it carefully avoids passing the blame upward where it belongs, to those who planned these wars, who sought or prepared the legal briefs for torture, for rendering, for imprisoning without charge. It leaves large swathes of the military and the intelligence establishment outside the CIA untouched: it's like this entire planet-sized sack of shit is finally going to land on the slick skull of George Tenet. It may not quite do its job fully, but its impact will pass, and just as they did after the reports of the 1970s, the intelligence establishment will continue to do as it damn well pleases. The torture report may absolve those who should carry the blame, but it can't absolve the rest of us.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

MICHAEL CONNELLY'S BURNING ROOM

As usual, Harry Bosch is at odds with the management of the LAPD. He's still working the Open-Unsolved Unit as part of his DROP (deferred retirement) plan, but the department wants to save money and phase out the DROP cops, so Harry needs to watch his step. Especially when his latest case starts moving into treacherous waters.

Orlando Merced, playing in a mariachi band, was the victim of a stray bullet ten years earlier. It didn't kill him, but lodged against his spine. A decade later, the lead has seeped out, and Merced has died from blood-poisoning; finally the bullet can be extracted and the case re-opened for Harry and his new partner, Lucia Soto, a young Latina who got her detective badge after a gun battle with gang-bangers in which her partner was killed.

This is Harry Bosch back at his roots: for his seventeenth Bosch novel Michael Connelly has written a straight-forward police procedural, in which Bosch's dogged pursuit of truth leads him to open unlocked doors (and, crucially locked ones as well), regardless of the consequences. There are few distractions—his relationship with Hannah Stone is gone, and his daughter, if anything, seems to be going the Wallander route; her shooting ability becomes a small part of the story.

What makes this work is that Connelly has always been able to make character a part of the action; Harry's nature helps determine the way the story moves as much as any mechanics of plot. It means the story is never flashy, the twists never spotlighted, and the flow becomes so organic that when mistakes happen, we understand why. Their consequences are the result of the grounding in reality, which is where Harry Bosch's character has always been grounded.

And you know, as the plot delves deeper and deeper into the politics of Los Angeles and the LAPD, that reality is going to come and bite Harry. In the end, it does: the connected do what the connected do, and justice isn't necessarily done, but Harry once again feels the weight of the department for stepping over the line. But not before Connelly has laid the groundwork for potentially a new relationship for Harry, and maybe a new way forward too. And not before he ends the book with a brilliant last scene that tells you everything you need to know about Harry Bosch, and closes with a bit of quiet business that might have been cliched, but in this context, and in Michael Connelly's hands, is movingly affecting. Like Bosch, Connelly delivers, and The Burning Room shows you how.



The Burning Room by Michael Connelly
Orion £19.99 ISBN 9781409145516
NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Thursday, 4 December 2014

IN MEMORIAM JEAN BELIVEAU: LE GROS BILL ET MOÉ

There aren't many sportsmen I actually idolized growing up, making judgements about character at an age when we're supposed to be too young to do that. Especially in the days before 'role model' had entered our vocabulary. One of the few was Jean Beliveau, captain of the Montreal Canadiens, a man who brought a level of grace and elegance to the speed and violence of hockey which I hadn't imagined possible before.

My dad was a hockey player, and as a youngster I probably loved the game more than he did. I got him to take me to see the New Haven Blades of the old Eastern League; his high-school team had practiced on the ice at the New Haven Arena, sometimes with the low-level pros in attendance. I watched the New York Rangers, the most southerly of the National Hockey League's six teams, on local TV from New York, and it was watching the Canadiens give a lesson in hockey to the Rangers, with Professor Beliveau the primary instructor, that made me a Montreal fan.

In fact, Jean Beliveau changed my life. Because I became a Canadiens fan, I wanted to live in Montreal, and  eventually moved there Montreal in 1975. I met my first wife, who forced me to choose between Montreal and her, or more specifically her desire to return to England. I chose her. Were it not for Jean Beliveau, I'd likely still be living in Connecticut. 

That team I first saw included Maurice 'Rocket' Richard, Bernie 'Boum Boum' Geoffrion, the defenseman Doug Harvey, with all of Beliveau's control but somewhat less elegance, and goaltender Jacques Plante. We thought of French-Canadians as volatile, and Richard, Geoffrion, and Plante certainly reinforced that image (not long after this, Canadiens' coach Toe Blake would grow exasperated with Plante and trade him to the Rangers for Gump Worsley). Look at the pictures: Richard's fire and Beliveau's ice; Beliveau looks like a smooth white collar criminal and Richard his hit man. Beliveau was anything but volatile; he was usually the biggest man on the ice, but he skated effortlessly (like  my dad), while controlling his stick and the puck the way only much smaller skaters were expected to--and players with such skills were often thought soft (the Blades' Raymond Carpentier was called 'FiFi' by the harsh fans at the Arena). Beliveau was anything but soft, without being aggressive. He seemed to absorb checks, and punish the aggressor by beating him with a goal. They played without helmets, and you rarely saw strain on Beliveau's face. As Charles Pierce pointed out today, 'Jean Beliveau actually is everything people in New York thought Joe DiMaggio was'.

I didn't know at the time what a legend Beliveau already was in Quebec. He'd starred in junior hockey in Victoriaville and then for the Quebec City Citadelle. He got a two game tryout with the Canadiens, but rather than sign he moved to the Quebec Senior League, to play for the Aces, in what was nominally an amateur league. Quebec City built a new Le Colisee to accommodate the crowds, and Beliveau earned $20,000 a year, more than Richard or Gordie Howe got in the NHL. After a 50 goal second season in Quebec,he had another three game trial with the Canadiens, scoring five goals. Montreal GM Frank Selke was so frustrated he bought the entire QSHL, so he would be able to get Beliveau to Montreal. In his third season the Canadiens began a run of five straight Stanley Cups between 1956-60. In '61 Beliveau became captain after Richard's retirement, and a fallow period began, but with new GM Sam Pollock retooling they won another five Cups in the seven years between 1964-71. That gave him ten as a player; only Henri Richard, with 11, has more.

The 1971 Cup was the greatest. Beliveau, 39, had been persuaded by Pollack to play one last season. He responded by going over the 500 goal mark for his career, finishing as the team's leading scorer. The Habs finished third in their division, but late in the season the arrival of rookie goalie Ken Dryden propelled them past the Big Bad Bruins in the playoffs, with Dryden repeatedly robbing Phil Esposito, and then past the Chicago Black Hawks in the final. I had found a fellow Canadiens' fan on campus at Wesleyan, Rob Ingraham, and following the games however we could cemented my devotion.

Beliveau retired, his place taken by Guy LaFleur, the latest junior sensation centre out of Quebec City. Agaian getting LaFleur wasn't straightforward. There was now a draft of amateur players. Pollock held the first draft pick of the California Golden Seals. He traded Ralph Backstrom to the Kings to help them finish ahead of the Seals, insuring the pick would be first overall. LaFleur couldn't become another Beliveau, sadly, and eventually moved to right wing, where he became one of the all-time greats.

Under Coach Scotty Bowman, the LaFleur-led Canadiens would win five more cups, in 1973 (I came home early from Europe just to watch those finals) and four years in a row from 1976-79. They played hockey the way Canadiens teams were supposed to play, skating past Philadelphia's Broad Street Bullies the same way Beliveau had skated past thugs before them. On New Year's Eve 1975 I watched on television as they played one of the greatest games of hockey I've ever seen, maybe the greatest, a 3-3 tie with the Central Red Army Sports Club (CSKA Moscow). It was New Year's Eve and maybe that's why my English girlfriend wanted to get out Montreal toute suite.

After he retired, Beliveau got his name on seven more Stanley Cup Trophies, as an executive with the Canadiens. That's 17 in all, which no one can match. The NHL is unrecognizable from the days of the 'original six. So is hockey. The league has players from all over the world, the teams stretch from Tampa to Los Angeles to Nashville to Columbus Ohio. The change didn't affect the way Jean Beliveau represented the Canadiens, hockey, Montreal, Quebec, and Canada all his life. He founded a charity, was offered the position of Governor General of Canada by Prime Minister Jean Chretien, saw his face on a Canadian postage stamp. When the Canadiens celebrated their centennial year, and they brought back their living greats, the biggest applause was reserved for Beliveau, as well as the most touching introduction, from 'Mr. Hockey', Gordie Howe, already showing signs of decline but insisting on presenting his old rival himself. When Beliveau retired, he stood second on the NHL's all-time scoring lists, second only to Howe.

By strange synchronicity, I wrote Howe's obit for a paper last week; he had looked about to die after suffering a stroke. I couldn't get anyone to take one of Beliveau, but Howe was the greater figure in the game's history, and I have heard other people, including my friend Steve Berman, not a hockey fan, speak of meeting in Howe in terms of awe. I'm sure I would too. But he can't occupy that space that Beliveau does for me. In a way, it's better I didn't write his obit; it would have been hard work leaving out much of what I've written here.

There's now a statue of Le Gros Bill outside the new Bell Centre, alongside Maurice Richard, Howie Morentz, and Guy LaFleur. I'd like to see a dozen more. I never saw him in the old Forum, not even when I worked there during the '76 Olympics, when I did meet another of those few idols of my childhood, basketball's Bill Russell. I would have loved to see the two of them together. But this way, my image of Jean Beliveau can remain intact from when I watched that first game against the Rangers, somewhere around 1960. And he never gave me any reason to reduce him from the stature of the idol he was to me then.

Not long after I was born, someone put a couple of lines of poetry up by the exit of  the Canadiens' locker room. The poem is called 'Flanders Fields', written in English in 1915 by John McCrae, a colonel in the Canadian army. Those lines have reminded players for Les Habitants how important it was, and is, to wear Le Bleu, Blanc et Rouge. They say:

To you from failing hands we throw the torch,
be yours to hold it high.”


No one ever held it higher than Jean Beliveau. 
 

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

T. JEFFERSON PARKER'S FULL MEASURE

Patrick Norris has returned from Afghanistan, to Fallbrook, California, north of San Diego, looking for peace. He's going to help out on his family's avocado farm, look for boat to buy to start his own business as a fishing guide. But the Fallbrook he returns to has changed. A massive fire has virtually destroyed the family business, and his brother Ted, a perennial ne'er do well who idolises Patrick, seems drawn to right-wing conspiracies and Tea Party extremists. It's a different world than the one he left, and that is the real theme behind this thoughtful and moving novel by T. Jefferson Parker, one of America's most under-appreciated crime writers.

It's hinted at when, on his arrival, Patrick bumps into a Korean War veteran in the rest room at the airport, who thanks him for his service, but says: 'Now the South Koreans have a better health care system than we do. We're twenty-third in the world. It's all changed for the worse here. The country. The people. The government. Everything's gone bad.' 'I hope you're wrong,' Patrick says. 'It doesn't matter what you hope.'

Parker's book is about those changes. The communities whose citizens don't want to pay for someone else's safety (a hit and run at a street crossing has highlighted the lack of a crossing light; the accident will come back into play later in the story). The people who see strength in guns and in prejudice. The banks who will not help their suffering clients. And of course, Patrick's family is involved. The farm has no money because his parents invested in real estate, before the 2008 crash. His brother is drawn to Cade Magnus, and his Pride Auto Repair, a second-generation American Nazi, drawn to guns, and getting things done against the government he thinks is trying to take his freedoms.

The Bureau of Homeland Security comes to investigate the fire; meanwhile the power company wants to make sure it's not ruled something their fallen lines or faulty boxes might be responsible for. The town meeting about the crossing is testy, but Patrick rekindles a relationship with a reporter, Iris. He finds his boat, and gets a deal on it because he's a veteran. But things beyond his control go wrong, and Ted continues to be Ted, and Patrick feels responsible for him.

Parker weaves these strands together with the ease of mastery. Small items come back to have deeper, more important meaning. The gratitude of his fellow citizens can be fleeting, as can be love. And Ted remains a trial. The story builds to a climax which is unexpected and immensely moving. Followed by a coda in which a huge storm strikes, providing a final test for all involves.

I've seen this book compared to Steinbeck, and that first climax certainly recalls The Grapes Of Wrath, a great novel about the shortcomings of the Californian Dream. But I also felt a lot of Upton Sinclair here, a combination of epic nature and sharp dissection of society's ills. In that sense too, you might look at this as an historical novel, even though the history is current. Parker's best novel is probably the deceptively-titled California Girl (2004) which won the best-novel Edgar; it is another family story set in the early 1950s and the late 1960s, and like Full Measure deals with changes in society and the way people deal with them; it also features a 'bad' family set against the 'good' family, as dissenters almost. But with Parker, it is the response of people who hold onto the 'traditional' values which are key to the story.

Parker has achieved some traction in the US recently with his series of books about Charlie Hood, an LA County Sheriff, but his career has consisted mainly of stand-alone novels whose setting has been an important part, and whose characters are so well drawn they involve you quickly in that setting. California Girl, despite its awards, wasn't quite a breakthrough book. But Full Measure, with its mirror turned perceptively on the most crucial fissures of America, and with its deeply human core, might be that one. TJP deserves it.

Full Measure by T. Jefferson Parker
Sandstone Press £8.99 ISBN 9781908737809

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

Monday, 10 November 2014

BLACK COAL THIN ICE: LONDON FILM FESTIVAL IV

The grim darkness of Black Coal Thin Ice is set out in the opening scenes: coal on a train dumped into a conveyor belt, with a severed hand lurking amongst the lumps of black. Meanwhile, in a bleak hotel room Zhang, a police detective, has silent sex which itself seems almost disembodied, with a woman who turns out to be his wife, which we learn when she hands him the divorce papers just before she leaves on a train. Zhang tries to stop her from going; an umbrella springs open on the platform; Zhang falls to the ground; she is gone. He kicks a bottle down the stairs. 'There's no point in crying, you're just wasting time'.

Back on the job the coal-stained body part leads Zhang to a beauty parlor where what should be a routine arrest goes wrong, and he is shot in a scene laid out as creatively as John Woo at his peak. But the shootout has more mundane consequences for Zhang.

Five years later Zhang is a security guard, in a coal factory, living a bleak life which centers on drinking the past into oblivion. Then body parts start showing up again, body parts and ice skates, and Zhang finds himself pulled back into the investigation. Which leads him to a beautiful but enigmatic clerk in a dry cleaners, and Zhang, trying somehow to redeem himself as a cop, begins to become obsessed with her, propelling him into the equal dangers of finding the killer and making something of this once again silent, withdrawn sort of relationship. Thinking she may hold the key to the puzzle puts her in line to be a victim herself, but Diao realises that the detective and the potential lover share many of the same characteristics: both are investigating to see if what they see of a person is really there.

Writer-director Diao Yinan blens the grittiest of backgrounds and the most depressing flatness of life with an almost mystic undercurrent, like Marquez writing a hard-boiled detective novel. He touches bases with most of the familiar tropes of modern noirish film, not least Zhang's apparently feeling comfortable only in the presence of his fellow cops. But the distinctive combination which Diao blends here seems to make a statement about China itself, presented as an almost two-dimensional world of hidden darkness, where the personal hides under the surface. Diao creates some brilliant visual metaphors, including the various uses of coal, conveyors, and trains. Ice skating figures into the mix, with the characters gliding or stumbling on the ice, and at one point engaging in a chase along a frozen path away from the rink. There are fireworks and ferris wheels, public spaces where people are supposed to share but move in their own circles, as you would on a skating rink, and finally a brilliant tango scene that recalls Marlon Brando and sees Zhang doing his own steps while everyone else sticks to the programmed pattern.

As Zhang, Liao Fan is brilliant: a mix of bravado and insecurity, a man at home with that inevitable realisation that you may uncover something you don't really want to find out. Gwei Lun-Mei is his perfect foil as the withdrawn clerk who holds the secret to the killings; she is beautiful in a way that invites sa man's protection while at the same time suggesting something beyond a dry cleaner's. The story resolves with a clever twist that makes perfect sense, and propels us back to the film's beginning, where we see understanding both love and death are equally difficult. Black Coal, Thin Ice is one of the best detective films I've seen in a long time, and Liao is a director who draws you into his story and makes you live the pace of his vision. Brilliant.

Black Coal, Thin Ice (China/Hong Kong 2014)
written & directed by Diao Yinan
starring Liao Fan, Gwei Lun-Mei, Wang Xue-Bing

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

Thursday, 6 November 2014

A SMALL MEDITATION ON VINYL AND LOSS

I began my downsizing yesterday by unloading some vinyl to my friend, the guitarist Andy Wiersma, at Harold Moore's. Among the records was Elliott Carter's Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord with the intellectual Nonesuch cover. I used to go to sleep listening to it in college, and sometimes stare at the artwork while under the influence.

There were the early 70s ECM records which played on the turntable which sat on the amp which sat on one speaker on the floor of the closet, as I wrote my McGill masters thesis in the tiny flat on Avenue Lorne I shared with Theresa. I wrote poems based on the tunes I was hearing: one of the joys of my later life was meeting Eberhard Weber and Jan Garbarek, and sharing some of those poems with them.

These were records I'd brought with me, from Montreal back to Connecticut, and then to Britain when I moved to London in 1977. There was also some Ives, from the same time, and some lovely Savoy jazz collections I'd picked up early in my stay in this country. It's a cliche to call it the background music of a life; it was part of the foreground of my life, a palpable part of it.

I wasn't a fanatic, nor an anorak. Oddly, I learned this week that one of my teammates on the freshman football team at Wesleyan, Skip Wood, had passed away. I still have the first Earth Opera album which I bought from Skip, who had the biggest record collection I'd ever seen, probably in 1969. I know this because the sleeve has 'Skip Wood Record' and a control number, written in large letters with a magic marker on it. It saddens me to think that record too will be sold off soon; my only link to Skip will be gone.

I felt a great sense of loss, of time that will never be recovered, and the pressures of change brought on by circumstance, not time. Even though I don't have a turntable, and haven't listened to the vinyl in years, when I sorted through them, taking them from the wine carton in the attic, holding them and reading the liner notes, I felt a warmth emanating from them. I could hear and see the passage of more than four decades of time. And while I still listen to the same music on CD, I don't feel that warmth. I don't hold the cases and feel as if they're alive the way record albums were. Listening to a CD is more like a business transaction than a ritual.
The feel and look and sound of those records was the first thing I thought of when I woke this morning. I felt a great sense of loss. Goodbye old friends.




Saturday, 1 November 2014

ACE ATKINS' BROKEN PLACES

Ace Atkins introduced Quinn Colson in The Ranger, and when I reviewed that book last year (you can link to the review here) I noted the tropes from westerns (which Ace and I had discussed with Mariella Frostrup on Open Book, and from novels and films about returning war veterans, itself a sub-genre that goes back to encompass at least the Civil War.

Colson is now the sheriff of Tibbehah County, Mississippi, based in Jericho, where he exists in an sort of uneasy truce with the local crime boss Johnny Stagg. The novel opens with a prison break from Parchman Farm, famous from blues songs. Esau Davis and Bones Magee make their getaway on horses, just like in a western, but from there the story gets very modern. Because they're headed for Jericho, where one of their former convict pals, Jamey Dixon, has seen the light, and is a fundamentalist preacher with a line in redemption. And, coincidentally, he's living with Colson's sister Caddy, who's got a line in redemption herself.

And then it gets complicated. What Atkins does well is delineate the violence that simmers just under the overheated surface of rural Mississippi. It's something that gets pushed aside in the daily life of the people, just as the the rest of the darker side of human behaviour does. At times Atkins' prose, which in this series is very much in the Elmore Leonard vein, touches on the Southern gothic overtones of a Flannery O'Connor, and it is a pleasure to read.

But Atkins is also writing the continuation of Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels, and very well too (see my review of Lullaby here), and at times Quinn Colson starts to resemble Parker's Jesse Stone. He is partnered by a wise black woman sheriff. He has a relationship with his former true love, Anna Lee, who's now married to the good-guy town doctor. And although he doesn't have Stone's ability to charm a steady stream of women, the town undertaker and coroner, Ophelia, seems to have a soft spot for him. Anna Lee, Ophelia, Jericho, Esau...it gets very literary, if not downright Biblical,

down there in the Gothic South.

This is a series book, and though it gets resolved with action and violence, enough issues both violent and non-violent, are left unresolved to ensure the next entry in the series will continue to put Colson into perilous positions. There's something major breathing under the surface of the Colson series, and it will be fascinating to see what Atkins does with those intimations.

The Broken Places by Ace Atkins
Corsair £7.99 ISBN 9781472112156


Saturday, 25 October 2014

FADE OUT FOR A WESTERN MOVIE: A POEM

Jack Bruce's death reminded me of an afternoon many years ago when I lived in Montreal. I was listening to 'Theme From An Imaginary Western', and I was thinking about Ride The High Country, one of the truly great westerns, and I wrote the lines which became this poem. It was published, if I remember right, in Cid Corman's Origin magazine... I dedicated it to my film teacher, Jeanine Basinger.



FADE OUT FOR A WESTERN MOVIE

two weary
horses carry

empty

saddles into sunset


JACK BRUCE'S IMAGINARY WESTERN: AN APPRECIATION


Jack Bruce was actually the most interesting one in Cream, though it was Eric Clapton who was God and Ginger Baker who any number of people used to tell me had only months (or perhaps the length of one more drum solo) left to live. Clapton became more fascinating as he aged, Ginger Baker survived easily to become a crotchety old man making occasional interesting jazz albums, but Jack Bruce seemed never to be able to transfer the buzz of Cream into something more substantial. It may be the classic story of a tremendous sideman who wasn't geared to be a superstar leader. He was Cream's lead singer, and a great one. He and Pete Brown were the primary song-writers. But my guess is that Bruce, to himself, was always a bass player.

And a bass player whose exceptional instincts were actually well off the mainstream that Cream mined so effectively. Clapton and Baker went on to Blind Faith, with Steve Winwood and Ric Grech, then Clapton left and BF somehow became Ginger Baker's Air Force.

But Bruce made two exceptional solo albums after Cream broke up: Songs For A Tailor and Things We Like. They were released in that order but apparently Things was recorded first, while Bruce was actually still a part of Cream. It's all instrumental, with John McLaughlin on guitar, Dick Heckstall -Smith on saxes (sometimes two at once a la Roland Kirk) and Jon Hiseman on drums. Bruce had played with the first two in the Graham Bond Organisation (that's Bruce, Heckstall-Smith, Baker, and Bond in the photo left); Hiseman had also played with Bond, John Mayall, and was starting Colosseum. It's really a proto-fusion jazz album, with an experimental undertone; fine if you were listening to Coltrane's Impressions or Miles Davis at the time.

Songs For A Tailor came out in 1969. It features Hextall-Smith and Hiseman, along with drummer John Marshall, British sax man Art Themen, guest spots by George Harrison and Chris Spedding, and producer Felix Pappalardi. It's a challenging record; a couple of the cuts were intended for Cream's Disraeli Gears but turned down because they weren't commercial enough. But Bruce's vocals and sometimes Brown's lyrics keep them approachable. I'd listen to 'Never Tell Your Mother She's Out Of Tune' or 'Boston Ball Game 1967' (the latter perhaps inspired by Earth Opera's 'The Red Sox Are Winning') and feel a sort of intellectual frisson you didn't get with Cream. It lacked the hooks, though, which is why it wasn't a huge success.

It probably would have done better had it followed Things, instead of come first. Bruce went back to power trios first with Leslie West in West Bruce and Laing, and then the group that recorded Out Of The Storm, guitarist Steve Hunter and either Jim Gordon or Jim Keltner on drums. In 1975 he toured with a group including Carla Bley and Mick Taylor; a live recording of them turned up a few years ago. But his drug problems helped derail all three groups. Bruce continued to make loads of music, and much of it was very good. I have a bootleg disc called Jack Bruce & Friends, Live at the Bottom Line in New York in March 1980. The friends are Billy Cobham on drums (Bruce always attracted great drummers, which I think was an acknowledgement of his bass playing), ex-E Streeter David Sancious on keyboards, and Clemp Clempson from Colosseum and Humble Pie on guitar.

It was odd seeing Cream's reunion concert; Bruce looked like a wee Scottish pensioner, looking older now than Baker. Clapton (like Steve Winwood) seems to have aged remarkably well. But his playing was certainly still there. I watched it, but really didn't want the shadows of memory. Even then I went back to
the originals. And to his own stuff.

Including my favourite Bruce/Brown song, 'Theme For An Imaginary Western'. There's a power version on the Friends bootleg. It was a hit for Leslie West and Mountain, but the best version remains Bruce's on Songs For A Tailor, and it's a truly beautiful song. Listen to it here....RIP Jack Bruce

Friday, 24 October 2014

OX BAKER: THE TELEGRAPH OBITUARY

My obituary of the pro wrestler Ox Baker is in today's Daily Telegraph; you can link to it online here. I over-wrote for the paper, and they edited it down adroitly, especially for an audience that didn't know Ox Baker, and indeed is unlikely to be interested in the minutiae of professional wrestling.

They also wouldn't know Bob Barker and The Price Is Right (there was a British version on Sky very early in the satellite TV days, but the prizes were things like pen and pencil sets, and everybody looked a bit uncomfortable with the naked consumerism America loves) but I thought Ox's breaking 'kayfabe'(the wrestler's carny code for never admitting what is fake is fake) was both charming and significant. You can watch him and Bob Barker on You Tube (link to it here) to see what I mean.

You'll find one error of fact in their edit: Ox never held the NWA title; he won the American belt from Bruiser Brody. He held the NWA Detroit title (won from The Shiekh), the WWA title (won from Cowboy Bob Ellis) and the WWC title in Puerto Rico (won from Carlos Colon). He never held those, or his other belts, for very long.  But rather than simply add the bits that were cut, you can read my original copy here. As I say, the published version is probably much closer to what I should have written, but I look at this excess wordage as a small tribute to the Ox.

DOUGLAS 'OX' BAKER: PROFESSIONAL WRESTLER

 
Although he was one of the most feared villains on the professional wrestling circuit for almost two decades, billed as having killed two opponents in the ring with his fearsome 'heart punch', the match for which Douglas 'Ox' Baker, who has died aged 80, will be best-remembered came in the 1981 film Escape From New York. Baker played Slag, the giant gladiator Issac Hayes (playing the Duke of New York) forces Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken to fight to the death. After Ox gave stuntman Dick Warlock all he could handle in rehearsals, Warlock offered Russell just one piece of advice as filming started: 'good luck'.

Standing six foot five and weighing 24 stones, his head shaved and eyebrows curled up like Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, and sporting a Fu Manchu moustache growing into massive free-form mutton chop sideburns, Baker certainly looked the part of a classic wrestling 'monster heel'. Eschewing robes, he came to the ring in a simple white tee-shirt bearing a slogan, usually 'I Like To Hurt People', seemingly added to front in do-it-yourself iron-on lettering.

He was wearing such a shirt, reading 'Big, Mean and Ugly' when he appeared in 1981, fresh from his film role, on the daytime television game show The Price Is Right. Although he tried to maintain wrestling's carnival code of staying in character, his good-humoured quipping with host Bob Barker, and his obvious delight at the prizes he was winning, including a cooker, wall clock, and home stereo, revealed an almost cuddly gentle giant underneath the bluster.

It was as a gentle giant Ox broke into wrestling. Born Douglas Allen Baker 19 April 1934 in Sedalia, Missouri, he grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, a successful high school athlete before being kicked out of school. He joined the Army, where he played on gridiron teams which in that era were good enough to be scouted by the pros. But he was nearly 30, without a career, when he wandered into a wrestling promotion in Kansas City and asked for a tryout. Given a match which was supposed to punish him to test his mettle, he survived so well he was paid $300, and his career choice was made. His early matches saw him playing another traditional wrestling role, the hillybilly simpleton, in coveralls and with thick glasses.

In 1967 he debuted in New York's World Wide Wrestling Federation, the forerunner of today's WWE, billed as the Friendly Arkansas Ox. His first match was against Gorilla Monsoon, their top 'monster heel', and watching Bob Morella as Monsoon convinced Baker to turn heel. In those days wrestling was divided into many regional promotions, and rule-breaking monster heels were in demand to test local champions and generate ticket-buying 'heat' from the fans as their favourites got pummelled. Ox chose the heart punch as his finishing move, although for a time he called the 'hurt punch' as another wrestler, Stan 'the Man' Stasiak already claimed to be the master of the move.

In June 1971, he and his partner Claw defended their AWA tag team title against Cowboy Bob Ellis and Alberto Torres. Three days after the match Torres died from what turned out to be a ruptured pancreas. With the customary ethics and good taste of the wrestling world, Baker claimed it was the result of his heart punch. A year later, Baker lost in Savannah, Georgia to Ray Gunkel, who died soon afterwards from a heart attack. Although Baker's punch may have caused a blood clot, Gunkel suffered from extreme arteriosclerosis and the coroner ruled it a freak accident. Nevertheless, Ox again took 'credit' for the death, though in reality he worked behind to scenes to aid Gunkel's widow Ann in a fight for control of his promotion.

Baker could literally start riots by refusing to stop heart-punching an opponent when he was down on the canvas. He wrestled all over the world, from Japan to Nigeria, and in 1982 he briefly held the British Commonwealth crown in Auckland. He won numerous titles in the US in the 1970s and early 80s, and helped a young wrestler billed as Terry Boulder win his first title in Alabama. A few years later, billed as Hulk Hogan, Terry Bollea would help the WWE achieve national dominance.

In 1980 Baker won the NWA American title from Bruiser Brody. Baker had played a small, uncredited part in Jackie Chan's film, Battle Creek Brawl,but he was hired for Escape To New York on Brody's recommendation after Bruiser turned the role down. Baker played a Russian wrestler in Blood Circus (1985), but his acting range was somewhat limited. He took a large part in a 1985 documentary I Like To Hurt People, which focused on Ed Farhat, who wrestled in Detroit as The Sheikh.

Baker opened a wrestling school, where he trained Mark Callaway, who became famous as The Undertaker in the WWE. He moved to Connecticut and in 1992 married Peggy Ann Kawa, a professional clown. In 2005 he was the subject of a documentary, I Love The People I Hurt, made by Halfbreed Billy Gram, who also filmed My Smorgasboard With Ox. Neither has been released.

Peggy predeceased him in 2010. In 2011 Baker published Ox Baker's Cook Book: A Tribute To The Fallen Warriors, mixing recipes and wrestling stories. His film career was rejuvenated the following year by David Gere, a fan who cast him in an episode of a cable TV series, Chilling Visions and gave him a small part in Sensory Perception, with John Savage. He made his final appearance in the ring last year, winning a 13 man battle royal with a heart punch for a small promotion in Ohio.

With his health failing he still managed to shoot a cameo role for Gere's latest film Pinwheel. He died a week later, on 20 October 2014, in Hartford, Connecticut. The cause of death was a heart attack.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL III: TENNIS GIRL

It  has nothing to do with the famous poster of a woman in tennis whites rubbing her bottom, but Tennis Girl, a 2013 short directed by Brazilian Daniel Barosa, and written by him with Humberto Palmas, packs a lot of emotion into its 15 minutes. It does it by showing very little but implying a lot. Ju is a pretty teenaged girl running late. She's snappy with her harried mother, she's distracted by text messages, and she's more interested in flirting with her tennis coach than actually having a lesson. On the face of it just a brief slice of a day in her life.

But as Felipe, the coach, ignores he flirting and implores Ju to concentrate on her lesson, she runs off to the toilets. But she stops along the way, contemplating yet another call on her mobile, and for an instant rubs her belly. We think back; the film opens with a shot of an empty corridor in the family's apartment; Ju eventually emerges from the loo. She skips eating, she ignores her mother and her godmother, and on the way out she barely has time for her friend, or her boyfriend who has been texting.

This film works like a quiet short story; I thought of Alice Munro, which might be too much praise, but the tone is perfect because its quiet, and the bleakness of the ending, contrast with Ju's young hormonal energy. Bianca Melo is perfect as Ju, while Gabriel Godoy as Felipe is simply playing normal, emphasizing her adolescent energy, and Renata de Paula as her mother does much the same with great tiredness. Tennis Girl lingers with you, as a snapshot would, and by implying much more than it states, is very impressive indeed.