Tuesday, 26 January 2021


My obit of Henry Aaron is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it, although my preferred first reference for him would be Henry, not Hank. I wrote it some time ago, then revised it briefly, trying to explain in more detail the civil rights situation in Atlanta and how important Aaron was there--I would have liked to have spent more time on the exact nature of the abuse he received while chasing Babe Ruth's record, and I probably should have mentioned that the response of the crowd at Fulton County Stadium when he did was a standing ovation. RIP Hammerin Hank.

Just this morning I read in an NFL column by Peter King a fantastic story; it wouldn't have made this obituary, but I can share it here: Aaron was a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan. He was originally drawn to the Browns (there were no NFL teams in the South when he was young, and the Miami team in the AAFC (in which the Browns played) was short-lived. It was also segregated, and the Browns left their black players at home when they travelled to Miami in 1946. But the presence of black stars like Bill Willis and Marion Motley made them young Aaron's favourite team when they joined the NFL in 1950. They were dismissed by NFL partisans, yet they beat the defending NFL champion Eagles in theur very first game, and won the league title at the end of the season. Aaron had liked them as underdog heroes, with black stars alongside greats like Otto Graham and Dante Lavelli, and he was hooked.

As an adult, Aaron would buy a single ticket in the "Dawg Pound" end zone section, fly up from Atlanta incognito, and cheer anonymously among the Browns' most fervent fans. But in 1986, when he took a trip to watch the team in preseason, Browns GM Ernie Accorsi, a big baseball fan, recognised him. He went up and introduced himself and Aaron said "I know you you are. It's an honor to meet you." The became friends, but although Accorsi offered him better seats gratis, or a view from a box, Aaron preferred to stay in the Pound. "I didn't throw bones or do crazy stuff like that," he said, but he felt commfortable studying the game with the most enthralled fans.

I also had to leave out the idea that, had the Giants offered him just a little more money, they could have had both Aaron and Willie Mays in their outfield. Although Mays too had been offered a contract by the Boston Braves, before he signed with New York.

One last point: when Aaron joined the Indianapolis Clowns in 1952, the major leagues were, of course, integrated, but the Negro American League actually continued until 1962. The Clowns are said to have begun in Miami around 1935, though I have a replica hat from the Ethopian Clowns, who barnstormed just after that, which was the team they morphed into before settling in Cincinnati and then Indy. It was my cricket cap when I kept wicket for ABC Sports London cricket club. When Aaron left the team, the Clowns signed a woman, Toni Stone, to play second base. The following year they sold her contract to the Kansas Cith Monarchs, and replaced her with two other women. The Clowns continued to barnstorm as entertainers after the NAL folded, and finally gave up themselves in 1989.

Sunday, 24 January 2021


My obit of Larry King is up at The Guardian online, you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper soon, probably Monday. King's was a challenging piece to write: I wanted to put the importance of his show on CNN at the centre, what it meant in terms of news coverage--I was a little more direct in my analysis than what is printed, but King's success led to Fox News to follow suit with O'Reilly, Hannity et al ad nauseum, though in their case the motivation was more being able to control the take on news by not "reporting" it than using the interview slot to feature ratings-grabbing celebs. 

The other problem was trying to deal with King's personal life, which was, as I suggest, the stuff of trash TV. The paper left out much of the loonier stuff of his later days, but it occurs to me that, since I have heard from people who worked in the CNN building just how personally friendly and kind King was, that he was just a kid having fun with the gig of his life.

The Simpsons show was the one where Homer eats fugu and is told he has 24 hours to live. After fulfilling his check list of last things to do, he sits in his La-Z-Boy listening to Larry King reading the Old Testament. King finishes the Begats, then gives one of little run downs of things he thinks, like in his USA Today column, as Homer snores. Marg comes down and thinks Homie is gone, only to see the drool coming out of his mouth. Having survived, Homer vows to live each precious day to the fullest.

The show ends with a crunching noise over black. As the camera pulls back it reveals Homer on the couch, eating pork scratchings, watching bowling. RIP Larry King.

Wednesday, 6 January 2021


 In 1973 I was teaching a short-term course at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, about 80 miles south of the Confederate capital of Richmond. I was staying at a boarding house, and one evening I came back and the lady who ran the house was watching the news. I stood in the doorway for a second, watching a report on the mayoralty race in Atlanta between Maynard Jackson, who would become the city’s first black mayor, and the incumbent, Sam Massell. She saw me there and pointed to the screen. “Will you look at that,” she said. “A big ol’ city like Atlanta, and they can’t even find one white man to run for mayor.” I took the bait. “But Massell’s white,” I said. “He’s not white,” she told me, “he’s a Jew.”

I thought about that moment today when Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both won, apparently, their US Senate races in Georgia. Warnock became the first black candidate to in a statewide race, and he spoke movingly of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel, who matched alongside Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr back in the day (if you aren’t aware, Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Ave in Atlanta, where Warnock is the pastor, was King’s church, and his father’s before him.

Back in 1996, after the Olympics had finished and my de-rigging at the Georgia Dome was done, I went to Sweet Auburn, the old heart of Atlanta’s black community, to visit the King Historical Center, across the street from the church. It was amazingly moving, watching that footage of marchers having fire hoses and police dogs set on them, before the police and others moved in to finish the job. I’d seen it on TV, in snippets, when I was a kid, and now the full horror set in, wrapped in the context of people who were required to put their lives on the line just to achieve the justice and equality its people were due as humans.

Afterwards, I went across the street to a luncheonette, sat at the counter and ordered a sandwich. Out the window, I could see the Georgia Dome, just a few miles from where I sat. The counterman brought the sandwich and I said “you must’ve been pretty busy the past few weeks?” He looked puzzled. “What do you mean?” Well, with the Olympics and all those tourists. No offense, but there isn’t that much touristy in this city, and the King site, well, that’s the best thing I’ve seen. There must’ve been people coming to see it?” The guy looked out the window and pointed toward the downtown. “That was THEIR Olympics,” he said. “They didn’t send nobody here.”

Atlanta may have had black mayors, in fact every one since Jackson, but they didn’t actually run the city, in the same way that Georgia remained a state governed by whites, one that sent white senators to Washington. Gerrymandered congressional and state house districts kept the black vote restricted, and as we saw in 2018, when Stacey Abrams ran for governor against the then-Georgia secretary of state Brian Kemp, who aided his own campaign with wholesale purging of the voter lists: 700,000 cancellations in 2017 alone. Abrams lost by 50,000 votes statewide, but rather than challenge the result in the courts, she turned her attentions to voter registration. Combined with the Covid pandemic making remote and absentee voting more acceptable, Georgia went for Biden as well as the two Senators—by narrow margins that might well be bigger were the state’s minority voters fully enfranchised.

It should be instructive that Kemp, and his secretary of state, have avoided following Trump’s challenges to the election results in Georgia. This does not make them “good guys” in this business: they certainly do not want any full-scale examination of Georgia’s voting practices, and by upholding the rule of the law they set the stage to use that as part of their response should they be accused in 2022 or 2024 of abuses of voting rights.

Meanwhile the election of Ossoff, who will become the only member of the US Senate to have played in the British Baseball Federation (where he hit .200) reminds us that, although Atlanta billed itself as “the city too big to hate” that slogan arose from the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman convicted (in all likelIhood wrongly) of the murder of a 13 year old girl, when his death sentence for the crime was commuted. He and Warnock entering the Senate together, a rare ocurrance brought about by Kelly Koefflr’s having been appointed to fill an unexpired term, will be like a symbolic restatement of that bond which used to link the black and Jewish communities, and, symbolically at least, holds out a modicum of hope for the Democrats and their pseudo-majority in the Senate.

I wonder how they took it in Ashland, and around the rest of the Confederacy? A few days later back in 1973, I returned to the boarding house after a night at a bar, and the husband of the lady who watched the news called me in to see some football. “Y’all played football in college up north?” he asked. “Yup.” “Well take a looksee at this,” he said, as Monday Night Football replayed a 100+ yard kickoff return touchdown by Miami’s Mercury Morris. “Jest lookit that thing run!” he exclaimed. I used to tell that story and point out it was more than 100 years since the Civil War ended, at least on the battlefield. Now I tell it to remind us that this was less than 50 years ago, and there were then, as our president believes there are now, “fine people on both sides”. 

(Note: I wrote this for Arc Digital, a platform available on Medium. Check it out)


I don't much like Twelfth Night. It’s the night I take down the Christmas tree, to avoid the goblins. I know in Britain (and Ireland) many people wait until the next day, the feast of Epiphany, to do that. That’s the day the wise men showed up, acknowledgment of which ruins every Christmas pageant any of us have sat through, but I’ll let that pass. I also wish I could bring myself to delay, even if only for a day, taking down the tree, although this year I heard someone on the radio arguing that trees could remain up until Candlemas, which is the fortieth day of the Christmas season (2 February).

I understood the argument. It has been such a maddening year, full of disappointment and sadness, and this year’s holiday season took place in the dreary short days and long nights of December, with lovely sunshine of Christmas Eve and Christmas day, but otherwise rain and darkness and the promise of another monumental cock-up by the Government That Couldn’t Shoot Straight which would negate the brief glimpse of Johnson’s sunlit uplands promised by the various coronavirus vaccines.

Certainly I found this year’s tree endearing. It was only five feet tall; I snipped it’s top branch in half, as it had extended about 18 inches all on its own. I wasn’t the perfectly balanced and symmetrical creature I saw in other people’s photos, but it stood straight and it seemed to welcome it’s ornamentation. It was healthy, held its colour, and dropped few needles along the way. On dark mornings I would greet it, turn its lights on, and be cheered immediately. In the evenings, I’d turn it on and play some music, maybe sit on the couch and read or just look at it and feel comforted.

On Monday evening, as if it knew what was in store the next day, I came into the living room and caught a burst of fir tree fragrance, which filled me with nostalgia for the evergreens of my childhood winters, and with hope. Tuesday morning I greeted the tree as if it were a friend about to go to hospital, and there have been enough of them this year. I took the tinsel off in the afternoon, as if to prepare the tree for what was to come, and prepare me. Finally, long after dinner, I went down and removed the ornaments and lights and packed them away. I loosened the screws in the stand, though this tree had stood on its own, small branches down the roots flexing it into place. I apologised, and pulled it out of the stand, realising it still refused to drop its needles, not even as I squeezed it out the front door.

I wasn’t going to leave my tree outside, for some council van to take along with all the other trees. I carried it off into a nearby woods, and found it a spot where it might be able to return itself to the earth from which it sprang, at its own pace, at least enjoying the world outside my living room for a little while. The dog watched without quite knowing what was going on, but sensed enough not to tug at his lead until I was through doing whatever I was doing as I stood there and turned to lead him away. When we got back, the room looked emptier than usual, and this morning there was no display of green branches, lights, baubles and tinsel to welcome me into its new day. Maybe Candlemas has something to say for itself after all.


Friday, 1 January 2021


My obituary of Bruce Boynton, whose protest of "separate but equal" dining facilities at a Virginia bus station led to a Supreme Court ruling against that apartheid concept, and sparked both lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Riders on buses across the South, appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 21 December. I happened to miss it then, and as it is behind a paywall, I will simply post my original copy here: it was written to a tight word limit and I hope therefore wasn't cut very much.

Had I more space I would have written a bit more about his own practice, especially in Washington, and about the conflicts which are hinted at in accounts of his work in Alabama, particularly in what he felt was a lack of support from the Civil Rights movement and the black community when he broke racial barriers in public service.

I would have also written more about his mother, who outlived three husbands and was an activist all her life. You can find that picture of her in her wheelchair holding hands with President Obama on the Pettus Bridge as easily as one of her beaten body lying on the bridge in 1965. Sadly, it wasn't Bruce pushing her wheelchair on that anniversary day.

But his life story is a reminder that great changes often arise from small hurts, and a decision not to put up with that hurt any longer.


Bruce Boynton, who has died aged 83, was a key figure in the American civil rights movement, whose protest was as crucial as Rosa Parks’ on the buses of Montgomery, Alabama. His 1960 victory before the US Supreme Court in Boyton v Commonwealth of Virginia sparked five years of protests that eventually led to the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts passed by Congress in 1964 and 1965.

His simple motivation was hunger. In December 1958, Boynton, in his final year of law school in Washington DC, boarded a Trailways bus to return home to Alabama for Christmas. At a stop in Richmond, Virginia, he sat in the whites only section of the terminal’s lunch counter, because the “coloured” area had water on the floor and looked unsanitary. He asked for a cheeseburger and cup of tea, but the waitress returned with her manager. As Boyton described it, “he poked his finger in my face and said ‘N***** move’, and I knew I would not move.” He was arrested for criminal trespass, convicted in state court of violating Virginia’s segregation law, and fined ten dollars. He decided to appeal the conviction.

His case was argued before the Supreme Court by Thurgood Marshall, who would become the first black justice on that court just seven years later. They ruled, on a 7-2 vote, that so-called “separate but equal” facilities violated the constitutional right to equality. Since interstate transport was subject to federal regulation, the Interstate Commerce Commission was required to see states obey federal law. Within a year, “Freedom Riders” were organising bus rides through the South to challenge segregated facilities; future Congressman John Lewis was one of 13 riders on the first bus, and beaten in a rest stop in South Carolina. Another bus was fire-bombed in Anniston, Alabama. Also inspired by Boynton, sit-ins soon took place at lunch counters throughout the South.

Resistance to the American version of apartheid came naturally to Boynton. He was born 19 June 1937 in Selma, Alabama, where his parents Sam and Amelia (nee Platts) were both active in voter registration; Amelia registered to vote in 1932, no mean feat for a woman in a state where huge obstacles faced any black person desiring to exercise their rights. Both parents had attended the Tuskegee Institute and studied under the renowned botanist George Washington Carver, who was Bruce’s godfather and source of his middle name. Bruce was a precocious student, finishing high school at 14 and winning his BA from Fisk University at 18. He would receive his law degree from Howard University at 21.

With his degree, he returned to Alabama, but while the state bar association spent six years ‘investigating’ his conviction for trespass, he moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee where he worked defending sit-in protestors. In 1965, his mother was beaten savagely on America’s Bloody Sunday, at the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, the start of a march on the state capital in Montgomery; photos of her went round the world. In 2015, when President Barack Obama led a march across the bridge on Bloody Sunday’s 50th anniversary, he held hands with Emilia Boynton, then 103 years old, in her wheelchair.

Finally practising in Alabama, Bruce defended notable activists such as Stokley Carmichael, and was himself attacked by a county sheriff and two deputies. He defended one client with a plea of insanity caused by endemic racial abuse. Eventually, Boynton became the state’s first black special prosecutor, investigating a white mayor accused of attacking a black man, and then Alabama’s first black county attorney. Later feeling frustrated by what he felt was a lack of support from the black community, he returned to Washington to practice civil rights law, before coming back to Selma in private practice.

In May 2018, Boynton was honoured in Montgomery, where a courthouse was named after him. He received an award on behalf of the Freedom Riders, presented by Hank Thomas, a former state legislator who was another of the original 13 Freedom Riders and the only living survivor of the Anniston fire-bombing. “I decided to follow you and do what you had done,” Thomas said, “and it damn near killed me”.

Bruce Carter Boyton

born 19 June 1937 Selma, Alabama

died 24 November 2020, Montgomery Alabama

survived by his second wife, Betty and two daughters

Wednesday, 30 December 2020


Grudge Match is Mike Lupica’s second novel continuing Robert B Parker’s Sunny Randall series, and it is a large step forward from the first, Blood Feud, which I reviewed not so long ago.I liked that book’s tight and complicated plotting (if it’s resolution depended on a deus ex machina kind of good fortune) and Lupica handled the Sunny/Richie relationship with considerable sensitivity. He was also good when Sunny was interacting with characters already established by Parker’s own first six novels. Where it bogged down was in Sunny’s ping-ponging between characters and set-ups, which sometimes gave way to a kind of Boston travelogue as if Lupica, a Noo Yawka, was trying to establish his Bosstown chops.

Grudge Match is also tightly plotted. Tony Marcus is a Boston gangster inherited from the Parker oeuvre, and at the end of Blood Feud Sunny put one over on him. Now Marcus’ girlfriend Lisa, who’s also his business partner, has disappeared, and figures Sunny owes him one, and he wants Sunny to find her. Sunny takes the job, with obvious equivocation; after all Marcus runs hookers as one of his entreprenurial activities, but when someone she questions about Lisa is murdered, Sunny finds herself in for more than she might have bargained.

This plot moves on a couple of parallel lines, and though a couple of the twists are predictable, Lupica is very good at retwisting the second one, to make it something different than what it looked to be. Sunny’s own conflicts are amplified by her ambiguous position vis a vis the lawless Marcus, especially since Richie is now dealing with the return of his ex-wife and their son from Britain; the boy’s presence changes the nature of his and Sunny’s considerable relationship dilemmas. And again, Lupica handles this well: always a problem because as I pointed out in my previous review, Sunny is to some extent a female Spenser. It’s a considerable upgrade on his first effort, and I’d say Lupica is already proving the best of the Parker pastichers, short of Ace Atkins, so far. Worth a read if you miss even a sense of Parker.

Grudge Match by Mike Lupica, No Exit Press, £9.99, ISBN 9780857304025

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

Monday, 28 December 2020


The Cabin is the second of Jorn Lier Horst’s Cold Case Quartet, and I read it soon after reading and reviewing the third (and most recent in English) of the four, The Inner Darkness. In many ways, I preferred The Cabin, although it’s a less “flashy” thriller than the one that followed, which had an escaped serial killer and his unknown accomplice at its core. But The Cabin begins with a great hook: Bernard Clausen, a senior Labour Party politician is found dead in his cabin by the sea, and along with his corpse is a well-wrapped haul of dollars, pounds and euros, to the tune of some 80 million Norwegian kronor.

The body was found by the party head, and soon the Director General of the police has brought Wisting in to head his own investigation—not of of the death, which appears to be natural causes—but of the money: where it came from, why Clausen had it, and what he may have done to get it, or planned to do with it.

From this unlikely start, the story grows; the disappearance of a young man in the same locality some 15 years earlier might be related, and soon Wisting has uncovered a possible link to another crime. Behind all this is the political intrigue: it may be a mark of Norwegian politics that Wisting is given the leeway he needs for his investigation, but there are sensitive areas for both the party and the government, and Wisting’s small team soon expands to include Adrian Stiller, of Kripos, the national criminal service, roughly the equivalent of the Special Branch. Stiller is a recurring character, one who’s got his own agenda—Wisting tends to see it as personal, rather than political, but often they can be the same thing.

Also on his team, inevitably, is his journalist daughter Line, in this case for her research ability, and from her point of view the mystery might be the jumping off point for the sale of a big story or crime podcast. Line is an interesting character, but she tends to be filled in with rather less detail than we might like because she is more a vital part of the plotting: namely to be the damsel in distress. She is Jamie Lee Curtis babysitting and having to open the cellar door; she is the heroine tied to the tracks waiting – capable of fighting back but inevitably needing rescue. Which creates a real idiosyncrasy in this series: Line is often calling her father, usually in relation to his granddaughter; they live close by. But when Wisting thinks he sees someone leaving her house, and she feels like someone indeed has been there, there’s no follow-up. And as is the case in both the novels I’ve just finished, when Line calls in a real emergency, Wisting is always too busy to take the call. Which keeps the suspense moving, but you would think that he wouldn’t ignore his own phone only when the call is crucial. At least the odds are against it. He also reacts the way many characters in Nordic crime tend to, by ignoring the quickest way of sending help in favour of his own progress. This appears to be a pan-Scandinavian, pan-media quirk which I cannot explain.

Otherwise, The Cabin is an excellent procedural in which following procedures is the only way to deal with a case both cold and extremely hot. It proceeds without gimmick, and there is a twist which is perhaps more obvious to us than to Line, but still is a surprise. As I said, it’s got an element of originality and a limited group of investigators, which makes everyone stand out, and now I will continue my backwards progress in Horst’s quartet, with the first volume, The Katharina Code.

The Cabin by Jorn Tier Horst Penguin/Michael Joseph £13.99 ISBN 9780241405963

Monday, 14 December 2020


Tom Kerr is a serial killer. He has been in prison for four years, and could be facing permanent renewals of his original sentence which would keep him there for life. But he has confessed to a fellow inmate that he killed a third victim, and when that inmate deals his knowledge to the authorities, and Kerr is confronted, he agrees he will direct them to Taran Norum’s grave in exchange for a transfer to a more hospitable prison facility.

Since the killing, and the purported burial site, are in William Wisting’s district, he is put in nominal command of the security in the area. And his daughter Line, with the making a documentary film in mind, is hired by Adrian Stiller, of Kripos, the national police investigators to make a video record of the expedition.

But Kerr escapes, out-smarting the police at every turn. And at the same time, the body of another murdered woman turns out, killed in the same way as Kerr’s victims. It was assumed Kerr had an accomplice in his killings, known as the Other One, and the fear is that he is active, and he has aided Kerr’s escape, putting two killers on the loose. Not only must Wisting find the killer or killers, but he has to hurry, as the blame is being dropped on his shoulders, and his old nemesis, Terje Nordbo of Internal Affairs, thinks this time he has Wisting wrapped up.

The strength of Jorn Lier Horst’s Wisting novels, of which this is the third, is his plotting. They are police procedurals where the procedure is placed in the forefront, and the reader gets an understanding of how information is gathered and better, how the investigator makes sense of it, puts its pieces into the jigsaw puzzle of the crime. The Inner Darkness has a complex plot, as the searches for Kerr and the Other One intertwine (and you will be forgiven if it takes two tries, as it did me, to identify the accomplice). In many of the great Scandinavian police procedurals, going right back to Martin Beck, the plotting within the police force itself is equally gripping, the internal politics and of course here, with Wisting going up against Nordbo and Internal Affairs, it is central. Nordbo holds most of the cards, Wisting’s only avenue to clearing himself if to solve the case.

Wisting is an interesting character, but one who gives little away. As played by Sven Nordin in the television series, he is expressive, but keeps most of his thought processes to himself, almost to the point of passivity. This is common to Scandinavian police novels—there are few hot-headed cops in lead roles. Line, who reminds one of Linda Wallander, is Wisting’s foil: sharp, impulsive and heart on the sleeve, again played very well by Thea Greeen Lundberg with echoes of Johanna Sallstrom in the TV series. Wisting’s ordinariness echoes many of his fellow Scandinavian cops, and in other ways, as they have a penchant for making human errors, in simple things outside of best-practice, though in practice this is worse on television than in the originals novels, as the novelist has no need to add extra complications to the plot to fill a sixth or eighth episode.

The biggest shortcoming in Horst’s novel is the lack of depth to almost all the supporting cast—a couple of whom are fascinating characters: Nordbo of course, but also Stiller, from whom we get hints of much going on beneath the surface, and Kerr’s lawyer Claes Thancke, who is a sort of Norwegian Mickey Haller. You like to see them given a bit more space to be described and have more of their characters revealed. It is not a fatal flaw, ironically, because Horst’s plotting is so precise, and fast-paced, that their characters are delineated by their roles within the story—roles which Horst is very good at getting you to doubt.

It’s the kind of police procedural which gets read faster and faster as it nears the end, and not just because there’s a thriller element as well. If you might want more insight into Wisting, it doesn’t stop you being intrigued by how he works.

The Inner Darkness by Jorn Lier Horst

Michael Joseph: Penguin £14.99 ISBN 9780241389577

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

Saturday, 12 December 2020


My obituary of the former New York mayor David Dinkins is up at the Guardian online, and should be in the paper paper soon.You can link to it here. It's been cut somewhat from what I wrote originally--there were a lot of things that needed further explanation, and once the explanation was cut, the points themselves tended to go too. 

One thing I tried to stress was Dinkins' experience of segregation and prejudice when he went out of New York; Howard University is in Washington DC, which was still a strictly segregated city, and when he was in the Marines, Montford Point was a "separate but equal" training facility near the more famous and far better equipped Camp Lejeune. When Dinkins was not allowed on a bus because all the "coloured" seats were full, it was a Jackie Robinson type moment. But of course he didn't take action as Robinson did, and was court-marshalled for; I was trying to establish whether the bus was running between the two Marine camps but couldn't.

The obvious thing to note is that Dinkins was New York's first black mayor, and, as I mention, New York was the last of the ten biggest US cities to actually elect a black mayor. It was a difficult time for that experiment to take place, given the racial tensions in the city at the peak of a 15 year crime wave, for which Dinkins was not responsible. But to put him in context I tried to describe how he came from that Democratic party machine which pretty much had controlled the city for decades--where Koch had been elected as a reformer, Dinkins was from the very system Koch originally was trying to reform--but because he was racially an outsider, he was perceived by many as someone who could transform the city, something he was ill-equipped to do in any but the symbolic sense. 

He was potentially New York's most charismatic mayor since John Lindsay, who was Kennedy-esque in more ways than one, but that isn't necessarily the charisma the Big Apple requires; both Koch and Giuliani in some ways had that, as I allude to in my opening. I tried to compare him to Obama, but Obama was also a natural performer, a gifted public speaker, and eloquent in his ability to reach people. Dinkins, for all his other qualities, had neither Obama's fluency nor Lindsay's decisiveness, which left him caricatured as ineffective.

Politically, New York is Democratic, but it was also, especially in the outer boroughs, very much a white electorate. Lindsay was a Republican who had been elected while running on the Liberal Party line.The Liberals were a New York institution who were sometimes power brokers in elections, rather than being a kind of left conscience for Tammany Hall. Lindsay, who represented the affluent Manhattan "Silk Stocking" district in Congress, and when he was elected mayor in 1965 he beat Dinkins' mentor Abe Beame and columnist William F Buckley who ran on the Conservative ticket in protest at Lindsay's liberalism, by plurality in a three-way dance.  But the very same gestures that won him minority support in Manhattan hurt him in some of New York's white communities. When he ran for re-election in 1969 the city had been rocked by strikes (and a huge blizzard, where Lindsay was accused of prioritizing the streets of Manhattan over other boroughs). He lost the Democratic primary to the very conservative Mario Proccachino (there were so many candidates Lindsay quipped "the more the Mario"). The Republicans ran the even-more conservative John Marchi, a state senator from mostly-white Staten Island. Lindsay ran only on the Liberal line, but again won a three-way with an even bigger plurality than he had in 1965. It was a turbulent era for Lindsay, who engendered the term "fun city" (used ironically, first by writer Dick Schaap) and who was dubbed, by Proccachino, the first "limousine liberal". 

It was this atmosphere, which got worse in the Seventies as the city went bankrupt and the drugs got worse, I was trying to suggest, with Dinkins caught in a swarm of disasters which he didn't cause, but which required huge talents to overcome. In that context, Giuliani was the reincarnation Proccachino and Marchi, but the endorsement of the Liberal Party was a free ticket for 'liberals' to vote against a black candidate. The Liberals had suffered when they endorsed liberal Republican Jacob Javits for US Senator, allowing the right-wing goof ball Al D'Amato to defeat Democrat Elizabeth Holzman, but Giuliani was, for the party, a death knell, especially when he appeared to reward the Liberal boss Ray Harding with patronage.  But of course, there was no way to tell that story quickly, as you've just seen.

Equally, there wasn't space for the progress of Ed Koch from reformer to corruption: the suicide of Queens borough president Donald Manes in the midst of a huge patronage scandal was the atmosphere which Dinkins neatly managed to avoid being smeared with, a neat political trick. I also tried to compare Dinkins with Barack Obama in greater depth -- but apart from the idea of calm leaders failing to bridge party political gaps, that wasn't as viable, as Obama didn't rise up within the party machine. 

To me the Dinkins story is one of New York City at the time, and his single controversial term speaks loudly about the chaotic nature of the Apple at the time. It was ironic that Dinkins, a huge tennis fan and player, managed to keep the US Open in the city, and the Utah tourist Brian Wilkins was killed on the subway on his way to the Open, trying to protect his mother from a gang of muggers.

Perhaps it is to Giuliani's credit that things began to calm down in the Nineties, or perhaps that was just as much about outside forces, like economic growth nationwide, as Dinkins' troubles were. But it is undeniable that, had he been capable of the big gesture, in a city where gestures can be important and big is always crucial, Dinkins might be remembered differently.

Monday, 30 November 2020


For the Thanksgiving issue of The American magazine, I wrote about Tom Brady and his move from the New England Patriots, where for 20 seasons he and coach Bill Belichick have dominated the NFL, to Tampa Bay, which dominated for a year right about the time Brady joined the Bucs.

It was written before the Bucs' back to back 27-24 losses to the Rams and Chiefs, so I might want to update on the team's problems, but the piece mostly delves into the reasons for the football divorce, and the reasons for choosing the Buccaneers as his new place to extend his career into his forties. Now if he only learned to place kick! It worked for George Blanda. You can link to the story here.


My obituary of George Cockcroft, who, as Luke Rhinehart wrote and was the main character in The Dice Man, appeared in the Guardian on November 27th; it had already appeared online but was bumped from the paper paper on the 26th by the death of Diego Maradona. If you missed it in either location, you can link to the online version here

It was a fascinating story to tell, and there were bits I had to leave out and some which had to be cut to fit the length I'd been assigned. I had, for example, started to discuss The Dice Man in terms of other works that play with probabilities; Philip K Dick's The Man In The High Castle, for example, about a decade earlier, had characters throwing the I Ching to decide their actions; Dick himself claimed to have plotted the book using the I Ching. Since Cockcroft's fictional protagonist is also the fictional author, I liked the comparison. But though I felt fairly confident that Cockcroft had likely read the novel, I couldn't really find any connection. Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association is about a man whose life is centered on running his own fictional baseball league whose results he finds using three dice,whose numbers read consecutively, offer probabilities through which his simulated games take place. And of course Stoppard's Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead begins with a coin being flipped again and again, with always the same probability of either heads of tales. But intriguing as these ideas were, and the way they might merge together, there was no way to speculate in a couple of lines!

The research was somewhat problematic too. I found several revealing interviews; Cockcroft, once he went public with his identity, could charm his interviewers, especially, as I say, when they visited him on his lakeside house in upstate New York (one of them marveled at being introduced to the peanut butter, olive and mayonnaise sandwich. . But sometimes there were differences in the stories, and it was exceedingly difficult to discover facts, about family, and where he taught, and sometimes when. With a good guess as to his mother's maiden name I did find his ancestor who was Chief Justice of the Vernont State Supreme Court, but I couldn't establish who the governor in his mother's family had been. I know he was at University de los Americas in Mexico City in the mid-Sixties and at Dowling College probably when it opened in 1968 in an old Vanderbilt mansion on Long Island. It might have been their programme in which he was teaching in Mallorca.

The story of his near-death at sea was cut; he actually had apologised to his wife and children for killing them before they were rescued by a freighter blown adrift. He had just bought the yacht with his savings, and was sailing it on vacation before bringing it back to Mallorca. The delay caused him to miss the first meeting with Mike Franklin, whose co-publisher was Shel Talmy, the producer of the Kinks and Who among others, who got cut from the obit, but if you're looking for first editions, the UK one is from Talmy-Franklin. 

His younger brother James was an interesting story himself: the brothers and their wives twice lived together, one of those times being in Mexico City. He was also a writer (of more than 30 books) and professor, and an activist, specializing in left-wing Latin American politics. He predeceased Cockcroft, but there was also an older sister, Patricia, also pre-deceased, who doesn't seem to have figured as deeply in their lives. I also tracked down (online) Tim Linthicum, who wound up an English professor and seems to show up in writers' circles in academia. 

But the most serious bit that was lost was my explanation of the start of The Dice Man, which I felt was necessary because although Rhinehart is a funny narrator, he is also a very self-centered and as Cockcroft said, "the colder harder part of George". The problem was the novel starts with Luke wanting to sleep with his best-friend's wife. So he rolls his die, and the one he rolls dictates that he should rape her, so he does. I wrote that, but it was changed to "have sex with her", which is in a way more accurate because it is a gray area: he goes to their flat, rings the bell, and tells her he is going to rape her. So she invites him in and tells him not to borrow her husband's bathrobe afterwards. The paper was averse to using the word rape because they had received a number of complaints after their obit of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, but again, to tell the story properly would have taken too long, and I then wanted to mention the very Fifties attitude this "if rape is inevitable lie back and enjoy it" scene represents.

I had never been a fan of the book particularly, but I found it an interesting look at an era that had already changed: Luke was like if Henry Miller had written the Jack Lemmon character from The Apartment crossed a bit of  Holden Caufield.I think Cockcroft was looking for something more existential, as his thesis on Kafka might show, but he's very much in Miller's tradition, that what I do, who I am, is important, even if I lie outside the world of societal expectation.

Saturday, 28 November 2020


An overlooked strong point of Michael Connelly’s crime writing, even when one of his major recurring characters is the lawyer Mickey Haller, The Lincoln Lawyer, has been his skillful adaptation of the courtroom thriller. This was most evident in Two Kinds Of Truth, where Haller’s half-brother Harry Bosch is being framed for planting evidence, even as he goes undercover to solve a double-murder at a pharmacy and break up a massive opiod scam business. The way the two stories are weaved together leads to a courtroom denouement in which Haller works his magic with the material Bosch and his own investigator Cisco have uncovered.

It’s told in the third person, but from Bosch’s point of view, so the reader is seeing the courtroom tactics with Bosch’s explanation, as if he were a commentator for the reader to the event. As an aside, in the television series Bosch, the same scene, with some crucial modifications (not least that because of film rights to The Lincoln Lawyer character, Haller does not appear) is handled in a similar way.

In The Law Of Innocence, it’s Haller who’s being framed. The body of a former client, a career con-man whose bills of course went unpaid, is found in the trunk of Haller’s Lincoln after a seemingly routine traffic stop, and the forensic evidence indicates he was killed in Haller’s garage. Haller decides to defend himself, because the only way to prove his innocence is to prove someone else guilty, and he’s the lawyer best-qualified to do that. The problem is, he’s in jail, and he’s got to get himself out and free to pursue his own investigation and courtroom manoeuvring.

What makes it work, of course, is the way Connelly builds the story piece by piece, as he would with any case. Haller, Cisco and Harry Bosch all follow leads, some of which lead in dead-end directions, but all orchestrated by Haller as he tries to build the foundation of his defense.

But what is really fascinating is the way the story is told, in Haller’s first-person narration. It’s one thing to see from Harry Bosch’s perspective Haller’s abilities to bend and twist the truth, to sometimes run roughshod over ethical bounds, as you did in Two Kinds Of Truth. It’s completely different when you are inhabiting Haller’s own point of view, and the way Connelly writes it, it’s as if you are inside his brain as it is spinning, making decisions on the fly. And this is not just in terms of the legal case; Bosch plays only a small part in the story, but you get a different perspective on how Haller views his less ethically flexible sibling. More important, when the story starts, Haller’s girlfriend has gone off seeking her own space; she returns in his time of need. And so too does his ex-wife, and mother of his daughter, district attorney Maggie “McFierce”. Haller’s own emotional boil is something Connelly writes with great precision, letting the reader see exactly how Haller is focused.

The case itself is not what he appears to be, which you would expect, but it is this low-key but bravura writing which makes it work. There are a couple of items left unresolved; I was irritated by a red-herring of lost papers that never actually reappears, but the others, the nature of the traffic stop itself and the machinations behind the frame-up, would seem to leave the door open for Mickey Haller to seek further justice for himself, and Harry Bosch would be just the person to be at the center of that.

The Law Of Innocence by Michael Connelly Orion Books, £20.00, ISBN 9781409186106