Friday, 31 July 2020

THE WASHINGTON NAME GAME: My American Magazine Column

In case I haven't mentioned it, I do a monthly column for the American magazine here in the UK, which appears online and in the print edition. July's was an essay on the problem with the Redskins and other nicknames, including possible suggestions for new names (the Watergators, anyone?) and the problems some colleges have (the Idaho Vandals: if I were a Vandal I'd be scandalized!). If you're interested, you can link to it here.

Sunday, 19 July 2020


My review of Castle Freeman's Come With Me was originally published at Crime Time, but if you hit the link to it I left in 2009 here at IT, it's dead. So I thought I'd reprint the review now. I had been looking for it because I discovered that it had been made into a 2015 movie, called Blackway, directed by the Swedish director Daniel Alfredson, who did the second two films of the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. I was curious, and I wanted to be reminded of the book before I searched out the film. I'll preface my review of the book with my original Irresistible Targets intro.

Although the story moves along somewhat predictable lines, and though some of the characters are telegraphed by their names, it is the quality of the prose, particularly the dialogue, which makes it work. The quality of Freeman's seemingly simple northern New England prose, and the sharpness of the unsaid within his characters' conversations, makes this a formidable work: a modern Deliverance set in Vermont. What it has that Deliverance didn't is humour: and again this is something of the old New England wryness (the kind of irony Americans are not supposed to possess, according to received wisdom in this country) that I first encountered on the page in The Real Diary Of A Real Boy, by Henry Shute, one of my favourite books when I was a child.

Interestingly, one of the dailies (oh, go on, it was the Guardian) reviewed this book and thought Freeman was a woman. That's nowhere near as bad as the guy I heard on Open Book once talking about Flannery O'Conner as a man, but it does show you how fine-tuned his prose is, as well as revealing what critics sometimes assume about such prose. Actually, although the main character is a woman, the narration is pretty obviously in a male, New England male, Vermonter voice.


When Sheriff Ripley Wingate finds a woman asleep in her car outside his office, early in the morning before most of his Vermont town has risen, he listens to her story and sends her away. The woman is being stalked by a man called Blackway, who has just slit her cat's throat. She refuses to run away from him, but there is nothing the sheriff can do, except send her out to the old sawmill on Dead River, looking for someone who might be able to help. And when that someone turns out not to be there, the men gathered around the pot belly stove call in the only two men working, old Lester Speed and the simple young giant, Nate the Great.  They head off in search of Blackway, and little by little we learn that the woman's name is Lillian, that Blackway has scared her former boyfriend out of Vermont, and that Blackway is not one with whom you trifle.

This might not sound like the most engrossing of plots, but the beauty of this book is in the slow crafting of the story, almost exactly the way stories are told around the stove in the sawmill. That mill is run by Alonzo 'Whizzer' Boot, so called because he's confined to a motorised wheelchair, and the small circle of men, like most of the people in this novel, have nothing much to do, certainly nothing legal. 'No one works,' the sheriff muses at the start of the novel, not like the days of hard-scrabble farming and Yankee grit. It's a circle closed to outsiders, like Lillian, often called 'flatlanders' by the locals, and her journey with Lester and Nate is, in its way, an initiation to the realities of the area to which she came, viewed with amused detachment, but now, if she is going to stay, to assuage her stuborness, becomes a life of which she must learn to become a functioning part.

It's a domestic sort of Deliverance, with Lillian's quest counterpointed by the hot-stove chatter of the men. Freeman, who writes for Yankee magazine, an eccentric reading tradition in Northern New England, has a fine feel for the local talk, for the way outsiders are excluded from it, and for the traditional, if somewhat stereotypically cliched, crafty logic of the people. But what really makes the novel work is its sense of timelessness, in being somehow caught out of time. There are hints that it is being narrated from the present, talking about the past, and others that this is very much the present. But Freeman, perhaps feeling a bit unsure if the audience gets this dislocation, has one of the characters around the hot stove, Conrad, who is the outsider in the group, having married into the town, explain it all. He tells his wife he feels like they are sitting in a rocket ship, travelling at the speed of light, so that 'time doesn't pass for them. Time stretches. It stretches or it shrinks. Or something. They're out of time, you know?' And his wife says 'No, Einstein...I don't have any idea what you're talking about and I don't think you do either.' Though she knows enough to know it's Einsteinian, whatever it is. And Conrad, showing how much he's assimilated, says 'That's possible too'.

This is a finely written book that only gradually becomes a thriller, and all the while it is essaying something that we may have, indeed, lost forever. Freeman can muse, in a coda, about what this new world is like, but for the short ride of these 160 pages, he enthralls you with the old world. A small marvel.

Go With Me
Castle Freeman
Duckworth Overlook 2009, £7.99, ISBN 9780715638354

Saturday, 18 July 2020


My obituary of John Lewis, the Civil Rights leader and Congressman, is online at the Guardian, you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper soon. I was working
with some limits of space, or I think I would have gone into greater detail about the excisions from his March on Washington speech, and maybe about his effectiveness and ability to play hardball politics: you could never call Lewis an ineffectual Congressman.

I also missed a trick by not mentioning that March won a National Book Award. When he accepted the award, he broke down in tears, remembering how he had been refused a library card when he was young, which I had mentioned. They would have tied together nicely.

I do remain baffled by my paper's eccentric rules of grammar, by which the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee's acronym, SNCC, is in caps, but the Congress Of Racial Equality's acronym, CORE, is rendered Core. Go figure. 

Thursday, 9 July 2020


When I was in college I discovered The Shadow. The first of the reprints of his pulp exploits was The Living Shadow, which I probably read in the summer of 1970. It had a striking cover by an artist identified as Kossim, who I later learned was Sanford Kossim, and as my reading at the time was largely comic books and sf, it was a perfect fit for the time I was deciding whether or not I should return for my third year of college -- the student strike and my own lack of academic engagement had me pondering my future.

The Shadow did not draw me back to university, but among other things it probably influenced my decision to concentrate on the subjects I felt I needed to study, one of which was American studies. In that class, for the exceptional professor Richard Slotkin, I wrote my final paper on The Shadow, some 55 pages, which among other things drew a comparison with Herman Meville's Confidence Man, illustrated by the cover of the Signet paperback, with a cover by Kossim.

Captivated by The Shadow as I was, I looked for other pulp heroes, and the most obvious place to start was with The Spider, the most successful, and obvious, of The Shadow copies. I didn't go very far with The Spider, although author Norvell Page (writing under the house name Grant Stockbridge) had a talent for keeping things moving. But the lockdown being what it was, I decided to give The Spider a second chance.

Fifty years later, it was even harder to be impressed. I chose Dragon Lord Of The Underworld because I do have a fondness for the pulp versions of Chinatown, and Chinese super-villains, but Ssu Hsi Tze (Four Vermin, apparently a nom de guerre) was a disappointment. Page specialised in villains with outre weapons of mass destruction: in this case, literally, vermin, which of course in  The Spider's, mind, refers to the rule of vermin, not just accomplished by vermin, including the dread Kara Khoum spiders from the Gobi desert. And, as he fears, "what the Chinese could accomplish here in America was fearful to contemplate. He would have the instant, unquestioning obedience of every Chinese, to the death." This is 1935, after all. Look at the cover: white woman in the clutches of the long-nailed Chinese villain and his henchmen. The Yellow Peril threat engulfing society's most cherished symbol!

The casual racism is typical, but Richard Wentworth, The Spider, is an enigma. He is part Superman and part louche, which fits the Shadow model, but he lacks the dark centre and fearsme intensity of Lamont Cranston. His Margo Lane is his faithful girlfriend Nita Van Sloan, and one of the most fascinating differences to The Shadow is the way Page does not hold back from suggesting the sexual relationship between the two, even if it's never actually shown. Though she does always call him 'Dick'. Oddly, Nita is described early on as one of the three 'servants' who knows his true identity, another being his servant Ram Singh, a Kato-type bodyguard and chaffeur. The others are not characters, simply off-stage presences who can explain The Spider's uncanny knowledge of events, but the odd thing is that, at least in this novel, the villain knows his identity, knows where he lives, knows where he can attack Nita, and this appears to be more general knowledge than the narrative would dictate.

In Spider novels the death toll mounts exponentially, this is another characteristic of many of the pulp hero novels, most notably Operator No5, who fights the 'Purple Invasion' in a series of novels whose body count far surpasses World War II, and stands as the apex of Yellow Peril fiction. But the resolution of The Spider's battle always boils down to the mano a mano battle, with imperiled frails, bizarre tortures and underground catacombs laden with traps in which to fall.

Of course Nita in peril is a given, but its the handling of two other female characters that is most interesting. One is Flo Delight, a 'dancer' who wants revenge on The Spider because she thinks he killer her gangster boyfriend Craven (though it was Ssu who killed him as part of his bid to take over crime in New York). The names are not subtle, in case you hadn't noticed. Flo pursues The Spider and finally is left in the hands of Nita, a study in white and somewhat stained gray. When finally Ssu brings her face to face with her nemesis, he makes the fatal villain mistake of not honoring his promise to let her kill him with her own hands. Tsk tsk.  The other, more intriguing woman, is San-Guh Liang-Guh, Ssu's handmaiden. Oriental villains always seem to have beautiful women (Fu Manchu's daughter Fah Lo Suee being the prototype) with whom to tempt their white enemies, though in San-Liang's case the first thing Wentworth notices is that she is not a pure-blooded Manchu. Not that his fealty to Nita is ever in doubt.

This all may seem silly beyond words, but Page's real talent lies in the final showdown, which turns into a literal battle of wills between Ssu and The Spider, who is billed, on the pulp covers, as The Master Of Men, something to compete with The Shadow's ability to 'cloud men's minds'. With San-Liang holding a still vengeful Flo at knife point and the governor of New York a mindless prison about to unleash mass destruction on the city, there is no way The Spider could ever escape, much less save New York and America! Is there?

Tuesday, 7 July 2020


My obituary of Charles Webb, who wrote The Graduate and gave away virtually all the money he made writing, from film and from inheritance, is up at the Guardian. You can link to it here; it should be in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I had written it, but it really begged for more space; his and his wife's lives were so peripatetic, and they were so steadfast and true to their beliefs, their story deserved as much telling as I could give it.

I think the film of The Graduate, which seemed so 'anti-establishment' to some folks in 1967, was way behind not only Webb, as I say in the obit (he wrote the novel in 1963) but also behind the young people whom the film was supposedly speaking for. It seemed very much a mainstream approach to a mainstream view, and what we remember most about it is the comedy, not the angst that is supposed to lie at its core.


In 2015, I watched Ennio Morricone conduct at the O2 center in London. The sound of that concert has stayed with me for the past five years, and it came back in all its magnificence when I heard Morricone had died. I wrote this essay about the evening, which you can read at Medium, using this link, which should by-pass Medium's pay-wall, though Medium is well-worth your support.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020


I wrote this one in the late summer and early fall of 1975, soon after I'd moved to Montreal. I have a fondness for it, mostly for the darkness underneath its innocence; I have the feeling I was beginning to experience my first real being on my own in a place that was, well, different.It was published in 1977, along with four other of my new poems from a new city and country, in a newspaper format magazine called The Lance, which was published somewhere in Ontario, I think. Return with us now to those stirring days of yesteryear.....


All the shadows (those
      friendly faces at the top of
      the stairs
      peeking out of the closet
      you’d never dare open
when you were a kid
paranoid playmates

had you
      to yourself
to assure you
you were
      still alive

When you knew all
along    deep
that you shouldn’t

the demons seemed
the same,
                their faces
flew together
like migrating birds

lost &

a chorus
in silence

major themes
of your life.

                     (& still does.

Saturday, 20 June 2020


For those of you interested in American football, yesterday I did a post for my Friday Morning Tight End football site at Patreon (you can link to it here), discussing the bias the ProFootball Hall of Fame appears to have shown against players from the NFL's rival league from 1960-69, the American Football League. The piece was prompted by an exercise going on at Sports Illustrated, to try to pick the most worthy AFL players who have not yet been included, and I wind up by picking my top ten. When SI pick their top ten we will compare.

I have unlocked the post for this weekend, so you can read it without subscribing, but next week I will begin writing a weekly preview of the upcoming season, going division by division, and breaking down the off-season changes for each team. So the time to subcribe is now!

That's Mike Stratton about to break Keith Lincoln's ribs. I talk about it in the piece!


I was on BBC  Radio 4's Front Row last night, discussing the new Bob Dylan album, Rough & Rowdy Ways, and the TV adaptation of Eleanor Catton's Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries. Friday episodes are 45 minutes, so I thought we were going to have a longer amount of time to discuss each item, but unknown to me there were a number of other pieces going in the show, and they also did very well to have a fine interview about Ian Holm, who died that day. You can link to it here on BBC Sounds, our reviews (host Kirsty Lang and Guardian music writer Laura Barton) start at about 15 minutes in; the Holm tribute follows after them.

I have seen the first two episodes of the series, for which Catton herself did the adaptation, and I enjoyed them enough to watch on. As I said, I think as the two time-lines and locations converge, in the mining town of Hokitika: if they keep expanding the number of (male) characters they could lose the focus, and if they don't they need to keep the mystery, and the danger moving. One thing I didn't say was how much I thought Catton herself resembled NZ PM Jacinda Arden! Judge for yourselves.

As I said, I felt Dylan's record was his best in years, harking back to the song-writing of Blood On The Tracks, but with more of a feel of the Basement Tapes/John Wesley Harding years. It is elegiac, but when I thought about, those albums, after his motorcycle crash, were also in the vein of looking back. I was lucky to be able to squeeze in a Gregory Corso quote about Jack Kerouac into this context, and I have to say I thought it felt particularly appropriate.

I do intend to write reviews of both the record and the show here soon, so I won't say more, but have a listen to the show.


My obit of Jean Kennedy Smith, the last of the Kennedy siblings, went online yesterday at the Guardian, you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper soon.

I had written it a few years ago for stock, and there was little to change. I added some details and clarified the Northern Irish peace process a bit, but basically it was as written. I would have liked to have spent more time on her childhood, and the aura of privilege which she enjoyed, but with the space I had, the issues more important to our British audience were paramount. I'm not sure her bit part in Michael Collins was as important as it seems to be the way I wrote it, but it was a nice bit of trivia to include.I did think the Barack O'Bama endorsement was a great way to conclude, especially with the references to John Hume.

Monday, 15 June 2020


I have no doubt that Scott Turow read and/or watched a lot of Perry Mason when he was younger. It’s not that his novels ape Erle Stanley Gardner’s template, with the shocking courtroom reveal. Nor is his prose as straight-forward and workmanlike as the pulp wordsmith. But what Turow does that Gardner did before him is get beyond the simple elements of courtroom drama, by presenting the personal conflicts outside the courtroom. His stories are not so much ‘whodunits’ as ‘whydunits’, sometimes as tricky in their past references as Agatha Christie and other times as revelatory as Ross MacDonald, in whose books the evil that men do always seems to come back to haunt someone.

The Last Trial is firmly in that style. It is, literally, the last trial for Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern, a constant presence in Turow’s courtrooms. He is now 85, in court with his daughter and legal partner Marta. His Paul Drake (Perry Mason’s investigator) is his grand-daughter and paralegal, Pinky, a punky problem for most of her family but her granddad’s favourite, kind of like William Katt playing Paul Drake, Jr. Stern is defending an old friend, and fellow Argentine immigrant, Kiril Parko, a Nobel prize winning medical researcher who is being put on trial for counts of murder, fraud and insider trading when his anti-cancer drug, G-livia, has apparently caused deaths in patients receiving it as treatment.

This is a complicated case, not least because, difficult as the medical case is, the financial law regarding fraud and insider trading are even more convoluted. Part of the joy of Turow’s best work is following his explanations for laymen of the issues involved, and the way the legal issues often trump the factual ones.

But what makes this novel work so well is the parallel construction of the families. Pafko’s partner is his son, by all accounts a brilliant researcher, and his wife Donatella, whom Kiril wooed away from her previous husband, is a steely counter-point to her husband’s Argentine charm: a hard contrast to Stern’s own. In fact, when one potential witness seems to give Sandy a come-on, it is something that sends warning signals up for the reader, if not for Stern himself. And in the end, the case comes down not so much to the legalities and their interpretation by lawyers, judge and jury. That system is so enclosed, it was a wonder the judge, with a former relationship with Sandy and working past with the US attorney, didn’t see fit to recuse herself. But as I say, in the end that doesn’t matter: the case and its denouement comes down to a matter of personality, or personalities, of conflicts hidden and overlooked for decades, and simple matters of personal pride and ego. Turow leads us to a legal conclusion, and to a personal one as well, made clear in Sandy’s final dialogue with Pinky, in which she questions whether the case’s outcome was fair. Sandy thinks “the law is erected on many fictions, and perhaps the falsest one of all is that humans, in the end, are rational”. The thought inform s Sandy’s reply to her, and it is a hell of a way to go out.

The Last Trial by Scott Turow
Macmillan Mantle, £18.99, ISBN 9781529039085

Note: this review also appeared at Shots Crime & Thriller E-Zine

Wednesday, 10 June 2020


My obituary of Herbert Stempel appeared in yesterday's Daily Telegraph. In case you missed it in the paper paper, and don't have a digital subscription, this is the piece as I filed it...had I had more space, I would have discussed in greater detail the move in American TV from 'working class' programmes which is obvious, especially in sitcoms: Jackie Gleason's bus driver and William Bendix's factory worker gave way to the affluent suburban males like Robert Young, or those who served as pipe-smoking suit-wearing office-going husbands for the likes of Donna Reed. My mother never dressed like that when she served us dinner! But the difference between Stempel and Van Doren is part of that move to aspirational shows that would encourage viewers to buy the sponsors' products. And course it was also a perfect preview of the Kennedy-Nixon debates, with JFK as Van Doren and Stempel as Nixon. Finally, I didn't mention this, but I always wondered if the Israelis had not watched 21 before they put Adolf Eichmann on trial in his glass box.And of course I would ave written more about the dangers of believing 'reality' television is actually real.

Herb Stempel, who has died aged 93, was the central figure in the scandal of fixed television quiz shows that shocked 1950's America. The nation followed his prize-winning rise on '21' and ultimate defeat by Charles van Doren never suspecting all was scripted, like a wrestling match, to build up drama. Stempel returned to the public eye in a 1992 television documentary, leading to Robert Redford's 1994 movie Quiz Show, in which Ralph Fiennes played Van Doren and John Turturro was Stempel.

Quiz shows broke American television's domination by sitcoms, westerns and detective shows, and offered large cash prizes. When Stempel watched '21' he thought he might do well, and with good reason.

Stempel was born in New York. His father Solomon, a postman, and mother Mary were both Jewish immigrants. When Stempel was seven his father died; the family moved from Queens to a poorer neighbourhood in the Bronx, living on public assistance. A precocious student, he skipped a year in primary school, where he won a number of fountain pens on a radio quiz called 'Americana'. He gained a place at the highly-selective Bronx High School of Science, again excelling at quizzes on a team called the Kid Wizards. He enrolled at City College of New York but left to enlist in the Army, serving until 1952, including as an intelligence analyst. He returned to New York, took a job, like his father, in the post office, married his first wife, Tobie Mantell, and returned to CCNY on the GI Bill.

He wrote to 21, then sat a 3 ½ hour exam on which he claimed he scored the highest-ever result, 251 of 363 questions correct. But when Dick Enright, the show's co-producer along with its presenter Jack Barry, visited his house to offer him a spot, he asked if Stempel would like to make $25,000. Knowing what was implied, Stempel agreed. He was groomed to be 'the heel', the man the audience wanted to see lose. He was given a buzz cut, dressed in ill-fitting suits, even supplied with a cheap watch whose ticking was audible in the contestants' booths, all “to make me appear what you would now call a nerd.” He was coached with answers, but more importantly in his delivery, how to seem anguished, torn, worried. Viewers of modern quizzes like 'Millionaire' will recognise the symptoms.

Van Doren was the baby-face hero. The sponsors wanted a clean-cut, middle-class type who reflected the moves in sitcoms from 'urban' workers to affluent suburban consumers. He was part of New York's premier literary and academic family; the contrast between his light-suited cool and Stempel's intensity foreshadowed the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates. Stempel was promised that if he lost without fuss he would have a consulting job, appear on another quiz, 'Hi-Lo' and be booked on other network programmes, like Steve Allen's talk show. He agreed, but was galled by the question he was told to miss: 1955's Oscar-winning movie. Marty, the correct answer, was one of his favourites; ironically, the wrong answer he gave, On The Waterfront, is about a boxer who takes a dive in a crucial match.

None of the promises came true. Enright 'completely forgot I existed,' Stempel told the documentary. He reneged on $20,000 of Stempel's ostensible $69,000 winnings, and got him to sign a document saying he was never coached. Even worse, Van Doren's brother John would win $80,000 on High-Low. Stempel blew the whistle to a paper, but not until another quiz show, Dotto's, cheat sheet became public was he believed. Fixing a TV show broke no laws, but after the judge sealed New York's grand jury investigation, a Congressional probe found Van Doren, Enright and others guilty of perjury.

Stempel lost most of his winnings to an investment con. He taught, then worked as a legal investigator for New York's Transportation Department. He was a paid consultant on Redford's film, and played a cameo as a witness. He disliked Turturro's overly-whining portrayal of him, but told interviewers he understood. After all, as he had years before told Congress, “I was not a quiz my opinion, I was an actor”.

He died 7 April 2020 in a nursing home in Queens. His former step-daughter, Barbara Fyne, confirmed his death, which was not announced.

Herbert Milton Stempel b 19 December 1926 New York City
died 7 April April 2020 New York
m (1) Tobie Mantell died 1980 m (2) Ethel Feinblum, divorced
survived by son, Harvey from his first marriage