Wednesday, 31 December 2008

IN MEMORIAM: SUSANNA YAGER:

Susanna Yager was the crime fiction critic of the Sunday Telegraph for more than a decade, and during this time I used to meet her at various publishers' lunches and launches, and it was always a pleasure. Not only was she the most enthusiastic and perceptive critic, able to condense for her audience the essence of the kind of books she liked and transform that into a signpost into the kind of books they would like, but she was also, with her background as a director of publishing houses and an early boss at Channel 4 TV, a wonderful font of gossip and insight which I found tantalizing. She died December 15th, but it took until New Year's Eve for me to find out. She had been ill for some time, though you'd never have guessed it when you saw her; I recall her at a lunch for Graham Hurley shrugging off questions about her health with casual grace. I'll miss her, and so will British crime fiction readers, and crime writers everywhere.

Monday, 29 December 2008

STEVE HAMILTON DOES SOME NIGHT WORK

My review of Steve Hamilton's first stand-alone, Night Work, has been posted at Crime Time, and you can find it here. Hamilton's Alex McKnight series was very good, and my interview with him about that series was published in my American Eye column at Shots, which you can find here.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

CODY MCFADYEN'S SHADOW MAN

More catching up with Crime Time: my review of Cody McFadyen's debut novel, Shadowman, is up now: you can find it here. It's most interesting for its portrayal of the female FBI agent, Smoky Barrett, and worth a look.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

JAMES SHEEHAN'S MAYOR OF LEXINGTON AVENUE

My review of James Sheehan's The Mayor Of Lexington Avenue, written when the book was published in 2005, has been posted at Crime Time, you can find it here. Sheehan's second novel, The Law Of Second Chances, has just been published in the UK by Corgi.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

HARD BOILED COMICS: THE LATEST SHOTS AMERICAN EYE COLUMN

My latest American Eye column is up at Shots; you can find it here. Ed Brubaker is one of the most interesting people writing comics, and these two collaborations with Sean Phillips, Coward and The Dead And The Dying, are real classic hard-boiled stuff, borrowing and playing with the conventions of the genre, both written and film, which is something you have the freedom to do in graphic novels.

The article is accompanied by the cover of the British edition of The Dead And The Dying, which is definitely toned down from the original US version (which is pictured left). The British cover is more in keeping with the cover of Coward (they are the first and third of a series) while the American one seems designed to emphasize the sex, an appeal more to the anti-Comics Code Authority tastes of the younger audience, maybe?

Saturday, 13 December 2008

BETTIE PAGE: ABOUT MY GUARDIAN OBIT

My obituary of Bettie Page is in today's Guardian, you can find it here. I would've liked a better main picture, but the second photo, one of Bunny Yeager's 'cheetah' shots, is fine.

But contrary to what appears there, Bettie did not 'narrate' Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous' for eleven years; the programme did a feature on her, for which she appeared only in voice-over (not wanting her fans to see how she now looked). Why the one became the other I have no idea. (Note: the error was corrected on 30/12).

Some details were omitted: Bettie always believed her failure to win the valedictorian's scholarship to Vanderbilt was the turning point of her life; she got the salutorian's scholarship to Peabody. The abuse she'd received from her mother's boarder stopped short of full sex, which was why she'd considered her sister's abuse more serious. And when she appeared at the Playboy anniversary party, she easily outshone the models like Anna Nicole Smith and Pamela Anderson who flocked to pose with her.

Monday, 8 December 2008

JFK AND THE UNSPEAKABLE: THE LOBSTER ESSAY

My essay on James Douglass' JFK AND THE UNSPEAKABLE is out now in the current issue of Lobster (number 56) which is published bi-annually. It's the most important book about the JFK assassination since the LaFontaines' OSWALD TALKED, and already one of the key texts for those dissenting from the mainstream's one crazed assassin myth. The review isn't available online, but editor Robin Ramsey has kindly allowed me to post it here. Lobster is a valuable magazine; the current issue includes a fascinating update on the Cecil King 'coup' against Harold Wilson in 1968, an important look at UK connections growing out of the revelations from FBI whistle-blower Sibel Edmonds, Colin Challen MP on crony capitalism, and some curious facts about New Labour networking. The back issue catalogue is full of important material. You can order the magazine (one year, two issues, £8 UK, £9 Europe, £10 ROW) from 214 Westbourne Avenue, Hull HU5 3JB. Its website, which does include some useful older articles, can be found here.


I am writing this immediately after Barack Obama’s victory in the US Presidential election, almost half a century after John Kennedy became the first, and thus far only, Roman Catholic to capture the office. The 1960 election is the first I remember clearly, and the issue of Kennedy’s Catholicism, while perhaps not as dramatic as that of Obama’s race, was a contentious one, and not just in my school-yard. It was presented more along the lines of Obama’s alleged hidden loyalty to Islam: a Catholic president, it was argued, would be subservient to his master in Rome. That Kennedy’s own political strategists brought the issue into play, in order to appeal more to fair-minded Americans, reminds us that Kennedy was first and foremost a creature of politics, of power, and never a creature of religion. Yet when it comes to discussing his assassination, the most striking feature of those who propagate the official ‘lone, crazed assassin’ line is their omission of the crucial, wider issue of political motive.

The logical first question that should be asked, when seeking motive in a murder, is who benefits? In JFK’s case, the answers to that question have sometimes led researchers down blind alleys. While Douglas may not ‘solve’ the assassination, his book’s focus is the careful consideration of motive, which he approaches from a starting point of Catholic theology, specifically that of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk whose devotion to peace and liberation was often at odds with his own church, not to mention the so-called American religious mainstream. Far from leading Douglas down blind alleys, this approach opens doors for him, because if you can demonstrate clearly, as he does, that Kennedy had made a conscious decision to end the Cold War, the whole issue of Cui bono? becomes much more sharply focused, and the enemies of Kennedy’s policy turnaround step to the fore.

The argument about a conversion of Kennedy the cold-warrior has often been a key point of contention, not least from those on the left, who dismissed John Newman, or Oliver Stone and their insistence on JFK’s desire to pull out of Vietnam as the root cause of his killing. What Douglass has done is take that argument far deeper, by establishing Kennedy’s real desire to move to a more peaceful world, and by detailing the depth of the establishment’s resistance to those ideas.

His centrepiece and starting point is the famous speech at American University in June of 1963, where Kennedy stepped back publicly from his position as a reckless cold warrior who had marched the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Douglass goes from there into great detail, not only on negotiations with the Russians, and the test-ban treaty, or on opening a back-channel of communication with Cuba, but also lesser-known steps toward peace in Africa and southeast Asia, most notably the negotiated settlement with the Pathet Lao. Douglass spends a great deal of time presenting convincing evidence not only of Kennedy’s building of ‘back-channels’ for negotiation with the Soviets and with the Cubans, but that these channels were becoming effective, with the potential to allow Kennedy to by-pass the cold warriors who wanted no dealings with Kruschev or Castro. Douglass’s contention that Kennedy did this out of a real interest in making peace may at first seem naïve, or even sentimental, but as he stacks up the evidence it becomes convincing.

While establishing his thesis of a Kennedy newly devoted to the cause of peace, he also stakes his ground quickly on Oswald, establishing his credentials in intelligence – a familiar argument to anyone who knows the JFK case – but also showing that, far from hating Kennedy or seeing him as a target to propel him to fame, Oswald had been studying the President, reading his books, and admired him. What Douglass does, in constructing these parallel journeys, is establish both men as victims.

But if they were victims, victims of whom? Here it is harder to be specific, but what Douglass establishes beyond any doubt is the pattern of betrayal of Kennedy within the military, intelligence, and even diplomatic corps. In this sense, the real villain of the piece may be Henry Cabot Lodge, loser to Kennedy in the 1952 Senate race, Richard Nixon’s running mate in 1960, and appointed by Kennedy as Ambassador to Vietnam, possibly to keep him out of the running for the 1964 Republican presidential nomination. Lodge would drag his heels at reaching any accommodation with Vietnam’s President Diem, while the CIA’s Lucien Conein was busy organising the coup against him, just as the generals dragged their feet on troop withdrawal. With the CIA engineering ‘Quiet American’ style terrorism, bombing a Buddhist monastery in Hue to make it look like the Catholic Diem was responsible, they could back Kennedy into a position from which he could not escape, exactly as they had hoped to do with the Bay of Pigs, and create a pretext for a full-scale invasion of Cuba.

Having set out both Kennedy’s vulnerability, and the desirability of his removal within large portions of the ‘military-industrial complex’, Douglass also sets out the nature of the assassination plot. He draws strands together that become virtually unimpeachable once he’s put them into context. Unlike his secondary research into the politics of Kennedy’s administration, here he draws on his own research, along with some others whose work has been marginalised outside the specialist field. His advantage is that he is looking for a much different sort of proof: simply to show the reach of the plot to kill Kennedy, and again he does it with a parallel construction.

Oswald’s mysterious phone call to Raleigh, North Carolina, while in custody, becomes evidence that he was still involved in intelligence work, since Naval Intelligence maintained a training school there, for false defectors to the Soviet Union. An Oswald still enmeshed in intelligence made the perfect patsy; but Douglass goes a step further, detailing the story of Thomas Vallee, the designated scapegoat for an aborted attempt on Kennedy’s life, had he attended the Army-Air Force football game at Soldier Field in Chicago. Vallee (whose background was similar to Oswald’s, including work at U2 bases in Japan) while driving a car whose registration was closed off by the FBI, was arrested by Chicago police who had strong intelligence connections. After Kennedy’s trip was cancelled, U.S. Treasury agent Abraham Bolden, who questioned the parallels with the situation in Dallas, was persecuted and eventually jailed. Meanwhile, two snipers had been arrested, and three more sought, in Chicago; but no mention was made of this plot in the aftermath of the Dallas investigation.

Similarly, Douglass’s book is particularly convincing on the existence of the second Oswald(s). Ralph Yates picked up an Oswald lookalike hitchhiker carrying ‘curtain rods’ to the Texas School Book Depository –- but two days before the assassination. Yates would wind up being given 40 shock treatments in a state mental hospital. Even better, Douglass builds a convincing case that there was a second Oswald at the Texas Theatre at the time of Oswald’s arrest, and that he was taken out the theatre’s back door as Oswald was led out the front. About ten minutes later, this man was seen nearby, in a car whose plates had been switched, but which traced to a man who was both a friend of J. D. Tippit’s and a contractor for CIA boats smuggling guns into Cuba.

And, in what may be the most fascinating story of all, Douglass traces the intelligence connections of the Paine family, with whom Marina Oswald stayed, and their efforts in keeping Oswald in his dead-end job at the Texas School Book Depository. The simple conclusion, of these and dozens of other facts which Douglass has pieced together, is that there was an operation going on in Dallas, far too complicated to be a simple act by one or even a handful of crazed nuts, and that there had been duplicate plans in place as contingencies. The discarded testimonies of other witnesses take on new and powerful validity when the strength of this hypothesis is accepted.

When news of Kennedy’s death reached Castro he said ‘everything is going to change’. Had he not felt progress was being made with Kennedy, this would make no sense. Douglass will probably be accused of painting a romantic picture of Kennedy as Galahad, but the reality is that his Kennedy is operating not from heroic delusion but from cold reality, in the self-interest of himself, his country and humanity. One cannot escape the sense that he felt himself invulnerable, as a Kennedy, as President of the United States, even if he sought to pursue policies completely counter to the vested interests who had put him where he was.

In contrast, those interests had motive, opportunity, means, and certainly the ruthlessness to proceed with getting him out of the way. They had their patsies ready and waiting; and that is perhaps the most chilling part of Douglass’s analysis: the realisation that these assets were in place for just this sort of eventuality. They had,in Lyndon Johnson, a president they knew would take no steps to upset the Cold War status quo. These are the forces which Merton called ‘the unspeakable’, and they remain with us today.

Toward the end of Kennedy’s 1963 American University speech he reminded the world that ‘the United States will never start a war’. Forty years later, one of the results of his assassination was that the United States proved him wrong. In many ways, James Douglass has produced a book on the Kennedy assassination which ought to serve as a corrective for those not interested in conspiracy theory. It ought to be set against the Posners and Bugliosis who have had mainstream attention lavished on their lawyerly fabrications. It’s one of the most important books on the subject in the past decade, and it’s the one you would give to anyone for whom you wanted to set a starting point of scepticism about the official story.

Watching Barack Obama speak, with the bullet-proof plinths at each side, I was reminded by this just how compelling the interests of those who propagate war can be.

JFK And The Unspeakable: Why he died and why it matters
James W. Douglass
, Orbis Books, 2008, $30.00 ISBN 9781570757556

Sunday, 7 December 2008

PAT MAC ENULTY'S TIME TO SAY GOODBYE

My review of Pat MacEnulty's sadly overlooked novel Time To Say Goodbye has finally been posted at Crime Time, follow the link here. It definitely deserved more attention...

Friday, 5 December 2008

MIKE HAMMER ON THE OMNIBUS: MICKEY SPILLANE REVISITED

The Mike Hammer Omnibus Alison & Busby, 10.99, ISBN 074900519X
The Mike Hammer Omnibus, Volume Two Alison & Busby, 10.99 ISBN 0749006307

I met Mickey Spillane when he came to London for Crime Scene 2000, and none of his books was in print, an odd fate when you consider he’s one of the biggest selling writers of all time, and Mike Hammer remains a valuable ‘brand name’, with TV and movies always playing somewhere. I interviewed him for the Daily Telegraph, and he kept going with such enthusiasm that I transcribed almost the whole thing for Crime Time, for whom I also wrote about the Crime Scene tribute. Mickey went out of print partly because times had changed and partly because publishers didn’t realise that there was more to Mike Hammer than politically incorrect sex and violence, not necessarily in that order. Though nowadays, you would have thought, sex and violence was enough, and Mickey certainly was ahead of the curve in both areas. As said in my Daily Telegraph piece, ’eat your heart out, Quentin Tarantino’.

So I applauded when A&B got his first six Hammer novels, which are probably his best work, back in print, and appreciated even more that they took the trouble to attach two useful introductions. The first volume’s was by Max Allan Collins, who also directed a fabulous documentary, ’Mike Hammer‘s Mickey Spillane‘, which received its UK premiere at that Crime Scene. The original brief reviews I did of these two books when they came out languished in Crime Time’s dank vaults, so I've approached them anew here.

Collins’ introduction reminded me that I first came to Hammer as a teenager, and the point about that is that when I was a teen his books were still considered hot stuff, not what a 13 year old should be reading. My mother always said she named me Michael because she liked Mike Hammer, and felt she had to sneak-read Mickey’s books, even though she was 19, already married and pregnant with me by then.

Those were strange times: men like my father had been made adult by war--I have a photo of my dad, just out high school, posing in his Navy uniform while in a football stance--straight from playing against Hillhouse to taking on the Nazis or the Japs. They returned to America changed, having seen both death and Paris. In his excellent introduction to the second volume, Lawrence Block reminds us that Mickey started out writing comic books, and when soldiers returned home from World War II, they were ready for the action and realism they’d known at war, but wanted it in a simpler, more direct fashion that they got, say, from Remarque.

Their world was soon shrink-wrapped in the Cold War, a permanent repression, both political and personal, running parallel to the American Dream, sort of what the Bush regime has tried to recreate over the past eight years in Washington,and which the McCains and Palins, the Robert Gateses and General Petraeuses of this world would love to perpetuate. There is a palpable sense of tension in the first three Hammer novels between the Mike Hammer who buys into this propaganda war and plugs commies with slugs of lead, and the Mickey who sees a world of feverish desires which shouldn’t be or can’t be expressed, and thus often lead to violence when they are. Those first three books were I, The Jury, My Gun Is Quick, and Vengeance Is Mine. Note the first-person pronouns in every title. They reflect the first-person prose, which drags you along kicking and screaming and enjoying the nightmare ride.

I think it was the seductiveness of the ride which attracted Robert Aldrich to Spillane, although he was appalled by the attraction of what he saw as a fascist impulse. Aldrich made a film of Kiss Me Deadly, which is included along with One Lonely Night and The Big Kill in the second omnibus. He and screenwriter Buzz Bezzerides basically deconstructed Spillane, taking the paranoid narration and the instinctive violence and distilling them into a remarkable document of Cold War angst.

Mickey, of course, hated it.

That was understandable, but he really shouldn’t have minded. Deconstruction is, in some ways, the sincerest form of flattery. Going back to the originals convinces me that Mickey had something real going: it got diluted, perhaps after he found religion, perhaps when he turned himself into a marketing tool, perhaps for some other reason. Mickey didn’t need me, or anyone else, to psychoanalyse him. He wrote, and kept writing, but for a brief period in the early 1950s, he had his finger closer to the pulse of America than anyone, and that’s why these six novels are still essential reading today.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

HURRAY FOR HOLLYWOOD: WAMBAUGH'S RETURN

It was hard to believe it had been twenty years since Joseph Wambaugh’s last novel, when with Hollywood Station he picked up right where he left off. That was both a good and bad thing, because, to some extent, where he left off isn’t far from where he started. Wambaugh was a major step forward in the police procedural, a shift in paradigm from the 87th Precinct novels of Ed McBain, a major influence on any number of California writers, predominant among them Michael Connelly, whose Harry Bosch is precisely a cop who's an outsider to the ethos Wambaugh's cop embody (that's Connelly to Wambaugh's right in the photo).

In Sweden, the wife-husband team of Sjowall and Wahloo had taken McBain’s format and, by using a more neutral, Everyman-style main character in a balanced ensemble cast, used the police to reflecthe society they were protecting. Wambaugh went a step further, or sideways, by showing the police, warts and all, as they were affected by the society they tried to protect. They were what you would expect people trying to do an impossible job to be, and because their lives were spent in a Sisyphean battle against a bizarre enemy, they spoke a language which accepted the surreal as real. Wambaugh’s style quickly penetrated crime writing; his authenticity came from the voices, and he was better placed than most to get them accurately, because he had been a cop himself. It wasn't just his run of brilliant and amusing novels, but also the TV series Police Story, out of which came everything from Hill Street Blues to CSI.

So when I say his return was both a good thing and bad thing you’ll understand that the bad thing is simply that Hollywood Station broke no real new ground. The good thing was Wambaugh certainly hadn’t lost his ear, or his touch, despite the way, in the new century, the nature of the police has indeed changed. Not least because they are now more Choirpeople than Choirboys, and the tension between the sexes plays an important part in this story.

The crimes are simple: a jewelery store robbery is the starting point and Wambaugh moves from there to the Russian mafia and crystal meth tweakers, but the real story, as always, is the LAPD. Wambaugh might be seen as the Samuel Beckett of the crime novel: he recognised that Los Angeles was a stage on which the world's largest theatre of the absurd was played out. Or maybe like a giant Marx Brothers’ movie. In either case, his ability to mix the reality of crime and its viciousness with the humour necessary to survive dealing with it makes him one of crime fiction’s great names, and this is a welcome return. Plus, pit bull polo is a simply outstanding game.

Pit bull polo doesn't feature in Wambaugh's second novel about Hollywood Station, but in Hollywood Crows one of the two surfer cops, Jetsam (or is it Flotsam?) says ‘we’re all part of some inscrutable plan’. How right he is. With this sequel, Wambaugh is back in form, and Wambaugh's the man with the plan. It may be a bit less frenetic than its predecesor, contain fewer of those crazy cop incidents which just have to have their roots in LA reality, but it’s also more tightly plotted, and, in its story of a typical LA homicidal divorce, both funny and truer to the City of Angels and Angles which we all love. It also has the kind of darkness hanging over it that we remember so fondly from Wambaugh’s early work, where he was taking us beneath the surface of Dragnet, beyond Jack Webb with his girly ID bracelet and macho posing with a smoke. He's finally pulled The Choirboys into the PC era, and he’s pulled out all the stops.

The Crows are the Community Relations Officers, and the story starts as Hollywood Nate Weiss and Ronnie ‘Sinclair Squared’ get themselves transferred to CRO, fed up with their politically correct born-again sergeant ‘Chicken Lips‘ Treakle. Treakle replaced the legendary Oracle, who died in the last novel. Weiss, with his Screen Actors Guild card, contrasts with Bix Rumstead, a veteran crow who cares too much, at least in the eyes of his new partner Ronnie. But nothing is ever the way it seems in Hollywood, and when Hollywood Nate makes a gratuitous traffic stop of a beautiful blonde he‘s lamped at the Farmer‘s Market, the wheels start turning.

While that plot moves on, Wambaugh keeps all the other plates juggling; reading his novels is a bit like relaxing at the end of the shift and hearing the stories. But what makes this novel work better than the previous one is the way the main story involves individuals, and the biggest conflicts are those that must be solved, not by cops, but by people. Wambaugh hasn’t lost his sense of perspective, or of story-telling. Maybe it took him one book to get back to full speed, but this one certainly is there.

Hollywood Station Quercus £14.99 ISBN 1847240240
Hollywood Crows Quercus £14.99 ISBN 9781847244109

Note: This essay includes elements of my review of Hollywood Crows, which appeared in Crime Time (a link to it is elsewhere on this site).

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

CRIME COMES TO MILFORD: LINWOOD BARCLAY'S NO TIME FOR GOODBYE

My review of Linwood Barclay's No Time For Goodbye has (finally) been posted at Crime Time, you can find it here. A fast-paced suburban suspense novel set in my Milford, Connecticut hometown. This now puts me on level pegging with my cousins who grew up in Livingston, New Jersey where Harlan Coben sets his books! I just wonder if I was being harsh in describing Milford's 'overwhelming ordinariness'...at least in the 1950s the Woodmont section of town seemed pretty special to me, but I suppose as you get older it inevitably seems less so, and then, of course, you discover you can't go home again, unless you can. The lament of the life-long expat.

Friday, 28 November 2008

JOHN SMOLENS INVISIBLE WORLD

The Invisible World
by John Smolens
Flame 2002, 6.99, 0340822007

Samuel Xavier Adams has the kind of name a CIA director would love, though around Boston these days, Sam Adams is a beer first and a patriot second. Our Sam is a journalist, and the author of a book which accused his father of being one of John Kennedy’s assassins. Eventually, his book was discredited, and his career nose-dived. Now his mother is dying, but when she finally passes away, Sam is convinced it was his father who first killed her, and then stole the body. And of course there are people who don’t want either Adams talking any more about JFK.

Like Smolens’ previous novel, Cold, this is a book where setting plays a major role, and he is excellent at creating atmosphere and in placing his characters in contexts that make them believable. He’s also good at maintaining the sense of paranoia which can make a story like this move, and integrating that paranoia with Sam’s personal story; in that intersection of personal and political is the tension which drives the novel.

Which it does, and very well, at least until the moment when it descends, as it inevitably must, into chase. I suspect this will make it attractive to film producers, even if it’s a disappointment not to have the Kennedy Assassination solved on a fishing boat off Cape Cod.

But more than conspiracies, this book is about generations: Sam once wrote for a paper which is a thinly-disguised Boston Phoenix, one of the first of the ‘underground’ papers. His father, the equally aptly-named John Samuel Adams, is a member of the ‘best and brightest’ generation, making this a head-on clash between the Band of Brothers and their Sixties offspring: Oliver Stone meets Richard Helms at a family reunion. Smolens is good, and if this book lacks the impact of Cold, it’s still impressive.

Another of those reviews that hung around Crime Time far too long...but Fridays seem to be the days people point out 'lost' books, or reviews...

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

ACHING WHERE I USED TO PLAY: LEONARD COHEN AT THE ALBERT HALL

When Leonard Cohen's band took the stage at the Albert Hall last night, I thought I'd wandered into a production of the Three Penny Opera, like one I saw in Montreal some thirty years ago. Then Leonard himself entered, in his current-trademark hat, which he took off for the crowd with a look of surprise, like a 74 year old grandfather who's walked into his surprise birthday party at a restaurant on Blvd. St. Laurent, 'oh, are all these people here to see me?' Of course, they were, and it was the kind of crowd of long-time fans, the bed-sit warriors grown old and obviously successful enough to afford the tickets, that was going to love whatever Leonard gave them, but as an admirer more of Cohen the writer than the performer, I have to say, he gave them far more than they asked him.

As the evening went on, he would occasionally smile wryly; as if he still marvelled at the way his career path as a struggling Montreal poet and novelist got turned around when he picked up a guitar to impress the girls who weren't impressed by his poetry: one gets the sense that he's never totally left that Canadian poet behind. So when he sings on his knees, which is probably some yoga things that gives him more energy or more wind, you get the sense of a singer who's somehow penitent, and that helps you enjoy his success even more. Even if he hadn't skipped off stage at the end of each set, and each encore, he played with enjoyment, his band was tight behind him, and if every gesture was obviously well-rehearsed, it didn't make them any less sincere, or appreciated. My wife, entranced by his songs since hearing 'That's No Way To Say Goodbye' in New Zealand as an eight year old, raised on Leonard, as it were, hung on every note, and in a way, I should not have been surprised that I found the show so good, because a bootleg cd I have of a 1993 live show is one of my favourite boots of all time.

Some of the band has been with him a while; bassist and leader Roscoe Becke co-produced Jennifer Warnes' 'Famous Blue Raincoat', which you might say launched the Cohen revival. Guitarist Bob Metzger was on that 1993 bootleg. But the real star of the show was Javiar Mas, playing laud (the Spanish for the Greek oud, or Cuban loud) and 12 string guitar, and adding a dramatic touch to the sounds that echoed Mexican and Greek music, as well as Spanish. He was also wearing a fedora, and it made him look like second runner-up in a Tom Waits lookalike contest. But it was only when Mas was playing that you got the sense you might be hearing something that wasn't note perfect like every other performance on the tour. And one of the keys to Cohen's late-career rebirth has been Sharon Robinson, his backup singer and co-writer; like Lou Reed calling for the 'colored girls' to sing, she adds life to Cohen's vocals, and did a solo of 'Boogie Street' that was powerful. Joining her on backup vocals were the British Webb Sisters, whose more folksy voices provided a nice mix. Their encore duet of 'If It Be Your Will' , playing harp and guitar, was somewhere in that alt.country/new folk range. The mix worked well, even if the synchronised gymnastics were underwhelming.

I came to Cohen first via Judy Collins' fabulous 'In My Life', which I heard at 17, played to me by a Smith College date who was trying to seduce me, which shouldn't've been that hard. Maybe I got distracted by the songs. To that point, my tastes were mostly Motown, Stax, Blues Project, Butterfield, Byrds, Beau Brummels, Kinks. While I liked Cohen's songs, I was generally satisfied with other interpreters: I was, however, floored by the novel Beautiful Losers, and by some of his poetry too. In fact, I pretty much ignored his records from the early 70s through my Montreal years, until, like so many other people, 'I'm Your Man' reminded me of what a good song-writer he could be, and what happened when he finally found a style that suited his words as songs. That style isn't really the electric beat, it's more of a torch-song approach, much closer to Serge Gainsbourg than Bob Dylan.

But maybe it's a generational thing that I responded more than Kirsten to 'Chelsea Hotel', which now seems less clever and more touching to me, although I might be indulging in nostalgia for Janis Joplin and that way of life. Certainly I love the way 'That's No Way' moves both me (Judy Collins version or his own) and my wife equally, despite our coming to it from such different places. On the other hand, my all-time favourite is 'Dress Rehearsal Rag', which is even too depressing for Cohen to perform, or at least it has been for the past few decades, so maybe I'm more of a bedsit romantic than I'll admit. Of course, Judy Collins is the only singer who can make a song about a wrist-slicing junkie sound beautiful, but I love Cohen's own version too. Last night, even though I realised I really did admire many of Kirsten's favourite songs, and had a few of my own I hadn't realised I liked so much, for me the highlight of the evening was Cohen's reciting the poem 'For Those Who Greeted Me', from which his song 'A Thousand Kisses Deep' is adapted, especially the verse he used as a refrain:


I loved you when you opened
Like a lily to the heat.
I´m just another snowman
Standing in the rain and sleet,
Who loved you with his frozen love
His second-hand physique -
With all he is, and all he was
A thousand kisses deep.

There were a couple of moments when it could have gone all nostalgic; after all, half the crowd was there figuring they will never get another chance to see Leonard in concert. I've followed that logic with Elliott Carter's 80th and 90th birthday concerts, and I'm figuring on attending his 100th too. This was not a Frank Sinatra 'farewell' tour, with ol blue eyes going through the motions and providing mere hints of the songs his adoring fans remembered. Leonard Cohen went through the catalogue, re-interpreted some, revisited others. He stuck the songs that might have been construed as goodbyes, or looking back, in the beginning of his sets, and he ended on a bang, with a final encore of 'Democracy Is Coming To The USA' which took on a certain resonance given the last election, and which was greeted with a roar. Listening to 'the rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor' earlier in the night, I wondered if we shouldn't see Leonard more politically. On the other hand, you know you're getting old when you find yourself nodding along to 'I ache in the places that I used to play' .

People forget that there was never a 'young' Leonard Cohen the singer; he'd already has his young career as a precocious writer. He tends to get associated with the Beats, and for good reason: watching last night's concert could provide an illustration of the kind of 'beatific' that Kerouac or Ginsberg had in mind. 'Beautiful Losers' could be the archetypical Beat title; my memory says the novel has a little bit of that feeling, some magic realism (very early on; Canadians were as good as Latin Americans at that) and some classic North American fictional tropes. But before that second, and last, novel, the young Cohen was at first a rather formal poet, working in rhyme and meter, before his poetry merged into his songs. The later freer verse is good, but the early songs benefit from that formalist poetic. And I was reminded of all this last night.

It was one of the best concerts I've been to in ages, and it reminds me of just how good a song-writer Leonard Cohen is. That he became such a good performer too is simply a bonus. But the feeling I left the Albert Hall enjoying was one that somehow joined my younger self to my older one, if I may be allowed to show just how soppy Cohen can make me. Or anyone.

IRRESISTIBLE TARGETS SHOWS ITS POWER: KLEINZAHLER WINS LANNAN AWARD

No sooner does Irresistible Targets plug the work of August Kleinzahler, than the Lannan Foundation awards him their literary award for his poetry, a cool $150,000 which is good news if you're August, his bookie, or a long-lost relative fallen on hard times. See the Lannan website announcement here, but be warned about the photo and the flowers! Sadly, I can't capture the picture and put it here.

This site has been less than totally kind about the Lannan awards before, but let's just say that this time they got it right, and it's long overdue...

Sunday, 16 November 2008

RADICAL CHIC TOO CHIC? THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX

THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX
directed by Uli Edel, screenplay by Bernd Eichinger based on the book by Stefan Aust

The best part of the Baader Meinhof Complex, which opened at the London Film Festival and went on release Friday, is the setting of the stage for the radicalization of Ulrike Meinhof. A peaceful demonstration against the Shah of Iran turns into a bloodbath, as police stand by and let the Shah's thugs wade into the crowd, then attack the protesters themselves. One cop kills an unarmed fleeing protester. Later, the radical leader Rudi Dutschke is killed by a deranged anti-communist, who has learned his hatred from the pages of Der Spiegel, the Fox News of its day in Germany. There is a scene, when Dutschke addresses an anti-war rally, that rings so true I felt transported back to the heady days of 1968, and I sensed we might be able to convert half the audience watching the film right then.

Ulrike Meinhof is converted. A talented, liberal journalist, we have already seen her leave her husband when she catches him with another woman, and the film's central conflict is the one within Meinhof: her growing frustration with the German establishment of which she is a part. The film's linch-pin is a carefully set up scene, in which she agrees to help Andreas Baader escape police custody by arranging an interview with him on a neutral site, but then decides to flee with Baader and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin; she sits debating internally before an open window before making the leap into a different reality. The film tries hard to emphasise her middle-class status: hardly a radical in either the political or the social 60s sense.

Her transformation is never totally convincing, and the film will emphasize her self-doubt throughout. In fairness, it is difficult to convey today the very real fear in Meinhof's generation, born under Nazi rule, that a similar style of government was on the cards for the Bundesrepublik. Meinhof's conversion is also harder to take because Baader was never a theoretical radical; he was a bank-robber, already style-conscious, a budding Clyde with Ensslin, daughter of a Lutheran pastor, as his Bonnie. As played by Moritz Bleibtreu, Baader comes closer to Charles Manson than, say, Abbie Hoffman, and the relationship with Ensslin is, if anything underplayed, because Johanna Wokalek makes her a conniving, ruthless user of her sexuality, and the only one who can control an increasingly demented Baader. It is their relationship, rather than Meinhof's lonely journey, that is the real fulcrum of the film. The acting by the leads is always impressive, but because they are often reduced to playing mechanical parts, in order to catch up on historical incident, the characters they play are not always fully-developed.

Meinhof gave her children up, to be raised in a Palestinian orphanage, but Aust, on whose book the story was based, 'rescued' them himself. The 'complex' of the film's title could be hers: what drove her to violence, to take the part of a terorrist. The film, to some extent, trivialises the Red Army Faction, as the Baader-Meinhofs called themselves, when showing them training with Palestinians; it's also the funniest part of a very serious film. Baader insists on men and women sleeping in the same quarters, and the women insisted on sunbathing nude, displaying themselves in front of what we now call Islamic terrorists; exactly like Germans on vacation anywhere. Interestingly, Meinhof's husband's adultery is also foreshadowed by a scene on a nude beach; there may be some link between the RAF and FKK ('free body culture'). But the film never really gets to the root of Meinhof's decision, and as she becomes increasingly trivialised, especially within prison, she is shown to have had a very thin shell for someone making such a thick-skinned choices about her life and the lives of others.

The film is serious, and tries to be comprehensive. It recreates the era perfectly, not just in the clothing and the constant smoking, but in the haphazard sense of the movement. Bernd Eichinger, who produced and wrote the screenplay, did the same for Downfall, and there is a sense of trying to understand the darker points in the history of modern Germany: as if this film were intended to join a trilogy with Downfall and The Lives of Others. As such, the 'complex' of the title could also be seen to justify the film's broad scope. That Eichinger has also produced Fantastic Four and Resident Evil films, and Edel directed the TV western Purgatory means that they aren't afraid to use genre elements, but if anything, the film falls down in its final act, when the main characters are in jail, and the 'second-generation' of RAF are working in Germany, while their Palestinian allies try to use hostages to get their freedom.

They are caught through the efforts of Horst Herold, head of the German version of the FBI, who used modern technology in the hunt. Played with huge glasses, like a German Andreotti,
Bruno Ganz's Herold is the very essence of reasonable policing, unwilling to be co-opted by politicans, but inevitably paving the way for just the sorts of control and repression against which Meinhof was originally opposed. Although many comparisons have been made to a variety of German films which deal with the RAF in different ways, to me, Ganz's presence recalls the exceptional, and now ignored, 1978 film Knife in the Head, directed by Reinhard Hauff. In that, Ganz plays a bystander who loses his memory when knifed during a demonstration, and it follows the whole process of radicalization and repression far more succinctly than any of the more obvious comparison films, by Fassbinder, von Totta, or Schlondorff.

The Baader-Meinhofs turned their trial into a German version of the Chicago 8, while their hunger strikes resulted in the death, through neglect, of another early leader, Holger Meins. But in prison, they became icons for the next generation of wannabe Bonnie and Clydes. The image of the real Baader and Ensslin, seen right, shows exactly what the appeal might be. The film has been accused, in some circles, of 'glamorizing' terrorism, but the appeal of Baaderm Meinhof, and Ensslin to the younger generation wasn't just that they were cooler than their parents' generation, which after all was the Nazi generation. These younger RAF recruits did find it glamorous, but they also found relief, in action, from the strains of that post-war German conundrum, caught between being Nazis on the one hand, and the good guys holding off communism on the other. Some of that next generation, calling themselves Kommando Holger Meins, took over the German embassy in Stockholm during the trial, leaving three dead, while their inspirational founders grew increasingly desperate in prison, and Meinhof grew increasingly distanced from her comrades. She hanged herself in her cell; and this is the hardest point of the film; Gedeck tries movingly, but just can't convey the 'why' of her suicide, just as we never really get the 'why' of her conversion to violence, or the 'why' of her abandoning her daughters. In the end did she feel despair at seeing the people she decided to join turn against her; despair at reaching a dead end; despair at being prisoner of the German legal system; or despair at a realization she'd made the wrong choice, fallen in with the wrong people, who fought for the wrong reasons? We never know. When the remaining prisoners kill themselves, the motivation is more obvious, if perhaps portrayed as an adolescent last finger up at the system.

That is a big part of what the so-called glamour was: that next German generation, were not born under the Nazis, and very similar to the baby-boomers in America who followed a group of radicals who were older, war- babies, the Abbie Hoffmans and Jerry Rubins, the Weathermen. In the end, there are marked similarities among these Germans, not with those radicals, but with the later Symbionese Liberation Army, and Ulrike Meinhof is in this movie played as a German Patty Hearst. But where Schrader fashioned a morality tale; this film is both more and less subtle than that. It wants to present a moral dilemma, through Meinhof, but it also wants to present a sociological study of an era, and two generations of German history. That it can be as entertaining as it is, while trying to do that, is an accomplishment. I suspect those of us who grew up in the 60s are willing to cut it more slack, perhaps, than the younger generation; but watching the parallels with a world where Iraq has replaced Vietnam, and the 'war on terrorism' has replaced the Cold War, this film sent chills of more than memory up my spine. And not chills of glamour.

Friday, 14 November 2008

NORMAN BATES HE'S A PEACH: The Long-Lost Chuck Parello Interview

Ed Gein is an American icon: the original deranged serial-killer, the inspiration for movies as diverse and famous as PSYCHO, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, or THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and as unknown as Bob Clark’s much-underrated DERANGED. But though he’s served as a role model for countless grave-robbing, flesh-wearing, serial-killing weirdos, no one had ever thought to explore what made Ed Gein tick; he had never had his own bio-pic. Not, that is, until director Chuck Parello’s ED GEIN (aka, in some areas, IN THE LIGHT OF THE MOON). Released in 2001, the film starred Steve Railsback (best-known for his role in THE STUNT MAN or for playing Charlie Manson in the 1976 TV movie HELTER SKELTER) as Gein, and the late Carrie Snodgress (DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE) as his mother.

The facts of the Gein story are fairly well known. Ed was a somewhat slow-witted odd-job man who lived alone in the ramshackle farmhouse he’d inherited from his parents. In 1957, following the disappearance of general store owner Bernice Worden, her son, a local deputy sheriff, got a bad feeling about Gein. Following his hunch, he discovered his mother’s body hanging in Gein’s smokehouse, and, in the main farmhouse, parts of numerous other bodies, furniture made from skin and body parts, collections of lips and noses, and a skin mask and vest which Gein would wear while he went about his daily domestic routine. It transpired Ed had similarly murdered the local bartender, Mary Hogan, and also indulged in grave robbing.

Horror writer Robert Bloch, who lived only 40 miles from Plainfield, used Ed’s story as the basis for his novel PSYCHO, from which Hitchcock drew his film. But no one had ever portrayed Gein the way Parello and Railsback presented him, with a great deal of sympathy for someone left alone to pursue the inner drives which tormented him. Railsback may have learned some sympathy when he played Manson, a man with a similar detachment from the realities of death. And Parello came by his serial-killer sympathies in an interesting way. He first worked with director John McNaughton on the film HENRY, PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, in which Michael Rooker gave a chilling but understanding, interpretation of a psychopath. Parello then wrote and directed the well-received sequel, HENRY 2: MASK OF SANITY.

Parello himself cuts a benign figure, looking rather more like a researcher for documentaries than a successful director. I talked with him at the National Film Theatre, but the interview I did for Headpress got sidetracked to their newly-launched horror film mag, the suavely-titled Creeping Flesh. Sadly, CF lasted only two issues, so I never got the chance to include it in my CV. Instead, the interview is published here for the first time. Parello, since then, has co-written and directed THE HILLSIDE STRANGLER (2004), with C Thomas Howell as Kenneth Bianchi and Nicholas Turturro as his much-older cousin Angelo Buono, another film about a serial killer inspired, as it were, by an older family member...

MC: WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO ED GEIN?
CP: Well, I was asked to do it because of my first film, HENRY 2. The script gave me a definite sense of the creeps and I said ‘why not?’
YOU STARTED OUT ON THE ORIGINAL HENRY…AND JOHN MCLAUGHLIN CREDITED YOU WITH HELPING MAKE IT INTO A CULT SUCCESS
I was working as a journalist and publicist in Chicago, and got hired as a director’s assistant and did publicity for HENRY. Then I wrote the script for HENRY 2, and was offered the chance to direct it. That led to ED GEIN.
ARE YOU AFRAID YOU MIGHT BE TYPECAST AS A HORROR DIRECTOR?
No, I’m not. I chose these films because they were very interesting stories, not because they’re shockers…they don’t pay me enough to pander to audiences! ED GEIN stays really grounded in reality, and I’m supposed to do another true crime story, which I was attracted to for the same reason…it’s grounded in reality. But actually, the whole film industry seems to be serial-killer films now…so I should be golden!
WHAT WAS THE REACTION TO HENRY 2?
It got good reviews, but people seemed put off by the idea of a sequel to a film they’d liked so much, in such a unique way.
DID THAT MAKE YOU WORRY ABOUT THE EFFECT OF THE PREVIOUS VERSIONS OF THE ED GEIN STORY?
No, because there was so much not used before. As a true crime buff I knew there was lots of stuff. There are a few things we had to change because of legal ramifications, and we did indulge in some dramatic embellishment.
YOU HAVE REMARKABLE PERFORMANCES FROM YOUR LEADS. DID THE CASTING CHANGE THE TONE OF THE FILM?
Well, just like me the script attracted both Steve and Carrie, and I always meant it to be that way. In the beginning Carrie was cool, but when she said yes I was amazed because she’d been a favourite of mine ever since DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE. She didn’t care about being typecast, nor how bad she might have to look…her best gift was being able to inhabit evil people, and make it a revelation.
HER VENOM MADE IT EASIER FOR STEVE RAILSBACK, WHO CERTAINLY MAKES ED MORE SYMPATHETIC THAN AN AUDIENCE MIGHT EXPECT
That was not my intention. I saw Ed as an evil person, but Steve said people didn’t want to sit through such a relentless portrayal. He does it well. It’s like Michael Rooker in HENRY, he does what he can do. You always harken back to what you do well. I didn’t set out to make audiences feel sympathy for him, but seeing the result, I’m glad that’s the case.
IT’S ALMOST COMIC AT TIMES, THE WAYS HE TRIES TO SET HIMSELF FREE
I think he was trying to liberate himself from anger directed at his mother.
IT DOES THROW THE BURDEN BACK ON MOM, THOUGH
Well, Carrie was so great. You know, she looked to real people for her inspiration, which makes you wonder.
THERE’S ALSO THAT REPRESSED FEAR OF INCEST
Ed always said he never opened his mother’s grave. I think he didn’t because he was so freaked by her. Erroll Morris (the documentary filmmaker) was going to go to Plainfield and see for sure, I think.
YOU SAID SOMEWHERE THAT ED’S HEAD WAS FULL OF IDEAS BUT HE WAS CLUELESS
The way he killed the two people we really know he killed was so stupid I don’t really believe he was a serial killerThe body parts in his house were mostly grave-robbing. But they blamed every unsolved murder in the area on him, which was convenient for the authorities. But trying to understand why he did what he did, the aggression it expressed, is part of the fascination. I do want audiences to understand him, though. He was basically a guy who missed his mama.
ONE OF THE MOST FASCINATING MOMENTS IN THE FILM COMES WHEN WE SEE THE ACTUAL NEWSREEL FOOTAGE OF ED BEING LED AWAY, AND WE REALISE THAT HIS HOUSE WASN’T ACTUALLY A DESERTED FARMHOUSE, BUT IN ALMOST A SUBURBAN SETTING.
Yes, the house had close neighbours, but a lot of land. The citizens of Plainfield, Wisconsin have been bugged for years by people, academics, screenwriters, and they aren’t happy about it. When we were filming we were warned not to go near Plainfield, because there’s still lots of ill-will there. There’s even a web-site warning people about worshipping Gein. The film did play in Madison, Wisconsin, though.
THERE’S THAT SMALL TOWN POLITENESS TOO
Yeah, people are too polite to say ‘you’re off your rocker’. And Ed too, was so polite, so mild-mannered, and friendly. Just one of the guys.
YOUR SUPPORTING CAST IS GREAT.
Oh yes, they really got the nature of small town life. We did take some liberties. Sally Champlin is so good as the bartender, Mary Hogan, who Ed kills. But the real Mary Hogan was a real German cow, 200 pounds.
IT’S SO ROOTED IN THE 1950s. THERE’S A BRILLIANT MOMENT WHEN ED’S ATTACK IS COUNTERPOINTED TO THE RED SKELTON COMEDY SHOW ON TV
Yes, there’s a Wisconsin Death Trip kind of feel. Plus, I always thought the guy was funny. And we see comic books lead to masturbation and sin! But it’s also that small town thing, where we recognise the weird and patronise them. Maybe Ed would have got off today. Maybe he was just trying to draw some attention to himself.
THE FILM WAS MADE FOR $3 MILLION. WHAT MIGHT YOU HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY HAD YOU HAD MORE MONEY?
I would’ve added some salary for myself and more points for the crew! But basically this project really got done only through the bravery of one man, Hamish McAlpine at Metro Tartan films in England.
COULD THE FILM HAVE REACHED A WIDER AUDIENCE?
Well, I think older people want to see it for nostalgia…I’ve also found lots of women love the film, which is a good sign. I think women love true crime, they’re fascinated by stories at a safe distance. It’s vicarious. Look how well Ann Rule’s true crime books sell.
OR PATRICIA CORNWELL, WHERE THE AUTOPSIES MAKE HORROR ACCEPTABLE?
Exactly. I mean, look at the tabloid papers, or Lifetime Channel (a woman-oriented cable network in the USA), full of stories of women who’ve been brutalised, raped. ED GEIN is just like Oprah, but a little more graphic. I mean, we’ll get lots of criticism, but some rape story, if it’s in a package with Victoria Principal, well, that’s OK.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE OF THE PREVIOUS ED GEIN MOVIES?
Oh, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like PSYCHO. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is my least favourite. I just don’t get it, but again, it’s a lot of women’s favourite film. But I just love Psycho. Norman Bates, he’s a peach. But I think this film is a completely different experience from any of the ones that came before. Whenever we started to resemble TEXAS CHAINSAW, I’d try to move in the opposite direction. Some elements will seem the same, but sticking to the real story is what makes ours unique. That’s much more horrifying than whatever you can make up.

Friday, 7 November 2008

SPEAKING POETIC TRUTH TO POWER: KLEINZAHLER TAKES TIMES

The New York Times said, some months ago, that August Kleinzahler was pugnacious, had charm, and could write poetry. The LA Times called him the bad boy of American poetry. All of this is true, although the pugnacity is probably more evident to critics, professors of creative writing, and poetasters than it has been to me since I first met him some thirty years when our paths finally crossed (after much build-up by mutual friends) in Montreal.

So imagine my surprise when the NYT invited the pride of San Francisco, via Ft Lee New Jersey, to comment on the election, alongside John Ashberry and three others, and guess what, August's isn't the poem set among rolling wheat fields...in fact you can check it out right here.

It sure is an improvement over Tom 'The World Is Fat' Friedman, or Maureen 'Edwards Spends Almost As Much On Haircuts As I Do' Dowd! Check out his poetry, and his essays; in fact the NYT must dig his act, because he's in this weekend's book review with a fine appreciation of James Merrill, find it here (though I might contend Richard Wilbur, among those writing in rhyme and metre, is at least Merrill's elegant equal)

But Augie's the real deal, if not quite as pugnacious as Mike Singletary. But we are talking poets here...

MICHAEL CRICHTON OBITUARY

My obituary of Michael Crichton is in today's Guardian; you can read it here. It occured to me afterwards, thinking about the success of his work, that a major influence on his formula might have been John D MacDonald, whose novels, especially the later, non Travis McGee, 'big' books always took a specific 'technical' theme and researched it thoroughly, framing the story around that issue.

The praise for Eaters Of The Dead was genuine. I remember being surprised by how good I thought it was, when I read it, probably in my first year in Britain...and it stayed on my shelves for almost 30 years before I moved out of my flat. I had somehow missed the release of the movie 13th Warrior, but I suppose I will have to chase it down now!

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

CARLSON'S MIDDLE-EASTERN EYE

My latest American Eye column is up at Shots, follow this link. It's a joint review of books by Robert Littell (Vicious Circle) and Richard North Patterson (Exile), both of which are set in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the conclusions are a little suprising....

Saturday, 1 November 2008

WIRE TO WIRE: DAVID SIMON'S HOMICIDE

My review of David Simon's excellent 1991 book Homicide is in the current issue of the Spectator, you can follow this link to it. They also sent along a curiously old-fashioned novel by Stanley Reynolds, which made for an odd pairing and a difficult segue, but it was great to be able to praise the Simon book, which I'd read sometime in the mid-90s, and it's the real deal: this first-ever British edition, as well as being about twice as large, adds an interesting afterword by Simon himself...

MICHAEL CONNELLY'S BRASS VERDICT

My review of Michael Connelly's fine new book, The Brass Verdict, is up at the Crime Time website, you can link to it here. Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch, together at last!

TONY HILLERMAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Tony Hillerman was in Friday's Guardian, you can pound the link here to find it. There's also an appreciation by Mike Ripley: first time I've shared the space with the Ripper!

I really should say I thought The Fly On The Wall was a first-class political thriller when I read in some 35 years ago, and its journalist was a well-drawn character. Hillerman said he could've done it better, but he seemed an exceedingly self-effacing man...

SPOOKS: THE NEW SERIES...TRUE LOVE WAYS

Two brief notes:
1. re my post below, the Crime Time review of the 2006 Spooks compendium has been posted on their site (but you can scroll down, or hit it here if you're too tired to scroll); and it looks like I was right re Adam and Ros, as she (having been presumed dead) reappears to him and he immediately kills himself by driving a car bomb into a strangely deserted London square on a busy weekday morning...
2. It's good to know the writing (or producing) staff of the show all watched Eastern Promises, and decided Russian prison tattoos were not only a good way to shortcut character development, but also an excuse to flash your male stars naked on screen......and remind me again that British TV is the best TV in the world, after all...or so we keep getting told.....

Monday, 27 October 2008

CHRIS RYAN--A MACHO SUE (DE NYM) WHO'S NOT YOUR NORM (DE PLUME)

The Guardian (here) reports that pseudo-macho SAS thriller writer 'Chris Ryan' (itself a pseudonym) has used another nom de plume, Molly Jackson, to write a romance novel called The Fisherman's Daughter.

If you read IT you can tell the Guardian 'we told you so'...just see August's post linking Ryan and Alan Hollinghurst, which pointed out 'there is far more homo-eroticism in Ryan's descriptions of SAS men at war than in all Hollinghurst's oeuvre'. You can shortcut to it here.

Sadly, I can't reprint the Guardian's photo, but the stylist who provided the dust for Ryan's designer stubble, cracked leather jacket, topsiders (surely some mistake?) and hands must have seen one too many Indiana Jones movies...instead, check out the sensitive chappie above....

DO WE NEED TO SEE BEHIND THE SPOOKS?

Spooks: Behind The Scenes
Orion/BBC 2006, £17.99 ISBN075876104

Note: With the latest series of Spooks launching on BBC tonight, it seemed time for Crime Time to finally run this essay prompted by the BBC's Spooks compendium published two years ago! You will find it at Crime Time, but in the meantime, here it is, somewhat updated...

Spooks is one of the few television shows I watch regularly (though the last series was a distinct step downward), and I do so because it’s a reasonably inventive spy series featuring some very good scripts, which are particularly sharp in tweaking the deep politics of the security services, as well as providing some good takes on the corruption of that world. It’s generally well acted by the leads, though the younger agents tend to be about as believable as spies as your local estate agent might be (the Alsopp sisters, double 0 zero!). In fact, its biggest and most interesting battles tend to be those along the corridors of Whitehall, and the dramatic highlights are usually the confrontations between Peter Firth as Harry Pearce and Tim McInnerny (actual quote from this book: ’can this guy do serious? Can he ever.’) as his MI6 counterpart Oliver Mace, who does a nice job with smug self-satisfied bullying. But that's because the story in espionage hasn't changed, even though the BBC's target audience has.

But of course the biggest thing that makes Spooks work is that it follows the old American formula of creating a family ensemble to enact its dramas. This goes back to series like 77 Sunset Strip in the 1950s, but began to reach its paradigm with programmes like The Waltons, Hill Street Blues, and St Elsewhere. They learned to combine their action, presented ever more realistically with each new variation on the theme (and remember, in this country, for all the chest-puffing over shows or comedians gone to the States, there would be no Bill without Hill Street, no Casualty without ER, no This Life without Friends). The formula was upgraded when first ER, and then West Wing, added long takes with hand-held cameras to the mix, but even the best of American ensemble drama retains the family set-up: The Sopranos, of course, because it is THE family, as well as a family, a la The Godfather, and best of all The Wire, whose brilliance lies in part by treating each of the institutions or groups it dissects as families. But at the base, soap opera needs family conflict to make the romantic dynamic beneath work, to give it an anchor to the bigger plot. The problem with that, as far as Spooks goes, is that the soap opera has actually tailed off as the series has progressed.

Despite that, this book, produced just in time for series five and Christmas 2006 (not necessarily in that order), assumes its target audience is made up exclusively of people who trudge to Tesco to buy their soap mags every week. This is particularly irritating when the book adopts the soap opera broadcasters' convention that the audience is too feeble to figure out that the characters are actually, wait for it, ACTORS! Have I spoiled this for you? Granted, actors are a lizard-brained lot who can’t help falling in love and marrying each of their co-stars in succession, but even so, they aren’t really the characters they play! I mentioned that the soap element has been toned down in the most recent series; even Adam’s affair with the exotic nanny who wandered around in shorts and wife-beater T shirts all day was finally, to my dismay, down-played. I was totally convinced she was an agent of some organisation more dangerous than Agent Provocateur, but as you know if you watched, I was wrong, and she was cruelly written out. I say cruelly not simply from self-interest as an interested observer in the career of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, but realistically speaking, because if Olga Sosnowska dies in your arms, would you really want to rebound into the arms of Hermione Morris, whose Ros resembles the suspicious desk-clerk checking you in at some seedy suburban resort hotel. Or am I confusing the actors and the characters they play? But if one considers that most of Spooks Series 3 revolved around Zoë’s (Keeley Hawkes) affairs, and constant opportunities to present her in sexy evening wear as she played honey trap roles (remember Tipping The Velvet?), the lack of such opportunities in the past season were a serious deficiency.

Among the odd things addressed in this compendium is the reality that the police can’t actually (yet) tap into to security cameras (most are recording onto tape or chip, not broadcasting--but that's a problem that has plagued scriptwriters ever since Didion and Dunne had Michelle Pfeiffer broadcasting live inside a prison with an ENG camera with no RF or cabled output, ie recording to a cassette) for live, intercut tracking, and they can't actually depend on weeks-old security VCRs from old peoples' homes to fight terrorism. But let's not get technical...among the other odd things unaddressed by Spooks is why MI5 appear to employ only about five agents, plus a lot of rent-a-cops to man the front desk and the corridors. If you say it‘s because Adam‘s group are the elite: well, they include a girl he recruited straight from uni who, about three weeks later, was suddenly qualified with firearms and breaking into the London Library threatening to shoot people in the stacks. And BTW, if BBC is paying the London Library a facilities fee, how come my subscription there just doubled?

And then there is the aforementioned Ros, daughter of the right wing newspaper tycoon, who walked right into MI5 after betraying MI5, and within days seemed to be running the place. Kind of like Alistair Campbell in drag, but more honest, a cross between Ruth Kelly and Maggie Thatcher. The book doesn’t tell you what they pay in MI5, but in the early shows, agent Tom had a massive house in what seemed to be St John’s Wood, while agents Danny and Zoe appeared to be sharing a bedsit in Bethnal Green, eating off a baby Belling, and putting shillings into the meter for electricity. I suppose MI5 are exempt from unions or the national minimum wage. But this is exactly the sort of question that might engage the serious fan. Perhaps this is meant as a serious comment on the changing nature of Britain's intelligence services. Gone are the days when honourable school boys were still enslaved by the days they'd spent bent over in school, when betrayal meant something on a whole different level. As I say, Spooks is usually at its most interesting (absent Ms. Mbatha-Raw in underwear) when it is dealing with the feuds of those at the top, exactly the sort of people Le Carre wrote about. It's when it gets down to field work it needs to spice things up, which is something Ian Fleming understood.

But I'm afraid this volume, like the show itself, signals the same kind of paradigm shift in audience expectations and BBC aesthetics as the presence of Daniel Craig as James Bond as John Terry of Chelsea does. It is what it is. On the practical side, this volume does supply plot synopses of all episodes from the first four series, (but without cast or other credits), some actor information (of the soap magazine kind), and the sort of background in spying tradecraft info you could glean off Wikipedia or the back of some children's cereal box in about ten minutes. Which is probably what those young Spooks do while rushing to catch the number 73 bus to save the nation.

Friday, 24 October 2008

BLACKMARK: THE ORIGINAL GRAPHIC NOVEL?

Blackmark: 30th Anniversary Edition
by Gil Kane (with Archie Goodwin)
Fantagraphics 180pp £ 13.99

At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, I remember reading the late Gil Kane’s BLACKMARK when it first came out, in 1971, in a mass-market format Bantam paperback. At the time, I was a massive sword & sorcery fan: Robert E Howard’s Conan, Bran Mak Morn, and Solomon Kane, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and John Jakes’ Brak the Barbarian in particular. I had read Kane’s HIS NAME IS SAVAGE, a magazine-format graphic novel that was part Richard Stark and part Donald (Matt Helm) Hamilton, and knew Kane was trying to push the envelope in terms of comic book story-telling.

But even at the time, I knew there were limitations. Kane’s artwork is extremely fluid, and, at its best, elegant, as seen in his work on Green Lantern. But the geometrical nature of his faces meant the emotional range was strong at the ends but somewhat weak in the middle—his characters spoke better through action than in portrait. And although Kane was always an outspoken proponent of more literary content in comics, the quality of the prose and the use of it within the layout, more illustrated book than graphic novel, didn’t necessarily break new ground. Even within the limited literary bounds of the sword & sorcery universe, Kane (despite the talented Archie Goodwin doing the actual scripting) came a lot closer to Gardner Fox than Fritz Leiber.

Given those limitations, when the original BLACKMARK came out, the small paperback book format worked against Kane’s greatest strength as a comic book artist, his sense of movement. The panels were cramped into tiny pages, the flow was disrupted severely. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to see the book reprinted in a larger format, with spacious clean page layouts. This volume also includes what would have been the second BLACKMARK book, had not Bantam pulled the plug, and this brings the story to a better finish. The package is completed by an informative afterword by Gary Groth, tracing the history of the project.

Having said all that, BLACKMARK still doesn’t really work. Goodwin’s prose is made to seem more hokey than it is, because it’s too often left out on its own, marooned in a sea of empty page. And Kane’s art, though dynamic, and given space to breathe, simply can’t provide enough richness to fill the static moments. Rather than transforming the rather static beauty of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant into something with the dynamic flow of his Green Lantern, Kane appeared to have instead wound up with the weaker points of each.

Since Gil Kane’s experiments, the graphic novel has come a long way. Writers like Alan Moore and Neal Gaiman have found ways to integrate quality pulp prose with art work that provides both depth and movement. They, of course, were helped by a different atmosphere in the comics world. Perhaps Kane was simply ahead of his time, and was let down by the way the system treated his trailblazing ideas. Or perhaps he didn’t set his sights quite high enough. Either way, BLACKMARK remains more than a curiosity, and it’s nice to have it back in print in a quality format at last.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

WHO KNOWS WHAT EVIL LURKS... NIXON'S SHADOW

Note: Recently I read a review in The Spectator by George Osborne (Tory shadow chancellor, recent convert to government regulation of financial markets, and Russian yachting partner of 'Lord' Mandleson) of Rick Perlstein's book Nixonland. Osborne was speculating whether the Beijing Olympics, and the entire modern China, would exist had not Nixon visited China? Of course coincidence is not causation; one might equally ask if the Cultural Revolution was down to Nixon, or JFK? Osborne concluded 'we don't have Nixon to kick around any more because a new generation hardly knows who he is, unless they Google him of course'. Osborne may be right; and I thought of Nixon's funeral, and how politicans, like hookers, become respectable if they hang around long enough--and then about how Reagan's funeral celebrated his reinvention from corrupt at home and dangerously out-of-control corrupt abroad into an Uncle Joe Stalin figure for an America moved far to the right. It reminded me I'd reviewed a book about Nixon a few years ago, for the TLS, but because I hadn't given it the sort of glowing notice the editor (not the editor who commissioned it) thought it deserved, the review never appeared. That actually happened to me more than once at that stealth Murdoch paper. The review eventually appeared in issue 48 of the estimable magazine Lobster. But since IT is concerned in part with crime, and since true crime is an important part of the crime genre, and since an election is just around the corner in America, now seems a good time to circulate it.

A few years ago, during one of America’s periodic re-evaluations of Richard Nixon, cartoonist Gary Trudeau showed Mike Doonesbury’s young son watching the ex-president on television. After a panel’s worth of contemplation, the boy asks ‘he’s lying now, isn’t he?‘ His parents beam with pride. ‘A new generation recoils!‘ says Doonesbury.

Perhaps David Greenberg needed to recoil just a little too. Pinning down Tricky Dick is as easy as nailing mercury to a wall; it is even more difficult to bring his image into focus if one approaches the past with assumptions borrowed from the present. In fact, it is the very distance between image and reality which proves the stumbling block for this book. Since his death, Nixon has been shifted to the political middle-ground; by shifting along with this and adopting the template of today’s neo-conservative America, Greenberg mitigates, if not accepts wholeheartedly, the decades of pervasive lies from which Nixon benefits. Concluding convincingly that Nixon did change our approach to politicians, Greenberg analyses the man with the assumption that such change must have been, by definition, positive, given that he accepts as healthy the state of America's current American malaise. The result is an unchallenged litany of the received wisdom of blandness that reflects the American media’s avoidance of substantive issues, particularly during election campaigns.

The cartoonists were always way ahead of the political pundits on Nixon anyway. Paul Conrad drew the President's gravestone, sporting the ambiguous epitaph, ’here lies Richard Nixon’. In fact, it's easy to see Nixon as America’s Dracula, rising repeatedly from his grave to suck blood from the collective polis. This would make Greenberg his Renfrew, wanting to raise him from the coffin one last time, while simultaneously criticising Bram Stoker for lack of balance as a biographer.

Is neutrality a sufficient approach to Nixon’s early political years? Can one discuss Nixon’s image while dismissing the influence of Murray Chotiner, the godfather of negative campaigning? Greenberg chooses to portray Nixon as an honest battling candidate during his red-smearing races against Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas. Presumably, since both were ‘liberals,’ they deserved whatever they got. Even the Checkers speech, for most of us the litmus paper of Nixon’s insincerity, becomes to Greenberg a public success, since he sees the 1952 Presidential election as Nixon’s triumph over ‘egghead’ Adlai Stevenson. This is a position tenable only if you somehow manage to disregard the immense popularity of Dwight Eisenhower. If ’most’ Americans really 'embraced' Nixon the man, as Greenberg claims, why would his 1972 re-election committee consciously reject using his name, instead calling themselves the Committee to Re-Elect ‘the President’? They would have avoided the subconsciously inevitable acronym CREEP.

But through deft use of the locutions of mainstream punditry, like the unsubstantiated ‘most’, or the assumptive 'embrace', Greenberg attempts to redefine history, dismissing as conspiracy paranoia a wide spectrum of analysis which to him lies well outside the mainstream and thus doesn't fit his thesis. He makes scant mention of Nixon's shady pal Bebe Rebozo, and none at all of Howard Hughes, whose bribes to Nixon handled by Rebozo may have been the ultimate explanation of Watergate. There is no discussion of the original ‘October Surprise’, Nixon and Kissinger’s deliberate sabotaging of the 1968 Paris peace talks before the election. Respected reporters like Seymour Hersh get lumped in with student radicals, as people who abused the system every bit as badly as Nixon himself. Authors like Jim Hougan are marginalized completely. It’s as if Greenberg is desperate to avoid being labelled a ‘nattering nabob of negativism’ by Spiro Agnew.

Nixon’s defining moments, the Watergate scandal, his impeachment and resignation, exist sui generis for Greenberg in a similarly conspiracy-free light. No matter how much evidence he himself provides to the contrary, he continues to cite with approval those reporters who admit to having been fooled repeatedly by Tricky Dick. They remembered his ’you won’t have Nixon to kick around’ speech after losing the 1962 California gubernatorial election, and their sympathy, if not guilt, led them to accept Nixon at face value in 1968. Even after giving Nixon another free ride in 1972, against the ‘unelectable’ McGovern, Watergate remained a non-issue until the lies became too blatant to dismiss. Right-wing pundit James Kilpatrick is quoted, but not when he opined absurdly on 60 Minutes' Point-Counterpoint segment that the Watergate tapes showed only Nixon’s refreshing sense of humour. Greenberg, who worked on Bob Woodward’s Clinton book, THE AGENDA, never even wonders about the identity or motivation of Deep Throat.

After Nixon quit the White House, he was reborn as an elder statesman, hailed for his realpolitik with the Soviet Union and China. Greenberg is more comfortable here, and traces deftly Nixon’s academic re-evaluation as a ’liberal’, the last Republican President not committed to destroying the New Deal outright. The motivations behind Nixon’s ’liberalism’ can be guessed at; he did, after all, grow up poor during the Depression, but Greenberg is dismissive of most of the ‘psycho-biographers’ who were attracted to Nixon as an early case-study. His analysis of them is cogent, but although he quotes Gary Wills a number of times, he never actually discusses Wills’ NIXON AGONISTES, by far the best of the bunch. More a literary exegesis than psychobiography, it did far better thirty years ago what Greenberg attempts to do now.

Nixon’s campaign manager and attorney general, John Mitchell, said, on his way to jail, ‘this country is going so far to the right you won’t recognise it.’ The next group of California businessmen backing a political candidate chose someone you would buy a used car from, Ronald Reagan, the ‘Teflon’ president. Greenberg says Nixon’s legacy is that Americans now ‘routinely believe all Presidents manipulate images’. But the reality goes far deeper. Nixon’s true legacy is the way ‘character’ has become the bullfighter’s cape of political analysis, used by spin doctors and media to distract the audience while they, or the candidates, get gored.

In the 2000 Presidential election, the mainstream media cast Al Gore as the Nixonian ‘liar’, while George Bush, sporting the American flag lapel pin introduced by Nixon himself as self-conscious refuge in patriotism, proved himself presidential by not stumbling a la Gerry Ford. Not surprisingly, Bush’s Chotiner, Karl Rove, was a young Nixon supporter during the Watergate era. And it’s interesting to note that Bush’s ability to generate visceral protest is positively Nixonian. Shrub’s lip-licking smirk is the most revealing ‘tell’ identifying mendacity since Tricky Dick’s phony smile, and his chimp-like visage is the greatest boon to cartoonists since Nixon’s jowls, five o’clock shadow, and ski-jump nose.

Greenberg also gives short-shrift to the rich catalogue of Nixon portrayals in fiction and film. He is particularly dismissive of Oliver Stone’s NIXON, which, for all its horror-film iconography (America‘s Dracula?), is both more sympathetic to Nixon and closer to Greenberg’s own thesis than he would like to admit. Greenberg at one point quotes Nixon exhibiting a what he calls a Freudian bent, noting that those who lie or cover up tend to over-react. That is less Freudian than Jungian, namely Marie-Louise Von Franz's theory of the Shadow, whereby we hate in others what we fear in ourselves. In a key moment of Stone’s NIXON, Anthony Hopkins talks to a portrait of John Kennedy. ‘When they look at you, they see what they want to be; when they look at me they see what they are.‘ That is the essence of Nixon’s image; it is crystal clear, what you see is what you got. The shadow is not Nixon’s but America's. And behind it is somewhere Greenberg refuses to look.

Nixon's Shadow by David Greenberg, WW Norton, 2003
ISBN 978-0393048964