Friday, 22 August 2008

DEAD ON ARRIVAL IN WASHINGTON: Mike Lawson's latest Joe DeMarco

Dead On Arrival
Mike Lawson
Harper £6.99 ISBN 9780007256297

When I reviewed Lawson's first Joe DeMarco novel, The Inside Ring, (in Crime Time 48 you can find it here) , I was impressed by the way he wrung maximum tension from the corridors of Washington, within the context of a book that was undoubtedly 'high-concept', involving an assassination attempt against the President. In fact, once the story left the capital beltway and moved to Florida, it became a rather more standard sort of suspense novel. I was particularly taken with DeMarco's own diffidence, which seemed strangely effective among Washington's reptilian population. Dead On Arrival is a similar book, in that it also begins with a high concept: a rash of domestic suicide bombings in the US, which prompts a rush to pass a law requiring background checks on all Moslems in America.

It's harder to sustain this high concept, however. First because it is so obviously bogus; Lawson is extrapolating from the Bush regime's insistence on a steady erosion of civil liberties, and a constant hammering away at their audience's fears, and the real source of this convenient outbreak of terrorism patently isn't Islamic terrorists. Actually, even as I write this, I think that to many readers in America, the situation will not be 'obviously' bogus; if you are one of those people operating on full xenophobic alert, the suspense in this book will be riveting. It's also a stretch to accept that one of the suicide bombers should be a childhood friend of DeMarco's boss, the Speaker of the House, and that no one in the world (including intelligence people who presumably did background checks before picking their suicide bombers) knew this.

The other problem is that DeMarco's diffidence has intensified (if diffidence can be said to do that) to the point where he has become a shadow of a character. The political fixer should not be flamboyant, think of Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key, or any number of characters in George V Higgins' books, but he cannot be a reflecting surface on which other characters act, that's the kind of figure who's central in big historical novels by Herman Wouk. DeMarco has his dea-ex-machina in Emma, the former intelligence agent who acts as his action-man and plot-mover when he needs things done, but we'd still like to see the limits of his character: the relation with Speaker Mahoney needs more bite, and DeMarco himself needs to be less of a spectre.

Having said all that, Dead On Arrival (NB: called House Rules in the US) moves with a fast pace and brings everything to a conclusion neatly. But if Lawson can fine-tune get his blend of high-concept action and political novel into finer balance, he could produce a more memorable thriller.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008


Master Of The Delta
Thomas H Cook
Quercus £16.99 ISBN 9781847242112

There is a temptation to divide Thomas Cook’s novels into ‘northerns’ and ‘southerns‘, with those set in what seem to be small New England towns featuring more direct action, more contemporary dilemmas, and a more straight-forward writing styles. The ones set in the south tend to move more slowly, often digging deeper into the past, and seem imbued with a kind of Faulknerian feeling, where it always a bright July morning just before Pickett's Charge is about to begin.

MASTER OF THE DELTA is very much in the southern category. Set in 1954, before the violent upheavals of the civil rights movement, the story is told by Jack March, a teacher in a Mississippi high school. But in a society still organised along the racial and class divides of the ante-bellum South, he comes from one of the town’s first families, and teaching is for him a ‘vocation’ not an ‘occupation’. Still, he tries to involve his students, although sometimes in the manner of a scientist looking for movement from bacteria in a petrie dish. He assigns his class an essay on evil people, and one withdrawn student, Eddie Miller, decides to write about his father, ‘The Coed Killer’, who murdered and dismembered a girl when Eddie was just five years old.

Eddie blossoms under the assignment, but his investigation begins to trouble many people, including the police chief, the school principal, and some of his fellow students. It also attracts the attention of Jack’s father, who once taught Eddie’s father himself, but now lives in quiet seclusion, working on his ‘Book Of Days’, which Jack assumes is a diary, and which will never be finished. Meanwhile, Jack has fallen in love with another teacher, a girl from ‘across the tracks’, and Eddie appears to be forming a relationship with the girlfriend of the school’s star jock and bully.

The reader knows, because Jack is telling the story long after the events took place, that there is tragedy behind it. And the suspense comes from the parallel stories about to be revealed: Eddie’s look at the truth about the Coed killing, and Jack’s telling of the effects Eddie’s quest produced. But the story is also about distances: of fathers from their sons, of intellectual snobbery from the cause and effect of real life, of the past from the present. These are barriers which are always in flux, and sometimes not really there at all; as for Faulkner, for Cook the past is always with us.

Perhaps because I’m a Yankee, my favourite Cook novels have been ‘northerns‘ (THE CHATHAM SCHOOL AFFAIR, PLACES IN THE DARK, RED LEAVES), but in this atmospheric ‘southern’ Cook shows how he can wring suspense from the most simple aspects of the quotidian; it’s not the crimes themselves, but way life in Mississippi goes on, the way the people react, absorb, ignore, and live with those crimes that makes MASTER OF THE DELTA so powerful.

Friday, 15 August 2008


In the intertwined histories of Clare International, a conglomerate grown from a soap company started in Boston in the 19th century, and of the ovarian cancer within Laura Bodey, an estate agent in Lacewood, Illinois, a town dominated by its Clare factory, Richard Powers created a magnificent fictional double-helix.

If its synopsis resembles the picaresque of John Barth’s Sot-Weed Factor crossed with the environmental horror of A Civil Action, Powers' synthesis creates something different. Yes, Clare Soap’s transformation from a cottage industry, one craftsman with kettle working for the three Clare brothers, into Clare International, makers of everything from pesticides to whiskies, is a potted history of American business. But Powers’ microscope reveals patterns which resonate today. Ideologues would have us believe history ended with the death of the Soviet Union; capitalism achieved some sort of triumphal stasis. If America is capitalism’s most perfect laboratory, Gain reveals such delusions of triumph to be self-satisfied bleating from a system which merely crested at another peak of its inevitable cycle. George Santayana said ‘those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it,’ but who in America today even remembers Santayana?

Powers is concerned with cycles, because he knows there is no stasis. His persistent reference to systems is reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon’s early obsession with entropy. Powers litters Gain with examples. Industrial systems that build off their own waste, “internal production loops”, a reed-player’s circular breathing, even perennial plants: the constants by which we seek to convince ourselves that the systems we live in are not closed, will not someday run down and die. Clare itself seems to be ever-expanding; it changes from a few individuals, to a corporation, with an individual’s rights but not his responsibilities, to a conglomerate with the ability to slip its problems between borders, put governments and individuals alike on the equivalent of a toll-free number’s permanent hold.

Of course, the other side of gain is loss; we will all run down and die. Laura Bodey’s disease adds a human scale which makes this the most accessible of Powers’ six novels, like mixing Pynchon with Alice Hoffman. Powers sets off the inhuman elements of Laura’s fight against her cancer, the treatments beyond endurance or understanding, in stark relief against the very human minutiae of her suburban life. It all comes movingly into focus because the prose is contrasted so elegantly to the tone and pace of Clare International’s story. The reader twists the stories together, makes connections long before the characters have even begun to consider them, long before the stories resolve in mirror images. Bad publicity over cancers causes Clare’s stock to drop, leaving them vulnerable to takeover. Laura’s illness draws her alienated children and divorced husband back into their own company, the family, again. Her body, as clued by her name, creates a whole even as it is disintegrating, even as Clare disintegrates in its growth.

This tour de force comes from a writer whose risk-tasking and prodigious intelligence recall a mode of writing many believed had itself entropied two decades ago. Because its formidable scope is anchored so movingly in the human, Powers’ perfect ouroburous of a book may be the first great novel of this millennium.

FOOTNOTE: This was written originally for London Magazine, where Alan Ross had the lovely habit of praising my pieces inordinately, and the frustrating one of holding them until they were well out of date (which in the case of LM was only an issue or two). In fact, Gain was, I believe, originally published in 1999, so strictly speaking it was the first great novel only in the British version of the millennium, which ran late due to the wrong kind of snow falling that winter.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008


Charles McCarry must get bored with being called the American LeCarre, but Paul Christopher was his George Smiley, his name just as symbolic, and his past even more revealing. After producing the five novels that elevated his status among spy novelists, McCarry moved sideways, going beyond LeCarre in one sense, as he traced Christopher's roots back to frontier days in his epic historical novel, The Bride Of The Wilderness. Then he extended the saga, using Christopher's nephew, Henry Hubbard, before bringing the prototype back alongside Hubbard in the aptly-titled Old Boys (2003), a satire on both the aging of series characters and the DaVinci Code, but also an answering of some of the questions about Christopher raised in the last of those five novels. Now, in Christopher's Ghosts, McCarry addresses the central question of what turns men into spies.

Although loyalty is one of the central virtues of the 'old boys' who made up the OSS and early CIA, their values imherited and to some extent mimicking the 'honourable schoolboys' of British intelligence, McCarry, like LeCarre, is at his most interesting when he is examining the paradox of honour, loyalty, and trust among those who betray for a living, hence the brilliant ambiguity of the title of 'The Secret Lovers'. Those sorts of betrayals are at the heart of Christophers Ghosts.
In 1939 Paul is 16, living in Berlin with his writer father and his German mother, when he is set upon by some Hitler youth. He is helped by Rima, a Jewish girl his own age, whose father is a doctor no longer allowed to practice by the Nazis, but convinced this persecution of Jews is some a passing mistake. Because he is a German as well as an American, Paul is in vulnerable position, something recognised by Major Stutzer ('Dandy') of the Gestapo, who has his eye on the Christophers, perhaps because his one of his bosses, Heydrich, has his eye on Paul's mother Lori. As Paul encounters first love, the Christophers soon find themselves entangled in his relationship, and in their own, and when Paul turns down the chance at safety in order to try to save Rima, it ends in tragedy.

Twenty years later, Paul is working for the CIA, tracking Stutzer for his own revenge, when he crosses paths with the Mossad, who are tracking him for their own different sort of revenge. By now, Christopher is firmly ensconced in the old boys' network of the CIA, and readers who recall the man of the first five novels will see the already formidable sense in which he is closed off to almost everything except the value-systems of the job. McCarry invests the chase with enough uncertainty to keep it interesting, and enough paralleling of the earlier story to make it fit like a perfect puzzle. It ends in a fashion that is somewhat predictable, and might almost seem anti-climactic, except for the book's final line, which is one of the most perfect and telling I have ever read: making everything fall together, and echoing through all the other Paul Christopher novels with a sort of sombre toll. If Old Boys were a satire, this novel, beneath its historical trimmings, is a stunning coda to the Christopher series.

Christopher's Ghosts by Charles McCarry
 Duckworth £7.99 ISBN 9780715637654

Wednesday, 6 August 2008


Chelsea Cain is the author of Heart Sick and Sweet Heart, two novels that cast a knowing and often funny eye on the lighthearted (so to speak) topic of Serial Killers.
An interview with her is my latest American Eye column in Shots. It was even funnier than it reads.....

Saturday, 2 August 2008


Only a few moments into On The Rocks, as DH Lawrence and Frieda von Richtofen are engaged in a dish-smashing brawl, I passed a note to my wife asking 'Was Frieda Jewish?' It got a cheap laugh from her, but the question hung over my enjoyment of the play, because what could have been a deeply felt study into questions of artistic desire and romantic desire, or love, friendship and domination, instead stooped at any opportunity to grab even cheaper laughs, and they didn't grow out of the story but were rather stale jokes (Frieda: 'what would Freud say of this?' Lawrence: 'Fuck Freud' Frieda: 'I would but he's in Vienna'--would Frieda have fucked Freud, given the chance? Would she have even said that?) that didn't fit the characters or the settings. It was as if the playwright, Amy Rosenthal, were channelling her father Jack's best work in hopes of reaching a familiar friendly audience.

The immediate inspiration for my question, however, was Tracy-Ann Olberman's struggle trying to play Frieda with a German accent, which in moments of stress or intended humour was straight-forward Yiddish, switching, when 1917 Hun was needed, to the 'Allo-Allo' phrasebook, and finally, in the really serious moments, to unaccented English, like Eleanor Bron in Women In Love. Meanwhile Ed Stoppard's DH Lawrence has an accent that sprints all across the north of England, and similarly settles into more received English whenever things get serious, like Alan Bates in Women In Love. Behind the beard I kept seeing Robin Williams. Yet it wasn't until Katharine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry arrived on stage to complete the quartet that I realised what was happening. The Famous Four from Literature were being used for a higher purpose.

That being to benefit children of famous theatre people, Amy and Ed, who must have said, like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland used to in those MGM musicals, 'let's put on a show and all our friends will come!' And the show they're putting on, ostensibly about great people, and big themes, is really little more than a Hampstead BBC version of Friends--or maybe a literary This Life, another version of Friends done by the daughter of famous writers--we could call it Our Friends In The Southwest, and wait for Egg, if not Feebs, to come strolling down the Cornish coast.

After all, what does your average NW3 theatre audience know about DH Lawrence? Big beard, pacifist, German battleaxe wife, Oliver Reed and Alan Bates wrestling naked, northern accent? They're all here, that and very little more. It's easy to take Nick Caldecott's tweedy schoolboy Murry and play with the closet homosexuality often seen in Lawrence, make him wrestle nude with DH in case the audience misses the point, but the crucial issue with Lawrence to Anthony Burgess was less sex than dominance, and that is something Rosenthal seems to miss. The famous encounter with the police over the packet of salt happens off-stage, and it's Frieda, not Lawrence, who is victimised and spars with them. It serves to emphasise Lawrence as Frieda's child, which is probably a good point as far as it goes, but when it goes any farther, when it should be looking at Lawrence's need to dominate her sexually and Murry in some proto-sexual way, the play covers its eyes.

Not that Caldecott and Stoppard are bad in their roles; it's that their performances seem aimed at the level of a university, if not neighbourhood, production. Which could be a telling comment about Lawrence and Murry from Rosenthal and cast, but somehow I doubt it. In fairness, it was billed as a comedy, and the poster showed four young people jumping off a cliff, like a freeze-frame from the opening of a TV show. So I guess we were warned.

Mansfield, as played by Charlotte Emmerson, remains an enigma. What drew Lawrence to her, or her to him? Attraction, respect, inspiration? We never find out. We find out very little about her at all, although in fairness to accents she does Mansfield's educated Kiwi well, at least according to my wife, who herself is one of those. Similarly, her relationship with Murry is portrayed as deeply unfulfilled for both of them: Murry wants no physical affection, Mansfield wants nothing but to be working again. What are they doing there? What are we doing there?
Clare Lizzimore directs the simple set as if dying for a few Feydeau moments, and you would have thought Rosenthal would have been pleased to provide them. It's all very earnest, when it's not trying to get boffo laffs, but this is a story which has become more interesting over time, as more material has become available, not more comical. And it deserved better than DH as Ross plus Joey, Murry as Chandler, Frieda as von Rachel and Katharine Mansfield as Monica plus Phoebe.