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 na├»ve, 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.