Thursday, 30 April 2009


My review of Jeremy Duns' spy thriller Free Agent has been posted at Crime Time (here). It's an interesting revisionist version of the Sixties James Bond style thrillers, and at its best when it's considering the history of the time through the lens of present research. This approach does have its problems, the breakneck pace of the 'field work' in a Nigeria torn by the conflict in Biafra, tends to overshadow the more atmospheric, and compelling part of the story, set in Sixties London, and MI6. It's the first of a series....


There was an interesting piece in the Guardian yesterday (here) about the top-selling authors of fiction in seven leading European book makets. The survey was done by Rudiger Wischenbart and Miha Kovac, based on trade magazines in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the Netherlands; you can find their fascinating Booklab blog here. From there you can also link to their original findings, which make far more interesting reading that the Guardian's potted summary.

Although the Guardian bills it as a 'diverse reading culture across Europe', the authors' own blog points out more accurately that none of the writers in their top 40 come from outside Western Europe (apart from Paulo Coehlo, 'Brazilian Portuguese'). Although Wischenbart told the Guardian you 'might have expected as many as 80% of the best-sellers to have been written in English', 13 of 40 still amounts to 1/3, though you'd have to agree that 2/3 of western Europe's best-sellers being non-English language is impressive.

Of course eight Swedes, from a country of only eight million people, is even more impressive, with four from the Netherlands following suit. Although Stieg Larsson was number one in five of the seven countries (based on chart position and length of stay factored together), Henning Mankell at 10 was the next highest placed Swede, while five English-language authors placed in the top 10: Khaled Hosseini (2), Ken Follet (4), John Boyne (7), Ceceila Ahern (8) and Elizabeth Gilbert (9). Of course, two of those are Irish, one American, and one Afghan-born, which lessens slightly any English national triumphalism.

The list is limited to 'adult' fiction, so Stephenie Meyer, who would place second overall, is excluded, as is JK Rowling. Both have multiple titles included in their totals, which is another problem when trying to compare like against like. I had thought Boyne's The Boy In Striped Pyjamas, was originally done as a young adult title, but became 'adult' as a result of the movie tie-in. Movies also boosted Ahern, for example, when PS I Love You came out. One other anomaly: Robert Saviano's Gomarra, obviously boosted by its movie tie-in, was marketed in some countries as fiction and others as non-fiction, and it's unclear from the chart and its notes whether it was thus excluded or included.

The other Swedes included Lisa Marklund (12--and she's going to be collaborating with James Patterson), Jan Guillot (15-- interestingly, Guillot's books, while wildy popular in Germany, haven't made much impression in English markets), and Jens Lapidus (17-- whose 'Stockholm Noir' trilogy, first volume titled Never Fuck Up, has yet to be published in English). Johan Theorin and Asa Larsson also make the list, along with Mark Levengood, an American-born Swedish-speaking Finn whose fame came via the Eurovision song contest and whose book, I assume, is non-crime.

I'm surprised at the paucity of American writers included. Apart from Gilbert, the only others were Patricia Cornwell, Patterson, and Mary Higgins Clark, all of whom placed in the 40s. Also down in that territory were England's Martina Cole and Nicci French, and the Indian/Australian Aravind Adiga. The top ten also includes Carlos Ruis Zafon, which may vindicate leaving the title of El juego del angelo in Spanish, and the German neo-feminist porno writer Charlotte Roche. And though I'm as encouraged as the Guardian by seeing Katie Price in close proximity to a French Nobel Prize winner, I question whether it's accurate of the paper to describe Price as 'an author writing in English', since she doesn't actually write her books at all.

Friday, 24 April 2009


by James Carlos Blake


I wouldn't really call James Carlos Blake's work forgotten, or even ignored; in fact,it's usually marketed as 'literary fiction' and sold outside the crime sections of bookstores. This novel,though nominally a western, was published in the UK in 1997 by Canongate, a publisher of both fine and eclectic tastes and high standing in literary circles, yet still it sank like a corpse wearing concrete espadrilles. I don't believe any of Blake's other books have been published here, though in the US they've appeared steadily, from imprints like Harper Perennial, eclectic publishers on the literary side of the bookstore divide.

I've written many times about how the crime novel and the western are inextricably linked; Public Enemies, Bryan Burrough's recent study of 1930s robbers, which Michael Mann is filming, made the same point, and Blake works in that territory, making the links evident. His 'Dillinger' novel, Handsome Harry, is excellent, but all his books tend to be set between the turn of the last century, through the Depression, and if you replace horses with Fords and six-guns with tommy guns, you can see clearly the smooth continuity of the genres.

Although Blake’s sympathetic portrait of John Wesley Hardin in The Pistoleer might seem to owe more to various Billy the Kid stories than to modern crime novels, there is another interesting connection, between the modern, serial killer 'heroes' and the outlaw whom death seems to follow around. As in many of Blake's books, the criminal's story begins with abuse in childhood (classically, the outlaw’s usually comes at the hand of legal, rather than parental, authority) and then takes the structure of the road novel as a framework for a series of deaths, the final one usually being his own. And in The Pistoleer Hardin is presented as a prototype version of the serial killer, a sociopath if not a psychopath, who almost needs the death that becomes his stock in trade.

In westerns, killings often make some men more attractive to some women, and again, it is one of Blake's tropes to include the outlaw's women in his stories, and not merely as eye-candy. This too is a major part of the Thirties gangster mystique, and not just for Bonnie and Clyde. In The Pistoleer, Blake uses multiple points of view, and some of the best sequences are those narrated by women. Not only do he show the how ladies love outlaws, those ladies have their own perspective on the phenomenon, a perspective not usually a part of the genre. Sadly for modern writers, serial killers never seem to have that same attraction for women.

This perspective might seem surprising from a writer as superficially hard-boiled as Blake, but in fact he can also become overly romantic; but this novel certainly doesn’t suffer for it,and his other books contain a couple of absolutely devastating endings. Here, the kaleidoscope of narrators give him lots of scope for irony, and provides a panoramic view of the West which few novels have time or scope to attempt, much less deliver. The depth of the story, and the quality of the writing, show why publishers refused to consign Blake to the ghetto, but it's worth moving this book into the western sections. When it came out I compared it to Geoff Aggeler’s Confessions Of Johnny Ringo and Loren Estleman’s Bloody Season as among the best “bad man” novels of the 1990s, and it remains just as good today.

Sunday, 19 April 2009


There was a very fine profile of my old friend August Kleinzahler in yesterday's Guardian review section (here), by James Campbell. Gus is hot right now, not only winning a Lannan award, but generating big heat in the vicious world of poetry by attacking not only establishment poets like Adam Kirsch and William Logan, but also the sainted Garrison Keillor. Campbell is very good in the way he lets his profile take both sides of the story, letting his picture of August answer Kirsch's analysis. Of course the photo of August that accompanies the piece does that too: wearing his Al 'the Blast' Gallo hat he looks every bit the retired Jersey gangster, but the cat he's holding suggests something else.

I've written about August before at IT, (here), when the NY Times asked him to celebrate the election in poetry, and no sooner had I done so than he won the Lannan award, showing the power of influence Irresistible Targets can have. But I didn't really praise his poetry enough (I must like it; I published a few chapbooks of it, and according to the piece, they may be worth something more than chump change now). That's why I was glad Campbell chose such a good example to accompany the article, a segment from 'Before Dawn On Bluff Road' which shows August's amazing ability to weave rhythms out of the most uncommon poetical words, his confident appropriation of language, and most of all, the unexpected emotion that gives the poem its impact.

August has always been the antithesis of the poetasters, the creative writing professors who write poems about chopping wood and walking through the fields, the Oxford-educated grant-seekers, and the rest. He's been critical of them, and it irritated some critics that he would do so when he proved himself somewhat adept at working the business of poetry while refining its craft. Poetic politics are so vicious, to adapt an old saying about academics, because the stakes are so low. But the real stakes is the writing itself, something few poetasters remember.

Since August has turned 60, and has won the Griffin prize as well as the Lannan, I suppose I'll have to stop referring to him as the best young poet in America. But I'm happy to refer to him as the best poet in America, and celebrate him out of the mainstream as well as in it.

Saturday, 18 April 2009


I've just finished watching the fourth series of The Wire on DVD, and while it might seem a bit belated, remember that the UK has been far behind on the show, and even then it had aired only on a small satellite channel before the BBC began a run of daily late-night showings of the first series a couple of weeks ago (and interestingly, on Wednesdays, let that re-run show bump Mad Men to an after-midnight time slot). But it occurs to me that, although we take it as a commonplace by now that The Wire is the best TV show any of us have seen, this fourth series marks a particular high point. It also occurs to me that this may well be the programme that makes watching on TV redundant. Although a daily run is a good idea, the ideal way to watch The Wire is via box set, in which you can move at your own pace, go back and rewatch bits to exercise your curiosity, in fact, watch it almost exactly the way you would read a novel.

Although the ensemble cast and multiple plot lines are nothing new to serial TV (in fact, one of the best things about Homicide was the underlying plot thread of corruption which ran throughout the series), I'm not going to stop and praise individual writers or actors--the standard has been incredibly high throughout. The Wire has been able to eschew completely the need for resolution in any one episode; it's been able to build its storylines on its own terms, and it's been able to do away with most of the distinctions between heroes and villains, especially in terms of its police story. The beauty of the fourth series is that all these factors have been allowed to move front and centre for two reasons. First was the withdrawal of Jimmy McNulty out of the main plot lines. If anyone had been the center of the show, it was him, and his personal demons could sometimes overshadow other stories; not that this was bad, but without him, the rest of the stories take on more meaning. In fact, as the series builds toward the re-construction of the original Wire 'team' of cops, we find their own positions more interesting, and more relevant, to the general story lines.

The other factor is the over-lying theme. Each series has tended to have one moral arch; the most effective previously had been the question of work in series two, the way the lack of opportunity to do real work affects a city, and that theme permeated all the story lines. Series four is about education, and by using four school kids as its focus, four kids who hadn't been part of the story before, it delivered a damning and depressing indictment of the state of our society—as well as powerful drama. The plot lines inter-twine: there is a mayoral election, the dirty politics will have its impact on the schools; the police are being asked to massage statistics, exactly the way the school system does to 'leave no child behind'. Bunny, forced to leave the police after his experiment to 'Hamsterdam' the drug trade in Baltimore ran afoul of the 'anti-drug' message, winds up working on a similar programme, to isolate problem children from classrooms, try to 'socialise' them, while allowing others to learn. Meanwhile, of course, Marlo is leaving more and more hidden corpses as he rises to the top of the drug business.

I said, the brilliant thing is that there are no heroes or villains, or perhaps it is that they are not the people you expect them to be. The heroic figures are those plugging away against a relentlessly uncaring system. We are drawn to think of Omar, who rips off drug dealers, as a hero of sorts; he and Bodie, who's grown since the first series, are true their codes. Bunny is, of course, a hero.

But many of the villains are simply playing their games as they know how. Crooked politicians and politicially inclined police chiefs have their roles, they are part of the system, not really creating the problems as profiting from them. Proposition Joe is their equivalent in the drug trade, corrupt, but in effect playing by the bent rules. But young uns like the brilliantly cold Marlo and his killers Chris and Snoop, don't have a code, which makes him a real villain, and his corruption of Michael is the closest the series comes to having a devil. But there is an equivalent kind of cold in the bureaucrats who insist the schools teach for the test, who spout sociological cant in the face of reality, and who use test scores to lie about progress. The saddest moment in the series may be when homeless Duquan receives a 'social promotion' to high school; leaving Prezbo and his class behind will guarantee his education comes to an end. But, in one sense, the real villain of series four is Herc, the otherwise likeable cop, simply because he doesn't do his job well enough, doesn't understand its responsibilities enough, and his lackadaisical self-interest winds up hurting the wonderfully sympathetic Bubbles and young Randy, one of the four kids.

Their fates are never going to be positive, and to some extent the transformation of Michael's character is the hardest to accept, in fact, it's delineated well only if you remember that he is the smartest of the four, the one who's best able to make the practical decision about what it will take to survive. That he takes DuQuan with him simply shows that there is nothing the system, even someone as caring as ex-cop Prezbylewski, can do. And interesting, rather than pull the melodramatic strings with any of the four, the show instead surprises you, by sacrificing Bodie, the most likeable of all the slingers, but not before referring us back to the first season, and the brilliant translation of the chess board into street analogy. Those little elements make watching in sequence particularly rewarding. Deputy Ops Chief Rawls was shown briefly in a gay bar in an earlier series, in this one there is a single piece of graffiti, in the womens room at the police station, that keeps that plot element alive. Will it be used in series five? It's the long game the writers are playing, what creator David Simon has referred to in interviews as a 'visual novel'.

The final episode is double the usual length, and even so is forced to use a coda to draw the elements together. Much remains unresolved, not least the ultimate fates of the four boys. But Marlo now has Prop Joe in his sights; the major crimes unit will be chasing Marlo and his killers; Omar is a marked man, and Michael now has a corner. I realised how attached I had become to The Wire as I watched the final episode, and realised I did not want it to end, the way you sometimes slow down when you're reading a particularly good book. Now the fifth season looms out there, and I feel the way I did when I started reading The Dain Curse, knowing once I'd finished, I'd never have another Dashiell Hammett novel to read.


With the second autopsy on Ian Tomlinson, the one demanded by his family, but according to the IPCC press release 'instructed' by the IPCC, revealing the cause of death to be 'abdominal hemmorhage', that is, internal bleeding, and the PC who struck Tomlinson and shoved him to the ground scheduled to be questioned regarding his manslaughter, I wonder if Dr. Freddy Patel, who carried out the first autopsy, blaming Tomlinson's death on a 'heart attack', as part of the 'innocent bystander police tried to aid before anarchists attacked them with bottles' cover up story, should now also be investigated as an accessory after the fact. If he ignored the true cause of death, in order to protect either an individual policeman or the police service itself, such charges should be automatic, only who would make them? But bringing such charges might encourage him to say who it was from the coroner's office who decided the autoposy would be held in secret, without the IPCC present, because there were no suspicous circumstances.

Friday, 17 April 2009

PHILLIP KERR'S THE SHOT: A Forgotten Friday Entry

It may be an exaggeration to say that most of Philip Kerr's work, apart from the Bernie Gunther series, has fallen through the critical cracks. But if I, a crime-fiction critic and a Kennedy assassination junkie, could miss The Shot, Kerr's novel about an assassination attempt on JFK, when it was published ten years ago, I think it's fair to characterize it now as overlooked, if not forgotten. Having said that, it's a novel more clever than good; a book of two halves in more than one way.

Structurally, it begins with a bang, as we meet Tom Jefferson carrying out the assassination of an ex-Nazi in Buenos Aires. Perhaps it is Kerr's familiarity with Nazi stories that gives this scene its resonance, but it is carried off with panache, and Jefferson is a protagonist of admirable amorality. Lately, I seem more and more to be referring period pieces set in the early Sixties to Mad Men, but picture Don Draper with a sniper scope, and you've got Jefferson. He returns to America, to entertain a proposal from the Mob and CIA, brokered by Johnny Roselli and Sam Giancana, that he assassinate Fidel Castro. So Jefferson heads of to Cuba to reconnoiter, cozying up to made men. In fact, it may be time for a period gangster show, set in this time period. Call it Made Men.

Anyway, the guano gets in the air conditioning when Tom's wife, Mary, who's been working for the Kennedy campaign, is taped having sex with the priapic Presidential candidate, and then turns up dead. And Tom appears to blame the Kennedys. And reneges on his deal with the mob to kill The Beard. From this point, Kerr begins turning the tables. Jefferson is not what he seems to be, and neither are a lot of the other people. But rather than ratchet up the tension, this reversal has the opposite effect. Jefferson moves, for the most part, offstage, and is replaced as protagonist by Jimmy Nimmo, a Miami cop and ex-FBI man, mobbed up, and hired by Giancana to stop Jefferson from killing JFK, who at that point they still believed was their boy. Ironic, isn't it?

Nimmo is almost the kind of amoral manic operator James Ellroy specialized in, but he never really establishes himself as a character, as opposed to a plot device. Where Jefferson's cold came through, Nimmo's heat does not. And the story itself comes to a halt as, Kerr begins to display his para-political research. The problem is, he does it through his characters, delivering deep background about the CIA's relationships with the mob, or the FBI's COINTELPRO operations, or assassinations and regimes changes, by having characters who should know all this stuff explaining it to each other. The idea that Dick Bissell, running plans for the CIA, wouldn't know who'd been deposed and who was in power in Guatemala is a bit hard to take. This middle section drags on, through endless meetings, which exist not so much to drive the plot forward as to demonstrate the depth of Kerr's historical nous. But as I said, it's a book of two halves: neither taut thriller nor expansive alternate-historical epic.

As the moment for Kennedy to die comes closer, Kerr swerves again, and then follow a couple of twists which, again, are clever rather than satisfying. It's a disappointment, because he's done the research, he understands the ethos of all the players involved, and he's very good on their relationships. But there really isn't that much tension; it's plot device not exploding device. Early in the book, as Jefferson staked out Castro, and came up with a fool-proof plot, complete with fall-guy, we recognised with a nod and a wink that Kerr was referencing the JFK killing. And after his twists are finished, we realize that the mob will be referencing it some time in the future; in fact, Kerr goes out of his way to make sure we see how clever he's been.

The Gunther books were far tighter structurally, and what was particularly interesting about them was their insight into the Nazi era from the inside, as it were. The fact that we knew the ultimate outcome had no bearing on Gunther's own investigations. But more important is the question of tone. The Gunther books are written to emphasize the bleak danger of normality. The Shot, on the other hand, while trying too hard to get us into the era, can't get the tone right, as if Kerr is confounded by the normality of the Eisenhower era, whether it too is bleak, dangerous, or something else. Too often its gangsters talk like bureaucrats ('he has some narcotics deals going down in Cuba that have to be out of the way first') and his spooks sound like professors and students.

But they aren't very good bureaucrats or professors. They get Santo Trafficante's name wrong, they think Calvin Coolidge was a Democrat, and someone ought to tell someone that Kennedy was not the 'state Senator for Massachusetts' before becoming president, and the park in Washington near the Key Bridge is not the Francis Scott park, it's Francis Scott Key (so's the bridge) and he wrote the national anthem while the Brits were shelling Baltimore. I make these points lightly, but with a serious intent; the book wears its historical research on its sleeve (there's even a chapter titled 'On The Trail Of The Asasassins', a knowing reference to one of Jim Garrison's book). But when it's that easy to spot howling errors of fact in a subject I know well, if generally, one begins to wonder how much credence one should give to accepting other historical settings.

But as I said, atmosphere is more important that fact when you're trying to convey the reality of an era, and the atmosphere of The Shot, in the end, feels too contrived. Mary Jefferson is killed with a drug overdose administered in the same way as Marilyn Monroe's was, if you accept she was killed rather than suicided. Since I once titled my review of a book on the subject 'The Enema Within' I suppose I shouldn't be critical of Kerr's having one of his characters crack the same joke (although I did get there first). But it's the wrong kind of cleverness from the wrong character, in a book that, in the end, tries to be too clever for itself. It's a pretty good try, but in the end, any number of people have re-created this era with more veracity, and that's not just a question of which president was which, or who actually did shoot JFK.

The Shot by Phillip Kerr, 1999

Wednesday, 15 April 2009


No sooner did I write, in 'The Quick and the Dead' (here) about the propensity for CCTV evidence to fail to exist when members of the 'justice' system are being investigated, than the claims of Nick Hardwick, head of the 'Independent' Police Complaints Commission was shown to have been lying when he said there 'was no CCTV footage' in the area, around Royal Exchange Passage, where Ian Tomlinson was assaulted by police, leading to his death.

Last Thursday Hardwick told Channel 4 news "there is no CCTV footage – there were no cameras in the locations where he was assaulted." Although it is pretty easy to disprove this claim, since there are cameras in the area and photographs of them have been published, it took the IPCC until after the Easter holiday to begin cleaning up their covering up, with statements implying Hardwick had been referring to 'footage' when he said 'no cameras'.

However they were at a loss to explain how, if, as they had claimed when they issued their immediate clearance of the police in that assault, that they had looked at 'many hours of CCTV footage' how Hardwick could have been so sure there were no cameras. The assumption must be that the relevant footage from the cameras in Royal Exchange Passage will not be looked at until after it has been 'accidentally' wiped in the 'normal course' of business.

Meanwhile, more footage of the police attacking a woman during the vigil being staged to mark Tomlinson's death also shows that, having penned a small group of protestors, a tactic calculated to create, if not preserve, disorder. Someone who appears to be a photographer is shown being stopped from leaving the inside of the cordon, while another man trapped inside is talking to a WPC and then is shoved from behind by another PC.

A woman sees that attack, and begins protesting to a cop, calling the police 'scum'. She has a carton of juice and a camera in her hands, and makes no move to attack anyone, but the PC, wearing heavy gloves, gives her a back-handed slap in the face, then, as she continues to remonstrate with other offices, turning away from him, draws his baton and smashes her in the back of the legs. His identification number is, of course, covered up: but video taken by another participant identifies him clearly enough that the police have had no choice but to suspend him too.

With the police making massive arrests of people allegedly planning a possible protest that might have led to some disorder at a power station...the conditionals being the key point...the ultimate effect of the G20 may be to clarify exactly what the attitude of law enforcement is toward the people who are being increasing disenfranchised by economic collapse, and see the keepers of order acting to protect those who manage to avoid such disenfranchisement.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009


My latest American Eye column has been posted at Shots, you can find it here. It's discussing two novels with no UK publishers: one by an old favourite of mine, T. Jefferson Parker's L.A. Outlaws,and the other, Henry Chang's Chinatown Beat, which was touted in a column by Ron Rosenbaum. It doesn't quite live up to Rosenbaum's hype, but it's not bad, as you'll see.

Friday, 10 April 2009


It is rather odd to read Fletcher Flora's Killing Cousins, written in 1961, while almost simultaneously watching Mad Men, a knowing and ironic look back on that era. Because there is a sense of tongue-in-cheek about Flora that seems slightly out of character for the genre we associate with him. His best known book, the lesbian thriller Strange Sisters (one of at least five books to share that lurid title) was published by Lion in 1954. But when Killing Cousins appeared, in 1960, it was a hardback, from Macmillen, which implies that someone in the publishing world could see what Flora was up to. My copy, shown right, is a 1964 British paperback edition, from New English Library's Four Square, but what really fascinated me what that it reprints the original 1961 British hardcover by Jonathan Cape, at a time when Cape was one of the most prestigious of houses. Which means someone in Britain understood what was going on too..

If indeed he was up to anything more than entertaining at a fast pace. The style and tone of Killing Cousins reminded me of something Ed Gorman once said about Day Keene, that he became more flamboyant the more he wrote, and it doesn't get more flamboyant than this. It opens with Flora explaining about Willie Hogan the most famous of all the residents of Ouchita Road, in a town called Quivera (!), more famous than a losing Republican governor or a bit-part actress, because she killed her husband. Having set-it up, he doesn't wait long to deliver: Willie is confronted by her husband Howard, prosperous because his father is the local beer distributor, and cuckolded frequently, which didn't appear to bother him inordinately until Willie took up with his bright but ne'er do well cousin, Quincy. Howard confronts Willie, while she's painting her nails, and dares her to shoot him. So she does. Then she finishes painting her nails and calls Quincy to help her dispose of the body.

It's a pretty classic set-up, femme fatale and hard-boiled hero about to get in over their pretty heads. But while there is much of the classic femme fatale about Willie, there's a seriously flipped element to the story; she's really stupid, with none of the kind of feral intelligence black widows have in classic noir. Flora really seems to have been intent on reversing lots of the stereotypes of the genre. Quincy is far from the usual noirish hero, driven off-track by lust, stolid and being played by a spider-woman more clever than he is. Instead, he's extremely bright, to the point of alcoholic boredom in Quivera (!), and has more than a little feyness about him, far from your average 50s or early 60s noir hero. His dialogue often sounds like a parody of a drawing room mystery, played for laughs, which may be what appealed to Cape in the first place, that tone like Nick Charles talking to Gracie Allen (the George Burns Gracie, not the British one).

Of course getting rid of the body is never as easy as you might think, and something's always bound to go wrong. Especially when Howard's mistress turns up. And then Quincy's smarts are tested, and so are Willie's natural abilities. As Flora writes: 'Willie, advised to do nothing, was surprised to learn that doing nothing was one of the hardest things she had ever done'. I think that the entire novel may be worth it for just that line; but of course Willie can't keep still, and of course she and Howard turn on each other, and Flora gets to work out a few more reversals along the way. It occurred to me that if you set out to rewrite The Postman Always Rings Twice, take the passion out of it, or better, turn passion into boredom as motivation, and see where that took you, you'd get something like Killing Cousins. You get the sense James M Cain was immersed in his characters, repelled and attracted like his heroes, which is why his books are so intense; Flora seems merely amused by his. But if you could that to Cain's best-known book, you'd probably wind up with that same kind of wry, fed-up with the Fifties, quality that Mad Men has, fifty years later.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

THE QUICK AND THE DEAD: 'Terrorism' In Britain

It is instructive that British police can assault innocent bystander Ian Tomlinson, a homeless alcoholic working as a paper-seller, leading to his death by heart attack moments later, and immediately begin releasing a series of lies aimed at covering up their culpability, but no one is held to any immediate account. While it is cause for immediate resignation when Bob Quick, the head of the anti-terrorist squad, decides to play Bozo the clown and expose his unit's top-secret plans to public cameras.

The fact that another policeman, John Dougal, was convicted yesterday of causing the death through dangerous driving of a teenager whom he hit in his police car chasing a car moving at 94mph, driving without lights or siren (so not to give away anything to the car he was pursuing) all of this while his night shift after working a full day as an electrician, merely made this a telling trifecta, marking the path of the transformation of Britain into a police state: a state where the citizens exist by the grace and favour of a self-perpetuating bureaucracy, the sort of thing that C Wright Mills said made 'reflective citizenship' impossible.

The Tomlinson assault and its immediate cover-up is reminiscent of the case of Jean-Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician murdered at Stockwell tube while on his way to work, and raises a few similar questions, and some of a different nature. Incompetance, of course, was also a major factor in the Menezes killing: the surveillance officer missed IDing him because he'd left his post to pee, communications between different units didn't function, operational 'go' words were misundertood. There was also the institutional concept, as articulated first by Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur in The Front Page, of 'production for use'. The officers had their guns, and had to use them. The traffic officer had his high speed car and had to use it. The riot police have their batons and dogs and horses and have to use them.

In light of that, we need to ask what is the basis for the police assumption that anyone on the streets is a protestor, and worse, that any protestor is a violent terorrist? Did no one remember the effects of penning the crowd in Oxford Circus in 2001? The workers penned in for six to eight hours while trying to get back to their jobs after lunch? The tourists trapped on their way to the tube, unable to exit despite displaying their air tickets and passports to the police? The effects of dehydration and heat prostration on that summertime crowd? Tomlinson's killing, and the tactics of corralling which caused it, did not exist in a vacuum.

But the more telling effect of 'kettling' may well be on the police themselves. Like a rugby team in the locker room before a match, or football supporters in the pub for four hours before the match, they are psyching themselves up for conflict, and after six hours on containment, there is aggro bursting to get out.

Given that, why are the police allowed to disguise their identities? In man who hit and shoved Tomlinson wore a balaclava, no warrant card or other ID number was visible on his clothing, and that appears to be the case with the other officers present. This goes back at least to the days of the miners' strike, although then the police were also trying to disguise the fact they were using soldiers to beef up their ranks.

The case has now been referred to the 'Independent' Police Clearance, oh sorry, Complaints Commission, which means no officials need speak about it while it is under 'investigation'. But rest assured, had not spectator footage been available, showing Tomlinson (who may have been struck previously, if the time sequence with the eventually-released Channel 4 footage is right) meandering away, trying to get home, leaning on a bollard, with his back to advancing police dog handlers. One cop, to his right, gives him a slight push as a dog runs into his back. At this, another comes up from his left, whacks him with his truncheon, and shoves him face first to the pavement. He lies on the ground, apparently remonstrating, then gets up and groggily continues, trying to get back to his shelter.

When deMenezes was gunned down, the police immediately spun the story for the gullible press: he had jumped the ticket gates, he was wearing a heavy coat which might have concealed a bomb, he had run from police, the police had identified themselves before firing; all of which were quickly shown to be lies.

When the current 'I' PCC investigation comes out, will the media remember to ask where the police's own CCTV footage from Cornhill is, and check to see how it's edited. It is interesting that we now live in a society where our every move is monitored, yet when that surveillance might work against those in the 'justice' system, it miraculously disappears. Remember, in the Menezes case, all the CCTV cameras in and around Stockwell tube just happened to have 'malfunctioned' simultaneously. By strange coincidence, the judge, 'Sir' Stephen Richards, who handled the Menezes family's case against the police, was himself accused of twice exposing himself to a woman on a commuter train. He elected to have his case heard before a judge, not a jury, and where that judge admitted he was taking his colleague's word over the member of the public, in what boiled down to 'she said, he said', he at least had the grace to say it was only because he laacked 'corroborative evidence'. That evidence, of course, might have been found on the CCTV tapes from Waterloo, except when the police finally got around to checking those cameras, delayed because of their 'heavu case load', they 'discovered' the tapes had been erased, as scheduled, the day before.

Finally, why was the BBC 'not interested' in the spectator footage when the Guardian offered it to them? And why is the story now being buried underneath Quick's resignation. One hopes the raid on the 'possibly aligned to Al Queda cell' produces more results than the one on the Plymouth 'bomb factory' where a family was planning to unleash 'terror' during the G20'; all of them have been released, without charge, to a chorus of silence from the media. They were too busy checking the video to see what Bob Quick's papers said.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009


BBC Radio Five, Simon Mayo show around 3:15 pm. My old NFL partner Colin Murray's sitting in for Simon (hold the Mayo, anyone?) and we'll be talking about the efforts of US sports to establish themselves over here. And likely a few other things too...

It ought to available online for a week afterwards, at

Tuesday, 7 April 2009


There's a deep synchronicity in the two obituaries I wrote for today's papers. In the Independent, (here), there's the skier and environmental activist Andrea Mead Lawrence, and the photo which the paper uses shows her winning the US national downhill championship, at Cranmore in North Conway, New Hampshire, on my fourth birthday. I'd wind up spending much time in that area, at my great-uncle's boys camp at lake Ossipee, and at the houses of uncles and cousins nearby. Cranmore was where the 'skimobile' ran skiers up the mountain.

Meanwhile, in the Guardian (here), I wrote about Millard Kaufman, the screenwriter (Bad Day At Black Rock, one of my favourite 50s movies) and co-creator of Mr. Magoo, which was a pretty impressive daily double of his own. He also acted as the beard for Dalton Trumbo, when the blacklisted writer did the screenplay for Gun Crazy, one of my all-time favourite films. A writer to the end, Kaufman published his first novel at age 90 (another will be published posthumously). And, to make the synchronistic point, we shared a birthday.

Monday, 6 April 2009


My review of Harlan Coben's new Myron Bolitar novel, Long Lost, is now up at Crime Time, you can find it here. With my own background in the sports biz, I gravitated to Myron when he first appeared, and did one of the first interviews with Harlan when he came to this country, where reviewers largely underappreciated the Bolitar series. He's moved on to bigger and better things, but I still have a soft spot for Myron; keep that in mind as you read the review.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009


My review of FIFTY DEAD MEN WALKING, directed by Kari Skogland, and adapted by her from Martin McGartland's memoir, has just been published at Crime Time (here). Although it's loaded with fine performances, not least Jim Sturgess in the lead, it's less a showcase for acting than a portrayal, brilliantly designed and shot, of the human side of what the British euphemistically call 'the troubles', and less a thriller than a study in betrayal. The analogy to John Ford's The Informer was meant seriously, but unlike Ford, who although American made much of his Irishness, Skogland, a Canadian, never romanticises her violent men. I'll be curious to see what the reviews here think; all the pre-film publicity has been about 'Sir' Ben Kingsley.

One other thing I should have mentioned: the music, which emphasizes traditional Irish music, is by Ben Mink, better known for his work with KD Lang, but previous of the late, lamented Canadian group Stringband, one of whose albums I actually subscribed to, to help it get made (it's called 'With Thanks To' as I remember, and my name is among the hundreds on the cover). This is the other benefit of having a Canadian director.