Sunday, 31 May 2009

DIEBENKORN DOES THE WHITE HOUSE

I discovered, reading a piece from the Wall Street Journal (accessed via Arts & Letters Daily), that the Obamas have borrowed a painting by Richard Diebenkorn to hang in the White House. Diebenkorn's one of my very favourite painters, and I've written a short essay about him, for Untitled: Perspectives. You can find it here. Or you can just read on...

DIEBENKORN DOES THE WHITE HOUSE

The Obama Effect has thus far been mostly symbolic; he seems to balance every positive move (Israeli settlements) with a negative one (Guantanamo and torture), has approached the economic crisis much more like Bill Clinton than FDR, and been very cautious with his first pick to join the Supremes. But symbolic does have impact, and I'm all in favour of his latest move, which was to borrow a new set of paintings from the Hirschorn, including Richard Diebenkorn's 'Berkeley No. 52' (pictured above right).

Diebenkorn's a fascinating painter, one of my absolute favourites. He's from the generation of the Abstract Expressionists and in one sense produced a West Coast version of AE which took a long time to get recognised. That may be because his Berkeley work, from the 50s and 60s, is more representational than one expects from Abstract Expressionism. Even his Ocean Park series, from the 60s and 70s, still features recognisable parts of landscape, more than a hint of Post-Impressionism in them. They have a relaxed, west coast feel to them; not the intensity of, say, Rothko (who did grow up in Portland, Oregon, where Diebenkorn was born, after all), whom they sometimes recall. There's also a touch of Franz Kline about some of them, in their structural, almost architectural, power; and it's interesting that the Obama's have apparently requested a Kline from Chicago, on approval, as it were. Apparently, Barack took Michelle to the Art Institute on one of their first dates.

The Obamas have also borrowed sculptures by Jasper Johns and Degas, and works by Josef Albers, Louise Nevelson, Rauschenberg and, oddly, a red painting by Edward Ruscha with words like 'I think' 'maybe' and 'yes' on it. This is Obama's Bob the Builder approach to art. Can we fix it? Maybe we can! They've also selected a couple of works by a little-known black American artist, Alma Thomas, Sky Light (left) and the Chubby Checker-inspired 'Watusi Hard Edge'. There was an interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal which, while noting the pressure to make political gestures when presidents pick art, was more concerned with the potential increase in market value for the artists. This, I suppose, would be more of a help to those who are still alive, though the works themselves need to be at least 25 years old before they can be added to the White House's permanent collection, lest presidents be seen to be playing the art market like British MPs play the property market with taxpayer funding.

Call me predictable, but I find it interesting that I immediately make connections between Diebenkorn, Rohko, and Kline--my favourites of the painters of my lifetime. There's also a nice parallel to be made with Cy Twombly (about whom I wrote last August; you can find that here), another AE artist working at a remove from the mainstream, outlasting them, and in an environment of relaxed bright light. You can see a bit of Twombly, and even more of Charles Demuth, in many of the Ocean Park paintings (right).

That Diebenkorn's work should appeal to Obama, raised in Hawaii and colleged, at first, in California, doesn't come as a great surprise. I remember in the early 90s spending a weekend in Healdsburg, mainly because Diebenkorn lived there. The Clos du Bois winery was there too, and between them and the nice little Inn I stayed in, I decided Healdsburg would be a fine place to live. I wonder if it's still the same, with a Disney 1950s feel to it. Oddly, that's the kind of feeling Diebenkorn draws from me; I find his work both contemplative and soothing, both of which I assume would be a boon to someone with Obama's job description. But the idea of having the great galleries of America as a shopping gallery makes me think the job might almost be worth it.

Friday, 29 May 2009

HAKAN NESSER'S WOMAN WITH BIRTHMARK

My review of Hakan Nesser's impressive Woman With Birthmark is up at Crime Time, you can link to it here. Or read it below, with a small amendment to reflect its title...

Woman With Birthmark

This was my introduction to Nesser's Inspector Van Veeteren series, though it was originally published in Swedish in 1996, and the series itself is firmly established. At first glance, Van Veeteren would seem to fall neatly into that picture of the Scandinavian detective as a morose loner, unable to maintain meaningful contact with humans in the real world, and glumly pursuing further confirmation that the world is a place far more flawed than we prefer to think about. But for all that Van Veeteren is a lonely cop, seeming to prefer chess pieces to people, that comparison may be superficial.

First, because, like most police procedurals, the cops here form an ensemble. There's not a lot presented about most of them, but the romance of Reinhart and his English girlfriend is carried out in a sometimes amusing way, and her insights, as an outsider, provide a glimpse into all the cops; Reinhart seems to acquire added humanity as the book progresses, and Nesser handles this with a delicate touch. It is also useful to have such a character in a setting whose identity, as we shall see, is crucial.

But more importantly, the real focus of this novel is not on the police at all, but on the criminal.It starts with the killer at one funeral, and ends with another, and although the story hesitates at times, the final sections provide a real sort of suspense, albeit one which is for the most part resolved off-stage. Normally, that would be a drawback, but here we're talking about revenge, for a crime which also occurred off-stage, and whose details we learn only at the end. So the process becomes the story: the killer extracting revenge paralleled with the police trying to extract the motive. And here I also admire Nesser's choice of title, which reflects the story is an understated by effective way.

As ever in police procedurals, the author can choose a fact to reveal at almost any time, and Nesser picks his moments pretty well. In the meantime, we learn about each victim in some detail, and none of them elicit out sympathy; there is a very real sense that all these men are successful in a society that allowed them liberty to abuse.

Which brings me to the most interesting facet of this novel, which is that society, and its indeterminate setting. Nominally, it appears to be Dutch, but there are echoes of Swedish society, and maybe even German habits in this amalgam of a country; apparently Nesser's original Swedish uses words from all three languages in order to blue any distinction one might make. In this sense, it reminds me of Per Wahloo's solo novels, like The Generals or The Lorry, whose settings were almost identifiable as a country, but with slight differences which drove home the point that this was not so far from home after all. I have the feeling that is the point Nesser is driving home in Woman With Birthmark, and, in the end, he drives it home powerfully.

Woman With Birthmark by Hakan Nesser Macmillan, £16.99, ISBN 9780333989876

Thursday, 28 May 2009

VISITING BRIAN MCGILLOWAY'S BORDERLANDS

I decided to start with Brian McGilloway at the beginning, his first Inspector Benedict Devlin novel, Borderlands. It's a story heavy with atmosphere, set in the Christmas season in the eponymous territory where Ireland and Northern Ireland bleed into each other. The corpse of a teenaged girl is found almost straddling the border, but the investigation falls to Devlin and the Garda to lead. But after the killing has ignited some incidents of revenge, the appearance of a second body begins to suggest that something else is going on, and a ring found on the first girl's body further suggests something buried deep in the past.

McGilloway is strong on atmosphere, everything from the awkwardness of Devlin's being tempted by his former school sweetheart, who years ago dumped him for her now more successful husband, to the corruption suggested behind that husband's father's climb to fame. Devlin moves through the estates of Tyrone with the sense of impending doom you might find in American 'dirty realism', and the pressures on his home life are well-drawn. Devlin has that put-upon borderline depressiveness that characterises so many police detectives, but unlike his Swedish or British counterparts, the Wallenders and Faradays and Resnicks, his family life seems only slightly disfucntional, and far from being a social outcast, he's central to the community, which makes the story all the more involving.

But this is also a police procedural, and requires something of an ensemble cast to succeed, and most of the rest of the ensemble are sketched in rather more perfunctorily. This is to be expected, but it's also important when all signs point to one of the team being involved in the crimes.

The story itself is complicated, not to say convoluted, and not only requires Devlin to miss some clues, but to actually walk away from one which a lab man is prepared to give him. But he neither asks the obvious question nor waits for an answer. I considered this somewhat puzzling until I came across this quote from John Banville, about his detective Quirke. 'He's rather stupid, like the rest of us—he misses the point of things, he stumbles over clues, mis-reads people. He's far too dim to be a Philip Marlowe.' Never mind that Marlowe is often somewhat dim himself, Banville's Quirke could just as easily be Devlin, or vice versa. There is a sense that crimes in this world are not really meant to be solved, or if they are solved, not necessarily punished. I read this book while I was in Dublin, and I'm not sure if it represents a particularly Irish, or Catholic view of the world, but that doesn't seem improbable. McGilloway conveys it strongly, and writes it well, so I'll be curious to see in which direction Devlin goes next.

Borderlands
Macmillan New Writing, £9.99 ISBN 9780230020078

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

SUNDAY AFTERNOON WITH BOB DYLAN AND MIKE BLOOMFIELD


The Sunday Times Magazine ran a big Bob Dylan cover story interview last week. It was actually a Rolling Stone interview, as you'd discover if you read the small print, and although RS is sold in the UK, I doubt it reaches many people here (given its extremely odd mix of US mainstream commercial pop and TV with rather good US political coverage that's not surprising). The interview was conducted by the historian David Brinkley--something of an odd choice, but one that indicates in its own way just how mainstream Dylan himself has become.

Yet even as he conducts his 'perpetual tour', Dylan's music works against his mainstream status. It's as if after hearing Ricky Nelson accuse him of being 'Mr Hughes wearing Dylan's shoes' he took the moral of Ricky's song to heart and figured you could please everyone by simply pleasing yourself. It seems as if there is no attitude he can strike, no experiment in music so outre, that he could alienate his core audience. This challenging nature is the mark of an artist who remains active, growing: a serious artist indeed.

Anyone who's read Chronicles would be acutely conscious of just how self-aware an artist Dylan is--and even in that book he's not giving the fact away. His RS interview is the same: Brinkley's questions are academically sound, and Dylan runs circles round the answers, as he's been doing ever since those interviews we can see in the documentary Don't Look Back.

But one thing bothered me. Dylan is talking about his band, how they play differently from anyone else, and then he's quoted as follows: 'The guy I always miss, and I think he'd still be around if he'd stayed with me, actually, was Mike Broomfield,' Dylan says of his collaborator on Highway 61 Revisited.

BROOMfield? OK, Douglas Brinkley could easily mis-transcribe the interview, but if he knows Mike Bloomfield well enough to know he played on Highway 61, then he would have to know his real name. I couldn't check the original RS article, as the issue's off the stands and the interview's not online, but it's possible an eager Sunday Times sub figured Mike was Nick Broomfield's older brother or something, a few years ahead of him at Oxford, before he went on tour with Dylan. (postscript: RS did have Bloomfield's name correct, see the comment below by Peg, so it does appear to be a sub at the Sunday Times correcting Bloomfield's American misspelling of his own name!).

Mike Bloomfield was my favourite guitarist when I was growing up in the 60s: not Hendrix, not Clapton, not BB King, not anyone else. He came up with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, played with Dylan at Newport and on record, and then, not staying with Bob, moved on to found The Electric Flag, whose first album holds up remarkably well today, and then play half of Super Session with Al Kooper, which also holds up well. He had all sorts of problems, which basically coalesced into drugs, and that's what killed him at a cruelly young age.

I'm not sure why I was so bothered. The error may have been just a simple literal. I think it was the idea that Bloomfield is already half-forgotten, and while Dylan's music will live on, at least as long as any pop music we've seen live on already, his contribution will be noted only on the tiny cover notes of CDs that aren't downloaded, and on the bootleg versions of Dylan songs. I was thinking about it, so I went back and put the Flag on, then Super Session (that's Al and Mike pictured right with Norman Rockwell, who painted their portraits for the cover of their live double album, and called them 'nice boys'), then I opened the door to the garden, and sat in the sunshine willing myself back to 1968 and the crazy non-Norman Rockwell world that beckoned ahead. The music didn't quite manage to remove me in time and space, but it sure sounded good.


Friday, 22 May 2009

THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY AT TRINITY COLLEGE DUBLIN: The Ultimate Forgotten Friday Entry

Turn left at the Book Of Kells, go up the stairs, and you're in the Long Room of the Trinity College Library, which looks as if you've stepped into library heaven. Displayed in five cases in the narrow room flanked by towering stacks of books is 'The Body In The Library: The Origins of Detective Fiction', and in this economical display those origins are surprisingly well-covered, and very well illustrated.

Trinity starts with William Godwin's Things As They Are (1794), which is a very solid place to start, not because it's a detective story per se, but because it lays out the parameters for much of what follows. It's the story of a man who becomes convinced his employer is a murderer, and his obsession winds up ruining both men once they get entangled with the justice system. As the exhibition notes point out, the book 'portrays the legal system as a cancer at the heart of society', which isn't surprising, because Godwin, an anarchist, believed most things could be sorted out between people if they just talked. As you might imagine, this was not the best basis on which to invent the detective story. Yet it had its influence. As the exhibition astutely points out, 'with the exception of the hard-boiled detective story developed in the US in the 1920s, detective fiction portrays the rule of law as essentially good, under-pinning social order'. Although more exceptions to that rule have developed since the hey-day of the hard-boiled, this does define the classic schism in the detective novel, whether 'solving' a crime returns us to a perfect world or an imperfect one. Of course, using the title of an Agatha Christie story for the exhibition signals where its concentration lies.

The imperfect side was reflected in the fact that the 'true crime' genre was, even in the early 19th century, a powerful influence as well. On display is an 1825 anthology of the Newgate Calendar, a chronicle of crime, as well as an 1827 English translation of the memoirs of Eugene-Francois Vidocq, forger, thief, conman and informer, who became the first head of the Surete. The book was a huge influence on Poe, and presumably on Conan Doyle as well. One of the best moments of the exhibition came in comparing the illustrations in various editions of Poe's 'Rue Morgue' (we assume it was the influence of Vidocq that made Poe choose a Frenchman, Dupin, as his hero in what is generally accepted as the first detective story). The 1841 Graham's Magazine illustration gives way to 1909's Byam Shaw's drawing of Dupin as a Sidney Paget Holmes, while ten years later, in Harraps, the Irish stained-glass artist Harry Clark portrays the orangutan villain as a monster straight from a tale of horror.

In Britain, Inspector Bucket and Bleak House debuted in Household Words in 1853. In 1868, Wilkie Collins' Moonstone appeared in All Year Round, which had absorbed Household Words, and was billed as being a weekly 'conducted by Charles Dickens'. Within twenty years, a genre's boundaries would be defined, and it's easy to see those boundaries in illustration.

Paget, of course, is central to the first half of the exhibition. His early Holmes is almost ethereal, emphasizing the intellectual powers of his ratiocination; yet it's the action of the famous drawing of Holmes and Moriarty locked in deadly embrace as they tumble over Reichenbach Falls that remains etched since childhood in my mind. By 1914, Frank Wiles' front piece for Valley Of Fear shows a harder, leaner, older Holmes, something more of an action man, halfway to the Basil Rathbone cinema version which defined the character for many people. Holmes inspired floods of imitators, and looking at the Paget illustrations in the Strand for Arthur Morrison's lawyer detective Hewitt, who comes complete with his own Watson, in the shape of the journalist Brett, you realise Paget (or the Strand's editors) saw where this trend was going, and helped it get there.

Morrison broke new ground, however, with Horace Dorrington, a private investigator who makes his living swindling the helpless and hopeless clients who come for his help. And so did Anna Katharine Green, an American, whose New York police detective Ebenezer Gryce was a huge sensation, starting with The Leavenworth Case (1878). The exhibition also contains a Routledge 'Railway Library' edition of her 1890 novel, A Matter Of Millions; the equivalent of today's paperbacks, these sold in huge quantities. Green was unusual, not only because she was a woman, but an American. Women, of course, would come to dominate the genre in just a few decades, but the suspicion of 'colonials' could run much stronger. The Australian Fergus Hume's Mystery Of The Hansom Cab sold 275,000 copies in its 1 shilling, 1888 edition, but it had been rejected by one publisher who said 'no colonial could write anything worth reading'. Hume had actually gone to a Melbourne bookseller and asked what were his best-sellers, and been told that 'mystery, murder, and descriptions of low-life' flew off the shelves. Not much has changed in the past 120 years.

Holmes, of course, was so popular he quickly invited parody, most famously by Robert Barr, the Canadian writing as Luke Sharp, whose Eugene Valmont stories, collected in 1906, feature a detective who usually gets most everything wrong. He also spawned all sorts of gimmicked variations: Joseph Futrelle's 'Thinking Machine',and the blind Max Carrados setting the tone for dozens of pulpsters who would follow in the 1930s. AEW Mason's Gabriel Hanaud, of the Surete, is shown looking very much like Holmes in an illustration that looks very much like Pagets.

The emphasis on the puzzle aspect of detective stories grows from this impulse, and it was fascinating to be reminded of the way clues would insinuate themselves, Laurence Sterne like, into the fabric of books. SS Van Dine's Canary Murder Case, a Philo Vance mystery, contains a facsimile of a crucial telegram, while Ngaio Marsh's Vintage Murder actually has a pull-out explanation of how pulleys crucial to the plot are worked. It's nothing to do with the exhibition, but when The Canary Murder Case was filmed, it was with William Powell and Louise Brooks, and you don't get much better casting for detective and canary than that! Few of the sophisticate detectives who solved puzzles could do so with Powell's natural humour. M McDonnell-Bodkin's Paul Beck , the 'Rule of Thumb Detective' seems to provide a sort of DIY approach to detection for the reader. Again, there is a crucial exception to prove the rule; R. Austin Freeman pioneered the inverted story-line; revealing all and then explaining how it came to be.

Marsh and Van Dine (colonials had become acceptable by now) bear out another aspect of the most crucial refinement in the classic detective, which seems obvious when you look at the covers and illustrations of the books themselves, and highlights the influence of EC Bently and Trent's Last Case (1913). His gentleman sleuth (a gentleman journalist, how quaint!) set the tone for a legion of followers. Some are completely forgotten, like HC Bailey's Reginald Fortune, but many continue to enthrall fans of the 'serious intellectual' detective story, as when the Observer enthused over Anthony Berkeley's Roger Sheringham (see my essay on their 'must read' crime novels here, and my analysis of the Guardian's 'Telegraph Crossword Theory of Crime Fiction' here). Trent's legion of followers is represented by the likes of Van Dine, Ellery Queen, and John Dickson Carr, as well as the big three of Marsh, Christie and Dorothy Sayers (nothing by Margery Allingham, who really deserves to be considered part of a big four). But even as the trio those three remind us, if Anna Katharine Green didn't necessarily, of the crucial role of women in the crime genre, and here I was pleased to discover two names.

Another Canadian-born writer, Grant Allen, is most famous today for the 'new woman' novel The Woman Who Did (1895), but also wrote Miss Caxley's Adventures, which appeared in the Strand starting in 1898 and 1899, and was issued as a book in 1899, and whose female heroine was a relatively new departure. Whether this makes him the Wally Lamb of Victorian fiction, I don't know, but Allen did write two novels using a female pseudonym. Miss Caxley certainly qualifies as forgotten, and I've seen few traces of her elsewhere. Allen's Colonel Clay is also cited as a forerunner of Arsene Lupin, and what I found particularly interesting was that Allen died at Hindhead in Surrey, his house near to his friend Conan Doyle's home, and not far from where I live now.

The successor to Anna Katharine Green was Emma Murdoch Van Deventer, another American woman, who wrote best-sellers under the pen-name Lawrence L Lynch. Her novel No Proof, from 1895, is on exhibit, but it led me to wonder exactly how much influence these women who came before might have had on the big three (four) who followed.

I was raised on classic detective novels, which my mother devoured, and I was fully versed in Christie by the time I was 12. But by 15 I'd set them aside, first for spies and then for hard-boiled detectives, so Trinity College provided an enlightening look back. Many of these writers, and their detectives, are anything but forgotten now, and many of those who seem obscure have been reprinted, and will continue to be whenever there is a Holmes revival. But it was refreshing to have my eyes opened to Grant Allen and Anna Katharine Green, and to see the relative importance and popularity of the genre early on. I just kept thinking of those monks writing the Book of Kells, and wondered if some pulpster somewhere was their 19th or 20th century equivalent.

'The Body In The Library' runs in The Long Room of the library at Trinity College Dublin though 15 June

HUGH VAN ES: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obit of Hugh Van Es, famed for his shot of the helicopter on the roof during the fall of Saigon, is in today's Independent, here. The editors chose the day well, as today his life will be celebrated at Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents' Club, as he would have wished.

My original lede said a bit more about the contrast with the way the Vietnam war is noted for being the first beamed into the world's living rooms via television, but our perceptions of it were shaped, and our memories of it remain linked, to a number of very significant photographs. The contrast between the Vietnam war photo-journalists, and the embedded coverage of, say, Iraq, is telling. Where are the equivalents of his staggering shots from Hamburger Hill, in 1969? The scenes were there to be captured. Instead, the most important photos of the current debacle came from the cell-phones of prison guards. That's where we've gone in forty years.

I should also point out that Kirsten Ellis worked for the South China Morning Post in the mid-80s, which is when she knew Vanes, but the piece as edited makes it seem like she's there now, which of course she's not. The photo left shows Van Es, in the light-coloured jacket and Van Dyck beard, at the HKFCC, about the time Kirsten was there. Interestingly, the guy to his immediate right is Mike Keats of UPI, who gave me my first break in journalism, in London way back in 1977.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

THE BLACK DAHLIA AND THE BIG BAD WOLFE

The Black Dahlia Files
Donald H Wolfe
Time Warner 2006, £9.99 ISBN 0316727261

James Ellroy propelled Los Angeles' 1947 'Black Dahlia' murder back into our consciousnesses, after a long period in which it had lain dormant and forgotten, an artifact of a time and place as dead to the modern world as the huge shoulders and lapels of Jack Webb's suits on Dragnet. So why has the case attracted so much renewed interest? Is it an American Jack the Ripper? Or is it simply that it involves sex and Hollywood, and that Beth Short's story can be told as the girl from the sticks who arrives in Tinseltown hungry for fame and gets eaten alive? Or is it simply the butchery, like a Patricia Cornwell novel come to historical life? Or maybe the fact that the crime went unsolved, and their could be an 85 year old killer in some old age home somewhere, still relishing his big event?

It's probably because we know so little, really, about exactly what Elizabeth Short did in LA that makes the case so intriguing. She came from Boston and speculation has her as a B-girl, a whore, a consort of gangsters, an actress in stag films, a figure flitting around the edge of Hollywood, a hustler working cons on men drawn to her black hair and alabaster skin, her exotic good looks and her bad teeth, which she covered with paraffin before going out for the evening.

Since Ellroy, a number of books have tried to 'solve' the killing, or at least benefit from the publicity. The most interesting, if not convincing, was probably John Gilmore's Severed. I recall Ellroy, for one, pointing out to me that one problem with Gilmore's book, his claim that Beth Short's genitals were not fully developed, was simply false, and thus the idea that rage at her 'cock teasing' resulted in her murder fell apart. Donald Wolfe's book, which likewise appears to have a major contradiction to the heart of its conclusion, neatly weaves Gilmore's story into his own, and thus is able to include Gilmore's killer into his own conspiracy.

As drama it works very well. Wolfe's theory is that Short was murdered, in a frenzy, by Bugsy Siegel, in order to protect Arthur Chandler, the playboy father of her aborted child, presumably because Short was going to sing. Chandler was the son of Otis Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, and a major power in the city, who virtually controlled much of city hall, including the police department. In fact, the corruption of the police department, especially its 'gangster squad' is where Wolfe is at his best—the LAPD's position in the pockets of the rich has been an element of any number of great novels and films, particularly from that boom era, and Wolfe draws those connections very well—all the way up to the death of Marilyn Monroe, about which he has also written.

But it is one thing to trace that alternate history, and another to turn those connections into the actual solution of the killing. Wolfe's approach invites skepticism; he opens by saying 'there wasn't much nightlife in Los Angeles in the 1940s', which seemed odd when I read it, and became exceedingly odd as he detailed the extensive night life of Short as a B girl and the mobsters and others he's chronicling. Similarly, he goes to great lengths to establish himself in the milieu about which he writes, describing himself as growing up on the 'wrong side of the tracks' in Beverly Hills, which are good tracks to be on any side of, and were even in the 1940s. These may not seem like big things, but they set off warning bells.

Wolfe's solution has the added benefit of drawing on the disappearance of Jean Spangler, a story which, like the Dahlia killing, has been regenerated through fiction, in this case Megan Abbott's brilliantly atmospheric The Song Is You. The note she left behind, mentioning going to see Dr Scott, has generally been assumed to mean she was seeking an abortion, and that the letter was addressed to Kirk has meant people assumed Kirk Douglas was the father (Spangler had worked on a movie with Douglas, who at first denied having known her.) Wolfe is trying to draw a parallel here: his theory is Mickey Cohen found out about the scrape, and sent one of his, Davy Ogul, to shake down Douglas. Kirk's agent then called on Johnny Roselli for help; exit Spangler and Ogul, who disappeared two days after Spangler's body was found.

This scenario has the beauty of virtually repeating his theory of Short's death, with the addition of the gory mutilations, which he attributes to Ben Siegel going, well, bugsy. In this version, Siegel is then killed by the mob precisely because he has gone out of control. Gilmore's killer turns out to be involved as a Siegel henchman, and the bisection of the body is carried out by one of the mob's abortionist doctors. It has the beauty of fitting together beautifully, although among all the distracting hand-waving of moblife in LA, we might easily pass by the fact that Siegel's life was already in danger, and only personal interventions from Meyer Lansky had stopped the contract from being issued earlier.

But the biggest problem is also the simplest one. Wolfe claims the police withheld information about Short's pregnancy, and the fact that the corpse had been given a hysterectomy, as a 'control', to check those who claimed to be the killer. He notes how the coroner's testimony at the inquest was stopped before he got to the crucial details, and of course how, once the cover-up began, this information, which would provide motive, was buried. The problem is, according to what I recall reading about the original coroner's report, Beth Short showed no signs of pregnancy and had a small uterus, an indication she had never had a baby (and possibly the origin of Sinclair's theory). Wolfe never goes into this anomaly, because if that first finding were correct, all that's left is speculation and innuendo which, although it makes for a slick solution, would not be correct.

After finishing the book, I went to check Wolfe's story elsewhere. Larry Harnisch, the LA Times reporter whose own theory about the Dahlia, which forms part of the documentary about James Ellroy, depended on the characterisation of Beth Short as a hustler, conning men lured by her looks, and perhaps too confident of herself in those circumstances. This is something which Wolfe's book reinforces, though of course the abortion motive would not.W hen the book appeared, Harnisch began a page by page demolition of it, starting with the same nightlife comment which had caught my eye. Some of it picks nits, but much of it shoots huge holes into Wolfe's sourcing and footnoting, and, before he apparently gave up the project, revealed one piece of Wolfe's evidence which seems to have been cut and pasted together from two different documents.

All of which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to accept Wolfe's findings. The book is great on atmosphere, it conveys the era well, and its photo section is the best of any of the Dahlia books so far. Interestingly enough, Wolfe devotes an appendix to debunking another of the recent Dahlia books, George Hodel's Black Dahlia Avenger, which also suffered from a very simple basic problem, in that the photos that Hodel claimed showed his father with Short very obviously were of another man, and those of Short he claimed he found in his father's scrapbooks were equally obviously not of Short. It was easy for Wolfe to demolish Hodel's claims, and it appears that it is almost as equally easy to demolish Wolfe's, though Wolfe does tell the better story.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

MICHAEL CONNELLY: THE SCARECROW INTERVIEW

Although Michael Connelly is a successful crime novelist, with a string of best-sellers and an appearance as a Richard & Judy finalist, he remains, at heart, a reporter. So when the plight of the newspaper business touched off the idea for his latest novel, he already had the book's main character waiting. The Scarecrow brings back Jack McAvoy, hero of The Poet. His early novels, featuring LAPD detective Hieronymous 'Harry' Bosch, had earned him cult status among crime-fiction fans, garnering great reviews and respectable, but disappointing sales, before The Poet, in which reporter McAvoy faced the eponymous serial killer, broke into the best-seller charts, and launched Connelly as something more than a crime writer, almost a brand-name. The book opens with McAvoy about to lose his job at the Los Angeles Times, as old-school reporters become redundant, replaced by younger, cheaper, J-school grads adept at twittering, blogging, and all the electronics required of mobile journalists, or mojos. Connelly had to do a number of rewrites, as former colleagues read the proofs and updated him on how newspapers had changed since his days on them; he had to call back the galleys for a rewrite when The Rocky Mountain News, which figures in the story, actually went out of business. As he explained to me in publication week, while visiting Britain to promote the book, the printing process was so far along he had to make sure the new lines actually fit the spaces of the old ones, even needing to end each page with the same word. 'But even so, one review, in Los Angeles, jumped on the fact that the Rocky was in the book, even though it was only in the proof. They said 'evidently Mr Connelly doesn't know the paper is dead', and when I wrote them I began with 'evidently'.

I orignally met up with him in February, in Tampa, Florida, to which he's relocated from Los Angeles. I was there to broadcast America's biggest sporting event, the Super Bowl, for the BBC, so it surprised me when Connelly suggested we meet in the press center, where security is tight and credentials are checked. 'Don't worry,' he reassured me, 'I can get a pass.' And he could, because not only is he a local celebrity, but he's also become a cult figure within the world of American football. Veteran TV commentator Dick Stockton has been passing his books on to the ex-coaches and players he works, meaning Connelly now has a bigger fan base within the football world than some star players. They want Stockton to introduce them to his writer friend. But Connelly takes it all in with a modest shrug. As we slip into the anonymity of a corner booth in a nearby sports bar, he talks about the next day's Super Bowl, but with even more enthusiasm about his daughter's school basketball game, that afternoon.

Although he started his career as a reporter in Florida, and is now happily settled in a house with a view across the harbour to the bright lights of Tampa, his work remains anchored to Los Angeles, and he explains that it was the situation at his former paper, the Los Angeles Times, that inspired The Scarecrow.

'Technology is killing newspapers,' he says. 'It fascinates me, because there's a real clash in the newspaper world between the old and the new. Lots of people I worked with were losing their jobs, and the business is in a downward spiral. And I still have friends at the LA Times who have survived the purges, and tell me about the change. So I wanted this book to focus on that conflict between the old and the new, and use the struggles of the business as background. I didn't want a diatribe, I wanted a thriller. So it occurred to me that a killer could take advantage of this same new technology to identify, and stalk, his victims; that it would be easy. Putting the two together, I decided to bring Jack McEvoy back. He's being replaced at the paper by a youngster, just out of journalism school. He wants to show that his skills as a crime reporter, learned the old-fashioned way, on the street, are still relevant. So he wants to go with one big story, and he latches on to one he intends to exploit, and it turns into something different.'

It's also unusual that much of the book is told from the killer's point of view. 'I think it's a creepy sort of story,' he says, 'and it's easier to do creepy from that point of view. I've only done it twice before, but one of those was The Poet. It also works because of the way the killer uses the dark side of internet technology, the cornerstone of everyday life, to stalk his victims and McEvoy.'

McEvoy was the character who propelled Connelly to best-seller status, but there's a surprising amount of cross-over in Connelly's books. Terry McCaleb, the hero of Blood Work (which was made into a movie by Clint Eastwood) later appeared with Harry Bosch, and Rachel Walling, the FBI agent introduced in The Poet, later had an affair with Bosch. The hero of The Lincoln Lawyer, Connelly's Richard and Judy Book Club breakthrough in the UK , turns out to have a closer connection to Bosch than anyone could imagine. So I ask if it's right to say that, although these characters have been the stars of his more successful novels, it still seems Bosch is at the center of Connelly's fictional universe.

'Most definitely my creative world revolves around Harry. Even when I am writing a book like The Scarecrow that he isn't even in, I am thinking about how the book fits into the overall mosaic of my writing, which is essentially a portrait of Bosch. And I am thinking about the next book that he'll be in. ' That Rachel Walling, the FBI agent from The Poet, could be involved with both Bosch and McEvoy may seem, on the surface, a bit of authorial incestuousness, but it also points out another key to Bosch's, and Connelly's, universe. 'My books aren't full of good relationships or happy romances,' he says. 'They're about conflicts, and so are relationships.'

And I wonder if it's odd to him that it's the success of his non-Bosch books which has boosted his long-running series. He thinks about it, then says, 'there has been a history of the so-called stand alone thrillers increasing my sales. This hasn't happened every time but when it does it is to great effect because usually the Harry Bosch novel that follows meets that new sales watermark or passes it. The books where this happened were The Poet, Blood Work and The Lincoln Lawyer. Each recorded a sizable jump in sales over the previous book and the Bosch book that followed jumped as well. The two where this did not happen were Void Moon and Chasing the Dime. There's no way to know why this is and it may just come down to what each book offers. But I think one of the things that happens is that it is easier to interest a new reader in a new character and stand alone novel then it is to entice them into jumping into a Harry Bosch novel that is 10 or 12 books down the line in the series. So they read the book with no prior attachments. If they like it, they try the Bosch. It's an inexact science for sure, but that's the best I can come up with.'

I point out to him that, since his first book appeared in 1993, he has published 20 novels, and The Scarecrow will be his 21st. 'I get asked about that a lot,' he says. 'Mostly by people who equate speed with lack of quality. I point out to them that I was a reporter, and used to writing quickly, on deadline. And I find the books I write fastest tend to be my better ones, because I know where I'm going. The Scarecrow came very quickly, because I was writing about something I know, journalism, and that speeds up the process'. In fact, he's already laid the ground work for the next Bosch novel, Nine Dragons, in which Harry will travel to Hong Kong, where his ex-wife and daughter are living. 'It will be set about two-thirds in Los Angeles, and one-third in Hong Kong'. It is due out in October. But sometimes, as noted above, speed is a matter of necessity. 'Newspapers are dropping like flies,' he explains. 'I wanted to get the book out before too much happened. The LA Times filed for bankrupcy while I was doing the last ten days of writing, so I wanted the book out while that news was fresh.'

Some of the best moments of the Bosch books came when Harry was feuding with authority, whether his police superiors, the FBI or the Bureau of Homeland Security, and likewise, some of the best moments of The Scarecrow lie in the internal conflicts and politics of the newspaper. 'There was the sense, when I joined the Times in 1988, that you were made for life,' he says. 'It was called “The Velvet Coffin”. As a journalist, I'd reached the pinnacle. But I was out of touch with the business; I had to rewrite a lot because a lot had changed, but again, the relationships, with indifferent bosses and ambitious colleagues, don't change.' I mention the fifth series the The Wire, a programme Connelly introduced me to years ago, and the way it's also centered in a newsroom in trouble. 'Oh, the influence is direct. I was inspired by the last series of The Wire, which was set inside the Baltimore Sun newsroom, where David Simon (creator of the television series) had worked. He wrote it from what he knew, but like me, he hadn't worked in a newsroom in years, and he was behind on all the blogging and the twittering that's required now. But the dynamic of the newsroom, like the police station, creates its own conflicts. And the sense that, for profit, newspapers have abrogated their responsibility.'

Blood Work was filmed by Clint Eastwood, and since then Connelly has flirted with film and TV; he was approached by his friend George Pelecanos to work on The Wire, but had to turn the invitation down. He did write a script for a movie revival of the TV show The Equalizer, but he laughs and says 'my script would have cost $150 million to make'. He also, years ago, wrote a screenplay for his novel Void Moon. 'I sold the film rights on the condition I could write the screenplay. I'd never seen a script that had captured Harry, but I was naïve. I just didn't realise then how hard it is.' Now there's a film of The Lincoln Lawyer in the works. 'It's somewhere north of hell in development,' Connelly says. The producer who owns the rights, Billy Gerber, I first met when he was working with Clint on Blood Work. He bought the rights to do as an independent, and now, since he worked with Clint again on Gran Torino, he's back in play. Tim Van Patten, who directed episodes of The Sopranos and The Wire would do it as his first film, but it's not an A list $100 million picture. Like I said, there's no one I see as Bosch, but they showed me a list of actors to play Mickey Haller and one was Matthew McConaghey. At the last minute I saw Tropic Thunder and thought he could do it.' But he shrugs. 'If it happens, it happens'. In the meantime, he has his daughter's basketball game to get to, a Super Bowl to watch, and another Harry Bosch novel to finish. Presumably in that order.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

RE-VISITING VERMEER'S LADY WRITING A LETTER

There is a wonderful small exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland, titled Vermeer, Fabritius, and De Hooch: Three Masterpieces from Delft. I got to see it Monday, and see for the first time, 'Lady Writing A Letter with her Maid', about which I wrote in one of my first posts to Irresistible Targets. It was a review of Matthew Hart's The Irish Game, which took as its starting point the two thefts of the painting before it found shelter at the National in Dublin. You can find the essay linked in the 'Bullseyes' list or by linking here.

Seeing 'Lady Writing' for the first time, as the centerpiece of this perfect little room of Dutch art, was a fantastic introduction, helping me see it in new ways, and also reinforcing the sense that, even in reproduction, it resonates. I've written an essay on the triptych exhibition; you can find it at Untitled: Perspectives, which you can also link to, here.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

MICHAEL CONNELLY'S SCARECROW

Jack McAvoy, the crime reporter who made his name chasing the serial killer called The Poet, is about to lose his job at the Los Angeles Times. Approached by the grandmother of a 16 year old drug dealer who swears her boy is innocent, he decides cynically to use them as the springboard to a story, not proving his innocence, but exposing his tragedy as a young murderer, that might win him a valedictory Pulitzer. Only then he begins to think that young Alonzo might indeed be innocent, and what looked like the rape and murder of a young woman in a drug deal might be something far more sinister.

Once again, McAvoy finds himself on the trail of a serial killer, this time one who has managed to avoid even being recognised as one, and he discovers that the killer is using and manipulating information gathered in cyber-space. This is the eponymous Scarecrow. And soon McAvoy's once again linked up with FBI agent Rachel Walling, who since the Poet's demise has also been involved with LAPD detective Harry Bosch, and battling both his own newspaper and official indifference to the real crimes. Since most of Connelly's work is built around loneliness, around the difficulty of relationships, the vulnerability of individuals linked to the world by their computers is accentuated here, and the myopia of journalists similarly linked to the real world, at a remove, runs parallel to that.

You could look at the Scarecrow himself as representing the new media that has threatened McAvoy's job; he's being replaced by a younger journalist fluent in twitter and blogging, the paper is groaning as circulation and ad revenue is lost to online alternatives. At the same time, the politics of the newsroom have become even more competitive; papers are folding all across America as the recession puts even more ad revenue in doubt, and they flounder to find alternatives to the traditional business model. In that world, McAvoy remains a square peg; at times he seems like a reporter who could have wandered in from a Carl Hiassen novel, but being Connelly, there's always something darker lurking beneath his notebook. It's all the more impressive because it is set against the collapsing world of newspapers, and in many ways is Connelly's elegy to his roots as a reporter.

Michael Connelly has written 21 novels in the past 16 years, and The Poet was the one that boosted him from a critical and cult favorite to a best-seller. His 'stand-alone' novels have been interesting because not only are they different in style and tone from the Harry Bosch books, even though they sometimes intersect with them, but they differ from each other. The Lincoln Lawyer seemed like a deliberate attempt at a courtroom thriller, a move into Grishamt territory which he pulled off with aplomb. You might look at The Scarecrow as a similarly successful attempt to essay the territory marked off by, say, Lee Child, and the story builds suspense it simplifies itself, as those thrillers do, to deliver a powerful climax. McAvoy is an appealing character, more the optimist than Harry Bosch; his outward cynicism is a journalist's shield. His first-person narration is convincing, it is the voice of a journalist writing a true-crime book. It too has a contrast: the Scarecrow's own point of view, and that contrast is chilling. It's impressive that Connelly can switch gears so fluidly; The Scarecrow shows that there's very little in the genre that's beyond his talents.

The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly Orion £18.99 ISBN 9780752875859

NOTE: This review also appears at Crime Time: www.crimetime.co.uk

Friday, 8 May 2009

JOHN HARVEY'S WEST: A 'Far Cry' Sidebar

Apropos of John Harvey's new novel, which is reviewed immediately below, and not coincidentally, he's written a nice piece in the Independent's 'Book Of A Lifetime' series, about Arthur Groom's Buffalo Bill's Wild West Annual. You can link to it here. As I may be one of the few people with a complete set of John's 'Hart the Regulator' series (there used to be this great stall in Camden Market selling westerns, just behind my buddy Eric selling bootleg CDs), which he wrote as John B Harvey, the initial providing added gravitas. One Hart novel took its title from a John Stewart song, as does this blog; it's nice to be reminded of John's taste in music as well as his cowboy pulp roots.

John's reminiscence reminded me of a similar series that used to be in the Village Voice, in which the poet John Ashberry wrote about the Book of Knowledge, an encyclopedia arranged by recurring topics, rather than alphabetically, and the wonder of reading it, start to finish, picking up knowledge at random, or really in circles, as you revisited themes. When I was a kid I had my uncles' old BofK, so I was probably reading the same edition he'd read as a kid, and I'd had that same sense of wonder, at truth being stranger and more interesting than fiction. That sense of wonder, fact or fiction, is what John's writing about in the Indy today.

JOHN HARVEY'S FAR CRY: Harvey Hits His Century

I've always been bothered by OPS, or Opening Paragraph Syndrome, where writers craft a few lines of glorious, flowery, descriptive prose, before lapsing into something far flatter, and in some cases, sub-utilitarian, for the rest of the book. John Harvey's Far Cry opens with a two-page scene that is stunningly atmospheric in its tone, but the difference is not that he sustains it for the rest of the book, but that, even though the tone changes in the next chapter, as it must, Harvey's prose remains at that same high standard throughout a long and complicated novel.

There is no one writing crime who is better at the minutiae of day to day living than Harvey, making small details come alive, but more importantly, using the life those details provide to reveal his characters and his story. Far Cry concerns two missing children, nearly fifteen years apart, but daughters of the same woman, Ruth. In Cambridgeshire, DI Will Grayson is concerned that a serial molester, and possibly killer, has been released from prison, and his obsessive pursuit of that suspect threatens his career until the second of Ruth's daughters goes missing, and he and DS Helen Walker are moved to that case. Of course, the cases are connected, and of course the first disappearance is part of the story. Harvey winds the stories together deftly; that the 'solution' to the loss of the first daughter is not a surprise doesn't make it less effective; the second case, as it weaves in and out of Grayson's pursuit of Mitchell Roberts, provides more than enough suspense.

But what rivets the reader is the way Harvey is concerned with issues of parenthood and loss, the different ways we cope with loss, the different impacts it has on our lives. This is part of his fine descriptive eye, with his interest in the quotidien. The effect of crime goes beyond the criminal and victim, it can also be serious for the families, and for the police as well. Harvey is careful to show all his families in an equal light, while pointing out the subtleties of relationships, of class, of expectations, on family life. He's always been good on the pressures of police work on relationships; but here Grayson and his family serve partly as the reminder of how fine the line is between happiness and tragedy. The story moves between East Anglia, Cornwall, and north London, with the human dimensions unchanged regardless of setting. This is what Harvey is a master at doing, perhaps better than any crime writer in Britain, detailing the impact of society on real people, while chronicling crime and punishment within it.

This is, apparently, John Harvey's 100th book. He is something of a national treasure, in an understated English way; though his books are firmly grounded in the English provinces, they are never provincial. But as a jazz fan, I wish only that every time a lover of jazz turns up in Harvey's writings, he weren't always such a lonely guy. This is one of John Harvey's best novels, which means it's one of the best, full stop.

Far Cry by John Harvey,
William Heinemann £14.99 ISBN 9780434016921

NOTE: This review also appears at Crime Time: www.crimetime.co.uk

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

EDD CARTIER: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

NOTE: Edd Cartier died on Christmas Day, 2008, and I wrote the following for the Guardian on 10 January 2009. It was a labour of some love, because I've been a fan of the pulp magazine Shadow since I was in college, and was able to turn that fascination into a 55 page paper for Richard Slotkin's American Studies class. It was a great pleasure for me, while writing it, to get back in touch with Bob Weinberg--we've met twice in the past 40 years--and he was, as ever, both knowledgeable and helpful. But it was an even greater pleasure to pay hommage to Edd Cartier, an illustrator it would seem almost impossible to dislike. I just learned today that the paper will not be able to run the obituary, after all this time that was inevitable. So here it is now, as it would have run for a British audience, and I hope you enjoy....

EDD CARTIER: PULP ILLUSTRATOR

At the height of the Great Depression, the Shadow was America's greatest hero, with bi-weekly novels appearing in the largest-selling pulp magazine, and adventures, voiced by the likes of Orson Welles, on the nation's most-popular radio show. It was at the height of the Shadow's popularity that Edd Cartier, 22 and just out of art school, began illustrating those pulp novels. The magazine's cover artists could paint dynamic oils, with bright colours and emotive backgrounds, all designed to lure readers in. Interior drawings were more problematic. Pulp magazines got their name from the cheap paper on which they were printed; it soaked up ink, making fine-line drawing difficult. Cartier solved the problem with strong strokes and simple designs, using white space to create lighting effects and diagonals to emphasize the swirling mystery of the Shadow, hidden under a black slouch hat, with blazing twin .45 automatics erupting from beneath his cloak.

Cartier is regarded as the greatest of all Shadow illustrators, whose influence was felt deeply by contemporary artists like Jim Steranko or Michael Kaluta when they revivied the character for paperbacks or comic books. 'He was perhaps the finest pen and ink illustrator ever to work for the pulp paper magazines,' says Robert Weinberg, author of The Biographical Dictionary of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists. But Cartier's importance went beyond one character. In the late 1930s he teamed up with editor John W Campbell, who turned Astounding magazine into the flagship for what is now called the 'Golden Age' of science fiction. Cartier illustrated stories by Campbell discoveries like Robert Heinlein and Issac Asimov, but proved a perfect fit for a second, fantasy, magazine called Unknown, which Campbell was launching. Campbell wanted 'realistic' fantasies, and Cartier's art could make the oddest creatures believable. 'Cartier used humour as one of the major elements to illustrate stories. He became one of the most influential artists to work during the Golden Age, roughly 1939-1943', says Weinberg.

Edward Daniel Cartier (Edd came from originally signing his art Ed D Cartier) was born 1 August, 1914 in North Bergen, New Jersey. His father ran Cartier's Saloon, a bar, dance-hall, garage and machine shop near Teterboro airport, where Edd's uncle was a mechanic. He grew up fascinated by aircraft, hanging around with early flyers like Charles Lindbergh, Igor Sikorski, and Howard Hughes, who called him 'Kid'. His sense of wonder at the futuristic world of flight would be echoed in the sleek spaceships he drew for Astounding. Cartier studied applied art at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute, under the noted illustrator Harold Winfield Scott. Another instructor was William James, who was the art director for Street and Smith's, the leading pulp publisher. Cartier's ambition was to draw western illustrations, and James hired him to produce drawings for Wild West Weekly, and other Street and Smith titles like Movie Action and Detective Story, paying eight dollars per drawing.

When the Shadow's regular artist, Tom Lovell, decided to pursue a career as a painter, James hired Cartier full time. He made his debut illustrating 'The Sledgehammer Crimes', which appeared on his 22nd birthday in 1936. The quality of Cartier's illustrations was immediately apparent even outside the world of the pulps. The renowned painter Norman Rockwell offered him a job as an assistant, but Scott advised against it, saying 'you'll become another Rockwell; you should remain on your own'. Cartier took the advice, but later said he'd always regretted it.
Cartier's army service during World War II began by drawing maps, but he was serving as a tank machine gunner when he won a Bronze Star for bravery, and was severely wounded, at the Battle of the Bulge. He was wounded again, earning a second Purple Heart, when his hospital train was blown up. After the war he resumed illustrating sf and the Shadow, painted five Shadow covers, and drew for Street and Smith's other big title, Doc Savage. He particularly enjoyed working with the pre-Scientology L. Ron Hubbard, doing covers for his humorous tales like 'The Indigestible Triton'. 'I'm capable of drawing, but I'm not capable of writing these stories, or these thoughts,' he recalled.

As paperback books and television began to kill off the pulp magazines, and Cartier moved into book illustration, most notably with the specialist sf publishers Gnome Press and Fantasy Press. His drawing for Gnome's 1950 calendar features a large-nosed Father Time welcoming the baby New Year, who wears a space helmet and rocket pack on his back. He also used the GI Bill to resume his studies at Pratt, taking a fine arts degree. He worked as a draughtsman for an engineering company, and then as art director for a company specializing in business art, calendars, logos, even lottery tickets. In 1992, he received a life achievement award from the World Fantasy Convention, and recently he had provided the introduction for a reprint of two Shadow novels. He suffered from Parkinson's disease, and produced his final drawing for his family's 2005 Christmas calendar. It showed Santa handing a gift to the Shadow.

He died on Christmas Day, 2008, in Ramsay, New Jersey. His wife of 63 years, Georgia, predeceased him in 2007. He is survived by two sons.

Monday, 4 May 2009

JACK KEMP: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Jack Kemp is in today's Guardian, you can find it here. As with the Indy's Doc Blanchard piece, his sporting career was of less interest than other facets of his life to a British audience , though in Kemp's case I thought it was particularly instructive, in that he was an unfancied quarterback leading teams in an unfancied league. I made a mistake while I was trimming it: Kemp was cut by only four NFL teams, not five (!). He was actually on the taxi squad of the New York Giants when they lost the NFL title game to the Colts in 1958; the so-called greatest football game ever played.

The two salient points cut from my precis of his football career were , first, that after taking Sid Gillman's Chargers to two title games in the league's first two years, Kemp broke a finger in his throwing hand. Gillman, who had John Hadl in waiting --just as the Bills would have Darryl Lamonica behind him-- tried to hide Kemp on waivers, but the Bills (and two other teams) claimed him, and he went to Buffalo for the $100 waiver fee, a supply-side bargain by any standards. The other was that he was arguably the AFL's most successful quarterback (Len Dawson is usually picked as the league's best, or Joe Namath, who benefits from his image and the big win over the Colts in Super Bowl III) not because he played in all ten AFL seasons but because he took six teams to title games, and won twice. I love the image of him, at the right, with the single-bar helmet, no chin strap, throwing from a leap like a prototype Doug Flutie, though Jeff Garcia might be a closer comparison. Kemp was very much like Flutie; although he was undersized, his arm was actually very strong, and he could throw just as well on the run as from the set. His persistent shoulder injuries probably had something to do with that.

I mentioned he co-founded the AFL players' union, which came about as a direct result of the boycott of the 1965 All-Star game when the players were subjected to segregated facilities in New Orleans. Kemp's Buffalo teammate Cookie Gilchrist was one of the boycott's leaders, with Kemp's support, and it got the game moved to Houston. Ironically, his ex-Charger teammate Keith Lincoln stole the show at the game itself, shortly after the Bills had beaten the Chargers (by then in San Diego) for the AFL championship.

Kemp also intervened with Gilchrist earlier in the season. Cookie bristled under coach Lou Saban, not necessarily the most flexible of guys (nor in fairness was Cookie) and in one game, incensed he'd had only five carries in the first half, he took himself out a game and told Willie Ross to go in. Saban put him on waivers, and, as had happened with Kemp, three teams claimed him for $100. But before the waivers expired, Kemp talked Gilchrist into apologising to the team, if not Saban directly, and he was reinstated. Cookie gained 122 yards in that '64 AFL title game, which the Bills won. After the All-Star game, Saban traded him to Denver for Billy Joe.

I'd written that Gerry Ford and Bill Bradley were among the sportsmen who went into American politics, though Ford didn't play pro football, he was a college All-American. NFL star Whizzer White and baseball pitchers Vinegar Bend Mizzell and Jim Bunning were others who preceded Kemp. Steve Largent, JC Watts, Heath Shuler and former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne were football figures who followed him to Congress, all of them conservatives. Athletes in general tend to believe in individual achievement, even when they come from team sports. They usually emphasize their own hard work over their God-given abilities. Kemp (and Largent) were both examples of players making the most of limited physical talents, but the bigger picture, of the NFL as a monopoly, and its ultimate success as a revenue-sharing socialist collective never seems to sink in with them.

Kemp, by the way, served in the Army reserve while pursuing his NFL and CFL career; it wasn't until he was established in the AFL he was called up for active duty, and ruled unfit due to that injured shoulder. Ron Mix told how Kemp would often have multiple shots to the shoulder before games, to allow him to play, and throw; that he could play pro football but be unfit for the Army is another small irony.

Politically, I would have liked to examine the paradox of the way in which Kemp's fairly liberal social positions were contradicted by the easily perceptible effects of his policies. Like many conservative ideologues he seemed able to relate policies to personal experience, but unable to project beyond his own experience. Even Dick Cheney takes an enlightened view, for example, on gay rights; his daughter's experience runs contrary to his ideology, but though it affects his personal conduct, it doesn't change his ideology. I'd call that a lack of wide empathy. I also thought the link between Reagan (and Thatcher) economics and the current financial crisis is straightforward and obvious, though listening to 'Lord' Saatchi discussing the thirtieth anniversary of Thatcher's ascencsion on the Today programme, one wonders if it isn't straightforward at all to the presenters asking the questions.

It was also interesting that Kemp wasn't chosen as Bush's running mate in 1988; he would have been a stronger candidate than Quayle, but Bush never agreed with Kemp and Reagan's 'voodoo economics' and also likely did not want a potential usurper operating as VP. Hence the appointment to HUD, a thankless and almost invisible job. It's to Kemp's credit that he left Congress and took that post, and shows that he was, indeed, a true believer.

There's a nice piece by Greg Easterbrook in the Sunday New York Times; he grew up in Buffalo idolising Kemp, then coached some of Kemp's grandchildren (he had 17!) in pee-wee football. It's funny to read about Kemp putting his arm around the right-wing columnist and calling him a 'socialist' because he voted for Obama, and detailing all the ways the country would be ruined by Obama's socialism.

And finally, I did find it intriguing that his two sons both were pro QBs; Jeff went to Dartmouth and then 10 years in the NFL, despite, like his father, having limited natural ability. Jim played nine years in the CFL.

Friday, 1 May 2009

EUGENE IZZI'S THE CRIMINALIST: A Forgotten Friday Entry

Eugene Izzi was found hanging outside the window of his Chicago office in December 1996, the noose anchored to his desk. His death was ruled suicide, but it took place in strange circumstances. When I wrote about it for the Financial Times, I dismissed the idea of murder (in his pockets was the manuscript, on disc, of a novel about a man who infiltrates a white supremacy group, and there was a suggestion that such a group might have been seeking revenge for his own infiltration of them) but did consider that he might have been enacting a scene from the novel, which then went wrong. But in Izzi's 1996 novel Players, a career criminal arranges his own death, in order to provide for his family, and after publishing 16 novels in just ten years Izzi might have been feeling a similar need.

Izzi broke onto the scene with 1987's The Take, and his third book, Bad Guys (1988) was a classic which already set up his main themes of corruption, betrayal, revenge and other difficult personal choices. Izzi wrote feverishly, and in some of his books the material can seem out of control, but when he was at his best, he was among the best and most hard-boiled writers in the field. He was George Pelecanos, but more into the corruptions of the criminal and cop world, and offering less in the sense of redemption coming from the hard work of everyday life.

The Criminalist was his second novel published posthumously (the first, A Matter Of Honor, was a sequel to Bulletin From The Streets, two books which seemed to take off from Elmore Leonard's City Primeval, but neither in a very convincing fashion). It is one of his very best, having the same sense of powerful anger all his books do, while avoiding that headlong speed-rap prose that particularly detracted from some of his longer novels, including those two Leonard pastiches.

Dominick diGrazia is the criminalist of the title, a sort of super-cop who operates as a lone wolf within the Chicago Police Department. DiGrazia is a trained forensic scientist who prefers to remain on the street, and he has powerful friends in high places to cover his back in the political snakepit that is the CPD. When a corpse is discovered in an alley, maimed in the same way as a famous unsolved murder from twenty years earlier, DiGrazia manages to take over the investigation himself.

Since DiGrazia’s ex-partner, now retired, had been the original investigating officer, and since the original victim was the sister-in-law of a cop, who was accused of killing her, the strands of the story are set up carefully. The most detailed and labyrinthine plots exist within the police, which we see primarily through the eyes of Janice Constantine, a veteran beat cop who becomes DiGrazia’s temporary partner.

Many of Izzi’s core personal themes throw themselves up here, the ones that appeared to reflect aspects of his own life: abusive parents, distrustful marriages, the inability of people to transcend the hands dealt to them by life. But his usual sense of rage is tempered here by care and even sensitivity; using a female point of view seems to help give him some distance, and, unlike some of his novels, he's here concerned about keeping the reader guessing about what is true and what isn’t. The investigation may reach its conclusion with a slight anti-climax, but the story plays fair even as it carries you along. You could also look at it as a precursor to TV shows like CSI, in that Izzi took the popular forensic strand of crime writing, and transferred it to actual investigators. This time, his adapting of his work to popular trends worked perfectly, and it deserved to be a springboard to greater success.

We can speculate about what sort of conditions conspired to grant Izzi the artistic peace to keep this novel so well under control. We can also speculate further about the locked-room mystery he left behind with his death. We can regret that this was the last Izzi novel we got to see (the family apparently decided not to release the novel which was on his person when he died, just as they honoured his wish to keep his second novel, The Eighth Victim, out of print—it's not great, but it's not THAT bad!). The Criminalist was said by some sources to be Izzi's best-selling novel, though when I interviewed his editor, Jennifer Sawyer-Fisher, she said the book had received only a 'small boost' from his death. When I originally reviewed The Criminalist ten years ago, I said that, given the circumstances of his death, 'it’s heart-warming to read something so good'. That's still true, and after George V Higgins, he's the writer I'd most like to see get back into print.

THE CRIMINALIST Avon Books, USA, 1998

PRECISIONISM IN AMERICA

I've written an essay, 'There's Nothing Sentimental About A Machine', about Precisionism, which you can find over at Untitled: Prespectives, here. It's based on a 1994 book, Precisionism In America 1915-1941, and covers some of my favourite artists. I find the connection between artists like Charles Demuth and writers like William Carlos Williams particularly strong, and fascinating, as you might guess from Demuth's painting on the right. I'll try to get more postings about art onto Untitled in the near future...I'd like to be more Presicionist about that, and less Futurist, but...

MR INSIDE, DOC BLANCHARD: My Independent Obituary

My obituary of Doc Blanchard is in today's Independent, you can find it here. Obviously, the paper's main interest was in the way Blanchard's actions prevented a tragedy over an Essex village, but equally obviously, his fame in America was down to his exploits on the football field; even when I was boy, the legend of Mr Inside and Mr Outside was still current.

The obit was supposed to be brief, but even so, some of the things I felt were crucial to his story were cut, and there were others I had left out myself to keep the piece short, so I'll tell you about them here.

The 1944 Army-Navy game was moved to Baltimore by President Roosevelt. Traditionally played at a neutral venue (usually in Philadelphia) in 1942-43 it had been held at the academies, but Roosevelt recognised the great interest in the undefeated Army team and its propaganda value, and also ordered war bonds sold along with the tickets.

After going undefeated in '44 and '45, and being national champions both years, Blanchard missed the first two games of the 1946 season to injury, and played the rest of the year at less than 100%. The meeting of the unbeatens, against Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium, one of the greatest non-baseball events at that now-destroyed venue, ended in a 0-0 tie, which, as usual, acted in Notre Dame's favor and they were awarded the national championship. That tie was the only blemish on the three years Davis and Blanchard played together under Red Blaik. Late in the game, Blanchard was stopped in the open field by Notre Dame's quarterback Johnny Lujack; it is often contended that the fully-fit Doc would've scored. Davis won the Heisman that year, Lujack the next, and Notre Dame end Leon Hart would win it in '48: I'm not sure there's been another college game that featured four Heisman winners.

Of course Army had some advantages in those years, not least that many of the players other colleges would have recruited were in the services, Blanchard among them. He was a year older than he would have been otherwise. Absent the war, he would have played at North Carolina. He was sent to his father's school, St. Stanislaus, in Bay St Louis, Mississippi, the Rockachaws. According to some sources, he was recruited by both Army and Notre Dame, but fell short academically. But he chose North Carolina to be closer to home, where his father was ill, and where the varsity coach was his mother's cousin. The academic bit was certainly real; Doc graduated 296 out 310 in his class, and there was the lingering suspicion it was his football skill that got him admitted to West Point.

The deal Blanchard and Davis originally made to play pro football was made with General Maxwell Taylor, before public outcry forced its cancellation. This became an issue last year, when an Army player was allowed to go to NFL camps, and again there was an outcry. While they were making their movie, Davis injured his knee seriously; he left the Army when his four years were up and played for the Los Angeles Rams, part of one of the greatest offenses the NFL has ever seen, but he was never the same player.

Blacnhard's number 35 will be retired this season; along with teammate Joe Steffy. Army had retired only two numbers previously: Davis' 41 and Pete Dawkins' 24. Dawkins went from Army football to a Rhodes scholarship and Oxford blues in rugby; he is the man who invented the overarm throw-in at the lineout.

But it's a puzzle why Davis and Blanchard didn't see their numbers retired together, and even more of a puzzle why Blanchard, who chose a career in the military, and even returned to West Point to coach, had to wait while Davis was honoured first. Maybe because Doc stuck with the Air Force after it became a separate service?

The politics of the service academies are beyond me, but the magnitude of the Army-Notre Dame rivalry was something I wish I could have conveyed. You could look up John Ford's movie, The Long Gray Line, if you'd like to get something of a feeling for it--the perfect film for Ford, as Irish and military loyalties crash head to head. Anyway, I am grateful the Indy gave me the chance to write about him. Although I should point out that I had the correct spelling of 'shotput' in my original copy.