Friday, 26 March 2010


Filthy Rich comes complete with blurbs from George Pelecanos and Meagan Abbott, and it doesn't get much more noirish than that--impressive enough that my wife actually gave me this copy for my birthday! And she does not do comic books. Brian Azzarello has shown in 100 Bullets that he's absorbed a full menu of late 50s and early 60s noir, and artist Victor Santos' art, which seems heavily influenced by Frank Miller as much as 50s black and white films and maybe Bernie Krigstein, suits the story very well.

There is a fine line between hommage and derivation, and the graphic novel format often winds up drawing heavily on both; in writing terms they are short stories, while in story format they are presented more like novels--the same sort of boundaries you might place on film, but even moreso without the giant screen and dark cinema to encompass the viewer. So although the outlines of the story are familiar, what makes it work so well is Azarello's combining of angles: the failed athlete turned car salesman thrown into the nightlife milieu is not only redolent of noir, it carries the undercurrents of the era, the sort of thing you get in Philip K Dick's mainstream novels, in everything from Death of A Salesman to Glengarry Glen Ross, the sort of thing that kept Gold Medal books in business fo so long. Junk Junkin, the former star football player who was accused of shaving points in college and then saw his pro career disappear to injury before it even started, is a desperate, empty man, with a half-track brain and a one-track mind--the perfect noir hero.

If anything, the story is even more desperate than Junkin himself, and that's where Romero's art cranks up the pace to a frenzied level. It resolves itself the way noir ought to, the way it has to, the only way it possibly can, in its real underbelly of a world. Filthy Rich is filthy, and it's rich noir, and what more can you ask for?

Thursday, 25 March 2010


My obituary of CDB Bryan, author of Friendly Fire, and the novel Beautiful Women, Ugly Scenes, is in today's Independent, you can link to it here. I remember being quite fond of Beautiful Women when I read it sometime in the 80s; as I wrote it, is a bleak and somewhat depressing book. Monocle magazine must have been a hoot; the editorial cast included Victor Navasky, Calvin Trillin, and Dan Wakefield along with Bryan. That would consititute a sort of cross-section of the New York literary Grub Street scene in the late 50s or early 60s.

Saturday, 20 March 2010


Split Image is the first Robert Parker novel published after his untimely death. It is the ninth Jesse Stone novel, and it also brings back Sunny Randall, who has featured in six novels of her own, but who works better as a foil to Jesse than she does on her own. Part of that is because originally she and Jesse faced the same psychological dilemma, being in love with people they couldn't live with, and each was in effect the perfect solution to the other's problem. Where the Spenser novels deal in relationships, the Stone books delve more directly into the world of sexuality--Jesse is every bit as irresisitible as Spenser, but his tragic devotion to his ex-wife doesn't extend to keeping him celibate. I've speculated before that Jesse is Spenser's id, with a less strong ego but not bound at all by Spenser's super-human super-ego.

This all makes for a rich concoction when Spenser is drawn into the case of a murdered mobster, Russian muscle who worked for one of two mob bosses 'retired' to Paradise, whose wives just happen to be identical twin sisters once known as the Bang Bang twins. The plot is a bit contrived, even for Parker's later work, but as usual there are one or two memorable characters, most notably the wife of the murdered Russian's wife, and as usual Parker's dialogue sets scenes quickly and gives them punch lines. It's odd, but when Stone delivers them he sounds more and more like Tom Selleck, who's played him in a number of made-for-TV movies. I still can't see Helen Hunt as Sunny, though.

Meanwhile Sunny is investigating a teenaged girl who has gone off to live with a group called The Bond Of The Renewal, who of course have their HQ in Paradise, and whose bonds are more than just spiritual. Sunny is good with disturbed teens and their even more disturbed parents, and just to round the circle off neatly, disturbed teen that she is, her therapist is Dr. Susan Silverman, the erstwhile partner of Spenser.

The contrivance of the story is not so much for the purposes of advancing the plot, as examining ideas about the human psyche. Because what Parker has done, especially since he settled Spenser and Susan in together after their memorable difficulties in the 1980s, is to use Stone and Sunny (and in many of the later Spenser novels, the characters thrown up by the case) to examine issues of human sexuality and relationships. It's all very Cambridge (Mass., not Cantab) all this discussion of needs and fulfillment and support and upbringing: a sort of psychological Ross MacDonald trip into the pasts of his characters, but written with the fast paced flippancy that reads like Raymond Chandler refined or distilled or condensed. There's nothing memorable at all about Split Image, but I didn't put it down, and that's as good a defintition of Parker's power as a novelist as I can think of.

Split Image by Robert B Parker
Quercus, £18.99 ISBN 9781849160735

Sunday, 14 March 2010

ALL THE FAT THAT'S NEWS TO PRINT: The New York Times, Clinton, and Starr

Amidst the Cassandra cries about the impending heat-death of the newspaper industry, it is always instructive to see the New York Times argue persuasively against its own utility. In the process of moving house a couple of weeks ago I relaxed for a few moments with a copy of the once-esteemed International Herald-Tribune, now the Times' Paris edition, and read a review by Richard L. Berke from the Times of Ken Gormley's The Death Of American Virtue: Clinton vs Starr. You can link to the review as it appeared in the NYT here.

Berke was the paper's 'national political correspondent' from 1993 to 2002 (he's now one of the thousands of assistant managing editors), hence at the centre of the paper's coverage of the Clinton impeachment. So it's instructive that the paper's book review chose him to review a book about a story the paper got wrong right from the start.

Predictably, he begins by ridiculing the whole business, the classic Rush Limbaugh 'get over it' dismissal. He then, quite rightly, appears to dismiss the whole thing as an overblown triviality, pointing out accurately that it 'all arose' from the question of whether Clinton had exposed himself to Paula Jones when he was governor of Arkansas. 'In today's world of suicide bombers and a ravaged economy,' he intones portentiously, as if the 90s did not have terrorist or economic crises, 'it all seems not merely frivolous but ludicrous.' So far so good, though when he speaks of 'so many' being preoccupied with Monica Lewinsky, by implication he is excluding himself and his paper. It would be nice if they hadn't behaved in exactly that way at the time, and it would be better if he could remember his own point for at least another couple of paragraphs. Sadly, he can't, or won't.

Praising the book for its detachment, calling it hefty but chiding it for ignoring the 'motivations' of its two central characters (both of whom Gormley interviewed) and for not concentrating more on the 'political theatre', Berke, and the Times, want to have it both ways. Especially when he agrees with Gormley's allowing that both Clinton and Starr might have acted from 'honourable' intentions. Berke thinks Starr was simply the wrong choice to prosecute because he had 'never run a major criminal investigation'. This the honourable Starr finds his conduct justified because Judge Susan Wright 'considered' finding Clinton in contempt during his Senate impeachment trial. Berke concludes that it was outrage at Clinton's actions that caused 'people' (but not him or the Times) to 'overreact'.

This ignores reality to an astounding degree. Why should Starr's credentials in major criminal trials be an issue if, as Berke pretended to acknowledge, this case was concerned with an accusation of indecent exposure? Was it not obvious, when Robert Fiske was canned as the independent prosecutor, that Starr was chosen to replace him, not for his legal skill but for his plitical willingness to do whatever it took to 'get'' the Clintons? In such circumstances can we really accept that 'both sides' engaged in 'possible misconduct'? One side was trying to topple the government on the basis of the President's sex life. The other was trying to run the country (and recall the 'wagging the dog' reactions to Clinton's attempts at offing Osama next time you invoke terrorism as a real issue!).

Berke then editorialises on whether the impeachment changed how 'we' look at politicians. By calling it the 'Clinton-Starr entanglement' he moves the goalposts once again, back to a political two-hander, theatre of the absurd whose audience thinks it's getting Arthur Miller. And, as he did in his basic analysis of the case, Berke again homes right in on the crucial truth of the matter, then proceeds to ignore it.

'In reality the case belongs to the continuum that began with the toppling of Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court', he writes, and he is absolutely right. But rather than follow the logical implcations of that idea for both the motivations and the conduct of Starr's office, Berke quotes Henry Hyde, the Republican leader of the impeachment team in the House, with a straight face, saying the good thing about the Clinton trial was it led to George Bush's election as president.

First off, remember that Hyde was literally Mr Hyde to Clinton's Doctor Jekyll. Clinton was pursued for losing money in Whitewater? Hyde was the only director of a failed Illinois savings and loan to escape federal prosecution in the Keating days. Clinton was a philanderer? When Hyde's own afairs were uncovered, he dismissed then as 'youthful indiscretions', even though he had been older then that Clinton was during the impeachment. It raises a few questions about whether Berke might have considered American Virtue a more than somewhat ironic title?

And secondly, recall that Bush was not 'elected' president, but appointed by a Supreme Court whose political agenda made Bork look like Louis Brandeis. Bork is the Horst Wessell of the neo-cons and their Thousand Year Rich, and revenging themselves on those who refused to inflict him on America via the Supreme Court has been the motivating factor for the right ever since. And they have been very successful in using the courts and the media in a two-pronged attack, which flaunts 'character' as the bullfighter's cape to distract voters, while courts packed with right-wing judges turn back the clock on workers, the poor, and those with consciences.

In Gormley's book, Starr apparently says he regrets investigating Monica Lewinsky at all, and now sadly asks himself 'why did all this happen...this is all so unnecessary'. Richard L. Berke's reaction to this is not to ask, what could Starr have done to avoid making it happen, or even how could Clinton have avoided it. Instead, he decides 'few will disagree' with Starr. That's pretty much what he said in the 90s too, and thus the ouroboros that is the Times comes back and bites itself in its self-regarding ass.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010


I'll be on BBC World Service's The Strand Thursday, 1530 GMT (and repeated I believe--as well as accessible via the net) to talk about the Swedish film version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I saw it back in the fall, tune in and find out what John Landis said after the film!

Sunday, 7 March 2010


Because of moving house, I didn't get to see much of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, though I did manage to watch the hockey final, which was an exceptionally good game, marred only by the BBC's decision to have a Canadian colour man on the broadcast, and a Canadian skier (?) providing analysis in the studio, along with host Steve Cram (who kept telling they audience that, although they wouldn't understand what they were seeing, they ought to watch anyway) and hockey expert British rower Matthew Pinsent! When the game went to overtime, no one knew it would be played four on four, instead of five on five, which would likely help Canada's big stars, since the US would be less able to give them extra attention; sure enough Sidney Crosby, quiet in the first three periods, got the game winner.

What was really strange, however, was the presentation, encouraged by Canadians themselves, of their team, overwhelming pre-Olympic favourites for the gold, laden with NHL stars, and playing at home before a partisan crowd, as underdogs to a USA team picked for fourth or fifth before the games started. It was also extremely odd to see this portrayed as the greatest moment in Canadian hockey history, when that was surely Paul Henderson's goal in game eight of the original 1972 series against the Soviet Union, giving Canada a come-from-behind 4-3-1 vicotry in the series, thanks to a come-from-behind win in that final game in Moscow. But that happened nearly 40 years ago, and memory today extends no further than the delete button on teenagers computers.

In Vancounver, the Americans beating Canada 5-3 in the round robin was probably the worst thing that could have happened for the US, but the game certainly lived up to both countries' expectations: the whole of Canada dependent on the win to preserve their sense of national identity, and a thin sliver of the USA that actually follows hockey looking on with bemused disappointment. American diffidence to hockey is part and parcel of the general problem with the Winter Olympics, the games global warming might render irrelevant to even those few countries who now dominate. The games are full of sports that require not only winter, but specialist kinds of winter: mountains, bobsled runs, ski jumps, hockey rinks, speed skating rinks, half-pipes and the like. It's no coincidence most American speed skaters come from an area between Chicago and West Allis, Wisconsin. Last time I looked there were only 9 or 10 Olympic quality luge runs in the world, and when the Canadians refuse to let anyone but Canadians train on theirs, it gives the home side a definite advantage.

In a country like Britain, which prides itself in playing 'world wide' sports but ignores most of the ones that aren't cricket, rugby, football, or lawn bowls, this means coverage of the Winter Games has the feel of the first day of foreign language class in high school. Every Olympic games is like that; the media who cover tend not to be 'beat writers' on the various sports (largely because most countries don't have papers who devote beats to thinks like skeleton bob) and they same stories always crop up. At the winter games that means either (a) too much snow or (b) not enough snow, and at any games, transportation nightmares, which start getting written the first time a media shuttle is late.

When Amy Williams won her gold in skeleton, she became the lead on the news reports, who had to explain what skeleton bob actually was. And spectacular as her performance was, the Brits missed the element of the East German about it (the old DDR used to concentrate on medal intensive winter sports where technology could help, and Williams' top-secret sled was built at a cost of over £100,000), though they did follow the NBC-style 'human interest' lead in trying to create a desperate rivalry between her and her teammate. Audiences can't understand the .001 difference between two bob runs, but they do understand cat fights.

I did get to watch the women's Super G, which was also a fascinating race. The best skier on the day was Julie Mancuso, who went down first on a treacherous course, and held the lead for a long while. Her cat-fight rival, Lindsay Vonn, skiing 17th, then took the lead, before losing it later to Austria's Andrea Fischbacher and Slovenia's Tina Maze. I thought Vonn may have played it a bit safe on her run, but the reality was that the course had been set by the Austrian coach, with a four-deep set of skiers, and the early starters faced faster conditions without any knowledge of how they would play out. By the time the gold and silver medalists went, the course had slowed down a bit, and they were well aware of exactly how to approach the most dangerous gates. It was classic Alpine gamesmanship, but it went unremarked in commentary.

I loved covering the Winter Olympics (Lake Placid 1980, Sarajevo 1984, Calgary 1988) and the winter sports circuit--most recently doing commentary on almost all the sports at the Winter University Games in Austria a few years ago. The atmosphere is usually more relaxed than the summer games, and I can appreciate most of the sport, even the ones where people in bondage costumes race against the clock. I get tired of watching the ski jumping jury decide it's too dangerous whenever a non-favourite jumps too far, and cancels his jump and moves the start down. I worry about figure skating, the bowling-alley ballet where sequins and lipstick are part of the required equipment, Liberace seems to be the aesthetic icon, the 'choreography' never seems to match the skating (except occasionally, as with Torvill and Dean, in ice dance), and the judging seems as fair as Madam Lafarge in Tale Of Two Cities. Snowboarding, the only sport where marijuana is a performance-enhancing drug, at least gives us snowboard cross, which along with short-track speed skating, helps fill the void left by the demise of roller derby. And then there's biathalon, which would improved greatly if the skiers shot at each other, rather than targets.

But the big question is who, in the end, 'won' the Winter Olympics, which is supposed to be all about taking part, and not about nationalistic chauvinism. Hah. Try taking the anthems out of the medal ceremonies. Canadians are claiming 'victory' thanks to their 14 gold medals, the triumph of quality over quantity. Using the gold-silver-bronze points systems, the US triumphs, as you'll see from the top three here:

USA (9 gold 15 silver 13 bronze) 5-3-1 points: 103 3-2-1 points: 70
Canada (14-7-5) 5-3-1: 96 points 3-2-1: 61
Germany (10-13-7) 5-3-1: 96 points 3-2-1: 63

But the real Olympic champions, in terms of medals per population, were Norway, with 9 gold, 8 silver, and 6 bronze, for fourth place in the points table, and, in the 5-3-1 system, one point for every 61,000 Norwegians. Take that, all you temperate zone softies!

Friday, 5 March 2010


A full moon is a dangerous thing in Hollywood. It brings out the craziness in the crazies, and it looks on but doesn't really watch over the cops in Joseph Wambaugh's third visit to the Hollywood station. It marks a definite change of tone from the first two, although it does begin with two street characters trying to cash the social security check of the third, who's dead, but with them in his wheelchair. Fraud is the main strand of the novel, which is a little less frenetic and madcap than the first two, but also has more of a pulpy flavour, as the other criminal threat is the hunt for a serial rapist. That pulpy taste may be because this novel seems to harken back to a couple of familiar things. One is the early 1950s serial killer movies, the ones where the maladjusted boy with the dominant mom writes 'stop me before I kill again!' in lipstick on the mirror. Wambaugh uses that with great precision here, and it works because the times have changed, and we take our serial killers much more casually now, while forgetting that the atmosphere around them is far more sexually charged. Thus young Malcolm Rojas is an almost sympathetic character, in contrast to most of the rest of the criminal element he gets caught up with.

That element is the other familiar area. I wouldn't be surprised if the con-man Dewey Gleason and his domineering wide Eunice weren't intended by Wambaugh as a hommage of sorts to Donald Westlake and his Dortmunder gang. They indulge in various identity theft scams, fake rentals, credit card swipes, all master-minded by the chain-smoking Eunice. Gleason's sad-sack personality reflects Dortmunder's, and his use of his skills as a failed actor also recalls Westlake's actor-thief Grofield. There's a lot of westlake in the way his scamming employees try to scam him, and in the way it plays out in an almost slapstick fashion.

Except that, this being Wambaugh, the cops are at the core of the story, and, at the core, no matter how much farce there may be, the reality is serious, and always potentially tragic. It's what gives most of Wambaugh's work its power, it's what makes it such compelling black humour, and in Hollywood Moon it packs great impact. Particularly for those who've followed the careers of Hollywood Nate, Flotsam and Jetsam, Dana Vaughn, Sheila Montez and the rest.

Wambaugh's story-telling here reminds me of Jean Shepherd, whose tales of childhood are told with an omnipresent recollection. That seems to me exactly the way it must be when Wambaugh wines and dines his cops and hears their stories. After all, as the cops say, 'this is fucking Hollywood'.

Hollywood Moon by Joseph Wambaugh
Quercus, £17.99, ISBN 9781847248114


It's been quite a wait for the 251st post at IT, but there has been a reason: a house move. You would think that going less than a mile wouldn't be a big thing, but between the rennovations and
lack of internet access, and the computer that I dropped onto the new tile floor, bang goes the hard drive, IT has had to take a break. But we'll be gearing up now, with some good items, including George Pelecanos, the Millennium film, and Jo Nesbo, as well a catching up on some book reviews.