Monday, 31 May 2010


The discussion of boxing fiction on Open Book yesterday was very good; you can link to it on BBC IPlayer, at least for the next week, here, it starts about ten minutes in. It would have been fascinating to have done it live, because as it was edited it set up what sounded almost like a fight, as if I were being contradicted by Prof. Kasia Boddy, author of Boxing: A Cultural History, when in fact we would have been agreeing had we been talking face to face.

You'll hear me say 'there aren't very many roles for women in boxing novels, because they are about the physicality of men'. Then it cuts to Boddy explaining the importance of women's roles! Perfect! But actually, I had gone on to describe the way I see women's roles falling into archetypes: the nice woman who represents society and usually doesn't want the fighter to fight, the bad woman who represents temptation: either to fix fights or break training, and the long-suffering woman who supports the fighter, whose roles are usually the least interesting (the brilliance of Cathy Moriarty's performance in the film Raging Bull is partly because the role conflates these stereotypes and inverts them.

Prof. Boddy used as good examples of the central role of the woman as watcher Pip's fight in Great Expectations (and here it's interesting to place Estrella's reaction to the fight, much more on the 'bad girl' side of the coin!) and, more to the point of organised boxing, Jack London's story 'The Game', in which Genevieve dresses as a man to watch her fiance's last fight. Which turns out to be literally his last fight. Interestingly, London used the same device, the last fight, in a serialised short novel, 'The Abysmal Brute', but this time let the fighter survive. So it would have been interesting to go face to face and slug it out with examples of the woman's role in boxing fiction. And even more interestingly, one of the things I had talked about was the cardboard quality of the woman in Thomas Hauser's book--it would have been nice to hear Boddy's take on her.

It struck me, while I was writing this, that the place of women in boxing fiction is very much like their roles in westerns--they become the central symbols of the narrative, the nice woman representing society, the bad woman representing the lawless world--what we'd call the underworld in boxing, and the long-suffering wives out of the plains. There's another essay in there.

Sadly, my own reading of a passage from W.C. Heinz's The Professional didn't survive; the readings were done by an actor, because of course you need to vary the voices from the other contributors. But sadly, the actor chose to read Heinz in that sort of half-Bronx half-Brooklyn dese and dose talk the BBC loves to use for American tough guys. The problem is that Heinz's narrator is not a punchy pug, but a magazine writer, a trained observer and writer, and his prose reflects that. Oddly, the actor gave Jack London's passage a straight-forward reading, without the cross-borough accent, and it worked much better.

Of course if we'd done it live, Boddy, or someone would have caught me on a huge embarrassing mistake: as I mentioned On Boxing as being written by Joan Didion, when of course it's Joyce Carol Oates, something I know well. Oddly, I didn't even notice the error when I listened to the show, but it's an awful one. My apologies to both great writers.

Saturday, 29 May 2010


I'll be on BBC Radio 4's Open Book tomorrow at 1600 BST (Sunday, 30/5) discussing boxing fiction. I've no idea what I'll say, because my contribution was taped a couple of weeks ago, some 45 minutes worth, and will likely be shortened somewhat, given that it's a half-hour programme with a lead item on Bill Bryson, and I'm part of a feature prompted by Thomas Hauser's new novel, Waiting For Carver Boyd, which I will review here later. If you're not in range of BBC Radio, you can listen at the BBC web site's IPlayer...that's 11 am DST for those of you in Montreal, Boston, New York, Miami, Freedom NH, Southport or Easton, CT...Let's hope they left in some of my reading from WC Heinz's The Professional, still the best boxing novel out there (OK, I'll concede Fat City as well).


In many ways, Caught represents Harlan Coben at his best. Coben's thrillers have always involved ordinary people caught up in situations beyond their control, and it's Coben's definition of ordinary which often makes them so successful. Inevitably, the setting is affluent suburban New Jersey, but to Coben the bland pleasantness of suburban life often hides dark secrets. Even the most comfortable people turn out to have pasts that haunt them, or come back to haunt them. And the veneer of stability is easily shattered, the hierarchy of suburban concern easily toppled.

So it is when, in a town already shaken by the disappearance of an all-American girl from the local high school, TV reporter Wendy Tynes executes a sexual predator sting on Dan Mercer, social worker and coach of kiddie basketball. The cases, of course, turn out to have links, but soon Mercer is shot dead by a vengeful parent, and as Tynes begins to investigate, nothing turns out to be what it seems. Including her own position.

Much of the story is familiar territory, in both senses of the word, even the everyday nature of the crimes (not child abuse, I hasten to add) at the centre of the story. This is a device he has used before, the mundane origins of key events. But their reuse merely emphasises a point; that crime is not just premeditated violence, but often grows out of the pressures of life, even the idealised life of suburban American. This is, I would argue, the root of the suspense which makes his novels such compulsive reading; the situations are familiar, and the threat to families is one with which readers can identify. When the Coben hero starts having the forces of society mobilized against him or her, the reader is already sympathetic.

Which raises a problem here, because to the point where sympathies begin to be turned toward Tynes, she has not really done anything to deserve it. In fact, the obsessiveness with which she entraps Mercer, and the unwillingness to consider any mitigation, indicate a basic ruthlessness and disdain not only for people but for jounralistic integrity. Such is local news, sadly. But the astute reader will immediately sense something wrong in the sting that she uses to trap Mercer, and will already miss someone who, in other circumstances, would have been the quintessential Coben hero. Tynes never finds herself in a situation as desperate as Mercer's was, though she does have the tables turned on her by the real villain. This is also the most chilling part of Coben's book, because he demonstrates the ease with which a reputation, and a life, can be ruined in today's cyberspace, and turns Tynes into his heroine.

I do have a couple of small quibbles. Because suburban New Jersey is a small world, characters recur, including cops and the lawyer Hester Crimstein, whose nickname ought to be 'crimescene', no? But when Win from the Myron Bolitar series does, it is to serve the same sort of deus ex machina function he sometimes did for Myron, and it seems too much of a shortcut. He remains an entertainly cold character, however. Coben is also a master of twists, and Caught contains one huge one which I have to confess, if not brag, I anticipated from the start, though I had almost talked myself out of it before Harlan finally sprung it. If it takes you by surprise, you'll give this book five stars, even if it doesn't you'll still give it four, as I did. And read it in one sitting, as I also did, which is something being father of a six year old in the suburbs rarely lets me do.

Caught by Harlan Coben
Orion Books, £18.99
ISBN 978409112495

Note: this review will also appear at

Wednesday, 26 May 2010


At what point did American generals start looking like Ruritanian doormen? Well, I suspect Winfield Scott in the Halls of Montezuma probably had a lot of plumage on display, but it probably would pale in the face of the half-a-chest worth of ribbons, buttons and bows on General David Petraeus. No wonder no one in Congress dares stand up to him.

Compare that with the dress portrait of a lesser military figure, like, say, General Dwight Eisenhower.


There was a moment, when Idris Elba's Luther is examining the crime scene, and he says 'This ain't just a serial...this man's on a murder spree' that I burst out laughing. Perhaps that's what Luther needs, is a little laughter, because he sure is having trouble coping with all that anger, and as I suggested yesterday in my review of Justified, the difference in coping with anger is the nub of the difference between the shows.

Luther, of course, is being pursued by Dermot Crowley's DCI Schenck, the typical IAD creep. And when serial killer Henry Madden, whom Luther allowed to drop to his death but who was merely rendered comatose, awakens from his coma the first word is utters is 'Luther'. It's not that he's a theologian, either. But before Madden can give his version of his own, if not mankind's fall (and why everyone expects he will be believed, and Luther disbelieved, is never explained) he is killed by Ruth Wilson, disguising herself so completely with oen contact lens and a wig that the policeman on guard can't identify her and she's never picked up by any of the CCTV that is everywhere else in London on the show. So when she calls Luther to give him the good news, his anger erupts, and he starts smashing the cop shop up, in full view of Schenck and everyone else, screaming 'don't ever call me again'.

Now I was expecting he would shut the phone off, turn around, and say 'wrong number', but no such luck. And that is the primary problem: Luther has no outlet for his anger except one (or two or even three) tightly choreographed tantrums in each show. We see him bottling it up, unable to express it without great great effort, and then, it explodes. Wilson's Alice Morgan got right with the Tommy Cooper joke about the police arresting two boys for eating a car battery and fireworks. 'They charged one and let the other off.' Luther's the other one.

Meanwhile, this week's serial killer, played by Rob Jarvis, has a tantrum of his own when it turns out he's been indentifed. His wife, played by Nicola Walker (of Spooks fame)who's having an affair, says he gets turned on by sniffing handbags, and Luther figures out that the murder spree will now end with the wife's lover. They get there too late to save him, but do rescue the hooker he's ordered up for the evening. When Nicola sees the dead body in the shower, and the quivering hooker, it's not clear whether she puts two and two together, but she does manage to take out her frustration by using a hammer on the husband, while the police, who've let her wander through the crime scene, look on helplessly. Call it her own tantrum, and obviously you'd see why Walker would relish the role.

In fact, the only character not given to tantra (plural of tantrum?) is Paul McGann, as Luther's estranged wife's lover Mark, and the best part of the show was the teasing that he might want to act on the information (received from a jealous Ruth) that Zoe has slept with her husband again. But Mark is in touch with his anger, and Zoe loves him again for it. Maybe Raylan Givens ought to watch, if he can stop laughing at the handbag sniffing and the tantrums.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010


At the end of the first episode of Justified, deputy US marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) has showed up at his ex-wife Winona's house in the middle of the night, scaring her current husband. As they stand on her porch, Givens, who has been transferred back to his home state of Kentucky after provoking and winning a showdown gunfight with Cartel killer in Miami, allows as how he has just come to realise he is angry. 'Angry?' she says. 'You're the angriest man I've ever known.'

That moment was a perfect definition of what Justified, based on the character Elmore Leonard used in two novels and one short story, was trying to do, and it's not strictly speaking, Leonard's own territory. Leonard's heroes like Givens, or Carlos Webster, are not as much angry as self-aware. It's an older-fashioned attitude, one you might have seen echoed in Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men, a sort of 'man's gotta do' mentality. It may seem like a fine line, but you can see the difference between Leonard's Givens, whose miner father died of black lung, and the version created by Graham Yost, where Givens' father, as yet unseen after the first three episodes which I've seen on Britain's Channel Five, is both a con-man and a strong-arm thug. This puts Givens' own working as a boy in the coal mines into a different sort of context, most likely one in which his father was in jail. It also suggests issues of both disappointment and abuse beyond the strictness and straps of an older generation. But an angry Givens, with something to prove to the world, is a far different character from one who has to prove things only to himself, and that's where the nub of the difference lies.

The show's first episode was busy trying to define the character, get him back to Kentucky, and set up the rest of the cast. In the second and third programmes, much more of the Leonard feel came through, not as much in Givens as in the criminal characters. In fact, I thought Yost's script for the second show, 'Riverbrook' may have been as good an adaptation of Leonard as almost any, even though it wasn't an adaptation per se. There were moments of pure Elmore; the woman being held hostage complaining about wasting money on breast implants, and politely thanking the woman holding her hostage when she says how nice she thinks they are. The casual incompetence of the hostage-takers, and the kidnappers in the third programme, is exactly what makes later Leonard in particular flow so well, and the show captures it nicely.

There's also a nice contrast between Winona (Natalie Zea) and the appealingly trashy Ava (Joelle Carter, left, looking a bit like Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown), who's shot-gunned her husband to death in the first episode, and somehow is released and back in the crime scene dining room quickly enough to be flirting with Raylan, a siren trying to lure him back into the Kentucky he tried hard to avoid. But there's a subtle reminder here, because even as we contrast Eva with Raylan's ex-wife Winona, we recall that Winona has, like Raylan, returned to Kentucky, from which she wanted to escape every bit as much as he did.

That contrast also appears to be setting up a parallel of sorts between Rayland and Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), his childhood friend who's the villain of the first episode 'Fire In The Hole', which was the title of Leonard's original story, but who is allowed here to survive, with the intent, it would seem, of making him Raylan's evil alter-ego. Those are the strong points of the structure. Otherwise, there is a certain generic quality to the set-up of the Lexington US Marshal's office, you've seen it in a million cop shows, and unless they can drum up some bureaucratic conflict for Raylan pretty quickly it is going to become stale.

But the show will succeed or fail on Timothy Olyphant's performance, and at times I wonder if he's just that little bit too attractive and little bit less steely than he needs to be. The show-down in a Miami restaurant which opened the first show was a bravura set-piece, and he carried it off with real flair, but it also reminded me not a little of Deadwood, where Olyphant faced the same kind of challenge; there he also played a pleasant, attractive man who might well be concealing an anger against life's circumstances, and who needs to display a vast reservoir of determination. He was at odds with Ian McShane's more demonstrative villain, but there is always the sense that he is just a little too nice, or too soft. Or maybe too small. Small in the sense of better suited for the small screen, without the gravitas that would make him naturally master of the role. The way Justified is building, he will have to be the strong silent presence at times, and he will have to be the steely gunfighter at others; he can do the latter, it is the former that is the question.

Oddly enough, I came to Justified and Luther at the same time, you can see my take on the latter here. Idris Elba would seem, on the face of it, a more commanding, larger presence than Olyphant, yet where the original set-up has led to more interesting stories and more development in Givens' character, in Luther the set-up has remained unchanged, same conflicts, same types of stories through its first four episodes. Luther too is an angry man, though his anger expresses itself through tantrums of frustration at being able to express it. Givens' anger, on the other hand, gets expressed through action. So though I had immediate reservations about both, I've already come around to Justified, and have much higher expectations for the rest of the series.


My obit of Col. Bud Mahurin, one of the leading American aces of WWII, and one of the major victims of brainwashing during the Korean War, is in today's Guardian; you can link to it here. It's another one where I wish there had been more room, to discuss the differences between the uses of the P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang fighters, in Europe and Asia, and the difference, which I mention, in the nature of air combat in jets in Korea, which was much more like World War I than World War II.

When I was a kid, my favourite planes were the Republic P-47, also known as 'the jug' or the 'seven ton milk jug', and the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, and looking back I think that what appealled to me in both cases was the oddity of their design (the Navy's Vought F4U Corsair, with its bent wings, was another one). Planes like the Mustang, Zero, or Spitfire looked like they should fly and fight naturally, but those three looked like they should be doing something else. The Thunderbolt and Lightning were that way for a reason though, and did their job (long-range escorting of bombers, primarily) very well.

I would also have liked a little more room to discuss the nature of the North Korean-Chinese brainwashing, its influence through American culture (The Manchurian Candidate, obviously), and its relation to the current climate of torture taken for granted by both sides in American and British politics.

Sunday, 23 May 2010


A very interesting piece by Charles McGrath, formerly editor of the New Times Book Review, in today's paper (you will find it here) about Stieg Larsson and the fight between his partner and his family over the estate. What jumps out is that McGrath says a substantial portion of a fourth novel exists on a disc in Larsson's computer. But at a panel discussion in London, his publisher implied that there were only notes and a outline, and very little actual text. There's also more discussion about the shortcomings of the first translation...

Friday, 21 May 2010


My obit of the short-story writer, novelist, and creative writing professor Barry Hannah is today's Guardian, you can follow the link here. In cutting it for space, we lost one great quote, from the novelist and poet Jim Harrison saying he ‘always thought (Hannah) would become a massively famous novelist, which didn’t quite happen, except in the minds of other writers.’

As always, space is saved from the bottom up, so some of the descriptive passages about Hannah's work got lost. Here's how the final four grafs looked originally--simply to give you more of a feel for him and his work:

His next novel, Ray (1980) was shorter, and more controlled, and was nominated for a National Book Award. But after two more novels, The Tennis Handsome (1983), and Hey Jack (1987), and his second story collection, Captain Maximus (1985) he changed novelistic gear with the tightly focused 1989 short novel Boomerang, a partly auto-biographical book whose sombre tone was similarly controlled. Another novel, Never Die (1991) and collection of stories, Bats Out Of Hell (1993) followed before the 1996 collection High Lonesome, whose reflective tone recalled Boomerang, and which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Hannah didn’t write his good ol’ boy characters solely from the imagination. He was known, at times, for his hard drinking life style, and would tool around Oxford on a purple motorcycle. He once explained his drinking by saying ‘ I was often taught that everything is worth it for yeah, I learned things that way. On the other hand I would have learned things had I been sober.’ He also eschewed false modesty. When asked to list the ten greatest books, he put his own Airships at number nine, just ahead of War And Peace.

In 1995 Hannah was diagnosed with lymphoma, and survived after heavy chemotherapy. In his 2001 novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan (its title a quote from Bob Dylan’s It’s All Over Now Baby Blue) presents a kinder, gentler, almost elegaic side to his typically hell-raising characters.

Hannah died in Oxford 1 March 2010, after a heart attack. His ninth novel, Sick Soldier At Your Door, originally titled Long Last Happy, and changed from novel to collection of stories and back, will be published this year. He is survived by his third wife, Susan, two sons and a daughter. His first two marriages both ended in divorce. When asked what writers he admired, Hannah once mentioned Cormac McCarthy, for ‘his vision’. He quoted Dostovevsky, ‘those that don’t avert their eyes are the real artists…it’s what the artist is about.’

Sunday, 16 May 2010


Like his exceptional debut novel, Echoes From The Dead, Johan Theorin's story is deeply woven into the landscape of the Baltic island of Oland (in Swedish literally, Island Land), one which is considered unique by the island's residents (which included my grandmother), and by Swedes in general. It's not just a sense of setting, as it is in Mari Jungstedt's novels set on Gotland, the next island to the east. It's more a sense that the land itself is a force, if not a character, in the story. In his first novel, it was the bleak Alvar, and now it is the equally bleak eastern coast, and the dangerous blizzards, which in the flatness of the island, can take away one's sense of location, sense of being, with fatal consequences.

In fact, as with the first book, the English title is not a translation of the Swedish. The Darkest Room was called Nattfak, literally Night Blizzard. I can see why the switch was made, though Blizzard Night might have worked better. Oddly enough, Echoes From The Dead might have been a better title for this novel than for Theorin's first, because the story does indeed involve the dead, as well as the living.

It is an incredible mix of ghost story, thriller, and very subtle whodunit. John Connolly proved it possible to integrate ghosts with modern crime stories, but Theorin's approach is totally his own, because you get a very telling sense that not only are the dead alive on Oland, but that some of the living are half-way, or already dead.

Joakim Westin has joined his wife and two children in an old manor house, built for the twin lighthouses on nearby Eel Point. They intend to redo the house, and are obviously getting away from tragedy in Stockholm. But while Joakim is back in the capital closing the sale of their house, tragedy strikes on Oland. And new policewoman Tilda Davidsson, investigating bulgaries of summer houses, becomes convinced that the tragic death was not an accident.

The burglaries are being carried out by an unlikely group of Swedish bad guys, and the manor at Eel Point is a tempting target. Davidsson is a recent graduate of the police college, and is having an affair with one of her instructors; her coming to Oland was a way of forcing the married man into a decision. And most interesting of all, Tilda's great uncle Gerlof is telling her stories about the old days on the island; readers of the first novel will recognise Gerlof as the amateur sleuth working out of an old-age home.

Theorin not only juggles these stories, but also genres, switching gears wonderfully as the suspense builds up. The real coup is that he resolves them all so deftly; leaving the who-dun-it until you've almost forgotten it, and then bringing all the elements together for the solution. Part of the reason it all works is that the elements overlap; the ghosts act upon the people in this world, the victims act on their killers, and the island acts on all of them. It's a bravura performance.

The translation, by Marlaine Delargy, does an exceptional job of keeping to the simple flow of Swedish prose, while altering the mood and pace as the story switches from haunting to hunting and back. I have a small quibble with the practice of translating simple things to English (metres to feet, Mama to Mummy) when their originals are perfectly comprehensible, but in the face of such smooth switching of suspense gears, Theorin has been incredibly well served. Though they share some qualities, The Darkest Room is a very different book from Echoes From The Dead, but in its own way every bit as successful. Theorin (pictured above receiving the Crime Writers' Association's 'new blood' dagger from the British author Martine McCutcheon) is the new Nordic novelist to watch.

The Darkest Room
by Johan Theorin
translated by Marlaine Delargy
Black Swan £7.99 ISBN 9780552774611

Thursday, 13 May 2010


My obituary of Merlin Olsen, the defensive tackle, commentator, and actor, is in today's Independent, and you can link to it here. I eschewed a prolonged argument on the relative abilities of Olsen and Bob Lilly, or the Rams' Fearsome Foursome versus the Chargers', or any of the other great, nicknamed defensive fronts, like the Purple People Eaters, the New York Sack Exchange, or the Orange Crush. He was a better actor than many footballers, including LA favourites like Roman Gabriel and OJ Simpson. I was also tempted to talk more about Rosey Grier as well--the tackle who became an advocate of knitting, and was an aide to Robert Kennedy, at his side when he was killed. But in the end it was nice just to note his passing for a British audience. And I probably should have mentioned that, within the business, I really did never hear a bad word said about him....

Tuesday, 11 May 2010


The title is the oddest thing about The Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (henceforth BL: POCNO), because apart from its extreme ungainliness, it locks the film into being considered as a remake/sequel/hommage to Abel Ferrara's 1992 Bad Lieutenant, and a film which otherwise is intriguing enough on its own suffers by comparison with the original. Herzog has tried to say he knew nothing of the original, but even if you put it down to the screenplay, and assume the subject would have never come up in development, and Herzog would never have evinced any curiosity, one of the credited producers on BL: POCNO is Edward R Pressman, who has been promoted from just plain Ed Pressman since he produced the original Ferrara film, something it's unlikely (especially given the back stories of most Ferrara films) to have forgotten (if you think I'm kidding, read this interview with Ferrara, maybe the best director interview ever!) I saw the film last fall in the London Film Festival, and perhaps the delay in its opening is down to some confusion about just how to market it to the public.

Ferrara's film was one of redemption, in a specifically Catholic and New York context. Harvey Keitel's Lieutenant was a family man, drug-addicted corrupt and out of control, when he meets a nun who has been raped and won't identify her assailants, because she forgives them. His shame is that of the schoolboy caught in the confessional, but its enactment is far more serious. In some ways, Bad Lieutenant was a sequel to Ferrara's Ms .45: Angel Of Vengeance, in which a mute rape victim goes Death Wish on her attackers and then on men in general; the late Zoe Lund, who collaborated on the Bad Lieutenant screenplay, played (as Zoe Tamerlis) the victim, who at one point disguised herself as a nun (she also had a bit as a hooker in Bad Lieutenant).

By contrast, Nicholas Cage's cop is more ambiguous, as befits perhaps the difference between New Orleans and New York. There is a sort of genial corruption implicit in the police department, his girlfriend (Eva Mendes) is a high-end hooker with a bit of a drug problem, his father's an alcoholic ex-cop. But in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's floods, Cage's Lieutenant McDonagh rescues a criminal about to drown in his cell, and in the process, injures his back. When he rejoins the force, he's addicted to painkillers, and using other drugs to counter their effects. He's also in deep debt to his bookie, and eventually will need cash to bail himself out of trouble he got into getting Mendes out of. Meanwhile, he's investigating the murder of an entire family of Haitians, in a drug dealing dispute with a gangster known as Big Fate. So maybe, in a heavy-handed way, we can see Cage as battling against Big Fate, and trying to get what he really wants, a family. Families are an important part of this film. Herzog's characters are often mad dreamers, but here Cage's madness appears to stem from thinking he can have a real family of his own. His boy witness who escapes is a surrogate son for him and Mendes, he has his father, his step-mother, even his father's dog trying to draw him back into the normal world, but that world is not as much normal as an American comedy nightmare.

Unlike the original, the plot gets more and more complicated, as Cage uses his spiralling fall from grace as a weapon to get justice, as it were, for the murder victims, and to get himself out of the multiple traps he's fallen into. There was no element of 'solving' crime involved in the original, so this makes an almost diametrically opposed scenariio, yet it fits Herzog's mad dreamers, who are always guys insanely trying to make their crazy plans work. In this he gets a bravura performance of sorts from Cage, who shuffles though much of the film as if he's watched Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu, rather than any of his other Herzog roles, where he is the quintessence of the Herzog madman. Admirers of Herzog will find much to admire, or at least relate to, not least his Oliver Stone-like penchant for inserting lizards (and alligators) into odd places and at odd times. If you're inclined, you could see it as a way of saying the Hurricane has ripped up the swamp, and moved it back into the city, but if you're not then you might consider the whole backdropping of Katrina a lost opportunity. It is also a very funny film, which eventually turns Cage into a 'Not So Bad' Lieutentant. Cage can work the very funny lines in the script – some excellent writing by William Finklestein-- for all they are worth, though occasionally he starts mugging, as if Klaus Kinski were being played by Adam Sandler on Vicodin. At one point he pulls an oxygen mask off an elderly wealthy white woman, trying to force information from her, and as he's chased away he says 'you're the kind of people who are ruining this county!' Then he scuttles way, like one of Herzog's iguanas.

Thus, the scene in the original, where Harvey Keitel abuses two Jersey girls in a traffic stop, is transmuted in BL:POCNO into one where Cage, spotting a young couple doing drugs in a night club parking lot, braces them, intending to take the drugs, and winds up having wild sex with the girl in front of her boyfriend. It's a director's-eye catching performance by Katie Chonacas, but rather than scaring us, it leaves us feeling more like voyeurs. You almost expect Cage to send flowers the next day. Similarly, the relationship with his bookie is not the one filled with menace that Keitel's was, where the bookie is like the carnival-barker for his own trip to Hell, but more like a family thing, where the bookie is a relative irritated by Cage's inability to fix a ticket. Plus, in the earlier film, Keitel's bets on the baseball Mets eventually come through, as if by divine intervention; the figure of ex-Met Darryl Strawberry, now playing against them for the Dodgers and himself a figure fallen through drugs, adds an element of salvation/damnation that the current film's gambling scenario lacks. In BL: POCNO, the American footballer supposedly shaving points for Cage (not an easy thing to do in gridiron) does the honourable thing, but Cage wins the bet anyway. Consider the contrast between Mendes' whore-with-the-heart-of-gold and Lund's hooker from the original (see left), another ruthless beacon of descent. Female characters have never been one of Herzog's strongpoints, but when Abel Ferrara's women carry depth and character and emotion, and yours don't, you're in trouble. In fairness, the women who are in actual familiar situations get a break from Herzog, but even with Cage's stepmom, there's his temptation to see her as titillation.

Again, it's not totally fair to be reviewing BL:POCNO for not being another film, but that's what its title invites, and its situations suggest. On its own merits, I have to say I like the idea that film noir can be played forblackish humour, and certainly New Orleans is the place to try that. But I'm not sure that BL: POCNO can get tragic enough to wrap itself in the shadowy cloak of noir. It would certainly benefit by not being compared to Ferrara and Keitel's vision of New York's darkness, one that allows no humour, one that asks for no affection for its lead character. Apparently, the idea was for a series of Bad Lieutenant films, each set in a different port of call with a different director. I'm not sure how far that idea could go, not least because the films are being done all the time and don't need the referencing. Herzog's version is entertaining, especially if you can't get enough of Cage, but not nearly as bad as it ought to be.

Friday, 7 May 2010


You might be forgiven if you'd thought effects of the collapsing Greek economy, triggering massive falls as far away as Wall Street,on Britain's fragile finances would have been the election's central issue. Instead, it was a different sort of Greek conflict that proved the election's key. Xenophobia may have originated in ancient Greece, but its power was manifest in the last week of the British campaign. In fact, Nick Clegg's downfall began the instant David Cameron managed to associate him with the desire to enter the 'Eurozone', and pointed out that if Britain had joined up to the Euro, it would now be committed to bailing out Greeks, who are, after all, foreigners, rather than 'saving' their own economy.

Yet xenophobia failed to figure in the discussions last night and today as election pundits struggled to explain why Clegg and his Liberal Democrats nose-dived so completely, failing to convert Clegg's strong poll numbers into victories in marginal constituencies. In the Lib-Dem's top target seat of Guildford, which borders my own constituency, the Tories actually increased their majority. The local Lib-Dems blamed it on being outspent by millions of Lord Ashcroft's non-dom pounds which the Tories brought in from Belize to target those marginals. Others attributed Clegg's fall-off to his lacklustre performance in the third TV debate, or to his gradual tarnishing as voters examined his policies more closely, or to his willingness to discuss coalitions which helped destory his image as the 'outsider', or even the success of Tory propaganda in convincing undecideds that they would 'vote for Clegg and get Brown'.

What made it worse was that the Lib-Dem decline began at just the moment Gordon Brown's televised 'gaffe' with Mrs. Gillian Duffy appeared to kill off his chances once and for all.

Coincidentally, it isn't difficult to pick out point at which the Tories drove the final nail into the Lib-Dem coffin. Having already lost his balance over the Euro, Clegg, like Brown toppled over and got skewered on the sharp stick of immigration. The moment David Cameron trapped Clegg on the issue of amnesty for illegal immigrants, those undecided Tory voters came swarming back up the ropes and onto the ship.

I have lived in this country legally for more than thirty years, but I am still an immigrant, and I recognise an appeal to xenophobia when I see one. When Gordon Brown muttered angrily that Gillian Duffy was bigoted, I wasn't shocked. Although throughout the first three weeks of the campaign he seemed intent on morphing into Anthony Hopkins playing Richard Nixon, what else would he call someone who wants to blame the problems of the country on people from other countries? When Cameron pulled the immigration rabbit out of his hat, Clegg tried to argue that his amnesty was directed toward people who'd lived here for ten years or more, people who were working and contributing to British society, not stealing benefit from hard-working unemployed British school-leavers. In the same vein, Gordon Brown tried to tell Mrs. Duffy that just as many Britons went overseas as foreigners came here, but she wasn't listening, and the argument went for naught as soon as Brown's exasperation was broadcast to Sky News.

As damage control set in, I then heard all three party leaders assure Mrs. Duffy (and us) that being anti-foreigner doesn't make one a bigot. They all agreed illegal immigrants were taking jobs from 'hard-working Britons'. If I'd realised it was that easy to find work, I would have gone illegal years ago. Being American, I also recognised that phrase 'hard-working' and know that it is code for the kind of families the BNP's Nick Griffin described as 'indigenous' to Britain. And no, by indigenous he doesn't mean Picts. It does not mean that they actually work hard, nor necessarily work at all, as anyone who drives past the ubiquitous unmanned road works, or those with twelve yellow vests watching one lean on a shovel could tell you.

In America, Hilary Clinton wasn't allowed to get away with using this coded language against Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries, but two years later all three parties raced, if you'll pardon the pun, to wrap themselves in the image of the cloth-capped Englishman working in factory five and half days a week. And the electorate, many of whom live in areas where the last factory packed up and left for China decades ago, were happy to accept the wrapping and ignore what lay underneath.

In that context it was somewhat reassuring, for an American remembering Florida in 2000 or Ohio in 2004, to watch reports about the malfunctioning of Britain's polling stations, of the hundreds turned away without a chance to vote, and particularly of the students in Sheffield forced to form separate queues from the 'local' voters and then denied ballot papers. That the student complaining about the lack of democracy to Channel 4 news came from Zimbabwe, and thus had no more logical right to vote than I did, simply added irony to the bizarre 'can't do' humour. And apparently, Afghan observers have declared the process free of any hint of fraud.

In the end, the Tories, sold the fear of immigration to 'hard-working' Brits better than the other two parties, and kept firm that third of the electorate who mistrust any new neighbours. People forget that it was Mrs. Thatcher, not the Anti-Nazi movement, that killed off Britain's National Front three decades ago, by appropriating their concerns into the broad tent of Conservativism. Nothing much has changed since then, and now, thanks to first-past-the-post, with 36 per cent of the vote, Cameron will find himself with only a handful fewer seats than Labour and the Lib-Dems combined, who attracted 53% of the voters but will be unable to form a majority government even were they to coalesce.

The TV debates had turned Nick Clegg into the equal of the other two party leaders, but the vote has turned his party back into power brokers but minor players. A hung Parliament with a resurgent Liberal-Democratic party arguing justifiably they deserved a full share might have instigated change, might have kept either of the other parties from pursuing too extreme a course in the face of the hard times coming. And you'd think a country spending hundreds of millions mired in two wars, at least one of which was entered illegally, that there might be just a little debate on the effect of trying to be an imperial power on a staggering economy. But no.

The dirty little secret is that it was the immigration issue that stopped that happening, that neutralised the debates, that returned the system to its chaotic status quo. And no one but immigrants is allowed to admit it.

Thursday, 6 May 2010


Short palindromic review: 'Able I was ere I saw Elba'.

Longer review: The much-ballyhooed BBC cop series Luther debuted Tuesday. It was supposed to 'reinvent' (reform?) the British crime series, and I'd looked forward to it, because the idea of bringing Idris Elba back from the States (where his Stringer Bell was one of the Wire's more interesting characters) with his own vehicle was a good one. It's not unusual for British talent to be poached by American TV, but in the case of non-white British performers, the sad truth is that there has been a lack of quality roles for them in Britain. Those they get in America are not necessarily better, but they are higher profile (for example Alex Kingston and then Parminder Nagra on ER), and in the case of Archie Panjabi, who's the most interesting character in The Good Wife, the danger is being typecast in the crime genre.

Which was a danger for Elba too. His ability to play sensitive was the key to Bell's character, and on paper it must have appeared that the character of John Luther, just back on the force after a seven-month investigation for his role in the near-fatal injury to a child-killer, had a lot of the same ambiguity. The script was by novelist and Spooks' writer Neil Cross, and the supporting cast, especially the women, was strong, to set off against Elba's leading-man quality. In fact, the desire to scatter Elba among the ladies means Steven Mackintosh, as his erstwhile partner, is reduced to playing the sidekick as lonely wife at home!

Thus it was a surprise to find a programme that was not only a derivative compendium of cliche, and repetitive within that compendium, but so predictable that the slumming philosopher Lucy Huskinson remarked anything so obviously predestined ought to have been titled 'Calvin', not 'Luther'. I wondered if the title (and he is called John Luther, perhaps combining Luther and Calvin in one repressed detective?) was meant to evoke the fiery priest, or perhaps Martin Luther King, but if it was, such allusion was so subtle as to pass me by completely. Meanwhile, Luther's 'sensitivity' is challenged by repeated moments more suited to the Mitchell brothers in East Enders. I kept expecting him to scream 'you're drivin me men-tull' at his soon-to-be-ex wife. By the way, I also kept expecting someone to call Elba 'Loo-tha' but forget we aren't in Balmer anymore, Alice (see below)

Luther is like Law and Order: Criminal Intent designed for the look and internal conflict of Prime Suspect or The Vice or Spooks with dashes of Dexter thrown in. Somehow, it transforms Elba into a more raging David Harewood doing an imitation of Vincent D'Onofrio. Over and over again. How many times can a furniture-breaking guy unable to contain his temper flash his badge and yell 'I'm a police officer' as he's dragged away? He's obviously got a problem with the women, as we know from the very first moment we see his wife from whom he's been separated for those seven months. As played by Indira Varma, who looks as if Juliette Lewis has wandered in from the sub-continent, she's cold to his hot, and after about ten seconds you wish Stringer Bell was around to toss him the skinny on this one. But Luther has been denying his desire for all those months, trying to cope with his guilt over letting a serial killer plunge to his death after getting the info that saved his latest victim's life; that, my friends, may be the definition of Calvinist repression, as well as pre-destination.

Luckily, he's able to fall back on his boss, Saskia Reeves. It's odd how this programme, like Law & Order UK with Harriet Walter, under-utilises its best actress, but Reeves is obviously being set up to be Elba's rabbi, if not more. Interestingly, they've already teased that the child-killer might wake up from his coma and if he says Elba pushed him, Elba would be in trouble. Why anyone, let alone a senior police officer, would automatically believe a child-killer over the cop who caught him is a question which we thought was answered by Dirty Harry, but saying this plot line has been hinted at is like saying Hitler hinted at territorial ambition. The killer's comatose body has also already been checked out by the lead villainess of the series, Alice Morgan, a child prodigy in physics who's murdered her parents and dog and hidden the murder weapon inside the dog, disposing of the evidence when said pet is cremated.

Luther, using all the tricks of D'Onofrio's trade, including standing at odd angles to upstage his fellow actors, has intuited all this, which of course makes him the perfect foil for Alice. Alice is played by Ruth Wilson, whose beguiling Jane Eyre has turned her into a one-trick pony act of fish-hook eyebrows and hooked-fish lips, a pouting intellectual sexuality that is so hard for Luther to resist we get three separate but equal moments where they freeze as if Luther is about to either kiss or hook those lips. Even Alice gets bored with it, saying, in the best line of the show, 'kiss me or kill me John'. There is also some highly double-entendre dialogue about 'dark matter' and 'black holes', which may be part of the reason thespians of colour aren't flocking for more roles in British TV. Wilson is having such fun with the role that it is almost compelling to watch and see how far over the top she can take it, or whether the seething pent-up rage and frustration of the strong but sensitive John Luther will explode into a black hole of dark matter and need to be rescued by his estranged wife or his talented boss. Watch this space...

Monday, 3 May 2010


The strength of Mari Jungstedt's novels set on the Baltic island of Gotland has been atmosphere. She conveys the claustrophobic comfort of living in isolation, on an island which is, in effect, a small town. This is highlighted by the contrast between her detective, Anders Knutas, and the television reporter Johan Berg. Knutas is the least depressive of Scandinavian detectives; he is a man happy in his job, his marriage, and his environment--not self-satisfied but not asking more of his Gotland life than it can provide, and seeing in it many of the old virtues of Swedish society. Berg is the big-city outsider, but not in an obnoxious way, and the progress of his romance with a married woman he encounters during an investigation has similarly reflected the attraction of the old-fashioned island life.

Murder doesn't threaten that life, not even when it's murder as bizarre as that of an art dealer, who is found hanging from one of the high gates in the old town part of Visby. And in that sense, sadly, this makes The Killer's Art the least satisfying of the four Knutas novels.

The killing is tied in to an art theft, and into the local history of Gotland, and at times it seems as if it has been chosen because it is an interesting part of local history, and thus provides colour specific to the setting. But it never seems to provide more, much of the action takes place in Stockholm, and important as it is, it has an almost off-stage feel. She moves characters, including Knutas' working partner, Karin Jacobsen, to Stockholm, but they can't do much because the secret at the book's core needs to keet secret, and when a writer has to keep a secret it can become awkward. For example, we know at the book's start that when the art dealer goes out for an assignation with 'the person' (gender non specified) that that person will be another man. Similarly, we know the killer is killing because he has discovered a secret, but as he remains relatively off-stage for most of the book, that secret remains something we can barely guess at.

And guess wrong, because the secret does turn out to be a shocker. But its impact is diluted somewhat by its late revelation, after the book has changed tone considerably by having Berg's daughter, Elin, the kidnap victim. It changes the tenor of the book, but also gives it bite. Because the question of Berg's relationship with Elin's mother, Emma, which had finally seemed settled (dare one say, boring?) is now unsettled again, hugely. And again, Jungstedt works careful parallels with Knutas, whose calm lifestyle is upset when Jacobsen decides she would rather work full time in Stockholm. Her potential loss throws him into action, and the plan he makes to keep her in Visby sets up conflicts with some colleagues. And of course, raises questions about just why Jacobsen wanted to go, and just why Knutas wants her to stay.

Knutas' ensemble cast has serious overtone's of Martin Beck's, and its tempting to think that Jungstedt realises conflict and the inability to resolve it were the key to that detective's literary success. Knutas and Berg's own stories have been the driving force of this series, not the crimes themselves, and perhaps the reason why the crime in this case fails to hold our attention is that this is a transitional book in which the positions of those two men starts to change. That makes this a better book for those who've followed the first three, but the fact that we care about such
changes indicates that Jungstedt knows what she is doing.

The Killer's Art by Mari Jungstedt, Doubleday, £12.99
ISBN 9780385617079

note: this review will appear also at