Tuesday, 28 September 2010


My obituary of 'The Assassin', Jack Tatum, is in today's Indpendent, you can link to it here. I suspect that Tatum's legacy in the NFL will be very much like Carl Mays' in baseball, a very good, borderline Hall of Famer, who will be ignored because he caused such fearsome injury to another player (in Mays' case, the death of Ray Chapman). I was struck by the ironies in Tatum's life; that his huge hit on Frenchy Fuqua would have produced The Immaculate Reception, Oakland's most shocking loss; that he worked as a trademark enforcer for the NFL; and that he should, by the end of his life, be more or less crippled as well, as if his body needed to understand what Darryl Stingley had had to endure. I was also impressed with the dignity with which Stingley always approached the whole matter; Tatum, while perhaps less callous than the way he was portrayed, was still far more ambiguous.

With the NFL today taking steps to prevent such hits, the nature of the game itself seems sure to change; it's hard to think of what Bear Bryant or Woody Hayes would think of spread offenses and a ban on helmet to helmet hits.

It took two months for Tatum's obit to make it into the paper, which doesn't necessarily bode well for George Blanda, another Raider great who has just passed away. But I'll give it a try...

Friday, 24 September 2010


When DNA evidence frees a convicted child-murderer from death row, the LA district attorney approaches defense lawyer Mickey Haller to re-prosecute the case, and Haller accepts this extremely unlikely request for two reasons. He gets to work with his ex-wife as co-counsel, and he gets his half-brother, Harry Bosch, as his investigator.

From this unlikely, but compelling scenario, Connelly weaves a courtroom drama that always threatens to go over the edge into a full-blown thriller, but which might better be described as a mood piece. Because what he does is map out with great precision and subtlety both the mind-set of a serial killer but also the mind sets of those prosecuting, investigating, and defending him. And he sets up a distinct lack of sympathy which makes itself felt as the story plays out to its climax.

Behind all of this as well is the Haller-Bosch family story, which becomes more closely intertwined as the two men's daughters, half-cousins, meet up. It's impressive the way Connelly has marked out yin and yang for his two characters, opposites reflected in the same mirror, and the way he uses Haller's ex, Maggie McPherson, as a sort of conduit between their personalities. He also reflects those relationships in the story of the murdered girl, her sister, and her family, a deft touch with the sub-plot which adds the bleakness to an already dark story.

But what makes this novel work so well is Connelly's fluency for the politics and the rituals of the courtroom, his reporter's sharp eye and ear, and his ability to understand, and suggest the motivations of the various players without having to delineate them literally. This includes witnesses and politicians as well as as cops, judges and lawyers and the way they interplay in his work is the engine which drives the rest. Some fans may be disappointed with the seeming lack of resolution in the ending; much of the 'action' occurs off-stage, as it were, but it's a climax driven by personalities, by the realities of the crime and system, rather than by thriller convention. It's this willingness to take chances within the framework of his series characters that has always let Connelly transcend genre stereotypes, and it is what makes this novel so compelling.

The Reversal by Michael Connelly Orion Books, £18.99, ISBN 9781409114390

Monday, 20 September 2010


My obituary of the character actor James Gammon, brilliant as manager Lou Brown in Major League, is in today's Guardian with a fine photo of him and Tom Berenger in that move; you can link to it here. There were only a few small changes from my original copy, which follows:


With a voice that sounded like it was strained through gravel chipped off his craggy face, James Gammon, who has died aged 70, was a memorable presence as a character actor in crime stories, rural dramas, and especially westerns and neo-westerns, from A Man Named Horse (1970), to Urban Cowboy, Silverado, Wyatt Earp, Streets Of Laredo, Wild Bill, and Appaloosa (2008). Ed Harris, who directed and starred in Appaloosa, said 'if he'd been born twenty years earlier he'd have been in every other western ever made.'

He was a natural father figure. Speaking through a perpetual squint that could be interpreted as crazy or wise or both, his best-known role was as the unflappable baseball manager Lou Brown, chosen to fail and ultimately winning in the comedy Major League (1989). In the Nineties he played Don Johnson's father in the long-running TV series Nash Bridges. And his ability to reveal an essential weakness, and the potential for violence beneath a macho exterior, made Gammon an actor of choice for playwright Sam Shepherd, playing the malevolent father-figures around whom much of his work centers.
Like Shepherd, Gammon came from a broken home. Belying his western voice, he was born in Illinois, but after his parents divorced, brought up with relatives in Orlando, Florida. After high school he worked at a local television station, as a cameraman and then director. He also began acting in community theatre, and decided to pursue that career in Los Angeles. He made his television debut in 1966, in The Wild Wild West, and his film debut, uncredited, the following year as one of the chain gang in Cool Hand Luke. Television westerns,cop shows, and small roles in films followed, before he achieved a breakthrough of sorts with a recurring role as Zach Roswell in the popular TV drama The Waltons.
Meanwhile, he co-founded the 50-seat Met Theatre in Los Angeles, where his work got him cast in the New York Public Theatre's 1973 production of Shepherd's Curse of the Starving Class, beginning an almost symbiotic relationship with the playwright. 'He definitely rang a bell with me,' Shepherd said. 'He was more than an actor. He was part of a whole world I was familiar with.' Gammon starred with Harris in Simpatico, was nominated for a Tony award for his performance in Steppenwolf's Broadway revival of Buried Child in 1996, and in 2000 played the lead in the San Francisco debut of Shepherd's The Late Henry Moss, where his co-stars, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, and Cheech Marin, came up to the playwright one-by-one asking 'who is this guy? Where did he come from?' Gammon returned to the Met to play a memorable King Lear in 2003.
He had actually played Don Johnson's father once before, in a TV movie version of The Long Hot Summer, and after Major League he was cast in Crime Story, had a lead role in the short-lived series Baghdad Cafe, and in eight episodes of the highly-regarded Homefront. After his role in Robert Redford's Milagro Beanfield War, he bought a ranch in Florida he named Milagro and on which he raised horses. Gammon played opposite Christine Lahti in Ed Zwick's overlooked Leaving Normal (1992), and as an off-beat mafia boss in Masado Harata's Painted Desert (1993), which mixed Baghdad Cafe with Bad Day At Black Rock and added yakuza. He reprised Lou Brown in Major League II (1994) and did a number of voices for the animated version of Ted Hughes' The Iron Giant (1999).
Despite his suffering from liver and adrenal cancer, Bertrand Tavernier made a point of casting him in In The Electric Mist (2008) where he was recognisable mostly by his voice. His final roles were as a sheriff in Otis E, and in the the New Daughter, based on a John Connolly ghost story. He died 16 July 2010 at home, and is survived by his second wife, Nancy Kapusa, whom he married in 1972, and two daughters. According to Shepherd, 'this was a guy who could act circles around most other actors, and he never pretended to be other than a working kind of actor.'

James Edward Gammon

born 20 April 1940 Newman, Illinois, died 16 July 2010 Costa Mesa, California

Friday, 17 September 2010


My review of James Ellroy's autobiographical The Hilliker Curse appears in this week's Spectator; you can link to it here. It was a short-piece shortened even further for the space limitations of the slot (an unexpected change in typeface), so I've included the bits cut from it below. Ellroy's curse apparently also extends to review headlines, as the Spectator turned Hilliker into Hillicker, a typo Ellroy himself might enjoy.

It's not a great book, but it is involving. The basic problem is that Ellroy the Demon Dog and Ellroy the sensitive confessor are often fighting each other for control. He's far too self-aware to not realise this, but he can't help but relish the persona he created and sold to the reading public (which is not to diminish in the slightest the real achievement of his fiction, and his earlier memoir). He's too honest not to see its flaws, but at heart he's still selling the idea of the great romantic (in both the sexual and artistic senses) genius and drive behind the Dog. I've seen it first-hand and I've admired the self-control it must've taken to write his stuff and maintain his public image. I said so in a long essay I wrote some years ago for Headpress, which I will reprint here soon.

The self-control failed him, and he describes his breakdown, but doesn't really detail it enough. It is the one area where the curtain remains somewhat drawn. To me, that was the most interesting part of the book, apart perhaps from the detail about the composition of Brown's Requiem, his outstanding first novel. My comments on that were most of what was lost from the piece as published; they're the italicised bits of what follows:

This Ellroy suffered a huge break-down while promoting his most challenging novel, The Cold Six Thousand, but most resembles Dave Klein, the bad cop whose life is burning down in his most-overlooked novel, White Jazz. 'It felt like film noir', Ellroy says, but his women aren't femme fatales, nor is he the slightly stupid lug such women manipulate. From his early days as a peeping tom through his two marriages, Ellroy obsesses; each woman is the most beautiful he has ever seen, each his true soul mate. Meanwhile he continues to moon over his poster of Annie Sofie von Otter.

It was a kindler, gentler Ellroy who came through Britain this year, with the final volume of the Underworld USA trilogy; and that was a different sort of book, too, with women at its core and a character who was recognisably Ellroy himself. Yet that woman is another of his romanticised figures, and it is that romanticism which stops the women in The Hilliker Curse from stepping out at us as real figures. We get his obsession, we get what he sees in them, but we don't get what they really are. Perhaps because he didn't get it, and perhaps that's the root
of the relationships' failures. They are, in every sense, characters.

That's what we get here: fact blending into fiction blending into fact. One reviewer, a famous novelist himself, somehow came away with the idea the cellist from Brown's Requiem, his extraordinary first novel, was one of the real ones. It says something about Ellroy's talent. And it reminds us just how good his writing was from the start; I treasure my old Avon copy of Brown's Requiem (now signed by the author) and looking at it again helps me appreciate just how far Ellroy has come as an artist. I wrote in my original copy that this book uses a rough mix of familiar tropes and more revelation than those not Ellroy-embedded might require. There are many who are indeed Ellroy-embedded, but as he confesses here, in The Cold Six Thousand he may have, at least half-consciously, been trying to test the level of their committment. That in itself may be just one of the revelations that may try those not needing so much detail. But that's where the devil lies...

The Hilliker Curse by James Ellroy

William Heinemann £16.99 ISBN 9780434020645

Thursday, 16 September 2010


My obituary of Jefferson Thomas, the youngest and perhaps best-known of the Little Rock Nine, and one of only three of them to actually graduate from Little Rock's Central High, is in Friday's
Guardian, or you can link to it here.

It's hard to over-estimate the effect television had on my generation, watching coverage of the civil rights movement, and then the Vietnam war, on the news. This was the same television that brought us like the image of Superman, standing above the earth, with an American flag behind him, fighting for 'truth, justice, and the American way'. The contradiction was apparent, even to grade-schoolers like myself. I suppose you can see the same sort of phenomenon in the advent of satellite TV in the eastern block; the CNN theory as to why the Berlin Wall finally fell.

I find myself taken with a strange mix of emotions when I revisit the civil rights movement; watching the original news coverage at the King Center in Atlanta reduced me to tears. I feel a sense of pride in the scope of the accomplishment, shame at the ignorance and continued dismissal of the enormity of the crime segregation was, and immense frustration at the de facto mess the country continues to endure. I admire the spirit of people like Jefferson Thomas, and feel honoured to have remembered his life for a British audience.

(PS: The Guardian's policy on proper nouns continues to baffle me, with constructions like 'the' Central high, or US supreme court. But even they wouldn't call it the Berlin wall...

Tuesday, 14 September 2010


My obituary of Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs has finally run in The Independent today, you can link to it here if you missed the paper. I was glad to be able to write about him, and started off with a mention of the adolescent humour which was one of his trademarks because I'm sure that's what attracted me to the Fugs in the first place, and once attracted I found that humour led me in so many other directions, many, but not all of them, more constructive. I probably came to Blake more through their 'Ah Sunflower' than anything we studied in school. My favourite Fugs song was probably 'Nothing', which reminded me of a stoned and more anarchic version of the Alan Sherman songs my mother had played me when I was a bit younger. And of course, this was the Sixties before the full-fledged sexual revolution had filtered down to 1966 Milford 15 year olds, particularly in the Carlson House. 'Boobs A Lot' still can make me laugh, especially the bit about feeling up players out on the football field.

My process of gravitating toward an anti-war position had already begun, but the Fugs were somewhere between Tom Paxton, Tom Lehrer, and Bob Dylan on the folkish spectrum, and later Tuli's 1001 Ways To Beat The Draft was comic relief as I went through the decidely non-comic process of declaring myself to the New Haven draft board as a conscientious objector. And then Ed Sanders' book on Charley Manson was a powerful analysis of what turned out to be two generations; the baby-boomers who populated the Sixties, and those born during the war (or earlier) who pointed the directions for us.

Musically, I moved on quickly from The Fugs; they disbanded really because they had outlived their usefulness in that context. But Tuli continued to show up on the fringes of my consciousness, a sort of one-man band of the counter-culture, always working the zeitgeist but always under-the-table rather than over-the-counter. Going back to 'Nothing', at one point, having reduced the world's great books to a great set of nothing, Tuli also mentions 'Bakunin and Kropotkin nothing'. It occured to me that, in another life, Tuli would have made a great Russian anarchist, a wonderful Soviet dissident. We'd be writing plays about him now...

Tuesday, 7 September 2010


Ben is a philanthropist, and his buddy Chon is a mercenary. Together they are purveyors of the finest weed in Laguna Beach, and with their mutual squeeze Ophelia they are enjoying the best laid-back life sunny California can offer. But their business is not, at heart, laid back, and when the Mexican Baja Cartel decides they need to diversify into businesses north of the border, they make Ben and Chon an offer they can't refuse. Only they do.

After his drug war tour-de-force The Hour of the Dog, Winslow down-shifted and published two novels about the surfer private detective Boone Daniels. Those books, which you'll find reviewed elsewhere at this site, are funny, sharp looks at the California Dream a marked contrast from their predecessor, which was comprehensive, violent, dark, and almost manic in its pace, which helped it in covering such vast scopes of greed, politics, and government corruption, in the US and in Mexico.

With Savages it's as if Winslow has decided to merge those two strands into one, reminding us that Ben may come off as a laid-back Boone Daniels-type, but his business is a violent one, which is part of the reason Chon is around, and the story of Savages is really the story of the reality of their work catching up to them.

What makes it work is the way Winslow writes it. The depths hidden beneath the above synopsis are belied by the book's very Californian style narrative and half-stoned tone. It is immensely funny at times, not least in the constant duel between Ophelia and her mom, whom she calls PAQU (for Passive Aggressive Queen of the Universe), which in its way stands for the sort of live our heroes are trying to avoid. But many books have been written, and many films have been made, about the dark side of the Dream where America melts into the sea, and few of them have done what Winslow has done, presenting the darkness as an integral part of the light, the happy life-style, mellow yin and violent yang, which Ben and Chon reflect, indeed parallel in their own existence.

If you're looking for a comparison with current crime writing, you won't really find one here. I'd liken it to two novels from a previous generation, both of which were made into seriously underrated neo-noir; Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone and, particularly in the baroque Jules et Jim aspects, Cutter And Bone by Newton Thornburg (Larry McMurtry's excellent Leaving Cheyenne sprang to mind too). The seeming casualness of the prose, and the seeming precision of the plot, leave the reader unprepared for the starkness of the denouement, which does on a micro level what Hour Of The Dog did on the macro. Instead of the manic drive which he needed to cover the scope of that book, full of corruption at the highest levels, here he brings the drug business into sharp personal and local focus. It's not didactic, but it makes the point clearly.

Oh, and did I mention Oliver Stone is going to make a movie of this? You can see where he'd want to, and if you can't see it you can probably still find a copy of my book The Pocket Essential Oliver Stone if you look for it! The themes of drugs, love, excess lifestyle, violence, and Mexico would be hard for the director to resist.

Pulling off the challenge of writing a deadly serious novel with a satiric and ironic comic tone is a huge accomplishment, but I believe Winslow has done this before. In fact, for all the comparisons with excellent work I've mentioned, I'm inclined to see this not only as a melding of his last three books, but as a bookend, East Coast and West, one era to another, to his magificent 1950s Manhattan period piece, Isle Of Joy (see my take on that here)...a book that catches the spirit of a time, uplifting and depressing as that may be. Winslow may well be the most versatile and interesting crime writer out there right now.

Savages by Don Winslow
William Heinemann £12.99 ISBN 9780434020829

NOTE: A slightly different version of this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)