Saturday, 26 June 2010

HITLER AND GELI: KRIS RUSCH AND HITLER'S ANGEL

Adolf Hitler was unlucky in love. But not half as unlucky as his women. Maria Reiter, just 16 when Hitler first approached her, tried to hang herself, but was saved by her brother. The actress Renate Mueller jumped (or was thrown) from the window of a sanitarium. Eva Braun tried to kill herself in 1932, before she and Adolph celebrated their 1945 marriage with a joint suicide the next day. And, in 1931, Hitler's niece, Angelika 'Geli' Raubal, daughter of his half-sister, was found dead from a gunshot wound in his Munich apartment. That death too was ruled a suicide.

The question of whether it was suicide or murder, and if the latter who committed the crime, is at the core of Kris Rusch's Hitler's Angel, originally published in the US in 1998, and now reprinted here by Max Crime, part of that list's adventurous mix of new work and reprints of lesser-known titles. This may be the best so far, a serious novel structured around the reminiscence of a long-since retired Munich detective, Fritz Stecher, famed for solving one notorious murder, but trapped in the politics surrounding Geli's death.

This was the time when the Nazi party was starting to make its impact on German politics, when the country was polarising between left and right, and brown shirts fought street battles with communists, and left a trail of enemies dead. Rusch does a good job of catching the chaotic and uncertain political atmosphere, if only second hand, as the novel is structured as Stecher's telling his tale to a young American student, researching his earlier success as a detective, and set against the 1972 Munich Olympic games. That setting ought to serve to remind us only 36 years had passed since the Berlin games, only 27 since the end of the war, yet it was a whole new world opening up. To be honest, Rusch doesn't make enough of this, mostly because the character of Annie, the student, is allowed to develop only in reaction to Fritz, and serve as his springboard.

Part of that relates to her resemblance to Fritz's wife, lost to the depravations of Germany in the years immediately after World War I, and here, subtly, is the strongest contrast of all in the book, between Fritz's controlled grief and the furious bitterness of the NSDAP, a bitterness which was shared widely enough in Germany to help vault them into power. This is Fritz's internal story: Rusch might have wrung more atmosphere out of Munich in both 1931 and 1972, but basically this is a book set in two places; Fritz's dingy apartment in the latter year, and Hitler's luxurious flat in 1931.

Geli's death was ruled a suicide without an autopsy being performed. Hitler was well alibied, but rumours abounded. His relationship with Geli had already been the object of salacious speculation in the anti-Nazi press, and there was no shortage of enemies, even within the party itself, who would have an interest in framing Hitler, or simple creating a scandal around him. Again, one might have liked to see more made of some of the potential suspects, Otto Strasser and the like, but the book's focus, via Fritz, is obviously on Herr Hitler himself.

Ron Rosenbaum once called this moment 'Hitler's Chappaquidick', while reviewing Norman Mailer's The Castle In The Forest. Rusch credits Rosenbaum's Vanity Fair article with triggering her interest in the case; given the timeline it's not unreasonable to think it had a similar effect on Ron Hansen, whose novel Hitler's Niece appeared the year after Rusch's. He also may be the man to blame for Mailer's never getting around to the promised continuation of his massive CIA novel, Harlot's Ghost; Mailer apparently got distracted while reading Rosenbaum's exceptional book Explaining Hitler, from which the Vanity Fair article was extracted. The book is an exegesis of studies of the 20th century's icon of evil. Rosenbaum, a natural skeptic, found most of them reductionist, that is, attempting to somehow get to the root of Hitler's evil, while leaving out the wider political, cultural, or social factors behind the Nazis. So it was with the Geli case. Attesting that he wanted to find Hitler guilty of the crime, he found himself unable to prove any such thing. In fact, although alibis are alibis, he performed a ruthless dissection of Ronald Heyman, who had previously made the strongest case for Hitler as Geli's killer. But the story goes deeper than that, because the nature of Hitler's alleged perversions provides us with a motive, not only for him as killer, but for his supposed lovers as potential suicides, and, of course, for the deaths of millions in Europe.

This would appeal to Mailer, of course, who believed firmly in the power of male sexuality. In Oswald's Tale he had theorized that, had Marina Oswald actually put out for Lee on the night of October 21, 1963, JFK might not have been shot. Rosenbaum dismisses the idea that such ideas might be meaningful, but Rusch has Fritz merely drop them in to suggest why Geli might have been dissatisfied, why she and Hitler might have fought, and why she might have died. But again, this sexual and psychological deep focus underestimates Hitler, as surely as Hindenburg and Von Papen and so many others did on his rise to power and to domination of Europe.

The real suspense in Rusch's book comes as she builds up to two revelations, the big one as Fritz gets closer and closer to Hitler himself, and the other as we learn about Fritz's own life. In this sense we are like Anna, forced to move at Fritz's pace and accept his version, but perhaps not conclude that, even were Hitler the killer, and even had he been found guilty, that Germany would have moved in a different direction. That is an even more interesting piece of speculation.

Rusch has written novels under six different names, some just variations of her own name, but as far as I can see this is the only one published as Kris Rusch. It's a good enough book to deserve that special status, and it's a boon that Max Crime have brought it back into print.

NOTE: This review will appear also at Crime Time, www.crimetime.co.uk

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

JOSE SARAMAGO: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obituary of Jose Saramago is in today's Independent, you can link to it here. Although they gave me plenty of space, it would have been nice to have examined the influence of the Latin American novelists--check out his reviews, perhaps, in the decades when he wasn't writing novels himself. I find the links to Borges, Cortazar, and Vargas Llosa particularly strong; with Borges' getting more and more apparently in the books that followed the Nobel. I probably should have mentioned The Old Man And The Sea in the context of Tale Of The Unknown Island. Saramago is sometimes claimed by sf, and rightly so, but that is a can of wormy labelling I didn't want to open. I would have also liked to mention his translators, because he seems to have been incredibly well-served by them, particularly Giovanni Pontiero and Margaret Jull Costa.

In America, his political views probably attracted more attention than his fiction, and certainly he was a crusty old communist. You can argue that, for a man who used words so carefully, his words often seemed calculated to inflame, or offend, as much as enlighten; I'm sure he would argue that the reaction to his words, even if ill-chosen, simply proved his points. As if to prove that, David 'Axis Of Evil' Frum was typically over-the-top in writing a piece called 'Death Of A Jew-Hater', but made some interesting points about Saramago's position during the years of dictatorship in Portugal; though I'm not sure that, as someone happy to work for a proto-fascist regime, he was the best-placed to pass judgement on them accurately. But he was cogent enough to get me to note the fact that despite his much-publicised exile in protest from Portugal, Saramago quietly continued to maintain a residence in Lisbon, which struckme as practical, if somewhat diluting the scale of the protest. Frum was, however, correct in summarizing that 'no one requires an artist to be a hero' and that posterity will judge Saramago's work on its own merit. And that judgement will likely be extremely positive for years to come.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

ALAN FURST'S SPIES OF THE BALKANS

Reviewing Furst's The Foreign Correspondent for the Spectator (you can find the whole review here) I wrote that in his novels it always seems to be twilight, and by that I meant the sort of twilight that comes when a shadow descends on life, the shadow being the inevitable (especially to us, reading fiction as history) coming of World War II. In this case, the war is about to visit Greece, as Italy launches its ill-fated surprise invasion, but it is the spectre of Germany which winds up changing the life of Costa Zannis, a very special policeman in Salonika, the most cosmopolitan of Greek cities.

Furst's books are always set in such places, way stations for those who come from cultures displaced by wars; Salonika sits close to the Yugoslav and Bulgarian borders, and of course far closer to its old rulers from the Ottoman Empire. Zannis himself, as it happens, has grown up in Paris; his assistant comes from Salonika's large Jewish community. Which makes it interesting as the story starts with the docking of a Turkish tramp freighter which carries a German passenger not mentioned in its manifest. He turns out to have photos of the Rupel Pass, the key to any invasion of Greece from the north. This is a direct reference to Furst's previous book, The Spies Of Warsaw, a signal of what is coming, but though Zannis may suspect the Germans eventually, he cannot realise what is coming for him.

Before long he is drawn into various operations. He begins to help Jews escaping from Germany while they still can, and is drawn into the British intelligence net. He returns to Paris to rescue a valuable British scientist marooned there. He does these things not from coercion, nor from nationalism, but because they are, basically, the right things to do, the human things to do, if one can do them. Although we often compare Furst with Graham Greene, and even better Eric Ambler, and rightly so, it's important to note the basic influence of Hemingway here, the concept of grace under pressure--as the war draws closer, as people's dilemmas become more and more pressing, Zannis acts not because he is forced to, but because he cannot think of a good reason why he should not.

Like most of Furst's protagonists he is a man of the world, not prone to panic, and comfortable surfacing in a strange country and making his way home. Unlike some, in this novel he draws upon deep resources, unlimited budgets of dollars, fortunate family connections in Paris, his network of friendly cops around the Balkans. Thriller fans may wonder where the suspense lies, but Furst isn't into chase scenes, what he does is set up atmosphere and let his characters embrace it. Costas, of course, is short for Constantine, who transformed Byzantium into Constantinople, and who was, in that sense, a prototype man of the world getting business done in dangerous times. There is also a sense of real dichotomy in this this. Furst shows wealthy people in both Germany and Greece; the former are helping friends to escape the Nazis, the latter are plotting their own getaway, should the Germans invade. As ever, money talks...

As does love. After discovering one lover was in fact a British spy (unbeknownst to him, which is his one fallibility) he then falls in love with a woman named Demetria, after the goddess of spring. As with Costa's own name, this one is rife with connotation. Spring of course is a time of rebirth, but in Furst's novels, it is also the time nations launch invasions. The story comes full circle, back to that Turkish tramp steamer, and if the ending seems a bit rushed, and perhaps a bit of what the ending of Casablanca might have been had Ilsa showed up at the railway station in Paris, it also raises the distinct possibility that Zannis could return, in Spies of the Levant perhaps, a novel that could make great things from the character of Smyrna/Izmir, and perhaps pay hommage to Ambler as well.

As I said when reviewing The Foreign Correspondent, Furst provides rather less action in every book. Yet in his moving of Zannis round the chess board of 1941 Europe, what he has done is raise all sorts of questions about the way we react not only to war, but to life. Furst's novels are like small but great films that were never made in the Forties, and like those films, they remind of the different values, the different personal values of the time. And the values that do not change over time. They are compelling, not because of their thriller suspense, but because of their human suspense, and that's why he is one of my absolute favourite writers.

Spies Of The Balkans by Alan Furst
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £18.99, ISBN 9780297858881

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

THE KILLER INSIDE HIM: REFLECTIONS IN A SHATTERED GLASS ON MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM'S THE KILLER INSIDE ME

There was a moment, about halfway through Lou Ford's beating of the masochistic prostitute Joyce Lakeland, when I started to feel squirmy, and I am not often put off by violence in films. When Lou later beats to death his fiance Amy Stanton, it wasn't quite as queaze-inducing, though it was perhaps uglier, because Amy's submission to Lou up to then has been mental, not physical, and Amy has twice nearly extracted herself from it.

Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me is arguably the most faithful adaptation of Jim Thompson yet, if anything bringing Thompson's soiopathic killer into sharper focus and catching the strange hallucinatory character of Thompson's manic depressive prose very well. Winterbottom has ridden out the inevitable furore over the film's graphic violence, eventually coming to the public position that his aim was to make it so unpleasant that the audience couldn't get a cathartic lift from it (assuming no one in the audience is another Lou Ford). However, the difference between the violence against the women and the less graphic deaths of men in the film leads one to suspect that Winterbottom saw the misogynist streak in Thompson, the sexual nature of the violence, as an area he wished to explore in greater detail. It's also noteworthy that much of the worst of the violence is done with sound effects, and while the camera focuses on Casey Affleck's Ford, registering the deep coldness behind the character.

Ford is not only a sociopath, but he's a cop, and he is played brilliantly by Affleck. As we saw in The Assassination Of Jesse James (where he played Bob Ford, presumably no relation) and in Gone Baby Gone, he is a master of keeping internal turmoil under wraps, leaving the audience to work out the character along the way. Lou Ford gives him the perfect role to do that, and he makes the best of it; the bland faces of his life in public and his life in the privacy of his own house contrasting with the forces inside him which, we are led to believe, are released by the pleasure in violent sex that Joyce (played by Jessica Alba) opens up to him. In the film, it is as if this sex triggers him, reminding him of who he really is, and everything else flows from that, a flow Affleck keeps tightly under control. I can't think of a star with the same qualities; the actors Affleck most reminds me of are Hurd Hatfield (an easy parallel exists between Affleck's Bob Ford and Hatfield in The Left Handed Gun) and, as we shall see below, Timothy Carey.

Winterbottom remains very faithful to the novel, to the point where Thompson's almost fever-dream recollection of Lou's childhood, looking for the 'explanation' of why he is the way he is, remains difficult to figure out. In the novel it's clear; Lou's father is a doctor, who indulges in sado-masochistic sex with his housekeeper Helene; when he discovers she has initiated Lou, he receives the first and only beating of his life. Lou consults his father's books on aberrant psychology, as if trying to discover for himself what he really is. Because he is aware that he does not fit in. It's what makes his scenes with Amy (Kate Hudson) so unpleasant, because she exists only to the extent she can make him fit in, yet he's resisted any chance to make their relationship one that would fit into society; that the society accepts their affair is one of the small indicators that appearance isn't reality in Thompson's world.

The Killer Inside Me was the first of Thompson's novels for Lion Books, and probably the most autobiographical of any of his books after his first two, more mainstream novels. His father was a disgraced sheriff, who treated young Jim with violent cruelty, and Thompson's family was supposedly the basis for the criminal and incestuous Fargos in his second book, Heed The Thunder. This is 1950s America, in West Texas, and Winterbottom and DP Marcel Zyskind capture the hot dusty simmering beneath the pleasant surface; once or twice they refer a little too explicitly to Edward Hopper; people often link Hopper and Noir, not always successfully, at least in part because the images are so well known, and in part because they don't necessarily convey a sense of violence lurking underneath.

The connection that usually gets overlooked, because of the emphasis on Lou's violent sexuality, is that all the killings in the film grow out of simple corruption, the kind of small town small-scale venality that lies at the heart of much neo-noir (big cities seem to present a bigger challenge to noirists in our era than they did in the 40s and 50s). But when you think about the other great film adaptations of Thompson's work, you see the links running through.

The best is Bertrand Tavernier's Coup De Torchon (1981) based on Thompson's novel Pop. 1280, which was published twelve years after The Killer Inside Me, in 1964. Tavenier (see the IT interview with him here) relocated the story from Texas to French colonial Africa, which makes the racial undercurrents of the novel even more telling. Sheriff Nick Corey in that book is the only lawman in a small town; it's set earlier than The Killer Inside Me and it doesn't have the undertones of 1950s conformity that Winterbottom draws out nicely. By now, Thompson was much more pessimistic and nihilistic than he'd been in 1952, and had drunk a hell of a lot more too. In fact, one of the films it recalls (see the publicity still with the front-lit Affleck and Hudson in a car) is the original Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, in the sense that Lou Ford is acting out the life of a normal American in the 50s, while a so-called 'alien' lurks underneath. The Coens made a whole movie, The Man Who Wasn't There, just to examine that link between Fifties sf and noir.

In the novel, Thompson makes a point of the 'welcome to Central City' signs on the highway in an out of town. One points out that the population has grown tenfold, the other warns against picking up hitchhikers because they might be escaped lunatics. I think the connection is clear, and re-emphasised 12 years later in the title of Pop. 1280.

Thompson's books lend themselves to exploitation; it's a temptation for film makers to simply jump on the salacious elements and run with them, while simultaneously making the 'heroes; more appealing characters. It's almost painful to watch Stacey Keach trying to work against that in the original version of The Killer Inside Me; as if only he among the film's makers understood what was going on. In that context it's interesting that three of the four most faithful versions of Thompson novels have been made by non-American directors, as if Thompson's point, made in his pulp writer stream of subsconscious, were more obvious to outsiders, or perhaps less unsettling to them. My other two contenders were both made in 1990, Stephen Frears' The Grifters (though its screenplay is by the American Donald Westlake), and James Foley's much-underrated After Dark, My Sweet, where even the naming of the characters, 'Kid' Collins and 'Uncle Bob' suggests Thompson's obsession with incest and abuse. (Another notable foreign adaptation, Alain Corneau's Serie Noir (1979), I haven't seen). The runners-up would include Maggie Greenwald's The Kill-Off (1989—it was a bumper time for Thompsons) an off-beat take on neo-noir that doesn't quite catch Thompson's essence, while Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway (1972) is more interesting as classic Peckinpah than neo-Thompson. What's interesting too is the way in which elements recur in all the novels and films, and the ways they are turned around.

In The Getaway (recall that Peckinpah worked on Invasion Of The Body Snatchers for Don Siegel) Doc McCoy is less of a psychopath than in the book; Steve McQueen wasn't going to play evil, and Al Lettieri's Rudy is around to bear that burden. And the ending, which in its own way works, is not as apocalyptic as the novel. In contrast to Peckinpah, Winterbottom's ending is, if anything, even more apocalyptic than Thompson's, an explosion that recalls Aldrich's version of Kiss Me Deadly. And, in the end Peckinpah is more concerned with reaffirming his angel/whore view of women than integrating them; of course when they're integrated in Thompson's fashion, they die.

The Grifters incest theme is reflected slightly in the Helene character, whose role is far more ambiguous in the film; it would be easy to mistake her for Lou's mother. What is consistent is the way Winterbottom's film attempts to put the blame on mother, more than the novel did, for Lou's inhumanity, just as the film of The Grifters can make Angelica Huston take the blame for John Cusack's character, while at the same time toning down his pathology.

Thompson did two screenplays for Stanley Kubrick; both times Kubrick tried to snatch screen credit away from him. On The Killing (1956), his original credit was for dialogue, but arbitration from the Writer's Guild got it changed; certainly there is a lot of Thompson, beyond Lionel White's novel, in that book—the loser characters played by Jay C Flippen, Elisha Cook, and Timothy Carey have elements of Thompson's alcoholic fatalism, while Carey's encounter with James Edwards' black car park attendant was taken farther in Thompson's late novel Child Of Rage. And the ending smacks of Thompson, though endings are usually problematic for him—because his heroes are doomed to lose, he often writes them into corners and needs to go apocalyptic in order to get them out. Then again, it may be the only way they (and he) can face this world.

Kubrick brought Thompson back to write the screenplay of Paths Of Glory (1957), though Calder Willingham was then hired and star Kirk Douglas preferred his version. Thompson wound up listed third, behind Willingham and Kubrick in the credits, though, according to Thompson's biographer Robert Polito, much of Thompson's original survives intact. Douglas obviously would not have wanted his character's heroism reduced, but the corruption among the top officers, and the fatalistic attitudes of the ordinary soldiers (again Timothy Carey, and though he's far more over the top, I still see him in Carey Affleck). Despite the problems with credits, Kubrick commissioned two more screenplays from Thompson, including Lunatic At Large, which was rediscovered in Kubrick's papers after he died, which has raised the possibility of a new Thompson film. It's currently in development, with Sam Rockwell and Scarlet Johannson attached, as they say. Around that time Thompson had his first heart attack, Kubrick moved on to Spartacus and then Lolita; he never returned to cheap noir. Thompson's books would continue to be optioned on the cheap, or he would be commissioned to write screenplays for chump change (he had to sue Sal Mineo to get paid the bare minimum for one); among those who mooted projects with him were Orson Welles and Sam Fuller, each suited in his own way to Thompson's material—after all how far is Hank Quinlan from a Thompson character? He also was hired to write a script called Bo about hoboes, for Robert Redford, a mix that seems somewhat less likely. Thompson wrote scripts for a couple of TV shows I have a dim but respectful memory of—a cavalry western called McKenzie's Raiders which starred Richard Carlson (no relation) and a mob thriller called Cain's Hundred--and did lots of hackwork. He died not long after the release of the first film of Killer Inside Me, for which he also received very little.

I go into his biography because where Winterbottom's Killer differs from the usual take on Thompson, is a recognition of exactly why the novel itself holds up so well; that's why I think it is the best Thompson adaptation yet. The modern audience is enthralled by Thompson's gutter world; they love the tales of the sad-sack alcoholic navigating his way around Hollywood, they love the darkness as if it were an antidote to the anodyne pre-packaged world around them; the era of the 90s onward could be seen as a rebirth (or repacking with better technology) of the 1950s. But where The Killer Inside Me stands apart is precisely the manner in which Lou Ford is not only indistinguishable from his fellow humans, but works at making it that way. He is not Phillipe Noiret's louche sheriff, nor is he a crook or gambler or sad sack worker who we know from the start is born to lose. Lou Ford works at being a perfectly normal American, and this is what Jim Thompson seemed to find the most horrific of all. He didn't believe in the American Way—any hitchhiker might be an escaped lunatic, any pleasant cop a Lou Ford. In his world it usually took a woman to set the fuse burning, and that's what makes the violence so upsetting, because it is rage against the self, the self that recognises it is different and punishes those who don't.

NOTE: This essay will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Monday, 14 June 2010

LUTHER: NAILED TO THE WALL IN THE FINAL EPISODES

The BBC crime series Luther ended with a bang, a two-part episode which saw the head-scratching Sherlock betrayed, pursued by the police for the murder of his belived wife, and built up to everything being resolved in a four-way faceoff on the Eurostar platform at St Pancras. The two-parter was an improvement over the previous four episodes of the show, which suggests to me that it was the concept for the series that was wrong, and that Luther should have been presented in, say, two 90 minute or two-hour shows.

The advantages would have been to reduce the number of plot lines (all four of the first episodes had crimes which needed to be resolved within the show) and the number of explosive tantrums Idris Elba, as Luther, needed to throw (minimum: one per episode) to show that he was tough and sensitive with seething turmoil inside waiting to boil over. It might have let one or two plot lines run longer, while also given Luther's relationships with both his wife and the parent-killing Alice Morgan more play.

It would have also allowed a little build up for Steven McIntosh's Ian Reed (seen left arguing Reformation theology with Luther), so at least a seed of doubt could be cast as to whether he's not just a little bent. In fact, as Reed went more and more mental in the final episode, there was a sense that they couldn't wring the most out of his evil conniving because he hadn't been set up with that possibility in our eyes before. I was a little disappointed that Saskia Reeves didn't rise to the fore in the final episode, again, her unit's precarious position within the force hadn't really been made much of previously.

There were a couple of problems. Given the way Paul McGann's Mark North had been shown to despise and fear Luther, his conversion to Luther's side after Zoe's (Indira Varma) murder slightlyperfunctory. But that paled beside the scenes of Martin Schneck (Dermot Crowley) letting the light come on as he realises Luther has been set up. Close ups of his puzzled face mugging this way and then that had me laughing out loud. The other matter of some amusement was the way the police and theeir tracking systems always allowed them to arrive precisely when the plot demanded it; never too early or too late, the British equivalent of the parking space always open when the detective's car arrives in US shows.

Luther has obviously been set up to return, but I do hope they reconsider the format. One never knows exactly how alone Neil Cross was scripting the series, but there was far too much repetition, particularly of character traits and scenes between Luther, Zoe and Mark. A smaller, more self contained story arc, with just one cliff-hanger, might be the way to go in Luther II: The Reformation.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

USA 1 ENGLAND 0 AND IT WAS SIXTY YEARS AGO

It was almost exactly 60 years ago when the US and England last met in a World Cup match, and the result, a 1-0 win for the Americans, remains one of the great upsets in football history. Yet for years, it was merely a bit of trivia, dismissed as a meaningless aberration. The match was played 29 June 1950, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, before a crowd of only 10,151. And it went virtually unnoticed in both countries.

In England it was overshadowed by the fact that no one really considered the World Cup very important; England were the kings of world soccer and no match against Johnny Foreigner was going to change that self-delusion; this was the first time they had deigned to participate in what previously they had considered a sort of losers' repechage. When the score came over the wires, English papers assumed 1-0 was a misprint, and that England must have won 10-0, or 10-1. It also happened to be the same day the West Indies, for the first time, beat England in a cricket test match in England, which was in 1950 both a far more important story to the press and far more immediate news.

England had qualified for the World Cup by winning the home internationals. Scotland also qualified under the Euro-friendly system of that time, or any time, but they decided it was too expensive to travel to Brazil, and France, offered their spot, also declined the invitation. The US qualified only because the travel problem had seen FIFA award a second spot to North America; the Americans squeaked past Cuba to join perennial group-winners Mexico.

In America, of course, soccer was not a big deal. The team was made up mostly of guys who might flatteringly be called semi-pros, and the only reporter covering the game, the euphoniously-titled Dent McSkimming of the St Louis Post-Dispatch, had been forced to take his vacation to do so.

The English often claim their team was under-strength, though if that were true, it was only because they believed the Yanks were no challenge, which would have been understandable. The fact is they chose the same squad that had already beaten Chile 2-0, preferring to leave Stanley Matthews in the stands (there were no substitutes in those days) watching. Indeed, Matthews had joined a separate England team in New York, a team led by Nat Lofthouse that had toured Canada, and they beat the US by only 1-0 in the Americans' second and last warm-up (in the first they had lost 5-0 in St Louis to the Turkish side Beksitas).

This was the English team: G: Bert Williams (Wolves) RFB: Alf Ramsey (Spurs) LFB: John Ashton (Man U) RHB: Billy Wright (Wolves, capt), CHB: Laurie Hughes (Liverpool), LHB: Jimmy Dickinson (Portsmouth) IL:: Wilf Mannion (Middlesboro), OR: Tom Finney (Preston North End), OL: Jimmy Mullen (Wolves) , IR: Stan Mortensen (Blackpool), CF: Roy Bentley (Chelsea). Hardly a team of spares. The manager was Walter Winterbottom, and there is some conflict over whether he, or the selection committee (which consisted of Walter Drewry and no one else) picked the starting XI. Most likely Drewry indicated his preference for keeping the winning side intact, and Winterbottom didn't argue.

The US team was G: Frank Longhi (Simkins Ford) FB: Harry Keough (McMahon Pontiac) FB: Joe Maca (Brooklyn Hispano) LHB: Walter Bahr (Philadelphia Nationals) CHB: Ed McIlvenny (Phil. Nationals) RHB: Charlie Columbo (Simkins) OL:Frank 'Pee Wee' Wallace (Simkins) IL: Gino Pariani (Simkins) CF: Joe Gaetjens (Brookhatten), IR: John Souza (Fall River Ponta Delgado) OR: Ed Souza (Ponta Delgado). Their manager was William Jeffrey, a Scot who had emigrated to the US and was the coach at Penn State. His big tactical move was to switch Wallace and Pariani, who usually played on the right, to the left side, which nearly paid off in a second-half goal. The three non-Americans, McIlvenny, Maca, and Gaetjens were all residents who indicated they would become US citizens, which qualified them under the rules of the day.

Simkins Ford and McMahon Pontiac were sponsored by local car dealers in the St. Louis Major League. In 1950 Simkins were the US Open Cup champions. The Simkins players had all grown up in what is now called 'The Hill' section of St. Louis, but was then known as 'Dago Hill', the same Italian neighbourhood that produced Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola. Wallace was born Frank Valicenti; he and Pariani lived on the same street, with Borghi just around the corner. Longhi's family ran a funeral parlour, which is where the 'hearse driver' often mentioned playing for the US comes from.

Philadelphia Nationals, Brooklyn Hispano, and Brookhatten were teams in the American Soccer League, generally considered the strongest in the country, but not as powerful as its original version had been in the 1920s. Maca had played third division soccer in Belgium; McIlvenny was a Scot who had played for the Welsh club Wrexham in the English league. Gaetjens was a Haitian who won a scholarship to Columbia University; he washed dishes to earn extra money, which is where the 'dishwasher' part of the story comes from.

Bahr, considered the US's best player, was supposedly told after the New York game against the English XI that he was up to first division standard. He was normally the team's captain, but on the day Jeffrey made his fellow Scot McIlvanny captain, hoping he'd be able to pass on his passion for beating the auld enemy. When Disney made a film, The Game Of Their Lives (2005, later called The Miracle Match) about the match, they handed the captaincy back to Bahr. In a more serious twisting of the facts, they also portrayed the English team as sneering toffs, which would probably have amused Williams, Mullen, Finney et al. Interestingly, in the film, McIlvanny was played by the former USA star John Harkes, whose skills resembled Bahr's, and who was the first American to play in the English Premier League.

The two Souzas were not related, but there was a large Portugese community in Fall River, Massachusetts. Fall River Ponta Delgado played in the National Soccer League of New England, and won the US Amateur Cup six times between 1946 and 1953, including 1950. That year they were also runners-up in the National Challenge Cup. In 1951 they would join the ASL.

England came out dominating, getting six shots on goal in the first 12 minutes; one hit the woodwork and Borghi made two fine saves on the others. Then, as now, the US could produce good keepers. Borghi's first love had been baseball, and he had even played two seasons of minor league professional ball. He was tall, with huge hands, and could throw the ball far downfield. Which was good, because he couldn't kick it; he never took goal kicks.

Longhi had made another fine save, off a Finney header, just before the US got their goal in the 37th minute, on a long shot by Bahr that Gaetjens deflected past Williams with his head. It was their second shot on goal. The local crowd, aware of England's position as the 'Kings Of Football' exploded in joy. The Americans nearly made it 2-0 early in the second half when Pariani sent Wallace free, but Williams was forced into making a superb save. Five minutes later, Borghi stopped a free kick from Mortensen, and from then on the play was all in one direction. In the 82nd minute Columbo brought down Mortensen with a diving gridiron tackle, and with the English players looking for a penalty, the Italian referee awarded a free kick just outside the box. Off the kick, Jimmy Mullen headed a ball that Borghi, diving, reached behind to tip over the bar. Mullen was already celebrating, and had Borghi not been a yard off his line, the ball would have been a goal. The match ended 1-0, and the Brazilian fans carried the Americans off on their shoulders.

Neither team advanced to the next round. England lost their final match 1-0 to Spain, who went through. In their opening match the US had actually led the Spanish 1-0 after 80 minutes before wearing out and losing 3-1. It was even worse in their final match against Chile. Down 2-0 at the half, they fought back to tie the match 2-2 with two goals in the first three minutes of the second half, before the halftime rest wore off, the Recife heat got to them and they lost 5-2. Remember, these were guys who played on weekends during their season, worked full-time jobs, and trained when they could.

The match prompted no boom in US soccer; in fact it would be another 40 years before the US qualified again, although they have now played in six tournaments in a row, and in 2006 even qualified ahead of Mexico in their group (which didn't stop FIFA from seeding them in the bottom tier, with Mexico in the top, which put the US into a 'group of death'; not that greater attraction of the tournament on Televisa had anything to do with that). John Souza, whom most sources credit with the second, penalty goal against Chile, was selected to the tournament all-star team by Mundo Esportivo; no American would be similarly honoured until Claudio Reyna in 2002.

Bahr would go on to coach at Penn State, and father two sons, Chris and Matt, who played pro soccer (Chris was NASL rookie of the year in 1975). Both also had long careers in the NFL, and kicked American footballs in Super Bowls. Keough wound up the coach at St Louis University; his son Ty played professionally and for the USA.

Of the three non-Americans on the team, only Maca became a citizen and he too had a son who played pro in the NASL. The other two benefitted briefly from the US success. McIlvanny was signed by Manchester United, and Gaetjens by Racing Club Paris; neither returned to the US. McIlvanny made no impact at Man U, and went on to play for Waterford in Ireland. Gaetjens injured his knee at Racing Club, moved to lower division play at Olympique Ales, and played once for Haiti in 1953.He retired in 1954, returned to Haiti and went into business, sponsoring and coaching youth teams as well.

The Gaetjens were a prominent family, dating back to Joe's German grandfather. In a moment of stereotyping fiction, the Disney film decided to show Gaetjens practicing voodoo, shades of Pedro Cerrano in Major League; in fact, he didn't. Gaetjens' family supported the opposition to Papa Doc Duvalier; when Duvalier was elected in 1964, they began to flee the country. They begged Joe to leave, or at least accept the US citizenship he's been offered in 1950. As an American citizen, he'd be safe from Duvalier's miltia, the Ton Ton Macoute. Joe refused: he wasn't political, he was popular, his friends included the chief of police.

But on 8 July 1964, just one day after Duvalier declared himself president for life, the Ton Ton Macoute came for Joe, and he was taken to the notorious Fort Dimanche. For weeks the family tried to work through lawyers, to bribe officicals, to appeal to his friends, including the chief of police. Nothing worked.  One morning they went to Fort Dimanche expecting to finally see Joe. Instead they were told he was dead. Some say Papa Doc killed him personally.

England wore blue away jerseys for the match in 1950; legend says they were never worn again but in fact they were, in 1959, and then retired permanently after a loss to Peru. They will be wearing white tonight, though the Americans will again have a Haitian-born player in their lineup. Perhaps voodoo can work again. But this time around, many of the Yanks have played in the same Premier League as their opponents, if anything they know them too well. And it's unlikely Fabio Capello will keep Wayne Rooney watching in the stands. But even though it might still be considered an upset, an American win would be nothing like the shocker it was, or perhaps should have been, in 1950.

Friday, 11 June 2010

ART LINKLETTER: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obituary of Art Linkletter, is in today's Independent, you can link to it here. I must confess I never watched Art as a kid, and his record 'We Love You Call Collect' was the object of some derision among my peers. I think even as a kid I perceived something right-wing, something of the Babbitt about him. The analogy to Terry Wogan is good as far as it goes, though Arthur Godfrey may have been more like Wogan; there's a bland sort of appeal to Art that is uniquely American, even Michael Aspel couldn't quite get there--it's pleasant, unthreatening, it's Walter Cronkite's lighter side. Apparently, his daughter had no traces of LSD in her system when she committed suicide, which is not to say she may not have had bad experiences with the drug, but there was also the sense that in blaming drugs, one could absolve oneself of any responsibility...a terrible situation for any parent, and I found Linkletter's reaction to the adult children who'd been on his show as kids actually moving.

BORN IN THE USA, JUST BECOME BRIT: MY WORLD CUP DILEMMA

I was born an American. I call football soccer. Every time I get told, condescendingly, about 'the sport you call soccer' I am mighty tired of saying, 'no it's the sport YOU call soccer.' I want to whip out my copy of the BBC Soccer Annual, edited by my ex-boss Peter Dimmock and say, 'do you think the BBC is American?' The same people who called rugby 'rugger' and Brian Johnson 'Johnners' called Association Football 'soccer' and thought they were being very clever. Because logically, it should have been 'Asser' which would have been a hell of a lot more appropriate. Then again, if Mean Joe Greene had been English, his nickname would have been Greeners.

The 'soccer' bludgeon has nothing to do with reality, and lots to do with class and inverse snobbery. In the wake of Nick Hornsby's football nostalgia boom, which followed by a few years the similar one for baseball in America (the one during which fantasy sport was invented), there arose a sort of universal dream world, when all these middle class boys who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s calling football soccer reinvented themselves as 'classless' cool Brittania. Using that middle-class terminology, which implied that soccer was somehow less legitimate than rugger or cricket, became declasse in the extreme. It was also a way, in the face of a football Premier League adapting NFL-style formats (all-seater stadia, squad numbers, Monday Night Football et al.) that had made televised gridiron so popular in Britain during soccer's Heysel and Hillsborough dog days, of reclaiming soccer's own intrinsic entertainment value.

Even understanding this, I want to ask why I never hear Brits talk condescendingly to Australians about 'the sport you call soccer', even though their national team is actually called 'The Socceroos' and has never outperformed the US. And I'm still waiting for the first English reporter to ask Fabio Capello about 'the sport you Italians call 'kick'.

For 33 years I have lived in England and suffered the assaults of soccer zombies and their 'beautiful game'. When I arrived in Britain in 1977 no one called soccer 'the beautiful game'. It was the ugly game you took your life into your hands to watch in person. Some 2,000 fans have died watching soccer matches since 1946, which says something about the sophistication of its fan base.

Soccer zombies may claim it as the world's favourite sport, but there are huge swaths of the planet where it is not, including the world's three largest countries and the majority of the former British Empire. In 1994, I was producing the host coverage of the World Cup from Chicago. A radio 5 reporter interviewed me, and asked how the groundskeeper could cut the grass in circles on the pitch at Soldier Field. 'It's easy,' I said, 'first he cuts clockwise, then he cuts counter (or anti) clockwise'. 'But won't the players get dizzy?' he asked. 'Only the ones more than thirty feet tall,' I replied. 'But isn't this just symptomatic of giving the World Cup to the one country in the world where football isn't the number one sport?' 'Son,' I said, even though he was probably my age, 'have you never been to Ireland?' He looked puzzled and I went on to list the countries where football wasn't the favourite sport. Then I stopped. 'This won't make air, will it?'

Say football in Dublin and you will be assumed to mean Gaelic. In Australia, Aussie Rules. In New Zealand, rugby. In Canada, American (or Canadian) football. In such tiny and insignificant countries as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka cricket dominates totally. In Japan it is sumo or baseball. Soccer is not the number one sport in Venezuela, Cuba, Indonesia, Israel, Phillipines, Lithuania, Taiwan, or the Dominican Republic. Even in Greece basketball makes a strong case. China is still up for grabs, but basketball is probably number two behind ping pong. And there are any number of countries in the near and far east where football makes no impact at all. So shut up about the 'sport you Yanks call soccer', OK?

If these arguments sound well-rehearsed, it's because they damn-well are; I've been practising them for years in pubs and on TV. But now, I've got the chance to change my tune.

Last week I became a British citizen. Bad timing, for sure. Only ten days after I sang 'God Save The Queen' at the end of my naturalisation ceremony, I have to decide how to define myself when the USA and England go head to head in the 2010 World Cup finals. For the first time, according to my fellow dads in my son's schoolyard, I have to choose sides.

Who will I support? It's odd to even ask such a question after enduring a British election campaign in which all parties rushed to demonise immigrants like me. I could start with Norman Tebbit's 'cricket test' of Britishness—if one supported the West Indies, for example, against England at cricket, one couldn't be British. But of course the illogic of being 'British' depending on supporting England has been better defined by the BNP leader Nick Griffin, who noted the difference between the 'indigenous' peoples of Britain, and immigrant outsiders like me. According to the BNP, I couldn't support England even if I wanted to. They'd prefer I take the easy way out, like a Scot, and root for Anybody But England. And that's only because the Picts don't get their own soccer 'nation'.

The reality is that, absent birth's blind loyalty, for the past 33 years, I have enjoyed the privilege of shifting allegiance the way American 'franchises' switch cities. I can pick and choose the national side I feel more comfortable with. In rugby I support England only against those countries, namely Wales and New Zealand, to whom the contest appears to mean too much, be linked too overwhelmingly to their national sense of self, to allow no bounds beyond which they cannot go in order to win. Those countries and Australia, whom I find almost impossible to support in any circumstances, since the above criterion appears to apply to them in ALL sports! Thus in football, I have supported England against Argentina, Germany, Italy, and so on. I faced a real dilemma in the old England-Scotland Home International match at Wembley, when Scottish supporters laid siege to the entire city of London, killed themselves celebrating by diving into empty fountains, and generally terrorised me into realising the game meant far too much to them. Despite America's fondness for the Braveheart image of Scotland, reality turns out to be far more like Mel Gibson's drunken rants to California highway patrolmen than his stirring speeches as William Wallace.

Obviously, my identity as a Yank isn't caught up in beating England at football the way a Scot's Scottishness is. And as an expat I hope I am not caught up in the narrowness of the stereotypically (but not totally unjustifiable) American world-view, nor the assumption of America as the best in the world at everything, including, and sometimes especially, war. I say this out of self-interest, because if England win I will have to bear for the foreseeable future the gloating of every English supporter I know, and a great many I don't know from Adam Ant. But seriously, assuming I can assume the mantle, can England actually offer anything positive to draw me in? Apart, of course, from being the only one of the home nations actually in South Africa.

Like most of my countrymen, but unlike the middle-aged guys in suits who run FIFA, I seem immune to the dubious charms of David Beckham (or his cobra-faced missus). I do love following the progress of John Terry through his teammates' Wags. I do appreciate that English football songs are so simple even the players can remember the words, all as easy as 'God Save The Queen'. Though I've always found it odd that 'When The Saints Go Marching In' and 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' are both actually American.

But here is a countrywhich, based on one World Cup win, and that playing at home and on a dubious disputed goal, assumes they should be automatic favourites when every tournament rolls around. Their press hypes them up unbelievably, while tearing them down at every opportunity. My countryman Brendan Hunt, in his blog The Unlikely Fan (you can link to the whole piece here), identified for Yanks a domestic sports team equivalent to each World Cup country. England, living on the unlikely glory of the 60s, incapable of surviving the pressure of expectation and inevitably succumbing to the weight of both history and reality, turn out to be the gridiron New York Jets.

If you've followed me presenting the NFL, on Five or the BBC, you'll know I hold the Jets and the New York media in a special place of ignominy. So Brendan has made my choice easier, even if he does equate the US, equally accurately, to the NFL's Houston Texans, a bland team forever expected to do surprisingly well, but never getting over the hump.

Despite being American, I do prefer an underdog. I chose life as an expat at least in part to escape flag waving; I shudder as cars stagger past me with St George cross flags flapping in the cold wet summer breeze. Having chosen to live here, and become British, I am less impressed by the passions of those lucky enough to have been born in the country they love so much. So, in the end, it won't be a surprise after only a week to find myself abandoning my new identity and enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune once again as a Yank. The prospect of being outnumbered in the pub Saturday, brings to mind a strange inversion of the image of Michael Caine drinking with the Zulus. I shudder now, and apologise in advance. I may be British now, but that only validates my position in the (almost) Anyone But England camp.

Bring back the glories of Belo Horizonte, 29 June 1950! USA 1 England 0. Like my Wesleyan University football team, who are unbeaten against Michigan based on one win in the 1880s, they haven't beaten us (in a World Cup) yet.

It maybe hard for me, but pity my son. Born in London, raised in England, with an American father and a Kiwi mother and three passports of his own. Please don't ask him to make a choice; he's only six. And one of his godfathers is head of the US bid committee. But he has had one piece of good luck. Stuck with passports from three potential World Cup losers, he's drawn Holland in his class pool. Though now he's got to explain to his teacher, who is English, that there is no country called Holland in the World Cup.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

JO NESBO: THE SNOWMAN INTERVIEW

My interview with the Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo, author of the exceptional Harry Hole novels, is now up as my latest American Eye column at Shots; you can link to it here. Or, if that's too much effort, read it now:

If there is a first division for crime writers who are part of the current Scandinavian boom, Jo Nesbo must surely be at its forefront. There's no template for a hard-boiled Norwegian crime writer, but Nesbo does look a bit like the rock star is also is in his native country, a mix of influences which reflects the cultural openness of a small but intensely literary nation. His novels starring the maverick Oslo police detective Harry Hole, of which five have been published in English, have been incredibly popular in Britain. Possibly this is because they occupy a sort of middle ground between the image of the depressive detective as pioneered by Sweden's Sjowall and Wahloo, and continued by Henning Mankell or Iceland's Arnauldur Indridason, and British variations on the theme, particularly Scots detectives like Ian Rankin's Rebus or his TV cousin, Jim Taggart. But I also see a lot of comparison to Michael Connelly's detective Harry Bosch. Jo was in town in March, to promote The Snowman, the fifth Harry Hole novel published in translation here. It's a book which reminded me very much in tone of John Connolly, so I began by asking about his influences, and if he sees the comparisons...


JN: Actually, I never read much crime fiction, so I can't really say. I've been catching up the last few years; I didn't set out to be a crime writer, I just wanted to write stories. My biggest influences from English were Dickens, Anthony Burgess, Hemingway and Charles Bukowski.

MC: THAT'S AN ECLECTIC MIX

You think so? And a couple of crime writers, because they were good writers: Jim Thompson, Lawrence Block, James Lee Burke.

THAT'S VERY INTERESTING, BECAUSE I CAN SEE A DIRECT LINK BETWEEN THOMPSON AND BUKOWSKI, WHO COULD HAVE BEEN A THOMPSON CHARACTER, OR MIGHT HAVE LIKED TO BE! AND A LITTLE BIT OF BOOKS LIKE POP. 1280 IN HARRY HOLE

Hole is a very moral character who fails terribly. Morally, though, Harry gets back on his own feet. I just saw Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant, which is very hard-edged, but there's a lot of that moral redemption in that.

HAVE YOU SEEN THE ORIGINAL, ABEL FERRARA'S BAD LIEUTENANT, WITH HARVEY KEITEL?

No, this is the first I've heard about it. Is it as hard-edged?

OH YES, AND HOW.

Then I'll have to watch it. (INFORMATION IS EXCHANGED THEN THE INTERVIEW RESUMES) And I was influenced more by film and graphic novels. Frank Miller's comics, The Godfather films, Scarface. But I grew up in the Sixties and Seventies, so when I came to those films I thought of them as old rather than brilliant. The pace is so slow, but still it is so good. When you're young you get bored, and you don't realise that you're seeing the origins of what you love. It's like young people today saying The Beatles are not that interesting. They think Michael Jackson invented rock and roll!

AND YOU SHOULD KNOW BECAUSE YOUR OWN ROCK GROUP, DI DERRE (English translation: That There) WAS BIG?

At our peak we were probably the biggest band in Norway, apart from Ah Ha. (WE THEN SIDETRACK OVER A LONG DISCUSSION OF A HA'S MAGS, WHO WORKED WITH ME IN OSLO ON A TRACK MEET BEFORE HIS BAND BROKE, AND WHO HAS WORKED WITH NESBO—THEN GET BACK TO DI DERRE)

I still play 50-60 gigs a year. Just me and a bass player, except in summer when the full band gets together to play festivals. It's a hobby now, I do it for fun. My music is sort of folk pop, not Norwegian ethnic folk, a bit of zydeco influence, and the songs are telling stories.

BUT YOU DON'T WORK MUCH MUSIC INTO THE HARRY HOLE NOVELS

Ah playlists! I try to be careful about that. I don't want to be one of those writers all giving you their top fives!

IT'S AN INTERESTING MIX OF INFLUENCES, BUT IT IS REFLECTED IN YOUR BOOKS, A COMBINATION OF BLACK AND WHITE MOVIES AND DICKENSIAN PROSE

Well, I try to create an original image, not ready-made movie stories. Milan Kundera said the novel has the right to exist only to the extent of its being able to do so. I don't know if this is totally true, but I look at books like Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men, which doesn't need adaptation, because it seems to reflect a movie, or the movies, yet it works both ways, as novel and film. You try to use the tools you have, but they come from everywhere. For example, you can let the criminal speak without seeing him, and you do that in movies too, especially in horror movies.

IT MAKES FOR A CLASSIC ANTAGONIST IN THE LATEST HOLE NOVEL IN ENGLISH (AT THIS POINT, NOT HAVING THEN FINISHED THE LATEST HOLE NOVEL, THE SNOWMAN, I GUESS AT WHO THE VILLAIN ULTIMATELY WILL TURN OUT TO BE, BUT JO ISN'T TELLING—IT TURNED OUT I WAS RIGHT) BUT AS USUAL, THE BIG CONFLICT IS BETWEEN HARRY AND THE POLICE BUREAUCRACY

Well, everyone is in conflict, and that's where suspense is. The criminal versus the police, and the conflict within the police—not just whether the crimes will be 'solved' but in what WAY they will be solved, what compromises will be made. How much is the hero willing to pay to get the job done? It's the struggle within himself which is almost always of more interest than the struggle against the villain. It has to do with salvation, will the hero get his salvation in. That's why we're interested in The Bad Lieutenant, will he do the right thing in the end? And then there's a third level, which is that personal conflict, especially in the work place, are something anyone can relate to. The work place is unique in that it's where colleagues both cooperate and compete.

IT'S WHAT MADE TOM WELLER SUCH A COMPELLING ADVERSARY FOR HARRY

Exactly. Many readers say they miss him.

ODDLY, YOUR BOOK HAVE BEEN PUBLISHED OUT OF SEQUENCE IN THEIR ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS.

This is the only place that happened. Devil's Star was the book they'd read in the UK, and they liked it, and were sure it would be well received, so they started with that. We didn't offer them the first two novels, partly because the quality of Devil's Star was higher, but mostly because the first one is set in Australia...

AND REFERENCED IN THE LATER BOOKS

Yes, but it's less about the serial killer and more about seeing Australia through the eyes of a Norwegian. And the second is in Bangkok. Because I wanted more to look at Norwegian society, and because that's probably of more interest than Hole's perceptions of Australia, we started in English in the middle. The Redbreast was a bit heavier, maybe not such a good place to start, so that was the second book, and they've gone in order from there.

AND WE'LL LOOK FORWARD TO THE NEXT ONE!

Thanks.


THE HARRY HOLE NOVELS

  1. Bat Man (1997)

  2. The Cockroaches (1998)

  3. The Redbreast (2000—English translation no. 2, 2006)

  4. Nemesis (2002—English no. 3, 2008)

  5. The Devil's Star (2003—English no 1, 2005)

  6. Redeemer (2005—English no 4 2009)

  7. The Snowman (2007—English no 5, 2010)

  8. The Leopard (2009)

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

DON WINSLOW SURFS THE GENTLEMAN'S HOUR

Boone Daniels, surfer and private eye, is back for a second novel, and The Gentleman's Hour is every bit as good as The Dawn Patrol (you can find my Crime Time review of that book here). This time, Boone is drawn into two cases, neither of which he wants--one in which he's supposed to help the self-confessed killer of a local surfing legend and father figure, and the other where one of the Gentleman's Hour surfers (the guys who come after the working men on the Dawn Patrol have left) who suspects his wife is having an affair wants Boone to investigate; sleazy divorce work makes Boone feel uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, Boone's trying to work out his relationship with Petra, the English lawyer who appeared in The Dawn Patrol just as Boone's old flame Sunny Day disappeared to go on the pro surf tour. Issues of committment are difficult for men committed to the surf, and Boone soon fines himself caught between Petra's law firm, defending the accused killer, and his surf buddy Johnny Banzai, the cop who got his confession.

It's a nicely complicated plot, and if one of its main twists seems fairly obvious, and helped by Boone's polite refusal to listen to his incriminating adultery tapes, Winslow handles it with a certain amount of brio, including local gang boss Red Eddie and Mexican drug lords (if you remember Winslow's brilliant The Power Of The Dog you'll know he knows whereof he speaks on that subejct).

But what makes The Gentleman's Hour work is the way Winslow's narration catches perfectly the laid-back nature of Boone and his milieu. It's accomplished through a flexible third-person voice, something completely different in tone than the dark confusions of Power Of The Dog, or the nostalgic pace of Isle Of Joy (see my review of that one here) and it's all the more impressive for that. Winslow is able to adapt form to function, and it makes it very easy to identify with Boone, to accept his world view, and to laugh with his world, where Sunny's replacement at the Sundowner bar is simply known as 'Not Sunny', and where the San Diego underworld is only marginally more evil than the property developers and speculators.

Winslow's new drug cartel novel Savages, which came out in the USA in April, has been optioned by Oliver Stone, with Winslow working with him on the screenplay. His earlier novel, The Winter Of Frankie Machine, has been in development with Robert De Niro's Tribeca Films, originally with Martin Scorsese mooted to direct, but now apparently set to go with Michael Mann; Winslow apparently was not involved with either of the screenplay versions.

Winslow may be the most versatile of the elite crime writers in America, and I have no hesitation in putting him among the elite, he's that good. It's also interesting that his earlier, Neal Carey series, despite the first one being nominated for a first-novel Edgar, failed to make an impact. But after so many outstanding stand-alones, Winslow seems to have found a perfect change of pace series now. And I'm looking forward to the third Boone Daniels book, which must be coming, as much as to Savages.

The Gentleman's Hour by Don Winslow Arrow £7.99 ISBN9780099527565

NOTE: This review will also appear at www.crimetime.co.uk

Sunday, 6 June 2010

TWO LOOKS AT GILLIAN FLYNN

I've written an appreciation of Gillian Flynn's second novel, Dark Places, which you can find at the Orion Books website here. It's a very impressive follow-up to Sharp Edges, which was one of the more original first thrillers I've read in some time. I interviewed Flynn when that book came out, back in 2007, you can find the interview at the Bookslut website here. Two Flynns for the price of one.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

RUE MC CLANAHAN: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of the actress Rue McClanahan, Blanche from Golden Girls, is in today's Guardian, you can link to it here. There is an interesting essay to be written on the structure of American television, and how programmes attempt to reconstitute nuclear family groups in various ways, and perhaps another on the influence of Tennessee Williams on Golden Girls, which becomes more interesting if you consider GG to be the precursor of Sex And The City. Rue McClanahan had a number of roles in which she played a 'fag hag' with gay male characters, most notably in Some Of My Best Friends Are, and if you interpret the GG or SITC characters as gay males they often make better sense. See the photo right, from the Broadway show Jimmy Shine, written by Murray Schisgal with songs by John Sebastian, which followed her success as Lady MacBird in MacBird, which I still remember fondly (the play, which I read, not her performance, which sadly I never saw).

I also pointed out that the characters of Dorothy and her mother Sophia in GG were Jewish New York, although nominally Italian. The Jewish bit is important because the core of American comic TV writing, at its best, comes from Jewish roots, and just saying New York misses that...

Friday, 4 June 2010

DEDE ALLEN: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obituary of Dede Allen, one of the truly great film editors, is in today's Independent, you can link to it here. Re-reading it, I really should have said how incredibly crucial her work was on some overlooked gems: Arthur Penn's Night Moves is one of the great detective films of the 70s; George Roy Hill's Slap Shot is, underneath the hilarious hockey gooning, a subtle film about male roles and sexuality; and for some reason I've never quite understood, Hill's Slaughterhouse Five has never received the acclaim it deserves. Part of that reason may well be Allen's own fault; her editing is so slick it makes the film seem artless, when it's actually effortless. Paul Newman's Rachel, Rachel and Harry And Son are both very interesting films, like Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys rather too quiet to be popular.

She certainly deserves credit for her big hits, and I was especially glad to discuss The Hustler, to which she's so crucial, but she was also important to Reds in another way: since the notoriously indecisive Warren Beatty shot eight gazillion feet of film, Allen was literally the only person who knew where every shot, every take could be found. And found them for Warren.

It was a pleasure to write this piece; it's always inspiring to realise, in retrospect, just how much good work someone has done, when they've done so much you've grown to overlook it.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

DOUGLAS HORNE INSIDE THE ASSINATION RECORDS REVIEW BOARD: THE LOBSTER REVIEW

My review of the fourth volume of Douglas Horne's Inside The Assassination Review Board has just been published in issue 59 of Lobster, which is now an online-only publication. You can find it here, and it is highly recommended.

Editor Robin Ramsey has again kindly allowed me to post my own review here, and it follows, but I do recommend you check out the rest of the magazine, and its back issues (1-57 were printed). The book in question is an important, but frustrating, study of the JFK assassination. You'll see my take on it is somewhat different than I imagined it might be when I wrote about an interview with Horne which I'd read back in December; you can find that post here.

As a comprehensive examination of just two aspects of the Kennedy assassination, Douglas Horne's Inside The Assassination Records Review Board, Volume IV (henceforth IA4) symbolises the ultimate difficulty of moving through the rabbit hole of minutiae, some five decades after the killing. This is the fourth volume of a projected five-volume series, pages 987-1378, or two chapters of the whole. Apparently the entire book runs 1880 pages, which is only two-thirds the length of Vincent Bugliosi's apologia for the Warren Commission. But in his admirable effort to get at the absolute truth, Horne might as well have extended to the realms of Bugliosity. Because once you have cut through the prolix information, with every minor point of research, debate, opinion stated and repeated and footnoted, once you've realised that a good copy editor could have cut these 400 large pages considerably, and tightened the argument, you realise that the argument itself resolves into another cul de sac. Horne, who was a researcher into military records for the ARRB (remember the autopsy was a military event), has done research that is exhaustive, but despite providing us with much fact about what happened, he moves us no closer to any real understanding. The advantage the Bugliosis and Posners have is that they don't need to do that, and the reviewers who praise their books in the maintream media don't really need to read them at all.

Basically, Horne deals with only two points, both crucially concerned with the manipulation of evidence. The first is the infamous Bethesda autopsy. The second is possible alteration of the Zapruder film itself. The latter,which is admittedly not his own area of expertise, has become a hot potato of charge and counter-charge among researchers, and the further I delved beyond Horne's book the more exhausted I became.

And even more frustratingly, Horne, who comes off as being scrupulously honest and open about arguments, accepts that his position (that the film is not 'authentic') is still the minority one, diametrically opposed to that of the ARRB's expert, Roland Zavada.The arguments around the evidence are too technical for me to even begin to summarise here, and they have been debated hotly before Horne even got to them.

What seems incontestable is Horne's finding that the National Photo Intelligence Center in Washington received the Zapruder film from a CIA lab at Kodak in Rochester, and that the anonymous 'Bill Smith' who delivered it said it had been 'developed' there, which would mean it was Zapruder's original film. Or, it occurred to me, perhaps some other original film created and altered while the 'other' Zapruder footage was being moved around Dallas. Or, it also occurred to me, that a CIA agent posing as a Secret Service agent acting as a delivery boy might not have known or cared about the difference between 'developed' and 'printed'. After examining all these conundra, however, suffice it to say that regardless of how and by whom the Zapruder film may or may not have been altered, what was left was STILL compelling enough evidence of a conspiracy. The real question then becomes whether, having done such a bad job of covering up the ultimate evidence of the frontal shots, they might have been trying to cover up SOMETHING ELSE.

The more compelling section deals with the autopsy, and here Horne goes far beyond David Lifton's original research in Best Evidence to prove there were two separate brain examinations, there were three copies of Doctor James Humes' autoposy report, and, most importantly, that post mortem surgery was performed in Bethesda to change the nature of the appearance of the wounds. Horne breaks down the time line of the shell game played by Roy Kellerman and the Secret Service with the president's body, and with the various testimonies of doctors Humes, J Thornton Boswell, and Pierre Finck, particularly where Boswell actually contradicts the official autopsy findings. The conclusion is inescapable, these doctors were ordered to destroy or suppress evidence of a frontal shot.

The problem in both cases is that what has been proved is ultimately a post-facto conspiracy, one designed to protect organisational failures, cover bureaucratic asses, hide complicity by agents or assets, or indeed even avoid what may have been presented to people like military doctors and secret service agents as the possibility of global nuclear war if the truth, or what may have been suggested as wild speculation, became public. But we knew all that a long time ago and although Horne marks out the turf, and puts paid to the Posner/Bugliosi argument once and for all, none of it gets us any closer to the places the orders originated, which would be where the evidence of the actual assassination conspiracy lies. The implications are clear, that the conspiracy must have reached deep into the government itself. And perhaps that is where my ultimate frustration lies, in that after nearly fifty years, we are counting the conspirators on the head of the pin, but only fiction writers have come close to sticking the pin into the donkey's behind.

This was the argument being presented by James Douglass in JFK and The Unspeakable, which I reviewed here (you can follow this link or use the Bullseyes list to the right) and in Lobster 58, an effort to try to narrow what might be called suspects in the macro conspiracy. Work like Horne's is admirable, because of his devotion to honesty and completeness. We could ask for it to be more concise, better written, easier to follow. But that's not the real point, the reason why this book brought on such a feeling of frustration. We need clarity, and after five decades, we continue to dive deeper and deeper and the water gets muddier and darker, with the wreck at the bottom nowhere in sight.

INSIDE THE AARB, Volume IV Douglas P Horne privately printed, $25 ISBN 9780984314430

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

ALL YOU WANT TO DO IS RIDE AROUND...DONALD FREY: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Donald Frey, the man behind the Ford Mustang, is up at Guardian.co.uk and will be in tomorrow's paper. ((Postscript on 3 June: the story is in today's paper, and looks great, but the main photo is, unfortunately, not a Mustang, but the Dodge Charger which Bullit's Mustang chases in the movie!).

Many thanks to muscle-car freak George Pelecanos for the valedictory quote. When I was books editor of Petrolhead, I remember reviewing a book about car safety which called the '68 Mustang, which has to be one of my favourite cars--though I like the earlier ones better-- the greatest phallic symbol car ever made, or words to that effect. My response was 'as if'!

Frey's is a great story, and I wouldn't be surprised if that 1964-1972 era may have constituted a high point of sorts in American cars. Certainly, in terms of gassing them guzzlers up, it was.