Thursday, 31 March 2011

NIKOLAI ANDRIANOV: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Nikolai Andrianov, the great Soviet gymnast, will be in Friday's Guardian, but it's online now and you can link to it here. I thought it was a terrible irony that the man who was arguably the world's greatest gymnast should die of multiple system atrophy, unable to move his arms or legs, but the published piece plays down that awful coincidence.

Oddly, although I accept Andrianov's place as a great, I watched every moment of all the Olympic gymnastics competitions at the Montreal Forum in 1976, where I was working as a press liason, and I remembered vividly Andrianov's stumble at the end of his floor exercise, and thinking then that the judges treated him quite kindly; it was part of the reason I developed an antipathy for most judged sports, the effect of reputation and expectation (not to mention chauvinism and politics), but I went back and watched the routine on you tube again, and it is absolutely remarkable, as is his performance on the rings. Thrilling, and it's nice to be able to call the pictures up to enhance my memories...

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

THE KILLING REACHES THE END OF THE BBC 4 LINE:

In the end, The Killing turned out to be a victim of its own success, and to a lesser extent, its own newly-found hype, as it leapt from the ghetto of BBC4 to mainstream attention (though most of the MSM seemed to be incapable of getting past the same tired points--yes the sweater is an unlikely fashion icon, and at £280 in London, it's unlikely to ever be one here!).

The problem for episode 20 was that the strength of the show was the slow build, the careful distribution of red herrings, and most importantly the combination of political intrigue behind the scenes on one hand, and the breakdown of families and relationships as a result of the crime on the other. But in episode 20, the show had to revert to what, at heart, it was...a whodunit, and reveal who did it, and why, and thus risk tearing down much of the latticework of plot and character that had been developed so carefully.

Because the revelation that Vagn, an almost too-obvious suspect for most of the programme, was indeed the killer raised far more questions than it answered. The most basic one being was he an incredibly clever serial killer, as Sara's boyfriend Bengt suggested (and she conveniently ignored for far too long) --as you would expect from someone who could kill a cop, hang a fellow mover in a Russia coaster's cabin, and indeed leave no DNA traces anywhere while murdering Nanna--or was he someone who simply killed Nanna out of misplaced family loyalty and surrender to an impulse? Unless you believe that his use of Theis for self-destruction was actually part of that fiendishly clever guy.

Similarly, a political subplot which sees civil servants murdered, evidence withheld or destroyed, policewomen stalked, and one party leader killed provides us with few answers. Who was calling the shots to keep Lund's investigation contained? Who was keeping her under watch? We are left to conclude that this is the way business is handled; Brix's exhortations to her not to pursue the ivestigation further (persumably lest she discover Vagn was a major-league serial killer and thus embarrass the police even further) are just business as usual. This is effective, if possibly far too subtly done to register with most of the audience.

These two strands comes together in the question of the car in which Nanna was found. It seemed to yoyo back and forth between people who kept spotting it and finding the keys in the ignition, as if it were a Copenhagen version of a Boris bike, but assuming Vagn found the keys and from them the car, how he managed to leave no traces is beyond me. Similarly, the chain which was found on Nanna: where did it come from? Was it a momento of his first killing? Why didn't Vagn find it? Was it something he gave Hanna when she was younger? Why didn't he find her passport? How did he know where to find the incriminating photo of him with Mette, and why didn't he remove it earlier? The story reveals itself to turn on the most improbably creaky coincidences, clues disappear (remember the ether which was used to drug Nanna?), and we have to hope that Vagn was wearing a mask when he shot Mayer, because if he wasn't it would have been a lot easier for Mayer to croak 'Vagn' than 'Sara 84' as a clue to his killer's identity.

This is what happens when a taut drama turns into an Agatha Christie novel, if only in episode 19. Otherwise, the twin engines driving the show stayed on course throughout. Was Troels a 'different' sort of politician, or was he corrupt, or better, could he be corrupted as Bremer said he would be? And could Sara Lund remain fixated on the killing, and ignore the rest of her life crumbling around her. The more obsessive she became, the more she alienated her boyfriend, her son, her horrible mother, the more popular she became, and she was true to herself in the end.

In fact, one of the most fascinating things about The Killing is the way in which each of the three main female characters is so self-contained. Sara's obsession with solving the crime subsumes all her relationships. Rie appears to believe she can mold Troels in the image she wants (of her politician father, perhaps) and doesn't credit him with either emotions (a weakness) or lack of them (a strength). And Pernille, sometimes Lady Macbeth, sometimes sphinx, fails to communicate her grief to Theis, thus initially prompting revenge and i the end being unable to stop Vagn from getting Theis' revenge. All three women, operating from their own motives, lose their relationships.

And in the end, that's what the show was about, and in that sense the English mis-translation of the title into The Killing may actually be better than 'The Crime', which is the literal translation from Danish. Because the point of the show is that the crime actually kills far more than just Nanna: it kills Lund's relationships, it kills Theis' family, and it kills Troels' relationship with Rie. That is really what the show was about, and it was presented with great precision--not only the way in which it was shot, but the way characters' make up changed from episode to episode to reveal their many sides, and of course in the way the series allowed actors to really work their roles. Apparently, BBC4 paid only $1,000 per episode for this excellence...one imagines series two of the show is going to cost them far more. And maybe Rie makes her comeback. I miss the show already...

LEN LESSER: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obit of Len Lesser, the great New York character actor who came to late fame as Uncle Leo in Seinfeld is in today's Indy, completing a daily double with the Grauniad. You can link to it here. I really meant that about Sergio Leone too--Lesser should have had a film career playing the kind of parts that went to Jack Elam--I was going to say in the previous generation, but of course they were working for much of the same time...

Monday, 28 March 2011

HARRY COOVER: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Harry Coover, the man who invented (or 'jnvented' as the Grauniad website has it) super glue will be in Friday's Guardian, but is up on the website now. I suppose between duct tape and super glue there isn't a whole lot that can't be mended, unless you're the tin woodsman.

What was most interesting to me, but which was cut from the piece as published, was the way Super Glue was used in Vietnam: sprayed over open wounds to seal them, which enabled medics to transport soldiers to hospitals where they could receive more complicated treatment. This probably saved thousands of lives. I do recall having a head wound, caused by weapons escalation in one of our childhood 'rock fights', which was sealed after I'd received two layers of stitches with something which must have been very much like that; this would have been around 1963.

There's an interesting piece to be done following the exclusivity of super glue, and the stuff that's marketed today as 'original' super glue. But Coover went from Eastman-Kodak after he retired to Loctite (formerly American Sealants0, who had run with the Eastman formula; Eastman later sold their rights to National Starch, having basically failed to profit on it while Coover held the patent. Which, if you're interested, was US Patent 2,768,109, for 'Alcohol-Catalyzed Cyanacrylate Adhesive Compositions/Superglue.

Friday, 25 March 2011

ACE ATKINS' WHITE SHADOW: A Forgotten Friday entry

I'm not sure, as usual, that one could call White Shadow 'forgotten' but suffice it to say I'd missed it when it first came out in 2006, and just caught up with it now. It was Atkins' first non-series book, and it's a terrifically atmospheric novel set in Tampa and Havana, in1955, around the real-life murder of Charlie Wall, a retired racketeer. Atkins builds the historical context carefully--Batista, Santo Trafficante, George Raft, Meyer Lansky, and Fidel Castro all appear, but what he does even better is to build a sense of the era, and the ethos of crime and corruption that mark and connect those two cities.

Within this mix he places an obsessive cop, Ed Dodge, nursing his own demons which go back to childhood and rebound in his unhappy marriage, a tough gangster, 'Scarface' Johnny Rivera, who's lost Wall's journal and needs to get it back, and a young reporter, LB Turner, who's just a little too idealistic, especially for the girl of his dreams, a reporter on the bigger Tampa paper. Through the eyes and actions of these three, we see the workings of the old school, in which crime is part of the fabric of society, to a bigger extent than the term 'underworld' implies. Atkins balances these stories deftly, letting them connect as necessary, and in some cases tragically, but also using them to reflect each other, presenting similar actions from different perspectives.

It's part mystery--who killed Charlie Wall?--but more than that it's a story about changing times. In that sense, it's a little bit like Ellroy's Underworld USA trilogy, set on the cusp between the eras, and Dodge in particular is the kind of flawed obsessive Ellroy made a speciality. But Atkins' prose is far more understated, at times even reporterly, and rather than getting caught in the flow he builds the story in layers, with resonance between those layers. In LB's hopeless romance with Eleanor Charles, Atkins fills in generations of American attitudes, reflecting how they play in marriage and in the world of hookers, bar-girls, and of course Havana.

That Atkins started his career as a reporter in Tampa is probably not coincidental, and it's easy seeing him doing what the best reporters do--staying up odd hours drinking and listening to people who have stories to tell, much as LB tries to do. You can almost hear his own wistfulness when he has Trafficante complain 'it's all changed...you can't be a man and conduct business any more...I'm not talking about Charlie Wall...I'm talking about the States. Everyone is out to get everybody.' This is a mob boss talking, in 1955, remember. It's a bravura piece of writing, and Atkins has nailed his world.

White Shadow by Ace Atkins
Berkeley, 2007, $7.99 ISBN 9780425214909

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

FOR FJ TITMUS READ TITMUS, FJ

The Middlesex and England spin bowler Fred Titmus has died at 78. He grew up within walking distance of Lords, and after his career retired to run a post office, I think. I first became aware of him in 1982, while I was still keen on cricket, and Mike Brearley pulled him out of the crowd at Lords to bowl for Middlesex against Surrey and he took 3/43. That means he played first-class cricket in five decades, and few top class sportsmen can make that claim.

Although he was a good enough batsman to open for England on six occasions, Titmus' greatest legacy is a remembrance of cricket's caste system. At 16 Fred asked for a tryout at Lords, and was taken on the ground staff. He made his Middlesex debut that year, and at 17 was selected to play for the MCC against the county champions, Surrey. As the match began, the PA at Lords made this announcement: 'there is a change in your scorecards. For FJ Titmus, read Titmus, FJ.' Fred was a professional, and thus called 'Titmus' by the 'amateurs' whose initials preceded their family names.

Fred also played football for Chelsea juniors, and signed as a professional with Watford. He also lost four toes in a boating accident in 1968 but continued to bowl. He apparently is no relation to Abi Titmuss, but the band Half Man Half Biscuit recorded a song called 'Fuckin' 'ell it's Fred Titmus'. His obits all mention that he was Cockney, which technically Somers Town wouldn't qualify you for, but they also say he walked like Charlie Chaplin, so I guess he does qualify after all.

There is no American equivalent to the English expression 'servant of a club' but with all the good and bad that connotes, it certainly applies to FJ Titmus.

Friday, 18 March 2011

BROOKLYN'S FINEST: TRAINING DAY TIMES THREE

Not satisfied with whatever he learned from Training Day, in Brooklyn's Finest Antoine Fuqua takes that movie and multiplies it by three. Training Day had a familiar but testy take on police corruption, and here we get three takes, presented in a framework whose stories both parallel each other and eventually intersect, which is quite a clever bIt of writing. And Fuqua, best-known as an action director, is good at wringing as much action mileage out of it as possible. The problem is that each situation's premises are more than just familiar, they border on cliché, in much the same way Brooklyn borders and melds into Queens.

Take Tango (Don Cheadle) who's the undercover guy from Deep Cover, in so deep he's lost his wife and is desperate to get out, and offered the chance to do so only if he'll betray his friend Casanova (Wesley Snipes, for whom this was a welcome return to the screen). And there's Eddie (Richard Gere) who's channelling his Paul Newman as the old veteran cop from Fort Apache: The Bronx, but that was in another borough and long ago. It's an interesting take, because he's still a beat cop, who gets by not as much by ignoring the job as not taking chances with it. And where Newman had a doomed relationship with a nurse who used heroin as her vacation, Gere wants to retire with the hooker Chantal (Shannon Kane) who shows him some compassion but is, after all, a hooker.

Finally, there's Ethan Hawke as Sal, the corrupt drugs cop in desperate need of cash to buy a new house which isn't infected with wood mold, which is killing his asthmatic wife (Lili Taylor), pregnant with twins they have no space for and can't afford. Hawke's first scene is a powerful one, as he executes Vincent D'Onfrio as they talk in his car; he turns out to be a bad cop who's possibly talked too much; Hawke needed the money. The script, by Michael C Martin, is very good in the way the three stories mirror each other, and indeed in the use of mirrors and reflections, because everyone has two faces, everyone is playing a role, and everyone has a different agenda. But none of them can get what they want.

The movie is best when the characters feel pressure; Gere goes stoic and silent when asked to present an acceptable version of his rookie partner's shooting a kid. When Gere's retirement day arrives, his badge gets dumped into a box in a drawer of a desk in an empty room, meaningless tin. Tango may have to act to prevent a gang member from being thrown off a roof; he's been accused of being the informer Tango actually is. Tango is pressured by his handler (Will Patton) and an ambitious tough fed (Ellen Barkin) both of whom are playing roles we know well, and it's thankless; no matter how touch she is, how slimy he is, they can't bring new depth to the parts.

The stories come together, eventually, as Sal seeks the big score he's missed, and Tango seeks revenge for Cas' execution, in the same place, and Eddie starts to act like a cop only after he's stopped being one—following up a missing person he recognises, and winding up in the same place. Here, although it's somewhat sentimental, the movie avoids the worst cliches, and the ultimate resolution doesn't really cut corners. Everyone's reduced to a single role, and pays the price, or gets the reward, for playing out that role.

It's very well done, and very well acted, and you can see why actors like working with Fuqua. But Brooklyn's Finest lacks that small spark of originality which would set it apart from the usual cop movies. Which is a shame, because there is a lot to like about it.

Brooklyn's Finest (2009) directed by Antoine Fuqua, written by Michael C Martin is out on DVD

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

OWSLEY STANLEY: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Owsley Stanley, who provided acid for Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, the Grateful Dead, and a whole generation of Americans, is in today's Guardian, you can link to it here. Sadly, there was far more to write about than space; I particularly liked the idea of long arguments over the band becoming carnivores, and the fact that after he devised the Wall of Sound for the Dead they actually didn't tour for some two years. It was a long strange trip indeed.

It's also interesting to consider how many of the people who actually generated 'the summer of love' and the hippie movement, and were radicals in the 60s, were actually of the pre-baby boomer generation, and to what a huge extent the baby boomers, my generation, simply consumed, felt good, and moved on, to (in many ways) mess up the world they were trying to improve. Someone like Owsley, whose fierce intelligence was truly altered by mind-expanding drugs, provides some sort of moral lesson for us, and I'm not just saying that because I just turned 60. Nor because among Stanley's own sound archives are some wonderful tapes of Jerry Garcia's bluegrass band, Old And In The Way, with Vassar Clements and Peter Rowan.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

ROBERT CRAIS' SENTRY: THE SHOTS INTERVIEW

My latest American Eye column, an interview with Bob Crais, to mark the publication of his excellent new novel, The Sentry, is up at Shots; you can link to it here. You can also read my original review of the book, which appeared at Crime Time, elsewhere in Irresistible Targets here.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

DUKE SNIDER: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of one of the greatest of the Boys of Summer, Duke Snider, is in today's Guardian, you can link to it here. Because it was a busy couple of pages, it was trimmed in some small but significant ways, so you can read the original text below--although 'Talkin' Baseball' wasn't a hit song in Britain, it does deserve some notice. Next time it will be my lede.

I didn't write in the obit about the famous catch he made climbing the wall in Philadelphia's Shibe Park (that's not it, but something similar from Ebbets Field below left), nor about the way his father made him, a natural right-hander, bat left (I would have had to explain the advantage for a British audience: but Mickey Mantle's father did much the same thing to him and he became a switch-hitter). I was also thinking about some things the Duke and pitcher Don Drysdale had in common, both being from Los Angeles and returning home when the Dodgers left Brooklyn, they had a highly competitive but somehow laid-back, self-aware restraint that went against the grain of Dem Bums. It would also have been nice to mention Dodger owner Walter O'Malley's betrayal of New York (and fleecing of the residents of Chavez Ravine in LA): there are various stories and I've seen them include Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hammil, and/or Jack Newfield, but the gist was they were asked to write down the three most despicable men of the twentieth century and each one listed Hitler, Stalin, and Walter O'Malley.
There is something special about that time, especially for someone like me who was a little boy then, and growing up within media distance of New York (though rooting for Boston's Red Sox). Mantle was every kid's dream then, even if you weren't a Yankee fan; Willie Mays was a joy to watch, and the Duke was somehow the quiet anchor who linked the three boroughs together...

DUKE SNIDER
In the Fifties, New York saw itself as the vibrant centre of an American-led world. Baseball was still America's national pastime, and New York's three teams dominated baseball. Their dynamism was symbolised by the teams' center-fielders, each a mix of speed and power, grace and flair. The Yankees had the late Mickey Mantle, the Giants the 'Say-Hey Kid', Willie Mays, while Brooklyn's Dodgers boasted the 'Duke of Flatbush', Duke Snider, who has died aged 84 .

That the Dodgers, perennial losers known even to their fans as 'Dem Bums', were part of this mix was down in good part to Snider, who joined the team in 1947, the same day Jackie Robinson broke baseball's segregationist apartheid. From that point through 1957, after which the Dodgers and Giants abandoned New York for California, Brooklyn won six National League pennants, and, in 1955, their only World Series championship, beating the hated Yankees, champions of the American League. The Duke hit four home runs in that seven-game series; he remains the only player to homer four times in two different World Series.

The Dodgers' move to Los Angeles broke the hearts of Brooklyn's fans, and shifted baseball's balance of power away from New York. Snider hit the team's final home run in Brooklyn, and got their first hit in LA, but the move sorely affected his career. Brooklyn's cozy Ebbets Field had a short right-field perfectly suited to his sort of left-handed 'pull' hitting. Snider actually hit more home runs than either Mays or Mantle in the decade of the Fifties, but in Los Angeles the Dodgers played first in the Coliseum, with a vast, deep right-field, and then in Chavez Ravine, a park which was hard on hitters to all fields. The ballparks held his hitting statistics down, and the vast outfields put more strain on Snider's aging knees. But his most serious injury came popping his elbow while throwing a ball out of Dodger Stadium to win a bet. Although he finished his career with 407 home runs, only 81 of them came after 1959, and his career batting average fell just under the magical .300 mark at .295.

Born in Los Angeles 19 September 1926, Edwin Donald Snider was nicknamed Duke by his father Ward, who brought him up to be a baseball star, forcing a natural right-hander to learn to bat lefthanded. After starring at Compton Junior College, he signed with Brooklyn, but his minor league apprenticeship was interrupted by service in the navy during World War II. After the war he resumed in the minors, then played part-time for two seasons, before emerging in 1949 as the team's full-time center-fielder. With his good looks and talent he was a fan favourite from the first, but he also developed a reputation for moodiness, which sometimes saw him at odds with Brooklyn's notoriously acerbic crowds.

He helped Los Angeles to the 1959 World Series crown, but was already slowing down, and in 1963 the Dodgers sold him to the Mets, New York's new National League team, one of the worst in baseball history, in desperate need of a drawing card. When the Mets gathered his old Dodger teammates on Duke Snider Day at Shea Stadium, he said you couldn't ever take the Dodgers out of Brooklyn. Granting his desire to play for a contending team, the Mets sold him on in 1964 to the Dodgers' arch-rival Giants, now in San Francisco. He retired after that disappointing season. He coached in the minor league systems of the Dodgers and San Diego Padres, and broadcast games for the Padres and the Montreal Expos. Although he was the subject of two biographies, in 1964 and 1988, he was immortalised best in 1971 in Roger Kahn's classic book about the Fifties Dodgers, The Boys Of Summer. In 1980 he was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame, where he called the three-way rivalry with Mays and Mantle 'a great time for baseball'. The following year, singer Terry Cashman had a hit song, 'Talkin Baseball', which is better-known by the words of its refrain: 'Willie, Mickey, and The Duke'.

In 1995, Snider returned to Brooklyn one last time, to appear in federal court charged with failing to report income from autographs and souvenir shows on his taxes. He was fined and given probation. He raised avocados on his California ranch, and died 27 February in Escondido, of what were described as natural causes. He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Bev, two daughters and a son.

Friday, 4 March 2011

PHILIP GOUREVITCH'S COLD CASE: A Forgotten Friday Entry

In February 1970, Frankie Koehler, who'd been in and out of jails since he was 15, got into a fight with Pete McGinn and his friend Richie Glennon at McGinn's bar, Channel Seven, on New York's West Side. McGinn, who'd been on Koehler's case for knocking up the wife of a mutual friend who himself was in prison, beat Koehler badly, then went home. Koehler left, came back to Channel Seven with a gun, and with Glennon went to McGinn's apartment, ostensibly to settle things like gentlemen. There he proceeded to kill both men, wounded McGinn's uncle Charlie, and left McGinn's girlfriend unharmed. Then Frankie Koehler disappeared.

Twenty years later, Andy Rosenzweig, a career cop now chief of investigators for the Manhattan DA, had a flash of memory triggered by his knowing Glennon when he was a boy, and discovered that the murders had been declared cleared because Koehler was presumed dead. But finding no evidence for that presumption, Rosenzweig began looking for Koehler again, re-opening the case on his own time before it became official. Eventually, old fashioned police work paid off, and in a Grand Central Station scene worthy of a 1940s film noir, an armed and dangerous Koehler was arrested without a fight. 'If you've got witnesses, I'm fucked,' he said. They did, and he was.

Philip Gourevitch's true crime book was originally written as an article for the New Yorker, and it reads like it, the understated style unmistakeable in the way it takes the city for granted. This is not necessarily a bad thing; Joseph Mitchell, perhaps its finest exponent, used it to brilliant effect in Joe Gould's Secret, but also in the pieces collected in The Bottom Of The Harbor, to build a metaphor for a city that was disappearing as he watched, but before most observers were aware of its fade. And this in many ways is Gourevitch's theme, because the city was composed of people like Koehler, McGinn, and Glennon, and cops like Rosenzweig, and they are people who maybe don't exist any longer, or who exist with different, less firmly entrenched values.

He also writes well; the book reads at times like a piece of fiction, like a character study in short fiction. But the style I described above as understated could also be classified as detached, and sometimes, just as Koehler or Rosenzweig threaten to leap off the page, they seem to lose a dimension, becoming somewhat ethereal. And I'm half convinced this is deliberate, because what A Cold Case is really about is the shadowy New York that no longer exists, the smoky world of revenge and force that Koehler (seen at the right in 1962, when he was paroled, and eight years before killing two men; the inset photo is Rosenzweig as a beat cop, in the late 1960s) and to a lesser extent Rosenzweig, grew up in. It's about the codes of conduct for the men who populated the novels of David Goodis, or Day Keene, or Harry Whittington, about what happens to them as times change. And its about how just a bit of that morality from the Fifties survived in at least one cop who wouldn't let a case get closed when it wasn't. Murders like the ones Koehler committed seem to be more commonplace these days, they happen for perhaps less reason, and the killers don't, like Koehler, express a sort of sociopathic slight regret, for one of the murders, some three decades later when they are caught.

A Cold Case by Philip Gourevitch
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001, ISBN 0374125139