Saturday, 31 December 2011
It's fascinating to read Wahloo in retrospect. The Steel Spring is a dystopian sf novel, in which Jensen, having gone abroad for a liver transplant, receives a message from his government telling him to return home. He soon discovers that his country is closed off to the outside world, but his doggedness gets him back home, where he finds an epidemic has struck, and his familiar surroundings are almost deserted.
Wahloo's concerns are the failure of social democracy, with a specific eye toward the way social improvement leads to social control, and democracy edges into totalitarianism. The urge to control is what has led to the epidemic, a case of society destroying itself from within. That the government under which this tragedy has happened is a nominal coalition makes the story shiveringly relevant to today's Britain, if not as much Sweden. The nameless country in which Jensen works seems to be a mix of Sweden with some proto-Iron Curtain eastern European state, sort of Albania or Romania thrown in.
Jensen is the perfect protagonist for such a setting, and in him it's easy to discern the prototype Beck. He has no personal life, appears to have no opinions or preferences, very little individual feeling, apart from doing his job to the best of his ability, which implies a sort of blind faith in the laws, the social contract, he enforces.
That was always the main conflict in the Beck books: the contrast between the world the policeman is protecting, and the laws he is enforcing—the way they are applied selectively, or not at all, depending on circumstances beyond his control. If The Steel Spring has a flaw, it's that most of the realisations seem to come from Wahloo, because although they are presented via Jensen, Jensen doesn't seem to share the criticisms which are obviously implied. Or maybe it's because he can't see them as criticisms, whereas we can. Which is the mark of good dystopian fiction. Wahloo's solo work deserves to be considered in the same context as Zamyatin, Capek, Orwell, or Durrenmatt...high praise indeed. I will probably revisit Murder On The 31st Floor soon, and if you haven't got to the Martin Beck books, please start now—and be aware I wrote the introduction to the sixth volume in the Harper Perennial reissues, Murder At The Savoy.
The Steel Spring by Per Wahloo
Vintage £7.99 ISBN 9780099554752
This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)
Wednesday, 28 December 2011
I was fascinated to learn that Robinson had taught Steve Ditko, because you really can see the link between their thick, expressionistic inking, and the way they exaggerate to create realistic characters out of somewhat unrealistic drawings. And also because their political world-views couldn't be more diametrically opposed!
It's also rare to write an obit of someone so universally admired. He helped artists in myriad ways, guys like Siegel and Shuster in particular, in the fight for the rights to Superman, but many others in general, by helping them win the fight to retain copyright to their work (and here Neal Adams stands as the other beacon), syndicate their material, and fight for the human rights of political cartoonists. He also deserves for credit for his early history of comic art, one of the first books to take it seriously and do it well.
I wanted to include this quote from Stan Lee, for whom he worked at Atlas in the 1950s, but cut it for space. In retrospect, I wish I had. 'Jerry Robinson was not only one of the finest artists ever to illustrate comic books, but he was also the head of an editorial syndicate which made cartoons available worldwide, as well as being an inspiration to young artists whom he always found time to help and advise. A genuine talent and a genuine gentleman, he was truly a credit to the arts.'
Tuesday, 27 December 2011
In London, DCI Karen Shields is lumbered with the corpse of a teenaged Moldovan boy found on Hampstead Heath, and despite a number of leads, finds herself running into walls. Not only from potential witnesses who won't talk, but from higher-ups in the department who want certain aspects of the case left alone. Meanwhile, in Cornwall, DI Trevor Cordon, playing out his string in the sticks, is asked by Maxine Carlin, a long-time problem for social services and the police, to find her daughter Rose, who never showed up for a planned visit with her father. Years before, Cordon had tried to help Rose, now calling herself Letitia, and found himself getting more involved emotionally than was safe for a cop. But when Maxine herself is killed just a few days later, underneath a train in London, Cordon decides he will get involved.
Involvement is the real danger in Harvey's work: his characters find it dangerous, and often withdraw rather than take the risk. Although the two cases will be brought very close together, the real parallel between them is the sense of danger emotional attachment can bring, how committing yourself to a person, for whatever reason, always brings risk. The dead boy was involved with a girl whose parents disapproved; Letitia/Rose has a child, by very dangerous man who believes the boy belongs to him. At the heart of each subplot is also a father's desire to protect or possess his child, and a mother's to protect it. The personal is never far from the criminal in Harvey's writing.
Meanwhile, Shields winds up facing an unexpected relationship on the job, and Cordon (a name full of resonance in this context) finds those old feelings for Rose are indeed real, though just as dangerous and unlikely to be fulfilled as ever, and his efforts on behalf of her and her son show him just what his own withdrawal from life has meant. This is where he is vulnerable, and he has to face and shrug off that vulnerability if he is going to get a 'result'. Meanwhile, since in Harvey's books the bureaucracy of the police is often more threatening (and sometimes more criminal) than the villains, Shields finds herself having to walk a fine line, which her new relationship may make more dangerous. It seems likely this is a potential conflict to which Harvey may turn in the future.
Drawing all these stories together, in a way, is 'Good Bait' the Tadd Dameron tune which has become a jazz standard. Harvey name-checks quite a few versions throughout the book (as well as the Swedish Wallander TV series, Eric Dolphy, and his own early western novels!) to the point it becomes a motif, and we remember that we are the bait for each other, and the hooks we take are often barbed. My favourite version might be John Coltrane's on Blue Train, where it's a tune that tries to escape itself, be free and happy, but can't quite shake its way out of the blues. That's what this quiet and affecting novel, whose layers draw out feelings in a masterful way, is all about. It's a very early entry for the best crime novel of 2012.
Good Bait by John Harvey
William Heineman £12.99 ISBN9780434021628
This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)
Saturday, 24 December 2011
Brandman produced, and co-scripted with Parker a couple of Spenser TV movies starring Joe Mantegna, which attracted little attention around the turn of the century. He and Parker then did a remake of Monte Walsh, which starred Tom Selleck, which led to a quite good series of Jesse Stone TV movies, starring Selleck as Stone (I reviewed Stone Cold favourably years ago for Crime Time, and might revisit the series later here). In that sense, for Brandman it's a continuation, but when it comes to tone, there is a bit more of the Selleck Stone, and a lot more of the TV movie. Brandman's Stone is somewhat darker, a bit more confrontational, and much more aggressive, than Parker's. He's made his task a little easier by writing out Sunny Randall, and bringing a new girlfriend on the scene. She seems more like Jesse's long-lost Jen than a perfect mate for him, but as always in these series, one assumes things will evolve.
The biggest change is in Spenser's supporting cast: Molly, who's a mothering sort of figure with Parker, becomes an even sassier version of the TV movie character, and Suitcase Simpson's role seems diminished. It's as if this Stone is more of a TV series police chief, and needs an action sequence every now and again; the kidnapping and holding of a small-time gangster seems quite out of character for the old Jesse, but the new one is a man of action. Which also changes the nature of his sessions with Dix, the shrink (played wonderfully by William Devane in the TV movies) because Jesse seems far more in control and far less revealing.
The story itself is very much in the Parker vein, it moves well, and the scenes are delineated clearly. But what it most lacks is Parker's ability to draw a character quickly and concisely, to establish with just a small description and a couple of lines of dialogue, a person you could see and understand. It was his greatest talent as a writer, and it would be asking a lot of Brandman to match it. But while the story is constructed cleverly and delivers at the end, its most powerful scenes are not, as they would be with Parker, the one-on-one confrontations with mobster Gino Fish, because Fish's character just doesn't explode. But the single best scene may be when Fish sends his hitman, Vinnie Morris, off on a job, and when's he's done it he delivers Fish's message: 'always look on the bright side of life'. It isn't really Fish, or Morris, but it many ways it's pure Parker.
Killing The Blues by Michael Brandman
Quercus £18.99 ISBN 9781780872896
Tuesday, 20 December 2011
It was only 20 years ago that Sex and Zen (both films are adapted, extremely loosely, from the 17th century story The Carnal Prayer Mat) was made in 2D, starring Lawrence Ng and more famously Amy Yip (see poster below), but again, western viewers drawn by the allure of 'Category III', the Hong Kong version of 'adult' discovered a very soft core at the heart of a very strange sort of eroticism, one that didn't translate easily into our mores. Be warned as well, if you're a seeker of prurient interest: the version I saw in preview a few months ago suffered three minutes of cuts, which may improve it, or not, depending on your point of view.
There are a few funny moments in Sex and Zen, mostly revolving around the sexual naivete of our 'hero' Wei Yangshang, but otherwise the film is all too often nasty and violent, its sex primitive male fantasy, its attitude curiously prissy about what it shows and doesn't show, and, its mood, in the end, boring. In fact, the single most interesting thing about it is the way the sub-titles, in 3D, appear to be running in another dimension from the film itself, as if they were being projected onto a clear screen in front of each scene, an effect I began to find fascinating, like watching a child's toy theatre.
Wei is a conceited, not to say boring, scholar, who reacts to a recent outrage by the Prince of Ning by telling his master, the Monk Budai, that Ning will not be happy in the long run. Then Wei discovers love. But after marrying his true love, Tie Yuxiang, he fails to excite her. Given his boring lovelife when he goes to Ning's Pavilion of Ultimate Bliss, intending to make Ning pay for his blasphemy, he soon finds himself lost to carnal delights. The sexual-expert Ruizhu entices him but seems oddly unfulfilling, while the sadistic Dongmei frightens him, but seems to symbolise the dangers of the basic insecurity Wei is trying to assuage. But he still has problems, and eventually realises his tool is inordinately tiny. Since he has abandoned Tie, his true love eventually bows to family pressure and divorces him. Meanwhile, however, the Elder of Ultimate Bliss, a transsexual who has attained a sort of immortality by sucking the Zen ying yang out of his/her victims, has a solution for Wei, but the price will be high. He can get a new, larger penis, but in return he has to perform a service for the Prince...confused?
Hiro Hayami is a suitably dazed bozo of a hero, while Tony Ho sometimes seems like a Hong Kong version of Brian Blessed as the villain. The female roles are basically a dead-end street, but Leni Lan is appealling as the true love, and Saori Hara and Suou Yukiko compelling as Ruizhu and Dongmei, as far as the moaning allows. What might work for Suou, and for Vonnie Lui, is the contrast between their relatively innocent appearance, and their 'true' characters, but they don't get a huge chance to display it. Lui, from a girl band, is apparently known as 'Hong Kong's Sex Bomb' in Taiwan, which must be worth something at the Golden Globes (the very idea of a general release in the US is hilarious to entertain, especially as it has attracted virtually no attention in the UK).
The slapstick comedy is crude but effective, especially when Wei gets a donkey dick attached, literally, and a couple of times the intrigue around the Prince threatens to make the story compelling. There is even some well-done action (of the non-sexual variety) which is really the only time the 3D effects seem to add anything at all.
But those moments are all too few-- there are even a couple when the characters' pursuit of pleasure reveals its extreme cost, a sort of Sadian insight which seems strangely out of place. In the end, however, true happiness is revealed with an O. Henry twist, marital bliss is achieved only after the husband has been castrated and wife placed in an impregnable chastity belt. Oh the irony. Of course the young won't believe it, so you probably should not bother taking the kids to this one for Christmas in lieu of your local panto. But it does make a certain amount of sense, especially seeing as the 3D Sex and Zen is likely to put them off Sex and leave them praying for Zen.
3D SEX AND ZEN: EXTREME ECSTASY is on DVD (cinema release was in September)
directed by Christopher Sun screenplay by Mark Wu, Stephen Shiu, Stephen Shiu, Jr. photography: Jimmy Wong Hiro Hayama (Wei), Leni Lan (Tie), Tony Ho (Prince of Ning), Vonnie Lui (Elder of Ultimate Bliss), Saori Hara (Reizhu), Suou Yukiko (Dongmei)
Monday, 12 December 2011
You probably thought it was about the economics, which is the point that people – especially baseball people-- always missed. Lewis was not saying that Billy Beane was the smartest guy in baseball, or that he'd found the best way to build a baseball team. Lewis was saying that Beane had realised something about the economics of baseball, and that if he were going to survive in Oakland, and produce a winning team, he would have to invest in those commodities that other teams undervalued. The film does a pretty good job of explaining that, though they basically boil it down to on base percentage and don't really show what that means.
But that's not the core of what Lewis wrote about. Lewis' theme, his persistent theme, is the maverick, the man who goes against the book, bucks the trends, follows his own drummer. He especially enjoys it when his maverick is obsessive, as Billy Beane is, and eccentric, which he also is, and the film is literally at its most successful when Brad Pitt's Beane gets to play off the stolidity of Philip Seymour Hoffman's Art Howe. That is the core of Moneyball, Pitt burning off energy on the stationary cycle in the bowels of the stadium while Howe sits impassively with his arms folded watching the season first collapse and then explode in front of him.
Moneyball might have been a more interesting film had Steven Soderbergh hung around to direct. The original adaptation was by Stan Chervin, the first screenplay by Steve Zaillian, and Soderberg's concept apparently would have included interviews, like Reds, and probably explained the baseball concepts behind Moneyball better. You can see the urge to make the film more accessible to folks who aren't baseball geeks, more like what everyone expects a sports movie to be, which is why the film as directed by Bennett Miller keeps edging toward those traditional tropes (and it's not just baseball, think of Hoosiers, or Miracle on Ice, or Bang The Drum Slowly, or The Longest Yard—all films about disparate characters learning there's no I in team--and that's why North Dallas 40 is such a good sports movie, because it subverts that entire message, and why it was so important in the original Rocky that Rocky NOT win) of the team that learns to play together turning into winners. But you can also see why Aaron Sorkin, who seems to specialise in making drama out of mundane non-fiction, would be find this story interesting, because his films are full of obsessives, misfits, and geeks, and also because Billy Beane is literally a Sorkin character come to life, full of fast-talking repartee, and every bit as driven, if not by the same drivers, as Sorkin is reputed to be.
Where the film lets down is in failing to make some of the obvious parallels stronger. Scott Hatteberg is a Billy Beane character: Beane's own career as a player stands as a monument to the ability of scouts to misjudge talent, or predict a player's ability to harness his own talent—Hatteberg's own doubts reflect Beane's and more might be made of that. Similarly, the film gets mawkish with Beane's daughter, but skips the potential for real conflict and literally ends with her offstage, speaking through a cheesy song she's recorded for him. They really need to explain Bill James more clearly, explain the Red Sox' John Henry and his attempted hiring of Beane better (Henry is given the film's 'hammer' (a phrase I coined in my book about Oliver Stone) speech, which hits you over the head with the movie's theme, in case you've been asleep for the past 80 minutes and missed it) and it would have been good to have answered the question of how, if Bill James was actually working for the Red Sox, Billy Beane was responsible for everything. It also would have useful to have credited Joe Morgan's gloating explanation of why Moneyball couldn't work, just so we could blame him for fatuousness.
It's also interesting that Jonah Hill is so obviously unathletic (until you see the film of A's extreme Moneyball propsect Jeremy Brown, a pudgy catcher who never really made it in the bigs, and he looks just like Hill) because Paul DePodesta, the executive on whom he's based, was actually a college baseball player at Harvard, so yes he was somewhat socially inept, quiet and self-effacing (which is why he didn't want his name used in the film, which otherwise uses real names throughout).
In fact, if Aaron Sorkin had got involved earlier, we might have been able to combine The Social Network and Moneyball into one movie, with DePodesta and Mark Zuckerberg duelling with their computers trying to impress Radcliffe girls. It's like Beane's the Rob Lowe character from West Wing, or maybe Josh, and Brandt is Toby. In Beane Sorkin gets to combine the handsome jock with the smart geek, and create an unclubbable god! In that sense Moneyball and TSN are the same movie, and end on the same note, with Zuckerberg and Beane both viewing or hearing the voice of their love, ex-girlfriend or daughter, who can't be with them. Sob.
Wednesday, 7 December 2011
I agreed with the Dagger judges for once: Crooked Letter Crooked Letter is beautifully written & says much about America, not just the South. I thought Robert Crais' The Sentry defined Joe Pike & Elvis Cole. I admire Michael Connelly's 2011 two-fer: The Drop, a fine Harry Bosch, and The Fifth Witness, the best Mickey Haller yet.
I should also mention that I was going to put Graham Hurley's Borrowed Light on my list, but went back and discovered it was published last year. But it deserved the mention.
A SECOND, DARKER, ANALYSIS (Spectator, 15 May 2004)
In 1976 Godfrey Hodgson published In Our Time, a portrait of America in the years from ‘World War II to Watergate’. To this American, reading it newly arrived in Britain in 1977, it seemed remarkable that the best social history of my country during my then-brief lifetime should have been written by an Englishman. Hodgson's sharp eye captured both a society in turmoil and one imbued with immense postwar promise. He combined critical distance with an innate, almost American optimism.
Nearly three decades later this sequel, as its title implies, is far less optimistic. Hodgson would certainly agree with Richard Nixon’s campaign manager and Attorney-General, John Mitchell, who said, on his way to jail, ‘This country is going so far to the right you won’t recognise it.’ Certainly there’s little of In Our Time recognisable in Hodgson’s analysis of the nation today.
He now sees a country in which the postwar liberal consensus has indeed moved right, turning free-market capitalism from an economic theory into a cultural template. The result is an America in which financial segregation increasingly preserves opportunity for a wealthy elite. Quoting Mark Twain’s aphorism, ‘We Americans worship the almighty dollar! Well, it is a worthier god than hereditary privilege’, Hodgson argues convincingly that American society has come to resemble old-fashioned Europe, and its strictly class-structured elites.
Hodgson’s analyses in cross-section, topic by topic, dividing the country into its constituent interests and ultimately bringing those sectors together. By digging beneath the surface of cause and effect, he shows clearly where political policy and social change intertwine. Nowhere is this more evident than in the central issue of race.
The Right’s current hegemony is not due to policy, but in fact a by-product of racial politics. On signing 1965’s Voting Rights Act, Lyndon Johnson said, ‘There goes the South!’ The Democratic party’s control of Congress came from its uneasy alliance of northern liberals and southern conservatives. The combination of legalised equality for blacks and the left's protest against the President’s conduct of the Vietnam war drove southern whites first to George Wallace and then to the Republicans, changing the political balance for the rest of the century.
Once in power, the overriding aim of this Republican ascendancy has been to undo Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Buttressed by the postwar economic boom, the New Deal created a burgeoning middle class, expanded its educational system, provided a state-guaranteed safety net, and gave the baby-boom generation the most privileged upbringing the world had ever seen. Those baby-boomers have piece by piece dismantled the hand that fed them, until only Social Security remains from the New Deal, and it too is now under fire.
The moneyed elite in northern cities have abandoned state education, while the growth of ‘Christian Academies’ in the south has, in effect, resegregated education there. University costs have escalated while financial aid shrinks, reinforcing an eduational upper-class. Is it any coincidence that both candidates for president in this year’s election were members of the same secret society at Yale?
This paradigm repeats in Hodgson’s examination of American life. One major change from 1976, as befits a scholar rather than a journalist, is that he now draws on mounds of statistical analysis. This is not always an advantage; sometimes the numbers threaten to overpower the reportorial instincts which make his work so telling. Strangely, the most obvious factual error he makes is British, saying that the 1970s saw Arthur Ashe become Wimbledon’s first black champion. In fact, Althea Gibson had won the woman’s title two decades earlier, but her death in relative obscurity last year showed, without needing Ron Atkinson to drive the point home, that we sometimes overrate the impact of sport on the advancement of minorities.
Yet sport helps demonstrate Hodgson’s acuity. He rightly draws on Robert Putnam’s excellent study, Bowling Alone. Putnam extrapolated from the decline of recreational bowling leagues that television had destroyed the sense of community activity in America. Hodgson takes his analysis further, tracing the massive changes in the telecommunications industry, arguing convincingly that the free market has created a less responsive and less responsible media just when Americans are most crucially dependent on it.
Hodgson concludes, with typical understatement, that his book paints ‘not an altogether happy picture’. He asks if America will ‘turn back’ to ‘older and wiser’ instincts. Rarely has a call for liberalism been made in such a convincingly conservative fashion.
More Equal Than Others by Godfrey Hodgson, Princeton Univ. Press, £29.95
Although his career might be said to have been made by the JFK assassination, his position on the killing was one instance where he avoided his own dictum (in On Press) against over-reliance and trust in official sources. Wicker supported the Warren Report without equivocation immediately upon publication; and when the Times published its version of the House Assassination Committee's report, Wicker's introduction contradicted the report's own findings, that JFK's assassination was likely a conspiracy. I had written about a confrontation at a 1980 New York literary cocktail party at Jean Stein's apartment, where Anthony Summers and Norman Mailer took pot shots at Wicker, with Robert Blakely, chief counsel to the Committe in the crowd (Blakely would write a book concluding the Mafia, and no one else, killed JFK). Summers accused Wicker of having written his critical introduction before studying fully the evidence; Wicker, by then having read Summer's own excellent book, acknowledged that there were questions but opined a conspiracy had not yet been fully proven. It was an odd position for a journalist as critical and probing as Wicker to take, but I suspect it had more to do with the leaning against the Manichean world-view the establishment ascribes to conspiracy theories of any sort, than the actual evidenciary trail.
Finally, in my obit I did mention his step-children as survivers; I worked with one of his step-daughters at ABC in London for a number of years, and I'm sorry Kayce didn't get mentioned in the piece as published.
Tuesday, 6 December 2011
In one sense, Spero's story continues the concerns of the 'Fathers and Sons' trilogy, with family values, in the old-fashioned, core sense of that phrase, being at their centre. Lucas is one of four children, two natural, two adopted, raised by hard-working Greek parents. He and his brother Leo are the adopted ones, and Leo is black. Of the two older children, one is a successful lawyer and the other is a ne'er do well; neither has much to do with their widowed mother. Leo is a teacher, Spero a war-hero home from Iraq, working as a casual investigator for a criminal defense attorney. The Cut features sub-plots; one of Leo's students is a witness to one of the central crimes, and is a bright boy in need of a father figure; a crooked cop turns out to have a criminal father of the worst sort—the contrasts between nature and nurture are never sharper than when Pelecanos approaches them through the prism of crime.
But looked at from another angle, The Cut does a couple of things differently from most of his previous fiction. There is a feeling in the way the book is structured around Spero that reminded me of Robert B Parker's fiction, how quickly he constructs a scene and the characters within it, and then moves on. Like so many of Parker's novels, this one also moves very quickly toward one big action scene, a structure not unlike the westerns which Pelecanos admires and which have been reflected before in his work.
The other new thing is Spero himself, who, unlikely as it seems, reminds me of John D MacDonald's Travis McGee, the 'salvage consultant'. That's the nature of Spero's work for the defense attorney. Like McGee, he possesses superior and well-honed skills that make him more formidable than he might seem (and like McGee's, those skills were acquired in the military). But most striking is Spero's attitude toward the opposite sex: though firmly on the side of families and raising children properly, he is, like McGee, a confirmed bachelor and unwilling (or unable) to commit to a relationship—though he is a lot of fun even without that. Being the 21st century, this attitude runs afoul of one of the women in the story, but being McGee-like that is, in effect, her problem. Admittedly, it has been a long time since I read a Travis McGee, but I was hearing definite echoes of his pop psychology in the narrative.
This is not meant to deflate the impact of this book. There is no one writing crime fiction who deals more realistically or more tellingly with the situation of working class people in American cities, and the degradation of life within those cities caused by the disappearance of jobs and the downscaling of education as a government priority for those people. He makes the problem personal, and that works. In The Cut, he has adapted those concerns to a faster-paced, more hero-centered story. If it's Parker and MacDonald with a conscience and a soul, that is not a bad thing to be.
The Cut by George Pelecanos
Orion Books, £12.99 ISBN 9781409114567