Saturday, 29 December 2012

NORMAN SCHWARZKOPF: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Norman Schwarzkopf, the general who led Operation Desert Storm, is online at the Guardian (link to it here) and may be in the paper paper today (Saturday 28th). There are a few changes to what I wrote, as I was unavailable for the editing process after writing it on short notice, but they are mostly changes of omission. I will confess that after studying his life, I was more favorably inclined to Schwarzkopf than I had thought I would be--it is not his fault that America tends to provide its military heroes with unquestioning adulation, nor that the American military tends to reward them with a prolifigacy which might embarrass the soldiers of the past. He also didn't seem to be a careerist who rose quickly through the bureaucratic army, like say, Colin Powell, whose rise began when he helped cover up and spin the My Lai massacre. Although I don't agree with the pervasive belief in the 'Vietnam Syndrome', I could respect the way Schwarzkopf decided to fight his war to win it, with the fewest possible casualties on his side, and with the public presented with a positive media experience of it. It helped that the First Iraq War was relatively more straightforward than the second; Iraq had indeed provided a causus belli.

Schwarzkopf's biggest error, in retrospect, was allowing the Iraqis the means to put down the insurrections that rose up against Saddam--but his instinct against becoming an occupying power in Iraq was sound, and the ultimate political decisions, of course, were not his. As we saw in the Second Iraq War, and in Afghanistan, he was absolutely right on that count. Although he supported the 2003 invasion, that support was quickly moderated by his realisation the war was being fought on fabricated grounds, that 'mission creep' led to an occupation far worse than he had imagined a decade earlier, and by his intense dislike of Donald Rumsfeld's ways of waging war, using reservists and contractors to replace the standing army.

His public stances on that war were not profound, but his absence of cheerleading for the second Bush administration spoke volumes. I also found the quiet life he led in Tampa relatively admirable, as he was active with charity work alongside the usual board memberships on arms companies. That he never sought political office or power, or to cash in publicly on his name seems to me the sign of a man with a strong personal compass. A contrast, say, to David Petraeus.

The paper cut a few interesting things about his father, whose main fame comes because he led the New Jersey State Police during their investigation of the Lindbergh Kidnapping, the 1930s' crime of the century. (That's him with Lindbergh in the photo on the right). The guilt of Bruno Richard Hauptman remains in some doubt, and his role in getting Hauptman convicted was crucial. For some reason the paper took out what became the most lasting legacy of his consultancies, for the Shah of Iran just after a CIA-backed coup installed him in power. Schwarzkopf, Sr. basically organised the SAVAK, the Iranian secret police, and it must be said, he did a good job because they were efficient in their work. It was because of that work that Norman was educated in Tehran and in Europe, which I think had a profound effect on his world-view.

The legacy of the Shah and his Savak, of course, was the Ayatollah Homeni, the Embassy Hostages, the October Surprise and Reagan's election, and then the Iran/Iraq wars, where we were, whisper it softly now, on Iraq's side, and provided them with the weapons of mass destruction they used first on Iranian troops and then on their own people, pace the famous photo of Rumsfeld and his buddy-in-democracy Saddam shaking hands after another arms deal had been done. Eventually, that would lead to Desert Storm, where, as we discovered a decade later, we could have done a lot worse than a general like Norman Schwarzkopf.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

GRAHAM HURLEY'S WESTERN APPROACHES: I.T.'S CHRISTMAS READ

Joe Faraday is dead by his own hand. Bazza McKenzie, crime lord of Pompey, is dead. His betrayer, ex-cop Paul Winter, has gone off into hiding with Misty Gallagher. And Jimmy Suttle has taken his journalist wife Lizzie and their baby daughter down to a decrepit house in Devon, where he's now working for the Devon and Cornwall police. So when the body of a wealthy rower is found on the pavement below his huge penthouse overlooking Exmouth's shore, Suttle's instincts kick in, and he is determined to prove that this was indeed a major crime and not a suicide.

Western Approaches represents a change of direction, as it were, for Graham Hurley. Faraday was a loner, a 'depressive detective' in the mould of Beck, Bosch, or Resnick, but what made the series succeed so well was the growth of Winter as a character; the two of them providing a sort of partnership even though they weren't actually together. The problem with switching to Jimmy Suttle is we don't really have a good picture of the man, and what makes him tick, he's younger and with less backstory than his superiors in Portsmouth. But it's a problem Hurley solves deftly, by making Suttle's marriage the focal point of the story. Lizzie is frustrated, as their brucolic dream becomes a dreary nightmare, intensified by Suttle's ability to settle for making do, and his growing satisfaction with the work. Lizzie misses her work, misses her city, and in effect misses the people they were when they got married.

It is interesting how this story trumps the actual investigation into the crime, although inevitably they do come together, as Suttle encourages his wife to join the rowing club to which the murder victim belonged, and indeed tried to dominate. Rowing provides Lizzie with the springboard to recapturing her own life, for better or worse. Suttle also has to deal with his own past, in the shape of some of Bazza's old Pompey gang, who want revenge on Winter and assume Suttle will know where to find him. This highlights another problem for Hurley: the previous series plays an important part in this story, and the characters play a part too. If you're coming to it cold, it will not resonate the way it does if you followed the whole Faraday-Winter saga, that is unavoidable, but he manages to built up the background through inference to avoid the reader relying solely on explication.

The actual 'mystery' in this tale is not all that mysterious, though at least one of the suspects, a former actress living in a trailer with her wanna-be film-maker partner, is interesting enough to warrant more time—indeed, Hurley creates a number of female characters who cry out for more attention, but that attention is really directed at Lizzie. And it's a fine piece of writing, as he delineates the growing chasm between her and Suttle (who is anything but, ironically), and charts the ebb and flow of their relationship—something which echoes the movie the rowing pair were getting the murder victim to fund.

The crime plays out as one might expect, but Lizzie and Suttle's story plays out with more than a few twists, which are worth leaving unspoiled. The final one however, suggests an immediate sequel, which already has conflict set up, because Hurley does something he writes very well: has a character act against a number of instincts because of one that is, in the initial instance, more powerful. That is the frailty which he has examined in great deal in the Faraday/Winter books, and he's off to a good start here. Western Approaches was my Christmas Eve/Day read, and it's actually published tomorrow: too late to be a gift, but definitely a present.

Western Approaches by Graham Hurley
Orion £12.99 ISBN 9781409131526

this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Sunday, 23 December 2012

DEMETRIUS DAVIS: REMEMBERING A WORLD LEAGUE STAR


Demetrius Davis began his pro football career as Mr. Irrelevant, the last guy taken in the 1990 NFL Draft, by the Oakland Raiders, out of Nevada. He came along about 15 years too soon: a basketball-first, 6-4 220lb tight end, he would have fit in better with today's passing games. As it was, he never played a down in the NFL, but he had a great run in the World League of American Football, aka NFL Europe, with the Barcelona Dragons, playing in 1991 and 92, and then coming back for two seasons in 1995 when the league was reborn. Not only was he a fine player, the tight end when I picked my all-time NFLE team when the league finally shut down for good in 2007, but he was also one of my favourite players to talk to. The great thing about covering the league was the openness; you could approach players and coaches, film during practices, and get some fairly straight poop if they trusted you. Players who played multiple seasons recognised you, like you were part of a club, and most of those kind of players were back in the league not just because they were good players, maybe great AAA level players, but also because their coaches saw them as positive influences.

That's the way Jack Bicknell saw Demetrius. He was constantly bringing back players, and guys like Eric Lindstrom, Tyree Davis, Eric Naposki all told me they would not have come back were it not for him. Although good attitude couldn't win a league title for you, leadership and team spirit could really help, and the reality was just a couple of bad apples could kill a season stone dead. In a league where some people were assigned by teams with the understanding they would get playing time, where you had to put a new team together each season, and keep them happy for ten weeks in what for most of them was terra incognito, playing for not much money, sharing rooms, and eating the same meals over and over again, guys like Demetrius, who were fighting to keep their football dream alive, playing in part for the love of the game, and willing to do what it took to make the experience work stood out. It was no coincidence that these players were great interviews; Demetrius was probably the best, honest, smart, and above all funny. He projected warmth that is rare to encounter in those situations.

Demetrius was clearly one of the league's best players in 1991, when the Dragons went all the way to the World Bowl, which they lost to the Monarchs before 61,000 fans at Wembley. He was quick, ran routes precisely, had great hands, and was a very good blocker. But at 225 he was just too small to play tight end in the NFL. Ten years later, he might have had the kind of career Bryan Fletcher had with the Bears and Colts. When he came back in 1995-6 he had obviously built himself up, but it affected his quickness, and in retrospect I now wonder if it might have had some bearing on the burst heart that took his life a week ago after a pick-up basketball game. He was realistic in '96 that it was his final go-around; his knees would not get better, he needed to give it one last shot and then get on with his life. I regretted that he hadn't stayed around for one more season; the 1997 Dragons, led by Jon Kitna, and with probably the best trio of receivers the league ever saw (Alfonso Browning, Shedrick Wilson, and the return of Tyree Davis) would have been perfect for him, and of course that was the year the Dragons won the World Bowl. Their tight end, Bryce Burnett, was another returning player, very similar to the 1991 Demetrius, though not as talented.

I have to admit I was shocked to hear of his death. He was only 46; he'd been working on workman comp claims. His cousin, CC Sabathia, the Yankees' pitcher, was apparently going to take care of his funeral expenses. Chris Ault, Davis' coach at Nevada, who still coaches there, sent along his number 88 jersey. Ault was credited by Davis' Nevada teammate and best friend, Lucky Witherspoon, for helping to keep teammates together, and I find that encouraging as I sometimes ponder what football means to me and what the sport is about. It's sad that there is no NFL Europe, so sad that there are no longer any Barcelona Dragons to send another jersey along.

One of the thing I loved about the World League/NFL Europe was following the progress of the guys I met into what they called 'the league', and sometimes elsewhere (Canada, Arena). It was a chance for lots of us to find niches in the game, and make a living doing something we loved. But I often failed to follow what happened after football, after dreams dried up, and the 'real' world took over. I don't flatter myself to think I knew Demetrius well, but from what I did know of him, I'm sure he made the most of what the world presented him.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

PHILIP ROTH'S INDIGNATION

I have been haunted by Philip Roth's 2008 novel Indignation since I finally read it a week ago, turning it over and over in my head, as if to replay and perhaps restage some of its conflicts, as if to acknowledge just how closely it taps into my own apprehensions of the world as it was shown to me in my youth, and as if to marvel again at the way Roth can render all this relevant to a world which his protagonist, Marcus Messner, would never have been able to comprehend.

As a coming of age story, Roth treads the familiar ground of Newark, set out in many of the amazing novels of his late renaissance, but he also looks back, clearly, with Marcus' relationship with his father, a kosher butcher, to Portnoy's Complaint, and in his infatuation with Olivia Hutton, the damaged WASPy girl he meets at Winesburg College to his novella Goodbye Columbus, which was, I still believe, the outstanding work of his early years. In that story, there is a world that is unapproachable, one that lives by different rules, or pretends too, and Neil Klugman cannot react with enough indignation, or knows the danger of so doing. In the present novel, allowing for that possibility, makes Indignation much more, it is  a novel of eros and thanatos, sex and death, something growing out of the Fiedlerian mainstream of Freudian American post-war fiction whose crest Roth initially rode. But it's also more than that—it's a transformation of the personal into a fable worthy of the best of Hawthorne, but one that encapsulates the whole period of Roth's own life, the latter half of the 20th Century,

Indignation is set in the era into which I was born—the Korean War is in progress, the draft looms over the shoulders of the non-deferred, and Marcus' father, as he graduates from high school and from his post as his father's aide in the butcher's shop, is growing more and more obsessive about protecting his son—not just from that war, but from the changes in American society brought on by the just-completed war, by the growing prosperity, and the freedoms it brings with it. Marcus is a 'good' boy—hard-working in the family business and at school, respectful, even a moderately good second-baseman on the baseball team. He heads off to Robert Treat College, in Newark, where he finds himself challenged and finds some of his horizons growing—but the spectre of his father's control leads him to transfer to Winesburg, a Lutheran college in Ohio, where he is very much the outsider (remember Roth at Bucknell). He works as a waiter, he feuds with his roommates, then with his next roommate, he studies, and eventually he falls for a girl.

Who gives him a blow job on their first date. This behaviour is incomprehensible to Marcus, he is a 'good' boy and this is something 'good' girls do not do. Trying to comprehend it—is it because her parents are divorced? Because she has suicide scars on her wrists?--throws Marcus for a loop, a first step toward a crumbling of the world as he understands it. This process is reinforced by the attentions of the Dean, with whom Marcus winds up debating and arguing over his own lack of involvement in the school's social life (something that is de facto limited by his being Jewish), and by his requirement to attend chapel—to which he objects not because he is Jewish but because he considers himself an atheist. For the first time, Marcus finds himself rebelling, almost instinctively, and certainly beyond his control.

He winds up ill, in the hospital, where his relationship with Olivia is rekindled and then lost after his mother arrives, with the revelation that she intends to divorce his father. A barter is made, lives seem ruined, the campus explodes in a snowball fight, and Marcus winds up being expelled, and exposed to the draft. And the story, we have learned, is being narrated from the afterlife, because Marcus was killed in Korea shortly before the cessation of hostilities.

There is a lot of plot synopsis above, but I honestly find it hard to explain why this novel is so powerful without setting out the story. What makes it linger is the honest befuddlement of Marcus (names, as ever, are important to Roth--'mess' ner, Winesburg with its association with Sherwood Anderson, Robert Treat, the Puritan from my home town in Connecticut, and so on) and the way he is let down by the expectations of both his Jewish upbringing and of 'mainstream' America, how those combine to create a lethal cocktail, and it is enough to raise Roth's, and our, indignation. As I said, it's a book about America, but it's also about the direct link between sex and death, being narrated after that death. In that sense, I think the British cover (above) and the US cover (right) needed to be amalgamated for a more telling effect.

Indignation by Philip Roth
Vintage 2009, £7.99, ISBN 9780099523420

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

DANIEL INOUYE: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Daniel Inouye, the Senator from Hawaii who was a stalwart presence in both the Watergate and Iran-Contra hearings, is online at the Guardian (link here) and may be in the paper paper today. It appears more or less as I wrote it to a very short deadline, and without a chance to go over changes. One thing that was lost was his last word: 'aloha' which of course in Hawaiian means both 'hello' and 'goodbye'.

While writing about his handling of those two investigations, I recalled my frustrations at the time; Inouye was a strong presence, but he was also very much not a boat-rocker, nor a grandstander. One thing I did not write about was the fact that he was never able to win a vote for majority (or minority) leader in the Senate. He was well liked, and I believe the fulsome praise for his character, his integrity, and his honesty which he received from his colleagues yesterday was deserved, but I think too they felt those attributes made him less than best-suited for the arm-twisting and deal-making that defines the leadership role, the Lyndon Johnson idea.

The story of his medal-winning heroism is amazing; not only risking his own life repeatedly when he was being told to stop, but protecting his men at the same time. Although there was some criticism at the time he was awarded the Medal of Honor that this was a political gesture, it seemed to me deserved, especially in an age where the US military award themselves medals and ribbons at the slightest justification.

I also mentioned the interesting case of his succession. The governor of Hawaii, Neil Abercrombie, will apparently make an appointment at the end of December, in time for the new swearing in of the Senate on January 3. If the new Senator, who would serve until a special election in 2014, were sworn in later, he or she would lose seniority; as it stands they would have equal standing with Hawaii's other Senator, Mazie Hirono, who was just elected in November. The leading candidate is Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, who is seen as Inouye's protege, and whose endorsement he gave in a last-wish letter to the governor.  Hanabusa, who will begin her second term in the House, is the only Congressperson with any seniority in the Hawaii delegation.

The dark horse is newlt-elected Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who like Inouye has military service as a selling point, and who, at 31, will be one of the youngest people in Congress. There is some talk that retired Senator Daniel Akaka could be asked to return to Washington, where his 22 years of seniority would carry over (seniority gets better committee appointments and chairmanships). But seniority has to be balanced off against the idea of a placeholder, which would mean starting over in 2014 with a new and junior candidate again.


And finally, I did mention that his second wife is the founding CEO of the Japanese-American Museum in Los Angeles, and his son Kenny is a rock musician.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

DON WINSLOW'S KINGS OF COOL

Don Winslow is a daring writer. He's not afraid to venture into new territory, and his best books are as different as the deft subtleties of Isle Of Joy are from the epic sweep of The Power Of The Dog; as the off-beat California Fire & Life is from the even more off-beat The Dawn Patrol. With Savages, Winslow again broke new ground (see my review here)--not only with his characters, but with the style of writing, a small masterpiece of form following function as he broke down the drug wars to a more personal scale than The Power Of The Dog.

Writing a 'prequel' to Savages might be looked at as being a commercial decision, the way his 'Trevanian' exercise, Satori was (you can link to my review here). Oliver Stone has turned Savages into a movie, and tinkered with the ending, but without giving too much away suffice it to say a sequel to Savages would have been a difficult task even without the movie--which I haven't yet seen, by the way, else I would have written this review and that one earlier!

But Kings Of Cool works as a prequel because it follows up on a couple of Winslow's ideas about the drug wars and American (or Californian, which you can see as an outlier or a wind-tunnel for the rest of the country) which were explicit in Power Of The Dog, and implicit in Savages. The big one is that the whole miasma of the so-called war on drugs is a function of demand. Take away the demand for product, and the 'problem' goes away. But we as a country are so reliant on that product, that the world's entrepreneurs can hardly resist the opportunity. Oddly enough, this point became crystal (not meth) clear to me while reading Dashiell Hammett's stories again for the Open Book interview I did last month (link here). There are plenty of hopheads in Hammett's work—most of them are confined to the murky underworld and skid rows or their like, and the others are primarily among the very rich and famous. As long as things remained so, even as usage spread on a large scale within the black community, the drug 'problem' remained under control.

In Savages, although Ben and Chon (and their girlfriend O) are new age small-scale homeland-endorsed entrepreneurs, they find in the end that market forces have outstripped drug culture boundaries—as pot dealers they are no longer above or beyond the drugs lords who control heroin or cocaine (and there's an interesting sidebar to be written about the place of the other home-grown business, meth cooking, the bootlegging of the 21st century and it's relation to big-time organised crime).

Kings Of Cool shows us how that came to be. The story begins Ben and Chon setting up their business in the new century, but quickly flashes back to the Sixties, with California hippie culture in full bloom and Chon's father, John (in prison when we meet him Savages) is a skateboarding kid called Johnny Mac who's taken under the wing of Doc, the Taco Jesus of the boardwalk in Laguna Beach, and quickly becomes his most successful drug dealer. We meet O's mother (the so-called Passive-Agressive Queen of the Universe) when she is just a young beauty trying to score a rich husband, and we meet Ben's well-meaning parents, who want to use their pot-selling profits to run their new-age bookshop. It's a rich mix, and it rings as authentic as Winslow's late Fifties Manhattan did in Isle of Joy, and it raises various questions not only about the parenting given our three marijuana musketeers, but indeed paternity itself.

And then, to put it simply, coke comes on scene, and everything changes, and, as we already know with the hindsight provided by Savages, when Ben, Chon and O finally learn the truth about their pasts, and change their presents, the consequences are, if not preordained, almost inevitable. The presence of characters from other Winslow books, like the hit man Frankie Machine or the legendary drug dealer Bobby Z, reinforce this point, and make it seem as if Winslow has been preparing for this moment for a long time.

What helps it all work is that Winslow has again altered his style, subtlely, to reflect the various drugs that dominate the narrative. So that the early sections have a hazy, sunny feel to them, less precise and forced than what follows, and both are different from the free-form trippiness established in Savages (interestingly, O, the most interesting verbally of the characters, becomes the narrator for Oliver Stone). I'm not sure where Kings Of Cool sits, depending on whether or not you've read Savages, and/or seen the movie, but as a feat of writing it is not far short of a tour de force. The war on drugs is monstrous and serious enough to deserve a writer like Winslow, who can meet it head on, but also take it back to its roots within our world. He's a daring, and tremendous writer.

Kings Of Cool, Random House £12.99
ISBN 9780434022076

NOTE: this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Sunday, 9 December 2012

GEORGE HIGGINS' EASIEST THING IN THE WORLD: THE SHOTS COLUMN

NOTE: This review originally appeared as number 7 of my short-lived column 'American Eye' forShots Ezine. It was short-lived in part because I had trouble with the deadlines, as the openng sentence reminds me. Re-reading it in light of the preceding IT post on Killing Them Softly makes me think it might be time to revive it.

  
There’s a reason why September’s American Eye is late. It is because I was reading with one American eye shut, knowing that when I finished this collection of George V Higgins’ ‘uncollected’ short fiction, there would be nothing else of Higgins left for me to read for the first time. Not that the prospect of revisiting the work of the writer I consider the best and most original voice in crime fiction between Richard Stark and James Ellroy is depressing. But the idea that Higgins had some untold tales I will now forever miss just might be.

I say ‘uncollected’ because in fact, Higgins published a short-story collection, The Sins Of Our Fathers, in this country, and three of the tales included here were also in that book. That’s not a problem, really, although the editor of this volume, the prolific Matthew J Bruccoli, doesn’t appear to have done much actual editing: the book is littered with literals which detract from the overall appeal. There is, however, a nice, though short, introductory fond memory by Robert B Parker, who says that, like himself, as his career progressed, he grew more fond of writing about the characters, wherever that took him.

It’s true. Higgins appeal seemed to fade consistently, after The Friends Of Eddie Coyle
, in part because it was such an incredible debut novel. But I think there was another paradox at work here: because the better his later work got, the more out of step with the times it became. In The Mandeville Talent, for example, he addressed the problem directly, with a detective character who, in effect, takes a yuppie couple under his wing and teaches them about the ways of the world. Because that was what his books were always about, the way of the world, the way it worked, the way things fitted together, or at least the way it used to work. Actually, it might be better to phrase that, the way we think it used to, because my impression is that, deep down, it still does work in a clockwork of give and take, of favours granted and withheld, of petty corruptions: palm greasing and back-rubbing, and it’s just the outward appearance which has been changed by the children of Higgins’ generation, our yuppie Thatcherite laissez-faire society, or maybe it’s that the behind the scenes graft has been taken over by a newly empowered apparatchik class.

Higgins didn’t like this, and it shows in this collection. The most important, and interesting stories, are billed as two novellettes, though the first, the title story of the book, is actually a short-story; but at least neither of them actually has been collected before. The title story comes with a separate prequel, a very short coda, as it were. It’s about the roles of men and women in society as much as anything to do with crime, and what makes it particularly interesting is the way Higgins experiments with the passage of time, not the easiest thing to do when you are telling the story mostly in dialogue. So conversations sometimes segue from one period to another, seamlessly, to the point where you’re not even sure where you are until you check.

The second story, which actually is a novellette, or maybe a novella, who cares? is called ‘Slowly Now The Dancer’, and if that perhaps suggests Anthony Powell and time, well, the time part of the suggestion is accurate. Again, Higgins plays with time, but in this piece time itself takes the place of his usual story-telling technique: there is far more narration than you’d expect, far fewer of the line-ups of quotation marks (inverted commas) signifying that someone is telling you their recollection of a statement made by a third person to a fourth as recollected by a fifth to your original story-teller.  Instead, Higgins’ narrative slips and slides between periods of time, as a Boston son returns to his family home in Vermont, and basically takes you through almost a century’s worth of changing social fabric along the way. You can see why the story never sold; as Prof. Bruccoli says in an editor’s note, only John O’Hara could sell such things. He doesn’t mention that even for O’Hara, such stories were often a hard sell, and that was a good while before Higgins. It’s not a crime story at all, yet I can’t help but feel any fan of Higgins’ crime fiction, and how can you not be?, would love it.

‘Old Earl Died Pulling Traps’ isn’t really a crime story either; it is about lawyers, though, who are ipso facto criminals, and it’s another tale of changing mores, taking us through a couple of generations of a small town, and a few people, and how they interact while conducting the business of their lives. For lawyers, lives are business to be conducted, and Higgins’ realisation of this is really the bedrock of all his fiction. It was published as a limited edition chapbook. ‘The Last Wash Of The Teapot’ is similar, again no crime involved, only a lawyer’s resolution of two people’s lives after one of them loses her spouse. It’s presented as a draft for a narrative play, a Hal Holbrook-type recital on stage, but it works on the page in the same way that Higgins’ storytellers have always worked on the page.

Some of these stories are slight. Higgins had a fondness for shaggy-dog stories; maybe there was a touch of O. Henry about him. A couple of his novels are really just extended shaggy dog stories, and unsatisfying as a result, but in the short story format you can get away with it. The three Donnelly stories are like that, but none the worse for it, and ‘Landmark Theatre May Shut Down’ actually surprised me by being, in the end, a subtle variation on the shaggy-dog theme.

In some of these stories Higgins is also writing as a New Englander, not, as in most of his novels, as a Bostonian. One difference is that the New Englander has a finer sense of the history of the place, and the people who make up that history.
This was, to some extent, what The Mandeville Talent was concerned with, and why so much of it was set outside Boston. The other difference is that the world of urban crime is a Boston thing (and Providence, and Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport etc) but not something we associate with little places, and it is important for Higgins to write his characters in ways that are not dictated by their (and his) need to indulge in criminal behaviour. Anti-social, fine. That New England mentality is a big part of my other favourite of the stories, ‘The Habits Of The Animals: The Progress Of The Seasons’, which is really a study of marriage, as told by a character who just happens to be a state trooper.

He’s a Korean War veteran (like Parker’s Spenser) and he grew up in the Depression, and married in an era where sexual mores were different. That the story is set in a small town near Ossipee, New Hampshire, an area where I spent many of my childhood summers, makes no difference to my appreciation of this brilliantly judged piece of writing. It was reprinted in Best American Short Stories 1973, and for good reason. But just imagine yourself as Higgins at that point: your crime novel is a smash, it’s being made into a small classic of a movie, and this serious story is one of the year’s best. No surprise he never matched that peak in public acclaim again.

Yet the novels flowed, and they constitute one of the strongest bodies of work for any crime novelist. And the stories flowed too. The last one in this collection, ‘Jack Duggan’s Law’ was chosen by Joyce Carol Oates for the Best American Mystery Stories collection a couple of years ago; it’s one of Higgins’ sleazy lawyer tales, and it is a good one. There’s an elegiac feeling about the book. His last published novel was called At End Of Day, and a number of his later novels were elegiac, almost nostalgic. This collection feels nostalgic too, But the overall flavour of this book is set out by the story titles. Beyond those already named, those like ‘An End Of Revels’ and ’Life Was Absolutely Swell’. Not that life WAS necessarily that swell, but that it was superior, in its way, to what it is now. Or least it was when George V Higgins was writing about it. He died a week before his sixtieth birthday. Sometimes, the easiest thing in the world is hard.

THE EASIEST THING IN THE WORLD
Carroll & Graf, 2004, $15.95 ISBN 0786716665
 

KILLING THEM SOFTLY: GEORGE HIGGINS RETURNS ON FILM

Killing Them Softly is only the second film to have been adapted from a novel by George V. Higgins. As the first was The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, which is a classic, and that was almost 40 years ago, this raises the simple question 'why?'. On the surface, Higgins' novels seem to invite the transition to screenplay; they are written primarily in dialogue, and in Killing Them Softly, just as in Eddie Coyle, large chunks of dialogue are transferred from page to screen virtually intact; forty years have not rendered Higgins' characters or their talk obsolete. Perhaps it's because the dialogue tells so much of the story: Higgins' stories are generally being told by one character to another, with the reader listening in to a very Boston (and Irish) kind of recital. Indeed, Andrew Dominik's adaptation of Cogan's Trade is set in 2008, in a place which looks and lives a lot like post-Katrina New Orleans, but has Boston's suburbs, and seems to be somewhere where everyone sounds like they're from somewhere else, including Australia.

If Eddie Coyle were a perfect little neo-noir, set in Boston's underground, Killing Them Softly aspires to be more, and that may be part of the reason it misses the bigger picture. For Dominik it's the set-up that is the point; the initial robbery, of a mob's poker game, is not quite an inside job, but includes the cynical framing of a hapless victim who has once before tried an inside job. The frame is engineered by a small-time grafter who hires two losers to pull off the job. It nearly works, but it is destined, inevitably, not to work. Jackie Cogan is the man sent in to set the balance right, his trade being that of killer, and in Higgins' world, that balance is a difficult equation, one that proves too difficult for Dominik.

You can see how in bits of the film that are his, not Higgins', like the title. It comes from Cogan's explaining why he likes to kill from a distance, 'softly', because it's embarrassing the way people behave when they realise they are going to die. It marks a sort of embarrassment of his own, not so much at his job, but at the fact that his job is necessary. In Higgins' world, Cogan's job is necessary because although the world has its rules, they are honoured in their breach; that is exactly the way the world works. In Dominick's version, the world doesn't really work. This leads him to surround the story with reminders of the world we are living in, mostly shown on TVs running in the background,with Barack Obama, Shrub Bush, or 'Hank' Paulson illustrating disaster and break-down in the 'real' world outside. It culminates with a shut-down speech by Cogan (as played by Brad Pitt) to the mob lawyer played by Richard Jenkins. On the surface, it is the most prefect Higgins scene, because Jenkins' character is actually the one who best reflects Higgins' world, the one character in this film who could have fit comfortably into Eddie Coyle. Pitt's lecture, however, seems to have been lifted from Howard Zinn, or maybe Oliver Stone or James Ellroy, about how corruption and cheating are at the heart of America; it sure doesn't come from Higgins. Higgins understood that rules are honoured in their breach, and that the real world functions (or perhaps functioned, before the focus of 24/7 TV) in those breaches. It's why many of his best books work in the areas where people make the corruption work, or illustrate to the naïve how it can work.

Dominik's interest is an outgrowth of his earlier film, of Ron Carlson's The Assassination Of Jesse James, which also starred Pitt, and was primarily about the rise of celebrity, and the demands it puts on would-be heroes. Pitt's Cogan is suitably non-heroic when he needs to be—there's an excellent scene in which he explains to one of the doomed hoods that 'very few guys know me', but that's undercut by his larger moral view, and by an extremely awkward introduction set to Johnny Cash's 'The Man Comes Around', which is like being clobbered by a lead mallet. You can also see echoes of Dominik's signature film, Chopper, in his fascination with the violent absurdity of the criminal world—his comic hoods and their scenes of heroin use, which reminded me of the point-of-view bits in Brother From Another Planet or bits of Jackie Brown; the whole circus around James Gandolfini, as the hit man who's lost his nerve; and especially in the wonderful, if familiar, performance by Ray Liotta, both touching and absurd and culminating in extreme violence. For Higgins, this world is not absurd, and its violence rarely shocks in its extremes.

In the end, Killing Them Softly seduces by catching much of Higgins' tone, by casting good actors who make the most of the roles, and by refusing to 'blow up' the story. But if it catches the tone, it misses much of the point, without making a better one of its own.

One footnote: a number of essays about the film remarked that The Friends Of Eddie Coyle was not only Higgins' first novel, but also his best, as if this were some kind of curse and also an explanation for his lack of pick-up by Hollywood. Eddie Coyle is, as I have suggested many times before, a small and perfect book, but not necessarily Higgins' best. Because his style, although refined, remained the same, and remained the inevitable talking-point in reviews, and because he wrote 26 novels, portraying a world that was starting to change, his books received less and less attention as his career continued. In fact, you could look at Killing Them Softly as reflecting the realisation that the world has changed.

But I would argue particularly that The Mandeville Talent (you can link to the IT essay on that book here) is a subtler version of the same idea, dealing with murder and white-collar crime, while a number of his last novels, especially A Change Of Gravity and At End Of Day, are elegant reflections of his world-view in changing times. Higgins is always worth a read, and this film is certainly worth your time as well.