Sunday, 31 March 2013

ROBERT CRAIS' SUSPECT

There is a theme running through Robert Crais' work, whether it's the Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novels or not, and that is relationships. Familial, romantic, partnerships are the currency of Crais' characters, and for him character is indeed, as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously observed, action. Though his books often seem fast-paced, when you look at them closely you'll see him weave myriad plot strands together and, as befits someone who was a highly successful writer of episodic television, usually resolve them quickly. What isn't resolved quickly is whatever series of questions Crais has made his characters face about their relationships; sometimes that resolution mimics the high-speed finales, sometimes it runs parallel, and sometimes it is resolved in quite an opposite way altogether.

In Suspect, the relationship in question is between Scott James, an LA cop who lost his partner, was severely wounded himself, in a massive shootout, and his new partner, a German shepherd named Maggie who herself lost a partner and was severely wounded in Afghanistan.

It takes a brave writer to try not to have animals upstage his story, and Crais makes it work almost immediately; the prologue in Afghanistan is superbly judged. He makes Maggie a real character with some of the most touching writing I've read in the crime field in ages. Using animal point of view is equally risky, but again, Crais pulls it off, and it's necessary in the sense that we are dealing with two damaged beings, whose path to each other reflects that damage even as they heal. So Scott has to prove himself as a dog handler, in order to remain what he wants to be, a working cop, but he also has to try to solve the mystery of the shooting that killed his former partner, Stephanie, to stop his feeling he left her behind.

It works well. As Scott gets closer to the truth, he finds himself ensnared. Perhaps it would have been good to see the ultimate villain fleshed out a little more fully, or foreshadowed slightly more strongly, and perhaps Scott could have been left hanging out in the wind for a longer, more suspenseful, time. In an afterword, Crais acknowledges a certain amount of compression of time in the dog training, but it's easy to see why he wanted to maintain the pace as he does, to in effect force the new partnership to a point of crisis, to see if the bonding sticks, and to see if both partners can begin to trust the world again. It is a bravura piece of writing, and it seems a natural for a movie—after all, it's been too long since we've seen heroic dogs on our screens. 


Suspect by Robert Crais
Orion, £12.99, ISBN 9781409127703

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

Friday, 29 March 2013

DOING WHAT YOU'RE TOLD: COMPLIANCE, LONDON FILM FEST HIT ON RELEASE

Compliance, which has just opened this week, was one of the best films in the 2012 London Film Festival. The strange thing about it is that, even among an audience less film literate, less armed with press kits, and less dedicated than the one I saw it with at the LFF preview, everyone seems to know the premise going in (and if you don't know it, stop reading right now, and come back after you've seen the movie!).

The premise is that the manager of a fast-food branch gets a call from the police telling her that they've had a complaint from someone who's had money stolen from their purse by one of the Chick-Wich counter staff. The manager, Sandra, is told to in effect take the girl, Becky, into custody, and from that point the voice on the telephone manipulates a series of more and more serious humiliations for Becky, involving other staff members and even Sandra's boyfriend.

Now we all know what's going on; we've heard about the film and/or about the real events that inspired it. Some of us knew about the Stanley Milgram experiments, conducted at Yale in 1961, which involved testing people's obedience to authority by requiring them to administer electrical shocks to subjects in an experiment. If you knew the procedure of that, you would recognise the gradually increasing resistance being overcome by an equally increasing assertion of authority, playing on submissive doubt.

Compliance accepts all that, and copes with it very well. It adopts a sort of thriller format—yet the reveal is relatively early in the film, making the thriller aspect the question of just how far the staff will go, and how far the perpetrator will push, and indeed, whether he will get away with it, even to the point where Becky gets spanked—a sort of literal Milgram shock. The format only works on its own terms but also serves to put the audience into the same frame of mind as the staff: they are constantly checking their own reactions, perhaps, but not necessarily aware, that they are being manipulated in a manner not that far removed from the staff. After all, we surrender to the film-maker's authority and believe their version of reality.

It's also helped by some fine casting, particularly Ann Dowd as Sandra. This is also a movie about work, and the pressures of minimum-wage life in America; fear of losing a job is a great way to create a docile work-force, a reinforcement of obdience to authority in itself. Sandra may be one of life's losers, an adult dressed in a child's outfit, but she is also one of life's believers—a clear contrast to her workforce, who realise they are in a dead-end and are slackers as a result. She's matched perfectly by the hangdog features of Bill Camp as her 'fiance' Van, he conveys a 'not quite there' aspect that makes him perfect, particularly as he uses in all the wrong ways the sudden influence of authority granted him. Dreama Walker as Becky is also very good, conveying the right mix of not-quite beauty and not-quite confidence.

Pat Healy as 'Officer Daniels' is interesting. He's presented carefully as a kind of cliched Nazi, a Dr Mengele by phone, and he smokes, always a sign of extreme detachment from society's mores nowadays. But his voice is very much like the comedian Bob Newhart's, and Newhart's most famous routines involved his doing one side of phone calls between famous people, God and Noah, or Elizabeth I and Walter Raleigh. It's almost like sending the audience (at least that part old or savvy enough to recall Newhart) an additional reminder something else is going on.

Craig Zobel, who both wrote and directed, brings out the flatness, the primary colour drab, of his characters' lives, and cinematographer Adam Stone reinforces that with his use of shadowy spaces which signal an existential dilemma: when Becky is in the office/store room, it's a like a situation from a Sartre play. Their detachment from each other, the gap into which the phone cop intercedes. It takes the outsider to the group, Van, to realise what's going on. And when they do, the real cops seem too close to the pervert for comfort. In the end, we feel, the perversion and the experimentation are themselves too similar, and the movie and the events as well.

A postscript shows us what happens in 'real' life. Sandra lost Van, and her job. The fast-food chain was sued for not 'protecting' and employee, as if there were a training session or seminar that would be relevant to a fast-food manager's career. The suit further drove the staff apart, but it was the experiment that had already done that. And when asked, in the ugfaux-psychology of TV chat shows, whether she was 'brain-washed', Sandra replies, 'I did what I was told to do'.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

BEN WEIDER: THE 2008 GUARDIAN OBITUARY

In honour of Joe Weider's obit running in the Guardian, I went back and found my obit of his younger brother Ben, which I wrote for the G in December 2008, just around the time I started this blog, but which for some reason I never included here. You can link to it here

I love the contrast between the brothers. I mentioned in Joe's obit that, where Ben became a scholar of Napoleon, you might accuse Joe of harbouring a not-very-well concealed Napoleonic complex, the complex little man making himself big (in every sense of that word) with drive and ego to match.

They seem a perfectly matched pair: Ben staying in Montreal, becoming a philantropist, marrying a local girl and building the structure of their fitness empire, while Joe moved to California, married a pin-up, crashed Hollywood via Arnold, and constantly sold himself and his lifestyle alongside equipment, dietary supplements, and sage advice.

Both brothers were long-lived, but I wonder if they were the kind of men who would have been regardless of what avenues they'd pursued. I'm almost tempted to read Brothers Of Iron, except I suspect it contains a lot of, shall we say, mythologising--and any book with forewards by both Arnold and Juan A Samaranch can't be all good.

It's a fascinating story, and it makes me want to go back to Montreal and live near Park LaFontaine. The neighbourhood has changed, and I suppose it's too late for that now.




JOE WEIDER: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Joe Weider, the bodybuilding guru, is up at the Guardian online (link to it here) and should be in the paper paper today or soon. Obviously the big hook for the story was Arnold Schwarzenegger, for whose infliction on the wider world Joe can fairly be blamed. Had I but space enough and time, I might have gone back and rewatched the two films that made Arnold's career: Pumping Iron (my enduring memory is that Arnold's cruelty to Lou Ferrigno makes Ali's to Joe Frazier look tame) and Stay Hungry (my memory is all the faux philosophy doesn't quite work, though Jeff Bridges is great and Arnold seems to be playing himself, all ego, as the documentary had suggested, but also borrowed in large part from Joe, who was once quoted, when asked about his critics, as saying 'lots of people hate God too'.)

As you can see from the photo on the right, Joe practiced what he preached -- and as he grew older you can see the way he served as a walking advertisement for the Muscle Beach lifestyle. And, after all, he did live to be 93. It might also have been good to detail all the various ways Weider's products were under constant assault from regulators, and whether his miracle ingredients were really scraped off the sea bottom. Maybe Jack LaLanne (whose 2011 obit I wrote for the Indy, you can link to that here) held his breath and dived for them. Just kidding. But it's hard to overstate the effect of Weider ads, which were ubiquitous in my childhood, and strangely alluring. The 98 Pound Weakling of Charles Atlas fame was what Joe had been, and he knew how to sell to that adolescent (of all ages) insecurity. I was impressed to see that Joe's ghostwriter on his books about his bodybuilding system was Providence's Bill Reynolds, who's very good. But Joe's guides went beyond bodybuilding guide: I found a picture of the pamphlet on the left, and wonder how I missed this when I was young. It surely might have helped! It makes it pretty clear that the Arnold character in Stay Hungry certainly was modeled on Joe Weider.




Monday, 25 March 2013

FOOL ME TWICE: MICHAEL BRANDMAN'S ROBERT B PARKER

Considering that this is Michael Brandman's second outing with Robert B Parker's Jesse Stone, it was bold to title the novel Fool Me Twice. But if anything, Brandman is making Stone his character, not Parker's. As I mentioned when I reviewed his first Stone novel, Killing The Blues (you can link to that review here), Brandman's Stone is more of a loner, more aggressive, and somewhat darker than Parker's Stone was. Parker could make Stone's sometimes flippant attitude work because he was a master of quick scenes and sharp patter, he also delineated supporting characters quickly and with far more efficiency than Brandman's able to do.

Instead, Brandman has blended together three stories, and in each of them Stone is able to crack wise with pompous figures of authority. A movie production has come to town, and the leading lady fears she's being stalked by her soon-to-be-ex husband. A spoiled teenaged girl is driving while using her mobile and Jesse, as is his wont, takes her on as a personal project (though he never refers her to a shrink, as Parker's Jesse might have). And most bizarrely, what starts out as a nuisance call from an old busybody, about her water bills getting bigger, turns into something far more complicated. The stories don't cross over, but their concerns reinforce each other to some extent, keeping the plotlines going. And of course there is a bit of romance for Stone, but this Stone has no pesky ex-wife haunting him, no Sunny Parker either, and we quickly learn that the last novel's entanglement has disappeared.

Jesse has always been Parker's most problematic lead character—he's Spenser in many ways, but with more id and less ego (or super ego), and more of a lone wolf. Spenser kept him entertaining with his baseball past, his drinking, and his multi-layered problems with the opposite sex, but Brandman has eliminated most of that, and Jesse's sessions with his shrink. He's gained a more forward-driven plot, but lost some of the relative complexity of the character, and in terms of women, frankly, turned him into Tom Selleck on TV.

Here he brings back Parker's Crow, a figure much like Spenser's Hawk, only without the repartee. Crow was more a construct than a character, and his backstory with Jesse's deputy Molly is ignored, partly because Molly has become a different sort of character too. Crow doesn't do much except play his part in the plotline, which is OK since he'snot very interesting, but with the state cop Healy rendered one-dimensional as well, it leaves only Jesse and his verbal sparring partners as characters.

Taking over someone else's character is a thankless task. Stick too close to the established formula and you're riding coattails, change it and you're messing with the master. I wrote about this with Don Winslow's taking over Trevanian (link here), but it seems to me that what Brandman is trying to do is gently make this Stone his own, or better, the Stone who was already there in the TV movies which he and Parker collaborated on. It's not a bad way to proceed, but he needs to go all the way, and fill in the missing blanks of character around Stone to really make it work.


Fool Me Twice by Michael Brandman
Quercus £18.99 ISBN 9781782064763

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

Sunday, 17 March 2013

ACE ATKINS' THE RANGER

If you listened to Open Book today (see the previous post) you would have heard Ace Atkins explaining the influence of Elmore Leonard on his new novel, The Ranger, particularly Leonard's western Last Stand At Sabre River, in which a Confederate soldier home from the Civil War has to fight to reclaim his homestead which has been taken by ex-Union men. There's also a respectful TV movie of the book, starring Tom Selleck. Elmore Leonard provides a blurb for Atkins' new novel, and justifiably so, but the influences on this book go far beyond Leonard's work, and come from two directions.

The returning soldier finding the home front different and corrupt enough for him to have lost what is his goes back a long way, and not just in the western (think of film noir, The Blue Dahlia for example). And there are countless films modelled after the original Walking Tall (although in that one Buford Pusser came home not from war but from wrestling), among which Rolling Thunder might be considered crucial.

The home Quinn Colson comes back to Jericho upon the death of his uncle is the hill country of northeast Mississippi. Colson is still in the Army Rangers; in fact he shows up having won a gun a poker game, and bought a truck in Phenix City, Alabama (if you haven't seen Phil Karlson's great noir film, The Phenix City Story, in which ex-servicemen clean up the most corrupt small town in America, you need to, but until you do you'll miss what that signals). Colson doesn't believe his uncle, a sherrif, killed himself, and he finds his uncle's land is being claimed by the local bigwig, Johnny Stagg.

Stagg has his fingers in lots of pies, some legitimate and many less so. This includes meth cooking, which has become the equivalent of train robbing in the new west. Colson encounters, by chance (echoes of Mickey Spillane) a pregnant teen, travelling to Jericho to find the baby's father. Along the way Colson will also have to deal with his ex-girlfriend, now married, and his sister, now run off and leaving a bi-racial baby behind for her mother to tend. This may be the new south, but it is the same violent south that has been written about since before the Civil War, the south of Jesse James and Deliverance, of Southern Comfort, of Daniel Woodrell's country noir and James Carlos Blake's In The Rogue Blood, the modern south of Leonard's Justified or Atkins' own novel of 1950s corruption in Tampa, White Shadow (you can find my review, written two years ago, of that novel here).

Colson finds some allies (this isn't quite High Noon), and stands his ground, and it is resolved finally in a shootout which, again if you heard Ace explain this you will already know, bears more than a little resemblance to the gunfight at the OK Corral (Doc Holiday, of course, was a southerner).

So it is a western, and it's done with some penache. It reminds me in some ways of when George Pelecanos turned to echoing western tropes in his novels; the prose is more straightforward than, say, White Shadow's,
moving more forcefully. It's closer to Leonard, and it also shows signs of the style which may have prompted Robert B Parker's estate to decide on Atkins to continue the Spenser series. Parker's greatest strength was the ability to set small scenes, through dialogue, that drew portraits of characters quickly and efficiently; there were those in bit parts in the Spenser series whom readers felt they knew, or recognised, in the space of only a few paragraphs. Atkins can do this, and he needs to do it more fully with some of the more major characters, because he has clearly set this up to become a series, and there are already conflicts and ambiguities enough for books to come.

The Ranger is a good start. Again, as he said on Open Book, he'd moved closer and closer to the present day in his novels; it seems to me that by appropriating western themes he also leaves himself some room to do other things within that modern setting. I haven't yet read Atkins' version of Spenser, but since Parker himself also went to westerns, both in Spenser novels and directly in his Cole and Hitch novels, this would seem a rich vein to mine.

The Ranger by Ace Atkins
Corsair, £12.99, ISBN 9781472100313

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

MODERN WESTERNS: MARIELLA, ACE & ME ON OPEN BOOK

I was on the BBC Radio 4 programme Open Book today, with host Mariella Frostrup and the writer Ace Atkins, to talk about westerns. The hook was two radio adaptations of western novels which will air on R4: Elmore Leonard's Hombre (you can see my take on the book, which I read recently, here), at 2:30 next Saturday 23rd, and Jack Schaefer's Shane the following Saturday. You can find programme on IPlayer here, for at least the next week, and it will be repeated on Thursday 21/3 at 3:30pm --it's a good listen, with Kate Atkinson preceeding us, and an interesting discussion of betting on the Womens Prize for Fiction. Which, had I heard it, might have prompted me to note that westerns serve, for America, much the same function as costume drama does for Britain; it's way of reassuring the present by showing its roots in the past.

This was a discussion that was immense fun when we recorded it in the studio, and it's also one that could have go off in any number of directions--I could easily have traced the western through Fenimore Cooper's Deerslayer through Melville's Confidence Man to Nick Carter--the dime novel western hero who becomes Nick Carter the detective later on--but Ace drew the comparison, of 'gunslingers moved to town', which made it unnecessary.

We might also have delved a little further into the connection between movies and novels, in reverse perhaps, because as Ace made clear, movies influence writers' own concepts of the west as much as books used to fertilise Hollywood's west. I probably ought to have made clear another distinction: westerns were a major part of the pulpy and slick magazine fictions just as film was coming into being--The Great Train Robbery, after all, was the first narrative film--but the movies' immense appetite for westerns was expressed primarily in B features, serials, and the like--John Wayne made many forgettable westerns in between Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail and John Ford's Stagecoach. Then television did the same thing in its early days--wringing the genre dry to the point that from the middle Sixties onward, we get western films that are in many ways commentaries on the genre and its conventions.


One thing that was cut was the question of what our favourite western novel actually is: Ace chose True Grit (our discussion of which also fell by the wayside) and I was torn between True Grit, Warlock by Oakley Hall and Little Big Man by Thomas Berger. Have a listen to the programme as it stands; you'll like it.


SODERBERGH'S SIDE EFFECTS: JUDE LAW & DISORDER

There was a point in Side Effects where I realised that what I was watching was an episode of Law & Order with compressed air pumped into it; perhaps it was as I started to envisage Elaine Stritch arguing to Sam Waterston that Rooney Mara had been driven beyond rational understanding by having to watch Jude Law act (call it Jude Law & Disorder?). Then the film began to morph, and starting trying to become an episode of Law & Order as it might have been directed by Alfred Hitchock, or someone thinking maybe he could be the next Hitch.

That may be somewhat harsh to what is an entertaining enough movie that I assume picked up a lot of serious cred because the critics and the Hollywood community saw it as an 'issue' film, and maybe because they were able to compare notes on their own prescriptions. Soderbergh has show he can keep this sort of movie moving along, playing with time sometimes, and, in this case, playing with style as well—imitating commercials, setting New York City backgrounds to reflect characters, and even recreating a perfect Edward Hopper shot. It is a pleasure to follow.

In effect, it's a film of two halves, as Law's British-educated psychiatrist, Jonathan Banks, first finds his career and life falling apart when a patient of his murders her husband while she's suffering side effects of drugs he's prescribed. Then it switches pace as the now rock-bottom Law begins to see a different pattern in what has happened, and manages to outwit the people who have outwitted the law as well as Law. That second half becomes very mechanical, and since some of it has been telegraphed – Catharine Zeta Jones seems always to be shot in a sort of dark-grained Seventies look that is the visual equivalent to those four bass notes on the movie-house organ – not least because horn-rimmed glasses do not a psychiatrist make; she's the least-likely shrink since Barbara Streisand in Prince Of Tides.

Law is actually perfect for the first part of the movie; he's got the classic film noir combination of being too cute for his own good and not half as smart as he thinks he is. He needed to pay attention when Emily tells him 'I thought sick people sometimes make things up.' Thus, as his life collapses around him, he's a break-down about to happen. It is also interesting the way his support system: wife and partners, desert him so quickly—this seems to be one of Soderbergh's major concerns, and indeed when the film is resolved it is with the family put back together, like a Disney film. The point seems to be that New York is rougher than Durham University. And in fact, Vinessa Shaw, as Banks' wife Deidre, seemed to be playing the wife in the film version of Jo Nesbo's Headhunters.

But in the second half, Law somehow manages to outsmart the two women who thus far have shown themselves to be smarter than him, and, in the case of Rooney Mara's Emily, capable of acting him under the table too. He seems to be morphing, with his devil's peak, into Kaiser Sosay. Mara's performance is somewhat flashy, in the sense that, like Tim Robbins in Mystic River, there's a lot of shuffling around, but it's at the edges that she really shines—the character isn't that far removed from Lisbeth Salander, but Mara is probably the challenger to Jennifer Lawrence right now.

Worth noting, however, is the lesbian undercurrent, another similarity with the Salander role. I kept thinking this was some kind of double-level play with Michael Douglas and Fatal Attraction, but it was pretty obvious rather early on that there was something going on, and it was a little disappointing to see that kind of Jerry Falwell male fantasy that has women lovers become husband-killers. Channing Tatum, the husband who's gone to jail for insider trading, and becomes the victim, seems almost as doped up as his wife, whether that's freedom, prison, or the effects of big financial business in New York I could not say. And I'm not sure why Mara's Emily would have to teach Dr Seifert about derivatives if what she were doing was simply shorting pharmaceutical stocks.

But the finish rings false until it gets to the single successful Hitchockian moment, Banks' revenge on Emily, by keeping her medicated in a facility. There are moments of late Fifties Hitch: the interview with Russell Jones excellent as the medical ethics investigator, or even Michael Nathanson's strangely detached DA. But there are others redolent of Law & Order, especially Polly Draper's scene-stealing turns as Emily's boss. In the end, however, as you watch Banks' partners, or the drug company reps, or the characters in the commercials, you begin to wonder if this is Soderbergh's foray into David Cronenberg territory, and how it would have played out had it gone in that direction. Side Effects proves yet again how facile and effective a genre director Soderbergh can be--you get the sense he looks at a script and breaks it down, then puts it back together in his own way, hopping genres. He would have been excellent in the old studio system, if he were allowed to be.