Friday, 31 May 2013

EASY IS BACK! WALTER MOSLEY'S LITTLE GREEN

Walter Mosley left Easy Rawlins for dead at the end of his last novel, but Little Green opens with Easy coming back from the dead, reviving from a coma and into the land of the living. It was Mouse who, prompted by the sixth sense of Mama Jo's juju, found and saved Easy, and now Mouse, the deadly Raymond Alexander, has something he wants Easy to do for him in return, namely locate a young boy named Evander who's gone missing on Sunset Strip, and whose mother is worried sick. But Timbale, the mother, despises Mouse, and would neither ask for nor accept his help. So Easy stumbles out of the sick bed and back into the land of the living, fuelled by Mama Jo's gator juice, a brew that appears to turn him into something like a super hero, at least for brief periods of time.

That's some set up, and this novel serves to remind readers like me, who may have drifted away from Mosley's work, feeling it had lost some of the urgency which made it so effective when Easy first came on the scene, of exactly how good Mosley can be when he is on. It's 1967, and Easy is in his mid-40s. Los Angeles has been hit by the counter-culture; Evander disappeared on a trip, taken almost on a dare, to see the hippies on Sunset Strip. This heralds a new age, of sorts, new attitudes whose depth remains to be challenged. Because this is also Los Angeles still feeling the aftermath of the Watts riots,and it here where Mosley is so good, because there are two different perspectives to the Sixties, black and white, and through Easy we are reminded of how they differ.

In that sense, Mosley often reminds me most of the documentary film maker Ken Burns, whose major projects, on the Civil War, on baseball, and on jazz, have all actually been about the centrality of race in the American experience, and that is Mosley's theme as well. The mystery at the heart of his first novel, Devil In A Blue Dress, whose backstory comes up in Little Green, was one of racial identity, and he revisits that powerfully here. What Easy has always done, for the reader, is to mix the values American society purports to cherish, especially those of family and education, and which Easy shares, with the reality of how hard it is to actually draw the benefits of such values in a racist society. Surviving in Easy's America means being part Easy and part Mouse, and even in the Sixties, with some attitudes changing, there are many more that are not. Indeed, you might argue that Mosley's best novels have all been concerned with sociological history, and in that sense he's probably closer to Ross MacDonald than any of the other great LA crime writers.

I like the way Mosley has taken his characters through post-war LA, like a much less apocalyptic Ellroy, or like Max Allen Collins' Nate Heller without the big events of history. In fact, Heller and Easy would make an interesting partnership around, say, the RFK assassination or the Hearst kidnapping and the SLA. Just a thought. He's also aware of his own place in detective fiction, at least by proxy. There's an interesting exposition on the importance of Chester Himes,and his being more important than Ralph Ellison, for the precise reason that he was more productive; Invisible Man, perhaps unfairly, gets seen as the book white literature accepted partly because it was a 'one-off'. You can't help but think Mosley is talking about himself when he talks about Himes.

Anyway, Evander's been given LSD by a friendly hippie, and he's become a literally unknowing accomplice to the rip-off of some big time drug dealers—the drug being pot in this case, underscoring the dark side beneath the groovy vibe of the Strip. As Easy returns to life, bit by bit with the help of Mama Jo's gator blood, he reassembles his family, and he even reunites with Bonnie, the love he thought lost forever. Which doesn't prevent his getting his first experience of the free love era. Free love would not faze a black man in Los Angeles, not as much as the lack of racial barrier. But barriers are starting to fall, which is something Mosley approaches with commendable caution. For Easy, it's simply good to have been 'recalled to life', as the phrase once went.

Little Green by Walter Mosley

Weidenfeld & Nicholson/Orion £18.99 ISBN 9780297870067

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


THE COLLEGE INFLUENCE ON THE NFL, AND THE NFL INFLUENCE ON GRAMMAR

My off-season nfluk.com column, cleverly retitled Friday Monthly Tight End, has just been posted on their website; you can link to it here. It's really an overview, because there wasn't space to get too specific about each issue, but it does focus primarily on the Philadelphia Eagles and their new coach, Chip Kelly from the University of Oregon, and the Kansas City Chiefs and their new coach, Andy Reid, late of the Eagles. There's a certain ouroborous-like logic to that which I like.

There is also a passage where I use a few coaches names in the plural, indicating they are examples of a trend, but the plurals (eg: Sabans, Davises) have been changed to possessives (Saban's, Davis') by forces beyond my control. The curmudgeon in me, fuelled by years of diagramming sentences in elementary school (we didn't call them grammar schools for nothing!). Nowaday's it appear's their are few things left sacredized. Writing that sentence just made me feel better!

And of course, the error has already been corrected on nfluk.com.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

JACK VANCE: AN APPRECIATION

I've been reading some of the obituaries and appreciations of Jack Vance and yet again feeling there is something I have missed. I've tried twice to get into Vance's work--once when I was in college and reading a lot of sf and quite a bit of sword & sorcery, and my roommate Rico (actually, Reeko, but that's another story) suggested him. But it never clicked, and I moved on.

The second time was when I first moved to Britain, and was down in Sussex with my wife's family. Vance was one of the things, besides pipe tobacco, which united my father in law, James Tower, who was one of the world's best potters and a fine sculptor as well, and his son Nick, who was an emergency room doctor in Thunder Bay, Ontario. James would find the paperbacks in junk shops and they would read them with delight, passing them back and forth like kids with comic books. I gave it another try, but again the spark was just not there.

In the past couple of decades I've picked up some of Vance's later books but put them down without getting far, and I've tried a couple of the classics with similar non-results. It's hard not to keep trying with a guy who basically invented two main strains of what the Science Fiction Encyclopedia calls 'Planetary Romance', each exemplified by the titles of Vance's novels, The Dying Earth and Big Planet. I suppose Planetary Romance is itself an offshoot of Space Opera, and Vance also wrote a novel called Space Opera, in which opera companies go into space. His work was basically borrowed for the concept of the original Dungeons and Dragons, although that in itself was nothing to recommend it to me. Now, once again, in the wake of reading so much about Vance, I've attempted to figure out why I haven't become a follower.

My sense was that Vance's style was somewhat too baroque for me. The diction is mannered, the vocabularly often flowery or exaggerated, often for comic or ironic effect. And the novels often drift, never getting beyond the set-up. They concentrate on the characters, with a realistic attitude to the vicissitudes of life, particularly its evil, which has been an obvious influence on any number of writers, particularly in fantasy, who've brought that anti-heroic modern sensibility to their work--I'm thinking particularly of Ursula LeGuin, Gene Wolfe (another writer I admire, but have had trouble with), Glen Cook or George RR Martin.

But it occurred to me that the genre writer Vance most resembles may be Raymond Chandler. It's a stylistic thing, where Chandler's prose often becomes perfumed in its metaphoric flourishes, but they both labour under a sensibility that is hard-boiled on the surface but romantic underneath. Like Vance, Chandler's early novels show the signs of his skill at shorter lengths, and are often stitched-up. And like Vance, Chandler eventually began taking advantage of longer forms--though not to the extent of Vance's Lyonesse or Cadwal series; both much more expansive. John Clute in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia recommends Vance's 1996 novel Night Lamp as being 'remarkably complex'-- I think of Chandler's Long Goodbye. Interestingly, I have read a couple of Vance's Ellery Queen novels (Ted Sturgeon also wrote under the Queen pseudonym) and his style is well-suited for Queen's somewhat fruity tone. If you gave such a tone to Philip Marlowe you'd probably have someone very close to Cugel.

What strikes me about Vance is that he has fun with his imagination, and he treats his characters as adults with the kind of dry sense of humour, the kind of cracking wise, that appeals to the idealistic adolescent in many adult readers. Unlike Chandler, Vance didn't reach a mainstream audience, but like him he has been appreciated by some mainstream critics and, as I mentioned, been a huge influence to any number of writers who have become best-sellers, received mainstream critical acclaim, or indeed both.

I suspect it's time for another Vance revival in my reading life. Perhaps this time it will be third-time lucky.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

STEVE NILES AND MENTON3'S TRANSFUSION

Transfusion is a haunting post-apocalyptic tale, of a world inhabited by a few surviving humans, the giant robots they created, sort of like Fred Saberhagen's Beserkers, but who use human blood as fuel, and the vampires who need to save the humans from the robots for their own purposes. It opens with a group of humans being led to a small patch of corn, which we discover is bait, but before they can be harvested by vampires, robots attack, setting the stage for a complicated triangle of blood lust.

I say blood lust, but Steve Niles' story is really more about survival—and the art, by Menton3, emphasizes this brilliantly. Everything is washed out, in the tired shades of faded life. The bodies are skeletal, already ghost-like, as if haunted. There are elements of Weimar Germany's expressionism (think Nosferatu) and a few hints at Frank Kline's abstract expressionism too. But the way the vampires are drawn is itself unusual: their multiple needle-like teeth are less Nosferatu and more as if they were wearing some sort of Clive Barker fetish masks, they carry a real sense of desperation, almost helplessness.

The story otherwise proceeds as a learning process, whereby William, the vampire leading the humans in the opening sequence, is saved by, and needs to cooperate with, two humans in order for them all to survive. And when the major twist is revealed, and we learn why the robots are powered by blood, we realise why both humans and vampires are indeed haunted. I Transfusion reads to me like the script (and the additional material in the book includes some of Niles' script) for a particularly good episode of the Twilight Zone, and the art makes it look like a masterpiece of direction. A vampire story that's far more Twilight Zone than Twilight is nothing to sneer at these days, and Transfusion is an impressive piece of work.

t's not a happy ending, per se, but that's the point.

Transfusion
written by Steve Niles, art by Menton3 with Tony Moy
IDW $17.99 ISBN 9781613775998

Sunday, 19 May 2013

DAVID THOMAS' OSTLAND

Ostland is an ambitious and very powerful novel that reflects the ultimate incomprehensibility of the Holocaust. Beginning with the framework of a crime story, David Thomas has made a brave effort to face what was, at heart, the crime of the last century, and perhaps his book struggles in the same way and for the same reasons we all struggle.

The novel, which is based on the true story of Georg Hauser, the Berlin detective credited with hunting down the S-Bahn Killer, who eventually was prosecuted as a war criminal. The first act details Hauser's joining the murder squad for the investigation, and its success in finding a serial killer, one who turns out to be impressively mundane. In the second act, Hauser is assigned to the East, the Ostland of the book's title, where he is responsible for the implementation of the final solution to the Jewish problem. The third act, which actually interweaves the other two, involves Hauser's trial, 15 years after the war, 20 after the S-Bahn killer was apprehended, and follows Paula Siebert, the only woman on the investigating unit, and the one assigned to interview Hauser.

The first act sets the scene superbly—as Hauser is shown to be someone without any fanatical calling for the Nazi cause, but with a keen eye toward self-advancement. The very existence of the S-Bahn killer calls the whole German society into question, much as the very existence of the Rostov Ripper was denied in the Soviet Union, a point that was central to Child 44. Thomas creates a fascinating tightrope for Hauser to walk, as he (and his boss) know the killer is likely not a Jew, but must continue to play to the racial prejudices of their superiors, right up to Heydrich himself.

Of course, this turns into stunning shadowing as Hauser becomes immersed in the business of eliminating Jews, watching himself and his fellow civilised Germans turn into serial killers one and all. The story, like the first section, is told by Hauser himself, and where his career as a rookie detective on the country's biggest case is told with an almost na├»ve taste, the narrative of mass-murder contains not a little self-service, if not pity, alongside its rationalisation. Thomas has also captured the matter-of-fact approach adopted by Hauser to his , something that seems to have been commonplace in the post-war revelations, and which seems almost inevitable—as well even more chilling. The parallel between Hauser and the S-Bahn killer is brought out more fully in this similarity.

It also reflects the self-serving nature of Hauser's testimony as Siebert interviews him. He is a skilled interrogator himself, and to an extent he is playing with her, as much as he plays with the ambiguities he understands all too well from experience. When society makes crime part of its raison d'etre, who is the criminal? Hauser plays with other moral equivalencies—the firebombings of German towns by the RAF, for example, which chill us even as they give us pause. Thomas is doing what Hauser wants to do, make us consider how to mitigate the evil he did.

The novel slows down toward the end. We don't need to know what the actual document Siebert finds in the Soviet archives, that confirms Hauser's guilt, actually is; we have seen enough and we can inuit it from the rest of the story. But knowing it would give us a sense of satisfaction; we want to follow the courtroom more closely, and see justice done.

Similarly, Hauser's falling for a beautiful Jewess and saving her and her siblings might well be true, but it feels too melodramatic, not least in the way he tries to turn it into a virtue to balance against his other acts. And Siebert's ill-fated relationship with her boss, Kraus, seems almost pointless, except it gives Thomas a way to stage a final discussion in which Kraus tries to explain Hauser's behaviour, and that of countless other Germans, under the Nazis, while commenting on Germany's reluctance to punish him and others more harshly. This is the ultimate ambiguity, and it may explain why, in the end, Siebert sends Kraus back to his family, to his place in that society. She, like us, is disappointed not to get more closure, to use the modern term. And that is the final ambiguity, and truth, which Thomas stares down frankly and honestly. His book is perhaps less of a thriller as a result, but it is more chilling, colder and more nightmarish, as a result. One of Hauser's most self-serving statements, which he tells Hannah, the 'mischling' Jewess he saves, is none the less true. She accuses him of being the Devil, and he replies 'I'll tell you something about the Devil I didn't previously understand. He's in Hell, just as much as the people he torments.'

Ostland by David Thomas

Quercus £16.99 ISBN 9781780877365 

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

Friday, 17 May 2013

BILLIE SOL ESTES: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Billie Sol Estes, the flamboyant Texas fraudster whose accusations against Lyndon Johnson are one of the more fascinating sidelines of the JFK assassination, in online at the Guardian, and ought to be in the paper paper tomorrow (link to it here).

Estes accused Johnson of, in effect, ordering the hit on Kennedy, ostensibly to prevent his being dumped from the Vice Presidency in the wake of the Bobby Baker and Estes scandals. The theory gains traction because many of the deaths Estes attributed to Mac Wallace, who in this scenario was LBJ's private hit-man, can be verified--there is little doubt, for example, that it was Wallace who murdered Henry Marshall. But the print found in the Texas School Book Depository may be 'close' to Wallace's, but that doesn't mean it matches, and in the blow-ups of both prints I've seen I'd have to agree with those who say it doesn't.

Furthermore, the likelihood of Johnson's being dropped from the ticket far from a given. Kennedy was in Dallas in November 1963 to try and unify the Texas Democratic party, and he would have thought twice before dropping a southerner to run against Arizona's Barry Goldwater. But I'm not sure the scandal mud stuck to Lyndon. It's not like the Baker and Estes cases weren't publicized; I'm old enough to recall Time and Life magazine's takes on them--Life was wonderful in those days (allowing for its right-wing slanting) in its ability to dramatise crime and scandal, and Estes' self-aggrandizing style played right into that. I sort of associate Estes and his ammonia tanks with Nike missiles and Mercury space capsules in my recall of that America: the picture on the front of Estes' own book is the one from the cover of Time, except instead of a Texas flag, Estes was shown in front of an ammonia tank. Apparently, it was the biggest selling issue of Time to that point. So it's hard to see Johnson dying in the face of more coverage. In fact Goldwater ran against what he called 'a sordid picture of favoritism and fraud' by LBJ and look where that got him.

I've always been reluctant to see Johnson as an active participant in any plot against JFK--though I can see many who were plotting counting on his being a president more friendly to their point of view. It's hard to find him guilty based on Estes testimony--though there are others who've argued his involvement, and even claimed to have witnessed aspects of it--but there is a massive can of Texas worm still less than fully open.

I would have loved to have more space to delineate the details of Estes' career and fraud, and also to tell more about Oscar Griffin Jr., whose reporting basically sent Estes to jail. It was old fashioned journalism. I thought about because I've been reading the second volume of Forgive My Grief, by Penn Jones Jr., another Texas local journalist, who did yeoman work chronicling the unlikely death of som many witnesses and others involved around in the JFK killing. In the context of the deaths that followed Estes around, it seems prescient.


Wednesday, 8 May 2013

SARAH PINBOROUGH'S MAYHEM

It's odd that people still get excited when the crime and horror genres bleed into each other, since it's a natural slipstream which has been explored since at least the Victorian times. It's not just that horror involves the perpetrating of crimes, but there's also a stylistic merger: just as an example, point of view serial killer novels or police procedurals often follow the slow reveal and then gory suspense of the horror thriller. Like all genre blends, it works best when elements associated with one are brought into another, as John Connolly did by bringing a hard-boiled detective sensibility into a horror setting. Or maybe it was the other way around.

It's something that Sarah Pinborough has done with Mayhem, a mixture of crime thriller, police procedural, and horror set in the London of Jack the Ripper, and specifically dealing with the so-called Thames Torso murders, which were contemporaneous with the Ripper killings, and similarly unsolved. The novel follows the police surgeon, Thomas Bond, one of a number of characters who were real players in the Ripper and Torso hunts, and uses a number of other historical figures as well. This works particularly well because it sets up a parallel pathway—Pinborough's novel starts as a procedural, and moves slowly but inexorably into the horror mode, but as Bond gets more and more involved with the Torso murders, the stark reality of the Ripper killings provides an anchor in criminal reality, and reminds us that not all horror is supernatural. A modern trope, at least since Silence Of The Lambs, has been the empathetic understanding between monster and pursuer; here we get Bond relying on a pepped up version of his opium dream to be able to commune with the horror directly.

Bond himself is otherwise a somewhat diffident hero and reluctant investigator. He is an opium addict, needing the drug to escape from the brutal reality of his job—I was reminded of Noodles in Once Upon A Time In America during some of the opium den scenes—and the repressive reality of Victorian England. It's something from which he seems almost afraid to break free, and here again Pinborough is drawing subtly the link between the repression that characterises society and the brutal expression of rage that shocks it. This isn't new, not since Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but it benefits from the relatively modern attitude that the horror writers brings. Thus his relationship with his colleague's daughter echoes some of the best moments of Dracula, not least because it needs to transcend the small-world coincidences that draw the protagonists together.

Pinborough is also remarkably good at conveying the feel of the time, in dialogue and narration, without going to stilted period usage. A few small things ring awkwardly, particularly in some of the newspaper extracts, but this blending of period and modern is the kind of thing costumed crime drama on BBC has tried to do (Ripper Street) with far less success. To an extent, this is helped by the way Pinborough pans away from the Ripper killings, as if reminding us that behind our preoccupation with them, there were other literal horrors taking place, and back seat, to them.

Her book is strongest at the start, as Pinborough sets the scene and delineates the killings. The advantage here is that, as you would in a good crime novel, she creates enough ambiguity to keep the reader uneasy about the actual provenance of any of the characters, including Bond. She even introduces Aaron Kosminski, historically one of the Ripper suspects, but gives him what turns out to be a very different role. The characterising is sharpest here, because of that ambiguity. At the point the horror behind, literally, the murders is revealed, much of that ambiguity disappears, and the story becomes a much more straight-forward tale of how that horror is going to be tracked down and defeated. Here is where the characters in the final confrontation might need deeper drawing out, and indeed following the climactic confrontation there might have also been some further settling of issues—though a sequel, Murder, is already in the works, and may fill in some of those blanks.

If you think of how most serial killer novels, once the killer's identity is known, become a race against the clock, here the switch to the nominal horror villain gives Pinborough an edge, in which the clock is only part of the equation. But the story builds well, pulling the reader in, then races to a climax which does satisfy, at least enough to make the wait too long until the sequel appears.

Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough
Quercus/Jo Fletcher £14.99 ISBN 9781780871257

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

THOMAS H. COOK UNCOVERS THE CRIME OF JULIAN WELLS

Many of Thomas Cook's characters live on life's periphery. They are watchers, often writers, people who observe but hesitate to jump freely into life's maelstroms. Philip Anders is such a man, but when his best friend rows out to the middle of a lake and slices his wrists, Anders needs to find out why, and find out exactly what is the crime that drove Julian Welles to his death.

Welles was a writer too, but not a critic like Anders. He travelled, and he wrote of places immersed in human cruelty, a veritable catalogue of all the worst crimes that lie within the capabilities of man. But he was not a part of that, in fact, as we read on we get the impression that Anders may have been doing some sort of personal penance, or at least investigation, of the motivations behind this behaviour. Nothing is really what it seems, and Philip, who thought he knew his friend, realises that he knew nothing important about him, in part because he knows so little important about the world. Philip is aware of this: 'I had little doubt that Julian had often found himself floating in some similar sea of strangeness, isolated, friendless, knowing little of the language or the customs, short of money, with only history's most vile miscreants to occupy his mind.' Note the way the poetry of alliteration early in the sentence lulls you, in an almost horror story way, before the straightforward tone of Philip's own analysis explains his understanding.

Cook has written a lovely, though chilling, Chinese box of a novel, full of hidden compartments, mirrors in which things are reflected from different angles, and panels that tell the same story from other perspectives. The tale moves very slowly; its format almost cliched in its simplicity, as Philip, later accompanied by Julian's sister Rosetta, moves through the maze from person to person, each adding another bit to Julian's story, each bit causing him to re-evaluate both Julian and himself. The tale takes him back to a vacation trip the two young men took to Argentina, and Marisol, the travel guide they met, who was 'disappeared', as the term goes, in the days of the junta. Philip's one true instinct is that her disappearance is the key to the story, and his pursuit of that story is one of repeatedly lifting covers, opening curtains, or raising blinds, to see what lies behind.

This may sound less than thrilling, and Cook himself is aware of that. As Philip explains: 'In a thriller it would be others who are trying to keep me from finding things out. They'd be shooting at me or trying to run me down in a car. But in this case it seems to be Julian who's covering his tracks'.

But as is often the case in Cook's novels, we, as readers, find ourselves standing in Philip's shoes, seeing through his eyes, just as limited in vision as he is. The real beauty of Cook's writing, the thing that makes him so appreciated and perhaps accounts for his simultaneous under-appreciation,is his ability to weave a thriller in this fashion. It is the minutiae of observation, of human understanding, of relationships, that form the crux of this book. Perhaps indeed the greatest crimes are the ones we commit unknowingly. As Philip is told: 'Betrayal is like a landslide in your soul, no?' he said. 'After it, you cannot regain your footing'.

The Crime of Julian Wells by Thomas H. Cook

Mysterious Press/Head Of Zeus, £16.99, ISBN 9781908800145

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


Wednesday, 1 May 2013

MICHAEL GOLDFARB'S 'MISSION ACCOMPLISHED' MAYDAY MOMENT

Today is May 1st, which in many parts of the world, though not in either of my two countries, is a time for working people to celebrate and contemplate some sort of solidarity. This year, I thought of the international distress signal, 'mayday! mayday!' when an essay by my friend Michael Goldfarb reminded me that today is also the tenth anniversary of Shrub Bush's Top Gun moment, when he landed on the flight deck of the carrier Abraham Lincoln in his jumpsuit, to the carefully choeroegraphed dropping of a huge banner saying 'Mission Accomplished'. A decade later, after untold deaths, a new President, an entrenching of government policies allowing torture, encouraging repression, and increasing control over day to day life, the main question has become to which mission was Bush referring, and how long will it continue, accomplished or not?

Goldfarb has written an essay, posted to his blog, which deserves a much wider readership. It is a meditation on the nature of freedom as much as the nature of war, and it's based on his own first-hand sobering experience. We disagreed over the waging of the second Iraqi war, but when it began Michael was there, an unembedded correspondent, and he saw the so-called liberation of Iraq first hand, accompanied by his friend Ahmad Shawkat. That's them in the photo above. His essay, one of an occasional series he calls History In A Time Of Forgetting, is titled 'And Would It Have Been Worth It, After All'. You can link to it here. 

If what he says resonates with you, I'd suggest you read his book, Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace, which is both a brilliant exegesis of the war and a moving tribute to his friend. Although it was a New York Times notable book of the year, its balance and honesty seem to have left it, and Michael, underappreciated in certain areas of the mainstream, but it is a rewarding experience, and today's essay is a small distillation of that.