Saturday, 21 September 2013

PAUL THOMAS' DEATH ON DEMAND

I have to confess; I pulled Paul Thomas' novel off the 'to read' shelf as soon as I returned from a too-short trip to New Zealand, and tore through it. It may be the most Chandlerian detective novel I've read in a long time. This is a compliment, but not in the way you might think.

What Death on Demand is not is descriptive of Aotearoa, neither the land nor the cities in which the action takes place. Neighbourhoods are barely sketched in, there's little of the background life, and even individual locations have none of the detail which Chandler uses to give clues about the nature of his characters and the character and the nature of Los Angeles. Nor is it written in the kind of wise-cracking first-person prose, full of evocative similies and wry commentary that translated so well into the mouths of actors like Bogart, or closer to Marlowe himself, Dick Powell or James Garner.

Tito Ihaka shares with Marlowe is a healthy disrespect for authority—though unlike Chandler's idealist, he is a realist who has stayed in his job in the police, because, as one character puts it, what else would he do? Plus, Tito is a Maori, and as such has a healthy outsider's scepticism about the pakeha who run New Zealand. Scepticism, in Marlowe's case, is idealism smashed on the shores of reality, but Ihaka was never an idealist. This seems to appeal to women; like Marlowe he sometimes has them throwing themselves at him, but where Marlowe, ever the schoolboyish knight of Chandler's imagination, usually keeps them at arm's length, always aware of the potential for ulterior motives, Ihaka again is more realistic.

But what made me think of Chandler was the depth of the story, the way it works back in time, through layers of society, through people who are not the people they seem, and through intense corruption, personal and institutional, at every layer. Thomas' picture of New Zealand society is drawn through the aspirations and limitations of the characters, through the goals of success they've been set within their society, and the brilliant way every personal conversation can have many layers. This works best when Ihaka is involved, and as I write this, it strikes me that he bears more relation to Hammett's Continental Op than to Chandler's Marlowe, but Ihaka is, in effect, a sounding-board for all sections of the society he protects.

Not least in the police department itself. I'm partial to tales of the infighting within the police, the way the bureaucracy often works against crime-solving, especially as one moves up the social strata. In that sense New Zealand is a small town, and you very much get the sense that to some cops, 'it's Chinatown', that, as in the best hard-boiled fictions, many crimes cannot be solved, or if solved, cannot be punished.

Ihaka is brought back to Auckland from exile in Greytown (both places I know) because a well-connected man Ihaka was convinced had staged his wife's accidental death wants to speak to him. Ihaka's refusal to leave the man alone was what had hime shipped to the Wairapa in the first place, that and knocking out his police nemesis in a men's room and pissing, literally, all over him. Now he's back, and he's looking for an anonymous hitman who did commit that murder, and others besides. The story is as compicated as the best of Chandler, with as many twists; I thought of The Little Sister, Farewell My Lovely, and The Lady In The Lake at various times, and that is high praise indeed. As I said, it's told in the third person, with the narration jumping times and characters, but the prose works best when Ihaka's on stage, and he's drawn well enough to get the reader identifying with him, and making it almost like the first-person when you see through Marlowe's eyes. The first three Ihaka novels appeared in the mid-1990s; is so good I'd lobby for Bitter Lemon to bring them all back into print in this country.

Death On Demand

Death On Demand by Paul Thomas
Bitter Lemon Press, £8.99, ISBN 9781908524171

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

Monday, 16 September 2013

STILL SILENT AFTER ALL THESE YEARS: SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY

What is most significant about this 25th anniversary edition of
The Silence Of The Lambs, apart from the fact it was first published in 1989, is that its cover is taken from the poster of the movie, which appeared in 1991. This is appropriate because it was Jonathan Demme's film which propelled Thomas Harris' novel into the consciousness of the mainstream, and along the way turned Hannibal Lecter into a franchise.

This is not to demean Harris' accomplishment as a novelist. Re-reading Silence shows immediately how influential the book (and the film) have been—serial killer tropes merely touched on here have spawned a thousand copycat imitators. Even better, the novel itself does more than hold up, on re-reading it is just as taut and involving now as it was then, even given one's familiarity with the story.

The greatest insight a re-read provides is the recognition that the story is not about Lecter, nor about Jame Gumb, nor about Gumb's victims. In fact, Gumb's story is a parallel shadowing of the book's main concern, which is Clarice Starling. The lambs that need to be silenced are, after all, hers; the book is about her growing into a new role, undergoing a metamorphosis just as total as the one Gumb desires but can't actually accomplish, just as surely as if she were one of Gumb's moths. Hence her name, Starling, with its connotations of baby birds (ducklings, goslings). Both Jack Crawford and Lecter (a name with overtones of lecture, lectern; Harris' names are almost Dickensian) himself see something in Clarice (which means bright, brilliant, clear) that is there to be developed.

The moment comes when Clarice is freezing Dr Chilton out of her key interview with Lecter at the hospital, and he lets slip he has 'a ticket for Holiday On Ice'. In a flash Clarice has apprehended his utter pathos; it's as if she's turned a toggle switch in herself. She reads him the way Lecter reads people, the way Will Graham or Crawford try to inhabit and understand. Jodie Foster captures this on film, inhabiting the role in what may well be the best performance of her fine career.

It's also important to mention the film because Harris was so well served by the early films of his books. Black Sunday is if anything a better thriller as a movie than a novel. And Michael Mann's 1986 film of Red Dragon, the first 'Lecter' novel, I think may well have had more impact on Harris than is recognised. What's crucial here is shown by the film's change of title, to Manhunter, which signals the fact that, as in Silence, the central character is the investigator. For Michael Mann the central story is Will Graham's struggle with his own talent to inhabit the killer's mind, which threatens his ability to have a relationship. As with Clarice and Jame, Graham's inner struggles paralelled those of the Tooth Fairy's, whose own drives affect his ability to have relationships, until he meets someone literally blind to his 'fault'.

Manhunter wasn't a hit, although it is a brilliant adaptation. Compare it to the more faithful, but also more lackadaisical Red Dragon, where, for example, Graham captures Lecter because he's read a note Lecter's written for himself in his Larousse, translating ris de veau as 'sweetbreads'. As if Lecter would need to remind himself. Some of Manhunter is reflected in Silence, particularly the way Tom Noonan's performance as Francis Dollarhyde is echoed in Ted Levine's Gumb, and in the way the lighting is both dark and brash. But note some of the differences, particularly in Jack Graham, from Dennis Farina's upfront macho to Scott Glenn's more inward strength. I do wonder if perhaps Harris' original intention was, in the wake of the death of Crawford's wife, to have him and Lecter be, in effect, in competition for Starling, two older men chasing the same prize.

But the biggest difference between Manhunter and Silence may be in the Lecters. In many ways I prefer Brian Cox, who seems more dynamic, perhaps more threatening, certainly moreso sexually. But beneath the more obvious surface acting, Anthony Hopkins captures something Harris just touches on, in one description of Lecter's body 'arched like a dancer'. Hopkins' performance is all about that precise physical control, which echoes the mental control which defines him. Ironically, within that control, he often seems as if he is compelled to act, driven by internal morals and mores. This is another way the movies seem to have influenced the books, because in the film Silence Lecter took centre stage, and became the audience's focus. In the first two novels the grand guignol of his character is far less interesting than his effect on both killers and cops; he's more like a horror version of The Shadow.

Though I recommend a re-rereading, this new edition is worthy also for its new introduction by Harris himself, in which he details some of the inspiration for Lecter, which he found in a Mexican prison, while interviewing an American serial killer for Argosy magazine. And he also explains why this is the 25th anniversary of the novel, of the moment when he finished it, wanting the reassurance of the presence of those he loved, and the memory of the moment when, as a child, he killed a bird and wept. The other thing Silence is about is empathy, and Harris doesn't let us forget it.

The Silence Of The Lambs (25th Anniversary Edition)
by Thomas Harris
Arrow, £7.99, 9780099586579

NOTE: This essay will appear also at Shots ezine (www.shotsmag.co.uk)

Sunday, 15 September 2013

ACE ATKINS DOES SPENSER IN ROBERT B PARKER'S LULLABY

Continuing another writer's series is a thankless task—you can try to imitate, in which case you usually fail, or you can try different directions, in which case you risk alienating the fan base of the original characters.You could go post-modern, and try for something that makes ironic commentary on the original, but then what's the point? Or you can ignore the whole problem all together, in which case you're probably a big-name writer handed the next huge contract for a James Bond novel. I wrote about this phenomenon when Don Winslow wrote a prequel to Travanian's Shibumi (you can read that here).

At least three of Robert B Parker's series are being continued by other writers. I've written about Michael Brandman's Jesse Stone here; he's faithful more to the TV movies Brandman produces and has written than to the novels. Now comes Ace Atkins writing a new Spenser novel, and I have to say that as continuations go, Atkins has come very close indeed to the original.

He does this without being slavish, either. In fact, the whole premise of the book, Spenser being hired by a 14-year old from the projects of Southie, who believes her mother's real killers are running free while an innocent man sits in jail, provides a good dose of cross-generational comedy which Parker would probably appreciate. Atkins also refers specifically to Paul Giacomin, the alienated teen Spenser taught to be a man, Hemingway-fashion earlier in the series (Parker also had Randall do the same thing, from the other gender prspective, with a young girl). But Mattie Sullivan is a different person, and Atkins is excellent in the way he shows her resisting Spenser's efforts, not so much because she doesn't need something, but because it doesn't fit—she's already more of a Hawk, and it's with Hawk she instinctively bonds. It may seem a small touch, but it's an indication that Atkins isn't going to stick slavishly to the formula.

He writes just slightly different from Parker—a little less of the punch line finish to each chapter, a little more involved in the description. This highlights Parker's greatest skill, which was to draw a setting or a character in very quickly, but very perceptively, which put the reader into the detective's shoes. In first person narration, you're supposed to be seeing what the narrator sees, and if the narrator is as confident and perceptive as Spenser, you ought to reap the benefit.

The story goes back to a number of old Spenser favourites—including hang boss Joe Broz and his son, and if it has a flaw it may be that the main villain is offstage for too long, and we perhaps don't see enough of his psychopathy. But it's hard to miss the parallels with the Whitey Bulger case in Boston, and Atkins has also done a pretty good job, for a Southerner, of sketching in the Hub; the research trips must've been fun.

Atkins' Spenser is, if anything, a bit more pro-active with Susan—and that reminds me of the problem which has bothered me, probably inordinately, in the later series. Dedicated readers know Spenser was a Korean War veteran, which means today he is either in his eighties or dead. Now this is a fiction character, a relatively mythic one at that, and if Parker, or Atkins, want to keep him existing out of time that would be fine with me. But when Spenser specifically references his fighting against Jersey Joe Walcott (which was established long ago in the series). Well, the youngest guys who fought Jersey Joe were born in 1928 (Rex Layne and Harold Johnson) and they would be 85 years old were they alive today, which they aren't. I think we can all accept that the Spenser in this novel is not 85 years old; his libido, fitness, and ability to get shot in the shoulder and not even notice it would suggest he's probably in his early 60s. So why mention Jersey Joe at all?

But most readers won't notice or care; in fact I wonder how many know who Jersey Joe was and what it meant that Spenser had been good enough to get beaten handily by him? It's not very important, because Atkins' continuation of Spenser is about as faithful and yet creative as anyone could hope.

Robert B Parker's Lullaby
by Ace Atkins
Berkley Books $9.99 ISBN: 9780425260982

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




Saturday, 7 September 2013

CALIFORNICATION GETS JUSTIFIED: ON IN-FLIGHT SYNCHRONICITY, NATALIE ZEA AND NATASCHA MCELHONE,

While flying to and from London, Los Angeles and Auckland on Air New Zealand I managed to watch the entire fifth series of Californication (the only other time I'd seen the show was watching what I think was the third, when I made the same trips back in February and March of 2012). I also rewatched the whole first series of Justified.

Californication gets better when you can watch a storyline through—individual episodes often seem disjointed or lacking in depth, but that isn't unusual in half-hour comedies. David Duchovny's aptly-named Hank Moody is played with a great amount of passivity as well, and that makes it hard to follow his arc, as he might say, in an individual episode. So the whole of a season really is more than the sum of its parts. Series five also offers Natascha McElhone, as Karen, a chance to be more than just the epitome of the ideal goddess, though she does play that, and she does well with it, especially a scene on the beach at night which takes itself out of the usual rhythm of her interplay with Duchovny.

What struck me most was the change in approach between series 3 and 5. The former was more about Hank, as a writer (and teacher) and fell very much into the almost-but-never-quite passe genres of so-called dirty realism and campus fiction. He is a self-regarding frustrated writer who looks for comfort and insight in the brief pleasures available to such people when they are attractive and witty. It was funny, but there was a melancholy hanging over the show that it seemed unable to dodge but at the same time unwilling to accept.
By the fifth series, however, the show has morphed into more of a sitcom, a new millennium's version of The Honeymooners, with a bit of The Life Of Riley and a little Love That Bob thrown in. Thus we have the classic two couples scenario, but they've been doubled: Hank is not Ralph Kramden, he's too smart and less self-deluded for that, but if you put him together with Karen's new husband Richard (Jason Beghe) he gets closer. Karen is very much Alice though. Similarly, Evan Handler's Runcle, who is often the real comic focus of the show, is doubled with the excellent Stephen Tobolowsky to create a single Ed Norton for Pamela Adlon's Marcy to shriek about.
That morphing is made easier by the switch of the focus from Hank's writing books to the film industry, which allows freer reign for sexual sitcomming that often comes close to Feydeau farce. It also gets the best out of Handler, to the extent that Daniel Benzali gets to play a brilliant cameo as the agent Runcle would be when he grows up. This is not to say the darkness is completely gone: every time Hank's daughter Becca (Madeleine Martin) comes on stage we are reminded of that, in case we needed reminding.
The fifth series ends on an exceedingly dark note, courtesy of Natalie Zea, and this is where the in-flight synchronicity was awesome, as I was watching her alternately as Winona in Justfied and here as the New York-based Carrie (a light nod to Sex In the City there), who starts off as a breath of realistic air in Hank's life, and ends up as a bunny-boiler. The scene where, at a dinner party with the other two couples, she realises Hank doesn't love her, and announces she 'gave him her ass', which he shouldn't have taken if he didn't, is spectacular.
Zea is brilliant in this context, and looking back at Justified's first season I appreciated her a little more. In fact, I found both her and Joelle Carter's performances more nuanced than I had the first time around—Carter's is hidden under a surface sexiness and Zea's behind a surface of mundanity, both of which they manage to undercut, at least on second viewing.In terms of ensemble cast, Justified is hard to beat, and if not comedy, there are very Elmore Leonard-esque moments of irony in every show.
I liked that opening year of Justified even more the second time around, and I found Californication more fun with series five. Even if I already feel Natscha McElhone's disappointment in series six.