Thursday, 28 November 2013

MICHAEL CONNELLY'S GODS OF GUILT

The Gods of Guilt, Mickey Haller's mentor 'Legal' Siegel reminds him, was Haller's father's term for the jurors in a trial, but, as he says 'there are plenty of people out there judging us every day of our lives for every move we make. The gods of guilt are many. You don't need to add to them.'

Mickey has just won a mistrial by using in court a manoeuvre that has nothing to do with justice and very little to do with law, one that he learned from Legal. He's just smuggled a french dip sandwich into Siegel's room at the old folks home, bending or ignoring the rules just as surely as they would have done in the courtroom. But Haller is about to have his own guilty gods visit him, when he gets called on to defend an accused murderer, an internet pimp named Andre LaCosse. LaCosse has been referred to him by the victim, whom Haller knew and defended under a different name, but who always called him her 'Mickey Mantle', the New York Yankee baseball star. Haller thought he'd saved Gloria Dayton, as he knew her, and helped her start a new life in Hawaii. Now she's lying dead in an LA apartment, and Haller can't escape feeling the obligation guilt invokes.

Even worse, he realises quickly that LaCosse is innocent, and as we know well Haller's worst nightmare is an innocent client. There is a great comparison to be drawn here with his half-brother Harry Bosch: Bosch is driven by his sense of justice, while Haller, the Lincoln Lawyer, is driven by a chaffeur in his town car. Harry is concerned with the result, Haller with the process. It's like the TV series Law & Order, which got it backward: the cops aren't the 'law' part, that's the lawyers. It's the cops who seek to establish order, and the lawyers who manipulate the law, sometimes in the name of justice, but more often simply to win their battle.

Mickey has another god of guilt driving him; his relations with his daughter are at an all-time low after the events of The Fifth Witness, and he needs for her to see him doing the right thing. Which means that Haller needs to prove his client's innocence, and that means he must become a detective himself. Which becomes both difficult and dangerous, as he discovers Gloria's death may be tied into her testimony against another of his clients, and may drag cops and federal agents into the mix.

It's a story that weaves deeper and deeper, with Haller and his team functioning like a 21st century version of Perry Mason and Paul Drake, in a far more dangerous world. The pace is frantic, and sometimes chaotic, just as you'd expect from the Lincoln Lawyer, but it works primarily because of the motivation: the plot is driven by Haller's own drives, and it is from his perspective that we see it. Connelly's greatest talent may be his ability to convey his stories through his characters, and to remain honest with their point of view, and he does that superbly here.

In my interview with Michael (see the previous post), he made one interesting comment. The producers of The Lincoln Lawyer movie remain interested in doing a sequel, but none of his follow-up books have seemed right to them, because they didn't have Haller himself feeling a sense of a mission, feeling that elusive need for justice which I mentioned at the start. This book does that, which is why Haller seems to move a bit into Harry Bosch territory. People have noticed that Connelly writes courtroom thrillers to match the best of them, but this isn't as much a courtroom novel as a real detective novel, with Mickey Haller needing to prove himself a detective. The pieces do fall together in the end, without gimmick, but it's the getting there that marks Michael Connelly's real talent as a writer.

The Gods Of Guilt by Michael Connelly
Orion £18.99 ISBN 9781409134343

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

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

MC SQUARED: MICHAEL CONNELLY & ME, THE WATERSTONE'S INTERVIEW

It's always a pleasure to see Michael Connelly; Friday night I had a privilege to interview him in front of a sell-out crowd at Waterstone's Piccadilly. I had done something similar at the Prince Charles cinema a couple of years ago, but in this somewhat more intimate atmosphere, I felt a more relaxed approach worked even better, and with luck everyone (except those who didn't get to ask their question from the floor) left happy. I know I did.

The construction was simple: I asked questions primarily about two subjects: his latest book, The Gods Of Guilt, and the upcoming Bosch television series, the pilot of which just finished shooting and is being prepared for Amazon's direct broadcast service. I let those two topics take us wherever Michael wanted to go, and then opened the floor to many questions, very interesting and covering a broad range of Michael's career.

Introducing him, I reflected back on nearly twenty years of knowing Michael, since I wrote a review of Trunk Music for the Spectator (calling Bosch the strongest series being written) and then met him a few months later at a reading in Melbourne, Florida. I was lucky enough to write an afterword for Crime Beat, a collection of his journalism, and mentioned my perception of Michael having a journalist's eye for detail, and the meaning beneath, along with the rare ability to detach, and see things clearly, while still maintaining empathy and compassion. To me that's what marks his books, beneath their hard-boiled shell.

I also recounted how, when meeting Michael for lunch in Tampa the day before the Super Bowl I was there to broadcast for the BBC, I discovered he was already credentialed for the press center. When we were sitting there Dick Stockton, a well-known American announcer, yelled 'Hey Mike' and came running over, and just as I was impressed he remembered me so well, ran right past to embrace Connelly, who, I discovered, has a devoted following among NFL players and coaches. I also mentioned that he is the only person I know who has thrown out the first pitch in two different major league parks: the Rays, where he lives in Tampa, and, last summer, at Yankee Stadium. The sight of Michael in Yankee pinstripes was something I admired against my better instincts as a Boston Red Sox fan, but admire it I did nonetheless.

A couple of points stood out for me from the discussion. I started with the difference between Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller, putting it to him that Bosch was driven by justice, and Haller was driven by a chauffeur. This may a quip that gets repeated (not least by me, as I've already done it once!).

I also asked about the way Gods Of Guilt turns Mickey Haller into more of a detective than a lawyer, and Michael explained how he wanted a story driven by Haller's need to find the truth because he feels guilty he may have let a former client down. He also mentioned how Haller's standing with his daughter is at an all-time low when the book begins, and he's driven to get one right, for her sake too. He explained nicely the parallels between Haller and Bosch and their daughters, reflecting back to his own daughter, and his empathy for the feelings being a part-time father might engender.

We then talked about Bosch, the series, and the relative amount of control he's had (working with co-producer and writer Eric Overmeyer, a veteran of Homicide, The Wire, and Treme). This was particularly crucial in the casting of Titus Welliver as Bosch. Welliver has had some excellent supporting roles, in Deadwood and The Good Wife on TV I've seen, as well as in Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo in cinema. Michael talked about the casting process, and how they were lucky to get Welliver at the last minute. He also mentioned Welliver is a Connecticut boy; turns out we were both born in New Haven, exactly ten years apart, to the day. My feeling is that Welliver will be able to convey Bosch's obsessive drive, despite the fact that, as Michael pointed out, the hardest thing to transfer from writing to film is the internal conflict.

The casting also presented another dilemma. Bosch has aged in real time during the series (unlike, say, Spenser, who remained a Korean War veteran well into the new millennium) and with Welliver they would have to play him in his mid-40s. Financial constraints meant they would be setting the show in contemporary LA, which meant Harry needed a new back-story (gone would be the Vietnam war, for example). So choices were made: Jerry Edgar would be his partner, Harvey '98' Pounds would appear, but in a slightly different role, and the family issues, which are so important, would be lost.

Finally, Michael made an important point about his work habits. He defines himself as a writer: he may an element of creative control over the Bosch series, but that doesn't mean he is going to become a producer. Between the filming, and the tour for Gods Of Guilt , he confessed he hadn't written much, and it was making him nervous. Connelly defines himself, in part, by his work ethic. To be a writer, you have to write, he said, and that's what I am. That is what he does as well. And does it as well as anyone in the field. By the time you read this, Michael will likely be back to his trade. Until next spring, if and when the LA Dodgers offer him the chance to throw out the first pitch.

NOTE: Photo of Michael and me at the Waterstone's interview taken by and c. Ayo Onatade for Shotsmag Confidential.


Thursday, 21 November 2013

THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION IN PRINT: THE LONDON LIBRARY ESSAY

Note: I wrote this essay for the current issue of The London Library magazine (number 22,Winter 2013), which is not generally available, so I offer it here, with some small changes. The original issue is available at londonlibrary.co.uk

THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION AT FIFTY: STILL HAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS

If you are of a certain age, you will remember. It was 50 years ago, 22 November 1963 and, with respect to Philip Larkin, a moment more influential than the Beatles’ first hit. We were sent home from school that Friday afternoon; President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been killed in Dallas. We watched Sunday’s live television news coverage as Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin, was gunned down by Jack Ruby. Life magazine declared Oswald guilty, its cover showing him posed with rifle and Marxist pamphlets. JFK’s Camelot, the 1,000 days of the New Frontier, the ‘best and brightest’ in his service, the beautiful wife and children, had been struck down by a misfit would-be communist defector. Everything seemed open and shut.
The commission appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson and headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren endorsed that simple explanation. But rather than calming the nation, the Warren Report raised more questions than it answered. Over the past half-century, the debate has become a mire of investigation, speculation and disinformation, with more than a thousand books written on the subject, some utterly bizarre. Were shots fired from an umbrella? By a gunman from a nearby manhole? By a Secret Service agent? Are some of the crackpot theories published deliberately, to discredit serious research? In the movie JFK, the director Oliver Stone put Winston Churchill's words into the mouth Joe Pesci, playing David Ferrie, the bizarre pilot who was likely part of an assassination conspiracy: 'It's a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.'
The literature of the Kennedy assassination has appeared in three waves, each reflecting the tenor of its times. The first was a reaction to the Warren Report of 1964. The second was inspired by the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) investigation, begun by the US House of Representatives in 1976.. The third was prompted by Stone's film, released in 1991. Now, the fiftieth anniversary of the killing has inevitably prompted more writing, including a great deal of material published electronically. Much of it is simply rehashing the work of others, sometimes indiscriminately; approach it with care.

The Library's collection of assassination material is limited, though the official version is well represented. The US government printing of the Subject Index to the Warren Report and hearings & exhibits (New York 1966) would be a difficult and frustrating place to start especially without Sylvia Meagher's Accessories After the Fact  (1967), which is not in the collection, but is based on her cataloguing the evidence buried, unindexed, within the Report's 26-volume appendix. Meagher's title reflects the reaction of that first wave of books to the Warren Report, the two most important being Mark Lane's Rush To Judgment (1966) and Harold Weisberg's Whitewash: The Report on the Warren Report (1965). Lane was a lawyer appalled by the Dallas investigation; he wrote an article about it and ended up being hired by Oswald's mother Marguerite to represent her dead son. Weisberg was a former Congressional researcher who kept chickens on his Maryland farm, and whenever his work was derided he would be called a 'chicken farmer'. A Haverford College professor, Josiah Thompson, spent so long analysing the forensic evidence for his groundbreaking Six Seconds In Dallas: A Micro-Study of the Kennedy Assassination (1967) that he gave up academe, and became a private detective.

The first researchers were described as 'critics' because they were really investigating the anomalies and questions left unanswered by the Warren Report, which seemed to be designed to validate the theory of the lone, crazed assassin, Oswald, firing three shots from the Texas School Book Depository. Testimony that didn't fit that scenario was dismissed, overlooked or discounted – from the dozens who rushed up the grassy knoll, from where they were convinced shots had been fired, to Texas Governor John Connally, seated in front of Kennedy, who insisted he and the President  were hit with separate bullets, which would invalidate the ‘magic-bullet' premise, of one shot that went through both Kennedy and Connolly and cause multiple wounds in both men, before the second, fatal bullet also fired by Oswald. Then there was the enigma of Oswald himself, the Marxist Marine with Intelligence training, who defected to the Soviet Union and returned with a Russian wife at the height of the cold war without attracting the negative attention of the US government. Oswald showed an uncanny ability to turn up in two places at once, and to agitate on behalf of communism and Cuba, as he did publicly in New Orleans, while surrounding himself with fervent anti-communists. The Warren Commission simply ignored the mafia, who had ample reason to want Kennedy dead; Jack Ruby’s mob connections, which went back to his childhood, were swept aside, and the possibility he knew Oswald before he assassinated him was yet another  unexamined loose end. Ruby died in jail, before telling what he called the real story; in his two-volume work, Forgive My Grief (1966–7), Penn Jones, editor of a local paper outside Dallas, catalogued the unusual number of suspicious deaths of assassination witnesses. It was fertile ground for the roots of conspiracy.

The Warren Report was accepted immediately by the mainstream media; and when the word conspiracy is suggested, its proponents can be held to an impossible standard. Those who doubt Lee Harvey Oswald was the gunman, or acted alone, are first dismissed as crackpots, then expected to defend every crackpot theory of the assassination—and there are dozens of them—as well as every other conspiracy theory extant. The theorem appears to be, if any conspiracy can be shown to be absurd, all are invalid. Meanwhile, even as various 'official versions' of other major world events are proven one after the other to be lies, a long line which proceeds through real conspiracies such as Watergate to Iran-Contra to Saddam's WMDs to illegal surveillance, each is similarly dismissed as a well-intentioned mistake, an unfortunate coincidence, or an exaggerated misunderstanding, requiring the next official version to be accepted at face value.

In what now seems an instinctive recognition of this burden of proof anomaly, early fictions approached Kennedy's murder metaphorically: Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1965), Loren Singer's The Parallax View (1970), and Winter Kills (1974) by Richard Condon, author of the The Manchurian Candidate (1959), whose stand-in for Kennedy is assassinated on the orders of his mob-connected father. In fact, the idea of a conspiracy was nothing new: a Kennedy-like President had been overthrown by a military coup in the 1962 novel Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. Ironically, the movie of the book was made with Kennedy's co-operation, overriding protests from the Pentagon; it would not be released until 1964.

The assassination has been examined in court only once, when New Orleans District Attorney James Garrison prosecuted a local businessman, Clay Shaw, director of the International Trade Mart, as part of a conspiracy to kill the President. Garrison got involved when he investigated Oswald's time in New Orleans.  His investigation received no co-operation from federal authorities and was undermined actively by some of them. His media portrayal was so negative he received, in a landmark court decision, a half-hour right of reply on national television. A similarly negative depiction, however, dominates novelist and playwright James Kirkwood's book American Grotesque (1970), which cast the trial as a persecution of Shaw because he was gay.

But Garrison did manage to show the Zapruder film in court. Abraham Zapruder’s home movie of the assassination was purchased by Life magazine immediately after the killing,  and promptly locked away. When Life printed stills from the film, frame 313, showing the impact of the fatal shot on Kennedy, was out of sequence, making it appear that Kennedy's head was driven forward, not back, by the impact. A similar honest mistake occurred when the stills were reprinted in the Warren Report. To anyone viewing the film it is obvious that the fatal shot forced Kennedy's head backwards violently, and frame 313 shows the impact spray at the front of the head, while the supposed point of entry in the back remains untouched. The best early work on the Zapruder film was done by Robert Groden, whose two illustrated volumes, The Killing of A President (1993) and The Search for Lee Harvey Oswald (1995) remain valuable reference works.

By the early 1970s, despite polls already showing a majority of Americans doubted the Warren Report, conspiracy theories might well have been forgotten were it not for Richard Nixon (who was in Dallas himself on the day of the assassination) and the Watergate scandal. In the wake of this, three separate government investigations probed America’s intelligence services; one of them, the House of Representatives’ Pike Report, included the revelation, as shocking in 1975 as it was again this year, that the National Security Agency was spying unlawfully on the communications of American citizens. The House refused to issue this damning report; it was leaked to the reporter Daniel Schorr and published in The Village Voice. But rising distrust of government prompted Congress to form the HSCA, and a second wave of assassination literature, which studied conspiracy on a wider level, followed. Key books were Robert Sam Anson's They've Killed the President: The Search for the Murderers of John F. Kennedy (1975); Carl Oglesby's The Yankee and Cowboy War: Conspiracies from Dallas to Watergate (1977); and Government by Gunplay: Assassination Conspiracy Theories from Dallas to Today (1976), the collection of essays edited by Harvey Yazijian and Sid Blumenthal. An important later addition on the same theme was Peter Dale Scott's Deep Politics and the Death of JFK (1993).
The HSCA concluded the 'likelihood' of a Kennedy conspiracy, but was notably reluctant to blame anyone but the Mafia, as detailed in The Plot to Kill the President (1981) by HSCA chief counsel G. Robert Blakey and Life journalist Richard N. Billings, one of the men who bought the Zapruder film. Committee investigator Gaeton Fonzi detailed the derailing of other avenues of HSCA’s investigations, and of its original chief counsel, Richard A. Sprague, in The Last Investigation (1993); Fonzi attributed Sprague's removal to his insistence on establishing and investigating the involvement of the intelligence community in the assassination. The HSCA hearings prompted more suspicious deaths, most notably mobsters Sam Giancana, killed before he could testify, and  Johnny Roselli, found floating in an oil drum in Miami’s Dumfoundling Bay the day before he was due to make his second appearance before the committee.
Oswald’s interface with the intelligence community features in the two best novels written about the assassination. Often labelled 'the American Le CarrĂ©', Charles McCarry was a former spy, and his Tears of Autumn (1975) links the killing to the CIA-backed assassination of South Vietnam's President Diem, while Don DeLillo's Libra (1988) shows a typically obsessive DeLillo protagonist endlessly researching the ultimately unknowable:  “Think of two parallel lines … One is the life of Lee H. Oswald. One is the conspiracy to kill the President. What bridges the space between them? What makes a connection inevitable? There is a third line. It comes out of dreams, visions, intuitions, prayers, out of the deepest levels of the self. It's not generated by cause and effect like the other two lines. It's a line that cuts across causality, cuts across time. It has no history that we can recognize or understand. But it forces a connection. It puts a man on the path of his destiny.”

The recently published new edition of Not In Your Lifetime (2013, originally 1998) by Anthony Summers, began life as Conspiracy, published in 1980. It was the best single-volume study to date, a compendium bolstered by prodigious original research, and has gone through five updates, including as: The Kennedy Conspiracy  (1989). Summers has streamlined his theories over the years, but still suggests that Kennedy's killers were a mix of the Mafia, disaffected CIA agents and Cuban exiles. All three groups had reasons to want Kennedy out of the way, interests which coalesced around Cuba, where the mob has lost its hugely profitable casinos and whorehouses, and the CIA and Cuban exiles wanting to eliminate the communist Castro felt betrayed by Kennedy in the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. The official investigations in the 1970s revealed that the CIA and Mafia had indeed worked together, not least to get rid of Fidel Castro. Even Lyndon Johnson had complained about the 'goddamn Murder Incorporated' the CIA was running in Latin America. Summers suggested that Murder Inc. had come home.

That view of conspiracy was somewhat at odds with those who suggested the assassination was, in effect, a coup sponsored by the military and the CIA. David Lifton's Best Evidence: Disguise and Deception in the Assassination of John F. Kennedy (1981; updated 1988) examined JFK's autopsy, not carried out by forensic specialists at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, but  by military doctors at Bethesda Naval Station, and concluded not only that evidence was faked, but that there were two separate coffins shipped from Dallas to Bethesda.  The alleged motive, detailed best in John Newman's JFK and Vietnam (1992) and Oswald and the CIA (1995), was their fury at Kennedy's reluctance to pursue the Vietnam War and his willingness to sign a nuclear treaty with the Soviets. Such a conspiracy would have required organisation high up in the military command, though of course we cannot overlook many actions which might be attributable to the post-facto tendency of bureaucracieslike the CIA and FBI to cover up rather than reveal their own mistakes or embarrassing secrets. The cover-up can often take the form of conspiracy itself.

Newman was an adviser to Oliver Stone on JFK, which sparked the third wave of assassination literature. Based on Garrison’s experiences, with Kevin Costner playing the DA and Garrison in an ironic cameo as Earl Warren, the movie began attracting mainstream denunciation even before filming was finished. Stone brought the two conspiracy strands together: on the ground the mix of oddballs, former spooks, Cuban exiles and mobsters suggested by earlier research; and behind the scenes the military coup which is revealed to Garrison by the mysterious 'Colonel X'. ‘X’ was based on Fletcher Prouty, a former Air Force intelligence liaison to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and author of two books, The Secret Team: The CIA and its Allies in Control of the United States and the World  (1973) and JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy (1992). JFK: The Book of the Film (1991) by Stone and Zachary Sklar is a remarkably balanced volume that refutes accusations of the filmmakers’ ignorance of history. There are many reasons to disagree with some of its theories, but the impact of the film forced the passage of the JFK Records Act in 1992, which released a mass of previously classified documents to researchers, simultaneously providing a wealth of new information, and more layers of contradiction and confusion.

The Establishment response to the film was Gerald Posner's Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK (1993), a prosecutor's selective brief against Oswald and in defence of the Warren Report, which was highly publicised and generous praised in the mainstream, who ignored widespread criticisms of its flaws, most notably from the irascible Weisberg, who published Case Open the following year. Even Norman Mailer called Posner only 'intermittently reliable', but nonetheless used Case Closed as the basis for his biography Oswald's Tale (1995). For Mailer, Lee's unhappy marriage to the Russian beauty Marina saw him shoot Kennedy in a fit of frustrated jealous envy; the handsome President who had what Oswald was denied by his own wife. In 2007, former Los Angeles District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi published Reclaiming History, a 1,612-page work, with footnotes on CD, which recapitulated Case Closed  but also added frequent attacks on the more absurd conspiracy theories, as well as denigrations of many of the more serious Warren critics. Bugliosi also produced a condensed version of his book, Four Days In November (2007) which gives his version of the assassination in narrative form, and served as the basis for the2013 film Parkland.

The most significant new fiction came from James Ellroy, chronicler of America's dark underbelly. Ellroy never sees America as innocent; looking at JFK’s presidency he said the 'real trinity of Camelot was look good, kick ass, get laid'. His conspiracy, as laid out in The Cold Six Thousand (2001), oozes with the sleazy reality of mobsters, ex-intelligence agents, Howard Hughes and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. A decade later, Stephen King's 11-22-63 (2012) dismissed doubters of the official verdict as being unable to accept Kennedy's death as an act of random absurdity. Like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, King sent a Maine schoolteacher back in time to stop Oswald. The time-travel story is better than the Oswald aspect, but he presents a brief but powerful imagining of the butterfly effect of Kennedy's survival in an alternate universe, where small acts have unforeseen consequences. King concludes: ‘It was almost certainly Oswald. You've heard of Occam's Razor, haven't you? … all things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the right one.'

But what is simple about Oswald? His portrait as detailed by Warren, Posner, Mailer, Bugliosi and King is itself most convincing in proving he was uniquely qualified to become someone's perfect patsy. Ray and Mary LaFontaine's Oswald Talked: The New Evidence in the JFK Assassination (1996) makes a strong case for Oswald as a failed government informer, ripe for the set-up. And, in 2008, James Douglass's JFK and the Unspeakable: Why he Died and Why it Matters put forward the strongest case yet for a conspiracy, including detailing an earlier, similar plot derailed only by the President having cancelled a trip to Chicago. Douglass's research in Dallas neatly marries conspiracies large and small. His 'unspeakable', in the end, is simply ‘The emptiness of the void, the vacuum of responsibility and compassion, it is ourselves.’


Should the actual gunmen still be alive, and confess publicly to their crime, at this point it's unlikely they would be believed. Warren's defenders would dismiss them, and many conspiracy believers might conclude they were yet another late attempt at disinformation. But most of the protagonists of the story are dead, and 9/11 has become the ‘Crime Of the Century’ for new century, as Anthony Summers says, replacing the assassination as ‘a new milestone of national trauma.’  We may never know the truth. Meanwhile Oswald's ghost remains in death what he most likely was in life, a patsy who reminds us that history is not random, but it may be beyond our control. As Don DeLillo wrote, in an essay while researching Libra:

'The valuable work of theorists has shown us the dark possibilities, prodded us to admit to ourselves the difficult truth of the matter. No simple solution, no respite from mystery and chronic suspicion. Conspiracy is now the true faith.'

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

LINCOLN, THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS, & PICKETT'S CHARGE

One of the Carlson family's favourite stock stories involved our first-ever 'vacation', in 1962, when we went on a trek through Washington DC; Williamsburg, Virginia; Bristol, Tennessee and up the Shenandoah Valley to Amish country and Gettysburg. We learned a lot on that trip; at the Washington Monument my brother got sick, and when we went to the facilities, at a national monument in the nation's capital, they were segregated. We were in the 'whites only' restroom and I asked my father if that was right, that we should use separate facilities, and he said 'no, that's wrong, but that's what people here do'. A man at another sink turned and shot him the glare, which bounced off my dad as if the guy didn't exist.

What happened at Gettysburg my mother never forgot and always told me and anyone else who would listen. This was during the Civil War centennial, of course, but Gettysburg was nowhere near as developed as it today—development that has taken place in the context of great resistance from both locals and historians. I was, at age 11, already keen on the Civil War, and as we stood on Cemetery Ridge I started to explain what we would have been seeing on the day, and how the troops moved, and by the time I finished we had attracted a small crowd of people, who then proceeded to follow us to the next few points of interest, which I happily explained as if I were a guide.

I mention this because it is the sesquicentennial anniversary today of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, originally delivered at the dedication of the cemetery at the battlefield. In honour of the event, I stopped to read Pickett's Charge, George R. Stewart's 'microhistory of the final attack at Gettysburg', originally published in 1959, on the cusp of the centennial. Stewart is a fine writer much overlooked today, best-remembered for Names On The Land, his study of American place names, but also the author of Ordeal By Hunger, about the Donner Party.

Pickett's Charge, a misnomer because General George Pickett did not actually charge with his command, signifies what is recalled as the 'high-water mark' of the Confederacy. Faulkner wrote famously in Intruder In The Dust of the way that 'For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out.' By the end of the afternoon, Robert E Lee's Army of Northern Virginia will have, for the first time, been defeated; the next day, Vicksburg would fall to Ulysses Grant. Apart from a few hundred thousand more bodies, the Civil War was over.

It is the ultimate myth of failed glory—especially because Pickett's charge, as with each of the Confederate set-backs during the Gettysburg battle, came very close to triumph. They were not defeated, this once, by superior numbers, nor was the Union position on a big hill or entrenched, but it was nonetheless a suicide mission across bad ground which James Longstreet, Lee's second-in-command, did not want to undertake, and did his best to avoid. For that, he would eventually become one of the scapegoats in Southern history. It might also be seen as the beginning of the end for Napoleonic warfare, except European generals would not get the message until well after millions had died in the Great War.

Stewart, by assiduously reporting facts as best they can be ascertained, without any obvious agenda, recreates the battle in detail both comprehensive and comprehensible. The true heroes arise naturally from the narrative: those forgotten, like Capt. Frank Haskell, who single-handedly rallied the 71st and 72nd Pennsylvania to counterattack at 'The Angle', the center of the Union Line; he deserves a film like Josiah Chamberlain of Maine, who saved the Union lines the previous day at Little Round Top. But the stories that resonate are those of the leaders. Notably Winfield Scott Hancock, arguably the best field commander the Union had, who had taken over from John Reynolds, killed on the first day of the battle. Hancock remained mounted throughout the massive artillery bombardment preceding the charge; when wounded during the fighting he refused to quit the field until the battle was won. Hancock was a leader; he would run for president, as a Democrat, in 1880, but lost to James Garfield by only 10,000 votes.

The Confederate general who got the farthest was Lewis Armistead, Hancock's close friend (he's played brilliantly by Richard Jordan in his final role, in the film Gettysburg). Armistead, commanding one of Pickett's divisions on foot, stuck his sword through his hat and led his men waving it for all to see; he was killed crossing The Angle, and his dying words, as reported by the Union surgeon who answered his call as a fellow Mason, and treated him on the battlefield, became, as Stewart says, 'a storm-centre of controversy': 'Say to General Hancock for me, that I have done him, and you all, a grievous injury, which I shall always regret'. Was he apologising for breaking his oath to serve the United States, or was it a more personal apology for perhaps under-estimating Hancock's troops?

Pickett's Charge is particularly subtle on Pickett's own behaviour. Col. Eppa Hunton, of the 8th Virginia, repudiated his commander; he would never even call the event 'Pickett's charge'. Lee, blaming himself, was less harsh, though Pickett was never again promoted. And at the battle of Five Forks, just before the end of the war in April 1865, Pickett's division was again slaughtered; this time he was enjoying a 'shad-bake' with some fellow generals away from the battlefield; his disgrace was not made public, but he was removed from command, and from Lee's sight. Pickett, with his long ringlets and sharp angled face, reminds us of two other American heroes, Poe (like the author, Pickett courted, and married, a teenaged girl) and Custer, as flamboyant and also foolhardy.

Stewart's account is engrossing; he has adopted the mindset of the time, which is something I find particularly fascinating. Had I read this book in 1962, I would have automatically understood the points of honour and duty which the battle brings to the foreground. Following the flag, not surrendering the colours, giving your word of honour, all had a meaning, even to me as a boy then. Stewart does not romanticise these, but he clearly understands them in the context of their times. I suspect now that those meanings may have faded, that a modern audience will find much of this behaviour as incomprehensible, in the personal sense, as they do in the political—that is, fighting a war to keep men enslaved. Although there can be no doubt that slavery was the reason for the war, Lincoln was, at least until the Emancipation Proclamation, and always for public consumption, fighting primarily to keep the Union together. And though it was slavery that caused the South to secede, many Confederates were indeed fighting for concepts of states' rights, more abstract than slavery, or for the honour of the places where they were born, out of loyalty, not racial conviction.

Thus Pickett, no hero on the battlefield, becomes a hero in Southern myth, and if we know anything a century and a half on, it is that those myths die hard. Many thought the Civil War finally ended in that centennial period; in 1964 Lyndon Johnson, a Texan, signed into law the Civil Rights act, and said prophetically 'there goes the South'. For a century, the South had refused to vote Republican; a hundred years of GOP payback for freeing the slaves. We know now that what really happened starting in 1964 was an electoral realignment of forces already arrayed against each other, which the odd give and take between northern and southern Democrats had held together.

Fifty years later, we find an America whose progress is brought to a standstill by representation as disproportionate as when non-voting slaves counted as 3/5 of a person for allocating the size of Congressional delegations. We have a newly segregated South, full of 'Christian' academies outside the de-facto segregated public schools; gated communities outside the provenance of municipalities, where 'stand your ground' rules. We have elected a black man President, yet his reception from a part of the country ideologically, if not always geographically, descended from the Confederacy, has been relentlessly and uniformly hostile. We have a well-funded opposition, proportionately over-represented in the modern legislature of media, that has spent the past five years refusing to accept the legitimacy of an Obama administration. It is a veritable deconstruction of reconstruction.

And a far cry from Abraham Lincoln, who was one of Obama's conscious role models on his path to the Presidency, and whose ideal of conciliation and reconciliation seems to be Obama's determined policy, long after everyone else in America has realised his enemies are no more likely to be placated than South Carolina was in 1861. It is perhaps most significant for us today to realise that just as Pickett's Charge is the high-water mark of the Confederacy, the Gettysburg Address, not the battle itself, nor the surrender at Appomattox, remains the high-water mark of the Civil War for the rest of America.

The Gettysburg Address remains the single most powerful speech in American history, and a model of concision for the world. The people who came to Gettysburg for the dedication ceremony might well have come to hear Edward Everett, a renowned orator, and he gave them their money's worth, speaking for two hours. Everett later wrote to Lincoln, requesting a copy of his speech, saying Lincoln had said better in two minutes what he had tried to say in his far longer time.The Everett copy is one of the five known to exist. Garry Wills' Lincoln At Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (1992) is a fine exegesis of the speech itself, and its effect: it is a commonplace now to note that before the Civil War, United States was not a collective noun in the American sense; it still took a plural verb. After the Civil War, it became a collective, requiring the single verb a united group deserves. That was down to Lincoln, but at Gettysburg he made a simple declaration—we, the people, could not consecrate the battle ground; the dead and living who fought there had already done that. We who did not fight there could only apply 'increased devotion' and 'highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom'. In many ways today, his words, stirring as they are, ring hollow even as they are recalled and intoned, because we are still awaiting that new birth, or perhaps chasing its post-World War II wisps. Both sides of America must endure their own legacies of failure.

BINARY: TWO BOOKS BY MICHAEL CRICHTON AS JOHN LANGE

Michael Crichton put himself through medical school writing paperback thrillers, under the pen name John Lange (a German pun on his 6-9 height). He wrote seven of them between 1966-70, but in 1969, the same year he received his MD, he published, under his own name, The Andromeda Strain, which was a best-seller and doomed his medical career. In that same year he published A Case Of Need, under another pen name, Jeffrey Hudson (a famous 17th century dwarf) which won an Edgar award.

Before he died in 2008, Crichton had arranged for Hard Case Crime to bring the Lange books back into print, and had even done some revisions. It should be noted that there have been previous reissues of Lange books, from a number of publishers, but they are now out of print. Hard Case issued four of them in October, and another four this month. And that makes eight, because Crichton wrote one last Lange book, Binary, which was published in 1972 (along with The Terminal Man, under his own name), and which was crucial in providing him the opportunity to direct the film version—a surprisingly good made for TV movie called Pursuit, with Ben Gazzard, EG Marshall, and William Windom)

Perhaps because it was the last of the Lange books, Binary may be the best place to start, because it is a taut thriller that moves straightforwardly, and contains a confrontational puzzle at its center. It's anchored firmly in its time, as a right-wing millionaire plots to explode a canister of nerve gas over San Diego as the Republican party holds its convention there, and President Nixon arrives from the Western White House in nearby San Clemente. Interestingly, the convention in reality was moved to Miami Beach (not for reasons of terrorism) but in a brief note Lange explains he preferred to leave his book as it was).

The millionaire is John Wright, and John Graves is an agent for the State Department's Intelligence Division who has been tracking Wright and his extremist views, and is on alert because of the convention. Meanwhile, a shipment of nerve gas has been stolen from a train—the gas is transported in two canisters, each inert until they are mixed, hence the title of the book. What ensues is a cat and mouse battle between Wright and Graves, which Wright relishes, and in which Graves is always playing catch-up; it is a binary situation just as much as the deadly chemicals.

Crichton moves the pace along quickly, and handles the chess game between the two fairly, with Graves' more interesting battles coming with other government agencies. It's interesting, in light of the influences which are obvious in the earlier books, such as those detailed in Grave Descend, which is reviewed below, that Graves should be working for a man named Phelps—of course on Mission Impossible Peter Graves played Jim Phelps. Call it a hommage. It's also worth noting that Glen Orbik's cover is one of the best Hard Case covers, in the style of pulpy paperbacks, but the alluring femme fatale doesn't really appear in the story at all!

What makes Binary the most interesting of these releases is not so much Crichton's usual technical aplomb, but the way the story resonates with the present day. The use of nerve gas obviously prefigures modern WMD and terrorist worries, but in Wright Crichton creates a character right out of today's Ayn Rand reading Tea Partiers, the kinds of people who felt frustrated in the post-Goldwater Republican party, but who, in the years since Ronald Reagan have taken it over. The idea that they are the true terrorists wasn't completely ahead of its time, but it was in the James Bond category in those days, and here, in contrast to Grave Descend, Crichton saw through it to what it was.

Grave Descend was published in 1970, and nominated for an Edgar, which reflects the sure hand Crichton had developed writing the first six Lange thrillers. It;s very entertaining, but seems slight, and I wasn't quite sure why until I went back and looked at the other nominations and winners in the best paperback original category—Dan J Marlowe's Flashpoint, not one of his great ones, won the award that year (1971) but most books were still being reprinted from hardcover in those days; the pb original market was nowhere near as deep as it is today. I retrospect, it's far less slight than it seems by today's standards. Similarly, A Case Of Need won the Edgar for best novel, and it's odd looking back just how traditional in orientation that award was at the time.

James McGregor is a diver based in Jamaica who is hired to investigate the wreck of a luxury yacht, called Grave Descend, only he watches the ship blown up and sunk after he's hired to retrieve its cargo. Crichton's influences come through very clearly here: there's more than a little John D MacDonald here. I wrote on this blog when I linked to the obituary of Crichton that I wrote for the Guardian (follow the link here), that Crichton had obviously learned from MacDonald's bigger, mainstream novels, more than the Travis McGee ones. But here McGregor, like McGee, specialises in salvage,and also has McGee's attitudes toward women—a combination of 50s old fashioned morality and 60s sexual freedom, as well as the classic hard-boiled suspicion of affection offered. This is a major part of most of MacDonald's non-McGee hard-boiled thrillers. MacDonald was expert on getting just enough technology and detail into his books to make them seem realistic, and more importantly to make the plot grow from that reality; this was the way he constructed those later, major novels, which often seem very close to what Crichton was doing.

There's also a lot of Ian Fleming here—the island setting, and its enigmatic cop, and the master-villain sort of set-up in the isolated mansion and classy yacht. McGregor's local helper, Chingnachook to McGregor's Hawkeye, is there to provide the necessary deus ex machina, and it all comes to a rousing climax, with a surprisingly downbeat and nicely written anti-climax. It is a fine example of Crichton's innate story-telling ability—how he was able to distill the familiar tropes of the time, and give them freshness. He would find his own niche in medical and scientific thrillers, but never settle for just that, and these books are a good indication of why.

Grave Descend (ISBN 9781783291243) and Binary (ISBN 9781783291250)
are published at £7.99 by Titan/Hard Case Crime

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

Sunday, 17 November 2013

PARKLAND: FROM LONDON FILM FESTIVAL TO FIFIETH ANNIVERSARY OF THE JFK ASSASSINATION

After opening in the London Film Festival, Parkland's release was delayed to coincide with the 50thanniversary of the Kennedy Assassination, and presumably thus cash in on the notoriety and nostalgia.Though of course nostalgia is the wrong word, because we are talking about an audience that doesn't remember the event, doesn't remember the time, and thinks that Kennedy was a boring version of Don Draper. Parkland plays with this fondness for an idea of early 60s glamour, all Rat Pack skinny ties and Jackie pill-box hats and Chanel. But in its rather limited definition of who the real Mad Men are, it lets its audience down.In fact, if you kept a scorecard of Parkland you'd quickly realise the guys in the Mad Men threads are the good guys.

The good news is that although the credits say it is based on Vincent Bugliosi's Reclaiming History, his massively prolix redoing of Gerald Posner's Case Closed, the film doesn't subject us to a massive prosecutorial brief for the Warren Report. It does, however, retreat to the Warren conclusions, that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone crazed assassin, and that assumption permeates everything that follows. Apparently, this was originally intended as a Band Of Brothers style mini-series, but it must have been evident that examining the assassination itself would quickly become far too tendentious, and that a Band of Conspirators scenario has already been done by Oliver Stone.

Produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman's Playtone, what Parkland tries to be is a story about the personal lives are the crucible of the assassination and how the event focused its stresses on them, like a more serious version of Bobby. Hanks is, in some sense, Hollywood's American Everyman, heir to Jimmy Stewart perhaps, although there has always been an element of Forrest Gump's idiot savant or not so savant in that image. Parkland's cross-section of American everymen hold up well under fire, as it were, but where I find the film most pernicious is in its Gumpish assertion of not only respect for, but faith in, authority. The Secret Service, the FBI, everybody except perhaps the Dallas Police who threaten Oswald's brother Robert, are figures of huge competence. And I even got the feeling we were supposed to admire the red-blooded thirst for revenge by these square-jawed Ray Ban-wearing Texans. Billy Bob Thornton even gets a speech about the SS never having lost a president, as if oblivious to the one just lost on his watch. Instead, we see the SS jumping out of their motorcade cars at the hospital setting up a cordon armed with their Armalite rifles (one of which, according to one popular, though easily refutable, assassination theory, actually fired the fatal head shot). I've looked at every photo I can find, news film footage, and read recollections, and I can see no evidence this cordon ever existed. But what the visuals do is important to the film; they create an image of the fighters of terrorists keeping the public safe, drawing a quick line between Oswald as assassin and terrorism, and absolving authority of blame.

And that is the point, making Oswald into a terrorist. He's portrayed as both cocky and kooky, which is not that far off-base, but also dangerous (in fact, Jeremy Strong could just as easily be playing Snowden journalist Glenn Greenwald). That is enough to convince his brother (a tremendous performance by James Badge Dale) of his guilt, and if Oswald's own brother believes him guilty, what's left for the rest of us to decide? Jacki Weaver as their mother, seems to be channelling her inner Joan Allen without huge success; Mrs. Oswald was a strange woman who did warm to the spotlight, but she was also shrewd enough to sense that there was more going on behind the scenes with her son. But her obvious delusion in the film negates her assertion that Lee was some kind of government agent.


Which he more than likely was—either when he 'defected' to Russia and/or came back. It is highly likely that Oswald was acting as an informant for somebody—the rumour at the time, that it was the FBI, has never been refuted convincingly, and which puts Parkland's approach to the whole agent James Hosty (well played in this light by Ron Livingstone, the closest to Don Draper Parkland actually gets) story in a different light. Of course embarrassment was the reason for many of the cover-ups around the assassination investigations, and cover-up can begin to look like conspiracy, but the destruction of Hosty's memo, and other missing files higher up the food chain quite likely represent more than mere embarrassment. But examining the many anomalies in the case, the approach which comes closest to explaining them is the assumption that Oswald was an informant, as shown convincingly in Oswald Talked and that he was exactly what he claimed to be, a patsy.

Where Parkland falls down worst, however, is at the hospital itself. Zac Efron is our Forrest Gump, MD, driven to exhaustion and beyond by the pressure of working on the president, with only nurse Marcia Gay Harden for support. More importantly, we never see doctors describing JFK's throat wound as a wound of entry (the tracheotomy performed immediately destroyed that evidence), we never see them repeatedly identifying the fatal wound's being above and to the front of the right ear, not in the right rear of the head. When the Secret Service steal the body from the Dallas coroner before he can perform an autopsy, we are presented with forthright professionals protecting a corpse from further terrorism. We never learn of the farcical autopsy conducted at a military hospital. Most puzzling of all, we never see Jack Ruby, who will soon be the star of his own murder, this time on live television instead of home movie film, at Parkland, where he most definitely was. Later he would pop up at Police HQ, and even interject a helpful correction about Oswald's background as a commie radical into one of the press conferences.

Instead of Jack Ruby, we get Abraham Zapruder, as played by Paul Giamatti, who understandably starts out fearing for his safety because he has the best record of the killing, but soon gets turned from home-movie maker to a sort of nascent film producer, shrewdly selling the rights to Life Magazine (where stills would be printed in the wrong order to make it look as if the fatal shot drove Kennedy's head backwards). What is amazing is the way the Secret Service and FBI not only defer to Zapruder and his property, but actually do what they promise they will do, and give him back a copy of the film. We've come a long way from that in 50 years.

I suppose that when Parkland ends, in Gump or Private Ryan fashion, with the moral uplift of Walter Cronkite's encomium to tolerance and understanding, it will not ring hollow in the light of the five decades that followed. But Parkland's faith in our institutions, and blind acceptance of the power of the long crazed madman, may suit our post 9/11 America, but it rings hugely false for anyone with a memory. It will probably gain much unwarranted respect from those who don't.

Parkland played at the London Film Festival, and will be released on 22 November

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