Monday, 30 December 2013

MAX ALLAN COLLINS' WRONG QUARRY

The Wrong Quarry is the latest of Hard Case Crime's revival of Max Allan Collins' novels featuring the hired killer Quarry, who now has become a hitman with a difference: Quarry tracks other hitmen, identifies their targets, and then gets himself hired to kill the killers, before they kill the victim. And for a extra fee, he can eliminate the person who hired the hit in the first place.

This time he is stalking a killer named Ronald Mateski into a small town in Iowa, where a popular high school beauty queen has disappeared, and where someone appears to have hired Mateski to take out the police's top suspect. So Quarry, posing as a journalist, starts investigating the disappearance, and decides the killer's target is someone worth saving. For a price.

When the Quarry books first appeared in the 1970s, they were Collins' second attempt at criminal protagonists with single names, following the Nolan novels, about a professional thief clearly influenced by Donald Westlake (Richard Stark) and his Parker. What made Quarry different was the fact that he wasn't a thief who would kill when he had to, but a killer, who killed for a living. This is a step further along the road anti-heroes walk, and Collins upped the ante by doing the books in the first person, the classic private eye narration he would later use to such good effect with his Nate Heller novels.

The problem, obviously, is that the reader inevitably is drawn into identifying with the protagonist, seeing the world from his point of view, and the viewpoint of a psychopathic killer is a difficult one with which to engender empathy. So Quarry, in some ways is a kinder, gentler sort of killer—his current twist on the hitman business indicates that—and occasionally his tastes and world view seem very mundane for such a hard man. With Nate Heller, we know we aren't dealing with someone detached from the reality of the mundane world. But we don't imagine Parker browsing the wire racks of stores for western paperbacks, much less sharing the authors' names with us, as Quarry does. But Collins does a slick job of never letting us forget what Quarry really is all about—and the conflict between what he is and what we might want him to be is the key to the tension which animates the novel.

The second strong point is the period setting, in the mid 1970s, and the style, which is drawn from the Gold Medal and other paperback originals whose heyday was ending in those times. Collins is excellent in establishing not just the milieux, but also the world-view of the era—so when Quarry gets seduced by a sweet high-schooler it comes in a sort of garish overkill of wanton lust that surprises and even shocks a modern reader, as if that reader were back in the more modest world of those lurid paperbacks. There are a number of twists to the tale, and the eventual resolution actually reveals a character who's very much a modern-style villain, a serial killer who in effect hides in plain sight, behind the camouflage of the era's attitudes toward sex. It may be set in the 70s, but Collins is writing with the real flavour of pure 50s and 60s pulp, and The Wrong Quarry works brilliantly on those terms.


The Wrong Quarry by Max Allan Collins
Titan Books/Hard Case Crime, £7.99, ISBN 9781781162668

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

Saturday, 28 December 2013

ARBITRAGE: RICHARD GERE PLAYS WALL STREET

As Arbitrage opens, hedge fund manager Robert Miller has it all. He's being interviewed about his successful investment career, he's headed back from a meeting to arrange the merger of his company with a major British bank (whose head is played by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, no less) and he heads home for a birthday celebration, surrounded by his family in a setting that reflects warmth.

But we learn quickly that things are not the way they seem. Robert heads off to see his mistress, a young French woman for whom he's bought an art gallery. The merger is not progressing as it should, and we discover he's had to take a $400 million loan to cover a bad investment in Russian copper mines. And then, late for the opening of a show at the gallery, Robert takes his mistress for a drive upstate, falls asleep, and crashes the car. She is dead, and he needs not to be involved. He finds a pay phone, and calls James, the son of his former driver, who owes him for the way he helped the family, and him with his own criminal charges, and gets picked up. He gets home, with bruises and maybe internal injuries, at 4:30 in the morning. The police, suspicious of the crash scene, soon track him down, and the pressures start to mount.

Written by first-time director Nicholas Jarecki, Arbitrage could be looked at as an indictment of the rich, or of the system that rewards betting against people (Miller made a killing forecasting the collapse of the housing bubble). But Jarecki is not following in the footsteps of his documentarian brothers Andrew (Capturing the Friedmans) and Eugene (Why We Fight); he already did that with his first feature, the doc The Outsider. At times the film recalls an older era of financial excess, reminding me of Wall Street or Bonfire Of The Vanities, but despite the fraud and the accidental death you cannot escape, this film is far more about the character himself, and about the way an audience cannot resist taking the side of a handsome hero who has the odds stacked against him, even when he is guilty, and even when he is revealed almost soulless underneath his charm.

He's lucky, in this sense, to have Richard Gere in the lead. Gere's always been underrated—his Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor for this film was his fourth nomination for a Globe (he won, oddly enough unless you recall it's the Golden Globes, for Chicago), but he's never been nominated for an Oscar or a Bafta mask. Perhaps it's because of his looks, or the slightly ingratiating way he plays nice. In fact, there's a lot of Edward Lewis from Pretty Woman, in Miller at the start. But what Gere brings out are the same qualities that made his performances in American Gigolo and Internal Affairs so powerful—a combination of self-absorbed interest and ruthlessness under the surface. It's his real strength--conveying a reality different from the handsome surface that suggests likeablility, either the blankness of American Gigolo or the true venom of Internal Affairs.

Jareck is also helped by the cinematography of Yorick LeSaux, which sets the feelings in contrasts, of cold glass offices, warm family rooms, harsh police rooms, and then blends them all together bit by bit. And it's bit by bit we see him lose his allies and his family: when his daughter (Brit Marling), who is CFO of his company and from whom he's concealed the book-cooking that hid his losses, finds out, he corrects her. They are not partners, he says. She works for him. He is a patriarch, he says, and he does what is best for everyone. All she needed was an apology, not a demonstration that all the platitudes were just platitudes.

There are moments when some feeling shows through, and because this is a thriller, he is allowed a triumph. After all, his first instinct, overcome, was to call 911 after the crash. He is about to turn himself in, and save James (a nice performance from Nate Parker) from jail for obstruction, when he has an idea which throws a monkey-wrench into the evidence the police have cooked against him. He realises his deal is being held up simply to lower the price, so he forces the issue, makes a deal he can life with, and guarantees his childrens' jobs. It's win-win.

And then, the one base he hasn't covered comes back to bite him in the neck. His wife (Susan Sarandon) who cannot forget the way he brought his affair nearly into the house, but who even more cannot forgive the way he treated their daughter. It's a neat twist, because the very family values he was trying to protect prove his downfall.

But the movie ends at a charity gala, his wife's work, where his daughter introduces him as her 'mentor, friend, and father'. He has lost everything, but everyone is smiling. The charity is the Robert Miller Oncology Center. It is as if he is a cancer himself.

Arbitrage (2012 US 2013 UK) written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki, is on DVD release

PHANTOM LADY: THE NOIR FUNHOUSE

I watched Phantom Lady tonight, marvelling yet again at the way Robert Siodmak and cinematographer Woody Bredell create a series of weird shadow-worlds, as if Manhattan were a kind of fun-house, and we're looking at it in a distorting mirror, except when we see beautifully clearly, and it becomes threatening, scary. They would work their magic again two years later on The Killers, where the noir world is starker and harsher, more fixed into what we now imagine it to be. There's a fascinating comparison to be made here too: the fatalism of Swede at the start of The Killers and in the Hemingway story is matched by the fatalism of Scott Henderson, once he's convicted of his wife's murder. He tells his loyal secretary that he can finally sleep, now that he knows his future. This is perfect noir fatalism, helped by the fact that Curtis is perfect as a noir hero, nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is, including not being able to see the perfect woman right before his eyes. In the novel by Cornell Woolrich, you come to believe that Scott may be deluded, and the woman may not exist. In The Killers, Burt Lancaster as Swede is a different sort of fatalist—he's smart enough to know he made a mistake with a woman, and he knows he has to pay for it. There's no question of delusion, just of fatalistic judgement.

The story of Phantom Lady, in case you don't recall or haven't seen it (and there will be spoilers of a sort later) is that Henderson and his wife argued, he went to bar, met an unhappy woman in a funny hat, spent the evening with her, and came home to find the cops all over his flat and his wife murdered. He needs to establish his alibi, but the woman can't be found, and the witnesses deny she was ever with him. So his secretary Carol (or 'Kansas', as Scott calls her, because she's from Topeka) goes on the search.

Between Scott's gloomy night on the town and Carol's search, we are presented with a cross between an odyssey and sideshow (when you think about it, isn't the original odyssey a bit of freak show too?). The city takes on the character of a nightmare world, and the population turns out to be seriously unbalanced. Carol stalks the bartender who served Scott and the woman, shot brilliantly at the end of the bar, staring at him. In cheap disguise, she becomes a 'hep kitten' and hooks up with drummer (Elisha Cook, Jr.) who gave the woman the eye when she and Scott went to a show—Cook takes her to an after-hours jam session playing Gene Krupa hophead drums completely out of time, occasionally out of all semblance of dubbing the Krupa solo. Ella Raines is superb as Carol—not just in her disguise but in the way she hides her feelings from her boss, and the way, the first time she actually calls him 'Scott' it simply zips past him but satisfies her.

Thomas Gomez, always so threatening in noir, is good as the cop who tries to help her but the top-billing in the film went to Franchot Tone as Scott's best friend, who of course is the killer, though they try to make his entrance into a shock. The mere fact he's top-billed in such a relatively small is all the clue you need. Tone is well cast as a psychopath, because he looks more like Jiminy Cricket than a leading men, and he does overplay the twitches of his killer; it reminded me of a bigger version of Tim Robbins doing a retard in Mystic River. There's a sense, though, that Tone would have made a brilliant Cornell Woolrich, had anyone ever done a movie about him—and you could use those sleazy sets from Phantom Lady to shoot it: maybe this was Woolrich exploring the neighbourhood of his own imagination.

Watching the film though, I wondered for the first time why Raines needed to find the woman in the hat at all. In the trial montage scenes, the prosecution fixes the time of the killing at 8pm, and we know from the bartender he was in the bar at 8:05. He doesn't need the woman for an alibi. By the same template, his friend's alibi, that he was on boat sailing for Brazil at 8:30 should not have eliminated him either. I'm sure there's a reason why it doesn't just as convincing as Cook's drumming, or Tone's twitching. It doesn't matter—Phantom Lady is a film you can get lost in, at your own peril.

One other note: I watched the film on You Tube, where there's a sort of time-code bar at the bottom of the player. When Raines goes to visit Curtis, the guard tells them they can have only five minutes. It's 9:40 into the film. He comes back to tell them time's up at 11:40 into the film. No cuts or dissolves.That's only two minutes, anyway you shake it. That guard could get a job as timekeeper at the Royal Rumble.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

ROBERT CONROY'S 1862

Following on from the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, I chased down this alternate history novel I'd been meaning to read for a while. There's a long and distinguished tradition of alternate Civil War books; when I was a kid I read MacKinlay Kantor's If The South Had Won The Civil War—Grant dies in a horse fall just after Vicksburg, the South wins at Gettysburg, and the two separate nations become three when Texas seceeds from the Confederacy. Lee, as President of the Confederacy, frees the slaves, and eventually the US is reunited. I read Ward Moore's time-travel novel, Bring The Jubilee, in which the Union, again having lost at Gettysburg, is weakened and much industrial progress never happens (except, of course, for time travel). Harry Turtledove has approached the question from both angles; I've read his time-travel version, Guns Of The South, in which South Africans travel back in time to supply the Confederacy with automatic weapons to ensure a slave nation persists.

Robert Conroy's 1862 is a straight-forward alternate history, in which the blowback from the Union's seizing of the British mail packet Trent, carrying two Confederate ambassadors, grows into a declaration of war against the US, helped by an aggressive Lord Palmerston and a nebulous 'promise' from Jefferson Davis that the South would abandon slavery.

Conroy's take on the ensuing conflict is ingenious, helped by Lincoln and Winfield Scott recognising early the unique abilities of Ulysses Grant. How realistic this is, given the political troubles Lincoln faced, as set out in T. Harry Williams' Lincoln And His Generals. Grant's ambiguous standing within the regular army, is another interesting question, but there is no doubt it makes a huge difference. Grant leads a force against Canada, while the Union forces are able to hold back Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, and the judicious use of snipers has disastrous results for the Confederacy. Thus, the British entry, rather than speed up a Confederate victory, has unexpected results.

Some of this depends on a relative and surprising degree of inaction from Davis and Lee, in effect the opposite of his take on Lincoln. One might wonder whether the Confederate plan would have been so passive when joined by their British allies. But Conroy has thought out his alternate scenario well, and it is for the most part convincing. Even his story framework—because you need a relatively neutral (and usually fictional) character through whom the story can be told—works well: Col. Nathan Hunter winds up in the exact centre of the Union decisions, and at the fronts when it matters, without the reader feeling he's been manipulated excessively.

Where the novel is let down is in the writing, which is rarely more than utilitarian, and sometimes lapses into a general sort of anachronism. It's not so much the modernity of Nathan's love-interest, which doesn't actually seem that much out of place—though the introduction of a lascivious French ambassador's wife helps lubricate the narrative—but the tone of conversation, rather less formal than we might have thought. But that is secondary, because Conroy's concern is with background and facts, and he takes great pains with the details. Once the book gets going, it proceeds at great pace, and is an extertaining diversion, and one of the best of the war's alternate histories.


1862 by Robert Conroy
Ballantine, 2006, $7.99 ISBN 0345482379

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

THE PRICETAG OF TRAGEDY: THE NEW YORK TIMES & CANTOR FITZGERALD

In a New York Times article today about the $135 million settlement of Wall Street investment firm Cantor Fitzgerald's lawsuit against American Airlines for negligence on 9/11 the reporter, Benjamin Weiser, led his third paragraph thus:

'No amount of money, of course, could compensate Cantor or its families for the losses on Sept. 11'.

While the platitude may be, in the sense of all platitudes, true, in the context of a newspaper story, it's statement stands as opinion, not reporting. Indeed, were the platitude true in any but the abstract sense, no one would file such lawsuits at all, since the compensation received would be worthless.

But the reality is that Cantor, who had offices in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and lost 658 employees, about two-thirds of their work force there, claimed they had suffered 'unspeakable losses' and went on to delineate the unspeakable at sums as much as $1 billion, after insurance recovery, specifying $800 million for 'interruption of business' (that is, because of losing their employees) and the other $200 million for property damage. Unspeakable indeed. Currency, it turns out, is America's real currency of grief.

Judge Alvin Hellerstein noted that New York law does not allow an employer to sue for the wrongful death of its employees, and otherwise limited the companies damages. In a separate case, Hellerstein also dismissed a suit by World Trade Center Properties, who apparently had already received more in insurance settlement than they had already lost.

Cantor employees were already compensated either from the federal fund set up for 9/11 victims, or from their own lawsuits. Hellerstein has been the point-man for suits filed by victims' families, survivors, responders, property owners, and the like, all seeking compensation for things which, as Mr. Weiser reports, cannot be compensated. And many, like illnesses caused by the dust raised by the towers' crash, that can.

Had any suits against American Airlines gone to trial, they would have had to prove that the airline had been negligent in preventing a terrorist attack; American would have argued they had done everything expected and required by government experts (ie: by law) before the 9/11 gang used the planes themselves as weapons. The blame might have spread, from that point, to the Federal Aviation Adminstration, or indeed to various government agencies charged with fighting terrorism.

It's also curious that Cantor employees hadn't thought to sue the World Trade Towers, for not constructing a building that would better withstand collapse, or Cantor, for not providing better facilities and training for escape in emergencies. In the 20/20 hindsight world of victims, grief and compensation, it would seem only fitting.