Sunday, 31 August 2014


Happily, although the series ended after a record-tying run of 20 seasons, there is always a Law & Order episode playing on television somewhere in the world. While watching one on Channel 5 last night, I started thinking about a dual conundrum in the opening credits, which reminded me of another one I've pondered for years. Since it was late, I thought I'd share these.

'In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate but equally important groups: the police, who investigate crimes, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders...."

Listening to the famous opening, it struck me perhaps for the first time that if there's anything Law & Order shows us, it's that the police and DAs are certainly NOT separate groups. They may not always work in concert, but they are joined at the legal hip. More importantly, however, DAs do NOT prosecute offenders: they prosecute the accused offenders. It's not as if everyone prosecuted over 19 seasons of L&O has been guilty as charged.

In the opening credits, the characters are divided into 'Law' (the police) and 'Order' (the DAs), but surely this is backwards. It is the police who protect order, while the attorneys enforce and play with the law, a concept which, if the show teaches us anything, has little to do with justice, criminal or otherwise. Somehow I doubt this matters to anyone but me.

I'd just picked up L&O in series 18 on Channel 5, and I was thinking that this grouping was as good as any I'd seen since the Jerry Orbach days. It was perfect for Sam Waterson to take the District Attorney's role when Fred Thompson left to return briefly to politics; Thompson never convinced as a New York politician, but then none of the successors have ever caught the nature of the role as well as Stephen Hill did. Linus Roache plays the ADA part somewhere between Michael Moriarty and Waterson, and Alana de la Garza is the best second chair since Jill Hennessy or Carey Lowell. Meanwhile, on the police side (Order, remember?) S. Epatha Merkerson was getting more space, which is good, and the chemistry between Jeese Martin's Green and Jeremy Sisto's Lupo recalls the days of Orbach with a number of partners.

Of course, I no sooner thought about this than I discovered the episode I was watching was the one where Martin leaves the show, written out and replaced by Anthony Anderson, who's going to have a hard time getting a balance with Sisto. Knowing the series has only two more seasons beyond this is not encouraging, especially as the 5 in Channel 5 seems to stand for 'get them five years after they run in America and only make them available for five days!'


It must be the summer of dystopia, especially if you're a kid. My son Nate watched Divergent on the plane over to the US, and in North Conway, New Hampshire, I and my cousins took him to see The Giver. He's ten, and he's gone back and forth on which he liked better, but The Giver seems to have stayed with him better. My cousins were in the book trade, and knew the 1993 young adult novel by Lois Lowry well; I hadn't heard of it and obviously Nate hadn't read it. Apparently it's been adapted pretty faithfully, with one big change: the characters are older: 12 when they go through the ceremony and get their career paths in the book, but 18 (just like high school) in the film.

On the one hand, since The Giver is about a society designed to eliminate conflict by limiting people's emotions and choices, removing everything from sex to colour to music. Thus it's looked at as an allegory of conformity, a story of how individualism triumphs in the end. There's nothing very original in this, apart perhaps from its being directed at teens; you could point to dozens of sf novels and many recent movies that explore the same theme. I found it echoing Ayn Rand a bit too often; in this society conformity is enforced in part through the killing of babies, bringing a couple of the wingnut right's favourite tropes together.

On the other hand, it's appeal probably comes from the obvious allegory of the teenage years, kids faced with the alternatives of conformity or individuality, of following their families or following themselves. Jonas (Brenton Thwaits) has to choose between his own perceptions and feelings and those prescribed by commmunity and family. Take either approach, and the film of the The Giver reflects its 'young adult' source novel; neither allegory is particularly overloaded with ambiguity, and the world they inhabit sometimes seems to adjust itself to the storyline without full regard for its own internal logic. 

There are many times the story can't suspend disbelief: the kids can't help being kids and joke (and show jealousy). We see colours at times when we're supposed to be seeing black and white. Asher, as a drone pilot, has seen there is an outside world; we also wonder what the outside world has made of this city on a mountain top.It's the dystopian Waltons atop Walton Mountain, and Thwaits as Jonas is our century's Richard Thomas as John Boy. Jonas is also falling in love with Fiona (Odeya Rush, all wide eyes and open lips) and there's actual conflict with his best friend Asher (Cameron Monaghan, perhaps his generation's Peter Sarsgard) who becomes a drone pilot, whose drones somehow pass through the force field and transmit back to him only in black and white, even when they don't.

We also wonder what the community makes of the police who suddenly show up on motorcycles (not the uniform bicycles everyone else rides) and are adept at violence. We wonder how Jonas knows how to ride a motorcycle, much less make an Evil Knevil jump off a mountaintop. We then wonder where all the stuff Jonas has escaped with actually came from.

In this effort to try and suspend disbelief, while appealing to its target audience, The Giver is nicely done by director Philip Noyce, whose shots concentrate on individuals, as if to belie their environment, and by his DP, Ross Emery, who's especially taken with the contrast of the Giver's tower with the rest of the community, and the outside world with that too. He gives the snow scenes a gingerbread Christmas feel which implies the fairy tale we are watching. But it's impossible not to note that the film dissolves into a chase and survivalist race against time. Jonas and Gabriel have to sled through the force field surrounding the community, and reach Switzerland at Christmas, for the story to resolves itself.

In those terms, it's a showcase for Jeff Bridges, imparting wisdom to Jonas, who is appointed the Receiver of Memory and told that he alone in this society is allowed to lie. 'Precision of language' is one of the important points of keeping conformity. As the giver of memory, Bridges plays a cross between Gandalf and Leo Tolstoy, and almost literally opens Jonas' eyes to the big world out there. His antagonist becomes the head elder, played by Meryl Streep, but it will turn out that Bridges' last, failed pupil (played by Taylor Swift) was also their daughter, which raises a lot of questions about exactly how the asexual, apersonal birth process actually works.

 Jonas has also developed an attachment to Gabriel, a baby his 'father' (Alexander Skarsgard) has brought home from the maternity hospital; he's the weaker of two twins, and if he doesn't shape up, he will moved on to 'Elsewhere'. His father's compassion is unexplained within the constricts of the community; when he gives unacceptable babies a shot that stops them breathing, and sticks them in a box and drops them down a chute, it's hard to imagine what he thinks their fate would be. That he's married to an elder (Katie Holmes) makes it even stranger. And Holmes' presence as an elder is a question until you realise she's there for a purpose.

Because in reality, The Giver is about a far important subject than the making of a utopian society, or the progression of the cinema's remaining audience into adulthood. It's a topic far closer to Hollywood's heart.

The Giver is really an allegory about the fate of Katie Holmes.

When Jonas finally cracks the force field we see Holmes shedding a tear. Even Bridges, the one person allowed emotions hasn't done that.

And then we realise that The Giver is about someone who's been a true believer in a cult and has just had the realisation forced on her that what she has believed in was false. Does that suggest a certain cult founded by an sf writer and practiced by Holmes' former husband? Has she been given Alexander Skarsgard as penance? If Meryl Streep is the image of Ayn Rand as Scientologist, and Katie Holmes is her victim, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Monday, 25 August 2014


My obituary of Jeremiah Healy has been up at the Guardian online as of last Friday (while I was out of touch in the wilds of New Hampshire); I don't know if it's been in the paper paper or not. You can link to it here. It's pretty much as written: there was an odd addition that said the books were set in 'Beantown', a fictionalised Boston, but that was removed.

The bit mentioned from my essay in Following The Detectives, about demolishing a whole neighbourhood was actually a quote from Jerry, a joke, but one that established the location of Beth's cemetery perfectly for my essay. Jerry also spoke admiringly and knowingly of the other Boston writers who featured in the essay: Parker, Dennis Lehane and George V. Higgins--I mentioned this in my copy but it was edited out. I think there would be an interesting essay to be written about connections between Higgins and Healy and their fictions. And of course Spenser knows a cop named Healy...

I knew the Healy books well, but I can't pretend to have known Jerry. Yet I could have extended the obit much further from the personal comments of writers, critics and fans all of whom found him a fascinating and memorable person, as well as a dedicated and talented writer. It was for me a privilege to be able to write about him, and something that helped mitigate the sad circumstances of his death. I hadn't read the Terry Devane books, so I've ordered the first one, and hope to renew our acquaintance that way.

Monday, 11 August 2014


No one has ever been asked to continue the Matt Helm series, which seems a shame because at the time, Donald Hamilton's Gold Medal originals were considered by teenaged connoisseurs like myself to be far superior to James Bond. Helm was earthy, and his enemies tended to be more realistic, heavy on the Cold War and criminals and lighter on mad millionaires or scientists bent on world domination. Helm also seemed to have a more down-to-earth attitude toward violence, and killing. There was no '00' designation in whatever service employed him.

Bond, on the other hand, seemed more fantastical, and it appeared to be that quality which sold them to the general public (that and the endorsement of President Kennedy. JFK's reading Bond seemed much hipper than Ike's fondness for Zane Grey). The early Bond movies, if anything, seemed better than the books, catching a tongue in cheek flair without Fleming's embarrassment, whereas Dean Martin's Matt Helm movies ignored the grittiness of the Helm novels and were a reduction ad absurdam of Bond.

So I was intrigued when William Boyd's Solo arrived at the same time as one of Titan Books' new editions of Matt Helm, another chance to match the two super-spies against each other.

Literary writers have been recapitulating Bond ever since Kingsley Amis in 1968 (Amis had also published a study/defense of Bond three years earlier). There's been a real difficulty for them, especially in terms of continuity—do you go back to the Fleming Bond, or do you proceed with the Bond of the movies—who tongue has moved progressively deeper and deeper into the cheek with each new actor, and whose current Bond, as played by Daniel Craig, is Vinnie Jones in a dinner jacket, playing Texas Hold Em instead of chemin de fer, probably drinking his Irn Bru from the can, slightly shaken if not stirred—or do you come somewhere in between?After all, even Fleming modified his Bond to reflect the movies, giving him a Scottish backstory midway through the series.

Boyd has avoided all that by going back to basic Bond, but putting him into a William Boyd novel of colonial Africa. The book is set in the late Sixties, and the conflict into which Bond is inserted resembles the Biafran War, with Britain keen to protect its access to oil regardless of which side wins. As you might gather from that synopsis, there's a touch of moral questioning here, as if Bond weren't convinced enough of Britania's rightness to jump out of a plane with a Union Jack parachute, much less the Queen. At the same time, there are the requisite Bond touches of exotic savoir faire, particularly as the local station chief is a beautiful black woman named Efua Blessing Ogilvy-Grant and the main villain is a disfigured Rhodesian mercenary named Korbus Breed.

There's also a dastardly millionaire behind the scenes, a far-fetched drug smuggling sub-plot, and enough betrayal to make you feel right at home, because when the story gets back to simple revenge we get Bond at his best. It's the element of sado-masochism in Bond that explains a lot of their popularity, especially in the early days, and although Boyd obviously knows Africa well, it seems we're on firming footing when it's Bond on a more personal mission.

There's some sadism in Matt Helm too, since torture is part of the game, and more than a little betrayal, as Helm appears to be sleeping with the enemy as much to enjoy the risks as anything else. I didn't remember The Devastators, originally published in 1965, at all, and that may be because it isn't one of the better Helms. It's set in Britain, first in London and then in remote Scotland, and perhaps I'm more critical because I know the country better now than I did then.

It's strongest in its first-person narration; part of the added realism of the series was listening to Helm explain, without necessarily having to rationalise, what he's doing. It also seems a bit prissy in its sex, whereas Fleming, perhaps because he was writing a sort of fantasy, rarely seems that way...though he keeps the tongue in cheek rather than in other places. The one line I remember from Hamilton was the one that seemed to come whenever Helm kissed a new woman: 'she knew where the noses went'. I never quite figured that one out, but mercifully it doesn't actually appear in this one.

If I had to guess, I would think Hamilton was trying to nudge Bond in this novel, and signals that by setting it in Scotland, where there's a mad scientist type threat to civilisation as we know it with bubonic plague, no less. It's not fully successful, the book I mean, obviously not the plague, and if you're interested in dipping into the Helms I'd suggest you start with the first one Death Of A Citizen. But maybe we just can't go back to where we were in the Sixties, when we were the good guys, and sex was still something exotic in our reading. William Boyd gives it a try, but perhaps he can't get back there either.

Solo: A James Bond novel by William Boyd
Vintage Books, £7.99, ISBN 978-0099578970 

The Devastators by Donald Hamilton
Titan Books, £7.99, ISBN 9781783292882

note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (

Sunday, 10 August 2014


What defines a man more than the kind of father he is? I thought of Martin Beck while reading One Boy Missing, a finely-drawn Australian take on the so-called 'depressive detective' genre pioneered by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's Swedish detective, having a huge influence on crime writers everywhere, but particularly in Britain, and to a lesser extent in America.

Bart Moy has more reason than most to be depressed. He has left Adelaide after his son died and his wife left him. Now he's back where he grew up, in the bleak country town of Guilderton, living a sort of half-life, dealing with his cranky father, who still resents having to have sold his failed farm and moved to town many years before. Then a butcher, having a smoke in the alley behind his shop, sees a man grab a struggling boy and stuff him into the boot of his car.

Moy begins to investigate, and finds there are no missing children, there is no trace of who the boy might be. He's an outsider in his own town, both as a cop and as someone who left for the city, and as an outsider his asking awkward questions isn't always appreciated. And when he finds the boy the mysteries persist: who is is, who took him, and why? And the boy is not talking. At all.

Stephen Orr, whose previous novel was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize but here makes his 'crime fiction' debut, has built a story whose rhythms reflect Moy's life. It progresses slowly, goes over material again, misses points. But it is always moving toward a goal, which is not so much to solve the mystery but to put three broken souls back together. The missing pieces are all wound up in the relationships between fathers and sons, on the fine and precarious balance that makes us what we are, and challenges us to be something else. The empty atmosphere of the novel's setting reflects perfectly the emptiness at the core of its character; One Boy Missing is a misleading title, because there are literally two boys missing in this story, and figuratively a third. Moy's investigation is of life itself, and a powerful meditation on loss and rebirth.

Fatherhood plays a different role in Michael Sears' Black Fridays, which won a Shamus award and was nominated for an Edgar as best first novel. Jason Stafford is a former Wall Street mover and shaker who's just finished two years in prison for manipulating his deals. Unable to work on the Street again, he gets hired on the basis of 'it takes a thief' by an investment firm who need someone to look into possible problems in the accounts of a trader who died in a boating accident.

Of course Stafford begins to uncover something bigger than just one trader's mistakes, and soon he's caught between the firm's desire to keep things quiet, and the SEC and FBI trying to track down the bigger crimes.

Meanwhile, Stafford is trying to put his own life back together. When he was arrested he divorced his wife, to protect his assets, but rather than wait for him, she has returned to her home in Louisiana, and taken their autistic son with her. Risking a parole violation, Stafford flies down there to discover his son being kept in a darkened bedroom is his grandmother's house, while his wife lives elsewhere with her new beau. He brings the boy back to New York, and becomes a single father trying to cope with the needs of his child's very special world-view.

It's fascinating, because Sears is penetrating, almost clinical, in his descriptions of 'The Kid', as he is called, which make him one of the better-drawn characters. The story is better, in fact, when it's dealing with him direct, rather than using him as a way to humanise Stafford, but the point of course is that Stafford is learning through the great responsibilities of fatherhood, that there is something beyond the world of money. His own father, who owns a bar and still works it, has only a small part, but you can watch Stafford's attitude toward him change as he becomes more of a father himself.

It's also interesting that his ex-wife Angie, a former model who struck it rich with Stafford, is probably the biggest villain in the novel, certainly presented with more venom than any of the sharks or killers who populate the rest of the book. Self-centered, profligate, manipulative, Angie has all the worst qualities of the men Stafford deals with on the Street, but without the veneer Wall Street can hide behind. In that sense, Black Fridays is as much about Stafford moving away from her as it is about his moving away from his past life in the markets—and there's a paradox there because we see he hasn't really left the markets behind at all. Which makes it telling that possibly the weakest part of the book is the new woman Stafford finds. Wanda is the assistant to Roger, a magician who's Stafford's friend in their neighbourhood bar, and as the name and job implies, it's rather too much like someone waves a magic wand to produce her. Too good to be true, it will be interesting to see if the relationship survives into the second Stafford novel.

Sears writes like a financial version of John Grisham; Black Fridays moves with a relentless pace, slowing down only when The Kid takes over, and then, when he disappears, becoming even more frenetic. It couldn't contrast more with One Boy Missing, but at the heart both books are dealing with detectives who need to be put back together, who need to find themselves and their lives, and who need their sons to be able to do that.

One Boy Missing by Stephen Orr Text Publishing £10.99
Black Fridays by Michael Sears Duckworth Overlook £12.99

This review will also appear at Crime Time (