Sunday, 28 September 2014


I was on Front Row a couple of weeks back, discussing Tyrant with Kirsty Lang (you can listen to the programme here for another year!). Kirsty's first question was what did I think about Tyrant, and my response was that it was 'all over the place'. And so it is.

The credits say it was 'created' by Gideon Raff, who did the Israeli series that became Homeland in the US. But I suspect Raff came up with the pitch. Homeland took an American, turned him into a Moslem, and then brought him back to America to do the bidding of his terrorist mentor in Islam. Tyrant works the other way around: take a Moslem, in this case the younger son of the ruler of 'Abbudin', turn him into an American, and then bring him home and have him stay to help his brother rule the country when their father dies.

If you consider the concept far-fetched, don't forget that Bashar al-Assad was studying opthamology in England when he was called home after the death of his older brother Basil. But even as you remember that, you need to accept that the concept is far fetched and the execution is fetched to infinity. Because the show seems to have been developed by Howard Gordon (24, Homeland) and Craig Wright (Six Feet Under, Lost, Dirty Sexy Money) and it seems trying desperately to incorporate as much of all those shows as possible. So what you get is a family soap opera but in an opulent fantasy setting, Dallas with revolution in the air, Dynasty without blow-dried hair.

The family saga owes a lot to the Godfather. Bassam Al-Fayeed is the younger brother who wanted out of the family business. He has traumatic reasons buried in his past, and he's trying desperately to hold them in. Which Adam Rayner, a British actor playing this Arab-American, does by holding everything in. He makes doe eyes to show he's struggling within, he makes sad eyes to show he doesn't like what he has to do. If he's Michael Corleone, older brother Jamaal is Sonny Corleone out of Caligula. Ashraf Barhum is a kind of Arab Mark Strong, and the role lets him let everything out, including rape, pillage, and killing. To make it more interesting, his wife Leila (Moran Atias), the Alexis Carrington of this show, all plotting and accessorizing, has 'history' with Bassam, which will eventually, one supposes interfere with Bassam/Barry's American wife. Although Molly is also supposed to be a doctor, Jennifer Finnegan plays the part with the wide-eyed surprise of a guest on Oprah discovering things in her life are not the way they seem.

I also found it curious that Bassam would be called Barry, since America has only one 'Barry' who's also (allegedly) a Moslem in thrall to powers from the world of Islam, and that of course is President Barack 'Barry' Obama. I note only that the show airs on Fox's FX network, for whose audience the default position is fear of the different, unknown, and Islamic, and leave it to you to decide how coincidental that all is.

In case you believe my Dallas anology might be forced, wait for the moment Barry's English-born mother, played by Alice Krieg comes on stage in full Miss Ellie mode. 'Oh Bassam, I know your brother is a sadistic unstable homicidal rapist and abuser of his people, but if he's late for the barbeque at the palace Friday I'll never forgive him!'.

And then there are the kids. This is the part of the show that bears Gordon's heavy touch, as both 24 and Homeland seemed to relish their subplot of obnoxious troubled daughters who exist mostly to create desperate situations for their fathers. You need to remember that the 18-35 market of TV watchers is assumed not only to have zero interest in anyone or anything older than they are, but zero intelligence to comprehend the same. So give them kids to identify with. In Tyrant, the daughter is actually the reasonable one, but Barry's son Sammy is both obnoxious and gay, both of which are dangerous things to be in this kingdom. I really don't want to hang around and see the way that pans out.

It is a shame they killed off the father in the first episode, as the conflict between the brothers could have been milked more effective with his presence, and because Nasser Farris as Khaled is very good; he's a subtle actor, which suits the nature of his character here. There is one major problem, however. Khaled has always favoured older son Jamaal, but after the 'twist' which ends the first episode, you would have thought that he would have recognised something different in his sons. Instead, Bassam becomes Barry. He's lucky he didn't move to Britain, or he would have become Bazza.

Meanwhile there is an actual revolution fomenting, and Barry is tasked with trying to be the reasonable American with good intentions who can just get everyone to be nice to each other, while preserving the status quo. Sounds very familiar? The most interesting character, potentially, is the CIA agent John Tucker (Justin Kirk), who somewhere along the line ought to be shown to be less straightforward and good-intentioned that he was in the first two shows. Or he'll never get a spot as a Fox Contributor on Megan Kelly or Sean Hannity's shows.

Shot in bright light, with little depth or shadow, Tyrant reflects its presentation, but since I did the Front Row segment, FX has commissioned a second series of the 'political' drama, as they call it. It's one of those shows you might feel compelled to watch, just to see what outrage Jamaal will perpetrate, or what horrible plot twists will drive Adam Rayner to have to emote, but it's the Middle East as soap. All that's missing is the Abbudin Oil Barons Club.

Saturday, 20 September 2014


The Drop was originally a stunning short story, called 'Animal Rescue', which was the  best story in the 2007 anthology Boston Noir. Dennis Lehane has expanded it into a short novel, and also written the screenplay for a film which has just opened in the US and will come to the UK as part of the London Film Festival. I suspect the screenplay may have preceeded the longer prose version, but I could be wrong. If you listened to this week's Americarnage podcast you heard me recommend it to our audience (if you didn't, you can take in the full hour of sports and arts mix here; if you do note that I was wrong in my guess about the cast; I checked afterwards and James Gandolfini plays Cousin Marv, which in retrospect is perfect casting) because this is a finely crafted piece of exceptional writing.

The Drop is the story of Bob Saginowski, a quiet bartender living a life of quiet loneliness until he rescues a beaten dog and takes it home. There's more to Bob than meets the eye—he's a steady presence Cousin Marv's bar; Marv actually is his cousin, but the bar is no longer his. It's owned by Chechen gangsters, who use it periodically but irregularly as a drop for their day's illegal profits. Marv is bitter about his fate; Bob seems resigned to his. The dog begins to change all that. But with him comes a woman, another battered soul named Nadia, and eventually with her comes a sleazy ex-convict, Eric Deeds, who's supposed to have murdered a local character called Richie Whalen, also known as 'Glory Days', one night when he left Cousin Marv's.

Dennis Lehane's writing took a great leap forward from his Kenzie and Gennaro series of detective novels with his first stand-alone, Mystic River, which he followed with Shutter Island, a smaller novel whose writing is tightly controlled in the service of a remarkable exercise in the ambiguity of psychological gothic horror. He wrote on The Wire, and his next two books were larger, historical pieces, The Given Day being the more ambitious of the two (you can read my Given Day interview with Lehane here) and then made a return to Kenzie and Gennaro a decade on.

Two things make this novel another step forward. First is the way, even within a shorter framework, Lehane layers his story. There is a cop, stuck in a dead-end within the force, who's investigating a robbery at Uncle Marv's, and whose senses tell him other secrets lie hidden. He attends mass at the same church as Bob, and has noticed Bob never takes communion; the church itself is being sold off by the diocese; it's community has disappeared.

Everything reflects, everything connects. It's all personal, the story is driven by human needs and human reactions. But the story is made memorable by the writing. At one point, the Chechen boss comes into Marv's, and we start to see glimmers of Bob's character as he, unbidden, reaches to the top shelf and pours a glass of Midleton Irish whiskey for Chovko while telling Marv to fetch a bottle of Stella Artois for his muscle, called Anwar. There's some tension around the return of money stolen from the bar, money left in bag with a severed hand included. Bob has cleaned, literally laundered, the dirty cash. Not confident in his position, he serves Chovko.

Chovka considered the drink Bob had placed in front of him. 'This isn't what you gave me last time'.
Bob said,'That was the Bowmore 18. You thought it tasted like cognac. I think you'll like this more'.
Chovka held the glass up to the light. He sniffed it. Looked at Bob. He put the glass to his lips and took a sip. He placed the glass on the bar. 'We die'.
''Scuse me?' Bob said.
'All of us,' Chovka said. 'We die. So many different ways this happens. Anwar, did you know your grandfather?'
Anwar drank half his Stella in one gulp. 'No. He's dead long time.'
'Bob,' Chovka said, 'is your grandfather still alive? Either of them?'
'No, sir.'
'But they lived full lives?'
'One died in his late thirties,' Bob said, 'the other made it into his sixties.'
'But they lived on this earth. They fucked and fought and made babies. They thought THEIR day was THE day, the last word. And then they died. Because we die.' He took another sip of his drink and repeated, 'We die,' in a soft whisper. 'But before you do?' He turned on the stool and handed Anwar the glass. 'You gotta try this fucking whiskey, man.'

I don't often quote a passage, but that is some writing: perfectly paced, with the right tone and resonance. It's reflective, it's telling, and it breaks the very mood it sets. The book is filled with writing like this. I say this with some hesitance, and not just because it's Boston, but The Drop might be the closest thing I've read to the quality on honesty in writing which mirrors honesty in character, the quality that made The Friends Of Eddie Coyle so special. That means it's among the best Boston writing ever, and more important, among the best crime fiction too.

The Drop by Dennis Lehane
Abacus £7.99 ISBN 9780349140728

Wednesday, 10 September 2014


After the haunting brilliance of last year's Strange Shores (see my glowing review of it here), we thought we had seen the last of Erlendur, and one of the very best Nordic detective series. But Arnaldur Indridason has brought Erlendur back, albeit with a twist. Reykjavik Nights is a prequel, apparently the first in a series approaching the detective's early years on the police force.

It's a daring move (though it worked for Star Wars) because Reykjavik Nights is a book that works on two levels, but far more successfully for those who've followed the series already. If you're a reader new to Erlendur, this is simply a novel about a dogged, lonely policeman driven to keep poking at the corners of a seemingly inconsequential accidental drowning of a homeless drunk. But he was a drunk Erlendur had encountered, and his curiosity has to be satisfied. New readers might find it a little slow, because the story builds at Erlendur's own pace, and they may wonder too about the outward dullness of the character, and his social awkwardness. And they may not understand that the story is set in the Icelandic past, in a country not yet as 'modernised' as it is today.

But readers who know Erlendur will spot the differences in the two Icelands. More importantly, when they read about the young Erlendur, they will see him in light of the character they know, and they will watch the seeds of that man being planted, and in some cases starting to sprout. There will be moments when those readers may, like I did, wish a little prescience into the young Erlendur, so his life might turn out differently. Of course, that would take away the fascinating character who made the series so compelling, and as Indridason is reminding us, the smaller decisions we make early cannot be undone, and the reasons we make them are already embedded in our characters as much as they shape the characters we become.
I found Reykjavik Nights compelling, a very knowing piece of perfectly pitched writing. I am tempted to recommend that new readers go back and work their way through the series before tackling this prequel, but I suspect that, if they move on, they will experience a similar frisson of knowledge about Erlendur, only from the other side of the picture. And it's the picture of one of the most compelling detectives anyone has written, anywhere.

Reykjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indridason

Harvill Secker, £16.99 ISBN9781846558122

Note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (

Saturday, 6 September 2014


In case you missed it online yesterday, my obituary of Joan Rivers is in the paper paper today (Saturday). If you insist on cyber-browsing the G, here's the link to it. I wrote it a couple of years ago, but at the beginning of the week I added about 300 words and re-edited it. After it went up, the Guardian then asked if I'd like to include her final controversy: some comments she made to a TMZ 'reporter' about the Israelis and Gaza; I passed after watching the interview and realising that her viewpoint meant almost nothing and that the callous, controversial part of it was drawn out of her doggedly for effect.

What I would have liked to do was write a bit more about her comedy style, because it involved a lot of soul-baring which the laughter only partly covered up. That was why I concentrated so much on the difficulties she faced throughout her career--as the very fine documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work made clear, she was her work, and every part of her life for gist for the relentless mill that drove her comedy. It took real talent and a lot of courage, and as the doc showed, it took its toll.

I also would have liked to expound a little further on the difference in her popularity in America and Britain. Here she is seen as the kind of American Britain would like to think Americans are--that's why clowns like Ruby Wax, Rivers' leading imitator here, are so popular only on this side of the Atlantic; apparently, Ruby was on BBC television Friday night; I doubt they billed her as I've described her.

But the difference in perception was crucial. Her talk shows failed in this country because everyone was expecting her to cut her guests to pieces, Dame Edna with fangs, but when Rivers was at her peak as Carson's fill in, what got her there and got her the show on Fox, was her ability to rein in it, and make the guests comfortable. As her career became more specialised, she became more and more aggressive, but that doesn't work in the talk show format unless you're all-out lampooning your guests, and then you won't get the usual big name suspects booked.

The other big question was where her husband Edgar, who killed himself, was born. Some sources say Germany (which Joan herself said: that the family moved to Denmark and then South Africa before settling in England) or England, where he was educated. I lean toward the former, but it's risky to trust spouse's memoirs for your info.