Wednesday, 26 June 2019

HENRY PORTER'S WHITE HOT SILENCE

Three years ago, former MI6 agent Paul Sampson was hired by his old employers to track down a 13 year old Syrian refugee who might possess key data about an ISIS attack on Europe. He met and fell in love with aid worker Anastasia Christakos while tracking Naji Touma, and the three of them were rescued by in Macedonia by billionaire Denis Hisami, who owed Sampson a huge factor for finding his sister's fate.

Now, their affair having burned out, Anastasia is married to Hisami, and she has been kidnapped in Italy and disappeared. The motive does not appear to be ransom, but something else that involves Hisami's money and investments, and the operatives he hires to track her down bring Sampson on board, though he would be impossible to keep from joining the search anyway. And he needs to, because all of a sudden, Hisami's American empire is under threat, and he's being accused of being a Kurdish terrorist in his past life.

As with Firefly, the novel that detailed the pursuit of Naji Touma, the core of Henry Porter's new thriller is a chase with multiple pursuers who may be as much in conflict with each other as with the kidnappers. Like the previous book, White Hot Silence does pick up its pace as the various agents near each other, while in the background the question of who and why keeps the reader guessing. It's a complicated tale and like its predecessor it does allow for a little deus ex machina from characters who just happen to be in the right spot with the right talents, and a certain randomness in exactly which mobile phones can and can't be traced instantly, but everything is moving so fast that hardly matters. What matters more is the resourcefulness of the characters, not least the kidnapped Anastasia and the now more mature Touma, who is a computer genius of the first order. And of course, what will happen if Paul does find Anastasia. When it all comes together in Estonia, the denoument contains a finish as suprising as it is logical.

But beneath all this action, Porter is making a very serious serious point, which ought to resonate with readers in Brexit Britain at a time when, as I write this, Tory leadership contender Boris Johnson's links to the American nationalist strategist and former Trump campaign savant Steve Bannon have been revealed and attracted virtually attention in the mainstream media. What follows might be a bit of a spoiler...

Anastasia's kidnapping has been arranged to prevent Hasami's revealing money laundering taking place on behalf of right-wing, Russian-backed, populist nationalist groups around Europe. It would be nice to have had the operation explained more fully by
one of the characters nearer the top who needed to play Bond Villain, but the task is left to one of the actual kidnapping thugs, Kirill, an ex FSB interrogator who wants to discuss Huckleberry Finn with his captive.

As Kirill explains to Anastasia: “now Americans have lost their ability to see good or bad.They've turned on their country, their greatest enemies are their fellow citizens—imagine that! They are fearful; they see plots where there are none, their information is corrupted and no one is able to form a sensible conclusion about best interests of people. And now we watch them abandon principles of Constitution. It's like a dream for us.

The people are soft and idle and now they cannot tell difference between up and down. It was not espinoage that destablised the US. It was the vanity and weakness of its people. We played on their weaknesses and they did the rest. Same in UK.”

It was nice Kirill threw in those last three words, in case we missed his vodka-fuelled point, and he doesn't need to throw in lots of details for us to be able to connect the dots.
Porter was making similar serious points in his earlier novels, about terrorism in Empire State (2003) and the roots of the new Russia in Brandenburg (2005), which was set at the fall of the Berlin Wall and featured a young KGB colonel named Putin. Both those books featured Porter's previous spy character, Robert Harland, and Harland makes his reappearance as the story reaches its climax, as he has just happened to retire to Tallinn, where he can provide some of the deus ex machina mentioned earlier. In any event, it is nice to see him back.

Harland is another link to MI6, and one of the most interesting of White Hot Silence's subplots is the return of Sampson's MI6 nemeses, Peter Nyman and Sonia Fell, agents who seem to have a different agenda, and in this case seem to be working their own game. It's another good thing Paul has his own extremely friendly MI6 source. Nyman and Fell's game ought to be part of the sequel to this novel, because there is much left unresolved, not least the futures of Paul, Anastasia and Denis Hisami. One wonders how much current affairs might impact that one.

White House Silence by Henry Porter
Quercus, £16.99, ISBN 9781787470804

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

Thursday, 20 June 2019

THE CAPTOR: THE ORIGINAL STOCKHOLM SYNDROME ON FILM

NOTE: This review contains some small spoilers

In August of 1973 a Swede called Jan-Erik Olsson, having skipped out on his temporary release from prison, stepped into a bank in Stockholm's Normalmstorg,originally pretending to be American, and, armed with a sub-machine gun, took four people (three women, one man) hostage. He demanded money, a getaway Ford Mustang, and the release of his former cell-mate, Clark Olofsson. The hostage crisis lasted six days, most of which the captors and hostages spent in a bank vault: the authorities had given Olsson what he wanted, but refused to allow him and Olofsson to take the hostages with them when they left. Finally, when the captors surrendered, the hostages protected them as they left the vault together, they refused to testify against them, and seemed to have identified with them, if not been seduced by them. This phenomenon stunned the Swedish authorities. A Swedish psychologist coined it Normalmstorg Syndrome, which the rest of the world now calls Stockholm Syndrome.

I paid particular attention to the story at the time because I had just returned to America from my first visit to Europe, much of which time had been spent meeting my relatives in Sweden. I noted at the time that Olofsson was kept in Kalmar Prison, which is just across the Olandsbron from where many of my family lived and I remember wondering then and wondered now exactly how they got him up to Stockholm so quickly.

Canadian writer/director Robert Budreau went back to a contemporary account in The New Yorker as the basis for his screenplay, and his version, originally called Stockholm when it premiered at Tribeca last year, but was retitled The Captor (neither title is great, to be honest), is a slimmed down version of a story which plays somewhere between farce and thriller, comedy and tragedy. It recalls Dog Day Afternoon, another film based on a real 'robbery' which took place a year before the Normalmstorg one, where the real purpose of the robbery wasn't simply to rob a bank. There's that sense of the robbers being in over their head, that the emotions behind their action overpowers the logic of the situation, and this is what Budreau works on to 'explain' as it were, the nature of Stockholm Syndrome.

In The Captor, it's less a collective feeling born of a long stay in a confined place under horrible conditions, and more of two individual love stories. The obvious one is between Olsson, here called Lars Nystrom (all the names were changed as many of the people involved are still alive) and played by Ethan Hawke and one of the hostages, here called Bianca and played by Noomi Rapace. The story puts Lars in contrast to Bianca's boring husband, and it's not too subtly shown that Lars' plan to shoot her, while she wears a bullet-proof vest, is a sort of climax, as it were, of their growing attraction. But there is also the relationship of Lars and his partner, here called Gunnar and played by Mark Strong. It's a strong enough bond that the police chief accuses Lars of being 'queer' and Bianca later asks him if he 'loves' Gunnar.

This focus renders the other two hostages almost superfluous, which is a shame because Bea Santos as Klara in particular tries to convey feelings about what is going on, without much scope for that. We wind up seeing the bonding between the five (the number of captives has been reduced from the actual four captives) which comes about primarily because they come to believe that the kidnappers care more about their safety than either the police or the politicians, who have bigger points to make with them as the pawns. The key scene is a phone call between Bianca and Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, who chilly detachment contrasts sharply with Lars' undirected passion.

What saves this conflict of themes, between a love story and a syndrome story, from sinking the film is the quality of the acting. Once you realise Hawke is playing a Swede playing an American playing a Swede, it all makes sense, and he does a tremendous job of bringing out Lars child-like energy and lack of judgement. Rapace is brilliant, able to convey building emotion and internal conflict with small looks behind the oversized glasses which were the fashion in Sweden in those days. Strong has to be the straight man for Hawke, but he carries off an ambiguous position well (he had been offered his freedom if he 'mediated' a solution--eventually Swedish courts found Olofsson not guilty and he was released from prison). There is also a star turn by Canadian actor Christopher Heyerdahl (cousin of the Norwegian explorer) as police chief Mattsson. He plays a role which is sometimes even farcical and sometimes brutal with a precise control that reminded me constantly of Max Von Sydow, who would have been cast in that role had a Swedish version been made at the time, a la Dog Day Afternoon. His performance is the real anchor against which the chaos of the hostage situation plays.

In the end, of course, the captors were captured and the captives protected them so the police could not hurt them. Olofsson and his family later became friendly with Kristin Enmark (the 'Bianca' hostage who talked with Palme) and he went back to a life of crime. Janne Olsson married one of the many women who corresponded with him while he served his prison sentence, also returned to crime after his release, but when he decided to surrender to Swedish authorities discovered he was not wanted for anything. He and his family eventually settled in Thailand.

The film ends cutting between Bianca with her family on the beach, as if longing for something else, and a scene of her visiting Lars in prison, and with him in one of the rooms reserved for conjugal visits. The room has been referenced earlier in the film, but here their distance and silence suggests the longing is not for Lars at all, and one recalls her asking if Lars loves Gunnar. Hawke's character seems as confused about life as he was about bank robbing and hostage taking.

The Captor (aka Stockholm) is on release today

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

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

MAX ALLAN COLLINS' QUARRY'S CLIMAX

Max Collins' first published novel was The Broker, the first of three Quarry novels published in 1976 (originally, Quarry was part of his thesis at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, showing three thriller series could be set in an Iowans small town. A fourth novel followed in 1977, another in 1987, and then the character lay dormant until Hard Case began publishing new Quarry novels and reprinting the originals with new titles. Quarry is a former Marine sniper scarred by his Vietnam experience: he is in some ways a sociopath for whom killing is no big thing, but outwardly he is a normal small-city Iowan guy. He and The Broker also develop a new angle on killing: selling him to targeted victims to kill the hired killers targeting them. It's an interesting conceit, and one that allows Collins a certain leeway in the situations Quarry encounters.

Quarry's Climax is the thirteenth Quarry novel, and the set up is the epitome of Collins' attitude to Quarry. He's been hired to prevent the murder of Max Climer, controversial publisher of Climax Magazine, and sex entrepreneur in Memphis, 1975. The Broker has turned down a contract on Climer, because he's laundered money through Climax magazine, and the magazine is a huge success: its raunchiness challenging Playboy and Penthouse. So Quarry gets the job of keeping this sleazy tycoon alive.

Turns out Quarry, though feigning ignorance about Climax to The Broker, is a Climax subscriber, and actually reads the articles. Go figure. What he stumbles into in Memphis is a snake pit of family intrigue, with Climer's ex-wife, his brother and his daughter all jockeying for position within the empire, and all, along with any number of outsiders, having reasons to want to Max dead.

Quarry's style is a casual narration that sometimes becomes overly so: Quarry is not a writer, after all, so his narration reflects his background and his writing lapses into easy cliche. It's both a strength and a weakness, a particular strength if you can recall the milieu in which Quarry operates. The specific background of this one obviously starts with Larry Flynt and Hustler, but borrows too from Christie Hefner, Hugh's daughter who became a key to the Playboy empire. And for Quarry, it's a world of great temptation that doesn't always have to be resisted, even if he is, in the end, all business.

What Collins does for Quarry is to bring everything together neatly for Quarry (and the reader) in a way that makes killing merely part of the game. This isn't the hardness and tight focus of Richard Stark's Parker (interestingly, Collins' homage to Parker, Nolan, is never quite as coldly cold-blooded) but a unique blend of world-view and historical crime, though I'm not sure 1975 is far enough back yet to qualify for that category in the awards. But anyone who's read Collins' Nate Heller novels know how effective his settings can be. Quarry, for a killer, is a lot of fun, and you can tell Collins has fun writing him.  Readers will have fun as well. And the cover, by Robert McGinnis, with its echoes of Gold Medal paperbacks, is perfect. If you're old enough to recall 'mens mags' fondly, or young enough to want to, you ought to meet Quarry now.

Quarry's Climax by Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime £7.99 ISBN 9781785651809

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

Monday, 17 June 2019

BILL BUCKNER AND ME: A PLAY, A CLINIC -- LIFE AND BASEBALL

All the obituaries led with the error. Bill Buckner, whose fielding mistake in Game Six of the 1986 World Series cost the Boston Red Sox their first championship since 1918, since the Curse Of The Bambino was laid on the team after the 1919 season, when their owner sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. It is not the way any of us would care to be remembered, and it is unfair, and I had a chance to see up close the effect it has on a life.

In 1993, I was Vice President for European Operations for Major League Baseball International, and I had Buck in Britain for some coaching clinics and a little baseball publicity. He was an affable guy, there to do a job, and did everything he was asked to do. He turned out to be a natural instructor, which is not always true of very talented athletes, and smooth with the media. To a point. We staged a PR event at Lillywhites in Piccadilly Circus, and a number of reporters from national papers turned out. Before we started, I took them aside and asked if they would refrain from concentrating on, or hounding Bill about, the '86 Series. The wound was too fresh, the story too familiar.

So of course a guy from the biggest Sunday paper, as things are going fine, asks a convoluted question about watching a movie where a baseball player drops an easy fly ball and loses the most important game for his team. Such a movie did not, to my rather extensive knowledge, exist. But this guy wanted Buck's opinion. I don't think the question bothered Bill as much as its transparent dishonesty did, and he gave a perfunctory answer and visibly lost his enthusiasm for the rest of the event.

I walked away with him afterwards, apologized in an ineffective way, and went off with him and the other coaches for a beer and lunch. I knew Buckner had received death threats immediately after the World Series. I knew he'd been abused by fans in New York. I knew the media would never let that be forgotten (and imagine how much worse it would have been in today's world of half-baked mockery on the internet). But this is the story I should have told him right then and there. Because I am a Red Sox fan, and in 1986 I was probably twice as fervent as I am today. Which is still pretty fervent. I followed them religiously, though from afar. But I was working for ABC Sports in 1986, and ABC had a WATS line with New York, which meant my counterpart and friend in New York, David Downs and I could throw in extensive Sox chat as we discussed business daily.

On the evening of Saturday October 25, 1986 I was in Monaco. I had spent the previous three days with David and two of our colleagues from New York doing business at the annual congress of AGFIS, the association of international sports federations. The others had left for the airport Saturday morning, leaving me to finish business with the head of the World Weightlifting Federation over breakfast. In the afternoon, my then-girlfriend arrived by train from Milan. We had dinner, and were asleep in my room in the Hotel de Paris when the phone rang, sometime after five in the morning. It was David calling from New York. “Two outs, two strikes, bottom of the tenth: I wanted you to hear this!” He held the phone to his TV speaker. I heard “Stanley's pitch...” followed by a scream and a curse. And he hung up.

I grabbed the Sony short-wave I'd always carried since my days as a journalist for UPITN, and tried desperately to tune in Armed Forces Network, from Germany or Italy. Cornelia was half awake in the bed, asking in Italian what was going on. But the sun had risen in France, and I couldn't find a signal. I waited a while and then took the immense step of calling New York from an expensive hotel phone. The Sox had lost, the New York Mets had tied the series at 3-3 and the deciding game would be played Sunday night.

Let me explain something now. The moment I heard (or didn't hear) over the phone was a wild pitch by Bob Stanley (or passed ball by catcher Rich Gedman, the point is still being argued) with the Sox still leading 5-4 in the bottom of the tenth inning. It allowed the tying run to score. Mookie Wilson, the batter, then hit the ground ball down the first base line that skipped between Buckner's legs and allowed the winning run to score. The Mets won the game 6-5 and tied the series 3 games each.

Buckner had the misfortune of making the highly visible error, the perfect photo, the metaphor for the loss: but the win implied by Boston's scoring two runs in the top of the tenth had already been erased before Mookie's ground ball.

It wasn't Buckner's fault manager John McNamara pinch hit for his starting pitcher, Roger Clemens, in the eighth inning up 3-2 (the hitter, Mike Greenwell, struck out). Nor that Calvin Schiraldi, the closer acquired late in the season from the Mets, immediately allowed the tying run. It wasn't Buck's fault that after going up 4-3 in the top of the tenth, McNamara called allowed Schiraldi to hit for himself, nor with the lead now 5-3 he called on Schiraldi to pitch a third inning of relief. It's not Buck's fault that after getting two outs, Schiraldi allowed three straight hits before McNamara pulled him. Nor that the new pitcher, Bob Stanley, didn't see Marty Barrett calling desperately for a throw that would pick Ray Knight off second base for the third out. Most of all, it isn't Bill Buckner's fault that McNamara, for the first time in the playoffs, neglected to send Dave Stapleton, a slick fielding infielder, in as a defensive replacement for Buckner. Johnny Mac, old school all the way, wanted Buck to be on the field for the moment of the triumph.

I knew all the back-stories: how Schiraldi's ex Met teammates knew how he was likely to pitch to him. How McNamara claimed Clemens had 'begged' to be taken out, which the pitcher vehemently denied. How Stanley, lumbering over to cover first, might not have beaten Mookie to the bad even had Buckner made the play. The basic point was: you lose as a team, and there was more than enough blame to go around.

And of course, the Series was still there to be won; Game Seven was supposed to be played the next night. I was still in Monaco, but it rained Sunday in New York, so the game was played Monday Night (opposite it, the lowest-rated Monday Night Football game in history) and, back in London, I listened on AFN from Wiesbaden.

The delay allowed McNamara to give the start to lefty Bruce Hurst, albeit on three days rest rather than four. Hurst had two wins already and had been the Sox best player in the series so far. But here Johnny Mac made his biggest mistake. The pitcher on Sunday would have been Dennis 'Oil Can' Boyd. Boyd was told he wasn't starting Monday. But instead of the manager saying something like “look, Can, Bruce has been our best. But he'll get tired, and when he does, I want you ready to go. Not pacing yourself, just giving us your best innings. It's not who starts the game, it's who finishes it, and we need you to finish it. OK?” Mac just told him and walked away. He was the skipper and his word was law. As it was, Can went to the clubhouse and started drinking beer (that's where his 'Oil Can' nickname came from) and by the time pitching coach Bill Fischer found him he was angry and drunk. Or drunk and angry. He supposedly spent the whole game in the manager's office.

The Sox led 3-0 going into the bottom of the sixth, when Hurst tired and allowed three runs, which would have been more had not Dewey Evans thrown out Keith Hernandez on the bases. Now tied 3-3, the seventh would have been the moment for Boyd. Instead, McNamara had to call on Schiraldi who gave up a home run to the first batter and allowed two more runs before giving way to two walks from Joe Sambito and finally the third out from Stanley.

The Sox got two back in the top of the eighth, a rally started by Buckner's single. But Jesse Orosco came in and shut the rally down. It was now 6-5 Mets, and McNamara replaced Stanley, who'd faced only one batter, with Al Nipper, in order to make a 'double switch' to get Ed Romero into the lineup where his bat could be a factor. Like Schiraldi, Nipper gave up a leadoff home run (to Darryl Strawberry), then another run. Orosco closed down the Sox in the top of the ninth and the Mets won the game 8-5 and the Series 4 games to 3: since selling Babe Ruth the Sox had lost three World Series, in 1975, 1967, and 1946—all by 4-3 in seven games, all to arguably the decade's best National League team.

I would have told Buck that I blamed David, who had tickets to Game Seven but didn't go. All kidding and superstition aside, I blamed McNamara more than anyone. But I didn't mention that. I could have said the 'Curse Of The Bambino' thing was a modern construct, born of the nostalgia boom of the 80s and the Sox resurgence post 1975. But I was also stymied by my own evaluation of Buck's overall disappointment in the Series: only six hits, and no production with runners on base. Which was something I pondered as I watched him teach.

Buckner had 22 years in the majors. He was an amazing contact hitter: he didn't walk much, but he didn't strike out very often either. He wasn't a power hitter, but in his best home-run year, in Boston, he hit 18 and struck out only 25 times. For his career, his 162 games average season showed 29 walks, 29 strike outs. His career batting average was .289, lowered by a severe decline in his last three years. But he was also helped by playing much of his career in great hitting parks, Wrigley Field and Fenway. He came up with the Dodgers along with Bobby Valentine and Steve Garvey (see photo of them with Tommy Lasorda at rookie-league Ogden in 1968). Valentine was a similar kind of player whose career also wound up being limited by injury. Valentine was already a legendary high-school athlete when I was a kid in Connecticut, and they were both players with intense natural talent that matured early. Buck was a quick outfielder, contact hitter, without a great arm (career-wise, he's a pretty good match for Al Oliver). He was playing left field for the Dodgers when Hank Aaron hit a home run over his head to break Babe Ruth's career record, which makes another odd link between Buckner and the Babe. But the Dodgers produced a lot of talent in those days—they were constantly moving players out of the outfield, Bill Russell to short, Pedro Guerrero to third. With the ankle injury and infection limiting his mobility, they tried moving Buck to first but of course Garvey was there at the same time. Interestingly, Garvey is the third-closest comparison to Buckner's career, after Oliver and Mickey Vernon, though Vernon's a different type of player with an odd career pattern. Eventually they traded Buckner to the Cubs for Rick Monday, who proved integral to post-season success.

The Cubs were the only team in baseball with a longer history of futility than the Red Sox. In fact, there was an equation known as the Cub Factor which could be used to determine the outcome of nay post-season series: the team with fewer ex-Cubs would win. With the Cubs Buckner would win a batting title in 1980, the first of three straight years hitting over .300, including 105 RBIs in 1982. But in '82, a young outfielder named Leon Durham would make the All-Star team, and by '84 he'd been moved to first base, and Buckner was sidelined. He demanded a trade and was shipped to the Sox for pitchers Dennis Eckerlsey and Mike Gorman.

Here's where it gets weird. In the 1984 National League playoffs, the Cubs were on the verge of eliminating the San Diego Padres, a game where Durham's homer had staked them to a 3-0 lead. But with the margin cut to 3-2, and two runners on base, Durham allowed an easy ground ball by Tim Flannery through his legs, and the tying run scored. Another error by Ryne Sandberg would seal the Cubs' fate; it turned out Durham's glove was soaking wet because Sandberg had accidentally overturned a Gatorade barrell onto it. The play was an eerie foreshadowing of what would happen to Buckner two years later.

As a footnote, Eckersley, whose career as a starter was fading, would be reborn in Oakland as a closer, but he is perhaps best remembered now for the backdoor slider he threw with two strikes to a hobbled Kirk Gibson, which Gibson blasted for a home run on the way to a Dodgers' win and championship in 1988. Eck, of course, represented the Cub Factor in that game.

In '85, Buck had his best year with the Sox: .299 16 HR 110 RBI and even 18 stolen bases with only 4 caught stealings. He'd slipped a bit in '86, but still was over 100 rbis in a lineup loaded with players who got on base (Wade Boggs, Evans, Don Baylor) batting ahead of him. He was much less effective in '87, and the Sox traded him to the Angels, where he had a decent half-season, but after that his career was effectively over, though he hung on for three more years, retiring at age 40. He lived in Boise, made good real estate investments, and later returned to baseball as a coach of an independent minor league team outside Boston.

But in 1993 Buckner responded to being admired by young baseball players and respected by British coaches as only someone with major league credentials can be. There was no false modesty just as there was little defensiveness about '86, he knew what he had and hadn't accomplished in his career. As I said, I wished I'd expressed a little bit more of this at the time, but I too was more concerned with showing him the respect he was due, and helping him do his best for the clinics at which his talent was visible and his effort in teaching admirable.

The Red Sox finally broke the Curse of the Bambino, if such a thing existed in 2004, rallying back from three games down to the Yankees in the American League Championship, and sweeping the Cardinals, their nemesis in both 1946 and 1967.

In 2008, after a second World Series win in 2007, Buckner returned back to Fenway to throw out the first ball on opening day. The Fenway Park crowd rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation that lasted minutes. Buckner visibly wiped away tears a couple of times, but otherwise stood awkwardly, one hand in his pockets, without a hat to tip to acknowledge the fans. When the applause died down he threw a perfect 12 to 6 curve ball to Dewey Evans at the plate, and the two embraced as the crowd applauded again. Afterwards, Buckner said he had never carried animosity toward the fans when he was criticised, but he did have some for the media. Imagine again what that would have been like today. But the moment was a ceremonial and symbolic burying of that moment of surrender to a curse, and a reclamation of Bill Buckner as a player.

He died at the end of May in Boise, of Lewy Body Dementia. He was only 69. Had he lived another six years, he and Mookie Wilson would probably have gone on tour, like Gibson and Eckersley did, putting that moment of the past into historical, legendary, perspective. I could not help but wonder how his memory was affected by the dementia, and whether he would blessed to recall the cheers of 2008, the high points of his career, and of course the blessings of his life. There is one photo of him, with the Red Sox, that I think captures the joy we all get to feel with life, when it seems it will go one forever, that we will enjoy being part of it, that all our problems will be insignificant, or if not, will be overcome. Ironically, I'm writing about that one moment which will always be attached to his name, but I am grateful that I had the chance to put a real person ahead of that moment in my own memory. RIP Buck.

Monday, 3 June 2019

NIC PIZZOLATTO'S GALVESTON

I don't know what it is about the Gulf Of Mexico, but if there is a better, steamier, darker backdrop for noirish fiction, I can't think of one. Maybe foggy San Francisco. Roy Cady is a strong-arm man working for Stan Ptitko, a big shot gangster in New Orleans. He's not totally in with Stan's crew, partly because he's from Texas, partly because he was inherited from the old crew when Stan took control, and in large part because Roy's old girlfriend Carmen is now Stan's. So one day when Roy is sent to deliver a message to recalcitrant local labor leader, and told not to bring a gun, he brings one anyway. That he's been diagnosed with cancer earlier in the day might have something to do with it too. That's the kind of world Roy lives in.

When Roy and fellow hooligan Angelo break into the house, they're ambushed and when he wakes up, the union guy (called Sienkiewicz, in evident homage to Bill, the amazing graphic artist?) is dead, Angelo's beat up, and a badly-abused woman is wimpering, while another lies dead in the bedroom. Next thing you know, Angelo's dead, three thugs are dead, and Roy and Rocky, no longer wimpering, are on the run, headed for East Texas and winding up in Galveston.

On the way, there's some of Rocky's back-story they need to deal with, which includes a child and more, and once they are in place nothing is going to be easy. But Roy tries. He tries to help Rocky, and her child, and to make himself and them safe. But she's a young woman no one has ever really helped, not without an ulterior motive, and of course she isn't a tough as she thinks she is. It's as close to a straight life as he is ever going to get, and it isn't very straight, and there's nothing that says it's going to last very long.

Galveston is bleakly, darkly noir: the atmosphere is very heavy, the sense of impending tragedy never far away. Nic Pizzolatto was the creator of True Detective, but this book has a lot in common with some graphic novels; I'm thinking in terms of Frank Miller or Ed Brubaker, where the colours are all stark black and white and the situations are bleak. But I was comparing it most to Lou Berney's November Road, both novels where hard men wind up in family situations. There is a difference: although Roy on the surface is a much harder guy, he's less cynical and self-concerned than Frank Guidry. Pizzolatto uses Roy to narrate the story himself, and we know from the first he's a wounded character, even before the cancer is diagnosed, and what transformation we see in him does not come as a huge surprise. In a sense we see it all along, more aware of what kind of man he is than he is himself. Guidry's story is the opposite; it was told in third person, making the growth of his character more distinct, and it's eventual path more more unsure.

Which makes Galveston a violent noir with a heart of gold, and makes Roy Cady a memorable character. It's not hard to see how this 2010 novel served as a springboard for Pizzolatto, who's also written for the US version of The Killing, and wrote the screenplay (eventually under a pseudonym following creative differences) for the film adaptation of this book.

Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto
Sphere £7.99 ISBN 9780751557053

THE PEARLY GATES a poem

This poem is one I've always liked. I wrote it in March and April of 1976, in Montreal, and remember well the Metro ride that inspired it. It really is typical of the kind of style I was working on, in tandem with something similar but more expansive, which would turn into my master's thesis at McGill. I also like the way it seems faith-based, even more so now than it did when I wrote it. It bounced around a bit. At one point I thought it might be paired with 'Basic Training' (which you can find here at IT) in New Poetry 4, the Arts Council of GB's anthology, but it wasn't. It wound up, confusingly enough, being published in issue 47 of New Poetry, a London-based magazine. Ten years later, slightly changed, it appeared in the US, in issue 5 of Brief, from Canyon, California. In 1991 I included it in my chapbook Chump Change, published by Northern Lights. I reckon none of you have it seen in any of those three incarnations.  The line breaks have their purpose: which might be clearer were I to read it out loud....



 THE PEARLY GATES


If there is a man
    there to judge

he will be ugly.

Wars will have been fought
on his face

                    he will be
the man you could never resist
      sneaking quick looks
at
         in the underground

& you will
shudder

                or be polite
& look
               the other way
before you shudder

& already you
      will be in
          trouble.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

CLAUS VON BULOW, THE MALE GAZE, THE LAWYER AND LAW & ORDER

Seeing his obituaries this week reminded me I met Claus Von Bulow once. It was almost exactly 20 years ago, in July 1999, at the annual Spectator garden party, at the offices in Doughty Street, back when Boris Johnson was the editor and I was writing the occasional outre review for the estimable Mark Amory, the books editor. As always, it was crowded and warm and the champagne was flowing. I found myself in a group with someone I knew and two other men, one of whom was Bulow. It was all pleasant enough, in a sort of dismissive English upper-class way. Then a woman walked past, attractive with a rather large chest. "Look at those tits," Bulow said, or words to that effect. And a few minutes later, when the same woman walked past again, he called her over, and pointed to me. "My friend here was very complimentary about your breasts, my dear," he said.

I blushed, and stammered some sort of denial, and while he was being charming to the woman I turned to my friend and said "He did it."I did not hang around him much longer; oddly enough I later spoke with the woman, explained, presented my theory as to Sunny Bulow's murder, and we wound up going out for dinner a few weeks later. Nothing came of it, but I thought of her a few years later when David Cameron came to prominence. She did PR for Carlton, as did Cameron, Cameron and Boris were both Bully Boys from the Bullingdon Club, and it occured to me at that point that might have been why she was at the Spectator party. I haven't written for the Speccie in a while; in fact I believe the last party to which I was invited was the one of 7 July 2005, which was cancelled after the bombings at Kings Cross.

There's no need to rehash the case now; but that night it seemed clear to me that 'von' Bulow was a perfect fit for at least one portion of the crowd at a Spectator party. That kind of exclusive club person who's distinctly aware of his own distance from the rest, somewhat creepy if you weren't impressed by what passed for charm. I could see where he would be entertaining, how he'd be invited to parties even without the notoriety. But the notoriety made him irresistible; hosts using him just as he was using them.

It's interesting that his attorney who won him a second trial was Alan Dershowitz, whose book Reversal Of Fortune formed the basis of the movie. Jeremy Irons won his Oscar for that one in large part for being able to project ambiguity, but there was a more interesting version of the murder made as an episode of Law & Order, series 4 episode 5, called 'Black Tie' (1993). It is basically the same insulin-based murder case, but the sexes of victim and suspected killer have been reversed.

The victim is the husband, the accused is the wife, who despite her protestations of being blase about their separate lives, knew her husband was planning to divorce her for his mistress. It presents the issues clearly, most importantly Dershowitz's main point was that evidence obtained by investigators hired by the children had no right to search, as they were acting as de facto agents of the police. The Law & Order casting was perfect: Caroline Lagerfelt was her icy best as the wife; the amazing Viveca Lindfors was the maid who suspects foul play, and Beverly Johnson was good as the mistress. John McMartin, whose face you would recognise, is the family lawyer, and Jeffrey DeMunn plays the Dershowitz figure: a law professor whose recurring part on L&O was as the 'disinterested' lawyer who is always hired by rich clients and proceeds because he allegedly is pursuing points of law.

DeMunn is an elegant, sharp-edged actor, with an intense gaze that can make him seem haughtily detached; he and Lagerfelt made a good pair. In fact,  Dershowitz has been remarkably well-served on screen, with Ron Silver playing him in Reversal, all noble energy, more private eye than law professor, and Evan Handler in The People vs OJ Simpson perhaps not quite so flattering, but very small-town (Harvard) academic. That's interesting, once you throw DeMunn into the mix, because not by their actors but by their clients you shall know them.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

DISNEY & THE GEORGIA ABORTION BOYCOTT: MY FRONT ROW INTERVIEW

Yesterday I appeared on BBC Radio 4's Front Row programme, talking with John Wilson about the Disney announcement they would not engage in production in Georgia if their newly-passed abortion ban came into effect. You can link to it here. Front Row booked me to speak without knowing my personal connection with Bob Iger, the Disney CEO, but that was both a good hook and something we did not linger on. You may recall last year there was some talk of Bob's running for president.

John and I had to cut the talk short because the previous interview had gone long, so I was rushing, and made a couple of verbal slips (New Jersey, not New York, was the second state pitching for business) and I didn't get to mention that Black Panther and the new Avengers movie were both filmed in Georgia. Judges in two states (Iowa, a state judge and Utah a federal judge) have struck down the bills passed by legislatures, while it has not passed in either Florida or Texas, the state where the original Roe v Wade case was brought.

But one important point we didn't get to was the possible knock -on effect in the Uniter Kingdom, specifically in Northern Ireland. Game Of Thrones was filmed there, as is Line Of Duty among others, but if the petitions against working in US states trying to limit abortion in the face of the national law, someone will eventually notice that Northern Ireland already does the same thing in this country, and their abortion ban is in some ways even stricter than Georgia's.