Tuesday 29 July 2008


The Spies Of Warsaw
Alan Furst
Weidenfeld & Nicholson 16.99
ISBN 9780297855415

'I think you like this kind of war,' Anna Szarbek tells the French military attache Jean-Francois Mercier, who of course is a spy, and this kind of war is of course no real war at all, just preparation for the war which they, in 1937 Warsaw, know is coming inevitably. 'This job has grown into me,' Mercier replies, and that could be the answer Alan Furst might give to the same question. 'This kind of war' has been his subject in nine previous novels, in which time he has recreated the black and white era of Thirties espionage with the precision, the emphasis on subtle shading of mood, the finely judged nuance of a Vermeer. What is particularly telling in this story is the way Mercier is himself made to serve as symbol of both the old, aristocratic Europe which is already in sharp, if ignorant, decline, and which is about to be blown away by Hitler's new world order. His family has a distinguised name, but their estates are in tatters, a metaphor for the nation and the old order.

Germany is preparing for war, and Mercier has spotted, indirectly, the evidence that their attack on France will come with tanks plowing through the Ardennes, something the French high command, secure behind their Maginot Line, regards as unthinkable. Meanwhile, the Nazis are becoming more and more active in Poland, and as they do, Polish intelligence, apart from the admirable Colonel Vyborg, whom Furst's regulars will recall from The Polish Officer, are more concerned with rounding up left-wingers, and protecting themselves from the Russians to their east.

Within Warsaw's world of espionage, and diplomacy, all is more gentlemanly, and Mercier finds himself beginning an affair with Anna, a French lawyer for the League of Nations, by definition a practitioner in an even-greater, more idealistic futility, whose family were Polish Jews. Every action has its ramifications, from the fate of Anna's former lover to the revenge of an SS officer whose kidnap plans in Warsaw Mercier foils. Meanwhile, Furst engages with all types of agents, and their motives, willing and unwilling, desperate or simply adjusting to the changing, and dangerous times. It proceeds at its own pace, the pieces linking tenuously, sometimes not at all, with the inevitability of failure an historical reality which, if anything, adds to the story's foggy atmosphere. More than anyone, Furst recalls Eric Ambler, particularly in the way his spies are often from the business world, motivated by personal greeds, and often people being forced into spying. In both cases, it is difficult to pretend one is engaged in a gentlemanly business.

The conclusion is more problematical, however, as Furst jumps ahead to the start of the war, and mentions that, 'after many adventures' (exactly the line Robert Mitchum uses in voice-over at the end of 'Tombstone'!), Mercier and Anna made their way to London, where they went to work for the French and Polish intelligence services. This suggests a sequel, if not multiple sequels, and even knowing that they make it to Britain, the story of their getting there, in Furst's hands, would not be disappointing.

Monday 21 July 2008


INTRODUCTION: In a piece about The Wire, Dennis Lehane referred to David Simon loving a piece of dialogue from The Wild Bunch: Pike Bishop (William Holden) saying 'let's go'. I've never been able to hear that line in isolation, however; not without Tector Gorch (Warren Oates)'s reply, 'why not?'. I recalled having written as much somewhere, and eventually dug out this essay, originally written a few years ago for the Financial Times' Re-Readings series, but spiked for being too esoteric even for that, mostly because the book was in print only in the USA.

I should declare an interest: nearly 40 years ago I studied American Studies with Rich, wrote him a 55 page paper on The Shadow, and consider him one of my very best teachers. But his work speaks for itself; beyond the Frontier Trilogy, his fiction, of which ABE may be the most accessible, has an uncanny ability to take on the culture of its time; THE CRATER is one of the best 19th century novels written in the later 20th century.

I've added a new concluding paragraph, but otherwise this is as it was originally written. I think it remains valid, and the book worth re-reading (or reading) now....

Richard Slotkin, Atheneum (US), 1993, 850pp

“When the legend becomes truth, print the legend,” advises John Ford in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE. To Richard Slotkin, who over a period of 20 years produced a trilogy of books analysing those legends, they consititute the truths which once bound American society together. In GUNFIGHTER NATION, the last of that trilogy, Slotkin frames his argument in terms even British readers will recognise: the familiar images of film, television, and novels which have become iconic all over the world.

The frontier defines America’s most enduring myths. In REGENERATION THROUGH VIOLENCE (1973) Slotkin portrayed the entire continent as the frontier; colonial America was surrounded by it. The period of exploration ended just before the Civil War. As Manifest Destiny conquered the continent it became THE FATAL ENVIRONMENT (1985); the second volume takes in the rest of the nineteenth century. Dealing with sources less familiar to a general audience, these two books are more academic in style; they won awards, but not necessarily readers, although I recall Robert B Parker having Spenser read REGENERATION in one of his novels. GUNFIGHTER NATION presents its more familiar material in a style which better reflects its sources; it flows like a novel.

American myth, to Slotkin, has two strands: populist (Jeffersonian, agrarian, democratic) and progressive (Alexander Hamilton via Teddy Roosevelt, expansionist, elitist, implicitly racist). Contrast the Robin Hood myth of Jesse James with the big-business approach to the West (first harvesting buffalo, then marketing the myth as Wild West shows) of Buffalo Bill. Both strands grow out of the frontier, but we see them clearly in conflict in a seminal modern work like Dashiell Hammett’s RED HARVEST, where the detective known only as the Continental Op (operating on behalf of a whole continent) finds himself caught between strikers (populist) and mine owners (progressive) in a town called Poisonville.

Such myths affect not only the way we perceive history, but also the ways we enact that history in the present. Slotkin can analyse both perception and enactment because he is able to present dime novels, pulp magazines, and silent films in the contexts of their times, free of the revisionism encouraged by changing attitudes. Free of scholarly cant. Because he makes the context of popular culture clear, his formal analysis is riveting.

Movies are central to the myth of the West in the past century, and Slotkin’s perception of them puts many film critics to shame. He understands how film works as an art form, he understands too how the film business works. Without such understanding no western movie, from THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY to UNFORGIVEN, can be put into any sort of context. More importantly, he understands the changing society to whose needs those westerns pandered.

The boom time for the Western was probably from 1948 through 1973, corresponding with the triumph of America’s progressive side: the cold war domination which followed World War II. Television continued the B movie ethos of earlier years, while film directors began to take the genre apart. The myths of the frontier were adapted quickly to this new world order, including the transfer of the savage menace from literal to figurative “Reds”. By the time Kennedy became President, this myth was full-blown into the “New Frontier”: Green Berets were the modern “rangers” of frontier myth, fighting in Vietnam’s “Indian Country”.

Vietnam is where the myth hits the fan. Slotkin’s simple analysis of the My Lai massacre, as presented by Life magazine, and a parallel analysis of Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH, reflect not just the intrinsic power of the film's art, but, in the demoralizing of the America it reflects, classic myths became inverted; Americans had crossed-over and become the savages; 'going native' was always the most feared consequence of the Frontier, all the way back to Colonial times. Slotkin marks this change in Pike Bishop’s (William Holden) single line in THE WILD BUNCH: “Let’s go.” My only quibble is that he skips Lyle Gorch”s (Warren Oates) nihilistic and quintessentially American reply: “Why not?”.

When Richard Nixon switched his Vietnam policy from winning the war to “rescuing” US POWs, he was consciously reclaiming another American myth which was the basis of the Puritans' earliest literature: the captivity narrative. This pointed the way for the revisionist Rambo histories of Vietnam, whose betrayal scenarios blamed loss on dissenters at home. What was Ronald Reagan, asks Slotkin, if not America’s last attempt to reclaim the beliefs American myths told Americans should bind society together, even when they were known to be untrue.

Eventually, delusion is doomed to fail. As Slotkin points out dryly, “no mythic system can be perfectly invulnerable to the rebuke of events”. He sees America’s choice now as a falsely idealised past (“a monstrous overgrown Disneyland”) or the challenge of using myth as one of many ways of imagining the truth.It’s a huge jump from the analysis of popular culture, but no one has made a better start.

Sadly, since not long after I wrote that conclusion, America has spent most of the current century revisiting the land of delusion, as if totally inured to the almost constant screaming rebuke of events. Our monstrous overgrown Disneyland has been attacked, and our response has been to both lash out angrily while retreating deeper into Disneyland's fantasies. Indulging our violence while pretending to be victims. Maybe America needed to be reminded of a deeper level of myth than a Top Gun imposter in front of a Mission Accomplished banner. Americans needed to be reminded that the legend had not yet become truth, and it was not their job to make it so. I doubt this piece running in Britain's FT would have made much difference.

Friday 18 July 2008


NOTE: This essay is NOT about Fred Vargas, though I could have digressed to discuss the retitling of the book in English translation, or the fact that the French label the book 'policier' without any evident discomfort. Nor is it a comment on the Daily Telegraph's book pages (after all, I've left my own hard-boiled mark on them) but merely a reflection of the fact that their crossword is the posh commuter's puzzle of choice.

This essay was originally written in 2007, when I was asked for something controversial by a website who then declined to run it because it was, uh, controversial. I was then going to present it at a festival, but family circumstances intervened. The essay then went through a highly-chequered trans-Atlantic journey to another literary website, before settling back into my computer only to be revived now. It remains current, but I suppose one could've written this same lament at any time in the past 50 years (or more) and will be able to do it any time in the foreseeable future. And this shouldn't be controversial by then.

Although crime fiction is generally reserved for ‘ghetto’ columns in British newspapers, the Guardian, which runs two of them, also gives individual novels more space. Which made their review of Fred Vargas’ WASH THIS BLOOD CLEAN FROM MY HAND all the more perplexing. The reviewer, Carrie O’Grady, began by calling Vargas a ‘rising star within the narrow field of good, intellectual crime novels’. She then mentioned that Vargas had written 14 novels, which raises some questions as to just how she defines ‘rising’.

That is probably nit-picking, but some of her other definitions, particularly of the words ‘good’ and ‘intellectual’, are even more bizarre. The comma between them indicates they are being used in parallel, meaning good AND intellectual, ergo, that crime novels which are ‘intellectual’ are ‘good’. She has already pre-judged the field by saying it is ‘narrow’.This is the product of the inevitable syllogism of all genre fiction: if it’s too good, it cannot be crime fiction at all. One might have thought this was debunked neatly at least sixty years ago by Raymond Chandler, in one essay in the Atlantic Monthly, but such debunking has continued to be necessary, sadly, on a regular basis ever since.

Indeed, O’Grady could have been echoing the words of any number of 1930s middle-brow poetasters as she proceeded to encapsulate her literary theory of crime fiction neatly into one telling sentence:

‘After all, detective stories have a tendency to be rather samey, once you’ve read your first few dozen; surely an Estonian puzzle, you reason, would necessarily be more puzzling than a plain old English one.‘

Although she writes in the Guardian, O’Grady has defined what I call the Telegraph Crossword Theory of Crime Literature. Fictional crimes, including murders, exist solely as ‘puzzles’ to be solved. Once solved, the world is meant to be returned to its comfortable orderly state, where everyone knows their place. That comfort is why ‘cozies’ are called ‘cozies’. Let me stress that I don’t mean this to be in any way a criticism of Ms. Vargas, whose work was deserving of more sensible praise from the Guardian, or of any type of detective story in particular.

But read that italicised passage again. ‘A ha!’ one might exclaim, were one the hero of a ‘good, intellectual’ crime novel. Ignore ‘a tendency to be rather samey’. If something ‘has a tendency’ to being ‘rather’ anything, can it really be anything at all? Grant O’Grady the point that there is no reason why an Estonian puzzle would ’necessarily’ be more puzzling than a plain old English one’. But what does that prove, apart from her own innate Xenophobia?

She has, apparently, discovered that translated works are foreign. And although she confesses to being impressed with Vargas’ ‘marvellous way with landscape‘, (after all, the French landscape makes for marvellous English holidays!), it never occurs to her that it’s not the Estonian ’puzzle’ but rather the Estonian landscape, Estonian characters, and even, shudder to think, the Estonian perspective, that might make an Estonian crime novel captivating. The paradox which O’Grady ignores, if not inverts, is that it is the puzzles that are ‘rather samey‘, not the foreign writers.

She even seems mesmerised by the way foreign languages are different. Indeed, when O’Grady mentions that Vargas’ books are ‘translated‘, she puts the word in inverted commas, as if warning about a curious and not quite acceptable practice. She explains: ‘fans of crime fiction are always hearing about thrilling masterworks published in Spanish, or Finnish, or Estonian: the more foreign the language, the more exotic and enticing the book seems.’ I’m not sure which languages are ‘more’ foreign than others, but you might ask the British Crime Writers’ Association, who declared translations ineligible for their Golden Dagger award immediately after Iceland’s Arnaldur Indridason won it. They, like O’Grady, definitely prefer Etonian to Estonian.

So why then does O’Grady like Vargas’ detective, Jean-Baptiste Adamsburg? Because he is ‘much less an old grouch’ like Maigret’s Simenon, and much more like ‘our own Adam Dalglish', PD James’ 'sensitive and philosophical sleuth’ (her description). Indeed, that may have been Vargas’ intention, since the name Adamsburg serves as hommage to James, in the same way that his first name carries both Old and New Testament allusions, which must make him philosophical, if not automatically sensitive. For the sensitive detective, streets are clean, not mean, and if they get dirty, his job is to make them spic and span once again.

Philosophical is, after all, only one small step from intellectual, just ask Alain De Botton. And remember, only ‘intellectual’ crime novels are among that ’narrow’ group that are ‘good’. But in O’Grady’s literary world intellectualism is simply an ability to reduce the world to puzzles. The puzzles gets solved by the time the train arrives back in Tunbridge Wells, the paper gets taken home to be thrown away (lest someone who has not paid for their own get a hold of it) and as the intellectual settles down in his Shangri-la with tea, pipe, slippers and a nice concert on the wireless. All is well with the world.

Imagine the Guardian reaction to a critic who argued against translated fiction, or contended that reading Harry Mullish, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Per-Olov Enquist, Leonardo Sciasia, or Mario Vargas Llosa, much less Henning Mankell, somehow short-changed ‘our own’ fiction! So why would the Guardian assign this book to someone whose tastes are so out of touch with their own readership, and much closer to the Little England mentality of the Daily Mail?

In the end, O’Grady’s problem isn’t as much with translation as with a genre whose fiction aspires to reflect real worlds, whatever their nationalities. So little of this argument is likely to make sense to her. Nor would very much of Michael Connelly, James Ellroy, Jefferson Parker, Robert Crais, Don Winslow, Alan Furst, Thomas Cook, George Pelecanos, or Richard Stark. Not even if translated from their original American. Perhaps Graham Hurley, John Harvey, Ian Rankin, or Val McDermid could be translated from modern English into the post-Victorian puzzlese with which she’s more comfortable. No, that’s unfair. For Carrie O’Grady, those books wouldn’t be difficult. After all, they do quite tend to be rather samey to a degree, don’t they?

Monday 14 July 2008


NOTE: I've been asked a couple of times what it meant to be the 'books editor' of a magazine called Petrolhead, which I was for the magazine's five issues back in 1998. It meant I had a column called 'Head Food' aimed at readers whose reading habits I couldn't even guess at; accordingly, sometimes my choice of books was somewhat restricted. As was the space: the books page occupied about the same proportion of the magazine that the plastic Jesus on the dashboard does of a 16 wheeler. I had to first write and then cut fiercely, lest Petrolhead have to reduce the size of the pictures of motors and models. Within those constraints I did have the freedom to write as I wished, and even occasionally to choose my books, so the following appeared in Petrolhead, issue 5, and remains the only time, to my knowledge, Chris Ryan and Alan Hollinghurst have ever been linked together in a review. Interestingly, both books were assigned to me by the editor; Ryan was an obvious choice, but the logic behind her insistence Hollinghurst would be right up a Petrolhead reader's alley, so to speak, escaped me. The reviews ran separately, with the Ryan immediately following the Hollinghurst; I've knitted them into one for this piece. Remember, this is a blast from the past, written in 1998......were I writing it now I'd point out that Hollinghurst had invented Sex & The City, only set in the country, with gay men playing gay men, instead of Sarah Jessica Parker & Co. playing gay men....

THE SPELL by Alan Hollinghurst (Chatto & Windus £15.99)
THE KREMLIN DEVICE by Chris Ryan (Century £15.99)

Robin, an architect in his late 40s, lives in Dorset with Julian, an unemployed “actor”. Julian’s ex, Alex, a 30-something civil servant, comes for a visit. He falls in love with Danny, Robin’s 22 year old son. Danny is into clubbing, drugs, and casual sex. Everyone (but Alex) sleeps with Terry, the local rent boy. The Spell is designed like a comedy of manners, but manners in this case are subservient to what Hollinghurst calls “the undertow of sex”, and that limits his range, because every action, every character, every word is defined almost solely by sexuality. In that sense, for all Hollinghurst’s literary reputation, this is a Sex and Shopping novel, with an all-male cast, and even the shopping is mostly for sex. It's Jackie Collins in drag with big words.

So it comes as a relief to discover at bottom a Theme. Behind, as it were, the sex, shopping, and, uh, sex, The Spell is really about the spreading of the generation gap, and how changing times condition men to deal with their aging sexuality. The most touching scene in the book involves a Scrabble game between Robin and Julian. This is the “spell” of the title: Robin’s “exasperate” met by Julian’s “gents”, and Robin shying away from using “temporise”: the whole novel in a tiled nutshell.

On the other hand, since Chris Ryan prefers acronyms to homonyms, there are fewer big-word scores in his SAS Scrabble, but there is far more homo-eroticism in Ryan’s descriptions of SAS men at war than in all of Hollinghurst's oeuvre. The Kremlin Device follows SAS man Geordie Sharp and his Howling Commandos as they head to Russia to help their former Soviet enemies deal with everyone's new enemy, the Russian mafia. Just to prove you can’t trust Brits, while they’re in the neighbourhood they plant their own nuclear bomb underneath the Kremlin, and drive around Moscow with another Controlled Nuclear Device (CND) just long enough to have it stolen by the Chechens, which is mighty convenient for the plot.

It’s not so much James Bond as male bond. To use Ryanese, it’s a BONA: 'Boys Own' Novel with Acronyms. It’s written with all the flair of a consumer report on lawnmowers, a style pitched somewhere between a rugby club bar and the business class lounge at Dusseldorf airport. Not that Ryan lacks a sense of humour. CND the abbreviation for a bomb? In a few years Jeffrey Archer will probably use that one.

So: after the SAS lose the CND to the phony GAI, they set up a Grosny FOB. But GPS finds the CND in W1 (Marble Arch no less) so PDQ it's back to GBR in the UK. A quick EMOE saves the GLC (London), so Sharp gets R&R back in the USSR with the lady KGB who’s got nice T&A. But he can’t fool her (or us) for long, and soon it's SOS to the SAS and he’s returned to his 'unit', all those macho guys pointing their big guns at each other and looking down the barrels in testosteroned bliss.

Sunday 13 July 2008

JOHN HART'S DOWN RIVER: Edgar meets Richard & Judy

John Murray £7.99 ISBN 9781848540958

Down River appears in paperback in this country following its capture of the Edgar Award for best novel from America’s Crime Writers, and more importantly from a British point of view, its selection as a 'summer read' by the Richard and Judy Book Club. Its covers compare John Hart to Grisham and Turow (presented as single-word brand names, like Oprah, Madonna, or Cher), but the unacknowledged master to whom he aspires in this novel seems to me to be Thomas H Cook, a more challenging writer than either of those best-sellers. That Hart gets at least part of the way there is no small compliment.

Although the R&JBC was born in copycat hommage to America’s Oprah, you can make a case that, although Oprah may have engaged with some more challenging literature, her bias toward ‘worthiness’, a traditional American approach to self-improvement that goes all the way back to the Puritans, shortchanges some fiction, including so-called ‘genre’ fiction, and may make her list less interesting overall. Two years ago Richard and Judy (or their producer Deborah Ross) were perceptive enough to pick Michael Connelly, whose work no one would suggest provides Oprah’s necessary moral uplift, and they may have made an equally astute call with Hart.

Down River begins with Adam Chase returning to his North Carolina home, five years after he was acquitted of a murder there. Three weeks earlier, his best friend had asked for unspecified help, but it had taken him that long to decide to leave his protective anonymity in New York. When he arrives home, he finds his friend has taken off, and soon people start dying. To Chase, who witnessed his own mother’s suicide, this is not unusual; he’s a sensitive brawler, a tough but tender hero who has a strong determination to get to the bottom of things.

The set-up is pure Cook, small-town America and dark secrets from the past which will be revealed in the chaos of the present. There has always been a somewhat gothic element to Cook, and what makes this story so interesting is the strong Southern flavor of the gothic. Deeply buried family secrets, hot and humid repression, and heavy undertones of violence; as if Cook were being merged with Erskine Caldwell.

Adam’s stepmother had been the main witness at his trial, identifying him as the killer. His step-brother is now running the family business, his step-sister was a friend of the boy Chase was accused of killing. His father’s best friend has a daughter, Grace, whom Adam thought of as a younger sister, and just to make things interesting, half the town wants to sell their river land to a corporation to build a nuclear power station, but Chase’s father, the area’s biggest landowner, will not. After all, the land has been in the family for two hundred years.

You can see where the story might be going, and for the most part it does go in that direction, although Adam’s old girlfriend also just happens to be a detective on the local police force. There aren’t that many twists, some things are pretty obvious to the reader long before they are to Adam, but in the end Hart handles the suspense very well. The core of the book, however, is the dealing with the deep waters of the river of family relations. The book ends on a note of slight ambiguity, just enough to lead me to consider that two of its characters would be a perfect pair to start a detective agency, and the backwoods of North Carolina, even though they might be starting vineyards these days, might offer enough outrĂ© crime to be worthwhile hunting grounds. Just a thought. Is this the crime novel most worthy of R&J? Maybe not. But is it a fine crime novel? Yes it is.

Friday 11 July 2008


Do you know Jeri Southern’s version of Cole Porter’s ‘Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye’? The next line in the song, of course, is ‘I want to die a little’. Southern recorded it in 1954, the year in which this novel is set. I first heard Southern’s version on Charlie Haden’s wonderful album Haunted Heart, on which his Quartet West played behind Southern’s original vocal. It’s both evocative and knowing in that context, and that is exactly the way I felt about Megan Abbott’s novel.

Lora King is a schoolteacher, living in Pasadena with her brother Bill, an investigator for LA’s district attorney. They are orphans, who have washed upin La La Land, as if without pasts, to live the post-war suburban American dream. Then Bill meets Alice Steele, a dish who’s been a wardrobe assistant in Hollywood, and they are quickly married, and Lora’s world is turned upside down. The suburban parties get a bit livelier, Bill gets a bit busier, and although Alice inserts herself into Lora’s world, there is something otherworldly about her. And as Lora gets drawn more deeply into that other world, the story takes on darker implications.

Abbott has done a brilliant job of building her tale through atmosphere. Film noir and pulp fictions of the 1950s lived in this territory, the world kept hidden from the shiny surface of the Eisenhower era dream. It’s the world on the covers of the paperback novels we collect and cherish now, the world of the feverish films of Sam Fuller or Joseph H Lewis. It’s Jack Ruby’s Carousel Club, hosting cops like JD Tippett and losers like Lee Oswald. Lots of writers have visited there.

Where Abbott is different is in delineating the ambiguous nature of the line between the respectable and the not so respectable, as if one were the funhouse mirror image of the other. Her suburban parties start out antiseptic on the surface, but soon the reader is getting suffocated by the smells of perfume, hair tonic, highballs, and cigarette smoke; the sweaty desperation of too much close dancing in too small rooms. So as Lora dates her studio publicity fixer, as she moves closer to the ‘other side’, you realise that yin and 50s yang are not that far apart. The title track on Haunted Heart was a hit for Jo Stafford in 1947, and like Jeri Southern's song, I was taken by her singing it with Haden and group behind. But if you go back and listen to the original, with its syrupy big-band arrangement by Stafford's husband, bandleader Paul Weston, you begin to sense the distance between the torch underneath and the sticky song on the mainstream hit parade.

Die A Little is like Dorothy B Hughes or Elisabeth Sanxay Holding rewritten by David Goodis. But though she mines the era's genre, she also manages to avoid the trap of seeming to deconstruct them; she isn’t clinical about her story, characters, or style, the way the Coen brothers were in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Everything happens within the framework of the tale. There are occasional anachronisms, or knowing bits propelled by hindsight, but it rings true as Lora’s descent into the dark side of the 1950s leaves her trapped, and she can get out only by repressing those impulses even as she acts on them. Repression is at the heart of this book, as it was, perhaps in the Fifties. Calling Dr Wertheim! Megan Abbott has written an atmospheric thriller which works on any number of levels. It’s being made into a movie with Jessica Biel, which hopefully will go a bit deeper than say, Hilary Swank and Scarlett Johanssen enjoying the chance for thick red lipstick and constant smoking in Black Dahlia.

By the way, James Ellroy gave this book a plug, and it’s easy to see why--there’s that same awareness of what America’s underbelly was, and is like. Die A Little was published in the States in 2005, and Abbott has written two more since then. The second, The Song Is You, apparently uses the disappearance of actress Jean Spangler as a springboard, like Ellroy used the Black Dahlia. The third, Queenpin, is apparently set in a corrupt little casino town, more Phenix City than Bugsy Siegel's Las Vegas. Definitely worth looking out for.

Die A Little

Megan Abbott
Pocket Books £6.99 ISBN 9781847393463

Wednesday 9 July 2008


I was immensely saddened yesterday to learn that Tom Disch had killed himself in the apartment overlooking Union Square that he'd shared for decades with his partner Charles Naylor. I was glad the Guardian asked me to write a short appreciation to run alongside their obituary of him; read it before continuing, it's in today's paper here.

I knew Tom, first during that summer of '75 at Wesleyan, and then him and Charlie for a few years after I moved to London in 1977. The bus story is true: I got on the Trailways, coming from New York, in New Haven, having ridden the local shoreline bus to New Haven from Milford. Friends in the sf world had told me that Tom would also be teaching a course at Wesleyan, and I don't know how I made the connection with the guy on the bus, but I did. I was still pretty active on the fringes of the sf world in those days, and it occurs to me that I've fallen out of touch with virtually all those people. The community was kind of a pre-computer version of the internet--using mail and mimeographs to do the sort of thing we post instantly now. Read The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, a fantastic book, for Tom's take on that world of sf fandom.

Tom was one of those few people I've met who could always make me feel like a student. Not that he tried, and not that I resented the feeling, since there's so much to learn, but it can put a crimp into a relationship of equals. I should have got back in touch with him after he published The Castle Of Indolence, because Charles Olson was something of a specialty of mine, and he was absolutely brutal to Olson in that book. Cruel, in many ways, but with a funny edge, and with far more justification in his criticism than, say, Tom Clark's biography.

It was Tom who famously said 'the golden age of science fiction is 12', which as I get older becomes more and more demonstrably true. But he never seemed to want to accept the essential truth of his aphorism. His work was often dense: Samuel R Delany wrote an entire book of criticism around Tom's story 'The Asian Shore' (and don't say, 'well, he would, wouldn't he'). I listened to Tom discuss his story 'Descending' in his class, and he was amazed that no one had picked up that it was an allegory of death, an allegory signaled, as I recall, by references to Thackery, if not Dante.

But he was also wonderfully funny. I remember going to a party at the flat he and Charlie had in South Kensington, and I was carrying a copy of the New Statesman (this was maybe 1978, when it was still must-read) and he laughed and said 'oh I LOVE that magazine, every week there's so much to be indignant about!' One the reasons I subscribed to The Nation was to read Tom's equally funny theatre reviews, even though I'd never see any of the plays. It seemed that the Nation, and some other gigs, dried up on him. From what I understand, Charlie's long illness took away most of their money; they couldn't travel to use their house upstate, nor afford to keep it up after it flooded and was overcome by damp. After Charlie died, Tom faced eviction because the lease to the rent-controlled apartment was in Charlie's name, and he had no legal standing, despite their longterm relationship (I remember Tom always wore a wedding ring). Which is in itself a compelling argument for gay marriage rights.

Obits seemed to pass over his critical works too quickly, and I wish more attention had been paid to Clara Reeve, which is an outstanding Victorian novel and a brilliant modern take on the Victorians. I looked at the New York Times collection of reviews of his books, and was astounded by how many were assigned to critics who JUST DIDN'T GET IT. It may be that Tom's literary touch was too wide-ranging, or that his concerns were not easily transferable to the kind of mainstream fictions that might make Oprah's Book Club. I read somewhere that he felt too working class for the New York establishment, yet another way he was an outsider.

He leaves behind an impressive body of work. In SF his best books hold up today, better than many of the other great novels of the New Wave. The horror books may be too clever for themselves, and occasionally too vituperative. His critical books on poetry and sf are brilliant dissections of the genres themselves, as well as the writers and books. And The Brave Little Toaster, which I've both read, read to my son and watched in its Disney form with him, is, even on the surface level, fun.

I look back fondly on the short period of time I got to know Tom, and wish that I hadn't carried on with my youthful obliviousness to the preciousness of time passing on for as long as I did. I hope I conveyed some of that in the Guardian.

John Clute, whom I met through Tom, may have written the best summary of his work in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: "Because of his intellectual audacity, the chillingly distanced mannerism of his narrative art, the austerity of the pleasures he affords, and the fine cruelty of his wit, he has been perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied and least read of all modern first-rank sf writers."

I just hope that last bit will change.

Monday 7 July 2008


This could happen to any reviewer, any time.....

Stranger In Paradise
Robert B Parker
Quercus 16.99 ISBN 9781847242471

I was sitting in my office, thinking about whether Irish whiskey or Yuengling beer would slake my thirst better, when Robert B Parker walked in. He was wearing a leather jacket and a Boston Red Sox baseball cap, which he kept on while he talked. He was carrying a bag of doughnuts, and two cups of coffee. He put one cup down in front of me.
‘Milk, no sugar?’ he said.
‘Got it in one,’ I said.
‘You’re a reviewer,’ he said.
‘Two for two,’ I said.
‘You review my books,’ he said. ‘Give them good reviews. I like that. Have a jelly doughnut.’
‘Don’t like them very much. Too sweet,‘ I said. ‘Jelly doughnuts, not your books. I like your books, though. No thanks necessary.’
‘But not the new one,' he said, putting the doughnut down on my desk in front of me anyway.
‘Well,‘ I said. ‘Lately they’ve been getting a bit light. Which I can’t say about those doughnuts. Soft center, soggy outside, powdered sugar. You’re carrying a bag of metaphors.‘
‘Dunkin Donuts could use you to write copy,‘ he said.
‘Want another one?’ I said. ’Metaphor, not doughnut. It’s all style, no nutritional value. No substance. Or the same old substance.’
‘You have a problem with that?’
‘Only as a reviewer,’ I said. ‘An hour and half of fun reading is nothing to be sneezed at.’
Then I sneezed. Powdered sugar must’ve gotten up my nose. ‘Lots of snappy dialogue. Large margins. Time just flies. But I don’t save them anymore.’
‘Save them?’
‘The books. You know, the way kids save baseball cards. Used to have them all on the shelf, lined up in order. Shelf got too small.’
‘These things happen,” he said. ‘I’m a writer. I write. I write fast sometimes.’
I nodded. We understood each other.
‘So why don’t you like my new Jesse Stone book?’
‘It goes nowhere new. You’ve already got Jesse. He‘s a conflicted Spenser. Spenser’s got a together-in-spades shrink girlfriend, and everything’s copacetic. Jesse’s got a problematic amibitious bimbo girlfriend PLUS a shrink. Spenser cooks and drinks. Jesse eats out and usually doesn’t drink, except sometimes, but he does get to indulge the women who seem to find him as irresistible as they find Spenser, who never indulges because he‘s true to his Sue.
‘Then you bring back this character, Crow, who’s the American Indian version of Hawk. Crow goes around Paradise killing people, with Jesse’s blessing, because they deserve to be killed, mostly. That makes Jesse God, which I guess fits in Paradise, where someone's got to be Him. Then Crow starts bedding women, displaying even less talk and more macho fantasy than Jesse does. Sort of ‘no harm, no foul’ sex. If Jesse’s like Spenser if Spenser had been a drunk, Crow’s like Jesse if his baseball career hadn’t ended and he’d started doing steroids.’
‘That’s a low blow.’
‘Maybe, but Crow being even more irresistible than the now seventy something Spenser and Hawk or Jesse himself is like a 1950s high school kid’s fantasy. “Me wantum girl, tell girl, girl say yes. Need to know if red man really good.“ It’s doing the Spenser and Hawk as Deerslayer and Chingnachook thing all over again, except with sex.’
‘Sex is good,’ he said.
‘Agreed,’ I said. ‘Like my grandfather said, “all good, some better.“ But what’s good sex for Crow is not automatically good sex for the reader. Crow’s a one dimensional character, two if you include sex, but since all the sex takes place offstage, he’s back to one dimension: a literary construct who’s geometrically impossible.’
“Geometrically impossible, I like that.’
‘Thought you might,’ I said, ‘but you know, I could almost accept all that except the story really doesn’t GO anywhere—most of it’s concluded offstage too, which I’ll concede happens in real life, but it doesn’t make for riveting fiction. You’ve got the Latino version of the Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight, and the Miami gangsters, one of whom’s a pro like Crow or Jesse, and you get Jesse and Crow having heap macho pow-wows, where nothing much is said, and then there’s a bizarre shootout on a causeway and the Indian disappears back into nature. I think Leslie Fiedler called it the Vanishing of the Returned Native American.‘
‘Very cute,‘ he said. ‘A Fiedler pun. Most of you crime guys wouldn’t know Leslie Fiedler from Arthur Fiedler.‘
‘Who?‘ I said, and he actually laughed. I was on a roll. ‘And then it ends with Jesse having a youngster on his hands, a kid who needs to be taught life’s lessons, which I believe you’ve already done with both Spenser and Sunny Randall, whom I actually preferred paired up with Jesse, by the way. But how much of that Hemingway stuff needs re-repeating? Is this “Up In Massachusetts’? We’ve been there before and it’s stretching the limits of my suspension of disbelief.’
‘Suspension of disbelief, I like that,” he said.
‘Only not as much as “geometrically impossible.“’
He nodded. Like I said, we understood each other. ‘It’s like Walter Gibson, writing 283 Shadow novels. You write to a formula, you repeat yourself. You’re smart, you write great dialogue, use different characters, but they start to conform to the template.’
‘Template?’ he said. He wasn’t smiling any more. ‘Is this geometry again?’
‘Don’t put me on,” I said. ‘You taught literature. You know Leslie Fiedler. You know what I’m saying. You’re as much a prof as a pro‘.
‘Not quite as much,’ he said. He reached in his coat pocket, and pulled out a snub-nosed Smith & Wesson.
‘Don’t see those much anymore,’ I said. ‘Especially reviewing.’
‘No,’ he said, ‘but the old formulae still work sometimes.’
He pulled the trigger. The force pushed me backwards, like a massive fist to the chest, then the chair bounced me forward, face down in the doughnuts. I was on a roll again, a jelly roll. I could smell the jelly; powdered sugar flew up my nostrils as I sucked for air. It really was up my nose. ‘I would’ve liked a plain cruller better,’ I said.
He smiled. ‘I’ll remember that next time,’ he said to my corpse.


HOLLYWOOD CROWS by Joseph Wambaugh

Here's another of my brief takes on another enjoyable book....



I remember talking once in LA with Robert Crais about how many of his books have exceptionally well-chosen titles, and he's done it again with Chasing Darkness, whose titular mascot indicates that this book is a change of pace of sorts for both Crais and for his detective, Elvis Cole.

Let's start with Cole. When a man is found dead, an apparent suicide, he's discovered to possess photographic souvenirs of a number of serial killings, photos only the killer could have taken. Three years before, Elvis had cleared the man when he was arrested as a suspect in one of the killings, and since then, three more women have been killed. Not only are the police hounding Cole, the family of at least one of the victims blames him as well, and wants revenge.

The only thing to do is to investigate, and see where, and if, he went wrong. It's a different thing for Elvis to be feeling he's wrong; he's made mistakes in the course of this excellent series, but by and large his instincts haven't betrayed him, and now he's forced to re-examine those instincts.

That's where this is new territory for Crais as well. He's changed the tone of the series at times by focusing on Joe Pike, but although Pike's tightly-wrapped persona provides a contrast to Elvis' outward flippancy, it also works against probing into the depths of his darkness. Here, Cole's doubts act as a catalyst for what is, for it's first two-thirds, a compelling story. The compulsion fades as it becomes clear Elvis was not wrong, and although the narrative drive remains strong, it also became obvious pretty early where the real killer was hiding.

This is something typical of Crais' books: they often start with mystery and sometimes with doubt, but they usually resolve themselves in action, as befits someone who's a great scriptwriter too. I think it was The Forgotten Man where I pointed this out first (and THAT was a great title too!). Crais' books may pull themselves up just a little short of Michael Connelly's sort of  darkness, but they are no less satisfying for that. And LA has got to be big enough for Bosch, Cole and Pike. Chasing Darkness is Crais at top form, and there aren't many better.

Chasing Darkness by Robert Crais
Orion £12.99 ISBN 9780752891590


This review was written for Crime Time, and will appear there, and I posted it on my general 'And Over Here' blog, but I liked the novel so much, as you'll see, I thought it a good place to start a crime-specific site....

The Turnaround
George Pelecanos
Orion £12.99 ISBN 9780752875422

I’m not sure how many people are writing about the issue of race in America with anything like the passion or the honesty of George Pelecanos. Richard Price, maybe, and it’s odd that Price’s novels get reviewed as mainstream fiction, while Pelecanos’ remain in the crime ghetto. Even odder, since the two are colleagues on The Wire, arguably the greatest television series ever. The Turnaround, his latest, is barely a crime novel at all, although its core is an incident thirty years in the past, in which three white boys ride through a black neighbourhood yelling insults, and in the ensuing confrontation, one of them is shot dead. There is also the day-to-day crime of the city, Washington DC, the drug dealing and street posturing, which leads to other deaths, but that is not the way Pelecanos is taking this novel.

Instead, this book is a study of what happened to the boys on both sides of the shooting, what kind of men they grew up to be, and what men have to do sometimes to feel they’ve balanced their lives out and made them worthwhile.

Alex Pappas was one of the white boys, and he carries a scarred eye as a result. He has taken over his father’s diner, and his son Johnny is working there, and has ideas for modernizing. James Monroe was sentenced to prison for the shooting; a chance encounter between Alex and James’ brother Raymond brings them into contact again; James is just trying to eek out a living as a mechanic and stay out of trouble.

Not so James’ friend Charles Baker, who damaged Alex’s eye. He’s back from another prison term, looking to set himself up, and make sure he gets his rightful place as a big man on the street. He’s hooked up with two young drug dealers, and wants to take over from their supplier; he’s used to getting what he wants by using force and fear. As usual, Pelecanos is concerned with generations here, the way we raise our children, the choices we give them. Baker is shacked up with the mother of Deon Brown, one of the dealers, and Deon instinctively feels that there is a line Charles is willing to cross without thinking, but he may not be. Raymond works with soldiers crippled in the Iraq war; Alex has lost his other son in that fighting.

The beauty of the book is the way Pelecanos weaves together these strands and makes each character seem real. You understand what Charles Baker feels when he does what he does, and why. It's not pleasant entering the mind of a sociopath, but it's real. You feel the pressures build on many of these people, and you wonder if the diner, as a multi-racial microcosm, is something that really can exist in Washington, or if the VA hospital is the only place where the races can get together, and if they really needed to be wounded to do it.

There is a scene between Alex and his son which conveys the essence of the joy and fear of fatherhood better than anything I can remember reading in some time, and Pelecanos does it by understanding. Similarly, you can guess at where the story, and Alex, are going, but it's still pulled off with the sort of human realism that argues against sepia-toned nostalgia for a world that isn't there.

There are writers in the crime field who write beautifully, whose prose can weave lovely pictures, and who wrap their stories up in it. Dave Robicheaux can ruminate hauntingly about Vietnam or the criminal neglect of New Orleans by the Bush regime, but fine as he is, James Lee Burke doesn't convey a fraction of the emotion that these real people feel. What's happened to Washington has been like a forty-year hurricane, and Pelecanos has been detailing it in his novels. His prose may not sing, but it does hammer out a rough beat that some readers recognise; it’s rock in prose and The Turnaround may be his best book yet. Not just his, but anybody's.