Sunday 28 September 2008


The Icelandic film Jar City has just opened in Britain, almost exactly one year after it debuted at the Ritzy in Brixton as part of the London Flim Festival. I wrote then, in my Crime Time film column, that it was one of the very best films in the 2007 Festival, certainly the best crime movie I saw. It's adapted, of course, from the novel by Arnauldur Indridason, originally released as Jar City in English, but since retitled, for reasons that escape me, Tainted Blood. If you're interested, I reviewed his latest, Arctic Chill, just recently here.

Indridason's detective, Erlendur (literally, no one) has a name which also reminds one of Henning Mankell's Wallender, and is very much in that Scandinavian tradition, which goes back to Sjowall and Wahloo's Martin Beck, of cops as obsessive everymen, alienated from much of the world, whose persistence results in solving crimes whose implications reacher deeper into their societies than was at first apparent. Director Baltasar Koramakur (who also wrote the screenplay) emphasizes this with visual aplomb, presenting a heavy, gray landscape and dull, confining interiors which match the lives of both cops and victims. Everything lies in shadows, of dusk or dawn in a country with endless nights in winter, and it's as if it is somehow wrong that crimes should be revealed during this night. Ingvar E Sigurdsson, as Erlendur, all shaggy sweaters and plodding professorial glumness, establishes the tone of melancholy as the case of a murdered thug begins to coincide with a father's search for genetic information about his daughter's death from brain disease. Of course the plots are intertwined, but the story is all about family relationships, and the lengths Icelandic people will or won't go to protect them.

Remember, Iceland is a very small, very closed society, a point made at the Genetic Research headquarters, where it is explained that they provide a unique sort of sample. Remember too that Icelanders are known mostly by patronymics, their names, their very selves are defined by who their parents were, and in such a small society, this is a serious responsibility, and one that extends beyond typically Scandinavian reserve. Erlendur's daughter, perhaps a junkie, pregnant by an unknown father, tests the reality of this world as much as either of the deaths Erlendur investigates.

The Iceland of this movie is a dull, dreary place. It's landscapes are gaunt, hard, cold. The modern buildings only slightly less so. Even the Genetic Centre, which should be all gleaming glass and polished steel, seems more like a hiding place, an artificial world of concealment, producing its own shadows. The brilliance of Koramakur is not that he has made, as more than one reviewer couldn't resist from quipping, an 'Inspector Norse', but the opposite: his Iceland is not the cozy society whose gardens are upset by something as perverse as a crime. Cozy isn't a word that applies to his vision, even though his country is small, homogenous, and self-contained. This is a real, a tough, an unforgiving world, in which the pressures of protecting the things which society holds at its centre, can have tragic consequences. That a genetically on-passed disease lies at the root of the story, merely intensifies this, and there is the sense, as the film ends, that this is the sort of Nordic tragedy an earlier Erlendur might contemplate around a winter fire, once its been turned into a typically Norse saga of vengeance. But I just love the way the Icelandic poster (see above) makes it look like something completely different--Ibsen, if not Widerberg!

Friday 26 September 2008


This is a slim jewel of a novel, based on the true story of a grave-defiling necrophiliac in the remote Jura mountains of Switzerland. It’s the turn of the last century and although this Ripper attacks corpses, not living women, his crimes send no less a shock through the community than Jack did through London just fifteen years earlier. Despite a similar level of hysteria, the local authorities get no closer to a suspect than London’s did looking for Jack. Not until two more graves have been violated, does a canton-wide alert for any sort of ‘perversion’ result in a stable-boy being caught having sex with animals in a barn, and he is tried and convicted of the crimes.

What makes this book so enthralling is the subtle way Chessex weaves elements of genre fiction into an examination of a backward and repressed society trying to cope with what we think of as modern criminal horror, but in fact seem almost a natural outgrowth of rural isolation, Calvinist repression, and intense social jealousy. The most obvious comparison is with The Crucible, where the same factors come into play. Chessex gets more latitude than Arthur Miller for two reasons. One is that his setting manages to combine a number of classic archetypes: he is near to vampire country both geographically and in the time-frame of the great Dracula story, and the grave-robbing recalls that other Swiss classic, Frankenstein. Turn of the century Switzerland also allows the new ’science’ of psychoanalysis to make its telling appearance.

But Miller also had a more direct allegory to pursue, in McCarthyism, while Chessex works on a more general point, drawing a distinct connection with our modern era, and its obsession with sexual frustration. Of course if you think of that frustration leading to violent hysteria, built on lies, you could apply it to any number of modern tragedies, from Iraq down to Columbine, but I think Chessex is working on a subtler canvas. Dr. Mahaim, the shrink who examines Fevez, the stable boy, blames society’s ‘primordeal squalor; for creating the conditions for ‘merciless horror’ but still one wonders. Fevez is convicted only after being released, when the psychiatrist has realised his perversions don’t include any active desires towards humans. He’s then re-arrested, and convicted, after he attacks a local woman who had flirted with him. His more proactive, as it were, approach to sex has been triggered by nocturnal visits from a mysterious ‘woman in white’ who has bribed his jailers. Chessex appears to be casting his net for society’s squalors just slightly wider than Dr. Mahaim.

Fevez was convicted, but escaped the asylum to which he was confined in 1915, went to France, and joined the Foreign Legion. He was killed in the trenches that same year, and turned out to have been one of the bodies buried in France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. So war turns the Swiss pervert into a French hero, and again, we’re forced to re-examine our ideas of society’s squalor.

Interestingly, while nominating the suspects in the case, before Fevez was arrested, Chessex mentions one who is a novelist, wrote ‘strange love letters’ to ladies in the region, and considers writing a greater ‘sacrifice than some young girl’s mortal remains’. It’s satisfyingly tempting to imagine Chessex pointing us in the right direction there. This is a novel worthy of the best of Durrenmatt, and that is high praise indeed.

The Vampire of Ropraz by Jacques Chessex
Bitter Lemon Press £6.99 ISBN 9781904738336

ROUGH WEATHER? Not for Robert B Parker!

My review of Robert B Parker's latest Spenser novel, Rough Weather, is up at Crime Time, just follow this link. If you haven't read the famous Irresistible Target face-to-face with Parker, you can find it here. It's worth it.


My obituary of Robert Giroux is in today's Guardian. You can find it here.

Monday 15 September 2008


My obituary of David Foster Wallace appears in today's Guardian, you can pound the link here. What follows is the Guardian piece, with a few notes on my writing of it, and a few more re-interpolating(1) my original copy into the piece as it appeared. As you'll see, it was mostly the literary criticism that got cut. (2)

David Foster Wallace was not necessarily the "literary voice of Generation X", as he was once billed, but he wrote perhaps his generation's most audacious novel, and, along with Richard Powers, was a throwback to the excitement of the early post-modernist "metafictions" of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo or John Barth.(3)

His death, at the age of 46, apparently by his own hand, came as a shock in US literary circles, although he confessed in interviews to having undergone one "suicide scare" 20 years before. In his best-known novel, Infinite Jest (1996), three of the main characters, the Incandenza Brothers, labour under the shadow of their father's suicide, a failure of his communication with them. Wallace's work was often built around the difficulties of communicating. (4)

Infinite Jest was only Wallace's second novel. His first, The Broom of the System (1987), grew out of his thesis in English at Amherst College, Massachusetts, where he also majored in philosophy. His philosophy thesis, on modal logic, received the college's prestigious Gail Kennedy prize. Not surprisingly for someone who first taught at a college in Normal, Illinois, and later held the Roy E Disney chair of creative writing at Pomona College, in California, Wallace's novels are laced with irony, often delivered through extensive footnotes, accommodating epic diversions. This ironic mode balances loftier themes with the more mundane concerns of popular culture: in Infinite Jest, virtually every aspect of life in North America has been taken over by corporate sponsors.

Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York, where his father, James, was studying for a doctorate in philosophy at Cornell.(5) James Wallace became a renowned professor at the University of Illinois, while David's mother, Sally, (6) taught literature at a nearby community college. David was a regionally ranked junior tennis player, (7) and followed in his father's footsteps to Amherst. He received a master's degree in writing from the University of Arizona in 1987, and began studying for a PhD in philosophy at Harvard, but left before completing the degree.
Although he had published a novel, and some short stories, and, in 1987, won the Whiting Writers' Award, by the end of the 1980s Wallace's life was in a downward spiral which included at least one stay in a psychiatric hospital.(8) He later characterised his generation as being full of people like himself, "successful, obscenely well-educated, and sort of adrift".

In 1991 he began working on Infinite Jest. "I wanted to do something sad," he said, "real American, about what it's like to live in America around the millennium." The following year, he moved to Normal to teach at Illinois State University. Although he finished it in 1993, his massive manuscript was cut by nearly a third, and published only in 1996. (9) Despite, or perhaps because of, its size, it was a massive hit, and Wallace was rewarded with a MacArthur "genius" grant, and a Lannan prize.(10)

He said he aimed for a middle ground between writers he described as "avant-garde ... writing just for other writers" and those who produced "crass cynical commercial fiction", believing that both were driven by "contempt for their audience". But success created another problem; this popular cult writer described himself as "agoraphobic".

In 2002 he moved to Pomona, where a lighter teaching load allowed him more privacy and time to pursue journalistic projects. He wrote about David Lynch for Premiere, holiday cruises for Harper's, the US Open for Tennis magazine, and covered John McCain's 2000 campaign for Rolling Stone. His essays have been collected in four books; the McCain article, reprinted in Consider the Lobster (2005), was expanded into a separate book, McCain's Promise, released just a few days before the writer's death.(11) Although he published two collections of short stories, most recently Oblivion (2004), he had gone 12 years without producing another novel. (12)

In 2005 Wallace, invited to address a graduating class (13) at Kenyon College, Ohio, told them that the purpose of education was to teach "how to keep you from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable, adult lives dead, unconscious, a slave to your ... natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperiously alone". His wife, Karen Green, found him dead at their home in California. (14)
· David Foster Wallace, writer, born February 21 1962; died September 12 2008

(1) It was sorely tempting to write the original in this style, but parody is not appropriate in an obituary, so I didn't. Re-interpolation of the original, however, serves the function of restoring my restrained thoughts as to my appreciation of him as a writer.
(2) Note too that cutting is not necessarily a critical comment. Obituaries are not literary criticism, and indeed, some of the most irritating obits I've read occur when a critic takes a last pot-shot at a now-defenseless target (I think of Tom Milne's gratuitous broadsides at Lindsay Anderson in his obit of Karel Reisz in the Guardian). The paper is very busy with notable obituaries at the moment (indeed, I also filed Gregory McDonald's yesterday) and with space at a premium my own critical appreciation is not the Guardian's priority. The important thing is the outline of the facts and context of the life.
(3) Showing my age perhaps. Metafiction is always a dangerous word to bandy about. It was tempting as well to note his influence on younger British writers like Zadie Smith or David Mitchell.
(4) The next sentence, making the point that the ambiguity of his detailed exegesis is often as confusing as clarifying, which may have reflected his own state of mind, was cut: Wallace's work is often built around the difficulties of communicating, as if the dazzle of his own erudition were either necessary to get his point across, or perhaps persiflage designed to keep the real point from being seen.
(5) I didn't write anything about it, but for a moment I was excited by the possibility that Wallace's father and Thomas Pynchon may have crossed paths at Cornell, but since Pynchon graduated in 1959, it is unlikely.
(6) I began this paragraph by noting 'Wallace's combining of philosophy and literature reflected his parents.' and later gave them their full names. Sally's was Sally Foster Wallace, that her maiden name was David's middle name, and that he used it in his writing, echoed the importance of his choice of his mother's trade (literature) over his father's (philosophy).
(7) My friend Michael Goldfarb, whose NPR interview with Wallace can be linked from Wikipedia, described him (today, sadly, or I might have stolen his description) as looking exactly like an international tennis bum when he showed up for the interview. On the other hand, in some photos he appeared to be going for the Russell Crowe look, and that isn't a sign of excess stability.
(8) It was here that I noted his first suicide attempt, mentioned earlier, had occured.
(9) There was another reason for the delay. What was cut from the piece was the comment that the novel was 'only published in 1996 after extracts had appeared in a number of literary magazines.' This was a marketing strategy, which worked to build interest in the huge book as a literary phenomenon.
(10) The Lannan Prize is a sort of MacArthur-lite, like the Mac Arthur generally given to very mainstream writers after their success has been fully recognised and amply rewarded, but sometimes awarded to those more overlooked by the establishment, like the poet August Kleinzahler. Not that I wrote that, I just thought you might like to know.
(11) I did not try to speculate on whether the positive nature of his original 2000 McCain article might have prompted feelings of guilt now that the 'new' McCain is running for president, and whether the despair that might have been engendered by watching the appeal of a McCain/Palin ticket grow among American voters played any part in his suicide. But it was certainly a irony worthy of any in his novels.
(12) This passage, which followed 'without producing another novel' was cut completely: While his non-fiction often resembles his novels, with extensive use of ironic and digressive footnotes, his stories are surprisingly crystalline, and more in the inwardly reflective style of the Gen X mainstream. For example, 'Good People' (2004), about an Evangelical Christian boy and his pregnant girlfriend, is subtly nuanced to recall Theodore Drieser's 'An American Tragedy', but remains touchingly contemporary.
(13) I'm not sure why, but when I wrote 'the graduating class' the Guardian changed it to 'a graduating class'. There is only one at each commencement exercise, but maybe there's something we Americans don't understand.
(14) In my first draft I had mentioned that he had hanged himself, and I edited it out by mistake. It is something that needed to be said.

Friday 12 September 2008


by Bill Pronzini
Canongate 2001, £9.99

(note: Bill Pronzini was honoured with the MWA 2008 Grand Master Award, but his publication in Britain remains woefully lacking. I wrote this piece in 2001 for the Spectator, but despite Canongate packaging the book to attract 'serious' attention, the review appears here for the first time, perhaps because one does not like foreigners criticising one's publishing institutions does not one?)

Bill Pronzini has written more than 50 novels, and another dozen or so collections of non-fiction or short stories, but this is his first book published in Britain. Most of his output has been crime fiction or westerns, and he could be considered one of the last of the old-fashioned pulp writers.
Given that, it’s not surprising that in America, Pronzini is best known for his “Nameless Detective” series of novels, whose protagonist, a pulp magazine-collecting private eye, owes much to Dashiell Hammett’s similarly nameless ‘Continental Op’ and like him, is based in San Francisco. The ‘Nameless’ novels deserve reprinting in Britain, but BLUE LONESOME is a far better starting point, a multi-faceted work which highlights Pronzini’s strongest points as a crime writer.

The novel moves through three stages. The first is a hommage to the classic 1950s pulp novel of urban alienation, and is bleak enough to live up to Canongate’s thoughtful use of Edward Hopper’s “Sunlight In A Cafeteria” on the cover. Jim Messenger is a San Francisco accountant stuck in a dead-end job and living a dead-end life, who becomes fascinated with a woman he spies eating at his local cafeteria, a woman who appears to be even lonelier than he is. When the woman is found dead, having slit her wrists in the bathtub, Messenger decides to find out who she was, and what drove her to such a desperate act.

Following a clue to her real identity, he winds up in the Nevada desert, and the second stage of the story begins, as the stranger in town starts turning over rocks the locals would rather leave unturned. Pronzini’s working familiar territory, reminiscent of movies like “Bad Day At Black Rock”, but as Messenger’s own resources are tested, the surface friendliness of the small town reveals its own type of loneliness, more dangerous than the cold city from which Messenger fled. He also realises individuals make their own isolation, and it requires a certain courage to break out from it.

The book’s final stage is classic whodunit. Pronzini may have a hard-boiled facade, but underneath he loves literary puzzles, in which clues are left for the reader, crimes are solved by deduction, and the world is put right. Messenger lives up to his name, as far as Beluah, Nevada is concerned, and the suicide of a lonely woman in the city turns out to be a rebirth for him.
In other hands, this might have been a wild neo-noir cauldron of steamy sex and violence. Or it could have just as easily gone down the kind of pretentious existential road we fear is coming whenever we see Hopper’s paintings on book covers. Pronzini has a more basic agenda. If his prose doesn’t stun, neither does it get in the way of a carefully constructed, satisfying story, as spare and honest as Hopper. Much more than a cosy mystery, and justification for finally ending Pronzini’s British publishing isolation.

Monday 8 September 2008


Arnaldur Indridason
Harvill Secker £11.99 ISBN 9781846558652

A young Thai boy, knifed to death behind a grim block of flats in the middle of
Reykjavik's Icelandic winter. The scene is chilling, in both senses of the word, but it is also incongruous, like a tall palm in the middle of Iceland's volcanic rock. The story, as you might expect, is concerned to some extent with how those who are visibly different fit into a society as genetically homogenous as Iceland's, in that, it could be viewed as a sequel of sorts to Jar City (retitled Tainted Blood), in which the limitations of Iceland's genetic pool were a major part of the plot.

Like that novel, this one is also more concerned with family, and other relationships. Elias, the dead boy, is the child of a Thai bride brought back to Iceland by his Icelandic father, and his elder half-brother, her fully Thai son is missing. Although the investigation starts with racial conflict, it soon expands into child abuse, as a suspected paedophile is somewhere in the area, though his identity is known only to one of his victims.

Meanwhile, Erlendur's mentor,Marion Briem, is dying, and his long-estranged son is curious about the incident from Erlendur's childhood where he and his brother were lost in the snow. As usual, there is a large element of meditation within this novel, and it is concerned with the parent-child relationship. In a society where everyone is alone against the cold, metaphors easily become reality; Briem dies alone but for Erlendur, and the men, though intimately bound together, were close in no real sense. Indridason uses the police procedural to allow himself the pace to investigate such issues, while still following the crime. That Sigurdur Oli was a rebellious student at Elias's school reminds Erlandur, and us, that there is much we don't know about characters we think we know well. And that is true of the people in this story; their distance is the real arctic chill of the title.

Oddly, I read this book and Johan Theorin's ECHOES FROM THE DEAD in succession; Theorin's is set on the Swedish Baltic island of Oland, from which my grandmother emigrated to America. Its climate is not as harsh as Iceland's, nor are its winters as dark, but there is the same sense of isolation, and the alvar of Oland, on which a boy is lost at the story's beginning,is strangely like the Icleandic landscape in which Erlender and his brother were lost. Both books are concerned with the ways in which we deal with survival and loneliness,and the way those two seem related. That Indridasson manages to weave his musings into a story which resolves in a normal, that is to say, non-melodramatic way, is a measure of his talent as a crime writer.

Saturday 6 September 2008


My review of Johan Theorin's novel Echoes From The Dead has been posted on the Crime Time website...I've linked to it here.

As I explain there, the book is set on Oland (spelled with an umlaut over the O, and meaning 'island land') where I still have family, and where I took my then two-year son to meet his relatives a couple of summers ago. Interestingly, part of that trip included a visit to examine the Henning Mankell industry in Ystad, and you could argue that this excellent novel would never have been translated into English were it not for Mankells' success.

What was amazing to me back on Oland that time was the sense that my son belonged in that landscape, or at least fit into it, and the comfort I felt simply moving around with him in it. My lovely great-aunt Stina thought he looked just like my father, and though he's only a quarter Swedish, you wouldn't have argued. I was happy she'd got to meet him, not long before she died.

I hadn't often been there before in summer, when it is lovely, but usually in winter or thereabouts, when the 'alvar', the inland steppe or plain, is bleak and deserted, the way Theorin uses it to create an atmospheric setting for his slow-building suspense, a story of history and loss.
The theme is the search for a long-missing child, and just thinking about that summer made the book all that much more real to me...the Oland I know may never seem quite the same. But I recommend the book, and Oland, highly. And an update on the title's translation, I was wrong in my review, because 'Skumtimmen' translates in Oland to 'the dusk (or twilight --skymning) which case that title's probably already taken.


The 2004 theft in Oslo of Munch’s ‘The Scream’ appeared remarkably easy, particularly when one considers that the same painting had been stolen before. It happened soon after this book was published, but the first theft of 'The Scream' plays an important part in Hart’s intriguing story of another painting stolen twice, Vermeer’s ’Lady Writing A Letter With Her Maid’.

Vermeer left us only 34 or 35 paintings; they are among the world’s most jealously guarded works of art. Even so, one of them, ‘The Concert’ was stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston, and has yet to be recovered. And ’Lady’ was abducted twice from its home at Ireland’s Russborough House, where it was part of the extraordinary Beit collection. (Postscript: I went back to Dublin in 2009 to see Vermeer's 'Lady' in a special triptych exhibition at the National Gallery, you can find what I wrote about that here.)

Russborough is a formidable Palladian house nestled into the foreboding Wicklow Mountains. It was designed in the mid-eighteenth century by Richard Cassells for Joseph Leeson, whose rise from sergeant at the Boyne in 1690, to landed Earl of Milltown, might easily be seen as a paradigm of the Protestant Ascendancy. When the house passed from the Leesons to Captain Denis Daly, a Roman Catholic, in 1902, the local priests were enraged by the nakedness of the 150 year old Italian statuary. Daly dutifully ordered the offending nudes removed; the grounds staff dismembered them gleefully.

Russborough sat empty for more than twenty years, until Sir Alfred Beit bought it in 1952,specifically to house one of the world‘s finest private art collections, which he’d inherited from his uncle of the same name. The first Sir Alfred accumulated works by Goya, Velasquez, Gainsborough, and Rubens, as well as the Vermeer. Hart, whose first book was a history of diamonds, most likely first encountered the story along the way, because the Beit money came from South African diamonds and gold.

The first Russborough robbery,in 1974,was engineered by English heiress turned IRA revolutionary Rose Dugdale. Beit was pistol-whipped,bound,and forced to watch the thieves tear paintings from their frames with a screwdriver. Dugdale was caught because she was starkly conspicuous hiding out in a remote village in Cork. But the theft had its silver lining. To repair the screwdriver damage, the Vermeer was given to picture restorer Andrew O’Connor. He uncovered, beneath layers of varnish, the letter’s seal, fallen to the floor in the Lady’s haste to open it. Suddenly, the emotional thrust of the painting changed; the viewer’s curiosity about the backstory of The Lady and the contents of her letter intensified.

Twelve years later, Martin Cahill, known as ’The General’, waltzed into Russborough and waltzed out with a fortune in paintings, only to discover unloading stolen art is more difficult than stealing it. The major buyers are insurance companies, other crooks and the police; the problem is telling them apart. Thus far in the story, Hart had stayed on firm, if somewhat familiar ground. It’s cinematic déjà vu: The General Meets The Girl With A Pearl Earring. But from this point, where the story should intensify, he begins to digress.

The problem is that his heroine, Vermeer’s letter-writing Lady, spends most of the tale trapped offstage. So like Cahill searching for a market for his paintings, Hart stretches his net further, giving perfunctory accounts of the robbery at the Gardner and that preposterously easy first theft of The Scream from Norway’s National Gallery. Presumably, had Shergar been a work of art, rather than a mere Irish national treasure, his kidnapping would have been included too.

In fairness, the sting operation which recovered The Scream led to another, which eventually netted Rosborough’s Vermeer, so there are grounds for its inclusion. The excuse for including the Boston connection appears to be simply that it was a brilliant robbery of another Vermeer, whose success reminded Cahill he ought to cash in his own. The Boston story cries out either to be told in more detail, or be integrated more convincingly into this narrative.

Surprisingly, Hart’s police are his most interesting characters. Cahill’s symbiotic, if antagonistic, relationship with the Garda suggests the line between cop and criminal may be extremely fine, and shifting, especially in a world where cops must play crooks to set up stings. That Cahill avoids one such operation by simply driving past the assembled police who are in a pub borrowing a telephone to signal the springing of their trap, hardly bolsters his reputation as Dublin’s Napoleon of Crime. Irish cops in particular appear to walk a tightrope between crime and politics in a society inclined to both celebrate its robin hoods and ignore its makers of fine art. The pub-loving cops of Irish cliche are the voices which dominate the narration, until it seems each chapter ought to be accompanied by three pints of Guinness. Not that the Irish provide all the best stories. FBI agent Tom Bishop saw his sting collapse when an official bureau post-it note fell out of a file during a meeting with the criminals he was trying to entrap.

‘Lady Writing A Letter’ was recovered for the second time after the police determined that stolen art was being used a collateral for drug smuggling. The mention of drug trafficking immediately led to increased international cooperation. The full details of the drug connections, like the Boston robbery, are never explained satisfactorily, but once The Lady has been recovered we discover her theft has again been a boon to art criticism.

Hired to restore damage inflicted by the thieves, Danish conservator Jorgen Wadum found a pinprick in the centre of the Lady’s eye, from which he believed Vermeer may have used string and chalk to establish his perspective lines. This contradicts Philip Steadman’s work establishing Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura, but after insisting Wadum’s pinprick burst Steadman’s theoretical balloon, Hart never bothers to explain how. Instead, he follows the Lady to her new, safer home in Ireland’s National Gallery, and we learn in a coda that even without its Vermeer in situ, Russborough House was robbed yet again. Part thriller, part art history, part Irish travel guide and part portfolio of national stereotypes playing on an international stage, Hart’s material seems to have overwhelmed him just as surely as the Vermeer overwhelmed the General. In the process, none of the stories receive the depth of coverage they demand, but even this shallow wade is certainly a lot of fun.

THE IRISH GAME: A True Story of Crime and Art
Matthew Hart, Chatto & Windus 2004, ISBN 0701177551
NOTE: I originally wrote this for the TLS, who thought it rather too jokey for an art review and rather too arty for a thriller review. Or something like that. Or maybe it was the crack about the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland...

Wednesday 3 September 2008


NOTE: With all the recent excitement over Tom Rob Smith's CHILD 44 making the Booker Prize shortlist, few of those celebrating or bemoaning the appearance of a 'genre' fiction in such allegedly august company remembered that the very first Booker shortlist, back in 1969, contained Barry England's first novel, FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE, which Cape published in 1968. It did spark a recollection for me of how, as book critic for the esteemed and short-lived magazine Xtreme, I had reviewed his second novel, NO MAN'S LAND, published nearly thirty years later (in fairness, he did write the play CONDUCT UNBECOMING in between). Since traces of Xtreme are few (a shame, because I did features on Eugene Izzi and ECW wrestling for them too: the Independent liked the latter so much they had a writer track me down in Florida and, just when I thought I was getting a commission, ask for my contacts so they could do their own piece! I pointed them to the same phone book I had used.) Anyway, I remember Tom Disch's recommending FIGURES to me, many years ago, and I'm pleased to pass Barry England on to you in a slightly more recent context than the 1969 Bookers.

Barry England
Jonathan Cape, 1997, ISBN 022404369297

Somewhere, probably England, after another sort of apocalypse, this one seemingly brought about by the government or military, by accident or by some misplaced design. In the aftermath, former SAS soldier Savage leads a small band of survivors in running a way station and helping others reach The Capital. Along the way,there are Scavengers to be overcome, and the remains of the government’s own forces,which want Savage back within the fold.

30 years ago, Barry England’s FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE was part of the very first Booker Prize shortlist. What distinguishes this book, like its predecessor, is the relentless quality of the prose; it is told without wasting words,a language appropriate to a bleak landscape that becomes almost allegorical. We read the Vietnam war into FIGURES; we can equally read the Thatcher years into NO MAN’S LAND. The allegory becomes strongest when Savage encounters the surviving government in the Capital, but even the Orwellian slackness of the words they speak fails to kill the forward movement of the story.

This is survivalist prose, few words wasted, continuing at pace and rarely stopping to rest. Inevitably, Savage and his band move West, to a place where the old strictures and biases of society no longer apply. Sound familiar? It's a trope more common to the American western than the British apocalyptic novel, whether presented as thriller or sf. Savage is a particularly Clint Eastwood kind of Englishman, which may say something about the changes in both Englands since 1969.


When, as the story goes, F. Scott Fitzgerald sighed that the 'rich were not like us', Ernest Hemingway replied 'that's right, they have more money'. Since Hemingway was telling the story, it's not surprising he gets the better line, but 'the rich' about whom both writers were talking were Gerald and Sara Murphy, and indeed the glamorous trendsetters for the Lost Generation were not like Scott or Ernest.

Sadly, the Murphys are remembered primarily in the sense of what we now call 'celebrities', with all the diminishing that term implies. Their image remains glossy, as you'd expect for a couple immortalised as Dick and Nicole Diver in Fitzgerald's TENDER IS THE NIGHT. Their image as celebrities was enhanced when it was filtered through Calvin Trillin's famous memoir, LIVING WELL IS THE BEST REVENGE.

Yet even if considered only as proto-celebrities, Gerald and Sara are sadly under-appreciated. After all, they invented summer on the Riviera, with a life-style imported from the beaches of the Hamptons in New York. They attracted a circle which included, apart from Scott, Zelda, and Hemingway, Picasso (who idolised Sara), Leger, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and Cole Porter as well as American writers as diverse as John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, Archibald MacLeish, Gertrude Stein and many more of the key figures of the 'Lost Generation'. Man Ray took their family portraits. The Europeans were captivated by their seemingly effortless style, the Americans by their patrician grace. Gerald's striped sailor shirts, knitted caps, and espadrilles remain as fashionable now as they were when he first threw them together as a Mediterranean beach outfit. Picasso painted Sara's unique way of wearing her long string of pearls down her back at the beach, 'to give them air'. He made Gerald the figure standing primly next to the piper in his painting 'The Pipes Of Pan', a painting that now seems to reveal more than it might have been seen to at the time. Photos of Picasso, and his mother, cavorting at fancy dress parties in the sand at Antibes capture the Murphys' infectious flair for revelling in the moment. At every turn, you sense their liberating energy. It was Sara who liked to say that champagne should always be drunk looking upwards, at the sky.

The sheer weight of accomplishment of those drawn to befriend the Murphys has led history to pigeon-hole them as 'society bohemians', possessing a slumming sort of dilettante-ish noblesse oblige. This view lends itself to belittlement, as Hemingway did infamously in his brilliant, if sour, recollection, A MOVEABLE FEAST, the book with which he settled scores with all those who had helped him along the way.

But the Murphys are far more pivotal, and their story more fascinating, than that. It is told brilliantly in

Making It New, an exhibition curated by Deborah Rothschild, which opened last summer at the Williams College Museum of Art, and now is about to close in Dallas after its third showing. This is one of those rare gallery shows whose story can be followed room to room, like a play in three acts. In Act One the viewer gets charmed by the Murphys, seduced by the atmosphere they created around themselves, in both Paris and the Riviera, which attracted and in many cases nurtured, creative talent. In Act Two, the exhibition convinces you of Gerald's undoubted talent as an artist. Finally, in Act Three, tragedy strikes, and not only does Gerald's urge to paint get set aside, but the very essence of 'living well' changes too.

Both Murphys grew up wealthy. Sara Wiborg's father, son of Norwegian immigrants, made a fortune in printing, and married into a prominent family. One of her uncles was Civil War hero William Tecumseh Sherman, another was Senator John Sherman, author of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. She and her two sisters were sensations, quintessential Gibson girls, when they debuted in London; they traveled regularly around Europe, where their mother longed to find a 'suitable' marriage to some sort of nobleman. By contrast, Gerald's father Patrick, son of Irish immigrants, worked his way up to ownership of the Mark Cross company, then prominent Boston saddlers. Strangely enough, the French painter Signac, whom they would meet on the Riviera, came from a family with a similar background in saddlery. Anticipating the era of the automobile, Patrick moved the company to New York and into luxury consumer items, what his son would later brand 'a monument to the non-essential'.

Gerald and Sara met on the beaches of the Hamptons, where they summered, but it was not until Gerald, five years younger, was at Yale that the relationship blossomed. They married against the wishes of both families: Sara's mother thought she was marrying beneath herself, while Gerald's father thought him too irresponsible to marry. From the start, they showed an exuberant capacity to see life as a form of art: Gerald's tiny letter-within-a-letter, written for his infant daughter when he was serving in the Army during World War I, is a touching hint at what was to come.

Subsuming their life in what might now be called performance art came naturally to Gerald, whose hidden sexuality is one of this exhibition's main themes. From his schooldays, he believed he suffered from a 'defect', which he needed both to keep secret and to overcome. He did that by making himself immensely popular. At both posh Hotchkiss school and at Yale he was voted 'best dressed, and wittiest'; at Yale he was considered such a 'thorough gent' he was 'tapped' for the secret society Skull & Bones, which has included three generations of Bushes among its influential members. From the start of his relationship with Sara, he was able to indulge her desire to be a free spirit, in return she nurtured him and indulged the roles he played. There is an interesting parallel with Hemingway, to whom Sara would remain extremely close, but whose later antipathy for Gerald had it roots in the Paris studio Gerald lent him, and in which he created his early, brilliant prose. Hemingway had a way of estranging himself from those who’d helped his career, as if not wanting to be reminded he wasn’t a totally self-made man. He had also sought Gerald's advice about leaving his first wife, Hadley, for Pauline Pfeiffer. Like Sara, Hadley was older than her husband, a nurturing figure, yet Gerald encouraged Hemingway to leave the marriage in order to 'protect' his art. As Hemingway bounded between wives he came to blame Gerald for deliberately misleading him, and perhaps attributed this 'betrayal' to Gerald's sexuality.

But if Sara were the emotional anchor, Gerald’s talent and his demons were the eye-catchers. His work forms the centre of this show. Soon after the Murphys moved to Paris in 1921, where Sara's trust fund and Gerald's stock market investments could stretch incredibly far, he walked past Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler's gallery in the Rue la Boetie, and was stopped in his tracks by the Cubist works offered in a liquidation sale: Picasso, Braque, Gris, Derain. 'If that's painting,' he told Sara, 'that's the kind of painting I would like to do.' He began studying with Natalia Goncharova, and through her met Diaghilev. Soon he and Sara were decorating sets for the Ballets Russes, while Gerard pursued his painting. He began working on large scale canvases. Sadly, of the 14 paintings he is known to have completed between then and 1929, only seven survive.

None of the works he displayed at the 1923 Salon des Independents are among those seven survivors, though photographs of 'Turbines' and 'Engine Room' convey their power; cubist constructs of the modern mechanical age. In the 1924 Salon, Gerald's 'Boatdeck' was a sensation. Eighteen feet by twelve, its depiction of a an ocean liner's smokestacks and funnels captures the essence of the new place of people within the modern world, and anticipates work by artists like Charles Sheeler. Even now, the black and white copy of the painting, taken from a contemporary photograph (see above), dominates its exhibition room completely, just as it did at the Salon.

Exciting as his painting is, the details of a ballet Gerald was commissioned to write and design are even more astounding. The commission came from Diaghilev's arch-rival, Rolf de Mare of the Ballet Suedois. Working with his Yale glee club colleague, Cole Porter, on the score, Murphy came up with 'Within The Quota', the story of a young Swedish immigrant who arrives in America and meets the American stereotypes Europeans believe they will find there: the Heiress (a subject close to home for Murphy), the Jazz Baby, the Cowboy, and the Sweetheart of the World, each modelled on images from the movies. A newsreel cameraman stands on stage, taking the story down. And behind the stage is a backdrop, a giant newspaper front-page, with headlines like 'Unknown Banker Buys Atlantic'. Readers of John Dos Passos' USA trilogy will hardly miss the influence, in the newsreel format and headlines which mark that classic tale of the contradictory drives and repressions of Jazz Age America.

Murphy's most famous painting is 'Razor' (1924), which features a pen, a razor, and box of matches. Its simplicity remains powerful today; it exudes modernity even though safety razors, fountain pens, and matches have all been bypassed by technology. Other items that might be sold at Mark Cross crop up in his paintings, the shaker in 'Cocktail' (1927), and the watch whose intricacies are painted in striking detail in 'Watch (1925)', as if he were deconstructing the mechanisms of the life he had abandoned in America. Some of his paintings hint at surrealism: certainly one gets the impression of the subconscious welling its way up, particularly in the aggressive sexuality of 'Wasp and Pear' (1929) the last of his surviving works.

Then he simply stopped painting. One might think he had gone as far in self-examination as he dared, but the practical reasons are more compelling. The stock market crash of 1929 forced the Murphys, for the first time, to consider economies. At the same time, and more importantly, their younger son, Patrick, was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and the family moved to Switzerland to be near him in the sanitarium. Gerald never took up a brush again. His energies were devoted totally to helping Patrick recover and making his life bearable until he did. Both Murphys' creativity focused on their son, who despite his youth was already an accomplished artist. The high point of this part of their life was Patrick's recovery, for a final voyage on their yacht Weatherbird, in the summer of 1934.

They returned to America later that year. The luxury goods offered by Mark Cross had less appeal in the Depression, and the business was failing. Gerald now devoted himself to saving the family firm, which he did effectively until he retired. Patrick's tuberculosis got worse, and he took another cure, at Saranac Lake. But in early 1935, the Murphys robust elder son, Baoth, was striken by measles at his boarding school. Within a week, he was dead of meningitis. That fall, Leger visited Patrick, and they did portraits of each other which make a touching pair. Patrick's version of Leger catches both the strength and sensitivity of the artist; Leger's drawing shows Patrick almost literally fading away beneath his sweaters and blankets. Patrick died in 1937, and rarely can an event related through displays in glass cases and pictures hung on walls seem as moving as this one does to the viewer of this exhibition. Whose life would not unravel in the face of such loss?

Earlier in the 1930s, Gerald had written to Archibald MacLeish, explaining his 'resentment' of his 'defects', and saying that his life had been 'a process of concealment of the personal realities, at which I have been all too adept'. He would make only one more effort to return to the artistic world: working on the ballet 'Ghost Town' with the choreographer Marc Platt. Perhaps influenced by his losses, he appears to have at least made efforts to come to terms with his sexuality, though the marriage to Sara remained strong and their life together pursued with a scaled down version of their French glamour. But tellingly, he recounted that he had never been as happy as when he was painting, and that he had never been totally happy since he stopped.

Gerald Murphy was 'rediscovered' in a 1960 exhibition of neglected American artists at the Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art, which makes his return to Dallas, nearly half a century later, particularly apt. Trillin's New Yorker profile, the basis of his book, appeared in 1962. Three years later, Gerald Murphy died. Sara lived until 1975, dying aged 95. The Murphys lived well, but you might well argue life took a good measure of revenge on them, rather than the other way around. They continued within their private world of style, albeit in different circumstances; it served more as shelter than avant garde experiment. They might be as good an illustration of Hemingway's ideal of 'grace under pressure' as we've ever been presented. The effect of their lives, as this wonderful exhibition (and its accompanying catalogue) make clear, remain with us, still vibrant, today.

Making It New: The Art & Style of Gerald and Sara Murphy
At the Dallas Museum of Art through September 14 ,2008, previously at the Williams College Museum of Art and the Yale University Art Gallery
Catalogue, edited by Deborah Rothschild, 238pp University of California Press /Wiliams College Museum of Art, ISBN 9780520253400