Friday 28 November 2008


The Invisible World
by John Smolens
Flame 2002, 6.99, 0340822007

Samuel Xavier Adams has the kind of name a CIA director would love, though around Boston these days, Sam Adams is a beer first and a patriot second. Our Sam is a journalist, and the author of a book which accused his father of being one of John Kennedy’s assassins. Eventually, his book was discredited, and his career nose-dived. Now his mother is dying, but when she finally passes away, Sam is convinced it was his father who first killed her, and then stole the body. And of course there are people who don’t want either Adams talking any more about JFK.

Like Smolens’ previous novel, Cold, this is a book where setting plays a major role, and he is excellent at creating atmosphere and in placing his characters in contexts that make them believable. He’s also good at maintaining the sense of paranoia which can make a story like this move, and integrating that paranoia with Sam’s personal story; in that intersection of personal and political is the tension which drives the novel.

Which it does, and very well, at least until the moment when it descends, as it inevitably must, into chase. I suspect this will make it attractive to film producers, even if it’s a disappointment not to have the Kennedy Assassination solved on a fishing boat off Cape Cod.

But more than conspiracies, this book is about generations: Sam once wrote for a paper which is a thinly-disguised Boston Phoenix, one of the first of the ‘underground’ papers. His father, the equally aptly-named John Samuel Adams, is a member of the ‘best and brightest’ generation, making this a head-on clash between the Band of Brothers and their Sixties offspring: Oliver Stone meets Richard Helms at a family reunion. Smolens is good, and if this book lacks the impact of Cold, it’s still impressive.

Another of those reviews that hung around Crime Time far too long...but Fridays seem to be the days people point out 'lost' books, or reviews...

Wednesday 19 November 2008


When Leonard Cohen's band took the stage at the Albert Hall last night, I thought I'd wandered into a production of the Three Penny Opera, like one I saw in Montreal some thirty years ago. Then Leonard himself entered, in his current-trademark hat, which he took off for the crowd with a look of surprise, like a 74 year old grandfather who's walked into his surprise birthday party at a restaurant on Blvd. St. Laurent, 'oh, are all these people here to see me?' Of course, they were, and it was the kind of crowd of long-time fans, the bed-sit warriors grown old and obviously successful enough to afford the tickets, that was going to love whatever Leonard gave them, but as an admirer more of Cohen the writer than the performer, I have to say, he gave them far more than they asked him.

As the evening went on, he would occasionally smile wryly; as if he still marvelled at the way his career path as a struggling Montreal poet and novelist got turned around when he picked up a guitar to impress the girls who weren't impressed by his poetry: one gets the sense that he's never totally left that Canadian poet behind. So when he sings on his knees, which is probably some yoga things that gives him more energy or more wind, you get the sense of a singer who's somehow penitent, and that helps you enjoy his success even more. Even if he hadn't skipped off stage at the end of each set, and each encore, he played with enjoyment, his band was tight behind him, and if every gesture was obviously well-rehearsed, it didn't make them any less sincere, or appreciated. My wife, entranced by his songs since hearing 'That's No Way To Say Goodbye' in New Zealand as an eight year old, raised on Leonard, as it were, hung on every note, and in a way, I should not have been surprised that I found the show so good, because a bootleg cd I have of a 1993 live show is one of my favourite boots of all time.

Some of the band has been with him a while; bassist and leader Roscoe Becke co-produced Jennifer Warnes' 'Famous Blue Raincoat', which you might say launched the Cohen revival. Guitarist Bob Metzger was on that 1993 bootleg. But the real star of the show was Javiar Mas, playing laud (the Spanish for the Greek oud, or Cuban loud) and 12 string guitar, and adding a dramatic touch to the sounds that echoed Mexican and Greek music, as well as Spanish. He was also wearing a fedora, and it made him look like second runner-up in a Tom Waits lookalike contest. But it was only when Mas was playing that you got the sense you might be hearing something that wasn't note perfect like every other performance on the tour. And one of the keys to Cohen's late-career rebirth has been Sharon Robinson, his backup singer and co-writer; like Lou Reed calling for the 'colored girls' to sing, she adds life to Cohen's vocals, and did a solo of 'Boogie Street' that was powerful. Joining her on backup vocals were the British Webb Sisters, whose more folksy voices provided a nice mix. Their encore duet of 'If It Be Your Will' , playing harp and guitar, was somewhere in that folk range. The mix worked well, even if the synchronised gymnastics were underwhelming.

I came to Cohen first via Judy Collins' fabulous 'In My Life', which I heard at 17, played to me by a Smith College date who was trying to seduce me, which shouldn't've been that hard. Maybe I got distracted by the songs. To that point, my tastes were mostly Motown, Stax, Blues Project, Butterfield, Byrds, Beau Brummels, Kinks. While I liked Cohen's songs, I was generally satisfied with other interpreters: I was, however, floored by the novel Beautiful Losers, and by some of his poetry too. In fact, I pretty much ignored his records from the early 70s through my Montreal years, until, like so many other people, 'I'm Your Man' reminded me of what a good song-writer he could be, and what happened when he finally found a style that suited his words as songs. That style isn't really the electric beat, it's more of a torch-song approach, much closer to Serge Gainsbourg than Bob Dylan.

But maybe it's a generational thing that I responded more than Kirsten to 'Chelsea Hotel', which now seems less clever and more touching to me, although I might be indulging in nostalgia for Janis Joplin and that way of life. Certainly I love the way 'That's No Way' moves both me (Judy Collins version or his own) and my wife equally, despite our coming to it from such different places. On the other hand, my all-time favourite is 'Dress Rehearsal Rag', which is even too depressing for Cohen to perform, or at least it has been for the past few decades, so maybe I'm more of a bedsit romantic than I'll admit. Of course, Judy Collins is the only singer who can make a song about a wrist-slicing junkie sound beautiful, but I love Cohen's own version too. Last night, even though I realised I really did admire many of Kirsten's favourite songs, and had a few of my own I hadn't realised I liked so much, for me the highlight of the evening was Cohen's reciting the poem 'For Those Who Greeted Me', from which his song 'A Thousand Kisses Deep' is adapted, especially the verse he used as a refrain:

I loved you when you opened
Like a lily to the heat.
I´m just another snowman
Standing in the rain and sleet,
Who loved you with his frozen love
His second-hand physique -
With all he is, and all he was
A thousand kisses deep.

There were a couple of moments when it could have gone all nostalgic; after all, half the crowd was there figuring they will never get another chance to see Leonard in concert. I've followed that logic with Elliott Carter's 80th and 90th birthday concerts, and I'm figuring on attending his 100th too. This was not a Frank Sinatra 'farewell' tour, with ol blue eyes going through the motions and providing mere hints of the songs his adoring fans remembered. Leonard Cohen went through the catalogue, re-interpreted some, revisited others. He stuck the songs that might have been construed as goodbyes, or looking back, in the beginning of his sets, and he ended on a bang, with a final encore of 'Democracy Is Coming To The USA' which took on a certain resonance given the last election, and which was greeted with a roar. Listening to 'the rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor' earlier in the night, I wondered if we shouldn't see Leonard more politically. On the other hand, you know you're getting old when you find yourself nodding along to 'I ache in the places that I used to play' .

People forget that there was never a 'young' Leonard Cohen the singer; he'd already has his young career as a precocious writer. He tends to get associated with the Beats, and for good reason: watching last night's concert could provide an illustration of the kind of 'beatific' that Kerouac or Ginsberg had in mind. 'Beautiful Losers' could be the archetypical Beat title; my memory says the novel has a little bit of that feeling, some magic realism (very early on; Canadians were as good as Latin Americans at that) and some classic North American fictional tropes. But before that second, and last, novel, the young Cohen was at first a rather formal poet, working in rhyme and meter, before his poetry merged into his songs. The later freer verse is good, but the early songs benefit from that formalist poetic. And I was reminded of all this last night.

It was one of the best concerts I've been to in ages, and it reminds me of just how good a song-writer Leonard Cohen is. That he became such a good performer too is simply a bonus. But the feeling I left the Albert Hall enjoying was one that somehow joined my younger self to my older one, if I may be allowed to show just how soppy Cohen can make me. Or anyone.


No sooner does Irresistible Targets plug the work of August Kleinzahler, than the Lannan Foundation awards him their literary award for his poetry, a cool $150,000 which is good news if you're August, his bookie, or a long-lost relative fallen on hard times. See the Lannan website announcement here, but be warned about the photo and the flowers! Sadly, I can't capture the picture and put it here.

This site has been less than totally kind about the Lannan awards before, but let's just say that this time they got it right, and it's long overdue...

Sunday 16 November 2008


directed by Uli Edel, screenplay by Bernd Eichinger based on the book by Stefan Aust

The best part of the Baader Meinhof Complex, which opened at the London Film Festival and went on release Friday, is the setting of the stage for the radicalization of Ulrike Meinhof. A peaceful demonstration against the Shah of Iran turns into a bloodbath, as police stand by and let the Shah's thugs wade into the crowd, then attack the protesters themselves. One cop kills an unarmed fleeing protester. Later, the radical leader Rudi Dutschke is killed by a deranged anti-communist, who has learned his hatred from the pages of Der Spiegel, the Fox News of its day in Germany. There is a scene, when Dutschke addresses an anti-war rally, that rings so true I felt transported back to the heady days of 1968, and I sensed we might be able to convert half the audience watching the film right then.

Ulrike Meinhof is converted. A talented, liberal journalist, we have already seen her leave her husband when she catches him with another woman, and the film's central conflict is the one within Meinhof: her growing frustration with the German establishment of which she is a part. The film's linch-pin is a carefully set up scene, in which she agrees to help Andreas Baader escape police custody by arranging an interview with him on a neutral site, but then decides to flee with Baader and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin; she sits debating internally before an open window before making the leap into a different reality. The film tries hard to emphasise her middle-class status: hardly a radical in either the political or the social 60s sense.

Her transformation is never totally convincing, and the film will emphasize her self-doubt throughout. In fairness, it is difficult to convey today the very real fear in Meinhof's generation, born under Nazi rule, that a similar style of government was on the cards for the Bundesrepublik. Meinhof's conversion is also harder to take because Baader was never a theoretical radical; he was a bank-robber, already style-conscious, a budding Clyde with Ensslin, daughter of a Lutheran pastor, as his Bonnie. As played by Moritz Bleibtreu, Baader comes closer to Charles Manson than, say, Abbie Hoffman, and the relationship with Ensslin is, if anything underplayed, because Johanna Wokalek makes her a conniving, ruthless user of her sexuality, and the only one who can control an increasingly demented Baader. It is their relationship, rather than Meinhof's lonely journey, that is the real fulcrum of the film. The acting by the leads is always impressive, but because they are often reduced to playing mechanical parts, in order to catch up on historical incident, the characters they play are not always fully-developed.

Meinhof gave her children up, to be raised in a Palestinian orphanage, but Aust, on whose book the story was based, 'rescued' them himself. The 'complex' of the film's title could be hers: what drove her to violence, to take the part of a terorrist. The film, to some extent, trivialises the Red Army Faction, as the Baader-Meinhofs called themselves, when showing them training with Palestinians; it's also the funniest part of a very serious film. Baader insists on men and women sleeping in the same quarters, and the women insisted on sunbathing nude, displaying themselves in front of what we now call Islamic terrorists; exactly like Germans on vacation anywhere. Interestingly, Meinhof's husband's adultery is also foreshadowed by a scene on a nude beach; there may be some link between the RAF and FKK ('free body culture'). But the film never really gets to the root of Meinhof's decision, and as she becomes increasingly trivialised, especially within prison, she is shown to have had a very thin shell for someone making such a thick-skinned choices about her life and the lives of others.

The film is serious, and tries to be comprehensive. It recreates the era perfectly, not just in the clothing and the constant smoking, but in the haphazard sense of the movement. Bernd Eichinger, who produced and wrote the screenplay, did the same for Downfall, and there is a sense of trying to understand the darker points in the history of modern Germany: as if this film were intended to join a trilogy with Downfall and The Lives of Others. As such, the 'complex' of the title could also be seen to justify the film's broad scope. That Eichinger has also produced Fantastic Four and Resident Evil films, and Edel directed the TV western Purgatory means that they aren't afraid to use genre elements, but if anything, the film falls down in its final act, when the main characters are in jail, and the 'second-generation' of RAF are working in Germany, while their Palestinian allies try to use hostages to get their freedom.

They are caught through the efforts of Horst Herold, head of the German version of the FBI, who used modern technology in the hunt. Played with huge glasses, like a German Andreotti,
Bruno Ganz's Herold is the very essence of reasonable policing, unwilling to be co-opted by politicans, but inevitably paving the way for just the sorts of control and repression against which Meinhof was originally opposed. Although many comparisons have been made to a variety of German films which deal with the RAF in different ways, to me, Ganz's presence recalls the exceptional, and now ignored, 1978 film Knife in the Head, directed by Reinhard Hauff. In that, Ganz plays a bystander who loses his memory when knifed during a demonstration, and it follows the whole process of radicalization and repression far more succinctly than any of the more obvious comparison films, by Fassbinder, von Totta, or Schlondorff.

The Baader-Meinhofs turned their trial into a German version of the Chicago 8, while their hunger strikes resulted in the death, through neglect, of another early leader, Holger Meins. But in prison, they became icons for the next generation of wannabe Bonnie and Clydes. The image of the real Baader and Ensslin, seen right, shows exactly what the appeal might be. The film has been accused, in some circles, of 'glamorizing' terrorism, but the appeal of Baaderm Meinhof, and Ensslin to the younger generation wasn't just that they were cooler than their parents' generation, which after all was the Nazi generation. These younger RAF recruits did find it glamorous, but they also found relief, in action, from the strains of that post-war German conundrum, caught between being Nazis on the one hand, and the good guys holding off communism on the other. Some of that next generation, calling themselves Kommando Holger Meins, took over the German embassy in Stockholm during the trial, leaving three dead, while their inspirational founders grew increasingly desperate in prison, and Meinhof grew increasingly distanced from her comrades. She hanged herself in her cell; and this is the hardest point of the film; Gedeck tries movingly, but just can't convey the 'why' of her suicide, just as we never really get the 'why' of her conversion to violence, or the 'why' of her abandoning her daughters. In the end did she feel despair at seeing the people she decided to join turn against her; despair at reaching a dead end; despair at being prisoner of the German legal system; or despair at a realization she'd made the wrong choice, fallen in with the wrong people, who fought for the wrong reasons? We never know. When the remaining prisoners kill themselves, the motivation is more obvious, if perhaps portrayed as an adolescent last finger up at the system.

That is a big part of what the so-called glamour was: that next German generation, were not born under the Nazis, and very similar to the baby-boomers in America who followed a group of radicals who were older, war- babies, the Abbie Hoffmans and Jerry Rubins, the Weathermen. In the end, there are marked similarities among these Germans, not with those radicals, but with the later Symbionese Liberation Army, and Ulrike Meinhof is in this movie played as a German Patty Hearst. But where Schrader fashioned a morality tale; this film is both more and less subtle than that. It wants to present a moral dilemma, through Meinhof, but it also wants to present a sociological study of an era, and two generations of German history. That it can be as entertaining as it is, while trying to do that, is an accomplishment. I suspect those of us who grew up in the 60s are willing to cut it more slack, perhaps, than the younger generation; but watching the parallels with a world where Iraq has replaced Vietnam, and the 'war on terrorism' has replaced the Cold War, this film sent chills of more than memory up my spine. And not chills of glamour.

Friday 14 November 2008

NORMAN BATES HE'S A PEACH: The Long-Lost Chuck Parello Interview

Ed Gein is an American icon: the original deranged serial-killer, the inspiration for movies as diverse and famous as PSYCHO, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, or THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and as unknown as Bob Clark’s much-underrated DERANGED. But though he’s served as a role model for countless grave-robbing, flesh-wearing, serial-killing weirdos, no one had ever thought to explore what made Ed Gein tick; he had never had his own bio-pic. Not, that is, until director Chuck Parello’s ED GEIN (aka, in some areas, IN THE LIGHT OF THE MOON). Released in 2001, the film starred Steve Railsback (best-known for his role in THE STUNT MAN or for playing Charlie Manson in the 1976 TV movie HELTER SKELTER) as Gein, and the late Carrie Snodgress (DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE) as his mother.

The facts of the Gein story are fairly well known. Ed was a somewhat slow-witted odd-job man who lived alone in the ramshackle farmhouse he’d inherited from his parents. In 1957, following the disappearance of general store owner Bernice Worden, her son, a local deputy sheriff, got a bad feeling about Gein. Following his hunch, he discovered his mother’s body hanging in Gein’s smokehouse, and, in the main farmhouse, parts of numerous other bodies, furniture made from skin and body parts, collections of lips and noses, and a skin mask and vest which Gein would wear while he went about his daily domestic routine. It transpired Ed had similarly murdered the local bartender, Mary Hogan, and also indulged in grave robbing.

Horror writer Robert Bloch, who lived only 40 miles from Plainfield, used Ed’s story as the basis for his novel PSYCHO, from which Hitchcock drew his film. But no one had ever portrayed Gein the way Parello and Railsback presented him, with a great deal of sympathy for someone left alone to pursue the inner drives which tormented him. Railsback may have learned some sympathy when he played Manson, a man with a similar detachment from the realities of death. And Parello came by his serial-killer sympathies in an interesting way. He first worked with director John McNaughton on the film HENRY, PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, in which Michael Rooker gave a chilling but understanding, interpretation of a psychopath. Parello then wrote and directed the well-received sequel, HENRY 2: MASK OF SANITY.

Parello himself cuts a benign figure, looking rather more like a researcher for documentaries than a successful director. I talked with him at the National Film Theatre, but the interview I did for Headpress got sidetracked to their newly-launched horror film mag, the suavely-titled Creeping Flesh. Sadly, CF lasted only two issues, so I never got the chance to include it in my CV. Instead, the interview is published here for the first time. Parello, since then, has co-written and directed THE HILLSIDE STRANGLER (2004), with C Thomas Howell as Kenneth Bianchi and Nicholas Turturro as his much-older cousin Angelo Buono, another film about a serial killer inspired, as it were, by an older family member...

CP: Well, I was asked to do it because of my first film, HENRY 2. The script gave me a definite sense of the creeps and I said ‘why not?’
I was working as a journalist and publicist in Chicago, and got hired as a director’s assistant and did publicity for HENRY. Then I wrote the script for HENRY 2, and was offered the chance to direct it. That led to ED GEIN.
No, I’m not. I chose these films because they were very interesting stories, not because they’re shockers…they don’t pay me enough to pander to audiences! ED GEIN stays really grounded in reality, and I’m supposed to do another true crime story, which I was attracted to for the same reason…it’s grounded in reality. But actually, the whole film industry seems to be serial-killer films now…so I should be golden!
It got good reviews, but people seemed put off by the idea of a sequel to a film they’d liked so much, in such a unique way.
No, because there was so much not used before. As a true crime buff I knew there was lots of stuff. There are a few things we had to change because of legal ramifications, and we did indulge in some dramatic embellishment.
Well, just like me the script attracted both Steve and Carrie, and I always meant it to be that way. In the beginning Carrie was cool, but when she said yes I was amazed because she’d been a favourite of mine ever since DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE. She didn’t care about being typecast, nor how bad she might have to look…her best gift was being able to inhabit evil people, and make it a revelation.
That was not my intention. I saw Ed as an evil person, but Steve said people didn’t want to sit through such a relentless portrayal. He does it well. It’s like Michael Rooker in HENRY, he does what he can do. You always harken back to what you do well. I didn’t set out to make audiences feel sympathy for him, but seeing the result, I’m glad that’s the case.
I think he was trying to liberate himself from anger directed at his mother.
Well, Carrie was so great. You know, she looked to real people for her inspiration, which makes you wonder.
Ed always said he never opened his mother’s grave. I think he didn’t because he was so freaked by her. Erroll Morris (the documentary filmmaker) was going to go to Plainfield and see for sure, I think.
The way he killed the two people we really know he killed was so stupid I don’t really believe he was a serial killerThe body parts in his house were mostly grave-robbing. But they blamed every unsolved murder in the area on him, which was convenient for the authorities. But trying to understand why he did what he did, the aggression it expressed, is part of the fascination. I do want audiences to understand him, though. He was basically a guy who missed his mama.
Yes, the house had close neighbours, but a lot of land. The citizens of Plainfield, Wisconsin have been bugged for years by people, academics, screenwriters, and they aren’t happy about it. When we were filming we were warned not to go near Plainfield, because there’s still lots of ill-will there. There’s even a web-site warning people about worshipping Gein. The film did play in Madison, Wisconsin, though.
Yeah, people are too polite to say ‘you’re off your rocker’. And Ed too, was so polite, so mild-mannered, and friendly. Just one of the guys.
Oh yes, they really got the nature of small town life. We did take some liberties. Sally Champlin is so good as the bartender, Mary Hogan, who Ed kills. But the real Mary Hogan was a real German cow, 200 pounds.
Yes, there’s a Wisconsin Death Trip kind of feel. Plus, I always thought the guy was funny. And we see comic books lead to masturbation and sin! But it’s also that small town thing, where we recognise the weird and patronise them. Maybe Ed would have got off today. Maybe he was just trying to draw some attention to himself.
I would’ve added some salary for myself and more points for the crew! But basically this project really got done only through the bravery of one man, Hamish McAlpine at Metro Tartan films in England.
Well, I think older people want to see it for nostalgia…I’ve also found lots of women love the film, which is a good sign. I think women love true crime, they’re fascinated by stories at a safe distance. It’s vicarious. Look how well Ann Rule’s true crime books sell.
Exactly. I mean, look at the tabloid papers, or Lifetime Channel (a woman-oriented cable network in the USA), full of stories of women who’ve been brutalised, raped. ED GEIN is just like Oprah, but a little more graphic. I mean, we’ll get lots of criticism, but some rape story, if it’s in a package with Victoria Principal, well, that’s OK.
Oh, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like PSYCHO. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is my least favourite. I just don’t get it, but again, it’s a lot of women’s favourite film. But I just love Psycho. Norman Bates, he’s a peach. But I think this film is a completely different experience from any of the ones that came before. Whenever we started to resemble TEXAS CHAINSAW, I’d try to move in the opposite direction. Some elements will seem the same, but sticking to the real story is what makes ours unique. That’s much more horrifying than whatever you can make up.

Friday 7 November 2008


The New York Times said, some months ago, that August Kleinzahler was pugnacious, had charm, and could write poetry. The LA Times called him the bad boy of American poetry. All of this is true, although the pugnacity is probably more evident to critics, professors of creative writing, and poetasters than it has been to me since I first met him some thirty years when our paths finally crossed (after much build-up by mutual friends) in Montreal.

So imagine my surprise when the NYT invited the pride of San Francisco, via Ft Lee New Jersey, to comment on the election, alongside John Ashberry and three others, and guess what, August's isn't the poem set among rolling wheat fact you can check it out right here.

It sure is an improvement over Tom 'The World Is Fat' Friedman, or Maureen 'Edwards Spends Almost As Much On Haircuts As I Do' Dowd! Check out his poetry, and his essays; in fact the NYT must dig his act, because he's in this weekend's book review with a fine appreciation of James Merrill, find it here (though I might contend Richard Wilbur, among those writing in rhyme and metre, is at least Merrill's elegant equal)

But Augie's the real deal, if not quite as pugnacious as Mike Singletary. But we are talking poets here...


My obituary of Michael Crichton is in today's Guardian; you can read it here. It occured to me afterwards, thinking about the success of his work, that a major influence on his formula might have been John D MacDonald, whose novels, especially the later, non Travis McGee, 'big' books always took a specific 'technical' theme and researched it thoroughly, framing the story around that issue.

The praise for Eaters Of The Dead was genuine. I remember being surprised by how good I thought it was, when I read it, probably in my first year in Britain...and it stayed on my shelves for almost 30 years before I moved out of my flat. I had somehow missed the release of the movie 13th Warrior, but I suppose I will have to chase it down now!

Wednesday 5 November 2008


 This was my American Eye column (or in this case, Middle Eastern Eye) for Shots magazine number 10.
The link that once led to it leads now to nothing but an error message, so I've reprinted it here: 


It's unlikely there's a more intractable geo-political problem, at least on this planet, than that of Israel and Palestine. Not only is it a tragedy of epic proportions within its own lands, but it is a root motivator of much of the extremism that sees itself transformed into terror around the world. It is a conflict which forces the United States government into positions that may flow contrary to its overall best interests, and sometimes contradict much of its stated foreign policy goals. It is also such a tinder box issue in America that it takes a certain amount of courage simply to approach it in a balanced way.

It is surprising how few writers who operate in the espionage genre have delved into the issue itself, which is why two recent novels by very different sorts of novelists are so fascinating to compare. Actually, that one of those two should be Robert Littell is no surprise at all. Littell is one of America's very best spy novelists: one of the first to be compared to both John LeCarre (when he wrote The Defection Of AJ Lewinter) and to Norman Mailer (with his massive CIA novel The Company). If there is a big three of American espionage, Littell would have to be there along with Charles McCarry and Alan Furst (and Furst, thus far, has dealt exclusively in the past). Vicious Circle is a novel firmly grounded in the world of intelligence, with its focus on the hunt for an American-born fundamentalist rabbi and leader of the settlement movement, who is kidnapped and held for ransom by a legendary Palestinian assassin.

Richard North Patterson, on the other hand, is best-known as a writer of legal thrillers, though
following the course of his career, his best work has usually been done on the political side; I once said he's much closer to writers like Allan Drury (Advice and Consent) than to, say, John Grisham or Scott Turow, with whom he's more usually compared. So with that interest in politics, it's not shocking that he chooses the Arab-Israeli conflict as the basis for a thriller, but what is fascinating is the way he frames his book within the boundaries of the courtroom genre in which he's worked. A moderate Israeli prime minister is assassinated in San Francisco, and a Palestinian woman is accused of having masterminded the killing. For her defense, she turns to a prominent local attorney, with whom she had a secret affair in law school, and who is, of course, Jewish.

On the face of it, very different books. Indeed, Patterson's follows his template, which is that of a lawyer, sometimes a lawyer turned politician, engaged in a battle where his loyalties to individuals will be set against both his self-interest and usually his overall aim. It breaks the mold in that the lawyer in question, David Wolfe, is not one of the small circle of characters who recur in Patterson's other novels, and which is one of the things that keeps them interesting, even when the people themselves seem too good to be true. The story becomes, for a long while, Wolfe's own initiation into the intricacies of the conflict, forcing him not so much to choose sides as to reconsider the whole element of sides themselves. Which is, in the end, what Patterson has set out to do. The title of the book reflects the fact that both the Jewish people and the Palestinians are exiles, and winds up taking a very balanced perspective on the roots of the conflict, or, more importantly, the prospects of solution for it. Patterson's is a very liberal approach, recognising common ground, common struggles and common humanity, and what he is at greatest pains to reveal is the way that the conflict has become self-perpetuating, with vested interests of both sides with no desire to see it stop at anything short of total victory.

But the novel itself remains a typically Patterson courtroom battle, with the resolution very much one of personal betrayal, which is the core of all his novels that do resolve themselves in courtooms, rather than the political process. As is frequently the case, the ultimate villain is pretty obvious early on, but the reader is given plenty of uncertainties along the way. That he chose not to pursue this issue with a series character like President Kerry Kilcannon (as I said, most of Patterson's books have featured a cast of recurring, and often interlocking, characters) is significant in itself, and a signal of how intractable he finds the situation. Thus when Wolfe goes to Israel, his education becomes the readers, and there really isn't too much point to the trip other than that.

Littell's book is much more grounded in the world of intelligence, and where Wolfe's attempts to get to the root of the intelligence are an issue for him and his client, in Littell's book the workings of intelligence agencies (and the Palestinians own equivalent) are the core of the story. Its ultimate point, however, is very close to Patterson's, in that his extremist rabbi and Palestinian kidnapper are inevitably drawn together, closer and closer, to the point where their enmity becomes self-contradictory. At the heart of both books is a real sense, an outsiders' sense, that these two peoples are indeed more similar than different, and that a solution is possible. If Littell's ultimate twist turns out to be a personal one, and perhaps not totally convincing in terms of execution, if not character, it is the solution to which he has been building all through the story. Perhaps because his books deal with intelligence professionals, rather than lawyers, Littell may have more faith in the ultimate good intentions of such men.

That the crime and espionage genre should be the place such issues are addressed is fascinating in itself. Speaking about a McCain rally, where the candidate himself repudiated calls by Mitt Romney and Rudi Giuliani for 'more Guantanamos' by asking if America really wanted a 'second Spanish Inquisition', Matt Taibbi reflected that it's a strange world where speaking out against the Inquisition can be seen as an act of political courage. This is more evident for Patterson, who, as a lawyer has presented a balanced case. It's more bleak for Littell, who has laid out the details on the ground, and sees the most promising future for the enforcers, not the peace-makers. These are two informed and revealing books, and make a finely matched pair.

Saturday 1 November 2008


My review of David Simon's excellent 1991 book Homicide is in the current issue of the Spectator, you can follow this link to it. They also sent along a curiously old-fashioned novel by Stanley Reynolds, which made for an odd pairing and a difficult segue, but it was great to be able to praise the Simon book, which I'd read sometime in the mid-90s, and it's the real deal: this first-ever British edition, as well as being about twice as large, adds an interesting afterword by Simon himself...


My review of Michael Connelly's fine new book, The Brass Verdict, is up at the Crime Time website, you can link to it here. Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch, together at last!


My obituary of Tony Hillerman was in Friday's Guardian, you can pound the link here to find it. There's also an appreciation by Mike Ripley: first time I've shared the space with the Ripper!

I really should say I thought The Fly On The Wall was a first-class political thriller when I read in some 35 years ago, and its journalist was a well-drawn character. Hillerman said he could've done it better, but he seemed an exceedingly self-effacing man...


Two brief notes:
1. re my post below, the Crime Time review of the 2006 Spooks compendium has been posted on their site (but you can scroll down, or hit it here if you're too tired to scroll); and it looks like I was right re Adam and Ros, as she (having been presumed dead) reappears to him and he immediately kills himself by driving a car bomb into a strangely deserted London square on a busy weekday morning...
2. It's good to know the writing (or producing) staff of the show all watched Eastern Promises, and decided Russian prison tattoos were not only a good way to shortcut character development, but also an excuse to flash your male stars naked on screen......and remind me again that British TV is the best TV in the world, after all...or so we keep getting told.....