Friday 31 July 2009


I'm not sure if, strictly speaking, The Whaleboat House qualifies as a forgotten book--after all it won the CWA Silver Dagger for best debut, and his second novel, The Savage Garden, was a Richard & Judy finalist, but as he had managed to slip under my crime-reviewing radar, I thought I'd revisit it, to see if it deserved its award. And I'm pleased I to say, it probably did, though it's also fair to ask how many award winning books have since been retitled by their publishers? Maybe they assumed a British audience wouldn't figure out it was a place name, and certainly wouldn't know how to pronounce Amagansett (it would come out Uh-MAG-an-set). But the original title was Amagansett (see below left) when it was published in 2004 (and it's a place name, pronounced AM-a-gan-set, just like it looks) but perhaps that name looked too serious for a Dagger winner. Even under its new title (which I confess actually works better) it's had two different paperback editions, the first pitching it more as a crime story, as befits a Dagger winner, the second positing it as a sort of historical piece of serious fiction, dirty realism set in the immediate post war, with a romantic twinge, as befits a Richard & Judy nominee (see below right). The problem with the latter approach is that although Mills writes well, and his period setting is drawn well and intriguingly, the story is, at heart, a mystery, and a tale of revenge.

It's notable too for its setting, the immediate postwar fishing community of Amagansett, before the huge boom in the Hamptons, when fishermen still plied their trade in New York's waters (see Joseph Mitchell's exquisite collection, The Bottom Of The Harbor, for a brilliantly realised picture of that industry from the same era). Conrad Labarde is the descendant of Basque fishermen, and works the waters from his shack on the ocean side of Long Island, along with his friend Rollo, the somewhat dimwitted scion of the area's oldest fishing family. It's Rollo who's brought the whalehouse to Conrad's property: and the second title is a far better one for this book; along Amagansett is the setting, it is the whalehouse that sees the story.

Conrad and Rollo bring up the body of Lillian Wallace, one of the wealthy population who visit the area on summer weekends. But Conrad has his own history with Lillian, and knowing the presumed suicide is a murder, he investigates alongside Tom Hollis, a disgraced former New York cop now deputy chief in the small town. The investigation, of course, visits the areas where cultures clash, while Hollis, whose own investigation is directed, as it were, by a few dropped words from Conrad, also discovers ways around his own problems. As well as Lillian's death, Conrad is also haunted by his experiences in the war, where he was an assassin, and somehow blessed with luck while those around him died.

This is a lot to pack into a relatively small package, but Mills does it well. You might say it's too much, that the Hollis and Labrade backstories are slightly too melodramatic, but I think that what is also going on here is a bit of homage from a British novelist to the great novels of the early twentieth century: not just Joseph Conrad, which is signaled pretty obviously, or Fitzgerald's Gatsby, which of course is the classic novel of a Hamptons hit and run leading to more serious crimes. There are echoes of Hemingway, and Steinbeck too, and maybe even a little John O'Hara. It's as if Mills is simply touching those familiar soft spots, and it wouldn't work if he hadn't made his own characters so real, real enough to carry the story through. Its denouement is, like the backstories, somewhat melodramatic, and certainly we see it coming because we've seen it before, but it is handled well, and resolved honestly. As I said, Mills writes very well, and writes his American scenes and characters as well as any Anglo-Irish writer since John Connolly. The fact that he can make his period story resonate with echoes of great novels while still keeping the suspense compelling suggests the Daggers, and maybe even Richard & Judy, were right.

The Whaleboat House by Mark Mills
Harper Perennial 2005 £6.99 ISBN 0007161921


My review of Thomas Pynchon's latest novel, Inherent Vice, appears in today's Spectator, you can link to it here. It is a very funny book, and one that I think looks back on how 'we', who grew up in the post-war baby-boom era, got to where we are. Pynchon's style is less popular now that it was in those heady days, when I would have easily dumped V or Gravity's Rainbow into my list of the best American novels. There has been a backlash against the pursuit of the great American novel and against 'metafictions'--and yes, the former can be overblown and the latter disappear up their own asses, but when it works it works, and there's something conservatively British about the preference for minute examination of polite society. You never have to worry about that with Pynchon, but underneath the invention and the authorial playfulness, the examination, if not minute, is far more telling than, say, all of 'dirty realism' wrapped up in one.

Thursday 30 July 2009


Reading Henning Mankell's Wallander in shorter stories provides an interesting perspective into what makes the detective work—and more importantly into how Manning himself approaches writing about him. Two of the stories in this collection are long: the opener, here titled 'Wallander's First Case', is a good-sized novella, and the title story, 'The Pyramid', which ends the book, could have easily been published alone as a short novel. Mankell wrote all these stories to answer questions about what happened to Wallander before he debuted in 1990's Faceless Killers, and they were originally collected in Swedish in 1998. He explains in an introduction that is typically precise but somewhat less reticent than his interviews, that it wasn't until after those eight years had passed that he came up with the phrase which he would have used retrospectively to subtitle the Wallander series: 'Novels About The Swedish Anxiety'.

Without using the A word, this confirms what many of us have thought, and the link which Mankell has also explained between his books and the Sjowall/Wahloo Martin Beck series.
At times in these stories he tries to make the sense of collective angst rather too clear: at one point commenting on the fractured walls of society, and in another at the way, a generation before, Ystad would have been free of the effects of crime from the cities. There's a reflection of the novels too, since Mankell has always had fun with the sense of Ystad as a crime capital: remember the cash machine in the town square that was about to cue world wide armageddon? 'The Pyramid' is a classic case in point: an international drug cartel run by two spinster sisters who otherwise sell buttons and thread? But Mankell balances the unreal nature of that situation with the tale of Wallander having to rush to Egypt to get his father out of jail: the cantankerous old Swede has tried to fulfill his dream of climbing a pyramid, and been arrested. It's as surreal a scene as I can recall in any crime novel, and it helps put this Christmas tale into perspective.

'Wallander's First Case' is the best of the lot, in part because knowing much of the story to follow, one can see the seeds planted carefully. His new romance with Mona is already suffering from his devotion to his job, a devotion which will pay off in his promotion to detective. And it will also stoke her fears; because he is seriously wounded—the original title of the story was 'The Stab'-- and that personal anxiety will later be magnified as their relationship flounders on its lack of communication.

In his shorter stories, Mankell is often making a character point. This is signalled particularly strongly by the original title of 'The Man With The Mask', which was called 'The Divide' and emphases not only the relationship between Wallander and the man who holds him hostage in a convenience store robbery, but also between Mona and him, she being the outsider who can never understand what he has gone through. A couple of stories end in suicides, which is a particularly Swedish way of dealing with things (Americans tend to prefer taking people with them) and a couple require epilogues to explain the complications of plots that are creaky, but which Mankell is not taking too seriously; less police procedural than Swedish psychological. It's a riveting book, that to anyone familiar with Wallander hangs together like an episodic novel, doing exactly what Mankell planned.

The Pyramid by Henning Mankell
Vintage 2009 £7.99 ISBN 978009951297
This review also appears at


In many ways, The Draining Lake is my favorite of Arnaldur Indridason's Erlendur novels, and the most ambitious. The discovery of a corpse found buried in the eponymous lake, with an outdated Soviet radio transmitter weighing it down, starts an investigation whose roots go back to the heyday of the cold war, when Iceland was (before the Fischer-Spassky chess match put it firmly on the map) a backward island important to both sides only because of the American airbase at Keflavik.

There are distinct echoes in this novel of Halldor Laxness' The Atom Station, with the echoes of geopolitics rebounding on the narrow world-view of Icelanders, and Indridason, while not revealing who the corpse is, tells its back story convincingly, the tale of committed Icelandic communists studying in East Germany in the mid-fifties, of naiveté in both politics and love, and ultimate disillusionment. That story is portrayed convincingly, with young Tomas' idealism tinting the narrative, and we, the audience, knowing better.

Meanwhile, the investigation of the corpse shows Erlendur and his team at their most persistent, especially as they deal with the diplomats from the US and the 'new' Germany. There is a wonderful scene where the German ambassador explains that Iceland is seen as 'the back end of the world' in terms of diplomatic service, and when he proves less than forthcoming, an irritated Erlendur finally asks her 'what did you do wrong?' and when she doesn't understand, asks 'why were you sent to the arsehole of the world'. When his colleagues later chastise him, Erlendur lights up a smoke as says 'this arsehole-of-the-world stuff gets on my nerves'.

Of course that isn't all that gets on his nerves. The troubles with his drug-addicted daughter, and the distance of his relationship with his son, provide a counterpoint to the story told in flashback; meanwhile his platonic relationship with Valdegur, which began in Voices, is causing her husband to telephone him with threats. Erlendur is haunted by his lost brother, and there is in this novel a palpable sense of the isolation of Icelanders in the almost hermetically closed society of the small, cold island. This was part of the theme of Jar City, but here it is developed with the contrast of the enforced repression of the GDR, not that they are parallels, but each comments on the other: particularly when Oli, the young cop, reveals a strong conservative bent. If Hanning Mankell thought of Wallander as being about the anxiety of modern Swedish society, you could very much make the case that Indriason is following in his footsteps. But the wallander novels set outside Sweden are, to my mind, Mankell's least successful; Indridason's venture to East Germany works better, and makes Erlendur more compelling as a result.

The Draining Lake
Arnaldur Indridason, translated by Bernard Scudder
Vintage, 2008, £6.99 ISBN 9780099494140

Wednesday 22 July 2009


Will Eisner's Spirit remains the standard by which all comics should be judged, story-telling that defined the form for generations of writers and artists to come. Eisner's stories were humorous little moral tales, a cross between O. Henry and Issac Bashevis Singer, told in a cinematic style that emphasized the tongue in cheek nature of the masked detective while treating the story-telling very seriously indeed. It remains a difficult combination to imitate.

What is best about these of stories from DC Comics' revival of the Spirit is the playful tone, and the way they've updated him. Most telling is the way he's present in all circumstances, in his mask and costume, and no one seems to find it unusual, which is one of the character's best conceits. Interestingly, in the Frank Miller film, which I haven't seen, the trademark blue suit and mask are replaced by a literally darker black, signifying Miller's own vision of the character. The comics have updated the taxi-driving Ebony, now more Wire than minstrel show, naturally, but Ellen Dolan, always a bit of a feminist in her day, seems somehow more strident now, or maybe it's just that the Spirit is a little more beleaguered.

Originally, DC had Jeph Loeb writing, but this third collection of stories comes later in the series, written by the team of Sergio Aragones (creator of Spy v Spy in Mad, whose playfulness is very similiar to the Spirit) and Mark Evanier. Their first story, 'The Medical Murders' is probably the best. It's drawn by Mike Ploog, who comes closer in feel to the original Spirit, with darker backgrounds and more adventure in the layouts than the rest of the book. Of course, the tradmark of Eisner's design was the splash page, in which the tone of the story would be set, the credits given, and the Spirit title incorporated into the design; Eisner was years ahead of movie title sequences, as you can see in the example on the left. The plot is serious, and remarkably similar to Hakan Nesser's Woman With Birthmark (which I reviewed for Crime Time and which you can link to here).

Paul Smith is the artist on most of the tales, and 'Stand In For Murder' is probably the best of those. He's generally aiming at a more humorous presentation, subsituting dynamic movement for active layout design. This brings out the comedy element, but in 'Fish Tale', for example, there's almost a flatness to it that doesn't quite fit.

Aluir Amancio works in a similar style on his two stories, but also plays a bit more with the Spirit and women; in what is probably the best and most Eisner like of the splash pages, he's like a flirty private eye with the secretary of the insurance boss who hires him (see right) but back to his stunned haplessness when Ellen shows up, in bikini stretched across three panels, on the cruise ship where he is sent on assignment.

Paul Rivoche is the artist and colorist for 'The Comic Book Killer', where his heavy inking suggests EC Comics and which challenges 'The Medical Murders' as the best of the bunch. That tone is perfectly suited for an EC-type tale in which a comics writer is murdered, and which uses the old saw of all his collaborators wanting to take credit--particularly the artist, who goes insane ranting about how the writer's words filled the panels and made it impossible to draw the story. There's a lovely panel, almost entirely a dialogue balloon, in which the Spirit explains why he thinks a comic book can't have too many words! There's also one story drawn in a more modern cartoony style by Jason Armstrong, which somehow doesn't seem to fit. You can see what he's trying to do, but wonder if there's a reason for trying.

The collection may be uneven, and maybe not as compelling visually as the originals, but it's always entertaining, and it's probably the best tribute to Eisner's genius that one can still see the character's possibilities almost 70 years after it was created.

The Spirit Volume 3, Titan Books 2009, £12.99, ISBN 9781848561458
this review also appears at

Monday 20 July 2009


Black boy in Chicago
Playing in the street
Not near enough to wear
Not near enough to eat
But don't you know he saw it
On that July afternoon
He saw a man named Armstrong
Walk upon the moon

 -'Armstrong' by John Stewart

The fortieth anniversary of Apollo 11 is bittersweet. On one hand, we celebrate the amazing feat America accomplished by making John Kennedy's promise that we would have a man on the moon by the end of the decade come true. As my friend Michael Goldfarb suggested in a BBC essay recently, how many other politicians' promises, of a positive nature, can you remember being fulfilled in such spectacular fashion? When we look back at those astronauts, at those crew-cut guys in mission control with their slide-rulers and punch cards, and realise what they actually accomplished, it makes you wonder why the billions we pour into technology today seems to be directed at smaller and smaller ways of keeping people watching screens instead of doing anything.

Of course, most of that technological cash was diverted to the space programme for military reasons, as well as the effort to regain US prestige. It strikes me as deeply ironic that the whole 'Star Wars' programme so beloved of the Reaganauts and neo-cons devoted to military pork, is exactly the stuff we feared the Russians were going to do to us with their Sputniks back in the 1950s. It's not so much we become what we fear, as that we have consistently, throughout the Post-War era, attributed to our 'enemies' all the qualities and aims, methods and motivations that were driving our own dark sides; this is the Jungian theory of the shadow, and it definitely knows what evil lurks.

It's also amazing to recall just how positively news of the moon landing was received all around the world, at the same time the US was deeply unpopular in much of that world for the way it was waging the Vietnam war. In that sense, the successes of the space programme in the immediate aftermath of Apollo might be seen as a very expensive circus, distracting the public from the even more expensive slaughter that was going on in Southeast Asia.

That's the sort of context that, in retrospect, I never felt at the time, not even when people (not least Tom Lehrer, see here) pointed out the space programme was the Dr Strangelovian step-child of a Nazi scientist whose previous rockets had made it only across the North Sea, from Germany to England. That July evening, I was able to put aside those thoughts to simply celebrate a unique small step. That America was self-evidently the greatest country on earth, that our 'can-do' spirit had made the impossible possible, struck me as further evidence that we were caught helplessly in the schizophrenic madness of our leadership. But it did, and does, make me proud of what my country could achieve, not so much if we put our minds to it, but if we put our hearts in the right places.

It was ironic that Walter Cronkite, struck speechless by the sight of a man on the moon, should have died during this anniversary, since it was his voice that Americans would associate with the landing almost as much as Armstrong's (and remember Col. John 'Shorty' Powers—the last military spokesman we liked or trusted?--that's him between John Glenn and Alan Shepard). Cronkite anchored most of the 30 hours of CBS's coverage, with Wally Schirra beside him for the landing. As Spiro Agnew said, famously, when asked for a comment, 'if Cronkite was speechless, what can I say?'

I was struck by the ill-feeling toward Cronkite in a couple of the obituaries I read—one blamed him for Rupert Murdoch's Fox News in some bizarre twist of retribution towards those about whom we aren't supposed to be speaking ill. It somehow sought to attack Cronkite for not being more than what he was--a skilled reporter who approached the CBS Evening News the same way he had approached working for United Press: as a way of bringing important news concisely and accurately to people who depended on it as their main news source--and refused to credit that work with being useful. The battle between the news agencies meant local papers in America were supplied with lots of foreign news in those days, a far cry from the present. And Cronkite, as an overseas reporter turned news reader, used his position as 'managing editor' of the Evening News to make sure the world got covered. That this appealed to audiences in ways the modern focus-group selected Kens and Barbies don't should be obvious from the way the mantle was passed, eventually, from Cronkite to ABC's Peter Jennings, the last of the anchors to have been a working overseas reporter.

But Cronkite was also the voice and face of reassurance; he did inspire trust. I was disappointed by the BBC, who in their notice ran the opening of the Evening News followed by Cronkite's announcement of JFK's death, as if that announcement had been the lead item on a newscast, rather than a 'flash' stuck into the afternoon programming, where the emotion that Cronkite fights hard to repress ultimately becomes evident on his face. In that instant, all reassurance was gone.

None of the obits I read made much of the programmes Cronkite hosted before taking over CBS Evening News--'You Are There', which 'sent' reporters to historical events, and more importantly, The Twentieth Century, whose documentaries covered the world, and the world of ideas (and, with one episode, 'The Violent World Of Sam Huff', did almost as much to boost the NFL into popularity as the 1958 title game had). The Twentieth Century had a relatively liberal outlook, though it was tempered considerably by its sponsor, Prudential, and by the network, and it was heavily influenced by the US military, who were portrayed in all their Cold War glory. But those were the times, and America's leadership wasn't being called into question they way it would be after Vietnam.

And yes, Cronkite's conversion marked the turning point of America's perceptions of the Vietnam War. LBJ didn't run for re-election because he knew if he'd lost Cronkite, he would lose America. But Cronkite hadn't turned against the war because he was a liberal, but because he was a reporter, and had gone to Vietnam to see for himself. Todd Gitlin, in a New Republic story about Cronkite, quoted my friend and ex-ABC colleague Jack Laurence, as follows:

I asked John Laurence, formerly one of the stars of CBS's Vietnam reporting, what he remembered of Cronkite's special report. "The reason his Vietnam War broadcast in 1968 had such a big impact," he wrote back in an e-mail, "was that it was so unlike him to take a position on anything. It just wasn't done in those days." Laurence recalled dinner the night before Cronkite left Saigon: "Walter said he wanted to know what was really going on. The senior US military officers he had spoken with had told him the Tet Offensive was turning out to be a huge success for the allies because they were killing so many VC and NVA. They were predicting victory. I acknowledged the huge numbers of deaths, but pointed out that the Northerners would replace their losses and come at us again. And again, and again. And that the sooner we realized the fact that we were not going to win this fucking war, the better for everyone, especially the Vietnamese and Americans who were being butchered by the thousands. For no good purpose. I got a bit emotional and [chief CBS Vietnam correspondent Robert] Schackne gave me a polite but stiff kick in the shins under the table at one point, to suggest that I cool it".'

Gitlin continues: The CBS special aired on February 27, 1968, with this peroration: "To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.

Hardly the words of a radical. But more honest than the words of, say, Robert McNamara, who died just a week before Cronkite, and whom we now know was aware even then that the war was unwinnable, but just neglected to tell us, and didn't dare stand up to LBJ and tell him. McNamara was one of the 'best and the brightest', exactly the sort of guys who built NASA and put a man on the moon. They were the opposite side of America's Vietnam coin.

But do we need to look all the way back to Vietnam to note instances of the facts arguing for themselves against the pre-conceptions and subtrefuges of the war mongers, and to note the way an increasingly subservient media rush to condemn as leftists, subversives, traitors and/or terrorists those who simply, like Cronkite, present the facts?

What I like to think Cronkite stood for in the end was the decency of the common American, the nobility of journalistic curiosity, and the possibility that you could pursue news honestly on television, that you could respect and perhaps even give the benefit of the doubt to your audience, respect authority without bending over to it. Most of all, in a world of news, both local and national, that stokes the fires of fear and hatred, in the interests of power and profit, it was reassuring to be told that 'that's the way it is', and actually believe that it might not be all that bad, and that it might get better. That we might, someday, do something like put a man on the moon.

Sunday 19 July 2009


I will confess to being a little apprehensive when I showed up to see Moon; a film directed by David Bowie's son, scripted by Alan Parker's son, produced by Sting's missus and released, as if by coincidence, on the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing--Apollo 11 meets Ziggy Stardust Jr? Yowza!...but no role for Moon Unit Zappa?-- suggested all the hallmarks of a vanity project, the better-connected equivalent of Judy Gardland and Mickey Rooney going 'why don't we put on a show!' in the Andy Hardy movies. But I was won over completely by a film that, despite being very knowing about its roots, and somewhat playful with them, treats itself and its audience seriously, tells a simple tale well, and uses that simple tale to suggest, rather than gnaw over, stronger and deeper concepts. It's helped by the fact that it is nearly a one-actor, if not one person, show, and Sam Rockwell does such a good job in carrying it off.

Rockwell plays Sam, who's coming to the end of a three-year stint mining Helium-3 on behalf of Lunar Industries for clean consumption back on energy-hungry earth. It opens with a Lunar Industries corporate promo, always a red flag in sf films, especially those based on Philip K Dick, or his spirit. Since Blade Runner, there have been many Dick adapations (Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report among the big ones) and probably twice as many films that are Dickian in all but credits, playing with his concepts and worries, everything from The Truman Show to excellent smaller films like Cypher or Gattaca, or almost all of Charlie Kaufman's work.

Dick's central concern is whether the world we live in is 'real' or a construct, how to tell the difference, and more importantly, whether we ourselves are real, or constructs, and if the latter, what difference it makes. For three years Sam has had no direct communication with earth; the satellite link has suffered endemic problems the whole time he's been on the dark side of the moon, and he sends and gets only taped messages with his family. The tapes themselves will remind you of Total Recall, and as Sam's date of departure looms closer, they become more and more distant, and omnious, in tone.

His only companion in space is the robot, Gerty, an obvious reference to Hal 3000 from Kubrick's 2001. Gerty is perfectly realised, voiced by Kevin Spacey (yes, Spacey's his real name) and given his humanity not by Spacey's monotone, but by cleverly changing emoticons. The knowing quality of the film is evident in the way they tease a revisiting of Hal's breakdown, there's a wonderful tease where Gerty appears to be about to strangle Sam, onl to pat him on the shoulder, because, as he reminds us, hes programmed to protect him. It's also cute that, in a film produced by Trudie Styler, this robot should be called by another dimunitive of Gertrude (when I made this point on Saturday Review it was, oddly, edited out of the broadcast).

Sam and Gerty's relationship follows in the traditions of smaller-budget sf films like Silent Running (to which there are obvious references in Sam's garden, and whose situation, of Bruce Dern with robots Huey, Dewey and Louie, is very similar), or Aaron Lipstadt's Android : and any number of other films that use their limited budgets in creative ways, working out straightforward approaches to serious sf concepts . In the same way Dick hit on some instinctive truths, and certainly a clearer vision of our present world than virtually any other writer in or out of sf, while churning out his pot-boilers for chump change, and got the future much more accurately and entertainingly in the big sense and the 'serious' hard sf writers, so too have these 'smaller' films often contained much more humanity than bigger films whose budgets seemingly demand to be spent on effects, not ideas.

Without giving away too much of the plot, Sam is seriously injured in a crash, then wakes, apparently having been rescued and treated at his station. But how? He realises that the Sam from the crash is still out there, goes to rescue him (for he is still alive) and finds himself. Which means Sam II is a clone.

The beauty of the film from this point, as Rockwell plays two roles (it's like Silent Running's Dern face to face with 2001's Keir Dullea) is that rather than get all philosophical over identity, the two clones behave like two people forced to realise they are both the same person as well as two different people. Working together, they uncover the secret of the moon operation, of Sam and his family, and of the way Lunar Industries has devised to cope with the problems of leaving a man isolated on the moon for three years--a method devised, we realise, at least 15 years before.

The film makes only one visual reference to the moon landing: one shot of Sam bouncing along the surface, which makes him look almost gleeful in a situation where he should not be. Likewise, it only cheats once with the concept, when Sam sees a vision which foreshadows the situation, like a mirage, but for which there should be no memory on which to draw.

The story's heart now becomes the two Sams working for a solution, an escape; basically a reworking of another event which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year: John Schlesinger's film Midnight Cowboy. As the injured Sam deteriorates, Rockwell launches into a knowing but respectful, if playful, impersonation of Dustin Hoffman playing Ratso Rizzo--and in the end it's hard not to see the other Sam as Joe Buck heading off to Miami on his space bus. The two, and Gerty, work against the clock, making it a suspense film, and by now the audience has been won over to the two Sams, and the struggle is the classic one of individuals, clones or real, against the system.

Early press documents and reviews compared Rockwell's performance to Nicholas Cage's in Adaptation, and to Jeremy Irons' in Dead Ringers (Irons' is the most subtle of the three, Rockwell's the most flamboyant). But there is another comparison, which I mentioned on Saturday Review. Moon's director Duncan Jones (ne Zowie Bowie) reminds me of another director with a famous name who changed it to Jones, Spike Jones. Like Jones' first feature, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation was written by Charlie Kaufman, and very much in the Philip K Dick mode; in Adaptation, of course, Cage played two brothers, with the question of the second brother's reality always in the forefront. Spike Jones' directing career stalled, but there is a difference. Duncan Jones came up with the story for this film, and he's apparently already working on another sf film; he has great visual flair, and it will be interesting to see if the ideas, and the playfulness continue in that film. Nathan Parker has apparently done a screenplay for Thomas H Cook's subtle and very moving thriller, Red Leaves.

In the meantime, however, Moon is a small, intelligent movie, entertaining enough for a non-sf audience, and knowing enough for (older?) sf fans who will get its references. Can it appeal to the CGI Friday crowd? It deserves to.

MOON directed by Duncan Jones, screenplay by Nathan Parker, story by Duncan Jones, with Sam Rockwell, Dominique McElligot, (voice of) Kevin Spacey, photography: Gary Shaw

Saturday 18 July 2009


I appeared on Saturday Review tonight, discussing the film Moon, the BBC TV series Desperate Romantics, Jez Butterworth's play Jerusalem, which stars Mark Rylance, Ewan Morrison's novel , Menage, and Charles LeDray's first British exhibition, Mens Suits, which is at the wonderful Old Fire Station on Chiltern Street. My fellow guests are the historian Tristram Hunt and the playwright Julia Pascal; the host is Tom Sutcliffe. If you missed it, it's available for one week on the BBC I player, to which you can link here, or go to and search it out. It may sound a bit like the Tom and Tris love-in; I was definitely there only to sing backup. So I may also write about one or two of these items, either here or on Untitled: Perspectives, but don't hold your breath, or close your ears.

Friday 17 July 2009


My obituary of Alexis Arguello, the boxer and mayor of Managua, is in today's Independent, you can find it here. The list of his survivors was left vague; I believe he was survived by his third wife Carla, but another paper identified a different wife as his widow; the local papers in Spanish referred to Carla, and the other woman was definitely his wife at the time of an excellent 1985 Sports Illustrated article by Gary Smith, profiling Arguello at a low point (link to it here).

The question of murder vs suicide is an interesting one; most of the speculation was circumstantial, in that there were people who probably didn't want him investigated for corruption, and the shot to the chest is not necessarily the best way to shoot yourself. The death marked a strange triumverate with those of Steve McNair (shot by a girlfriend who then killed herself) and Arturo Gatti (apparently strangled and stabbed by his wife, who then spent the next ten hours alone in the hotel room with the corpse and their one year old son).


My obituary of Walter Schneir, who along with his wife Miriam wrote the first important book about the Rosenberg trial, is in the Guardian today, you can link to it here. The Town Hall debate, to which I refer, was a major landmark in what has become a continuing Reaganization of America, a retroactive process by which the McCarthy era could be justified, celebrated, and, as we have seen through the Bush regime,fianlly reborn and institutionalised, to the point where the Obama administration seems keen not to dismantle it.

The Verona decrypts and various other revelations from the Soviet archives require very careful handling, and Schneir was very good about pointing out their limitations, and the abuses to which they were put, while at the same time being honest about the fact that Julius Rosenberg was, indeed, a spy. Whether he deserved the death penalty is another debate.

I also wanted to make a bigger point about the Stronium 90 case, which was absolutely huge in the 1950s: nuclear poisoning of the baby boom children. It was one of the first of the big 'green' stories.

Friday 10 July 2009

PHILIP REED'S LOW RIDER: A Forgotten Friday Entry

Harold Dodge was the eponymous 'Bird Dog' of Reed's first novel, published in 1997, a spotter of suckers for used car dealers who reformed for a honest life in the aerospace industry. At the end of Bird Dog, Dodge fled to Chile with his girlfriend Marianna, who'd killed Joe Covo, a crooked car dealer who'd fleeced her. In Low Rider, he's back in LA, because Marianna needs an operation, and Harold can help Vikki Covo, Joe's grieving widow, find the body, prove he was murdered, and collect on the insurance, of which Harold's cut will pay for Marianna's op. Sound easy? Amazingly enough, problems develop, not least that, once the body's found, harold becomes the prime suspect in the eyes of detectives Torres and Gammon.

Reed assembles a great cast of characters, all of whom are conning each other, or thinking about swo doing. Even when they don’t intend to lie, circumstances force them to, so what the hell. It leads to car chases, gunplay, and even a little guilty sex for Harold, which in noir terms, is the classic formula for disaster, but who can resist?

While all this goes on at a frantic pace, the cops, perhaps because they're focused on Dodge, seem strangely inert. You could blow up the Santa Monica Freeway and kidnap Monica Lewinsky’s mother and they probably wouldn’t notice. What’s a few corpses here and there, between friends? This California laissez-faire allows things to move to a double slam-bang finish. And speaking of double slam-bang, Harold has to choose between women, wondering if he’s being conned by one or the other or maybe both. It’s somewhere between the dilemma of classic film noir and being the hero of a country song.

And as in country music, Harold also wants revenge, on whoever stripped his father's cherry '64 Chevy Impala SS, the kind of muscle machine even someone named Dodge can appreciate. After all, you can take the bird dog out of cars, but you can't take the cars out of the bird dog. As Harold’s father says, “there’s no replacement for displacement”.

POSTSCRIPT: I reviewed Low Rider for Petrolhead back in 1998, and wondered where Reed might take the character. That he would continue seemed a given, in that he was being routinely compared to Carl Hiassen, and a breakthough seemed just around the corner. Another novel, Marquis De Fraud, came out in 2001, similar in that it apparently is a fast-paced novel of sleazy people conning each other, but set in the world of horse racing. Reed's other books have been non-fiction, but Harold Dodge would seem primed for a revival, especially since the money-grubbing days of the 1990s have given way to the new austerity, and gas-guzzling muscle cars have a whole new status, or lack thereof.
Low Rider by Philip Reed Hodder & Stoughton 1998, New English Library (paper) 1999

Wednesday 8 July 2009

HOLLYWOOD'S CENSOR: Joseph Breen and the Production Code

Thomas Doherty's study of Hollywood's production code, originally published in 2007, is an important book about movie history, not just the history of censorship, because it does such a good job of setting its story into context. It is so good on the background in which the censors worked that we come to understand not only the way Hollywood functioned in its golden age, but the way America saw itself and its morals reflected in the pictures it produced. Using the story of Joseph Breen, who headed the Production Code Administration, or 'Hays Office' for twenty years, from 1934 to 1954, as its 'spine', as Thomas Doherty calls it, Hollywood Censor provides a revealing look at what the movies meant to America and how 'the system' worked in Hollywood, through the era when the talking picture was the nation's, and the world's, entertainment king.

Doherty begins with Breen receiving an honorary Oscar in 1954, presented by Joe E Brown, to the ironic strains of 'Don't Fence Me In'. Tellingly, Breen had nothing to say to the Hollywood crowd gathered that night, nor to the audience watching for the first time on TV. The book describes Breen, and the pictures bear him out, as a ward-heeler, the kind of guy standing behind the shadows in The Last Hurrah perhaps, and he makes much, fittingly of Breen's Irish Catholic upbringing and Jesuitical education. After all, the irony of the Hollywood system was that an industry run largely by Jews was making movies for a nation still overwhelmingly Protestant, and the boundaries of taste were being defined largely by Catholics.

That was how Breen, a journalist and PR man by trade, got the job; he had done the PR for the 1926 Chicago 'Eucharistic Congress', a sort of Catholic World's Fair that combined the pomp of Rome with the American religious selling power of Aimee Semple McPherson. It's the Jesuitical (you might have called it rabbinical had the studio chiefs themselves been doing it) parsing of morality that stands above everything else. The code itself was written by, literally, Catholic priests, but it's not just the specifics of sin, and the way those were shaped to reflect Catholic doctrine on any number of points; but the literal way in which those rules were interpreted. Contrary to the way people think of censors working, and indeed how the British Board of Film Censors (now called, for appearance sake, Film Classification) appears to work still,Breen's people were concerned mostly with checking the scripts before films went into production. This meant they were often applying a strictly literary sensibility to the films they were censoring, it also meant that once the script had been approved, it fell to the film-makers to find ways of saying things, on screen, between the lines. In that sense, it was actually an encouragement to finding a language of film, though I'm not suggesting this was a positive way of working toward that end.

Breen worked like that because he was inside the system, and perhaps the most interesting thing about Doherty's portrayal is the way he shows Breen's own belief that he was part of the film-making process. He makes suggestions which have no more or less validity than any modern producer might, he often feels like he is taking the film-makers side against the studio, trying to find a way to get what they want said into the finished film. Because, in the end, he also realised that his ultimate responsibility was to the studios' profitability; they had set up the Hays Office to try to ameliorate the effects of local censorship of what was called in Boston the 'ten-cent plague', by police departments, city morality boards, and the like, and especially by the Catholic Legion of Decency, whose bans on films carried the authority of moral sin behind them.
When the book came out, much was made of Breen's alleged anti-semitism and, to a lesser degree, racism, and Doherty was accused to giving Breen a skate on those issues. Again, you have to put things into context; at the time, Catholic doctrine still insisted Jews were 'Christ-killers', that would not be overturned until Pope John XXIII came along.

Ethnic stereotypes were also still acceptable for use in public discourse; the Jews who made Hollywood run were just as likely to crack wise about their 'nature' as anyone else—what we now call slurs could still be used as terms of affection (does anything date the Clint Eastwood of Gran Torino more—but his point was a valid one; while we've taken the PC cleaner to public discourse, we've done far less with the real effects of society's racial inequalities). Breen would have used the 'some of my best employers, if not friends, are Jewish' line and he would have meant it. The racism charge is a bit more nuanced, and a lot of it, like not producing pictures that would offend Hitler's Germany or which, by featuring miscegenation for example (and interestingly, the priests who wrote the original Code had not included anything about miscegenation, that was an addition made by the studios themselves), wouldn't play in the American South, had economic as well as cultural roots. Yes, we portrayed the Japs as less human than the Nazis, and that was racist, but this was a country that put its citizens of Japanese descent into concentration camps (taking the word back to its origins, with the British in the Boer War). The point being that rather than give Breen a pass on personal morality, Doherty simply refuses to take him out of the context of the prevailing ethos in America of the time. In fact, you might argue that my looking at Breen as a typical Irish ward-heeler is exactly the same sort of thing, but I'd be unlikely to be excoriated as a racist for that.

Oddly enough, censorship, a keystone of war time, began to fall apart with the war. During the war, the idea that you couldn't show a soldier battling for his life saying 'hell' or 'damn' or 'bastard' was preposterous. Even more, when soldiers came back from the war, they wanted more realistic entertainment; the same impulse that made Mickey Spillane a best-seller would eventually drive a stake through the heart of the film censors. Censorship became as tired as Breen himself; sadly, although he will be remembered in a negative fashion, he saw himself as having given his life to the movies, Doherty's recognition of this, and his sympathetic, yet realistic telling of Breen's own story, makes this book work, and remembers Breen in the most appropriate way.

Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I Breen & The Production Code Administration by Thomas Doherty
Columbia University Press, £13.00, ISBN978-0231143592

Sunday 5 July 2009


Thomas Cook's characters are often haunted, but usually they are forced to face, and sometimes resolve, the past without recourse to the supernatural. However, when supernatural elements begin to intrude in his latest novel, The Fate Of Katherine Carr, it seems as normal as anything else in the day-to-day life of George Gates.

Gates (and yes, the name carries connotations) was a travel writer, an adventurer who sought out the unusual places on his journeys. Unusual, and, in a sense haunted; early in his story he tells about the cliffs of Saipan, off which Japanese threw their children and leapt to their deaths rather than face the atrocities they expected from the invading Americans. Gage is haunted too, by the memory of his son, kidnapped as he waited for his father to pick him up on a rainy afternoon, and murdered by his kidnapper, who'd never been found. Haunted by the knowledge he had forgotten promising Teddy a ride if it rained, forgotten because he was wrapped in trying to find the right words to finish a line in his book.

Now Gates writes for the local paper in Winthrop, which appears to be in upstate New York, or maybe western Connecticut, up past the end of route 34, and his traveling is limited to his now empty (haunted?) house, the newspaper, and O'Shea's Tavern. There, one night, he meets Arlo McBride, retired state police missing persons investigator, and becomes interested in Katharine Carr, amateur poet, novice writer, who became a recluse after a vicious attack on her doorstep, and who later disappeared without a trace. That was twenty years ago. Soon Gates is reading Carr's poems, and a story she wrote about a woman who disappears, taken away by a strange person named Maldrow (and yes the name suggests connotations), and his Chief, whose purposes might be evil, or might not.

It's been noted that Cook's stories unfold gradually, and the process has been compared to peeling the layers of an onion. His characters are often writers, people looking for the write word, the right way to express their feelings. In this novel, the layers of the onion are obvious, but so skillfully drawn that they become forgotten: Gates is telling the entire story to a Mr. Mayawati; apparently while traveling again in exotic places. Within the story, Gates has started writing an article about a young girl, Alice, dying of a disease which is aging her prematurely. Gates winds up reading Katherine's story to Alice (and yes, the name suggests connotations), stories within stories within stories, and those tales start to melt together, until the boundaries between what has happened and what hasn't, between this world and the next, seem to disappear.

What makes it work, makes it compelling, is Cook's prose. Although there are moments when he seems to be echoing Poe's 'Cask Of Amontillado', and where the rhythms take on the a slightly more ornate, Lovecraftian feel, the reality is that the style is measured but straightforward, much of it, despite the rhythms of the gothic tale, told in simple language that suggests this form of travel is no stranger than any other. You might compare it to John Connolly, who early on borrowed the tropes of horror writing to remake his detective novels, but Cook is doing something different, merely extending slightly the reach of his usual concerns. The supernatural is a world of memory, of the dead and the past, and that has always been the territory Cook's novels have explored. Katherine Carr is not a ghost story, but it is. Maldrow and the Chief are not real, but they are. In these ambiguities, Cook has created another small gem of a novel. He deserves a wider audience, but perhaps his work his too idiosyncratic, his books, while recognizably Cook's, too different from each other. Or perhaps the audience isn't as comfortable with being totally captured by ambiguity as they ought to be.

The Fate Of Katherine Carr, by Thomas H Cook
Quercus, £17.99, ISBN 978184728404

this review also appears at

Saturday 4 July 2009


Today, the Fourth of July, is the sixtieth anniversary of Lou Gehrig's speech July 4th 1939, at the old Yankee Stadium, the one they tore down last year, where he announced to the overflow crowd that he felt he was 'the luckiest man on the face of the earth'.

Gehrig was the Iron Horse, the man who set the major league record for most consecutive games played, a number, 2,130, I can even now write from memory. That record would stand for half a century. He was indestructible, at least until he was diagnosed with what we now call 'Lou Gehrig's Disease', Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. He would be dead less than two years after making that speech.

Gehrig was a native New Yorker, the child of immigrants, who'd starred in football and baseball at Columbia before signing with the Yankees, and who, alongside Babe Ruth, made up the greatest pair of hitting teammates baseball has ever seen. They were baseball's glamour team, playing in its finest stadium, in the nation's and soon to be the world's busiest most powerful city. That's Lou with the young Joe DiMaggio and Fiorello LaGuardia, mayor of New York. Yet Gehrig, even by the relatively civilised nature of celebrity in that era, eschewed the spotlight. Where Ruth was larger than life and lived that way, Gehrig was Clark Kent, who became Superman only when the pinstripes went on.

You can find a nice little excerpt from his speech, taken from Ken Burns' Baseball documentary, here. If you look a little further, on the site for example, you can find longer extracts, and some of what the Babe said as well. You can also find the clip from 'Pride Of The Yankees' with Gary Cooper; the amazing thing is how Gehrig is so much handsomer than Cooper, whose baseball playing in the film fails to live up to Gehrig's power and grace (see that MLB video if you doubt me).

On the Fourth there are always moments that make me shake my head in wonder at the life I've left behind me; Joey Chesnut eating a world record 68 hot dogs at Coney Island for example. There are always moments when I wonder why I outgrew the simple wonder of patriotism so easily, yet it seems so monolithic at times, and carries with it an increasingly compulsory blinkering.

Yet there are also times I miss the fireworks, the flags, the hot dogs. The barbeques with family and friends, the baseball, and most of all that sense that things like Lou Gehrig's modesty and grace still live on to inspire us, not commercialised, not manipulated, not spoiled, and that I could feel as lucky as I did the first time I was told about it.

GARY BURTON AND AL KOOPER: Irresistible Targets June Playlist

There has been a nostalgic theme to Irresistible Targets lately, and when, inspired by John Harvey to think about my 'playlist' for the month of June, I realised that the two new discs which have been spending all the time in the scanner are both by musicians I've been listening to for at least forty years, I thought it worth indulging tha nostalgia just a little bit more. I realised too that, in the wake of the Michael Jackson death-circus, they both took me back to a time when I really got caught up in music for its own sake, rather than caught up in the multi-media cult of the artist, even though the cults in those days were nothing like the marketed hype of today. And both of these discs play consciously with their roots in that time, though in different ways. And it was only while thinking about these two discs that I realised there was a direct, if tenuous, link between Gary Burton and Al Kooper, a link constructed by the way in which I pursued associations in the music I loved.

Gary Burton's Quartet Live sends you right back to the Sixties because it's packaged in a cover by none other than Peter Max. Of course, as it's a CD and as I've been wearing glasses for the past few years, it doesn't have quite the impact it would have had as a LP jacket, but my generation has learned to live with that. It always amazes me, in the world of digital downloads and Ipods, how much impact LP covers had on their audience; I can think of dozens of records whose covers caught my attention before some information on the sleeve caused me to give the record a try or discard it.

It's a summertime record, and it's been playing through the current British 'heat wave', the kind of music that accompanies sitting at the desk with sunshine and breeze blowing through the window, and I've been feeling that way about Gary Burton's music ever since I was in college. I don't remember whether I was drawn to Burton by Larry Coryell, the guitarist in his original, 1968, quartet; I remember I used to play Coryell's Lady Coryell incessantly, despite my roomates' complaints about the awful vocals, and nowadays people look at that as one of the first 'jazz-rock' albums (I'll be writing more about this when I cover the David Sanborn concert I saw the other night). But since I think my first Burton album was 1969's Throb it's more likely I was drawn to it by the presence of fiddler Richard Greene, from the last incarnation of Kooper's Blues Project (and there's the link) which became Sea Train. He'd played with Bill Monroe and also played bluegrass with the Blue Velvet Band, and the idea of his joining a vibraphone-led jazz band must've seemed strange. But this was the time of Herbie Mann's Memphis Underground, when Kooper was producing records by the Don Ellis Orchestra, and of course the Electric Flag and Kooper's own Blood Sweat & Tears issued their first records, which are still two of my favourites. Throb's title track is a haunting piece composed by Mike Gibbs, who contributed three other tunes. The only member of the original quartet still around is bassist Steve Swallow, drummer Bill Goodwin replaced Roy Haynes and Coryell gave way to Jerry Hahn, from the rock band The Serfs, who also produced the great keyboardist/singer Mike Finnigan.

Although Quartet Live has the feel of an anniversary album, it's not. Guitarist Pat Metheny Metheny first joined Burton in a two-guitar quintet (along with Mike Goodrick) for Ring (1974) which also played Eberhard Weber's bass off against Swallows. Metheny played on two more records, Dreams So Real and the classic Passengers, again with Weber, before going on to the huge stardom he now enjoys. But he's already done two 'reunion' albums with Burton; Reunion (1990) and Like Minds (1998, with Haynes, Chick Corea and Dave Holland). In fact, Quartet Live opens with 'Sea Change', a Corea composition Burton's done with the pianist many times. There are afew other familiar tunes revisited, most notably Metheny's lovely 'B&G(Midwestern Night's Dream)' but the range of writers includes Swallow, Burton (never a prolific composer), Keith Jarrett, Carla Bley, and Duke Ellington's 'Fleurette Africaine'. What Burton, with his four-mallet playing, and Metheny, with his speed, have in common is a sense of weaving the many notes they play; never displaying virtuousity for its own sake (well, OK Metheny, on his own work, sometimes does). Swallow fits this layered approach perfectly, and the addition of Metheny's current drummer, Antonio Sanchez, is perfect because he provides a rhythmic drive, in fact, reminds me much more of the muscular Haynes than of other more gentle Metheny drummers like Bob Moses. It's a record that's more fun than its cover.

Al Kooper's White Chocolate is a sequel of sorts to Black Coffee, but appears to have been released only by Sony Japan (and through Kooper's own website), in 2008. It was the disc that was getting the most playtime in my office during those wretched rainy weeks of June, when you ask yourself why you're living in Britain and you listen to music that makes you think of home. I go back with Kooper all the way to the Blues Project, 1966 or so, and this record has some of the eclecticism that made the Project so good when they were good. In fact, it's very much a valedictory work, with a lot of familiar (by other people) material. The piece that will get the most attention is probably a slowed down version of It Takes A Lot To Laugh (It Takes A Train To Cry), the Dylan song Al did with Steve Stills on Super Session. Of course Al is today remembered primarily as the guy who slipped into the organ chair and added the riff on Dylan's 'Like A Rollin Stone'. As he said in a piece about White Choc written by Mark Gould, 'Ahhhh, it's just great to be remembered for something other than bombing the World Trade Center or shooting Jack Ruby.' Yes, I know, nobody shot Ruby, but you get the point!

But there are also covers of the classic 'I Who Have Nothing,' Fred Neil's 'Candy Man' (a huge hit for Roy Orbison), Otis Redding's 'I Love You More Than Words Can Say' (written by Eddie Floyd and Booker T Jones), and two Kooper kollaborations with Gerry Goffin, apparently done by email. There is also a eulogy to Stax, one of the kind of songs Stax themselves used to do so well, which features Booker and Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper and allows Al the chance to yell 'play it Steve' just like Sam Moore did on Soul Man (by the way, when I do write that Sanborn piece I will be mentioning Sam's singing with him). Al's voice is weaker than it was (he's 65, and has suffered a number of serious illnesses, including a brain tumour and a near-loss of eyesight) but since at his peak he was once described as sounding like a soulful asthmatic, it may not have quite the pop the song demands, but it is great fun and sounds great behind him, and since Stax was always the inspiration behind his horn charts, it makes sense.

The record features vocals by the exquisite Catharine Russell and Sherryl Marshall, who go all the way back with Al to Child Is Father To The Man that first BS&T album, which may still be my favourite rock record of all-time. Russell, a true soul diva, even gets to sing lead on Hold On. Like almost all Al's albums, it's uneven; he's too indulgent of his own cleverness to simply pay to formula, and some of his favorite quirks don't always hit the right note, but there are far more hits than misses. And yes, one of the songs sounds an awful lot like on of the ones of Black Coffee, but I won't say which. But there are also a couple of touching takes on growing old, Al originals, 'You Never Know Til You Get There' and '(I Don't Know When But) I Know That I'll Be There Soon', both featuring Al Gorgoni on acoustic guitar, another of those session guys who popped up on Al's album credits and very few others. It may sound like I'm off on a nostalgia trip, but I played and replayed this record with immense satisfaction, and you tell me how many records you can say that about today?

Irresistible Turntables: The June Playlist:
Gary Burton 'Quartet Live' (Concord 2009)
Al Kooper 'White Chocolate' (Sony Japan 2008)
Jack DeJohnette's Parallel Realties 'Live' two-discs from Philadelphia, 1990, on the semi-bootleg German Jazz Door label, with Metheny, Herbie Hancock, and Dave Holland. Harder driving than the studio albums, this one really moves.
for the Summer Soulstice, June 21st:
Taj Mahal The Real Thing, the phenomenal 1971 Columbia live album with a four-tuba horn section. Key track: 'Ain't Gwine Whistle Dixie (Any Mo')' for its solos by three guys less celebrated than they should be: Howard Johnson (sax), John Hall (guitar) and John Simon (piano—producer of that first BS&T album, as well as the Band's first two).
Stax Soul Power (Mojo 2/07) on 21/6, especially William Bell's 'I Forgot To Be Your Lover'
Baby Washington (pictured right) I've Got A Feeling (Stateside 2005) a great best-of compilation which includes the best cover of I'm On The Outside (Looking In)

Isle Of Wight/Glastonbury /Hyde Park displacement therapy:
Neil Young (Reprise 1968), that first solo album, of which I've still got the rare, title-less LP cover, isn't really solo since its mostly-unbilled players include Poco's George Grantham, Ry Cooder, Jack Nitzsche, and Jim Messina, along with the wonderful Brenda Holloway leading a great chorus. To stay in that 40-year old groove, Sugar Mountain (Reprise 2008), is the 1968 live Canterbury House solo concert, which is Neil at his most vulnerable, and sounding very much in, and of, that time.

Friday 3 July 2009

PATTERSON'S OUTSIDE MAN: A Forgotten Friday entry

The Outside Man was Richard North Patterson's second novel, published in 1981, after The Lasko Tangent (1979) had won the 1980 Edgar for best first novel. Like Lasko, it's about a young lawyer, but it's a very different book, and although it's not one of his better novels, it does appear to mark a turning point, of sorts, in Patterson's career.

Adam Shaw is the outsider. An Irish Catholic from Cleveland, his father a cop killed in the line of duty; he's working his way through Georgetown law when he meets Kris Ann Cade, a quintessential Southern belle. They marry, and he takes a job at her father's law firm in Brimingham, Alabama, trying to fit himself into the hermetic world of Southern high society. One day, delivering a will to Lydia Cantwell, wife of Henry, the bookish man who's become Adam's best friend in Birmingham, he discovers Lydia dead, and his friend becomes the prime suspect.

From that point the story veers around between an almost Faulknerian mix of hidden sexual adventures and righting of past wrongs, all of which is wrapped in a seeming conspiracy to keep Adam from discovering the truth. Judges who sent black men to hang for rapes they didn't commit, more than one hint of incest within the intertwined families involved in the case, and enough steamy repression to fill a couple of plays by Tennessee Williams. Through this all, Shaw moves like a typical Patterson hero, with a straight-forward mind and a firm belief that the truth will indeed set suspects free. The story is filled with twists and red herrings, with almost every other character in the novel culpable in some way or the other. The denouement is melodramatic enough to come from Williams or Faulkner, but the ultimate resolution between Adam and Krissy Ann is particularly unconvincing, particularly because Patterson has set up a straw-woman for Adam, in the TV reporter Nora Culhane, Irish like Adam, and a career-woman type very familiar from Patterson's other novels. In most of them, Adam would begin an affair, and his marriage would collapse or wouldn't, and he would act honourably throughout, as honourably as an adulterer can, even if the revelations threatened to stall his investigations.

It occurred to me, that in crime novel terms, Shaw was a wanderer in what we now think of as John Grisham territory, and that, without too much effort, one could confuse The Outside Man with any number of Grisham's works. But I do wonder if, having got this book out of his system (Patterson studied fiction writing at Alabama-Birmingham), Patterson then moved on, making a conscious choice to go back into the direction he'd started with The Lasko Tangent, and began widening the political and conspiratorial nature of his books, to the point where I don't think it's fair to classify them as 'legal thrillers'. In fact, as I've pointed out before, he's in some ways far closer to Frank O'Connor, of The Last Hurrah, than to Grisham or Baldacci or Turow. Rather than concentrate on the hothouse atmosphere of your basic noble lawyer's life, as you might say Grisham has done, Patterson has used the basic noble lawyer to address issues with a capital I, but on a scale big enough to make the story keep rolling. When it works, he integrates the two, as flaws (or humaness) in his character usually reflect, if not propel, strands of the wider plot. I find it curious that when Grisham went directly into politics, in The Appeal, (link to my take on it, from here) its impact was diluted primarily by the one-dimensional nature of his lawyer-heroes.

But one-dimensional as Adam Shaw is, Patterson, knowingly or instinctively, set him up to fall very much in line with Christopher Paget, Tony Lord, or Kerry Kilcannon, his other lawyer-heroes. It's telling that he never revisited Shaw, his marriage, or his situation within the Birmingham milieu his persistence has shattered. It might be interesting to do so now, although, as Patterson has broadened his themes to include Presidential campaigns and Arab-Israeli peace (see my American Eye column on Exile here), he's left himself a lot of scope to fit him in.

Thursday 2 July 2009


I had a short but interesting discussion with John Harvey yesterday, about my review of George Pelecanos' The Way Home, which you can read if you follow this link. He agreed with me that the conventions of the crime novel were there primarily to give the book some traction, but he also suggested that what Pelecanos really had written was 'a moral fable'. It's a good way of describing it--sometimes we used to think of genre melodrama as being moral in the sense of good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats, but that's not the context John is talking about-- and, though I didn't use the phrase, it fits what I was talking about. Since Pelecanos has often played with the genre's most melodramatic conventions, writing crime novels as spaghetti westerns, for example, he seems adept at using them to make his point; the 'difficulty' as it were, if I understand John's definition of moral fable, is that the story, in the end, seems to serve primarily as a way to get to that moral point.

This contrasts with something John discusses in his new Mellotone70up blog, K.C. Constantine's 1993 novel Bottom Liner Blues; you can read that here. John's point about this Mario Balzic novel is that Constantine uses it to discuss the things he needs to discuss as a novelist, to the degree that many of the plot elements and conflicts remain unresolved. The Balzic books are a series, of course, so some things can be left unresolved until later books, but the point is that Constantine is writing about the things he feels he needs to write about, and abandoning genre conventions in order to do it. But then if his detective's name were Balzac it would be a clue of sorts as to what he was trying to do.

And I've just sat down with Thomas H Cook for a long interview, which will be appearing here eventually. He is committed to 'expanding' as he put it, 'blurring the edges' of crime fiction's genre boundaries--enjoying the fact that readers will not know beforehand what the book is 'about.' I've said the same thing in reviews of a number of John Harvey's novels, and often the real 'subject' of the novel, as it's revealed by the crime being investigated, will mirror or be mirrored by the subject which is taking place in the lives of the characters. It's part of Far Cry, his latest, which I reviewed here.

So if George Pelecanos is writing moral fables that's all to the good. Whether his stories need the 'traction' of the crime format ought to be immaterial, though as I say in my review some of the tropes of the genre may give the ending a different kind of impact, because it is for want of a better phrase, a genre impact. Perhaps the difference is between asking questions, and answering them?

Wednesday 1 July 2009


I wrote this essay sitting in my Tampa hotel room a couple of days before the Super Bowl, numbed by the shock and awe engendered by the insanity of US television news. Writing recently about wrestling and Gale Storm has reminded me that trash TV had mutated in my lifetime, so I've grabbed this off my largely-inactive sports blog, And Over Here...

There are two Americas out there: the one that's out there, and the one that's out there on TV, and what is frightening is the sense that, little by little, the latter is taking over the consciousness of the former, especially the former of the younger persuasion (though I am prepared to admit that there is an element of the old fogey about that perception). If I were still prepared to think of the Ed Murrow speech about TV's power to educate, if I wanted to come home this week and get overcome with a sense of at least symbolic hope, fuelled by the image of regime change in Washington, well, in the nightmare world of TV news, nothing has changed.

Because it's when you're watching the news that it becomes most scary, and of course the news is what you watch first when you're in a hotel room. I use the word scary, because it is fuelled by fear; is it really as simple as wanting to keep everyone indoors watching their channel? Local news is the final resting place of hairspray, reporters and 'anchors' with the depth of cutouts reading stuff written by people who frame every story as if it were eviction night on Big Brother.

Then you go to the 'serious' news outlets, and it gets even worse. The decrepitude of the Bush regime, and the attendant success of Jon Stewart on Comedy Central persuaded MSNBC there was a little mileage in a leftish funnyman of their own, former sportscaster Keith Olberman (who proves once again that it's much easier for sports guys to move into 'serious' broadcasting than 'serious' broadcasters to move the other way), but their designated 'left' show, hosted by Rachel Maddow, reminds me of a school of minnows inviting sharks to come over for a fish fry. A sense of fairness and balance is a bad thing to have when you're competing with Fox News.

Amazingly, it seems every time I flick past that channel, the pale balloon of Karl Rove's face, evil Piglet to Bush's evil Pooh, pops up, answering puffball questions from yet another smugly screaming Irish-American. They're oblivious to the eight years of destruction they've left behind around the world, and listening to a steady stream of calls for more deregulation simply boggles the mind. In the 1930s, the failure of laissez faire left its proponents relatively impotent to stop FDR's implanting the New Deal, though their media, papers and radio, certainly tried. But imagine that magnified to the nth degree: a steady stream of political KY being spread over an electorate bending over willingly to find the remote control and turn up the volume.

I mentioned Murrow above, because the movie Good Night And Good Luck was on BBC last week, and watching Bill O'Reilly groping for his pitchfork and Sean Hannity inflating like a blow-fish (fugu you, liberals!) I remembered the thought I'd had when we saw the film for the first time, in Sydney in 2005, It struck me, watching David Straithairn's Ed Murrow battle both Joe McCarthy and William Paley's CBS,that fifty years later, in the space of my lifetime, McCarthy has not just triumphed over Murrow, he has replaced him. Were Tailgunner Joe alive today, he would never be elected to the Senate from Wisconsin; he'd be broadcasting on Fox News, scheduled between O'Reilly and Hannity, interviewing Rove, being taken seriously by the Beltway mob, and being parodied on Comedy Central for us cognoscenti to laugh about. In my childhood, such figures existed: I remember watching Joe Pyne or Alan Burke, but they were relegated to the lunatic fringes of entertainment, like pro wrestling, horror movies, and roller derby, that 13 year olds of all ages loved. Now Rupert Murdoch pays them millions, and makes millions more off their fear-mongering and hate peddling. Money talks, and in this case, bullshit walks, right along side, talking even louder.