Thursday, 29 October 2009


My obituary of Stuart Kaminsky, whose Toby Peters series was one of crime fiction's great entertainments, and whose biographies of Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel were among the really excellent works of early popular film criticism, was published in the Guardian today (you can link to it here). The paper corrected an error that had crept into the print edition and the first version posted online: in my original copy I had written he was a conscientious objector who served as a medic (which I had seen in an appreciation by Sara Paretsky) but his daughter Tasha, whom I reached to check facts, corrected me, and I corrected the copy, but somehow the original snuck back in. In fact, as Tasha told me, he would have preferred virtually any job except being a medic, and sadly, had that been the case, he would likely not have contacted hepatitis.

The Toby Peters books, inspired by Andrew Bergman, were a treasure trove of Hollywood lore and 1940s nostalgia. Kaminsky and Max Allan Collins had discussed bringing Peters together with Max's historical detective Nathan Heller, but sadly, that never happened. Peters' stock company could sometimes become a little farcical, but little things rang true: his feud with his older brother the cop, who resents that Toby has changed the family name of Pevsner, and his beat-up Crosley car; my parents moved into their house when I was two and their Crosley was still fully functioning (although almost impossbile to find parts for) when my mother finally moved out some 50 years later. Lots of people prefer Kaminsky's other series, which have their own virtues, but I like to think that, like black and white movies from that era of great film, the Peters books will always have their place.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009


Catching up with Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole series has been one of the pleasures of my reading year, and with this third novel published in translation (English readers joined the series in media res, as it were, in order, unlike, say, the Wallander books) Nesbo has taken his craft, and his hero, to another level. The Devil's Star is impressive because it accomplishes a number of difficult feats, not least the rehabilitation of its hero.

When the novel begins Hole is at a low ebb, drinking again, thrown out by Rakael and cut off from her son Oleg. His failure to solve his partner's murder, to convince anyone that she was killed by his corrupt colleague Tom Waaler, has turned him back to the sauce, and his police career is doomed. Even so, because of a shortage of detectives on a holiday, Harry finds himself working with Waaler what turns out to be a case of serial killings, ordered precisely on the pentagram known as the devil's star. This is the strongest part of the book, because Nesbo can make Harry's pathos real, palpably so. He never pulls his punches, or seeks the reader's sympathy; the moments where Harry behaves in the self-destructive way drunks do have the ring of real desperation.

Harry snaps out of his lethargy to pursue the killer, to break the code that the murders suggest, and here the novel becomes more familiar, standard serial killer fare. What is interesting the way the stories of the various victims, suspects, and cops all intertwine, creating any number of red herrings, including some that go back to World War II, the subject that will not die in Scandinavian crime. But when the crimes are 'solved', and Waaler demands one act from Harry to prove he is really on his side now, the story picks up again.

Its weak point is that we aren't convinced why, except perhaps because of his massive ego, Waaler would want Harry on his criminal 'team', and we know for a mortal certainty that Hole would never agree to join. So when Harry finally goes renegade, having found the real killer and taken possession of Waaler's fall guy, we aren't surprised. But what Nesbo does at that point is to ratchet up the tension: everything is working in Waaler's favour, and given the despair that permeated the first third of the book, the possibility that, in the end, Waaler might win and Harry might lose still seems real.

Nesbo has created one of the great detectives in Harry Hole, and what is most impressive is the way he's able to make Hole seem like a different person as he's reflected in the actions and vision of various characters. He is a sympathetic character who rarely asks for sympathy, a Wallander with a touch of Marlowe's idealism, and a hidden resevoir of white knight charm. And Nesbo is very happy to work on complicated plots and old-fashioned, if un-traditional clues. Hole (no puns intended, as you will see) may be the first detective since Charles Willeford's Hoke Mosely to solve a case based on a Holmesian analysis of anal stimulation. It's that willingness to take risks with the familiar tropes of the format that makes Nesbo so good, and makes me look forward to my next Hole novel, The Redeemer, the fourth appear in English.

Saturday, 24 October 2009


The Legendary Five NFL Highlights Poem Revived Yet Again!

Last weekend the Baltimore Ravens lost a thriller in Minnesota when kicker Stephen Hauschka, the only Middlebury College soccer player in the NFL, missed a last-second 44 yard field goal. Hauschka had replaced the only kicker the Ravens had ever had, Matt Stover, who ironically was signed that same week by the Indianapolis Colts.

But Hauschka's miss and missing Stover reminded me that back in January, on Monday the 19th, it was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe. That the anniversary hadn't come a day earlier was probably a lucky break for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who the day before had defeated the Ravens, the only NFL team named after a Poe Poem, 23-14 to advance to the Super Bowl against another bird-mascotted club, the Arizona Cardinals.

But with the score 15-14 and the Ravens threatening a comeback, I kept looking at my watch and doing the five-hour math, to see if perhaps we were edging toward midnight, at which point some powerful Poe juju might kick in. Note that only in the NFL would the game played in the northeast in January start at 7:30pm, while the one played under cover in sunny Arizona started at noon.

Anyway, Troy Polamalu, who, had he lived 180 years earlier, could've probably found a part in a Poe story (if not a Melville South Seas novel) put an end to the Ravens' dreams. But all through the season, I had been commenting about how Baltimore, and their rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, reminded me of the 2000 Ravens, who won Super Bowl 35 in January 2001 over the New York (sic) Giants, using their 'Angie Harmon' strategy (strip Jason Sehorn naked) of running Brandon Stokeley on fly patterns.

That Ravens team, like this one, had qualified for the playoffs as a wild card, and had endured a streak of five games earlier in the season without scoring a touchdown on offense (they won two of the five).

The fifth game of the streak came against the Steelers that year, as Trent Dilfer took over from Tony Banks as the quarterback, but Pittsburgh managed a 9-6 win. I was scripting the highlights for our Monday Night show on Five, and watching Stover hit his second field goal, 'nevermore' sprang to mind, and I decided that instead of narrating the highlights I would adapt Poe's poem and make it fit whatever length the edit was. All this in the ten minutes or so I had to watch the tape and write it.

Courtesy of a reprint which appears in the Facebook Mike Carlson Appreciation Society site, here's the script again, nine years after I wrote it and read it live over the highlights, which I did somehow manage to get it to fit. Since we're only doing Sunday Night Football on Five this season, there are no Monday Night highlights, so poetry and song-writing has been transferred to my Friday Morning Tight End column at

Pittsburgh 9 Baltimore 6

Once upon a midnight dreary
As I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious highlight from the day before.

As I nodded, nearly napping,
Suddenly there came a tapping.
Jamal Lewis gently rapping, rapping at the endzone door.

Just a field goal, I muttered.
Only that and nothing more.

Oh how vaguely I remember
It was way back in September
When the stadium scoreboard last put up six points in Baltimore.

And for weeks over and over,
Just the toe of Matthew Stover
Was the story of the offense that, it seemed, would never score.

Quoth the Ravens

So they called upon Trent Dilfer
But his throws were promptly pilfered
By a Pittsburgh Steeler defense, steel curtained as of yore.

And with Dilfer firing blanks
Just as bad as Tony Banks
They put six points on the scoreboard,
but the Steelers scored three more.

You may question. You may carp.
Get hot quotes from Shannon Sharpe.
But a touchdown’s worth of offense is no closer than before.

And if you wish to know the day
When you’ll hear on the P.A.
That magic incantation “Touchdown Baltimore!”
Quoth the Ravens

NOTE: This is the 200th post at Irresistible Targets, thanks to everyone who's helped out, read, responded, followed, and fedback about the writing and the site itself..

Friday, 16 October 2009


It doesn't take Jacques Lacan to figure out that there has always been something strongly relgious about vampires: the vulnerability to the cross, the priest-like garb of the classic Dracula, the communion of blood into life eternal. In a genre which seems constantly reinventing itself, as I talked about on Radio Five Undead's Up All Night last week (see here) with new ideas like the lonely teenaged vampire of Let The Right One In, or the long-overdue discovery of the arctic's permanent dark in 30 Days Of Night, or even the sexual morality play of True Blood, the Korean film Thirst provides a remarkable new take on the life of the vampire.

In Chan-Wook Park's film, which won the Jury prize at the Cannes Festival this year, Kang-ho Song plays Sang-hyun, a priest who harbours doubts about his real value to humanity. He volunteers for martydom, going to Africa to act as a guinea pig for a vaccination against a deadly virus. He dies, but is immediately reborn in what is taken as a miracle. He returns to Korea a celebrity, before realising that his miracle has been, in fact, a transformation into a vampire. Arranging to feed himself on an overweight coma victim and from a hospital blood bank, he is approached by the mother of a childhood friend, seeking his help in curing her son. But the son has a wife, and she is looking to escape her prison-like existence.

At this point parallels with Therese Raquin become obvious, but no less effective. The girl, Tae-ju, played by Ok-vin Kim, was an orphan raised as her husband's sister, and she turns to Sang with tales of abuse and neglect, and with the temptations of the flesh he had previously always rejected, being sworn to chastity. But now that he is living on blood, succumbing to flesh seems almost a natural thing to do. The plot then ecompasses murder, but also Kim's desire to join Sang as a vampire, to indulge in the power and indulge her sensuality. In escaping her previous life, she has jumped into a new one, and dragged Sang along, to his horror.

This synopsis may seem interesting enough, but what makes the film so engrossing is the skill with which Park's direction plays with our expectations, and the way in which he manipulates
the screen to convey feelings. This shouldn't be a surprise from the director of such cult hits as Old Boy and Lady Vengeance, but this movie has a wider feel to it. There are still lovely little genre touches. Kisses and vampire sucking have the same sound; there are moments of high black comedy as a vampire in preist clothin climbs out a bathroom window like a character in a Feydeau farce. But Park constantly reinforces the thrust of the film, and keeps it on its path.Tae-ju, for example, literally takes on colour and life as she first indulges in 'sin' and then becomes a full-fledged vampire. The transformation is acted out brilliantly by Kim, who revels in the power of her sexuality. Meanwhile Song plays the priest with a sort of bewilderment that reflects the doubts he has about his own faith, in both God and humanity. And faith in humanity is tested; his friend's family's mah-jongg evenings resemble a Beckett play in their excrutiating discomfort, leading to some wonderfully absurdly moments as the ghost of Sang's murdered friend comes back to haunt the lovers.

In the end it is faith in humanity, or contempt for it, that has really been the demarcation line between humans and vampires in the genre's classics. As Tae-ju becomes more demanding the film becomes bloodier, and even more farcical, but Park's direction, and Sang's sombre playing, turn its last section into something like Panic In Needle Park (the junkie/vampire parallel has been noted before), or an undead They Shoot Horses Don't They. And the final scenes, shot like Antonioni might have shot them, are also cut with humour before ending on a touching and powerful note. This is filmmaking of the first order, and it's why I put Thirst into my ten-best list of Vampire films. It's also a shoo-in for my ten-best of the year.

Thursday, 15 October 2009


BBC Four is five episodes into the second series of Spiral, made in France in 2008, three years after the first (see IT's reaction to that here) and it has a different feel to the first series, while retaining some of the elements, at least at the start, that make it French. Let's just hope BBC4 don't do what they did to the Swedish Wallander series, and stop showing it with just three episodes to go, deciding it was so popular they would make its fans wait until a special holiday showing, and bigger ratings, might be ensured.

If CSI were the early model for Spiral's first season, though not one it adhered to for long, The Wire has obviously been the inspiration for this one. But it is The Wire crossed with something like Chabrol's L'Ivresse du Pouvoir. It is set in the French equivalent of the projects, where the drug dealers and gangsters are largely French Arabs, and the problems the police face with trying to cope with the drug traffic and the gangs' control of the area are much the same as inspired The Wire. It is particularly interesting because Inspector (Capitain) Laure Berthaud is under investigation for a trumped-up charge of police brutality--and it's a very different Caroline Proust in this series. Gone is the gamine quality from the first series; here she looks tired, is all-business (at least so far) and seems stretched to her limits by the pressures of the job.

Similarly, there was a marked change in the character of Pierre Clement (Gregory Fitoussi), the prosecutor at the centre of the first series. There he was idealistic, somewhat naive (not least in the fact that he was being used by his estranged wife and his best friend, which was, if anything, underplayed). But having emerged from that unscathed, he begins this series still idealistic but also rather self-satisfied, smug, and content. He appears to be working his way up the bureaucratic ladder, and just as the most interesting part of the first series was the somewhat Balzacian slicing of the upper levels of French society, here it is Clements' encounters heading up the slippery slope which dominate the early episodes. He is also developing a relationship with the older, wiser, journalist Karine Fontaine (played brilliantly by the actress/director Brigitte Rouan) who is adept at navigating that world, and may well be using Clement before casting him aside.

This series contains more subplots resolved within episodes, and one of them, of a well-connected Air Force officer who murders his gay lover, provides Clement with a reality check. Hung out to dry by his ultimate boss (played like a corporate Marty Feldman by Dominique Daguier) Clement starts to realise that he's not cut out to negotiate that bureaucratic world, and falls again under the wing of Judge Roban (Phillipe Duclos--the thinking man's Arsene Wenger).

One suspects these plots will intertwine more as the series moves on, but the biggest connections now spiral around the defense lawyer Josephine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot) who represents the
hood making the charges against Berthaud, and comes, via the sleazy Maitre Szabo, to represent the bigger criminals who are the heart of Berthaud's investigation. As the current episode (five) ends, she has brought Szabo to bed, in order to plunder his address book--although we were treated to a glimmer of conscience in an earlier episode, it seems Karlsson is a villaness worthy of Balzac indeed.

I do find it interesting that the two sleazy lawyers both have foreign (European) names--perhaps for that reason they can't be part of the inner circle of corrupt French lawyers? Or am I, as a Carlson, being too sensitive?

The contrast between these two worlds, and the parallels between the twisted justice at the top of French society and the crime at the bottom, are what drives this series so far, and makes it compulsive viewing. As a sideline, I've also been casting lookalikes. If Daguier resembles Marty Feldman, Samir Guesmi (left), playing one of the Larbi brothers who control crime in the projects, is a cross between Jeff Goldblum and Steve Buscemi; Fred Bianconi as the cop Fromentin is Mandy Patinkin, and the Arab detective Samy (a new potential love-interest for Berthaud) is played by Samy Boitard who looks like a Moroccan Benjamin Bratt!

With the temporary demise of Wallander, this is certainly the best crime series on British TV. It's a shame neither of them are British.

NOTE: This review will also appear at

Sunday, 11 October 2009


During last night's call-in discussions on Radio Five' Live's (or should that be Radio Five Undead's?) Up All Night, I sat formulating my own top-ten vampire movies. You can hear the programme, for the next week at least, at BBC IPlayer here. The film segment begins about 1:35 in, and runs for 90 minutes.

With the proviso that I was up all night--which reminded me of how much fun it was to be ten years old and babysitting my siblings, which meant I could try and stay awake through Chiller Theatre on TV-- and have now had only a few hours sleep (not in my soil from my native land) here's the top 10 I was jotting down as callers told Dotun, Adam and me their own favourites:

1. Cronos
2. Dracula (1931)
3. Nosferatu (1922)
4. Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary
5. Shadow Of A Vampire
6. Thirst
7. Let The Right One In
8. Rabid
9. Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein
10. Near Dark, or
Addiction, or 30 Days Of Night, or Capt. Kronos Vampire Hunter, or Salem's Lot (TV 1979) or Dracula's Daughter (1936), or Irma Vep or John Carpenter's Vampires

Saturday, 10 October 2009


Although Stieg Larsson's Millenium series was projected for ten books (like Maj Sjowall's and Per Wahloo's Martin Beck series) this, the third and final novel which he turned in to his publishers, actually completes a very coherent and self-contained trilogy, as the battle between Lisbeth Salander and her oppressors, powerful men in Swedish society, reaches a courtroom climax. In a sense, that climax defines this novel: where the first two books involved quite a bit of action (the first using the familiar story of finding the bad apple in the family in a new and interesting way, the second pitting Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist against her immediate tormentors) the default setting for this book is the conference room. Even the trial takes place around a table, rather than a Perry Mason-style courtroom setting, but I cannot think of a crime novel which proceeds from one meeting to another quite the way this one does--the Millenium magazine editorial staff; the villains in the secret section with Sapo, the state security police; the editorial staff and the board of SMP, the paper Ericka Berger leaves Millenium to edit; the police; the government, and so on.

The cumulative effect of all these meetings is an awful lot of exposition, not just of the plot but also of the history of the Swedish security state. That Larsson manages to make the suspense riveting in the face of such iintense backgrounding is a tribute to the story. But this will not suit the tastes of all readers, even those who have enjoyed the previous two volumes, and certainly it would not be a good place to begin. But if you're a fan of conspiracy novels you're likely to enjoy it, particularly as you see all these good stories which no one has (yet) bothered to fictionalise. It is a tribute to Larsson that he manages to make the story as gripping as he does, because what he does is manipulate groups, rather than people, through this plot. I compared him in an earlier essay (you can link to it here) to Alexandre Dumas, but here the model I have in mind is more like Richard North Patterson, or Michael Crichton, where the thriller plot revolves around an issue, and a lot of explication is required, and indeed, becomes part of the plot. Thus Salander herself can spend most of the book offstage, as it were, in a hospital bed from which she manipulates her hackers.

Oddly, what makes the novel work is the group of villains. The beauty of the plot is that he keeps them, seemingly, one step ahead of his heroes, even when we know that they cannot be. There still seems to be an inevitability that they, with their power and secrecy, will triumph. Thus when the most pompous and seld-assured of them is brought down to size, there is a palpable feeling of success. Perhaps the weakest part of the story is the assumption that there are enough decent, honest Swedes, not just in the police, but also in the government, in the secret police itself, and in the judiciary, to let the heroes triumph. This seems a strangely Swedish conceit: after all, Larsson's balances his nobel journalist heroes with any number of lazy or corrupt ones. It seems about as likely as so many women finding Blomkvist irresisitible! Blomkvist's fatal attraction to so many women is beginning to wear thin; although his new squeeze is interesting, one can see Larsson perhaps thinking ahead. I mistakenly felt a number of characters, and even settings, introduced in the second novel would appear again here. They don't but one gets the sense that Larsson was playing the long game, for the ten-book set. For example, the character of Linder, from Milton Security, would seem primed for a bigger role the next time Millenium, or Berger, got into trouble.

Thus the lack of focus, the relatively smaller roles for Blomkvist and Salander are not that surprising. In a sort of coda that seems almost rushed at the end, Salander returns to action, but it is interesting that silence is always her strongest point, and her character can grow in depth while saying nothing. In fact, Salander reminds me that Sweden has recently produced a couple of key works in the modern vampire cycle, and she would not be out of place in either Frostbitten or Let The Right One In. Still, she creates an anomaly of sorts. As Blomkvist himself explains, 'the story is not primarily about spies and secret agencies: its about violence against women and the men who enable it'. But that's not quite true.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was called, in Swedish, Men Who Hate Women, and it was a novel about just that, including the men who hate Salander, who are counterpointed to the serial killer (who turns out to be carrying on a family tradition of abuse that includes both girls and boys). The parallel storylines, reflecting each other, are what makes this is the strongest of the series. The Girl Who Played With Fire is focused much more on Salander's own revenges. But the Swedish title for this third volume was, as best I can translate it, Castles In The Air Exploded. To me this suggests the crumbling of the ideals of Swedish society, and the English title suggests striking against the stings of society, not just the males who abuse women. Thus Larsson's title signifies the nature of this novel better than Blomkvist's PC explanation--it is above all a conspiracy fiction, and it will be a conspiracy film when it is finally brought to the screen. I enjoyed it, but I felt a let-down after the first two, and that let-down wasn't helped, as I said, by the action-filled coda, clever though it was. Still, when one plows through a 600 page novel, one does it for a reason. And now, with nowhere left for Millenium to go, we can only mourn, one last time, Larsson's passing.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest
by Stieg Larsson
Maclehose Press/Quercus£18.99 ISBN 9781906694166
NOTE: This review will also appear at


I'll be guesting on Dotun Adebayo's Up All Night tonight, Radio 5 at about 0230 Saturday night/Sunday morning. Likely topics include Vampire movies (including the new Korean film Thirst), Sergio Leone, and maybe Werner Herzog's remake of Abel Ferarra's Bad Lieutenant.
Beats sleeping! Those of you outside Britain can probably listen on your computers, at

Thursday, 8 October 2009


You can read my take on the 50th anniversary of William Burroughs' seminal (so to speak) novel Naked Lunch in the current issue of London Magazine, as shown here. The article itself isn't online at the mag's site, but it's worth seeking out and supporting.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


In case you missed my contribution to the crime discussion on tonight's Night Waves (BBC Radio 3) you can pound this link and hear the programme again. My part follows the interview with PD James, which is very interesting: although she wouldn't define her work as cozy, she does talk repeatedly about feelings of comfort and safety in the way she writes crime.

At the end of our discussion of European crime, where Philip Dodd asks Shelly about social democratic political correctness I was sitting there poised to say 'that's why there are so many depressive detectives in the Nordic countries'. But I didn't get a chance!

I was pleased, however, to be able to draw a link between the contexts of Wallander and Stieg Larsson's novels, in that the real villains in both tend to be people who abuse the responsibility they've been given by society, moreso than simple 'criminals'. And to discuss Hakan Nesser in the context of the strange, Euro-melange, setting of his novels. The first EU crime fiction?

Tuesday, 6 October 2009


My obituary of Susan Atkins, the Manson Family member known as Sadie Mae Glutz, who died in prison, is in today's Independent, you can link to it here. It was eerie that she would die just at the time Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland for extradiction to the US. I once likened Manson's entry into the world of peace & love to that of a piranha into a fish farm full of fat slow-swimming sea bass, and it is very easy to conclude that the Sixties, as a phenomenon, actually began in 1963, with the assassination of JFK, and began to end in 1969, with the Manson killings. The celebrity angle, Manson's links with the Beach Boys and Terry Melcher, was played up, but you could also look at the the Family's bizarre life at the Spahn ranch, which was, after all, a movie set, as a bizarre parody of Hollywood, the apotheosis of the American wandering west looking for success...

Saturday, 3 October 2009


It's interesting that, when Michael Connelly decides to show us Harry Bosch at his most personal, he brings us back closer to the Bosch we originally met many years ago. In Nine Dragons, the kidnapping of Bosch's daughter in Hong Kong drives him into a situation which resembles Bosch's Vietnam War days as a tunnel rat, and takes pains to mention it, for the benefit of newer readers. Bosch has always been a character with tunnel vision, and it's almost paradoxical the way one of the few things which helps humanize him, his daughter, also causes him to revert to the old Bosch, often shooting first and considering questions later.

It is, on the face of it, a simple case of murder, a Chinese shopkeeper shot by the man who collects his payoff to the triads. But no sooner has Bosch arrested the supposed killer, than his daughter, living in Hong Kong with her mother, a professional gambler, is kidnapped, and Harry is on the next plane to the East. From that point, what had been a straight-forward police tale most interesting for Bosch's conflicts with both his partner and a detective on the Asian Gang Unit, becomes a fast-paced thriller. It's somewhat superficial, in the sense that the Hong Kong through which Bosch moves will be very familiar to anyone with even a casual knowledge, for example the Chungking Hotel, but it's also an extremely effective bit of internal scene-setting: Bosch's focus growing narrower and narrower, always threatening to exclude his ex-wife Eleanor and her Chinese lover.

The third part, where the loose ends of the story are resolved is a different thing altogether. Bosch's attempts to patch up the cracks in his business relationships, and to provide the care his daughter needs, are difficult enough. Mickey Haller appears to help make the loose ends neat, and Bosch meets his approaches (they are, as we have learned in the Haller books, half-brothers) only half-way. But the case takes a twist that Connelly first hints at, but Bosch only discovers through new forensics: an odd and rare bit of CSI triumphing over old coppering. And just as the reader is considering that, and whether it might have been more suspenseful or tricky, Connelly turns the tables again with a final twist which even the most hardened crime buff probably won't see coming, but which makes perfect sense in the context of what this novel is, at heart, about. Connelly, like Bosch, seems to move more and more determinedly through each new idea, but his novelistic vision certainly isn't tunnelling. Far from it. There are few novelists out there who can produce such compelling fiction so consistently.

Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly
Orion, £18.99 ISBN 9780752875873

This review will also appear at Crime Time: