Friday 29 January 2010


I'll be punditising about JD Salinger tonight on the BBC World Service programme The Strand, at 2232 GMT, immediately after the news. Stella Duffy was a guest in the studio, and they have taped contributions from quite a few writers. As always, I put my thoughts together and got far too few of them into the programme, but I start by saying how Catcher In The Rye was never any sort of an inspiration for me, explaining how it never struck that chord of alienation, nor of honest superiority to a world that didn't understand. Hell, I'd already read Lolita before I got to JDS; Humbert Humbert was way more alienated!

It occured to me that the success of Catcher may have had an Orson Welles effect on Salinger; re-reading 'Uncle Wiggily In Connecticut' today I was struck not only by how adult its alienation is (it's Richard Yates ten years before Yates), but how much it sets up the world against which Holden Caufield wants to rebel. One of my problems with the book was that for all the glamour of Holden's so-called rebellion, it gets him nowhere, he does nothing, and he winds up headed back to another prep school (I mentioned to the World Service producers that in school my football team beat the one from Salinger's prep school, Valley Forge Military Academy). Thinking about that sense of alienation being just a phase, it's no surprise that Catcher has been one of the most-taught novels in American schools, as well as possibly the most-banned. Holden's brief rebellion winds up with his settling for the diminished expectations of his trip to the zoo.

I also was thinking about the influence of Thomas Wolfe on Salinger; I read Look Homeward Angel before I read Catcher, and noted the debt even when I got to Salinger as a 16 year old. I wondered a bit about The Turn Of The Screw as another inspiration, certainly in the relationship between the expelled prep school boy and his adoring younger sister, if not the ghosts.

Of course this is all archetype. The bildungsroman predates Salinger, though Salinger might be said to have re-invented it by giving it the 'modern' teenager's point of view and vocabularly, at a time when these were being formed into a 'market' different from adults, or miniature adults, as teens had always been. It's odd that this teen genre would explode among a generation who were just a little younger than the teens who had fought in a World War. It's also odd how many readers miss the fact that the world through Holden's eyes isn't the world as it is; even the title shows how he gets Robert Burns wrong, and builds a lovely adolescent fantasy from it; a metaphor, a veritable metaphor Watson!, for the book itself.

And frankly, as I said in the show, albeit in more discreet language, my reaction to Holden was to tell him to get his thumb out of his preppie ass. A lot has been made of Catcher's influence on David Chapman or John Hinckley or their like; it's like a losers' convention, or Salinger as an L Ron Hubbard of teen angst. Except that's not what Salinger wanted, and that's probably why he sued the Swede Fredrick Colting for producing a sequel to Catcher --after watching legions of readers misinterpret what he wrote, why would he want them to read someone else's misinterpretations? I'm sure the only reason he tried to stop publication was a selfish one, so he wouldn't have to live in a world where there was yet another Holden in the public eye. On the other hand I wonder how Salinger would have felt had Howard Roger Garis, creator of Uncle Wiggily, sued him for using his character's name in the title? (We used to play the Uncle Wiggily board game incessantly when I was four or five...that and Candyland.)

I would have liked to discuss My Foolish Heart a bit more; it's Mark Robson at his most turgid (he never does well with subtle emotions) and Dana Andrews at his most wooden, and it's a great example of losing the impact of the story when you try to widen it out, and fill in the backstory. It defeated the Epsteins, precisely because they were filling in, rather than adding to (see the original film of 3:10 To Yuma and Elmore Leonard's short story, as a good example of how that can be done).

The final interesting thing in the programme is hearing Joyce Maynard imply Salinger was a habitual stalker by letter, persumably of younger literary women. But that rather misses the point of Salinger's approach to her, when she was an 18 year old Yale freshman just out of Phillips Andover, who'd written an article for the New York Times magazine called 'An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back On Life', which was later republished as 'Looking Back: A Chronicle Of Growing Up Old In The Sixties'. I can still recall the Mary Tyler Moore pose on the magazine cover, but the essay rang false to me then in almost exactly the same way Holden Caufield did, as self-indulgent moaning. Yet it's not far-fetched to think that Salinger recognised a fellow alienated spirit. What this suggested to me was that he had internalised the Caulfield character, his alienation, and that had shut down, gradually, the adult writer inside him.

Salinger wasn't a recluse in the sense of, say, Howard Hughes, to whom the Independent compared him, nor Greta Garbo, again used by the Indy and Charles McGrath in the New York Times. Reclusivity appears to mean something entirely different in New York than in New Hampshire. Here's McGrath, writing about Salinger and his life in Cornish, NH: He seldom left, except occasionally to vacation in Florida or to visit William Shawn, the almost equally reclusive former editor of The New Yorker. Avoiding Mr. Shawn’s usual (and very public) table at the Algonquin Hotel, they would meet under the clock at the old Biltmore Hotel, the rendezvous for generations of prep-school and college students. The question is how William Shawn could be said to be 'equally reclusive' when he was going to work at the New Yorker and eating lunch every day at a (very public) table at the Algonquin?

Gore Vidal called Salinger's choice 'exile' and as usual he got it right. It was not just exile from the New York's literary world, cocktail parties and small talk, careerism on the make, but also, I think, from the self who had done all that, written Catcher, and perhaps found the idea of trying to top that, within that hothouse environment, too daunting. Or maybe just not worth it. And of course the nature of his reclusivity may have served as the model for other authors, most famously Thomas Pynchon, who found their reputations enhanced by their unwillingness to join the publicity machine. How odd it must seem these days...

Saturday 23 January 2010


By a curious sort of syncopated synchronicity, since I had just read and written about Richard Williams' The Blue Moment, BBC4's Arena broadcast a film by Anthony Wall titled Cool, which attempted to trace the birth and growth of 'cool' jazz, and then trace its influence on everything else termed cool in the late 50s and early 60s.

The programme was lovely to watch, with extended passages of music ranging from Charlie Parker at his best to the Modern Jazz Quartet playing Bach. In the musical sense it was quite straight-forward, moving from be-bop to Antonio Carlos Jobim and Stan Getz. The programme seemed to dance around one obvious idea, which was that from Miles Davis' The Birth Of The Cool onward, the point may have been as much to create a jazz acceptable to a wider (read, white) audience as to explore wider avenues of music. It was almost literally an attempt to take Charlie Parker's music and sell it to the mainstream. I noted while writing about The Blue Moment that it was Bill Evans who was picked to write the liner notes for Kind Of Blue, and in the end it was Dave Brubeck, and Getz, not Davis or Coltrane who became the 'crossover' artists to the mainstream. The doc shows this clearly, as early as 1954 Time Magazine raves about cool jazz in California, appointing it the new capital, later they would back Brubeck in particular. The USIA would send Brubeck abroad, as they promoted the AbEx painters, to demonstrate the strength of American culture; the world loved it, but the government was reluctant, it seemed to send black artists abroad.

But by the time the bossa nova became dominant, you could argue the whole 'hip' era had floundered, and was about to be replaced by the rock counterculture. By the beginning of the JFK years, cool was the Rat Pack, Hugh Hefner's playboy with his jazz tapes, sports cars, and martinis, that sort of thing--very boring, mainstream hipness.

What were mainstream listeners hearing in the 1950s? My mother, for example, listened to the music of her childhood, ballads, and show tunes. My dad had a few records, The Ink Spots, Julie London, Lena Horne, the latter two likely as much for the way the singers looked on the covers as they way they sang. Oh yes, and Richard Rogers theme music from Victory at Sea! The birth of rock n roll in the 50s was a reaction to the blandness of this; the young audience did not turn to be-bop, nor to its cool successors. Be-bop itself was a challenge to the mainstream bands who had picked up and dominated jazz--an attempt to play music so creative it would be too difficult to copy.

And interestingly, that was the way jazz moved after the cool era: Coltrane, Roland Kirk, Ornette Coleman, Pharaoh Sanders et al challenging listeners again, and Miles electrifying his band and moving quickly from the post-Blue In A Silent Way to Bitches Brew, which combined rock sound with funky bottom and free jazz explorations. It wasn't music impossible, and led to jazz rock and eventually modern 'urban' music.

But in the wider sense of what cool jazz's influence on 'cool' society was, the programme was less sharply focused. The conflation of hip and cool, the hedging of the relation of either concept to mainstream society in general, reminded me of Matthew Sweet's programme on noir, which moved between pulp, hard-boiled, and noir as if all three meant the same thing. One problem was timing: the big influence on the abstract impressionist painters, for example, was be-bop; they should have set the shots of Pollock painting to Charlie Parker. It's Parker who's referenced in the Kerouac reading you hear; he made a record reading behind Steve Allen's piano, but his second was with Parker disciples Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. All white guys, note. That's where the hipsters were at the start of the 50s, and by the end of the decade, when Coltrane is playing with Miles, those hipsters are already part of the mainstream; their influence is always being diluted. When you watch the MJQ play Bach, you see how they're trying to get the longhairs in both 1950s senses of the word, it's impressive but it isn't challenging, which is what, by definition, the hipster was supposed to be. We may go back now and impute artistic importance to these musicians which they richly deserve, but it may be a greater leap of retrospective faith to see them as culture changers. In fact, they may have had a greater influence in Europe: though its obvious every time you look at Belmondo that's its the style, not the substance, which the French adore, and the style is far more James Dean than John Coltrane.

Friday 22 January 2010


My obituary of Erich Segal is in today's Independent, you can link to it here. It ran pretty much as I wrote it, except for a small digression I made, explaining Love Story's 'campus realism' in terms of its ice hockey scenes. I admired Segal for his willingness to continue the academic work he loved while writing the popular stuff he enjoyed--one shouldn't have to preclude the other. He was also a big sports fan, and he got the Harvard hockey absolutely right. As I remember the book, Oliver meets Jennnifer when Harvard beats Dartmouth, and Oliver peppers a goalie 'he had been terrorizing since he was at Mt Hermon'. Hockey was a preppie sport then, and Harvard got the best of the preps (as well as some local Boston lads). Then Harvard and Oliver get crushed by the French Canadian imports playing for Cornell, which serves as a sort of metaphor for his relationship with his working class Italian girlfriend, and a reality check about life in the 'real world' for the son of stuck-up upper class parents. Most of it, of course, was easy melodrama, but the hockey was aboslutely true; the coach at Cornell was Ned Harkness, he recruited heavily in Canada, though his bestCanadian recruit was the eminently Ivy-League pre-law goalie Ken Dryden, to went on to star with the Montreal Canadiens, and with whom I had this discussion when he worked with us at ABC Sports. Of course, it's not a discussion that would interest the Indy's readers (nor most of you, probably) but I thought I'd just write it up for the fun of it.

It also reminded me that I seem to remember giving the book a good review in the Wesleyan Argus, which would be incredibly embarrassing now were I to find a copy. But probably it was the hockey.

I eschewed opening by saying anything like 'What can you say about a 72 year old best-seller writer who died?', but perhaps I could have included the classic feminist response to that famous actual opening line: 'What can you say about a 26 year old girl who's died?', which of course was 'She's not a girl, she's a woman!'.

By the way, anyone who takes the Golden Globes seriously ought to recall that Ali McGraw and her famous flaring nostrils won a GG as best actress for Love Story. I remember going to see the film with Steve Berman and Mary Forsberg, soon after leaving college, and toward the end, as Steve was blubbing while Ali's in the hospital bed and says to Ryan 'hold me, Ollie' I said to Mary, 'I can't honey, the tubes are in the way', and a woman in the row behind us clobbered me in the head with her handbag. Really.

Thursday 21 January 2010


It was 35 years ago that Joe Gores published Hammett, a brilliant novel in which Dashiell Hammett turned detective, though turn isn't quite the right word, since he was a real detective before becoming a great writer, a career path followed by Gores himself. This was his second classic in two years, because the year before, 1974, Gores' had published Interface, an absolutely crucial hard-boiled work, about which I've written before (you can link to that here). Now Gores revisits Hammett with Spade & Archer, a prequel to The Maltese Falcon. It grows out of Gores' intimate knowledge of both Hammett and the pulp era, which is both its strength and its weakness. 

Almost everything about the novel rings true, whether you're referring to the original Maltese Falcon Hammett wrote, or the third, and most famous, of its film adaptations. The beauty of John Huston's film is not only that he stayed faithful to the novel, using large chunks of the book's dialogue virtually verbatim, but that the casting was so true to the book's portrayal of the characters. we now see Bogart as Spade, Mary Astor as Bridget O'Shaugnessy, Sidney Greenstreet as Gutman, Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Ward Bond as Tom Polhaus, right the way through the film. Gores has to keep this in mind, while still fleshing out his characters with backstory, and, for the most part it works. 

 He finds it hard to match Lee Patrick's Effie; she's a bit more mature and one of the guys in the film than in Gores' version, and he has a bigger difficulty with Miles Archer and his wife Iva. Although he builds their backstory with Spade, and his characterisation of Archer is good, in Gores' version the partnership is new at the point it is about to get dissolved; my impression is always that Spade and Archer have coexisted longer as partners. Gores' version does give an even bigger resonance to the moral position we know Spade will later take, when a man's partner is killed, especially, and something the movie invites you to forget at the end, when you have been screwing his wife, and that may be why he plays it that way. But the case which shows Archer's colours to Spade, and to us, is a beautiful set-up of all the things Hammett was concerned about, union-busting, the power of owners, and the use of detectives to help them, and it sets both Spade and Archer's characters firmly. Gores' portrayals of visits to Chinatown, Spade's relationship with the police, and Nob Hill toffs are all spot-on, the feel of the pulp magazines permeates them. 

This is the other slight problem with the novel, in that the story resolves itself much like one of Hammett's classic Black Mask tales. We tend to forget that, although we think of Hammett in hard-boiled terms, those stories had large elements of traditional 'who-dun-it' mysteries and pulp adventure stories about them. Hence, Gores' main villain spends most of the novel offstage, and is 'caught,' as it were, through a detective-story ploy, rather than the kind of climax we associate with hard-boiled pulp. As someone steeped in the period and the genre, I appreciated it, but I wonder if it might lack the punch some of the audience expected? Oddly, I wondered the same thing when I read the early, somewhat mixed, reviews when Spade & Archer was originally published in the States. As I say, it was more than enough for me. A novel that's well-written in modern terms, yet true to its period roots, that draws on the characters we know but builds on them, and that sets its story in a world that's both exotic and recognisable; I don't know what more you can ask for in a book like this. I think it works better than Robert B Parker's Chandler sequel, Perchance To Dream, and it's yet another reminder that Joe Gores is indeed an overlooked master of the detective story.

Wednesday 20 January 2010


My obituary of the great detective novelist Robert B Parker is in today's Guardian; you can link to it here. I read Parker from his very first novel, and probably read just about all of them, and the bit about the Chandler revival was true; those Ballantine editions with the glossy covers were very popular, and I wrote an essay at the time for a magazine called Starling, about discovering Chandler. Maybe I'll dig it out and reprint it here. I've written a lot about Parker over the years, and my attitude toward him is summed up in one of my favourite 'interviews'; a review of Trouble In Paradise which you can link to from the 'Bullseyes' section to the right, or by hitting the link here.

I felt unusually odd writing the obit because last month I finished an essay on Boston for Following The Detectives, a Maxim Jakubowski-edited anthology about various cities and their detectives, which was predominantly about George Higgins, Parker, and Dennis Lehane. And in November I reviewed his Spenser novel The Professional, linked to here, which is worth reading because it summarises both the strengths and weaknesses of his later work. But I could still hear what I'd written then echoing around my head, Parker's death was that unexpected.

The obit ran mostly as written, allowing for the usual oddities of style (Colby College became Colby college, though one would never see Oxford university in the British press; the actress Helen Hunt became an actor), but lost was one comment on why Parker's slighter work remained entertaining; the wise-cracking Spenser usually got the zingers to end each chapter--zinger was probably thought to need explanation.

More crucially, an entire paragraph on his westerns was cut. This was odd, because it reflected the earlier reference to Rich Slotkin's Gunfighter Nation, because it connected Tom Selleck to the Jesse Stone films, which also thus go unmentioned, because Gunman's Rhapsody is an important work within his output, because Appaloosa was a quality film, and a successful one, and also because the forthcoming fourth novel in the Cole and Hitch series is mentioned in the final paragraph, but with no explanation, as if the previous reference had not been excised. Anyway, here's the missing bit, which was the penultimate graf in my copy:
In 2001, Parker's novel Gunman's Rhapsody recast Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday as Spenser and Hawk; which led to his working on the screenplay for the 2003 TV movie remake of the classic Monte Walsh, starring Tom Selleck. Selleck then played Jesse Stone in a series of TV movies between 2005-09, with one remaining unaired. Parker's 2005 western, Appaloosa, was made into an excellent film by the actor Ed Harris, and spawned two more novels featuring lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch. 

I could go on about how the link between westerns and detective stories is so important, but mostly I'd like to end by remembering just how much pleasure Parker's writing brought me over the years, and how much we will miss him now that he's gone.

Tuesday 19 January 2010


In the thirty-something years I've lived in Britain, no sportscaster has come close to matching Bill McLaren, who has just died aged 86. He was simply the best at what he did in this country for most of the time I've followed British sport. It was one of the rituals of my first winter living with my then in-laws down in Sussex 1977, and it lasted and grew--for many years I'd tromp across London to watch rugby at the Prince George in Hackney, and McLaren's voice made it easy to enjoy any match, just as some of the other commentators made it difficult to enjoy even a good one. He was more accessible than John Arlott, more serious than Henry Blofeld, more expressive than Dan Maskell (not a difficult task, that last). If it weren't for McLaren, I'd probably not know that Hawick is pronounced Hoik.

Like many announcers, good or bad, he became something of a caricature of himself toward the end of his 50 year career, but unlike many, it wasn't that much of a detriment, because he never put himself to the fore, the game always came first, and he never seemed to struggle for descriptions of it. Although they served different roles, I'd compare his later career to John Madden's, who, as he grew older and veered into self-parody, was lucky enough to be re-energiezed, by the move to Fox, by the move to ABC with Al Michaels, and finally by the joint move with Michaels to NBC. It allowed him to re-examine and up his game, but the BBC doesn't work that way. In fact, it's Michaels who may be the closest American equivalent to McLaren's talent, although he is, or was, a generalist, whereas McLaren was a rugby specialist.

McLaren also suffered somewhat as the game changed; he was, and his style remained, the epitome of when the game was still relatively amateur, when the players looked like real people, not action figures, and before our passion for telestrators and computerized statistics took over. It may seem old-fashioned now, his voice and the game of rugby I came to love in the late 70s, but they were part and parcel of a different attitude toward sport. That McLaren continued to teach PE in a Hawick school for years while doing commentary on the weekends impressed me to; those of us who are lucky enough to have to do other things for a living besides talk about sport benefit from it, just as I benefitted from listening to Bill McLaren.

Sunday 17 January 2010


(after a piece by Ralph Towner)

We are dry as travellers in a desert 

Moving from mirage to mirage, and
itching our tents where the moonlight 

Stirs the sands & melts the mirages
Into something we still can't drink.

Friday 15 January 2010


Richard Williams has written an admirable history of the classic Miles Davis album Kind Of Blue, but what he is trying to do in this book is much more than that, in those efforts he is only partly successful. There is no doubt that the Davis sextet with both John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly on saxes is one of the high points of 20th century music--and if it isn't the album right at the apex it probably signals the beginning of a period of frenzied change in musical energy, in New York, that may culminate with Coltrane at the Village Vanguard. That's food for another argument.

Williams tells the story of the record with precision and understanding. The use of both Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans on piano, and the racial undercurrents behind that. He may give somewhat short shift to Adderly's album Somethin' Else, with Miles, which is very much a precursor to Kind Of Blue and, as you might expect from Cannon, somewhat more engaging, but overall Williams is a very sympathetic portrayer of the people involved, he has a balanced and empathetic view of Davis, and he is accurate and telling in his analysis of the record itself.

What is harder to is to make the case for it as the most influential, even of Davis' own records. At least three times in his career, Davis changed the course of jazz, with Birth Of The Cool, Kind Of Blue, and Bitches Brew. Since Birth more or less led to Kind Of Blue, and since the revolution Bitches Brew sparked more or less fizzled out, to be replaced by a sort of return of hard-bop, you'd think it makes sense, until you consider In A Silent Way, which even Williams concedes may be Davis' greatest work. But this is head-of-a-pin kind of quibbling.

More important is whether Williams makes the case for the centrality of Kind Of Blue to his 'Blue Moment', whether there is an era which it can be said to encapsulate. He makes the case in one way; certainly the record reflects and sets the mood music for a certain sense of the 'hip' character of the late 50s, the Hugh Hefner ideal which would bleed into the Rat Pack kind of JFK glamour of the early 60s. Whether this fits in with Fellini or Antonioni I'm not so sure. In musical terms, however, Williams makes the case well, especially the influence of what you might call the Impressionist composers, Debussy, Ravel, Faure. You could argue this sort of jazz carried on those experiments, where modern classical music moved in another direction which was then carried on by free jazz. In the jazz world, George Russell and Gil Evans' influence is pervasive, and Williams makes the case so well you wonder whether some of the music he cites is obviously influenced by Russell far more than Miles himself. Trying to distill an era into one record is difficult, but with a few limitations, most notably the narrow range of influence jazz had even then, when it was at its creative peak, Williams does a fine job.

As a sidebar, while I was listening to Kind Of Blue, I re-read the original liner notes, written by Bill Evans. This struck me as a kind of condescension by Columbia; there is a piece to be written about the underlying tone of the (admittedly loving) commentaries written by white jazz writers about black jazz musicians in that era, but the choice of the one white musician (and Davis--and Adderly's--bands were almost always integrated) to actually explain the music seems a device to give it a certain 'respectability'.

Williams' other task it to trace the influence of Kind Of Blue, and here he is less successful. This is partly because it's hard to see it as the, or even a, main factor in the rise of rock bands like The Velvet Underground or King Crimson, and partly because those bands are in a large dead-in you might label 'art-rock', which Davis-influence or no, shows no organic flow from his music. That I'm no fan of the sub-genre may influence me somewhat here. Williams is better on the modern composers, like Terry Riley, but again, modern classical music followed a different path, before maybe ending up in a similar place--Kind Of Blue doesn't constitute a prime, direct source. Even ECM, whose music does bear a lot of direct connection to the record, started with a lot of musicians trying to be Russell, or Coltrane, or Bitches Brew Davis, before settling into that KOB groove (and of course Keith Jarrett, ECM's biggest seller, came through Davis' BB band, after Charles Lloyd's.

It's an engaging read: Williams writes well enough to avoid the Anorak Syndrome which infects so much jazz (and music) writing, and it's refreshing to see him trying to make the links between the various types of music he loves. That he almost manages to do that, convincingly, makes this book a success.

The Blue Moment by Richard Williams Faber £14.99 ISBN 9780571245062


My obituary of the actor Arnold Stang is in today's Independent; you can pound the link here. By some weird fluke of online subbing, the website headline calls him Arnold Strang (the print edition has it correct), which almost describes his voice...add an e to the end and he could have been a more exotic character. I seem to recall that, as Stang exclaimed 'what a chunka chocolate' singers in the background purred 'open wide for Chunky', but I could be conflating two commercials. I was a huge Gildersleeve fan as a kid; I'm going to have to find that movie....

Thursday 14 January 2010


The Guardian's great and good critics selected their 'greatest 50 TV dramas of all time' (you can hit the link here); all-time in this case meaning all-time within the UK, which is reasonable enough since you couldn't really expect them to judge shows their audience has never seen. As usual, such lists are very heavily weighted toward the present; since the TV critic slot is one traditionally given to the editor's roommate at Oxford, next-door neighbour in Islington or the Cotswolds or someone who had actually seen a programme on the wireless, that's to be expected. But the list did throw up some surprises. The biggest one was that an American series, The Sopranos, was judged the greatest of all time (when many would argue it isn't even the greatest imported from HBO). The rest of the top ten (apart from number 4, Mad Men, also from HBO, also tremendous, and current) was filled by British shows, which pointed out another difference: they were primarily in the mini-series format: self-contained movies cut into a limited number of episodes, while the Americans tend to work on the continuing series, which changes the dramatic focus, and almost demands ensemble casts and soap-operay story-lines. Indeed, continuing mini-series, like Prime Suspect (somewhat undervalued at 19) have a distinct advantage over a series like, say Hill St Blues (hugely influential, at number 37--NYPD Blue, its direct descendant, didn't make the cut).

Even in British terms: the only crime series included are Cracker (23), Morse (30) and The Sweeney (47). No Between The Lines? Resnick?, Minder? The Vice? Ghost Squad? And choosing four straight-forward soaps like Coronation Street (26) East Enders (28) Brookside (38) and the best of the lot, Grange Hill (50), is a joke, a pandering to an audience the Guardian doesn't have. All four, but no Dallas?

Obviously, I can only comment about British shows of my youth that made it to America, but though The Prisoner, daring even now and off the charts back then, gets in at 34, there is no place for The Avengers which surely is a landmark whichever side of the ocean you were on. I'd like to see The Saint and Danger Man included too. I have no idea about which shows from 1950s or 1960s America made it over here, though the Twilight Zone does sneak into the chart at 40. I'm pretty sure The Untouchables made it over on ITV and I wonder if The Defenders did. I'm a little surprised American mini-series don't get a look, apart from Band Of Brothers (again, HBO, and with a British lead), but Lonesome Dove seems quality in retrospect; Roots does look a bit too worthy now, but no one appreciated Robert Mitchum's spot-on performance in War & Remembrance.

Nice to see St Elsewhere recognised as the best doctor ensemble show, but perplexing to see 24 (although its format was innovative) and The Shield both in, and no place for Crime Story, Michael Mann's exceptional early 60s show or Homicide, the precursor to the Wire, and very good indeed. Odd to see This Life ('it's not a British Friends', writer Amy Perkins protested over and over again, before anyone had said it was, desperately prompting Brit critics to say how much better than Friends it was. They obliged, and no one noticed it was more a kitchen-sink less glossy 30 Something). Odd to see Buffy at 22 and Battleship Galactica at 25 and not a single western. Nor the newspaper show Lou Grant, a spinoff from Mary Tyler Moore intended as a TV version of All The Presidents Men but closer to The Defenders.

That The Wire comes in at 14, behind Twin Peaks even, seems bizarre. That Six Feet Under is right behind it at 15 seems even more so. Six Feet Under but no Law & Order, which has run over here for years and spawned a British remake that simply copies the original scripts and makes them boring? Where was Edge Of Darkness, maybe the best mini-series of them all? I Claudius? John Adams? LA Law? HBO's Oz got in, which was interesting, but how about Wise Guy, which lasted about as long? Even the first couple of series of Spooks were worth more than Coronation Street. And I saw Guardian readers asking about the German Heimat, but what about those two recent imports to BBC Four, Spiral (France) and Wallander (Sweden), the first exceptional in the mini-series format and the second a tremendous series.

The Six Most Egregious Omissions: The Avengers, Law & Order, Homicide, Edge Of Darkness, Crime Story, Between The Lines

Monday 11 January 2010


Two jazz discs got me through the busy December and New Year, both new arrivals in the IT vaults, though one is fifty years old come February. The oldie was Hank Mobley's Soul Station, whose CD reissue I'd been meaning to get for years. Soul Station doesn't quite have the reputation of Kind of Blue, much less my favourites like Cannonball's Somethin Else, the Coltrane Quintet Live at the Village Vanguard, but it isn't far behind, with Mobley's tenor and Wynton Kelly's piano both in top form, inventive but subtle. Art Blakey, as is his wont, occasionally gets too flashy, but when he's not doing that he's providing a lot of energy; it reminds you of Miles' quote about strong music getting weaker as it gets played louder (a quote that came before he met Marcus Miller!). Paul Chambers plays bass a lot like Ron Carter would on Miles Davis records later.

This was Mobley's first record after spending a year in prison for heroin possession; he'd returned to join Blakey's Messengers. Previously he'd been prolific for Blue Note, and played with Monk; not long after Soul Station he, Kelly, and Chambers would join Miles for a brief stay (Kelly, of course, had played with Davis before, including one track of Kind Of Blue). Hank Mobley doesn't seem to get the credit he deserves; the original album liner notes talk about his slow steady climb toward recognition, and the modern notes mention his drug problems which cut his career short. But he is, in my mind, to the tenor, what Cannonball is to the alto.

It had been a while since I'd heard a new disc by Ralph Towner, so I snapped up Chiaroscuro, a series of duets with trumpeter Paolo Frescu that in many ways is a 'pure' ECM record. Towner, who came to the label via his band Oregon, and began in a group with Jan Garbarek, is more romantic than many of the ECM players, though the nature of his playing on acoustic guitar lessens somewhat that elegance, almost coldness, of sound. The combination of guitar and trumpet may sound awkward, but they weave in and out in ways that are sometimes ethereal and sometimes nearly swing. I seem to recall Palle Mikkleborg and Terje Rypdal did an electric Norwegian version of this trumpet/guitar thing sometime back, and although it was quite different, there was that sense of the horn being used almost like a sax, and that is what I sense here as well. It's a lovely record, the perfect thing for watching the snow fall late at night, and knowing there's no hope of anyone British doing anything about it for another week.

When I wasn't lost in jazz, I was perking up with the blues. A couple of years ago in Tampa I picked up Willie King & The Liberators' disc Living In A New World, and I return to it often. King passed away this year, so it was lucky, in one sense that his work finally made it onto disc. This was his second record, in 2002, his first, Freedom Creek, came out in 2000 (when he was 57 years old) and I'm still looking for a copy of it (there's another album from 2000, I Am The Blues, on his own, Willie King label). The band plays with the surety of guys who've been together, with no pressure, for ages, and Willie Lee Halbert provides interesting call and response counterpoint vocal to King's. Kevin Hayes' sax is a perfect fit too. The beauty of Living In A New World is the infectious simplicity of the music coupled with the matter-of-fact irony of Willie's songs, something confirmed by the monologue, The Blues Life which ends this record. But songs like America, Terrorized, and the title track say a lot more about life in these here United States than a whole room full of suits on cable TV news. And you can dance your ass off to it.

You can dance even more to Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials, another band who've been together for a long time before getting much recognition. I picked this disc up on another of my football trips, to New Orleans in 2008, and playing it in my hotel room was one of the highlights, almost as much as the food at Couchon, the oyster po'boys at or starting the day at Cafe du Monde before it gets crawling. They aren't a Nola band, I assume they're from Chicago, but beyond the infectious quality of the music there is also a wry sense of blues humour, especially on songs like 'Check My Baby's Oil', 'Don't Call Me' and an inspired cover of Smokey Robinson's 'First I Look At The Purse'.

Finally, something totally different (which I would feel comfortable writing no matter what discs I'd already discussed) a great disc I rediscovered at the bottom of a pile I hadn't checked in years: Col. Bruce Hampton and The Aquarium Rescue Unit's 1993 release on Capricorn Records, Mirrors of Embarrassment. Col Bruce(ret.) cannot be categorized, this music is somewhere between Capt. Beefheart (whom he outranks, obviously) and maybe a band like Phish; Bela Fleck guests on this one (one of the tunes for his banjo is called 'Too Many Guitars'), but as the liner notes say, 'Hampton has a long history of chain-sawing through every fence anyone's ever tried to put around his music'. He probably used the same chain-saw to create his own instrument, the chazoid, part guitar, part mandolin, part epoxy. The Hampton Grease Band made a record in 1970, which I can't claim to have heard, and he recorded as Mr. Hampton B Coles (Ret.), with bands called the New Ice Age and the Late Bronze Age, and finally the Arkansas Travelers, before settling on this outfit, which includes Apt. Q258 playing 'Harmonorbital Trans-Atmospheric Suspended Circular Vibrational Membrane Systems'.

Songs like 'Shoeless Joe', 'Memory Is A Gimmick', and 'No Ego's Under Water' suggest Frank Zappa in a weird mode, but once you get into it, it swings. It took me back to a couple of Christmases in London, working over the holiday, and playing something outre just to shake out the silence of holiday London. Worked for me then, works for me now. In a harmonorbital kind of way.

Sunday 10 January 2010


I returned to BBC Radio 4's Open Book today, in what amounted to an almost-to-the-day anniversary performance (see last year's appearance here). I was there to answer a listener query about 1920s gangster fiction, and you can link to the programme at IPlayer here; it's the last five minutes or so of the show. The listener said he'd enjoyed Damon Runyon's gangsters and was looking for more. Hard-boiled-egged on by Mariella Frostrup, I apparently broke some sort of record for most titles recommended within the all-too brief time, far too short to read snatches of dialogue like this (from Raoul Whitfield's Green Ice):

'I just didn't want you to think the dame had sucked me in. She's been playing me—and I've been playing her. She doesn't know what it's all about. I gave her my last coin and told her to break for the dirty burg...' Or how about: 'You were wise to the fact that when I got out prison I was going to shove in on some big-time crime breeders. Donner figured you were white—and he made a mistake. I figured the same way—and I made a mistake...but I hadn't gone all the way with you.'

The dilemma in making suggestions was whether the reader was looking for the real stuff, the kind of fiction turned into the classic crime movies of the early thirties, or whether it was Runyon's special mix of fast-talking and off-beat characters which appealed to him. You could go either way with Dashiell Hammett: Red Harvest remains my favorite crime novel, hard-boiled and politically-aware too, and the Continental Op is the hallmark for all detectives who followed. But The Thin Man, if not as crackling as the film versions with William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, certainly has its own share of Runyonesque charm.

If we walk down the mean streets of hardboiled fiction, Whitfield and Paul Cain are worth the effort. Whitfield wrote only two tough crime novels, and was dead at 47, but Green Ice and Death In The Bowl both get reprinted sporadically when people start revisiting the hard-boiled genre. Fast One is Cain's only novel (he was born George Sims but wrote as Peter Ruric for the movies) and it is exactly what the title implies, a headlong rush toward hard-boiled oblivion.

The producers had suggested W.R. Burnett, who wrote the novel on which Little Caesar is based, and a number of other classics besides, like The Beast Of The City and The Asphalt Jungle. I thought hard about Horace McCoy, who moves from Burnett-style newsman's cynicism (No Pockets For A Shroud) to out and out nihilism in works like They Shoot Horses Don't They or I Should Have Stayed Home, arguably the greatest ignored Hollywood novel.

The stories I thought the questioner might really like are Frederick Nebel's tales of Kennedy and McBride, the former being a cop and the latter a hard-drinking newsman. They've never been collected in their own book, though they always pop up in Black Mask anthologies and other volumes of pulp fiction, but they are really funny, full of staccato cracking wise and entertaining.

Of course, if the reader were more interested in Runyon's style, Ring Lardner would be the obvious place to start, although he's not writing about gangsters per se, but then neither was Runyon most of the time. Lardner's only book-length narrative, You Know Me, Al, is about baseball, and as we said on the programme, baseball is central to America in the Roaring Twenties, presided over by the larger-than-life figure of Babe Ruth. The scandal of the Black Sox throwing the 1919 World Series was made into Eight Men Out, based on Eliot Asinof's non-fiction book, but Harry Stein's Hoopla is a fine novel about the same subject. James Thurber's 'You Could Look It Up' is very much in the Runyon vein. And of course Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's Front Page is a classic of 1930s cynicism, filmed well by Lewis Milestone and then brilliantly by Howard Hawks, with the reporter changed to a woman, by Howard Hawks.

Among contemporary writers, Elmore Leonard's The Hot Kid and In Honey's Room are Twenties gangster stories that sound as if they're authentic period pieces. Stuart Kaminsky's Toby Peters series, is set in 1940s Hollywood, but is also authentic; I had him in mind as I had written his obituary for the Guardian recently (you can link to it here). I had wanted to also mention Max Allan Collins' Nate Heller books, which start off (time wise) in 1920s Chicago with Ness and Nitti as characters, but time didn't allow; my apologies to Max, because the Heller books (which move up through the 60s) have long been favourites of mine.

We talked about E.L. Doctorow whom I praised all over the place, particularly Ragtime, which of course is set before the 1920s, but Billy Bathgate is specifically about gangsters. I thought Glen David Gold's Carter Beats The Devil, which is set in the same time-frame as Ragtime, was a remarkable first novel; I haven't got to Gold's follow-up, Sunnyside, about Charlie Chaplin, yet, but his debut is a hard act to follow.

Obviously, far more than could be squeezed into the time slot. But it was exhilarating just to be able to mention personal favourites like Whitfield and Cain, and to go all hard-boiled on the BBC. Without anyone even mentioning bourbon, or roscoes, or frails...

Saturday 9 January 2010


I finally caught up with The Package, Andrew Davis' 1989 conspiracy thriller. I'd like to say it was because it's been re-issued in a 20th anniversary celebration package, but of course it wasn't, and really, there isn't that much reason why it should be. Like most decent conspiracy stories, the build-up is the more successful part, the gradual laying out of the conspiracy, the slow realisation by the main character that he may be in over his head. Also like most conspiracy stories, the resolution is something of a let-down, as implausible plot devices allow the hero his chance to save the day.

But what makes The Package stand out is the way it sets out, as well as any fiction I've seen, the rationale behind the JFK assassination, the political motivation. In this film, the US and Soviets are about to sign an historic agreement to scrap, or drastically cut back, their nuclear arsenals (interestingly, the Soviet premier is a dead ringer for Gorbachev, though the US President is neither Don Ron nor Bush Sr) and military chiefs on both sides are opposed to the deal. Thus the killing becomes an exercise in avoiding political change. You could watch The Package alongside reading JFK And The Unspeakable (you can link to my essay here) and it would make perfect sense.

Gene Hackman is a top sergeant who fails to stop the killing of a general who refuses to go along with the plot, and is then assigned to ferry a soldier, Walter Henke, Stateside for court martial. Henke, played by Tommy Lee Jones, strikes up a bit of a bond with Hackman, but at DC airport Hackman is blackjacked and Jones disappears. Luckily (the first of many disbelief-stretching coincidences) Hackman's ex-wife (the woefully underused Joanna Cassidy) is in Army personnel, and Hackman figures out that Jones is not the real Henke. The real Henke, we have seen, has been saved from arrest in East Germany and assigned by a black-ops type (John Heard, excellent) who's already set Hackman up for a fall, to infiltrate a neo-Nazi group in Chicago. Which of course is where Jones has gone to assassinate the president, and where Henke is being set up to take the fall. After Cassidy's friend, Pam Grier (with us for far too short a time) is killed while investigating Jones' real identity, she and Hackman head for Chicago too (which happens to be director Davis' home town).

The parallel between Henke and Lee Oswald is clear. The best evidence that Oswald was indeed a patsy is probably the book Oswald Talked, where it is shown convincingly that Oswald was most likely infiltrating a Cuban-exile gun-running operation on behalf of some intelligence agency, and that Jack Ruby was part of whatever the operation was. The parallel in the film is made clearer by having Henke distributing leaflets and taking part in a demonstration that breaks into a brawl, just as Oswald did in New Orleans.

Luckily, Hackman has an old Vietnam buddy (Dennis Franz) who is a cop in Chicago. Luckily, the bad guys, who've been willing to litter the streets of DC and Chicago with bodies, take Hackman back to Jones' apartment, rather than killing him, so he gets a chance to escape. There is a car chase scene, hommage to The French Connection, where Hackman gets to 'drive' under the Chicago El, and somehow an army sergeant who was stationed in Germany knows shortcuts through Chicago to get to the downtown Hilton through the freight yards. And of course, in the end, all the conspiracy information will come out in a Congressional investigation, which is probably the least believable thing of all.

As it happens, I had just rewatched The Fugitive on TV a few days before seeing The Package. Davis, as I said, is from Chicago; his father was the actor Nathan Davis, to whom he gave a good role as the Soviet premier's press attache, who's also one of the masterminds of the assassination plot. Davis' career has been built on action movies, starring Chuck Norris (Code Of Silence), Steven Seagal (Under Siege--probably Seagal's best, whatever that means), and even Arnold Schwarzenegger. But it's The Fugitive for which he's best known, and for which Tommy Lee Jones got a supporting-actor Oscar. Davis gives Jones lots of leeway in his roles; one of the great pleasures of Under Siege, probably second only to Elena Elenika bursting topless out of a cake, is watching Jones and Gary Busey trying to upstage each other. It's as if Davis knows that the comic relief provides the equivalent of depth of character, and helps keep the sense of pace always moving. When he can't use pace, he's somewhat lost, as evidenced by his remake of Hitchock's very static Dial M For Murder, A Perfect Murder, in which Gwyneth proved herself no Grace Kelly, and Michael Douglas, an inspired bit of casting, wouldn't surrender himself to the sleaziness of Ray Milland.

But despite his bravura (helped by straightman Joe Pantoliano's straight-man talent) I am always bothered by Jones' character in The Fugitive. Mostly because, as Kimball escapes from the conveniently-located downtown jail where he's checking out one-armed men, Gerrard tries to shoot him dead, an obviously unarmed man whose guilt has to be in question even in the mind of someone who says he doesn't care, and tries repeatedly, and looks extremely chagrined not to have succeeded. Then we (and Kimball) are still supposed to like him. The Fugitive had its own plot flaws too: that the one-armed man could be a Chicago cop who lost his arm in the line of duty means that he could hardly have escaped notice; when the brilliantly obnoxious cops who pursue Kimball fail to recognise him we assume they must be protecting him, but such is not the case. But as is usually the case with Davis, the pace of the story, and the action, keeps you from thinking about little things like that until well after the film is done. Or almost. The Package comes close to being Davis' best; if he'd just been able to get more conspiratorial and less well-packaged in its resolution, it would be.

Sunday 3 January 2010


There is trouble in Pompey, as usual, and Joe Faraday gets dragged into investigating the hit-and-run death of one of the nastiest of the youths terrorizing the Portsdown estate. Faraday, always a problem for his bosses, will then be tasked with using new DNA techniques to re-open a 25 year old rape case. He's more despondent than usual, since his French lover has departed for Montreal, and, being Faraday, he knows she will never return.

Meanwhile, former cop Paul Winter is now dragged further into the affairs of his boss, Pompey crime lord Bazza McKenzie. McKenzie's daughter Esme is cheating on her husband, and even worse, given the family business and her involvement it in, she's doing it with a cop. And when Esme's son is kidnapped, everything goes pear-shaped.

Graham Hurley does two things exceptionally well, and these plots intertwine because of those two things. One is to detail the urban blight of Portsmouth, the decay, the moral rot of crime within the city. That Bazza should have set up Winter as a faux-community worker, complete with a bizarre green van, gives a touch of the absurd to the equation, but the first half of the book, centered on the reality of life in the estates, is truly upsetting. Hurley's other skill is in understanding the internal dynamics of the police force, the way policing is sacrificed in favour of statistics, in which ambition colours tactical decisions, and most importantly the way justice rides second to law and order. The real tension in this novel comes from the way those concerns play against life in Portsmouth. And although Winter has become the more dominant character in the series lately, the real emotional heart remains Faraday, and his internal battles throughout the novel are its crux.

Beyond Reach refers not only to Bazza, who remains one step ahead of the filth at every step of the game, nor to the youth of the estates, who are beyond the reach of virtually all of society's usual motivations and controls, but also to the whole idea of policing which Faraday, throughout the series has cherished. The intertwining stories have their final confluence in Faraday's solving of the old rape case, and though the solution is apparent fairly early, it is in its resolution that the real power of this story lies, and, as happens so many times in the story, the only way forward with any practical hope of success falls afoul of the rules of the bureaucratic game. Faraday needed Winter, to relieve his internal morose depression, because Hurley is so good at tracing the larger malaise, and it is even more depressing. This is another powerful novel, and the crimes it examines are legion.

Beyond Reach by Graham Hurley
Orion £12.99 ISBN 9781409101215

NOTE: This review will also appear at

Friday 1 January 2010


I don't believe I'd seen The Big Easy since it was released, before I took another look at it on New Year's Day, courtesy of BBC IPlayer. What a shock. My memory was of an atmospheric thriller, thick with the steamy sensuality of New Orleans, driven by Zydeco music, and with a crackling vibe between Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin.

I first saw the film not long after my first visit to the city, for Super Bowl XXI. That was a brief, very superficial stay, and I don't remember sensing any artificiality in the film then. Maybe it's the passing of time, or maybe it's because I've actually been to New Orleans again, for a more serious visit, but I am amazed I didn't notice the lighting, which is far more LA studio backlot than Crescent City, or the terrible accents Quaid and Ned Beatty and John Goodman and especially Charles Ludlum as the lawyer Lamar use. Now I watch Ellen Barkin and her little girl flummoxing seems incredibly artificial, almost as much as Quaid's 'singing' with the band. It plays far more like an episode of 80s serial TV, MacGyver set in NO, than say, Sea Of Love, which now I'm going to have to revisit as well.

I had forgotten a couple of small pleasures: Jim Garrison plays himself when Dennis Quaid is brought to trial, Marc Lawrence, looking very frail, plays the Godfather, Vinny The Cannon, and Solomon Burke plays Daddy Mention, the black Godfather of the town. But overall I sensed none of the atmosphere of the city, none of its outre charm, none of its steam, its sweat, or its flowery corruption. New Year's Day is probably a good time to be reminded times, not just les bontemps, change, and change things, especially us.