Friday, 30 April 2010


My obituary of the boxing referee Arhtur Mercante is in today's Independent, you can link to it here. That the boxing matches Mercante reffed, and there were many other title fights which I'd listed but didn't make it into the final copy, are now elements of nostalgia, both personal and collective, makes me stop and think (code for 'feel old'). It is a shame that there are few boxers and fights as compelling as those from the 1950s through, what, the early 90s? I blame it on the effects of television (and later, and more significantly, pay per view) money, which first led networks to endorse the alphabet soup of phony titles in half-weight classes, and then destroyed the market for up and coming fighters. The days of building a fighter on TV, as was done with Mike Tyson, disappeared because the money was all in the PPVs once he became a success.

I also liked Mercante's life style in Long Island (or 'on' Long Island if you look at it as being a sort of desert island)...working at the Merchant Marine Academy, for Schaefer Beer, one of the worst ever committed to tin can (Philadelphia magazine once reviewed a number of beers and mentioned that Schaefer was the only one that tasted better in cans, because the tinny aftertaste improved it) and then in Parks & Rec in Hempsted. The appeal of a parks & rec job has always been strong for to someone whose best days in college were spent working on buildings & grounds...

There is an ambiguity to refereeing in boxing which has always been challenging, and I say that from experience of working within the business. It was just another reason why I appreciated Arthur Mercante and was glad to help remember him...

Wednesday, 28 April 2010


My obituary of Wayne Collett (third from the left, UCLA vs USC), whose protest at the 1972 Munich Olympics failed to have the impact of Tommie Smith and John Carlos' in Mexico four years earlier, is in today's Independent. You can link to it here. As usual, Avery Brundage, the head of the IOC (or, as British papers called him in the recent obits of Juan A Samaranch, the 'American head of the IOC') gets to be the villain; the guy spent decades on the wrong side of every issue, but then, that's par for the IOC course. I thought most of those Samaranch obits went very easy on Olympic corruption,especially the ways Samaranch's inclusion of federations, and his stocking the IOC with friendly broadcasters and pliant ex-athletes encouraged it, on right-wing Spanish politics and the continuing preference of the IOC for hereditary privilege and totalitarian government. We need more protests like Colletts, not fewer.

Thursday, 22 April 2010


My obit of former Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates is in today's (Friday's) Guardian, and already online, you can link to it here. It would have been nice to have gone into the popular representations of the LAPD, and how many of them either reflect Gates directly, his influence, or 'traditions' he knowingly carried on; Gates and Ellroy would probably be an essay in itself. My thanks to Mike Connelly for the quote, which reflected the image rather well. The only thing missing from the original copy that I miss was losing the description of the jury that acquitted the Rodney King defendants, remember it was crucial that the trial took place not in LA but in Simi Valley.

It would also have been nice to detail some of the other many scandals of the LAPD during the Gates era, but running through their litany would have taken too much space, and I think the point was made clearly enough--it was Los Angeles that changed, and of course the times changed as well, and Gates not only could not keep up with that change, some of his cherished theories of policing were being made obsolete even as he implemented them. I kept seeing Field Marshal Donald von Rumsfeld and his slimmed down high-tech modern army failing miserably to do what he said it was supposed to do. In fairness, when Reaganite California passed Proposition 13, limiting property taxes (think me first, tea party, neo-con, community-initative, there is no such thing as society etc) it did makes Gates' ideas of a small, mobile, high-tech force appealling to city government, if only from a cost point of view.

There is a revealing piece on the Gates legacy by former LA Times reporter David Cay Johnston at LA Observed, you can find that here. In some ways, LA is just like any other city, only unlike bigger, older (read: eastern or midwestern) cities where the power structure grew organically, in LA it was imposed by those who controlled thing in its early days, which made it in some ways more pervasively controlling, and likely more corrupt. I have the sense Gates laboured under the delusion that the popular culture image of LAPD was true, even knowing it wasn't, a sort of Reaganism made more virulent by his actually being in control of the delusion...

Speaking of delusions, there is a pretty funny Ali G interview with Gates, which you can see here

Friday, 16 April 2010


I've interviewed George Pelecanos any number of times before, but this one was something special. On stage at BAFTA, before the gathered work force of the estimable Orion Books, I got to do for George what he used to do for ladies shoes: sell to an audience that seemed already eager to buy. As it turned out, my selling was so emphatic I'm not sure I left George much room to reply, or many gaps to fill in, but it was rewarding to be able to push an author to his own publisher. Not that George needs much pushing. As I said to the Orions, Pelecanos has the enviable status of someone who's gone from cult writer to best-seller without losing his cult status. And his profile has been raised immeasurably by his writing/producing for The Wire, which started the cult status thing all over again. It seems non-stop; on my way to meet him at his hotel, I was startled to see his face staring out at me from an underground poster for his latest novel, The Way Home, which wasn't surprising because the Channel Four TV Book Club has picked The Way Home in its launch books. And that wasn't surprising because The Way Home to me is the kind of book that would appear both to fans of crime fiction but also transcend to 'the mainstream' as well; its themes of work and family are strong, but the book also plays with the tropes of pulp fiction and, indeed, westerns as well. You can link to my original review of the novel here.

With so much going on, it was nice to be able to relax for a couple of hours at the Cork & Bottle wine bar, where I tried an Ernest Hemingway burger (somehow I can't see Papa getting down with mango relish, but you never know) and held myself to just one glass of wine before going onstage. George wears the trappings of fame easily; his books originally attracted some cult status because of their prominent use of music, not just as scene-setting background but also for insight into character. Pelecanos play-lists were soon appearing in rock magazines. Indeed, while he was visiting Britain, he appeared on Open Book, and asked to pick his book of the decade, chose Lean On Pete by Willy Vlautin, of the band Richmond Fontaine. Coincidentally (or not) he's going to see the band that very night at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, along with the crime writer Mark Billingham. Since it was Mark and Martyn Waites who converted me to Richmond Fontaine in the first place, that brings something full circle! George also chose Charles Portis' True Grit as his favourite book, and we spend a long time discussing both the book's subtleties, especially as it's narrated by an aged spinster Mattie Ross, whose recollections may well be suspect, and the upcoming remake of the John Wayne version by the Coen Brothers, with Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin. 'People forget how strong the supporting cast was in the original,' George says. 'This is known as the Glen Campbell effect,' I say. 'But Robert Duvall, Jeff Corey and Dennis Hopper are all great.' 'And Hank Worden as the undertaker,' I say, and that, as they say, was that.

Over the rest of a conversation that raged from the joys of fatherhood to the tribulations of George's beloved Washington Redskins, I discovered that although he's done 16 novels in the past 18 years, he doesn't have a new one in the works. But I suggested that, as a writer who's done most of his books in contained series, his last three novels formed a trilogy, linked by the theme of fathers and sons (their predecessor, Drama City, shared important themes of work and family, but not directly fathers and sons.)

After just brief consideration George agrees, though he says it wasn't a conscious intention. He attributes the increasing focus on the microcosm of the family at least in part to The Wire. 'We did such a good job (with social issues of crime) I didn't have much left to say on those themes.' To me, it seems a natural progression, especially when you consider that Pelecanos is one of the few writers, in any genre, who's always concentrated not only on race but on issues of family and work – both keys to The Wire (series two, as you may recall, was themed around the disappearance of meaningful employment for the working classes of the city). Family and working values are the core of No Way Home, which John Harvey likened to a 'moral fable', (you can read about that discussion here) and which has elements of both westerns and 1970s exploitation films about it, points which appear to have got lost, in America at least, behind the fable. To me, it recalls Shoedog, still one of my favourite Pelecanos novels, and another book with pulpy fictions framing a story about men working.

'The Night Gardener was my biggest selling book in America,' George says, 'in fact, Clint Eastwood was interested in making a movie of it for a while, and he wrote me a very nice letter about it, which I will treasure, but it just didn't happen'. He's got other big-time fans too: Barak Obama gave George the same kind of moment Bill Clinton provided both Walter Mosely and Stephen Hunter, when he carried a copy of The Way Home with him as he left Air Force One.

But The Way Home didn't do so well.' George explains that he thinks his audience wanted him to stick with cops, or private eyes, and their investigations. In Britain, however, The Way Home has been his most successful so far, which has encouraged Orion to push him even more. 'They've got it right from the start,' George says, and I'm not sure if he means his British publishers or the audience. 'Well, both,' he says, diplomatically. It gratifies him too, because the book grew out of his experiences working in a prison reading project. 'I started to wonder not only what its like for these kids, but what it's like for their parents,' he says. He also talks about his own lucky history. 'When I was 17, I accidentally shot a friend of mine in the face. With a different background, in different circumstances, my life could have taken a far different course,' he explains. And the theme reverberates throughout Pelecanos' work, the idea that one small moment can have consequences that change your life, that you can be powerless to stop. This is also one of the classic themes of noir.

Whether these family novels will end as a trilogy or whether there's something more to come Pelecanos can't say. He hasn't launched another novel, but not because because he hasn't been busy. He's been working on two TV series for HBO. One is Treme, named after a district of New Orleans, comes from David Simon and many of the team that did The Wire, dealing with the lives of musicians and others in the post-Katrina Big Easy. Not long after we met, Pelecanos' writing colleague on Treme (and The Wire), David Mills, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm (see the link to my obituary, and George's comment on Mills, here). The other is Pacific, a sequel of sorts to Band Of Brothers, set in the Pacific war, produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Pelecanos is again a writer/producer, and it had deep resonance for him. 'My Dad was a Marine and served in the Pacific, so it's a subject very close to my own history, and it's something I admire.' There's a sense of regret, of a sort, in much of Pelecanos' work, that his father's generation grew up in the experience of a war they could believe in, as opposed to a generation faced with a war no one could believe in, and a generation tried to avoid if they could.

That's because George Pelecanos is very much about the things a man's gotta do, or that he used to think he had to do. Thus his fondness for muscle cars, for football, especially at the youth level, for the social world of bars, for the importance of work and its camaraderie. It's an old-fashioned attitude that returns social contact, personal relationships, 'man to man' as it were, to the fore. And that's what his books boil down to: the sense that by letting these simple values be sacrificed on the altar of economics, or leisure, or whatever, we've lost something important, and that crime and tragedy is often the result.

Nick Stefanos Novels:
A Firing Offense (1992), Nick's Trip (93), Down By The River Where The Dead Men Go (95)

Shoedog (1994)

The DC Quartet:
The Big Blowdown (1996), King Suckerman (97), The Sweet Forever (98), Shame The Devil (2000)

Derek Strange Novels:
Right As Rain (2001), Hell To Pay (02), Soul Circus (03), Hard Revolution (04)

Drama City (2005)

Fathers & Sons
Night Gardener (2006), The Turnaround (08), The Way Home (09)

Thursday, 15 April 2010


My obituary of the television writer David Mills is in today's Independent; you can link to it here. Mills didn't just write for, but was crucial to, some of the best television programmes ever, and in the collaborative business that is TV, he was, as George Pelecanos suggested, a catalyst for other writers. He seems to have been particularly well balanced with David Simon.

I wish I'd discovered his Undercover Black Man blog earlier; it's fascinating writing. You can link to it here or via the links section of this blog; the final posting, from Mills' nephew, is very moving. Mills' postings on the white supremacist web site American Renaissance are revealing, and ironically he was going to call himself 'Undercover Negro', but AmRen's posting etiquette prohibited his using the word!

Sunday, 11 April 2010


The Snowman is the fifth Harry Hole novel to appear in English (though it is seventh in the series—the first two have not yet been translated) and was published in Norway in 2007. That these five translations have appeared in only six years is a reflection of the cult following Jo Nesbo has already built up, starting with critical acclaim which has, justifiably continued. Much of this is down to his detective. It's not just that Harry Hole's name looks and sounds better in English, and is far more suggestive, than in its original Norwegian. Hole also has much more affinity to the British audience than most of his nordic counterparts. Although he can give Beck or Wallander a good run in the angst-ridden morose worldview sweepstakes, there's also an alcohol fuelled self-destructiveness about Hole that recalls abrasive Scots. If Resnick drank more vodka, maybe. But you could say Hole's half Taggart half Rebus, and the link from Aberdeen to Bergen is not that tenuous at all.

Especially because The Snowman is set, in part, in Bergen, which is where Hole's new partner, the frighteningly bright and efficient Katrine Bratt, has just transferred. She joins Hole just as he has figured that the disappearance of a young mother, and her scarf left behind wrapped around a snowman, is connected to other disappearances, and that a serial killer is working. The links go back a long way, and all the way to Bergen, and there are letters addressed to Hole himself that make sure he will lead the investigation. Bratt, seemingly the careerist, provides the kind of sharp contrast with Hole that Tom Waaler once did, if in a different way, and it's when they go to Bergen together and Hole uncovers a long-dead corpse that this contrast is at its most telling.

This could be the book where Nesbo moves from cult hero and big seller to mega-stardom, because although it is as compelling as any of the previous books in the series, and Hole's private demons and public difficulties are just as acute, it is also the fastest-paced, and in some ways most conventional thriller yet. Some of the elements are standard enough to be predictable; including at least one major twist and the identity of the killer (in fact, when I was interviewing Nesbo, at a point when I was only part-way into the book, I asked if my guess about the villain was correct and he maintained an admirably straight face). But as Nemesis showed, Nesbo knows how to maintain tension and then crank it up. That Hole's own relationship with Rakel, his ex-lover now engaged to someone else, and her son Oleg, factor into the plot is perhaps inevitable, but this has always been the major conflict of the Hole books, the struggle between 'normal' existence and the drive to do what he needs to justify himself to himself.

Critics often look at the Scandinavian crime boom as if it were a homogenous mass, all depressive detectives and breaking down of welfare states, but the reality is that Nordic crime fictions ranges from relatively traditional who dunnits (although it's hard to find anything you might call 'cozy') to the kind of thing Nesbo has produced: deep novels with social comment set within a framework to Thomas Harris thrillers than the detectives to which he's often linked (by myself as well as others). But what makes it work is the idea that Harry Hole is actually very close to the old fashioned hard-boiled private eyes: an idealist whose hardened crust conceals vulnerability and sensitivity. Miichael Connelly worked another Harry, Harry Bosch into a police setting, and the conflicts, personal and bureaucratic, that such a setting creates for such a character have been emphasized even more in Nesbo's hero. It's a self-destructiveness that, perversely, makes Hole so appealing, but it's Nesbo's ability to weave that character, written engagingly with a sharp eye toward his world, into more and more involved ploys that make these books work so well.

The Snowman by Jo Nesbo Harvill Secker £12.99 9781846553486

NOTE: Look for that Jo Nesbo interview at Shots, and here on IT, soon....

Wednesday, 7 April 2010


Like the 'many worlds' theory proposed by one of its main characters, Dark Matter can be read as different stories at the same time, a feast of ambiguity and delight in ideas mixed with a thriller of sometimes gut-wrenching suspense. On the face of it, physics professor Sebastian has a perfect life in a Black Forest backwater; a lovely wife and a bright ten-year old son. He worries only that he might have been left behind, in the physics world, by his once-inseparable friend Oskar, now a high-powered researcher in Geneva. Then his world collapses: his son is kidnapped while on his way to camp, and Sebastian is told that, if he wants his son back, he has to kill a man named Dabblelink who is a close friend of his wife's.

Juli Zeh moves this book in multiple directions, but at its core is the very real moral dilemma Sebastian faces. This acts as a fulcrum for the arch relationship between Sebastian and Oskar, with its overtones of Edwardian dandies as well as quantum mechanics, and for the 'crime' part of the novel, when Detective Schilf, dying with a brain tumour, is sent from Stuttgart to assist his old protege, the Valkyrie-like Rita Skoura with the case. The book might be read as a meditation on repressed homosexuality; it also follows one dying man's struggle to understand existence.

And that latter quest reverberates with Schlif's (whose name means 'reed' in German) entrance. The focus changes, not so much to the crime's 'solution' but to the characters of our two physicists, and Schilf's attempts to understand their theoretical argument, and through that understand the crime. In effect, he stands in for the reader, or a certain type of reader, and in German the novel itself is titled Schilf. And when the mechanisms of the kidnap and murder are revealed, we realise through an exquisite twist, that it is itself enmeshed in just the sort of issues the two scientists have been arguing. Fear of spoiling makes that difficult to explain more, but trust me, it works perfectly, at least in this dimension.

This sketching in of plot cannot do justice to the intricacies of this novel's structure, nor its prose which, even in translation, is both challenging and playful. 'Nature is a labyrinth of distorting images,' a butterfly collector tells Sebastian as the latter prepares his murder trap for Dabblelink. Sebastian ought to have paid more attention. But just as Oskar and Sebastian suggest Wilde, the butterfly collector suggests the shifting realities of Nabokov, and that is the territory Zeh has staked out here, that zone where the mysteries of the novel and the mysteries of the murder overlap. You might try to identify a European school of 'intellectual' novels that crossover into crime, books with theoretical bases, and you might link Zeh to it. But I thought more of Durrenmatt, with those echoes of the Theatre of the Absurd, and of American writers like Philip K Dick and Jack O'Connell. That the prose can be so captivating, and the aphorisms so frequent turns the book into an adventure of the mind, satisfying on whichever level the reader wishes to approach it. It is certainly the best novel I've read so far this year, and should mark Zeh as one of Europe's brightest younger novelists. And if you're reading this in America, note that the book will get its third title, In Free Fall, there--Dark Matter, with its reference to physics and its overtones of menace, probably works better for me, but a rose by any name is still a labyrinth of distorting images.

Dark Matter by Juli Zeh
Harvill Secker £12.99 ISBN 9781846552083

NOTE: Check at IT for an interview with Juli Zeh in the very near future...
NOTE 2: This review will also appear at

Friday, 2 April 2010


I finally caught up with Julie & Julia on DVD -- and it's a very odd film indeed. Pleasant at times, entertaining at times, but it's like two different films stitched together; one a charming story of romance and the other a rather standard story of career struggle mixed with the difficulties of marriage a la Sex and the City. But first the odd but interesting...

Back in 1977 Meryl Streep played the wife of a Canadian hockey player, played by Michael Moriarty, in a film called The Deadliest Season; as I remember he spears an opponent with his stick, a kidney is ruptured, a hockey player dies, he is charged with manslaughter, she suffers bravely. I came up with a theory at the time that this film proved Streep would take any role as long as it allowed her to try a new accent, and nothing she has done since has worked to disprove that theory. Her Julia Child has the weirdest accent I've ever heard; like Marge Simpson playing Katharine Hepburn playing Margaret Dumont, but that isn't what makes the film odd: it works perfectly and Streep, aided by Stanley Tucci in yet another impeccable supporting role--his Eichman to her Heydrich yet again, is brilliant at conveying Child. Sometimes Streep stops short, letting the physical dominate, but though the temptation here must have been very strong, she gets inside the character and the outside follows. It's not an exaggeration to say I watched the film wishing I could fast forward through Julie to get back to Julia.

It is odd to see a story with two central characters who are so contrasting, in the very simple sense that one is basically unpleasant while the other is literally a hoot. The film is and, I assume, the book was self-aware enough to realise this--but Julie is not a very nice person to be around; her friends early in the film provide a freak show there to make her look better, while her friends later in the film are literally anonymous. It is because they exist only in so far as they reflect her, and she is so self-reflective they are unncessary. Her husband, who eats like an animal, which is amusing but doesn't ever get into the story, puts up with it with more sop than realism, but it is hard at any point to feel real sympathy. This makes it either a very brilliant performance by Amy Adams, playing shallow, or else a performance where no one realises that this is what she is.

Despite, or perhaps because of this, the format of parallel stories actually works. It's become old hat as a structure in the past decade or so, a way to short-cut any number of story-telling issues, especially when one of the characters is an historical figure. The fact that they are contemporaneous makes little difference, but it does add another dimension to the story. And that's where I find it really odd, and that's specifically around the whole question of blogging. I appreciate the irony that I am writing this on a blog, which is unlikely to be featured in the New York Times and thus lead to literary and film deals, and that my reactions are more than a day late and thus way more than a dollar short, but it seems to me that the crux of the difference between the characters lies as much in the times, and in the modes of expression, as in their very different personalities.

Partly, this is because the subject of French cooking was new for Julia, the idea of cooking on television was new, and partly because her manner of approaching them was all or nothing: she wrote for herself as she cooked for herself, not out of frustration at not being a writer but out of frustration from not being able to express her desire to cook and her joy in cooking in any other way. For Julie, it's a backdoor to being the writer she wants to be, not the cook she becomes, and to me the question of whether the film works depends on whether you believe that what she has really learned from Julia is simply 'how to cook' and whether that really has saved her life. I am not convinced--though I have to say that part of the reason for that may be down to my having read Julie Powell's article about her book Cleaving in the Guardian a few weeks back (you can find it here) in which she links herself to other celebrity adulterers and convinces me her husband Eric is indeed soppy, if not sappy. Or ex-husband, as the case may be. I wonder if his resentment at seeing himself in her blog resurfaced?

The blogosphere is a lot like the world of fanzines was before the internet came along, and it just made me wonder if what we were seeing was really a kind of parallel stage door story, only the stage door in our modern world requires much more concentrated solipcism to get through?

A couple of odd footnotes. Was it deliberate that Amy Adams' Julie pronounced boeuf 'boof, as in boof bourguignon? And when the movie appeared here, there were a number of reviews that criticised it for not mentioning Elizabeth David, who did for the British what Julia Child did for Americans. I'm not quite sure what that would have done for the story, and I doubt it would have made it any more baftalicious, not that that matters. And ask someday about my recipe for Chili Bourguignon, and how I nearly took it to the World Chili Championships in Terlingua, Texas.


My obituary of black golf pioneer Bill Powell is in today's can link to it here. His is a fascinating story, and an admirable one, and I was pleased to be able to write it. I have to say that, as I wrote it, I kept trying to make a Tiger Woods link, and not for the reasons you'd now suspect. But given what happened later, I'm glad I didn't, simply because it would have been a distraction, and his story didn't deserve distractions...and I didn't write the headline, because Powell's course was the first black-owned course, and was open to all, but I would assume there were already integrated public golf courses in other parts of the US.