Friday 30 August 2013


My obituary of the American poet John Hollander is up at the Guardian online; you can link to it here. Sadly, it appears to have gone up just before Seamus Heaney's death, and being in New Zealand half a day ahead of London, I have no idea of whether it appeared in the paper paper, though I'd imagine Heaney would have preceded it if it wasn't in the Thursday edition. It's a nice synchronicity to see them side by side online; Heaney lacked nothing in working with form, but presented far more emotional dynamism driving his poetry.

It's an interesting photo the Guardian found, one that plays far more to the early part of Hollander's career, a very much New York city, Columbia College kind of shot. Later pictures, such as the one above, were much more the professor of poetry, New England tweedy kind of shots which are more standard these days.

I read a bit of Hollander when I was younger; he was on the advisory board of Wesleyan University Press, as I remember, and at least one of his books was published there, which is how I first encountered his work. His work was far more cerebral than, say, Richard Wilbur's, and Wilbur was the formalist I most admired (not least because I had two classes with him). Sometimes I had the sense of his working out poetry as a puzzle. I should have mentioned that his prose was exceptionally lucid; he was a fine critic.

I was trying to think of a British equivalent of Hollander when I wrote the obit; Geoffrey Hill was the closest I could come, for the formal rigor, the intellectual difficulty, and sometimes the religious overtones, but in the end I didn't think it close enough to mention, except here.


There is something familiar about Hege, the prostitute who hires Varg Veum to find her friend Margrethe, or Maggi, another hooker who has vanished off the streets of Bergen. Hege, it turns out, had once dated Veum's son, and the coincidence sets the tone for this tale of deep shadows in Norwegian life. It is the story of big city crime in a small village of a city, of the mores of small town mentality clashing with the morality, or lack of it, in modern life. The underlying theme, of course, is that Norwegian hearts are cold, even when they're showing warmth.

Veum learns quickly that Maggi's brother has just escaped from prison, and soon he's involved with a missing shipment of drugs, a Russian hooker beaten by two men she went off with after Maggi refused to service them the night she disappeared, and most of all the sad story of Maggi's family, and the local committee who had taken it upon themselves to help raise her and her siblings when her parents proved incapable of it.

Veum is a different kind of detective—he was a social worker, once upon a time, and much of his detecting seems to run along those lines. The serious crimes of the present have their echoes in the quieter crimes of the past, and although Gunnar Staalesen seems to be compared frequently to Raymond Chandler, he struck me as somehow closer to Ross MacDonald, and Veum much more like Lew Archer than Philip Marlowe, more of a blank slate of a character, a man whose own character remains neutral while he provides the reader with a sympathetic entry point to a different sort of world. Also like both those detectives, he's above the lure of the one-night stand; perhaps Veum is the one whose heart is more than cold.

How well this works depends on how well-drawn the supporting characters are, and Staalesen is extremely good on the people Veum appears to understand best—the ones he recognises from his social services career. He's less good with criminals, although here there is a bit of Philip Marlowe in the way he does stand up to men much more violent than he is, and is relatively successful at it.

The story also depends on the balance between drawing it out and missing the obvious being deft, here the mixing of the subplots keeps Veum, and us, guessing even when we seem to know what was going on. In the end, Staalesen, like Archer, uncovers the hidden past, and watches it rebound to the present. Although the plot does revolve, in plot, around using a rusty nail edge to cut through bindings, which was old in the silent movie serials, there is a neat twist, and there is also the sense that the Norwegian justice system is incapable of really coping with the worst their society throws up.

Cold Hearts by Gunnar Staalesen
Arcadia £8.99 ISBN 9781908129437

Thursday 29 August 2013


A couple of days after Elmore Leonard died, I was flying to Los Angeles, and then to New Zealand, and I happened to read a piece by Bob Greene about him, about how after he heard the news the went to a library, because that's where you'd find Elmore, and how he pulled a book at random from the shelves, and it was Pronto, and here's the opening line:

One evening, it was toward the end of October, Harry Arno said to the woman he'd been seeing on and off the past few years, “I've made a decision. I'm going to tell you something I've never told anyone before in my life.”

Pronto, it occurred to me, was one of few Leonards I hadn't read, but I'd been meaning to, because it features Raylan Givens, of Justified fame, and I wanted to see how the TV character evolved from the one Leonard wrote.

So a couple of days later I found myself in a ski lodge on Mt. Ruapehu, and there on the bookshelf was a copy of Pronto. I started reading it immediately, and, as is usual with Leonard's novels, finished it that night when I woke up jet-lagged and couldn't get back to sleep. What's interesting is that Pronto was published in 1993, so this is its twentieth anniversary, and the pleasure I took in reading it make it seem to me both an anniversary celebration and a memorial to a great writer.

Pronto ends with the scene with which Justified begins—the Miami show down, but it goes in some unexpected directions before it gets there, primarily Italy, but more surprisingly, the Italy of Ezra Pound. Toward the end of World War II when Pound was imprisoned, one of his guards was Harry Arno, now a successful bookie in Miami, looking to get out. If Pound seems an odd touchstone for a Miami bookie, it gives him a town, Rapallo, where he can flee when he's set up by feds looking to get him to turn on the local mob guy Jimmy Capoto. All their threats do is get Arno arrested for murder and make him the target of a contract. What makes it interesting is that Arno has history with Raylan Givens, having given him the slip once before, and pretty soon Arno, his ex-stripper girlfriend, Raylan, and Jimmy Cap's Italian-born 'Zip', aka Tommy Bucks, are all in Rapallo. Orchestration by Elmore Leonard, and the eccentricity of the set-up simply reinforces the brilliant melody of the dialogues of betrayal and confrontation.

Pronto was mined for another of Justified classic scenes, the two on one shoot out where Raylan warns the pro not to take another step or he will shoot him, and does when he does, while the amateur stands frozen. Raylan then tells the schlub to use the gun or drop it, and in the series he pretends to dro it but tries to shoot, and Raylan kills him too. In the novel, Leonard has Raylan, understanding decisions are hard for this kind of guy, making the choice for for him, then saying 'drop it,' which he does. They get to different ends, but the written version tells you so much more about Raylan in the getting there.

But then, they are different Raylans, Elmore's character and the one played by Timothy Olyphant. Reading helps you appreciate how Olyphant has caught the sense in which Raylan is playing a character he has in his mind as much as the one his experience has made him; the way his sureness in his self is allied to his ability to almost seem to be amusing himself. Olyphant isn't as physically dramatic as Leonard's Givens; you envision someone just a little bit bigger and more worn, which in a way was Olyphant's difficulty in Deadwood, which he overcame by giving Bullock an overwhelming, self-contradictory, righteousness.

But Justified has stayed true to the essence of Elmore, somewhat slicker, certainly aware of the gold mine it is for its actors, but at heart all about loyalty, betrayal, and most of all the way we use words to fool ourselves as much as others. It's also important to remember Leonard's westerns--they get Timothy Olyphant's hat wrong, but the use of the hat, to play with the image of the west when Raylan isn't totally a cowboy, is important. Interestingly, Leonard thought that Richard Boone, who played in two films based on his writing (The Tall T and Hombre) was the actor who best got the sound he was trying to write. 

When you read Leonard's early Western stories, you can feel palpably the influence of Hemingway, which I've mentioned before—not a copying of his style, but an awareness of how to tell the story through what is said, and unsaid, in the moments between the actions, or around the smallest and seemingly inconsequential actions. That's what happens here. You have to pay attention because a throwaway line may be carrying all the meaning of the entire story, and it is easy to miss, just as it is so easy to miss in life, and we miss it all the time. That's the genius of Elmore Leonard. He lets us see what we so often miss.

Friday 23 August 2013


The Intercept is Dick Wolf's first novel—but it's hard to look at it outside the context of his long career as the creator of the Law and Order franchise, and in fact, especially in its early sections, this book could be looked at as a script for the pilot of a new series, L&O Anti-Terror. Jason Fisk is a detective in the NYPD Intelligence Division, working in that law enforcement cooperative ground with the FBI, Homeland Security and other national agencies—and the book's opening section contrasts his decisive action on the ground with the more bureaucratic work of the feds, a promising set-up.

But that's just a curtain raiser to the main story—a plot by the now-deceased Osama Bin Laden to strike at a great symbolic target: the dedication of the new Freedom Tower at New York's 911 Ground Zero. And when a hijacking is thwarted in mid-air, and the six passengers become national heroes, the plot gets complicated.

Wolf works his story-telling like a Law and Order episode, switching between scenes and points of view, and it's very effective story-telling. He's built an engrossing plotline, where the reality of at Al Queda plan remains hidden, always a step ahead of Fisk, and the investigators. His characters work well, and what is most interesting is his frankness with the politics of terrorism; Law and Order has always presented the various arguments on all sides of an issue and Wolf shows considerable understanding for the 'other side' as well as some apposite criticism of the anti-terrorist machinery, while never losing sight of the
real issue or real victims.

As the plot is cranked up, the character around whom the twist revolves isn't difficult to spot, and the plot's main twist swings on his acting somewhat out of character for a trained terrorist—something none of the other terrorists do. That's balanced by tragedy, something a pilot episode might not do, but without giving too much away, it inevitably comes down to the chase. There are some moments familiar from other dramas—notably Homeland—both TV and on film, but it's not a copycat, and Wolf has Fisk there to give it a particularly NYPD, Law & Order edge. I read it on an airplane, which gave it a particular frisson, and it's a well-done thriller. One small piece of pedantry: British casualties are not transported from Iraq in coffins covered with 'English' flags. You'd think a British editor might pick up on that!

The Intercept by Dick Wolf
Sphere, £6.99, 9780751551136

Note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (

Wednesday 21 August 2013


With all the verbiage expended on so-called 'depressive detectives' from Scandinavia, its often overlooked that the so-called depression of everyone from Martin Beck to Harry Hole is neither exclusively Scandinavian, nor is it firmly in some sort of Nordic tradition. Indeed, part of the appeal of this strand in detective fiction has been the way it sheds light on the roles of individuals within societies who have watched the balance between personal responsibility and societal responsibility shift, with crime often the result.

But the traditional sort of Nordic depression, something different from Germanic angst, was founded on the basic idea of the individual battling alone in the dark and cold world. It is what we hear in the music of Jan Garbarek, it is what we found in Ingmar Bergman, those of us old enough to have been entranced by each successive film questioning our place in the universe, not just society.

This is what I have found in Arnaldur Indridason, and perhaps more than any of the current crop of crime writers from the North, his Erlendur is a throwback to that kind of Scandinavian world. And to my mind, Strange Shores is a detective novel Bergman could have felt very much at home filming. I'd been wondering about Erlendur's fate as his colleagues worried about his car spotted on the eastern Icelandic wilderness, and masterfully, Indridason has traced his footsteps.

As always, Erlendur is searching for some clue about his childhood, about the disappearance, and presumed death, of his younger brother when they got lost in a sudden storm. His almost morbid interest in other disappearances is piqued by the story of a young woman, Matthildur, who disappeared in a storm on the same night 60 British soliders went lost in the Eskifjordur valley. Her ghost was said to haunt her house, and to have moaned when her husband Jakob, killed by another storm while fishing, was buried.

The story is simple. Erlendur goes back and forth among the older people of the area, those who remember Matthildur and Jakob, prodding and poking them to turn over buried bits of the past. Staying in the now-derelict cottage where he lived as boy, and where his brother disappeared, and getting colder every night, he moves almost relentlessly, with the quiet fervour of a man seeking to know what is ultimately unknowable.

Much of Scandinavian crime fiction is about changing societies, and Erlendur has always stood for the older style of life, even in Iceland, the most remote of those nations. But here the story is all about the past, all about the grave things that can be hidden in even the smallest, most tightly knit, communities. It is about the basic drives to find meaning from life, when life is harsh and death a constant presence. Erlendur will 'solve' the mystery of Matthildur, and he will discover something about his brother, and remember more about himself. The ending, if inevitable, is written with an absolutely deft and honest touch—avoiding the melodramatic or romantic. It is for Erlendur the culmination of his life, or anyone's, and it resonates in the reader's heart long after the book is done.

Strange Shores by Arnaldur Indridason
Harvill Secker, £12.99, ISBN 9781846557118

Note: This review will appear also at Crime Time (

Tuesday 20 August 2013


Despite knowing he couldn't go on forever, the news of Elmore Leonard's death is truly saddening, partly because he went on so long, partly because he did it so well, and partly because he was so matter-of-fact, humble, and good humoured about his success. He was the perfect of example of a writer who laboured at his craft until the world caught up to his talent, and then kept labouring, unspoiled by his success. It was a marvelous run, the kind every pulp writer might have dreamed about. And if he were underappreciated in his early years, he was perhaps over-hyped as mainstream literary people caught up. But if that were true, he certainly deserved it. 
I met him at the NFT. 'Call me Dutch', he said, and after his lecture when he signed my copy of his Complete Western Stories, I hadnt yet realised that it would be the best book I'd read all that year.  The last thing I wrote about him was this essay on Hombre, here on New Year's Day. He will be sorely missed.

Friday 16 August 2013


My obituary of the poet and translator F.D. Reeve, father of the actor Christopher, is in today's Independent; you can link to it here. Because I had been at Wesleyan when Reeve was teaching there, I wrote a bit more than I'd been asked. In my researching I found the lists of poetry readings at the Honors College, and saw that I had read with other student poets not long after Reeve had performed as 'the Blue Cat'. Because my friend Seth Davis was in the College of Letters, he knew him well. Seth was kind enough to share his memories with me, thus the piece may give the impression I knew Reeve, which isn't so. Because I over-wrote, little bits were trimmed here and there in the paper. Rather than explain what's gone, I'll just post my copy here. Seth is the student who received an evaluation written in rhyming couplets--among the other differences are my description of the Frost-Krushchev confrontation as 'ill-tempered', my analysis of Richard Wilbur's translations from Russian, and the reference to Reeve's 2005 novel My Sister Life.


In the early stages of his career, the poet F.D. Reeve, who has died aged 84, found himself best-known as the translator who accompanied Robert Frost on his famous 1962 visit to the Soviet Union, the man in the middle of Frost's ill-tempered showdown with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Years later, having established himself as a poet, novelist, and translator, Reeve would find himself overshadowed again, by his eldest son Christopher, who achieved worldwide fame as the actor playing Superman in the smash 1978 movie hit.

Ironically, Reeve himself had given up acting to pursue poetry. If anything, he was better-looking than his son; I was a student at Wesleyan University when Reeve was a leading light in the inter-disciplinary College of Letters and his poetry was receiving its highest acclaim. Richard Wilbur was the University's poet in residence, and the two shared an almost impossibly handsome patrician elegance. I found that most striking when they performed on campus with the Russian poet Andrei Vozhnesensky, reading translations of his work. Reeve was fluent in Russian; Wilbur didn't speak the language but worked from Reeve's literal translation and his own sense of the intonation, meter and rhyme . The dueling verses were equally thrilling.

Franklin D’Olier Reeve was born in Philadelphia 18 September 1928. His father ran Prudential Financial, and although F.D. often told students his middle name was Delano, after President Roosevelt, D'Olier was his mother's family name. He was educated at the elite Philips Exeter Academy, and then at Princeton, where he studied under the poet and critic R.P. Blackmur, and became entranced with Russian literature after reading Anna Karenina. After graduation he travelled in Europe and worked in the Dakotas harvesting wheat, which would provide the material for his first novel, Red Machines (1968). In 1951, he married Barbara Lamb; Christopher was born in 1952 and a second son, Benjamin in 1953.

Reeve began graduate work at Columbia University, while working as a longshoreman and a jobbing actor. But he quit acting because he said he would have to 'give up too much of my inner self' to continue writing poetry. In 1956, he and Lamb divorced; she took the children to Princeton, and married a stockbroker, while he married a fellow Columbia student, Helen Schmidinger. That marriage also ended in divorce, as did his third, to Ellen Swift. His relationship with Christopher would always be difficult, and didn't improve with the son's fame. In interviews Christopher spoke of resentment toward his father over the bitterness of the marital break-up, and the awkwardness of his shared upbringing.

When F.D. Reeve gave his first public poetry reading, in New York, he was introduced by Blackmur, and shared the stage with Denise Levertov and the priest and future anti-war activist Daniel Berrigan. He received his PhD in 1958, and taught Russian at Columbia, where his first book, a study of Aleksandr Blok, was published in 1962. By then, he'd been selected for one of the first academic exchanges with the Soviet Academy of Sciences, which led to his selection as Frost's translator. Later he wrote a fine memoir of the trip, Robert Frost in Russia (1964), noting how he used the trip to introduce Frost, and himself, to the younger, more open, generation of Soviet writers.

After returning from Russia in 1962, he moved to Wesleyan, where he taught for 40 years. Originally head of the Russian department, he gave up tenure for an adjunct position in the College of Letters, which allowed him freedom to live and work elsewhere, eventually in Vermont, for parts of the year; particularly at Yale from 1974-86. He was a popular teacher, renowned in my time for his evaluation of one star student's colloquium, written entirely in rhymed couplets. That was his most successful period of writing; between 1968 and 1973 his first two collections of poetry, In The Silent Stones and The Blue Cat were published by major publishers, as were his next three novels, Just Over The Border, The Brother, and White Colours (1973). He would not publish another novel until My Sister Life in 2005.

Reeve translated Turgenev's short novels, and produced two anthologies of Russian drama. His renaissance as a writer was triggered by his move to Vermont, where he settled eventually in Wilmington with his fourth wife, creative writing professor Laura Stevenson. His third book of poetry, Nightway, finally appeared in 1987, followed by an exceptional critical work, White Monk (1989) tying together Dostoevsky and Melville. Between 1992 and 2010 seven more books of poetry appeared from independent presses, as well as a selected poems, A World You Haven't Seen (2001). He wrote two books of short stories based around his working on the Hudson River docks, and translated poetry by Bella Akhmadulina and Leonid Andreyev's 1908 novel Seven Who Were Hanged, which took on added resonance in the age of terrorism. His last published work was the novel Nathaniel Purple (2012) set in rural Vermont.

Reeve died 28 June 2013 in Lebanon, New Hampshire, of complications from diabetes. He is survived by Stevenson, his son from his first marriage, and a son and two daughters from his second. In a 2002 poem, 'Home In Wartime' Reeve wrote:

If I die first, gather the lost years
with the late September apples. At sunset ghost me
beside you on the steps to watch
the tangerine-lavender clouds turn gray.
Go on, go on.

Thursday 15 August 2013


NOTE: Blake Morrison wrote a piece for the Saturday Guardian a few weeks ago (20/7) about why writers drink. It ran through the usual alcoholic suspects, though it never did get around to answering the question it posed. The piece included a quote from Charles Bukowski, to the effect that booze 'yanks or joggles you out of routine thought and everydayism'. That seemed to suit what Morrison wanted to say, but the more I thought about it, the less convinced I was that, although it fitted the image of Bukowski, it was really what Bukowski's life was about, or what his writing was about. Because although his life wasn't the everyday life of everyday people, it had its roots in the humdrum there, and in his writing was a routine, a different sort of routine, and when you look at it closely enough, you see it bends back, a soaked worm eating its own tail, into the everyday mundane. But that look didn't suit Morrison, nor did it suit Bukowski.

So I went back and found this review of Howard Sounes' biography of Bukowski, which I wrote for Headpress 18, in January of 2002. The issue was subtitled, appropriately enough, 'The Agony And Ecstasy Of Underground Culture'. The review seems also to have been reprinted in the Headpress Guide To Counter Culture, published in 2004.

After the Amber O'Neil book I mention was published John Martin of Black Sparrow Press said he liked it, asked for a number of copies, and then sued because she used some of Bukowski's letters, to which Black Sparrow held the copyright. It has never been released, though copies have drifted out, apparently from boxes in the author's garage.

As 16 August is Bukowski's birthday, I thought I'd post the original review now--giving my take on why he drank, and what he meant to me as a reader. And lift a bottle to Bukowski too.


Although Charles Bukowski achieved a cult status in America, which seems to be growing all the time, for most of his career he was actually more popular in Germany. Perhaps this was because he had been born there, though his American father soon moved him back to the USA. More likely it was because Bukowski’s autobiographical stories, poems, and novels struck a chord with Germans: Bukowski was a man who wrote bildungsromans all his life, and he was a romantic in the great Germanic sense. There is an adolescent quality which his work never loses, and it seems to appeal to the adolescent which lies buried under many adult selves.

Bukowski was ugly. He drank. He sorted letters in a post office. He went to the track and played the horses. He chased easy women. He drank. He got into fights. All that made him different from thousands of other wasted souls in flop houses and skid rows across America was that he wrote about it. Fuelled with a sort of hard-boiled romanticism, he wrote about it in a bare, straightforward style which gave his tales an air of reality, and turned much of their adolescent world-view into self-deprecating humour. It is his way of coming out on top, of maintaining faith in a romantic view of the world, even when seen through a haze of smoke, drink, and rejection. It is not that the life Bukowski presents to us is false, it is that it is presented through eyes that are never as bloodshot as they seem, a sensibility that is never as lost or cynical as it appears on the surface.

Through the unlikely avenue of two small-press publishers, Bukowski became famous, in a fashion, and through his fictional alter-ego of Henry Chinaski his bottled dreams came true. All the booze he could drink, pretty women throwing themselves at him, and his work being taken seriously. In the world of small literary magazines, he was a force of nature, something 'real' in a genre dominated by careerist poetasters, creative writing professors in flannel shirts writing poems about chopping wood.

Writing a biography of someone who has constructed such a vibrant existence through fiction is a challenge which Howard Sounes meets head on, and battles at least to a draw. He is particularly good on the realities of Bukowski’s childhood, and on his progression to loser status. Detailing the nature of his relationships, and seeing in particular the three women who made up the bulk of his life before his writing became successful rounds out and balances somewhat the more romantic picture Bukowski draws in his work. 

Strangely enough, Sounes is less revealing about how it was that Bukowski’s work eventually caught the public’s eye. Although he turned against most of the small press people who aided him in the early days, it is not a common thing for someone to move from the mimeographed magazines where he began his career to financial success. It can be argued that Bukowski made Black Sparrow Press as much or more than they made him, but there isn’t a good sense of just how that came to happen, of whether Bukowski’s ultimate popularity “just happened” or whether John Martin or someone else played the Buk card deftly.

If anything, Bukowski’s biography cries out for more space and more salacious detail. Perhaps not surprisingly, Sounes is one of the many writers to produce books on the West killings. His FRED AND ROSE is one of the most reticent of that genre, unwilling to dwell on prurient gore. This is understandable, perhaps, when dealing with murder. But it's less understandable when you’re relating the life of a man who tossed the intimate details of his own life onto the page with a seemingly casual disregard.

Bukowski was a drunken fuckup, but he used his typewriter while crying in his beer the next day. In classic juicer behaviour, he turned against many of the people who loved him or helped him. As success gave him more opportunity to indulge, and to screw-up more spectacularly, the dichotomy became more and more pronounced. But as the situations got more and more bizarre, you long for more detail. I wish Amber O’Neil’s “Blowing My Hero”, an account of being sickened by having sex with Bukowski, could have been reprinted as an appendix. The recollections of the various women who now found Bukowski the successful writer attractive and romantic stand in sharp contrast to his early life: yet almost all the stories seem cut off before they get to the gut-wrench stage. The tension between Bukowski the romantic and Bukowski the cynical love machine lies underneath almost all of them, and needs to be brought to the surface. Even the potential absurd hilarity of Hollywood tough-guy types like Sean Penn paying hommage to a small-press poet doesn’t get played out for all it's worth. 

In the end, Bukowski got to indulge his adolescent fantasies of priapic power, not just in the pages of little magazines, but in life. Yet he found the character he had constructed became a self-fulfilling prophecy. No matter how bad he got the night before, Bukowski was back at the typewriter the next day. Few of us can literally work and make our dreams come true, but he was able to. In that sense, Bukowski’s life was far less crazy, and less tragic, than people think. Did he start out as a clean-cut loner looking to become a literary light? Was he, in the end, heroic, or were the readers who believed in Henry Chinaski simply taken in by a giant creative con, and wound up buying the drinks for the guy telling funny stories at the bar? That was what the movie Barfly played with, and it's the question Sounes doesn’t ask, and it stops this engrossing biography just short of the final hurdle of greatness.

CHARLES BUKOWSKI: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life

by Howard Sounes (Rebel Inc 354pp £16.99)

Saturday 10 August 2013


'People were opting for the real in the Seventies. People wanted to see the human heart and soul right in front of them.' -Karen Black

In an era of interchangeable pinups with blownup lips and botoxed faces, Karen Black's analysis of what made her such a remarkable actress at her very busy peak is telling. In fact, she may give too much credit to the filmmakers, and not enough to herself, because she was often the best thing in imperfectly judged projects, always giving her characters something that we, the audience, could recognise. There was nothing symmetric or regular about her features, but to look into those wandering eyes, especially when they were focused beyond the screen, on you, was to feel all the thrill and danger of real life and real love. On the dark side of a world celebrating newfound freedoms, she was the poster child for real people's vulnerability.

Karen Black projected real. She was smart, but she could play dumb, or better, play 'real people'- a category of character which Hollywood traditionally has ignored, or at best bent to its own perceptions ('tales of ordinary working people portrayed by rich Hollywood stars,' as the Firesign Theatre had it). She's best remembered for a number of roles in which she is an under-educated working-class woman whose innate knowledge makes her smarter than the men who use her. Think of Rayette in Five Easy Pieces, the perfect foil to Jack Nicholson's self-indulgent pianist, trying to find a 'real' life; she had played the hooker in Easy Rider, and Nicholson would cast her in his directorial debut, Drive, He Said, where as a bored faculty wife her intelligence came to the fore. She would also reprise Rayette in Cisco Pike, helping Kris Kristofferson's film debut, in a film where everyone else seems to be reprising older roles too.

She is brilliant as Myrtle Wilson, a trapped Rayette, in the unjustly derided 1974 version of The Great Gatsby, hugely superior to the over-hyped Baz Luhrman glitterfest. Oddly, much of the criticism for that film came from Jack Clayton's making it look so beautiful, which is about the only thing Luhrman's version has going for it. But Francis Ford Coppola's screenplay is sharp (Coppola cast Black in their mutual film debut, the overlooked You're A Big Boy Now, arguably Hollywood's first look at Sixties generational change—it was made before The Graduate but released after it) Black's Myrtel and Scott Wilson's George Wilson are real people, and they contrast with the equally real upper-class indifference of Bruce Dern's Tom Buchanan. Her Faye Greener, in The Day Of The Locust, is a successful variant of the same character; John Schlesinger's film was also criticised in 1975, but in retrospect it too stands up pretty well as an adaptation of Nathanel West's novel—if anything it to tried to catch the image of the era, where Black and many of the rest of the cast were busy catching the soul, or lack thereof, of Hollywood.

So it was strange that none of the many obituaries mentioned her role as Bett in The Outfit, John Flynn's 1973 adaptation of a Richard Stark novel. She's Rayette again, but she's paired with Robert Duvall's thief Macklin. She's wearing a beret before Gatsby, and the relationship is real within the limited bounds of their world. There is a truly touching phone call home at the center of the movie's last act, in which she reveals Bett's depths and sets up the film's denoument. One of my top-10 crime films, it's cast perfectly from top to bottom, but even in such company Black stands out.

And think of the many films in which she also stood out among casts of underperforming bigger stars, or in lackadaisical material: Portnoy's Complaint, Capricorn One (again with Dern), Hitchock's Family Plot, even in Nashville, where her country singer seems far more real than, say, Ronee Blakely's, and Blakely was a singer. She also tries hard but cannot save Altman's post-Nashville Come Back To The Five And Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

Some of the obits referred to her in her later career as a 'scream queen', but she barely fits the modern definition, of B movie actresses who exist to be victimised while nearly naked. She might be typed in a tradition of What Happened To Baby Jane, or perhaps like Ingrid Pitt or Barbara Steele, stronger actresses who relished off-beat roles. In that I was reminded of Karen Steele, a 50s actress who came into films as a statuesque beauty queen, but often projected too much strength and intelligence to be cast comfortably in big pictures. Watch her in Ride Lonesome, and think what Karen Black could have done with a similar role. It's too glib to say she might have succeeded in an early era in Hollywood, in Bette Davis parts (that Bett in The Outfit isn't totally coincidental), but she was lucky in a sense to enter the business at a point where there were roles for her, and unlucky that the business changed so rapidly just when she should have been being offered roles playing women who were more in control. Roles outside horror films. Karen Black was a great actress, who should have been a star, and her death, by reminding us of so many 'how it was' and 'what might have beens' is made even sadder.

Monday 5 August 2013


It may just be coincidental that vengeance is again the subject matter of a recent western, but Wyatt Earp's Revenge is odd because it trumpets itself as being based on a true story, but there's very little of the true story in it. Since Earp and his story is one of the more compelling of the west, it's sad that this latest exercise in frontier revenge makes the not very exciting Sweet Vengeance (see review here) look like Red River.

In an interesting bit of casting, Val Kilmer plays an older Earp, recounting this tale to a young newsman. Kilmer, of course, was excellent as Doc Holliday in Tombstone, so one can only assume the worst, that he was cast here as a not-so-subtle way of borrowing from that film. I am not casting aspersions here, because the borrowing takes place on a grand scale, with the villain stealing his killing shtick from No Country For Old Men, wholesale lifts from Tombstone, Once Upon A Time In The West, Ride Lonesome, and numerous other classics, and even, in a massive descent into stupidity, a meaningless cameo for Doc Holliday (Wilson Bethel) which is taken lock, stock, and smoking barrel from Little Shop Of Horrors.

Here's the bit that's 'based on a true story'. The actress Dora Hand was killed in Dodge City, and a posse made up of Earp, Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, and Charlie Bassett did go out and bring the culprit, Spike Kenedy to justice. Kenedy was trying to kill Dodge City mayor Dog Kelly, and shot into his house, but Kelly was away, and Hand and another actress were sharing the place.

Here are the bits that are made up: Everything else.

In the film the posse trails Kenedy, who begins a killing spree, and his brother. They are threatened by Kenedy's powerful father, a confrontation which is what the whole movie is building up to, but which never takes place. Eventually, having killed the brothers, the four posse members get Buntline Specials as momentos.

In reality, the posse trailed Kennedy and got ahead of him in a rainstorm. Bat Masterson shot him in the shoulder (he would lose use of his arm) and Earp shot his horse out from under him. They brought him back to Dodge, where Kenedy was eventually acquitted in a private trial which was assumed to be heavily influenced by his father's money. Who headed the posse, Masterson (the county sheriff), Bassett (the marshal) or Earp (the deputy marshal) is an open question. Tilghman may not have been a lawman in Dodge at the point, but soon would be, and was not part Indian, nor had he grown up among Indians. Hand performed in a saloon co-owned by Masterson's brother Jim, and I've seen no suggestion, much less evidence, that she was Earp's love; she was generally squired about town by Kelly. In any case, Earp would spend his entire life post-Tombstone with Josie Marcus, another actress, so the odds on his sitting down for this interview while contemplating old age alone and pining for Dora Hand are long. Ned Buntline, if he did present five Specials to Dodge lawmen, didn't do it on account of Dora Hand, but the evidence is pretty thin that he ever did.

I could live with a fictionalised version if there was a sensible reason, beyond reprising familiar tropes, for it. In fact, the one bit that actually seemed, for a moment, promising, was looking at Earp as a forensic detective, but even that falls flat, since his conclusions make no logical sense from the evidence he's found. And the most dramatic moments, the sociopathic confrontations between Spike and various frontier , which are of course fictional, have some tension, but suffer because of the obvious rip-off of No Country. He also wears a white hat, which is incredibly ironic.They have a bit of the feel of a serial killer/horror movie, which isn't that surprising as director Michael Feifer is a direct to video horror specialist. Even Earp's love scenes, which reprise Kurt Russell's in Tombstone's, are hampered by Diana DeGarmo playing even more anachronistic than Dana Delany, and by what look like very modern picnic benches alongside the edge of the prairie.

You might argue that Val Kilmer looks and acts tired because that's the way his Wyatt is supposed to be, but even tired he is the focus of most of the movie's energy. Shawn Roberts, as young Wyatt, makes Jason Statham look like John Gielgud (see below left). He screws his face into a grimace to indicate everything from pain to a great moral dilemma.  Matt Dallas as Bat is better, kind of like a straight-to-video Matthew McConaghy. Daniel Booko has the plum role, as Kenedy. He's from the Roberts' school of creative grimace, but it works better in his role, and he tries to do more with it. He looks an awful lot like a young David Keith, which might be limiting him right from the start.Steven Grayhm is more interesting as Spike's younger brother. There's probably a better story to be made about the influence of Miflin Kennedy, owner of one of Texas' biggest ranches, and his wife Petra, daughter of the former Spanish governor of Mexico. Given singer Trace Adkins' performance as Mifflin, kind of a small screen Nick Nolte, it's probably for the best.

The ham is provided by Biff Wiff as Ned Buntline, and Scott Whyte as Charlie Bassett (the one who had actually arrested Kenedy before the fatal shooting) deserves mention simply because he manages to convey so well the idea that he's going to be the one of the four to get knocked out the action first. And the twist in the sub-plot, with the young reporter from the Kansas City Star (David O'Donnell playing Saul Rubinek) is telegraphed so graphically that you'd know what was coming even if the Indians had cut the wires from here to Lordsburg. In the end, the only revenge this film gets is on the genre of westerns.

Saturday 3 August 2013


Samuel Madison considered himself a lucky man to be married to Sandrine, beautiful, artistic, and a far more brilliant scholar than he was. That she gave up a prestigious career path to teach at a small Georgia college that would hire the two of them together, so he could work on his novel, merely confirmed his amazing good fortune, something far beyond what he'd ever expected or thought he'd deserved.

Years later, their daughter grown, and still at sleepy Coburn College, Madison comes home to find Sandrine dead, overdosed on Demerol, an apparent suicide. But few people believe Sandrine would take her own life. Madison, aloof and seemingly unemotional about her death, finds circumstantial evidence building up against him. Soon he is on trial for murder, which is where Thomas Cook's novel, told in flashbacks growing from the daily testimony in court, begins.

This is in many ways classic Thomas Cook country. Sam is a passive character, a watcher, failed in what was his one ambition, to write a novel, a reactor to Sandrine's glowing brilliance. It was she who proposed to him, in Albi, and the perceptive reader will feel the dynamic of the relationship, and its influence on the plot, before Sam himself does. Of course, being Cook, even glimpsing the realities behind the story doesn't cover the way it twists itself into the worst of all possible dilemmas for Sam.

The academic setting is downplayed, but will still remind many of Cook's best-known novel, The Chatham School Affair, though the only connection is the one I've noted in so many of Cook's books, the essentially academic, observer quality of his protagonists. Sam is one of the best of those, partly because of the skill with which Cook delineates the limits of his character, and partly because he allows Sandrine to do the same, more tellingly. The beauty of that is the way in which it forces a modicum of self-awareness on Sam—again, like many of Cook's protagonists, he is incredibly inward-focused, yet not deft in his self-analysis.

The result is unexpected, and the coda, while appropriate, may be somewhat too glib-- it is what is suggested by the story, but still it seems like something we should see at the beginning, rather than the end. That's a small matter, however. What resonates from this book like muted bells is the person of Sam Madison, a man whose flaws become exposed to both himself and the reader as we go along. They are recognisable, these character traits, and that is the sign of a expert novelist. Cook is a writer who makes us look into ourselves, and those we know, as well as his own characters. It is what gives his novels such moving intensity. 

Sandrine by Thomas H. Cook
Head of Zeus £16.99 ISBN 9781781855133

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (