Tuesday 25 November 2014


Patrick Norris has returned from Afghanistan, to Fallbrook, California, north of San Diego, looking for peace. He's going to help out on his family's avocado farm, look for boat to buy to start his own business as a fishing guide. But the Fallbrook he returns to has changed. A massive fire has virtually destroyed the family business, and his brother Ted, a perennial ne'er do well who idolises Patrick, seems drawn to right-wing conspiracies and Tea Party extremists. It's a different world than the one he left, and that is the real theme behind this thoughtful and moving novel by T. Jefferson Parker, one of America's most under-appreciated crime writers.

It's hinted at when, on his arrival, Patrick bumps into a Korean War veteran in the rest room at the airport, who thanks him for his service, but says: 'Now the South Koreans have a better health care system than we do. We're twenty-third in the world. It's all changed for the worse here. The country. The people. The government. Everything's gone bad.' 'I hope you're wrong,' Patrick says. 'It doesn't matter what you hope.'

Parker's book is about those changes. The communities whose citizens don't want to pay for someone else's safety (a hit and run at a street crossing has highlighted the lack of a crossing light; the accident will come back into play later in the story). The people who see strength in guns and in prejudice. The banks who will not help their suffering clients. And of course, Patrick's family is involved. The farm has no money because his parents invested in real estate, before the 2008 crash. His brother is drawn to Cade Magnus, and his Pride Auto Repair, a second-generation American Nazi, drawn to guns, and getting things done against the government he thinks is trying to take his freedoms.

The Bureau of Homeland Security comes to investigate the fire; meanwhile the power company wants to make sure it's not ruled something their fallen lines or faulty boxes might be responsible for. The town meeting about the crossing is testy, but Patrick rekindles a relationship with a reporter, Iris. He finds his boat, and gets a deal on it because he's a veteran. But things beyond his control go wrong, and Ted continues to be Ted, and Patrick feels responsible for him.

Parker weaves these strands together with the ease of mastery. Small items come back to have deeper, more important meaning. The gratitude of his fellow citizens can be fleeting, as can be love. And Ted remains a trial. The story builds to a climax which is unexpected and immensely moving. Followed by a coda in which a huge storm strikes, providing a final test for all involves.

I've seen this book compared to Steinbeck, and that first climax certainly recalls The Grapes Of Wrath, a great novel about the shortcomings of the Californian Dream. But I also felt a lot of Upton Sinclair here, a combination of epic nature and sharp dissection of society's ills. In that sense too, you might look at this as an historical novel, even though the history is current. Parker's best novel is probably the deceptively-titled California Girl (2004) which won the best-novel Edgar; it is another family story set in the early 1950s and the late 1960s, and like Full Measure deals with changes in society and the way people deal with them; it also features a 'bad' family set against the 'good' family, as dissenters almost. But with Parker, it is the response of people who hold onto the 'traditional' values which are key to the story.

Parker has achieved some traction in the US recently with his series of books about Charlie Hood, an LA County Sheriff, but his career has consisted mainly of stand-alone novels whose setting has been an important part, and whose characters are so well drawn they involve you quickly in that setting. California Girl, despite its awards, wasn't quite a breakthrough book. But Full Measure, with its mirror turned perceptively on the most crucial fissures of America, and with its deeply human core, might be that one. TJP deserves it.

Full Measure by T. Jefferson Parker
Sandstone Press £8.99 ISBN 9781908737809

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Monday 10 November 2014


The grim darkness of Black Coal Thin Ice is set out in the opening scenes: coal on a train dumped into a conveyor belt, with a severed hand lurking amongst the lumps of black. Meanwhile, in a bleak hotel room Zhang, a police detective, has silent sex which itself seems almost disembodied, with a woman who turns out to be his wife, which we learn when she hands him the divorce papers just before she leaves on a train. Zhang tries to stop her from going; an umbrella springs open on the platform; Zhang falls to the ground; she is gone. He kicks a bottle down the stairs. 'There's no point in crying, you're just wasting time'.

Back on the job the coal-stained body part leads Zhang to a beauty parlor where what should be a routine arrest goes wrong, and he is shot in a scene laid out as creatively as John Woo at his peak. But the shootout has more mundane consequences for Zhang.

Five years later Zhang is a security guard, in a coal factory, living a bleak life which centers on drinking the past into oblivion. Then body parts start showing up again, body parts and ice skates, and Zhang finds himself pulled back into the investigation. Which leads him to a beautiful but enigmatic clerk in a dry cleaners, and Zhang, trying somehow to redeem himself as a cop, begins to become obsessed with her, propelling him into the equal dangers of finding the killer and making something of this once again silent, withdrawn sort of relationship. Thinking she may hold the key to the puzzle puts her in line to be a victim herself, but Diao realises that the detective and the potential lover share many of the same characteristics: both are investigating to see if what they see of a person is really there.

Writer-director Diao Yinan blens the grittiest of backgrounds and the most depressing flatness of life with an almost mystic undercurrent, like Marquez writing a hard-boiled detective novel. He touches bases with most of the familiar tropes of modern noirish film, not least Zhang's apparently feeling comfortable only in the presence of his fellow cops. But the distinctive combination which Diao blends here seems to make a statement about China itself, presented as an almost two-dimensional world of hidden darkness, where the personal hides under the surface. Diao creates some brilliant visual metaphors, including the various uses of coal, conveyors, and trains. Ice skating figures into the mix, with the characters gliding or stumbling on the ice, and at one point engaging in a chase along a frozen path away from the rink. There are fireworks and ferris wheels, public spaces where people are supposed to share but move in their own circles, as you would on a skating rink, and finally a brilliant tango scene that recalls Marlon Brando and sees Zhang doing his own steps while everyone else sticks to the programmed pattern.

As Zhang, Liao Fan is brilliant: a mix of bravado and insecurity, a man at home with that inevitable realisation that you may uncover something you don't really want to find out. Gwei Lun-Mei is his perfect foil as the withdrawn clerk who holds the secret to the killings; she is beautiful in a way that invites sa man's protection while at the same time suggesting something beyond a dry cleaner's. The story resolves with a clever twist that makes perfect sense, and propels us back to the film's beginning, where we see understanding both love and death are equally difficult. Black Coal, Thin Ice is one of the best detective films I've seen in a long time, and Liao is a director who draws you into his story and makes you live the pace of his vision. Brilliant.

Black Coal, Thin Ice (China/Hong Kong 2014)
written & directed by Diao Yinan
starring Liao Fan, Gwei Lun-Mei, Wang Xue-Bing

NOTE: This review also appears at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Thursday 6 November 2014


I began my downsizing yesterday by unloading some vinyl to my friend, the guitarist Andy Wiersma, at Harold Moore's. Among the records was Elliott Carter's Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord with the intellectual Nonesuch cover. I used to go to sleep listening to it in college, and sometimes stare at the artwork while under the influence.

There were the early 70s ECM records which played on the turntable which sat on the amp which sat on one speaker on the floor of the closet, as I wrote my McGill masters thesis in the tiny flat on Avenue Lorne I shared with Theresa. I wrote poems based on the tunes I was hearing: one of the joys of my later life was meeting Eberhard Weber and Jan Garbarek, and sharing some of those poems with them.

These were records I'd brought with me, from Montreal back to Connecticut, and then to Britain when I moved to London in 1977. There was also some Ives, from the same time, and some lovely Savoy jazz collections I'd picked up early in my stay in this country. It's a cliche to call it the background music of a life; it was part of the foreground of my life, a palpable part of it.

I wasn't a fanatic, nor an anorak. Oddly, I learned this week that one of my teammates on the freshman football team at Wesleyan, Skip Wood, had passed away. I still have the first Earth Opera album which I bought from Skip, who had the biggest record collection I'd ever seen, probably in 1969. I know this because the sleeve boasts the words 'Skip Wood Record' and a control number, written in large letters with a magic marker. It saddens me to think that record too will be sold off soon; my only link to Skip will be gone.

I felt a great sense of loss, of time that will never be recovered, and the pressures of change brought on by circumstance, not time. Even though I don't have a turntable, and haven't listened to the vinyl in years, when I sorted through them, taking them from the wine carton in the attic, holding them and reading the liner notes, I felt a warmth emanating from them. I could hear and see the passage of more than four decades of time. And while I still listen to the same music on CD, I don't feel that warmth. I don't hold the cases and feel as if they're alive the way record albums were. Listening to a CD is more like a business transaction than a communing ritual. The feel and look and sound of those records was the first thing I thought of when I woke this morning. I felt a great sense of loss. Goodbye old friends.

Saturday 1 November 2014


Ace Atkins introduced Quinn Colson in The Ranger, and when I reviewed that book last year (you can link to the review here) I noted the tropes from westerns (which Ace and I had discussed with Mariella Frostrup on Open Book), and from novels and films about returning war veterans, itself a sub-genre that goes back to encompass at least the Civil War.

Colson is now the sheriff of Tibbehah County, Mississippi, based in Jericho, where he exists in an sort of uneasy truce with the local crime boss Johnny Stagg. The novel opens with a prison break from Parchman Farm, famous from blues songs. Esau Davis and Bones Magee make their getaway on horses, just like in a western, but from there the story gets very modern. Because they're headed for Jericho, where one of their former convict pals, Jamey Dixon, has seen the light, and is a fundamentalist preacher with a line in redemption. And, coincidentally, he's living with Colson's sister Caddy, who's got a line in redemption herself.

And then it gets complicated. What Atkins does well is delineate the violence that simmers just under the overheated surface of rural Mississippi. It's something that gets pushed aside in the daily life of the people, just as the the rest of the darker side of human behaviour does. At times Atkins' prose, which in this series is very much in the Elmore Leonard vein, touches on the Southern gothic overtones of a Flannery O'Connor, and it is a pleasure to read.

But Atkins is also writing the continuation of Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels, and very well too (see my review of Lullaby here), and at times Quinn Colson starts to resemble Parker's Jesse Stone. He is partnered by a wise black woman sheriff. He has a relationship with his former true love, Anna Lee, who's now married to the good-guy town doctor. And although he doesn't have Stone's ability to charm a steady stream of women, the town undertaker and coroner, Ophelia, seems to have a soft spot for him. Anna Lee, Ophelia, Jericho, Esau...it gets very literary, if not downright Biblical, down there in the Gothic South.

This is a series book, and though it gets resolved with action and violence, enough issues both violent and non-violent, are left unresolved to ensure the next entry in the series will continue to put Colson into perilous positions. There's something major breathing under the surface of the Colson series, and it will be fascinating to see what Atkins does with those intimations.

The Broken Places by Ace Atkins
Corsair £7.99 ISBN 9781472112156