Thursday 30 April 2015


Even if you're not an American football fan, the story of Lawrence Phillips, who's recently been accused of murdering his cellmate in prison, is a sad one. My experience with Lawrence, and a preview of the NFL Draft which takes place today, are in my Friday Monthly Tight End column at; you can find it here.

Or, six weeks later, I've posted the whole piece here, though I do recommend my pretty accurate NFL Draft preview too:


I was more saddened than shocked by the news this month that Lawrence Phillips had apparently killed his cellmate in prison, and will likely remain behind bars for the rest of his life. Trouble followed Phillips around throughout his career, but the season he played for the Barcelona Dragons in the World League of American Football belied his reputation. Still, in that short season I got to see up close just a hint of what lay smouldering beneath the surface of a troubled human being.

In March 1998 I was in Orlando for WLAF preseason, and supposed to interview Phillips for the International Herald Tribune one day after scrimmages. But first he had to do a sit-down with ESPN, and the league's PR people had agreed to that on condition they not ask Lawrence about his problems at the University of Nebraska, which included dragging an ex-girlfriend down three flights of stairs in a jealous rage. Of course the representatives of the Worldwide Leader ignored their promise to the mere World League, and immediately began the interview with just such a question, raising hackles all around. So when Phillips was then being escorted away from me, I started trying to persuade the league PR guys (who were and are friends) to let me do the interview I'd been promised. They said no, but Lawrence as he passed by heard and saw me, and stopped. 'It's OK,' he said, 'I'll do it, I know this guy.' 'You know me?' I said, thinking it unlikely my fame had reached that far. 'Yeah, you did a good interview with me at the Orange Bowl. Let's talk.'

So we talked, and I could not persuade him that I didn't know him, hadn't interviewed him, and had never been to Miami, much less the Orange Bowl. I didn't ask for details about the past, but he was frank about his getting a second chance. Indeed he went with that second chance, having a fine season with the Dragons, 1,021 yards rushing and 14 TDs in 10 games, leading them to the World Bowl, and being named the league's MVP. Whenever I went to Barcelona, he remained friendly, joking about the Orange Bowl. But in the season's final game, against Frankfurt, whom the Dragons would meet the next week in the World Bowl, Phillips suffered a severe sprain of his ankle as Barcelona won 28-26.

The next morning, with a Sky camera crew, I went to catch the Dragons' World Bowl train to Dusseldorf. I saw Lawrence standing alone at the end of another platform. Asking the cameraman to stay behind me until I needed him, I went over. As I got closer I could see Lawrence staring, seething, at the ground. I said hi, and something about the ankle, asked if he'd be ready for Saturday, and Phillips cold-eyed me. He cussed me out as he told me to get away. 'I don't know you,' he said. I tried to say something else, but he repeated the formula. So I stopped and just said 'Let me get this straight...when I say you don't know me, you say you know me. And now that you do know me, you say you don't?' I swear he almost broke the cold-eye, but then it snapped back and he turned away. I realised that the pain and disappointment of injury was translating itself into anger. In the World Bowl he tried to play with the injury, but he was ineffective, and the Galaxy won easily, 38-24.

One summer up in New Hamapshire, years later after Lawrence had been arrested for running over two guys after a touch football argument, I was talking with Jack Bicknell, his coach in Barcelona, about that. He told me how nice Phillips had been, that he'd called Jack's wife Lois 'mom', and how he'd done everything well. Jack thought that the relaxed atmosphere, the forced camaraderie of the league, where players lived together for three whole months, and the very anonymity of playing football in Barcelona, had lessened the pressure on Phillips. Because Lawrence lacked a kind of regulator for dealing with some adversities, and so he internalised pressure. You might say he needed to be coddled or protected, or you might say he just needed something more basic.

At any rate, his on-field success in Barcelona or Montreal of the CFL might be explained by that relative relaxation, though it could be explained just as easily by the extra split-second holes stayed open for him in those leagues. And it's ironic that a player so violent off the football field will be remembered in on-field NFL terms primarily for being the guy who missed a block and allowed the sack and concussion which ended Steve Young's career. But off-field, having seen face to face just a hint of the intensity of his anger, I'm not surprised by the rages that led him to where he is today.


On The Clock opens with a chapter on the 2014 NFL Draft, which the authors call 'the most exciting of all time'. So exciting, in fact, they never even mention who the second player selected in the draft might have been. Instead, we jump from first pick Jadeveon Clowney to draft-dropping Johnny Manziel to draft free-falling Michael Sam, in what is a perfect metaphor for what makes something exciting to today's media world, and what makes this book disappointing.

Clowney was the story because he was a defensive lineman who'd seemed to take his final year of college off. Manziel was a wild-card both on and off the field, the antithesis of the classic great NFL quarterback. And Sam, of course, had come out as gay, and was drafted by his local team, the Rams, only a few picks before the final round came to an end.

These were the stories which drove the media frenzy around the draft, a frenzy amplified by the NFL's decisions to stretch the seven rounds over three days, putting the first day on prime time television, and holding the whole thing later than usual, to add to the build-up's hype. These brought more attention, but it's a value judgement the authors never prove that this was what made the draft more 'exciting'. Indeed, the face they ignore Greg Robinson's going to the Rams with the second pick implies there was little excitement to the part of the process that should generate the most excitement: the battle to be the first pick overall.

It's typical of the book's approach. Although it's billed as 'the story of the NFL draft' it's actually no such thing. In fact, the authors go into the war room of the Cincinnati Bengals for the 2014 draft, and come out with a few paragraphs that not only tell you nothing about their internal processes or debates, but slide through in a couple of lines what was a very good draft indeed. If you're a newcomer to the event, you won't find it explained, or analysed. If you're familiar with it, you won't find very much that's new. It seems to assume you know already an awful lot of what they are telling you. Which is a shame, because where the book is best is on history.

The chapter on Bert Bell, the NFL commissioner who brought the draft into being, is interesting. But it's a chapter about Bell, who's a great story, and his influence on the NFL but not about the draft per se. It also suffers from sloppy writing: in the space of a few pages we are told three separate times that Bell 'came from a wealthy family'. His family story is fascinating enough to be written with less repetition and more clarity.

That's a problem throughout the book, which seems to be an amalgam of separate articles, some of them conceived in click-bait terms (one chapter is 'A Draft Genius and Three Wise Men' another is 'The Lists') which allows for anecdotal story-telling but fails to fit into any meaningful schematic about the draft itself. And as suggested above, there is a distinct absence of copy-editing, as well as structural editing.

Some of the story-telling is interesting, but irrelevant to the draft (the Frank Filchock scandal, for example) and some that is relevant ('the African American Breakthrough', for example) needs to be either examined more deeply, as NFL history, or linked more closely to the draft process itself.

In the end, there are plenty of stories to keep you entertained, if you don't mind the scatter-shot nature of the writing and the structuring. But as a history of the draft, it falls short. As insight into the processes of the draft, of the teams when they are actually 'on the clock' it's lacking. In fairness, most books are; Michael Holley's The War Room had great access to the Patriots, and offered insight into personalities, but never could crack the insider dynamic of what goes on, and how it happens. That book remains to be written.

On The Clock: The Story of the NFL Draft
by Barry Wilner and Ken Rappoport
Taylor Trade Publishing £12.99 ISBN 9781630761011

Friday 24 April 2015


It's not often one's highest hopes are rewarded. Watching the Bosch TV series through to the end on Amazon hasn't changed my opinion of it (see my interview with Michael Connelly and Titus Welliver and essay on the first four episodes here) but it has widened my perspective. I rejoined the series with episode five, Mama's Boy, which again was directed by Ernest Dickerson in the most stunning fashion for the small screen. Dickerson has always been good in darker, shadowy locations, and the way he blends that darker sense with the bright light of Los Angeles is a perfect visual metaphor for what Connelly's books and the series itself try to do.

What's most interesting about the complete series is the way it winds up aligning with that vision in so many ways. It's light on the shootouts and car chases, and it is very heavy on the grind of police work, the slow process of unglamorous detection. Although Harry's relationships, with his daughter, his ex, and with his colleagues are inevitably the focus, the story lines, intertwined admirably (presumably by Eric Overmyer) from a number of Connelly's books, reflect issues that mirror Bosch the person and Bosch the detective, not least those of parenthood. The two major plot threads are connected, with the discovery of the body of a teenager murdered 20 years earlier ( City Of Bones) linking to the serial killer Reynard Waits (Echo Park). Bosch himself is introduced by a smaller storyline taken from The Concrete Blonde. It's a fascinating bit of adaptation, and what stands out is the way they have been combined to reinforce each other. Even Shawn Hatosy as Stokes and Jason Gedrick as Waits seem to reinforce each other.

The ensemble cast is not new to police drama (think especially of Hill Street Blues) and it is very much of a part of modern Scandinavian crime -- like Martin Beck, Bosch's essential isolation plays off the group he works with. But the persistent and upfront conflict with authority is an essential part of Bosch's work ethic. It is helped in this case by another parallel story, detailing the bartering between District Attorney Rick O'Shea (Stephen Culp), who wants to be mayor, and Deputy Chief Irvin Irving (Lance Reddick, in a role that seems an outgrowth of his part in The Wire) who wants to be chief and holds a copy of the video O'Shea thought he'd destroyed, which shows his own, rather than Bosch's culpability in Waits' escape from custody. It's a tremendous cast, with Jamie Hector as Bosch's partner Jerry Edgar and Mark Derwin as his nemesis Harvey Pounds standing out, and the seemingly requisite lesbian kiss signaled by Rose Rollins (fresh from The L Word) as Kiz Ryder. Annie Wersching does an excellent job of mercurial changes in her relationship with Bosch, while Sarah Clarke, as Eleanor Wish (it's not just villains whose names signify things) signals both why she was attracted to Bosch and why the relationship couldn't work. Pat Skipper, as the father of the murdered boy, has some devastating scenes, as does Veronica Cartwright as Waits' mother.

But the essence of good character acting is having good characters, and it is a tribute to the writing of the show that they have so much to work with. It's also writing that takes chances. The main story arc actually resolves itself in the ninth of the ten episodes, and I found it significant that Connelly himself co-scripted the final episode, which is where the series comes full circle back to its focus on Bosch while tying the other story lines together.

And of course Bosch is the centre. I started off admiring what Welliver brought to the part: a fierce internal drive which is the essence of Bosch. As the series went on, I realised he matched by pre-conception of Bosch less and less: he a bit too ectomorphic, too lean, sharp-angled, and hard. He dresses too well, wears too showy a watch, and a bracelet that seemed disconcerting. But then I realised that this is a bit of keeping with the times, and the anachronism is wound up in the turntable, and the jazz LPs that Bosch plays, and the way his daughter marvels at them (and doesn't even have CDs). Times have changed.

Then it occurred to me that my image of Bosch is very close to my image of Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op, an un-preposessing slightly soft around the edges detective, but that this does not have to be what Bosch should be, and what Welliver brought to the character was very much in keeping with where he was going in this show. Moreover, it occured to me that if you were casting for Hammett's Sam Spade (not that the world needs a remake of The Maltese Falcon) Titus Welliver would be the perfect choice for the Bogart part, and that Bogart might have made a decent Harry Bosch in his own time. Welliver as Bogart; I can't think of a much higher compliment. And Bosch: The Series has left me already anticipating the second season.


On the anniversary of his death, I received one notice reminding us that Pat Tillman died 'protecting us'.
Couched in the rhetoric of the new American fear, that statement seemed an insult to the reality of what Tillman stood for. Recalling his tragic death should have  reminded us Tillman didn't want to be used as a recruiting tool when he quit football to enlist in the army, and he certainly would not have wanted to be used to perpetuate the world-view he had come to realise was a sham.

Pat Tillman remains a shining example of individual courage failed by the authorities and the very ideals in which he believed. Tillman discovered quickly he wasn't 'protecting' America; he came to the unshakeable conclusion he was fighting in an illegal war.

When he died, he was killed by his comrades, in a firefight that featured no enemies. The military immediately created a story around his death that would let them continue to use Tillman for their own purposes. His superiors lied about what happened. They ordered his fellow soldiers to lie about what had happened. Their superiors, knowing it was a lie, lied about what had happened, and about the lies. They burned his flak jacket and his diary, evidence of who Tillman really was, and what had really happened to him. They lied to his family, which in many ways is more sickening than their lies to America.

When the lies were revealed, they accused Tillman and his family of atheism and other crimes. Like cowards they began a massive coverup.  An epidemic of memory loss --'a near-universal lack of recall' according to the House investigators--struck a huge number of high-ranking officers involved. Men with such shaky mental processes should not be in command of soldiers in the front-lines. They protected their jobs, their pensions, their advancement, and as has become endemic in the tales of the Bush invasions, let the grunts on the ground take the blame.

Still they couldn't stop the truth. Army surgeons testified the three shots that killed him were fired at close range, contradicting the official second version of his death. His mother believes he was murdered. Whatever the truth it is a story of deep incompetence and systemic malfeasance, the poisoned fruit of a very poisoned political tree. Pat Tillman was indeed a hero, a symbol of much of the best of the America we would like to be. But his is a story of deep shame and that is the truth of what America ought to be reminded of whenever they are asked to remember Pat Tillman and his death.

Tuesday 21 April 2015


Mike Hammer is back again! I've written about the posthumous Mickey Spillane-Max Allan Collins collaborations before, and indicated my distinct preference for keeping Hammer in period, and in character. And that's exactly what Kill Me, Darling does and does well: it's vintage peak-era Spillane so seamless it's hard to see where the Spillane ends and the Collins picks up.

As Max explains, Kill Me, Darling was originally conceived as a follow-up to Kiss Me, Deadly, published in 1952, and a massive best-seller in both hardcover and paperback. I, The Jury had appeared in 1947, but the next five Hammer novels all were published between 1950 and 52, a surge of creativity which followed a pause which I like to think may have been partially due to Mickey's surprise at his first book's success.

After Kiss Me Deadly no Hammer novel would appear for a decade, and The Girl Hunters (1962) was a different sort of Hammer. This ten-year gap is often explained by Mickey's conversion to Jehovah's Witnesses, but I find that glib. I think it's more likely that he'd written Hammer out for the moment, that the success of Kiss Me, Deadly allowed him to relax, and perhaps that he was tired of defending his writing against fierce critics (not least Robert Aldrich and Buzz Bezzerides, director and writer of the film of Kiss Me, Deadly, which deconstructed Hammer in the last flattering and most apocalyptic way).

But Mickey did start a Hammer novel after Kiss Me, Deadly. It began with Hammer drunk and abandoned by Velda, his secretary/partner/true love, as if he wanted to take away what had made his character work. Mickey reused that opening in The Girl Hunters, and it may be the best part of the book, but he took that story in a different direction. Here Collins has borrowed a different, but similar, beginning from another Spillane fragment, then followed the original story line, taking Hammer, after the murder of the vice cop who brought him and Velda together, to Miami in pursuit of his love, who's shacked up with a vice-lord, the kind of guy who should be her natural enemy.

Hammer is as out of place in Miami as he is at home in New York: a number of times he stands out to the point of literally seeming like a target. The story follows some familiar arcs: he hooks up with a friendly reporter and cop to help his investigation, and some less familiar ones, including an offer from the heads of Mafia families. He survives one beating and two attempts on his life, but one of the two most interesting parts of the story is the way the violence is toned down: Hammer is practical here, never reaching that white heat of rage, and having dried himself out, given up Luckies and restricted himself to a sobering four beers a day, seems like a more rational, if not cerebral character.

But the key to the story is sex. 'Sex was always in it somewhere,' as Hammer himself notes. Nolly Quinn ran a brothel in New York, but with reform taking place in Miami, he's looking to branch out in other directions. Quinn's handsome, fastidious, smokes with cigarette holder, and possesses a stiff sort of charm: I kept seeing George Montgomery playing him. Hammer's convinced Velda's actually undercover, and he becomes convinced that Quinn (whose very name seems ambiguous) isn't a 'threat' to her because he must be 'queer'. Here he presents an amazing rationale: Quinn must be queer because he hasn't tried to consummate his relationship with Velda. 'No guy with factory wiring could shack up with a sensuous female like Velda and not lay a glove on her,' is his logic, but of course one of the oddities of the Hammer/Velda relationship is that Mike himself has always been waiting to make 'an honest woman' of Velda before laying the big glove on her. The layers of ambiguity are almost priceless here.

It builds to a denouement which actually surprises, with a fairly predictible betrayal and a shock revelation that gives the book its title. Oddly enough, this finish would be even better had not Hammer been so true to Velda; had he given in to the charms of Quinn's former lovers who offer, as he might have in previous years, the shock ending would have carried even more impact. But this is, in some ways, a kinder gentler Mike Hammer, a white knight reborn. It works better in many ways than The Girl Hunters did, and is enough to make one wonder how Hammer and Velda might have progressed had Spillane decided not to take a break from his archetypical character.

Kill Me, Darling by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins
Titan Books, £17.99 ISBN 9781783291380

Note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (

Thursday 16 April 2015


This graphic novel is a crossover between The Fables and The Unwritten, two long running Vertigo comics. I've read a number of the Fables stories, written by Bill Willingham and drawn by Mark Buckingham; in them the characters of fairy tales live real lives—and I suppose you can read a lot of the influence here of Neil Gaiman, both in American Gods but also in the Sandman series. The Unwritten, by Mike Carey and Peter Gross, is about Tommy Taylor, a boy turned into a Harry Potter-type hero in a series of novels, who becomes his character, as it were. I hadn't read any of them before, but it's easy to see how close the connection is.

Now the Fables are fighting their last stand against The Dark Man, who wishes to wipe away their power, the power of story, and as they suffer defeat after defeat, Tommy Taylor appears from his world where story is real, to help.

The story appeared as five issues of The Unwritten, and Carey and Gross are the primary creators (the Fables creators are credited with only three pages each, though oddly not the same three pages; Buckingham is also credited as the 'continuity cop' for the storyline) but it seems to flow smoothly in the Fables universe. As in those stories, the real pleasures are in the more human sense of evil that lurks behind the friendly familiar faces: this of course is where the Fables' traction arose, the reality that our fairy tales are dark and fearsome at their core. Seeing the Big Bad Wolf as a human; Boy Blue as a Galahad hero; or Frau Totenkinder as the ambiguous force behind the fables resonates with deeper meanings.

And on the other side, the beautiful conceit of Snow White, having gone over to the Dark Man, and given her children by the Big Bad Wolf to him, gives the story a human depth appropriate for our times. It reminds us how those archetypical stories not only reflect our consciousness, but help form it.

Or it's just a lot of apocalyptic fun. Which it is.

The Unwritten Fables

by Carey, Willingham, Gross and Buckingham
DC Vertigo $14.99 ISBN 9781401246945


I hadn't seen either of the first two volumes of Ex Machina, but one of the virtues of this story (issues 21-29 and two specials of the comic) is that its structure, with flashbacks to multiple stories, brings the reader up to speed quickly, with no need for 'previously in Ex Machina'.

Mitchell Hundred has the ability to speak to and control machines; he also has the curse of having to listen to them. He was turned into the world's first super hero, The Great Machine, by a Russian emigre called Kremlin, flying with the aid of what looks like a vacuum cleaner strapped to his back; it's the most bizarre super-hero get-up since Commando Cody. His career as a super hero doesn't appear to have gone too well; part of the story here is the fate of a low-level pot dealer he captures after an epic chase. But on 9/11, The Great Machine saves the second airplane from flying into the Twin Towers, and on the wave of that success, Mitchell Hundred winds up elected mayor of New York.

Now in Gracie Mansion, some of his past is coming back to haunt Hundred, not least the tragic fate of the pot dealer after he was sent to prison, and also the death of one of his aides, Journal Moore, whose sister is now working for Hundred.

What's intriguing about Ex Machina is its portrayal of the inside of politics; it's like a more realistic version of The West Wing set within the confines of a super-hero story. There are elements working against Hundred's adminstration, and the who and why is an ongoing mystery, but the main conflict is between Hundred's desire to do 'the right thing' and the political realities that make that sometimes next to impossible. Given that Hundred is in effect a Superman, you can sense occasionally a touch of the Ayn Rands slipping in, but by and large, it's a better glimpse into New York City politics than you'd see in most fiction. And given that Hundred is very much a flawed hero, those conflicts parallel many of the macro-concerns his governance throws up.

The time-shifting story-telling works brilliantly, and Tony Harris' art is very good at the relatively static political scenes, able to convey some internal drama. I was intrigued, enough to play catch-up with the series and follow it going ahead.

Ex Machina: Book Three
by Brian Vaughn (writer) and Tony Harris (artist)
WildStorm/DC Vertigo £19.99 ISBN 9781401250034

Saturday 11 April 2015


Today the three-disc box set of Eberhard Weber's Colours albums Yellow Fields, Silent Feet, Little Movements) arrived; my sister's birthday gift to me reached me on siblings day, a contrivance which appears to have arisen in the interweb of its own time-wasting accord. By a not very eerie coincidence (as I ordered the disc myself) I'd been reworking another of the poems I'd done inspired by tunes from jazz records, Weber's Quiet Departures, which comes off his 1979 album Fluid Rustle, the same time frame as when I saw Colours at the Round House in Camden.

I can't figure out when I first jotted down a few lines based on it, but I think I drew a little on New Haven's Union Station. I know I did a big revision after reading Steve Hamilton's novel Let It Burn -- but this version has been rewritten almost completely, and it heads in a different direction than where I thought it was going in either of those first two incarnations.....and I took a final walk around it this afternoon while Charlie Mariano worked out on Yellow Fields in the background.

                               (for Eberhard Weber & Steve Hamilton)

This building used to be
A station. Now shattered
Mosaic of faded brick

Broken glass, disjointed
Frames. It is still. Life
Clings to ruin, frozen

Boards with stops unmade,
Dead shadow whistles,
Lost scents of steam, echoes

Of hydraulic brakes over
Farewell tears. We hear
Noises of departure fill

The concourse with silence.
It is the sound of a dry sea
Trapped inside an empty shell.

Friday 10 April 2015


In Walter Mosley's last Easy Rawlins novel, Little Green (see my review here), Mama Jo had brought Easy back from the dead, and he investigated the disappearance of a young black man who'd been led astray by hippies and LSD. It's still 1967, Easy's still alive, and moving into a big new house with his children had left him somewhat vulnerable when he's approached by mysterious law enforcement types to investigate the kidnapping of Rosemary Goldsmith, the daughter of a powerful arms contractor. They think she's been taken by a former boxer, Bob Mantle, who's black, and Easy might have entry into Mantle's world.

Of course, nothing is the way it seems, but having introduced the drug scene, in this book Mosley moves into the parallel world of protest and revolution. The story is intricate, and not made easier, so to speak, by being off-stage, in the sense we know as little as Easy about what's really going on, both among the people he's chasing and the ones who are, in effect, chasing him.

The references are obvious; this is an inversion of sorts of the Patty Hearst kidnapping, and Rose Gold's father is a sort of reclusive Howard Hughes figure. A black revolutionary, Uhuru Nolice, is part of the plot, and quite early we learn that he is what Bob Mantle has become.

In one sense, this novel is disappointing, because the denouement is primarily an offstage event; Easy's concern is saving one character, not doing what he was hired to do. What is most interesting, as it was in Little Green, is Mosley's perspective on these times of rapid change, and how different a world this makes Los Angeles for its black community.

Along those lines, Easy appears to be gathering a crew here, including an American Indian, Redbird, who works for Rosemary Goldsmith's mother, and acts as a kind of Hawk to Easy's Spenser. Rawlins drops a line about opening a detective agency, and he's got an ex-cop, his con-woman girl friend, a hippie chick in love with Mama Jo, and various other people to draw on. Which may make LA even more interesting as it moves toward 1968, and the biggest crime since the Black Dahlia in that city's lurid history. Rose Gold may move in circles, as Easy does, for too long, but as always with Mosley, the insights keep the story moving.

Rose Gold by Walter Mosley
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £18.99 ISBN 9780297871750

Note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (

Thursday 9 April 2015


It's easy to imagine a scenario in which James Best became a star. Not a huge star, certainly, but someone who got leading roles, instead of just being a character actor who excelled on both TV and in the movies. His obituaries led with his role as Sheriff Roscoe P Coltrane in the Dukes Of Hazzard, something you always had the feeling he could have played in his sleep.

But he didn't, and his work almost elevated the Dukes, and provided some insight into why he never rose to leading man status. First, he made it look too easy, and often he made it look as if he were having fun, which he was. Second, the same easy grin and intelligent spark that made him a popular 'villain' for the Dukes worked against his being taken seriously in any number of roles. Third, his southern accent functioned in much the same way. And finally, Best's best work early in his career was done mostly in B movies, and it's hard to jump from character roles in those to leading roles in bigger films. So you can watch his progression through TV westerns and crime dramas of the 50s and 60s, maybe remembering him from an episode here or there, and then in bigger series and TV movies, with a few meaty roles in some of them.

But there are three films films I'd like to mention here, where you can see James Best's talent so clearly it's amazing it didn't take him farther. They were made by two of the greatest B movie directors, and they knew what they had.

First is Budd Boetticher's Ride Lonesome (1959) where Best plays Billy John, an outlaw captured by Randolph Scott's Ben Brigade at the start of the movie. The first seven minutes of the film are brilliant: Brigade alone walking his horse through a narrow corridor of stone, Best waiting for him sipping coffee, and telling his own neighing horse 'I hear him'. Bill John is wanted for shooting a man in the back, and he's laid a trap for Brigade, but Brigade's character overcomes the trap, and Billy John sends his gang off to find his older brother Frank. 'He'll know what to do'. As it turns out, this is exactly what Brigade wants.

But Best's few minutes are brilliant: alternately charming and petulant, he's something like the kind of alienated teen James Dean played. Dangerous and childish: you could see a different path for him quite easily. As it happens, his spark plays well off Scott's monolithic strength, but Best fares just as well when matching scenes with Pernell Roberts or James Coburn. Coburn, of course, would be the only one of the three to become a star. Ride Lonesome is one of my favourite films, A or B, and replays every viewing I've given it. Perfectly structured in Burt Kennedy's script, perfectly executed by Boetticher, and acted brilliantly by Karen Steele and Lee Van Cleef as well.

Best was the star of Sam Fuller's Verboten, also in 1959, and despite all the attention given Fuller, it remains underappreciated. Best plays an American soldier named Brent, who's wounded in action but saved by a German woman. He returns after the war and marries her, but has to quit the Army (it is Verboten to fraternise) so begins working for the military government distributing food. He gets his wife's brother a job, but it turns out the brother-in-law is part of a secret Nazi underground called Werewolf. You can guess the rest. Like much of Fuller's work, it is not subtle, but it is very dark and claustrophobic; beneath the surface it puts huge pressures on the characters, and Best is excellent in the slow burn of coming to grips with what is happening, and with love and loyalty.

These characteristics served him well four years later when Fuller cast him in Shock Corridor (1963) his film about a reporter (Peter Breck) who gets himself committed to a mental hospital in order to solve a murder that happened there. Best plays Stuart, who believes himself a Confederate soldier (the name of course evokes Jeb Stuart). When Best gets his scene it's amazing, as Breck tries to get information about the murder from him, he elicits the story of Stuart's breakdown; captured and brainwashed during the Korean War, he was unable to cope with the betrayal of his country. But as he tells this to Breck he details his sharecropper childhood, and his inner weaknesses. Which all gets turned off in an instant's sound: the kind of cue which amazed audiences when Walter Murch did it with sound effects in The Godfather or The English Patient, here it rides on James Best's eyes, and he nails it.

I wonder why Best wound up doing Hooper, while Charles Bail got to play a similar role in The Stunt Man. Bail and Best look an awful lot alike which reminds of the one interesting factoid I gleaned from the obituaries: Best's mother was an Everley; Don and Phil were his cousins by birth, and his given name was Jewel Franklin Guy. Jewel Guy probably wouldn't get you far in Hollywood. His mother died when he was three, and he was adopted from an orphanage by a couple named Best. On such small things do lives evolve, just as do careers.

Watch those films and see if you don't agree. I went to you tube today, and watched Best in an old Richard Diamond episode, The Merry Go Round case, from 1957. He plays a war buddy of Diamond's (David Janssen) who's gone bad, and gone off the rails, and he's riveting in his unpredictability. Track down any of the many TV shows James Best graced with his talent: he's worth it.

Sunday 5 April 2015


I believe I discovered this poem in my senior year high school English class, though I can't imagine it was in any of our textbooks, so it might not have been until college.  It was definitely in college, however, that I discovered Yeats' biography, and especially given his relationship to Maud Gonne, it gave a me a whole new perspective on this poem. An added, if shallow, dimension. So for your Easter edification, what I consider Yeats' ultimate take on the whole thing...

by William Butler Yeats

Whence did all that fury come?
From empty tomb or Virgin womb?
Saint Joseph thought the world would melt
But liked the way his finger smelt.

Friday 3 April 2015


Thieves Fall Out is a pulp thriller Gore Vidal wrote under a pseudonym in 1952, and is reprinted now for the first time, for the first time under his own name. Apparently, not so long before he died, Vidal took a another look at what he'd written so long ago, didn't like it much, and so turned down a request to publish; it was his estate that gave permission to Hard Case to go ahead.

The early 1950s were a rough time for young Vidal. His 1948 novel The City and the Pillar, with its portrayal of homosexuality, had shocked much of America, including the books pages of the New York Times. Three novels in the next two years attracted little attention, and when they did he was generally criticised for being too prolific. But he needed money, being almost as profligate as prolific, so rather than slow down, he created pseudonyms.

His third novel published in 1950 was A Star's Progress, published in hardback by the reputable EP Dutton, as by Katharine Everard (Everard being the name of a gay club in New York). A racy look at Hollywood, it was reprinted in paperback,titled Cry Shame. It's A Star Is Born story, which draws somewhat on The City and the Pillar for one of its characters, and it's relatively frank, for the times, about ambiguous sexuality. Two years later, Vidal would publish another novel under his own name, The Judgement Of Paris, a modern re-working of the story from the Iliad, whose Paris is remarkably passive sexually. At the same time he began what became a trilogy of mystery novels writing as Edgar Box. The Box novels, also published by Dutton, are classic cozy mysteries in the Agatha Christie tradition, the amateur sleuth who's a PR man and former reporter, and a dashing hetero man about town. Once Vidal's novels became best-sellers, the identity of Edgar Box, which had never been a closely-guarded secret (Vidal wrote a cover blurb for an early Sixties paperback reissue of the series) became open knowledge.

His third novel of 1952 was Thieves Fall Out, published under the name Cameron Kay (who was a great uncle who'd been a politician in Texas). It was done as a paperback original for Gold Medal, the best of the pulpy crime publishers, and it's a competent enough effort. Vidal keeps the story moving, but the writing is utilitarian. The sex is probably more restrained than his mainstream novels, but there's enough to provide a cover artist with something to go on. The most interesting thing is that the book is set against the backdrop of the 1952 coup led by General Nasser, which unseated King Farouk and brought Nasser to power two years later, but you really wouldn't know it. Apart from creating some chaos around which the book's denoument can become more difficult, most of the politics is an offstage matter. It enters only because the hero, Peter Wells, falls instantly in love with a German woman who's reputed to be Farouk's new favourite mistress. But that doesn't actually come into play either.

I don't think you would make a link to Vidal, except in retrospect, but from that perspective there are few interesting things about it. Vidal scholars have noted that the novel begins, as many of his early books do, with Wells shaking off the effects of the night before, which sets the scene nicely. Wells is hired to do some shady business by an Englishman, Hastings and Helene, who may or may not actually be the Comtesse de Ratignac. There is a local gangster, and a more or less corrupt cop, and it's all very Casablanca. You can see Vidal having a little bit of fun with that, and especially with the breathless coup de foudre Wells finds with Anna Meuller, daughter of a Nazi war criminal.

Knowing it's Vidal, Wells' character is most interesting, because he's so different from Philip Warren, the Paris figure in that novel, or Peter Sargeant, the hero of the Box novels. There's nothing flippant about him; he's Robert Mitchum in Macao, but Vidal gives him more than just the half-track mind film noir tough guys often have. Helene is so transparent a femme fatal that Wells is wary, and Anna becomes the blonde not-so-virgin, unlikely as that seems.

But having fun with the genre doesn't make for a compelling read. You can see why Vidal wanted to leave it buried; Thieves Fall Out would not make anyone's list of the greatest Gold Medal books from that period, and there are some great ones. It's a curiosity, and Hard Case were right to bring it out. Those of us who admire Vidal's historical novels may wonder what he might have done had he taken the history more seriously, or indeed, taken the noirish pulp more seriously. But that wouldn't have been Vidal. And interestingly, the book is published with a juicy retro-Gold Medal cover by Glenn Orbik, five pages of blurb quotes about Gore's books (none of which apply to the novel in question) and no copyright details!

Thieves Fall Out by Gore Vidal (writing as Cameron Kay)

Titan/Hard Case Crime £16.99 ISBN 9781781167922

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (