Monday, 28 September 2015


Doak Miller is a former New York cop who's taken early retirement, moved to Florida and picked up a PI licence. He lives a quiet life in a small town, has occasional sex with the realtor who sold him his house, and does odd jobs for the local sheriff. One of these is to play a hit-man, and wear a wire when he meets a woman who wants her husband killed. But something about Lisa Yarrow Otterbein's eyes gets to Doak.

It's a familiar sort of noirish set-up, right down to the steamy Florida back-drop, the kind of thing that John D MacDonald (echoed by this book's title) or some of the great Gold Medal pulpsters might turn out. This should be no surprise because Lawrence Block may be the last of those writers who came up in the Fifties and early Sixties in New York, often via the Scott Meredith agency, people like Ed McBain and Donald Westlake, and these kind of novels were their stock in trade.

Many of them also churned out porn, as well as soft-core crime fiction, like Block's Chip Harrison books, which is interesting because sex as well as death is the cornerstone of noir. And what Block is doing here is bringing the two together in a matter-of-fact way to suggest that these urges bleed into each other more than writers care to admit, or explain. What's most interesting is seeing the way Doak, rather than being manipulated like a classic noir bozo, is actually drawing himself in consciously, and with control (though of course we're always on the lookout for the usual inevitable betrayal) of the situation, and with a ruthlessness which sexuality has drawn out and intensified.

There's an almost tongue-in-cheek element to the sex here, as if Block were nodding back to those more outwardly innocent days, where the sin was just as heavy but the description was less graphic. If anything, you might see it as an old master doing what he might have wanted to do many years before. The key is Doak's experience with a pregnant woman he interviews as part of an insurance check. She's a reflection of Mildred Diedrichson, role reversed with Doak. And if Doak's inner self turns out to be worthy of Walter Neff (who is referenced specifically by Block, in what may be a slightly too cute playing of his story against some classic film noirs) there is a reason Block has attempted an hommage of Double Indemnity, reclaimed for the male. Block hands the book's killer ending to Lisa. 'That's the movies,' she said. 'This is life.'

The Girl With The Deep Blue Eyes by Lawrence Block
Titan Books/Hard Case Crime £16.99 ISBN 9781783297504

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

SAVIN ROCK, 1956 (a poem)

Yogi Berra died yesterday, and while I was revising the obituary I'd written a few years ago for the Guardian's stock files, I thought about this poem. I don't remember when exactly I wrote it; it was part of my master's thesis at McGill, so it was probably in 1975 or 76, in Montreal, but it might have been earlier. It was published with a group of my poems in 1984, in Cid Corman's Origin, Fifth Series issue 3, in Kyoto. Cid was a real baseball fan; for years we exchanged post cards and aerogrammes (remember them?) between London and Japan, discussing poetry, baseball, Charles Olson and sumo wrestling. Cid died on my birthday in 2004; I got to write his obituary for the Guardian, you can link to that here.

This poem was also published in a baseball-themed literary magazine, Spitball, in 1987, and in my collection By The Sound (Torque Press, Southampton) the following year.

Savin Rock was an amusement and resort area along the shore in West Haven, Connecticut, where my parents grew up. It had been big at the turn of the century, right through the depression. My great grandfather had a hot dog stand and pizzeria there; my grandfather, his son in law, at one point was partners in an auction house where my father, again, a son in law, worked weekends. I think it's pretty self-explanatory: there were rides, Peter Franke's fun house, penny arcades (in one of which a waxed gypsy lady inside a glass machine issued printed fortunes if you inserted a nickel), a huge wooden roller coaster, bumper cars, the Wild Mouse, and the remnants of Donovan Field, where the West Haven Sailors baseball team played, run by George Weiss who later was the general manager of the Yankees.

Don Larsen's perfect game was pitched in game 5 of the 1956 series; Berra hit a home run in the second game, but two in the deciding game 7, won by the Yankees as Johnny Kucks pitched (and Berra caught) a three-hit shutout. Both those games were at Ebbetts Field but it's probably game seven I am calling up in the poem. In game six Bob Turley pitched 10 innings of four-hit ball and lost 1-0. That's 28 innings in which Yankee pitchers held the Brooklyns to just 7 hits; Berra knew how to pitch to the Dodgers.


Don Larsen was tossing the perfect game.
Berra homered onto Bedford Avenue.
The wax lady cackled in the penny arcade
& scared me, her ignorance of the Series.
I didn't want my fortune told,
I wanted to know who had won.

At grandpa's auction prices always went up,
The marks investing junk with sudden value,
Carried away with the power of their words.
After closing we drove past the hot dogs:
Jimmie's, Turk's, Phyllis's, Jake's.
Jake was your great-grandfather, he told me,
As he always did. He ran away when he was 12
& went out west to be a cowboy.
12 seemed very old. A cowboy named
Rosenthal, my father said, & shook his head.

They talked about cars.
My dad had his eyes on a blue '55 Ford.
I wished he played for the Red Sox.
I would run away north and watch him pitch.
I wished they'd someday win the pennant.
I was five years old. I don't remember now
If I knew then who Don Larsen was.


My obit of Yogi Berra is up at the Guardian online now; you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it, so follow the link to read it, but there are a few things I didn't have space to say, and a few that would not matter to the British audience.

One of them I got off my chest on the BBC World Service's Newshour this afternoon, at 13:55 on the clock, if you go to BBC IPlayer or link to it here. I did a more brief interview with the World Service's Outside Source in the morning: you can listen to that here. It was recorded off my mobile phone as the train pulled into Waterloo Station.

I mentioned in the obit his feud with George Steinbrenner: you can get an idea of what I thought of Steinbrenner if you read my IT intro and link to the Independent obit I wrote here. Berra was treated badly by the Yankees in his first go-round as manager; the team rallied around Yogi to win the pennant, and the Cardinals may have won the '64 World Series, but they were a far better team. But being treated badly by Steinbrenner was something completely different, and Yogi deeply resented the lies and the public humilation which were Steinbrenner's meat and potatoes. There wasn't really that much discussion of Yogi's managerial style today, but he was baseball shrewd, prone to play hunches, and epitomised what Tom Boswell once referred to as the 'glorified cruise director' whose job as manager was to keep everybody happy for 162 games.

It was Suzy Waldman of WFAN who got Yogi and the Yankees back together, but I always thought the 'kindler, gentler' George Steinbrenner of those days was a pretty shallow facade.  Yet David Cone pitched a perfecto on Yogi Berra day in 1999, as if to echo Don Larsen's in the 1956 World Series; has there ever been a better picture of spontaneous sporting joy than Berra's leap into Larsen's arms?

I pointed out that Berra grew up in St Louis' 'Dago Hill', now known, in more politically correct times, as 'The Hill'. That was the neighbourhood which produced the core of the 1950 US soccer team which beat England, guys who played for Simkins Ford in the St. Louis league. I also got the feeling Berra would have liked to have played baseball for his hometown Cards ('hometown' got cut from the piece in the Guardian, go figure) but you have to feel he was born to be a Yankee.

Where Mickey Mantle was incredibly handsome, Whitey Ford slick as a hustler at the Metropole, Yogi was like a collection of spare parts thrown together; R2D2 to Mantle's Luke Skywalker and Ford's Hans Solo. But as Yogi once said, 'you don't hit with your face'.

I wrote in the piece that in 1950, Berra had at 597 at bats and struck out just 12 times. For a guy who swung at almost everything, that boggles credulity. He walked only 55 times, but hit a career best .322 and had an on-base percentage of .383, also a career high. He finished third in the MVP voting that year, behind teammate Phil Rizzuto and Boston's utility player Billy Goodman.

Bill James wrote about Berra's body type, which wasn't that unusual in baseball. He was more or less 5-8 180 in his prime, heavier later; James says Roy Campanella was 5-9 205, Roger Breshnahan and Smoky Burgess roughly the same. Hack Wilson and Kirby Puckett are others James mentions in the outfield. Short and powerful is good for baseball.

I also owe James for the insight into that 1950s Yankee dynasty: Casey Stengel had Mantle in center field, he had Gil McDougald who could handle any infield spot and allowed Casey to stack his lineup toward his hunches, and he had Berra who never had a really bad year and was not necessarily a great catcher, but a great handler of pitchers, hit like an outfielder, and caught both ends of double-headers 117 times. Look at virtually all the great catchers and you'll see a pattern of good and bad years; Campanella seemed to alternate them. This is due largely to the wear and tear, if not injury, at the position, but Berra was remarkably durable and consistent. Cochrane, Bench, Pudges Fisk and Rodriquez, Gary Carter. OK maybe not Mike Piazza, but he wasn't a very good catcher. Casey was once asked what the secret of his success was and he said 'I never play a game without my man', and his man was Yogi.

I never bought into Maypo or YooHoo, but I bought into Yogi. I was never a Yankee fan, but I liked Mantle, enjoyed Stengel, appreciated Ford, admired the way they won, and loved Yogi. Almost everyone did. New York was the center of the world in the 1950s, and Yogi was the guy who brought the glamour of the city down to earth. It wasn't over until it was over. RIP Yogi.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015


My obituary of Judy Carne, the 'sock it to me' girl on Laugh-In, is online at the Guardian now: you can link to it here, and it should be in the paper paper soon. It was maybe the saddest obit I've had to write; I recall Carne as someone closer to Julie Andrews than, say, Twiggy, which was the kind of thing Laugh-In was looking for from Goldie Hawn, as well as Carne. But it always seemed to me that she was underused and that 'sock it to me', like much of Laugh-In was a lame joke that got lamer as it went along.

I always found the show too much like a studio executive's idea of what young hip people should be, and although the quick-cutting format was chaotic and different, the humour was largely mainstream and safe. Rowan and Martin themselves I described as stand-ins for the TV audience, but they were also playing those executives. And I meant the word 'leering'. The British influence on Laugh-In was strong; in turn it influenced many shows, from Monty Python to Saturday Night Live (Lorne Michaels worked on Laugh-In).

Oddly, their more 'sophisticated' competition, the Smothers Brothers, who courted actual controversy with network censors, were very much like Rowan and Martin in the sense of Tommy playing the Jerry Lewis character, but they were folk singers, not lounge lizards.

You can see the way Judy Carne was displayed on screen going back to her earliest work, and there was always a sense of unsettledness, perhaps desperation, about her. I had originally written that the divorce from Reynolds was a tabloid sensation in 1966; it may have done more for Reynolds' career than Carne's. I probably should have mentioned that she did do a 25th anniversary Laugh-In show in 1993--she wasn't a total recluse or anything like that. And I do wish the Guardian had kept my ending:  'I was a Sixties flower-child who refused to grow up,' was how she characterised herself; sadly her Sixties fame drew less on her talent than on that nature. RIP

Monday, 7 September 2015


The first edition of The Crime Vault Live is now up on the interweb for your listening's a podcast I'm doing with the novelist Mark Billingham and @americarnage producer Harry Holgate, and it's all about crime fiction, films & television, audio books, and true crime. This debut show features as its special guest @martynwaites, who also writes novels under the nom de guerre Tania Carver...and it is a cracker. We talk about crime festivals, thrillers, review three novels by Gilly Macmillan, Johan Theorin and Simon Toyne, and bring The Maltese Falcon up from the Crime Vault's Vault, discuss the audio book version of the Swedish novel The Father, and compare notes on Hannibal, Bosch, and Mr Holmes. 45 minutes of, dare I say it, killer, and very little's the link to it at Itunes, but it will be available on a platform near you at any second....listen up, it's worth it.