Wednesday 31 May 2017


By now just about the only character in the Sherlock Holmes canon who hasn't had his or her own detective series is the Baskerville hound, and I'm sure someone's considering that one as we speak. We've seen all sorts of Holmeses over the years, and with the recent book, the fringes of Baker Street are being combed for characters. It is hard to generate something new in such an avalanche of well-worn tropes, but H.B. Lyle has managed to do that quite cleverly in The Irregular: A Different Class of Spy, a first novel starring Wiggins, formerly the head of the Baker Street Irregulars. Wiggins is mentioned twice in the canon; the third time Watson either gets the name wrong or maybe there's been a change at the top. But now Wiggins is an adult, he's back from fighting the Boer in South Africa, and in the Tottenham Outrage of 1909 (which did happen) the policeman murdered is his best friend. Which leads him, eventually, into a partnership with Captain Vernon Kell, heading up a newly-formed Secret Service, primarily to stop the war preparations of the Hun.

One of the reasons the story is fresh is the way it blends Sherlockian exploits with the kind of stuff we see in Erskine Childers. The pre-war era is a perfect setting for the kind of dime novel derring do that we find here, and Lyle's story is a classic mix of Russian anarchists and German Teutons. It provides a perfect contrast, as you might guess from its subtitle, for the Colonel Blimps of the British government, except perhaps for Kell's Sandhurst contemporary, the self-serving and ambition head of the Board Of Trade, Winston 'Soapy' Churchill. In that sense Wiggins might be seen to be a prototype Harry Palmer.

And class plays a huge part in the story, both in the blindness of the British establishment, and in the relation of Wiggins and Kell. Kell meanwhile has his own troubles at home, with his suffragette wife Constance, who proves not only an effective agent, but is probably the most intriguing character in the novel, particularly when she is dealing his her husband's naivete, especially about men of the 'Grecian Persuasion'. Wiggins meanwhile is drawn to a Latvia laundress, Bella, while his partner in the Irregulars, Sal, reappears in his life and his friend's wife appears to disappear. Lyle is good on backstories, and even the cameo by Holmes rings true.

If at times the plot is mechanical, and if the horseback finale seems designed with the development of a TV series, that's not a fatal flaw. Yes, agile readers should have seen the identity of Arlekin, and they will realise who von Bork is when he reappears, as he must surely do. The climactic bomb seems somehow anti-climactic, its mastermind somehow less committed than we might have thought. But it's an enjoyable read throughout, and fits nicely and without awkwardness into this crowded sub-genre.

The Irregular: A Different Class Of Spy by H.B. Lyle
Hodder & Stoughton £17.99 ISBN 9781473655379

This review will also appear at Crime Time (

Monday 29 May 2017


Like many of my generation in America, my first exposure to Roger Moore came in the TV series Ivanhoe. This was shortly after Richard Greene had played Robin Hood on the small screen, and I'm sure it was an attempt to echo the success of that show. The two actors had much in common, particularly their spectacular good looks, and, absent Moore's later bonanza from Bond, their careers were similar in lots of ways, with action movies their main staple.

But it was when Moore appeared as the Saint that I was hooked. It was the first of a group of British shows that eventually made it over to the US, followed by Danger Man, The Avengers, The Prisoner; all of which seemed more inventive, stylish, and smarter than most of our own fare. Looking back at old episodes now, I can see the bare-bones nature of most of it, the crazy accents of English actors, and the formulaic nature, but imagine my thrill when I moved to London, and walking from our flat to Regent's Park walked by the block of flats where Templar's Volvo sports car would pull up when he came home.

Moore was excellent as the Saint, a role that has defeated most of the actors who've tried it (Louis Hayward and George Sanders really being the only exception. Moore's Simon Templar is pitched close to his James Bond, with a certain irony, and less tongue in cheek: there is also the occasional sense of a ruthless presence which Sean Connery brought to Bond, but Moore ditched for that role.

Before Bond, there's one Moore role of which I have only a vague recollection, except that it wasn't very good. He played in a TV movie called Sherlock Holmes in New York, with Patrick Mcnee as Watson, John Huston as Moriarty, and Charlotte Rampling as Irene Adler. You can see why I would have watched. I looked it up and the supporting cast included Gig Young (another I've seen mentioned as a proto-Bond), Leon Ames, Jackie Coogan and David Huddlestone. There is also Moore's son Geoffrey, billed as Scott Adler, which must have been his playing Irene Adler's son, by Holmes, but sadly I can't remember that either. Roger Moore certainly wasn't designed to be Sherlock Holmes.

The Saint to me was his defining role, but of course it was Bond who came to define him. I recall Moore's reply when asked if it was true Ian Fleming wanted him as Bond from the start (which was highly unlikely, as Dr No. predates The Saint). 'Fleming didn't know me from shit,' he laughed. 'He wanted Cary Grant or David Niven.' That was Fleming's image of Bond, although Connery actually captured more of the actual character Fleming wrote: especially the cruelty and the sado-masochism  behind the stories. Connery remains unquestionably the best Bond.

But Moore marked a turning point for the role, which was to take it totally tongue in cheek. Right down to his name, with its built-in double-entendre. Where Connery's Bond had been holding his own against the somewhat bumbling Yanks (Felix Leiter & Co), Moore's Bond was a celebration of Brittania well before Cameron and UKIP appropriated it. It made life impossible for those actors who followed, and, like Piers Brosnan, tried to walk the character back toward Connery. They surrendered, and in Daniel Craig created a new Bond, pure Little-Englander, a Nick Hornby character with muscles, playing Texas Hold Em, not Chemin der fer. Moore's grace and sense of irony was lost completely.

I encountered this once, when I met him while working for ABC Sports at the Monaco Grand Prix. This may have been the same year I met Joan Collins, but I don't think so. That's another story, anyway. My function was to sort out problems, of which there were many, with the organisers, so on the Saturday I was in the pits as we got ready to film Jackie Stewart's tour of the course: driving round it with a camera and sound man in the back seat. Why we did this every year was beyond me, since the course never changed, but every producer thought he would bring his own personal touch to it, or maybe get something new from Jackie, who was both a lovely guy and a consummate pro who had probably done it to death the very first time, but always added something about different cars or drivers or weather to try to make it new.

We were just about ready to go when Jackie spotted Roger Moore across the pit area, going into one of the hospitality areas. I know Roger, he told me, he'll do this with me. Can you go get him to do it?'. This was the best idea anyone on the show had had all week, so I went off to the tent, introduced myself to Mr. Moore, and explained. Of course, I'd love to, he said, and we walked back to the car. I may have mentioned The Saint and how much I'd liked it. More than once. Roger and Jackie were old friends, maybe from living in Switzerland (note, the photo above right is one I believe was taken years later). They greeted each other, Jackie explained again, and Roger said of of course again. Then, looking at me and giving just the sort of raised eyebrow I remembered from The Saint, he went straight over to the driver's seat and got in. Jackie got flustered, nearly apoplectic, as he tried to explain he was doing the driving, not Roger, that's what he was here for, he was the driver, and so on. There was a lot of snickering going on which didn't burst into full laughter until Moore got out of the front seat laughing away himself. I just wish we'd been taping it.

Every obituary I saw remarked how much he enjoyed life and with how little seriousness he took himself and his career. It could not have been made more clear in that one sunny Saturday in Monaco.

Friday 26 May 2017


I had finished the morning's writing and was just about to stick the banana bread in the oven and, on this glorious summer day, take my dog for a walk by Swan's Barn, when there was a knock on the door. I opened it and standing in front of me in the bright sunshine was the Health Minister, the Rt. Hon. Jeremy Hunt, MP for Surrey SW. Oh, I thought, as I struggled to keep touch with reality. Where is Michael Crick and a Channel 4 TV crew when you really need him.

The conversation began normally enough. Can I ask for your vote? Can I answer any questions? he said. Why are you killing the National Health Service? How can you continue the unfairness of austerity? Why are you making such a farce of Brexit? Why are you coming after my pension to feed your city friends? I replied. Anything I can do to keep you out of Westminster I will, and I looked over to the Dr Louise Irvine National Health Action party flyer in my front window.

To be fair, and unsurprisingly, Mr Hunt was not fazed, and wanted to 'answer' me point by point. When he started in on 12,000 new nurses, I asked if they were going to build new food banks for them, then pointed out that with 1% per year, 30,000 nurses were disappearing overseas or being driven back to Europe, which left a net loss on 18,000. He acknowledged we were going nowhere and bid a gracious farewell. My dog by then had got bored and dashed out the door, and three of Hunt's half-dozen or so advance team were worried, especially when Rufus chased after the MP for a sniff. One asked me if he bit? No, I said, he's trained to flush out vermin, not attack them.

As I finally put the bread tin into the oven, I experienced what the French call 'l'espirit d'escalier', when you think too late of what you should have said, inspired perhaps by either Emmanuel Macron or the third series of Spin. It's a similar phenomenon as the English laughing at Saturday night's jokes during Sunday's lie-in. I could have pulled out my best Dick Van Dyke accent and said 'oi, you're that Jeremy geezer what 'as the talk show on telly'. I could have offered him tea and stalled him for an hour to slow down his campaigning. I realised I should have kept my discussion with Mr. Hunt local. But as fate would have it, as I put Rufus on the lead and walked out the door with him, Hunt was coming back down the side street, so I went to unload my specific broadside. He made a joke about the dog being on the lead for his protection, and I asked about our local hospital, run by Richard Branson, with facilities under-utilised because they cannot be sub-leased. Ah, he said, we're taking that away from Virgin, he said. And giving it to whom? I asked and he began to say how they wanted to take back the NHS into public hands as only 8% of it was privately held. We began arguing again, and he went into job creation and growing economy and everything except strong and stable, and I soon as I said the magic words 'Naylor Report' he bid me adieu.

He actually seemed to enjoy this; he's got the right training and demeanour, all head boy at Charterhouse. I later discovered that, as the son of an admiral, the taxpayer paid his way at Charterhouse. He would have started there right about the time I became a British taxpayer. Can I have my money back, please? The cooler he remains, the more frustrating it is to argue with him. He's almost affable, in the way people used to insist Shrub Bush was, only Hunt is obviously much smarter. How far below the surface the affability goes is something not hard to estimate from the effects of his policies. And remember, it's not for no reason that the Tories have kept him, like Bojo the Clown and Doc Fox well in the background nationally. The camera, and questioning tougher than mine, reveals a lot he doesn't give away in person.

You have to give him credit for that, and for being out on the doorstep, and being so well organised and well-funded with his team of locals and flacks to help cover the ground. It's an area naturally inclined, like most of exurban England to vote Tory, only moreso, and you can see Hunt as a darling of the party faithful. You have to admire the work he's putting in, especially when his best opposition here is National Health Action, who don't have the organisation, nor the funding, and despite the Progressive Alliance, can't draw on Labour or the LDP for that. Because even with the Greens standing down from the ballot, and some local endorsement of Irvine by the other two parties, it is still a long uphill battle to unseat someone who got 60% of the vote last time (and UKIP took another 10%). But still he's out there working, which is impressive. Frightening, but impressive. I came to the conclusion that, although I've appeared in a Compass/Progressive Alliance promo video, which you can find here, I need to do a lot more. And then I realised I had never mentioned the Dementia Tax to Hunt. Which now worries me in a couple of different ways.

thanks to Michael Goldfarb for the title....


My review of Tragic Shores, Thomas H Cooks memoir of 'dark travel' is in the current issue of the Times Literary Suuplement. You can get a taste of it if you link here, but the rest of the piece is behind a subscription paywall. Or you can buy the paper. There is an outstanding article about Marsden Hartley by Patrick McCaughey, as well as a number of other pieces that will keep your attention.

Thomas is one of the very best crime novelists in America, and as I have written before, works in a manner that is almost sui generis. It is a style that suits his subject here very well, indeed, as he, his wife and daughter travel to those dark places, from which they draw a certain amount of life. More on that later...

The piece as published is notably shorter than the one I originally wrote. I did a rewrite to change the emphasis slightly and re-order it; then it was cut for space and a couple of key points lost. I will post the original up here some time in the future.

Monday 22 May 2017


When the body of a woman is discovered in wartime Reykjavik's 'shadow district', suspicion falls on American soldiers, who have brought changes to the social life of the Icelandic capital. So the investigation is handled in tandem, by an Iceland cop, Flovent, and an American MP named Thorson, a Canadian solider seconded to the Americans because he actually speaks Icelandic. Murder investigation is literally a new thing for the Icelandic police, and they are still feeling their way around an investigation; Thorson, of course, is a soldier not a detective.

In modern Reykavik, a 90 year old man is found dead in his bed. A few days later, when an autopsy reveals he was suffocated, and the police investigate, all they find are some cuttings from that murder case in World War II. At which point Konrad, a retired police detective, is asked by his former colleague Marta to, unofficially, take a look.

The underlying theme behind Arnaldur Indridason's novels, explicit in some like his first in English, Jar City, has always been the uneasy conflict between traditional Iceland, a society sealed almost hermetically for centuries, and modern Iceland. His detective Erlendur loves to eat horse head; his colleague Sigurdur Oli loves all things American. Indridason wrote a stand-alone contemporary thriller involving Americans and Nazi bomber lost in 1945; the cold war figures in Draining Lake. World War II was the catalyst for this change, and that is the engine which powers this exceptional story, as its two strands grow closer and intertwine. And the connections are not what might at first appear to be.

The Shadow District takes us back to a society that seems more like Ibsen, if not Dickens, than the modern Iceland in which Erlendur worked, and it's significant that Konrad is a retired cop, someone who still has a foot in the past. It's not even that he is a typical Scandi 'depressive detective' the way Erlendur was so brilliantly drawn. He's a quiet old man, trying to connect the past and the present. There's more than a hint of Conrad too in the way the story plays out, as it very quietly becomes more and more dark, with twists and shocks, as well as the sadness of the years that passed between crime and punishment. Indridson is easily the finest of the contemporary Nordic crime writers, and though the label 'Nordic Noir' is slapped on anything written north of Schleswig-Holstein, this comes closer than most to living up to it. At any rate, it's one of the finest crime novels of this or any year.

The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridson
Harvill Secker £12.99 ISBN 9781911215059

This review will also appear at Crime Time (

Saturday 20 May 2017

The 1,000th POST

According to Blogger, this is the one thousandth post I have made to Irresistible Targets. I have written about my antipathy to creating stories based on numbers that happen to end in zeroes: Trump's first 100 days, the 50th anniversary of this assassination or that Summer of Love,  but it keeps hacks in business, and I am nothing if not willing to grab an easy hook.  I reckon a thousand posts works out to somewhere short of a million words over the past nine years, and pondering that I realised that this is something like a novel a year, were I inclined that way.

Of course not all the writing has been specifically for the blog: many of the pieces posted have been published elsewhere first, and some I have given to others to republish. Sometimes, I publish a link with my notes on my own writing, occasionally that runs longer than the piece itself.

According the Blogger I have had almost 634,000 page views, which would average out to 634 per post.
The viewing figures are usually lower than that per item, which I don't understand, but I am sure there is a good explanation for it. Still, the work is reaching some people, and I know from the viewing figures of pieces I've written for literary magazine blogs that 600 is actually a pretty impressive number.

But it doesn't quite seem impressive enough to justify blog for blog's sake. I feel like I'm back in the fanzine world I wrote for occasionally in the early Seventies. So as I have done at various other milestones along this blog's way I have a couple of questions to pose.

First, should I continue? I will confess that in past few months I have had trouble writing, unless I am on a paying deadline. I have a paper stuck to the wall in my office with what I thought were good ideas for feature pieces and a list of reviews to write because I have been invited to screenings or sent books, and they have not been written. I find myself back in the place I was more than 20 years ago, when my MLB job left me and I went freelance, sending stories off unsolicited and selling some of them (while seeing a few appear, with a few changes of course, under other bylines...welcome to London hackery.) I take this mini- writers block as an unwillingness to commit fully to retrace that path. I also take it as recognition that the editors I pitch to, and their audiences, are shall we say, younger than they were or I am, so sometimes I am speaking to a soft wall of incomprehension.

Now I do want to write those stories, and my inclination is to do that if only for myself and the small coterie of the IT faithful. But here is question two: how best could I 'monetize' as they say, Irresistible Targets. I tried once with Google ads: when the total reached something like £20 I tried to collect, and the process of 'validating' myself with them defeated their paying out to me, as I assume it was intended to do.

I could re-launch IT on another platform (different blog, website) which might allow for contributions. I could set up a paywall website, though that seems counter-productive. I could put a paywall on a website including IT, which might allow for subscribers to my sporting wisdom, particularly during the NFL season.

Any suggestions, advice, encouragement or support would be welcome from you, the readers. I first set up the blog thinking it would be a good way of increasing my 'exposure' as all the people who offer you the chance to contribute for free to their money-making outlets tell you is beneficial. I went back today and looked at my first post (you can do that too, here) and recalled I had actually started THREE blogs: one about art, one about sport and other amusing pastimes, and this one intended to be primarily about crime fiction. At least I wasn't insane enough to continue on those paths! I do recommend my art coverage though, the blog was called Untitled (Reflections... , though most of the pieces I have added here at IT over the years.

While IT has created some exposure, it has not translated into anything beyond itself. Is there a good way to move beyond that, or should that be reward in and of itself?

Or, since 1,000 is supposed to be such a nice round number to mark an accomplishment, I could just leave it there.

Friday 19 May 2017


My obituary of Roger Ailes went up at the Guardian online last night (link to it here). It is pretty much as written, but trimmed down somewhat; I wrote it on short-order, as it were. Had they given me more time, I would have made it shorter, to paraphrase Pascal (apparently; thanks to my friend Linda Arnold for pointing out he got there first).

One thing that should be noted: Ailes did not create Fix News; he created it as it now is, and he persuaded Rupert Murdoch to make the key business decision that propelled it forward: paying cable networks (which are generally monopolies in their areas in free market America) to carry Fox News. Instead of cable companies paying Fox per viewer, as was the case with most channels, Fox paid them to put the channel on air. Without that manoeuvre,  Fox News might have languished because cable operators figured CNN (and MSNBC) were all their subscribers needed.

This was an obituary, and not political analysis, but I would have liked to show a little more clearly the ways in which his influence is still felt, not only in the USA. In the UK, when we discuss the impact of Lynton Crosby on British politics, the chatterati always trot out his 'dead cat at the dinner table' quote. But years before, Ailes had explained what he called the 'Orchestra Pit' tactic: "If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says I have a solution to the Middle East problem and the other guys falls into the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?" His faith in the shallowness of media was rarely, if ever, proven wrong; in a way the greatest irony of his career is that it began when he challenged Richard Nixon's assertion that television is a gimmick, yet he proved over and over again how right the Trickster was.

And of course when you watch Theresa May campaigning, as per Lynton, to small carefully selected crowds, answering vetted question from carefully selected journalists (Crosby trusts British journalists to be as clueless as Ailes felt the general public were in America), and repeating 'Make Britain Great Again', oh, wait, it's 'Strong And Stable' it's as if Ailes were driving the battle bus.

Which is not to lessen the impact he had on America. You can see it watching the coverage of Trump: television tends toward simplifying issues into a dichotomy: good/evil, black/white, but Ailes turned TV news into a zero/sum game. Viewpoints have their partisan networks (as long as they make money: post-Ailes MSNBC has danced around trying to place themselves at various times as opposition or not, 'liberal' or not) and the once-major network news programmes stand afraid to 'take sides' lest they alienate their shrinking audience, which is even older than Fox's. But Ailes brought them the attitude that fear attracts people to the safety of their screens: crime and natural disaster, once reserved for the local news in areas they affected, are now the stuff of network news, balanced by entertainment info-nuggets to keep you watching. Like most of those who influenced the true baby-boomer generation (born say 1946 through 53-4) Ailes was slightly older, and recognised the resentment at the heart of the majority of that generation who felt abandoned by the cultural changes that came as a result of various liberations.

They were not liberations Ailes fancied: he was very much of that previous era, and his harassment problems were very much an aspect of that. His America was Ronald Reagan's dreamy fantasy of 1950s television shows, stay at home moms in dresses and aprons, the relations between boys and girls being one of power and forbidden fruit. Because that was what he grew up in, and observed from a house-bound perch.

There is an exceptional bio-film to be made here. Would that Sidney Greenstreet were still alive to play the older Ailes. Young Roger is truly a sad story; when he bit through his tongue his father had to drive him in a panic to Akron, as Warren had no doctors able to deal with it. Ailes nearly died, not for the first time. His relation with his parents nevertheless seems distant, perhaps he was too much a burden, a disappointment. That he channeled this into creating a world that you could link to his childhood imagination, one in which those with power, like himself, were protected from all harm, is a powerful image.

None of this was new. We'd known the essence of the game plan ever since Joe McGinnis published The Selling Of The President in 1969, but we've pretended that the game plan doesn't exist, and the Beltway punditocracy has no reason to admit that it does. Political commentary in America now is all about performance art, the way politicians appear to deal with things. It is never about issues, because it doesn't understand those issues, and the last thing people who do understand what issues really mean want is for their audience to share that understanding.

Tina Brown tweeted yesterday that Ailes was a great producer and raconteur, and it was wrong to judge him solely on the sexual harassment charges. I agree. He should be judged on the impact the things he produced: political candidates (Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes, and behind the scenes, often with Giuliani, Trump) and political news. Though he was built like Goering, his legacy may well be as an American Goebbels, though luckily not in the service of a dictator.

Thursday 18 May 2017


I was in need of some comfort food. I was still dizzy and nauseous with what I hope was just a bout of Menieres (because it will go away if that's what it is) and I was tired from writing 1,500 words on Roger Ailes for the Guardian in three hours with a pounding headache. To paraphrase Pascal, I'd have given them a thousand words, but they didn't give me enough time.

There was not in the icebox as I'm off to the US next week. So I boil some store-bought cappelletti and drain them, a dab of butter and some pepper. Toss in a couple of teaspoons of store-bought red pesto. A splash of Healthy Boy Thai chili sauce, a dash of Louisiana hot sauce, and a few chopped salad tomatoes. Then grate some parmesan cheese over the top. Perfectly comforting.

Then I realise that this looks an awful like the Chef Boy-Ar-Dee ravioli that came out of a can, which many of my young friends (or their mothers) took for Italian food. My mother would not allow such stuff in the house. She always made her own spaghetti sauce, and very well too. She may have been Jewish, but she grew up in a neighbourhood with lots of Italians. Like them, she always made spaghetti or ziti (same sauce) on Wednesdays and we always ate fish on Fridays. She even pronounced minestrone to rhyme with 'bone', like those Neopolitans in West Haven did.

I am starting to realise that life is indeed a circle.

Wednesday 17 May 2017


My obituary of Powers Boothe went up at the Guardian online yesterday, you can link to it here. He died in his sleep at only 68, a surprise because of the incredible energy he brought to his roles. Yet the seeming easy with which he pulled off intensity was amazing, and it was what made him one of my favourites.

I was thinking about how much fun he seemed to be having when he acted, that well studied sense of not having studied at all. And how much fun the set must have been on so many of his films, and what good ensembles he was part of. Extreme Prejudice is like a Hall of Fame of B movie villainy: Rip Torn, Michael Ironside, William Forsythe. Walter Hill had worked with Sam Peckinpah, and this was very much like a movie Peckinpah might have wanted to make. The same with Southern Comfort, another Hill effort, with Keith Carradine, Fred Ward, and Peter Coyote. Or think of Tombstone, with such great turns by lesser stars like Val Kilmer (the definitive Doc Holliday) or Kurt Russell as Wyatt, but tremendous work from Michael Biehn (Ringo Kid), Stephen Lang (Ike Clanton), Bill Paxton (Morgan Earp) or Joanna Pacula (Big Nose Kate).

But the two roles that might be his best performances are his breakthrough part as Jim Jones, which he played like a demented summer-camp director, which made it easy to see how he might get typecast as charismatic villains, and his take as Al Haig in Oliver Stone's Nixon: another film where he shines amidst a wonderful ensemble cast. He gets the lightly hidden drive for power behind Haig, and the way he succumbs to the opportunity to grab it, the way a vampire might succumb to the smell of blood.

There are similarities in many of his roles. Obviously he played a lot of corrupt people with power. But even in two of his starring roles as a hero, he winds up being converted to his heroic role (A Breed Apart and Emerald Forest). The latter in particular is very interesting because he starts off not to far from his character in Red Dawn, which possibly inspired Ironside when he played in Starship Troopers. As an aside, I saw a preview of Red Dawn at the DGA in Los Angeles with a friend of mine, and my ridicule of the movie forced my host to tell me to keep it down lest I offend anyone connected with the film who might be in attendance. It's kind of like the creation myth of the Tea Party militia.

Writing the obit was not easy: there were lots of half-way details about his life, especially his personal life. I found lots of gossip clippings about him and Rebecca de Mornay, which might help explain why his long marriage eventually failed, but was nothing important enough nor solid enough to warrant inclusion. Then, as it turned out, the Guardian was contacted to say his marriage had not ended in divorce, and the alleged second wife and two sons did not seem to exist. It was easy to say wikipedia was wrong, but I hadn't followed Wiki blindly; it was sourced (perhaps from wiki) in many places, and what had given the second wife idea credence was one source that actually was correcting wikipedia regarding dates. If this were a hoax, it's hard to conceive of why it would be done. In the end, finding no evidence to confirm either second wife or children, we corrected the piece, with apologies for distress it may have caused.

To add to the confusion, I also discovered an artist named Power Boothe, who made a short film called Overture, which some listings credit to Powers Boothe. I eventually found the correct name on a sale listing of old VHS art tapes. I assumed it was this Boothe who had also done the art work for Todd Solandz's first film, which also gets credited to Powers.

Most interesting, however, was one source, which appeared to get repeated, saying Boothe had appeared as an extra in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, as a Bolivian bandit. The timing was not impossible; he might have been between college and graduate school, though location shooting was done in Bolivia. I felt that had that story been true, I would have found Boothe talking about it at some point, especially considering his success in westerns. I did manage to find a still from the scenes in Bolivia, and in the back is someone who looks an awful lot like Boothe, although not necessarily the 21 year old Boothe. I never made contact with someone who could tell me definitively, but I feel like this is apocryphal, much as I would have liked it to be true.

Boothe also thrived in the quality small-screen dramas that have changed the face of film-making in the past 15 years.  This should not have been a surprise, because his best lead role as a non-villain was as Philip Marlowe, in the HBO series Marlowe, as I describe in the obituary. That series was produced along with London Weekend, the kind of deal that was the forerunner for the modern style of subscription channel offerings. Showtime's Fallen Angels was another similar series, though better written, directed and shot.

Boothe didn't fit my idea of Marlowe, but he got the character and interpreted it deftly. Latterly he stole scene after scene from Kevin Costner and Paxton in Hatfields and McCoys; he and McShane were a terrific double-act in Deadwood, and he was born to play Connie Britton's dad. There would have been more television greatness to come for sure; he was gone too soon. RIP.

Sunday 14 May 2017

BLUEBERRY EYES: a poem from Franz Kline

In yesterday's post, linking to my Guardian obituary of Jean Stein, I mentioned that I had published two poems based on paintings by Franz Kline in her magazine, Grand Street (issue 54: Fall 1995). I did have a query asking if I might make them available. So here is 'Blueberry Eyes'.

Because the issue was themed 'Space', the first of those poems was 'Torches Mauve', which began with a mention of space, and was concerned with the space within the frame. I think that was the hook I used to pitch it to the managing editor, Deborah Treisman, whom I had met. Coincidentally, I had been rewriting 'Torches Mauve' recently, after seeing the painting again in the Abstract Expressionist show at the Royal Academy, but looking at it today I started clawing the original back, with only a few changes. I will sit on that one for a while.

The other was 'Blueberry Eyes'. I liked it a lot, and thought they worked together well, but it had actually been published already, in my 1991 Northern Lights pamphlet Chump Change. As that was a limited edition of 300 copies, I figured I was on safe ground.

The poem was inspired when I saw Kline's 'Blueberry Eyes' in March of 1989 in Washington DC, where I was attending a world broadcasters' conference sponsored, I think, by the EBU. I took time off to hit the galleries, and I believe this was in the National: I can still recall the wall and the placement of the painting, I'm slightly less sure of the building itself. I wrote it out as a poem over the next two years and Chump Change appeared in May 1991. I still like the way it moves, with a rhythm I still see in the painting, and the tension between colour and black. Kline was so good painting with colour, and he did so few of them before he died. 16 years later, here it is again


Let's fight to hold
the darkness off

somewhere, the other
side of, the river

the shadow of a
bridge, let's let

the night begin
to echo & watch

as flashes of light
bounce off the flow

of water below.
On board a train

New York is

bridges connect
deserted islands

remain as sun dis-
appears behind the

Palisades, greens
turn to yellow

red & swirls to
stop at Spuyten Duyvil

& in that instant
train & landscape

intersect &
sunlight dies

Saturday 13 May 2017


My obituary of Jean Stein is up at the Guardian online; you can link to it here. It will appear in the paper paper sometime in the future. It is pretty much as I wrote it; with some small deletions, and reorganised somewhat to deal with her books chronologically. I had preferred to leave the third until the end, because it seemed to me that the completion of that book might have signaled something in terms of her depression which culminated in her suicide. But the paper removed my reference to her depression, and mentioned the suicide only in passing, which is policy. I had written that she jumped from her balcony; to me the image was one of extreme despair, given her long bouts with depression, and the completion of her last book said something crucial about Jean Stein.

A few other small things: Jules Stein's MCA grew first by representing Guy Lombardo; by the time they moved to Hollywood they had more than half of all the bands in the country under contract. The connection with Ronald Reagan is important, and I had mentioned that. Reagan, as head of the Screen Actor's Guild, basically sold the union out, which was great news for the studios and Lew Wasserman, Stein's successor as president of MCA, and Reagan's own agent; see Dan Moldea's book Dark Victory: Ronald Reagan, MCA And The Mob.

I would have loved to have more time to examine Jean Stein's childhood, as she does in her book. And I would have liked to delve further into the 'poor little rich girl' theme which runs through the latter two books. I had mentioned that William Faulkner was 56 when the 19 year old Stein had her affair with him, to me that explained a lot about the interview he gave her, as well as about the interview landing her a job with the Paris Review. Her salon in New York is fascinating in itself, especially those she remained close to--Joan Didion being the most telling.

It was especially nice for me to be able to mention her grace with the magazine Grand Street, which remains one of my favourite, and one of the finest, places where my poetry has appeared. It was a great magazine, and its art coverage was fantastic; a lovely landing place for poems about Franz Kline. And it was good of the Guardian to include mention of her two daughters, both of whom followed in her footsteps, so to speak, particularly Katrina vanden Heuvel, who publishes and edits The Nation.

Thursday 11 May 2017


“On a Tuesday in May, in her thirty-seventh year, Rachel shot her husband dead.” This is the line that begins the brief prologue to Since We Fell, a tour de force from Dennis Lehane which reminds is above all about what a talented writer he is. Like Mystic River, it is a novel about emotions. But what makes it so remarkable is the way it is told, in three sections, each with its own focus and its own style, the latter serving to emphasize the former.

The first, titled 'Rachel In The Mirror', could easily stand alone as a novella in a mainstream literary magazine. It covers the story of Rachel Childs, raised alone by her psychology-professor mother who authored a best-selling self-help book called The Staircase, which referred to the stages any relationship goes through, and which Elizabeth tells Rachel was a piece of 'emotionally adolescent snake-oil'. She barely remembers her father, who left the family when she was young, but she recalls her mother's threat as he walked away: “If you leave I will expunge you.” Her mother gave Rachel little information about her father, but she becomes determined to track him down, and after Elizabeth's death in a car crash, that determination becomes an obsession. The story of her quest is interwoven with her experience as a successful TV reporter in Boston, married to a successful producer, and on the verge of network stardom. She is sent to cover an earthquake in Haiti, and in the chaos that follows the disaster, she finds it impossible to 'report' the positive, and her career and marriage both crash. Like the quest for her father, it's a tale of disappointment, and a revelation about the nature of life and life's pain. It is a perfectly done, self-contained story, but one that needs to be remembered as the tale unfolds. It also contains one of Lehane's aphoristic moments, like the Irish whiskey scene in The Drop, when a character explains “the only people who ask questions like 'did he want to be something besides a bartender?' are people who can become whoever they want. The rest of us are just Americans.”

When the second section, 'Brian', opens, Rachel bumps into the private detective she had originally hired in Western Massachusetts to search for her father at the faculties of universities in the area. Brian is now back in charge of his family's lumber business in Canada, and he is the stable figure Rachel needs, as she's now suffering from an inability to face the world. But all, as they say, is not what it seems, and Brian is living a double life, built on a structure of lies. Were this the opening of the novel a shrewd marketing type might have called it The Girl On The Staircase, because it fits into that modern genre of woman battling to find the truth behind an ominous menace. Lehane is again pitch-perfect: his writing builds that menace slowly, and it concludes with the scene that opened the prologue.

The third section deals with the aftermath of the shooting, as Rachel tries to piece together the mysteries that have gone before. It's titled 'Rachel In The World', which reflects the change as she is forced to act. And it's written in the kind of action prose we've seen from Lehane in his last few novels, quick moving, event-driven, and pushing toward a conclusion that at first glance, while legitimate and consistent, might strike some as being somewhat mechanical. Until one stops to think about what has gone before and what has been said to Rachel and thought by Rachel, and presented to Rachel. And here is where this brilliant novel transcends the concept of psychological thriller, or to be more accurate, it tells us where the roots of the psychology that creates the situation for such thrillers lies, and what it means. Because what it is about, recall, is the nature of living, and how we cope with its pain. And what we do, Lehane is telling us, is play roles, play con games, by which we fool others and ourselves about what we are inside. From her mother's book and tales to the hitman playing injured father, from Rachel indoors or inside herself to Rachel out in the world as wife or as avenger, we learn to accept the darkness outside, the dirt beneath. Because, as we learn, we do not own life, we rent it.

Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane

Little, Brown £18.99 ISBN 9781408708330

published on 16 May

This review will also appear at Crime Time (

Sunday 7 May 2017


My obituary of the novelist and screenwriter William Hjortsberg is online at the Guardian, you can link to it here. It will appear in the paper paper at some point. As far as I have seen, apart from a nice one in the Livingston Enterprise, this is the onliest one that has appeared in the press, and that is a shame. I remember enjoying the comedy of Alp and the audaciousness of Gray Matters, and then being shocked at the change of tone in Falling Angel, which surely is a classic.

It's probably best to read the obit as published before continuing here. Although the obit is basically as I wrote it, there were a lot of small trims, and one big one which we will get to. Given the laid-back of the life of the man his friends knew as 'Gatz' (which was excised from the piece) I thought it might be worthwhile to patch up those little details which I thought rounded out the story. Because, as Louis Cyphre might say, the devil is in the details. For example, I don't know why but I thought it important to say that the Johnny Favourite whom Cyphre hires Harry Angel to find had been a famous crooner, which makes his disappearance even harder to fathom.

Many of the bits cur were those small details that give you a sense of a person. When Hjortsberg was little, his father had a country house in the Catskills, where young Bill learned to fish, something he would continue to do when he settled in Montana. At Dartmouth, he used a photographic memory to allow him to work in the pizza joint nights while going to college in the days. He and his buddyTom McGuane won Stegner Fellowships at Stanford: this was probably the most prestigious creative-writing programme in America: before McGuane and Hjortsberg it had included Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, Larry McMurtry, Wendell Berry, Peter S Beagle and George V Higgins (though its 'hit rate' isn't as impressive afterwards). Before starting at Stanford, Hjortsberg and his wife Marian travelled in Europe and Central America; this comes up in a couple of books, including the recent Manana, which I will review here soon.

It also comes up in Toro! Toro! Toro!. I had to explain to the Guardian desk that the title was a play on Tora! Tora! Tora!, which had been a movie about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; I was then asked by the desk to explain what Tora meant: tora (which means tiger) was the code word to signal the attack was underway; an acronym for TOtsugeki RAigeki, usually translated as 'lightning attack'.

I mentioned the unlikely influence of Per Lagerkvist's The Dwarf on Alp. I told the story of when Tom McGuane advised Hjortsberg to take up screenwriting, he said 'it's like taking candy from a baby', which was an echo of Herman Mankiewicz's famous 1925 telegram offering Ben Hecht $300 to come out to Hollywood: "'Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around." I also noted that the screenplay Nomad was constantly being optioned, so although Hjortsberg had few movie credits, between options and doctoring, he kept earning. 

Hjortsberg's first marriage and a brief second one both ended in divorce. In 2000 he was set up with Janie Camp by the western writer Richard Wheeler and his wife, two more of the Montana gang. This seemed somehow fitting, because Gatz was really at the centre of the gang; his son Max married Jim Harrison's daughter Anna, which made them sort of royalty. Having written Harrison's obit for the Guardian (you can find it here), I felt like it was something I should mention. 

There's a picture of Richard Brautigan sitting round a table with McGuane and, I think Jim Harrison, and a couple of bottles of bourbon. The other people aren't facing the camera but I wonder if one of them is Hjortsberg. He spent two decades researching that Brautigan biography, and though I was not tempted to read it then, I am now. We forget not only how important a writer Brautigan was, for a brief time, but also how very talented at his peak, with his combination of minimalism and surrealism (or what Robert Bly would call 'leaping'). His life was also one of extreme difficulty, and though such a big book seems the antithesis of Brautigan's work, I am getting the sense that karmatically, his life may have demanded it. Or it may just have been an obsession, but either way it makes sense. 

It's odd that I should think Hjortsberg in later years resembled Noam Chomsky a bit. He died from pancreatic cancer. He had finished the sequel to Falling Angel, and was going to call it Burning Angel, except James Lee Burke, another Montana-based writer, published a novel with that title. Burke apparently told Hjortsberg to use it anyway, but the book will be published under a different title, which he wouldn't tell interviewers.

He did, however, respond last year when an interviewer asked him for some 'parting words', which was a prescient if not ominous query. Hjortsberg told him "live every day to its fullest. Suck it in. It's all so brief". Which is a good way to end an interview, or a life, or an obituary. It was how I ended mine, though sadly, it's not how it ends in the paper. I'm still trying to figure out why. RIP.