Saturday 30 June 2018


Two stories dominated political news this week in the United States, which I was able to watch from the inside as I made a family visit, and from the inside their effects seemed to be interpreted in a curiously backward logic, which speaks to way politics is played in America.

On Tuesday, not far from where I was staying, a 28 year old woman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, scored an amazing upset in the Democratic party primary for New York’s 14th Congressional district, defeating Joe Crowley, a 20-year incumbent who was considered the front-runner to replace Nancy Pelosi as minority leader in the House, and who, at 56, was at least 20 years younger than the three Dems higher than him in the party hierarchy.

The next day, 81-year old Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, effective at the end of July. Though he seemed to be tacking well to the conservative side in recent years, Kennedy was still considered the ‘swing vote’ between right and left on the nine-member court. His resignation gives President Donald Trump the chance to appoint another young die-hard rightist, in the mould of Neil Gorsuch, whose impact after being nominated last year has already been great.

The Kennedy resignation seems timed to allow Trump to make an appointment before the upcoming mid-term elections in November. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who when President Barack Obama tried to fill the seat opened by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, flat-out refused to provide the Senate’s ‘advice and consent’ as prescribed by the Constitution, thus holding the seat open until Trump could select Gorsuch, immediately announced he would this time fast-track the process. Commentators opined that the rush would be to avoid Republicans losing their majorities in an anti-Trump landslide in the mid-terms. Many of the them pointed to the Ocasio win as a sign the country was turning left.

That analysis missed the biggest point about Ocasio's win, the difference between national and local politics, particularly in today’s America. Because on the national level, Democrats would need a massive swing away from Republicans, estimated by pollsters at between eight and ten per cent nationally, to merely eke out a slight majority in the House of Representatives. This is due to the dual effects of systematic gerrymandering and intense voter repression, whose roots can be traced to the Republican focus on local politics in the 2010 midterm elections. By making huge gains in state legislatures, the party was able to dominate the redrawing of Congressional districts in the wake of the 2010 US census. By drawing districts that lumped likely Democrat voters together, they ensured their majority in the House, even when they polled fewer votes nationwide in Congressional elections.

Meanwhile, those same state legislatures were busy passing laws requiring government-issue photo ID in order to vote, and concocting schemes to defeat non-existent voter fraud by setting up registration checks designed to fail people who rented, moved, or simply wouldn’t check what looked like junk mail. With Justice Kennedy voting with the other four right-wing judges to allow virtually unlimited political spending, those who could vote were increasingly influenced by local advertising closely coordinated with national aims.
After ignoring the Ocasio campaign (the New York Times, which after al is her local paper, never ran a single article about her, though she did get mentions in election round ups), the national media jumped onto her victory to illustrate their own narratives, tied to national politics.

Ocasio had worked for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Presidential primaries, so pundits either characterised her win as the beginning of a revolution for the Democrats, proving a rleativelt radical agenda could energise their voters or else as another futile gesture which would fail on the national stage because moderation is what they see as the only means of defeating Trump. Neither view was accurate, because it overlooked the local story.

Joe Crowley was a powerful man in Congress, a successful fund-raiser (he had outspent Ocasio by a 10-1 factor even before the final two weeks of campaigning) for the Democratic national committee, and for himself and his lobbyist brother. He came up through local politics in his New York City borough, Queens, which also produced Donald Trump. He was known locally as ‘The King Of Queens, but his congressional district aslso included parts of another New York borough, The Bronx, and after 20 years in Congress, he was perceived as not representing the interests of that part of his constituency.

Ocasio capitalised on that perception. She produced a virtually homemade campaign video (you can link to it here) which went viral with over 300,000 hits in its first day. It emphasied her own roots in the community and Crowley’s distance from the voters in his home near Washington. She articulated policies which may have seemed Sandersesque to the national media, but resonated with a community of working class people, many of them immigrants. Arguing for free university education in the city may seem radical today, but it was the reality in New York for decades before Reaganomics changed our perspective of the world. Beneficiaries of the city colleges included former Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, author Frank McCourt, designer Ralph Lauren, polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk, General Colin Powell, novelist Mario Puzo, artist Barnett Newman and many more, often themselves the children of immigrants. What was seen as necessary then is seen as radical now.

The circumstances of Ocasio’s victory cannot be replicated across America. She won a primary where fewer than 30,000 voters turned out against a complacent candidate who, for all his power was very much vulnerable. She herself will likely be more vulnerable than Crowley in a heavily-Democratic district where she may not be able to enthuse Crowley supporters. Her campaign was based on providing a strongly articulated platform that was a real alternative to big-spending politics as much as to Republican policies or indeed Trumpism.

Nationally, the Democratic party has been content to present itself as a kinder, gentler alternative to the Republicans. This is a significant difference, and it can appeal to a wider audience when articulated effectively. But underneath its appeal is the famous dictum attributed to Bill Clinton when asked where the left would go if his ‘third way’ was not enough of an alternative. ‘Where else are they going to go?’ There will not be a horde of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes arguing with passion and courage a progressive programme and attracting those voters in the centre besieged with heavy media spending portraying them as radicals, nor will there be minority and immigrant voters battling simply to get registered and be allowed to vote. 

Following Crowley's defeat, Trump tweeted that he lost because he hadn't been respectful enough to his president. Missing the point is endemic in the American Beltway establishment, reinterepting every hiccup in their punditry's estimation in a way that will reinforce their previous convictions. Their picture of the centre fails to recognise how far to the right it has been shifted in the past four decades. The lesson of Ocasio-Cortez is not that a determined, energetic and attractive young self-proclaimed socialist is necessary to shift that paradigm within which 'liberal' is perceived as a smear. But it requires what Ocasio called the courage to stand up for the values which even a hesitant electorate can see are necessary to combat not just Trump but the modern, Koch Brothers Tea Party Christian Fundamentalist Republican Party, should it survive Trump, rather than empower him to some Erdogan-like President for Life status. Even though a look through history shows that most Supreme Court justices are Republicans when appointed, in the past many of them became bastions of liberal democratic values. Earl Warren had been Republican governor of California when Japanese were intered in concentration camps. Hugo Black had once belong to the KKK. And so on. The odds of Trump appointing anyone who might be considered a 'swing vote' by even the most accomodating mainstream pundit, or who had any human proclivity to slide that way, are very small indeed.

The mid-term elections in November will be above all a test of the nation’s acceptance of Trumpism. But it will also take place in the shadow of the nation’s quiet acquiescence to a sea-change in the political landscape. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was a ripple in the waters. But the appointment of another Gorsuch, or worse, to the Supreme Court, could be the start of a right-wing tidal wave.

Friday 29 June 2018


Robert Parker wrote four westerns starring Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, starting with Appaloosa, which was made into an excellent film whose adaptation was co-written, with star Ed Harris, by Robert Knott. Blackjack is Knott's fourth continuation of Parker's series, and probably the best of the bunch.

You can find my reviews of the two of those previous novels here at Irresistible Targets. I wrote before that Knott was restrained a bit by the characterisations built up in the film,
which was a shame because it was Parker's sharp contrast between Hitch's perceptive narration (much like Spenser's first person in the detective novels) and Cole's western silence that delineated the story even more than the characters themselves. This problem continues: Knott lacks Parker's ability to allow Hitch to sketch in quickly the characters of supporting players, a shame in this book because the characters have the potential to be hugely entertaining, particularly Boston Bill Black, a gambler and gunman accused of a brutal murder, Valentine Pell, a gunman with a surprising past, and Daphne Angel, the muse of a great hotel/saloon/casino/brothel going up in Appaloosa.

But what is most problematic is the loss of the edginess in the relationship between Virgil and Allie, which lay at the core of Appaloosa. Allie is the polar opposite of Spenser's Susan. Just as Virgil is love struck but opposed to Spenser in his inability to deal with his obsession with Allie, Allie is incapable of being fully independent, and it's her lack of attachment to Virgil when his presence as anchor is drifting that made her a source of constant tension. Here they seem to have settled into a sort of unsatisfactory domestic bliss--but it also seems pretty clear that Knott is building a future conflict into the story.

Blackjack is actually more of a murder mystery than a western, made more difficult because the murder occured in Denver and there were no witnesses. There are scenes of courtroom drama, and unusual behaviour from the local judge which is never really explained. It's resolution is not quite unexpected, but the motivation and casuality are; they are very modern in their execution. Which also reminds me that there are a number of times when modern discourse interferes with the western setting: I doubt if 'meaningful relationship' or Ms. were part of the 19th century.

Knott keeps the story moving well, introduces a nice, if not fully delineated suporting cast, and gets enough out of the Hitch-Cole dynamic to make Blackjack a diverting, if not compelling, read.

Blackjack by Robert Knott
Putnam, US$9.99, ISBN 9781101982525

Tuesday 26 June 2018


Peter Guillam is living a calm retirement at the family homestead in Brittany when he is summoned back to London, and reminded of his ‘lifelong duty to attend’ his former masters at MI6. At the Stalinist monolith that now houses the Intelligence Service, he is asked about an Operation Windfall, and learns that the children of the agent Alec Leamas and the English woman, Elizabeth Gold, are in the process of suing the Service, and him, for causing their deaths at the Berlin Wall.

What follows is Guillam’s account both of his interrogation and his remembrance of the events of another operation, concerning an agent, code named Tulip, who was part of a network in East Germany run by his friend Alec Leamas, the best agent he ever knew. Both take place amidst the growing realisation that MI6 has been penetrated at a high level by a Russian mole.

Just as much as Guillam is giving us a legacy of any number of spies, so John Le Carre is presenting his own legacy of spies, a reflection on the secrecy and building of false characters and pretend emotions that are so much a part of his own trade as a writer, as well as those of spies. The two stories, the hunt for information about the past by the service and Guillam’s own recollections which he keeps as much as possible secret, particularly his own emotions, just as he had to do when he was an active agent, and with just as much distrust of where emotions might take him. The two stories intersect, but they also move away from each other, not least because of the way the business has changed. This is symbolised by the buildings: the stark facelessness and crushing architectural weight of Artillery House against the ramshackle Circus, or the safe house still run Millie McCraig; or by the face these modern bureaucrats are unable to do a simple effective search or cope with what used to be called, in the days before electronics, tradecraft.

The story is LeCarre as sharp as ever, in fact, it’s as if the old LeCarre has been, like Guillam, ‘recalled to life’ as Dickens would have had it. But what makes it work is the contrast, the way the service has itself changed positions, and the way the operations are revealed so skillfully through a combination of truth and lies, as in all of LeCarre’s best work. Those familiar with The Spy Who Came In From The Cold will have some idea of where it is all going, and a much better picture of some of the later details of the story, whereas those aware of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will know the deeper background of what is going on. Neither is necessary, of course, but the awareness adds depth. In this sense, we might consider A Legacy Of Spies a valedictory work, as anyone who saw LeCarre’s interviews around publication might surmise.

There is the paradox of age. Guillam appears to have been born in 1931, like LeCarre himself, and LeCarre's house in Cornwall is a sort of mirror image of Guillam's in Brittany. Guillam is writing his story sometime around 2010, which would make him 79, still fit and active and full of sharp-edged memory. But how old Jim Prideaux, Millie McCraig and yes, George Smiley are is a matter of some debate, and they all seem as sprightly as ever. But remembering LeCarre’s own age as he writes this novel, those who make age a sticking point may well be missing the point.

Because it is Smiley’s appearance, at the end, which strikes the note of legacy the strongest, and the nature of what the current agents might call a ‘mission statement’ might surprise some readers, because of its overtly telling stance aimed at modern Britain’s politics. But behind it is the memory of the tragedies, the lost lives, the miscalculations involved in all those years of playing the game. Smiley’s legacy may have been a failure to actually leave a lasting legacy, and LeCarre is sensitively aware that neither Smiley nor he were granted the perspective to see the long term effects of what their business accomplished, or didn’t. LeCarre’s work has been a marker in the world of spy fiction for almost six decades, his peak still barely matched. This novel reminds us of his legacy, and becomes a major part of it.

A Legacy Of Spies by John LeCarre

Penguin £8.99 ISBN 9780241981610

Note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (

Friday 15 June 2018


Francois Ozon has a playful fascination with ambiguity, something film allows, if not encourages, in its story-telling. L'Amant Double (Double Lover) revels in its ambiguities, which are multi-layered and expansive: the entire story may be one thing or may be another. Or bits of each.

Chloe (Marine Vacht) is a beautiful but insecure ex-model, suffering from intense abdominal pain from no apparent source. She's retreated into a job as a museum guard, and the film opens with her hair being cut, as if to remove her female allure, and render her sexuality ambiguous. She begins seeing a psychoanalyst, Paul (Jeremie Renier). She seems to be making progress, but Paul needs to drop her as a patient because he is falling in love with her, and they begin an affair. Paul is very much in thrall to Chloe's beauty, while allowing her vulnerability space to exert her control over him. It all seems to progress, until she discovers Paul uses his mother's name, and has an identical twin brother, who is also a psychoanalyst. So she begins seeing Louis, and almost immediately is drawn into another affair, one in which she is dominated.

There is nothing particularly challenging here: in fact it's very much phallo-centric in the sense that as Louis dominates Chloe, she is freed, as it were to dominate Paul, and phallo-literally as we shall see. Renier's good at making the two brothers recognisably different; his Louis is very much hard-bodied, contrasted with Paul's crunchy preppy BCBG self, softened by jumpers and moony gazes. But simply take off Paul's smart-guy Clark Kent glasses and he turns into Louis' sexual Superman. You can't help but think Ozon is amused by all this: Paul can't stand Chloe's cat Milo ('my baby' she says—remember the stomach pains); while Louis has a very rare breed of chat—'un chat unique' he says, which if you don't know French is a pun because le chat is French for what Donald Trump grabs. These tortiose-shell felines are usually female, but males with three colours are always twins, xxy as it were. You see the point?

That's droll, but the film's funniest moment may be when Paul proposes to Chloe in a restaurant. As they walk home, she looks in a shop window—ah, the audience thinks, the ring?--and goes into a sex shop for a dildo. That night she pegs Paul, who despite his protestations of innocence, seems remarkably comfortable with the whole business. L'Amant Double didn't win any prizes at Cannes, but if the Adult Video Awards in Vegas have a best foreign strap-on gong, Vacth will be in the frame.

The most obvious antecedent for L'Amant Double is David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, with Jeremy Irons as the twin shrinks and Genevieve Bujold as the insecure patient. Ozon's nods include Cronenberg's fascination with biological function: after the opening a scene of Chloe's hair being cut we go immediately to an extreme close up of a vagina held open by a speculum. We are confronted with a mind/body dilemma, which obviously is what Chloe needs to sort out, and like Ozon's twins, we the audience will have to try to figure out what it is. You can see, especially in some of the design and use of colour, Brian de Palma's Body Double, and that same sense of the exploitation that begins with our gaze on Vacth's elusive beauty: another of Ozon's amusing scenes has Vacth, feeling liberated, walking across the museum floor with her most aggressively alluring power-swivel cat-walk walk. Remember 'le chat'?

And of course there is Hitchcock, and Vertigo. It seems to be trying hard enough that in some ways the best comparison for Ozon might be the Coen Brothers, whose work delves in genre remakes, hommages, and increasingly, commentary. This is intensified by the production design by Sylvie Olive, especially the dual sets of the twin shrink's flats. In fact another of the movie's funniest moments is realising the parallels between the consulting brothers: by now you can probably figure from the stills which is Paul and which Louis. Ozon's constant framing of double-images, mirrors, reflections in rainy windows and even characters, with Jacqueline Bissett playing both the mother of a girl with whom the twins were once involved and Chloe's own mother.

This is apparently based on a suspense novel by Joyce Carol Oates writing as Rosamond Smith, though very loosely indeed. But that question of genre is crucial here, even to the basic point of Oates using a second identity for her delve into thrillers. Ozon might have gone back and absorbed Truffaut's interviews with Hitchcock before making this movie, studied the approach to dealing with audience expectations in genres, and one wonders in the end if perhaps it is too knowing, too detached, or if he's simply playing with that idea. He even inserts the Chekovian pistol, as if to nod knowingly to the viewer. But even when she is the penetrator we wonder. Is Chloe their victim? Is she ours? Vacth's beauty is in a sense too perfect and cold; her vulnerability is never more convincing than her allure. Think of the detachment Vacth showed in Ozon's Young and Beautiful (2013), and wonder where the audience is supposed to take this. Bisset's presence suggests a more straightforward kind of anger, a Fatal Attraction kind of moment, which is another way this film teases it might be heading. In one sense Ozon asks questions he really has no intention of answering, and in the end the explanations are as ambiguous as the questions. But beyound cinematic reference, imagine the Coen Bros. if they were French strutcuralists. After all, as Foucault formulated it, 'saying yes to sex is not saying no to power'. Ozon's film is almost perfectly constructed around this paradox, as is Vacth, and that seems to be the point. It is a cinematic hall of mirrors, and at its centre is Marine Vacth, as if she were Ozon's Tippi Hedren for the supposedly sexually empowered 21st century.

Wednesday 13 June 2018


It's 1937 and Dieter Merz is the ace of the Condor Legion, flying the new Messerschmidt 109 against Russian planes in the Spanish Civil War, called Der Kleine, the Little One. Toward the end of that year, Tom Moncrieff, an ex-Marine fluent in German, and trying to make his father's estate in the Highlands into a shooting resort, is recruited by a shadowy part of British intelligence, to gather information about the Germans and their plans regarding the Sudetenland.

It's 1938, and Dieter, having been injured seriously in a crash, is a celebrity and has been sent to Japan to gather information about Japan's aerial strength. He meets Keiko, the sister of a Japanese flyer, who is able to nurse his cracked bones back to health. Meanwhile Tam is in Czechoslovakia with the wife of a Jewish Czech refugee, trying to gauge how strong the push back against a German advance might be.

Graham Hurley is one of Britain's most under-appreciated thriller writers. His series of Faraday and Winter were as good as any of the British lonely detectives, helped by the uneasy balance of the two main characters, and their picture of Portsmouth depended on Hurley's pin-point characterisation, built on an empathic understanding of even the worst of them. Now he's turned his hand to thriller set around World War II, of which Estocada is the third, which provides him with more chances to challenge that ability to define venal characters, and to explore their ambiguities. His portrayals of Goering, Ribbentrop and Hitler himself catch edges of each man that aren't typical, but bring them to life in a completely non-mythic way.

The plot, of course, brings Dieter and Tam together, in Berlin , still in 1938 but with war on everyone's minds. But in Estocada (a word Dieter picked up in Spain, meaning the matador's death-strike on the bull) the focus is the way this impending conflict affects the lives of those involved. Not just our dual protagonists, but their friends, the victims they encounter, and especially those they love.

Behind the usual tense questions and rushes against time you'd expect from a thriller, and the dangerous spy turf of Nazi Germany, the heart of this book is the question of just how committed one can be, how necessary it may be to have something more powerful than oneself in which to belief and for which to live and die. Like many of Hurley's novels, regardless of their milieu, this is a book about compassion and human values. As such it gets beneath the usual tropes of his latest genre, and is an engrossing read.

Estocada by Graham Hurley
Head Of Zeus, £18.99, ISBN 9781784977894

note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (

Friday 8 June 2018


Here's what Donald Trump accomplishes by telling reporters he's 'considering a pardon' for Muhammad Ali, who since his conviction on refusal to be drafted into the Army was overturned, and thus needs no pardon least of all from draft-dodger Trump, "ol heel spurs".
1. Diversion: he's headed up to G7 where he will stand out like a clown at a funeral. Ali is sure to get headlines. Especially because:
2. The White House reporters will likely fail to know, and thus point out, that Ali's conviction was overturned. When they do find out, they will not report this as a Trump gaffe, but as if the fact Ali does not need a pardon is 'the other side' of the story and
3. As those who understand what this means weigh in, the distraction will grow even bigger while
4. Some of those who idolize Ali and don't realize the offer is a scam will think Trump is actually OK on equal rights issues, and of course
5. Those considering flipping on Trump when they're indicted by Mueller will be noting the Prez is in a pardoning mood....while
6. No reporters will question the hypocrisy of criticizing (mostly black) athletes who kneel in protest during the national anthem while pardoning a man who resisted the draft and refused to fight an immoral war...


Thanks to satellite imagery and an ISIS group leaving their phones on a little too long after a massacre in a Syrian village, MI6 has been able to track, and identify, at least by voice, the leader of the terrorist cell, whom they call Black Cube. They have established he and his sidekicks are in Greece, presumably on their way to northern Europe, and some new attack. But there is a witness to the Syrian slaughter, a 13 year old boy who is also in Greece, having survived a boat wreck when a dolphin saved him and a baby he was carrying. MI6 want to get to the boy, code-named Firefly, before ISIS do, and they approach a former agent, Paul Sampson, Arabic speaking of Lebanese extraction, who's now 'finding people' for a private intelligence company.

Firefly is Henry Porter's sixth thriller, but the first since 2009's The Dying Light; you can read my review of that here. That was a deeply layered dissection of Britain's burgeoning surveillance state; this one is a more straightforward book, a chase story, but one told from two points of view. As you follow Sampson's pursuit of Firefly, you're also drawn into Firefly's own pursuit, of the safety of Germany, which is threatened by the killers pursuing him. And though this might sound high-concept and plot-driven, what makes the book work is the way it treats its characters.

Sampson is the kind of resourceful but modest hero British agents are supposed to be, but what makes the story interesting is the way he has to fight past bureaucratic interference, not least from MI6 itself. But Firefly, or Naji, to give him his name, is every bit as resourceful as Sampson, with a lot less to work with, and of course, with the handicap of being only 13. But he is a boy genius, and has plenty of experience of dealing with danger on the ground.

Porter is a journalist by trade, and one of the very best to turn to thriller writing since Gerald Seymour wrote Harry's Game. As with Seymour, it is the realism of the background details, the intelligence procedures, the international agencies and their functioning, the in-fighting among government branches, and the chaos on the ground that really drives the story. And as we follow Naji from Turkey to Lesbos and through the Balkans, the realism of that background helps brings the characters to the fore; not just our two protagonists but a supporting cast both threatening and appealing.

In 2008, Porter published a young people's fantasy novel, The Master Of The Broken Chairs. It's plain from Firefly that he has the ability to create not only a convincing child hero, but to convey even more convincingly the point of view of that child forced to grow up rapidly, and in the worst possible circumstances. After that, a secret agent with a heart of gold or a beautiful English-educated Greek child psychologist in the refugee camps are pieces of cake.

Firefly by Henry Porter
Quercus £14.99 ISBN 078178470491 This review will appear also at Crime Time (

Wednesday 6 June 2018


My essay on the 50th anniversary of the RFK assassination is on the LRB Blog, you can link to it here. It's a little different from the one I originally wrote. Partly in layout: I led with the John Stewart quote, then explained who Stewart was. But mostly in detail: I went in to a little more description of the three assassinations I mention, to draw out their similarities, but I can understand why LRB wanted to keep
the focus tighter on the story of that campaign as well as the what ifs had Bobby not been murdered.

The RFK assassination is in many ways the most perplexing of those three. On the face of it, the evidence of conspiracy is the most obvious, but in most ways it remains the hardest to prove. I had started to write a separate essay recapping where we stand, and another drawing the parallels in the modus operandi in all three murders, recurring themes of conspiracy and cover up, as it were. But each time I got bogged down in the minutiae of what remains a conundrum for most people.

My suspicion of Bobby was real at the time. My lack of enthusiasm for Humphrey was just as real. By 1970, and in the wake of the student strike, the futility of protest began to tempered by what seemed democratic political progress; eventually George McGovern would use changes in the primary and convention process (spearheaded by his campaign manager, Gary Hart) to capture the Democratic nomination. McGovern was the man who had stepped forward to lead the 1968 delegates already won by Bobby; that he and Eugene McCarthy could never reach an accommodation that would raise a viable challenge to Humphrey is, in a nutshell, the most lasting legacy of Bobby's death.

McGovern's nomination in 1972 was probably the high point, or the last high point, of Sixties protest. McGovern, of course, would be trounced by Nixon in the '72 election; no October Surprise was necessary, though the Watergate break-in, like Russian interference in 2016, was swept under the carpet until well after the election results were known. When Nixon was finally toppled, there was no danger a McGovern would replace him.

I probably should also have added a line about the idea that Bobby was convinced his brother's killing had been the result of conspiracy. He would have known who the likely suspects were, and where to look for them and their accomplices. That in itself may have put the target on his back.