Monday, 29 October 2018


I interviewed the Icelandic crime writer Ragnar Jonasson in Rekyjavik not so long ago: the interview is up at the online UK crime fiction mag, Shots. The interview coincides with the launch of his novel The Darkness in paperback; I reviewed the original launch of the hardback here, back in March. It is a stunningly original deconstruction of a crime novel, probably the best I've read this year. I was very surprised to learn that it is the first of a three-book series; his rather more old-fashioned 'Dark Iceland' mysteries had not prepared me for The Darkness, and the idea that he could work backwards with the character is an equally original idea. You can link to the interview here.

Saturday, 20 October 2018


Is there any gender role more stylised than a that of ballerina? Lara is 15, and has been accepted into one of Belgium's leading ballet schools. But only provisionally, because Lara is well behind the other girls, most of whom have started their pointe by age 12. Lara didn't start then, because at 12 she was still a boy. And now, trying to make up lost time, she is further hindered by the fact that her body is still a boy's.

Lara has begun hormonal treatments, and will have surgery when she is older, but she still tapes down her penis when she dances. She has the dual pressures of a new school, as her father as moved her for her ballet, and the dance. And of course, she is about to turn 16, and needs to deal with sexual curiosity and urges.

One of the beauties of Girl, which won both the Camera d'or for first film, and the independent Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, is the way Lara's reaction to this overwhelming combination of stresses is presented: she is given her headway, and the audience is drawn along with her. She hears the warnings from all sides. A doctor promises more intense treatment “if you're evolving enough”; a dance teacher tells her “some things can't be changed, right?” She has a wonderfully supportive taxi-driver father (her mother's nowhere in sight) but not surprisingly, he (a good performance by Arieh Worthalter) has to struggle to try to understand the deep pull of feelings that Lara must cope with every day. But he, like us, has to remain distant from what is inside Lara. And no matter how often the doctors and psychologists tell her she is already what she is, she seems not to believe them. And of course dance merely reinforces that disbelief.

Despite there being, in effect, two movies going on here: a dance film and a trans film, director Lukas Dhont handles this with great subtlety, because he realises just how tightly entwined those two roles are. Director of photography Frank van den Eeden does a fine job of shooting in different tones for the different moments, the different stresses. There is extensive use of mirrors: the way dancers scrutinize their own movements, poses and bodies; the way Lara watches expectantly for the changes in her. It's all blended in to the story of her dance: this is a young teen aware of her own gender identity, not yet sexual, but attempting to become what she is by becoming the most idealized perception of what she is, and the most difficult to achieve. 'You make this so hard on yourself,' she is told, but it is as if she is aspiring to some sort of idealised, fairy-tale image of the girl she is and wants to be, and something has got to give.

That is why the dance story sits at the centre. We watch as she undergoes the torture of the toe: as she unwraps her bleeding bandages, and we realise the power of her desire to be what she is, and the metaphor for the difficulty of doing that. It is the very definition of the classic ballerina story, told in terms of everyday existence as well as on the stage.

The fulcrum of the story is a birthday party with the other girls in her class, where she is humilated by being asked to show her penis. Her body, which has never sweatted while dancing, suddenly begins to; the taping of her genitals has also caused an infection which will interfere with her treatment. The effort to dance, to stay thin, to have that girl's body, is exhausting her. And she meets a boy.

The resolution of this dilemma will strike some, as it struck me, as overly melodramatic; though it is predictable from the instant the scene starts, but metaphorically it works, in that there is only one way that Lara will be Lara. The film's final scene also seems a bit too pat, too slick, too upbeat: it is like a shot out of a commercial, but again its metaphoric point has been made. Lara is Lara: what has become of the rest of her dreams can be intuited, but has been left open.

As Lara, Victor Polster is brilliant: there is a scene when her young brother calls her 'Victor' in spite, to hurt her, which is some ironic comment, but he catches both the will and the frustration of Lara: she is never in doubt about what she wants, but she is an innocent, who needs to take steps, not ballet steps, for herself. Polster and Dhont have created a character audiences will cheer for, will suffer with, and in the end may well understand.

GIRL (Belgium, 2018) directed by Lukas Dhont, written by Dhont and Angelo Tijssens
UK distribution: Curzon/Artificial Eye

Friday, 19 October 2018


When the news came that the Packers' great Jim Taylor had died aged 83, the first message I got was from a Philadelphia friend of mine. 'You can get up now Jim, the game's over,' it read. That was a reference to the 1960 NFL championship game, the only playoff game Vince Lombardi ever lost. The Packers were driving, but with about 20 seconds left Bart Starr couldn't find a receiver in the end zone, and dumped the ball off to Taylor, who broke a couple of tackles but was then wrapped up by Chuck Bednarik and Bobby Jackson. Bednarik sat on him for 12 seconds until the clock ran out, then gave Taylor the famous quote.

Jim Taylor was a winner and Jim Taylor was tough. Those two things defined him and I'd put the second one first. His face looked like it was chiseled out of stone: a crew cut topped rectangle with a flat nose and powerful jaw. He was a huge college star at LSU. I can remember seeing Billy Cannon star for them when I was young, in his Heisman winning season, but in 1957 when Cannon and Taylor shared the running duties, it was Taylor who was the focus of opposing defenses. He was drafted by the Packers, but didn't come into his own until Lombardi took over the team, and paired him and Paul Hornung, another Heisman winner. When you think of the power sweep you think of Hornung (or Donny Anderson or Elijah Pitts) running behind the two guards, Fuzzy Thurston (63) and Jerry Kramer (64) and Taylor, but the Pack also ran it the other way, with Taylor the ball carrier. He was also a receiving threat out of the backfield, a hard guy to tackle one on one in the open field.

His good fortune was to be a part of that Packer dynasty, whose greatest ability was to be able to separate themselves from good teams like the Colts or Giants or later the Cowboys when it mattered most. They had talent, but the talent grew because they fit and played Lombardi's system to perfection. In a sense, the idea that players on great teams tend to get overvalued (see all the Packers from that era in the Hall of Fame) also means they get undervalued as individuals as time moves on, and the numbers of that era get lost in the bigger shinier numbers of the present day.

Jim Taylor was also hampered by being only the second-best Jim to play fullback in his era, behind Jim Brown. But look what happened in 1962, when Hornung was suspended for the season for associating with gamblers. Taylor ran for 1,474 yards and19 touchdowns (in 14 games) and that was Brown's only season not leading the NFL in rushing. The Pack beat the Giants 16-7 in the NFL championship game on a frozen Yankee Stadium surface with the temperature at 17 degrees F (-8 C) and the winds at 40-50 mph. Green Bay's D ( led by game MVP Ray Nitschke) forced five fumbles.Taylor ran 31 times for only 85 yards, scoring the only TD (guard Jerry Kramer, subbing for an injured Hornung, kicked three field goals). Taylor, who it turned out was suffering from hepatitis and had lost 15 pounds in the week before the game, took a beating, mostly from Giants' MLB Sam Huff. He bit through his tongue and required six stiches on his elbow. Steve Sabol, whose father Ed had bought the film rights (a key step to becoming NFL Films) recalled the intense violence and profane trash talk between Taylor and Huff. Watching the game on black and white TV as a kid, I can recall it and a 60 Minutes segment called 'The Violent World Of Sam Huff as if they were one thing.

Fullbacks were not just blockers in those days. I recall, besides Brown and Taylor, John Henry Johnson, Nick Pietrosante (a local guy from my area), Johnny Olszewski, Jim Nance, Cookie Gilchrist and the likes: guys operating from two-back sets who did a bit of everything—think Larry Csonka as maybe the last great example of the genre.

Taylor was known as the kind of runner who would seek out potential tacklers and run through them, rather than try to avoid them. 'Jim Brown will give you a leg and take it away,' Lombardi said. 'Jim Taylor will give you a leg and ram it through your chest.' He was old school all the way, exactly what we thought of football players being when I was a kid. It makes me remember why I hesitated for an instant as a 13 year old high school freshman about which sport I was going to be given the kit for. But only for an instant.

Taylor played one best-forgotten season for the Saints in his adopted home town of New Orleans, then ran a business on the docks there. He didn't place much store in the modern game, which probably won't surprise you. As he said to Bob McCullough in My Greatest Day In Football, “Forget all that talk, I like action. Today’s athletes, they’re just full of so much conversation instead of keep your mouth shut and just do your job. I don’t even watch a game.” I would watch a Jim Taylor game any time.

Note: This feature also appears as a bonus at my football site:, where I preview all the week's games as well as write the occasional feature.  If you're interested in football, check it out...

Thursday, 18 October 2018


Night shift detective Renee Ballard is typing up her report on her investigation of a woman found dead, after days in her bathtub, earlier that night, when she notices a stranger going through the file cabinets on the other side of the detective bureau. He's Harry Bosch, and when Bosch goes off with the shift commander, Ballard isn't convinced by his explanation. A quick examination of her own and she knows Bosch lied about what he was doing, and her curiosity is piqued by what his real motives were.

It's a brilliantly understated introduction of the two detectives Michael Connelly brings together in Dark Sacred Night. When I reviewed Ballard's debut, The Late Show, last year I wrote that “Ballard is too good a character not to reappear soon, and Connelly is too good a series writer not to draw Harry Bosch into her orbit,” and so it happened. I Interviewed Michael at Waterstone's Piccadilly on that book tour, and when I asked about comparisons between the two, he said he thought of each in terms of one key word: for Ballard 'fierce' and for Bosch 'relentless'. He repeats those definitions in a short introduction to this novel, which describes his decision to tell the story primarily separately, letting us see each character through the other's eyes.

Connelly does this so well the introduction is barely required. It's sometimes overlooked, in the depth of the Bosch characterisation, just how strong the police procedural element of his stories is, and with Ballard working her night cases while joining Bosch in his relentless probing into a cold case murder. That is the killing of Daisy Clayton, the runaway daughter of a junkie Bosch met in Two Kinds Of Truth, while working undercover on the prescription opioid trade; and the mother/junkie is now living in Bosch's house. Bosch also has another cold case warming on the burner for his employer, the San Fernando PD, the assassination of a Latino gang leader a decade and a half before. Connelly mixes these stories like a magician, but the aim is not to distract, but to put the reader more fully into the mindset of the characters. The pace is as relentless as Harry, and you are left wondering, above all else, how either her or Ballard ever get any sleep.

This is what keeps, and always has kept, Connelly's work above mere gimmickry, and it comes from his understanding of those personalities he has defined in one word. As doggedly as either of them, he builds their characters through the work they do, indeed the work by which they would probably define themselves. Interviewing Michael, I asked about some of the parallels I found between them: the loss of one parent, the absence of the other; the living in a metaphorically isolated location with a tremendous view: Bosch's of the city, Ballard's of the ocean, a view that is always the same but always changing. It is not surprising that they should be drawn together, that cases should be solved, that one would save the other's life, and that there might be some tragedy and sadness involved. This is what Connelly and Bosch have always been about. If, in the end, their 'formal' agreement to work together again seems a little bit too light or contrived, it is already something to look forward to. And I would not be at all surprised to find Mickey Haller being the agency that brings Bosch and Ballard together again. In the meantime, this is a must-read detective novel, for this or any year.

Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly
Orion £20 ISBN 9780857826374

NOTE: This review will also appear at Shots (

Wednesday, 17 October 2018


This is David Lagercrantz's second novel continuing Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, and I like it better than its predecessor The Girl In The Spider's Web. Titling is not always a strong point in the series, however, and title of the present volume is every bit as clunky as The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest.

I thought Spider's Web was interesting primarily in the way it seemed to try to transform Lisbeth Salander's much commented-on status as an anti-heroine into something more like an action hero. In that sense, it was closest in feel to The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second of Larsson's books, which had her as the almost lone protagonist, seeking her revenge on her father. That worked because it made such a change from the almost classical whodunnit structure of Dragon Tattoo, just as the third novel, Hornet's Nest, restored Mikael Blomkvist to the lead, while Salander lay in hospital, until the courtroom drama which is the climax.

Lagercrantz seems to have gone back consciously to the formula of the first volume, in which Blomqvist is an investigative journalist, and the third, because for much of this one Salander is in prison, getting her chance to kick ass in that environment, with both fellow prisoners and with the warden. It's a weakness of male authority figures. It's also an awkward kind of mix, but just like the template of Dragon Tattoo, the story is linked to the past of a very wealthy family and to a disappearing child. These tropes come on top of the continuing ones about siblings—Salander's sister who's now her arch-enemy/rival, and about secret government programmes designed, it would seem, specifically to ensure Salander gets abused in the interests of national security. In this case the programme is one about twins, which means the main story and Salander's again overlap.

We know that Larsson intended the Millennium series to extend to ten volumes, like Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's Beck, and we can almost see Lagercrantz plotting out the links, overlaps and connections which can see Blomkvist and Salander drawn in. And we know Larsson, like many other Swedish writers, was concerned with government abuse of police powers, and the creation of an over-watching secret state, so we can also see how the sketching out of that template can keep the story moving. The problem is that all of this, to five volumes, occurs predominantly as either backstory or the working out of backstory, and backstory on a grand scale as well as one involving Salander.

Lagercrantz can write better than Larsson, but he sometimes doesn't seem to have the knack for narrative drive—these can be separate things, as anyone who follows along voraciously say, a John Grisham story, even when the writing often jars, can attest. Lagercrantz has the habit of re-introducing characters, even main characters, constantly—explaining who they are and what they do, as if he were influenced by English critics whose main response to Scandinavian crime is to marvel at how difficult the names are to pronounce. It's like getting constant footnotes instead of the usual dramatis personae in the front pages of a Russian novel.

But in the end, he gets the story to pay off, and it has a marvelous coda which is pure Salander, though a side of her we've never seen on the page before; it alone was worth the path through the novel, though that was never a problem in the first place.

The Girl Who Takes An Eye For An Eye
by David Lagercrantz
Maclehose Press, 2017 £20.00 ISBN 9780857056405

Thursday, 4 October 2018


In honour of National Poetry Day, let me offer a poem I wrote thirty years ago, just after my birthday, in Geneva. The event it depicts had just recently happened to me, right down to the pigeons jumping on the carriage at Baker Street and off at Edgware Road, where we were being held. It didn't take much revising, and was published in my 1989 Northern Lights pamphlet Homage To Gibbon and then, after some delay, in Tokyo, in the summer 1990 issue of Edge: International Arts Interface. Both times I misspelled Edgware, adding an e, which was appropriate enough given the magazine's title. It is reprinted here for the first time with the name of the station spelled correctly. I've tried out a few other small changes.  TFL, or whatever they call London Transport these days, no longer uses the phrase 'human interference.' 


A few pigeons exit the car at Edgware Road.
The platform seems to soften & melt as
We finally pull away. The walls of the tunnel lose
Their blur, become clear as we come to a stop.
We sit. After a while faces move into focus,
Take on expressions, search the car for room or air
Or pigeons or something to read. Eventually
A disembodied someone talks. A person
Has fallen in front of the train. We will have to wait.
London Transport regret this delay, which they say
Is the result of "human interference".
We get in the way.
Many of us are already late.
We are getting later all the time.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018


Mary Talbot's father, James Atherton, was one of the world's leading Joyce scholars, and when she was growing up his work took precedence over most other activity in their home. Alternating charm and anger, he drew out Mary's affection, then rejected it brutally. For the adult Mary, a chance encounter with an old ID card of her father's brings back a line from Finnegan's Wake, 'my cold mad feary father' and from that line comes this book.

Dotter Of Her Father's Eyes, another line from Joyce, has at its centre the tragic life of Joyce's daughter Lucia, and the parallels with their lives. There are the obvious ones: the father first struggling to support his family, both men as teachers, while doing creative work of great importance. The daughters relegated to the background, especially in Lucia's case where her younger brother received most of the encouragement. Both wanting some creative life of their own, and finding huge barriers of missing expectation in their paths.

Lucia Joyce spent years dancing, but at key moments of her possible career she would be held back by both her parent's traditional view of a woman's place—one strictly followed in the Joyce household, and a betrayal by Samuel Beckett, her father's secretary, more in love, in the end, with Joyce's work than his daughter. But the revelation at age 24, at just the time her dance career had finally crashed, that her parents were not married, that she and her brother were bastards, triggered something within Lucia. As if the radical modernist who was an upholder of prim bourgeois Irish Catholic propriety turned out to be a hypocrite all the while, at his daughter's expense. Lucia's behaviour became more erratic, suicidal, addicted to Veronal, and eventually, after the occupation of Paris ended, she was committed to institutions, where she died, on Mary's father's birthday.

It's a very sad and very dramatic story, and the parallels are never that strong or complete—though Mary's first dream was also to be a dancer. The nuns at her school are a close enough substitute for Nora Joyce, their strict disapproval aimed at filling her with low aspirations. The crucial difference is that Mary manages to break away from her father's hold, which Lucia was never able to do. She earns her PhD, still trying at 30 to impress her father, and at least partially succeeds. But she also, almost stumbling into the relationship, finds a husband and family of her own, and her husband is the artist who drew this book. And when her father dies, and she hears from students and Joyce scholars about his brilliant teaching, and sees her brothers carrying the coffin, laughing (which shocks her mother-in-law even as we think of Finnegan one last time) it is as if a circle has been broken. The ID card prompts memory, and the academic teams up with her comic artist husband to produce a work of great honesty, filled with pain and some hope. But at heart it is really, in the dizzying world of Joyce's imagination and language, a memoir grounded in dreams of dance and dancing reality, the legacy of our lives as we all emerge from shadows.

Dotter Of Her Father's Eyes
by Mary M Talbot and Bryan Talbot
Jonathan Cape £14.99 ISBN 9780224096089