Friday, 31 May 2019


My discussion with Matthew Bannister about Watergate burglar James McCord is online at BBC Sounds,
you can link to it here. It starts about 13:30 in, if you want to go straight there. I originally recorded it about a month ago, but given the two years it took for McCord's death to become public knowledge, that's not really a pressing problem. We go through the basics of the Watergate burglary and trial, the Bay of Pigs, and McCord's other CIA work (including covering up the death of Frank Olson, which I mentioned in my post about my Guardian obituary, here) but not included in the broadcast edit is the link with JFK's assassination, or as Richard Nixon put it, 'the whole Bay of Pigs thing'.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019


Do you remember when Wallander discovered an ATM in the centre square of Ystad, Sweden was about to crash the world economy? Well, Helsingborg is a bigger city than Ystad (just over 100,000) people but in the limited time frame of Stefan Ahnhem's Motive X it suffers enough big-time crime to make it Europe's murder capital. For example:

1. a young immigrant boy killed in a laundry room washing machine which might be related to
2. an active child molester or
3. neo-Nazis, whose Sweden Democrat party office is firebombed and who fire-bomb a refugee centre
4. a stabbing at the scene of a hit and run
5. a series of killings by a killer instructed by charts he has created and follows using probablity dice
6. a child kidnapping
7. a sex killer who stalks his victim while she sleeps, who turns out to be character legendary in a local sex club (Remember I Am Curious, Yellow?)

which seems a lot of business for one small crime squad, especially since detective Fabian Risk has decided one of the detectives, Ingvar Molander, is a serial killer himself, and has murdered another detective who had also figured th1s secret out. Molander, a know-it-all who considers himself far to smart for his colleagues, is the most interesting character in the series, and his name carries what seem to me playful reminders of both Wallander and Martin Beck's collegaue Melander, who knows everything but spends all his time in the police toilet.

That Ahnhem can keep all those balls juggling without dropping them is no mean feat, even though at times you find some of the villains, particularly the neo-Nazis, waste a lot of time rather than taking care of business, and he does rely on one pretty blatant bit of deus ex machina coincidence, but what makes it work is something that is the essence of Scandinavian crime fiction: the personalities of the police, and how they are affected by the pressures of their society.

This goes right back to Sjowall and Wahloo's Martin Beck, and in Risk we have a cop whose home life makes Beck's look like Ozzie and Harriet's. In the previous novel, the family has nearly been killed by another serial killer, though some of this is understandable, but one of the key elements of this novel involves Risk trying to reason with his son while he's thinking through a crime problem, a very good piece of writing.

Ahnhem was a screenwriter on the Swedish Wallander series (with Krister Henriksson), and he's obviously learned from Mankell, as well as Sjovall & Wahloo and very much from Steig Larsson. But he's somewhat less concerned with Swedish society (although the Sweden Democrats are a right-wing nationalist party, and probably don't enjoy his neo-Nazi portrayal of them) than with the nature of control in individual relationships. This is the point where the crimes and the personalities intersect: questions of who controls whom.

He tells the story with almost teasing changes of scene and multiple points of view, and very matter of fact gory violence. Meanwhile his cops are falling apart, even beyond of them being a killer. It sometimes creaks, and sometimes the responses don't quite seem right, but as with Larsson, the impetus of the plot carries the reader on. And of course, two of the main storylines are left unresolved for the next high-Risk installment.

Motive X by Stefan Ahnhem
Head Of Zeus £18.99 ISBN 9781786694607

This review will also appear at Crime Time (

Thursday, 23 May 2019


John Havlicek, Boston Celtics' star from 1962 through 1978, died last month. I couldn't get any papers in Britain interested in his obituary, but he has remained in my thoughts since then, running around my brain the same way Hondo ran around a basketball court, and it spurred a lot of recollections, which made this reminiscence sneak itself down a lot of tangential alley ways. I suppose it has something to do with his career coinciding with my prime years of sporting attention, and something with to do with the kind of athletic ideal he personified: a rare sort of physical ability combined with the vision only the greats possess, linked to an ability to play at full speed for more time than anyone else without tiring, and a drive to do just that in pursuit of the team goal of winning. Whatever it was the Celtics needed Havlicek to do: score, defend, pass, rebound, run, run, run, he would do it.

I was watching the 1974 Finals, against the Bucks, the double-overtime loss in game 6. Just as the announcer mentions how tired everybody looks, Havlicek, the game's high scorer, who played all 58 minutes, comes running off a great circle route to take a backdoor pass and hit a baseline turnaround. That sort of thing. Without any flashiness, without any attention-seeking. It was part of that Celtic mystique that the team was bigger than any player: I saw the same thing with the Montreal Canadiens of that era, which is why they were my favourite hockey team, and they played the same way as the Celtics: 'head-manning' the puck the same way the Celtics found the lead man upcourt to run and beat the other team back. No player was better suited to that game than Hondo. He got the nickname because someone thought he looked like John Wayne; I never saw that, but I could see the resemblance in the ambling walks. It beat being called by some rhyming sportswriter thing, like Chet the Jet Walker.

And of course Havlicek Stole The Ball. From Chet.

That was the seventh and final game of the 1965 NBA Eastern final, in the Boston Garden, the Celtics led their fierce rivals, the Philadelphia 76ers, by three when Bill Russell allowed Wilt Chamberlain to dunk the ball uncontested. Now with five seconds to play, the Celtics led by one and Russell would inbound the ball. But his inbounds pass hit a wire supporting the backboard, and possession went over to the Sixers. Russell was the heart of the Celtics' supremacy, and for him to suddenly make a crucial error was frightening. Now Hal Greer of the Sixers looked to pass the ball in, with Wilt lurking under the basket, and Russ, four inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter, fronting him desperately to prevent the pass for an easy shot. So Greer looked upcourt, and launched a pass to Chet Walker, and, in Johnny Most's call on the radio: 'Havlicek stole the ball!” Havlicek, playing off Walker to the inside, had started counting in his head, knowing Greer had only five seconds to inbound the ball, and on four he looked back, tracked the ball, and knocked it away. Sam Jones picked it up, and dribbled the five seconds off the clock. The Celtics advanced to the NBA finals against the Lakers and beat them, as they always did.

I still have, somewhere in my brother's attic, a record album with that 1965 call on it. The funny thing is that Most, and the rest of us, mispronounce Havlicek's name. We say Have-li-check'. But Hondo himself said 'Havel-check', like Brett Favre being 'farve'. I realised this as I watched him speaking on a nice video made on the steal's 50th anniversary. Looking at the grainy black and white footage, I saw something for the first time I've never seen referenced before: when Russell inbounds the ball, he's a full four feet behind the end line, and Chet Walker, with arms up in Russ's face, is over the line, then leaps forward until he's just about touching Russell. Even the official is in front of the two of them. No wonder the ball hit the wire.

What's also touching is to watch the fans mobbing Havlicek, carrying him off the court while ripping the jersey off his back. Meanwhile, Russell pushes through the crowd to hug Hondo as he's being carried off. In a sense, Russell's amazing streak of winning: 11 titles in 13 years, had its most dangerous self-inflicted challenge right there, and Havlicek saved the team from his mistake.

I also wonder now what would have happened had Havlicek not stolen the ball. Walker would have had it 20 feet away from the hoop, with his back to it, and Hondo all over him. In today's game he could have, like Kawahi Leonard did recently, tuck the ball, take three steps, bounce the ball once and take another two steps before throwing up a shot. Or maybe he gets a twisting alley-oop pass off to Wilt that Russell can't get to. Or bounces it back to Greer. I don't know, but it might have been a tough thing for the Sixers to actually get that basketball. Hondo's D on that play was team man-to-man the way I was taught both in basketball and lacrosse, but the deflection of the ball was more like an NFL receiver, which, funnily enough, Havlicek nearly was.

As was the ideal in those days, Havlicek was a three-sport star in Springfield, Ohio; all-state in football, basketball and baseball. He grew up with the Niekro brothers, Phil and Joe, who thought the kid who hit .440 in high school could have played pro. Woody Hayes wanted him to play football; the story goes that he used to tell people that the best quarterback in the Big 10 was at Ohio State, but he was playing basketball (shades of Otto Graham at Northwestern). But Paul Brown, who had coached high school football in Ohio and was still well-connected, knew all about Havlicek. He drafted him in round 7, the 95th pick overall, in the 1962 NFL draft. Hondo lasted until the final cuts, which wasn't that much of a surprise, since the Browns' first pick in that draft was Gary Collins, who won't mean much to folks today, but was your prototype 'flanker', he and Bowd Dowler, both of whom are on the NFL's all-decade team for the Sixties. Big, long-striding receivers who could run deep or catch slants; Havlicek would have fit the role perfectly. The Browns offered him a taxi squad role, and supposedly chased after him again, but Havlicek went to Boston to play for the Celtics, who had taken him with the seventh pick of the first round (ninth overall) NBA draft. I'll explain soon why the seventh pick was the ninth.

At Ohio State, Havlicek was not the big star in basketball; that was Jerry Lucas, an even bigger Ohio high school legend. The team also included Larry Siegfried, a scrappy guard who would wind up on the Celtics, and Mel Nowell, almost as big an Ohio high school legend as Lucas, a sharp-shooting point guard. On the bench was Bobby Knight, who would go on to coach at Army and Indiana and elsewhere, and be the guy who cut Charles Barkley and John Stockton from the 1984 USA Oympic team. Not that they needed them to win the Olympic gold in LA with Jeff Turner and Bobby Alford.

Ohio State beat St Louis for the 1960 NCAA title, Havlicek's sophomore year (and first year on the non-freshman varsity). It was Lucas who played on the 1960 Olympic team, along with Terry Dischinger (whose NBA career was lessened by a severe knee injury) Oscar Robertson and Jerry West; Havlicek might have made the cut had the team not had five spots reserved for players from the AAU leagues and the military. The other college guys included Walt Bellamy and Bob Boozer, along with Oscar the only other blacks, and Darrell Imhoff, coach Pete Newell's star center from Cal. Of course they didn't need Hondo to win that title easily.

Ohio State went to the NCAA finals each of the next two years, losing to the post-Oscar Cincinnati team both times, a team built around its defense and star center Paul Hogue. Lucas was the star; Havlicek was the captain. It's easy to speculate why the Celtics drafted Hondo; it's highly likely GM Red Auerbach was going on a word-of-mouth recommendation...teams often didn't see players who didn't play locally. In fact, Lucas was the first pick of the draft, with a special 'territorial' pick, to the Cincinnati Royals, who already had Oscar after a similar draft. But Lucas had signed a deal, which included a share of the team, with George Steinbrenner of the ABL's champion Cleveland Pipers. The NBA then tried to merge them into their league and kill off the competition, but the Royals complained about their territory, demanding compensation which Steinbrenner eventually defaulted on. Lucas then signed another deal with other Cleveland businessmen. But a team never materialised, and after missing the 62-63 season, Lucas began playing with the Royals, who had retained his rights. and the second pick was Dave DeBuschere, to Detroit; he would wind up both pitching baseball and playing basketball before becoming a 23 year old player-coach of the Pistons.

So Hondo went after Billy 'The Hill' McGill, Hogue, Zelmo Beatty, Len Chappell, Wayne Hightower and Leroy Ellis, all of whom were big men. Big Z had the best NBA career of the bunch. Terry Dischinger went with the pick immediately after Havlicek, at the top of the second round, which also included Chet Walker and Kevin Loughery.

Local 'scouting' might explain why the Celts, with the last pick of round 2, 16th overall, took Jack 'The Shot' Foley from Holy Cross. Maybe they thought he'd attract fans, maybe because they'd had great success with Bob Cousy and Tommy Heinsohn from the Cross. Foley was a 6-4 forward, a white guy with a deadly outside shot. There were a lot of guys like that at the time, the next few years would see Donnie May of Dayton, Larry Miller from UNC, Pat Riley at Kentucky, Pat Burke of Fairfield, Larry Cannon from LaSalle. Soon it became apparent if you couldn't be big enough to play over the rim inside, or make your own shot (ie: beat a man to the hoop) outside, you couldn't play: the type evolved into Billy Cunningham, Doug Moe, Jack Marin types. The Shot lasted only one season.

The pick after Foley was the first of round three: Don Nelson from Iowa, who would wind up coming to the Celtics from the Lakers and being a key part of the 1969 win over LA: the most seemingly un-athletic 6-6 forward imaginable, but a crucial championship part. The Celts' pick at the end of the round was Jim Hadnot of Providence, who had been the center when PC won the NIT (still a big thing in those days) in 1961, beating the same St Louis team Ohio State beat the year before in the NCAA final. That was the team of Connecticut hero Johnny Egan, who led Hartford Weaver High to the New England championship in Boston Garden, and 5-8 Vinny Ernst at the guards (along with future Boston mayor Ray Flynn). Hadnot for to PC from Oakland, because Bill Russell had taken him on as a mentor after Hadnot's father died. He didn't make the Celtics, and played only one year of pro ball, five years later, for the Oakland Oaks of the ABA. Jobs were a lot tougher to get in those days: the NBA had 9 teams, rosters were 10 men, and the money was such that players fought to keep their jobs. Mel Nowell, as it turns out, was drafted in round 12, with the 92nd pick, but still played one season in Chicago, and also later in the ABA.

You see what I meant about diversions? I was a die-hard Celtics fan. So much so that in the spring of 1969, in what was player-coach Bill Russell's final go-round, I skipped hearing Joni Mitchell in the beautiful circular dining hall on my college campus (since torn down in the name of austerity) in order to watch the Celtics and Lakers on TV, and watch my roommate throw something through the ceiling as the Lakers managed to wind up on the wrong end.

When he joined the Celtics, Havlicek fit right into their style of play, and Bob Cousy, in his final season, had someone whom he could find almost at will for open layups. “I made a living off Bob Cousy,” he later explained. At that point Hondo was not a shooter, so he went home after the season and worked at it: the results were evident, and it's noteworthy he was lifetime 81.5% free-throw shooter, up from 72.8% his rookie year.

What else stands out about Havlicek's career? Playing left-handed and scoring 18 against the New York media-proclaimed Greatest Dynasty Ever Knicks on their way to yet another championship, their second!, in 1973. Just imagine, if the Celtics had played in New York, Steve Kuberski would have had his autobiography published. Forget about the Sixties, the Celtics matched that Knick dynasty by winning titles in 1974 and 1976.

I watched some of that 74 final against the Bucks, with Oscar, Kareem, and Bobby Dandridge: the game 6 double-overtime loss is amazing. The defense is tough: Havlicek, Duck Chaney, JoJo White, Paul Silas and Dave Cowens for the Celts; Dandridge's quickness, Oscar's strength, and Kareem's hustle getting back, like a young Russell, to contain the Celtics break. I also marveled at how the officials actually called things like traveling, three-seconds and carrying the ball. In today's game, some of these guys would have gone to town (and they would have had the three-point shot to open things up). Hondo was blessed with having another player who matched his effort, and had even more intensity: Cowens. The undersized center whose physical battle with Kareem was astounding. Cowens fouled out with a bump as Kareem backed in on him; I am still arguing that one now...his replacement was High Hank Finkel.

In 1976, the Celtics took Phoenix in six, including the triple-overtime game that had more controversy than a Farage campaign stop, including a Boston fan attacking Richie Powers. Toward the end of regulation, with the Suns trailing by one, Paul Westphal, who had been traded from Boston to Phoenix, did a Havlicek stole the ball, to Havlicek, and Havlicek missed a rebound, tapping the ball back to Curtis Perry who hit on his second try to put Phoenix up one with six seconds left. But Havlicek hit a soft running bank shot to put the Celts ahead by one as the buzzer sounded. But the shot had gone through the hoop before the clock expired, so after arresting the guy who attacked Powers and sorting everything out, the Suns got the ball back under the basket with a second left. At which point Westphal, knowing the Suns had no timeouts remaining, called time. JoJo White hit the technical foul for Boston, now leading by two, but Phoenix got the ball back at midcourt, and Garfield Heard hit a turnaround buzz-beater to tie the game once again.

Havlicek would always say he thought he should have had two more titles: one in 73 had he not hurt his shoulder, and one more later, in 77, had the Celts not traded Westphal (for Charlie Scott) and later Paul Silas (for Curtis Rowe). They got Scott ostensibly to replace Chaney's D (for some reason they never seemed to trust Westphal) while Curtis Rowe, we'll never know. He was supposed to be a better offensive player than Silas, but he wasn't a Celtics' type, and had they kept Westphal and let him play, they probably wouldn't have needed the extra firepower. The Celts, with Glenn MacDonald coming off the bench in his moment of glory, built a six point lead in the third OT, but Westphal hit two baskets, and nearly stole another inbounds pass, as the Suns finally lost by two. It was Havlicek's eighth NBA title.

Things would go downhill for the Celtics. Red Auerbach traded for Rowe and signed Sidney Wicks, reuniting the UCLA teammates, but they were never the same in the NBA. Wicks' former team, Portland, went to the NBA title without him (and with another UCLA guy, Bill Walton). Havlicek announced the 1977-78 season would be his last. The ill-fitted Celts started out 11-23 and Heinsohn was fired, replaced by his assistant Satch Sanders, who had left the Harvard job just that year. Havlicek scored 29 points in his final game.

After the season, Celtics' owner Irv Levin traded the franchise to John Y Brown for the Buffalo Braves, whom Levin then moved to San Diego to become the Clippers, because he wanted to live in California. Brown was a millionaire from Kentucky Fried Chicken, had owned the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA before the Braves, and was a notorious meddler with his teams. As part of the deal, the owners engineered a trade that sent Billy Knight, Bob McAdoo and Tiny Archibald (all of whom he had acquired in Buffalo) to Boston for Wicks, Kermit Washington, Kevin Kunnert, and Freeman Williams, who had been a number one pick of Boston's but never played for them. On paper it looked good, but in Red's office the ceiling was nearly destroyed by his head exploding. He had a plan, as usual, and he and Brown never could agree on who ran the club. Sanders was fired soon into the season, and Cowens took over as player-coach: he was simply too intense for that job on top of playing. Luckily, the Celts got to keep the extra draft pick they had, which became the rights to Larry Bird, drafted a year before he finished college. It's fascinating to consider what might have happened had Hondo been able to wait out and play one more season, then a final one with the rookie Bird. It would have been a handover of sorts, but the two of them would have clicked immediately.

In retirement, Havlicek moved into a country club resort where Bob Cousy had been comped, and he would get comped as well; he, Cousy, and former Knick Hall Of Famer Richie Guerin would golf. Havlicek carried a fishing rod, and, in some kind of breaking of golf protocol, often stop to cast into the water hazards if he saw signs of fish. Cousy also hosted a regular dinner; one week when Havlicek and his wife Beth didn't show up, he knew something was wrong. He died after suffering from Parkinsons, and catching pneumonia. It was hard to think of Hondo actually running down.

“The good players see the game in slow motion,” Havlicek once said, explaining the play when he stole the ball. “Actually, they see what’s going to happen before it actually happens.” For someone who moved at the pace he moved, it was easy to think of his seeing normal motion as being slow, and it may have explained in part why he was so calm, so pleasant, so friendly off the court. I've spent a month going through the various permutations of Havlicek's career in Boston, and I'm afraid my mind is still running. The long-time Globe sportswriter and basketball savant Bob Ryan called Havlicek Stole The Ball “a moment that is not lost in time”. Neither was John Havlicek.

Thursday, 16 May 2019


The other night I watched The Fat Man, a 1951 mystery film that's sometimes billed as film noir, which is what got me interested. It's not a noir at all, not that I'm one of those authoritarian purists who insists on a strict definition of classic noir; it's more like a series B movie of the 30s or 40s, a Falcon or Boston Blackie kind of thing, a frantic mystery with a bit of comedy and a bit of action. The gimmick is that the detective is indeed a fat man. He's a gourmand, makes no bones about it, but as played by J. Scott Smart, he's comfortable in his role—at least until, as he squeezes out of a drugstore phone booth (no one under what, 50?, will understand what that is!) a mother warns her young son about growing up to look like him! Think William Conrad as Cannon, without the fat everyman action hero car chase bits. He's not as pretentious as Nero Wolfe, and unlike Wolfe, he does move.

The Fat Man was a popular radio show which ran for ten years from 1946, sponsored by Pepto-Bismol, an antacid. The opening has him stepping on a drugstore scale: “weight, 237 pounds; fortune: danger”. The show was ostensibly created by Dashiell Hammett, as a counter-point to the Thin Man, but it's most likely Hammett merely licensed his name. Originally billed without a character name, but then called Brad Runyan, he was given life by Smart's deep tones (Smart was also appearing on the immensely popular Fred Allen show).

Smart carries the character into cinema well. There's some foolery with his size, and his appetite, though his first scene is doing the gourmet thing with some French chefs who are very much impressed. There's also a scene where he dances with Julie London—who needs persuasion, in the sense that it never occurred to her that the Fat Man might actually be able to dance—and he struts his stuff as the whole dance floor stops, Hollywood style, to watch and applaud. If the fat-shaming might seem pretty offensive in today's PC world, don't worry, because Runyon calls all the frails 'sweetheart' too. And there's a scene that takes place with a blackface comic performing in the background; it is a 1951 B movie.

I said Julie London, and the singer has a straight dramatic part here. One of the two reasons people might think there is something 'noirish' about the film is that much of it is told in flashback—and part of that is London telling of her romance with Rock Hudson, who's just got out of prison and has come to collect his cut of the money from a race-track robbery for which he took the fall. London is very good; you have to think this was the kind of part for which she was better-suited than most, playing some scenes herself rather than as the love object. Watching the retelling of the robbery itself later, I couldn't help but think Stanley Kubrick must have kept it in mind when he wrote The Killing.

London and Hudson's scenes together work; the weakness underneath Rock's star appeal works. In general, the cast is actually better than the material. You'll see a number of familiar faces in small parts: Jerome Cowan (Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon) as a police lieutenant; Parley Baer as a New York detective; Peter Brocco as the racetrack bookkeper; Tristam Coffin (TV's 26 Men), among others. And one not so familiar face, Teddy Hart, playing a thief called Shifty as if he were Joe Pesci's father. Hart had a small part in Mickey One, and also seems to have played a character called Crowbar in three Ma and Pa Kettle movies.

Jayne Meadows is the dentist's secretary who comes to Runyon when her boss falls (is pushed) out the window of a New York hotel where he's attending a dental convention. The story takes the Fat Man, and his thin assistant Bill (Clinton Sundberg) to California, where two of the other robbers (one is John Russell, later TV's Lawman) have made it big. Russell's wife, played by Lucille Barkley, is also having an affair with the chaffeur, a sub-plot which, like Barkley's career, undeservedly never goes anywhere. But the other real star is Emmett Kelly, the famous clown, in his first dramatic role. He plays a clown who did time in prison, and if anything the film doesn't do enough with the contrast between his own face and the clown's face, not that it hasn't been done before. But Kelly carries a great deal of straight, not clownly, pathos, and the scenes shot in the circus wagons and under the tent are the most atmospheric of the film, and at times use shadow and darkness well enough to invoke noir.

The plot creaks—there is a moment when Meadows announces she can name the killer, while the killer is conveniently in position to overhear the call—but try as I might, I cannot figure out how she possibly could have encountered, much less recognised, him. And crimes themselves are probably a form of overkill (sorry) that keeps the plot moving before you have a chance to think about where it's going or where it's been.

The Fat Man was directed by William Castle, best known for theatrical gimmicks when his B horror or sf movies were shown (he's the character John Goodman plays in Matinee, and was supposedly the inspiration for Hitchcock to make Psycho, in that he'd shown Hitch these things made money. It was written by Leonard Lee and Harry Essex. The first time I heard of Essex was when I got Mickey Spillane's opinion of the film version of I, The Jury which Essex wrote and directed (“he rooned it,” said the Mick). It's not noir, it's not classic, but it is fun. And kudos to J.Scott Smart, who, like William Conrad, keeps his dignity while being laughed at for his size.

Monday, 13 May 2019


Although Asymmetry might be considered to be about its eponymous subject, in reality it's primarily about something else. Toward the end of 'Madness', the second of the book's two stories (there is also a coda to the first story at the end) Amar Jafaari, an Iraqi-American economics graduate with a recent PhD, a Kurdish Iraqi born in the air over Cape Cod, is being detained at Heathrow after trying to enter the country while on his way back to Iraq to visit his brother. Amar, who once interned at a bio-ethics council in London, has a surprisingly vast recall of literature and is remembering having discovered a copy of The Portable Stephen Crane in the music seat of a piano his brother bought in New York. He recalls how he felt at that point in his life, eleven years old, with a sense of “the metaphysical claustrophobia and bleak fate of always being one person”. It is, he thinks, a problem “entirely up to our imaginations to solve.” And then he recalls lines from Crane, “it might perhaps be said—if anyone dared—that the most worthless literature in the world is that which has been written by the men of one nation concerning the men of another”.

This exquisite, if seemingly unlikely, bit of literary recall by an economics student is at the core of what Lisa Halliday is up to. Her two stories are actually moving, almost inevitably, toward a symmetry determined by each story's asymmetry. Amar's is multi-faceted, including the asymmetries of his life in the US and his family's life in Syria, but it is anchored by his interminable and frightening encounter with the officious staff of British customs, convinced his stop-over in London is something they should not allow. It is a frame around his wider tale, a constricting frame that seems to be tightening like a medieval torture device around him. It is also, we might later conclude, an attempt at a story of one nation written by a woman of another.

The book's first story, titled 'Folly', details one asymmetrical relationship, between Alice, an assistant editor at a literary publishing house, and Ezra Blazer, a major novelist, who seemed a cross between Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, if a bit less healthy than either. He approaches her in the park where she is half-reading, and recognises, looking at the book, that she 'likes old stuff'. Alice is 25, Ezra 66 (though in fact he seems somewhat older—which may only be the perception of youth) and their affair is of course one of assymetry, based mostly on his fame but also on his experience and his will (though interestingly Alice is more the aggressor sexually). The writing is young and dreamy; Alice doesn't know who she is, almost literally: her given name is Mary-Alice and Ezra soon gives her an alias to use when they are at public affairs. She also doesn't quite know Ezra: when he calls her, her phone always reads CALLER ID BLOCKED, which is a perfect millennial way to describe that part of relationships. She is also a Boston Red Sox fan; he, being a New Yorker, roots for the Yankees. Talk about asymmetry.

Because Lisa Halliday's Alice is so convincing in her ambivalence, 'Folly' as a whole works better than 'Madness', whose intensity in the immigration interrogation far outweighs the details of Amar's own life, or indeed the real story of what is going on with his family in Iraq. You realise there is another asymmetry on offer there, but you sense there is no real parallel to be made between Alice or Amar's love lives and the taking of hostages in a war zone. And you do marvel at the way the narration of 'Folly', while from Lisa's point of view, manages to build, subtly, a convincing portrait of Blazer. Men of another nation and all that.

The coda is an attempt to resolve some of the asymmetry, as Ezra is interviewed on Desert Island discs by a thinly-disguised Kirsty Young, providing a battle of more-or-less equals, with her situation, like that of the interrogator at British immigration, providing her with power, and Ezra using his tricks to re-establish footing. This seemed a little forced to me, and tonally not of a piece, but it does make her point, if narrowing it somewhat to a battle of the sexes.

I read Asymmetry on recommendation from my friend Alexis, whose praise for the writing was justified. So when I finished, I looked to see why I had missed the book, and discovered two things. Less importantly, in Britain, it was the coda that seemed to receive the most attention, a certain amount of critical cheerleading at the way Kirsty Young deals with the old man, mixed with a definite ignoring of the parallel situation at Heathrow Airport rather than Broadcasting House.

But more significantly, the real attention-grabber was that Lisa Halliday had actually had an affair with Philip Roth, when their ages were roughly what Alice and Ezra's are, and thus this fiction was, as the movies (or Granta books' PR probably) say, 'based on a true story'. This is not essential to enjoying the book, indeed, I think it probably reinforces the fiction's own asymmetry between Alice's and Amars stories. But this is not Joyce Maynard dishing the dirt and getting revenge on JD Salinger. In fact, in retrospect it reminded me more of Joanna Rakoff's My Salinger Year, detailing the time she spent as an assistant to Salinger's agent.

I would have preferred not to have learned the 'true story', especially since much of it occurs as Ezra is 68, when their ages total 95, and it all seems rather hopeless. Or pathetic. Or asymmetrical. Which seems reinforced as 'Folly' ends, with a Red Sox player striking out against a Yankee, and Alice holding Ezra's hand in hospital. It's a fine piece of writing, true story or no.

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
Granta £8.99 ISBN 9781783783625

Monday, 6 May 2019


My obituary of the writer and teacher Mark Medoff is online at the Guardian now; you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper soon. It was a fascinating piece to write, not least because my friend John Basinger was in the cast of Children Of A Lesser God, because of his long association with the National Theatre For the Deaf, and as I wrote, he met Medoff during the filming, but more importantly knew Phyllis Frelich (pictured with Medoff right) and Robert Steinberg (her husband, whose primary trade was as a lighting designer, not an actor) very well indeed. Much of John's role, as William Hurt's friend and confidant on the school's staff, was lost in the editing, as the film made the love story between Hurt and Marlee Matlin, and their direct contact in scenes together, the focus of the film. And with apologies to John, Marlee certainly made that worthwhile.

Medoff's career is interesting particularly for his 50 years at New Mexico State, during which time he put the university and the regional theatre company he founded on the national map. His plays tended to be workshopped and performed at festivals and in college programmes, and the more I looked at his work the more convinced I became that Children was almost a one-off, a real perfect storm of a time when issues like deafness or mercy-killing were in the forefront of theatre, and the presence of Frelich's immense skill as an actress, and Marlee Matlin's striking cinematic presence. Frelich worked with Medoff many times, but it was hard to convey just how badly their last collaboration, Prymate, was received.

The Wager seemed to me like a younger, less intense version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I've always thought Red Ryder was kind of a cross between Sam Shepherd and Bus Stop--the more bizarrely it is played the better it works. I also noticed how certain themes, beyond deafness, repeated in his work: oddly enough his later film Walking With Herb, in which an aging widower is given a golfing talent, reflected his earlier play Crunch Time (written with Phil Treon) in which a similar Mephistopholean deal is offered a girl playing high-school basketball. This is an old trope in sports, going back at least to Damn Yankees (and of course in a non-sporting sense Faust) but Walking With Herb also recalled the syrupy Mitch Albom bestseller Tuesdays With Morrie.

Perhaps it was the freedom acadame gave him to explore riffs on themes, to encourage younger talent, to do the kinds of things he wanted to do. But if I am right, and Children was indeed a sort of one-off, it was a major one. And after writing his obituary, I really do want to see Refuge.

Thursday, 2 May 2019


My obit of Warren Adler, whose 50 novels included The War Of The Roses, from which was made a hit film, is online at the Guardian; you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. Of course the movie is what the hook for the obit was -- it's odd that such a successful and prolific writer should have such a low-profile output.

It is pretty much as I wrote it--but one thing was edited out. I have to confess I had never come across, in my time as a crime fiction reviewer, any of his Fiona Fitzgerald novels. They sound intriguing, and almost a natural for development on TV. I mentioned that, but what was cut out was the fact that the adapter is currently Eric Overmyer--who was the showrunner and adapter of Bosch (and was working on Man In The High Castle as well.) That would bode well.

In Adler's own biography, he mentioned that his classmates at the New School for Social Research included Marion Puzo and William Styron; when I wrote Thomas Berger's obit I recall writing the same thing. So I wonder if they ever overlapped, or if they somehow moved in different circles. I also wondered if Berger's The Neighbors (1980) might have been an influence on War Of The Roses?

Adler is good with set-ups, and it was impressive to me just how prevalent the theme of broken, dangerous or twisted relationships was at the heart of his books, whatever their genre. That he was such a devoted family man shouldn't surprise anyone, but making fiction out of the opposite, repeatedly, is something remarkable. I read a piece he wrote for the magazine of the American Association of Retired People, from which I drew that final quote, and it was very moving: told from a point of view of his own loss, you might say victimhood, and it seemed to me a cruel way of his having to go through what he put so many characters through.

It was also fascinating that, in his first career as a DC PR, he should have advised Nixon (on how he could win the Jewish vote) and been the man who gave the Watergate complex its name. Because of course the Guardian obit I had written just two days before Adler's was that of James McCord, leader of the Watergate burglar's, whose confession was the key to Nixon's being brought down. A strange bit of