Tuesday, 30 July 2019


I've done another Brexit piece for Arc Digital, this one about Johnson's ascendancy to No. 10 Downing Street, his relation to Trump, and the future for Britain and Brexit. Just a few small topics. You can find it here. The ouroboros title went by the wayside, but it was all I could do not to call it the Ouroboris, the worm that eats its own tail. Which is basically what Britain is doing via Brexit. And Boris. Give it a clap if you enjoy it.

I actually has a paragraph comparing Johnson and Trump to King Gorice and Goldy Bluszco (you can guess which one is which, I hope) from E.R. Eddison's Worm Ouroboros, until I realised that if no one would know what ouroboros meant, even fewer would have read Eddison's fantasy novel (now you know!).

Monday, 29 July 2019


Isabel Roland is a bank teller, and one of her customers is Joe Pike. Pike, as ever, is a quiet enigma, but Isabel and especially her colleague Dana both think he's hot. After Pike leaves, Isabel goes to lunch, and as she hits the sidewalk, she's forced into a car and two men drive away with her. But Joe Pike had just got into his car across the street, and he's seen what happened. It was quick, but it didn't feel right. A few blocks later, at a light, Pike disables the men and rescues Isabel. Before he did, the men had told her 'we know your secret.' Which is more than she does, but it's enough to get Pike and Elvis Cole involved with some ruthless killers

Last year when I reviewed Robert Crais' The Wanted, I concentrated on the personal stories underneath the fast-paced thriller; contrasting stories of parents and children as well as two entertaining if cold-blooded killers. Dangerous Man is even faster-paced, a relentless series of track-downs and races against time which meant I was able to literally recapitulate the 'page-turner' and 'unputdownable' critics' cliches, because I read the book the day it arrived.

It's different from The Wanted, except perhaps for the beachside gunfight that climaxes the chase. Again there is a parental angle, but it's simply background. The villains don't have much in the way of personality, it's a bigger crew working for a second crew working for an anonymous villain off-stage. But after I finished Dangerous Man, I happened to watch the pilot episode of the overlooked Stephen J Cannell TV show Wise Guy. Elvis Cole had referenced himself to Jim Rockford (perhaps Cannell's best, see my obit in the Independent) at one point in the novel, and it occurred to me that Crais, who started writing TV crime shows during the Rockford era, had written this scene by scene, in what would have been an epic Rockford episode, if Rockford had come up with a partner like Joe Pike. The movement between the scenes, which buffers the fast pace, the relaxed dialogue even as the pressure intensifies, and the now-expected confrontation with federal marshals who are looking for the same killers, who tortured one of their retired colleagues at the start of their quest that roped in Roland.

You'd think Joe Pike is a bit too old for Isabel Roland, and she's a bit too much of an innocent civilian for him, but the strange prospect is also fun to consider, jarring as it is to hear the young tellers refer to Joe as a 'studburger' or 'manmeat on a stick'. With the right casting, this would be a hell of pilot for the Elvis and Joe Show. But I am more than content to have the story between covers, because how these days how many books do I simply sit down and read to the end before getting up? Not too many.

Dangerous Man by Robert Crais
Simon & Shuster, £16.99, ISBN 9781471157615

Note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Tuesday, 23 July 2019


Mike Mignola's Witchfinder is an unsurprising offshoot of his Bureau For Paranormal Research and Defense. Sir Edward Grey has been knighted for his role in saving Queen Victoria from a cabal of witches, and in the first volume of this series, In The Service Of Angels, he is working for the government investigating a series of bloody killings in London. Whatever is doing the killing is linked to an archaeological expedition that found one of the seven lost cities of the Hyperborean Age, and as Grey digs deeper he encounters a secret society, the Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra, who may be allies of a sort, or enemies.

In supernatural detective stories, the suspense revolves around first discovering what the danger actually is, and then in how to defeat it. Grey, interestingly, is as much acted upon as actor, and Ben Stenbeck's drawing of him emphasises this: he is not easily surprised, but he does seem very cautious. Which helps this story work well, because it is the surrounding cast which is more interesting: think back to the prototypes like Fu Manchu, and how Nayland Smith is as much as anything a catalyst for the real horrors or sometimes wonders they encounter. The most fascinating of whom is Miss Mary Wolf, a psychic whose visions put the story into perspective. The other thing which works well is Stenbeck's evoking of the Victorian era; we've seen it so many times it risks being cliched, but he finds nice little touches to make it new.

What intrigues me most about the story are the references to other cases which Grey has already encountered, which, like the throwaway mentions in Sherlock Holmes, illuminate only slightly, but pique the curiosity. Given that much of Grey's backstory remains hidden to the reader, that curiosity is strong.

But it isn't answered in the second volume Lost And Gone Forever, written by Mignola and John Arcudi with art by John Severin. Since the story is set in the American West a year after the events of the first volume. Severin was a great artist of westerns in the Silver Age, and he brings the same sort of background perspective to the story that Stenbeck did to Victorian London; the details are both realistic and revealing. The story itself is a bit less focused: Grey is tracking a Lord Glaren from London all the way across America, and arrives in Reidlynne, Utah, where there is something strange at the church, and the locals don't take kindly to questions. He's rescued by a Bill Hickock type named Morgan Kaler, who's accompanied by a backward youth named Issac (there was a similar character in Service Of Angels, Grey is good with the simple-minded) who is older than he appears.

There is also a white woman named Eris leading a group of Indians intent on some sort of revival of their gods and a full spectrum of spectres, including Glaren, wolves and various spirits. It's a full story, perhaps too full, and Kaler in particular might have been fleshed out a bit more. It would be too much to say Grey works better, by definition in Victorian England, but he and his antagonists here seem to be on different planes.

By the way, there's a short story at the end of the first volume featuring another witch-hunter, Henry Hood, in 1667. It's a nice six-pager, but the interesting thing is the presentation of Hood, who reminds me immediately of Robert E Howard's Solomon Kane, still to my mind the best of the witch-hunter characters.

Witchfinder: In The Service Of Angels by Mike Mignola art by Ben Stenbeck (Dark Horse Books, £13.50, ISBN 9781595824837)
Witchfinder: Lost and Gone Forever by Mike Mignola and John Arcudi art by John Severin
(Dark Horse Books, £13.50, ISBN 9781595827944)

Sunday, 21 July 2019


Fintan O'Toole, whose essay about Boris Johnson, titled 'The Ham Of Fate' (in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, you can link to it here) goes full Gore Vidal in a literary exegesis of Johnson's only published novel, Seventy-Two Virgins (2004). O'Toole calls it, generously, a 'somewhat un-flattering self-portrait', but that is all part of the 'Boris' shtick, public schoolboy humour combined with the famed self-deprecation which, as any student of George Mikes would recognise, is actually a celebration of the innate superiority of the English, or at least the English upper-class, over those of lesser character who insist on speaking honestly, straightforwardly or worst of all, as O'Toole quotes Kate Fox reminding us, earnestly.

O'Toole's coup de grace is an analysis of Johnson's dropping in of the Greek word 'akratic' to describe his protagonist. Johnson uses it alongside describing a 'thanatos urge', or death-wish to those of us who didn't study Greek at Eton. But most educated readers would recognise 'thanatos', which makes 'akratic' worth O'Toole's analysis. He explains that 'akrasia', according to Aristotle, is the opposite of control, a  weakness of will, incontinence, a person who, O'Toole summarises, 'knows the right thing but cannot help doing the opposite'.

The 'studied careless' of those English upper-classes Johnson (from, as O'Toole notes, a rather bohemian bourgeois background) apes leaves messes for others to clean up. He is of course both 'genuinely clever' and 'quite self-aware', and in the familiar tracing of Johnson's indecision over his stance on Brexit (choosing the one with the clearer, but risky, path to leadership) or his mendaciousness as a Brussels journalist ('he understood a vivid lie is more memorable than the dull truth'). Read the article, because O'Toole is equally sharp tracing of Boris' efforts to re-invent himself as a bumbling, betraying Churchill is part and parcel of the worst, and the comparison to Trump and America (remember, Boris was born in the US and a dual national, until the Americans invited him to remember to pay the taxes US citizens owe).

But there was one small bit of literary criticism he missed, which I find irresistible in the lack of subtlety of its sub-conscious revelation, and not exclusively about Johnson's private life. His alter ego in Seventy-Two Virgins is named Roger Barlow. Roger is British slang, still used (especially by the upper classes) to mean penetrative sex or by extension, so to speak, being dominated to someone else's advantage, as in 'he was well and truly fucked by that'). Roger, then, with the Bar set very Low: does that not describe perfectly both the 'romantic' Johnson as well as the political one?


Since this blog takes its title from a song by John Stewart, the 50th anniversary of the Moon landings might be a good time to recall another Stewart song. I was reminded of this while listening to the penultimate episode of Moon, on BBC Radio 4, a dramatization of the Apollo 11 mission taken from the transcripts of the communication on the spacecraft and with Mission Control in Houston. As the crew prepare for the lunar landing the next day, they are having their dinner, and oddly enough Stewart's song 'Mother Country' plays in the background.

The next day, of course, in the evening our time on America's East Coast, Neil Armstrong would set foot on the moon. The event came during tumultuous times, in the midst of assassination, war, demonstration, and the peak, perhaps, both of American dominance and Sixties revolution against it. But Stewart, who had travelled with Bobby Kennedy working on his campaign, and wrote songs about that, was struck by the accomplishment and the hope, the giant leap for mankind, of the moment. This is his song, 'Armstrong'. And thanks to the same technological push that got us to the moon, you can listen to it on You Tube.


Saturday, 6 July 2019


I was saddened to hear of the death of Jared Lorenzon, 'The Hefty Lefty', former Kentucky and New York Giants quarterback, aged only 38. His nickname suited him well: he was oversized for a QB, never in great shape, and threw with his left-hand. He was a pretty good player, though, and in a way it's sad his legacy will be built around his weight.

You know players by their nicknames; legendary players often attract more than one. Ted Williams was 'The Kid', “The Splendid Splinter” and “Teddy Ballgame”. George Ruth was 'Babe', “The Bambino” and “The Sultan Of Swat”. Now these are not always real 'nicknames', in the sense that they were coined by sportswriters and hung round the necks of the players: I doubt any of Ted's teammates ever called him “Splinter”. In fact, 'Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, 'The Yankee Clipper', was called 'Dago' by his friends. But the most fitting of those names usually stick. And they are usually, but not always, affectionate.

The Babe was never called 'Beer Belly Babe', not even in an era of derogatory nicknames in baseball, which boasted guys like Fatty Fitzsimmons, Leo the Lip, Tomato Face Cullop, Schnozz Lombardi, Losing Pitcher Mulcahy, Ducky Wucky Medwick, KiKi Cuyler (he was a stutterer) and Grandma Murphy.

Lorenzon, who was listed at 6-4 280 pounds with the Giants, didn't mind The Hefty Lefty. It had a certain ring to it, and wasn't insulting. The sportswriters came up with The Pillsbury Throwboy, which is clever, but trying to hard (for my non-American readers, Pillsbury were America's biggest millers—you can see their huge facility on the Mississippi when you're in the Twin Cities—and their mascot was a pugdy character made of dough, a sort of American version of the Michelin Man, called the Pillsbury Doughboy). The media also tried The Abominable Throwman, The Round Mound Of Touchdown, Mobile Agile Hostile & Hungry, and the other one I thought worked, though it's an inside joke “He Ate Me”.

It was a bit much, especially since Lorenzon was a pretty good player. I saw him when Gnat Coombs and I went to Giants pre-season camp for Channel 5 in 2007, before they appeared at Wembley and won Lorenzon a Super Bowl ring. I had experienced a similar feeling before: when I stayed around UCF in Orlando after a Claymores/Rhine Fire scrimmage, to watch their team practice. 'Who's that D lineman throwing the ball?' I asked. “That's our QB, Daunte Culpepper”. Lorenzon was even bigger, though not in as good shape. He was a bit like Byron Leftwich as well. But where Culpepper had a pretty tight delivery, and Leftwich a very long one, Lorenzon's was anything but consistent. Partly this was because as he put on weight, he threw less with his lower body and partly because he was remarkably athletic (he'd been an excellent high school basketball player, a good baseball player, and Mr Football in Kentucky his senior year) and wound up throwing on the run a lot (the fact Kentucky was usually overmatched against D lines in the SEC didn't help). He spent four years with the Giants, and Eli Manning credited his help, as a pass rusher in practice, in developing his escapability, which served him well on the famous helmet catch by David Tyree.

I liked the fact that Lorenzon wore number 22 in college and high school; more quarterbacks should follow in the footsteps of Bobby Layne, John Hadl and Doug Flutie. He played his first year at Kentucky for Hal Mumme, who developed the 'air raid' offense, but I don't think he was a perfect fit for that. Though if you remember Shane Boyd from NFL Europe, Lorenzon played ahead of him.

After the Super Bowl year the Giants cut him. He was cut by the Colts in 2008 and saw his team, the Kentucky Horsemen, in Arena League 2 fold in 2009. He retired and started coaching at his old high school. But in 2011 he came out of retirement as the General Manager of the Northern Kentucky River Monsters of the Ultimate Indoor League. He soon went back to playing, and was named the league's MVP. He became the first player I know of to go from MVP of a league to being its commissioner, but again he left the desk, and in 2013 played for the Owensboro Rage of the Continental Indoor League until the team ran out of money and folded before the end of the season. Look at these leagues and teams this way: If Justified had a football league....

In 2014 he went back to the River Monsters, who were now also playing in the Continental League. You have to imagine him, probably pushing 350, in the kind of tacky gaudy unis those teams wore, scrambling like the Lorenzon of old as they won they first game, against the Bluegrass Warhorses. His play became a brief sensation (is there any other kind?) on the internet. The next week, he was scrambling again, versus the Erie Explosion, and when he was tackled he broke his leg.

In retrospect, that was the worst thing that could have happened. Not only was his football career, such as it was, ended forever, so to was his mobility and exercise, and his weight ballooned quickly. He did some local radio, he sold 'Throwboy' Tee-shirts, he made you-tube videos about his efforts to lose weight, which went over 500 pounds at its peak. ESPN made a short film about his efforts to lose weight, and he was down to around 400 at one point.

He died from kidney and heart problems, exacerbated by an infection, which may have been down to kidney failure. Obviously his size put great strain on his body. It's so easy to suggest other scenarios by which he might have been more successful early, been put under the care of dieticians, even had a fuller NFL career. Go back and look at his college tape and think about how he might have played in an environment where he wasnt under constant pressure, or if Mumme had stayed four years with him (he had three head coaches in four seasons). Watch some of the later videos: he's a personable, sincere kid, even into his late 30s, never acting like someone whose body is being pushed to its core.

But Lorenzon will always be the Hefty Lefty, and for a short time, that was a hell of a thing to be.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

AN ACCEPTABLE LOSS: A Slow Burn Political Thriller

An Acceptable Loss opens with Elizabeth 'Libby' Lamm arriving for her first day teaching at a prestigious Chicago university, being met by demonstrators whose placards talk about death and genocide. Lamm is former security advisor at the highest levels of the government, and through flashbacks we see her involved in a major decision about Middle East policy, arguing with her boss, Rachel Burke, a senior politician, to whom she is counseling caution. Lamm is now living alone in a large house, has no computer, no email, no phone. Each night she works by the light of one lamp, writing in longhand on yellow legal pads. Although she has been brought in by the head of the department, many of her colleagues and staff are stand-offish. She is also being stalked by a student, Martin, who seems increasing obsessed with her.

From this beginning, writer/director Joe Chappelle has structured a timely political thriller, whose presentation, a slow drip of flashbacks and minimal exposition, builds up to some surprising conclusions. It's an intelligently shot film: with a contrast between the warm colours of the campus, the empty shadows of Lamm's life, and the darker, harder colder colours (much of it in washed out balck and white) of her history in power. But its the structure of the movie that is the challenge, because information is deliberately withheld, even relatively simple facts, so that you spend time wondering exactly what position Burke held, and holds. It is revealed, as is the history of Lamm's involvement with events that have sparked the protests and reactions, but it does come slowly. It's also got elements of science fiction film, an alternate history story, in which little references to events that remain unexplained take on signficance, and it's interesting to consider those flashback sections, and their style, in reference to sf film, which makes a certain amount of sense given Chappelle's background in sf and horror (including the TV series The Fringe--he also directed episodes of The Wire).

Once things start to be revealed, the pace picks up, and as you might expect the story turns into a thriller of sorts, with protagonists on the run, the government closing in on them, and an ending full of twists. It works exceptionally well: the payoff final 15 minutes put what has come before into context, and if we have been concentrated too much on Lamm's seclusion and loneliness, the personal story now makes chilling sense. The ending contains a couple of surprises, though one is telegraphed, and the final one is almost a cliché of conspiracy thrillers. But it leaves you contemplating the slow-build up that preceded it, and rather than exciting, you realise you have just seen a thoughtful film.

Of course the movie is built around Libby, and Tika Sumpter's playing is almost strong enough to carry it off. She seems to have internalised the character's withdrawal, and perhaps overplays her underplaying, if that makes sense, but especially in the scenes with her father (Clarke Peters) a newspaper editor whose career appears to have been stymied by her actions, she shines. Ben Tavassoli as her stalker is full of smouldering intensity, without any moderating control, which makes an almost comical contrast with his 'sensitive' gay roommate Jordan (Alex Weisman). There's also a nice little cameo scene-stealing by David Eigenberg as a drunken professor who calls out Lamm at a cocktail party.

But the real star is Jamie Lee Curtis as Burke. And at this point a few small spoilers will introduce themselves into the review, so stop if that would bother you.

We don't know Burke's position in the flashbacks—but it turns out to be Vice President, to a President (Rex Linn) who was a college football coach, who for example has no idea where Homs is when they are discussing Syria. She is obviously the adult in that room. Before we learn she's the VP, I was measuring how close to Hillary Clinton her performance was, perhaps she is indeed Secretary of State, but of course the administration, prima face, is Republican. Nevertheless, I think Curtis gets a good bit of the Clintonian dichotomy of care and ruthlessness which made her such a divisive candidate. But the presence of the good ol' boy president means we could think of Lamm as a Condoleeza Rice characater, or indeed, in the way her intelligence is, in the end, used, and the way in which she lets herself be compromised, also a Colin Powell. It might be a mistake to read too many direct parallels into the story, but even the suggestion is enough to make it resonate with the present day.

In the movie's real time, Burke is now the President, and the Clinton paradigm is even more telling, and here we see her Chief of Staff, Adrian, who was once Lamm's lover and now has risen with his boss, as a key. He's played with the kind of menace that defines such characters and Jeff Hephner does a good job with it. In one of the film's last twists, it mixes character with conspiracy, personal and political chillingly well.

An Acceptable Loss, like its title, is ambiguous (its original title, The Pages, was much less effective) and refers to many losses. Although many will find the opening sections too slow, or the final act too short, or not chasey enough, in the end those ambiguities stay with the viewer long after the film finishes, and to be thinking about them means it has been successful.

An Acceptable Loss is available on Digital Download from 15 July

Note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.cimetime.co.uk)