Thursday 29 October 2020


I have written before about what a thankless task it is to follow in Robert Parker’s metaphorical shoes. Ace Atkins has come the closest in his continuation of the Spenser series; he gets that the essence of it is a series of short scenes, told in dialogue, in which Spenser spars with foes and banters with friends, sometimes both. Michael Brandman’s Jesse Stone was more like the TV movies Brandman produced; Reed Farrell Coleman’s aren’t much like either the book or screen Jesse. Robert Knott’s Cole & Hitch are pared down and plot driven without Parker’s sharp eye for character.

Which left Sunny Randall, whom Parker created as a vehicle for the actress Helen Hunt. Parker wrote six novels featuring Sunny, who is perhaps less a female Spenser than a female Jesse Stone, which made it interesting when the two hooked up for a while before deciding they were unsuited for each other (perhaps because each was the other’s alter ego). Her character may be more like Stone’s, indeed both are obsessed with ex-spouses; but Sunny’s set up was closer to Spenser’s, a gay male Chingnachook to her female Hawkeye; she has a dog, Rosie, her version of Spenser’s Pearl, and she also, like Spenser, has close contacts with the Boston mob—in her case because her ex, Richie, is the son of a mob boss.

Parker wrote six novels with Sunny; Blood Feud was the first pastiche taken up by the New York sportswriter and crime novelist Mike Lupica (there are now two more). At this point Sunny is back together with Richie, sort of, but at a loss for work, when someone walks up behind Richie and puts a bullet through his shoulder, saying to him, as he lays on the street “sins of the father”. Of course this puts Sunny on the case, though neither Richie’s father Desmond, nor uncle Felix, nor the Boston cops really want her there.

Nor will the Providence mob nor the Providence cops, when the case takes her south to Rhode Island. Because as Sunny investigates she finds that Richie’s shooting, which leads to more, does indeed have family roots, and they may be roots the family itself does not want dug up.

Lupica has plotted his story very well, and he moves it along, though the finale may seem a little fortunate. His Sunny is best when she is interacting with the established characters, including her ex-cop father Phil, and Frank Belson, who’s one of Spenser’s police foils. Lupica works surprisingly well with the Sunny/Richie business: there is a surprising amount of adolescent angst in their relationship, as opposed to the psychological paradise of Spenser and Susan Silverman (to whom Sunny has been referred for therapy, and with whom she has banter worthy of Spenser’s), or the more sensitive Hemingway of Jesse Stone. Where Sunny does less well is in her moving between Richie’s family, rival Boston crime boss Tony Marcus and Providence godfather Albert Antonioni. There is too much ping-ponging, as the dogged Sunny pursues buried secrets, but also far too many threats; if she was really pissing off people as much as she is pissing off these guys, at some point the threats might turn more real.

Finally, though, there is an unmistakable sense of the outsider in Lupica’s writing, like a New York Yankee fan writing about the Boston Red Sox. There is the feel of the guide book in the places she goes out for meals or drinks, about the directions or descriptions. It’s harder to get the sense of someone who knows the turf the way Sunny is supposed to; indeed, they way she does. Lupica’s prose can be sharp and balanced as Parker’s; he gets that bit of the style. But can he learn to be Boston enough?

Robert B Parker’s Blood Feud by Mike Lupica

No Exit, £9.99 ISBN 9780857303820

note this review will also appear in Crime Time (


I've written a long essay on the new Aaron Sorkin film. A shorter version might appear elsewhere, but here's the synopsis: this is an entertaining movie. If you weren't 'there' at the time of the Chicago riots, or the trial of the Chicago 8, you will probably find it politically instructive too, given life on planet Trump. But if you were there, you will find that its version reflects less the tenor of the protest, the chaos of Chicago and the overall seriousness of the situation than Sorkin's need to find a hero and a conflict for him, and his inability to see the United States in anything less than glowing terms. Here's the link to find it at Medium, where you can read a certain number of stories before having to subscribe.

Friday 2 October 2020


 I've written a modest proposal about Trump and Covid-19, which is available on Medium. Use this link and you can by-pass the paywall -- though Medium allows you five free stories a month anyway, and I'm unlikely to write four more!

Thursday 1 October 2020

NURSERY RHYME: A Poem for National Poetry Day

To celebrate National Poetry Day, here's a poem I like a great deal. I wrote it for Tanya one night in Plymouth in September 1990, almost exactly thirty years ago. It it still on the paper on which I typed it up back in London and unchanged since then. But it never felt like something to submit (and I was getting away from publishing poetry anyway). Now I think it could have gone somewhere.  




Before we go on

We shall have to decide

Which things are important

& which we will hide.


How much we can live with

& how much without;

Equations like these are

What love's all about.

& once we have weighed

Every point in each hand,

We'll listen & talk, but

We won't understand


That balance & logic

Are just symptoms of

A different disease,

But not symptoms of love.



Maybe the most surprising thing about North Dallas Forty, which is still the best football movie ever made, is that Mac Davis was so perfect playing Seth Maxwell, the glamorous quarterback of the North Dallas Bulls. Davis was a singer/songwriter from Nashville, whose only acting experience had been doing sketches on his own variety show (which also featured Gabe ‘Kotter’ Kaplan and Loretta ‘MASH’ Swit) a few years earlier. But he fitted the role of an easy-going good ol’ boy with a fierce will to win—a part patterned on Dandy Don Meredith, who reportedly was offered the role himself, just as the Bulls were the Dallas Cowboys and coach BA Strothers was at least in part Tom Landry (Strothers was played by GD Spradlin, who made a career playing inflexible authoritarian figures; two years earlier he had played a basketball coach somewhere between John Wooden and Bobby Knight in One On One, a good movie spoiled by casting Robby Benson as the basketball star; you’ll remember him as Senator Geary in The Godfather).

The recognisable figures in North Dallas 40 made sense because the novel upon which the film was based was written by Pete Gent, a wide-out cum tight end for the Cowboys. The book is darker than the film, which is simpler in its battle against authority—the Gent character is called Phil Elliott, played by Nick Nolte, who loves the game but dislikes the regimented bullshit around it (boy did that ring a familiar bell with me) and it’s the relationship with Seth which is the cornerstone of the film: Davis is his best friend, but he gets along with everybody, and he is also canny enough to realise his value to the team and he will not let anyone get in the way of that. Kind of like Cap Rooney in Any Given Sunday, there’s a youngster waiting in the wings; though in this case it is a Born-Again Christian QB who fits the God America and Cheerleaders in Hot Pants image of “America’s Team”.

Davis was from Lubbock, Texas, so he knew his football, and he knew how the hometown hero thing would play. It’s a winning performance that should have led to a better career, but he had to wait four years for his next movie, which was the execrable Sting 2, and his later roles were in TV vehicles. Part of the problem was that easy-going aura, which made him excellent as a variety and game show host, but which in ND40 hinted at some depth—I always thought he would be perfect for roles as likeable-on-the-surface villains, but whosever lack of vision couldn’t see that probably did him a disservice.

But acting was really a sidelight. Davis is best known for writing a number of songs which became hits for Elvis Presley, the most famous of which is “In The Ghetto”. He looked a bit like Tony Joe White, who was in many ways the last and best of the ‘next Elvis’ contenders, but he was a cleaner version, which is why he had that variety show in the mid-Seventies. As a performer, he was a bit too pop-country, but as a song-writer he reminded me of Tom T Hall or Hoyt Axton, or at least he did once I heard “In The Ghetto”. This is an unusual song for country music at the time, and really in general, because it tells a story that’s specifically out of the country universe, and it is unapologetic in its empathy, in its implicit blame, and in its sense, perhaps a little to resigned, to the cycle of pain and violence that the ghetto creates and perpetuates. Davis wrote a number of other excellent ballads, and he sang them well, but I haven’t heard any which match the sadness of “In The Ghetto”, and in many ways I like his own, more folky version, at least as much as Elvis’ more powerful, orchestrated take.

Take a listen. And take a look at North Dallas Forty. In many ways Any Given Sunday is just a jazzed up version of that original, but most of the same themes are there. It was directed by Ted Kotcheff, a Canadian who had made The Apprenticeship Of Duddy Kravitz but who basically fell into journeyman work after this, and though he, Gent and producer Frank Yablans are credited with the screenplay, Nancy Dowd, who wrote Slapshot, contributed uncredited script-doctoring which I think is pretty visible. Like her film, this one is about more than football. And watch Steve Forrest as the owner, Charles Durning as the assistant coach, and most of all Bo Swenson and ex-Raider John Matuszak as the linemen O.W. and Joe Bob. Matuszak has the greatest line in any football movie, screamed at Durning when, after a loss, the assistant coach is berating them for not studying ‘tendencies’ closely enough. “Every time I call it a business, you call it a game! And every time I call it a game, you call it a business!”

But let’s leave the last words to Seth Maxwell, as played by Mac Davis, trying to instruct Phil Elliott: “You had better learn how to play the game, and I don't mean just the game of football.” 

NOTE: I wrote this for my football Patreon page: Friday Morning Tight End. If you like it, you'll get a lot more subscribing there: