Monday 30 November 2020


For the Thanksgiving issue of The American magazine, I wrote about Tom Brady and his move from the New England Patriots, where for 20 seasons he and coach Bill Belichick have dominated the NFL, to Tampa Bay, which dominated for a year right about the time Brady joined the Bucs.

It was written before the Bucs' back to back 27-24 losses to the Rams and Chiefs, so I might want to update on the team's problems, but the piece mostly delves into the reasons for the football divorce, and the reasons for choosing the Buccaneers as his new place to extend his career into his forties. Now if he only learned to place kick! It worked for George Blanda. You can link to the story here.


My obituary of George Cockcroft, who, as Luke Rhinehart wrote and was the main character in The Dice Man, appeared in the Guardian on November 27th; it had already appeared online but was bumped from the paper paper on the 26th by the death of Diego Maradona. If you missed it in either location, you can link to the online version here

It was a fascinating story to tell, and there were bits I had to leave out and some which had to be cut to fit the length I'd been assigned. I had, for example, started to discuss The Dice Man in terms of other works that play with probabilities; Philip K Dick's The Man In The High Castle, for example, about a decade earlier, had characters throwing the I Ching to decide their actions; Dick himself claimed to have plotted the book using the I Ching. Since Cockcroft's fictional protagonist is also the fictional author, I liked the comparison. But though I felt fairly confident that Cockcroft had likely read the novel, I couldn't really find any connection. Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association is about a man whose life is centered on running his own fictional baseball league whose results he finds using three dice,whose numbers read consecutively, offer probabilities through which his simulated games take place. And of course Stoppard's Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead begins with a coin being flipped again and again, with always the same probability of either heads of tales. But intriguing as these ideas were, and the way they might merge together, there was no way to speculate in a couple of lines!

The research was somewhat problematic too. I found several revealing interviews; Cockcroft, once he went public with his identity, could charm his interviewers, especially, as I say, when they visited him on his lakeside house in upstate New York (one of them marveled at being introduced to the peanut butter, olive and mayonnaise sandwich. . But sometimes there were differences in the stories, and it was exceedingly difficult to discover facts, about family, and where he taught, and sometimes when. With a good guess as to his mother's maiden name I did find his ancestor who was Chief Justice of the Vernont State Supreme Court, but I couldn't establish who the governor in his mother's family had been. I know he was at University de los Americas in Mexico City in the mid-Sixties and at Dowling College probably when it opened in 1968 in an old Vanderbilt mansion on Long Island. It might have been their programme in which he was teaching in Mallorca.

The story of his near-death at sea was cut; he actually had apologised to his wife and children for killing them before they were rescued by a freighter blown adrift. He had just bought the yacht with his savings, and was sailing it on vacation before bringing it back to Mallorca. The delay caused him to miss the first meeting with Mike Franklin, whose co-publisher was Shel Talmy, the producer of the Kinks and Who among others, who got cut from the obit, but if you're looking for first editions, the UK one is from Talmy-Franklin. 

His younger brother James was an interesting story himself: the brothers and their wives twice lived together, one of those times being in Mexico City. He was also a writer (of more than 30 books) and professor, and an activist, specializing in left-wing Latin American politics. He predeceased Cockcroft, but there was also an older sister, Patricia, also pre-deceased, who doesn't seem to have figured as deeply in their lives. I also tracked down (online) Tim Linthicum, who wound up an English professor and seems to show up in writers' circles in academia. 

But the most serious bit that was lost was my explanation of the start of The Dice Man, which I felt was necessary because although Rhinehart is a funny narrator, he is also a very self-centered and as Cockcroft said, "the colder harder part of George". The problem was the novel starts with Luke wanting to sleep with his best-friend's wife. So he rolls his die, and the one he rolls dictates that he should rape her, so he does. I wrote that, but it was changed to "have sex with her", which is in a way more accurate because it is a gray area: he goes to their flat, rings the bell, and tells her he is going to rape her. So she invites him in and tells him not to borrow her husband's bathrobe afterwards. The paper was averse to using the word rape because they had received a number of complaints after their obit of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, but again, to tell the story properly would have taken too long, and I then wanted to mention the very Fifties attitude this "if rape is inevitable lie back and enjoy it" scene represents.

I had never been a fan of the book particularly, but I found it an interesting look at an era that had already changed: Luke was like if Henry Miller had written the Jack Lemmon character from The Apartment crossed a bit of  Holden Caufield.I think Cockcroft was looking for something more existential, as his thesis on Kafka might show, but he's very much in Miller's tradition, that what I do, who I am, is important, even if I lie outside the world of societal expectation.

Saturday 28 November 2020


An overlooked strong point of Michael Connelly’s crime writing, even when one of his major recurring characters is the lawyer Mickey Haller, The Lincoln Lawyer, has been his skillful adaptation of the courtroom thriller. This was most evident in Two Kinds Of Truth, where Haller’s half-brother Harry Bosch is being framed for planting evidence, even as he goes undercover to solve a double-murder at a pharmacy and break up a massive opiod scam business. The way the two stories are weaved together leads to a courtroom denouement in which Haller works his magic with the material Bosch and his own investigator Cisco have uncovered.

It’s told in the third person, but from Bosch’s point of view, so the reader is seeing the courtroom tactics with Bosch’s explanation, as if he were a commentator for the reader to the event. As an aside, in the television series Bosch, the same scene, with some crucial modifications (not least that because of film rights to The Lincoln Lawyer character, Haller does not appear) is handled in a similar way.

In The Law Of Innocence, it’s Haller who’s being framed. The body of a former client, a career con-man whose bills of course went unpaid, is found in the trunk of Haller’s Lincoln after a seemingly routine traffic stop, and the forensic evidence indicates he was killed in Haller’s garage. Haller decides to defend himself, because the only way to prove his innocence is to prove someone else guilty, and he’s the lawyer best-qualified to do that. The problem is, he’s in jail, and he’s got to get himself out and free to pursue his own investigation and courtroom manoeuvring.

What makes it work, of course, is the way Connelly builds the story piece by piece, as he would with any case. Haller, Cisco and Harry Bosch all follow leads, some of which lead in dead-end directions, but all orchestrated by Haller as he tries to build the foundation of his defense.

But what is really fascinating is the way the story is told, in Haller’s first-person narration. It’s one thing to see from Harry Bosch’s perspective Haller’s abilities to bend and twist the truth, to sometimes run roughshod over ethical bounds, as you did in Two Kinds Of Truth. It’s completely different when you are inhabiting Haller’s own point of view, and the way Connelly writes it, it’s as if you are inside his brain as it is spinning, making decisions on the fly. And this is not just in terms of the legal case; Bosch plays only a small part in the story, but you get a different perspective on how Haller views his less ethically flexible sibling. More important, when the story starts, Haller’s girlfriend has gone off seeking her own space; she returns in his time of need. And so too does his ex-wife, and mother of his daughter, district attorney Maggie “McFierce”. Haller’s own emotional boil is something Connelly writes with great precision, letting the reader see exactly how Haller is focused.

The case itself is not what he appears to be, which you would expect, but it is this low-key but bravura writing which makes it work. There are a couple of items left unresolved; I was irritated by a red-herring of lost papers that never actually reappears, but the others, the nature of the traffic stop itself and the machinations behind the frame-up, would seem to leave the door open for Mickey Haller to seek further justice for himself, and Harry Bosch would be just the person to be at the center of that.

The Law Of Innocence by Michael Connelly Orion Books, £20.00, ISBN 9781409186106


Thursday 12 November 2020



It’s London in 1942; the streets are dark with fog and wartime blackout. And a killer calling himself Crimson Jack is murdering women on the same dates as the infamous Jack the Ripper murders more than 50 years before. It is a case for Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.

What? I hear you say. Holmes and the Ripper were products of the same era; in fact they’ve been brought together before (most notably in Michael Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, but also, for example, in the films A Study In Terror and Murder by Decree). It was inevitable that Holmes, the greatest fictional icon of Victorian London would be brought together with its greatest real villain, both steeped in the atmosphere of the time and reflective of its violent hypocrisies lurking beneath that fog-bond surface.

But, as Robert Harris points out in his preface, Holmes and Watson were already brought forward into the wartime world of 1942, in the now timeless movies starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce for Universal. The placing of Holmes in this milieu, set against his own age’s greatest villain, was probably less inevitable than the works mentioned above, but given a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, it is an interesting conceit.

There are, however, a problems, and a couple of them are Holmes and Watson themselves. We probably should not expect them to be Rathbone and Bruce, but it’s hard to avoid at least comparing these atavars to the originals. In fact, this Holmes is a more gossamer construct, dependent on our own images, while Harris’ Watson is certainly not Nigel Bruce’s, full of Blimpish bluster. Bruce, while perfect in defining his role, always puzzled me a bit; not least with the ring he wears on his middle finger, a denoter of class that would place him below what we’d expect from Watson. Harris’ Watson is still slow on the update, but more the stronger presence to which Holmes attaches himself in the books than Bruce’s more dim-witting sidekick.

The story creaks at times, with herrings overly red and an ultimate villain who may be perhaps too easy to pick out. But its strongest points are the way it weaves between its possible Ripper connections and the pattern of the killings themselves, introducing many is not most of the best-known Ripper ‘solution’ theories. And where the time bending may work best is in the introduction of a woman journalist, part Martha Gellhorn and part Hildy Johnson, to spice up the action (and Dr Watson). This may suggest a sequel, to work out that unresolved situation, because Watson even in 1942, remains a Victorian gentleman, while the American journalist Gail Preston, whose dialogue tries hard to be Forties USA but often slips, at least is the only person in the Holmes saga, canonical or otherwise, who constantly calls Watson “Doc” and gets away with it.

A Study In Crimson byRobert J Harris Polygon Books, £12.99, ISBN 9781849675271

Note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (