Thursday, 2 July 2015

RICHARD LANGE WINS THE CWA SHORT STORY DAGGER: A JUDGE'S TALE

The Crime Writers Association awards dinner June 30th was great fun, and I was privileged to attend as one of the judges for the Short Story Dagger award. It was my first experience of judging, and it was a long slog, with shall we say, an avalanche of stories from all different published formats--including one, Neil Gaiman's 'The Case Of Death And Honey' which we had been sent and all liked but then discovered had actually been entered for the Dagger the previous year!

Eventually Laura Wilson, our chair Ayo Onatade, and I each submitted long-lists of about 12 stories. I collated them, and it quickly became obvious that our short list had created itself. Two stories appeared on all three of our lists, three on two of the lists, and in correspondence we found the Dashiell Hammett story was on one long list (mine, as it happens) but had just missed the other two. It became our sixth story, and I was grateful to see it in print in what is a very fine collection for anyone keen on the progression of detective fiction from cosy to hard-boiled.

This was our short list, with the descriptions I wrote for the CWA's releases:

Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane 'Red Eye' (from Face Off, published by Sphere) Connelly's Harry Bosch travels from LA on the red eye to Boston to arrest a suspect his cold case file has turned up, and finds Lehane's Patrick Kinsey on a stake out of the same suspect. A tale whose understatement brings out the sharpness of both authors' handling of character, highlighting the differences between the two detectives in order to reveal their ultimate sameness at the core.

Dashiell Hammett 'The Hunter' (The Hunter & Other Stories/No Exit Press): In this story a detective who might be seen as a variation on Hammett's famous Continental Op uses ruthless bullying to try to get a confession, and in Hammett terms, something like the truth. This story, never published in its time, reminds us that the essence of hard-boiled is not cracking wise, ready violence, or blazing roscoes, but the world view which seeks solutions for their own sake, even though solving the crime does not necessarily bring society or its citizens (or its detectives) any closer to satisfactory solutions for their lives.

Richard Lange 'Apocrypha' (Sweet Nothing/Mulholland Press): An ex-convict called B works as a security guard in a jewellery store and lives in an LA flop house, where a couple of would be players who mock him as 'McGruff the Crime Dog' plan to rob his store. Lange reveals small bits of B's character with off-hand remarks about his past, but it's the fatalistic view of life, and the dark clarity with which it is drawn, that make this a subtly powerful neo-noir story.

Richard Lange 'Sweet Nothing' (Sweet Nothing/Mulholland Press): Richard Lange's stories of Los Angeles lie somewhere between Charles Bukowski and George Pelecanos. In 'Sweet Nothing' Dennis is a drug addict who's lost almost everything, including his children, and is trying to make himself respectable again. He shares an apartment with Troy, who weighs 450 pounds, and works as a manager in a Subway store. One night he meets a woman whose daughter is on life-support at a nearby hospital, hit by a car while jaywalking. Lange's characters are simply trying to get by in a world which sometimes seems casually antagonistic; this story is a very brightly lit piece of LA darkness.

Stuart Neville 'Juror 8' (OxCrimes/Profile Books): If you remember 12 Angry Men you will recall Juror 8, the older man with his own business who is the first one persuaded by Juror 9. But, asks Neville, what if Juror 9 weren't such a noble Henry Fonda, but more like the Fonda of Once Upon A Time In The West, and what if the boy accused of stabbing his father to death actually was guilty?

George Pelecanos 'The Dead Their Eyes Implore Us' (OxCrimes/Profile Books): In 1930s Washington DC, Greek immigrant Vasili is just starting his climb to the American Dream of success, and the one non-Greek friend he makes in his restaurant job turns up dead. Pelecanos' story is, like much of his writing, about the values of work and family, the struggles of little people in a world where those values aren't always followed. Vasili is written with such honesty the contradictions become plain, even in his own attitudes, but at heart he is a man of honour, and this is a dark look about what it means, or meant in those days, to be a man.
The two stories that appeared on all three long lists were 'Apocrypha' and 'The Dead Their Eyes Implore Us'.  When we met for lunch to decide the winner, it wasn't an easy decision, hence the commendation as runner-up for the Pelecanos, but in the end we were probably influenced by the overall quality of Lange's collection, the quality of the second-nominated story, 'Sweet Nothing', which is sweet nothing at all like the winner, and indeed, just passingly a 'crime' story at all,and the freshness of the voice.

What was fascinating to me was the similarity between our two finalist stories. Both are tales of men of low status working in jobs they feel lucky to have, whose choice of whether to act to do what they perceive as being right runs the risk of losing their job, if not creating the kinds of problems with the law and with the unlawly, that vulnerable people always face.

There was a small debate about 'The Martini Shot', the title story of George Pelecanos' first collection. I thought it was an impressive story, but there was some discussion if it actually ran too close to novel length (which didn't bother me).  In the US, awards for novellas (indeed sometimes 'novelettes' are common) but I don't see that as necessary. In the event there was also some discussion about the sex scenes in this one, whether they were necessary to the story and whether they distracted from it. But it should be noted Pelecanos came close to having two stories on the short list too. 

But Richard Lange was a new name to me, and having discovered his work was compensation enough for judging the award, even before the dinner. It was richly deserved, and you are advised to read him.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

LAWLESS: BRUBAKER & PHILLIPS' CRIMINAL CONTINUES

Tracy Lawless has spent 18 months in the hole; locked up in a military prison, no contact with the outside world. Then he's handed the personal effects left behind by his brother, murdered nine months earlier; news the Army kept from Lawless. Two days later, he's gone: headed back to the city to avenge his brother's death, because that's what guys like him are supposed to do.

The brothers grew up in crime, and Tracy knows that if he tracks down Rick's last crew he's likely to find the killer. So he makes a small heist of his own, and infiltrates the crew without anyone knowing. But huge burn scars from his soldier time in the Middle East make him easy to identify. And the crew is preparing for a big heist, and of course there's a woman too, who happened to be his brother Rick's girl.

The beauty of this installment of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips Criminal series isn't so much the noirish setting, which Phillips' dark art gets well-night perfect, nor the relentless pace of the story, which Brubaker takes through twists combined with the usual noirish inevitability. But what makes it really stand out is the way it shifts times: flashbacks to the Lawless childhoods, to Tracy's Army service, and the story of why he's behind bars at the start, and of course the caper which he intends to use as the stage for his revenge. They segue smoothly, but what's impressive is the way the stories mesh together, providing characterization and motivation that makes precise sense, even down to Lawless' names. And it connects, in the end, with previous chapters of the Criminal story.

Being noir, nothing works out as planned, not relationships, not revenge, not the noirish femme fatale, and of course not the heist. But the ending is perfect noir, and there aren't many writers around, in any medium, who get it as well as Brubaker does. This series moves from strength to strength.

Criminal Volume 2: Lawless
by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
Image 2015, £10.99 ISBN 9781632152039

Sunday, 28 June 2015

ROBERT WEINBERG'S DREAM OF MARS: A Guest Post

I met Bob Weinberg (on the left, with The Shadow, receiving an award with writers Hugh B Cave and Robert Bloch) at an sf or maybe even comic convention when I was still a teenager, and bought from him a few bound volumes of the Ki-Gor jungle pulp. Ki-Gor was a taste I soon outgrew, but as Bob's business expanded, we kept in touch via his catalogues, and for years in London I accumulated far more books, magazines, and artwork than I needed (as I am learning to my distress as I downsize following my divorce). I followed his careers writing and, even more so, editing; his reprints and studies of the pulps, especially the Shadow, were essential reading for me (I wrote my American Studies colloquium paper on The Shadow for Richard Slotkin). I still love the pulps even though I find myself not reading them much any more. 

Bob and I would exchange notes, keeping in touch, but I believe I've seen him only twice in the past 50 or so years; the other time I detoured from a working trip to catch him at a convention where he was a guest of honour; I think it was in Chicago when I was producing World Cup coverage in 1994. We got back in touch a few years ago because I wanted his response to an obit I'd written for the Guardian of Edd Cartier (you can link to that here) and he's the recognised authority on pulp and sf artists. Now we keep in touch via Facebook, and I can follow his tomato growing skills too. Bob's had a rough time medically recently, and a  few days ago he posted the essay that follows. It moved me, and made me remember the power and importance fiction can play in our lives, how much the joy of reading has kept many of us on track. This is only the second guest post on this blog. I hope you enjoy it.



A DREAM OF MARS 
By Robert Weinberg

I became a science fiction and fantasy fan while attending Hillside Avenue Grade School, in Newark, New Jersey. I was in the fifth grade; I was ten years old. Our reading assignment in our American Literature Textbook was “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” I had never read the story, nor anything else by Stephen Vincent Benet’, but when I did, I was hooked. Not only did that story become my favorite piece of fiction, but I knew what I wanted to do in life--- become a writer. It’s been a long, long journey, but with more than a hundred short stories, several dozen novels, a handful of non-fiction books, and a bunch of comic book scripts all to my credit, I feel safe in saying I fulfilled my dream.

Now I am fairly old, sixty-eight, and not in the best of health. In February 2012 I suffered totally unexpected kidney failure. Luckily that day I was being examined by my doctor. She rushed to me to the hospital and over the course of three days I had 67 excess pounds of fluid removed from my body.

I have been on kidney dialysis three days a week, four hours at a time, ever since. Unfortunately, due to other health disasters early in my life, I do not qualify for a kidney transplant. So, my life is measured by how long I can survive on dialysis. The bad news is that the average life span of someone on dialysis in two years. James Michener and Art Buchwald grew bored with the treatment and went off it; neither of them survived very long without it. About 20% of dialysis patients stop treatment every year. So at three and a half-years on dialysis, I’m already beating the odds.

Here’s where the “Dream” comes in. Most of my life, at least from fifth grade on, I’ve been a Science Fiction fan. Remember Daniel Webster! Part of being an SF fan, I think, is having a strong belief in the wonders of outer space and of space travel. Once I discovered SF and fantasy fiction, I read every book and story I could find. Some of the fiction was minor, but much of it was not. I came to believe one of those tenants that define an SF fan: I believe with all my heart and soul that someday man will travel to other planets in our solar system.

In my lifetime as a fan of science fiction, I have already seen one of those dreams of SF comes true. Man landed on the Moon and spent time exploring it. Now I believe it is our destiny to send explorers to Mars. NASA hopes to launch a manned trip to the Red Planet during the next few years.
I plan to be alive when that happens. Despite all the medical problems associated with kidney dialysis, despite many patients who end up committing suicide because of the pain, discomfort, or just plain boredom, I am going to survive the worst the illness can manage because the meaning of my life ties in with man conquering Mars. For over a half-century I’ve read stories and novels about that happening. Such an event defines my life. I plan to be alive when that happens, dialysis or not. Even more than that. I promise to still be alive when an Earthman stands on the surface of Mars. I promise!

Remember these words of mine because they are going to come true. Along with “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” I had another favorite story from those school days. The story was and is, 'The Million Year Picnic'. How appropriate that it came from Ray Bradbury’s collection of tales, The Martian Chronicles. More than any other story, I’ve ever read, it defines my thoughts regarding the Red Planet. Read it. Remember it. Think of me. And my dream of Mars.

June 22, 2015

Thursday, 25 June 2015

DEFLATEGATE: LETTING THE AIR OUT

With Tom Brady's hearing with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell just completed, I went back and found this column I'd written, but not published, back in the end of May. It remains relevant, although you'll see by the update that the questions around the so-called 'deflategate' are even more unresolved now than they were then....

There is a basic question in the 'deflategate' 'scandal' which has not even been addressed. Why? Or as the lawyers might say, 'qui bono'?

If we accept that, as the Wells report says, the refs left the Pats' balls at 12.5 (before releasing air when they extracted their gauges), and we accept that, again according to the Wells report, Brady preferred the balls at 12.5, was there any good reason for Boston's second most famous Bird to allegedly take the dozen balls into the toilets and deflate them all in a minute a half, allowing time for him to wash his hands? If the balls were as Brady wanted, why even bother?

Ted Wells is Roger Goodell's equivalent of 'Lord' Hutton—the famous safe pair of hands who will get you the inquiry result you want. Reading his report was less like reading an inconsequential version of the Warren Report and more like reading Gerald Posner's apology for Warren. Evidence is presented selectively. Evidence that points against his conclusions is buried in footnotes. Conversations are interpreted, often against logic, to reinforce his conclusions. And of course the physical 'evidence' is laughable, and the major witness' own best-recollections are accepted in every instance except the one that would make that evidence laughable.

The most interesting bit of Wells is the series of supposedly incriminating texts between Boston's second-most famous Jastremski and Bird, now known as 'the Deflator'. Interesting because they have nothing to do with the Colts game, but date back to a Jets game in October when the officials had the balls pumped up to nearly 16psi, far higher the legal max of 13.5. The officials will not suspended, obviously. Brady was livid because he felt the game balls were like Aaron Rodgers balloons (Rodgers has said he regularly over-inflates the balls to 16 before games, hoping the refs don't bother to let much air out). He, and other QBs are prima donnas on this issue, and the reality is it's probably more psychological than anything else, but all the NFL needed to do was supply the game balls themselves, and not leave it to each team and their quarterbacks. That's what most sports would do. Anyway, the text exchange was in October. Brady's message had months to sink in. Now I accept you can assume his wrath was such that the equipment guys felt compelled to deflate balls already at 12.5, but that assumption doesn't seem to me any more likely than the idea that they might have just left the well-enough 12.5 alone.

Ignore the fact the Colts seem to have done their own air-check during the first half, thus further deflating at least one ball, which in itself was illegal. It lends to the appearance that they seemed to have a carte blanche from the league to pursue the Pats. Ignore than a former Jets-front office employee now working for the league was on the sidelines and told a Pats' official 'we've got you now', though in language more colourful than that. Ignore than someone from the NFL office, possibly the same person, released to the press untrue readings, much lower than the officials' half-time ones, immediately after the game, which seemed to make a serious case for tampering which of course was not made. The script for the 'scandal' was laid out before anything that might suggest otherwise could be considered. It was dubbed 'deflategate', and once the suffix 'gate' gets attached to anything in the media nowadays, it takes on an import whether it deserves to or not.

Lots of people wondered if the Wells report were being delayed in order to create another big story for May. Certainly it was leaked before the punishments were announced so the league could try to gauge the psi of public opinion as accurately as Walt Anderson and his crew did the balls. But this was not the kind of publicity the NFL needs, or didn't they listen when the commissioner was roundly booed every time he took the stage in Chicago to announce draft picks (unless he was accompanied by Dick Butkus)? If he thought to curry favour with the majority of NFL fans who are Pats haters, he may have guessed wrong wrong.

Tom Brady will appeal his four-game suspension, and it will inevitably be reduced. The NFLPA will fight hard for a neutral arbitrator; Goodell has long since forfeited any neutrality, and has an 0-3 record vs real arbitrators so far. But the odd thing is there is no benefit for Goodell himself to cave in on the punishment; he can wait for legal appeals and neutral arbitrators to do that, if Brady wants to pursue it further.

But more fascinating was the reaction of Pats' owner Robert Kraft, a staunch ally of Goodell's who was demanding an apology back in January, and after the report came out issued a rebuttal which effectively destroyed it. But then he announced he would not appeal the fine against his team: $1 million, a first and a fourth-round draft pick. Even if you accept Brady and his ball bunch were guilty, given that Wells himself exonerated the team, coaches, front office and owner from any knowledge, much less participation in the scam, this seems draconian. And in front of a neutral arbitrator, indefensible. I think the implications of removing the commissioner's authority vis a vis the teams (and their owners) in favour of an arbitrator was a can of worms Kraft did not want to open, in the best interests of the league itself.

Which is a shame, because we came in here discussing the draft, and by taking away draft picks you are punishing the team and its future, you're punishing the players already there, and you are punishing the fans. Punishment is supposed to fit the crime. But in this case, most of the air has been let out of the magistrates.

UPDATE: A number of independent reports, most notably from the American Enterprise Institute, have torn the Wells Report to shreds, pointing out flaws in the basic assumptions that were exacerbated by its slipshod methodology. In the light of those reports, it would be in Brady's interest to argue that there was no tampering whatsoever, and if eventually Goodell or an arbitrator agreed, the penalties against the Patriots would have to be overturned as well. No date has been set for when a ruling from the Commissioner on whether he will judge himself to have made a mistake or over-reacted will be released.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

JAMES HORNER: AN APPRECIATION


James Horner, who has died when the plane he was piloting crashed, first caught my ear with his score for John Sayles' wonderful pulpy The Lady In Red; he also did the equally fine Battle Beyond The Stars with Sayles, and the score for another pulp gem, The Rocketeer. His obits mostly led with his big, schmaltzy score for Titanic, and he did the schmaltzyesque scores for, just as a sample, Field of Dreams and Braveheart. But his schmaltz always seems to have an edge to it, more Nielsen than say John Williams' Sibelius. There's more than a little Copland in Field Of Dreams too. It's a quality which made him perfect for lots of sf, and for the many sequels and remakes which he did, especially pulpy ones like Legend Of Zorro or Mighty Joe Young where he was often able to suggest the best tone of the original while going in new directions.  which is OK. It also means he was able to do more off-beat epic scores for unusual films, like Apollo 13, Glory, Apocalypto, The Perfect Storm or Legends Of The Fall, where his music highlights the smaller tensions beneath the epic ones. And as I discovered when Nate was young, his How The Grinch Stole Christmas is a gem. Check out his credits: he could do any kind of movie and do it well. RIP.

GRAY VOICE: A POEM

I wrote this poem in December 1986, in New York City, though the particular circumstances escape me. That may have been the time I did a reading at The Ear Inn; I'll have to find my old diaries to check. It was published in New York, in a New York poetry magazine called Giants Play Well In The Drizzle, and in December 1987 (in English) in a special jazz issue of Hollands Maandblad, published in den Haag, which remains one of my favourite poetry appearances. Its inspiration was the Jan Garbarek song/album called It's OK To Listen To The Gray Voice, which takes its title, as do all the songs on the record, from lines in poems by Tomas Transtromer. So it's a third-generation inspiration. I was particularly looking to reflect the sheet-like wave of sound David Torn's guitar makes on this album, the only one on which he played with Garbarek.


GRAY VOICE

The bright recurring dream whose wings glow with fire finds
A place behind your hands, moving as they begin to move,
Shadowing every splash of light their flapping reveals.
You are the surface of a mirror that has started
To fragment, a single crack reaching out to all
Four corners of the glass, without disturbing the reflection:
Either you, or me, or parts of each, or either, scarred.



JAMES SALTER: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of James Salter is up at the Guardian's web-site (you can link to it here); it should be in the paper paper Tuesday. The published version was edited somewhat for space, and some of what was lost I thought was important, so you can read my original copy below. What I thought was most telling was the last quote, from Light Years, discussing Viri's view of fame and greatness. It seemed so apt, if not prescient, even written 25 years before Salter would achieve a modicum of fame it laid out a bit of his writer's fate.

I also thought it important to define 'frotteur'; its sexual connotations give Salter's description of himself writing a certain piquancy. The French influence was strong in his work, and life; he had an important affair in France and told a story about seeing the woman again, 40 years later, at a party celebrating his success. And I wished I had room for the story about Anatole Broyard giving Light Years a bad review in the New York Times, complaining about the 'exoticism' of the characters' names. Salter wrote him a letter, saying, 'Come on. Anatole?'

You will also note I didn't write that Salter found Hemingway's 'womanising' character distasteful. In fact I didn't say 'womanising' and Salter didn't enumerate what parts of Hemingway's character he was talking about. I would assume it was the machismo and perhaps the guilt that required Hem to marry each woman he cheated with that Salter might have resented. That form of womanising, perhaps, but it is certainly not how I interpreted it. Salter was a womanizer too, after all, one who appeared to understand women, which is one of the keys to his writing. As Salter said in another interview, 'the major axis of life is a sexual one; the music changes but the dance is always the same.'

One thing I found fascinating was how many influences Salter would acknowledge, handfuls of them, all different, in separate interviews. I don't doubt this was sincere. I would have particularly liked to have mentioned Henry Miller, with whom he bears a lot of similarities despite the seeming differences in style and tone. I found an interesting comparison with John Singer Sargent: 'direct observation and an economical use of paint', which may have been as good an influence as any. Most importantly, Salter said he considered himself 'completely American...but I admire European ways.' That resonated with me.

It would have been nice to go into more depth about with his film career, or repeat his reaction to Charlotte Rampling, chewing gum and smelling awful, on the set of Three. And the way Jack Shoemaker and North Point Press came to re-establish Salter's work was wonderful; that esteemed publishing house deserved its own obit when it folded. You'll also note the unnecessary difficulty the paper has with the Military Academy at West Point, as well as its weird policy of capitalization (or not) of words.

There have been few novels about the Korean War; The Hunters followed James Michener's The Bridges At Toko-Ri, and preceded MASH and may well be the best of the bunch. It might have been nice too to detail the dawn of jet fighter combat, the F-86 Sabre jets against the Soviet-made MiGs; there was a new kind of glamour to jet fighter pilots. I would have liked to have noted his envy when some of his former colleagues in MiG Alley wound up walking on the moon, or his joy when he was offered the chance to fly an F-16 many years later. That quote about pilots being royalty was heartfelt.

Finally, Salter's charm was legendary; I know women on whom it was not lost even when he was in his late 80s. He was almost the epitome of the cultured New York WASP establishment, like his friends George Plimpton or Peter Mathiessen, despite his Jewish roots. Apparently he kept careful track of their summer touch football games out in Long Island, the statistician inside him. There's a whole deep story in that change of identity from Horowitz to Salter to which I wish I could have done more justice. His is the writing of a gentleman, which brings us back to Hemingway and grace under pressure, to being able to stand apart from the chaos, the desire, and the sadness behind our fleeting pleasures, and write so meaningfully about them. RIP...

JAMES SALTER

For six decades, in which he published only five novels and a collection of stories, James Salter, who has died aged 90, was a cult writer, whose cult was headed by his fellow writers. 'James Salter writes American sentences better than anyone writing today,' said novelist Richard Ford, but Salter's work generated mixed reviews and small sales. Only in the new century, following his memoir Burning The Days (1997) and his second collection of stories, Last Night (2005), did the mainstream catch up. When his sixth novel, All That Is, appeared in 2013, Salter quipped, at an Oxford Street bookshop, that he'd signed more copies of All That Is than he'd sold of all his previous books.

Salter wrote painstakingly, once calling himself a 'frotteur', French for someone who draws pleasure from rubbing; he liked to 'rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that's really the best word possible.'

His precise prose saw him compared to Hemingway, whose writing he admired, but whose character he 'found distasteful'. Courage, Hemingway's 'grace under pressure', is tested in his work, first by war and later by the conflict between the comfort of relationships and thrill of erotic adventure. Salter said 'you can live both. Can you live them simultaneously? That's difficult'. He once wrote that 'man's dream and ambition is to have women, as a cat's is to catch birds, but this something that must be restrained.' In that restraint lies a very French sense of sadness, intensified by Salter's skill with his female characters, whom he saw as those who face 'the harder task'.

Salter was already in his thirties when his first novel, The Hunters (1956) was published. A war story based on his experience of more than 100 sorties as a jet fighter pilot in the Korean War, it's focussed on the conflict between a squadron leader in search of his first kill and his reckless wingman, who wants to become an ace. Salter did shoot down one Korean jet, but that kill was registered under his real name.

James Arnold Horowitz was born 10 June 1925 in Passaic, New Jersey, but grew up in Manhattan, where his father was successful in real estate. At the elite Horace Mann school he edited the literary magazine, whose contributors included a post-graduate football star named Jack Kerouac. His father had graduated first in his class from the United States Military Academy, at West Point, New York; James allowed himself to be persuaded to follow in his footsteps in 1942. He qualified for an accelerated flight programme, but a month before graduation, on VE day, in May 1945, he got lost on a training flight and crashed into a house in Massachusetts. The war ended before he saw combat, but after completing a graduate degree at Georgetown he was assigned to the tactical air command in Virginia, which he left to volunteer for Korea.

He was a major, stationed in Germany in charge of an aerial demonstration team, when The Hunters appeared, credited to 'James Salter', a pen-name he'd chosen both to hide his identity from his comrades and to avoid being type-cast as 'another Jewish writer from New York'. His close contemporaries Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal made their names with first novels set during World War II; Salter's remains the best of the few novels set in Korea. With a $60,000 payment for the movie rights (the 1958 film starred Robert Mitchum and Robert Wagner) he found himself able to pursue his dream of writing, but the choice was difficult. 'As a writer you aren't anybody until you become somebody. As a pilot you're nobility from the very beginning. It was worse than divorce, emotionally.'

He had married Ann Altemus in 1951 and begun a family. Living up the Hudson River from New York, Salter sold swimming pools while working on his second novel, The Arm Of The Flesh (1961) based on his experiences in Germany. He rewrote it completely and retitled it Cassada when it was reissued forty years later. With a neighbour he began making documentary films; Team Team Team, the story of the Army cadets gridiron team preparing to play against the Naval Academy, won a prize at the 1962 Venice Film Festival. He wrote film scripts while finishing his best-known novel, A Sport And A Pastime (1967). The story of an affair between a Yale drop-out and a girl he meets in France, its frank sexual content saw it turned down by his publisher. Eventually, George Plimpton got Doubleday to publish it under his Paris Review imprint, in a small edition which failed to sell. It was perhaps too salacious for the high-minded, too subtly crafted for the prurient.

He then turned to screenwriting, and saw three films released in 1969. An early screenplay eventually became The Appointment, a disappointment. More successful was the documentary-style skiing film, Downhill Racer, starring Robert Redford. And with help from his friend, the novelist Irwin Shaw, he wrote and directed Three, which fused elements of A Sport And A Pastime with Jules et Jim, and starred Charlotte Rampling and Sam Waterston.

His 1975 novel Light Years, arguably his best, chronicled the coming apart of a loving marriage, the sadness of unfilled expectations, which both reflected his own and anticipated that of his closest friends, on whom he modeled his characters. In their case it became a self-fulfilling prophecy based on his observation of things they has not seen in themselves. He and Ann divorced in 1975; by now he was living between Brideghampton, Long Island, and Aspen, Colorado, where he met Kay Eldredge who became his second wife. He wrote travel articles (collected in Then And There, 2005) and interviews for People Magazine of writers like Vladimir Nabokov. A mountain climbing film script turned down by Redford became his fifth novel, Solo Faces (1979).

His short stories appeared in Esquire, the Paris Review, and Grand Street, and in 1978 a new small press in San Francisco, North Point, offered to publish a collection, and brought some of his fiction back into print. Salter took ten years to write the two stories he wanted to fill out the collection, Dusk and Other Stories, which won the Pen/Faulkner award in 1988. He'd been struck by tragedy when, in 1980, his eldest daughter, Allan died in an electrical accident the day she moved into an outbuilding at Salter's Aspen house. It was one part of his life he could not write about, saying in his memoir, 'the death of kings can be recited, but not of one's child.'

In Light Years the husband, Viri, reflects on whether fame equates with greatness. 'He was sensitive to lives that had, beneath their surface, like a huge rock or shadow, a glory that would be discovered, and one day rise into the light'. It wasn't until his ninth decade that James Salter rose into the light, and finally achieved both.

His rediscovery following his memoir saw him publish six books in his last decade, and finally have a story accepted by The New Yorker. All That Is led to his receiving one of the first Windham-Campbell awards from Yale in 2013; the $150,000 prize gave him a measure of financial security. He died in Sag Harbor, New York 19 June 2015, while doing physical therapy. He is survived by Kay, two daughters and a son by his first marriage, and a son by his second.


 

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

JUSTIFIED: THE FINAL SHOW

I've just watched the final episode of the last series of Justified, a triumph of serial scripting that both ties up loose ends and brings the show full circle to the point where it began. Just to make sure I wasn't giving Justified some sort of nostalgic benefit of the doubt, I went back and watched the very first episode, and it was as I remembered--full attention was paid to detail and the show held firm to its six-season focus, which was primarily the relationship between Marshal Raylan Givens and the man he comes to Kentucky to get, his childhood buddy Boyd Crowder.

The sixth series maintains a frantic focus, resembling nothing more than bloody Shakespearian drama, as the betrayals and the deaths come thick and fast. Old blood feuds mix with modern greed, traditional outlaws butt heads with 'modern' corporate criminals, and the reason is the coming legalisation of pot in the Bluegrass State--a modern form of coal that could turn Harlan prosperous once again. Raylan of course is in trouble with the authorities, including Art, back on the job and played with the usual avuncular grace by Nick Searcy.

The outsiders are played by Mary Steenburgen (chilling as a cold-blooded gangster bent on revenge against the man she thinks betrayed her husband) and Sam Elliott, cast brilliantly without moustache as both a charmer and a killer. With handlebar, Elliott is a natural hero, deep-voice and solid jaw. But take away the fuzz, and it reveals a weak-lip, and a much more interesting character, the same kind of tic that makes Jere Burns as Wynn Duffy so effective too. Their machinations, with Boyd hovering between and amongst them, are worthy of the best revenge tragedies.

The other ongoing betrayal is between Boyd and Eva, out of prison on a deal to be Raylan's informer. In some ways Joelle Carter is at the center of this series: her decisions are sometimes hard to interpret, her feelings even moreso. But Justified ends with a couple of twists, and the first of them explains her motivations perfectly, as her actions and consequences make perfect sense.

Perhaps the weakest part of the series is the introduction of Boone, Sam Elliott's hired gun, who's even more of a neo-cowboy gunslinger than Raylan. It is building to a shootout between the two, of course, and the way that shootout ends is another twist that has been set up, deftly, by just an off-hand bit of dialogue.

The ultimate confrontation, however, the one that the whole series has been building, is the one between Rayland and Boyd. It too has a twist, one that harkens back to the very first episode. But before that happens, we get a superb bit of scene-setting episode after episode, as Walton Goggins gets to go more and more over-the-top, his white teeth flashing and his revivalist dialogue making him seem an almost-mad king seeing his dreams drift away. The show's fulcrum has always rested between Goggins' fire and Timothy Olyphant's ice, and it works so perfectly because they play it so well, and each time they do it takes us right back to the beginning.

In the first episode, before Raylan shoots (but does not kill) Boyd, Boyd has asked if Raylan is going to kill him, and Raylan says 'if you make me I will'. Those words resonate here. Graham Yost and the writing team have kept this series true to the spirit of Elmore Leonard. And the ultimate line is the one that resonates the most, again returning right back to that first episode, which established Raylan's 'anger' (as Natalie Zea described wonderfully at the end of that very first episode) and his coolness (as the very opening shootout showed). It's a simple line, but it speaks about Harlan, about work, about men. It echoes of Leonard. 'We dug coal together.' It was Justified.







Monday, 15 June 2015

CAMILLA LACKBERG'S SCENT OF ALMONDS

Stockholm police detective Martin Molin is headed out to an island, a week before Christmas, to spend a couple of days with his girlfriend Lisette and meet her family. He doesn't feel ready for this, and the gathering does nothing to relax him. Lisette's grandfather Ruben is a self-made millionaire, and is dying. The family gathered round him, two sons, their wives, and four grandchildren are there to suck up to Ruben and jostle for bits of inheritance, all except for Lisette's brother Mattias, who seems to care only for his grandfather with genuine affection, and their shared love of Sherlock Holmes stories.

At dinner the first night Ruben is poisoned, and a storm cuts the party off from contact with the mainland. Molin lumbers into action, interviewing the family members, and discovering webs of intrigue, jealousy, theft, and romance: just what you'd expect in such a setting. And when there is a second killing, he seems overwhelmed by the intransigence of the family and his inability to point to a killer amongst this large locked room.

This is the title story of Camilla Lackberg's collection, in the coziest of cosy styles. It is very much in the fashion of Maria Lang, in fact almost a seasonal inversion of her first novel, which became the first Crimes Of Passion episode Death Of A Loved One. Did it not precede those TV movies by seven years, you'd almost think it was a deliberate attempt to cash-in; as it is though, I see it as conscious hommage. But Lackberg's style is far more reticent than Lang's, despite being so much more modern: indeed were it not for the mobile phones that register no bars of signal while the cast is trapped on their island, you might think this was written fifty years earlier.

Lackberg has some interesting situations, none moreso than the relationship between Molin and Lisette. So when it happens that Lisette is also carrying on a periodic affair with her cousin, the revelation is placed so far offstage as to register barely a bump in Molin's plodding psyche. That Lackberg's own husband is named Martin Melin leads me to believe they both must have interesting senses of humour!

The story moves in circles, a series of interviews interspersed with a series of big meals, described lovingly, and endless coffee-pauses for Molin with the caretaker and his wife. All this would be fine were the story itself a thriller—but the dual twists (both murders turn out to be suicides) come about when Molin at the very last moment, just before they board the boat back to the mainland, 'suddenly remembered seeing this done in a Sherlock Holmes movie'. Oh, okay. And the two suicides were depending on someone figuring that out? But as Molin says to Lisette, as they part 'The whole situation has just been so...stressful'. Indeed.


The Scent Of Almonds and other Stories

by Camilla Lackberg, translated by Tiina Nunnally

Harper Collins, £6.99 ISBN 9780007479078

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


Sunday, 14 June 2015

A BRIEF NOTE ABOUT SEPP BLATTER AND FIFA

Having recently been researching the FIFA scandals for a piece I was writing, I have a very clear vision of where FIFA itself will be heading come December, when Sepp Blatter is supposedly going to stand down as its President. Oddly enough, as sports editor of the TV news agency UPITN, I had dealings with Sepp when he was the General Secretary of the federation, and considered the 'good guy' to deal with, as opposed to the then-President, Joao Havelange of Brazil (whose in-laws and descendants figure in the current and other past scandals as well). Sepp was, I believe the first of a number of Secretaries General to replace powerful Presidents in major federations, a big step in the transition of international sport from the control of the blazers to the suits (and the aptly-named Chuck Blazer, who was more a suit, symbolises that).

You read it here first: come December, Blatter will be 'spontaneously' asked to remain by a number of federations, & present himself  as the only man who can 'clean up' FIFA & steady the ship. He will be re-elected. He will probably present himself, and the sport, as being victimised by jealous agents of a country whose people do not understand the 'beautiful' game.

Blatter's strategy in dealing with corruption has always been to wait out and ride out every scandal, cover it in a blancmange of committees, reports, commissions and noble sounding panels, and then wait for the game's popularity to once again overshadow their venality. Because the game is venal from pitch to boardroom, built on cheating, corruption, and the domination of money, this will succeed, assuming the US & Swiss prosecutors don't cut through legal machinations, extraditions, and red tape and get straight to the heart of the matter, which they won't. The US investigation will be characterised as a local problem of Western Hemisphere's corruption, the corrupt bidding and elections as Africa's and Sepp will emerge to continue into his 80s as the capo di tutti capi, clean and shining like a dirty piece of schist.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

SAMUEL CHARTERS: THE TELEGRAPH OBITUARY

My obituary of Sam Charters, historian of the blues, novelist, record producer, civil rights worker, and man of letters, is in today's Daily Telegraph; you can read it in the paper paper or link to it here. It is pretty much as written, but because the paper had a four-obit day, it was cut for space, and mostly in the traditional way of trimming from the bottom few inches. What was lost was mostly the catalogue of Sam's later work, but also some bits about him and his wife Ann which I found interesting, and the best quotes, so what I've posted here is my original copy...


Samuel Charters, who has died aged 85, was a music historian and producer hugely influential in the revival of the blues, and the promotion of the vast range of music generated by the African diaspora. His 1959 book, The Country Blues, and the companion record he produced, turned a spotlight on performers like Robert Johnson, Son House, Skip James, and Bukka White, moving beyond earlier field recordings by Alan Lomax, or Harry Smith's famed Smithsonian anthologies of American folk music. The historian Saul Wilentz called it 'a touchstone at once captivating and mysterious'. Almost immediately, folk musicians like Bob Dylan were covering songs from The Country Blues. Then, when Charters in 1965 produced for Vanguard records the three-LP set Chicago: The Blues Today, its barewire electric blues by the likes of Johnny Shines, Otis Rush, and Buddy Guy was imitated by dozens of rock n roll bands.

Charters' approach to the blues was at heart literary. He once explained he 'got bored with all those damn guitar solos, all sounding like BB King. What I really wanted to hear was great text.' He was hearing the depths of the story of black people in America, and his pursuit of what he heard took him to four continents, and the magnificent study/memoir Roots Of The Blues: An African Search (1981).

He was drawn to the blues at a young age. Samuel Barclay Charters IV was born 1 August 1929 in Pittsburgh, where his family played and listened to an eclectic mix of jazz and modern classical music. He was eight when he was captivated by Bessie Smith singing 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out'. Playing clarinet, he had his first jazz band when he was 13. When he was 15 the family moved to Sacramento California; he finished junior college there, and served in the army. Meanwhile he was collecting records and making the connections between jazz and the blues. After the break-up of a short-lived marriage, in 1951 he moved to New Orleans, immersing himself in jazz while chasing the history of blues legends like Johnson while field recording traditional bluesmen he found on his travels.

He also earned a degree in economics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he met Ann Danberg, a literature student who became his partner in research and writing, and in 1959 his wife. In 1958 they traveled to the Bahamian island of Andros to record the guitarist Joseph Spence; the trip would be the basis of his moving memoir The Day Is So Long And The Wages So Small (1999).

Moving to New York, Charters was central to the Greenwich Village scene. He played in jug bands with Dave Van Ronk and Danny Kalb, who co-founded the Blues Project band, and published a remarkable series of blues books, intended, he said, to draw more people into the field where huge amounts of research remained to be done. He worked on jazz and blues for Prestige records and back in California produced the rock band Country Joe And The Fish, as their music moved from bluesy folk to psychedelic protest.

Ann Charters became a leading scholar of the Beat movement, whose affinities with jazz were obvious; she wrote the first biography of Jack Kerouac and an influential early study of Charles Olson. Their shared interests were reflected when she provided the photos for Sam's 1963 book, The Poetry Of The Blues and when Sam edited an important early anthology of modern American 'underground' poetry: Some Poems-Poets (1971). Their writing collaborations included the textbook Literature And Its Writers, and I Love (1979), a joint biography of the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and the famed modernist muse Lili Brik. In 2010 they published Brother-Souls, another joint biography, this one of Kerouac and John Clellon Holmes; Charters was hospitalised twice by stress during the writing. He said, 'you are really on edge; you are always exposed when you are writing.'

Both Charters were involved in the Civil Rights movement and became early opponents of the Vietnam war; Sam had put Junior Wells' 'Vietcong Blues' on that 1965 Chicago record. In 1970, they moved to Sweden, where he produced for Sonet Records, eventually splitting time between Stockholm and the University of Connecticut, where Ann taught. He was an early translator of the 2011 Nobel laureate Tomas Transtromer's poetry, including his seminal collection Baltics (1974).

His fiction, encouraged by the London publisher Marion Boyars, often drew on music. Jelly Roll Morton's Last Night At The Jungle Inn (1984) was an imaginary memoir, while Elvis Presley Calls His Mother After the Ed Sullivan Show (1992) is an almost Kerouac-like monologue. Lousiana Black (1986) is a moving story of a man who is radicalised after seeing a photo of his own father being lynched. Charters' essays are collected in A Language Of Song and Walking A Blues Road; a selected poems, What Paths What Journeys was published earlier this year. Songs Of Sorrows, a biography of Lucy McKim Garrison, who collected the first book of slave songs, will be published in April 2015. 'My work is about fighting racism,' he once said. '.. by introducing music I can have somebody look across the racial divide and see a black face and see this person as a human being...that's why my work is unashamedly romantic.'

Charters died 18 March 2015 in Arsta, Sweden, from bone-marrow cancer. He is survived by Ann, their two daughters, and his son Samuel Barclay V by his first marriage.

Monday, 8 June 2015

KARIN FOSSUM'S DROWNED BOY

NOTE: This review contains a discussion of the novel's ending which contains SPOILERS. It will be signaled in the text, but BE WARNED.

For nine tenths of the way, this Inspector Sejer novel is a slow-burning procedural with the haunting psychological dread of a horror novel. Tommy, a 16 month old boy, drowns in a pond at the bottom of his garden. The young parents are distraught, in diametrically opposite ways, but Sejer senses something off-kilter in the mother's tearful responses. Slowly and deliberately, Fossum takes you through his investigation, but also through the strains on the marriage between the emotive Carmen, who wants to move on, and the shy, quiet Nicolai, who is mourning the loss of his son. Most importantly, she lets Carmen reveal herself to you, so that as Sejer continues his investigation you are, as much as he is, trying to decide what really happened.

It's a tightly measured piece of writing, dropping hints, then leading you away from them, and the whole process drags on while Sejer has his own health worries and the marriage
of the two young parents slowly dissolves. And then, when it looks like all be will settled, there is a twist, and that twist seems to me to be so contrary as to what has come before to
be deeply dissatisfying. It is set-up carefully, in retrospect, and if you buy that then you will appreciate its irony, but basically I find it very hard to buy, for reasons I will explain now.

SPOILER ALERT: These reasons constitute a complete SPOILER so if you would prefer to judge the novel for yourself stop reading now and come back to it when you've finished and see if you agree.

I have three problems with the denouement of the novel. First, Carmen's father gives her a diary to help her deal with her 'grief'. Fossum uses the diary brilliantly, because through its entries we get a good idea of the very narrow, self-centered world-view Carmen possesses, and her ability to construct her reality along those lines. But for that very reason, I found it unlikely in the extreme that she would actually pen a 'confession' to her diary, regardless of how she justifies her deed after the fact.

Second, even if you accept that Carmen was likely to make such an entry in her diary, it seems to me completely impossible she would misplace the diary, and let it be taken to the bonfire pile. Fossum has set it up so that we can assume Carmen's new partner, Anders, has found the diary and is throwing it out with other old papers...but that would mean he went through the living room desk, and most likely found the diary, and most likely would know it for what it was. So would he read it? It's possible, as you can interpret the scene as Fossum wrote it as implying Anders is a little uneasy and wants to get rid of the evidence, which means he also accepts Carmen's actions. Or else he's just got an overdose of Nordic OCD. I look to the former interpretation, since he'd be unlikely to throw away a newish diary as being rubbish, but would he be likely to cover up for Carmen?

Third, even if you assume that he would, or that it's all an accident, the final coincidence of Sejer's dog Frank pulling that diary off the bonfire pile and bringing it to Sejer is just too neat for me. Fossum has set it up, with Frank bringing back trophies, and she leaves it nicely, with the reader filling in the future, but it's all too pat, and as I said, for me it just doesn't work.

The Drowned Boy by Karin Fossum
Harvill Secker £12.99 ISBN 9781846558542

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