Sunday, 28 September 2014

TYRANT: SOUTH FORK MOVES TO SYRIA

I was on Front Row a couple of weeks back, discussing Tyrant with Kirsty Lang (you can listen to the programme here for another year!). Kirsty's first question was what did I think about Tyrant, and my response was that it was 'all over the place'. And so it is.

The credits say it was 'created' by Gideon Raff, who did the Israeli series that became Homeland in the US. But I suspect Raff came up with the pitch. Homeland took an American, turned him into a Moslem, and then brought him back to America to do the bidding of his terrorist mentor in Islam. Tyrant works the other way around: take a Moslem, in this case the younger son of the ruler of 'Abbudin', turn him into an American, and then bring him home and have him stay to help his brother rule the country when their father dies.

If you consider the concept far-fetched, don't forget that Bashar al-Assad was studying opthamology in England when he was called home after the death of his older brother Basil. But even as you remember that, you need to accept that the concept is far fetched and the execution is fetched to infinity. Because the show seems to have been developed by Howard Gordon (24, Homeland) and Craig Wright (Six Feet Under, Lost, Dirty Sexy Money) and it seems trying desperately to incorporate as much of all those shows as possible. So what you get is a family soap opera but in an opulent fantasy setting, Dallas with revolution in the air, Dynasty without blow-dried hair.

The family saga owes a lot to the Godfather. Bassam Al-Fayeed is the younger brother who wanted out of the family business. He has traumatic reasons buried in his past, and he's trying desperately to hold them in. Which Adam Rayner, a British actor playing this Arab-American, does by holding everything in. He makes doe eyes to show he's struggling within, he makes sad eyes to show he doesn't like what he has to do. If he's Michael Corleone, older brother Jamaal is Sonny Corleone out of Caligula. Ashraf Barhum is a kind of Arab Mark Strong, and the role lets him let everything out, including rape, pillage, and killing. To make it more interesting, his wife Leila (Moran Atias), the Alexis Carrington of this show, all plotting and accessorizing, has 'history' with Bassam, which will eventually, one supposes interfere with Bassam/Barry's American wife. Although Molly is also supposed to be a doctor, Jennifer Finnegan plays the part with the wide-eyed surprise of a guest on Oprah discovering things in her life are not the way they seem.

I also found it curious that Bassam would be called Barry, since America has only one 'Barry' who's also (allegedly) a Moslem in thrall to powers from the world of Islam, and that of course is President Barack 'Barry' Obama. I note only that the show airs on Fox's FX network, for whose audience the default position is fear of the different, unknown, and Islamic, and leave it to you to decide how coincidental that all is.

In case you believe my Dallas anology might be forced, wait for the moment Barry's English-born mother, played by Alice Krieg comes on stage in full Miss Ellie mode. 'Oh Bassam, I know your brother is a sadistic unstable homicidal rapist and abuser of his people, but if he's late for the barbeque at the palace Friday I'll never forgive him!'.

And then there are the kids. This is the part of the show that bears Gordon's heavy touch, as both 24 and Homeland seemed to relish their subplot of obnoxious troubled daughters who exist mostly to create desperate situations for their fathers. You need to remember that the 18-35 market of TV watchers is assumed not only to have zero interest in anyone or anything older than they are, but zero intelligence to comprehend the same. So give them kids to identify with. In Tyrant, the daughter is actually the reasonable one, but Barry's son Sammy is both obnoxious and gay, both of which are dangerous things to be in this kingdom. I really don't want to hang around and see the way that pans out.

It is a shame they killed off the father in the first episode, as the conflict between the brothers could have been milked more effective with his presence, and because Nasser Farris as Khaled is very good; he's a subtle actor, which suits the nature of his character here. There is one major problem, however. Khaled has always favoured older son Jamaal, but after the 'twist' which ends the first episode, you would have thought that he would have recognised something different in his sons. Instead, Bassam becomes Barry. He's lucky he didn't move to Britain, or he would have become Bazza.

Meanwhile there is an actual revolution fomenting, and Barry is tasked with trying to be the reasonable American with good intentions who can just get everyone to be nice to each other, while preserving the status quo. Sounds very familiar? The most interesting character, potentially, is the CIA agent John Tucker (Justin Kirk), who somewhere along the line ought to be shown to be less straightforward and good-intentioned that he was in the first two shows. Or he'll never get a spot as a Fox Contributor on Megan Kelly or Sean Hannity's shows.

Shot is bright light, with little depth or shadow, Tyrant reflects its presentation, but since I did the Front Row segment, FX has commissioned a second series of the 'political' drama, as they call it. It's one of those shows you might feel compelled to watch, just to see what outrage Jamaal will perpetrate, or what horrible plot twists will drive Adam Rayner to have to emote, but it's the Middle East as soap. All that's missing is the Abbudin Oil Barons Club.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

DENNIS LEHANE'S THE DROP: BOSTON'S BEST


The Drop was originally a stunning short story, called 'Animal Rescue', which was the  best story in the 2007 anthology Boston Noir. Dennis Lehane has expanded it into a short novel, and also written the screenplay for a film which has just opened in the US and will come to the UK as part of the London Film Festival. I suspect the screenplay may have preceeded the longer prose version, but I could be wrong. If you listened to this week's Americarnage podcast you heard me recommend it to our audience (if you didn't, you can take in the full hour of sports and arts mixhere; if you do note that I was wrong in my guess about the cast; I checked afterwards and James Gandolfini plays Cousin Marv, which in retrospect is perfect casting) because this is a finely crafted piece of exceptional writing.

The Drop is the story of Bob Saginowski, a quiet bartender living a life of quiet loneliness until he rescues a beaten dog and takes it home. There's more to Bob than meets the eye—he's a steady presence Cousin Marv's bar; Marv actually is his cousin, but the bar is no longer his. It's owned by Chechen gangsters, who use it periodically but irregularly as a drop for their day's illegal profits. Marv is bitter about his fate; Bob seems resigned to his. The dog begins to change all that. But with him comes a woman, another battered soul named Nadia, and eventually with her comes a sleazy ex-convict, Eric Deeds, who's supposed to have murdered a local character called Richie Whalen, also known as 'Glory Days', one night when he left Cousin Marv's.

Dennis Lehane's writing took a great leap forward from his Kenzie and Gennaro series of detective novels with his first stand-alone, Mystic River, which he followed with Shutter Island, a smaller novel whose writing is tightly controlled in the service of a remarkable exercise in the ambiguity of psychological gothic horror. He wrote on The Wire, and his next two books were larger, historical pieces, The Given Day being the more ambitious of the two (you can read my Given Day interview with Lehane here) and a return to Kenzie and Gennaro a decade on.

Two things make this novel another step forward. First is the way, even within a shorter framework, Lehane layers his story. There is a cop, stuck in a dead-end within the force, who's investigating a robbery at Uncle Marv's, and whose senses tell him other secrets lie hidden. He attends mass at the same church as Bob, and has noticed Bob never takes communion; the church itself is being sold off by the diocese; it's community has disappeared.

Everything reflects, everything connects. It's all personal, the story is driven by human needs and human reactions. But the story is made memorable by the writing. At one point, the Chechen boss comes into Marv's, and we start to see glimmers of Bob's character as he, unbidden, reaches to the top shelf and pours a glass of Midleton Irish whiskey for Chovko while telling Marv to fetch a bottle of Stella Artois for his muscle, called Anwar. There's some tension around the return of money stolen from the bar, money left in bag with a severed hand included. Bob has cleaned, literally laundered, the dirty cash. Not confident in his position, he serves Chovko.

Chovka considered the drink Bob had placed in front of him. 'This isn't what you gave me last time'.
Bob said,'That was the Bowmore 18. You thought it tasted like cognac. I think you'll like this more'.
Chovka held the glass up to the light. He sniffed it. Looked at Bob. He put the glass to his lips and took a sip. He placed the glass on the bar. 'We die'.
''Scuse me?' Bob said.
'All of us,' Chovka said. 'We die. So many different ways this happens. Anwar, did you know your grandfather?'
Anwar drank half his Stella in one gulp. 'No. He's dead long time.'
'Bob,' Chovka said, 'is your grandfather still alive? Either of them?'
'No, sir.'
'But they lived full lives?'
'One died in his late thirties,' Bob said, 'the other made it into his sixties.'
'But they lived on this earth. They fucked and fought and made babies. They thought THEIR day was THE day, the last word. And then they died. Because we die.' He took another sip of his drink and repeated, 'We die,' in a soft whisper. 'But before you do?' He turned on the stool and handed Anwar the glass. 'You gotta try this fucking whiskey, man.'

I don't often quote a passage, but that is some writing: perfectly paced, with the right tone and resonance. It's reflective, it's telling, and it breaks the very mood it sets. The book is filled with writing like this. I say this with some hesitance, and not just because it's Boston, but The Drop might be the closest thing I've read to the quality on honesty in writing which mirrors honesty in character, the quality that made The Friends Of Eddie Coyle so special. That means it's among the best Boston writing ever, and more important, among the best crime fiction too.

The Drop by Dennis Lehane
Abacus £7.99 ISBN 9780349140728

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

ARNALDUR INDRIDASON'S REYKJAVIK NIGHTS

After the haunting brilliance of last year's Strange Shores (see my glowing review of it here), we thought we had seen the last of Erlendur, and one of the very best Nordic detective series. But Arnaldur Indridason has brought Erlendur back, albeit with a twist. Reykjavik Nights is a prequel, apparently the first in a series approaching the detective's early years on the police force.

It's a daring move (though it worked for Star Wars) because Reykjavik Nights is a book that works on two levels, but far more successfully for those who've followed the series already. If you're a reader new to Erlendur, this is simply a novel about a dogged, lonely policeman driven to keep poking at the corners of a seemingly inconsequential accidental drowning of a homeless drunk. But he was a drunk Erlendur had encountered, and his curiosity has to be satisfied. New readers might find it a little slow, because the story builds at Erlendur's own pace, and they may wonder too about the outward dullness of the character, and his social awkwardness. And they may not understand that the story is set in the Icelandic past, in a country not yet as 'modernised' as it is today.

But readers who know Erlendur will spot the differences in the two Icelands. More importantly, when they read about the young Erlendur, they will see him in light of the character they know, and they will watch the seeds of that man being planted, and in some cases starting to sprout. There will be moments when those readers may, like I did, wish a little prescience into the young Erlendur, so his life might turn out differently. Of course, that would take away the fascinating character who made the series so compelling, and as Indridason is reminding us, the smaller decisions we make early cannot be undone, and the reasons we make them are already embedded in our characters as much as they shape the characters we become.
I found Reykjavik Nights compelling, a very knowing piece of perfectly pitched writing. I am tempted to recommend that new readers go back and work their way through the series before tackling this prequel, but I suspect that, if they move on, they will experience a similar frisson of knowledge about Erlendur, only from the other side of the picture. And it's the picture of one of the most compelling detectives anyone has written, anywhere.

Reykjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indridason

Harvill Secker, £16.99 ISBN9781846558122



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

Saturday, 6 September 2014

JOAN RIVERS: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

In case you missed it online yesterday, my obituary of Joan Rivers is in the paper paper today (Saturday). If you insist on cyber-browsing the G, here's the link to it. I wrote it a couple of years ago, but at the beginning of the week I added about 300 words and re-edited it. After it went up, the Guardian then asked if I'd like to include her final controversy: some comments she made to a TMZ 'reporter' about the Israelis and Gaza; I passed after watching the interview and realising that her viewpoint meant almost nothing and that the callous, controversial part of it was drawn out of her doggedly for effect.

What I would have liked to do was write a bit more about her comedy style, because it involved a lot of soul-baring which the laughter only partly covered up. That was why I concentrated so much on the difficulties she faced throughout her career--as the very fine documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work made clear, she was her work, and every part of her life for gist for the relentless mill that drove her comedy. It took real talent and a lot of courage, and as the doc showed, it took its toll.

I also would have liked to expound a little further on the difference in her popularity in America and Britain. Here she is seen as the kind of American Britain would like to think Americans are--that's why clowns like Ruby Wax, Rivers' leading imitator here, are so popular only on this side of the Atlantic; apparently, Ruby was on BBC television Friday night; I doubt they billed her as I've described her.

But the difference in perception was crucial. Her talk shows failed in this country because everyone was expecting her to cut her guests to pieces, Dame Edna with fangs, but when Rivers was at her peak as Carson's fill in, what got her there and got her the show on Fox, was her ability to rein in it, and make the guests comfortable. As her career became more specialised, she became more and more aggressive, but that doesn't work in the talk show format unless you're all-out lampooning your guests, and then you won't get the usual big name suspects booked.

The other big question was where her husband Edgar, who killed himself, was born. Some sources say Germany (which Joan herself said: that the family moved to Denmark and then South Africa before settling in England) or England, where he was educated. I lean toward the former, but it's risky to trust spouse's memoirs for your info.


Sunday, 31 August 2014

LAW AND ORDER: TWO SEPARATE BUT EQUALLY IMPORTANT THOUGHTS

Happily, although the series ended after a record-tying run of 20 seasons, there is always a Law & Order episode playing on television somewhere in the world. While watching one on Channel 5 last night, I started thinking about a dual conundrum in the opening credits, which reminded me of another one I've pondered for years. Since it was late, I thought I'd share these.

'In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate but equally important groups: the police, who investigate crimes, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders...."

Listening to the famous opening, it struck me perhaps for the first time that if there's anything Law & Order shows us, it's that the police and DAs are certainly NOT separate groups. They may not always work in concert, but they are joined at the legal hip. More importantly, however, DAs do NOT prosecute offenders: they prosecute the accused offenders. It's not as if everyone prosecuted over 19 seasons of L&O has been guilty as charged.

In the opening credits, the characters are divided into 'Law' (the police) and 'Order' (the DAs), but surely this is backwards. It is the police who protect order, while the attorneys enforce and play with the law, a concept which, if the show teaches us anything, has little to do with justice, criminal or otherwise. Somehow I doubt this matters to anyone but me.

I'd just picked up L&O in series 18 on Channel 5, and I was thinking that this grouping was as good as any I'd seen since the Jerry Orbach days. It was perfect for Sam Waterson to take the District Attorney's role when Fred Thompson left to return briefly to politics; Thompson never convinced as a New York politician, but then none of the successors have ever caught the nature of the role as well as Stephen Hill did. Linus Roache plays the ADA part somewhere between Michael Moriarty and Waterson, and Alana de la Garza is the best second chair since Jill Hennessy or Carey Lowell. Meanwhile, on the police side (Order, remember?) S. Epatha Merkerson was getting more space, which is good, and the chemistry between Jeese Martin's Green and Jeremy Sisto's Lupo recalls the days of Orbach with a number of partners.

Of course, I no sooner thought about this than I discovered the episode I was watching was the one where Martin leaves the show, written out and replaced by Anthony Anderson, who's going to have a hard time getting a balance with Sisto. Knowing the series has only two more seasons beyond this is not encouraging, especially as the 5 in Channel 5 seems to stand for 'get them five years after they run in America and only make them available for five days!'


THE HIDDEN MESSAGE YOU SHOULD TAKE FROM 'THE GIVER'

It must be the summer of dystopia, especially if you're a kid. My son Nate watched Divergent on the plane over to the US, and in North Conway, New Hampshire, I and my cousins took him to see The Giver. He's ten, and he's gone back and forth on which he liked better, but The Giver seems to have stayed with him better. My cousins were in the book trade, and knew the 1993 young adult novel by Lois Lowry well; I hadn't heard of it and obviously Nate hadn't read it. Apparently it's been adapted pretty faithfully, with one big change: the characters are older: 12 when they go through the ceremony and get their career paths in the book, but 18 (just like high school) in the film.

On the one hand, since The Giver is about a society designed to eliminate conflict by limiting people's emotions and choices, removing everything from sex to colour to music. Thus it's looked at as an allegory of conformity, a story of how individualism triumphs in the end. There's nothing very original in this, apart perhaps from its being directed at teens; you could point to dozens of sf novels and many recent movies that explore the same theme. I found it echoing Ayn Rand a bit too often; in this society conformity is enforced in part through the killing of babies, bringing a couple of the wingnut right's favourite tropes together.

On the other hand, it's appeal probably comes from the obvious allegory of the teenage years, kids faced with the alternatives of conformity or individuality, of following their families or following themselves. Jonas (Brenton Thwaits) has to choose between his own perceptions and feelings and those prescribed by commmunity and family. Take either approach, and the film of the The Giver reflects its 'young adult' source novel; neither allegory is particularly overloaded with ambiguity, and the world they inhabit sometimes seems to adjust itself to the storyline without full regard for its own internal logic. 

There are many times the story can't suspend disbelief: the kids can't help being kids and joke (and show jealousy). We see colours at times when we're supposed to be seeing black and white. Asher, as a drone pilot, has seen there is an outside world; we also wonder what the outside world has made of this city on a mountain top.It's the dystopian Waltons atop Walton Mountain, and Thwaits as Jonas is our century's Richard Thomas as John Boy. Jonas is also falling in love with Fiona (Odeya Rush, all wide eyes and open lips) and there's actual conflict with his best friend Asher (Cameron Monaghan, perhaps his generation's Peter Sarsgard) who becomes a drone pilot, whose drones somehow pass through the force field and transmit back to him only in black and white, even when they don't.

We also wonder what the community makes of the police who suddenly show up on motorcycles (not the uniform bicycles everyone else rides) and are adept at violence. We wonder how Jonas knows how to ride a motorcycle, much less make an Evil Knevil jump off a mountaintop. We then wonder where all the stuff Jonas has escaped with actually came from.

In this effort to try and suspend disbelief, while appealing to its target audience, The Giver is nicely done by director Philip Noyce, whose shots concentrate on individuals, as if to belie their environment, and by his DP, Ross Emery, who's especially taken with the contrast of the Giver's tower with the rest of the community, and the outside world with that too. He gives the snow scenes a gingerbread Christmas feel which implies the fairy tale we are watching. But it's impossible not to note that the film dissolves into a chase and survivalist race against time. Jonas and Gabriel have to sled through the force field surrounding the community, and reach Switzerland at Christmas, for the story to resolves itself.

In those terms, it's a showcase for Jeff Bridges, imparting wisdom to Jonas, who is appointed the Receiver of Memory and told that he alone in this society is allowed to lie. 'Precision of language' is one of the important points of keeping conformity. As the giver of memory, Bridges plays a cross between Gandalf and Leo Tolstoy, and almost literally opens Jonas' eyes to the big world out there. His antagonist becomes the head elder, played by Meryl Streep, but it will turn out that Bridges' last, failed pupil (played by Taylor Swift) was also their daughter, which raises a lot of questions about exactly how the asexual, apersonal birth process actually works.

 Jonas has also developed an attachment to Gabriel, a baby his 'father' (Alexander Skarsgard) has brought home from the maternity hospital; he's the weaker of two twins, and if he doesn't shape up, he will moved on to 'Elsewhere'. His father's compassion is unexplained within the constricts of the community; when he gives unacceptable babies a shot that stops them breathing, and sticks them in a box and drops them down a chute, it's hard to imagine what he thinks their fate would be. That he's married to an elder (Katie Holmes) makes it even stranger. And Holmes' presence as an elder is a question until you realise she's there for a purpose.

Because in reality, The Giver is about a far important subject than the making of a utopian society, or the progression of the cinema's remaining audience into adulthood. It's a topic far closer to Hollywood's heart.

The Giver is really an allegory about the fate of Katie Holmes.

When Jonas finally cracks the force field we see Holmes shedding a tear. Even Bridges, the one person allowed emotions hasn't done that.

And then we realise that The Giver is about someone who's been a true believer in a cult and has just had the realisation forced on her that what she has believed in was false. Does that suggest a certain cult founded by an sf writer and practiced by Holmes' former husband? Has she been given Alexander Skarsgard as penance? If Meryl Streep is the image of Ayn Rand as Scientologist, and Katie Holmes is her victim, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Monday, 25 August 2014

JEREMIAH HEALY: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Jeremiah Healy has been up at the Guardian online as of last Friday (while I was out of touch in the wilds of New Hampshire); I don't know if it's been in the paper paper or not. You can link to it here. It's pretty much as written: there was an odd addition that said the books were set in 'Beantown', a fictionalised Boston, but that was removed.

The bit mentioned from my essay in Following The Detectives, about demolishing a whole neighbourhood was actually a quote from Jerry, a joke, but one that established the location of Beth's cemetery perfectly for my essay. Jerry also spoke admiringly and knowingly of the other Boston writers who featured in the essay: Parker, Dennis Lehane and George V. Higgins--I mentioned this in my copy but it was edited out. I think there would be an interesting essay to be written about connections between Higgins and Healy and their fictions. And of course Spenser knows a cop named Healy...

I knew the Healy books well, but I can't pretend to have known Jerry. Yet I could have extended the obit much further from the personal comments of writers, critics and fans all of whom found him a fascinating and memorable person, as well as a dedicated and talented writer. It was for me a privilege to be able to write about him, and something that helped mitigate the sad circumstances of his death. I hadn't read the Terry Devane books, so I've ordered the first one, and hope to renew our acquaintance that way.


Monday, 11 August 2014

JAMES BOND REPRISED, MATT HELM REISSUED



No one has ever been asked to continue the Matt Helm series, which seems a shame because at the time, Donald Hamilton's Gold Medal originals were considered by teenaged connoisseurs like myself to be far superior to James Bond. Helm was earthy, and his enemies tended to be more realistic, heavy on the Cold War and criminals and lighter on mad millionaires or scientists bent on world domination. Helm also seemed to have a more down-to-earth attitude toward violence, and killing. There was no '00' designation in whatever service employed him.

Bond, on the other hand, seemed more fantastical, and it appeared to be that quality which sold them to the general public (that and the endorsement of President Kennedy. JFK's reading Bond seemed much hipper than Ike's fondness for Zane Grey). The early Bond movies, if anything, seemed better than the books, catching a tongue in cheek flair without Fleming's embarrassment, whereas Dean Martin's Matt Helm movies ignored the grittiness of the Helm novels and were a reduction ad absurdam of Bond.

So I was intrigued when William Boyd's Solo arrived at the same time as one of Titan Books' new editions of Matt Helm, another chance to match the two super-spies against each other.

Literary writers have been recapitulating Bond ever since Kingsley Amis in 1968 (Amis had also published a study/defense of Bond three years earlier). There's been a real difficulty for them, especially in terms of continuity—do you go back to the Fleming Bond, or do you proceed with the Bond of the movies—who tongue has moved progressively deeper and deeper into the cheek with each new actor, and whose current Bond, as played by Daniel Craig, is Vinnie Jones in a dinner jacket, playing Texas Hold Em instead of chemin de fer, probably drinking his Irn Bru from the can, slightly shaken if not stirred—or do you come somewhere in between?After all, even Fleming modified his Bond to reflect the movies, giving him a Scottish backstory midway through the series.

Boyd has avoided all that by going back to basic Bond, but putting him into a William Boyd novel of colonial Africa. The book is set in the late Sixties, and the conflict into which Bond is inserted resembles the Biafran War, with Britain keen to protect its access to oil regardless of which side wins. As you might gather from that synopsis, there's a touch of moral questioning here, as if Bond weren't convinced enough of Britania's rightness to jump out of a plane with a Union Jack parachute, much less the Queen. At the same time, there are the requisite Bond touches of exotic savoir faire, particularly as the local station chief is a beautiful black woman named Efua Blessing Ogilvy-Grant and the main villain is a disfigured Rhodesian mercenary named Korbus Breed.

There's also a dastardly millionaire behind the scenes, a far-fetched drug smuggling sub-plot, and enough betrayal to make you feel right at home, because when the story gets back to simple revenge we get Bond at his best. It's the element of sado-masochism in Bond that explains a lot of their popularity, especially in the early days, and although Boyd obviously knows Africa well, it seems we're on firming footing when it's Bond on a more personal mission.

There's some sadism in Matt Helm too, since torture is part of the game, and more than a little betrayal, as Helm appears to be sleeping with the enemy as much to enjoy the risks as anything else. I didn't remember The Devastators, originally published in 1965, at all, and that may be because it isn't one of the better Helms. It's set in Britain, first in London and then in remote Scotland, and perhaps I'm more critical because I know the country better now than I did then.

It's strongest in its first-person narration; part of the added realism of the series was listening to Helm explain, without necessarily having to rationalise, what he's doing. It also seems a bit prissy in its sex, whereas Fleming, perhaps because he was writing a sort of fantasy, rarely seems that way...though he keeps the tongue in cheek rather than in other places. The one line I remember from Hamilton was the one that seemed to come whenever Helm kissed a new woman: 'she knew where the noses went'. I never quite figured that one out, but mercifully it doesn't actually appear in this one.

If I had to guess, I would think Hamilton was trying to nudge Bond in this novel, and signals that by setting it in Scotland, where there's a mad scientist type threat to civilisation as we know it with bubonic plague, no less. It's not fully successful, the book I mean, obviously not the plague, and if you're interested in dipping into the Helms I'd suggest you start with the first one Death Of A Citizen. But maybe we just can't go back to where we were in the Sixties, when we were the good guys, and sex was still something exotic in our reading. William Boyd gives it a try, but perhaps he can't get back there either.

Solo: A James Bond novel by William Boyd
Vintage Books, £7.99, ISBN 978-0099578970 

The Devastators by Donald Hamilton
Titan Books, £7.99, ISBN 9781783292882

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

Sunday, 10 August 2014

DETECTIVES, THEIR FATHERS AND SONS: NOVELS BY STEPHEN ORR AND MICHAEL SEARS

What defines a man more than the kind of father he is? I thought of Martin Beck while reading One Boy Missing, a finely-drawn Australian take on the so-called 'depressive detective' genre pioneered by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's Swedish detective, having a huge influence on crime writers everywhere, but particularly in Britain, and to a lesser extent in America.

Bart Moy has more reason than most to be depressed. He has left Adelaide after his son died and his wife left him. Now he's back where he grew up, in the bleak country town of Guilderton, living a sort of half-life, dealing with his cranky father, who still resents having to have sold his failed farm and moved to town many years before. Then a butcher, having a smoke in the alley behind his shop, sees a man grab a struggling boy and stuff him into the boot of his car.

Moy begins to investigate, and finds there are no missing children, there is no trace of who the boy might be. He's an outsider in his own town, both as a cop and as someone who left for the city, and as an outsider his asking awkward questions isn't always appreciated. And when he finds the boy the mysteries persist: who is is, who took him, and why? And the boy is not talking. At all.

Stephen Orr, whose previous novel was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize but here makes his 'crime fiction' debut, has built a story whose rhythms reflect Moy's life. It progresses slowly, goes over material again, misses points. But it is always moving toward a goal, which is not so much to solve the mystery but to put three broken souls back together. The missing pieces are all wound up in the relationships between fathers and sons, on the fine and precarious balance that makes us what we are, and challenges us to be something else. The empty atmosphere of the novel's setting reflects perfectly the emptiness at the core of its character; One Boy Missing is a misleading title, because there are literally two boys missing in this story, and figuratively a third. Moy's investigation is of life itself, and a powerful meditation on loss and rebirth.

Fatherhood plays a different role in Michael Sears' Black Fridays, which won a Shamus award and was nominated for an Edgar as best first novel. Jason Stafford is a former Wall Street mover and shaker who's just finished two years in prison for manipulating his deals. Unable to work on the Street again, he gets hired on the basis of 'it takes a thief' by an investment firm who need someone to look into possible problems in the accounts of a trader who died in a boating accident.

Of course Stafford begins to uncover something bigger than just one trader's mistakes, and soon he's caught between the firm's desire to keep things quiet, and the SEC and FBI trying to track down the bigger crimes.

Meanwhile, Stafford is trying to put his own life back together. When he was arrested he divorced his wife, to protect his assets, but rather than wait for him, she has returned to her home in Louisiana, and taken their autistic son with her. Risking a parole violation, Stafford flies down there to discover his son being kept in a darkened bedroom is his grandmother's house, while his wife lives elsewhere with her new beau. He brings the boy back to New York, and becomes a single father trying to cope with the needs of his child's very special world-view.

It's fascinating, because Sears is penetrating, almost clinical, in his descriptions of 'The Kid', as he is called, which make him one of the better-drawn characters. The story is better, in fact, when it's dealing with him direct, rather than using him as a way to humanise Stafford, but the point of course is that Stafford is learning through the great responsibilities of fatherhood, that there is something beyond the world of money. His own father, who owns a bar and still works it, has only a small part, but you can watch Stafford's attitude toward him change as he becomes more of a father himself.

It's also interesting that his ex-wife Angie, a former model who struck it rich with Stafford, is probably the biggest villain in the novel, certainly presented with more venom than any of the sharks or killers who populate the rest of the book. Self-centered, profligate, manipulative, Angie has all the worst qualities of the men Stafford deals with on the Street, but without the veneer Wall Street can hide behind. In that sense, Black Fridays is as much about Stafford moving away from her as it is about his moving away from his past life in the markets—and there's a paradox there because we see he hasn't really left the markets behind at all. Which makes it telling that possibly the weakest part of the book is the new woman Stafford finds. Wanda is the assistant to Roger, a magician who's Stafford's friend in their neighbourhood bar, and as the name and job implies, it's rather too much like someone waves a magic wand to produce her. Too good to be true, it will be interesting to see if the relationship survives into the second Stafford novel.

Sears writes like a financial version of John Grisham; Black Fridays moves with a relentless pace, slowing down only when The Kid takes over, and then, when he disappears, becoming even more frenetic. It couldn't contrast more with One Boy Missing, but at the heart both books are dealing with detectives who need to be put back together, who need to find themselves and their lives, and who need their sons to be able to do that.



One Boy Missing by Stephen Orr Text Publishing £10.99
Black Fridays by Michael Sears Duckworth Overlook £12.99

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

Thursday, 31 July 2014

THOMAS BERGER: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY


My obituary of Thomas Berger is up at the Guardian online; you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it, except that my final line was omitted, which I thought was a shame, since it was a quote from Berger: 'real life is unbearable for me unless I can escape into fiction.'

I may have been a little harsh in calling him a 'recluse'. He appears to have been, like JD Salinger, not trying to avoid the world, not a hermit, but merely fed up with the business of the literary world, and trying to avoid its distraction. Like Salinger, he appears to have been very much a part of his small-town community. And unlike Salinger, he produced his fiction steadily.

That fiction was something he, and the reader, could escape into. You often got the sense in his novels that he was following not the plot, or the character, but the way the prose sounded, what he might call 'the tone', and that if you were not in tune with that you might be missing a great deal. He was a playful novelist (though that term would probably make him bristle, as he was deadly serious about it) in the post-modern sense.

A number of writers have claimed that Little Big Man is not his best book, which is fair game. But a few years ago in the Guardian someone named Tom Cox outsmarted us all by saying it was 'far from Berger's best novel', but what the picaresque epic style does is allow Berger to mix his tones, and the changes fit so well with each of Crabb's tales it keeps the reader involved.

Sometimes I got the sense, as in Teddy Villanova that Berger was trying to say something about the hard-boiled genre itself that I wasn't getting, or that wasn't particularly new. But it is that need to comment on, if not deconstruct, with his fiction, that reminded me of the Coens, and made me think they would be well-matched with a novel like The Feud.

I read somewhere that Berger was one of the last major novelists who served in World War II. James Salter springs to mind as one who is still with us, but I am hard-pressed to think of another. I tend to link Berger the with slightly younger writers who dove into what the critics began calling meta-fictions, Barth, Pynchon.But it's not a strong parallel because truly he was one of a kind.

ARNE DAHL'S TO THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN

Television has overtaken Arne Dahl. The small problem with the publishing of his 'new' novel, written in 2000, is that fans who watch the torrent of Scandinavian series on BBC4 will have seen the two-part adaptation of it last year. It's a small problem because the writing is a different enough experience, and the time-frame is long enough, for this to be a unique experience worth savoring on its own.

I wrote about Dahl's Blinded Man last year (you can link to that here) and pointed out how its place in the Sjowall/Wahloo and Henning Mankell tradition, but how Paul Hjelm, Dahl's erstwhile lead character, actually isn't a protagonist in the same way as Martin Beck or Wallander. Dahl's sense of the team dynamic is very strong, and it is that dynamic that carries the books, and the TV series, though in different ways. In fact, on television, it is the casting which helps give the characters depth, and oddly enough, the one bit of casting that doesn't seem to reflect the novels is Shanti Roney, a bit too young and edgy for Hjelm. They've also changed Hultin, the unit commander, to a woman, but that actually works fine.

The novel begins with the Intercrime unit having been disbanded, after the events of Bad Blood, but they are reunited when a series of crimes – a prisoner being blown up in a maximum security prison, a massacre in a bar, and attacks on a major drug lord all seem to tie together. What makes it more interesting is that Gunnar Nyberg, the former Mr. Sweden, has been working with the paedophile unit, and is torn about whether to give up that work or return. Eventually, of course, that strand will intersect the others, in effect making the decision for him.

It's a fine story. Dahl works easily with complicated plots, and only once has to resort to the helpful hand of coincidence: Aarto Sodersted, the Finnish-Swede, is checking the personals in the Swedish equivalent of Car Buyer, and finds an important clue. Dahl's tried to set up the liklihood, but it still seems a catching point. On television, of course, such coincidences can be sped past in the car chase of resolution, which is an advantage.

But what makes the story work so well is Dahl's handling of characters. He's deft at giving out enough of his cops' emotions to create dilemmas within the story, but he's almost as good with the supporting cast and the villains, keeping point of view firmly in line, and thus creating the framework of a classic whodunit but filling it in with the depth of conflict which makes this one of the very best police procedural series being written anywhere.

To The Top Of The Mountain by Arne Dahl

Harvill Secker £14.99 ISBN 9781846558085



This review will also appear in Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Sunday, 27 July 2014

A RED KLOTZ LIMERICK (for Steve Springer)

As a boy I was thrilled by Red Klotz.
The Generals' master of long distance shots.
Red's old two-hand sets
Were as good as it gets.
When he swished them I wanted to plotz.