Thursday, 31 December 2015

MY FAVOURITE NEW YEAR'S EVE: 31 December 1968

It was New Year's Eve and I went into the City with my college roommate Winsor H. Watson III, and his girlfriend Suze, and their high school friend, then at Smith, Sarah McElhone, who had tried and failed to seduce me in her dorm room while introducing me to Judy Collins' wonderful album In My Life.

We ate in Chinatown, had pastries in Little Italy, and hit the Fillmore East to see Mother Earth, with the awesome Tracy Nelson, and the Chambers Bros, who played us up to midnight with 'Time Has Come Today'. The song always takes me back to that place; I was 17, away at college, and my world was a rapidly psychedelicizing oyster.

We got back to Win's house in New Canaan about 5 in the morning. I was up chopping wood with his father at 8. Life's possibilities were endless....Happy New Year everybody! Here's the song:


REMEMBERING DAVE HENDERSON, AND DONNIE MOORE

I was saddened immensely to learn that Dave Henderson had died aged 57, of a heart attack suffered while recovering from a kidney transplant. A heart attack seemed impossible: no one had a bigger heart than Hendu. I can't remember a Red Sox player who seemed to enjoy playing more; like a Fenway Park version of Wrigley's Ernie Banks. He never seemed to feel pressure, and it gave him an ability in the clutch that made him, briefly, the toast of Boston. But there was a dark side to Hendu's zenith, and the pitcher who surrendered Henderson's most famous hit never recovered from the loss.

It was October 12, 1986. The Red Sox were in Anaheim, down three games to one to the Angels in the best of seven American League Championship Series.  It was the top of the ninth inning,  and the Sox trailed 5-2. They'd led 2-1, but in the sixth inning Dave Henderson had played a long fly to the wall off his glove and over the fence for a home run, putting Anaheim in the lead. Henderson hadn't played much all season, batted only 54 times and hit a pathetic .196, but Tony Armas was out with an injured ankle, and I was thinking how much we'd regret that. California added two insurance runs in the seventh. Angels' starter Mike Witt had held Boston in check and was headed for his second complete-game win of the series; the Angels were three outs away from the World Series. But Bill Buckner led off the ninth with a single, and Dave Stapleton ran for him. Jim Rice struck out. Then Don Baylor, the former Angel, smacked Witt downtown for a home run, making it 5-4. Witt got Dewey Evans to pop up for the second out, but one out away from the win manager Gene Mauch pulled him. Rich Gedman, a lefty, was coming up and was 3 for 3, so Gary Lucas, a lefty came in, and promptly hit Gedman with his first pitch, putting the tying run on first. Mauch yanked Lucas, and brought in his closer, Donnie Moore, to face Henderson. His costly mistake in the field was the furthest thing from his mind, even though Moore seemed to be toying with him. Then, with the count 2-2, Henderson stretched for a high pitch and drove it over the fence for a home run. The Sox led 5-4.

Bob Stanley gave up a run in the bottom of the ninth, so the game went to extra innings, and the Red Sox won it in the 11th with a sacrifice fly by Henderson after Moore had loaded the bases. Calvin Schiraldi closed out the Angels in the bottom of the 11th, and the Sox headed back to Boston where they won games six and seven easily, and advanced to play the Mets in the World Series, a team with 108 wins, and like the Reds in 1976 and Cardinals in 1967, the Sox opponents in those ill-fated World Series, arguably the best National League team of the decade.

You all know how that went. How in Game Six, October 25th at Shea,the Sox stood one out away from their first World Series win since 1918, when Schiraldi, the former Met, couldn't close the game out, and Stanley came in, threw a wild pitch past Gedman, and a ground ball then went through Buckner's legs, since John McNamara had neglected for sentimental reasons to send Stapleton in for Buckner.  The Sox went on to lose in ten innings, and lost game seven after leading 3-0; their third consecutive decade with a classic seven game world series loss. Hendu hit .400 in the series, with two home runs and seven rbis in 25 at bats.

The Sox traded him to the Giants late in the 1987 season. In 1988 he signed with Oakland and had a string of good seasons, including an excellent run from 88 to '91, when he was an All-Star. He won a World Series with Oakland in 1989, no one could have deserved his ring more.

But by then, Donnie Moore was gone. The once-feared closer had been shaken by Henderson's home run, and the loss of game five of the ALCS, and he was never again the same pitcher. He had pitched through injury that October, but the fans didn't care, and they booed Moore for the next two seasons. He was plagued with injuries, and after the 1988 season was released. He signed with Kansas City, but was sent to the minors. In July, after an argument with his wife, he shot her three times. As one of his kids rushed her to a hospital, Moore, in front of another of his children, turned the gun on himself.

Boston didn't win the 1986 World Series, so Henderson remained just a popular footnote to one of baseball's most famous might-have-beens. But the loss never seemed to affect Hendu. There was another season, another game, another day to play ball. For Donnie Moore, the loss was more personal, the failure more immediate, the shadow of it inescapable. I can't think of Hendu and his broad smile without seeing Moore and his tight-lipped visage. I loved Dave Henderson for reminding me that it was, in the end, only a game. A game he had so much fun playing, and made watching him play so much fun as well.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

T. JEFFERSON PARKER'S THE FAMOUS AND THE DEAD

Jeff Parker's Charlie Hood books can be frustrating: they posit the existence of devils and angels, engaged in a competition over us humans; more than once reading this novel I thought about John Stewart's song  'Strange Alliance', also known by the last line of its chorus, 'like heavyweight champs, after the fight, does Christ hang out with the Devil at night?' Reviewing earlier books in the series I didn't give away the gimmick, but now it is so much out in the forefront it has to be revealed, essentially because within the terms of something you might find supernatural, Parker makes this work as a hard-driving border noir that deals primarily in ambiguities, and in the power of love to overcome what we would have to call evil.

The local devil in these books is Mike Finnegan (no relation, I hope, to the great singer-organist of the Serfs, and then any number of records, not least Jimi Hendrix' and including his one fine solo album I know about) and he has his clutches deep into Bradley Jones, the son of Suzanne Jones, aka Alison Murietta, Hood's antagonist and love from LA Outlaws (see my review here). I mentioned Jones in my review of Border Lords, which you will find immediately after LA Outlaws from 2012 on this blog--where I mentioned it was criminal Parker wasn't in print--Sandstone Press deserves kudos for getting him back in print in this country. I now need to catch up with the previous Hood novel, The Jaguar, which is referenced in this one, but doesn't need to be read first (though it would likely help).


Reviewing Border Lords I mentioned, again without explaining, how the gimmick of devils created a problem, but as I implied above, Parker has sorted it out pretty deftly. The Famous And The Dead addresses it directly, making it the major obstacle Hood, in the end, has to overcome. It's complicated: Jones and Finnegan have tied Hood up in a corruption package which seems likely to end his career; Jones' wife Erin is expecting a baby but living with Hood and his girlfriend Beth, but Beth is starting to have doubts about what Hood is willing to do to win his fight with the devil. Meanwhile Finnegan wants Brad and Erin's child, but would prefer he be raised by Jones and his own squeeze, a woman named Owens. Throw in an assassination committed with a gun from a shipment Hood should have stopped, a gang of Missouri rednecks dealing stinger missiles, and Mary Beth, the girlfriend of one of them, who's come to LA to be an actress, as well as an angel trapped down a deep cave, and it's a complicated story that continually twists and turns. 

And the way it does resolve itself is interesting, not as you'd expect, though there is a more logical fate awaiting Finnegan, which will still be available in the next book in the series.  The deck reshuffles, and Hood winds up with a partner I would not have expected, and maybe not the most interesting of the possibilities. Call me sentimental. Also call me convinced Parker can pull off this mix of crime and deviltry: it's somewhere between light-hearted and chilling (Thorne Smith and John Connolly perhaps), but remember too, there are probably more Americans who believe in angels than in evolution.

The Famous And The Dead by T. Jefferson Parker
Sandstone Press £8.99 ISBN 9781908737366

CHRIS PAVONE'S ACCIDENT

I somehow missed The Accident first time round, but I'm glad I caught up with the paperback on the rebound. It's a clever novel built around an anonymous manuscript that outs a covered-up early crime by a media tycoon, and a history of criminal cooperation by elements (as they say) of the intelligence community in helping him to his position of power. Think of Henry Luce crossed with Rupert Murdoch, and a bit of Ted Turner or Sumner Redstone.

What makes the book so clever is that the story revolves around the world of publishing, and the way the efforts of the rogue intelligence agent who's out to stop the book's publication interweave with the efforts of those trying to publish it. Portraying the publishing business as every bit as ruthlessly backstabbing, if somewhat less lethal, than the spying world is a brilliant conceit which keeps the story moving even when the deus ex machina workings of Hayden Gray, the CIA officer with his personal profitable agenda.

Gray is a quintessential 'old boy', the kind of men recruited by the OSS and early CIA in slavish imitation of the British (and look where that got the Brits!) and this creates an added clash of cultures with both the publishing world and with Charlie Wolfe, the not-so-subtly named media tycoon. And what makes it work, in the end, is the twist, the unseen connection between the anonymous author (whose own abilities to outsmart the intelligence people have an element of deus ex machina about them) and the editor who starts out trying to publish the book. It's chilling and almost amusing at the same time, and just gripping enough to keep you going to an ending as clever as the set-up. That doesn't happen often.

The Accident by Chris Pavone
Faber & Faber, £7.99 ISBN 9780571298945


Tuesday, 29 December 2015

MEADOWLARK LEMON: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of the Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. It appears pretty much as written, occasionally things needed to be explained to an audience whose only experience of basketball may well have been the Globetrotters on tour in Britain, or on ITV's World of Sport, when they would pick up broadcasts from ABC. For some reason the Guardian removed his full name: Meadow George Lemon III; although some sources say his name was actually George Meadow Lemon, he said his dad, usually known as 'Peanut' was Meadow George Lemon Jr.

They also cut my observation that the kind of strutting duck walk, the friendly laugh of triumph, the calling out the player he'd just embarrassed -- all of these things, some of which he was castigated for doing, as if playing to a Stepin Fetchitt sort of stereotype, are now everyday behaviour in the once-staid NBA, and of course for basketball players everywhere.

There were many stories I had to leave out: his high school coach arranged his first Globetrotter tryout in Raleigh after Meadowlark bounced back from Florida A&M, that coach had also taught him the hook shot, but at his Hall of Fame induction Meadow thanked 'his best teacher, myself' for that shot! I would have liked to get more info on his first marriage, and the car chase/stabbing that ended it, and his ministry fascinated me when I looked at it via his website; it somehow seemed a natural extension of his Globetrotter career. And I'm almost embarrassed that I didn't mention the made-for-TV movie, The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island, in which Meadowlark played himself

If you were of a certain (ie, my) age, growing up in the Lemon era, the Globetrotters were central to your basketball existence. Like Meadowlark, my first exposure to them came on film; at summer camp in 1957 or 58 we were shown The Harlem Globetrotters, a 1951 film starring Thomas Gomez as Abe Saperstein and Dorothy Dandridge as the woman Bill Brown wants to drop out of college and play for the Trotters' money so he can marry (even though marrying is against the rules). Globetrotters like Marques Haynes and Goose Tatum played themselves in the movie.

You argued incessantly about whether or not the Trotters could beat NBA teams, in the same way you argued about whether pro wrestlers could beat boxers, or whether Meadowlark or Curly Neal (or later Sweet Lou Dunbar) could play in the NBA (our pre-teen verdict was usually Meadow maybe, Curly probably, Sweet Lou definitely). But this was the era when Wilt had played for the Globetrotters after quitting college and waiting for the NBA draft, or Connie Hawkins played while blackballed from the league for his peripheral status to a point-shaving scandal. Woodie Sauldsberry had played for the Globetrotters and gone to the Philadelphia Warriors and been NBA Rookie of the Year. He bounced around the league then played in 1965 for my home-town New Haven Elms of the Eastern Basketball League; he spent the next two seasons with the Celtics. He could play with anyone. One of the best high school players from Connecticut when I was in grade school was Mike Branch of New Haven's Hillhouse; after leading Fairfield University to national recognition as a 6-3 center/forward, he played in the EBL and for Marques Haynes' Harlem Wizards. We knew he could play with anyone too.

The more important thing was the Globetrotters played the kind of basketball we knew could be played, but couldn't play ourselves, the kind we saw played on urban playgrounds but was generally thought needed to be 'coached out of' players.  Times were changing: when the NBA refs allowed Earl Monroe to palm, or carry, the ball while making his spin move; when dunking was legalised; when the ABA came along and offered a home to Connie Hawkins and many other quality players ignored by the NBA; the Globetrotters suddenly became less important.

I worked with the Globetrotters in 1987, long after Meadowlark was gone. ABC were covering their game in Berlin; the main attraction was Nancy Lieberman playing for the Washington Generals (I met Red Klotz on that trip, and later wrote his obituary for the Daily Telegraph; you can link to that one here). I took the Trotters into East Berlin; we'd been denied working visas, so I hired a tour bus and then, backed up by the chorus of players hooting at the driver, changed the itinerary from our tour of the city to a search for outdoor basketball courts. We found a couple; the guys would get out in their red white and blue warmups and start going through their opening routine. Within minutes we'd have crowds around, the players would be playing with the kids and we would be getting it all on tape. Within a few minutes more, the Vopos would arrive and shut us down. We did this twice before we had enough tape to work with; it was one of the most enjoyable afternoons I ever had with ABC. I can only assume if Meadowlark Lemon had been on board, it would have been even more fun.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

ANOTHER COUNTRY: A POEM

I wrote this in December 1988, a few days after going out with a few colleagues from ABC, with one of whom I was in some sort of mostly unrequited love. It was very cold; I got very drunk and then, in the Christmas fair in Leicester Square, went on the rides including one of those that turns you upside down and shakes your brain around inside your skull. I suffered migraine-strength hangover headaches for the next three days. I haven't done very well on such rides ever since; now that Nate is 12 I avoid them completely. Christmas was always the time I thought about going home to my parents' house, which I usually tried to do in those days. The poem was published in Montreal, in Shadowplay 3 in 1992, and in Foolscap 17, in London, in 1995. It may also have appeared in a magazine called Iota...

ANOTHER COUNTRY
                                             for Tanya

Cold winds come in from Iceland or
Somewhere further west. In Leicester
Square the ferris wheel turns, then
Freezes at its apex. I look down Piccadilly
Seeing streets in double vision, you in blur.

I had a dream: there was a fire burning in
My parents' house, glowing walls of weeping
Willow turning black. I was trapped here
On the wrong side of the ocean. You were
Happy there, on the wrong side of my life.

The house was gone before I came down.
I woke. Invented new ways to dodge you,
Pretend you were not there, pretend
It was not your country & wonder why
I want you even though I cannot share

This foreign shore? There is no answer
To a dream. Except perhaps another dream.
Kettle drum echoes either will or will not end.
This is yet another country, this reality,
& I am just a visitor here & tired of pretend.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

JOHN HARVEY JOINS THE CRIME VAULT LIVE: EPISODE FOUR

The fourth episode of The Crime Vault Live is now up online (link to it here) and it may be the best one yet.

Mark Billingham and I greet John Harvey, one of the greatest of British crime writers, creator of Resnick, and as I point out, in many ways one of the last of the old style pulpsmiths. And it's the place John makes a stunning announcement about an unexpected new novel! It's a wide-ranging show highlighted by our INTERROGATION of John. I managed to avoid discussing his Clint Eastwoody western series, Hart the Regulator (of which I have a complete set of the old paperbacks) which has books with titles taken, as this blog's was, from John Stewart. Nor his excellent but now overlooked stand-alone thrillers Frame and Blind, and I spared you further discussion of his poetry magazine Slow Dancer (where I first encountered John when he printed some of my poems) and we should have talked about his own poetry. But listen to his take on the introduction of Paul Christopher in one of Charles McCarry's novels.

We also covered Adam Sisman's biography of John LeCarre, author bios in general, reviews of books by  McCarry (often billed as the 'American LeCarre'), Alison Gaylin, and Graham Hurley; Patricia Highsmith on audio; London Spy, Black Mass, and Unforgotten, and the return of the Crime Vault's Vault in which we discuss George V Higgins and The Friends Of Eddie Coyle. Listen in. The show fits perfectly; we come full circle at the end, which doesn't happen often. And check out the publicity photo above: we look like we're about to star in a 60s British sitcom....

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

CYNTHIA ROBINSON: THE ROCK OF THE FAMILY STONE

Cynthia Robinson has died of cancer, aged 69. When I was a kid I was mesmerized by her, with the Angela Davis afro and dashiki, playing the trumpet and screaming 'get on up...and dance to the music!'

When she answered the immortal line 'Cynthia and Jerry got a message they're sayin'' with another screaming 'all the squares...fall out!' I would feel like I ought to leave the room. Not that you had to: Sly were multi-racial, blended styles of music together, everything from soul to protest, and Cynthia was like a tower of strength in the background. Who was I to argue with her?

Sly and the Family Stone were previewing the entire decade of the 70s, only this was 1968. It wasn't just the sound: though Larry Graham's slap bass was imitated in funk everywhere, and it's hard to think of Issac Hayes without hearing Freddie Stone's guitar. It was the way they looked: Sly costumed them in the same way Village People would be costumed: remember Graham's three-musketeer hat? or Vet Stone's silver wig? But he claimed the flashiest pioneering pimp rig, the one that would become de rigeur for the entire funky 70s, for himself. Don't you think George Clinton picked up a bit of inspiration here?

Of course Sly pioneered the destruction via drugs of the 70s too: he moved to LA and the band went down the pipe. Cynthia was part of what always held the various splinter and spin-off versions together, and she never had bad words about Sly, who fathered one of her children. She was some kind of powerful, and some kind of wonderful. RIP.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

PETER DIMMOCK: AN APPRECIATION

The Guardian obituary of Peter Dimmock, presenter, producer, and executive for the BBC, the man in charge of the broadcast of the Coronation in 1953, and my boss for a time at ABC Sports, is up at the Guardian online now (link to it here); it should be in the paper paper tomorrow. The obit is followed by an appreciation I wrote a few years ago to supplement the piece they already had in stock.

I was looking for a job in the US (I interviewed at the new ESPN and the short-lived Satellite News Channel) but word got out I was job-hunting and after Peter got in touch I wound up moving not back to America, but about four blocks up the street, from ITN on Riding House Street to ABC on Great Portland and Carburton Streets.

Before long I was reporting directly to New York, not to Peter, but he was still in the next (bigger) office to keep an eye on me, and advise me how to deal with broadcasters, event organisers, EBU bureaucrats, and especially my colleagues in Paris and New York. Most especially. As I wrote, it was an education, and I honestly can't recall any awkwardness or arguments between us. Peter knew his way around everything and everyone; the big world was a small circle to him, and I was lucky enough to be tagging along. And I can recall a long list of lunches at the Rugby Club, in Hallam Street, run by Jeff Butterfield, with Peter, and Cliff Morgan, and any number of figures from British sport and broadcasting. It wasn't just an education; it was also the most fun I've ever had working. There are a few stories I won't repeat here, but I'm smiling at them right now. RIP Peter

Monday, 16 November 2015

THE CRIME VAULT LIVE: EPISODE 3, IAN RANKIN

The third episode of The Crime Vault Live podcast is now available for downloading: here's a link via The Crime Vault website, it's also available on ITunes, Soundcloud, and many other reputable sources for downloads off the interweb.

Mark Billingham and I are joined by the great Scottish writer (and former music journo) Ian Rankin, who jumps right in on our discussion of TV adaptations of detectives--off the news of a new series of adaptation of Mark's books, though NOT starring Thorne--and we talk about both versions of Rebus as well as the travails of transferring characters you create from page to screen.

Also reviews of new books by, uh, Ian Rankin, Stephen King, Tess Gerritsen, and Jo Nesbo; the audio book of JK, whoops, Robert Galbraith's Career Of Evil, and discussion of new detective shows on TV, including River and From Darkness, and the influence of Scandi Crime on those and other series. Along with Ian's brilliant analysis of the Scandinavian crime marketing technique which no one in Britain can match.

And if you imagine there was a pint or two (or maybe a whiskey too) don't let the picture fool you....before the pub we didn't look like an oldies band about to play a community centre near you...


Thursday, 12 November 2015

FAST EDDIE HOH: A REMEMBRANCE

Back in the day, whenever people asked about my favourite rock drummer (apart from the ones who also sang, Levon Helm, Buddy Miles or George Grantham) I always answered 'Fast' Eddie Hoh. Eddie was the drummer on Super Session, Al Kooper with Michael Bloomfield in some sweet R&B on one side, and with Steve Stills in some countryish rock on the other. That's Eddie on the upper right side of the Super Session album's back cover. Although I like the first side better, the cut that shows off Eddie's drumming best is the uptempo Kooper/Stills version of Dylan's 'It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry', where Harvey Brooks is pounding out the bass and Eddie is backbeating the sucker to death.

Super Session alone would do, but Eddie Hoh also drums on a couple of my other favourite records: Harvey Mandel's Cristo Redentor and Barry Goldberg's Two Jews Blues, also with Bloomfield. He drummed on Donovan's Sunshine Superman, which means he did Season Of The Witch with Donovan and then with Kooper and Stills. He played on some other good ones by fellow Chicago guys Mandel, Goldberg, and Charlie Musselwhite, and on Tim Buckley's Goodbye And Hello, which makes sense because I learned from the obits that Eddie came up with the Modern Folk Quartet, and connections with them would link many parts of his career. I hadn't known that the MFQ (as a Quintet) recorded with Phil Spector (see photo left), and that with Jack Nitzsche producing made a single called 'Night Time Girl', written by Kooper and Irwin Levine (the pair wrote This Diamond Ring for Gary Lewis and the Playboys). Small world.

He toured and recorded with the Mamas and Papas. There's a YouTube video of his performing with them and he stands out, not least for failing to be a victim of fashion. Hoh was the second stand-in drummer (after Hal Blaine) on Monkees records, he drummed on their hit with John Stewart's Daydream Believer. He and Goldberg also tried to form a band with Gram Parsons (now there's another set of tapes I'd love to hear), later Parsons brought him in as the original drummer in the Flying Burrito Brothers; he drummed on their demos and Sin City, but was fired when he showed up too wasted to work, something that must have taken some doing in those circles.
 
And, as I just re-discovered reading his obits, he recorded with Lee Michaels, which I'd forgotten as I was never really a Michaels fan; he and Michaels had both played with Joel Scott Hill. Hoh drummed in a nascent version of Poco that included Michaels, before George Grantham, and played briefly with Gene Clark (along with Clarence White and John York) in what must have been a hell of band; only Clark lost interest when their audiences only wanted to hear Byrds hits (ironically enough Parsons and York would go on to join the Byrds).

After leaving the Burritos Eddie Hoh basically dropped off the recording map. His last credit was Mandel's Games Guitars Play (1970). There was one rumour he was dead, another that he'd wigged out and was living on the street or in an asylum in Chicago.  He resurfaced or was rediscovered via the internet, and had a short time in which his achievements were recognised again, before dying in a rest home outside Chicago, of natural causes.

And still today, when people ask me who my favourite rock drummer was, I say Fast Eddie Hoh. RIP

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

DAVID HALBERSTAM'S OCTOBER 1964

While I watched bits of the World Series, getting into November, which had a great ending as Kansas City beat the Mets, I was also reading a World Series book, David Halberstam's account of the Series in 1964. It was the end of the New York Yankee dynasty: the St Louis Cardinals beat the Yankees in seven games, the Yankees fired manager Yogi Berra (you can link to my obituary of Yogi here) and hired the Cardinals' Johnny Keane and began a tailspin that lasted until George Steinbrenner in the 70s created the Bronx Zoo teams and instituted a policy of buying the best players from the teams that beat New York.

While Halberstam's book, which was published in 1994, gives a good account of the surprising regular season (in which both teams could've been counted out, and don't forget the Phillies' remarkable collapse) as well as the Series (remember, these were the glorious days before interminable wild cards and playoff series); he has wider concerns. He opens with a quote from George Romney (Mitt's father) speaking about the fate of General Motors: "There is nothing more vulnerable than entrenched success." The Yankees, of course, were the General Motors of baseball, the Cardinals had once been Ford to their GM, before New York's three teams took over domination of baseball just after WWII. He contrasts the teams nicely: the Cards a team with young talent brought along by Keane's teaching hand, the Yankees a team of fading and aging superstars, held together by Yogi's confidence in his former teammates and easy-rider approach to clutch games.

The Cardinals were also a team benefiting from black stars: Bob Gibson just reaching his peak as a dominant pitcher; Lou Brock, set free by Keane to play his kind of game; Curt Flood covering acres in center field, Bill White a steady rock of a leader at first base. The Yankees, in contrast, had catcher Elston Howard. The National League had got the jump on the American in racial terms, and it was starting to show. Moreover, these players were part of a a new wave of black stars: college-educated, unwilling to sit in the back of the bus, demanding to be respected as men as well as players.

Halberstam is concerned with race here, and because his stories are almost always built around people, his picture of the way changing racial mores reached baseball and reflected changes in America is brilliant. Likewise he recognises that the times were changing on a generational basis too: younger players with different attitudes were reaching the big leagues, players with more options, like the Yankees' Jim Bouton or Pete Mikkelsen, or the Cards' Ray Sadecki. They clashed with managers or veteran players simply because they began to question the entrenched hierarchies of how things were done.

The teams were different too in the way they were built. The Yankees were used to having a mighty farm system, always developing new stars, and players they could trade away for veteran role players. But owners Dan Topping and Del Webb (who oddly barely gets a mention) were looking to sell the team, and cutting their losses (they would sell to CBS after the season) so the farm system was run down. How cheap were they? With the Yankees down three games to two in St Louis, management had the players check out of the hotel and bring their bags to the ballpark before Game Six, even though a Yankee win would mean a game seven the next day. The Yanks dutifully won anyway.

The Cardinals had once been run by a cheapskate of Olympian proportions themselves, Branch Rickey, who crafted the farm-system blueprint, and they were still producing talent, but this team was built on astute deals by current GM Bing Devine-- bringing in Dick Groat, Curt Simmons, and most importantly Brock (for Ernie Broglio)-- but Devine clashed with team owner Gussie Busch (of the Budweiser fortune) and Busch brought back Rickey, numbering Devine's days.

Baseball was changing, though Topping and Webb had bought the Yankees from Jake Ruppert, another beer baron, the days of owners who made their livings off their baseball clubs, and tended to either know the game well or know that they didn't and left the club to those who did, were ending. Busch was the epitome of the modern owner, who treated the team as his plaything, and the players and staff as his indentured serfs. Soon Curt Flood would mount the first assault on baseball's reserve clause, which bound a player to his team by a series of automatically renewable one-year contracts, the infamous 'reserve clause'. As baseball's owners changed in nature, so did the players, and eventually, bankrolled by TV, our modern free-agency era would begin, though not with huge unrest.

We know some of the stories well: most notably Mickey Mantle, the Yankee superstar brought low by injury: I had forgotten that in this series Mantle was moved to right field and Roger Maris played center field (Maris would soon wind up in St Louis, out of the New York spotlight he hated). Whitey Ford, their ace pitcher, was also on his last arms, and was not a factor after the series' first game. Halberstam tells those stories, but he actually spends more time on the Cardinals, whose tale transcends baseball to society better, and also is the one we don't know that one so well. And because he writes so brilliantly, (The Teammates is one of favourite baseball  books) it works wonderfully.

A couple of sidebars: Oddly, in Halberstam's previous baseball book, the Summer Of '49, I was puzzled by one thing he wrote, that the Red Sox had moved Johnny Pesky from shortstop to third base because he was quicker and had more range than Junior Stephens. No one gets moved from short to third because they have more range, at least they didn't until the Yankees moved Alex Rodriquez to keep Derek Jeter at short. Stephens was a Cal Ripken-like big shortstop whose strong arm allowed him to play deep and gave him more range. There's always something that makes you wonder how accurate the things you don't know about are. In his book on Bill Belichick Halberstam credited Belichick (as captain) and new coach Terry Jackson for turning around Wesleyan's lacrosse programme; but having been there and played the year before Terry took over, I could tell you a large part of the turnaround came when Wesleyan stopped playing bigger Division One programs like Yale, Brown, UMass, Washington & Lee, UConn or New Hampshire.

Anyway, in this book Halberstam mentions Frankie Frisch (the Fordham Flash) and calls him a 'former New York Giant great'. Which was true in the 20s, but Frisch, who fell out mightily with Giants' manager John McGraw, was traded to St Louis for Rogers Hornsby and had a a second great career as player-manager and leader of the 'Gas-House Gang', the great Cardinal teams in the 30s. In a book about the Cardinals that description would seem more relevant.

As I said I was watching the Series while I read this book, and I was thinking what a mistake-prone series it was: sloppy fielding and bad execution of basic baseball. But reading Halberstam's account, I was reminded of how many bad plays characterized this series as well: Phil Linz, the Yankee reserve infielder forced to play short by Tony Kubek's injury, but also Mantle's struggles throwing and numerous other errors, many forced by the faster game the Cardinals, led by Brock and Flood, played.

They are gorgeous memories anyway, and there are few writers who can bring them alive, and give them such depth and humanity, as Halberstam. I met him once, when we were both covering the Chicago Bulls in Paris (I was writing for USA Today; he was researching his book on Michael Jordan). We went to dinner, and he was not only the most interesting man at the table, he was the most interested: you could see just why his interviews gave him so much material. The blessing is how deftly he used it.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

COLIN WELLAND, CHARIOTS OF FIRE, AND ME

When I heard Colin Welland had died, I remembered leaving the Odeon Swiss Cottage, having just watched Chariots Of Fire, and saying to Theresa, 'I guarantee that film will win the Oscar, if it gets released in America'. I haven't felt such certainty often; The King's Speech was another one. I recall Colin Welland's 'The British are coming' shout as he received his Oscar; of course the British were already there, and had been, but it turned out he was right, and American movies and TV are littered with Brits in ways he probably couldn't have imagined. I remember he got his Oscar from Jerzy Kosinski, who'd played Zinoviev in Reds, the film tipped to take the Oscars. I used to see Kosinski around Wesleyan's Center for Advanced Studies when I was a student.

A few years later, sometime in the mid to late Eighties, I was at the Rugby League Challenge Cup final, representing ABC Sports. It might have been the year after ABC stopped covering the games; they used to send American football players over to provide colour commentary, without having ever done TV or seen rugby league before; they thought that worked well. One year it was Giants' punter Dave Jennings with Frank Gifford (Jennings took eight takes to get his scene-set lines right; as soon as he did, Giff flubbed his finish, which I've always thought was deliberate) the next it was Cris Collingsworth with Jim Lampley (when a player was bleeding profusely from a clash of heads, the rugby league medic sponged off his forehead and threw the sponge back in his water bucket. Another player picked up the sponge and squeezed the bloody water into his mouth. 'Did he just do what I think he did?' asked Lamps. With no hesitation, Cris said 'these guys are so tough they drink blood!').

The RL invited me to lunch before the match, and I was seated at a table with Colin Welland, Michael Parkinson, and Fred Trueman. On the surface, this should have been paradise for me: the screenwriter of one of the best sports movies; Britain's leading interviewer; and, since I was a big cricket fan at the time, a cricketing great who provided acerbic and sometimes begrudgingly gracious commentary on Test Match Special. Unfortunately, it turned into a rugby league contest to determine exactly who was the most Yorkshire of the trio (I was a non-starter in this race, obviously). For the life of me, by the time the coffee came I was thinking of the Monty Python 'Four Yorkshiremen' sketch: 'oh, we used to dream of living in a corridor!' I enjoyed it mightily! If I'd brought a camera, I'd love to see that photo of it today.

Years afterwards, I wrote a piece about the ways Welland had changed history for Chariots of Fire, though oddly enough I can't find it now. But the changes were instructive, for they way they built the dramatic storyline. NBC Sports do similar things with live Olympic events today.

The movie compares two stories at the 1924 Olympics in Paris: Harold Abrahams' quest to overcome anti-Semitic prejudice and his drive to win at 'all costs' is contrasted with the Christian missionary Eric Liddell's decision not to run in the 100m because the heats fell on a Sunday. Liddell's decision, while controversial, was actually made long before the Olympics, not on the spot as depicted; and he wasn't given 'Lord Lindsay's' place in the 400m final, he'd long before been entered in it.

Liddell did win the 400m, but he also got the bronze medal at 200m, behind the Americans Jackson Scholz and Charlie Paddock, who finished second and third to Abrahams in the 100m. Abrahams finished last in that 200m final; it was actually the only time he and Liddell ever raced. In the movie, we see Abrahams beaten in the 200, but it comes before the 100m race, not after; this gives him a chance in the film to overcome adversity and win with the chips down.

'Lord Lindsay', of course, wasn't a real character; but he was based on the hurdler David Cecil, Lord Burghley, who became the first non-American to win the Olympic 400m hurdles. Only he did that in 1928, in Amsterdam! In 1924 he failed to even reach the final of the 110m hurdles; and was not even entered in the 400m flat race, so he could not have given his place up to Liddell anyway.

And in the film, Abrahams is shown beating Lindsay while completing the 'Great Court Run' at Cambridge, which never happened. It was Burghley who did beat the clock on that run, but not until 1927. There are a few non-sporting liberties with timelines too. And look at that picture of Ben Cross, with the karate-chop hands, which all actors seem to use now when they run, probably because they go to coaches, but it wasn't something actual runners were doing in the Twenties.

I didn't bring up any of these sporting points with Welland, but we did talk a bit about the way both Burghley and Abrahams stayed in athletics, and, somewhat ironically in Abrahams' case, given the controversy over his use of a professional coach,  both were presidents of the Amateur Athletic Association. Abrahams became a journalist and radio commentator; Burghley became an IOC member and, as Lord Exeter, was president of the IAAF, the international track federation. We talked about the days when Brits in blazers ran international sport; and I recall him saying soon only Rugby League would be left for Brits to run, but the Aussies would beat 'us' anyways.

It was one of the best lunches I've ever spent. RIP Colin Welland.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

THE MANSION IN FORT LEE: AUGUST KLEINZAHLER & ALBERT ANASTASIA

I was sent an interesting article today, by my friend August Kleinzahler, San Francisco's finest poet, maybe America's. A mansion is for sale in Fort Lee, New Jersey, right by the house in which August grew up. He's written about this before, about when he was a kid, playing with Gloriana, the little girl his age who lived there, while her bodyguard looked on. Bodyguard because Gloriana's surname was Anastasia, and her father was Albert Anastasia, the founder of Murder Incorporated.

Albert Anastasia, of course, was shot down in a Manhattan barber shop in October 1957. The Anastasias moved away, and the house was bought by Buddy Hackett, the zany borderline Tourettes comic, with the help of Del Webb, who part-owned the New York Yankees, and was a developer in the Southwest and a casino owner. The history of Del Webb and Dan Topping, the Yankee owners who bought the team from the beer magnate Jacob Ruppert, is a fascinating one in itself; they sold the team to CBS after the 1964 World Series.

If you haven't read August's 2005 memoir, Cutty, One Rock, you really ought to. In the the meantime, here's a link to the New York Times' article about the house, in which August is interviewed...


Monday, 2 November 2015

THE QUIET DEATH OF NORMAN MORRISON: THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY


It was late yesterday, and I was trying to find some lines to help fix up a series of old poems I've been working on. By chance, I'd taken a few old notebooks out of a box a few days before, and I took one from 1985, which was about the same time-frame as the other poems, and opened it to a page of notes about Norman Morrison, on the twentieth anniversary of his death. I cursed myself silently, for in the wake of certain turmoils in the past few months, I had forgotten the 50th anniversary, which I'd been reminding myself about for years, hoping to write a story for a paper or magazine remembering it. Call it chance, or fate, or synchronicity, but whatever drew me to that little notebook, and that page, filled me with a certain sombre joy, that I had not in the end been allowed to forget, and this is what I wrote:

Today is the 50th anniversary of the death of Norman Morrison, a Quaker who, at the age of 31, handed his 15-month old daughter Emily to someone, and at the Potomac River entrance to the Pentagon, under Robert McNamara's office, "quietly sat down, doused himself with kerosene, and set himself on fire'. He was the first of six Americans to die by self-immolation in protest of the Vietnam war. I think of him every time I see a red poppy on someone's lapel in the weeks leading up to Armistice Day. I used to wonder why he brought his daughter with him, but I read once that his widow Anne thought he might have needed her there for comfort. And Emily herself felt she was there to be "a symbol of truth and hope, treasure and horror altogether. And I am fine with my role in it." I felt he needed her there to remind him of the future, and the people, for whom he was making his sacrifice. He had been struggling with himself for weeks, but that morning something had spoken to him.

I resisted the draft in 1972 with the help of the Quakers, the American Friends Service Committee. When I was writing my statement out for the draft board, it was Norman Morrison I was thinking about, and I quoted him more than once. I was also thinking of leaving the country, and I thought about how hard it must have been for his family, after he'd gone. Ironically, I won my fight, if only on a technicality, but I left the country anyway a couple of years later.

Norman Morrison's sacrifice didn't hasten the end of the Vietnam War. He is basically forgotten now; the only mainstream report I saw today was primarily about the pain his family suffered. I was a serious Christian in those days, but the example of a Quaker who appeared to take the gospels far more seriously than most Christians was something that began to propel me away from my religious idealism. His sacrifice deserves to be remembered. RIP


 

Friday, 30 October 2015

THE ASSASSIN: HOU HSIAO-HSIEN AT THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL

I mentioned The Assassin yesterday, when I posted a 20-year old essay I'd written on Tsui Hark. My entry into wuxia films came via Hark and the London Film Festival; the offbeat The Butterfly Murders and Zu: Warriors Of Magic Mountain, and they seemed to trigger the explosion of Hong Kong cinema in Britain and elsewhere in the Eighties. I mentioned in my review of Hark's The Lovers its slow pace, a real change from the frantic action and cutting we associate with wuxia, and it is against that tradition that I watched the The Assassin.

Hong Kong swordplay is easier to follow these days, the production values are more Hollywood, the pace more classic, the storytelling more linear. In that context, Hou Hsiao-Hsien seems to be working almost with a deconstruction of the genre, yet one done as if creating its ultimate apex. It looks both outward and extremely inward at the same time; as I watched the long and wrenchingly beautiful shots of landscape, and the slow takes, even in action scenes, I found myself thinking of Bresson's Lancelot du Lac, which took its epic heroism and brought it down to a realistic, dirty, creaking and slow stereogramme, as if to take apart filmmaking as well as the myth it purveys. His knights are just simple people in tin suits, clanking around a landscape on which Bresson's camera lingers long after they've left the shot.

In a similar way, Hou's landscape transcends those marching through it. But rather than being reduced, it is magnified in beauty, highlighted and savoured. It is something that will last. In great westerns, the landscape is something bigger than man, threatening not least for the other men it contains. In John Ford movies men move through it as if on their way to conquer or tame it. But here we are presented with the definite picture of something that will endure long after the machinations of Chinese courts and the battling of deadly fighters has passed. Ford's audience knew the west had been conquered. Hou's knows that for centuries, the landscape has endured.

In ninth-century China, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) is an assassin, trained by nuns to kill officials deemed corrupt or dangerous by the court. But she fails to kill one such target, because he is holding his infant son, and even though he takes a parting shot at her, which she parries, she leaves him. The mother superior is angry, and as punishment sends Nie back to Weibo, the most powerful province in the empire, where she wants the governor Tian Ji'ang (Chang Chen) killed. But Nie was once betrothed to Tian, before her family gave her up to the nuns. She heads to Waibo, and when she arrives the film changes: in a Wizard of Oz moment the high-contrast black and white (Nie's black outfit and her mistresses white garb work like a glorious take on western cliche) in 'Academy' ratio (1.375:1) changes to colour and widescreen 1.85:1. Shots are framed like paintings or screens, and held for appreciation, not just of Mark Lee Ping Bing's camerawork, but of the landscapes themselves.

The story now becomes one of Nie's inner discovery, defying her mistress and finding ways to maintain her inner self as she does. At times the story, slow as it is, becomes hard to follow: there is much plotting, debating, and ambiguity in the intrigue of China's hierarchy. In effect, Nie's newfound strength is the one sure thing in the film.

The Assassin is a showcase for Lee's camerawork, and especially for Shu Qi, whose performance as the quiet heroine brings a touch of the Clint Eastwood while suggesting inner turmoil underneath the cool skill. It's worthy of awards, and will resonate to any audience. Within the visual beauties of landscape, interiors, and costumes whose tones seem to echo the characters' emotions while maintaining a sense of distance, Hou Hsiao-Hsien's take on wuxia is both captivating and thought-provoking.

TSUI HARK'S THE LOVERS: London Film Festival 1995

I was going through my old files to find a piece I'd written for the New York Times (actually, I'd written it for the International Herald Tribune, and the Times had reprinted it) and discovered the manuscript (remember when we actually wrote on paper) for this story, which doesn't appear to have been published. Sadly, I didn't get enough time with Tsui Hark to write more; I literally didn't discover the Sunday morning interview until I arrived at the Friday late night showing of The Lovers; as I recall it was long on clips and short on discussion (Hark's English was surprisingly shaky for someone who'd gone to SMU; well, maybe not so surprisingly), and he was literally on his way out of town. I've been meaning for some time to write about some of Tsui's more recent films, namely Seven Swords (2005) and Detective Dee (2010). Maybe soon....oh, and the cinematographer who went with me to see Once Upon A Time In China was Phil Abraham, who went on to The Sopranos and Mad Men, and is now a director. Having just seen Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin in this year's London Film Festival, it seemed a good time to get this essay online.




THE MYSTERIOUS APPEARANCE OF TSUI HARK

His Guardian Interview wasn't mentioned in the programme, but if you were lucky enough to discover it was happening, the highlight of the 39th London Film Festival might have been listening to Vietnamese-born, American-trained Hong Kong director Tsui Hark give a Sunday morning lecture at the NFT. Or maybe it was seeing his latest film, The Lovers, in a late-night showing two days earlier.

Why Hark should have come and gone so anonymously is a puzzle. His first film, The Butterfly Murders, has been a cult favourite in Britain ever since it debuted at the LFF in 1979. Shanghai Blues (1984) was a 1930s Chinese screwball comedy set amidst the Japanese invasion, while Peking Opera Blues two years later, which also starred the wonderful Sally Yeh, was an action-packed musical about a woman disguising herself to actually sing in the Peking opera. It was a hit at London's Lesbian and Gay Festival, but to me it ranks as one of the best movies of the Eighties, period. And Once Upon A Time In China (1990) stands as a classic as well; I took an American cinematographer to see it in New York and he was blown away. And if that weren't enough, Hark also produced three excellent John Woo/Chow Yun Fat films, including A Better Tomorrow and the world-wide hit, The Killer.

Hark works like the great directors of Hollywood's Golden Age, telling richly layered stories that often meld and combine genres, constantly looking for new ways to be visually inventive. Though themes of class and imperial politics, gender identity and reality versus fantasy recur, his signature is a breakneck pace of storytelling that always has time for humour.

The Lovers, a romantic melodrama set in 377 AD is atypical in its slower, more contemplative pace. It tells the story of Chuk Ying Toi (Charlie Yeung), the daughter of a high official and his ambitious wife. They disguise her as a boy and send her to college to prepare her for marriage into a better family. At college she meets Leung Shan Pak (Nicky Wu), a peasant boy who is seeking education so he can earn an official's position and make an upwardly mobile marriage.

Shan-Pak finds himself desperately confused by his feelings for his fellow student, until true identities are revealed. But at this point, the story heads for tragedy. Beautifully staged and shot, The Lovers puts our Austen and Dickens adaptations to shame. And the deliberate pacing, such a contrast if you know Hark's work, now squeezes the increasingly inevitable tragedy for all its worth. Hark can thus go somewhat over the top in his tragic ending, yet still reinforce themes and images he's shown you subtly and allowed to linger throughout the film.

Born in Saigon, and having studied film at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Hark brings a cross-cultural sensibility to Hong Kong cinema. 'In Hong Kong, things move so fast,' he says. 'You do something for the first time and six months later everyone's doing it. The audience is visually very literate, and they expect to be entertained on many levels."

And did I mention that in The Lovers, the college's headmistress invents both football and its Subbeto version, just in passing?

Saturday, 24 October 2015

MAUREEN O'HARA: A Moment's Memory, RIP

Angharad's look across to Mr. Gruffydd as he stands at the top of the lift shaft, looking at the empty cage....

RIP Maureen O'Hara. Still her finest moment. How Green Was My Valley, still John Ford's most restrained and moving sentimentality. And watch her in The Wings Of Eagles, maybe her best, The Quiet Man or not, with John Wayne.


Monday, 19 October 2015

MICHAEL CONNELLY'S THE CROSSING

Mark Billingham and I discussed The Crossing on the second edition of The Crime Vault Live podcast (you can link to that here); we both loved it. Mark said he thought Connelly was the most consistent crime writer in America. It was funny, because I said pretty much the same thing, that Bosch was the strongest series being written by anyone, but that was when I first reviewed Connelly in the Spectator more than 20 years ago. They used that quote as a blurb on a number of his books. What's amazing is that he's maintained that level of quality for such a long time.

This one is a Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller novel; Bosch has lost his job on the LAPD, as detailed in the previous Bosch novel, and Haller is representing him in his wrongful dismissal suit. But Haller also has a client named Da'Quan Foster, who's accused of a particularly violent home-invasion rape and murder, of an LA sherrif's wife. Although the state has DNA evidence they claim links Foster to the crime, he insists he's innocent. And Haller, who's not always worried about whether his clients are innocent or not, for some reason believes him, and wants Harry to check it out.

Bosch isn't ready to cross to the dark side, as it were, risking the severance of all his ties with his colleagues and friends. But if Haller's aim is to clear his client, Harry's aim is always to get at the truth. And when he finds an expensive watch case with no watch, he starts to wonder where the truth might lay. Relentlessly, painstakingly, Bosch breaks down the case bit by bit, the pieces slowly taking shape into something coherent, and very dangerous.

Nobody writes police procedurals as well as Connelly. You don't have to have followed Bosch for the quarter of a century he's been doing this; you don't need to know his past and have deep background to understand his character. Connelly's skill is that he writes as a reporter, and he gives you the details you need not just to follow the plot, but to understand the characters, and at his best, as he is here, you find that understanding melds with the understanding of the story.

Harry and Haller are half-brothers; their daughters are the same age, and will be going to the same college, another sort of crossing. As is Harry's forced retirement, and perhaps his personal life, though I don't want to risk a spoiler there—long time readers know better than to expect romantic happiness for Bosch. Mark and I discussed the character, with Mark saying he now sees Titus Welliver, who plays Bosch in the excellent Amazon series, when he's reading. But my Bosch is different. I've always seen, right from the start, someone more like Hammett's Continental Op, crossed perhaps with Gene Hackman, the one from Night Moves maybe. He's as good as they get, and that's because Michael Connelly is as good as it gets.

The Crossing by Michael Connelly

Orion, £19.99 ISBN 9781409145523

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

Saturday, 17 October 2015

HENNING MANKELL'S AN EVENT IN AUTUMN

My copy of the book was sitting in the pile, waiting to be read, and then Henning Mankell died, and I wrote my piece (you can read that here) and said my bit on The Crime Vault Live (follow the link you'll find here), and the very next day after that I read the story but found I couldn't write about it right away.

Although it's billed as a 'never-before published' novella, An Event In Autumn was not actually Mankell's final Wallander book; it was originally published in 2004 in the Netherlands, as a give away for people who bought books. It was the basis of one of the BBC Wallander TV shows, and finally Mankell took it back and published it in 2013. It is set, as Mankell explains in a brief afterword, just before The Troubled Man, which ended the series (you can read my review here), and it is very much an autumnal book, the metaphor as pure and shining as snow. Not only for the autumn of the character's life, but the autumn of the character in the author's mind, echoing his own autumn (Wallander was 'born' in Mankell's own birth year, 1948).

Wallander is thinking about buying an old house that belongs to his colleague Martinsson's wife's cousin. He's pretty much convinced himself to buy when a nagging thought forces him to look one more time. He returns and finds a skeleton hand poking up from the ground. The skeleton is of a middle-aged woman, and it's been in the ground some 60 years. Wallander no longer wants to buy the house.

The investigation is classic Wallander; slow, somewhat plodding, but complete; always asking the next question and leaving nothing unanswered. The mystery is solved through this plodding work, but the story ends with a somewhat deus ex machina twist. But that isn't really the point.

'It was getting colder' is how one early chapter ends, and like a long poem lines similar to that recur at the end of many other stanzas. At the same time, we are presented with Swedishness, people who only speak when they have something to say, neighbours being neighbours, not friends, and with the prospect of life in old-age homes, where the inner silence and the outer silence merge. It may be what Mankell has called 'the Swedish anxiety'.

In its own quiet way, this is a powerful piece of writing. It's as if its setting the stage for the last Wallander book, and it even recalls 'Wallander's First Case', which appeared in the collection The Pyramid. (You can read my review of that here). It makes an interesting bookend to that fascinating career. Mankell himself writes about Wallander in an essay appended to the story, dated 2013. It's interesting as much for what is left out as for what is included, but it's good for putting the character into the place in which the author would like him to rest. May he rest in that place, and in the ones many of us have made for him in our own imaginations.


An Event In Autumn by Henning Mankell
Vintage, £6.99, ISBN 9781784700843

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

Sunday, 11 October 2015

THE CRIME VAULT LIVE! EPISODE 2

The second episode of The Crime Vault Live is online now, and it's a good one (if I do say so myself). Mark Billingham and I interview the erudite and wonderful Val McDermid about Tartan Noir, series detective novels, Jane Austen, Raith Rovers and everything you'd expect; we discuss the passing of Henning Mankell; highlight Michael Connelly's The Crossing, Ruth Rendell's final novel, Kareem-Adbul Jabaar's take on Mycroft Holmes, and Lawrence Block's take on pulpy Gold Medal-style fiction. There's a digression onto the franchising of characters like Sherlock Holmes and James Bond (you ought to hear the rundown of Holmes' pastiches that was left on the cutting room floor!). There's talk about the Beck TV series, The Corpse Of Anna Fritz and Sherlock in the London Film Festival; the audio book versions of Ngaio Marsh, and there is music by Elvis Costello (thank you Mr.Costello sir, for the kind permission). All in a very listenable 50 minutes, believe it or not.

Here's a link via soundcloud but you can also find it on ITunes, at The Crime Vault website, & through many other noise providers on the interweb. Smash that link now!

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

HENNING MANKELL: IN MEMORIAM

Henning Mankell was important as a crime writer because his Wallander books sparked what had become an explosion of Scandinavian crime fiction which went nuclear after The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and I find it hard to believe that Steig Larsson wasn't inspired in some way by The Fifth Woman one of the best of the Wallander series.

Otherwise, Mankell's influence was more in terms of marketing than style, though you can see a good bit of him in the best of the Nordic writers, Iceland's Arnaldur Indridason. But Mankell himself was influenced by the godfathers of modern Scandinavian crime fiction, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo and their ten Martin Beck books. Like Beck, Wallander is a dour detective with a depressing private life, and functions within an ensemble cast that both complements and contrasts with him. Mankell spends more time on Wallander himself, perhaps, which reflects the changing times to some extent (our literary cult of fictional personality) but also reflects Sjowall and Wahloo's own influences, especially Ed McBain's 87th Precinct.

Mankell was often dismissive of the label 'crime writer', but he was very generous to Sjowall and Wahloo, and wrote the introduction to the Harper Perennial reissue of the first Beck novel, Roseanna. When I wrote the introduction to Murder At The Savoy in the same series, I noted that its basic premise, the death of an industrial with fingers in many shady multi-national deals, is mirrored in Mankell's The Man Who Smiled (a very Martin Beck sort of title), and noted a few other parallels in the series. I also quoted the description of Beck's colleague Fredrik Melander, logical, calm, dull, with a 'modest' sense of humour, an excellent memory, and a propensity for being in the toiler whenever he was needed. As Sjowall and Wahloo wrote: 'briefly, he was a first-class policeman'. The one time I interviewed Mankell, appropriately enough at the Savoy (but in London, not Malmo) I asked if Wallander were in some ways an hommage to Melander. 'Oh, did they write that?' he replied. He also had little false modesty; I asked him who the man was who had greeted him just before we sat down. 'Oh, he's Sweden's second greatest novelist,' he said.


What also links Mankell to Sjowall and Wahloo was their dissection of the failures of Sweden's experiment in Social Democracy from a perspective often noted to be left-wing, but more accurately described as true to the ideals of that experiment. Mankell's political commitment is strong throughout his work, both in Sweden and Mozambique, and strongly consistent to a sense of rational help for those who need help and justice, and a society based on those principles. It was no surprise he chose to sail on the flotilla of ships trying to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza, it was even less of a surprise that he reported the summary murder of 10 activists by masked Israeli commandos, and refuted very simply and strongly allegations that the killings were self-defense. He had a field day with the fact that he was captured in international waters, brought to Israel, and then charged by the Orwellian government with entering the country illegally.

Wallander was well-served by television. Rolf Lassgard nailed his character, but Krister Henriksson was justifiably more popular, because he brought some humour to Wallender, just through his quick smile and twinkle in his eye; it made his interactions with the rest of the ensemble less confrontational. Kenneth Branagh's Wallander virtually eliminated the ensemble, concentrating on the superficial problems of Wallander's life, most notably drinking and shaving. It's good that the series has not been continued, like the Beck which for all its strengths has little of Sjowall and Wahloo left to recommend it. And it should be noted that Henriksson's performance in the final Wallander story, The Troubled Man, is every bit as touching as Mankell's own conclusion to the series (and it's one of the most overtly political of the series as well).

There isn't much humour in the books; Mankell wrote a comic novel, Tea Bag, about literary types and immigration—the humane portion about the life of immigrants in Sweden works muich better than the literary comedy. But his work for children is surprisingly good, including Chronicler Of The Winds, an adult story based on a play written to be performed in Portugese, in his adopted Maputo.

Faceless Killers, the first Wallander book, is a good place to start. One Step Behind and Fifth Woman are my idea of the series' best. I'd also recommend his 2006 novel Depths, (you can read my review of that book here), set on bleak islands in the archipelago during World War I; it is to my mind the most Bergmanesque bit of Swedish writing I've encountered (reminiscent of Strindberg as well) and deeply moving. Of course Mankell was married to Eva Bergman, Ingmar's daughter, which may or may not mean anything.

We discuss Mankell in the second episode of The Crime Vault Live; I could not do the same on BBC Front Row that night because we were recording CVL at the same time. I might have said that sometime in the future people will look at Mankell as a transitory figure, between the trail-blazing of Sjowall and Wahloo and the worldwide phenomenon of Steig Larsson. But he's more important than that, and the consistency of his vision for both his iconic character, his other work, and beyond fiction to his country and the world; in many ways he represents the moral focus of the Swedish character. This should make him a major figure no matter from what distance literary critics are looking back.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

ROBERT B PARKER'S BULL RIVER BY ROBERT KNOTT

When I reviewed Ironhorse, the first of Robert Knott's continuations of Robert B Parker's Cole & Hitch westerns, I said I thought that the book lacked space for the heroes and villains to interact (you can read the whole review here), meaning a promising set-up is allowed to peter out. Bull River suffers from almost exactly the same problem, which is a shame because the set-up is, if anything, even better.

Virgil and Everett have captured a bizarre Mexican bandit known as Capitan Alejandro, and when they deliver him to San Cristobal they discover the local bank has been looted by its own president, who later turns up beaten comatose, with his wife disappeared or kidnapped by the actual robbers, after a Friends Of Eddie Coyle-style robbery. Which puts Cole & Hitch on the hunt, and coincidentally enough, the Capitan knows the robbers and where they might be.

As in the first novel, we then get a lot of traveling, back and forth, and not really enough tension and precious little confrontation. You can see where the former is waiting to build, especially when the boys are on a train with a Mexican officer who's clearly suspicious, but it never really does, and both the major shootouts are relatively perfunctory, because with Parker they were all about personality, and expressed verbally, whereas here they are diagrammed and drawn, in both sense of the latter word.

More important, however, is the interplay of Cole and Hitch. Everett Hitch narrates, telling Cole's story more than his own, but these two are not like Spenser and Hawk as much as they are the two parts of Spenser: the ego (Cole) and super-ego (Hitch) moderating the gunfighter's id. It's important to get that dynamic expressed in their conversations, but Knott's not able to do that, not even in the other situation where the two express different parts of the Spenserian being: relations with women. Even when Hitch relaxes comfortably with another of the 'liberated' women he seems to encounter regularly, we don't get the obvious contrast with Cole's relationship with Allie French. This lack is striking, because the bank president's wife could well be another Allie, and you would expect that possibility to be noted more than in passing.

Cole & Hitch are such a good pair of characters, and so well delineated by Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen, that their personalities, even the shadow of them, can carry a story enough to keep the reader going. But there isn't the frisson of doubt that Parker managed; the nature of Hitch's protective worry, the slight hint of self-doubt that Allie brings about in Virgil. I miss that.

Bull River by Robert Knott
Berkeley Books $9.99 ISBN 9780425272305


Monday, 28 September 2015

LAWRENCE BLOCK'S GIRL WITH THE DEEP BLUE EYES

Doak Miller is a former New York cop who's taken early retirement, moved to Florida and picked up a PI licence. He lives a quiet life in a small town, has occasional sex with the realtor who sold him his house, and does odd jobs for the local sheriff. One of these is to play a hit-man, and wear a wire when he meets a woman who wants her husband killed. But something about Lisa Yarrow Otterbein's eyes gets to Doak.

It's a familiar sort of noirish set-up, right down to the steamy Florida back-drop, the kind of thing that John D MacDonald (echoed by this book's title) or some of the great Gold Medal pulpsters might turn out. This should be no surprise because Lawrence Block may be the last of those writers who came up in the Fifties and early Sixties in New York, often via the Scott Meredith agency, people like Ed McBain and Donald Westlake, and these kind of novels were their stock in trade.

Many of them also churned out porn, as well as soft-core crime fiction, like Block's Chip Harrison books, which is interesting because sex as well as death is the cornerstone of noir. And what Block is doing here is bringing the two together in a matter-of-fact way to suggest that these urges bleed into each other more than writers care to admit, or explain. What's most interesting is seeing the way Doak, rather than being manipulated like a classic noir bozo, is actually drawing himself in consciously, and with control (though of course we're always on the lookout for the usual inevitable betrayal) of the situation, and with a ruthlessness which sexuality has drawn out and intensified.

There's an almost tongue-in-cheek element to the sex here, as if Block were nodding back to those more outwardly innocent days, where the sin was just as heavy but the description was less graphic. If anything, you might see it as an old master doing what he might have wanted to do many years before. The key is Doak's experience with a pregnant woman he interviews as part of an insurance check. She's a reflection of Mildred Diedrichson, role reversed with Doak. And if Doak's inner self turns out to be worthy of Walter Neff (who is referenced specifically by Block, in what may be a slightly too cute playing of his story against some classic film noirs) there is a reason Block has attempted an hommage of Double Indemnity, reclaimed for the male. Block hands the book's killer ending to Lisa. 'That's the movies,' she said. 'This is life.'

The Girl With The Deep Blue Eyes by Lawrence Block
Titan Books/Hard Case Crime £16.99 ISBN 9781783297504

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

SAVIN ROCK, 1956 (a poem)



Yogi Berra died yesterday, and while I was revising the obituary I'd written a few years ago for the Guardian's stock files, I thought about this poem. I don't remember when exactly I wrote it; it was part of my master's thesis at McGill, so it was probably in 1975 or 76, in Montreal, but it might have been earlier. It was published with a group of my poems in 1984, in Cid Corman's Origin, Fifth Series issue 3, in Kyoto. Cid was a real baseball fan; for years we exchanged post cards and aerogrammes (remember them?) between London and Japan, discussing poetry, baseball, Charles Olson and sumo wrestling. Cid died on my birthday in 2004; I got to write his obituary for the Guardian, you can link to that here.

This poem was also published in a baseball-themed literary magazine, Spitball, in 1987, and in my collection By The Sound (Torque Press, Southampton) the following year.


Savin Rock was an amusement and resort area along the shore in West Haven, Connecticut, where my parents grew up. It had been big at the turn of the century, right through the depression. My great grandfather had a hot dog stand and pizzeria there; my grandfather, his son in law, at one point was partners in an auction house where my father, again, a son in law, worked weekends. I think it's pretty self-explanatory: there were rides, Peter Franke's fun house, penny arcades (in one of which a waxed gypsy lady inside a glass machine issued printed fortunes if you inserted a nickel), a huge wooden roller coaster, bumper cars, the Wild Mouse, and the remnants of Donovan Field, where the West Haven Sailors baseball team played, run by George Weiss who later was the general manager of the Yankees.

Don Larsen's perfect game was pitched in game 5 of the 1956 series; Berra hit a home run in the second game, but two in the deciding game 7, won by the Yankees as Johnny Kucks pitched (and Berra caught) a three-hit shutout. Both those games were at Ebbetts Field but it's probably game seven I am calling up in the poem. In game six Bob Turley pitched 10 innings of four-hit ball and lost 1-0. That's 28 innings in which Yankee pitchers held the Brooklyns to just 7 hits; Berra knew how to pitch to the Dodgers.


SAVIN ROCK, 1956

Don Larsen was tossing the perfect game.
Berra homered onto Bedford Avenue.
The wax lady cackled in the penny arcade
& scared me, her ignorance of the Series.
I didn't want my fortune told,
I wanted to know who had won.

At grandpa's auction prices always went up,
The marks investing junk with sudden value,
Carried away with the power of their words.
After closing we drove past the hot dogs:
Jimmie's, Turk's, Phyllis's, Jake's.
Jake was your great-grandfather, he told me,
As he always did. He ran away when he was 12
& went out west to be a cowboy.
12 seemed very old. A cowboy named
Rosenthal, my father said, & shook his head.

They talked about cars.
My dad had his eyes on a blue '55 Ford.
I wished he played for the Red Sox.
I would run away north and watch him pitch.
I wished they'd someday win the pennant.
I was five years old. I don't remember now
If I knew then who Don Larsen was.