Showing posts with label David Edgerley Gates. Show all posts
Showing posts with label David Edgerley Gates. Show all posts

13 December 2017

Couldn't Care Less

David Edgerley Gates

A friend of mine was wondering the other day why common expressions get dumbed down, in terms of usage being corrupted. It was because I'd used the phrase 'rhetorical question,' and he wanted to know exactly what that meant. Not that he hadn't heard it before, but how had it come to mean what it's now taken to mean, and were we even using it correctly?

I had to think about it. I decided it originally meant a question intended to spark discussion, a rhetorical device, in other words. Then why, Tony asked me, does it mean a question with an obvious answer, something that goes without saying? In this sense, Tony himself was posing a rhetorical question, something to encourage conversation or deepen our curiosity.

Why does language get less precise? We know English isn't static. It's full of borrowings, and disharmonies, and new constructions. Usage is a moving target. Leave it to the French, naturally, who being French have an Academy to settle these difficulties. The problem being that nobody under the age of four score and ten bothers to pay any attention. Younger people go right on using 'gigabyte,' or whichever neologism or borrowing fits the bill. If everybody else in the world is comfortable with the word, why complain that it lacks authenticity? Orthodoxy is itself suspect. Judgments are arbitrary. Who's being held to which standards?

It's curious, nonetheless, how vocabulary moves into common currency, and loses its specificity. Some of this is a broadening, or dilution, but some of it is almost willful misapprehension. Freudian, for example. Does it mean anything at all, other than being generally dismissive of self-examination, conflating it with self-indulgence? (You can be impatient of narcissism without discarding any and all inner reflection.) Another one is Darwinian. I'm thinking particularly of the expression 'Social Darwinism.' It's taken to mean a barbaric compact, brute force, the weak trampled underfoot, which describes the condition, but Darwinian it ain't. Survival of the fittest had never meant the biggest, baddest predator in the jungle, it's in fact more appropriate for the elusive prey animal who lives to see another day, and breeds for stealth.
Admittedly, we're talking science here, and complicated ideas get the pulp squeezed out. Marxist, there's a good candidate that's turned into a catchall. I think we might be talking about a general carelessness, or simple mistrust of ambiguities and contradictions, a constipation of our mental bowels. Thinking makes your head hurt, let's face it. Labels come easier. But that's almost presupposing a dumb gene, and dumb isn't a survival mechanism. Or what if it is? What if it's a social survival mechanism? Maybe it's about the aggregate comfort zone, not the individual's personal comfort at all. 

Getting into deep waters. Maybe all it is, is laziness. Do we hear a double-negative in 'I Couldn't Care Less,' and lean into the wind? Or is 'I Could Care Less' not a correction of grammar but a contraction, one less syllable, one less hesitation in our thought process, a slip of the tongue? Language is an amalgam, and impure, but all the same, we keep trying for accuracy. The purpose of language, the purpose of words, is to explain ourselves. We can obviously use language to misdirect, to deceive or obscure or conceal - our words may be false, but they still have weight - and does a cracked glass then ring true?

If we lose meaning, if we pretend a thing is what it is not, we're substituting a false equivalency. It all weighs the same. Nope. Look again. Your glass is empty.


"When use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, "it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty," which is to be master - that's all."

22 November 2017

"...This Sad Havoc"

David Edgerley Gates

East London, the 1890's. Whitechapel is still scarred by Jack the Ripper's terrors, and the men who police her streets are haunted, too. The late Victorian, a time and place of huge instabilities, that masquerades as a somehow immutable and granite-solid social and political norm, with its seething discontents just barely contained.

Ripper Street. A period series that's run five seasons. You'd think this ground had been pretty well ploughed and harvested by now, but not so. Sharp writing, animated characters, a terrific cast, and solid production values. This is the kind of thing the BBC does incredibly well when they bring their A-game. Downton Abbey as cop shop.


Matthew Macfadyen as Reid
Inspector Edmund Reid, commander of H Division, holds down the center, but Reid is nowhere near as foursquare as he first appears. His sergeant, Bennet Drake, later himself promoted to inspector, is likewise morally compromised. And the American surgeon, Homer Jackson, a former Pinkerton's man, may well be a fugitive living under another name. The whorehouse madam, Long Susan Hart, of suspect origins, also in flight. Lastly, the Yard's eminence grise, Chief Inspector Abberline, at one time lead detective on the Ripper case, who never caught his man.


Jerome Flynn as Drake
It's a charged dynamic, and it keeps shifting. The orbits erratic, the gravitational influences uncertain, as each major player moves their own boundaries. Drake, for example, is a bare-knuckles guy, what the Irish call a hard boy, but it's his softness that leads him astray. Reid is a self-righteous bastard, and trips on skirts because he sets the bar so high. (He carries the enormous guilt of blaming himself for his daughter's death.) All of this, and more, the scenery not a backdrop, but an ecosystem, a laboratory, a Petri dish that cultures infection. The medium is a character. Social position is destiny, capital is corrupt, brute strength is master.


Adam Rothenberg as Jackson
This is noir well before the term gained currency, and the interior darkness a dread that isn't named. The broken men who 'copper' these sooty tenements and narrow cobbles are honorable if not always honest - least of all with themselves - but they fear the deadening of their own hearts. The 'abyss,' Reid calls it. "Is it ourselves?" he wonders to Sgt. Drake, and Drake has no ready answer.


MyAnna Buring as Susan Hart
Bennet Drake, over time, comes to seem the most conflicted of the characters. Not that all of them don't have their individual weaknesses and ambiguities, but at first glance, Drake presents the fewest doubts and afflictions. He's muscle. He doesn't philosophize. Reid is supposed to be the brains. More often than not, though, it's Drake who shows the greater wisdom, and even restraint. They have a careful balance. Reid doesn't always know when to hold his tongue. Drake speaks less, and reveals more.


Clive Russell as Abberline
A mystery surrounds the two Americans, the surgeon Jackson and the businesswoman Susan Hart, but what they seek in London is reinvention. This might be counterintuitive, in a place so stratified by class, but in fact it gives them an advantage, because they can choose to erase the past. It's no disqualification, for an American. After all, they arrived from the New World. Others, however, are trapped. Whitechapel is both opportunity and quicksand, each of them a lure. There are masks, of convenience, of propriety, there is nakedness, of both flesh and ambition. There are predators and victims. The faint of heart don't prosper. "I would spare you," Bennet Drake tells the whore Rose, "from this sad havoc." But the knight of deliverance is no proof against calamity.

Ripper Street isn't allegory. It's flesh and blood, and plenty of it - full frontal gore, by and large - vivid and convincing. And this visible despair is always grounded in the iron courtesies and awkward frictions of class, a comedy of manners, you might say. Black comedy, and bad manners. An overcast of melancholy. A pinch of solitude. And the historical ironies, thrown into relief. It's an age of wonders, of industry and invention, the coming of a new century, but the dislocations of that new century are unlike anything we could have imagined beforehand. From this remove, Ripper Street foreshadows our loss, the end of innocence.

08 November 2017

Trabismo

David Edgerley Gates

My pal Michael Parnell alerted me to an event this past Saturday, the 11th Annual Parade of Trabants, held at the International Spy Museum in DC. What's the significance of this? Funny you should ask.

Trabis were churned out in East Germany for a little over thirty years, from 1957 to 1990 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It had a two-cycle engine with 26 horsepower, zero to 60 in 21 seconds. You had to add oil to the gas, like a lawnmower or an outboard motor. They coughed and choked, and blew smoke. They didn't have a fuel pump, the gas tank was in the engine compartment, on top of the engine, the fuel was gravity-fed. 3 million of them were manufactured, and the basic design never changed.

Trabis are kind of like currywurst. The nostalgia element is tempered by the reality. They were cheap, they were crappy, they were a necessary fact of life for those East Germans who could even afford them, crappy as they were. They turned into the punchline of a joke that wasn't funny the first time it made the rounds. Then that world shifted on its axis. In mid-1989, the dominant Cold War paradigm began to collapse of its own weight, a suffocating inertia that just puddled on the floorboards. Thousands of Ossis packed up their household goods and drove their loaded, laboring vehicles through Hungary or Czechoslovakia, to get to West Germany. Like the Joads escaping the Dust Bowl, it was a leap of faith.

A lot of Trabis fell by the wayside on this journey to a better life. Abandoned, derelict, giving up the last gasp. The ones that made it had to be granted exceptions from pollution standards, they burned so dirty. And they were representative, they became proxies for everything that had gone wrong in Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain.

This is an interesting transformation, or perhaps transubstantiation - the specific to the generic, water into wine - technically, I think it's an example of metonymy, where a part stands in for the whole. More than that, it's evolved. Language isn't static. Trabis are emblematic of an era, but they're a moving target. They're shorthand for the Cold War, yes, and at the same time, for Reunification and its discontents. Germans can be very thin-skinned. Like most of us, they don't like being reminded of past humiliations, especially when they've been self-inflicted. Trabants smell of failure. Not only failed history, and the failed state of East Germany, but the failure of West Germany to effectively assimiliate those former East Germans, those Ossis.

This is very much about the present, not the past, although dark echoes of the past are ready to hand. Too many Ossis were unskilled labor, not at a premium in a high-tech labor market. A lot of industry in the East was smokestack, and couldn't be retooled. West Germany was trying to integrate a territory, an infrastructure, and a population half of its own size, which had been economically and politically paralyzed since Berlin fell to the Russians in 1944. There were dislocations and disappointments. It shouldn't come as a surprise that there was a boiling point, a surge in anti-immigrant incidents, skinhead violence, scapegoating, a little too reminiscent of the Germany of the 1920's, with its pervading sense of grievance. 

Ossis are still underrepresented in the German business and political establishment (although Angela Merkel herself is an Ossi). In last September's elections, the far-right Alternative for Germany polled at 21.9 percent in the former East - they were at 12.6 nationally. This phenomenon, this alienation, is fueled by a perceived 'cultural colonialism,' an institutional condescension on the part of West Germans. The structural weaknesses of the East are abiding and genuine.

Twenty-eight years ago tomorrow, November 9th is the anniversary of the day the Berlin Wall fell.  

25 October 2017

Collaborators

David Edgerley Gates

French actress Danielle Darrieux died this past week. She was 100, her career beginning in 1931 and lasting until 2016. Her death notices all remark the fact that she stayed on in Paris after WWII broke out, and kept making pictures during the German occupation. Some of the obits go so far as to call her a Nazi collaborator. I'm guessing the story admits of rather a few more complications.


Let's begin with the fiction that French resistance to the Germans was fierce and widespread. Don't kid yourself. This was a wartime convenience, for Allied propaganda, and for French domestic political purposes after the war. De Gaulle insisted on it. It lifts us on angels' wings above the black market of hypocrisy, corruption, and grievance that characterized the Occupation. The pre-war climate in France echoed the America First movement in the States, a strong dose of appeasement and anti-Semitism, and there were more than a few French admirers of Hitler's scorched earth Jewish policies. And as for the Resistance, the Maquis itself was never organized into any unified chain of command, it was bitterly factionalized and fragmented, the Communists, the Free French, fugitives and draft dodgers and deserters. Lines of authority were disputed, one partisan group was as likely to rat out rival operations to the Vichy milice or the Wehrmacht military police as not.

How do you accommodate your occupier? Good question. We can look at Alan Furst's novels about wartime Paris and get a flavor of what it might be like, daily life in a captive capital. The World at Night, as it happens, is about the French movie biz, even, during the war, and how it was subject to German censorship. More accurately, pictures that didn't fit the bill simply weren't approved - were never greenlighted - so censorship, in that sense, before the fact. What do we make of the real-life example of Danielle Darrieux? When the Germans took Paris, in June of 1940, she'd just turned twenty-three, and her 30th film had been released, Battement de Coeur. I'm not making excuses for her, but twenty-three? In the movies since she was thirteen? Maybe she was a sheltered princess. We suspect, though, that she was a pretty savvy gal. She'd gone to Hollywood the year before, and made The Rage of Paris with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. She was a bankable star, and the German movie industry understood both market value and how useful pictures were in the climate of opinion. Alfred Greven, the Nazi film czar in France, supposedly offered Darrieux a deal. She'd stay and make movies, they wouldn't send her brother to Germany as slave labor.

Blackmail puts a sifgnificantly different complexion on things. You give in the once, you're on the hook for more. The hole only gets deeper. Danielle divorces her husband Henri Decoin, who directed her in half a dozen pictures, and falls for the Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa. (Army officer, diplomat, bag man, race car driver, and polo player, a favorite of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, he's usually characterized as the 'notorious' Porfirio Rubirosa - and the model for Dax Xenos, in Harold Robbins' novel The Adventurers. A whole other story, there.) Rubirosa fell foul of the Occupation authorities because he made no secret of his anti-Nazi sympathies, and they put him under house arrest in Germany. Danielle gets him sprung by agreeing to a publicity tour in Berlin. When next heard of, the two of them have managed to get to Switzerland, and they spend the rest of the war there.


In other words, we've definitely got some missing pieces along the way. Maybe it was all very ordinary, or maybe it was one hair's-breadth escape after another. Again, a nod to Alan Furst. I'm thinking Mission to Paris. But the story reminds me even more strongly of the Andre Cayyate movie Passage du Rhin - released in the U.S. in 1960 as Tomorrow Is My Turn, a truly cheesy title. (Cayatte directed Darrieux in 1942's La Fausse Maitresse, made under the German film industry's wartime sponsorship.)

Cayatte's picture is about two French soldiers, taken prisoner by the Wehrmacht at the beginning of the war and sent to work on a German farm. One of them (Georges Riviere) seduces the farmer's daughter and escapes to France. The other one (Charles Aznavour) stays at the farm. Back home, Georges takes up sabotage work with the Resistance, but he's eventually sold out to the Germans. A last-minute reprieve saves him from the firing squad, and then Paris is liberated. Charles is repatriated, and takes up where he left off, working as a baker, bullied by his wife. Charles goes to Georges and confesses he's miserable, Georges agrees to take Charles back to the German border. Charles crosses the bridge over the Rhine, stepping into an uncertain future, and meanwhile, the clouded past catches up with Georges. His girlfriend was sleeping with a high-ranking German officer during the Occupation, and he kept Georges from being shot. When the truth comes out, Georges' record as a war hero will be ridiculed, his girlfriend a German whore. She has to leave him. Fade-out on the two men at the Rhine bridge.

Okay, the summary makes it sound stupid, but it's not. It's about loyalties, and betrayals, and compromise, honor and shame, love and deceit, the whole nine yards, and the kind of thing French pictures are really good at. For our purposes, it's a late-breaking discussion (fifteen years after the fact) of questions the French preferred to turn a blind eye to, wartime derelictions. There's no denying some people showed incredible bravery, and some people were utterly contemptible, but a fair number were probably just trying to get by. It's a variation, or the obverse, of the Good German. 


I don't know what the moral is, or even if there is one. I suspect people play the hand they're dealt, and some of us rise to the occasion better than others. Darrieux didn't embarrass herself. Maurice Chevalier, Jean Cocteau, Sacha Guitry? A little less honorable. Arletty, whose acting career flourished during the Occupation, most famously Les Enfants du Paradis, got jail time for sleeping with the enemy. ("My heart is French, but my ass is international," she later remarked.) Sartre, who wrote for the underground paper Combat, says, "Everything we did was equivocal." Not to put too fine a point on it, pretty much everything they did was self-serving.

David Bell, reviewing Alan Riding's book about Paris during the Occupation, And the Show Went On, reminds us that the French basically lucked out, compared to what was going on in, say, Poland. French artists and intellectuals suffered chaos, and scarcities, and many dangers. But more than a few prospered. And most of them survived to argue about it another day. [The New Republic, 03-03-2011]

It's instructive, I guess, that I'm still raking over the coals myself. We simply don't know how we'd react in a claustrophobic climate of fear, which makes it harder to judge what they did. When you hear the tumbrels passing in the street, you don't want them stopping at your door.

11 October 2017

The Devil Loads Empty Guns

David Edgerley Gates


Back in the late Bronze Age, when I was a kid going to summer camp, the NRA was a sportsmen's organization. They taught firearms safety, and sponsored marksmanship competitions, and published The American Rifleman, which was pretty much the only gun magazine available, aside from maybe Shotgun News, which was basically classified ads. I learned to shoot at Camp Chewonki - I was ten or eleven, if memory serves - and I was awarded the NRA pins and patches for whichever level I got to.  I think Sharpshooter, that first year. We shot prone, sitting, kneeling, standing. Single-shot .22 bolt actions. Paper targets at fifty feet. Ten rounds. You needed to score in the black. I want to emphasize, though, that riflery was one of a mix of activities, swimming, canoeing, lanyard-weaving, woodcraft. They wanted to keep us busy, that critical mass of boys.

My dad let me buy my own .22 when I was fourteen. He was from Ohio, he'd served in the war, and like a lot of people his age, it seemed perfectly natural for kids to learn basic shooting skills. How not? He and I shot up a lot of tin cans.

I went in the military, then, with a little preparation, and qualified Expert on the .30 caliber carbine. Now, the .30 carbine is a lightweight compared to the M-14 the Marines were still being issued at the time, or the M-16 the Army had transitioned to, and they were shooting at distances out to three hundred yards, but still. Iron sights on a little gun that fired what wasn't all that much more than a pistol load? I thought I did okay. 

In the years since that first .22, I've had a few other guns, a couple of single-actions, cowboy guns, a couple of auto-loaders. One of the things I've always liked about guns is their simplicity of function. I'm no good at working on cars, I couldn't take a carburetor apart, but guns are straightforward, mechanically, like a watch. The single-action Army, for example, a design that dates to 1873, has six moving parts, with three springs. There aren't that many more in a .45 auto, the 1911. Guns you can drop in sand, or salt water, and they'll still operate. That's why they were military-issue.

This is prologue. I'm telling you so you know where my sympathies lie. It's a familiar story. Anybody of a certain generation, or anybody with a certain background, is going to say more or less the same thing. They grew up in a culture where hunting and shooting were part of the metric. It didn't make you a nut. Of course, this is also a culture where military service was often the norm. So, it depends on your attitude toward that. If you can't see yourself in uniform, you might be unsympathetic. Same with guns. Or broccoli. 

But my actual question here is, What the heck happened to the NRA? How did they shape-shift from a generic bunch of hunters and recreational shooters, back in the day, into this pack of rabid crazies? (Exaggeration for effect, of course, but that's how they're perceived by many.) The answer is that there was a coup, at the national meeting in Cincinnati, in 1977. 

Forty years ago, a dissident group led by Harlon Carter waged a floor fight, and voted the NRA board of directors out of office. Carter's platform was simple: on 2nd Amendment issues, there's no room for compromise. Compromise means erosion, and the end result of gun control can only be confiscation and tyranny.

This is how the argument continues to be framed. If the gun-control advocates suggest banning high-cap mags, to take an example, 2nd Amendment absolutists say this is gradualism, a wolf in sheep's clothing. They've got a point. Once you start loosening the bricks in the wall, you hasten its collapse, and gun rights people simply don't believe it, when you tell them these are just common-sense measures. They know your real agenda is getting rid of guns, period. And when you come right down to it, there are people whose real agenda is getting rid of guns, period. It flies in the face of reason and experience to say that isn't true. So the problem isn't just the gun guys. The problem is that both sides believe themselves to possess the True Cross, and Satan rules their adversaries.

Where do I stand, personally? Like more than a few gun guys, I'm for gun control. But the dialogue, if you can call it that, is owned by the extremes, and what's in short supply is trust.

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

27 September 2017

Legacies



David Edgerley Gates

My pal Michael Davidson, himself a thriller writer and a former career CIA officer, remarks of John le Carré's new novel Legacy of Spies that it's up to his usual high literary standards, while going on to say, "...the work of MI6 is portrayed as exceedingly cynical and inhuman." I don't know about 'inhuman,' but 'cold-blooded' fits the bill, many of the characters all too slithery and reptilian, even for public school Brits with upper lips shot full of Novocaine. The book's dark heart is the chill of moral frostbite.


le Carre then
A Legacy of Spies is something of a swan song, or a curtain call. George Smiley takes his last bow. And a good many ghosts gather at his elbow. Alec Leamas, for one, the original Spy Who Came In From The Cold, along with Bill Haydon (Kim Philby's avatar), and Peter Guillam, one-time head Scalphunter and later Paris station chief, and even a cameo from Jim Prideaux. It's fair to say that if you're unfamiliar with Spy, and Tinker, Tailor, and in fact the earlier Call for the Dead - which first introduced the East German Steel Mission and Hans-Dieter Mundt - then this story's going to fall on deaf ears. Then again, it's unlikely you're going to push old ladies and small children into oncoming traffic to get hold of Legacy if you haven't already inhaled the ozone at the top floor of the Circus, and you need the icy rush it promises. Fear not. The old spook hasn't lost his tradecraft, and he can still wind the clock, before he starts shaking the tree.  

It's ill-advised, as a rule, to conflate a writer with his characters, but you suspect that George Smiley, if not le Carré's exact double, or even his reflection, does on occasion speak for him. There's the moment in Smiley's People when George, chasing an old asset in Hamburg, casts his mental eye East, along the shores of the Baltic, and imagines a prison empire and its subject peoples, a horizon empty of hope. This is the closest we ever get, if I'm remembering it right, to any kind of rationale on George's part, in any of the books. Is this le Carré's voice? Hard to pin down. Yes, it sounds right for George, the war generation, first Hitler, then Stalin. "One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic." Then again, we know better than to trust in absolutes, or orthodox certainties. Smiley doesn't. He's lived through a damaged century.

What about loyalties, though? Bill Haydon betrays the Service, and his country, and - perhaps most unforgivably - his friends. He sleeps with George's wife Ann, first because he can ("Love to Ann - everybody's love to Ann"), but under instructions from Karla. Curiously, too, everybody involved in Operation Windfall, and the Testify cock-up, give their loyalty personally to Control, or to Smiley, cutting out the Witchcraft circle, the tainted and suspect. And for the Mustache Petes, like Guillam, their institutional loyalty isn't to the present-day Service, the glassy cubicle farm on the Thames, but to the Circus of old, not just the ill-lit corridors but its habits of mind, its Druid impenetrability.

Le Carré uses Legacy of Spies to post his epitaph on the Cold War. Or more exactly, he has Smiley do it, and we can't be entirely sure who's speaking. But when Smiley tells Peter Guillam that it was all an exercise in futility, that the clandestine wars had no real result, no satisfying narrative coda, it rings false to me. It doesn't sound like Smiley. It sounds like le Carré. And this is where I have to part company with him. I know a few other people who were once in the secret world (the above-mentioned Michael Davidson, for one) who don't buy into this, either. I think that what we did in those years, not to put too fine a point on it, kept the Cold War from getting hot. Your mileage may differ.



This isn't to say that le Carré hasn't made his bones. For sheer operational skills, he's hard to top. I still think Little Drummer Girl is extraordinary, even if you take it purely as a roadmap on how to mount covert. Legacy of Spies doesn't disappoint, I don't want to give that impression at all. In fact, I wish the book were three hundred and fifty pages long, instead of two-fifty. I'm only saying that le Carré and I take different lessons away from our own histories, our own private fictions.

13 September 2017

Cabin Fever

David Edgerley Gates

The current issue of Alfred Hitchcock (September/October) includes stories by me, Eve Fisher, and Janice Law - all of us SleuthSayers contributors. Here's looking at you, kid.



My story, "Cabin Fever," was written quite some time ago, and it's taken a while for it to work its way to the top of the stack. I'm mentioning this because what I'd like to talk about here is how stories get started, why an idea takes hold, and what kind of legs it needs to get us across the finish line.

Here's a curious thing. For some years now, Craig Johnson has been coming through Santa Fe as each new Longmire title launches, and for the past six years, his visits have coincided with the shooting schedule of Longmire, the TV series. As it happens, when Craig came to town to promote Hell Is Empty, the Longmire cast and crew were shooting the episode based on the book. And also, somewhere in this time period, or not long after, I'd started "Cabin Fever." The point is, Hell Is Empty has Walt tracking down an escaped con through a winter blizzard. "Cabin Fever" has my guy, Hector, held hostage by escaped cons in the middle of a forest fire. But. I didn't catch up with Hell Is Empty until later that year and the Longmire season opener wasn't broadcast until a year after that. There wasn't any cross-pollination. My idea came out of thin air.

Or not? We've all had the experience of things floating around in the zeitgeist, or drifting by, in our peripheral vision, that suddenly take on shape, and density. In our sentimental moments, we might even call it inspiration, the light on the road to Damascus. On a less exalted plane, it's more like you're hitching a ride, and somebody pulls over. I couldn't tell you where the set-up for "Cabin Fever" came from. Hector's truck breaks down, he's out in the back of beyond with no cell coverage, and a weather system's blowing in. He decides to try and find shelter, and beat the storm. There turn out to be other people lost in the woods, and soon enough they find each other.

I think it's safe to say that a story's going to change with different storytellers. The approach, the attack, the retreat. We might call the story "Stop Me If You've Heard This." A cop, a priest, and a hooker walk into a bar. You and I are entirely likely to go off at right angles to one another, or in completely opposite directions. It depends on what we think the story is. Where's the emphasis, who's got the POV, when do you show your hole cards?

Supposing that Craig and I did have a similar idea, and at more or less the same time, the end results turn out differently in the actual telling. I can give you another example. And in this case, I know where and when the match lit the fuse.

I was faithful reader of Marc Simmons' weekly column Trail Dust, in the Santa Fe New Mexican, until he retired the column last year. (Simmons, a highly-regarded New Mexico historian, has a reported forty-nine books under his belt.) He wrote a piece about the Butterfield freight line and a stagecoach loaded with gold that disappeared on the eve of the Civil War, in the desert west of Lordsburg. Was there treasure buried in a place called Doubtful Canyon? OK. First off, Lordsburg. John Ford's movie Stagecoach is based on the Ernest Haycox story "Stage to Lordsburg." I couldn't possibly pass that up. Secondly, how does anybody resist a name like Doubtful Canyon? There's your title, ready-to-wear. Last but not least, the bare bones of the story itself, men on the run with thirty thousand in Yankee gold, in hostile Apache country. I'm lathered up already.

The story I wound up writing ("Doubtful Canyon," of course) clocked in at some 20,000 words. It capped off, at least for a while, the bounty hunter series. I thought it was terrific, fully fleshed, peopled with rattlesnakes and rascals, and a satisfying answer to the puzzle, if made up out of whole cloth. It wasn't an easy sell, though, not at that length. I was a little disheartened. About a year later, then, you can imagine my shock when I ran across a new novel on the Westerns shelf at Collected Works bookshop called Doubtful Cañon - Cañon the Spanish spelling. What fresh hell was this? I knew the name, too. Johnny D. Boggs. I'd read one of his earlier books, Camp Ford, and liked it a lot. I was going to revisit my opinion now, you can bet your sweet ass.

Much to my chagrin, this Boggs turns out to be no schlump, as a writer. And this being Santa Fe, we bump into each other, sooner rather than later, at a library event. He's genuine, personable, and funny. All-around good company. The guy coaches Little League, for John's sake. Impossible not to like, which is even more annoying.



Johnny's novel is a YA, and yes, it does take off from the same start point, the missing stagecoach full of gold. There are other synchronicities. We both tell the story from a distance, in hindsight, although he gives it twenty years, and I gave it fifty. Part of this is, I think, a sense of perspective, tilting the horizon, and another part of it artful misdirection. Johnny and I both used a split screen, in effect, and the device of a not entirely reliable narration as well, but we deployed it differently. In my case, I alternated the two time-frames, too.

As a writer - or as one of two writers grazing the same section of fence - I'm probably more interested in the confluences between Johnny's approach to the canvas and mine. A critical reader, who doesn't have skin in the game, might well be more interested in where we diverged. But absent the annotated Library of America edition, we'll skip the play by play. The question isn't whether the idea is original, it's whether we made it our own.

Here's a last little teaser, a sort of exercise. I ran across this poster at my local frame shop. Tell me it doesn't conjure up all sorts of possibilities. I'm not sure how I'd use it, myself, but I'm going to let it rattle around in the cupboards for awhile. How about you?



23 August 2017

Bread and Circuses

David Edgerley Gates


This post is prompted in part by Barb Goffman's piece, from last week, about bearing witness to wrong-doing.

I'm not a fan of scoring political points in my stories. That doesn't mean I steer clear of political situations, or real-world issues. Of course, when they're safely in the past, that's a help. I've used the Viet Nam antiwar movement (and the FBI's counterintelligence programs) to what I think is good effect. And even in the present day, there's no reason to put stuff off-limits, unless it breaks the glass. 

There are easy ways to lose your reader's trust. You can make an obvious mistake, with geography, or firearms, or stamp collecting. Get one thing wrong they know about, and they won't believe it when you tell them things they don't know about. Ironclad rule. And the same is true of introducing your visceral dislike of Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump. You're going back on the deal you made. Not that we agreed to provide utterly mindless entertainment, but that we promised a convincing alternative reality, proxies of our common disquiet. I once reminded a friend of mine that most people are murdered by people in their own families, a wife by her husband, for example. She said, that was why she'd rather read about Hannibal Lecter. It was vicariously frightening, instead of familiar.

I get aggravated when Steve Hunter backhands Obama. It's gratuitous. In fairness, I'm equally annoyed if John LeCarre gets on his high horse about Thatcher and the Tory legacy. In either case, they're spoiling the illusion. Sometimes it's fun to see the man behind the curtain, what Orson Welles called showing you how the model train set works, but that's a different order of things. I don't frankly care what your personal political sympathies are. I don't want to hear them. I'm with Samuel Goldwyn, if you want to send a message, use Western Union.

Let's get it out front. It can't be any mystery that my own politics are somewhere Left of Steve Hunter, if maybe on the less radical side of LeCarre. I'm a social liberal, I don't have a problem using the tax system for income redistribution, and I'm pro-Choice. I also served in the military, and own guns. Are these inconsistencies? Men in this line of work are not all alike.

I don't think our politics affect how we tell a story. Allen Drury was by all reports a fair way to the Right of Genghis Khan, but Advise and Consent is a cracking good book all the same. I think, on the other hand, that our politics have a lot to do with the stories we choose to tell. As a for instance, both T. Jefferson Parker and I have written about the present-day border wars, drugs and human traffic coming north, money and guns going south, the so-called Iron River. What's going on is deeply corrupt. Jeff Parker and I agree Mexico is a failed state, and that the U.S. is complicit, but nothing we've written about this is prescriptive. We're not telling you how to vote.

Maybe it's a matter of degree, or emphasis. Wearing your heart on your sleeve. "I bet they're asleep in New York. I bet they're asleep all over America." Casablanca is, in the one sense, overtly political, and on the other hand, it's intensely personal. Why, the captain asks, can't Rick go back to America? Well, for one thing, he fought in Spain, on the Loyalist side. Which makes him what used to be called a Premature Anti-Fascist. He's politically suspect. He might even be a Red. The picture takes place in late 1941, but it was made in '42, and we were already in the war by then. Rick's earlier sympathies can be forgiven. In any event, this is context. It's not what the picture's about. "Who was it you left me for? Was it Laszlo, or were there others in between? Or aren't you the kind that tells?" That's what the picture's about.

We could say, then, that it comes down to story. Not a theme, or a setting, or the atmospherics of dread - be it Nazis, or Commies, or the surveillance state - but the through line. Who the characters understand themselves to be, and how they act (or choose not to act), and what the consequences are. I wouldn't call this a failure of nerve, I'd say it was knowing your lines and showing up on time. Political posturing isn't persuasive. Emotional investment is. The beating of your heart outguns the cannon fire.

The question Barb Goffman raised was about cowardice, and moral imperatives. Don't we have an obligation to speak out, at the least, against violence and hatred? And if we're silent, or indifferent, isn't that collusion? If you were a Jew in Hitler's Germany, would you fight, or hide? It's worth remembering that acts of conscience, in a lot of places, and even today, can cost you your life. We're not just talking about the Third World here, and primitive goons like Boko Haram. The First World has its own fatwas. We don't pretend we're doing it for God, or supposedly.

I don't have any prescriptive answer for this riddle, either. There are safe choices, and dangerous ones. We can all hope we'd rise to the occasion, if our courage were put to the test. But we don't really know whether we'd collaborate, to save ourselves or buy time. As for making our voices heard, I think we owe it to those other voices that are so deafeningly silenced. Just this week, a Turkish writer with German citizenship, Dogan Akhanli, was arrested in Spain on an Interpol warrant issued by the Erdogan government, requesting Akhanli's extradition. It's a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment. We forget in this country that speech isn't protected in much of the world. Dogan Akhanli has had the bad manners to write about the Armenian genocide, which in Turkey invites jail time for sedition.

Heroics aside - standing up against tyranny - we still don't seem to have decided the issue. What place do our politics have in our writing, mysteries or thrillers or any fiction at all? The key here, I guess, is the adjective 'our.' Lots of stories have a political dimension, and we could name any number of plot engines that do, from conflict diamonds to extraordinary rendition to black market transplant organs harvested from convicts. On the other hand, I'm not going to inflict my own politics on you. It's not hard to make that distinction. Don't tell people what to think. Stories are about movement. If something gets in the way of that forward motion, and makes the reader break eye contact, then it doesn't belong.



09 August 2017

Going Away

David Edgerley Gates

Clancy Sigal died last month. He was a friend of friends, I didn't know him, although we had a flurry of Facebook posts and private e-mails back and forth in the last couple of years, and I relished them.

Clancy wasn't a household name, but that of course depends on your household. For those of us of a certain age, and a certain political persuasion, he was something of a heroic figure. He was an old-time Lefty, and proud of it, but I'm thinking of his 1961 novel, Going Away.

Going Away is a road novel. Subtitled 'a Report, a Memoir,' it reverses the usual convention, the westward journey, and travels West to East. At the end of the book, even, the narrator takes ship for Europe, the Old World. It's also generational, a voyage of recovery - not the twelve steps, but the recovery of memory, of history, and the ever-retreating past. It had an enormous influence on me. More than Catcher in the Rye or On the Road, or Bill Goldman's first novel, The Temple of Gold, all of which I'd devoured and attached myself to. What they had in common, both with each other and with Going Away, was a sense of yearning, a place just over the horizon. And larger than this, Going Away suggested that a life of engagement was not only possible, or worth seeking out, but necessary. In other words, that moral energy is nourishing.


Going Away is really about a legacy, and Clancy uses the word, or its first cousin. "We are the residual legatees," he says, of something good and even noble in American politics. The fight for social justice is no mean thing. We can argue about whether the Left was hijacked by the Communists, or how Organized Labor lost its way, and unions got mobbed up, but you have to admit that once upon a time there was maybe an ideal to live up to. Maybe that's in fact the problem, that the ideal is impossible to live up to, that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Going Away is a chronicle of disillusion, and loss. Our hopes held in trust, only to be sold off, a dime on the dollar.

There's a halfway famous remark Isaac Asimov once made, which I may have quoted before. He's asked, "When was the Golden Age of science fiction?" and he says, "Fifteen." You know where I'm going with this. We all too often have some terrific enthusiasm, at whatever age, and then we outgrow it. This is very true of books. Some of them just don't bear re-reading. There's a writer you couldn't get enough of, then, and now they leave you cold. It could be that we get more sophisticated, because the opposite happens - I could never have appreciated Trollope, for example, when I was in my teens or twenties, I had a hard enough time with Dickens. So with regard to Clancy, and Going Away, it's terrifically heartening for me to report that fifty years on, the book stands up just fine. It's still as much of a gas to read. I'd actually forgotten how funny it is. Clancy never took himself too seriously.

There's also a larger point to be made here, I think, about influences. I can say I never realized how much influence Kipling had on me, not until I read Puck of Pook's Hill years later. (My dad had read it aloud to me when I was five or six.) I could say the same about Walt Kelly and Pogo, or Carl Barks and the Disney duck comics. Then there are the conscious influences. Steinbeck, say. Hemingway. No apologies. Eudora Welty. John O'Hara. Mary Renault. You read more. You get older. You do get more supple, and more sophisticated. You pick up more tricks. Here's the thing. Clancy Sigal didn't influence me in terms of style, or method, a way of telling a story, or certainly not the way O'Hara did. Clancy influenced my life. He wrote a book that fundamentally changed the way I looked out at the world. He made me a participant.

26 July 2017

Old Dogs

David Edgerley Gates

Even before Rob Lopresti mentioned it last week - is there a rule about blondes? - I'd been watching the Brit cop show New Tricks, starting at the beginning of the series and working my way forward. I remember catching some episodes when they were broadcast on A&E or maybe Mystery, but I wasn't a regular. Just like discovering a new writer when they're already established (picking up a book from the middle of their catalog, and then going back to read all of their books in order of appearance), you get a stronger sense of brand loyalty, not to mention story dynamic and character, when you watch a series from the start. You see them correct the seasoning, too, and find the right beat. Riker is better with a beard. Barney Miller doesn't need a home life.

New Tricks was camera-ready pretty much right out of the box. They established a framework, furnished it with familiar devices, and peopled it with a comfortably solid crew. And something unpredictable happened. The show got legs, yes, but the anarchic energies of the game team, or whatever was in the water, made for an eccentric orbit. This is immediately obvious in the chemistry between the four character leads, and the writing plays off this as the series builds on itself. It's a symbiotic process.


The premise is reasonably straightforward. A fast-track Detective Superintendent is given the job of recruiting a cold case squad for the Met. She lines up three retired cops, each with particular strengths and weaknesses. They are, in fact, past their sell-by date, and the tensions between the three older guys and their younger, ambitious boss are about gender, and generations, and not a little about style. Which makes for easy targets, on the one hand, but some quieter subtext, on the other. The show can be surprisingly dark, comic relief a way to depressurize. The pilot for New Tricks came on in 2003, the same year as the American series Cold Case. Cold Case, though, was pretty relentlessly grim. Also the American show used flashbacks as a regular feature, reconstructing what might have happened.  New Tricks takes place entirely in the here and now, using only the POV of the detectives.


What makes it effective? The casting. This is as true of Jim Garner in Rockford as it is of Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote. In this this case, it's the ensemble, and the way they rub off on one another (or rub each other the wrong way). Four old pros, basically. Alun Armstrong is one of those English supporting actors you recognize immediately, without remembering quite where it was you saw him last. Something of Dickens, maybe? You look him up, it's amazing, the range of stuff he's been in. James Bolam runs a close second. (It surprised me to see he once even did Andy Capp, the working-class comic strip character.) Amanda Redman has done Diana Dors, she was Ray Winstone's wife in Sexy Beast, and she's got a long line of British TV credits. Lastly, there's Dennis Waterman, with a career going back to the 1960's. Waterman was the second-billed lead (after John Thaw) in The Sweeney, a cop show that overturned convention, at least in the UK. Up until then, the idea that a cop would bend the law to put a villain away wouldn't have been spoken above a whisper. It's hard to overstate its influence. As big as Miami Vice here in the States, ten years later? Let's just say it's a name cast, so far as British viewers go. (Nor to scant the wonderful Susan Jameson, either, who plays Alun Armstrong's better half, and is married to James Bolam, in life.)


And part of the fun, on either side of the Pond, is the list of guest shots. Ooh, look, there's Patrick Malahide  (Inspector Alleyn, Balon Greyjoy), or Clare Holman, from Morse, and Lewis, and Lewis himself, Kevin Whately, playing against type as a rather dodgy school headmaster. Jon Finch, Rupert Graves, Phyllida Law, Claire Bloom, Peter Davison, Anthony Head. Cherie Lunghi, Jane Asher, Victor Spinetti, Art Malik, Honor Blackman, Camille Coduri, Rita Tushingham, Sylvia Syms, Jenny Agutter, James Fox, Nicholas Farrell, John McEnery, Roy Marsden. Sheesh.


The scripts are very canny, and consistent. They have the satisfaction of good joinery, tightly fit and pleasingly shaped. The usual red herrings, and the least likely, but the stories play fair. The procedural and the personal are interleaved, and they inform each other. The funny stuff surfaces in unlikely places, too, catching you with your guard down. Dennis Waterman's Jerry, who fancies himself something of a ladies' man: "I used to have a thing for older women." Amanda Redman's Sandra: "And now there aren't any." (The exchanges between the two of them given a slight extra edge by our behind-the-scenes knowledge that they were briefly an item themselves, back in the day.)

The show ran its course. At mid-point, it was one of the most-watched series in the UK. But after eight seasons, James Bolam left, and Alun Armstrong and Amanda Redman hung up their spurs after season ten. Dennis Waterman lasted into the opening episodes of season twelve, and then he too turned in his badge. New Tricks folded.


The lesson here isn't about losing stamina or overstaying your welcome. The lesson is about how they got it right in the first place. We know it's not as easy as it looks. Part of it's luck, part of it's having good material, part of it's showing up on time. The writers, the cast, the production values. They knew they were onto something, and it shows. What it is, is heart. They delivered.

12 July 2017

Potemkin Villages

David Edgerley Gates


I ran across an article by Katherine Cross in the Daily Beast that used the expression "Potemkin morality," which struck me as an interesting phrase. Her piece is about the alt-Right troll campaign against CNN, with its echoes of GamerGate. (GamerGate is itself a complicated story, with a subtext of women-hating and a foretext of anti-Semitism and agitprop, essentially tone-deaf to facts and reasoning, or shame.)
http://www.thedailybeast.com/the-anti-cnn-harassment-campaign-is-using-the-gamergate-playbook
She uses the Potemkin reference to mean something akin to crocodile tears, or bare-faced hypocrisy, to make the truth uncertain and proofs negotiable.

Prince Grigory Potemkin was an 18th-century Russian, a favored minister of Catherine the Great. Governor-general of Novorossiya - the southern Dnieper watershed and the Black Sea from Odessa to the Donbass, including Crimea - he famously hosted Catherine on a trip downriver from Kiev in the summer of 1787. Along the banks, he allegedly built colorful villages that were basically stage sets, and peopled them with thousands of smiling, waving peasants. The empress graciously acknowledged her happy subjects from a suitably royal remove.

The story is by all accounts exaggerated, but hence the term Potemkin Village. More than a false front, or a false-fronted building, it's a false narrative, a belief system, but constructed out of whole cloth. From what we know, Catherine might not have been fooled, or she may have chosen to turn a blind eye to the deception. You can turn this back to front yourself, of course, depending on POV. Usually, it's seen as a cautionary tale, about vanity. Or a courtier's flattery, telling your queen what you think she wants to hear. Catherine, we suspect, would have been better served by honesty, but that's a toughie. What if the unwelcome truth cost you your place near the throne, or your own head? Gifts and favors can be withdrawn.

In the event, however, Potemkin's village is an empty shell, a facade, a ghost town. The empress graces it with her glance, and it drifts astern. Its purpose has been served, to distract attention from broken walls and failed crops, sickly livestock and barefoot tenants. Misdirection is one way of putting it.

'Active disinformation' is another possibility - borrowing the vocabulary of the modern security apparat - and I think this is the sense Katherine Cross intends. She means Potemkin, the modifier, to indicate something not simply staged, a puppet show, but a more sinister design than that, calculated disregard. None of your moral relativism, either, Complete abandonment. No baseline whatsoever. Prince Potemkin's fiction is inflated to metaphorical extremes. But it was always a metaphor about surfaces, and hollow figures, empty air.

In the context of the Daily Beast article, we're talking about vigilantes on social media, and the practice of doxing [dox = docs = documents], exposing somebody's personal information on the Internet for revenge. This isn't a tactic exclusive to the alt-Right, but the politics of bullying are familiar enough. It's old wine in new bottles. Even if the delivery changes, the message stays the same, and it's curious how the clothes of righteousness still seem to be one size fits all. (It is a little disconcerting how many of these people are neo-Nazis or Aryan Nations or white supremacists, in or out of uniform.) Oh, but of course they themselves wear masks, this being the Internet and all. You can't disguise your handwriting, though. It gives the game away.

We know to mistrust absolutes, orthodoxy, the received wisdom. Too often it's an alibi for cruelty, or flat-out extermination. But aren't there basic norms? We accept certain conventions, like driving on the right (or the left, in some countries), just to make it safely through the day. And we accept certain others, simply because they seem part of civility, or common decency. You don't have to subscribe to any particular party line. Most of us, for the most part, agree a few courtesies are necessary.

There are always the ones who think rules are for suckers. A lot of them are criminals. Not all of them get caught. What they share is a sense of entitlement. They're the dispossessed, they've been cheated. Trolls, lurking in the virtual undergrowth. Parasites, by any other name.

It comes down to something outside our own convenience, a fundamental respect for other people. The lesson of Prince Potemkin's reconstruction is that it's theater, a dress rehearsal. You don't rehearse morality. You don't wear it as a costume, and take it off when the lights go dark.  


28 June 2017

Wet Work

David Edgerley Gates

All this talk of spies, and Russian manipulation, plots divers and devious, is enough to make more than a few of us nostalgic for the Cold War. My pal Carolyn sent me a link to a recent Dexter Filkins piece in The New Yorker which speculates 'nostalgic' ain't the half of it, the body count going up as scores are settled.

We're on shaky ground here, in the Twilight Zone between coincidence and conspiracy. The politically suspect have been raw meat for years, inside Russia, journalists a favorite target, but the received wisdom has always been that the security organs don't operate with impunity in the U.S. I'm not so sure. Historically, we've got the murder of Gen. Walter Krivitsky, in 1941. His death was ruled suicide, but informed opinion agrees that NKVD rigged it to look that way. (Krivitsky died six months after they got to Trotsky, in Mexico.) Then there's Laurence Duggan, who fell out of a 16th-story window in New York in 1948. He had a meeting scheduled with his Soviet control that day. You think to yourself, Okay, but that was Stalin, this isn't the old days, when Yezhov and Beria could conjure up triggermen like dragon's teeth. Then again, who exactly is Vladimir Putin if not a wolf in wolf's clothing?

What we're talking about is the possibility, at least, that Russian state security is fielding hit teams on American soil. In the past, these were proxy killings, and they took place in client states or satellites. Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia. Very seldom, if ever, would you take out the pros on either team, the agent-runners, KGB, CIA, the Brits, the Israelis. You compromised their assets, you sowed discord and misdirection, you put them at cross-purposes, but you didn't knock 'em off like gangland rivals. And we didn't go after targets in the Soviet Union, they didn't come after targets Stateside. That seemed to be the unspoken agreement, anyway. Professional courtesy. Elsewhere was fair game. Berlin, or Vienna. Helsinki, Athens, Istanbul. And the Third World? You couldn't even trust the water.

It all changed in late 2006, with the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. We'd had the killing of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident, in the UK. This was back in 1978, the notorious poisoned pellet in an umbrella tip - Bulgaria's secret service, the DS, borrowed the toxin from KGB, it's thought. Nobody ever made the case, though. Markov was a one-off. (Not exactly. There was another Bulgarian, in Paris, ten days earlier.) Or maybe the DS operation was rogue? (Not that, either. There's good collateral KGB sponsored it.) In the event, the trail went cold. This isn't to say nobody cared about Markov, but it was a story that flared briefly, and petered out. We're talking about Bulgaria, after all. How many people can find it on a map? More to the point, Markov's murder didn't indicate a pattern. It was an anomaly. And then, almost thirty years later, Litvinenko. Another exotic poison, in this instance, polonium. A defector, a known enemy, a slanderer, and a personal insult to Vladimir Putin that the son-of-a-bitch is still walking around.

The issue for the Kremlin seems to be that people like Litvinenko, and the opposition politician Sergei Yushenkov, and the reporter Anna Politkovskaya, just won't shut up. The three of them are now dead, of course. The bone that got stuck in their throat appears to have been Chechnya. Chechen terrorists were blamed for the apartment bombings in Moscow and two other cities in 1999 that gave Putin political cover to jump-start the Second Chechen War. In a fourth city, Ryazan, a team of FSB covert operatives were arrested after planting explosives, and the story went round that all of the apartment bombings were a security service provovcation, a false-flag attack. Then there's the Moscow theater siege in 2002, which people have also suggested was a provocation, and there's the Beslan school hostage massacre in 2004. Three events pinned on Islamic jihadis from the Caucasus, and used to prosecute the war with increasing brutality - scorched earth, in effect - and three events possibly orchestrated or abetted by federal security agencies. The stories aren't going to stop, but they've become whispers and hearsay, their voices have been lost, along with Litvinenko, Yushenkov, and Politkovskaya.

Using state security, or the Mafia, or freelance private contractors, to settle up your debts can be habit-forming. You get a taste for it. And quite possibly, you get bolder, or maybe you just don't care if you leave your handwriting. When you come down to it, what's the point of intimidation, if you don't sign your name?

In his New Yorker piece, Dexter Filkins floats a few possibilities, U.S. targets, ex-pat critics of the Kremlin who wound up in the hospital, or dead. If targeted they were. It's a tough call. Guy gets drunk and chokes on a piece of chicken? Could happen. Guy gets beaten to death in a hotel room? Seems less like a happy accident. What about the guy who had a gun put to his head? Nobody murmured in your ear, "Michael Corleone sends his regards." There's nothing solid to go on. All we can say is, This happened before, and such-and-such didn't. We're left with supposition and suspicion.

Here's a supposition. Putin thinks he can get away with murder because he hasit's that simple. As for the niceties, or the courtesy, well. Chert vozmy. The devil take it. This is somebody who doesn't even have to pretend to courtesy. Still. It presents an uneven risk-benefit ratio. My guess is that it's more about, Who will rid me of this tempestuous priest? In other words, it isn't Putin's express bidding. He doesn't have to put pen to paper, or even raise his voice. Oligarchs and Mafia bosses kiss his ring. The thought is father to the deed.

One other thing. Rules of engagement aside, it seems awfully petty to put so much energy into hunting down a few loudmouths, mostly nuisance value, sticks and stones. You have to take yourself pretty seriously to take them so seriously. Which is I guess the point. We imagine that Power is the great engine, the dynamic that shapes men, and history. What if it's just vanity, or hurt feelings? 

14 June 2017

Michael R. Davidson's THE DOVE

David Edgerley Gates



1987, the Cold War. Reagan is president, Gorbachev is General Secretary. The Russians are mired in Afghanistan, ground down by attrition, death by inches. What if there's a way to bleed them out faster?

CIA's chief of operations at the Paris station is approached by French security, We have a potential KGB defector, in Moscow, they tell him. But for us it's a Denied Area. We don't have the resources to operate there. You do. Harry Connolly, CIA operations, knows Rule One: There are friendly countries, but no such thing as friendly intelligence services. What do the French want in return?

It turns out the French want the product. They've just been beat out of the biggest arms deal in history by the British, a total of 20 billion pounds sterling, to the Saudis, and the French smell a rat. The defector in Moscow has inside information on the arms sale.

The defector has access to the material because his skill set is technology theft. KGB has a compromised asset inside the Saudi deal, but more to the point, CIA could use the defector's knowledge to map Soviet weaknesses. Where are the gaps, what's on their shopping list, which specific technology problems are they targeting? 

And we're off. Paris to Moscow, Paris to DC. London to Riyadh, London to Geneva. Harry has good tradecraft, and he begins to pull the threads together. Everybody's got a piece, from the fixer for a Saudi Prince, Mohammed Attar, to the British procurement minister James Abbott, to banker and bagman Wafiq al Salah, to the Novosti correspondent Nikolay Kozlov, a KGB spook under journalistic cover, and the hapless defector-in-place Stepan Barsikov, giving classified information to the West because he's defeated at love. The journey crosses personal landscapes as much as physical distance. And interestingly, not everybody learns everything. There are things left hidden, or unspoken.

And the last question, the historical one, about the end of the Soviet Union, did they fall or were they pushed? It's perfectly plausible, as The Dove suggests, that the Russians could be goaded into overreach and overspending. Imperial ambition, with an economy on the edge of collapse, and political hardening of the arteries, the Old Guard unable and unwilling to accept reform, meant the system was on life-support, and ready to collapse of its own weight. They were perched on a narrow ledge. Gravity did the rest. Oh, and maybe just a small thumb on the scale.

https://www.amazon.com/Dove-Michael-R-Davidson/dp/0692877142/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1497302186&sr=1-1&keywords=michael+r+davidson


This is a review I posted on Amazon for The Dove, with the tagline "authentic and thought-provoking." I've got a couple of things to add. They're in the nature of personal observations, what you might call editorial asides.

First off, it's probably obvious I have a weak spot for Cold War spy stories, having written a few myself, and Michael Davidson knows the territory. This is probably the place to note that Davidson is former career CIA.

Second, although I wouldn't presume to call us close friends, Michael and I are Facebook pals, and we've had the occasional private e-mail conversation. Fair disclosure.

Third, it should be said that Michael and I aren't entirely on the same page, politically. I think he's somewhere to the Right of Attila the Hun, he thinks I'm somewhere to the Left of W.E.B. Du Bois. (I'm exaggerating. A little.) The point here, specifically referencing The Dove, is that it's an article of faith among Reagan's admirers that he brought the USSR to its knees by forcing them to spend money they couldn't afford on advanced weapons systems, to keep pace with American technological developments. This isn't unfounded. I'd be likely to give some credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union to the Polish pope, or Lech Walesa, and fissures in the empire - the Causasus, the rise of radical Islam, falling oil prices - but let's be fair.

It's interesting to me that two guys with an intelligence background, Michael's far more extensive than mine, can agree to disagree on a fair number of things, yet not lose sight of certain homely truths. Neither one of us trusts the Russians worth a rat's ass, which is the inner unreconstructed Cold Warrior for you, in full plumage, and we both have an old-fashioned regard for keeping faith, for honorable service, for duty. There are worse things.

24 May 2017

Otto Penzler

by David Edgerley Gates

A nice piece about Otto Penzler just appeared in Atlas Obscura, an introduction and an appreciation, written by Dan Nosowitz. I personally don't think Otto can be celebrated too much. He himself might graciously suggest otherwise, but the rest of us, no. Credit where credit is due.

(I don't pretend to be impartial. Otto's long-listed me a number of times for Best American Mystery Stories, and I've made the cut in three of them, always in good company.)



I'm fairly confident the Mysterious Bookshop wasn't the first bookstore to focus exclusively on mysteries, but it's now the longest-running. There have been a lot of changes to the book biz since 1979, and brick-and-mortar have taken much of the hit. Mysterious keeps the faith.

Mysterious Press has been around since 1975. Sold to Warner, under the Hachette umbrella, later bought back by Otto and moved to Grove Atlantic. He used his own name for an imprint starting at Macmillan, ending up at Houghton Mifflin. Eric Ambler and Isaac Asimov, Len Deighton, James Ellroy, Patricia Highsmith, Ross Thomas, Don Westlake.


Best American Mystery Stories, beginning in 1997. The first guest editor was Robert Parker. Followed by, among others, Sue Grafton, Larry Block, Westlake, Ellroy, Nelson DeMille, Carl Hiassen, Joyce Carol Oates, Lee Child, Laura Lippman. The anthology's a benchmark, and the contributors number both brand names and newbies.

Otto puts his money where his mouth is. As an editor, as a publisher, as a bookseller and a book buyer. He doth make love to this employment. He knows everybody. Otto's enthusiasm - for writers, for books, for vigorous opinions - is actually his job description. He gets to share his own consuming passion, and I think he's added a room to the house. not that we had anything to be embarrassed about.



This is in aid of saying, if you don't know the guy, or didn't know of him, make his acquaintance in this profile. Otto Penzler has been carrying water for the mystery and thriller community for quite a while now, and had himself a good time doing it. None of us are the poorer.