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

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.

10 May 2017

Rattling the Cupboards

 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the twelfth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

by David Edgerley Gates

All happy families are alike, Tolstoy famously says, and each unhappy family unhappy in their own way. Tolstoy certainly knew from personal experience. John le Carré is another writer whose unsettling family history gave him not only a template, but a theme. He tells us the habits of concealment have served him a lifetime - not always with the desired result. Skeletons in closets.

Buried secrets are an old literary device. The buried past particularly. I'm always a sucker for it, and it's one I've used myself fairly often. I have to wonder too, like le Carré, how much of my personal history conspires to make the secret so attractive.

Well, first off, there's the official record - not all of it on the record, naturally. Most people know I was a Russian linguist and intercept analyst when I was in the Air Force, and probably as many people know from reading my posts here that my uncle Charlie Haskins was at Bletchley Park during WWII. He also served on Eisenhower's national security staff during Eisenhower's presidency. I suspect there's more to his life in the secret world, but I'll never know. Going back another generation, his own dad, the historian Charles Homer Haskins, was at Versailles with Wilson, in 1919. Specifically, he served on the commission to administer the Saar. You wouldn't think this was a political hot potato, because everybody pretty much conceded the French would control the coalfields, but it may have been one of Wilson's bargaining chips with Clemenceau. Wilson himself was impatient with the machinations at the conference, but his main advisor (and intelligence chief) Col. House didn't mind getting his hands dirty, and my grandfather reported to House. I can only guess, but given my fanciful nature, I imagine there's probably more to this than meets the eye.

Then, we got the unofficial. My mom's family, the same lineage as above, had one of those episodes everybody was deeply embarrassed about, and it was rarely spoken of. The problem being, for a kid, is that the hints and silent glances only made you want more, and more was never forthcoming, which of course made the whole thing out to be worse than it was. This dark blot on the escutcheon was the fact that my great-grandparents had divorced, a scandal that apparently shook late 19th-century St. Louis society, not least because he divorced her, which to all intents and purposes branded her a Scarlet Woman. A veil is drawn across what actually happened, but the point isn't what in fact actually happened - with a lot of spadework, my sister Bea has dug out the details - but that everybody felt it was too shameful, it had to stay hidden, it couldn't be talked of. Like the madwoman in the attic, Mrs. Rochester. There's more than a little of the Gothic, here.

It turns out there really is somebody in the attic, too, now you mention it. My grandfather, my mom's dad, the aforementioned Charles Homer Haskins, came down with Parkinson's. He had to give up teaching, and the slow degenerative process wore him down. It killed him at 66. For the last years of his life, he lived on the third floor of the house in Cambridge he and his wife had built early in their marriage. As a boy, I'd always found my grandmother's house spooky and dark, haunted not too strong a word. And it was only years later, when the house was being sold, that I ever ventured up to the third floor. To my enormous surprise, it was filled with light. Made me feel a lot better, truth be told, to know he wasn't left in darkness.

There's another legacy of shadow, the troubled relationship between their children, my mom and her two brothers. My uncle Charlie was the middle one, and from all the evidence a mediating influence. My uncle George was the oldest. Seen at this remove, a bully, emotionally abusive, a predator. Nothing to be done about it now. Not that I'd have a problem pissing on his grave. My real revenge would be to write a book about it, and cast him as the heavy.

It's odd to realize you get material out of this. If not the actual, the impulse. All that compacted sadness. It's not right, somehow. Or maybe we're making amends. That sorrow isn't of our making. It's gone, it's done, it's well beyond our control, it was never ours to begin with. Perhaps this is how we claim ownership, the way we bear witness. Survivors' guilt. We owe them. This is the coin we carry for the ferryman, to pay for our own crossing.

26 April 2017

Life on Mars

David Edgerley Gates


Life on Mars is another one of those oddball Brit TV shows you come across from time to time. It ran in the UK from 2006-2007, and then fell off the radar, although David Kelley produced a short-lived American remake, and there were Spanish, Russian, and Czech versions. Later on, the original creative team developed the sequel Ashes to Ashes, which BBC One broadcast from 2008 to 2010.

I came to Life on Mars backwards, by way of an entirely different series called Island at War, about the WWII German occupation of the Channel Islands. Island at War had a high-powered cast, for those of you familiar with British TV - Clare Holman, Saskia Reeves, James Wilby, Laurence Fox, along with a guy who hadn't caught my eye before, Philip Glenister. The show's a little reminiscent of Foyle's War, because of the period, for one, but also the slightly off-center POV. The crushing weakness of Island at War is that it stops dead after six episodes (it apparently didn't pull in enough audience share), so what happens to these characters we've become invested in can never be resolved. They're marooned, foundlings, lost from view. The fates we imagine for them go unsatisfied.

What's a boy to do? I went looking for more Philip Glenister. There's a fair bit of it, he's got a solid list of credits, and as luck would have it, the first thing to turn up on my researches was Life on Mars, two sets, eight episodes each. I could see heartbreak ahead yet again, but I took the plunge.

Here's the premise. The hotshot young DCI, rising star Sam Tyler, is knocked flat by a hit-and-run, and when he wakes up, the time is out of joint. It's thirty-odd years in the past. 1973. Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Mott the Hoople. There are basically three alternatives. Sam has actually traveled back in time? Um. He's stark raving nuts? Could be. Or is this all a figment of his imagination, because in the real world, his own world, he's in a hospital bed in Intensive Care, in a coma? Which is what Sam decides to believe. He's hearing voices, having hallucinations. He must be elsewhere, if he's somehow generating this fiction, this vivid alternative reality.

And into this vivid fiction swaggers Philip Glenister, playing the juiciest part in the show, DCI Gene Hunt, the 'guv,' or as the local Manchester accent has it, Dee-See-AH Hoont. Life in Mars, see, is a police procedural, but the era of Hawaii Five-O, if not Barney Miller. In point of fact, what Sam wakes up to is a cop shop filtered through a TV sensibility. There's enough "Book 'em, Dan-o" to go around, and a grab-bag of generic conceits, but the characters play both into and against type - at the same time - which keeps you guessing. Glenister certainly plays Hunt as larger than life, and Hunt is often shot from a lower camera angle. He looms. Glenister voices him at a rough pitch, too, so he seems more villain, in the Brit sense, than copper. Which makes the moments when he unbends all the more affecting. Hunt isn't confessional, he doesn't admit his vulnerabilities, you'd never catch him getting teary. Sam puts a sympathetic hand on the guv's shoulder in a scene, and Hunt shrugs it off. "Don't go all Dorothy on me," he says.

I'm showing my own hand here, because one of the guilty pleasures in watching Life on Mars is its gleeful political in-correctness. The coarse jokes, the raw vocabulary, the constant smoking - somebody's always lighting a cigarette or putting one out, it's a signature. Less comfortable is the casual violence. The lack of self-discipline is itself corrupting. This isn't a subtext, either, it's front and center, woven into the fabric. I might be reading the signs too closely. Then again, the reason a show like this strikes a nerve, and creates brand loyalty, is because it reflects some hidden thing or open secret, whether it's played for laughs or not. Life on Mars doesn't take itself too seriously, but it invites our complicity.

What, then, accounts for its extended shelf life? People keep discovering or rediscovering the show, the sixteen episodes of those two seasons out on DVD. (Ashes to Ashes, the sequel, is only available so far on Region 2, which makes it more or less out of reach in the U.S. Get a clue, guys, this is a neglected market.) For one, maybe I haven't made it plain that Life on Mars is extremely funny. Sometimes it's gallows humor, sometimes pure burlesque. For another, the cast is terrifically engaging. Glenister owns DCI Hunt, but John Simm as Sam Tyler is the tentpole character. And counter-intuitively, maybe we don't want all those loose ends tied up, everything unambiguous, the answers packaged and portion-controlled. Always leave them waiting for more.


12 April 2017

Keystone Cops - the Trump-Russia Connection

David Edgerley Gates


Once again, a disclaimer. This post isn't political comment, but thinking out loud about the spycraft involved. Nor do I claim special knowledge. It's pure speculation.



If you're one of the people following what Rick Wilson of The Daily Beast has characterized as "the Trump-Russia intelligence and influence scandal," you can be forgiven for experiencing a certain bemusement. The story keeps wandering off-narrative, the cast doesn't know their lines, the whole thing is like a dress rehearsal for the school play. Lucian K. Truscott IV, writing for SALON, sounds a note of gleeful despair, trying to strike a balance between the giddy anarchy of a Three Stooges routine and the jaws of darkness yawning open beneath our feet. You don't have to take sides to take it seriously, but it has an unreal quality. Farce, caricature, exaggeration of effect, clown noses and oversized shoes. 

What would a working intelligence professional make of all this? If we discount the attitude, and the partisanship, and the Whose-Ox-Is-Being-Gored, and focus on the basic operational dynamics - the tradecraft of recruitment, the servicing of resources, the value of the product - does it show any return on the investment? What's our cost-benefit ratio?

Security operations are often graded on the curve. You might have a downside risk, but if you're blown, the exposure is quantifiable. It's worth losing X to acquire Y. Penetrations are always high-value. Getting someone inside. Philby and Blake. Gunter Guillaume. Alger Hiss. Penkovsky. It's a tightrope act for the spy, of course. For his handlers, not so much. Embarrassment, contrition, crocodile tears. Deep-cover assets understand their vulnerability. It's a buyer's market. You're only as good as your last picture. So forth and so on. The point here being that a penetration is usually considered well worth the money, the extra effort, the aggravation. Any rewards justify the sweat equity. But defectors are known to inflate their resumes. They give themselves better credentials, they claim better access. Another thing to remember is that the more difficult the courtship, and the more it costs, the more highly you value the object of your desire. In other words, we both want to close the sale. It's to our mutual advantage. And who's to say there isn't as much wishful thinking on the one side as on the other?

Intelligence consumers want what's known in the trade as collateral, telling detail that gives your product a material weight, the force of gravity. What we've got here is disconnect. Peripheral vision, low light. Manafort is compromised because he was a bagman for Yanukovych. Kushner met with VneshEconomBank chair Gorkov, and VEB launders dirty money for the Kremlin. Flynn broke bread with Putin at a meet-and-greet sponsored by RT. Page and Stone were coat-trailed by SVR. All of it suggestive, none of it at all imperative.

There's a moment in Smiley's People, about a third of the way through, when George learns that Karla is "looking for a legend, for a girl."  This is the place where the story - the story within, the hidden narrative - begins to shape itself. George first hears that voice, and we're taken into his confidence, and feel its muscularity, and the book turns a corner (its secret just around the next one). 

How do we apply the comforts of a fiction? We suppose not, but hold the phone. The absence of structure tells us something. We're used to the idea of conspiracy, plots laid, inductions devious. I'd suggest this wasn't a concerted effort. Not at either end. I think the Russian services went after targets of opportunity. Putin's an old KGB guy of course, but he seems to have buried the hatchet with GRU. He's made extensive use of both, in Crimea and the Donbass. Russian information warfare strategy has also been formalized. Kaspersky Lab, which on paper is private sector, works in cybersecurity. Once upon a time, this was all under the authority of the Organs, the state apparat, but the chain of command is more flexible. I'm guessing an approach to an American or European businessman could be made by anybody, sanctioned or not. Is it corporate espionage, or government? What's the difference? you might ask. If you're shaking hands with the siloviki, the oligarchs, you're already in bed with the Mafia and state security. It's not at all difficult to imagine a guy like Paul Manafort being recruited, because he'd be recruiting talent himself, working both sides of the street. He's cultivating influence, that's his currency. So let's say we see this happen with other examples. No grand design or discipline, just low-hanging fruit.

Moving ahead, we get to the past summer of an election year, 2016, and evidence of Russian e-mail hacking. We know the FBI opened their investigation in July, and it's now being reported that CIA began briefing the Gang of Eight - the senior majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate, and on the intelligence committees - in mid-August. Slight cognitive dissonance, as the Bureau believed the Russian threat was meant only to disrupt the political process in general, CIA believed it was specifically focused on sabotaging the Clinton campaign and electing Trump. CIA suspects active collusion.

What are the basics? We know any intelligence community is top-heavy with turf warriors. MI5 and MI6. FBI and CIA. SVR and FSB and GRU. But there was a trigger mechanism. My guess is that a ranking somebody in the Russian spy orbits took notice and pulled the various threads together. We imagine frustrations expressed at the top of the food chain, "Who will rid me of this tempestuous priest?" And the barons mount up. I'm also thinking this was as much accident as anything else. The necessary tools were ready to hand. All it required was an organizing principle. The rest is housekeeping, who carried the water.

One last observation. The feckless and the foolish are easily led. You play to their vanities, their limitless self-regard. it's never truer than in the spook trade that you can't cheat an honest man.

Recommended:
Lucian K. Truscott IV in SALON
http://www.salon.com/writer/lucian_k_truscott_iv/


22 March 2017

TOM & LUCKY

David Edgerley Gates



In early 1936, the racket-busting New York prosecutor Tom Dewey went after the Mafia crime boss Lucky Luciano. They convicted him, and Luciano drew thirty to fifty. Ten years later, his sentence was commuted and Luciano was deported. Luciano's lawyer in the 1936 trial is a guy named George Morton Levy, not mobbed up by any means, but a regular Joe and a straight arrow. His legal notes, from a long and storied career, have gone unexamined since his death. The writer Chuck Greaves - a former lawyer himself - got access to Levy's papers. And thereby hangs a tale.

Chuck Greaves has two trains running. He's written a series of legal thrillers (three so far, very funny books), Hush Money, Green-Eyed Lady, and The Last Heir, and as C. Thomas Greaves, the noir historicals Hard Twisted and Tom & Lucky.

Tom & Lucky is, you guessed it, about you-know-who. Not to mention George Levy and a soiled dove called Cokey Flo Brown. Each of them gets a turn at bat, the novel told in multiple POV, winding the clock. The book's third act is the showdown in court, which is hotter than a matchhead. Hot enough, as Cokey Flo puts it, in a somewhat different context, that the people in the adjoining rooms could light up cigarettes.

Wait a moment, and savor that turn of phrase. The voices in Tom & Lucky are nothing if not engaging.  Cokey Flo tells her own story, first-person, third person for Dewey, Luciano, and George. That omniscient third is different for each of them, Dewey's reserved, a little chilly, even, Luciano's more interior, but not inviting (he's a moral leper and a psychopath, after all), and George's, finally, one that shares confidences, along with his humanity. Levy is the center of gravity, here. And regarding the voices, or the collective voice of the book, the effect is specific and immersive, a particular time and place.

Not that this is easy to do. In fact, the opposite. It's easy to trip yourself up. Inhabiting the past is tricky. Too much effort, and it shows. The smell of the lamp. You want to bait your hook with the evocative detail, but almost an afterthought, seemingly accidental, something thrown up by the context, yeast working in the dough. The casual aside, overheard, the careless glance. The other device in Tom & Lucky is the use of pulp conventions, again without breaking a sweat. Not just for momentum, or atmospherics - although they happen to work that way, too - but because they're familiar landmarks. Like compass points, they help orient us, both to the period and to the principal relationships. Everything's a transaction. It's about leverage and opportunity, palms and grease.

That said, Tom & Lucky is actually sort of counter-generic. The material is pulpy, the tabloid headlines at the time wrote themselves. Nor can you do a book about this kind of thing without getting into the down and dirty - and of course enjoying it. It's too juicy. George Levy gets his shot at defending Lucky? He'd be crazy not to. Nobody stays home on this one. At the same time, as sensational as all of it is, you don't have to add extra relish. Lurid is as lurid does. For my money, the real trick Chuck Greaves pulls off is that he reimagines the whole event, and doesn't take any cheap shortcuts. The tension is all in the telling. The people sound and seem entirely genuine, to the circumstances. They're not caricature. They're not noir tropes, or conveniences. They're immediately recognizable, their weaknesses, their heroics, their ambitions, their folly. They're in their native element, fully fleshed, and not as if they're posing on the horizon line of history, looking over their shoulder.

Chuck Greaves is published by Bloomsbury and by St. Martins's. The paperback edition of Tom & Lucky (and George & Cokey Flo) comes out April 11th, 2017.
http://chuckgreaves.com/



08 March 2017

The Ghost in the Machine

David Edgerley Gates


Again, first off, a disclaimer. This is not a political rant any more than my previous post. Last time, I went after Michael Flynn for his lack of deportment. This time, I'm inviting you into the Twilight Zone.  

We have a habit, in this country, of thinking we're the center of attention. In other words, Trump's issues with his Russian connections are all about American domestic politics. There's another way to look at this. What if it turns out to be about Russian domestic politics?

Bear with me. Filling in the background, we have Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This appears not to be in dispute. There's a consensus in the intelligence community. Fairly obviously, Hillary Clinton wasn't the Russians' first choice, and she seems to have inspired Vladmir Putin's personal animus. It's not clear whether the Russians wanted simply to weaken Clinton's credibility and present her with an uncertain victory or if they thought they could engineer her actual defeat.


Deception and disinformation are tools of long standing. Everybody uses them, and the Russians have a lot of practice. They've in fact just announced the roll-out of a new integrated platform for Information Warfare, and under military authority (not, interestingly, the successor agencies to KGB). Their continuing success in controlling the narrative on the ground in both Ukraine and Syria, less so in the Caucasus, demonstrates a fairly sophisticated skill-set. To some degree, it relies on critical mass, repeating the same lies or half-truths until they crowd out the facts. Even if they don't, the facts become suspect.

Now, since the Inauguration, we've had a steady erosion of the established narrative. Beginning with Gen. Flynn, then Sessions, former adviser Page Carter, Jared Kushner. Consider the timeline. Nobody can get out in front of the story, because the hits just keep coming. They're being blind-sided. "They did make love to this employment," Hamlet says, and none of them seem to realize they could be fall guys, or that it's not about them.

The most basic question a good lawyer can ask is cui bono. Who benefits? If the object was to have a White House friendlier to the Kremlin than the one before, that doesn't appear to be working out. But perhaps the idea is simply to have an administration in disarray, one that can't cohesively and coherently address problems in NATO, say, or the Pacific Rim.  Short-term gain. Maybe more.


Let's suppose somebody is playing a longer game. We have a story out of Russia about the recent arrests of the director of the Center for Information Security, a division of the Federal Security Service, and the senior computer incident investigator at the Kaspersky Lab, a private company believed to be under FSB discipline - both of them for espionage, accused of being American assets, but both of them could just as plausibly be involved in the U.S. election hack. What to make of it? Loose ends, possibly. Circling the wagons. Half a dozen people have dropped dead or dropped out of sight lately, former security service personnel, a couple of diplomats. Russians have always been conspiracy-minded, and it's catching. You can't help but think the body count's a little too convenient, or sort of a collective memory loss.

Here's my thought. This slow leakage and loss of traction, the outing of Flynn and Sessions and the others - and waiting for more shoes to drop - why do we necessarily imagine this has to come from the inside? Old rivalries in the intelligence community, or Spec Ops, lifer spooks who didn't like Mike Flynn then and resented his being booked for a return engagement later. Just because you want to believe a story badly doesn't make it false. But how about this, what if the leaks are coming from Russian sources?

Remove yourself from the equation. It's not about kneecapping Trump, it's about getting rid of Putin, and Trump is collateral damage. There are factions in Russia that think Putin has gotten too big for his britches. He's set himself up as the reincarnation of Stalin. And not some new Stalin, either. The old Stalin. None of these guys are reformers, mind you, they're siloviki, predators. They just want to get close enough with the knives, and this is protective coloration. Putin, no dummy he, is apparently eliminating collaborators and witnesses at home, but somebody else is working the other side of the board.


If the new administration comes near collapse, because too many close Trump associates are tarred with the Russian brush, the strategy's going to backfire, and the pendulum will swing the other way. The scenario then has the opposite effect of what was intended. Putin will have overreached himself, embarrassed Russia, and jeopardized their national security. That's the way I'd play it, if it were me, but I'm not the one planning a coup.

This is of course utterly far-fetched, and I'm an obvious paranoid. Oh, there's someone at the door. Must be my new Bulgarian pal, the umbrella salesman.

22 February 2017

Walking the Plank

David Edgerley Gates


I'd like to preface this post by saying it's not meant to be partisan. I'm not taking sides. Everybody's got an axe to grind, but let's check our grudges at the door.


The recent resignation of Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor is what started me thinking. More than one train of thought, as it happens. Let's review the bidding, in case you don't know what happened. Flynn was in Trump's kitchen cabinet, and it was no secret he was in line for a red hat. What laid him low, before the paint was even dry, is that he'd had inappropriate contacts with the Russians while Obama's crew, although they were hanging up their cleats, still had the duty watch. They were in fact announcing sanctions against Moscow at the same time that Flynn, through a back channel to the Russian ambassador, was saying they were shooting blanks - once his guy was in office, any sanctions would be rolled back.

Now, first off, this runs counter to good manners, common sense, and longstanding convention, when a new team is relieving an old one. It's also a violation of federal law, the Logan Act. Unauthorized civilians don't make U.S. foreign policy. Period. Another curious thing is that Flynn apparently did it on his own, without telling anybody else. You might find this hard to credit, but you have to look at Flynn's back story. This isn't someone with a modest opinion of himself. On the other hand, there are a fair share of people who didn't think he walked on water, no. The best guess is that he was showboating, or a little too persuaded of his own self-importance.

Here's where I'm coming from. An intelligence professional's job is to give the best possible advice, based on the available evidence. Are your sources credible? What's the collateral? Does the narrative add up? You don't cut and paste the facts to fit a convenient fiction. Bush 43 was ill-served by his Director of Central Intelligence because George Tenet massaged the message. You have to be ready to contradict the received wisdom, or fixed ideas. The problem being, if you keep blowing your nose on the curtains, pretty soon they'll stop inviting you for drinks and dinner.

There's a further corollary. When things go south, which they do more often than not, a good soldier falls on his sword. It's attached to the pay grade. Jack Kennedy famously said to his DCI Allen Dulles, after Bay of Pigs, that if we had a parliamentary system, then he, Kennedy, would have to resign, but the way things were, it was Dulles whose head was going to roll. Presidents don't like being caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

It's important to remember that when you take a job close to the president, you only have the one client. What's called in the intelligence world a consumer. In this case, and I've said this before, you can't be distracted. You have no other constituency. It doesn't matter that State, or Defense, or Homeland Security, or whoever, may have competing interests. You keep your ear to the ground, for sure, but you don't dilute your brand. You are owned. You protect your principal, at whatever cost to yourself.

The other thing I want to say about this episode is that people sign on to government service for any number of reasons, including preferment, connections, expediency, and money, but sometimes they simply choose to serve. Michael Flynn was career military, 33 years. Whatever his politics or his personal ambition, he understood duty. Duty not as an abstract, or background noise, but duty defined as an obligation to something outside ourselves, something larger than our own parochial concerns. I'm probably beating a dead horse here, but this is where my real disappointment kicks in. Michael Flynn had a responsibility, to something larger than his private benefit, and he dropped the ball. Not to mention, I'm kind of taking it personally. The guy wanted to feather his own nest, okay, there's enough of that going around. But why did he have to give the rest of us a bad name? Flynn sold his honor cheap.

08 February 2017

Mike Hammer: Through a Glass, Darkly

David Edgerley Gates


The start point here is that Ralph Meeker wandered into my mind's eye, I'm not sure why, but I remembered a play called Something About a Soldier. It went maybe a dozen performances when it opened in New York, but I'd seen it in a try-out run. Shows used to open in Toronto, and then travel to Boston or Philadelphia, working out the kinks on the road before they got to Broadway. This one starred Sal Mineo, along with Kevin McCarthy and, yup, Ralph Meeker.

My first Mike Hammer was Darren McGavin, on TV. The series lasted two seasons in syndication, half-hour episodes, black and white. (I'd prefer to draw a veil across the later version - meaning no disrespect to Stacy Keach - but seriously, a show that manages to make both the character and the star appear brain-dead, and then wastes Don Stroud, into the bargain? Please.)

Now. Mickey Spillane. I, the Jury sold more than six million copies, domestic. An interviewer asked Mickey how it felt to be a best-selling author. He told the guy, "I'm not an author, I'm a writer." The story goes that he cranked out the first book in nineteen days. What you have to realize about Spillane, and Mike Hammer, is that the books are very like fever-dreams. They come out of a collective unconscious. Spillane just gives voice to it. He doesn't second-guess himself, and Hammer isn't the kind of character who's plagued by doubts. I, the Jury still has a shocker of an ending, even these days. A lot of people thought it was snuff pulp, utter trash. Spillane, again. "People eat more salted peanuts than caviar." He was tapping into something, no question. A generalized postwar unease, an appetite for the sensational, vicarious thrills. Hammer smacked punks around and dished out vigilante justice with relish. He was brute force. He was the raw, elemental, unreconstructed Id.

Ralph Meeker never made it big. He had some good parts over the years, The Naked Spur, Jeopardy, Run of the Arrow, Paths of Glory. Did a fair amount of television. Got a lot of attention for Picnic, on stage, in 1954, but he turned down a chance to do the picture, and it went to Bill Holden. He's probably best known for his Mike Hammer in Kiss Me, Deadly. Thing is, though, the Mike Hammer of Kiss Me, Deadly is not only odd, he's for sure not Spillane's.

The received wisdom seems to be that Robert Aldrich was hostile to the material. He certainly reshaped the story and the character. Aldrich wasn't at this point the marquee-name director he later became, but he'd had a solid hit the year before with Vera Cruz, and he was able to write his own ticket with his next movie. He and Meeker make Hammer pretty repellent. His saving grace is that there ain't no quit to him, he just keeps coming. In the context of the story, though, this comes across less as grit and determination than as psychopathology. Hammer's a bully, a thuggish bottom-feeder.

Then there's the MacGuffin. Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street had come out in 1953, two years before. Fuller has a little more of the Commie menace in his picture than Aldrich does, but I don't think either one of them really cares much about the politics, it's a handy dramatic device that heightens the paranoia. And stuffing the H-bomb in a suitcase? Not all that farfetched in this day and age, but back then it was pure science fiction. Story elements you wouldn't associate with Mickey Spillane, in other words. His brand of hysteria is more likely to be sexual, or maybe gun porn, but he was always red meat, never a Red-baiter.

Last but not least, the visual style. Kiss Me, Deadly is relentlessly claustrophobic, with a lot of tight close-ups, which are all the scarier when the face is Jack Elam's. (The cinematographer was Ernest Laszlo, who did seven pictures with Aldrich.) You don't think of Aldrich as a guy who uses shock effects - or at least, not like Fuller - but he's got his arresting moments. And the design of the movie, the set dressing and decor, is 1950's garish contemporary. Hammer's apartment, for one. You couldn't live with that furniture, let alone the artwork he's got on the walls. It's oppressive.

So, what have we got? More than an artifact. Kiss Me, Deadly is disturbing. It throws you off-balance from the beginning, the darkened highway, and the woman running into the headlights. The less than certain POV, an unreliable narrator. The sudden stops and starts, the false flags. Hammer manipulated by sinister forces, utterly indifferent to him, and taking his frustrations out on people who can't help themselves. This is beyond noir, it's nihilism, the lowest common denominator. Everything's a transaction, and everybody's for sale. It's all about negotiating a price. You have to wonder whether Aldrich really means to leave us with nothing but the taste of ashes in our mouths,

05 February 2017

How to Vanish a Car

by Leigh Lundin

Previously, David Edgerley Gates mentioned the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge. That brought back memories of the theatre and a sports car. Don’t worry, I can connect the two. I can even tell you how to spirit an automobile out of a closed parking lot.

Brockton Historical Notes
of major importance
  • 1896, Brockton became the first city in the country to abolish railroad grade crossings.
  • 2011, Brockton doubled the city's Santa Claus hat-wearing record.
(source: Wikipedia)
In the 1970s, I lived in the scenic town of Brockton. For those who might not know Eastern Massachusetts, Brockton’s an industrial site south of Boston, having neither the charm nor historical significance of surrounding settlements. Brockton was named after a British Army officer, Isaac Brock, known for ignoring United States sovereignty, kicking Detroit’s ass in the War of 1812, and never setting foot in the village named after him. Naming the hamlet after one of our nation’s enemies was considered a step up since previously the burg had unimaginatively borrowed the name of a neighboring town.

Once known for shoe production, Brockton’s major output has been Brockton Girls.™ As explained to me, Brockton girls are known for their toughness and making roller derby dames tremble and cry like third graders. Seriously. It should be noted that no wussy member of Daesh/ISIS has ever tangled with a Brockton girl and lived to tell about it.
[Brockton letters of complaint should be addressed to Velma@idontcare.com]
This cultural background should give you an idea why I liked visiting Cambridge, Boston, Plymouth, Buzzard’s Bay or pretty much any place other than Brockton.

The Cambridge Culture

After David Edgerley Gates’ article, he and I exchanged notes about the Orson Welles. I asked if he remembered the Exeter Street Theater, my other favorite movie house. David wrote:
Orson Welles Cinema
I started writing movie columns for the Cambridge Phoenix in late 1970, which is when the Orson Welles, WBCN, and the Tea Party were just getting legs. Boston Tea Party was one of the two big clubs that headlined live bands, aside from theatrical venues. It was started by a guy named Ray Riepen from Kansas City, who also began ’BCN and the Phoenix. Ray brought in a guy named Harper Barnes from St. Louis as editor of the Phoenix. and it was Harper who hired me. I was at the Welles a lot over the next three years or so, the theater, the restaurant, and the film school– there was some talk about my doing a course (film appreciation, something along those lines) but we never firmed it up.

I remember the Exeter well. My family took me when I was little because it was basically a high-end art house and by myself later. That's where we saw Olivier’s Richard III.

My neighborhood theater was the University in Harvard Square (later renamed the Harvard Sq.), sometimes the Brattle, and very occasionally the Eliot, which was further up Mass. Ave. past Porter Sq. and the Sears, so North Cambridge and off my turf. I took the subway downtown all the time, probably from the time I was 8 or 9, to the theaters on Washington St. A misspent youth.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

The Orson Welles, the Exeter, and the Brattle were everything the local Cineplex wasn’t. They offered film festivals and celluloid that had withstood the test of time.

My date loved noir and particularly Bogart. If Bogie hadn’t died when she was about seven, Wendy might have arm-wrestled that bitch Bacall for him.

My car at the time was a Saab Sonett III, which looked like a baby Corvette in peculiar green. It was a cute little car. The sobriquet ‘Sonett’ had nothing to do with music but came from the Swedish phrase “Så nätt!” which translates “So neat!”

Saab Sonett III

Despite the fact its roofline came only to my belt buckle, the car easily accommodated my long legs. It attained much better gas mileage than my Land Cruiser and Saab’s front-wheel-drive made for good road-handing. But…

It had frightfully expensive mufflers that rusted out between car washes. With its little Ford V-4 engine, I could buy off-the-shelf Pinto and Mercury Capri parts, but changing the Nº 1 spark plug meant loosening the damned engine mounts. Worst of all, it was a crash magnet. Bostonians are infamously terrible drivers (think citywide dodge’em bumper cars) and they seemed to target the little machine.

The Sonett Saves the Evening

Near the Orson Welles Cinema was a large walled parking lot next to a dry cleaners where I usually parked. This particular evening, we attended a Warner Bros. film festival of World War II propaganda cartoons, Bugs Bunny takes on Hitler, and the like.

The parking lot looked unusually empty, but I didn’t pay particular attention. We strolled to the theatre, enjoyed the show and left around midnight. When we arrived at the parking lot, we were shocked to find a heavy chain across the entrance.

What the hell? Then we saw it: On the back wall hung a sign that said the lot closed when the cleaners closed. After so many years, it seemed selfish to ban visitors from a public lot after hours, but it was their property and perhaps they’d endured problems we didn’t know about.

Damn. I inspected the chain, secured by sturdy bolts. The threads hadn’t been peened down and simple wrenches could have undone them, but I carried no tools in the car. We were nearly an hour away from my house in Brockton and more than an hour from Wendy’s home in Plymouth– 45 miles. A taxi wasn’t feasible. We weren’t even close to a hotel.

We debated options, none of them good. We might have found a pay phone, but we were desperately short of change. No cell phone of course… early mobile phones were just hitting the market, briefcase-size units affordable only to the wealthy.

A fun evening appeared ruined. Worse, we looked forward to a miserable night if we couldn’t find a motel.

And then an idea struck. The back of the Sonett featured kind of a hatchback with a floor covered by heavy carpet. I pulled out the carpet and the floor mats as Wendy climbed in the driver’s seat.

She let in the clutch as I positioned the carpet and mats over the windshield and roof. I raised the chain… it cleared the hood. Wendy eased the car forward. I hefted the heavy steel segments to bypass the wipers. The car inched ahead until the chain met the floor mats covering the upper windscreen. The links tightened. I forced them up.

The car crept onward. The chain, now taut, remained an inch short of clearing the glass; it had maxed out. Still pulling up on it, I put my body weight on the car, cursing the heavy-duty shocks I’d installed.

But as Wendy edged the Sonett ever forward, the swept-back windshield and my muscling the chain up while forcing the car down brought the steel links up to the roofline.

Carefully, ever carefully, its fiberglass top protected by the carpet, Saab slid under the chain. And then…

The worst had passed. We were on the down slope. Now it was a matter of protecting the paint and rear window as the chain slid away.

Whew! We were ebullient, exuberant, joyful to be on our way, but grateful and well aware of our blessed luck and fortunate outcome.

Even so, we would have loved to be flies on the wall (or pigeons on the pavement) when the mean parking lot owners returned and found the vehicle missing. They must have scratched their heads wondering how we spirited that car out of a walled parking lot.

What magic tricks have caught your fancy?

25 January 2017

John Ford's PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND

David Edgerley Gates


I had another subject in mind, but then I spotted this coming up on Turner Classic Movies. I couldn't let it slip past unnoticed.

The Prisoner of Shark Island is a lesser-known John Ford, from 1936. It came out after The Lost Patrol and The Informer, and the three pictures he made with Will Rogers. Ford was already established, in other words. He'd won his first directing Oscar for The Informer.  At this point, he probably didn't have to take work he didn't want to, and he didn't suffer much interference. He made Shark Island by choice. Ford said more than once, "It's a job of work," meaning he did what he did for a living, but it's plain his heart was in it.

Shark Island is about Dr. Samuel Mudd, who gets caught up in the conspiracy panic that followed Lincoln's assassination. There was, in fact, a plot, targeting Secretary of State Seward and Vice President Johnson as well as Lincoln, but only John Wilkes Booth got his part right. The others made a hash of it. This didn't keep
four of them from being hanged. Booth himself was shot and killed eleven days after Lincoln's death, but his first night on the run he stopped at a local Maryland doctor's - Dr. Mudd - and the doctor set his broken leg. This was enough to buy Mudd a treason conviction and a life sentence. Was he involved? It's never been established, but Shark Island plays on your sympathies, the innocent man being framed, justice denied.

Let's get the two most serious weak points out of the way. First off, Warner Baxter plays the lead. Big in the silents, made the transition to talkies, but a little overwrought. Admittedly, the acting style goes with the period, and you can get past it. It's a lot harder to get past the second thing, which dates even more badly, and that's the racism. I never thought of Ford as being particularly racist - although a fair number of American Indians might disagree with me - and while he's of course a product of his times, and Hollywood has historically been disrespectful of black people (along with the Chinese, and Mexicans, and plenty of others), Ford is often subversive with his black characters. Stepin Fetchit, in Steamboat Round the Bend, plays it very sly and saucy. His relationship with Will Rogers could be described as two bickering old ladies, Lucy and Ethel. Unhappily, the same can't be said of Ernest Whitman as Buck in Shark Island. Still, it strikes me as an extremely difficult part for a black actor to play without falling into
caricature, and Buck comes perilously close. The real problem is that these attitudes aren't peripheral, they're built into the narrative structure. Buck isn't just comic relief. He's integral to the story, he's a major piece of the action, and he has to walk a very fine line between pretending to Tom it up and demeaning himself. I'm a white guy. I can't step into Ernest Whitman's shoes, or get inside his skin. Maybe he simply figured it was a job of work. I'd like to think he did the best he could by a part that didn't give him much wiggle room - and I wish I could say the script or the director helped him make up for it. Not.

How about what's right with the picture? For openers, Bert Glennon's cinematography. It's the first of eight movies he made with Ford (including Drums Along the Mohawk, Ford's first color feature), and it has one of the most breathtaking pulled-focus shots I've ever seen. Ford's known for not calling attention to himself, or using obtrusive effects. He seems to prefer a static frame, but he moves the camera when he wants to. You see plenty of mobility in his tracking shots. I don't remember a single example of zoom, though. Ford's camera is always the human POV. When he breaks stride, it's doubly startling.

Here's the set-up for the defining moment. Booth slips through the door into the back of Lincoln's box at the theater. You hear the laugh line from the play on-stage, "You sockdologizing old man-trap." Booth shoots the president, and jumps from the box to the stage, but his foot gets tangled in the flag draped from the box. He calls out, "Sic semper tyrannis," and limps off. Lincoln, mortally wounded, is slumped back in his chair. The camera holds. It's a medium shot, Lincoln's upper body and shoulders, his face in three-quarter profile. A curtain falls across, in front of his face. It's lace or embroidery, so you still see Lincoln behind it, slightly blurred. Then he comes into focus, but the embroidered curtain creates a pointillist effect, fragmenting his image, breaking it down into dots, like an engraving. Your eye needs to catch up, and reconstruct him. In that one brief image, Lincoln passes from life into history, leaving a retinal memory. It happens while you're watching.

I first saw Prisoner of Shark Island late one night on a UHF channel, just a programmer they used to fill a time slot. It was some years later that I got to see it in a theater, a Ford revival series at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge - a labor of love, they actually screened something like forty of his pictures over a couple of weeks, and I didn't miss too many. Shark Island drew a capacity crowd, a lot of them film students who hadn't seen it before, and more than a few who were unacquainted with Ford except for the big-ticket movies. Shark Island starts out on a note of low comedy, a joke about the number of kids Buck has, with its obvious racial slant, and Buck asking his mule what the mule thinks, which isn't any too subtle, either. Remember, we're talking about wiseass college kids here, everybody goofing and groaning and poking fun at the picture's dated political attitudes, and when Booth slinks on-screen, practically twirling his mustaches, you've still got people laughing at the exaggerated histrionics of it all. But then. Booth steps forward. He shoots Lincoln. Lincoln sinks back. The curtain falls. Everybody in that movie theater went dead silent. Literally. There wasn't a murmur. Not an embarrassed giggle, not even a gasp. Nothing but absolute, stunned shock.

Okay, the gravity of the event. And maybe these kids were of an age to remember the Kennedy assassination. But there's more to it. Because after Lincoln's murder, the movie goes on to show the courts-martial. You heard that right. The conspirators were tried by military tribunal and without constitutional protections. We see them hooded and shackled during the trial. We see them hanged. The hysteria isn't soft-pedaled, and if the Grassy Knoll is any part of your vocabulary, you feel a familiar dread.

I don't think Shark Island is supposed to be taken as some kind of allegory about the Red Scare or the rise of Fascism or anything like. It's meant to be a rousing yarn, and no more. There is a shark-infested moat, too, but since we're in the Dry Tortugas, that's gilding the lily. And the Yellow Fever epidemic, and the mutiny, no reason to doubt. Dr. Mudd was later pardoned. Whether he was in on the plot has never been decided one way or the other.

TCM is showing The Prisoner of Shark Island on Tuesday, January 31st, at 10:45 PM. Program your DVR's. It's also available on the Ford at Fox boxed DVD set, a collection of Ford's pictures that gives good weight for the money.

11 January 2017

MIDNIGHT COP

David Edgerley Gates


We all have guilty pleasures we harbor unwavering affection for, in spite of their weaknesses. One of my favorite movies, for example, is RED DAWN - the 1984 release, written and directed by John Milius, not the gratuitous remake. Another is Danny Kaye's sublimely ridiculous THE COURT JESTER, which is quite possibly genius. And further down the list is MIDNIGHT COP, a German noir that gleefully peddles its own exploitive trashiness, but then through some inner alchemy finds transcendence. Not that I pretend to understand how this works, mind. It's flax into gold.


Couple of curiosities about the movie. The original title was KILLING BLUE, a literal translation of the German. When it came out on DVD, somebody in marketing obviously decided that was too enigmatic. And the DVD jacket headlines Morgan Fairchild, along with Michael York and Frank Stallone, which is somewhat misleading. The guy with the most screen time, the star of the picture, is Armin Mueller-Stahl, followed by Julia Kent. But back when, Armin wasn't a known quantity. Julia, a German actress with an Anglicized stage name, wrote the screenplay as well as co-starring. The director is Peter Patzak, with a list of credits going back thirty-five years. Let's just say that MIDNIGHT COP probably isn't a career personal best for any of them.

The plot's full of holes. The movie seems, even, to add up to less than the sum of its parts. The script sets up moments that work by themselves, but don't connect.  The set pieces are well-managed, effectively blocked and shot, and then they evaporate. One thing doesn't lead to another. The character tropes are derivative, and annoying. Why does Armin Mueller-Stahl's cop, Inspector Glass, have to be so dismissive of his newly-assigned partner, because she's a girl? Yeah, the movie was made in 1988, but seriously. This was worn out then. And the whore with the heart of gold, Morgan Fairchild's part. She does okay with it, although it doesn't require Shakespearean chops, and of course Glass can't keep his hands off her, but SHARKY'S MACHINE it ain't. Oh, and lest I forget, it's a running joke that Glass has loose bowels. You get the idea. Too much that amounts to laziness. The real problem is that it's unconvincing.

The most promising relationship, dramatically, is between the two main guys, Armin's cop and Michael York's prosecutor, Karstens. They open the picture together, the two of them a little drunk, playing jazz in their underwear, Glass on trumpet and Karstens on sax, hazy early morning sunlight filtering through the windows, a train going by on the elevated tracks outside. It establishes a comfort zone. We expect it to be subverted, but the plot mechanics require Michael York's character to disintegrate, and by the time we get to the finish line, it's utterly laughable. We don't believe it for a second. (The climactic scene also involves smearing Morgan Fairchild in lard, or maybe Vicks VapoRub, which tells you something.) I think this is a missed opportunity. One of several, yes, but insult to injury. It's a critical failure of nerve. Reversing our expectations is fair enough, playing us false isn't. Aliens might as well have dropped out of the sky.


And yet. What is it that I find so compelling about this movie? Drugs, sex, blackmail. There's a certain sameness to it. It's not all that original. Armin Mueller-Stahl is a big plus. He makes Glass consistently interesting, even if the character isn't written. Doesn't seem like much, damning with faint praise. There's a feel to the picture, though. Shot on location, with four - count 'em, four - cinematographers credited, the visuals are surprisingly consistent. A lot of medium and long shots. Very little moving camera or zoom. Static set-ups, where figures enter and exit the existing frame. When they do use close-ups, it has a claustrophobic effect. But there's nothing flashy or self-conscious about the technique. It doesn't call attention to itself. By and large, interiors are lit bright and hard, so the surfaces are shiny, and exteriors are gauzier, or shot at greater distances. It always seems damp, outside. Fog, rainy streets, wet windshields. I don't remember it raining so much in Berlin. Here's another thing. There isn't a single shot of a landmark in the whole movie. There's no Brandenburg Gate or Checkpoint Charlie, no Memorial Church or Funkturm or the Wall. They have no bearing on the story. It's all back streets and nightclubs and industrial parks and subway stops, high-rent places off the Ku-damm, working-class neighborhoods like Steglitz. If you were a stranger to the town, you wouldn't know you were in Berlin. You're in on a secret.

I'm guessing that's it, or a big piece. Being in on the secret. Which could mean it's only me, or a select group. Not an elite, just people with a working knowledge of Berlin at a definite point in time. MIDNIGHT COP was made a year before the Wall came down. That makes it an artifact. The last shot of the picture, which lasts three or four minutes behind the closing credits, is a slow pan across the city skyline at dusk, with an aircraft on the horizon, coming in to land at Tempelhof or Tegel. You can perhaps make out the Europa-Center in the distance, the Mercedes logo at the top. It begins with with Armin playing the mouthpiece of his trumpet like a kazoo, and then segues into a tenor sax solo of "A Whiter Shade of Pale," which for the Cold War generation is entirely emblematic of Berlin. I actually get teary watching that sequence. It's transporting, and transformative.  

28 December 2016

Laura Lippman's WILDE LAKE

David Edgerley Gates


I caught up with Wilde Lake only last month, I blush to admit, since it came out in early May. This is Laura Lippman's 21st novel, and she absolutely crushes it, hits it over the lights and out of the park.


I wouldn't call it a mystery, exactly, although crimes happen in the course of the story, and buried secrets are revealed. It seems to me to be more about the nature of families, and friendships, the elastic quality of time, and what some of us might call accident, some Fate.


Lippman uses a cool device in this book. She flips back and forth between first and third person, with her heroine Lu telling her own story in the past, as a kid, but the present being third-person narrative. Both observed and observing, in other words, and Lu the observer - speaking as her younger self - isn't entirely reliable. This creates a troubling tension, Lu's father and older brother (the mom absent, having died of complications not long after Lu's birth) are seen through different lenses, or at different removes. Their dad is a seeming constant, but even he begins to shift, and the family's received wisdom with him, which gets Lu increasingly uneasy. What she thought was solid ground is instead very thin ice. The reader, trusting both voices, hears an undercurrent, a bass note.


It's hard to know which voice carries the melody and which is the rhythm section. Since the reveals are in the present day, you take that voice for true. But the kid telling the stories, later to be undeceived, has the advantage of innocence, of seeing everything for the first time. Lu as a girl might recall the voice of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, another story where dramatic ironies are kept off-stage. The child can say, without irony, without self-knowledge, things that her grown-up self would filter out, or second-guess.


Wilde Lake, to a large degree, is about cruelties of omission. These are often arbitrary, but just as often they simply fade from view. All this stuff gets left out, left out of our personal histories. And it comes back. Does it ever. The truth about Lu's mom. The truth about her husband's death. The truth about her own children. Last but not least, the truth about the night her brother broke his arm - at a high school party, where one kid died and another one wound up in a wheelchair for life. Stuff it was easier to leave out, the first time around. Silence is protective, but deception always has a sell-by date.


I don't know whether to call Wilde Lake a departure, in fact, for Laura Lippman, and I get aggravated when somebody says such-and-such transcends or reinvents or deconstructs the genre, as if genre conventions were embarrassingly limited and predictable, but the book is definitely subversive. It keeps reversing itself, and your expectations. It's mischievous without being calculated. In other words, Lippman doesn't part the curtain. She keeps faith. Lu's voice never falters, she never steps aside. You don't feel manipulated. The author isn't gaslighting you. The central trick of the novel, if it's okay to call it a trick, is that you're taken into the narrator's confidence, and when her confidence fails her, you're as marooned as she is. I think this is a remarkable effect. Sleight of hand in plain sight.


Family history can often be practiced self-deception, but not necessarily self-destructive. And buried secrets don't always need to have damaging consequences. We aren't all Oedipus. Too much, though, can be hidden in the name of kindness. We'd be better off not knowing, is the most common alibi, or its second cousin, what you don't know won't hurt you. In this story, silent knowledge poisons trust. Left unspoken, it becomes a spell whose power lies in being named, and given voice. Having taken shape, there is no proof against its magic.