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

13 June 2018

Guilty Secrets

David Edgerley Gates


I was invited by my Santa Fe pal Johnny D. Boggs, a terrific Western writer, to post a list of ten favorite movies on Facebook, one a day, in ascending order from #10 to #1, with the title and an original theatrical poster, if possible, but without explaining the choices. Every day, nominate somebody else to follow your lead. Sort of like a movie fan chain letter.

Now, this is a serious responsibility - no irony intended. For example, Johnny's choice for his Number 7 was The Grapes of Wrath, and he attached my name to it. (When we got to his Number 1, it was The Searchers.) My point being that you couldn't risk being frivolous. I had to really think about it. My first instinct was to follow Johnny's lead, and do Classics, my personal Ten Best list. The Wild Bunch, Seven Samurai, Letter From an Unknown Woman. But then I thought, No, wait. Why not Guilty Secrets? What if the criteria were, you're sitting down to dinner, you're gonna watch a movie, and saying you had the DVD on your shelf, or you could stream it live, which pictures would be your defaults? Any night, or every night?

So here's the list, which is utterly arbitrary. The only unifying conceit is that I've watched these movies over and over, and would again, tonight or any other night.

[NOTE: I put these upon Facebook without explanation, per the rules. I've added my own little cheats.]


Red Dawn (1984)
Ridiculous, knuckle-dragging claptrap, of the highest order. Then again, if you stop for a minute and consider that Milius meant it as a metaphor for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Wolverines as mujahideen, it actually makes sense. Ravishingly shot, in New Mexico locations, by Ric Waite. Powers Boothe steals the movie.


Juggernaut (1974)
It's been suggested that we're fascinated by the nuts and bolts of how to do things. Heist pictures, Rififi, or here, an ocean liner in the mid-Atlantic wired with high explosive, the bomb disposal team parachuting in, the clock winding down. Dick Lester directed. Enough star power to sink the Poseidon. Clifton James and Roy Kinnear blow them all out of the water.


The Lady Vanishes (1938)
The opening shot, as the credits fade. The camera dollies down, past the snowbound railway platform, and then a car drifts by, at ground level. You can almost see the string pulling it along. The fact that the entire scene is a model only ingratiates it to me. It's an innocent artifice, an invitation. When you catch sight of Charters and Caldicott in the waiting room, you can't help but smile in anticipation. You fall into the familiar rhythms.


In Harm's Way (1965)
Enormous, clunky, overwrought. All of the above. It gets a terrific, muscular punch from Wayne, who delivers a thoughtful, considered character that the other people in the movie seem to think is easy to read. The dramatic mechanics of the picture are pure Preminger, the formal checks and balances, but Wayne demonstrates a gravity of purpose that subverts it. You're all too aware of the labor involved, the engines and devices, the undertaking itself. Wayne doesn't struggle to be convincing. he gives his guy weight, without ever being ponderous.


The Train (1964)
Frankenheimer. What else do I need to say? The disorienting montage of Manchurian Candidate, the pulled focus of Seven Days in May. An integrated technique in this picture. The inertial, iron force of the locomotives. The fact that there's no CGI (oh, and Burt Lancaster does his own stunts). The truly amazing dolly shots, Labiche crossing the freight yards to the boat moored by the canal towpath; the colonel at Wehrmacht headquarters in Paris, the camera finding him in the chaos; the scene with Labiche casting the damaged engine part. I bow to genius.


Charade (1963)
Please. I can't imagine I have to say anything at all.


Two Rode Together (1961)
You knew there was going to be a Ford, right? This is here. of course, because of the scene by the river. "I thought she had something stuck in her teeth." For all its comedy - and 'comedy' isn't really the right word, it's burlesque - Two Rode Together is terrifically dark, much more so than The Searchers, which for all its darkness ends on a note of hope. Two Rode Together is despairing.


The War Lord (1965)
Meditative, although on paper it must have been pitched as a swashbuckler. A guy whose devotion to duty is inflexible throws it all away for love, both carnal and idealized. A very old-fashioned conceit. Terrific art direction. I love the fact that the keep is nothing like the castles in Ivanhoe, say, but a brute stone tower, damp, smoky, the horses stabled below. Guy Stockwell gets all the good lines. Richard Boone's forlorn devotion to Heston commands genuine heartbreak. Haunting score.


The Night of the Generals (1967)
Not much of a mystery, not when the biggest headliner in the cast is twitching like he's got St. Vitus' Dance. but the way they tell the story, the fractured narrative and the unreliable narrators. And the main device, a murder in wartime, where killing is every man's trade. In a movie top-heavy with brand names, the lively presence of Charles Gray in support is like a whiff of ammonia, piercing and astringent, a master class in the pursed lip and the cocked eyebrow. You want supercilious? This is ur-supercilious.


The Duellists (1977)
Ridley Scott's first feature. You're joking, right? Nope. He'd done commercials and TV, but The Duellists is his first movie. People talk about Ridley's eye. The cinematographer on The Duellists is Frank Tidy (and it was his first feature film), but Ridley is his own camera operator - he's the guy looking through the lens. Think about it. The next picture is Alien. Where did this astonishing, feverish, specific gaze come from? It seems to have simply sprung into being, already fully found. The Duellists is hallucinatory, but transparent as glass.

*

Ten runners up.
  The Professionals
  On the Beach
  Night Train to Munich
  Ronin
  Extreme Prejudice
  The Dogs of War
  Rio Bravo
  Midnight Cop
  Hour of the Gun
  Casablanca

23 May 2018

Overload

David Edgerley Gates


Information overload is an established phenomenon in the intelligence trade. You can never know too much? You can listen in on way too much, and understand far too little. Former spy chief Gen. Michael Hayden (director of both NSA and CIA) once remarked that his analysts actually managed to process something like three to five per cent of intercepted traffic, if that. This in the wake of the surveillance scandals, his point being that your eyes - or ears - are bigger than your stomach. One recent estimate is that NSA collects 1.7 billion communications a day. The volume is paralyzing. You can't get a grip on it.


I ran across a quote from a guy named Herbert Simon. "What information consumes is obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. ...[A] wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." Which is where metadata techniques come in, pattern recognition, indexing metrics, some kind of Dewey Decimal system. You're not even trying to catalogue content. At this juncture, the best you can hope for is an address book, a directory of unlisted numbers.

This information paralysis of course applies to the assorted dishevelments of the Trump administration. The signal-to-noise ratio is deafeningly high, which makes it hard to identify actual targets. NORAD used to have a similar problem, on the Distant Early Warning line. Are those incoming Russian bombers, crossing the Arctic circle, or a flight of geese? Their radar couldn't discriminate. It created an anxiety threshold, a constant. You had to be on the alert all the time, checking your perimeter.

We also know there are disinformation procedures, decoys and deceptions. A famous example is the phantom invasion force built up around Patton before the launch of D-Day, to mislead the Germans into thinking the attack would come at the Pas de Calais, not Normandy. Any career intelligence professional would have to wonder, how much of the chaos in the Trump world is deliberate, or diversionary?

Basically, what I'm suggesting here is a coping mechanism. If you treat the Trump experience, or episode, as an intelligence exercise, an assessment, the way old Russia hands at CIA and State used to game out the Kremlin's intentions, or Sinologists would read the runes about Mao and the Chinese - as if, in effect, it were a foreign country, an alien culture - you can attempt a penetration, a covert operation in a Denied Area. You don't try and deconstruct every utterance, you think in terms of deeper grammar. The volume of traffic is a distraction. You look for signifiers, the moss on the north side of the trees.  

Take the Stormy Daniels imbroglio. At first glance, it's a sideshow, nothing to do with the main event. But then it develops that Cohen banked Vekselberg's front money in the same account he used to pay Daniels? OK, time out. Cohen's a moron. He's as likely a consigliere as I'm likely to ghost a series of Stormy-branded thrillers, Money Shots.

In other news, with everybody focused on the Russians, we have the embargoed Chinese telecom ZTE back in the US market, hand in glove with an announced 500-million-dollar Chinese government loan to jumpstart construction on an Indonesian theme park that includes - wait for it - a Trump golf course and hotels. Soybean futures are safe again?

Lest we forget, there's Erik Prince, late of Blackwater, whose mission appears to be clandestine comms and advance man. He's also floated the notion that the combat presence in Afghanistan and Iraq could be taken private. We're now hearing about a meeting between Prince, George Nader, and a guy whose name is new to me, Joel Zamel, pitching a social media manipulation campaign to Donald Trump Jr., that would be bankrolled by the Saudis and the Emirates. Wait, what?

Not least, the Aztec Two-Step that seems to characterize Trump himself, an inconsistent struggle with cognitive dissonance. It's still not entirely clear whether Trump is playing with a full deck.

Enough already. We have a surfeit of detail. How do you give it any coherence? I'm suggesting you could diagram it out. In the intelligence world, this is known as an Order of Battle. Suppose, for the sake of argument, we were talking about the Warsaw Pact and its offensive capacity in an attack on NATO and Western Europe. At one time, this was a very real intelligence target, and we devoted a lot of resources to it. You begin by developing a baseline, infantry, aircraft, and armor, re-supply and support units, communications, chain of command. Then you monitor their activity. What compromises routine? This gives you background, so you can identify a break in routine, a heightened alert status or ready condition, any significant change in the threat posture.

Applying this to the Trump world, there's an immediate benefit. You distance yourself. You don't let it suck all the air out of the room. You don't take it personally. Establish a baseline, cultivate context. Don't miss the forest for the trees. For all its ambiguities and improbabilities, its fabrications and false flags, it's not that impossible a tangle. Messy, yes. Impenetrable, no.

Spycraft is mental discipline. It's not proof against hysteria, and it can't remedy willful ignorance, but it's a compass heading, possibly even an exit strategy.  

JUSTIFY: the Old Spook and the Flowerspy at a rainy Pimlico, Preakness 2018



09 May 2018

What They Ate

David Edgerley Gates

Not on the subject of crime, but partly on writers, more particularly on food - and the relationship of women to food - and simply because it's an utterly fascinating book, I might suggest Laura Shapiro's latest, What She Ate.

We were briefly colleagues at The Cambridge Phoenix, in what might have been a more innocent time, and then Laura moved on to Newsweek. She published Perfection Salad in 1986, which took as its baseline the late 19th century Fannie Farmer cookbook, and then took flight. It was a meditation on America's relationships with food, a social history, a political document, an attitude, a conversation with the reader. It was an eye-opener. I gobbled it up, and argued back the whole time I was reading it. It turned what was familiar and comforting inside out.  


Food writing has undergone an enormous change, and I think a lot of the credit goes to M.F.K. Fisher, although it's condescending to diminish Fisher as merely a 'food writer,' although maybe it's the reverse - we shouldn't diminish food writing as something suspect and domestic and below the salt. For sure, this is true of Laura Shapiro, whose eye, like Fisher's, is drawn to the telling detail, and how food is a reflection of our desires, carnal and otherwise. (Her second book, Something From the Oven, picks up the themes of Perfection Salad, but it's rather about the food industry than the community of the kitchen, and she wrote a lively and gracious portrait of Julia Child as well.)

What She Ate is a sort of group portrait. An approach to the canvas, so to speak, looking at six women through what they brought to the table. It appears to circle in, from the peripheral, but that's inexact, or even demeaning. As if to say, food is peripheral, or food is women's work, the kuche in between kinder and kirche. In other words, that this most basic of human activities is somehow less than serious. It's very much lose-lose. If the table is central, though, to family, to tribal instinct, to our sense of commonality, if it nourishes us in both express and literal ways, as well as the unexpressed, then what we sit down to is celebration. The breaking of bread is by no accident sacramental. How To Cook A Wolf, indeed.

The six women we're invited to sit down with are, in order of appearance, Dorothy Wordsworth, the poet's sister, the famous Brit hotelier and caterer Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun (!), the novelist Barbara Pym, and publisher and master of self-invention Helen Gurley Brown. It's enjoyable company, for the most part, although we don't quite imagine a dinner party with all six of them in the same room. We can, on the other hand, imagine being seated next to each of them on turn. The exception being Eva, who doesn't come across as being particularly interesting in her own right, and the guest list puts you off your feed, but the reason Eva's in the nearest chair is that this was likely her only means of self-expression. 

"Extraordinary circumstances produce extraordinary women," Shapiro remarks in her introduction, "food makes them recognizable." The point here being the intimacy of food, how we prepare it, and serve it, how we take it into our mouths. That we digest its nature, whether that be its earthiness, or meaty sinew, or leafy crunch. That it's in fact very much a domestic pursuit, homely in both sense of the word, does it no discredit.

The voice in What She Ate is companionable. Engaging, a little skeptical at times, but sympathetic. She seems to coax her subjects into the light, or encourage them to reveal themselves, and they can be not always self-aware. The mix is a challenge, and a bit of a puzzle, but it works. Mostly because the author is curious, and generous, open to surprise, sly and funny. What it is, is chewy.


25 April 2018

Trouble (Ben Affleck's "The Town")

David Edgerley Gates


In between his two Dennis Lehane adapations, Ben Affleck made a picture called The Town, which feels like a Lehane story, but it's based on a book by Chuck Hogan, yet another Boston guy.

I admit I've never been a big Ben Affleck fan. I liked him in support, Good Will Hunting, Shakespeare in Love, didn't like him in leads, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor. (Reindeer Games is Frankenheimer's last feature, so I'd overlook Troy Donahue if he were in it.) But then he surprised me as a director, with Gone Baby Gone. Very solid picture. Lehane was well served the first two times around, with Mystic River and Gone Baby. He wasn't third time lucky: Live by Night went flat. I think Ben Affleck miscast his own film. He wears the clothes beautifully, the drape's to die for, but his character's an empty suit. And after Brendan Gleeson exits the first act, the pacing limps to the finish line in cinderblock shoes.


So, that being said, I didn't have the highest expectations going in, but The Town is a knock-out. It begins with a bank job in Harvard Square, which is my old stomping ground (Ben Affleck was raised in Cambridge), and that got it on my good side. Speaking as a local boy, too, there's an interesting visual consistency in the movie, not strictly necessary, but reassuring - they'll use an establishing aerial shot, and then drop into the neighborhood, and they match. This isn't always the case, and it's obvious that Ben the Director, as distinct from Ben the Actor, is going the extra distance. Fenway Park from a chopper, Fenway Park backstage, under the stands. Bunker Hill Monument? On the ground, the streets around Monument Square. From above, the Old North Church. The chase after the armored car robbery is in the North End. They don't fake it. They don't fake it when they could, when most people wouldn't know the difference between Coolidge Corner and Savin Hill. It shows a genuine appreciation for the right landscape.



There's a vocal landscape they get right, as well, the cadences. And easy to get wrong. It's not just Ben Affleck, who slides familiarly into the voice, but Jeremy Renner and Blake Lively, not a Valley Girl locution between them. Not that she gets a lot to do, but she does a lot with what she gets. Renner seems to do even less, with more. It's not the accent, quite, as much as it is usage and speech patterns, the mouth feel of the language. He's got the St. Vitus Dance, ants in his pants, a delivery that's one step behind, as if he's puzzling out his own train of thought. He stretches his hesitations and clips his words short, the silences are eloquent and threatening.



Speaking of Jeremy Renner, the two serious relationships in the picture are between Renner's Gem and Affleck's Doug, and between Doug and Rebecca Hall's Claire. Gem is a silent partner in Doug and Claire's relationship, besides, not that she knows about it, because if there's the slightest chance of Claire ratting out their crew, Gem will cap her without a second thought.



Which brings us to what Jon Hamm's FBI guy calls, "Your fuckin' Irish omerta." The Town is a heist picture, and the town in question isn't Boston at large, but Boston in small, specifically Bunker Hill, Charlestown. It's a movie about clannishness, about class loyalties, about family in the larger sense, of immersion, of race memory. It's specific about place, and place experienced as density. A sudden phrase beings it back, a sharp smell, a retinal afterimage. The place of heart's desiring. The fact that these guys are a criminal family, a crew, a marriage of convenience, misses the point. This is the air they breathe. This is what they know. This isn't something you can change out of, like a pair of pants.

The robberies themselves are set pieces, kinetic and tense, adrenaline and endorphins, wound up tight. The personal scenes have a dark energy, what's said, what's held back, a dangerous edge. Here's a for instance.
Doug goes to see Gem. "I need your help. I can't tell you what it is. We're gonna hurt some people."
Gem waits a beat, looks up. "Whose car we gonna take?"

Ray LaMontagne's Jolene plays over the final credits. It's a killer.
  Held you in my arms one time
  Lost you just the same

11 April 2018

The Hillerman Prize

David Edgerley Gates

The past ten years I've been a reader for the Hillerman Prize. (They in fact call it a 'judge,' but that inflates my influence or importance.) The contest is for the best first mystery in a Western setting, in the spirit of the late Tony Hillerman, and what it comes down to is reading up to half a dozen manuscript submissions. Each year's winner gets a book contract with St. Martin's. It's a blind test, because the authors are anonymous at the time I see the manuscripts.  

I think the process is pretty fair. There are obviously quite a few of us, spread out across the mystery community, writers, readers, and editors, and I don't imagine any of us have a particular axe to grind. I might prefer hard-boiled to cozy, myself, but if it'd good, it doesn't matter. Tie goes to the runner. You have a responsibility to give good weight.

Having said that, there's the Yes, But factor. Basically, you're a gatekeeper. You're triaging the slush pile. It's the inside of the transom. You want to know why those interns at publishing houses were ready to slit their wrists, back in the day? Now you know. Now, on the other hand, no such job exists. The big trades don't accept unsolicited. Agented only. Which makes agents the gatekeepers, and they don't accept unsolicited, you have to pitch. Which means the Hillerman's a throwback.

You see where this is going. Think about your own stuff that got turned down, even by a sympathetic editor. After a certain amount of heartbreak, you begin to harden your heart, but let's be honest, you always take it personally, because it's personal. How not? This is something you made out of whole cloth. You bled on it, laid awake nights, washed it in your own tears. And some oblivious bozo sends it down the slop chute with a dismissive comment or two.

So, yes. It's a stacked deck. It does none of us any credit to claim otherwise. Then again, to be utterly brutal about it, you think what's being published is crap? You ought to look at what doesn't make the cut. Some of it's just numbingly bad. As if these people had never picked up a mystery in their lives, or paid much attention. You give in to terminal aggravation, sad to say.

A very well-regarded agent once explained to me that editors read for rejection, meaning they wait for the first stumble, and spike the book. It's an unforgiving process. Maybe we all make the same rookie mistakes, and learn by doing, but surely by now, with all the practical advice available - Larry Block, Stephen King, David Morrell, Anne Lamott, just off the top of my head - is the learning curve really that steep? The fifty-page flashback. The serial killer first-person prologue. The indecipherable clue, held up to a mirror or over a candle flame, and blindingly obvious to Aunt Hezekiah, who does acrostics, or the insufferably precocious sixth-grade computer savant. Not that you can't get away with devices like these, but it takes a practiced hand, and cute wears out its welcome in a hurry. Tonstant Weader Fwows Up.

You want to respect the work. You know how much work it is. That first year, I read all six manuscripts front to back, and it was a real effort, because two of them were terrible, but I thought I owed it. Two of them were marginal. One of them was better than okay, and one of them was really good. I strongly recommended a second read for the two I liked.

In subsequent years, I'm loath to admit, I've had less patience. It's not something you really want to cop to, but the plain fact is, if it's a shitty book, you can tell pretty quick. Once or twice I haven't even lasted thirty pages, and that only because I felt obligated to go further than page two, knowing from the outset it was road kill.

On the upside, out of some sixty-odd books, I've found at least one to like every year, or something to like, a solid lead character, the evocation of place.  I've never picked a winner. I've picked a couple I thought might go the distance, but not, in the end. I hope they're heard from, down the road. I know of one guy who submitted, and didn't actually win, and got a three-book contract out of it. 

If there's a lesson in this, it's humility. Good, bad, or indifferent, these people laced on their sneakers, and came out ready to play. You gotta keep faith with them.


28 March 2018

The Man with the Iron Heart

David Edgerley Gates

Reinhard Heydrich was an SS-Obergruppenfuhrer, commander of the Reich Central Security Office (which controlled the Gestapo, the SD, and the criminal police); a presiding architect of the Holocaust, with authority over the Endlosung, or Final Solution, responsible for Kristallnacht, the Nacht und Nebel - Night and Fog - operation, and the Einsatzgruppen, special auxiliaries that followed regular Army units into Poland, Ukraine, and Russia, executing Jews and other political undesirables; and appointed Deputy Protector of Bohemia, military proconsul of Czechoslovakia, in September of 1941. Late that year, the Czech exile government in London mounted an operation to assassinate him. It had all the earmarks of a suicide mission.

Hitler himself called Heydrich the Man with the Iron Heart. He'd been sent to Prague because the Skoda works were important to the German war effort, and the Czechs needed to feel the crack of the whip. Heydrich considered them vermin. He had 92 people executed in his first three days. Over the next six months, 5,000 arrests.

British SOE train the commando team in Scotland, and insert them by paradrop. Making contact with what's left of the Czech resistance, the two team leaders, Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, are persuaded the best solution to target is to ambush him on his way to work. They post a lookout along the route he travels, and lie in wait for him at a hairpin curve, on the road to the Troja bridge. Heydrich travels in an open car, a Mercedes convertible. It's a display of contempt, the Germans in complete control, the Czechs captive and demoralized. The car slows. Gabcik steps into the street. He's got a Sten gun. It fires from an open breech. The weapon fails to feed and jams. Gabcik is left standing there with his pants down. Then, unbelievably, instead of ordering his driver to put the pedal to the metal, Heydrich orders him to stop. Heydrich stands up in the back of the car, and pulls his Luger. Kubis, behind him, has an anti-tank grenade hidden in a briefcase, and he heaves it at the Mercedes.

(This was the No. 73 grenade, modified for weight, the bottom two-thirds removed, light enough to be thrown, but still able to damage an armor-plated vehicle. In training, Gabcik and Kubis both had trouble with it.)

The device detonates at the right rear quarter of the Mercedes - not inside it, but close enough to punch Heydrich with metal fragments and shredded upholstery. He staggers out of the car. The two Czechs try to shoot him with their own pistols and miss. Heydrich returns fire. Gabcik and Kubis take off in opposite directions, thinking the attack's a failure. Heydrich starts to chase them, and then collapses from internal hemorrhaging.

They got him pretty good. Severe injuries to his diaphragm and spleen, collapsed left lung, fractured rib. Surgeons labored over him, and the prognosis was hopeful. A week later, Heydrich was sitting up in bed for lunch, and then suddenly went into shock. Apparently, septicemia caught up with him. He died the next day.

Reprisals were brutal and immediate. Cooked intelligence from the Gestapo led to the village of Lidice. All the males over the age of 15 were shot, the women and children sent to the death camps. The town was burned and then bulldozed. In the smaller village of Lekazy they simply shot everybody, men and women alike. The actual pursuit of Gabcik and Kubis and the people who'd helped them hit a wall, until a guy on one of the other sabotage teams ratted them out for the Judas money.

The seven of them were holed up in the Orthodox cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius. It took the SS two hours to smoke them out, with 750 men. Fourteen dead, twenty-one wounded. None of the Czechs let themselves be taken alive. They knew too many names.

As always, you want to ask whether the blood price was worth it. Heydrich was a reptile, better off dead. But it's estimated as many as 1300 people were murdered in direct retaliation. Also, it appears that the schedule agreed to at the Wannsee Conference was accelerated after Heydrich's death, implementing the extermination camps, as distinct from slave labor. Then again, how many people might Heydrich have eliminated, if left alive? He was an effective coordinator of terror logistics. And efficiency in this, as in other things, solidified his power base. He could have made the trains run even faster.

One last thing, a net gain. Heydrich was the most senior Nazi targeted in an operation under SOE discipline. (Or any other clandestine service, either. Wilhelm Kube,  the generalkommissar of Minsk, had a bomb go off underneath him on NKVD instructions, but Kube was small potatoes compared to Heydrich.) Yes, they were Czech partisans, although they jumped out of an RAF Halifax bomber, so in that sense it was deniable. In fact, SOE didn't want to deny it. Just because they never tried for Hitler doesn't mean it was never discussed. The killing of Heydrich was an object lesson.


14 March 2018

The Girl in the Lagoon: Martin Cruz Smith

David Edgerley Gates

Martin Cruz Smith made his bones with Gorky ParkI remember its jaw-dropping singularity, almost a science fiction conceit, where the oddness of the whole is captured by tilting everyday detail ninety degrees from square. It got its effects from accumulation. There was also a slight alteration of rhythm, a kind of stutter or hesitation to the language, the words careful and exact, but somehow dealt face-down, like a card trick. You were surprised when they were turned over, showing a jack when you expected an ace. It felt, you might say, a little Russian, an unfamiliar alphabet, a new terrain to navigate.

Of the next two Renko books, Polar Star was terrifically compelling, and Red Square, for my money, delivered the most satisfying finish, but in between Gorky Park and Polar Star came a standalone, Stallion Gate. The guy gets my vote for sheer audacity. Stallion Gate is about Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project. I've nibbled around the edges of this subject meself, and you can only go one of two ways, I think, either gnomic and allusive or full frontal. No half-measures. Smith takes the bet, all or nothing, and Stallion Gate is high-risk, spending the writer's own capital, not coasting on the interest. He almost recovers his investment. The book is just that - almost. You can make out the shadow it casts, and the signature of the wind scouring the sand, but it never quite fills its own sails.

There have been eight Arkady Renko thrillers in all, to date, and in between, three more novels without him. Rose, which came out in 1996, is to my mind very underrated, a Victorian historical Gothic (not at all pastiche), a steam engine of a book, a mechanical wonder, hissing and dripping with condensation, levers and armatures, drive shafts and metal fatigue, shaking the rails. Sort of a cross between John Buchan and Wilkie Collins. December 6th, from 2002, is a Tokyo spy story - the title gives that away - and a nice play on the gaijin as secret agent, first cousin to the Raj-boy Kim, echoes of Philip Kerr and Alan Furst. I found it hugely entertaining.

Which brings us to the latest release, actually in 2016, The Girl from Venice. I'd call it a departure, or at least somewhat. It has the guileless and obstinate Martin Cruz Smith hero, marooned by his honor, and the ominously claustrophobic menace of the time period, the exhausted last gasp of Fascist Italy, the Americans clawing their way north, the Germans fighting a stubborn rearguard action. On the other hand, Cenzo, the lead, has an endearing sweetness to his nature, and to all intents, the book is at heart a romantic fable.

Magic realism isn't something you'd anticipate from this writer, and The Girl from Venice isn't, exactly. But there's an unexpected playfulness. I kept waiting for the darkness to swallow everybody up, and it doesn't happen. Yes, we definitely get some nasty, sinister people drifting in and out, and the girl Giulia is the last survivor of a Jewish family, lost to the fortunes of war. For all his clownishness, Il Duce has caused enormous human dislocation and suffering. You're not saddened in the least when the Red partisans catch up to him. This stuff happens, though, mostly off-stage. You don't get a lot of explicit. The heroics, too, are kind of muted and self-deprecating. like Cenzo himself. We know innocence is a casualty of war, and all too many innocents, but in this telling, basta.

POSTSCRIPT

I met Bill Smith at Left Coast Crime in Santa Fe, a few years back. He was getting over some grievous upper respiratory crud, his voice playing hide-and-seek, but he was extremely game and gracious. He did a long Q&A (the most recent book was Three Stations), and soldiered through with humor and patience. He gave good weight.

We talked briefly the next day, about the end of the Cold War, mostly, and when at one point I mentioned having been a Russian intelligence linguist, he admitted he didn't really speak much Russian. I think my jaw did literally drop. Bill ducked his head and smiled. He'd always used a wingman, he said, the better to get it right.

Red Square turns on a mistranslation from English to Russian, or more specifically, a misunderstanding by an American whose idiomatic Russian is almost but not quite native. "Square," a public space, vice "square," the geometric shape, but in Russian usage, two different words, ploshchad' for the place, kvadrat for the other.

Where did Bill Smith, whose command of Russian isn't what it might be, happen across the distinction? Perhaps it was luck, reaching out to pluck at his sleeve like an old Baba Yaga on the Moscow subway platform, trying to sell books of matches or locks of Stalin's hair.

28 February 2018

Heat Lightning

David Edgerley Gates


Atlanta, the Deep South, in 1948. The war changed a lot of things, but the immediate postwar world, in the U.S., was in many ways a turning back of the clock. Women in the workplace, like black guys in uniform, were wartime adjustments. The unions had been bottled up, part of the war effort, and there was no reason to let a bunch of Jews and Reds wave the Hammer-and-Sickle. Jim Crow was both custom and law, and things were gonna be the way they were before, when people knew their place. And if they forgot themselves, there were the night-riders, the Klan. Not that good people subscribe to violence, but when every Christian value is threatened with contamination, where can you turn?

All right. The obvious irony, first, that we're talking about white values. And secondly, was it in fact that bad, in the South, for black people? Well, yes. All you have to do is ask. It's a time in living memory. Equally obviously, not just in the South, either. But in a town like Atlanta, it was institutional. This is the world of Thomas Mullen's novels Darktown and Lightning Men, a world of tensions and temperament, accommodations and anxiety. A place of comforting convention and uncomfortable energies.

Some of you probably know I have a weakness for this time period, the late 1940's, and I've written a series of noir stories that take place back then. The stories involve the people and events of the time and place, and usually touch on some cultural or political ferment, the Red Scare, the mob takeover of the waterfront, running guns to Ireland or Palestine. One in particular, "Slipknot," takes a sidelong glance at race, in the context of fixing the book on a high-stakes pool game. The principals are two historical figures, rival gangsters Owney Madden, owner of the Cotton Club, and Bumpy Johnson, boss of the Harlem numbers. I have no idea whether these guys actually butted heads, back in the day, but it felt right to put them at odds. It was a way of sharpening the racial edge, to make it personal, an open grievance. And neither of them what you might call black-and-white, but equal parts charm and menace.

This is true of Thomas Mullen's books. They're about the color bar, in large degree, but one thing they're not is black-and-white. There are good people, and bad, and mostly in between, just like it is. Darktown is maybe the more traditional as a thriller, with its echoes of True Confessions, and Lightning Men less about a single criminal act than it is about a climate of violence, but both books are effectively novels of manners. You might be put in mind of Lehane or Walter Mosley, but I think the presiding godfather of the books is Chester Himes. Mullen is the more supple writer by far - which isn't to disrespect Himes, but let's be honest, he's working the same groove as Jim Thompson, it's lurid and it's unapologetically pulp - and Mullen's characters are round, not flat (E.M. Forster's usage). All the same, there's something about the weight these people carry, their mileage, their moral and physical exhaustion. This is material Himes took ownership of, and Mullen inhabits it like the weather, We all get wet in the same rain.

Don't mistake me. These books aren't dour. We're not talking Theodore Dreiser. Mullen's writing is lively and exact. He's sometimes very funny. He's got balance, he's light on his feet. And he does a nice thing with voice. The books are told with multiple POV, shifting between five or six major characters, black and white, male and female. You always know who it is, because the narrative voice rings true. The situation is lived-in. You feel your way into its physicality, and you can take the emotional temperature. You don't hang up on it, thinking, that's not a genuine black person speaking, or that's not white.

I realize I've been talking about theme, for the most part, and not giving you the flavor. Here's a cop in a bar.

  He lifted the glass, nothing but three sad memories of larger ice cubes. "I'll take another."
  When Feckless returned the full glass, it rested atop an envelope. Smith looked up at Feck, who peeled the triangle away and revealed cash stuffed inside.
  That there was a lot of money, Smith saw. "I don't do that," he said, looking Feck in the eye.
  "Pass it on to Malcolm, then. He could use it."
  "He'd be very grateful. But you can give it to him yourself." Smith stood and walked away, leaving the full glass behind him as well, and wondering what lay at the end of the road he hadn't chosen.

Not that he isn't tempted. That's the underlying tension, the spine. What lies at the end of the road you don't take? What lies at the end of the road you do? Personal character - moral character, integrity - is about what you do when the going gets tough, not when it's easy, how you behave when you don't want to disappoint yourself. It's self-respect. It's not Jiminy Cricket, or concern for appearances. This is the engine that drives everyone in the books, whether toward good ends or bad. If you've got nothing to live with but your own shame, you've got nothing left to fight for.


14 February 2018

The Iron River

David Edgerley Gates

Mexico has long fascinated us gringos, I think as a place of the imagination as much as a physical destination. The idea of Mexico is at least as strong with the Mexicans themselves, but more as a promise never kept. These days, Mexico in the grip of the narcotraficantes is far darker. "So far from God, so close to the United States," Porfirio Diaz once said. Easy to forget that it's a mirror image.

The simplest and most troubling schematic is the pipeline, The Iron River, drugs and human traffic moving north, money and guns moving south. What we're talking about is market share, access, gangster capitalism. Mexico has all the characteristics of a failed state. No rescue, no refuge. A phenomenon like the Juarez feminicidio, the unsolved murders of hundreds of women (a low estimate), doesn't take place in a vacuum. It has a context. I don't pretend to know all the reasons for it, but the drug traffic, and gang terrorism, is a fair guess as a contributor. 


But for all its reptilian chill, we have to admit it makes marvelous theater. That's the contradiction. I look at the narcos, and I see predators, carrion-eaters, and maggots, the food chain as career path. Mara Salvatrucha? Looney Tunes. And the Zetas? Let's not even. On the other hand, you can't make these guys up. They're gonna crowd your peripheral. You want to take on the drug wars? This is the furniture. It's the threat environment. The picture's already been cast.


You set out to tell a cautionary tale, probably. Or almost certainly. It's the nature of things. T. Jefferson Parker, in the Charlie Hood novels. Iron River, The Border Lords, The Famous and the Dead, to name his most recent three. Two by Don Winslow. The Power of the Dog and The Cartel. And the stories I've written myself about the border war. Doc Hundsacker, the Texas Ranger working out of El Paso, and Doc's pal Fidelio Arenal, the Federale major across the river in Juarez. Pete Montoya, the state cop based in Santa Fe, and Albuquerque FBI agent Sandy Bevilacquia. They're real to me, their strengths and weaknesses, and the consequences of what they choose to do. Not my sense of duty, or my moral choices, but theirs.


I'm not beating a drum, or selling a cure for cancer, or telling you how to vote. I'm saying that if you decide you're telling a certain kind of story, you may very well have to choose up sides. In fact, the story will probably pick a side for you.  They do that, damn it. You wind up on the side of the angels, when you were ready to sell your soul to the Devil. Cheap at twice the price. 

24 January 2018

To Have and Have Not

David Edgerley Gates


Hemingway published To Have and Have Not in 1937, the picture was released in 1944. The book isn't unreadable, but the movie's a lot better. Watching it again, I'm reminded of a couple of things. Bogart and Bacall falling in love. Howard Hawks never shot a scene that dragged in his entire career. William Faulkner was one hell of a script doctor, drunk as a skunk or otherwise.

The story Hawks tells is that he was out on a hunting trip with Hemingway. Hemingway starts bitching about how Hollywood can't get his books right. Hawks says he's selling his books to the wrong people. "Hell," Hawks says to him, "I could take your worst book and make a terrific picture." We can imagine the long, stony pause. "Yeah?" Hemingway says. "What is my worst book?"


Going in, it's obvious they won't get past the censors, and Faulkner isn't even convinced there's a movie in it. What if, Hawks suggests, we wind the clock back and tell the story that led up to the book? They bring Jules Furthman on board. Furthman's got what, a hundred credits, give or take? According to Hawks, they come up with enough back story for a whole other picture (actually made in 1950, The Breaking Point, with Garfield).

Betty Bacall was eighteen when she made the cover of Harper's Bazaar, and her picture caught the attention of Hawks' wife Slim. It was Hawks who wanted her voice to be lower in register, and it became her trademark, a smoky, throaty purr. "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve?" Bogart rolled over and paddled his paws in the air.

The echoes of Casablanca weren't accidental.  It's wartime Martinique, but it's still Vichy. Bogart throws in reluctantly with the Resistance. His common sense isn't blunted by sentiment. When de Bursac's wife loses her temper and snaps at him, it's Frenchy who apologizes. "Forgive her," he says, "she's not herself." Bogart shoots him a look. "Oh?" he asks. "Who is she?"


Another common Hawks signature: the apparent throwaway scene, which is integral to character - character being everything, in Hawks. Here, the musical numbers, Bacall and Hoagy Carmichael, "How Little We Know" (which signals what we've already guessed from her body English) and "Am I Blue?" Seriously, you have to ask? It might put you in mind of Rio Bravo, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, Walter Brennan on harmonica. The drunk, the kid, the gimp, each of them missing a piece, you might say. And then John Wayne, self-sufficient and contained. Or you make a different calculation, that Chance is not only set apart, but isolated. The other three have a vulnerability, a soft spot he doesn't get to show. Or share.

I saw The Big Sleep first, before To Have and Have Not, and The Big Sleep has a lot of the sexual dynamic, not to mention a better score by Max Steiner, but it doesn't have quite the same energy. It doesn't have the invention, or the novelty. The way the two of them look at each other. There's nothing contrived about it. It ain't the lighting, or the soft focus. Bogart and Bacall are there.

Movies are an artifice, a construction. The camera catches reflections. The images have already been decided, and they're waiting to be arranged. But as with all things, we have to allow for happy accident. Accidentally, To Have and Have Not is a document. We watch two people get lucky. You learn how to whistle.



10 January 2018

The Once and Future Spy

David Edgerley Gates

Sir Francis Walsingham was principal secretary to Elizabeth I, as well as her spymaster and head of her security detail. Along with William Cecil, the Queen's senior advisor and Walsingham's chief patron, the two men guarded the Protestant crown and Elizabeth's own person with severe diligence. Heads rolled. Not a metaphor.
L-R  Cecil, Elizabeth, Walsingham
Walsingham lived in a treacherous age, but he himself was steadfast. There was a magnetic attraction. What drew him to her, what recommended her to him?

We might remember the fury of religious hatreds in the 16th century. Philip of Spain may very well have felt slighted after Mary Tudor's death, and there wasn't any love lost with the French, either, but Spain and France were Catholic powers, and England was apostate, Elizabeth a heretic.

Her older sister Mary, daughter of Henry VIII's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, wore the crown for five intemperate and bloody years, and did her best to turn back the English Reformation, burning dissenters at the stake. Not few and far between, either, the known number being two hundred and eighty-four. Some better-off Protestants went into exile abroad. Francis Walsingham, then twenty-one, left his law studies at Gray's Inn and beat feet for Basel, in Calvinist Switzerland.
Sir Francis
Mary died in 1558, and Elizabeth succeeded. Walsingham came back to England. He stood for Parliament. He got in good with the Earl of Bedford, with the nimble-footed Nicholas Throckmorton (who survived involvement in the plots of Thomas Seymour and Lady Jane Grey, and the murder of Darnley, among other things), and with Cecil. He took the lead in supporting the French Huguenots - and was later ambassador to France during the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. He played a big part in exposing the Ridolfi plot, which tarnished Mary Stuart, and led to the execution of Norfolk.

Mind you, we're only into the first ten or a dozen years of Elizabeth's reign. Walsingham's got twenty years to go. The through-line, though, is the thwarting of Catholic power and ambitions. This is a guy who seeks to frustrate at every turn the puissant majesties of Papist dominance. Certainly it's a political balancing act, a chess game, but Walsingham seems motivated not simply by loyalty to his sovereign, but gleefully rubbing their Romish noses in any humiliation he could contrive. He wanted boots on the ground in the Netherlands, for instance, open rebellion against Spain by the Protestant Dutch. Cecil persuaded the Queen to more moderate tactics. Then there were the constant negotiations over prospective candidates for Elizabeth's hand. She used the possibility of marriage as an instrument of foreign policy for most of her life, not in some coquettish pursuit, but as a serious means of structuring or weakening alliances. Here too, Catholic and Protestant proved selling points, for and against.
Walsingham's great espionage triumph is the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Given the time and distances, it's extraordinary how well-informed he kept himself, and how immediate the reports were. He recruited merchant skippers and diplomats, footpads and whores. The intelligence was terrific. He also orchestrated Drake's raid on Cadiz, which pushed Spain's invasion planning back a full year. In the event, the naval battles in the Channel, and later at Calais, decided the issue, Francis Drake again the hero of the hour - the famous story of his finishing the game of bowls - but it was Walsingham's system of beacons, built along the south coast, that gave Elizabeth's captains their timely warning.

Less honorable, perhaps, were the inductions devious by which Mary Stuart was betrayed and condemned, but she was easily led, a foolish queen, far less canny than her cousin. Elizabeth would never have put her trust in such a congeries of rascals and lowlifes and feckless naifs.
Marlowe
The story that's always fascinated me, however, is the murder of Christopher Marlowe, at a tavern in Deptford, if in fact it wasn't a whorehouse, in a drunken quarrel over money. The facts were stated at an inquest, and the three other men present were exonerated, including the one who actually stabbed Marlowe over the eye. There's been a lot of back-and-forth about this, over the years, and whether or not the witnesses are credible. Generally speaking, it's been acknowledged that there's 'something queer' about the whole episode. [Marlowe biographer John Bakeless]

For our purposes, there's the longstanding suspicion that Marlowe was a spy for Cecil, in the Low Countries. And perhaps earlier, when he was at Cambridge, for Walsingham. The three men he was drinking with, that afternoon in Deptford, were all connected to the Walsinghams. Two of them, Poley and Skeres, had been active agents provocateurs for Sir Francis in the Babington plot that undid Mary, Queen of Scots. Marlowe's killer, Ingram Frizer, was in the household employ of Thomas Walsingham, a first cousin. Marlowe had been commanded to appear before the Privy Council to answer charges of libel and sedition - privy to the Crown, in effect the Queen's cabinet, the Council was the seat of authority for both Cecil and Walsingham. Marlowe was killed ten days after the summons, but Sir Francis Walsingham himself was already three years dead at the time of Marlowe's murder.

Did he reach out from the grave? One way of looking at it is to ask what Marlowe might have known and what stories he might have told. By far the most interesting speculation involves the so-called School of Night, a supposed group of atheists patronized by Sir Walter Raleigh, although the evidence is exceeding slim: the theory here being that Kit Marlowe was silenced so he wouldn't incriminate Raleigh, atheism as the time being family to treason, the Queen both monarch and head of the Church of England.
Raleigh
But the cold case mystery of Marlowe's murder seems to illustrate how much space Walsingham has taken up in the Elizabethan imagination, that his shadow could fall so far, and that a dead man's hand struck the fatal blow. 


27 December 2017

Book of the Year

David Edgerley Gates

Guy's name is Don Winslow, his novel's called The Force.


North Manhattan Task Force. They target the drugs, the guns, the money. They work the barrio, the projects. They like to call themselves the Kings.

Denny Malone. Detective sergeant, gold badge, rock-star cop. The man. Top of the food chain. Malone's team gives good weight. They make cases, they make headlines. They make the suits look good. Malone delivers on his promises, puts meat on the table.

Here's the thing. Denny Malone is dirty. Do the numbers. 4th of July, his crew takes down a Dominican heroin mill, score a hundred keys and five million cash, waste the kingpin. Fifty kilos go in evidence, two million of the money. Malone's crew splits the difference. Call it the 401K. Something happens, on or off The Job, they've got extra benefits, cover your family in case of need. Malone and his partners have each other's back. Can't be otherwise, line of work they're in.

Short declarative sentences. Not a lot of wasted motion. Not a lot of adjectives, either. Skip unnecessary verbs, too. Keep it propulsive, present tense. Might put you in mind of early Lehane, a little, maybe Ed Dee. Not that this guy doesn't have a singular voice of his own. But the story, and the voice, belong to Malone.

All he ever wanted to be was a good cop. This is Denny's ambition, and his doom. It could stand as his epitaph. The Force is tragedy, in the classic sense - not an accident, but a fated choice. There's nothing hesitant or peripheral about it, it's front and center. Denny can feel the darkness closing in. At the same time, he can't help but try and work some angle, he's still thinking there's a way to save something of himself. Not because he's bad, either. He's basically good, or like most of us, he'd like to think so. He's just run out of moral collateral.

This is what gives The Force its center of gravity, but don't mistake it for ponderous. The book is a sheer, headlong adrenaline rush. (Malone's team suits up for a raid, and Dexedrine is part of the mix.) The dialogue, the human dynamics, the corrupt politics, the combat gear and the technical specs, the neighborhoods, the urban landscape and its discontents, is all convincing, and made familiar, but the brutally compelling action scenes are something entirely apart. Winslow makes it look effortless. Trust me, it ain't. The most basic principles of physical geography apply. Where is everybody, and where are they in relation to everybody else in the stairwell when all the lights go out? You can't leave it to chance. If you don't block out your fight scenes, they're incoherent.

I think the book delivers the knockdown punch it does because Winslow shows the emotional detail and human costs of The Job so effectively. The fierce loyalties and savage betrayals, the gallows humor, the scabrous vocabulary, the locker-room jive, the brittle tensions, the presence of death. There's this reflection. "Malone isn't a big fan of God and figures the feeling is mutual. He has a lot of questions he'd like to ask him, but if he ever got him in the room, God'd probably shut his mouth, lawyer up, let his own kid take the jolt."

Hard-boiled, and heartbreaking.


My suggestion for best mystery or crime thriller of 2017.

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.