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

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.

08 November 2017

Trabismo

David Edgerley Gates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 October 2017

Collaborators

David Edgerley Gates

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

11 October 2017

The Devil Loads Empty Guns

David Edgerley Gates


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

27 September 2017

Legacies



David Edgerley Gates

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


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

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

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

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



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

13 September 2017

Cabin Fever

by David Edgerley Gates

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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