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

10 April 2019

The Border

David Edgerley Gates

Don Winslow's The Force made my top-ten list for 2017, and his new novel The Border is already on my 2019 list. If you're familiar with his work, you can guess why; if you're not, how come?

The Border is the third book in a trilogy about the Mexican drug wars that began with The Power of the Dog in 2005 and continued with The Cartel in 2015. These are decidedly unsentimental. This ain't the Mexico of mariachis and margaritas. This is a landscape of sangre y muerte, bitter enmities and brute force.



The thing here is that it's almost impossible to write about the drug war without getting political. We've long had an abusive relationship with Mexico, and American attitudes have been condescending from the start, going back to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo - which Mexico has always regarded as a humiliation. Mexico in American popular culture is caricature, Wallace Beery as Pancho Villa, Cinco de Mayo a sales pitch for Corona. But not to recognize our part in this dynamic isn't just turning our backs on history, it's dangerously delusional. The most basic fact of the drug business is that the U.S. represents an enormous market, and the supply chain is a growth industry. Secondly, we're talking big money, and the reach of the cartels is long. This leads to institutional corruption, to the degree that Mexico is close to being a failed state, although to imagine the problem is limited to the Mexican legal and political machinery is ridiculous. Thirdly, the War on Drugs itself is an established enterprise. We commit huge resources to it, and nobody wants to jeopardize that. We've created a toxic, symbiotic relationship.



Is any of this a surprise, or up for debate? I'd think it was Narcotics 101, but in some circles, apparently, the mechanics of Cause and Effect are disputed. For example, you can give billions in military aid to the government of Guatemala, say, for drug eradication. When that government uses the training and weapons to turn their military and police into engines of political repression, it's a little disingenuous of us to be shocked when thousands of refugees show up on our doorstep.

It's to Don Winslow's credit that he shows us the political dimensions to the story without taking sides, and shows us the personal cost, too. You can tell he's in a fury, but he's not writing a polemic. These are novels about choice and consequence, moral confusion, self-destruction, and even redemption. It's a story about internal conflict, and interdependence, Mexican and American.



Writing about what Jeff Parker has called The Iron River, the drugs and human traffic coming north, the money and guns moving south, it's hard not to tell a story that resonates. Jeff has done it, Don Winslow has done it, I've certainly tried. But none of us has any prescription.

This isn't the first time I've quoted Porfirio Diaz. "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States."

27 March 2019

"The Wild Bunch" at 50

David Edgerley Gates


The Wild Bunch was released in 1969, the year of the moon landing. I remember watching Neil Armstrong live on a small black-and-white TV, with rabbit ears, in a broken-down and nearly abandoned hotel in Silver City, Nevada. That was late July. By then, I'd already seen The Wild Bunch half a dozen times, and of course dragged other people along. Which suggests perhaps an odd sense of proportion.


In truth, The Wild Bunch has almost certainly had a deeper and longer-lasting effect on me than the moon landing. It's not an exaggeration to say the movie changed my life. I've remarked before that it was Lawrence of Arabia when I first realized for myself how conscious the movie-making process was, that the effects weren't accidental but calculated. And then, with Kurosawa and Frankenheimer, seeing how expressive the vocabulary could be. Later still, and after Peckinpah, I discovered how transformative guys like Ford and Ophuls were, but I needed that first galvanizing moment, that sudden spark of coherence.

Most of us can say, Oh, such-and-such was a watershed moment. We can also say that there were probably a few starts and stammers, so there was more ground preparation than we imagine. The apotheosis, the insight, the revelation, was waiting to happen all along. But not knowing the object of desire (or once found, how necessary it becomes), how do we recognize the steps in between, the foundation, the accumulated weight on the scales? In hindsight, it's easy enough. I remember specific jolts. The beak of the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or Jimmy Stewart's fingers smearing the Frenchman's make-up in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Things that made you catch your breath, but on a visceral level, not something you were ready to appreciate as a device. The evocative image, in isolation.

You might call these moments proto-conscious, meaning we don't consciously process them. As we get more sophisticated - as our vocabulary widens, speaking in movie terms - we begin to see this stuff in context. For me, a good example would be Wayne, in The Searchers, shooting the dead Indian's eyes out. Or more exactly, the way he draws the gun, spinning it up and cocking it at the top of the arc, and then letting the gun's weight bring it down to point of aim. It's very economical, showing he's got such an easy familiarity with the gun, all muscle memory. The shock comes in realizing what he's actually done, when he shoots, not once, but twice. And he explains it, completely matter-of-fact, as common knowledge. The point here is that it tells you something about the character, without expressing it in literal terms. Cinema is nothing if not literal. We see what it is. But in this sense, the evocative sense, what we've seen is more than we've been shown. And we realize it. This is perspective. The image both recedes and expands, like memory.

The third stage, I'd suggest, is when we've become aware we're being manipulated, and we're enjoying the process. We take pleasure in it, because we're an active participant in a passive medium. It isn't that an increased technical fluency gets in the way of immersion (or suspension of disbelief), it heightens the experience. Orson Welles once called it 'looking behind the curtain.' Hitchcock, for one, can't contain his glee, when he both plays the trick, and shows his hand at the same time. It's to my mind, a compliment. Hitch takes us into his confidence.

I don't think, though, that in 1969 all that many of us were quite ready for The Wild Bunch. Yes, we'd had Bonnie and Clyde, in '67, but without taking anything away from it, Bonnie and Clyde really had more of a European sensibility, an art-house feel, than an American one. (Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn had made Mickey One together, two years earlier, and that was very much French-influenced - Shoot the Piano Player - it could have played with subtitles.) Not that Penn was any stranger to violence, either: The Left-Handed Gun is startingly abrupt, and for 1958, no less. And in 1966, we saw Richard Brooks' The Professionals, Anglo mercenaries south of the border, tangled up in Mexico's revolution. John Sturges' Hour of the Gun came out the year after, a decidedly brutal and melancholy version of the Earp legend. The Wild Bunch didn't happen in a vacuum.

But it changed the landscape.

Even when the gunfight starts, outside the freight office, in the opening robbery sequence, you might not know what you're in for. By the time that scene is over, most audiences would be in shock. The obvious influence is Kurosawa, but it was a collaborative effort between Peckinpah, cinematographer Lucien Ballard, and editor Lou Lombardo. They shot with six simultaneous camera set-ups, running at different speeds, 24 frames per second, 30, 60, 90, and 120. Over-cranking generates slow-motion, and Ballard was using long lenses on some of the cameras, which foreshortens the depth of field. Lombardo's rough edit assembly ran twenty-one minutes. He and Peckinpah cut it down to five. Some of the inserts are no more than three or four frames apiece, which on-screen is nearly subliminal, almost too fast for the naked eye. The result is elastic, both in time and physical space. The aspect ratio, how much visual information the screen itself can manage, seems to yawn open and then contract, crowding the edges, optically swollen.

And yet, in the confusion, you don't lose track of the geography, the sight-lines, the physical relationships between the different elements, the composition. I think it's pretty amazing, because it's so easy to stumble into incoherence, particularly in action scenes. Peckinpah has an absolute genius for keeping the spatial dynamics all of a piece.

There's a story that Jay Cocks, the movie critic for TIME, took Marty Scorsese to an advance screening, and the two of them looked at each other afterwards in utter disbelief. They were astonished at what they'd just watched. This wasn't an uncommon reaction. There were also people who were horrified by the picture. Urban legend has it that audience members ran out of sneak previews and threw up. When it screened at Cannes, out of competition, the leading American critics who were there took turns blasting it. It was left to Roger Ebert, in the back of the room, and not a brand name at the time, to stand up and tell them he thought it was a masterpiece.

I'm with Roger, as if you hadn't already guessed. I saw the movie ten or a dozen times that first summer. Some time later, when I had a 16MM projector and an anamorphic lens, I rented the scope print from Twyman - this is back when film schools showed features on actual film, and Twyman was the default source. Then there were the many VHS tapes I stretched and wore out, and the Restored Director's Cut released on DVD.

Peckinpah goes in and out of fashion. Most people agree on Ride the High Country, but that Dundee is a dud. Cable Hogue is a sentimental favorite, and Junior Bonner. The Getaway is technically accomplished, expert and without substance. Straw Dogs will certainly get you into an argument. I know I'm very much in the minority, thinking Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is a masterpiece, and likewise Alfredo Garcia. Killer Elite, a misfire, but the Chinatown shoot-out is a gas. Cross of Iron is I think very underrated. And we'll leave it at that.

What's the bottom line? I'm fond of the exchange in The Wild Bunch when they get to the river, and Angel looks across the Rio Grande.
  "Mexico lindo," he says.
  Lyle says, "I don't see nothing so lindo about it."
  "Just looks like more of Texas to me," Tector says.
  "Aah, you have no eyes," Angel tells them.

Damn your eyes, Sam. God damn your eyes.


Essential reading:
  Jim Kitses, Horizons West
  Paul Seydor, Peckinpah: The Western Films
  David Weddle, If They Move, Kill 'Em
  W.K. Stratton, The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in 
     Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film

13 March 2019

Firefly

David Edgerley Gates

I'm reading a thriller called Firefly, by a Brit named Henry Porter. It's a recent release, last year, and the guy's new to me, but he's got some serious chops. This is his sixth book. He comes recommended by people like Joseph Kanon and Lee Child, and they've picked a winner.


Firefly is about a Syrian refugee kid, on the run from ISIS thugs, who survives shipwreck and flounders ashore on the Aegean coast, and makes his own slow dangerous path across Greece and Macedonia, into the Balkans, trying to reach Germany and what he imagines is safe haven. The trip is of course complicated by all sorts of hazards, not least of which is a determined pursuit by agents of Al-munajil - machete, in Arabic - an Islamic State jihadi gearing up for a terror attack in western Europe.

The other thread of the narrative is that British SIS is in the hunt for the boy, too, along with other friendly security services, French, German, because he gives them their best shot at identifying and intercepting Al-munajil. He's a stalking horse.

Where this parts company with the usual is in the character of the covert contractor they send into the Balkans after the boy Naji. He's an ex-spook named Paul Samson, now working the private side. A former refugee himself, of Lebanese extraction, he's fluent in Arabic, and specializes in hostage rescue. He's not your generic soldier of fortune, weary and cynical, but a stubbornly principled guy who's determined to find Naji alive, and save him.

Which is a real departure. We've gotten used to deeply compromised heroes, with spy fiction in particular. Even in Fleming, where Bond is supposedly under discipline, he's still a stone killer, off the leash. Later iterations, in LeCarre and Deighton and Charles McCarry, have authority issues and attitude problems and nervous bowels, if they're not in fact morally suspect. It's refreshing to have a hero who does the honorable thing without a lot of fuss or fidget. In this, Paul Samson is a close cousin to French film-maker Casson in Alan Furst's The World at Night, or even more so, to Ben Webster and Ike Hammer in Chris Morgan Jones' The Jackal's Share and The Searcher.

Often, the pure of heart are villains. Nobody's more convinced of their rectitude than the holy. And if not villains, then victims, or pawns. Eager recruits. (See, for example, The Little Drummer Girl.) There's actually a lot to be said for a character who does the right thing for the right reasons. I've been thinking about this myself, with regard to the people in my own stories. I favor a little ambiguity, but the sometime inflexibility of a guy like the Rio Arriba sheriff Benny Salvador or the old Texas star-packer Doc Hundsacker isn't always out of place.


There's a lot of uncertainty in the world these days, along with mixed messages, not to mention outright wickedness, and there's plenty of it on display in Firefly. Which is why you find yourself rooting for Naji, and for Paul Samson. The refugee crisis (or immigrant crisis, if you prefer) is brutally real, in Europe as it is elsewhere, and we can take some small comfort in small victories. 

27 February 2019

Ian Rankin's IN A HOUSE OF LIES

David Edgerley Gates

I came to Rebus late, The Falls or Resurrection Men (with its evocative Burke and Hare title), and then went both backwards and forwards. Not my usual, I might add, which is when I find somebody I like, start at the beginning and read the books in chronological order. Nor did I gobble 'em all up in a binge, either, I was wise enough to realize I needed to pace myself.

Then, in 2009, Rankin gave us a change-up pitch, The Complaints, not a Rebus, but a book about Internal Affairs. If you think about it, there's a certain inevitability to it, and if we surmise that Rankin is playing the long game, a further inevitability that our old pal John Rebus would attract the attention of the minders. Malcolm Fox and Rebus collide in Standing in Another Man's Grave, and both of them show up in the next four books - along with Siobhan Clarke and (you knew it was coming) Big Ger Cafferty.

In a House of Lies is really more Rebus and Clarke's book, Fox in secondary. Big Ger has a dog in the fight, as he all too often does, but this time around he doesn't actually put his thumb on the scale. We know early on who the real slimebags are, and we get enormous satisfaction watching the noose tighten. In fact, the book's real tension comes from wondering if these rotters are going to escape the snare. Very often, Rankin's stories are about people wondering if they're doing the right thing, or wondering what the right thing is. In this case, there isn't a lot of second-guessing or hand-wringing. Necks are the only things getting wrung.

Writing about The Complaints and The Impossible Dead, a couple of years ago, I said their main concern was a collision of competing integrities. "Loyalties and betrayals, absent virtues, malign intentions, misspent human capital, leaky alibis, blood feuds and blood debts." In a House of Lies is unambiguous. Moral relativism doesn't get a lot of airplay. When it comes time to settle the score, play for keeps.


13 February 2019

The Unredeemed Captive

David Edgerley Gates

I picked up a used book at a second-hand store not long ago. Boys of the Border, written by Mary P. Wells Smith, a 1954 reprint of a story originally published in 1907. It caught my eye because of the dust jacket art (see illustration below, no explanation needed), and because the inside cover had a hand-drawn map of the Mohawk Trail, in western Massachusetts, during the French-and-Indian War, when these frontier settlements were no more than scattered farmsteads, with the occasional fortified log palisade. Mary Prudence Wells Smith was well-respected in her lifetime, the author of several successful YA series, Boys of the Border the third in her Old Deerfield story cycle. I'm embarrassed to say I'd never heard of her, despite having a common curiosity about the history of that neck of the woods.



Drums Along the Mohawk it ain't, but it's pretty rousing all the same, and in both the Deerfield series and the companion Young Puritans historicals, she gives a convincing picture of daily hardships, forbidding piety, and an abiding mistrust of the Other, dark-hearted and pagan, stealers of children and sleep, the marauding Indian who came out of the deepest wilderness to prey on the luckless and unwary. This hidden terror was in fact the great unmapped continent of North America itself, too enormous to be contained or even imagined. An undiscovered country, whence no traveler returns.

It was a Leap Year. February 29th, 1704. In the early morning, a raiding party of French, Abenaki, and Iroquois attacked the small town of Deerfield, on the Connecticut River. They burned and looted houses, killed forty-seven people, and took 109 captives. They marched them 300 miles north to Quebec.

89 of the captives survived, and over the next two years, 60 of them were ransomed back. Others chose to stay in Canada, most famously the Rev. John Williams' daughter Eunice, who married a Mohawk. Rev. Williams wrote a hugely successful book, The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion, framing the story as instructive of God's providence. In a larger context, it becomes the primal American fiction.


(John Demos published The Unredeemed Captive in 1994, the title a play on Rev. Williams' own. Demos explains the captivity narrative as a racial and cultural paradigm, and not least as gender politics. It could be the Red Man, it could be the Yellow Peril, it could be Mandingo. The story turns on rescue from defilement. It's also clearly, and unapologetically, about the triumph of an enlightened tribe or race over a primitive and degraded one.)

Leaving aside Mark Twain's hysterically irreverent essay about him, it has to be admitted that James Fenimore Cooper is the first American novelist, in that he tells American stories, liberated from a European sensibility. Twain himself is a legatee and beneficiary of Cooper's. Huck Finn is completely American, but his literary forebear is Natty Bumppo. Cooper's romances have all of the generic conventions of the period, nor does he have much fluency or stagecraft, and yet he's engaging. What he brings to the table is conviction. He's got authority. Cooper knows the architectural foundation of his books is Manifest Destiny.

The captive narrative many of us are most familiar with is John Ford's 1956 movie The Searchers - and the novel by Alan Le May. The story is said to be based on the actual kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker by the Comanche. Nine when she was taken, she grew up Comanche, married, and had a family. Her eldest son, Quanah, became one of the last great war chiefs of the Comanche nation. She was recaptured by U.S. cavalry and Texas Rangers in a raid 24 years later, but never reintegrated into white culture. In truth, she wasn't in need of rescue.

The Searchers, for all its savagery, is about reconciliation, something both Eunice Williams and Cynthia Ann Parker stubbornly resisted. America, too, seems unreconciled, our vast interior a dark unknown, our captive imagination unredeemed, an unreliable narrative.


23 January 2019

Stopping Power

David Edgerley Gates

"You know that's my ought-six - look at the size of that hole!"
                                                                                           (The Wild Bunch)

There's a longstanding disagreement in gun circles about how much gun you need, which is basically unanswerable. Talking about caliber and magazine capacity, bullet weight and muzzle velocity, is like talking to fly fisherman about lures. Everything's relative, and in the end, it all comes down to whether or not you catch the fish.

The benchmark people generally use is the one-shot stop. In point of fact, a .22 short in the back of the head will kill you, and it's conventional wisdom that mob hitters like it because the .22 short is subsonic, so you can use a suppressor. On the other hand, if we're talking about a person of large body mass charging at us with a sharpened screwdriver in their hand, and possibly whacked out on Angel Dust, many law enforcement personnel would choose the .45 ACP, which has a solid, immediate impact.

More than a few things come into play here, not least adrenaline and endorphins. FBI studies indicate that the average number of rounds fired in a close engagement are two-point-something. Obviously, this means some people empty a full magazine and some people never get a shot off, but for the sake of argument, let's simply say that if you're lucky, you'll have time for two shots. Your range instructor will tell you to aim for center body mass - but he or she won't say 'aim,' they want you to point and shoot, they want you to acquire the modified Weaver with muscle memory, don't second-guess yourself, let the reptile brain lock it in.

The rest is kinetic energy.

In the 1870's, during the Indian Wars, the U.S. Army issue sidearm was the Colt single-action, chambered in .45 Long Colt. These were replaced in 1892 by a double-action revolver, with a swing-out cylinder for the faster reload, in .38 caliber.  In the Philippine Campaign, the .38's proved ineffective, and eventually the Army adopted the .45 ACP autoloader designed by John Browning, the 1911.

Cop shops follow fashion, of course. For many years, everybody carried .38's. Revolvers, usually Smiths or Colts, the Model 10 or the Police Positive. And they shot off-hand, body at right-angles to the target, the shooter's arm fully extended. The two-handed stances, Isosceles and Weaver, were a later development. Same with the ammo. Sometime in the 1960's, the .357 S&W Magnum, developed some years earlier by Elmer Keith, hot-loading the .38 Special, found new favor with state troopers and highway patrol. With a muzzle velocity of 1200 to 1500 feet per second, the .357 readily penetrated an unarmored vehicle.

Then, in the 1980's (and I may not have the dates exactly right - or maybe the shift isn't all that exact, either), a lot of big-city police departments went to semi-autos, Smith, Sig, and Glock. They were primarily high-capacity nine-millimeters: Glock furnished a 17-round magazine. Not everybody was a fan.

One cop I know told me a story. He and his partner had a felony traffic stop. They approach the car on either side. His partner's over by the driver's door. The passenger points a weapon at him. My buddy's taken up position by the right front fender. He draws his gun and fires. And misses, from no more than five feet away. Because the curve of the windshield deflects his first shot. The muzzle velocity of the 9MM is 1500 fps, but the bullet weight is too light. Heavy and slow is more effective.

For all I know, this story is apocryphal, or exaggerated for effect. When cops tell war stories, they tend to tell the self-deprecating ones, where they're the butt of the joke. I think the story's true, though. You hear GI's say similar things about the Beretta nine - it underperforms. You want something that puts the other guy down flat on his ass.

To this end, the FBI cozied up to the 10MM, a pet project of Col. Jeff Cooper, who was also an enormous influence on combat pistol shooting generally (he founded what later became Gunsite). The first pistol chambered for it, the Bren Ten, was essentially a boutique gun, but Colt came out with the Delta Elite, and Smith with the 1076. It turned out the 10MM had too much felt recoil for a lot of shooters. and the grip frame was cumbersome, a consequence of the oversize magazines. (In the event, FBI Hostage Rescue and SWAT teams use the 10MM, but it's a specialty weapon.) Smith & Wesson shortened the cartridge case and came up with the .40 Smith, now one of the most widely used commercial loads in law enforcement.

There is, in all of this, an orphan. Back in the late 1920's, the .38 Super was introduced, a pistol cartridge designed for the recoil-operated 1911 automatic, based on the .38 ACP but loaded to higher pressures. It was hot. It would go through a car, it could penetrate a bulletproof vest. John Dillinger is said to have carried one. 

Now, truth be told, I didn't know from the .38 Super, because it had fallen from favor. It got knocked off its perch by the .357 Mag. The first I heard about was when it made a cameo appearance in Stephen Hunter's Black Light - a shoot-out in a cornfield with Bob Lee Swagger's dad, Earl - and it was characterized as a real pistolero's weapon. Come to find out, Steve Hunter hadn't been conversant with the .38 Super, either. He found out about it when he was reading up on The Wild Bunch, and it turns out they couldn't use .45's in the movie, because the 1911 wouldn't cycle .45 blanks. You could only fire one shot. The workaround was that they bought surplus .38 Supers down in Mexico, and the guns ran all day.

OK, if you're Steve Hunter, what do you do with that information? You say to yourself, How soon can I get me one? (And as a footnote, what do you do if you're me, with that information? You go on GunBroker.)

I know you're rolling the tape back - why Mexico? Because in Mexico, and a number of other countries in Central and South America, they restrict the heavier pistol calibers to military and police. You can't legally own a .45, for example. (We're not talking about the cartels, we're talking about legal civilian use.) The heaviest chambering allowed is the .38 Super, and there's a big after-market.


I know much of this is only of interest to gear nuts like me (or Steve Hunter), but it has to do with getting things right, which means knowing what questions to ask. I love picking up odd details, and often as not the collateral information is every bit as interesting as whatever your original focus was. We're magpies, distracted by something glittery in our peripheral vision.


09 January 2019

A Killing in Wartime

David Edgerley Gates


A decorated soldier, a former Special Forces captain in Afghanistan, is being charged with murder by the U.S. Army - not a domestic, or Crazy Guy Shoots Up Walmart, but combat-related, a violation of the Rules of Engagement. Matthew Golsteyn was deployed to Marjah, in Helmand Province, in 2010. The area is a major producer of poppy and a primary revenue source for the Taliban. Two of Golsteyn's troops were blown up by booby-traps, on patrol, and not long after, Golsteyn got custody of a suspected Afghan bomb-maker. The guy didn't talk, and Golsteyn was required to release him. In a CIA job interview a year later, however, Golsteyn said he knew that if he let the guy go, it was a death warrant for Afghans working with U.S. forces, and for other GI's. Golsteyn took the guy out past the wire and shot him.

That's one version, anyway. The initial investigation came up, if not empty, inconclusive. But in 2016, Golsteyn did something deeply stupid. He shot his mouth off to Fox News, and said he killed the guy. At which point, the Army reopens the case. This time, they bring capital charges.

Regardless of the merits, the case has now caught the attention of Our National Joke. Trump thinks an injustice is being perpetrated, and he's promised to look into it. "I will be reviewing the case of a U.S. military hero.... He could face the death penalty from our own government after he admitted killing a terrorist bomb maker while overseas." Trump, of course, doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground around the UCMJ - the Universal Code of Military Justice - and he's blithely unaware that what he's doing could compromise the case, one way or the other.

It's called Unlawful Command Influence. For example, Pres. Obama said heatedly that sex offenders in the military should be "prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged." This was later interpreted as prejudicial, and there was in fact one Navy judge who ruled out a punitive discharge at court-martial because of Obama's statement. (Trump said inflammatory things during the campaign about Bowe Bergdahl, and although the judge in that case acknowledged Trump's remarks were inappropriate, he gave Bergdahl a DD anyway.) In the Golsteyn case, we're talking about influencing a favorable verdict, or asking for dismissal. It ain't gonna happen, but we'll see if the fat lady can carry a tune.

*

Return with us now, through the mists of time, to that unlovely year 1969. Nha Trang. A suspected Vietnamese informer named Thai Khac Chuyen is taken on a boat ride out into the South China Sea, shot twice in the back of the head, and dumped over the side. Project GAMMA was a spook show, run out of 5th Special Forces under CIA discipline, and CIA signed off on Chuyen's termination  (although they'd pretend otherwise, when the shit hit the fan.) Six of the Green Berets in the unit, along with 5th SPG's commanding officer, Col. Robert Rheault, wind up in the stockade, waiting on an Article 32, preliminary hearing for a general court-martial, charged with murder.

You have to understand the politics, here. Abe Abrams had taken over from Westmoreland the year before. Abrams was a tank guy. He didn't have any patience with Spec Ops, and he especially didn't want his boys, GI's, carrying water for CIA. It was all about accountability. Abrams also thought Col. Rheault had lied to him, but this is a little tricky, because Rheault was new on the job, and may not have been fully briefed. GAMMA was restricted access, Need-to-Know. Rheault could have easily repeated the CIA cover story to Abrams, without realizing it was fabricated. Either way, the damage was done. Abrams was in a fury.

Abrams is in no way mollified by the press coverage, which reports the Green Berets are being scapegoated, first to take the heat off CIA, and secondly, when evidence surfaces that Chuyen was in fact a spy, to ask why they were charged in the first place. Killing the enemy is a soldier's first order of business. The defense asks to depose both Abrams himself, and the CIA station chief in Saigon. This hot potato goes all the way up the chain of command. Nixon instructs Haldeman to put the kibosh on the whole thing, and CIA falls in line, refusing on national security grounds to cooperate with the court-martial authorities at all. The secretary of the Army vacates the charges. Rheault asks for reinstatement. Abrams turns him down. Rheault resigns his commission and quits the Army.

Now that's what you call Unlawful Command Influence. And that's why the protocols and procedures are in place, to guard against malice, against too-easy resolutions, and against simple-minded blowhards with too much time on their hands. More honored in the breach than in the observance.

*

I've written myself about GI's, and spooks, who puts the fix in and who gets squeezed in the middle, and I'm now happy to report I've discovered somebody else working that turf, a sort of DMZ, between the wild and the sown. Martin Limón is new to me, but that's soon remedied.

Thirteen novels and counting, beginning with Jade Lady Burning and Slicky Boys, and a story collection, Nightmare Range. So far as I know, his first published appearance was in Hitchcock, in 1991. He's mixed it up a little, but for our purposes, it's the George Sueño and Ernie Bascom series that's center ring. George and Ernie are U.S. Army CID investigators in Korea, in the 1970's. They work the street, on the edge of the rackets and the black market, at the exotic and familiar overlap of Korean and American GI culture. Not so much American, mind, as American military, itself both an exotic and familiar creature.

These are terrific books, not least because the environment is a bubble off of plumb. And they're dark, no getting around it. I'm reminded not a little of Sarah Bird's wonderful novel about a career U.S. Air Force family in Japan, The Yokota Officers Club. Her book isn't a crime story, even if in part it's about secrets, but it inhabits a sort of Twilight Zone, because the world she describes is foreign, with its cadences and rigidity, and its very own vocabulary. Martin Limón gets this cold, and he does it in a similar way, by treating it as matter-of-fact.

There's a lot to be said for turning the conventions backwards. If you accept a structure, a template, the characteristics of a Western, or a Gothic, the elements of noir, it doesn't tie your hands. It can be invigorating. Martin Limón takes the police procedural and folds it in on itself, and hands it back to you with the pin pulled out.


26 December 2018

Boxing Day

David Edgerley Gates


Back when I lived in Provincetown, my pals Skip and Katrina celebrated Boxing Day. Skip hailed from one of the border states, and Katrina was a Scot. He'd once made it to the semi-final tables of the World Series of Poker, which is one of those things you can only marvel at, it seems so far beyond the orbit of mere mortals, but that's a different story. When they invited me to their Boxing Day party, I'd never heard of such an event. And when I hastened down to their house on a chilly winter's eve, her dad was waiting just inside the door, kilted up in full tartans and playing the bagpipes. It was epic.

The day after Christmas is a feast day in the liturgical calendar, St. Stephen's. This somehow got transmuted into a general alms-giving, when "post-men, errand-boys, and servants expect to receive a Christmas-box." (Hyphens in the original, from the OED, 1830's.) An earlier tradition is apparently that servants in a wealthy household, working over Christmas, got the next day off to spend with their families. The etymology is that you were often given a box of party favors to take with you.

Snopes goes the conventional wisdom one better. They say the common thread is charity to somebody lower on the social scale than you are. Equals exchange gifts on Christmas Day. Tradesmen, employees, the less fortunate, get theirs the day after; neither do they reciprocate, which would presume an equivalency. In other words, Boxing Day reinforces the class system.  

Be that as it may, and there are competing theories, it's a big deal in Great Britain and the Commonwealth. Retailers schedule annual sales around it. Sports leagues schedule test matches. The common folk schedule industrial drinking. The estimable Ali Karim, of Shots magazine, a confirmed gin man, suggests that an Asian pear or three eaten beforehand will increase your stamina, and give you less of a thick head the day after. I can't speak to this. If he's proved right, I bow to genius.

Oh, and lest we forget. Good king Wenceslas looks out, on the Feast of Stephen, when the snow lay round about. And sees a poor man, gathering wood for a fire. The king puts together a gift box. Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither. He and his page go out into the weather, food and drink and wood, to warm the peasant's hut. The lesson of the story is, Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

Raise a glass. Be of good purpose. Bless us, every one. 

12 December 2018

Skin in the Game

David Edgerley Gates


William Goldman died this past month, the week before Thanksgiving. Predictably, his obituaries led with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He wasn't crazy about his own writing, he admitted, but there were two things he wasn't embarrassed by, the screenplay for Butch Cassidy and his novel The Princess Bride.


I remember reading The Temple of Gold in the late spring of '63, and being knocked out by it. It was a coming of age story - Goldman himself was 24 when it was published - and it had a cocky, mischievous attitude, kind of like Dick Bissell's early book, A Stretch on the River, but Bissell was my dad's age. As lively as his stories were, they had a period feel, a little removed. Goldman's voice was right there, immediate, confiding, intimate.


I liked the next couple of books I read, Soldier in the Rain, Boys and Girls Together, but when I recognized his name in the credits for Harper, my mental ears pricked up. (Goldman adapted a second Ross Macdonald mystery, The Chill, but it never got made. Somewhere in the mists, I hear Sam Peckinpah's name attached to this, or maybe that's just wishful thinking.) And then, of course, Butch and Sundance. You might think, looking back, foreordained, In point of fact, not.


It's obvious Goldman was a movie nut, it's right up front in his first book. The Temple of Gold, the title, comes from the RKO swashbuckler Gunga Din. The two best friends in the novel are just kids when they see the picture, and it becomes a metaphor for their lives. The loyal Gunga Din, in his loincloth, climbing to the top of the golden dome to blow his trumpet and sound the alarm. Yes, it's as corny as it sounds.


Goldman wrote some good novels, but he stopped writing novels altogether after Brothers, in 1986. He'd found his metier in movies. Look at his credits. He's the guy who turned in the script when nobody thought a movie could even be made - the example is Stephen King's Misery. He always gave good weight. Interestingly, he isn't rigidly prescriptive when it comes to writing screenplays. His advice (Adventures in the Screen Trade) is sound. The basic template is three acts, and it's all about structure. But he clearly demonstrates that these conventions don't confine the narrative, they sharpen it. They burn away the inessential.


Are they all home runs? No. Chaplin is long on good intentions. The Ghost and the Darkness somehow just rolls over and plays dead. Hard to say, really, what makes a picture work. There's that ineffable something, and Goldman caught lightning in a bottle more than a few times. A few more times than most of us.


There's a footnote in Bill Goldman's filmography I find striking. Among his unproduced screenplays are several for movies that were later made, but written by somebody else. Goldman's original scripts were discarded. He probably got a kill fee, but that's not my point. I'm thinking more along the lines of what might have happened if they'd used Goldman's scripts. Not that they didn't turn out to be good pictures, in the event. Charly. Papillon. The Right Stuff. Shooter. (And now you're thinking about it, too.) 

28 November 2018

Hitler's Bomb

David Edgerley Gates


Call it the Uncertainty Principle.

The theory was sound, the practical applications needed work. Leo Szilard, the Hungarian-born physicist, wrote a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt and got Alfred Einstein to sign it. It was August, 1939, and Germany invaded Poland in September. Szilard's letter made three main points. A nuclear chain reaction, using a critical mass of uranium, would release enormous energies. (It hadn't happened yet, but Enrico Fermi succeeded in 1942.) Second, the principles of nuclear fission could be used to make a bomb. And last, the Germans were already working on it.

The three most famous names in world physics in 1939 were Einstein himself, who was teaching at Princeton, Niels Bohr, in Copenhagen, and Werner Heisenberg, developer of quantum mechanics, at the Kaiser Wilhelm in Berlin. They knew each other's work well, they were part of the same community of ideas, and Bohr in fact knew the other two men personally. The war fractured their dynamic.

You have to understand something else, which is completely unscientific and counter-productive, namely that race hatred, anti-Semitism, was fundamental to Nazi beliefs. The movement known as Deutsche Physik argued against theoretical physics, particularly quantum mechanics and relativity. A guy like Heisenberg was tainted - he was a 'White Jew,' meaning an Aryan with Jewish sympathies - and as ridiculous as this seems, it crippled German science and the German war effort. Small favors, it turns out.

In the event, it wasn't until 1942 that Heisenberg got the ear of Albert Speer, the Minister of Armaments, and made his case for the Uranverein, the atom project. Heisenberg told Speer an atom bomb couldn't be built for some years yet, and even then with an enormous diversion of resources: money, materials, and manpower. It was more practical to focus on nuclear power generation, to think in terms of what industry required. Heisenberg's argument was persuasive. Speer put weapons research on hold, but he didn't stop funding nuclear power research, so it was still considered vital to the war machine. Hold that thought.

We have to roll the clock back to September, 1941. Heisenberg went to Copenhagen, and talked to Niels Bohr. There are conflicting accounts. Heisenberg seems to have been feeling Bohr out. The question is, what result was Heisenberg looking for? The least flattering interpretation is that Heisenberg was trying to recruit Bohr to work for the Nazis. More charitably, Heisenberg might have been voicing his own conflicted views, that an atom bomb was possible, but didn't a scientist have a moral obligation not to build it?

Bohr managed to be willfully obtuse, and said after the war he never understood why Heisenberg had come to see him in the first place. Bohr escaped occupied Denmark a couple of years later, to Sweden, and then to Britain, courtesy of SIS. He went to the U.S., and visited Los Alamos several times. He knew an atom bomb was perfectly feasible. "They didn't need my help," he remarked.

So what else do we know about this? At the end of the war, the Alsos Mission - organized to monitor the German atom project - reached Haigerloch, and found both Heisenberg and the experimental reactor his team had built. Heisenberg and nine of his colleagues were interned in Britain, at an SIS safe house wired for sound. The transcripts indicate the Germans never tried to build a bomb, only an atomic pile, for energy. Heisenberg says it would have been ludicrous for him to suggest assigning a hundred thousand men to a job with no guarantee of success. In other words, it wasn't a sure thing.

There's some wiggle room, here. Thomas Powers, in his book Heisenberg's War, doesn't doubt Heisenberg knew how to build an atom bomb, or knew which direction to take. Trial and error might have gotten him there, they way it did Oppenheimer's team in Los Alamos. Certainly a lot of the motivation for the Manhattan Project was the suspicion that Germany was mounting a similar effort. Powers argues that Heisenberg dragged his feet. He told Albert Speer it wasn't practical. He said it would take too long, that it would eat up needed war resources. He didn't come right out and say it wasn't possible, he didn't want to be shut down completely. He kept his hand in. He knew at each and every moment exactly how far they'd gotten.

None of the principals ever said so afterwards, not that we know of, but the evidence suggests Heisenberg committed treason. He very possibly lost the war for Germany. He didn't build an atom bomb for one simple reason. He didn't want Hitler to have it. 


14 November 2018

Telemark

David Edgerley Gates

I've always had a soft spot for the 1965 war thriller Heroes of Telemark. Directed by Anthony Mann, first off, not to mention I'm a longtime Kirk Douglas fan, it's one of those outnumbered-commandoes-attack-Nazi-stronghold yarns, better than Where Eagles Dare, not quite in the same league as Guns of Navarone.

Telemark is based on a true story, and although they take more than a few liberties, it's reasonably accurate. I was in fact reading The Saboteur, an Andrew Gross novel about the Norsk Hydro raid, exact in its details, when news came that the last surviving Norwegian veteran of the attack had just died. Joachim Rønneberg lived to be 99.

The thing about the Norsk Hydro raid, the real story, is that the fictions actually fall a little short. There's a lack of contrivance, and you have to dramatize a story that's more about endurance and less about blowing shit up. You might even play down how high the stakes were.

In late 1942, there were two trains running. In the U.S., the Manhattan Project, and in the UK, what was known as the Tube Alloys program. What nobody on the Allied teams knew was how far along the Germans were, specifically Werner Heisenberg at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. Absent hard intelligence, it was thought better safe than sorry, and senior Brit spooks at the Special Operations Executive began mapping out sabotage missions to damage the Uranverein, Nazi atomic weapons research.

In the occupied territories of the Reich, the Norsk Hydro generating plant at Vemork, in Telemark, was the most reliable producer of deuterium oxide, also called 'heavy water,' an essential component in nuclear fission. German experiments relied on heavy water, and Norsk Hydro became a primary target for SOE.

Access was the main issue. The plant was in a gorge, and a night bombing raid was discussed. If the Lancasters could navigate accurately in the dark, could they pinpoint the ordnance and destroy the target? Odds against. The only thing they could be sure of was heavy collateral casualties among Norwegian civilians.

It had to be boots on the ground. SOE mounted Operation Grouse in October 1942. They parachuted in an advance party, local Norwegians, to scout the terrain and set up the approach. A month later, they sent in a combat group to rendezvous with Grouse. Everything went wrong. The two gliders crashed, the men who weren't killed were captured by the Germans, and then executed. The four-man Grouse team hid out on the Hardanger plateau, scrubbing lichen off the rocks to eat. They were holed up for three months.

The follow-up mission was launched in February, 1943. Six more Norwegian commandoes dropped onto the Hardanger and made contact with Grouse. Because of the failed attack the previous November, the Germans knew Vemork was a target. But the garrison was small. It was the geography that protected Norsk Hydro. The river valley narrowed at the Rjukan Falls, and the slopes were near-vertical. The mountains are high enough to block out the sunlight from September to March. The plant was built on a rocky shelf 1,000 feet above the river. Security checkpoints had been established further up, overlooking the plant, and on the bridge across the gorge. The commando team made their assault from below, climbing out of the steep ravine in the icy darkness.

They got inside, they wired the explosives, they blew the containment vessels to smithereens. Then they got out. Amazingly, they all escaped, with upwards of 3,000 troops out beating the bushes for them. A couple made it to Oslo, a couple stayed behind. Rønneberg and four others skiied to Sweden. Skiied. 400 kilometers. The wartime German commander, von Falkenhorst, later called it the "best coup" he'd ever seen.

There's a postscript, in that the Germans reestablished heavy water production not long after, but after daylight bombing raids, decided to ship the inventory they had by ferry and rail back to Germany. Norwegian saboteurs sank the ferry as it crossed Lake Tinn, and German atom research sank with it.

Did the Telemark raid change the outcome of the war? In all honesty, no. There was nothing remotely analogous to the Manhattan Project in the German war effort. Albert Speer, the armaments minister, was never convinced it was a workable goal. There's a whole other story, of course, about Heisenberg in Berlin, but we'll save that for another time.

Meanwhile, let's raise a glass to Joachim Rønneberg, and the memory of men and women like him. We honor the debt we owe them. We hope we deserve the world they gave us.  

24 October 2018

Wet Work Redux (the Saudi Sanction)

David Edgerley Gates

Russian military intelligence, the GRU, has always had an adversary relationship with KGB, state security, and in particular with KGB's foreign directorates. (Now known as SVR; the domestic side of the shop is the FSB.) GRU has an unhappy reputation for being ham-handed, and some of their more recent adventures seem to bear that reputation out. The poison attack on Sergei Skripal, in the UK, was reportedly a GRU operation, and certainly there have been others. But this quite possibly misses the point. Far from hiding their light under a bushel, GRU is going out of their way to sign their name.

(In my Cold War spy thriller Black Traffic, KGB general Rzhevsky uses GRU as a patsy in a deception operation, and refers to them as the 'Boots.' I didn't make this up. KGB has always thought these guys were knuckle-draggers.)

For all that Vladimir Putin himself is former KGB, he doesn't have a soft spot for his old crew. GRU and Spetsnaz units were deployed in Donbass and the Crimea, both as irregulars and in uniform, and got results. GRU's higher visibility and preference for muscle over mind looks like a sales strategy. It's no secret Putin favors the blunt instrument, but the new wrinkle here is the lack of plausible deniability. In the past, there was at least the pretense of maintaining a cover story. These days, nobody even makes the effort. The reasoning is brutally simple. Terror tactics don't work unless you show your handwriting. Give fear your own face.

Assassination as a covert means has a long history, but let's confine ourselves to living memory. Everybody's practiced it. CIA probably had a hand in Patrice Lumumba's death, and famously tried more than once for Castro. Mossad went after Black September, and decapitated the PFLP. It depends, to some degree, on whose ox is being gored. And you can argue that Israel, for example, is addressing a direct threat to its existence. But that's a kind of moral relativism. All the same, making it policy to murder reporters - instead of some guy who can design a gas centrifuge - is kicking it up a notch. Which brings us to Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi royal family.

Again, we have the Russian model to follow. Putin has supposedly sanctioned dozens of killings, aside from defectors, the Skripals and Litvinenkos of this world, but people like Anna Politkovskaya, who was targeted because of her writings about the Chechen wars, and her opposition to Putin's rebranded Stalinism. She's just one example, of course, and her death only painted on the radar because she was so visible, and her killing so obviously retaliation.

What makes the Khashoggi murder different, and why it's getting so much press, is that the Saudis set a trap for him, at an embassy in another country, killed him, and lied about it without the slightest embarrassment - clearly not expecting anybody to ask questions, because the lies were so obvious. They not only don't give a rat's ass about the consequences, they don't in fact understand what all the fuss is about. Khashoggi was a fly buzzing around the room. We smacked him. What do you care? In this sense, it's not even the murder itself that's startling, it's the Saudis acting aggrieved, as if they're the ones who've been done the injury. Sorry to say, this is genius.

Further reading, Christopher Dickey in The Daily Beast:
https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-real-reasons-saudi-crown-prince-mohammed-bin-salman-wanted-khashoggi-dead?ref=home




10 October 2018

XPD

David Edgerley Gates


XPD is a usage coined by Len Deighton, in his terrific 1981 thriller of that title, an acronym for Expedient Demise.



A week ago Wednesday, the Russian Prosecutor General's Office confirmed that senior deputy prosecutor Saak Karapetyan had been killed in a helicopter crash outside of Kostroma. A town on the Volga, dating back to the 12th century, if not earlier, Kostroma is one of the so-called Golden Ring cities, a favored retreat of the Grand Dukes of Moscow, the Romanovs, and Soviet nomenklatura. There are conflicting reports. Local officials said at first it was an unauthorized flight, this was contradicted by Moscow. Stanislav Mikhnov, an "experienced" pilot, apparently took off under "adverse" conditions. The third man aboard was also killed. Aviation emergency services are investigating the incident.

Russians are of course total gluttons for conspiracy theories, hidden protocols, and labyrinthine paranoia, so they're all over this one, faster than you can say Vince Foster, but maybe they know something we don't. This guy's handwriting covers a good many pages.

Saak Albertovich Karapetyan was a member of the security apparat. He made his bones in Rostov, as a state prosecutor, and after serving in parliament, he was appointed to the office of Prosecutor General. He headed the Main Directorate for International Legal Cooperation for ten years, and it was in this capacity that he ran interference on at least two major criminal investigations, the Magnitsky case and the Litvinenko poisoning.

The which? you ask. As well you might.

Sergei Magnitsky was a tax auditor, representing an investment firm, Hermitage Capital. Investigating financial irregularities, Magnitsky exposed a widespread fraud, involving the police, the courts, tax agents, bankers, and the Russian mob. Although his accusations later proved out, the immediate result of his going public was his own arrest. He was held for eleven months, and died in custody, under what might be called clouded circumstances. It's a complicated story, and not least because the official Russian version is completely contrary to the known facts.

In the U.S., the eponymous Magnitsky Act was passed to allow for sanctioning individuals responsible for human rights violations. Putin has been working to overturn the Act for the past six years, and it was apparently part of the conversation with Michael Flynn and at the Trump Tower meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya.

Veselnitskaya - wait for it - wrote the supporting brief for her then-boss, senior prosecutor Saak Karapetyan, when he stonewalled U.S. inquiries into the money-laundering case against the Russian real estate company Prevezon. Another complex financial tangle, but it leads back to the tax fraud Magnitsky blew open, and the dirty money that was never recovered.

A footnote, here. Magnitsky's boss at Hermitage, the American entrepreneur Bill Browder, has been continually targeted by the Prosecutor General's Office, through Interpol arrest warrants. Most jurisdictions seem to hold the warrants without merit. Browder was instrumental in getting the Magnitsky Act onto the books. A second footnote. Nikolai Gorokhov, a Magnitsky family lawyer who was scheduled as a witness in the Prevezon case, fell out a Moscow window before he could testify.

Alexander Litvinenko. If you're reading this, you probably know who he was. The polonium poisoning? London. 2006. Scotland Yard sent a team to Moscow, the Russians welcoming transparency and all that, but the British cops got sick - they thought somebody slipped them a Mickey - and guess who was in the room? Our senior prosecutor, Saak Karapetyan.

He more recently went out of his way to accuse the Brits of yet more Russia-bashing, in reference to the Novichok attack. Karapetyan put Sergei Skripal, Litvinenko, and Boris Berezovksy (another latterly dead Putin critic) in the same sentence, calling them provocations, which in this context means a false allegation for political gain.

The connection between Karapetyan and Veselnitskaya came out of the closet because of a blown recruitment, this past year. They've been close for a long time, Karapetyan her mentor - The Daily Beast, for one, has been using the more suggestive term handler. Anyway, the two of them had actively compromised a senior Swiss official, whose day job was monitoring the Swiss accounts of Russian oligarchs and mob guys. You notice how, more often than not, it seems to be about the money?

All of this is no more than a chain of circumstance. There's nothing to indicate Karapetyan was less than a loyal soldier, no reason to think he'd be better off dead. There is, however, a later and uncorroborated story that the helicopter pilot, Mikhnov, had two bullet holes in him. The question you have to ask is, Cui Bono - Who Benefits? I don't have a ready answer. It could simply be one of those weird juxtapositions, where the sinister meets the convenient. It could be an untidy intrigue, something domestic, a private grudge. But maybe the guy had sold his soul to the Devil, and it came time to collect. 

*

Best American Mystery Stories 2018, edited by Louise Penny and Otto Penzler, is out from Houghton, Mifflin.  Included are SleuthSayer authors Michael Bracken, John Floyd, David Edgerley Gates, and Paul D. Marks. 


26 September 2018

Sharky

David Edgerley Gates


Burt Reynolds made his share of dogs, which he'd be the first to admit, but in 1981 he released Sharky's Machine, a rock-solid cop noir about dirty money and easy virtue.

John Boorman was originally signed. It had been nine years since Deliverance, the first picture anybody took Reynolds seriously in. But post-production on Excalibur ran long, and Boorman stepped away, telling Reynolds he should direct Sharky himself.

Burt Reynolds in mid-career, the early 1970's to the early 1980's, was Top Ten box office. He leveraged this into directing his first feature, Gator, in 1976. His second picture, The End, came out in 1978. Reynolds had optioned Sharky's Machine when it was published. He knew he had the chops. Now it was time to ante up.


This is a movie that begins with the first frame of the opening credits. Actually, it begins before the opening credits, because there's an eerie musical echo behind the Orion studio logo, then a fade to black, and then the first fade-in. A freeze frame, the color desaturated. An urban skyline, a tall glass-high-rise. The aerial shot tilts and opens up. Solo saxophone, bluesy, a little wistful. The string section, in a low register. Randy Crawford, her voice smoky, comes in slow, with the opening lyrics of 'Street Life:' "I still hang around/Neither lost nor found - " The single long shot keeps going, dipping closer to the ground, the camera in tighter, traveling left to right, picking up detail. Railroad tracks, a guy with a long, purposeful stride. Jump edit, with a simultaneous music cue, blam! the rhythm section kicking in, the horns. Cut to a sudden reverse, looking back up from a low angle, the camera now moving right to left, keeping pace with the guy's motion, his silhouette against the sky, the glass high-rise on the horizon behind him, distant, a world apart from his. And yes, the opening introduces Burt Reynolds.

First off, it's a virtuoso shot, done in the day before CGI. Secondly, it sets up - formally - a repeated visual effect, from high to low, from low to high. You're not at first aware of it. Then you begin to notice. Early on, there's a wonderful tracking shot, inside a stairwell. Sharky's been taken off Narcotics, and reassigned to Vice, below the salt. In fact, Vice is literally in the basement of the building. The camera backs down the stairs, below Sharky and his partner. A couple of flights down, his buddy tells him, This is as far as I go, people don't come back, and Sharky goes on alone, but the camera turns behind him, so it's hanging back, looking over his shoulder.

Sharky's Machine has very conscious echoes of Laura, and Rear Window, but its deeper influence is the legend of Orpheus, themes of descent and ascending. The journey into Hades, the rescue of the beloved, once lost. The whore Dominoe is an innocent, and the tarnished Sharky the one in need of redemption.


Not that the movie's perfect, by any means. There's one near-fatal mistake, when Dominoe finds Sharky carving a rose into the wood trim of a window seat in the old house he's renovating, and Reynolds has one of those patented Aw, shucks moments that just makes you want to vomit. It almost breaks the spell entirely. Another incident, when Sharky confronts Hotchkins, the crooked candidate whose run for governor can be compromised by Dominoe, loses most its effectiveness because it's played in long-shot, and you don't hear what they say to each other.

Let's look at the strengths. Music supervision by Snuff Garrett. The score's orchestrated by Doc Severinsen, who goes uncredited. But we have both Chet Baker and Julie London doing 'My Funny Valentine,' not to mention incidental tracks by Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams. The cinematography. William Fraker. Rosemary's Baby, Bullitt, Tombstone. The entire cast. Charles Durning. Brian Keith. Bernie Casey. Richard Libertini. Earl Holliman. Vittorio Gassman. Henry Silva. Not to forget Rachel Ward, either.

What characterizes the picture, in a curious way, is restraint. Considering how much of it is over the top, and how repellent the material could easily be, Reynolds gives it a genuinely human dimension. When he does dial up the shock, it's all the more chilling for not seeming forced or calculated so much as necessary and immediate.

Sharky's Machine was Burt Reynolds' high-water mark. He tried again with Stick, and the movie tanked. It was his last major picture as a director. He later admitted he thought he could always come back to it - he directed a number of episodes for his series, Evening Shade - but time had passed him by.

In one of his last interviews, he said he didn't have any regrets left. I think he meant, not that he had none, but that he'd used them all up. He didn't need to spare any over Sharky's Machine. You could take that guy to the bank and get change back.


12 September 2018

In The Corner

David Edgerley Gates


Ever painted yourself into a corner? Writers obviously set targets, like a page count or a due date, or decide on a specific setting or circumstance, maybe a card game, or Elizabethan London, or a child's narrative POV - and then of course we move the goalposts. I'm thinking more particularly of stepping into a snare of your own devising, creating a problem you didn't know you had.

Writing's an obstacle course. And one of the things you learn early on is that you can't leave stuff out, you can't skip something because you think nobody will notice. This is obvious if we're talking about forensic detail, say, but less so when it requires us to bring more to the game. We all play to our strengths, and have lazy habits of mind, or avoidance mechanisms. It's about the comfort zone. 

For example. I first blocked out my spy story "Cover of Darkness" a very long time before the end result saw print. We're talking years. Partly, it was cold feet. I wasn't even entirely sure I wanted to write about the Cold War, and my time in Berlin, and I had a handy alibi, because I knew I was crossing the line between inside information and actual classified material. But the real stumbling block was my own skill level. The set-up for the story - the rainy tarmac, the stuffy car, the security, the briefing - was all very fluent. The  problem was, once the story really starts, once McElroy makes the dive into the icy river, everything takes place underwater. It was claustrophobic, there was no dialogue, it was all physical description. I broke it up a little, of necessity, but the basic story is one long action scene. It was a toughie.

Another story, "Winter Kill," stopped me a third of the way in, because I'd written myself into an impossible box. I had a murder victim, a cold case, skeletal remains, but no ID on the victim. How do you pin it on somebody? Doyle claimed that the Holmes stories were written back to front, he knew going in what Holmes would deduce, so it was a matter of reversing the plot. In my case, I don't think I've ever known going in how a story would turn out. The work-around, in "Winter Kill," is that I blinked. I realized it couldn't be made to happen, and I came up with a way to narrow the possibilities, and put a history to the bones. In other words, I fudged it.

I've talked before about the sex scene in my novella Viper. This is an example where there wasn't any work-around. I put my head in the lion's mouth. I hadn't planned it that way, by any means, but as the story took on shape and momentum, the inevitability loomed. And it had to be full-frontal, it couldn't happen off-stage. I've speculated previously that I did this accidentally on purpose, just to see if I could navigate the rapids.

I'm wrapping a Benny Salvador story now called "Second Sight," and I've hit a snag right at the end. The question isn't what happened, but how to explain it - more exactly, how not to explain it, how to paper over the details because the truth will do more injury than a comforting lie. There's the moral issue involved, Benny being pretty much a straight arrow, and a part of him knows he owes an honest account, but the lie will own him. And then we have the actual mechanics. How do I manage this convincingly?

This last is a different kind of obstacle from the ones I've outlined above, and of course that's the point, that each of them presents a new, and individual, difficulty. The specific, not the generic. I'm perfectly ready to entertain the notion that we're testing ourselves, pushing the boundaries, raising the bar. That it's a contest, or even a contact sport, hand-to-hand combat, wrestling an intransigent syntax to a weary draw. Or is it simply the quiet satisfaction of getting it right? No. There's more to it than that. There's that place we all know, where you get to say it out loud. Gotcha, you bastard.