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

28 July 2021

Vikings


One of my embarrassing favorites is The Vikings, a Kirk Douglas picture from 1958, directed by Richard Fleischer. Fleischer had done 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea a couple of years before, with Douglas and James Mason, for Disney. 20,000 Leagues still gives me nightmares, that giant squid. The Vikings sticks to my ribs for different reasons.

Clearly, a lot of it is bogus. The wife accused of adultery, with her pigtails pinned to the wood stocks, and her husband throwing the axe. The guy loses his nerve, and Kirk steps in. (We know, and so does everybody else, that Kirk himself has been schtupping her.) But he saves her bacon. Then there’s the stuff that you figure was probably made up, but rings true. Kirk, again, dancing on the oars as the long boats make their way up the fjord. The story Dick Fleischer tells is that the stunt guys started walking the oars, and Douglas said he could do it, too. Fleischer is, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, if you break your balls, the picture shuts down. Douglas goes ahead, and you can see it’s him, not a stunt double. And then the moment when Tony Curtis throws his hawk at Kirk, and the bird takes his eye out. These are guys who can inhabit a mutual hatred.

So, when The Vikings comes on TV, the TV Guide listing calls it “Incredible, but rousing, Norse mayhem.” I could cotton to that description. Borgnine is worth the price of admission. He’s about to be pushed into a pit of wolves. He turns to Tony Curtis and asks for a sword. Curtis gives him one, and Borgnine jumps into the pit, calling, “ODIN!” Is this remotely genuine? Who cares? The immediate result is that Curtis then gets his hand cut off. Fair is fair.

I thought I’d give Vikings a shot. It’s supposed to be significantly more authentic. The hair is certainly scary. But it’s all mayhem, all the time. I admit, when Ragnar takes Gabe Byrne down (spoiler alert, but you knew it was coming), it was thoroughly satisfying, but these people are portrayed, essentially, as brute psychopaths.

Excuse me. These are the guys who sailed out into the cold, dark Atlantic and discovered Iceland, and Greenland, and then the Canadian Maritimes, for European fisheries. They established Baltic trading posts. They raided England and Ireland, and the coast of France. Over time, they became not Vikings, a word that means pirates, but Normans. And they changed Europe.

Of the half-dozen books on history my grandfather wrote, two are still in print, and still taught in courses on the Middle Ages. The Renaissance of the 12th Century is the better-known, but The Normans in European History runs a close second. His thesis is that the Norsemen, who began as ravaging predators, turned into settlers, and governors. Normandy, the Kingdom of Sicily, the Crusader states.

The longest-lasting and most influential Norman adventure is of course the Conquest, in 1066, the defeat of the Saxon king Harold by the bastard duke William of Normandy.

There’s a straight line, leading to the Bayeux Tapestry and the Domesday Book. A legacy of those sea-raiders in their long boats, with their devotion to the Norse gods of war. Their striving, their fury in battle, their thirst for spoils, their fierce clan loyalties, and at the last, their hunger for Valhalla and an ever-lasting fame.

Incredible, yes, but rousing.


18 July 2021

Spycraft, Old School


Zoo Station

Usually SleuthSayers learn spycraft from the invisible-ink pen of David Edgerley Gates. A month ago, Janice Law slipped past the yet-to-be-built Berlin Wall to recall David Downing. I depend heavily on my SleuthSayers colleagues for reading material, and I ordered up Zoo Station.

The tale has a much older ‘golden age’ feel of the 1960s and I had to double-check the copyright of the first in the series, 2007. The initial half of the book is slow paced but it builds tension out of proportion to pages turned. I wondered how the author accomplished that, and I’m not the only one. One critic’s comment on the back cover says, “Downing has shown that he can produce that creepy sense of paranoia along with the best of them.”

Furthermore, the book contains a feature I’ve rarely encountered outside a school textbook, a ‘Reading Group Guide’. Question 9 reads: “Given the relative lack of overt violence, how does Downing create the novel’s sense of menace?”

Yeah. How did he do that?

I have a few notions, but other readers will surely come up with better insights. Mostly I credit the immersive nature of the story where the author puts us in the scene with the perfect serving of detail.

The story’s set as the 1930s draw to a close. Perceptive people smell war on the horizon, but live in hope it doesn’t come. Kristallnacht has left its mark. Kindertransport is under way. Jews aren’t permitted to work, travel, or dine in restaurants. While the word ‘ghetto’ hasn’t yet arisen, Jewry are evermore isolated in restricted parts of cities.

The author has allowed history to do much of the heavy lifting. Much of life seems normal, ordinary, but it won’t remain so. We know the horrors that are coming; we want to warn the innocent, tell them to flee for their lives.

Whereas trains and train stations appear in backdrops and settings, mentions of government buildings feel eerily ominous. Downing mentions 15-foot high doors, evoking the architecture envisioned by Albert Speer.

No worthy espionage story would be complete without Soviet spies. One Russian spymaster isn’t so bad, but woe be he who crosses the path of Stalinist spymistress Irina Borskaya. She eats her young.

The novel’s protagonist, British journalist John Russell, advances through a character arc from somnambulance to getting his rear into gear, helping to get the word out while saving a life or two. His actress girlfriend suggests a hint of Cabaret, but with far more gravitas than Sally Bowles.

A minor note jarred me. Russell is virtually broke when we first meet him. He lives simply, but he drinks goldwasser. It seems a pretension more in line with 007 than our impecunious reporter. I excused the gold-flecked drink on the grounds it was a product of Gdańsk (Danzig), but the affectation seemed peculiar.

Along the line, our hero obtains a ten-year-old motorcar, a Hanomag. I thought myself reasonably familiar with cars of bygone eras, and those of the late 1920s are the peak of design– the Mercedes SSK, the Cord, the Packard, the Dusenberg, the Bugatti, and the gorgeous Auburn.

1928 Hanomag
1928 Hanomag © Bonhams Auction

I hadn’t heard of Hanomag. I had to stop to look it up. It turned out to be one of the homeliest automobiles ever made. Easiest way to tell the front from the back is to look for the single, motorcycle-style headlight, on the left in this photo. Oh well, our hero’s Hanomag ran most of the time and many folks had no cars at all.

As Janice suggests, Zoo Station reads as old style spycraft with luggage storage and postal drops, suitcases with false bottoms, and shadowy men who make others disappear. Downing’s novels aren’t nearly as gloomy as those of, say, John Le Carré.

When you’re bored with the current digital library on your Kindle or Kobo, stop in a musty used book store and pick up a dog-eared copy of Zoo Station. Go old school.

23 June 2021

Hunter's War


 

Stephen Hunter’s new novel, Basil’s War, dropped in early May, published by Mysterious Press.  Later in the month, Book Passage put together a video interview, with Steve and Doug Preston.  You can check it out here: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmz0D1o8e_E

 

Basil’s War is a lot of fun, kind of a John Buchan send-up, with a lot of derring-do and Brit insouciance.  The net gain for me, though, was to lead me back to some of Hunter’s earlier stuff.  My first experience of Hunter was Hot Springs, which is a doozy, but as often happens when you run into somebody new to you, who’s got back-list, you start at the beginning.  I picked up The Master Sniper, his début thriller, and the spell was cast.

 


Hunter hit his stride in the 1990’s, Point of Impact, Dirty White Boys, Black Light, and Time to Hunt.  Not that he’s fallen off since, but going back and picking these books up again, after an absence, you find your earlier enthusiasm  reinforced, even while you notice different things, and for different reasons. 

 

We know our strengths, as writers, and we naturally play to them.  One of Hunter’s surpassing gifts is a feel for the physical, an ability to read the room, or the landscape, and adjust to threat posture.  John McPhee wrote a terrific book about Bill Bradley, the college ball player, called A Sense of Where You Are, a reference to kinesthetics.  An athlete will know his position on the court, the geometry of the game.  Hunter is fluent in setting up a physical description.  You don’t need a schematic.  You inhabit that space. 

 


The gunfight in the darkened tattoo parlor, in Dirty White Boys.  One of the most astonishing set-pieces in anything I’ve ever read.  It’s told with multiple POV, and the guys in the dark, with the gun flashes blowing up their night vision, can’t triangulate each other’s position.  But the reader is never disoriented.  You can feel the physicality, the geometry, the ground shifting under your feet.

 

OK, the guns.  It’s true that you can’t talk about Hunter without talking about guns.  Black Light is very much about guns; so is Time to Hunt.  Bullet weight, point of aim, subsonics, and the rest.  It’s all pertinent, mind.  The gun that kills Earl, in the cornfield – or the gun they think killed Earl – is a .38 Super.  A real gunfighter’s weapon, Bob Lee points out: Dillinger carried one.  But not that common, not in 1955, not in Arkansas.  You’d likely find a lot of GI guns, surplus .45’s left over from the war, but that hot caliber?  It sticks in Bob Lee’s mind, an anomaly.  And he’s right, of course. 

 


Somebody once asked Hunter, couldn’t you get rid of all that gun crap?  Which reminds me of a story about Tony Hillerman.  He was shopping the first of the Leaphorn books, The Blessing Way, and one agent he sent it to said she thought it was good, but there was an awful lot of that Indian crap. 

 

Hunter says he was reading about The Wild Bunch, and it turned out you couldn’t get blanks to cycle reliably in a .45 auto, but blanks would work in a .38 Super, which were readily available in Mexico.  Armed with this piece of movie lore, the first thing Hunter does is go on GunBroker and see if he can’t find one.  I did the same thing, me.  I have to say, your .38 Super’s a damn good gun.  Anyway, that’s how come it turns up in Black Light, and later on in Havana.  Writers are magpies, stealing bright things. 

 


So.  I took a trip down memory lane.  I also, however, unreservedly recommend Basil’s War.  It’s mischievous, for one, not something I generally associate with Hunter’s books.  And it’s a puzzle.  (Alan Turing, brought in from Bletchley Park, has an extended cameo.)  I’d almost call it a lark.  Hunter clearly had fun with it.  I did, too.

09 June 2021

Ronnie the Rocket


 

The Hustler came out in 1961, with Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson and Jackie Gleason, memorably, as Minnesota Fats.  For those of us who’d been denied a misspent youth – “You’ve got trouble, right here in River City, with a capital T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for pool” – the movie was a crash course.  I didn’t actually start playing pool myself until a couple of years later, in college, but I tried hard to make up for lost time.

One of my closest pals at Columbia, John Davis, was as rabid a movie buff as I was.  We could quote entire chunks of Lawrence of Arabia to each other; we went to revival houses in Alphabet City to see Seven Samurai and Look Back in Anger, or Paths of Glory; and the time when Albert Finney showed up at the Hagen-Berghof studio where John was taking classes was something akin to the Annunciation (Tom Jones had just been released; Finney was doing Luther on Broadway).  But the biggest solid John did me that fall was to take me down to Times Sq. one early evening, and on a short walk up 7th to the corner of 44th, and then, parting the curtain, so to speak, up the narrow flight of stairs to Ames.

 Ames Billiards is where The Hustler was shot.  It was a second-floor loft space, low and smoky, although in fact they dressed the place down for the picture.  Ames had good lighting and clean restrooms, and people were there to shoot pool, that’s what it was about.  You could get hustled there, yes, but if you were smart, you minded your own business.  Ames wasn’t the place to get into a money game, you’d lose your shirt.  I had my hands full trying to take the boys in the frat houses on Riverside Drive. 

I got my comeuppance a year or so later, when I was in the service.  I met guys in the Air Force who could have put themselves through college playing pool.  Andy Gonzales was one of them.  He had enormous concentration and grace.  It was like watching a big cat.  The languor, and then the sudden application of force.  There was a pool table in the Day Room, so we’d play after lunch, before afternoon classes.  There was also a snooker table, the first time I’d tried one.  The difference is, the pockets on a snooker table are a lot tighter than they are on a pool table.  They’re unforgiving.  If you’re used to the sloppiness of eight-ball, and the sized-down pay tables in a bar, snooker ain’t the game for you.  It requires discipline.

There are a couple of places here in Santa Fe where I used to shoot pool occasionally.  One of them was Garrett’s Desert Inn, which was not quite a dive bar, too well-lit, but very local.  The people who worked across the street in the State Land Office came in for Happy Hour.  Garrett’s fell victim to the If-It-Ain’t-Broke-Don’t-Fix-It syndrome.  The owners decided to go upscale, and stepped on their dicks.  They remodeled, and went through half-a-dozen tenant restaurants, and none of them have had legs.  The other place was the Catamount, on Water St.  Dollar wings, wide-screen TV’s, a sports bar.  But upstairs, they had full-size pool tables.  Not the kind you feed quarters into, real tables.  They went out of business, but I see construction permits posted, so maybe there’s hope, and they’ll reopen.  Pool table slates are heavy.  You’d have to close off the street and bring in a rigging crew, with a crane, to lift those suckers out. 

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve been getting my fix on YouTube.  Snooker is big business in the UK and the former Crown colonies.  Guys like Ronnie O’Sullivan (the Rocket) and Neil Robertson (an Aussie, the Wonder from Down Under), and Ding Junhui (Enter the Dragon), make real money.  Ronnie the Rocket has a net worth of 14 million bucks and counting.  (He’s also lent his name to a couple of ghostwritten thrillers, but I don’t hold that against him.)

You should watch this guy shoot.

 


Snooker turns out to have arcane rules.  You need to see a couple of games before you begin to figure it out.  And like baseball, it takes as long as it takes.  There aren’t predetermined limits, like hockey or football.  Everything is about position.  You don’t just make the impossible shot, you have to leave yourself with a better one.  It’s about building your score, and the perfect score in snooker is 147.  Fifteen reds, at a point apiece, fifteen blacks, at seven points, and then all six colors, for twenty-seven.  Trust me, you just have to watch, and you’ll pick it up. 


The reason they call Ronnie O’Sullivan the Rocket is that his best time for a perfect game is five minutes and eight seconds.  This is jaw-dropping.  It means you’ve sunk thirty-six balls.  (When you sink a color, it’s re-spotted on the table.)  This means Ronnie is pocketing a ball every eight-and-a-half seconds. 


 
As far as I’m concerned, these guys are like gunfighters.  “I’ll count to three, you can draw on two,” Wyatt Earp tells Andy Warshaw, but Andy says he doesn’t want such a chance.  Snooker is much the same.  Once you slip, and leave the table unprotected, O’Sullivan or John Higgins or Ding are going to clean your clock.  Maybe it’s not as exciting as a gunfight, but it sure as hell is final.  When you get beat, you lose to the faster draw. 


26 May 2021

Undone



Kristen Lepionka painted on my radar with a column she wrote for CrimeReads, about women protagonists in crime fiction – more to the point, about queer women.  Woman PI’s and cops aren’t the novelty they were forty years back, when Grafton and Sara Paretsky debuted, and the hard-boiled was getting legs with Tami Hoag and Patsy Cornwell, but Lepionka had something bigger in her sights: an increasing presence of women of color, and the fact that a good number of them are no longer straight.

https://crimereads.com/a-brief-history-of-queer-women-detectives-in-crime-fiction/

It’s been a while since Joseph Hansen premiered his Dave Brandstetter books, and back then it seemed like Hansen had staked a claim on barren ground.  At least, not too many other people followed his lead.  Little by little, though, the goalposts have moved.  Something similar happened in the science fiction community.  Ursula Le Guin, James Tiptree, and Anne McCaffrey blew a hole in the prevailing gender mythology, along with Chip Delany, and the whole Doc Savage/Tarzan heroic construct came tumbling down.

This, naturally, led me to start reading Kristen Lepionka’s own mysteries.  The Last Place You Look came out in 2017, What You Want to See a year later, The Stories You Tell the year after that, and Once You Go This Far in 2020.  Cozy, they ain’t.  They’re tough, and tough-minded.  Roxane Weary, a dead cop’s daughter, has a private license and a buttload of attitude.  She’s in fact something of a trainwreck.  Her issues aren’t incidental, either.  The stories are as much about how she navigates the world as they are about the cases she pursues.  The tangles are both personal and professional.  And there’s a lot of sex.

You may think you’ve visited this side of town before, but Roxane makes it unnervingly intimate.  Her anger and her self-awareness are equally claustrophobic.  It’s a burden.  But it gives her an edge.  She don’t know quit; she just keeps coming.  This isn’t your Travis McGee knight in tarnished armor convention, either.  Roxane keeps pushing because she’s basically so pissed off at her own life, and the way things shake out for people, that she won’t take no for an answer.

I’m making her sound unsympathetic, which isn’t true at all.  Her strength is her transparency, and Roxane’s voice invites confidences – even if you’re not sure exactly how confident you are in her, you’re still pulling for her.  The plots are dense, but there’s also a very specific density to Roxane’s approach to the canvas, her family, her unresolved past, the fabric of her community, hanging by a thread.  I might not be giving you the flavor.  The books have a muscular rhythm, and the asides are snappy and acerbic.  There’s an underlying tension between what Roxane hears and observes, and what’s left unspoken.  There are laugh-out-loud moments, and scary ones, too.  I simply find myself enormously charmed.  I really like this girl.

This is, I guess, the key.  That you can take a complicated person, a character that’s not generic, somebody who doesn’t always make the right choices, and who sometimes can’t even get out of her own way, and reveal her as authentic, but still make her the fulcrum of a credible mystery.  Roxane’s a good detective, and she comes by it honestly.  She seems real to me.  She’s not a collection of tics, or a literary device.  That's a departure.

12 May 2021

Maisie & Jackie


I came to Jacqueline Winspear late, and started reading her books back to front.  I reported here last January about her enormously engaging and quietly unsettling memoir, This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing, and the first of her fiction I read was The Care and Management of Lies, a WWI standalone.  Lies is a novel of manners, in its breadth of purpose and minute attention to detail, but it’s a suspense story as well, where character collides with necessity.

 

My rule of thumb has come to be, that if I stumble across a writer new to me, I try to go back and start reading them from the beginning.  In this case, Jackie Winspear has a series; book sixteen of the Maisie Dobbs mysteries, The Consequences of Fear, came out this past March.  Girding my loins, I began with the first, Maisie Dobbs. 


 

Spring, 1929.  This is intentionally misleading, because there’s a long flashback, mid-book, to Maisie’s early time in service as an upstairs maid, and then to the war, a dozen years before, when she was triage nurse.  We’re often told that flashbacks are a narrative kill switch, but it’s a device that works for Maisie.  For one thing, the tension between past and present is exactly what gives the story its punch, and both the hook and its resolution depend on looking the unburied past square in the eye.  It’s a story about consequences, even if they aren’t the consequences of our own choices. 

 

Two things of note, both related to period.  The books take place between the wars, and as the shadow of the first war falls across the stories, the coming of the second war is a grim foreboding.  But there’s no feeling of artifice, or metafiction.  Winspear isn’t trying to recreate or reshape the Golden Age – one thinks in particular of Dorothy Sayers, and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, very much grounded in the memory of the trenches – and you don’t feel she’s writing pastiche.  Winspear’s treatment of the time is far from nostalgic; it’s quite immediate.  The other thing is that barriers of class and gender are only dealt glancing blows.  They’re present, but they’re part of the fabric.  They don’t call attention to themselves.



It isn’t always the case that knowing something about a writer tells you anything about the writing, or gives us any special insight into the process, or the method, or even a worldview, but having read This Time Next Year, I do in fact think it sheds light on Maisie’s world, and how Jacqueline Winspear inhabits it.  There are influences and intersections, overlaps and dissolves.

 

“Maisie drove down to Kent in early September, when the spicy fragrance of the hops still hung in the warm air of an Indian summer.”  This is, unapologetically, transcribed from Jackie’s own girlhood.  She says, also, that knowing her grandfather’s fragility (from shellshock), but without understanding why, is part of what brought her to the primary matter of the novels, the injury that violence does to our sense of belonging.  It murders trust.

 


I don’t think the Maisie books are dark, but neither are they slight.  Winspear manages a sure balance between the night sweats and the sunny uplands, and gives us the confidence that simple decency is a lasting virtue.  It’s a comforting thought. 

 

28 April 2021

A Narrow Margin


  

One of the side effects of a year in suspended animation is a lot of bingeing.  We indulged ourselves.  We fashioned a cocoon.  There was cooking.  A fair amount of cheese was involved, and root vegetables.  But we spent a lot of time under the covers, too.  Books, movies, and TV, revisiting old favorites and auditioning new ones, trying on stuff we might not have given an ear to previously, but often enough falling into a familiar comfort zone.

Which isn’t to say you don’t discover something fresh or unexpected in the tried and true.  I ran across a couple of tight little noirs directed by Richard Fleischer that were new to me, The Narrow Margin and Violent Saturday.  Fleischer’s the son of animator Max Fleischer, who’s probably best known for Betty Boop, just as the younger Fleischer is probably most famous for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Vikings, two terrific Kirk Douglas vehicles.  Later, he did Soylent Green, but although his career lasted forty years, it’s pretty much littered with dogs.  He hit the sweet spot with those earlier B-pictures, and never matched their feral energy afterwards.

The Narrow Margin is as brutal as any Anthony Mann from that postwar period, and stars Charles McGraw, a guy Mann almost always used as a heavy.  Here, he’s the lead, a tough cop with a face like a cinderblock.  But he meets his match in the eye-popping Marie Windsor. 


 










It’s not, I don’t think, dismissive to call Marie Windsor a dame.  She’s all that, and more.  She has a hundred and seventy-two credits on IMDb, between 1941 and 1991, a lot of them in television, from the 1950’s on, but she made her bones in Poverty Row, the bottom half of double-features.  She did a couple of dozen walk-ons before she paints on the radar as a ganglord’s wife in Force of Evil, trying to get Garfield on the wrong side of temptation.  In a picture with a lot of great lines, she has some doozies.  “A man could spend the rest of his life trying to remember what he shouldn’t have said,” she tells Garfield.

She was typecast, more often than not the whore with a heart of stone, but she never lacked for work, nor did she seem to mind.  She was in fact a lifelong Mormon, but she got a kick out of playing bad girls.  She’s a certain kind of character actress.  Somebody like Dorothy Malone or Ann Sheridan can start out in supporting parts and turn themselves into stars.  Somebody else might get a shot at it, Gail Russell, Frances Farmer, but something happens, nerves, alcohol, a manipulative relationship, and they flame out.  Marie keeps her head above water.  She reminds me of Fay Spain, younger but with a similar career arc, sultry and splashy, always the bridesmaid, never the bride.  (Fay’s biggest part is Al Capone, opposite Rod Steiger, still the gold standard.)  You recognize the actress, but you remember the character she’s reliably established.  How could Marie Windsor not be devious?

Narrow Margin has a neat and convincing twist, which I won’t give away here, other than to say Marie is it.  She and McGraw trade loaded barbs, Earl Felton’s script a crash course in hard-boiled. 

Him: “You make me sick.” 

Her: “Well, use your own sink.”

The tension is moral, and the sexual undercurrent isn’t animal magnetism, but contempt.  There’s no subtext.  Narrow Margin wears its heart on its sleeve, which makes it all the more sudden, savage, and claustrophobic.


24 March 2021

Catalysts


An odd thing happened, the other day.  This last Saturday, in fact.  I went down to the frame shop to do a delivery, a set of mirrors.  I loaded the van, and then when I started it up, it sounded like a demolition derby underneath.  I climbed out, and got down, and there was four feet of pipe missing, between the manifold and the muffler.  I’m like, Who drove this vehicle last, and why didn’t they say something about the exhaust?  But on closer inspection, I see the pipe wasn’t rusty or corroded; it’s been cut with a hacksaw.  Somebody’s ripped off the catalytic converter. 

 

The odd thing isn’t that it happened.  It’s a common enough crime of opportunity.  The odd thing is that I didn’t snap to it right away.  My first thought was that a section of pipe had just fallen off.  I was even ready, for about two seconds, to go on with the delivery.  But then I thought, A, what if some other loose part falls off while I’m driving, and B, what about the cab filling with carbon monoxide?  The realization that it was a crime took me more than those two seconds. 

 

Here’s where I’m coming from.  We, collectively, spend our time imagining mayhem, or at the least mischief.  I even began a story with the hook of fencing stolen catalytic converters (“The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” 2016), and I missed the obvious, in real life.

 

You see what I’m driving at.  You do a story that starts with burner phones, and it turns out to be about human trafficking.  You begin with counterfeit stamps, or rare butterflies, and it develops into personal betrayals, screwing your best friend’s wife, being the father of his child.  (I did this once, but Ross Macdonald did it dozens of times, and made it fresh every time.) 

 

The mystery isn’t so much what you come up with.  The burner phone story, for example, was almost twenty years ago.  An editor turned it down because she didn’t think her readers would get it.  The phones were beside the point.  It could have been drugs, or guns.  I used phones because I thought they were hip.  Now, they’re a commonplace.

 

It’s not the gimmick.  Chandler once said that “Pearls Are a Nuisance” was an inside joke.  He came up with the silliest possible resolution.  But the fish in the aquarium hold water, so to speak.  He convinces us.

 

The thing is that we miss the clues.  Not you, maybe, but me.  I can do pretend, and at the same time turn a blind eye to my own personal history.  At the least, I treat it as a glancing blow.  I suppose, without getting to the thicker part.  The interior, the unknown.  The catalytic converter got stolen.  It’s a market-driven theft.  What am I missing?

 

I think this is more than a metaphor.  We’ve had a lot stolen from us, this past year, but I don’t want to hit it too hard.  The thing is that a physical and literal loss is so felt.  We’ve been cheated of so much.  Fuck that.

10 March 2021

The Language of Thieves




My pal Carolyn first noticed this story in Psyche.  It’s popped up in some other places, and eventually made it into CrimeReads, so it hasn’t been flying under the radar.

Martin Puchner is a linguist who teaches at Harvard, and his book The Language of Thieves is a about a slang going back to the Middle Ages, called Rotwelsch.  It borrows from Yiddish and Romany, but it mostly seems to be German in origin.  It’s a language of the road, of tinkers and other itinerants, people who were mistrusted by folk who lived in housen: Gypsies and Jews, hoboes and fugitives.

The secrets of Rotwelsch make for a fascinating history, but there’s another thread, which is the determined effort to stamp it out.  The first part is that it’s regarded as a criminal argot, and the second is that it’s tainted with Jewishness.  You won’t be surprised that the Nazis have a cameo.  The point is that clannishness (and hiding in plain view) is protective coloration.

Here are the links.  (I bought the book.)

https://psyche.co/ideas/how-a-secret-european-language-made-a-rabbit-and-survived

https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/brexit-news/the-story-of-rotwelsch-6890538

https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/12/professor-shares-his-familys-secret-language/

https://crimereads.com/on-rotwelsch-the-central-european-language-of-beggars-travelers-and-thieves/

 

10 February 2021

Mr. Holbrook & Mr. Twain



I saw Hal Holbrook do Mark Twain Tonight when I’d just turned fourteen, and it was life-changing.  Holbrook himself was thirty-four, playing Twain in his seventies. 

The venue was Sanders Theater, at Harvard, inside Memorial Hall.  I don’t know if Twain actually appeared there, but the building was completed in 1875, so it’s possible.  Sanders has terrific acoustics, and Holbrook took the stage unamplified, as Twain may well have.

 


I caught the show twice, a matinee performance and then again the next day.  I had to go back and see it a second time; it was that jaw-dropping.  Nor did Holbrook repeat the shows word-for-word.  He had a lot of material, and he shifted gears, depending on the audience reaction, the time of day, or how the weather was.  He played the room. 

The real game-changer came in the second act.  He screwed his voice up a notch, higher-pitched, an old guy pretending to be a boy speaking, for the opening of Huckleberry Finn.

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.  That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”  This is characteristic of Twain, and of Holbrook’s canny delivery, a slight pause or stutter, before the punchline.  Mainly.  What’s also characteristic of Twain is the reversal of expectation, which can be a matter of comic timing, or the sudden chill of menace.  The first act of Mark Twain Tonight is full of laughs.  It’s a kind of bait-and-switch.  Holbrook moves the goalposts when he reads Huck’s story.  He slips in the knife, with the inexorable slide from the burlesque of Stephen Dowling Bots to the murdered Grangerfords.

This is part of the skill of the novel, the juxtaposition of horror and farce, but it’s very clear choice on Holbrook’s part to give us the Grangerford feud, or the lynch mob, or the time Huck outwits the bounty hunters by telling them Jim – hidden in the tent – is his Pa, infected with smallpox.  It balances on the edge of darkness, the consequences if his deception is found out, the entire narrative in fact a feverish pretense, an infection boiling just below the skin, a dose of sulphur with the molasses.

Holbrook put out two LP’s, performing live, and the 1967 TV show.  All well worth seeking out.

I think, however, that the immediate effect of my seeing Mark Twain Tonight in person wasn’t astonishment with Holbrook’s skill at transforming himself (astonishing as it was), or an appreciation of the writer as celebrity (Twain following in Dickens’ footsteps), but the experience of invention.  Holbrook becomes Twain, yes, but Twain becomes Twain, before your eyes.  You see him in the act of picking and choosing, deciding what to reveal, and what to hold back.  I suddenly realized that it wasn’t accidental, and Twain was actually the author of these engines, that he could invent these outcomes, he could turn these corners, he could lift the edge of the curtain, and in so doing, he could shape my emotions, terror, or elation, or wonder.  In other words, he was doing it on purpose. 

This was a revelation.  It demonstrated to me that writing was conscious, that you laid down a beat.  It had somehow not occurred to me.  This is one of those startling things, the before and after.  Before, you didn’t get it.  After, you can’t imagine how you didn’t always know, the knowledge foundational, necessary, built into your muscle memory. 

This is the strength and power of the story-teller.  Given a place by the fire, blind Homer tells again the tale of the heroes on the windy plain of Troy.  His listeners lean in.  A beginning, a middle, and an end.  Or not quite an end, but a tease, the promise of tales yet to be told.  The poet sings for his supper; he needs to give good weight. 

Mark Twain takes a last bow and exits the stage, leaving us hungry for more.  Hal Holbrook gave good weight. 



27 January 2021

This Time Next Year


Not my usual line of country, nor your usual memoir, Jackie Winspear’s This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing.

If you know the Maisie Dobbs books (number sixteen, The Consequences of Fear, comes out in March) or the engagingly sly Care and Management of Lies, you might think you’ve made Jacqueline Winspear’s acquaintance, but you don’t know the half of it. We imagine we’ll learn something about a writer, or the engines of her imagination, if we’re invited inside her life.

Nothing is a one-on-one equivalency, not John LeCarre’s rascally father Ronnie, or whether Anne Hathaway cheated on Shakespeare with his brother, but we nod with a certain familiarity when Jackie tells us her grand-dad was never able to adjust to loud noises after he came back from the trenches: she was a high-energy kid, and bouncing off the furniture needed less of same.

This is one of those intersections of biography and the imagined that stands out in This Time Next Year. Maisie is herself a veteran of the Great War, and her generation is shadowed by loss. For a writer, this can be a second cousin once removed, the shadows inhabited with someone just off-stage, concealments. We observe an absence, what got left out of the story. It’s a narrative device.

Jackie cheerfully confounds this. It’s not that the story is relentlessly sunny, far from it. The voice is one of speculation, and doubt, and a kind of fey suspension of disbelief, but grounded in exactly remembered detail. The dress. The overturned pot of scalding water. The smell of hops. Nothing is sentimental; everything is vivid.

The trick, if I can use that word, is that Jackie reimagines her childhood. She does something that I think is extraordinarily difficult, from a technical point of view. She gives you the child’s perspective. The girl of six. And then she casts an eye back. The girl of six might well be more wary and less forgiving, but the key is that the grown woman sympathizes with the importance of the event, then. This pulled focus is riveting.

Jackie’s mom, Joyce, looms large. “‘Look at the time,’ she’d say, which was a bit pointless, because the black Bakelite clock on the mantelpiece above the stove, the one in the shape of the grand Grecian palace that came from Nanny, never kept good time, though she had the watch Dad had bought for her when they were engaged. That was the watch that, if it stopped working, she’d take it off and, grasping it by the strap would slap it across the table a couple of times, look at the dial, hold it to her ear and then say, ‘There, that did it.’ Slapping the TV, slapping the watch, slapping the radio – which we called a wireless – if something wasn’t working properly, she would always sort it out with a sharp slap. It was a method she also employed when her children didn’t seem to work properly.”

You get the idea. The ironies. The astringency. It’s very affectionate, though. She seems to lay all her cards on the table, but much is withheld. The silences are quite surprisingly loud.


Late-breaking. This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing is up for an Edgar, best Critical/Biographical.

13 January 2021

Soundtracks


I was thirteen, if memory serves, when my dad bought me a record player, and bought me some LP’s to go with it. Dave Brubeck’s Jazz Impressions of Eurasia, Benny Goodman with the Boston Symphony (Benny playing classical), and Dvorak’s New World.

I wonder about his choices, but the Brubeck’s stayed with me sixty years. I don’t think I would have appreciated Shelly Manne or the other West Coast guys without it, or Henry Mancini. The theme from Peter Gunn got a lot of airplay, dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-da-DUM-da-dum, but the score I went nuts for was Mr. Lucky. And that organ, backed up with big-band arrangements, led me straight to Jimmy Smith. Walk on the Wide Side, charts by Oliver Nelson, was huge. I’m guessing the biggest R&B hit on AM radio after What’d I Say?



I’m skipping through some of the personal chart-toppers, of course. Coltrane’s My Favorite Things and Olé, with McCoy Tyner’s amazing left hand. I spent a couple of years in Europe, in the military, and there was no shortage of great live jazz, but I’m thinking more of the albums we listened to, and what was on the jukebox. Does anybody else here remember the Electric Prunes, or Mass in F Minor? That was when Dylan released Blonde on Blonde, but the single most evocative song of the era was A Whiter Shade of Pale, which then and now, is an anthem for Berlin.




I spent the 1970’s in a haze of Van Morrison, and I don’t regret it. Tupelo Honey, Saint Dominic’s Preview, Hard Nose the Highway, Veedon Fleece. (I can listen to “Tupelo Honey” or “Snow in San Anselmo,” and conjure up the very place I was. “Linden Arden,” “Streets of Arklow,” and “You Don’t Pull No Punches,” as a suite; it never gets old.)

I don’t know that I’ve quite embraced the more recent. I love Sarah McLachlan. I wonder how much of that is due to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, or Hejira. Bonnie Raitt. Maria Muldaur. It isn’t that the new music isn’t any good, or it’s derivative, but I think a certain template is set. You listen to Ray LaMontagne, and you hear Jackson Browne, or even, God help us, Dave Van Ronk. (Boy, that was an anthem, the summer I was seventeen, driving a load of mattresses from Rochester up to a friend’s family cottage in southern Ontario and getting wired on bathtub benzedrine a lab rat pal of Phill Gleason’s cooked up.)


Probably, a subset of the above. We associate the music very specifically. It’s apparently second only to our sense of smell, as a trigger, of memory, of emotion, and of deeper psychic energies. Is it regret? I can’t listen to James Taylor and “Sweet Baby James” without tearing up. It wrecked me the first time I heard it. So there.


Yes, it’s association. And it conjures up youth. But we suspect something larger. I think the playlist is a lot more than background music. I don’t think it’s accidental, or incidental, however much is left to chance. Something gets our feet tapping. We might not consciously choose the score, but it’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it.

23 December 2020

The Little Drummer Boy


John le Carré changed the landscape, no question. It’s not accurate, though, to imagine he sprang fully-formed from the brow of Zeus. He was a hundred-and-eighty degrees from the shockers of John Buchan and E. Phillips Oppenheim, and it’s often remarked that George Smiley is the anti-Bond, but Fleming was himself a real spy, Naval Intelligence in WWII (le Carré worked for both MI5 and MI6, during the Cold War), and Bond is clearly a conceit, an exaggeration of Fleming’s own masochism and snobbery, not to mention a curious sort of inversion: Bond (and Fleming) parallel the career arc of Kim Philby.

Smiley, on the other hand, might be an internalized version of le Carré’s own habits of concealment and emotional avoidance, and Philby’s treachery - which is plainly one of le Carré’s touchstones – might parallel on a national or historical scale, le Carré’s personal betrayal by his father Ronnie. This isn’t some startling apotheosis; le Carré has spoken and written about it with self-deprecating chagrin.

His literary precursors are Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler. He didn’t exist in a vacuum. But the influences we recognize aren’t necessarily literary. Film noir isn’t exclusively an American province, there’s a healthy dose of it British postwar movies (along with an equally irreverent streak of comedies). Brighton Rock, based of course on a Greene novel, is one example. Even better are the Carol Reeds of that era: Odd Man Out, Fallen Idol, The Third Man. Not to mention the Dickens movies that David Lean made. It’s no surprise that these pictures contribute to a climate of mistrust and class resentments, or that they pave the way for the thickening claustrophobia of the Red Scare.

Not everybody reads pulp, either, and I’d like to make a case for Donald Hamilton. Dean Martin played Matt Helm as a Bond parody, but Hamilton’s books were darker. I’d recommend The Steel Mirror, not a Helm novel, but a standalone. It’s a Nazi war criminal/Commie menace hybrid, frightening and effective. And then there’s Richard Condon’s Manchurian Candidate. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was, yes, a game-changer, and fifty-odd years on, it’s worth remembering how it moved the goal posts, but not without context.

Le Carré is about betrayal. This is his consistent theme. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is about a deception operation. Leamas describes it at the end. You had a smart guy who suspected his boss of treason. We laid down a trail of bread crumbs, but artful, so it wasn’t that easy to follow. The smart guy was caught in his own snare. In fact, his boss was an asset of British intelligence, but we made him invulnerable by discrediting the investigation. The subtext of the story is class, a peculiarly inflexible British resonance. And the East German investigator, Fiedler, is a Jew, which comes in handy, some Hebe slyboots with a grudge.

The point wasn’t despair, or cynicism. The point was: These guys aren’t playing by the rules. And if we were still thinking, Gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail, we were going to get our ass handed to us. Le Carré, in that sense, isn’t that far from Bond after all.

I read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1965, when I was taking Russian at Syracuse, a nine-month immersion course, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force. The next year, I was in Berlin. I read The Looking-Glass War, and from a more informed perspective, I thought the book was complete baloney. You wouldn’t need to put a live agent in place, you could get everything you needed from electronic intercept. It made me doubt le Carré’s credentials. On the other hand, there was a lovely piece of tradecraft at the end, when the Vopo sergeant starts pulling the fuses in the breaker box in the apartment block.

Off and on, I ran hot and cold. A Small Town in Germany felt very authentic, from my own experience, but it was kind of inert. Then came Tinker, Tailor, and The Honorable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People. Honorable Schoolboy is, I think, a misfire, but necessary. Smiley’s People - the title alone a nod to Kipling – is something of a summing up, and the nuts and bolts are worth the cover price all by themselves. George at Otto’s boat camp?

Then we have The Little Drummer Girl. “Sooner or later, they say in the trade, a man will sign his name.” Probably the best of the books. Le Carré got a lot of grief over it, because it gave a sympathetic picture of Palestinians in the camps, and a decidedly unsympathetic picture of Arik Sharon and the Israeli war hawks, but the story is about hunting a terrorist, and it’s in no way sympathetic to the murder of innocents. It’s completely involving in its spycraft, Winding the Clock, Shaking the Tree, and it’s of course about betrayal. There’s an extraordinary line at the end of the book, “… the last thing Becker wanted was to invent anybody.” This is le Carré’s own admission.

I wouldn’t say he fell off, not by any means, but I began to fall away from him. Our Game, and The Tailor of Panama, are very engaging books, but somehow not entirely present. I liked The Russia House, with its circular-error-probable, but not as much as I should have. I absolutely despised Absolute Friends. Not that it couldn’t happen, but that it took an unworthy shortcut, and an easy out.

My pal Michael Davidson, also a spy novelist, and career CIA, thought le Carré was guilty of moral relativism. I’m not so sure. There’s an interior monologue in Smiley’s People, when Smiley goes to Hamburg, and looks east, across the Baltic, and thinks to himself, this is where the Iron Curtain starts, this is where the prison of thought begins, in the barbed wire. Smiley’s generation fought Hitler. Stalin’s legacy is just as poisonous. Smiley uses doubtful means, but he believes in the mission, and the end game.

Ambiguity perhaps defines le Carré. The Secret Pilgrim is one of his later titles. Too easy, of course, to try and pin a writer down through his admitted weaknesses. I think le Carré is more than the sum of his parts. Early on, in Call for the Dead, he says, “the warmth was contraband.” I can imagine he found warmth. His work is chilly enough.

John le Carré