Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Brass Cupcake by John D. MacDonald

It's about time I followed up my previous post on John D. MacDonald. (And in case you're interested, here is an even earlier one where I explained why that middle initial is so important.)   

I recently discovered a useful little book about John D. by crime fiction specialist David Geherin and that has launched me on a project of re-reading many of MacDonald's novels. A project which is proving both fun and educational...

First up, appropriately enough, is The Brass Cupcake, his very first work of book-length fiction, published in 1950. This novel has a couple of flaws, which I won't be able to resist slagging MacDonald off for later, but a fair person would have to concede it's actually a very impressive debut.

Clearly MacDonald's apprenticeship writing short stories for the pulp magazines — he sold over 200 between 1945 and 1950 —  paid off spectacularly in terms of giving him command of his craft.

The Brass Cupcake — the title refers to a worthless prize — tells the story of Cliff Bartells (good name), an insurance investigator on the trail of a fortune in stolen jewels. But, crucially, Bartells is an ex-cop, squeezed out of the local police force for refusing to knuckle under to the pervasive corruption.

Cleverly, MacDonald uses the jewel robbery as leverage for his hero to ultimately get even with the cops, politicians, and indeed the entire corrupt system which wronged him. The setting is Florida, a favourite John D. MacDonald location, mostly in the imaginary municipality of Florence City but also in the very real Ybor City (which recently featured in the film Live By Night). 

The locale is intensely and convincingly evoked, with a lovely touch of cynicism: "Florence City met the hot February sun with a wide financial smile." And elsewhere the writing is of an equally high standard, whether he's describing a murderously vengeful woman — "her eyes were like broken stone" — or the experience of suddenly being awakened from deep sleep "the dream split across the middle and blew away like smoke."  

Even everyday objects are brought to life with deft intensity, as when he talks about the "thin sharp teeth of the zipper." And, as always, MacDonald writes about the sea and maritime things with great acuity and allure: "the drone of the approaching launch separated itself from the deep voice of the waves." 

MacDonald also scores strongly on characterisation, he has sharp and witty observations of people and social mores, as with two men who don't really like each other but are routinely civil when they meet, whom he compares to "rival car dealers."  And the bad guy in this story is the onlie begetter of many a plausible and charming psychopath in the Travis McGee novels.

On the debit side of the ledger are the sex scenes, one of which is so decorous ("I got out of the car and walked down to the surf line...") we're not even sure it's happened, while another is disastrously overwritten ("a wild shout thrown upward at the stars in crescendoed apex...").

Indeed, the sexual attitudes of the book are sometimes quite alarming. But then, it was written in 1950.

On the whole, though, this is a small, intermittent masterpiece which shows clear signs of the great work which was to come. 

And it features a scene where the police beat the hero which is so savage, concise and vivid that I found myself expecting physical after-effects just from reading it. 

(Image credits: Most of the covers are from Good Reads, where there is rather a good selection. The exceptions are the earliest Gold Medal paperback (number 124) from Vintage45's blog, the nice 35 cent cover, from Pinterest, the one with the brandy and the automatic, from ABE.)

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Wonderful Nightmare Journey: The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber

In much the same way that John D. MacDonald is the crime writer I most admire, Fritz Leiber is my favourite writer of science fiction, fantasy and horror — Leiber excels in all three fields. 

The Wanderer is the first of these — science fiction — and indeed won the Hugo award for best SF novel of 1965. It's one of the genre's all time classics. 

It tells the tale of what happens when a new planet suddenly appears above the Earth — popping out of hyperspace — just beyond the orbit of the moon.

What largely happens, of course, is earthquakes and flooding caused by monstrously magnified tides as a result of the planet's gravitational impact on us. 

Leiber's account of this is characteristically knowledgeable and well-informed, as he tells us for instance that the safest places at sea are the “tidal nodes near Norway and the Windward Isles and at Tahiti.”

But science fiction writers who know their science are pretty commonplace. What sets Leiber apart is the brilliance of his imagination and, above all, the superb quality of his prose. He really is the ultimate SF and fantasy writer, combining these traits to great effect.

He talks about how the new planet — soon dubbed the Wanderer — has  “poisoned the radio sky" with static. And when it becomes clear that this world is inhabited, and indeed piloted, by aliens he talks about the shocking impact on the human psyche. 

It is an end to our secure isolation in the galaxy  —“how safe the Earth had swung in all its loneliness for millions of years, like a house to which no stranger ever comes.”

Initially the book functions like a disaster novel (indeed it virtually invents that genre), moving swiftly between groups of characters as they deal with the catastrophes conjured by the new planet's presence. 

But soon Leiber moves on to the more fascinating possibilities of human interaction with the inhabitants of the Wanderer.

Leiber shows great psychological acuity, as when his heroine Margo Gelhorn acquires one of the aliens' weapons, a fascinating device she calls a "momentum pistol." (It is literally dropped from a flying saucer.)  

At first Margo revels in the confidence it gives her, then she discovers she doesn't need it any more, having developed her own inner resources: “she herself was now the big gun she could rely on and experiment with.”  

The book just keeps on getting better, as we discover who the Wanderer's inhabitants are, and why they're here. 

The beautiful cat-like Tigerishka (a name she adopts, combining her fondness for Earth's big cats... and ballet) explains, "your juvenile delinquents — we're like those. Running, running, running. Every step, pounding the hollow planetary pavement, under the cold streetlight of the stars." And the Wanderer is their "getaway car."

And then we find out what it is that the Wanderer's inhabitants are running from...

I realise the feline aspect of some of the cover art depicted here might suggest to you that I love this book because I'm a sucker for cats. Trust me, there's a lot more to it than that. The Wanderer is a masterpiece and I commend it to you most heartily.

(Image credits: The Philip Castle airbrushed "good cat art" cover is my own scan of my own copy. The handsome Gollancz yellow typographic copy is also my own — and I can't find another image of this anywhere on the internet. The original Ballantine printing of people fleeing is from Lankhmar, a useful and interesting site dedicated to Leiber. The two French covers are from a Pinterest gallery. The other covers are from Good Reads.)

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Introducing John D. MacDonald

I'm looking forward to writing a series of posts about one of my favourite writers of all time. 

He's scandalously forgotten now, but in his heyday John Dann MacDonald (1916-1986) sold tens of millions of books and was omnipresent on the paperback racks.

McDonald's métier was crime or suspense fiction. But he also wrote powerful human dramas, highly effective humour and some outstanding science fiction. 

Sometimes he combined these genres (The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything is science fiction humour, and it's smashing). He even wrote a charming book about his cats.

But crime was his main thing. And he was impressively prolific. One book about MacDonald and his writing has the highly appropriate title The Red Hot Typewriter. You may want to check it out. Written by Hugh Merrill, it's a readable and useful introduction to MacDonald. 
 
Unfortunately it's also annoyingly error-prone. For instance, Merrill declares that the short story 'Looie Follows Me' (he calls it 'Louie Follows Me') is "about big-city gangsters." In fact it's a touching tale of small children in a rural setting.

A more solidly reliable book is simply called John D. MacDonald and it's by David Geherin. 

But the most painless introduction to this fine writer is the excellent BBC Radio 4 program 21 Shades of Noir. Available indefinitely online, you can listen to it while jogging, driving, or riding to work on public transport.

It's hosted by Lee Child, another big fan of MacDonald and himself a colossally successful crime writer — he's the creator of the Jack Reacher series. Child is to be applauded for his support and enthusiasm. Largely thanks to his efforts MacDonald's reputation is being recovered from obscurity.

Unfortunately, this has also led to MacDonald's Travis McGee novels being meretriciously repackaged to look like Jack Reacher adventures. I think this is a mistake, since the appeal of the two series are very different.

Travis McGee is MacDonald's immortal character, created in 1963, after decades of resisting his publisher imploring him for a series. McGee ushered in the third great phase of MacDonald's career, which began as a short-story-writing machine for the pulp magazines  in the 1940s and then segued into a star novelist of the paperback originals in the 1950s.

John D. MacDonald started writing just as the careers of the three great giants of American crime fiction — Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain — were drawing to a close. 

Of these three, MacDonald is closest to Cain in that his plots often involved ordinary people who are swept to destruction by currents of greed or lust. Whereas Hammett and Chandler tended to write about the professionals who came along and picked up the pieces afterwards.

In terms of his prose style, MacDonald doesn't really resemble any of these three. And in fact, by the time he hits his stride in the 1950s he was better than any of them in his sheer ability to use language. MacDonald's prose was a shrewd blend of brilliant description, acute observation, cynical humour and what he called "unobtrusive poetry".

The quality of his writing was unprecedented in the crime field, and pretty much in American literature at large. (Though if he had no clear predecessors, he had a least one very distinguished successor — Thomas Harris shows the emphatic and beneficial influence of MacDonald throughout his work.)

If MacDonald had a flaw it was in moments of  over-sentimentality — something which Hammett, Chandler and Cain were very unlikely to succumb to. MacDonald also tended to over-write, sometimes embarrassingly so, when devising erotic-romantic scenes.

But by the late 1960s even these minor flaws had fallen away and left him as the great American storyteller at the top of his game... for another twenty years.

It will be my pleasure in the weeks to come to guide you through some of the highlights of his long and dazzling career. 

(Image credits: The shot of John D. at the typewriter is from Thrilling Detective. The Geherin cover is from Pinterest. The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper, a lovely Bob McGinnis cover for this late McGee reprint, is from Good Reads. The McGee omnibus with the Jack Reacher style cover is from Penguin Books. The Red Hot Typewriter is from Amazon UK. DEadly Welcome is from Facsimile Dustjackets. The House Guests is from ABE Books. The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything is from John D. MacDonald covers.)

Sunday, 26 February 2017

SS GB by Deighton and Purvis & Wade

After the disappointment that Taboo ultimately proved to be I am slightly hesitant about recommending another new British TV drama. But SS GB has begun so brilliantly, and is rooted in such strong material, that I just have to tell you about it.

This BBC mini-series is based on a 1978 novel by Len Deighton, a superlative spy novelist and military historian. It details the Nazi occupation of London after the British defeat in World War 2.

In other words, it's an alternate history story. And it's not the first work of fiction to explore the idea of an Axis victory in the Second World War. Crucially, Philip K. Dick wrote about the fate of America in such a world in his 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle.

I say crucially because I have little doubt that it's the recent success of the TV adaptation of The Man in the High Castle which led the BBC to green light SS GB. But whatever the circumstances, we should be grateful.

Because SS GB is a winner from its very first shot. This is almost entirely due to the talent of the people who are adapting itNeal Purvis & Robert Wade have written the scripts and are also the producers.

Purvis & Wade are a distinguished British screenwriting team. Notably, they have been credited on the scripts of every James Bond film since The World is not Enough (1999). This background has given them a flawless command of their craft.

Whereas Deighton's novel begins with a low key conversation in an office, Purvis & Wade's script begins with a fighter plane soaring through the sky and a naked woman wrapped in a Nazi flag. 

This is everything screenwriting should be, enhancing the source material while remaining true to its essence, making it more visual and dramatic.

That fighter plane is one of the last Spitfires being flown into London by a Nazi air ace, prefatory to being handed over to the Russians as a gesture of friendship. 

The German pilot is promptly assassinated by a member of the British resistance, and the show is off to a flying start. 

Throughout the episode Purvis & Wade show their respect for the book — and their gratitude for having such a strong foundation to build on. This is professional screenwriting at its finest — "Daddy, do you work for the Gestapo?"
 
And, best of all, the moment where a mystery piece of metal, which is the clue from a murder scene, slides into an artificial arm with perfect smoothness. "Show, don't tell" is screenwriting's highest commandment.

SS GB engages the complex flow of our sympathies and loyalties. It features excellent performances by Sam Riley (as Douglas Archer), Kate Bosworth, Maeve Dermody, James Cosmo and many others, and the music by Dan Jones is absolutely smashing.  It's a high water mark of British screenwriting and television drama.

The show is also amazingly faithful to Deighton in many small particulars. Archer's costume — dark shirt and wide brim hat — is exactly as described in the novel. 

And the date the first episode was broadcast, 19th February, is exactly the date of the British surrender in Deighton's book. Either a wonderful piece of serendipity or a masterstroke of planning.

There is a gratifyingly informative BBC media pack available which includes an interview with Deighton and you may like to check it out. But before you spend any time on that, I urge you to watch the show itself.
  
It looks, at last, like we might have a great British television drama on our hands   

(Image credits: The DVD cover is from IMDB. The Spitfire is from iNews. Maeve Dermody wrapped in a flag comes from The Daily Mail where if you read the comments you can find some amazing individual complaining that the show is unpatriotic. All in capital letters, of course. The rest  — rather a rich and unexpected cache — are from Sindy Loves Vintage.)

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Split by M. Night Shyamalan

Dear, dear me. My, my, my. What do we make of M. Night Shyamalan?

He came storming onto the scene with a huge hit, The Sixth Sense (I saw the twist coming a mile off), made a couple of interesting films (I like The Village a great deal), plunged into an abyss of mediocrity (I ask you, The Last Airbender?)...

And then he managed to claw his way out of the pit with 2015's excellent The Visit.

I was really hoping that Split would continue that tendency. It's another cunning, low budget thriller which plays mind games with the audience, and its protagonists. And it begins very promisingly.

Three attractive teenage girls are kidnapped and imprisoned by a nut case. And not just any nutcase. The bad guy, played by James McAvoy, has multiple personalities. Some of whom are sympathetic to the trapped girls, and might even release them...

This is a great set up for an inexpensive suspense movie using a small cast and a limited number of sets. And Shyamalan ups the stakes by cleverly involving regular visits by the nut (it's hard to give him a name, because he has 23 of them) to his shrink, Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley).

And Dr Fletcher is no dope. She begins to work out that her patient is up to no good. So the suspense is building nicely...

Amongst the kidnapped girls is Casey, played Anya Taylor-Joy, last seen in The Witch. She's terrific, and Casey is a fascinating character. She's an outcast, and in flashbacks to her childhood, where she's touchingly played by the 5 year old Izzie Coffey, we begin to learn why Casey is the way she is.

Unfortunately Casey's back story is so horrific that it unbalances the film. It is cruel and unjustified — or at best feebly justified — by the plot.

This is one of the movie's problems, but not its biggest one. Because Split is shaping towards a perfectly satisfying denouement when it goes wildly off the rails. 

You see, one of the bad guy's many personalities is 'The Beast'. And The Beast has supernatural powers. If you stab him with a knife, the knife breaks. He can crawl up walls like a gecko... Oh oh.

This spoils the movie and it's also terribly unfair on poor James McAvoy who does an amazing job of playing all the different personalities up to this point. I really think he might have been in the running for an Oscar if he hadn't started crawling up walls...

Oddly, Split goes back onto the rails at the very end. Sort of. Because Shyamalan reveals that this is in fact an origin story for a super villain and he intends to pit The Beast against his super hero from Unbreakable (released 17 years ago), played by Bruce Willis.

Okay, this is certainly audacious. And it sort of justifies Split's abrupt lurch into unreality. But it doesn't save the movie. Because how many people were waiting avidly for a sequel to Unbreakable? How many people even remember Unbreakable?

Ultimately, Split is a frustrating disappointment.

(Image credits: all the posters are from Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Passengers by Jon Spaihts

Warning, this post may contain spoilers. And fulsome praise. Well, let's get right to it. I loved Passengers. If you're a fan of science fiction movies, or indeed just movies, you should go and see this. 

It's the tale of a star ship on a century-long journey to a new planet. So that they don't arrive dead of old age, which would be a bummer, all the passengers are in deep hibernation. 

None of this is new. But writer John Spaihts has taken the basic situation and come up with some clever, fresh angles and fashioned a powerful and compelling drama. 

(Spaihts previously worked on the scripts for Doctor Strange, which I liked a great deal. And Prometheus, which I didn't.)

As with Allied, the trailer for Passengers is wildly misleading. It makes us think that two of the hibernating passengers Aurora and Jim (Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt) have awakened prematurely.

Indeed it even contains a line of dialogue which I don't think is in the finished movie — "We must have woken up for a reason."

But the actual film is nothing like this. Jim does accidentally awaken early — like 90 years too soon. Since there is no way he can get back to sleep he will live and die alone in the echoing corridors of this vast star ship.

Jim wrestles with his dilemma, and ultimately succumbs to temptation and wakes up a companion for himself, the alluring Aurora. Of course, he has now condemned her to an impoverished existence in the echoing corridors, etc.

This aspect of the story has caused Passengers to come in for a lot of flack because of Jim's behaviour. Which is a fundamental misunderstanding of the story. We aren't invited to approve of what he does. 

In fact we share his torment as he wrestles with temptation — which he does for a good long time — and when he gives in, it gives the viewer a sick feeling in the pit of the stomach. And the terrible knowledge of what will happen if and when Aurora finds out what has been done to her...

Passengers is a great movie, and full of wonderful stuff. Like Michael Sheen's smiling robot bartender (a close relative of the creepy ghost bartender in The Shining). Or the hilarious, and horrible, class-war aspect of Jim being doomed to cruddy food because he doesn't have a premium ticket on the star ship (Aurora on the other hand is first class all the way). 

And then, best of all, is what happens if you're using the swimming pool on a space vessel and the artificial gravity cuts out.

Passengers has its flaws, like the malarkey about there only being one automated medical unit (on a ship with over five thousand passengers and crew!). 

But I'm more than willing to forgive it that. It's a thrilling science fiction adventure with a powerful human drama built into its heart.

I loved it.

(Image credits: The posters are from Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Peaky Blinders by Steven Knight

Prompted by his new TV series Taboo I have finally caught up with Steven Knight's Peaky Blinders. And I have to say I'm delighted. It's a lot more solid and consistent that Taboo and has already achieved a higher level of interest and involvement, at least for this viewer.

This may well be due to the fact that Taboo was co-created by its star Tom Hardy and his dad along with Steven Knight, but Peaky Blinders is entirely Knight's brainchild. It is a 1920s gangster saga but a completely fresh one. For a start, it's British, so prohibition of alcohol is not the engine for crime (Brits never adopted such a silly policy).

The story is set in Birmingham where the 'Peaky Blinders' are the dominant gang. Their name refers to the fact that their flat caps, which every adult male — and a lot of small boys — wear, have razors blades gleaming in their peaks. The cap can then be swept off and used as an offensive weapon, slashing at the face of an enemy. Nasty.

The gang, which really existed, is led in this fictional version by one Tom Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy. ('Cillian' is pronounced with a hard 'C': "kill - ee - an.") 

Murphy is an impressive actor with icy blue eyes who has been knocking around for years, often cast as a sinister heavy or a psycho in American action movies. He's better than this material and Peaky Blinders is his breakthrough, showing what he can do.

The series has intriguing parallels with Boardwalk Empire. The shadow of World War One hangs heavily over the characters, and Tom's post traumatic stress is rather more strikingly depicted than anything concerning Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) in Boardwalk. 

Tom was a sapper — which means an engineer, who dug tunnels towards the enemy under No Man's Land. He still dreams that the Germans are scraping through the wall of his bedroom, and smokes opium to suppress these nightmares.

Peaky Blinders is a great show with a dynamite cast. Set in opposition to Tom is formidable Belfast cop Inspector Campbell, brilliantly played by Sam Neill. Tom's love interest is Grace Burgess, played by the striking Annabelle Wallace. And Tom doesn't know she's an undercover cop, working for Campbell.
 
It's a visually stunning series, superbly photographed by George Steel. One of the most striking images is of Tom Shelby riding on horseback through the grimy industrial streets. And director Otto Bathurst (a Hammersmith boy) does a supremely impressive job of bringing Steven Knight's vision to life (Bathurst and Steel worked on the crucial first three episodes of the series).

Also demanding mention is the music. Instead of a period score we get anachronistic but wonderfully effective menacing rock songs by Nick Cave (notably 'Red Right Hand'), evoking the use of Tom Waits's 'Way Down in the Hole' in The Wire.

The period detail is strong and convincing throughout and so far the only false steps are a reference to 'the clap' as syphilis (it's actually gonorrhea) and a rather implausibly harmless hand grenade explosion.

Minor quibbles. Great show.

(Image credits: The blu ray cover is from Amazon. The cool photos of Cillian Murphy, Annabelle Wallace and Sam Neill are all from TheTVDB. The group shot is from the very useful BBC website for the show.)