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The Other Side of the Wind – Review

November 10, 2018

Jake Hannaford spends the last day of his life at an Arizona ranch surrounded by ‘students, critics and young directors who happened to bring 16 and 8 mm cameras having been invited to Jake’s 70th birthday party’. Hannaford is trying to revive his flagging directorial career with a sexually explicit, experimental film which has just run out of financing. At the end of the evening Hannaford, the opening narration informs us, will be killed in a car crash. He spends his final hours screening clips from his arty, dirty movie and debating his career and the nature of cinema with a host of colourful, bizarre and largely embittered party guests.

I’ve begun this review with a plot synopsis as, most likely, everything you will read about Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind (recently released for the first time 33 years after Welles’ death) will focus on the extraordinary story behind the making of the film. And yet the slender plot, so slight it could almost float away in the breeze, oddly dominates this movie and stands above its stellar cast, although everyone who appears here is jarringly memorable.

The Other Side of the Wind was filmed between 1970 and 1976. The reason it has not been released until now can be traced back to its tortuous production which descended into a convoluted legal mess after Welles accepted financing from the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran and ended up being swindled by a Spanish embezzler. It was the tragic final act of Welles’ career, and it may well have irrevocably broken his spirit. The endlessly complicated copyright problems which engulfed the film have only recently been resolved, and The Other Side of the Wind can now be viewed on Netflix. It’s undoubtedly part of cinema history, but is it, truth be told, a good film? I was left traumatised by Twin Peaks: The Return when I finally saw just how abysmal it was. Just because a work develops a mythic reputation and audiences have been waiting years (decades in this case) to see it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. Fortunately, after two viewings The Other Side of the Wind has been dominating my thoughts and chipping away at my initial scepticism. It truly is an extraordinary film. One that defies labels and is much easier to experience than to explain even though much of it consists of nothing but talk.

Hannaford’s party is a boozy, rambunctious affair. All of the guests are essentially figures from Welles’ life: there is the protege who is rapidly gaining on his master (Peter Bogdanovich), the Pauline Kael-like film scholar who is a critic of Hannaford but is still fascinated by him (played by Susan Strasberg), and there is the fading star actress in the mold of Marlene Dietrich ready to consign her friendship with Hannaford to the past (Lilli Palmer). Hannaford is played to grizzled perfection by John Huston, and while Welles claimed the character was based on Ernest Hemingway (he began working on the story shortly after Hemingway’s suicide in 1961), Hannaford nevertheless comes across as a strongly autobiographical figure. When Hannaford jokes, ‘It’s alright to borrow from each other, what we must never do is borrow from ourselves’, you realise that Welles is having the last laugh. Welles has borrowed from his own legend to tell his story through Hannaford.

Welles spent years as a Hollywood exile, wandering, absorbing cultures and enjoying the artistic freedom only so far as his oft-precarious finances would allow him. He had become a revered figure by the avant-garde New Hollywood generation who were becoming more influential by the late 1960s, but despite this new critical acclaim, the studios still wouldn’t hire him. The glimpses we see of Hannaford’s film – a sordid, unfinished odyssey of an Native American woman (Oja Kodar), being pursued by a young American male (Bob Random) and the series of sexual encounters that ensue give insight into Welles’ pain. He had a long history of abortive film projects, and I suspect that his obesity precluded him from many of the sexual activities brazenly displayed onscreen. There is a contradiction, perhaps a hypocrisy, at work here. Welles was often prudish about sex, criticising Hollywood’s increasing reliance on sex and violence, and yet here its inclusion verges on the pornographic. The film opens with a glimpse of a lesbian steam room scene which, by the standards of its time, seems designed to shock. At other points, the sex is erotically and wittily portrayed. The consecutive slamming of toilet doors and one lustful car journey linger in the mind long afterwards.

There were moments in the film which left me cold. Much of the overlapping dialogue and frenetic editing, which would have been revolutionary in the 1970s had the film been released then, only serves to push the viewer out of the story. At times it seems almost punishingly impenetrable even for Welles aficionados who might otherwise enjoy playing the ‘Name- the- figure- from- Orson’s- life- this- character- is- based- on’ party game. You get the sense Welles never really believed in the New Hollywood generation. Cameos from Dennis Hopper, Paul Mazursky and others drift by in a drunken haze, and Welles is quite happy for them to make fools of themselves as they spout cineaste waffle. Many of the characters, including Bogdanovich, would later have their own Wellesian struggles with Hollywood. One gets the sense that Welles is gleefully egging them on to their own destruction.

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John Huston, Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich

Where the film won me back was in its hauntingly melancholic portrayal of friendship, and the inevitable disappointment that comes when relationships run their course or, as Welles had come to believe, one party betrays the other. The documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (also released on Netflix) gives compelling insight into Welles’ frayed psyche and working style during the making of the film. He had concluded that the best moments in directing happen through happy accidents or a degree of improvisation. His plan was to make The Other Side of the Wind so full of these moments that the script served as little more than an outline. The problem lies in the fact that there aren’t enough of these moments to elevate the film among the best of Welles’ work. It demands repeat viewings, and it will slowly work its magic on you but The Other Side of the Wind is not a masterpiece.

And yet it is a masterful film.

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Mr Campion’s War – Review

November 7, 2018

The date is May 20th, 1970. An ageing Albert Campion arrives at the Dorchester to celebrate his birthday. The guests include the great and the good of British high society – members of the aristocracy, the Master of St Ignatius College, a Commander in the Metropolitan Police – and many other distinguished figures who all dutifully arrive to pay tribute to Blighty’s best-loved detective, adventurer and, as we are soon to discover, clandestine war hero. For Campion is about to regale his guests with the extraordinary tale of his heretofore unrevealed wartime exploits. In flashback, we see Campion’s recruitment into the Intelligence Services, going undercover as a Canadian diplomat in Vichy France and finally exposing an ingenious and dastardly money laundering scheme which stands to make some disreputable characters very rich.

Ripley skilfully alternates between the war and peacetime settings and the characters who inhabit them. The fuddy duddy ensemble at the Dorchester fondly reminisce of a war-time era: one that didn’t have to endure anything quite so uncouth as the Swinging Sixties, Top of the Pops, and Britain’s imminent entry into the Common Market (I wonder if it will last). Campion, needless to say, had a good war. In fact, it’s all a bit of a lark as he finds himself pitted against a Nazi cabal, Vichy French officials (Nazi’s with superior cuisine), Riviera gangsters straight out J’Accuse, and one truly loathsome British traitor. That said, war is still a dirty business and Campion’s nearest and dearest have often remarked of how he was never quite the same after the Big Show. The reader finds out why as Campion is caught up in a maelstrom of epic events including Operation Torch and Case Anton.

Mike Ripley cut his teeth as a writer with the splendid comic capers in the Angel series. He’s also renowned for his witty column ‘Getting Away with Murder’ which mixes genre news, literary history and mischievous gossip to great effect. In recent years, he’s been on something of a roll with his terrific history of post-war British thrillers Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and five novels in the Campion series. Ripley began his continuation novels of Margery Allingham’s most famous character after helping to complete Pip Youngman Carter’s (Allingham’s husband) unfinished manuscript Mr Campion’s Farewell with the blessing of the Margery Allingham Society. Mr Campion’s War is, I believe, his best novel yet in the series. It has that perfect cocktail hour mix of mystery, derring-do, cutting wit and stiff-upper lip English reserve that honours Allingham’s creation while leaving Ripley’s own indelible imprint on the series.

A perfect stocking-filler.

An Interview with Leye Adenle: Author of Easy Motion Tourist and When Trouble Sleeps

November 4, 2018

Leye Adenle is a rising star in the world of Nigerian and British crime fiction. His debut novel Easy Motion Tourist introduced Amaka Mbadiwe, ‘a sassy guardian angel of Lagos working girls’. In the novel, British hack Guy Collins becomes a murder suspect when a woman’s mutilated body is discovered near one of the main hotels in Lagos. Much of the novel is told from Collins point-of-view, and it is through him that we meet Amaka and witness the extraordinarily vibrant and dangerous character of Lagos as a city. In the follow-up, When Trouble Sleeps, a plane crash kills the state’s gubernatorial candidate. His replacement, the venal Chief Ojo, looks set to enjoy all of the power and influence that comes with high political office. However, Amaka has access to information that could reveal Ojo as a violent and depraved pervert, and Ojo will do anything to stop her from revealing it.

I found both novels in the Amaka series to be exhilarating and gripping narratives. Amaka and Guy Collins make for compelling, sympathetic lead characters and Adenle is just as adept at sketching out the eccentric, often grotesque villains who stand in their path – Gangsters with names like Knockout and Go-Slow. Adenle comes from a family of writers, and his most famous relative would be his grandfather Oba Adeleye Adenle I, a former king of Oshogbo in South West Nigeria. Adenle knows the Lagos setting intimately, and his descriptions of both its beauty and corruption are both plausible and thrilling.

Leye Adenle now lives in London, where in addition to writing novels he also acts, treading the boards not so long ago in a production of Ola Rotimi’s Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again. I was fortunate enough to interview Leye recently about the Amaka novels and his influences as a writer. The following exchange was conducted by email:

Interviewer: Tell us a little about the inspiration for Amaka. Did you feel intimidated by having a female lead character as a lot of male writers are criticised for failing to authentically capture a female voice?

Adenle: Amaka is largely a composite character of many women I know – this is what I’ve always thought. She even gets her name from one of them. The idea for the first book came from a discussion I had with my mother and brothers about violence against prostitutes in Nigeria. My mother has always been active in issues to do with women; officially as director general for women affairs, as an educator, and just as her. It dawned on my recently that she is probably Amaka.

I think it should never be intimidating to write from the viewpoint of someone different to one. In fact, doing so is a proven technique for creating empathy.

Interviewer: British hack Guy Collins is an equally fascinating character, being both naive but also plucky. In using him as a narrator was your aim to have a Western readership view Lagos through familiar eyes?

Adenle: The conscious decision to give Guy a first person narrative voice was for the sole purpose of giving Lagos as a character her own voice. Lagos is a fascinating place and a great character to have in any story, but how do you give a city a voice without bending genres or inventing new and jarring techniques? Imagine if Lagos spoke to us in a female voice about her long traffic jams and her sweltering nights. Through Guy we get to listen to Lagos. Through his character arc we get to know her deeply and close.

Interviewer: Who are your greatest influences as a writer?

Adenle: I would be lying if I gave a list of the writers who have influenced me the greatest. I would be lying or I would be pretending by composing a list of assumed great authors to make me look good by association. Every single book I’ve read has inspired me. Long before I wrote my first short stories in primary school, I remember reading novels and thinking ‘I could write that’, or, ‘I wish I’d written that.’ Till today I read books that make me feel, ‘Wow! I like what they did there,’ or, ‘Damn! I was going to do that too.’ Sometimes I read a book and I think, ‘Nah,’ or I’m editing as I go. The point is, every one of these authors, in their books have given me a nudge, or a hint, or a perspective on a technique I never had before.

That said, some of the earliest books I read that made me want to write were by Amos Tutuola, China Acheba, Agatha Christie, Cyprina Ekwensi, James Hadley Chase. And some of the most recent books I’ve read that I’ve enjoyed and thus, gained inspiration from are by authors such as Oyinkan Abayomi, Yuri Herrera, Amer Anwar, too name but a few. Like you I am also a big fan of James Ellroy and was recently blown away by his endorsement of my first book Easy Motion Tourist.

Interviewer: Do you see your work as a merging of both African and Western approaches to the crime genre?

Adenle: I do not see a difference between African and Western approaches to the crime genre. I do like to use the label Naija Noir as a sub-genre of noir, but in my written work and in reading other authors of crime fiction, I find that the essential elements are the same even in the different locations. Of course, for a book set in Lagos, the crimes committed will no doubt have a Lagos flavour, will reflect the social-economic drivers behind the crimes, will have protagonists with names like Amaka, and will feature the ever so sweet to write about Nigerian police force, but they will be crimes nonetheless, committed by human beings, affecting other human beings, and tackled by other human beings. Same plot, different local languages.

Interviewer: You portray Lagos as both a vibrant and intimidating city where old world superstitions mix with an emerging capitalist class. How do you think Lagos has changed in recent years, and what things in particular did you want to get across in your writing?

Adenle: Lagos hasn’t change at all in recent years. I say this confidently because Lagos is always changing and that hasn’t changed. Like any other city on the planet, old world superstitions rule, either in the guise of so called black magic or in the gods and prophets of Abrahamic religions. Humanity, for the largest part, is ruled by the fantasy of life after death and the religions both feed on and promote this greatest of delusions. My thoughts. I however know better than to declare my atheism publicly and especially not in my writing. I have only written with an agenda once in my entire memory of writing. It was a short story titled ‘Those Who Wish to Rule’ and it was a reflection on the consequence of leadership. Even at that it wasn’t a statement. I wasn’t trying to propose my view in a manner that says, hey, stop doing that, do this instead. I think I can sniff it from a mile away when a writer has an agenda, and often, when a writer writes with an agenda, I think it robs me the reader of a genuine work of creative flow. I don’t like to be preached to.

Interviewer: Amaka takes centre-stage in When Trouble Sleeps whereas Guy is largely absent. How are the two books different, and what were you attempting to achieve with the sequel?

Adenle: The Amaka Series features Amaka, a Nigerian woman devoted to securing justice for women via legal routes, or in her own way. In the first book in the series, Easy Motion Tourist, Amaka rescues a foreign journalist and witness to a murder from the police; in return she wants him to write an expose on powerful men who abuse women but first she has to get close to a potential killer to get information that will nail him. In the second book, a man is about to become governor of Lagos state but Amaka, through her work, knows secrets about him that would disqualify him and land him in jail for a long, long time. The problem is, he knows that she knows. She is the only one standing between him and the governorship on one hand, and between him and jail on the other.

Interviewer: Power seems to be in flux between gangsters, corrupt police and the new political elite in your narrative. What do you think the future holds for Nigeria with such a complex political system, and can we expect any more Amaka books?

Adenle: Gangsters always hold the reins of power – sometimes by proxy, sometimes directly through elected office. There seems to be something about the lure of political power that attracts gangsters. Perhaps it’s the immunity from prosecution that they enjoy when in office, or it could just be the practical preference to be as close as possible to the public coffers they wish to rob. Either way, politics and gangsterism will always form a symbiosis and the resulting ‘political elite’ will always recruit the police as their foot soldiers. Do I see this changing in the future in Nigeria or anywhere else? Not really.

I’m currently working on the third book in the Amaka series.

Tragedy in Dedham: The Story of the Sacco-Vanzetti Case – Review

October 31, 2018

I have a guest post on Mystery Fanfare in which I discuss Francis Russell’s Edgar-winning true crime epic Tragedy in Dedham. Here’s an extract:

Recently I sat down to read one of those great award-winning books that was a major hit upon publication but has been largely forgotten today. Tragedy in Dedham is Francis Russell’s account of the Sacco-Vanzetti case and won the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime in 1963. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti’s names have become shorthand for how easily a miscarriage of justice can occur when xenophobia and prejudice are at work. The two men were Italian anarchists who emigrated to the United States in 1908. Living in Boston, at the time a hotbed of political radicalism especially among the Italian community, Sacco and Vanzetti were charged with armed robbery and murder after a guard and a paymaster were killed during a holdup of the Morrill Shoe Company in Braintree in 1920. Their subsequent trial was widely viewed as unfair and tainted by anti-Italian and anti-immigrant bias. They were convicted and sentenced to death in 1921, and finally executed in 1927, by which time their case had become a cause célèbre with protest marches being held in major cities on every continent. In the Soviet Union, the case was used as propaganda to highlight the brutality of the capitalist system the two Italians had opposed. Today, few commentators would claim that Sacco and Vanzetti received a fair trial, but that still leaves the question open — were they innocent?

You can read the full piece here.

Many thanks to Janet Rudolph for publishing the piece. This is the second time I have written about the work of the somewhat forgotten historian Francis Russell. Here’s a piece I wrote about Russell’s classic biography of President Warren G Harding The Shadow of Blooming Grove, and how it inspired crime novelist James Ellroy.

Tragedy in Dedham

America was Never Innocent: James Ellroy as Historian

October 15, 2018

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter…

“Our most uncompromising historian…”  This is how I described James Ellroy in my introduction to the Demon Dog’s brief 9/11 meditation “The Power of Witness” (originally published in the November, 2001 edition of GQ magazine), which I posted on the Facebook Ellroy Discussion page on the seventeenth anniversary of that fateful Tuesday.  Ellroy’s 9/11 piece is still today, as I put it in the introduction, a sobering gut punch to anyone hopped up on the fatuous fantasies of mass market nostalgia.

Any reader of the Demon Dog’s 2001 GQ feature will be instantly reminded of Ellroy’s searing one page introduction to American Tabloid (a history lesson in itself that I believe should be required reading for every American citizen), particularly that introduction’s timeless warning: “America was never innocent.”  Such a blunt and fearless proclamation is certainly echoed in “The Power of Witness”:  “We work well with blinders on.  We’re doing that now,” Ellroy wrote in one particularly jabbing paragraph in his GQ piece.  “We’re overlooking the U.S. bombs that have killed kids and women.  We’re eschewing the knowledge of how we’ve plundered for oil.  We’re denying that our misdeeds have served to make hatred cohere.”  Ellroy’s terse 9/11 meditation, delivered while the fires and molten steel at Ground Zero still burned, is thus a lone solid red flag frantically waving amid a sea of red white and blue that was conspicuously absent on September 10th.

So is James Ellroy an historian?

A classic definition of an historian is someone who researches, analyzes, records and interprets the past as recorded in a broad range of sources including government and institutional records, newspapers, photographs, interviews, films and even unpublished material like personal diaries, letters or other internal memorandum. This exhaustive list should easily remind any devoted Ellroy reader of a common feature in the Demon Dog’s novels: the often similarly amassed obsessive hoards, privately maintained, and hidden from public scrutiny by detectives driven mad by an investigation-turned-obsession spiralling out of control.

dark ellroy america 4

Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race. The Demon Dog spoke about this process in a 2014 interview with Evan Smith.  “I’m a yearner,” Ellroy said.  “…Why do people do what they do? … What is America’s destiny?…”

Ellroy is particularly concerned—obsessed even—with tracing the origin of misdeeds, convinced that the forerunners of a ghastly crime can be glimpsed by examining someone’s shattered upbringing. Ellroy mentions this obsession in his 9/11 meditation:  “Track the lives of the […] perpetrators.  You’ll find the traumatic childhoods that spawn hatred.  You’ll find a range of incident and circumstance that explicates but never justifies.”  Even with his mother’s killer, Ellroy has publicly said he would like to trace the roots of the killer back to infancy to learn why the man murdered his mother…  This is without question the action of an historian.

Ellroy actually personifies an historian in Blood’s A Rover’s window-peeping narrator Don Crutchfield, who amasses a range of historical sources like those mentioned earlier.  Crutchfield calls himself “a literary executor and an agent provocatuer,” but stops just short of the H word, all while Crutch’s actions more than spell it out.  This is a demonstration of integrity both on the part of Crutch (who is based on the real life celebrity private investigator Don Crutchfield) and even Ellroy himself:  After giving us endless fictional examples of disingenuous duplicity in his books, it’s refreshing to see Ellroy produce a character who embodies his occupation so completely and consciously, that he’s too busy to tell you he’s an historian.  The same could be said for James Ellroy.

In chapter 69 of Perfidia, Kay Lake delivers a speech that serves unwittingly as a primer for the chaotic thirty-one-year storyline to come…  No spoilers here, but Kay’s speech outlines Ellroy’s philosophy of history, and even includes a line that should make any reader of Blood’s A Rover sit up in their chair.  On a deeper level, you could even call Kay’s speech a companion to Ellroy’s American Tabloid introduction, describing even more deeply an America sculpted by violence, and yet rising to a momentous occasion as it steps into its greatness.  This is Ellroy’s morality on clear display, and could even be called Ellrovian Social Activism.  Kay’s speech foreshadows the lessons of Blood’s A Rover, most notably that the future—no matter how bleak it may seem—is uncertain, and the choice is entirely yours.

Ellroy would spell out his unique philosophy of history more completely in the essay, appropriately titled “Ellroy’s History—Then and Now” which concluded the limited edition hardcover Waterstones edition of Perfidia.

The essay begins with a quote from Ross Macdonald, whom Ellroy has called one of his greatest teachers.  “In the end, I possess my birthplace, and am possessed by its language.”  Readers of the L.A. Quartet will recall that Ellroy began that body of work’s concluding volume, White Jazz, with this same Macdonald quote.  It foreshadows a piece of wisdom Ellroy would make his own many years later:  “Geography is destiny.”

Across a succinct 4,000 words, Ellroy unfurls a layered narrative of his ascension as an historical novelist, ultimately giving us—in panoramic technicolor—the grand sweep of history… at least the past 72 years of history.   This is something many novelists spend entire careers trying to achieve (most fail).  If you think 4,000 words is hardly succinct, then I urge you to juxtapose Ellroy’s Waterstones history lesson against the bloated, tediously over-descripted historical fiction of James Michener, among others.

Here’s a sample passage:

“Hitler murdered Jews in Germany while American demagogues raged that Jews engineered the war.  Anti-communist Hitler signed a non-aggression pact with anti-fascist Joe Stalin and invaded Russia anyway.  American Leftists hated Hitler and forgave Uncle Joe for his temporary lapse in good taste.  They dutifully ignored Stalin’s agrarian purges that left millions dead.  The Left hates the Right.  The Chinese hate the Japanese.  The Irish hate the English and vice versa.  The German Lutheran-Catholic rift dates back to the Reformation and the Thirty Years War.  Right wing nuts hold that the Jews invented Communism and Wall Street.  Fascist Spaniards hate Loyalist Spaniards.  Left wing eugenicists want to build strong human beings to fight the fascist beast.  Fascist eugenicists want to build a master race.  The Nazi Health Ministry offers breeding bonuses to good looking Aryan Women. 

Welcome to the world wide web, 1941.  That’s the way it was Then.  Don’t tell me that we’ve got it bad Now.”

As a forerunner to this grand sweep, I was reminded of several chapters from the second volume of Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy, The Cold Six Thousand.  These chapters are often consumed by vertical lists of newspaper headlines from all over the U.S., illuminating portions of the story the characters cannot in a literary technique known as false document, with some lists continuing for nearly five pages.

“History was my birthright,” Ellroy writes in the Waterstones essay.  “I […] lived in books and films depicting the swirl of time before my time.”  As Ellroy goes on to explain, the future Demon Dog learned about ubiquitous duplicity and expedience early in life: “Adults lied to kids and engaged assignations.  Lies mean that something else really happened.  What really happened? I’ll never know.  I’ll have to concoct a story to make it all plausible and sexy.”

… Or, in the case of mass market consumption, uncomplicated, and compressed into a threadbare (and fatuously expedient) narrative.

From the second paragraph of Ellroy’s second novel Clandestine, the book’s narrator and protagonist, Fred Underhill cautions us against the implicit dangers of such willfully blind indifference in a warning that foreshadows his creator’s incendiary introduction to American Tabloid some 13 years later:  “nostalgia vicitimizes the unknowing by instilling in them a desire for simplicity and innocence they can never achieve.”

Such disingenuous re-writing of history is also something recently referenced by Ellroy scholar Nathan Ashman, who astutely observed that the plastic surgery motif in Ellroy’s novels is an obvious nod toward concealing the ugly scars of past abuse; just as fatuously grand ideologies like “liberty” and “democracy” and an overall false historical narrative hide the actual bloodshed, misery, abuse, exploitation, and conspiracy that fueled progress.

“Someone always survives to tell you the story and what it all means.  That’s my job.”  Ellroy concludes a few paragraphs in his Waterstones essay about the Underworld USA’s concluding volume Blood’s A Rover here with this hallowed assignation.  I said something similar to Ellroy last year during one of our many conversations at his Denver film series.  I remarked to Ellroy how readers should think of Don Crutchfield as an Ellrovian Ishmael. Like Herman Melville’s sole survivor, the traumatized Crutchfield is saddled with the burden of having to tell the tale, and, as Grant Nebel has observed, accept and condone history’s legacy, a permanent bloodstain that steals your innocence…This is the “dear and savage price to live history” Crutch mentions at Rover’s end.

Stephen King once wrote that “fiction is the truth inside the lie,” implying that fiction is not bound by the obligatory strictures of non-fiction, and can thus, ironically, expose the brutal truth of the matter with built-in impunity.  I witnessed this very process earlier this year during Noir City Denver, when Ellroy and Eddie Muller were discussing the salacious lives of 1950s Hollywood stars.  In deference to his journalistic roots, Eddie told us he always sought multiple sources of verification for every bit of tattle he ever learned, in rather sharp contrast to Ellroy.  “James is a novelist; he can say whatever he wants.”

 

Jason Carter

 

** I formally call upon William Heinemann, Alfred A Knopf, and/or the Waterstones bookstore to launch a mass-market reprint of the Waterstones Edition of Perfidia, and/or include Ellroy’s Then & Now essay in a future printing of Perfidia.  The essay is one of Ellroy’s finest works, and deserves an unlimited worldwide release.

Gallows Court: An Interview with Martin Edwards

September 25, 2018

Gallows Court is the new novel by Martin Edwards. The setting is London, 1930. A series of violent murders, the details as gruesome as the Ripper case, has horrified the capital. Rachel Savernake is the enigmatic heiress at the heart of the mystery. Brilliant, beautiful and cruel, Savernake solved the Chorus Girl Murder and is on the hunt of another killer. Yet, she is equally adept at using violence for her own ends.

Jacob Flint is the cub reporter temporarily working the crime beat at The Clarion. He instinctively feels there is more to Savernake than meets the eye and starts tracking her ruthless misadventures across foggy London town. The stage is set for a bloody confrontation at an ancient place of execution – Gallows Court.

Edwards previous work includes the Harry Devlin novels and the Lake District Mysteries. He is also the author of the acclaimed critical study, The Golden Age of Murder and editor of the hugely popular British Library Crime Classics series. Gallows Court is a change of direction for the author, being a blood-drenched thriller with a 1930s setting immersed in Gothic atmosphere. I was floored by the novel’s riveting blend of action and intrigue, terrific pacing and compelling characters, particularly the unforgettable Rachel Savernake.

I first met Martin when he was a guest at the Visions of Noir conference I organised in Liverpool in 2015. He’s always been enthusiastic and generous, and he kindly agreed to be interviewed by me about his new novel. The following exchange was conducted by email.

Interviewer: What was the genesis of the idea for Gallows Court? Is it something that you had been toying with for a while, or did it come to you on impulse?

Edwards: After writing seven Lake District Mysteries, I was keen to try to write something very different. I’m always looking to stretch myself as a novelist, and two ideas competed for attention. One was a present day novel of psychological suspense, the other was a story set in the 1930s, a decade which I’d researched extensively and which fascinated me. When the idea of the character of Rachel Savernake came to me, that made up my mind- she belonged to the 1930s, without question. I wrote a short story about her first, just to make sure that she was someone I was comfortable to write a whole novel about, since that would mean a commitment of a couple of years (or three, as it turned out!) I’ve not tried to sell or publish the story, but it was a worthwhile writing exercise, a sort of limbering up for the long haul of writing a fairly unorthodox novel.

Interviewer: The narrative deals with doubling and switching of identities, often in terms of the morality of the characters and their motivations. It made me wonder were there any real-life inspirations for the characters of Rachel Savernake and Jacob Flint?

Edwards: No. I’ve written one book which was inspired by a real life character – my only other historical novel, Dancing for the Hangman, which is about the life and misadventures of Dr Crippen. This time I wanted to work entirely with characters from my own imagination.

Interviewer: You’re well-known as a historian of Golden Age detective fiction with an encyclopedic knowledge of writers of that period. Can you indicate which Golden Age writers, if any, were an influence on the novel.

Edwards: The influences were indirect rather than direct. I have long been interested in the fact that the Detection Club, set up in 1930, did not allow thriller writers to join for more than 20 years. This was because the likes of Sapper were not deemed to be good enough writers. Dorothy L Sayers, who reviewed crime fiction for the Sunday Times for two and a half years, was scathing in her assessment of the literary merits of most thrillers. So I was tempted by the idea of trying to write a thriller set in the 1930s which might have been literate and thought-provoking enough to pass muster even with Sayers. What I was not trying to do was to write a pastiche Golden Age whodunit. Plenty of those are being written nowadays, very capably. I set myself the task of trying to write a book that was avowedly and unashamedly commercial yet very different from other books set in the period (whether written then or now).

Interviewer: Some of the murder scenes have a Grand Guignol Hammer Horror feel to them. How did you approach the writing of these scenes, and were you worried that they would go too far?

Edwards: There is indeed a Grand Guignol element in some of the crimes, and again this reflects my attempt to write a thriller that was dramatic, and in some passages melodramatic, while fusing a 1930s ambience with a modern psychological sensibility. I was attempting to write a book that was packed with classic Golden Age elements – a killing in a locked room, a cipher, a secret underground passage, conjuror’s illusions, and so on – and which wove together several intricate puzzles, yet was by no means purely cerebral. A thriller has to thrill, and I wanted the story to be entertaining, first and foremost. That excellent crime writer Michael Gilbert used to argue that thrillers were harder to write than whodunits, and he may have had a point; I’ve written plenty of whodunits, but it seems to me that the best thriller writers (like Lee Child and John Buchan) have a flair for keeping readers on the edge of their chairs, and that’s what I was trying to do. So in writing the most dramatic scenes (especially in the theatre, the Hannaways’ house, and in Gallows Court at the end) I was consciously testing the boundaries of credibility while trying to make sure the reader wanted to keep turning the pages. All of this was, of course, inevitably a high risk strategy. I was writing without a contract of any kind, and could not be sure that I’d be able to write a book which satisfied me, or would be accepted for publication. But I persuaded myself that it was a risk worth taking. I’ve always been a fairly ambitious writer, and if I stand back and look at my output over the years, I feel that it is certainly very varied. I also like to believe that I continue to improve as a writer.

Interviewer: There are lots of twists and turns in Gallows Court, so I was surprised when I read you started writing without a plot outline. Did this require a lot of revisions to make all of the plot contortions fit seamlessly?

Author Martin Edwards

Edwards:  I decided from the outset that because this book was to be very different from my previous work, I’d write it in a different way. I was fascinated by the idea of Rachel, this mysterious, very rich, and very ruthless young woman who appears from nowhere and involves herself with bizarre murder mysteries, and she was the starting point. Jacob came later, since I realised I needed an ‘ordinary person’ viewpoint character with whom readers could identify to some extent. With my whodunits, I’ve always known who the murderer is, who the victim is, and what is the motive. The test I set myself here was to figure out how to make sense of a complex and mysterious scenario. Many of the major twists (including the crime at the theatre, and the events at the bungalow Jacob visits) occurred to me during the course of writing, rather than forming part of an initial plan. I did a great deal of rewriting to fit it all together in a way that was (I hoped) seamless. What I try to do as a writer is to create characters who (even if described in a fairly straightforward way) have some depth to them, some potential. This is the case with certain characters who meet an unfortunate end in the novel; their misfortune was to interest me so much that I created in my mind backstories for them which meant that someone had a reason to kill them!

Interviewer: The narrative jumps between the remote Gaunt island and a menacing London, and a 1919 and 1930 setting. How did you approach historical research and period details?

Edwards: While working on The Golden Age of Murder in particular I did a great deal of research into life in Britain in the 1930s, reading many books written during that decade, and also many histories of the period. Of course, I did need to research some points specific to the story – for instance, the tea room in Oxford, the restaurant where Rachel goes to lunch, the nature of newspapers in the 30s, and the conjuring illusion which plays a part in the storyline.

Interviewer: Finally, and without giving away any spoilers, could Gallows Court be the start of a new series with the same longevity as the Harry Devlin novels and the Lake District mysteries?

Edwards: There is going to be a sequel to Gallows Court, for sure, and I wrote the story with that possibility very much in mind. Beyond that, who knows?

The Little Drummer Girl – Preview

September 20, 2018

The new BBC/AMC adaptation of John le Carré’s novel The Little Drummer Girl is due to air in November, and no doubt the Beeb are hoping to repeat the success of The Night Manager. Shortly after that miniseries aired, I suggested that of all the le Carré’s novels that have yet to be adapted, Our Game might be the most suited for television. Instead, the BBC have taken a significant gamble with controversial material which has already been adapted for the big screen (albeit not very successfully).

That said, The Little Drummer Girl is an extraordinary novel and, if handled right, this adaptation has the potential to be a critical and commercial hit.

Alexander Skarsgård as Becker, Florence Pugh as Charlie Ross – The Little Drumer Girl _ Season 1, Episode 3 – Photo Credit: © 2018 The Little Drummer Girl Distribution Limited. All rights reserved.

The novel tells the story of Charlie, an English stage actress who, in addition to her theatrical career, has interests in radical left-wing activism and the cause of Palestinian liberation. She accepts an acting role on a Greek island only to discover the job is an elaborate ruse by Mossad agents to lure her into a scheme to ensnare Khalil, a Palestinian terrorist. Reluctant at first, Charlie agrees to the dangerous assignment and what follows is a cat and mouse game in which identity is suffused with contradiction, leaving the reader constantly guessing which way the characters will jump next.

You get the sense, for instance, that the spymaster Kurtz is every bit as good a thespian as Charlie, especially when he persuades the actress to accept the mission despite it going against all her pro-Palestinian instincts:

‘If I add that we are also Israeli citizens, I trust you will not immediately foam at the mouth, vomit, or jump out of the window, unless of course it is your personal conviction that Israel should be swept into the sea, napalmed, or handed over gift-wrapped to one or another of the many fastidious Arab organisations committed to our elimination.’

Later on in the novel, Charlie visits a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut and the deprivation she witnesses reawakens her sympathy for the Arab struggle, and compounds her guilt at the course she has taken:

I am a grieving, outraged widow and I have come here to take up my dead lover’s fight.

I am the awakened militant who has wasted too long on half measures and now stands before you sword in hand.

I have put my hand on the Palestinian heart; I am pledged to lift the world up by its ears to make it listen.

I am on fire but I am cunning and resourceful. I am the sleepy wasp that cannot wait all winter long to sting.

I’m Comrade Leila, a citizen of the world revolution.

Day and night.

The Little Drummer Girl may not be le Carré’s best novel (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spyin my mind, holds this distinction), but it is the most fascinating work he has written in terms of research and composition.

When it was first published, the inspiration for Charlie’s character was widely believed to be rabble-rousing luvvie Vanessa Redgrave. In fact, as le Carré admitted in an interview with Melvyn Bragg, the inspiration was the author’s half sister: the actress Charlotte Cornwell: ‘she went through a dotty time politically and emerged from it very fast, and she talked to me about it. And I went up to Islington and mucked around various funny bookshops there that feed the extreme left, and the radical causes, and talked to one or two people in that world.’

le Carré also described having a narrative epiphany while watching Cornwell perform onstage: ‘it was pouring with rain, the most unbelievable noise on the roof, and Charlotte was really having to belt it out. I thought she was very good but she was over the top. I mean she was booming in order to defeat the rain and it was actually the moment, I think, where I thought: yes, I’ll use that.’ And he did, before the intrigue and suspense of the novel kicks in, le Carré gives a wry portrayal of the less than glamorous world of repertory theatre, including one scene where Mossad agents take Charlie’s ineffectual and unsuspecting theatrical agent Ned out for lunch at The Ivy. They get him sloshed on Chablis, and the bumbling old ass gladly tells them everything they need to know about his client.

le Carré’s research would continue with him interviewing Mossad agents and, from the other end of the spectrum, Yasser Arafat. The author was convinced that the plot to lure Charlie into being a pawn for Israeli Intelligence needed to be plausible: ‘I put it to the lads in Israel and they were enchanted with the idea and said: yes if it would work, yes they would do it.’

But le Carré was also determined to write a balanced book, one that would be sympathetic with Israel’s right to defend itself but indignant at abuses against Palestinians: ‘like my character Charlie, I had a love affair with the Palestinians, exactly as in the past I’ve had a love affair with the Jews. It is my job to radicalise, my job to feel the way.’ He found Arafat to be ‘a very infectious man; tremendously spontaneous and very witty.’ It was through Arafat that le Carré was able to visit, like his character Charlie, Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut. This was during the run-up to the 1982 Lebanon War, and the hardships le Carré witnessed in the camps as well as the impending violence may have begun the author’s long drift to the left. But while his later novels descended into tedious anti-American hectoring, le Carré was committed to writing a politically evenhanded, well-judged book in The Little Drummer Girl and, broadly speaking, he succeeded.

So, will it work on television?

Well, a year after the novel was published there was a Hollywood film adaptation. Diane Keaton makes a superb Charlie, as le Carré said, ‘it didn’t have to be an English actress, it had to be a western one’, and by making the character American it gives her a Hanoi Jane feel. The problem lies in the direction. George Roy Hill had enjoyed huge success with such caper films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973), and had helmed some tricky literary fare such as Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) and The World According to Garp (1982), but he was lost at sea with this material. Perhaps handling a politically explosive narrative made him reluctant to take risks and the tone of the film is flat and boring throughout.

This strikes me as a problem that could reoccur. The Israel/Palestine debate is every bit as contentious today as it was when le Carré’s novel was first published. The BBC’s, otherwise excellent, adaptation of McMafia was accused of being anti-Semitic and anti-Russian and, with ongoing allegations of anti-Semitism rumbling in the Labour Party, it’s difficult to see how the TV adaptation won’t be both offensive and controversial to some viewers.

The Night Manager was a gloriously entertaining, globetrotting romp. If any le Carré novel was destined to be a hit on TV it was that one. The Little Drummer Girl is considerably more risky, but I hold to the view that le Carré wrote a fascinating and balanced novel, and if the BBC can catch its essence then this could be great television.

If you get a chance, read the book before the miniseries airs this November.

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