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The Little Drummer Girl – Review

December 23, 2018
Episode one of The Little Drummer Girl concludes with the aspiring actress Charlie’s romantic evening in Athens with Michel going awry. While driving together, he begins  acting odd, making cryptic comments and speeding down unfamiliar roads. Thinking she is being Shanghaied into some awful fate, Charlie is confused and intrigued when Michel stops the car at an imposing house. She is greeted by a group of Israeli men and women: the leader Kurtz introduces himself as the ‘producer, writer and director of our little show and I would like to talk with you about your part.’
The Little Drummer Girl

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.

Kurtz has done his research, and Charlie (a left-wing radical) has been carefully selected for a mission to infiltrate a pro-Palestinian terrorist group who have bombed the Israeli embassy in West Germany. Her acting talents are a perfect fit for the murky world of espionage as through her undercover work she is required to overtly embrace and covertly reject her instinctual support for Palestinian liberation. The genius of The Little Drummer Girl, adapted from John le Carré’s superlative novel, is that the audience is constantly guessing when the performance ends and real life begins. Are we watching Charlie the actress or Charlie the real person as she slipstreams between the role of Mossad agent and terrorist? Is she in danger of going native in the austere Lebanese terrorist camp, or is she is bit too attracted to the European- based terror cell where her new-found comrades love to drink, laugh and make love just as much as the acting troupes she grew up in? No matter where Charlie finds herself, she is fully the thespian. When she chooses a role, she plays it to the hilt. This is why Kurtz insists, at a moment of great danger to the innocents involved when there is literally a ticking bomb in the room, that Charlie pause and ‘play the scene’. There were shades of an American-style method acting in the physicality of Charlie’s performance, and in the tortuous psychological effects of her coming out of character. I thought this was alluded to best in the closing scenes between Charlie and Michel: ‘Who are you? Who am I?’ Charlie asks.
In a narrative that is largely about acting it should come as no surprise that the entire cast was extraordinarily good, but special mention has to go to Florence Pugh as Charlie. The twenty-two year old actress pulled off a wonderfully layered performance in one of the most daunting roles imaginable. I won’t curse Pugh with that kiss of death cliche ‘the next big thing’, but I sincerely hope we’ll be seeing more of her. But what of the future of le Carré onscreen?
By the late 1970s three of le Carré’s novels had been adapted for the silver screen, but the BBC was about to introduce a new long-form narrative in its superlative adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which unravelled over seven episodes and was better suited at accommodating the author’s convoluted plotting of double and triple-crosses. For proof of this, look at how inferior the big-screen remake of Tinker Tailor was by comparison. After the disappointing adaptation of A Perfect Spy in 1987 it would be the best part of thirty years before le Carre’s work would be adapted again into a mini-series. That series was The Night Manager, and while it was a massive hit and seductively entertaining, there was nothing in it that matched The Little Drummer Girl in terms of its compelling portrait of people caught up in a web of deception. As a period piece, set in the late 1970s, it was impressive just how fresh and urgent the story of radicalisation and individuals falling victim to governments and ideologies felt today. The novel is well-suited to television, not least because a previous film adaptation was a crushing disappointment but also, as I have examined elsewhere, the story behind the novel is even more fascinating as it involves le Carre’s meetings with Mossad agents and PLO leader Yasser Arafat while researching the book.
The Little Drummer Girl may not have been a ratings smash but, over time, I believe it will come to be regarded as one of the greatest adaptations of le Carré’s work. And that’s quite an achievement as there have been no fewer than 16 small and silver screen le Carré adaptations over the past five decades. I’ve no doubt there will be more. Our Game would be terrific onscreen, as would The Honourable Schoolboy. Maybe someone will even pluck up the courage to adapt the critically reviled The Naive and Sentimental Lover. I feel though that what this production achieved in terms of storytelling, performance and production may be hard to top. But as it seems likely there will always be fascination with le Carré’s work then film and television makers will keep trying. And even at the age of 87 le Carré is still writing, with a new novel out next year for readers to look forward to.
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James Ellroy’s Lonely Places: a Retrospective

December 5, 2018

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

Rude awakenings and abrupt, violent endings are all too common in noir.

In July 2018, James Ellroy announced via his official website that he had abruptly ended his award-winning Denver film series In a Lonely Place at the Alamo DrafthouseIn a coldly monochromatic post that implied a possible rift with the Alamo’s senior management, the Demon Dog explicitly thanked the fans who faithfully attended his film screenings, and the legendary Q&A sessions in the bar afterwards.

It had to end at some point, but this was not the denouement I was hoping for.  I had imagined a ceremonial grand sendoff and perhaps one final film before Ellroy departed for his world tour in support of This Storm. (Ellroy had in fact spoken of hosting a release party for his new novel at the Alamo just before throwing the kill switch).  However, Ellroy’s abrupt termination shouldn’t surprise me, as none of Ellroy’s novels (with the possible exception of L.A. Confidential) end on a uniform note; their author a fierce opponent of any kind of closure. Also, a painful awareness that life rarely—if ever—makes rational sense, is one of noir’s foundational principles.

The Demon Dog’s film series was certainly not his first ongoing event, but it was likely his longest. Just a few years before his 2015 move to Denver, Ellroy spent some weeks hosting night-cloaked bus tours of L.A.’s mean streets while telling wretchedly entertaining tales of Tinseltown’s seedy past.  By the time Ellroy severed his ties with the Alamo, his Denver film series was just months away from its third anniversary.

Seeing Ellroy at the Alamo each month afforded an unparalleled view of the staggeringly busy itinerary of an author with a worldwide following, as he jaunted around the globe from one literary event to the next—Barcelona to Brussels to Turin, L.A., New York and his beloved France— while never missing his faithful monthly perch at Denver’s Alamo Drafthouse.

As we look back across the unforgettable wake of Ellroy’s iconic film series and deeply ponder the role of film noir, it’s only appropriate to do so alongside the real life violence which no silver screen can contain… Ellroy, who has told us his violent art reflects our violent contemporaneous reality, would have it no other way.

Ellroy began his series in September, 2015 with Curtis Hanson’s Academy Award winning take on the Demon Dog’s L.A. Confidential.  The film streamlined Ellroy’s byzantine novel, excising several key subplots, but retaining Ellroy’s obsessive focus on verisimilitude and, especially, the soul-crushing price exacted by maintaining such a disingenuous performance. Ellroy would screen L.A. Confidential at the Alamo a second time in December, 2017 in recognition of the film’s 20th anniversary.  Oddly enough, both occasions boasted the largest crowds in the series’ history.

In October 2015, 10 people were shot dead by a 26 year old at a community college in southern Oregon. The shooter, who had an extensive history of mental illness and a steady diet of hate-fueled indoctrination, would later die in an exchange of fire with the police.

Akira Kurosawa’s High & Low, adapted from Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novel King’s Ransom, gave us the moral dilemma of a powerful corporate executive facing financial ruin.  The executive is forced to determine the value of someone else’s life, a life with which has no bearing on his own.  High & Low’s exceptional juxtaposing of the economic extremes of society, reminded me of a similar technique Fritz Lang employed in Metropolis, which, incidentally, is a film the Demon Dog roundly despises, finding it too dystopian.

   

In November 2015, a police officer and two civilians were killed and nine others wounded when a 60-year-old with a hair-trigger temper and a history of spousal abuse and infidelities opened fire at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a devastating meditation on obsession, follows an obsessive detective as he transforms a woman into a duplicate of a dead woman who is the object of his obsession. The film covers territory Ellroy would explore at length in the L.A. Quartet. In conversation with the Demon Dog after the film, Ellroy told me Vertigo was the last film he saw before his mother was murdered.

Male domination of women is a constant feature in noir, with the callous nature of the famous femme fatale an appropriate counterpoint to jilted men who act befuddled when the dame betrays them. It’s a man’s world, and men make the money, often shamelessly trampling women in the process. In fact, noir’s men treat women as abundantly disposable and wilfully interchangeable commodities; bitterly clarifying noir’s statement that weaponized sex is often a femme fatale’s only option for economic advancement.  You can thus understand the man-maiming actions of the women in Ellroy’s selection of Edmund O’Brien’s Man Trap and Ken Hughes’ Wicked as They Come.

In December 2015, an armed couple, both from troubled childhoods involving domestic abuse and violent childhood indoctrination, fired dozens of shots inside a San Bernardino conference hall at a service center for people with disabilities, leaving 14 dead. Both shooters died in an exchange of fire with police later the same day.

Occasionally, Ellroy would present a film with no relation to the noir universe. Such is the case with Gordon Douglas’ THEM!, Jean-Luc Goddard’s Band of Outsiders, and even Robert Altman’s Nashville, a sprawling, interlocking 1975 masterpiece that explores the dynamics between nearly 30 characters across a timespan of only five days. Ellroy wouldn’t confirm this, but I had to wonder if Nashville wasn’t the Demon Dog’s inspiration for Perfidia’s micro history format. Nonetheless, Ellroy anointed Nashville as nothing less than “The great American motion picture,” feeling that it depicted America far more accurately than an over-lauded film like Citizen Kane. Barely a year after Nashville, Ellroy would also go on to screen The Long Goodbye, Altman’s 1973 noir-tinged paean to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.

In June 2016, 49 people were killed at an Orlando nightclub by a 29 year old with a years-long penchant for violence and depravity, a propensity fueled by dismissive parents and endless bullying.

Film noir often illuminates the dark underbelly of a city, concealing faceless terrors waiting to attack you at any moment. This is the grim setting for Blake Edwards’ Experiment in Terror, featuring a heroine that paradoxically is most vulnerable in her own home. Joseph Losey’s The Prowler, which Ellroy screened as part of Noir City Denver, also explored this territory.  At the core of these films is anxiety, which noir views as more useful than the complacency proffered by streamlined Hollywood productions with disingenuously uniform happy endings. A prime directive in noir is to shock the public out of stasis, and expose just how thin the veneer of society really is…  In this way, noir helped people accept the insane randomness and unpredictability of life. (Take THAT, American self-confidence!)

Noir’s characters are often pushed around by forces larger than themselves, and are beholden to a clandestine and ruthless bureaucracy where conspiracies, beatings, murders, and brutal coercion are all business as usual.  The films also show people struggling hopelessly to escape a trap that, all too often, they themselves constructed.  Joseph Newman’s 711 Ocean Drive, and Byron Haskin’s I Walk Alone, fit this mold.  Complicating the matter even further, every noir character is also grappling with their own private grief.

In July 2016, five Dallas police officers were killed in a sniper attack during a public demonstration against fatal police shootings. The shooter, a delusional 25-year-old discharged soldier with PTSD and an extensive distrust of law enforcement, was killed by an explosive delivered to him by a remote controlled bomb disposal robot.

In a grim case of art mimicking life, Ellroy screened Bo Widerberg’s The Man on the Roof, which, as expected, climaxes in a manner shockingly similar to the Dallas sniper attack. The 1976 Swedish police procedural was one of several foreign films Ellroy screened, in conspicuous appreciation for the Demon Dog’s enormous European audience. Ellroy has a particularly large following in France, something he respectfully acknowledged when he told us “The frogs are obsessed with American crime, and they know noir better than anyone else.”      

In October 2017, a gunman opened fire on a crowd of more than 22,000 at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, killing 58 and injuring more than 500. The gunman would later die of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The namesake film of Ellroy’s series, Nick Ray’s landmark 1950 noir In a Lonely Place, deftly showcased the quiet desperation of Hollywood, a disposable industry forced to reflect the wants and whims of a casually dismissive and lazy public. Brought to life by Humphrey Bogart’s stunning portrayal of the brooding and volatile Dixon Steele, the film asserts that the industry’s stifling of independent thought led many writers to greatly resent earning a Tinseltown paycheck, in spite of how enormous such salaries often were.

In November 2017, a 26-year-old with a history of animal cruelty and spousal abuse opened fire on a small church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 25 people and an unborn child. The shooter died crashing his SUV after a high speed chase with police.

Many of the noirs Ellroy screened involved painfully ordinary people orchestrating elaborate heists as a way to level a mercilessly uneven economic playing field. Middle class characters bitterly view the rich as evil, while always trying to join their ranks…  The denial implicit within this contradiction is inescapably noir, as the middle class know that becoming an elite requires abandoning their fatuous bumper sticker virtues and capitulating to the soul-devouring machinations of a brutally heartless world. Yet, your past is never far from you, and ignoring this always sets the stage for disastrous consequences.

In February 2018, a former student with a history of behavioral issues that were ignored by educators and administrators opened fire in a Parkland, Florida high school, killing 17, and wounding 17 more.

The duration of Ellroy’s Denver film series also served as a kind of postscript, like those you might find at the conclusion to one of the Demon Dog’s quartets or trilogies. Several notable individuals from Ellroy’s past met their end concurrent with the tenure of the series…

L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson died on September 20th, 2016 at age 71. The previous evening, Ellroy screened Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place, and I mentioned to Ellroy how Hanson had showed the film to Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce to prepare them for their roles in L.A. Confidential.

Cuban President Fidel Castro, a background figure in American Tabloid, died at 90 on November 25, 2016.  Cuba’s Castro era would effectively end almost 18 months later with the April, 2018 confirmation of Miguel Diaz-Canel as the country’s first non-Castro president since 1976.

Accordion virtuoso Dick Contino died on April 17, 2017 at age 87. Ellroy, who would make Contino the protagonist of one of the Demon Dog’s best novellas, (“Dick Contino’s Blues”) first discovered the legendary musician on television as a child, oddly parallel to how I would be introduced to Ellroy many years later. As an even stranger linkage to these events, I just happened to be sitting next to Ellroy when he and I both learned, on April 24, 2017, of Contino’s passing.  It seems rather appropriate that the film that evening was Jules Dassin’s 1955 French heist Rififi, which centers on a soundless (and yet oddly orchestral) heist, and later includes an obligatory catchy theme song to justify its title.    

Fats Domino, whose popular 1956 recording of “Blueberry Hill” was the inspiration for the title of Ellroy’s third Lloyd Hopkins novel, Suicide Hill, died on October 24, 2017, at 89. I asked Ellroy if he heard about Domino’s death, and he said no. Later, the Demon Dog signed my Suicide Hill hardcover “To Jason—Viva Fats Domino!”

Charles Manson, who appears briefly in Killer on the Road and whom Ellroy often references in his wild Demon Dog introductions (“These are books for the whole fucking family… if the name of your family is the Charles Manson Family!”), died from cardiac arrest on November 19, 2017 at 83.

In May 2018, a 17-year-old repeatedly bullied by both students and teachers, shot and killed 8 students and two teachers at a Sante Fe, Texas high school.  

Ellroy’s post film discussions were often my favorite component of the Demon Dog’s film screenings. Though Ellroy rarely watched the films with us, he was more than able to discuss each vividly, often telling hilarious anecdotes about the cast and crew. The conversation often zipped on and off the main theme rapidamente, as Ellroy told us of his associations with Hollywood elites and attendant hangers on, often punctuating his narrative with impromptu impressions of everyone from Harry Belafonte (“DAY-O!”) to Fred Otash (“rawrawraw-FAGSNIGGERSJEWS-rawrawraw!”).

I would often ask Ellroy about fellow writers, extracting even more stories about the Demon Dog’s encounters with book biz heavyweights Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, Michael Crichton and Patricia Cornwell, among others.

At times, Ellroy was surrounded by more than 30 patrons, at other times the turnout for his series was so dismal, he angrily refused to meet with us afterwards. I hold the Alamo Drafthouse responsible for this. The Alamo unfortunately never did much to promote Ellroy’s series beyond a brief whisper on Facebook or a microscopic two line announcement in the Denver lefty rag Westword a far cry from how the theater dropped its pants whenever anything from Star Wars or Marvel Comics came to town.

Ellroy can come off as brash and rudely unpredictable to many people unaccustomed to his Demon Dog persona. Thus, on several occasions, he found himself amid a roomful of attendees scared shitless to ask him a question.  “Someone ask me a question!” he would taunt them, glancing menacingly around like a cornered beast.  Often, I would break the silence.

On one occasion, following Gordon Douglas’ THEM!, I was literally the only patron who stayed for Ellroy’s discussion.  I asked him that night if there were any silent films he liked.  “No,” he replied sharply.  “I hate reading subtitles…”  An intriguing statement given the numerous foreign films the Demon Dog introduced.  On that same evening, there were several teenagers in the bar’s opposite corner huddled together and totally preoccupied with their (stupid) smartphones. I remarked to Ellroy how astonishing it was that not one of them cared that a living literary legend was in the room.

Ellroy does not like to read or see published work about himself, and has nothing but contempt for anything Internet related. When you’re with him, you get the sense that the Demon Dog’s carefully constructed world of cultural creation is his most precious personal asset, evident by his ferociously overarching reaction to those who dare interrupt him. (“Brother! Brother! Brother! Lemme finish!”).

In what turned out to be the series’ final film, Don Siegel’s 1973 neo-noir Charley Varrick follows a small time crook who robs a bank in Tres Cruces, New Mexico, and later realizes the nondescript branch bank is really a drop site for mob money. With a Mafia hitman on his trail, the crafty Varrick frames the bank’s mobbed-up president and fakes his own death, eventually escaping with the money.  The film’s narrative and southwestern locale clearly served as an inspiration for Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, which proceeds in nearly the same manner (though McCarthy’s version concludes with a far more haunting ambiguity).

Whether by chance or design, Ellroy—ever the mystic—ended his venerable series concurrent with the arrival of a summer blood moon… an event mystically associated with commencements and culminations.

Ellroy has since told me he’ll likely hold a 2019 release event for This Storm at Denver’s Tattered Cover Book Store.

 

Jason Carter

             

 

An Interview with Mike Ripley on the Enduring Appeal of the Albert Campion Novels

November 23, 2018

Mike Ripley

Mike Ripley has had a diverse and successful career as a writer. He made his name writing the Angel comedy crime novels. Fans of Shotsmag will know him for his ‘Getting Away With Murder’ column, which mixes genre news, literary gossip and publishing history to great effect. Ripley again put his encyclopaedic knowledge of genre matters to good use in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, a riveting study of post-war British thrillers.

Recently, he’s been writing the Albert Campion continuation novels. Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion is one of the most famous and enduring characters from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and Ripley has done a fine job of honouring Allingham’s legacy while taking the character in a new direction. Of the five Campion novels Ripley has written, the most recent, Mr Campion’s War, is the darkest in tone and also, in my humble opinion, his best.

I’ve kept up a correspondence with Mike about all things crime fiction for several years now. We’ve met just once, at St Barts Pathology Museum when I was giving a lecture about the Black Dahlia surrounded by skulls and grisly diagrams. Mike has always been witty, knowledgeable and extremely generous, so I was delighted when he agreed to be interviewed by me about his lifelong fascination with and work on the Albert Campion series. The following exchange took place by email:

Interviewer: Tell us about your first memory of Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion novels. How did you discover the character and were you an instant fan?

Ripley: I was given a copy of Allingham’s Sweet Danger by a family friend, a Cambridge philosophy don who clearly thought that a yobbish 14-year-old from Yorkshire needed to improve his reading material and I was hooked from that moment on.  I read all Margery Allingham’s ‘Campion’ books between 1966 and 1968 and was quite distraught to think there would not be any more. (Margery died in 1966 but her husband Youngman Carter did two ‘continuations’ published in 1969 and 1970.)

In 1975 I got a job at Essex University and had to move down from Yorkshire, so I got out a map and started researching the area for a place to live. I was much taken by Mersea Island, just off the coast near Colchester and thought it looked familiar. Consulting my green Penguin edition of Margery’s thriller Mystery Mile, it was clear from the map provided that Mersea was the inspiration for the island which is the setting of the book, albeit transposed from Essex to Suffolk.

I never found a house (I could afford) on Mersea but I did move to Essex and have lived for the last forty years within ten miles of the Allingham family home, and Essex University now houses the Margery Allingham archive of personal papers.

In 2011 I was the guest speaker at the Allingham Society’s annual convention and it was there I heard of the third ‘Campion’ novel begun by Youngman Carter shortly before his death in 1969. Only three and a half chapters existed, there was no synopsis or plot outline and the Society, who had been left the untitled manuscript by Joyce Allingham, Margery’s sister and executor, had code-named it ‘Mr Campion’s Swansong’. At least one award-winning crime writer had been approached as a possible continuation/completion author, but had declined. I foolishly volunteered to have a go and the result was Mr Campion’s Farewell published in 2014.

The ‘farewell’ of the title was designed to be Campion’s farewell to a life of adventuring and amateur sleuthing as he was now getting on, although still as sharp as ever mentally. There was no way I could kill him off – he was not my character – as Colin Dexter had killed off Inspector Morse. (Colin used to shout “I did not kill him! He died of natural causes!” whenever anyone said that.) But his retirement did not last long, and four more novels have followed, the latest being Mr Campion’s War.

Albert Campion was a ‘gentleman sleuth’ of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of English crime writing. Like Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, Campion was a Toff – possibly even more aristocratic – but where Wimsey had his former army batman as a butler, Campion had the magnificently-named Magersfontein Lugg, a former (but hardly reformed) cat burglar, as his manservant, sidekick and comedy stooge.  And where Lord Peter was the gifted amateur, dilettante detective, Campion was a semi-professional adventurer and private investigator with no qualms about being rewarded for his services.

Although his world was a world and a half away from anything I knew, I instantly took to Campion and began to appreciate what Allingham had done with the character. Unlike Hercule Poirot, who was retired (and therefore at least 65) when he made his first appearance in 1920, and therefore somewhere around 120 by the time of his last case, Albert Campion was not ageless, he actually got older and more mature as the years went by.

Margery Allingham

For all that she led a fairly sheltered life (unlike her husband) mostly deep in the Essex countryside (she only travelled to America once, despite huge sales of her books there), Margery Allingham’s novels did try and touch on topical themes and catch the atmosphere of each of the five decades in which she was published.

In her early thrillers (she sometimes called them her ‘pirate stories’) she depicted the jazz age era of gay young things enjoying country house parties and the world of fashion and the West End theatre, whilst reflecting the prevailing Victorian or Edwardian attitudes of the ruling classes, including snobbery and racism, and inserting touches of modernity such as American gangsters and organised crime and – uniquely – a woman attempting to make a career in aircraft design engineering. In Traitor’s Purse, published in February 1941 but probably written in late 1939, she accurately predicted a Nazi plan to subvert the British economy and an active Fifth Column and then, as with other fictional detectives, Albert Campion went off to war.

When he returned to post-war London it was to a damaged and depressed city and Campion, older, wiser and now a father, was himself a far more serious person. By the early 1960s, he was feeling his age and admitting that he was getting too old for ‘all this pulling guns and running around’ but he still remained as sharp as a whip.

Interviewer: In your opinion which novel is the greatest Campion story written by Allingham?

Ripley: Undoubtedly The Tiger in the Smoke (1952), a classic fight between good and evil in fog-bound London, is her greatest novel, although I am a great fan of her light-hearted thrillers from the early Thirties, especially Look To The Lady.

Interviewer: You’ve written five continuation novels in the Campion series now. How do you feel you’ve developed the character in a manner distinct from Allingham’s original vision?

Ripley: I’m not sure I have developed the character of Campion, but I certainly hope I have kept faith with him. Allingham made no secret of the fact that her character was ‘the same age as the century’ (and that as the series of books went on, she sometimes regretted this) but she kept faith with him and he became much more of a wise old owl rather than an action hero. By the time her widower Youngman Carter took up the continuation challenge, Campion was, in theory, well into his sixties and it was Youngman Carter who gave the Campions’ son Rupert a supportive role, which I have continued and expanded.

I have tried to develop the relationship between Campion and his wife Lady Amanda (14 years his junior and a successful aircraft designer) and the ensemble cast which Allingham established, notably Lugg for comic relief and Charles Luke, his main contact in the police. I have added very few recurring characters to the regular cast of favourites; notably Perdita, a wife for son Rupert (who was actually invented by Youngman Carter) and Precious Aird, a tough young American girl, of whom I think Margery would have approved. (She was fond of Americans.)

One thing I am very conscious of is that Allingham – as Agatha Christie famously observed – tried to make each novel different from her last one, either in tone, structure, subject matter or setting. That is quite difficult, especially when one has an established cast of beloved characters whom the readers always demand to be in the story. I have tried to follow Allingham’s modus operandi as best I can, ringing the changes by setting one novel in a Yorkshire mining village, way out of Campion’s normal hunting ground (London and East Anglia), a double flashback plot to the Abdication crisis in 1936 and an unsolved murder in London’s ‘Little Italy’ in 1955, and most recently, the revelation of what Campion did in the war – a subject Allingham only hinted at.

Interviewer: You’re also known for your history of post-war British thrillers Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Although they may seem worlds apart, do you see any similarities between the Golden Age Campion narratives and post-war spy thrillers?

Ripley: Margery Allingham rarely wrote straightforward ‘whodunits?’ and many of her novels could comfortably be classed as ‘thrillers’. Her one attempt at a 1960’s spy story, The Mind Readers, was, frankly, bonkers; and as a thriller writer, she was very much of the pre-war, pre-Bond era of John Buchan, Leslie Charteris, Selwyn Jepson and Edgar Wallace.

Unlike her contemporary Dorothy L. Sayers, who had a fairly low opinion of thrillers and advocated the pure ‘fair play’ detective story, Margery Allingham was interested in all the sub-genres of what today we would call crime fiction. She wrote with considerable insight into how the genre was constantly developing in the early 1930s, the late 1950s and, in the 1960s, even did a joint interview (by post) with the young and up-and-coming spy writer John le Carré, all of which I quote in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Margery even had good things to say about James Bond, a name which, I suspect, had never crossed Dorothy Sayers’ lips.

Interviewer: You’ve covered an expansive time-period in the novels so far, from the 1930s to the 1970s. Do you find this aspect of historical fiction challenging, and which decade has been your favourite to portray in fiction?

Ripley: I have used flashback techniques to the 1930s, 40s and 50s to flesh out the plot-lines in two of my Campions, but as I have tried to stick to the Campion chronology, the basic timeframe for my novels is 1969-70. The challenge for me is to put a Golden Age detective into the Swinging Sixties, which has been great fun. Allingham had a fairly relaxed, liberal attitude to young people (unlike her husband) and I think would have admired the sheer energy of the 1960s, especially in things such as fashion and popular music. I have been lobbied by die-hard Allingham fans to write a novel set in the 1930s, which is seen by many as Allingham’s heyday, but that’s a daunting prospect as my Campion would then be directly compared to the genuine article!

As to my favourite decade, I’d have to say 60-70 AD Roman Britain! Nothing to do with Albert Campion, but the setting for my first attempt at a historical novel, Boudica and the Lost Roman, which contains some really good jokes (in Latin).

Interviewer: Finally, are there any more Campion novels in the pipeline?

Ripley: There will be another in 2019, Mr Campion’s Visit, which harks back to his first appearance in 1929 in The Crime at Black Dudley. Forty years have passed since that country house murder mystery and the Black Dudley, a gloomy estate on the Suffolk Coast, is now the home of the new University of Suffolk Coastal and Campion is appointed ‘Visitor’ to mediate between students and staff. Naturally, there’s a murder to mark the start of a new term.

Where Mr Campion’s War had a thread of darkness, I have described this one as ‘a comedy of higher education and lower morals’ and it has given me great scope to poke fun at preening academics, militant students, architects and bumbling policemen surrounded by a cast of eccentric local characters of which I hope Margery would have approved.

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.

the-other-side-of-the-wind

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.

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

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