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THIEF – Michael Mann’s Classic Back on the Big Screen

March 11, 2018

Yesterday, I introduced a special screening of Thief at Picturehouse at Fact cinema Liverpool. Set in Chicago in the early 1980s, Thief is one of the greatest crime films of modern times, and we were able to bring it back to the big screen in Liverpool via Ourscreen, which is also how I arranged a screening of Sorcerer last December (and my friend Dan Slattery organised a Christmas screening of Die Hard).

For such an esteemed noir tale, the plot of Thief is relatively straightforward. James Caan plays professional jewel thief Frank. When the fence from one of his heists dies in suspicious circumstances, Frank finds himself in the crosshairs of the Mafia. Mob Boss Leo offers to make him ‘a millionaire in four months’ if he will do heists for him. Frank’s plan is to do one or two really big scores and then go straight, but will his violent new employer let him? The narrative takes second place to the character study of Frank and the people around him: his beautiful girlfriend Jessie (Tuesday Weld), his likeable and trusted accomplice Barry (James Belushi), and his jailhouse mentor Okla (Willie Nelson). Frank is the archetypal sympathetic criminal that often populates Michael Mann films (think Larry Murphy in The Jericho Mile or Neil McCauley in Heat). He wants to raise a child and lead a normal life with Jessie, and he wants to arrange parole for Okla before a heart condition dooms him to die in prison. But to do all that he has to take down scores, and the people he loves the most will suffer for his sins.

Thief is based on Frank Hohimer’s memoir The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar. Hohimer was the pseudonym of professional thief John Seybold who wrote the book in his jail cell after turning informant and vowing never to go back to a life of crime. Seybold narrates his criminal career in a hypnotic street-wise prose, and is not an entirely unsympathetic criminal, but is a much meaner and rougher character than Frank his movie counterpart. Seybold specialised in home invasions, but Frank tells Leo in Thief that he will only rob from department stores and businesses. Also, Seybold was a suspect in the unsolved murder of Valerie Percy. Miss Percy was found beaten and stabbed to death in her bed on September 18, 1966. Seybold came under suspicion, alongside numerous burglars, as the Percy family lived in a plush Kenilworth mansion (Valerie’s father Charles was elected to the United States Senate) and it was assumed to be a case of a burglary gone wrong. Seybold denied any involvement, but admits in his book that he lied to the police about the case. He refrains from discussing the murder until the brief final chapter of the book, but, strangely, the photographs printed in the centre of the memoir certainly dwell on the case. Seybold spends much of the text ranting about the corruption of Chicago’s Criminal Intelligence Unit and how they were determined to frame him, but I can’t help feeling that he may have been fitted up for the Valerie Percy murder by his own book editor. This may have been for commercial reasons. The book sold well on its initial release (possibly due to interest in the Percy murder), but is almost entirely forgotten today and its fiendishly difficult to get a hold of a copy. I had to borrow my copy from the British Library who, I suspect, have the only copy available in the UK. In recent years Mann has tried to distance Thief from the book on which it was based, although in some respects the film is a fairly literal adaptation. Okla’s prison letter to Frank, for instance, is almost word-for-word identical in book and film. In an essay for the Blu-Ray edition of the film, Brad Stevens claims the film is based on the criminal exploits of John Santucci (stage name of John Schiavone), who acted as a technical consultant on the film and played the corrupt detective Urizzi. In another one of life’s little ironies former Chicago cop Dennis Farina makes his acting debut in the film as one of Leo’s hitmen. Farina had once arrested Santucci on burglary charges. Seybold himself is said to have been a technical consultant on the film, despite there being an outstanding FBI arrest warrant out on him at the time. Seybold would wind back in prison. Another problematic ‘technical consultant’ on the film was former CIU Chief William Hanhardt. He would later be convicted of running a jewellery theft ring and sentenced to prison.

Yours truly introducing Thief at Picturehouse at Fact in Liverpool

Thief is one of the best films for portraying the thin line between cops and criminals, and it is significant that it was one of the first films produced in Chicago after Mayor Richard Daley left office. Daley had made it difficult for studios to get filming permits for Chicago (there was a de facto 20 year hiatus) during his tenure as Mayor of the Windy City. Daley was apparently angered at the portrayal of Chicago as a haven for crime and corruption, and while Chicago native Michael Mann doesn’t shy away from the grit and grime of the city, it is clear he still loves its colourful and characterful bars and nighthawk diners. Fans of Heat and its famous diner scene with Pacino and De Niro will recognise a precursor to that scene in Thief. In many ways Thief is a stronger film than Heat. Upon revisiting Heat I found there to be far too much windswept hair, sunglasses and Armani suits. Thief is a far more realistic portrayal of criminals and the day-to-day drudgery of the criminal life, and yet Tangerine Dream’s pulsating score and Mann’s now trademark neon cinematography imbue the film with a haunting beauty.

It’s still a classic 37 years after its original release, and it was a privilege to bring it back to the big screen.

Postscript: As The Home Invaders is such a rare book today I felt it would be worthwhile sharing one of the anecdotes from its pages with you. Hohimer/Seybold describes burglarising an Indianapolis home and waking a ‘really beautiful blonde’ woman. He finds her unexpectedly chatty considering she has just surprised a burglar.

She said, “Could I talk with you a few minutes first?”

I said, “Sure why not it’s your home.”

Now I was mentally alert for any type of trick. She pointblank asked me how much I would charge to kill her husband (like I am an authority on murder and it has a set price). I said, “What would it be worth to you?”

She said, “Well I have never done this before so I don’t know, would ten thousand be correct?”

I said, “What about more like thirty thousand?”

“All right”

“Fine, we are in business. Do you have the money here in the house?”

“No.”

“Well how about a down-payment.”

“I have no money here, I can go to the bank tomorrow and get it.”

If she had the money in the house I would have taken it anyway and done nothing. I said, “Honey that would really be a smart move for me. I come to meet you and the police are waiting.”

“Oh no I wouldn’t do that.”

I was glancing at a phone book. I opened the first page and saw the FBI number and closed it. I said, “Honey I’ll tell you how we are going to work this so we can both be safe. Do you have a pencil handy?” She started to open a drawer, I said, “Don’t open that drawer, I’ll get it for you.” I was not about to take my eyes off that bitch for one second or let her stick her hand in no drawer. She was one cold blooded mother-fucker. We had just gotten through discussing the terms for murder and it meant no more to her than you discussing the latest book you read.

I gave her the pencil and the phone number. I said, “Now you call this number three days from now. When I answer the phone I’ll say FBI and that way you can be sure you’re talking to me, and you tell me what you want and I’ll be sure it’s you.” She wrote it down. I said, “Now I have to tie you up to make this robbery look good.” She said she understood, the maid would untie her in the morning.

When we got back to our car, I told Barry what the broad said, he wouldn’t believe me. To this day he thinks I am bullshitting. I been in a lot of homes and I never had that request before or after. I wonder if she made that phone call.

Each chapter of The Home Invaders begins with an illustration of an item from Hohimer’s burglary kit

 

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In Dog Years: Ellroy at 70

March 4, 2018

Today is James Ellroy’s 70th birthday, and to mark the special occasion, we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter…

A popular myth says that dogs age 7 years for every one year a human advances.  Today, March 4, 2018 James Ellroy, the Demon Dog of American Literature, and our closest approximation to a human-dog hybrid, turns 70.  With people living well past that today (70 is the new 20!) it’s no longer a number as daunting as it once seemed… until you actually get there yourself.

According to the dog to human ratio, Ellroy the dog at 70 is the canine equivalent of Ellroy the human at 10…   As the Demon Dog himself often says, “Grok the groin-grabbing gravity” here!

Ellroy’s 70th trip around the sun is a seminal occasion in this old dog’s momentous life.  At 10 years old, the central event of Ellroy’s existence arrived—the horrid and brutal murder of his mother. Ellroy has spent every waking moment since then reminding us all that he is still, and forever, that 10-year-old boy, beset with an ambiguous bereavement.

Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet begins and ends the exact same way… an old man looks back to a chaotic and beautiful time.  As Ellroy completes his Second L.A. Quartet—an expansive immersion into the era immediately preceding the action of the original Quartet—the Demon Dog joins Bucky Bleichert and Dave ‘The Enforcer’ Klein in doing the exact same thing—looking back, and like so many of Ellroy’s bad men, coming to terms with his mortality.

When I suggested to Ellroy once that he introduce and screen one of the numerous documentaries about him at the Alamo Drafthouse as part of his now-iconic monthly Denver film series, the Demon Dog declined, replying in a manner even I wasn’t prepared for:  “My ego’s not as big as it used to be…”  For a man who has spent a lifetime making a brashly outsized ego an indelible component of his public shtick—indeed the flagship product of the Ellroy brand—this is a stunning admission.

Yet, Ellroy’s introspection—and its implicit capitulation—is at odds with the Demon Dog’s determined personal challenge to make every successive novel more complex and engrossing than anything that preceded it, an action which clearly invokes Dylan Thomas.  And while Ellroy is famous for concluding his book readings with Thomas’ 1946 poem “In My Craft or Sullen Art,”  it is another Thomas work—perhaps the Welsh poet’s most notorious—written just a year before Ellroy was born, that the Demon Dog is emulating most fervently:  This devoted dog is rage, rage, raging against the dying of the light.

In a 2009 interview conducted by his then-girlfriend Erica Schiekel, Ellroy said “I don’t wanna be one of these older guys that write skinnier, and skinnier, and skinnier, and more and more solipsistic books… I wanna write big motherfuckers full of density, history, and I want to change.”

Perfidia, Ellroy’s first novel following that interview, certainly upheld that commitment, as the book—701 pages in hardcover—was the Demon Dog’s longest ever… Ironically while also being a comprehensive micro history—its story unfolding over just 23 sin-sational days in 1941.

In a January, 2015 appearance on PBS’ Overheard with Evan Smith, Ellroy sounded like a more cantankerous incarnation of Cormac McCarthy’s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell as the Demon Dog used Perfidia to denigrate the disingenuous distinctions of a classless era.  “[Perfidia] is a broadside against minimalism, irony, and all things picayune in the [contemporary] culture… Everywhere you go [today], there’s a gigantic ad with blood sucking vampires, dystopian end-of-the-world hoo haw, poor people transported to the planet Jupiter, so rich people can inhabit planets closer; a quasi-Marxist vision made by movie studios looking to reap half-billion dollar profits… this is a good culture to deny.  This is a good culture to time travel back to another era.”

A disdain for popular culture has remained an Ellrovian hallmark since the Demon Dog’s first novel Brown’s Requiem, a work in which the narrator and title character, Fritz Brown (Ellroy himself in all but name), rails against American “optimism, boosterism, and yahooism that [opts] for sentiment over truth every time”. Interestingly enough, in an introductory essay for a 1994 hardcover reprint of Requiem, the Demon Dog seems to chide the youthful naiveté of this quote when Ellroy says “It takes a while to learn to imply rather than preach.”

While Ellroy spurns popular culture, which ostensibly includes the goofy excesses of astrology, he is quick to tell you that 1948, the year of his birth, was the Year of the Rat in Chinese Astrology.

Criticisms of popular culture aside, it is worth noting that 2018 and 1958 are both Year of the Dog.

A typical Ellroy introduction at either a book reading or film screening will often include the Demon Dog’s recitation of “Little Gidding.”  It’s a 1942 poem that stands as the last of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, and explores the connections of the personal, historical, past, present, spiritual renewal, and the burden of experience, ultimately espousing Eliot’s belief that humanity’s gross mismanagement of life leads to severe imbalance and war.  However, this turmoil can be overcome, Eliot assures us, by recognizing the lessons of the past—a softer way of saying “accept responsibility for your actions or inertia”—this is a prime educational tenet of Ellroy’s cannon also.  The past, present and future are unified, “Little Gidding” tells us (or, as Ellroy often phrases it, “then is now.”), and understanding said unity is inescapably essential for salvation and growth.

Ellroy has said for decades that he believes his murdered mother mounted a valiant—though ultimately unsuccessful—fight for her life in her last moments, violently scratching and clawing at her attacker.  It seems Jean Hilliker Ellroy’s only child is doing the same as he defiantly stares down the sunset.  Rage, rage, rage.

Look at this bittersweet, elegiac moment as a neon-lit, kaleidoscopic fever dream panoply with a white noise soundtrack of TV fuzz:

Ellroy at 70. 

Ellroy at 10.

2018.

 THEN is NOW.

 Closure is bullshit. 

Ramification without end.

 The Contained Apocalypse.

 These mental machinations can drive a person insane.

The “Contained Apocalypse” is an Ellrovian construct that utilizes past violence, particularly that of the 1940s and 1950s, to allegorically explicate contemporary violence… a notion that also echoes the Demon Dog’s lifetime quest to obliterate the fatuous myth of “closure”.  Ellroy discussed the concept at length shortly after the 1992 publication of White Jazz: 

“[My books] reflect the 1990s.  I’m just juxtaposing 90s violence in a more contained fashion, back to the 40s and 50s… And I think people want to know why…  And I think I give them some answers… I think that The Big Nowhere was set in 1950—but 1950 is now… I think that the same things that were going on then, are going on today—only now everything has a name… Back then, everything was hidden… It was the more contained apocalypse…”

Twenty six years later, these words—originally spoken amid the chaos of the 1992 L.A. Riots—have lost no relevance.  Ellroy is an elder statesman and a battle-weary warrior whose words injure as much as they instruct.  The lesson this ninth grade dropout teaches is lingering, painful, and sparing of no one; something the Demon Dog alludes to when he says “If you find my books difficult to read, imagine how difficult they are to write.”

The years of struggle have certainly left their mark:  Ellroy’s squamosal, coronal and lambdoidea skull sutures are clearly showing, and I can only imagine the ferociously obsessive and endless mental firestorms that pushed them to the surface, the same way that subterranean magma gradually sculpts the land above.

Still, the inevitabilities of age aren’t all doom and gloom… Ellroy has made his complete lack of hair a humorous refrain; something he often references when he encounters another bald patron (“Hey brother—LOVE your haircut!”), or—more frequently—when he sees an enviously full head of hair (“Can I get a hair transplant?!”).  As my hair has always grown thick, full, and fast, I am often the subject of Ellroy’s tragically optimistic request.  (In fact, Ellroy often introduces me at the Alamo Drafthouse as “This is Jason Carter… wouldn’t all of you like to have hair like Jason?”  I often respond with “Anytime you want that hair transplant, Dog…”)

Ellroy loves pitbulls.  When he signs books, he’ll frequently draw a likeness of one of his two pitbulls, Dudley, or the dearly departed Barko, on the page. They’re clearly his favorite dog breed, although Ellroy professes a passion for all animal life (something that compelled the Demon Dog to adopt a vegetarian diet for a time several years ago).  When speaking about pitbulls, Ellroy frequently cites the dog’s legendary intelligence and loyalty as some of his favorite canine traits.

As a dog lover myself, I’ve always seen Ellroy as a German Shepherd, recognizing in the Demon Dog the shepherd’s strength, work ethic, athleticism, fierce intelligence and unsurpassed loyalty…  It’s no wonder those dogs are the preferred breed for the military and police agencies.

Ellroy’s energy is ecstatic and infectious.  I’ve spent enough time with Ellroy the past two years to say with absolute certainty that the Demon Dog at 70 years old, has more energy—mental and physical—than many people one third his age.  He’ll attribute his boundless stamina to his constant coffee consumption (“Can’t make the scene without caffeine!”), but I believe Ellroy’s spark originates from a deeply intrinsic need to outrun the squalid and feckless years of his youth (Ellroy’s 1996 memoir My Dark Places provides a raw and rapaciously readable account of this downward spiral).

With three more volumes to go in the Second L.A. Quartet, and Ellroy’s ruminations about a possible post-war trilogy after that, the Demon Dog’s final sprint is looking more and more like an ultra-marathon with no finish line, or at least an unwanted one…

Fuck closure.

Happy Birthday, Dog.

 

Jason Carter

McMafia – Gangsters in the Age of Globalisation

February 12, 2018

The final episode of McMafia was broadcast last night, and while it may not have been the monster hit the BBC were hoping for, I would still rate it as one of the best dramas produced for television in recent years.

The story followed the fortunes of City of London banker Alex Godman (James Norton). The scion of a wealthy Russian family exiled in London, Godman at first comes across as your typical stiff upper lip English gentleman who wants nothing to with his father’s alleged involvement with organised crime. But when Godman’s uncle Boris makes the mistake of trying and failing to assassinate rival Mob Boss Vadim Kalyagin, Godman soon finds himself dragged into his family’s dangerous world by association. After Boris pays the ultimate price for crossing Vadim, Godman (whose legitimate business is failing) is courted by the shady Israeli politician/gangster Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn) who wants to continue the covert war against Vadim but can only do it with Godman’s help. There are strong parallels here with The Godfather, in which the good son (Godman/Michael Corleone) rejects the family business only to be sucked in regardless and, to his surprise, quietly enjoys the role of gangster. The deterioration in Godman’s relationship with his fiancee and the lost opportunity of fatherhood is also reminiscent of Michael and Kay in The Godfather. Even the reference to Veniamin (an ill-fated Russian crook whose grisly demise is used as a verbal warning) allusively reminded me of ‘Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.’ Does Godman’s name echo The Godfather as well? As the series progresses, it becomes clear he is certainly not the good man he thought he was, and he seems to have a God-like imperviousness to human emotions.

The influence of fictional gangsters from popular culture on the drama is unusual as McMafia is based on non-fiction. Misha Glenny delivered an outstanding piece of investigative journalism in his book McMafia. He recounts in astonishing detail how the fall of communism led to ex-members of the Security Services in Eastern Bloc countries to launch their own mafias once they found themselves out of work. Spin the globe and Glenny examines how the Yakuza played an unusual role in rebuilding Japan (for a healthy slice of the profits) after the Second World War. In another chapter he focuses on how some of the most notorious internet email scams began in Nigeria. But how does this relate to the TV series? Show creators Hossein Amini and James Watkins have taken Glenny’s work as a font of inspiration for the series but did not have a strict linear narrative from the book to follow. I found this quite liberating as I could read the book without it having any spoilers for the TV series. Other non-fiction works such as Fast Food Nation and The Men Who Stare at Goats have been adapted this way. Certain parts of the text did feel like they were directly inspired by the book. For instance, Lyudmilla the Russian beautician who arrives in Cairo expecting to find legitimate work only to be kidnapped and trafficked into the sex industry in Tel Aviv is very closely modelled on a harrowing story from the book of Ludmilla, a Moldovan woman who was forced into the sex trade during what should have been an exciting adventure abroad. As a powerful drama with an epic scale, McMafia astounded me. Watch a gangster film like Goodfellas and you’re often seeing thugs with baseball bats beating people up over unpaid loans or petty insults. McMafia, by contrast, portrays a world in which drugs manufactured in India are sold in Africa, the profits are laundered in the Cayman Islands and wind up in London or Moscow bank accounts. Organised crime has become a global business.

McMafia has substantial flaws which led many viewers to switch off and stopped it from generating the ‘water cooler talk’ buzz that accompanied other BBC hits such as The Night Manager. It pains me to say this but James Norton is just too wooden as Godman. I understand he may have wanted to avoid comparisons with Bryan Cranston’s manic portrayal of chemistry teacher Walter White in Breaking Bad, and opted for a quieter introspective approach, but Godman felt too much like a blank slate. If anything, I felt more sympathy for Vadim the lifelong gangster who slowly finds his empire crumbling around him. Vadim knows his kind are not fated to die peacefully in their dotage, but his visible shock at the price his family pays for his misdeeds made me empathise with him. Also, the series was dogged with allegations of anti-Russian sentiment and anti-Semitism. I don’t think its controversial or wrong necessarily to portray gangsters of different nationalities. As Glenny writes in the book, almost every country on earth has produced gangsters, and the few countries that appear not to have an organised crime presence tend to have ultra-authoritarian governments such as in North Korea where the ‘state budget is decisvely dependent on the trading of narcotics to criminal syndicates in neighbouring countries’. However, in the show, Semiyon is not only a gangster he is a member of the Knesset, being assisted in a human-trafficking scheme by a Mossad agent. This was certainly one of the more over the top plotlines, and the forthcoming adaptation of John le Carre’s controversial The Little Drummer Girl, given the subject matter, will likely add to allegations of anti-Semitism at the BBC.

But if you can overcome these problems, and they are significant, then McMafia is still an astonishing feat of storytelling. In many ways it is a grittier, more realistic portrayal of organised crime than The Night Manager which had descended into a colourful caper by its final episode. McMafia is already making an impact on the real world as it seems to be influencing government policy. It may have lacked popular appeal, but McMafia still has many distinctions to recommend it.

Michael Mann’s Thief at FACT Liverpool

February 4, 2018

I’ve arranged a Ourscreen showing of Thief at FACT Liverpool on Saturday, March 10th at 12 noon. Thief is one of my favourite films, and I would argue one of the greatest crime films of the 1980s. The story behind the production of the film is fascinating, but I’ll talk more about that on the day as I’m introducing the film. You can book tickets through the Ourscreen website. Please note the screening only goes ahead if we sell enough tickets. Ourscreen kindly added Thief to their catalogue (as they did with William Friedkin’s Sorcerer last December) so I could arrange the screening. I’ll post a copy of my talk about the film after the screening, but why not come along so you can see it in person? Hope to see you there.

The Play That Goes Wrong – Review

February 1, 2018

I first came across the phenomenon that is the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society when I saw the Christmas TV specials Peter Pan Goes Wrong and A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong. Those two productions were probably the funniest thing I’d seen on television for years. So, when I heard that the original The Play That Goes Wrong was touring in the UK I eagerly snapped up a ticket. The premise of each play is that the fictional Cornley Polytechnic mount productions which through a combination of incompetence, bad luck, raging theatrical egos and bizarre coincidences invariably go wrong. The fun for the audience is to watch these very amateur actors try and keep it together.

I’m glad to say that this material is as funny, if not more so, onstage as it is on the telly. While audiences members were still taking their seats, the cast engaged in some breaking of the fourth wall. One member of the ‘technical crew’ walks round asking if anyone has seen her dog, while cast and crew members fiddle with a door on the set that just won’t stay shut (this is a set-up for two gags that pay off in spades once the play begins). Then we get an introduction from Chris, director of Cornley Polytechnic and lead actor in The Murder at Haversham Manor (a spoof of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap). This play within a play has a classic Golden Age Mystery set-up. A dead body is discovered at the eponymous Haversham Manor. An Inspector arrives and everyone at the house (gardener, butler, fiancee to the victim etc.) are murder suspects. This ‘plot’ acts as the springboard for a non-stop series of gags, including slapstick, double entendres and sex farce (one rather fetching member of the cast spends almost the entire second act clad only in her negligee). The amateur thesps struggle to keep the play going as the set quite literally falls apart around them. The Play That Goes Wrong is so gleefully funny and joyfully entertaining that to attempt any critical analysis might take away from its charm, but I will say that the laughs come thick and fast and even moments that don’t seem amusing at first are often just the build-up for big punchlines later on. It features physical comedy which is up there with the best of Chaplin or Buster Keaton, and also nicely sends-up the traditions of the English country house murder mystery. All that remains to be said is go see it. You’ll laugh yourself silly.

I saw The Play That Goes Wrong at Chester’s impressive, and still relatively new Storyhouse theatre. You can find details of the nationwide tour here.

Need to Know by Karen Cleveland – Review

January 28, 2018

Need to Know is one of the most anticipated thrillers I’ve come across in years. Almost a year before publication date, it was reported that the movie rights had been sold and Charlize Theron will produce and star in the film adaptation. With such hype you might think any reading of the novel is bound to be a disappointment, but my initial reaction was one of surprise. Surprise that such a slow-burning intelligent spy novel could still be such a massive hit in an age of repetitive and action-driven vacuous franchises.

In Need to Know, Vivian Miller is a CIA counter-Intelligence analyst who seems like she has it all: a high-powered career tracking Russian sleeper cells in the US and a nice house perfect for raising her four kids with her loving, handsome husband Matt. But it’s not long before things start to unravel. A secret dossier at work reveals her husband is a Russian spy. She buries the evidence while she decides what to do. Cleveland gives us flashbacks to Vivian’s early relationship with Matt and how it developed. Suddenly, the mysteries of his character are beginning to make sense. Why did he always cancel planned visits for them to meet his parents at the last minute? Where did all of his money come from? The idea that you can never really know your partner is hardly new to the genre, and just when I thought this was going to be Gone Girl at Langley the story takes another turn. Vivian’s efforts to conceal her husband Matt’s true identity from her employers get increasingly dangerous, and the reader is left wondering if she choose between loyalty to her country or her love for her husband.

Cleveland spent eight years working as a CIA analyst, and she joins the growing ranks of retired spooks writing spy novels. Thankfully, she brings her knowledge of real-life espionage to add realism to this tale. This is a world wherein spies sit in front of computers and pore over financial statements and social media messages looking for threats to national security. And yet, even if the spy trade isn’t glamorous, Cleveland makes sure its never dull. Need to Know kept me guessing right to the end as the characters are involving and sympathetic. Vivian and Matt are not lazy caricatures of spies, they have the same problems as other couples, and the reader identifies with them as a consequence.

Just before Christmas, publishers traditionally rush out ghost-written, shallow memoirs by celebrities you’ve never heard of. So, this January, I needed to know that well-written and engaging novels are still hugely popular. Karen Cleveland did that for me.

The proof copy of Need to Know had a hidden message for budding spies

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: The Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed by Mike Ripley

January 12, 2018

Do you remember whiling away a train journey or a long winter evening with a paperback World War II yarn by Alistair Maclean? Or a well-paced thriller by Desmond Bagley? Or an expertly detailed sea adventure by Hammond Innes? If so, have you ever wondered why you don’t see novels like this anymore? Then Mike Ripley’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: The Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed is the book for you. Although genres such as crime fiction and sci-fi have remained immensely popular and garnered increasing critical acclaim, the old fashioned thriller, as pioneered by the aforementioned writers as well as by luminaries such as Wilbur Smith, and in the US Robert Ludlum, have slowly started disappearing from our shelves.

Ripley charts the phenomenal success of adventure thrillers in post-war Britain. Rather like crime or detective fiction, the thriller genre is quite broad and includes some overlap with other types of narrative, especially when you take into consideration sub-genre. For instance, Ripley includes Ian Fleming’s Bond novels as Spy Fantasies which fall under this thriller or adventure label. Fleming deserves great credit in expanding the popularity of thriller narratives. In one of the most absorbing chapters of this study, ‘Class of 62’, Ripley examines how 1962 was a relatively disappointing year for Fleming in literary terms with the publication of his experimental, off-beat novel The Spy Who Loved Me, which lead to poor reviews (and even Fleming himself grew to hate it). However, in the same year the spectacular launch of the James Bond film series with Dr No lead to breakout publications for a host of adventure thriller writers such as Francis Clifford and James Aldridge who were either inspired by Fleming or motivated by momentum for thrillers the Bond author created. Ripley also takes a close look at novelists Len Deighton and John le Carre who created a more realistic portrayal of espionage and viewed themselves as the antithesis of Fleming. Deighton and le Carre, like some modern critics, found Fleming’s right-wing politics to be problematic and the theme of this study is that while Britain lost an Empire, her thriller writers saved the world. The Suez Crisis, decolonisation, devaluation, and joining the EEC (at least temporarily), may have suggested Britain was a nation in terminal decline, but writers such as James Leasor and John Gardner cheerfully ignored these facts in splendid tales of derring-do.
This book brought back a flood of memories for me. At one point, Ripley is describing the plot of Desmond Bagley’s High Citadel and huge sections of the book started coming back to me, even though I had not read or thought about the novel in over twenty years. I turned the page and found Ripley had included an illustration of the front cover of Bagley’s novel. I remembered that vividly too, as I must have cadged a copy from my father’s bookshelves. Happy days!
Inevitably, a decline in the popularity of thrillers would come, and Ripley traces this to emerging voices in the hardboiled neo-noir genre, including James Ellroy, among others who came to prominence in the 1980s and 90s, as well as the new popularity for forensic and legal thrillers. He quotes Tim Heald requiem for the thriller in Hatchards Crime Companion:
In the end I couldn’t bear another airport lounge or AK-47 and I gave up. It was, it seemed to me, a sub-genre that had had its day. The thriller wasn’t thrilling any more
I recognise the trend. After reading and enjoying about half-a-dozen of Jack Higgins‘ Sean Dillon thrillers, I knew I just couldn’t read another one as they were getting very repetitive and, crikey, has he continued to churn them out. But to be fair, there have been plenty of series of private detective and police procedural novels that have dragged on for far too long. History has judged the thriller novel too harshly. It had the same flaws as other genres, but it gave just as much entertainment. There might be a gap in the market, I would suggest, for a revival of the adventure thriller. As for scholarly interest, I know these novels would be devoured by undergraduates and postgrads if they were put on reading lists, and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang will stand as the seminal study of the genre. Ripley himself has managed to get many of the less remembered thrillers back into print with Ostara Publishing.
The book ends with an informative two-part appendices which gives short, insightful biographies of the leading thriller writers followed by a few less well-known names. I didn’t know, for instance, about thriller writer Nichol Fleming, nephew of Ian, or about another scribe Antony Melville-Ross, a descendant of Herman Melville.
Highly Recommended.
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