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The Monorail Trilogy: When the James Bond Franchise Ruled the (Movie) World

October 11, 2020

I should have seen it coming. Our campuses are empty. The high street is a ghost town. Only the pubs are doing good business, when the pubs are allowed to stay open. So I guess it was inevitable that the latest Bond film, No Time to Die, has had its release date delayed again, this time until April 2021. Who knows what the world will look like then, and how relevant Bond 25 will seem but, rather than drown my sorrows in Vodka Martini’s, I decided to revisit some of the films.

The three Bond films directed by Lewis Gilbert, You Only Live Twice (1967), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979) were dubbed by MI6 Confidential magazine as ‘the Monorail Trilogy’. Each film features a megalomaniac villain who, in addition to his plans to take over the world, appears to be a fan of installing one-way railway systems in his evil lair. The plots of the three films are remarkably similar and the epic, bombastic tone of the trilogy captures much of the best and worst of the Bond series. If you have never seen a Bond film (and there must be a few of you out there), then these three would be a good place to start to see where so many spy cliches originated and why the series is so often imitated and lampooned.

You Only Live Twice

Gilbert was a prolific director whose output veered more towards war films and comedy dramas. In that sense, he might have seemed an odd choice to helm You Only Live Twice but he embraced the spectacle of the Bond films and did much to increase it. A NASA spacecraft is swallowed whole by a larger, unidentified craft. Bond is sent to Japan to follow a lead that the hijacked vessel may have landed there. When the same fate befalls a Russian spacecraft, the world is pushed to the brink of World War Three, with both superpowers blaming each other. Bond discovers his old adversary SPECTRE is behind the plot. SPECTRE’s follicly challenged leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld dreams of world domination once the US and Soviet Union have annihilated each other.

Bond finally came face to face with Blofeld in You Only Live Twice

YOLT’s absurd plot caused Sean Connery to finally lose patience with the series. An uncharacteristically dull performance by Connery, exacerbated by his feud with the producers and the stress of filming in Japan where Bond was wildly popular, hampered the film. Yet, there is still much to admire here. John Barry’s lush score beautifully evokes the Asian setting. Gilbert brings an art house sensibility to some of the action scenes. The rooftop chase across the Kobe Docks is beautifully shot, as the camera pans back and captures the full scope of the scene. Gilbert, and screenwriter Roald Dahl, aren’t afraid to make Bond look small on this cinematic canvas. Ken Adam created a remarkable movie set for them to shoot on, with Blofeld’s volcano lair, complete with rocket launchpad, piranha pool and, of course, a monorail.

The Spy Who Loved Me

Four Bond films had been produced before Lewis Gilbert was invited back to do another film in the series. After the excesses of YOLT Bond had shifted into more of a detective character and the films had stronger plots. But The Man With The Golden Gun had suffered at the box office due to a lack of strong action sequences, and Gilbert was keen to reintroduce the fantasy elements. In The Spy Who Loved Me, Roger Moore has settled into the character of Bond and the spectacular pre-credits sequence, in which Bond skis off a clifftop only to be saved by his Union Jack parachute, signals to the audience that we are in for something special. The plot is very similar to YOLT, only this time it is a submarine which is swallowed by a larger ship. Arch-Villain Stromberg is trying to provoke nuclear war as an excuse to build a new underwater civilisation. Silliness abounds, but Moore is totally comfortable with it, as is the beautiful Barbara Bach who plays his love interest, Russian spy Anya Amasova. Gilbert can still create sequences which are arty and beguiling. The scene where Jaws is stalking Fekkesh through the Pyramids against the backdrop of a tourist show is one of the most suspenseful and chilling moments in the entire series. Once again, Ken Adam’s production design does not disappoint. The Liparus supertanker set was one of the largest sets ever constructed at the time and is said to have inspired Norman Foster’s design of Canary Wharf Station. Naturally, Stromberg has a monorail and it seems to run more smoothly than most Tube services.

Stromberg’s Liparus Supertanker


Gilbert’s final film in the series was Moonraker. Often considered his weakest, the film is a fairly blatant attempt to cash in on the Star Wars sci-fi craze. The plot is still very Bondian and similar to Gilbert’s previous films. A space shuttle is stolen and the trail leads Bond to Hugo Drax, the billionaire head of the manufacturing company that produces the shuttle. Drax’s dastardly plan is to poison all of humanity from space, and then repopulate the earth with his Aryan employees. For years, this was my least favourite Bond film and certainly there’s a lot wrong with it. The Amazon speedboat chase is a lifeless affair, with Bond just pushing buttons on gadgets to dispose of the bad guys. The slapstick humour in the first half is especially grating. However, upon rewatching the film recently, I found the second half to be much stronger. Ironically, the film gets more serious and convincing once Bond travels to space. An operatic score by John Barry coupled with the biblical parallels of the story, Drax’s ‘Noah’s Ark’ operation, make this one of the most unique Bond films. To be fair to the producers, the series had dabbled in science fiction before, and Bond was only moments away from being shot into space in YOLT, so it feels right that with Gilbert’s farewell to the series he finally managed to complete Bond’s journey. Moonraker also has one my favourite scenes of any movie. Bond being lured by a beautiful woman to an Edenic Amazonian pyramid, only to find a serpent is waiting for him. Gilbert excelled at imagery such as this.

Once Gilbert walked away from the series, he returned to the comedy dramas for which he was known best. The Bond films got serious again with For Your Eyes Only, and would go through several more changes in tone in the ensuing decades. The Monorail trilogy achieved several stylistic tropes for better or worse. They discarded much of Ian Fleming’s writing and forged original Bond stories. They pushed the Cold War setting into the background to tell fantastical stories of villains bent on global domination. And they made sure the action and settings were spectacular and breathtaking enough to help the audience forgive their flaws. In this, they were successful. Goldfinger and Casino Royale, for example, might be better Bond films, but the Monorail Trilogy stands out as what the audience expects from a Bond film.

Just don’t expect the next Bond film to be released any time soon…

Eureka – Flashback to a Forgotten Film

September 27, 2020

If you’re a film buff and you’ve watched your way through lists of the greatest films ever made, occasionally stopping to think how on earth did certain films get on the list (American Beauty?), then you may also be interested in films which can be deemed ‘interesting failures’.

One film that could fall under such a classification would be Eureka. It has many of the key ingredients of an ‘interesting failure’ – a director (Nicolas Roeg) who had gained the attention of Hollywood after a string of critical successes, a dynamite cast of newcomers and established stars, a big budget and epic story involving exotic locations, rich period detail and a real-life unsolved mystery. Oh, and there’s some twisted romance and kinky sex thrown in. Eureka could have been a smash hit but it was critically panned and widely considered a misfire in the career of everyone involved. Having watched the film a few times, there’s no doubt in my mind that the film fails as a mystery drama, and yet I’m drawn back to its compelling power.

The story begins in the Klondike in 1925. Jack McCann (Gene Hackman) has been searching for gold without success for fifteen years. Driven to the point of insanity by solitude and arctic conditions, he eventually finds a mountain of gold. Flush with success, he asks his dying lover Frieda, a whorehouse sibyl, what will happen next. She responds ‘A mystery. The end of the beginning. There’ll be another after you. After the war’. The action cuts to 1945. It’s the final days of World War Two and a now ageing McCann is living in regal splendour in a sprawling mansion named Eureka on a Caribbean Island. All is not well though. His daughter Tracy (Theresa Russell) has married a French playboy, Claude Maillot Van Horn (Rutger Hauer). McCann detests his son-in-law who accuses him of stealing his wealth because he ‘took it from nature. You raped the earth.’ But McCann has a much more dangerous enemy to worry about. A Miami based financier/gangster Mayakofsky (played by Joe Pesci and the character is loosely based on Meyer Lansky) wants McCann to sell his land so he can build a luxury casino and hotel. Mayakofsky sends his smooth-talking lawyer Aurelio (Mickey Rourke) and a bunch of heavies to ‘convince’ McCann. McCann refuses to sell-up.

Eureka has a solid noir premise. But Roeg’s approach to the narrative is surrealistic and every scene is crammed with bizarre imagery. More than an hour into the movie, a murder occurs and things evolve into a more conventional courtroom drama as Van Horn is tried for murder. When Roeg ditches the arty portentousness the film becomes truly compelling. As with many great noirs, Eureka has a warped love triangle. McCann’s hatred for his son-in-law may stem from incestuous feelings for Tracy. Tracy and Van Horn’s sexual chemistry is sizzling. This couple are great in the sack. Quite literally in one scene. There was one sex scene I detested though. A drug-infused orgy in which two priggish Englishwomen are sexually humiliated. On the way home the traumatised women are coached into what to say to protect the men. Watch this today and ask yourself, how is this different from sexual assault?

Jack McCann is based on Sir Harry Oakes, an American businessman who moved to the Bahamas and ingrained himself with the British colonial society. Oakes’s murder was as shocking and brutal as the Black Dahlia killing and, as it is still unsolved to this day, has inspired many books and films about the case. Hackman is great as McCann. He’s much too grizzled to play the character as someone who aspires to be a British toff. His Jack McCann doesn’t want to be anyone but himself, but he does have an air of snobbery. He refers to himself in the third person more often than Bob Dole. The ensemble cast give superb performances. Jane Lapotaire is haunting as Harry’s lush wife, and Joe Spinell is oddly memorable as a smiling but silent hoodlum. Some of the visual sequences are stunning. McCann’s discovery of the gold is one of the best designed, shot and edited scenes you could find in any movie.

Mark Cousins has described Eureka as a masterpiece but its flaws are numerous. The film is overwrought, pretentious, even a tad silly. It earned a paltry $100,000 dollars at the box office following a rotten distribution and publicity campaign. That said, the original trailer is excellent and captures the essence of the film. Perhaps Eureka was just too weird to be a commercial hit no matter how it was marketed. But it remains a dazzling and beguiling film when viewed today that will linger in your mind long after.

And it’s sure aged better than American Beauty!

Eureka Movie Poster (1983)

Chip Kidd and James Ellroy: Art and Literature

September 14, 2020

The cover art of James Ellroy’s novels and anthologies has become synonymous with the work of one artist – Chip Kidd. The associate art director at Knopf has designed the covers of practically all of Ellroy’s books since the Demon Dog became a Knopf author in the early 1990s. As a graphic designer, Kidd beautifully captures the often delirious tone and disturbing themes of Ellroy’s writing.

I’m going to take a look at one of Kidd’s most striking covers for Ellroy.

First Edition Book Cover of White Jazz by Chip Kidd

White Jazz was the first Ellroy novel for which Kidd designed the cover. Much has been written about how Ellroy creates an alternative history of the US, and of Los Angeles in particular, in the LA Quartet. Therefore, it’s easy to overlook the apocalyptic tone of White Jazz which is ahistorical. By the novel’s coda, the violence has spun wildly out of control even for the perimeters of the historical crime genre. Ellroy uses a fictional Herald-Express article to add plausibility to this rampant crimewave ‘The City homicide rate for the past month soared 1600%’.

The bullet-ridden LAPD squad car perfectly captures the anarchic breakdown of law and order in the novel, which mirrors Dave ‘the Enforcer’ Klein slow mental breakdown as its narrator. In fact, Kidd used a photograph by Robert Morrow of a squad car door the LAPD used for target practice, so in reality the cover is just showing an aspect of police work. White Jazz was first published in 1992, the same year LA erupted in race riots following the acquittal of four police officers who had badly beaten Rodney King. Although this is nothing more than a coincidence it does make the cover more powerful in its evocation of law and order and violence. Another little irony is that Robert Morrow’s photography was used for the cover art of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, a book in which Davis does not hold back on his negative views of James Ellroy.

Check out this mini-documentary by Rachel Talbot about the artistic collaboration between Ellroy and Kidd.

The Spiked Lion by Brian Flynn: The Return on the Golden Age of Detective Fiction

August 30, 2020

I am offered lots of review copies to read every year, more than I’ll ever find the time to properly assess and review. So I have to be choosy, and there was something about The Spiked Lion by Brian Flynn that caught my eye. The Spiked Lion is one of a series of Brian Flynn novels being reissued by Dean Street Press. Flynn was a popular author during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction who never quite made the front rank. As Steve Barge argues in an excellent introduction to the novel, works by Flynn are rare, expensive and hard to find. How did this happen to such a prolific author (Flynn wrote over fifty books)? Alas, while we now have a fairly comprehensive bibliography of Flynn’s works there still seems to be substantial gaps in his biography. 

The Spiked Lion features Flynn’s favourite sleuth Anthony Bathurst, who was the hero of nearly all of Flynn’s prodigious literary output. A trio of murders have left Scotland Yard baffled. There appears to be no apparent connection between the three dead men, except their murders were bizarre. The third death is a classic locked room mystery and, unusually, Flynn gives the reader a glimpse of it happening, but he does so in a way that does not give anything away: ‘The murderer turned swiftly from the dead body and departed by the way he had come. He had accomplished the task he had set himself.’ The plot is convoluted but enjoyable nonsense best summed up by this synopsis: ‘How do the events link to the recently returned-from-apparent-death heir to the title of Lord Trensham? And what exactly is the spiked lion?’ While it’s fairly easy to spot the wrong-uns, you’ll have a devil of a time working out their motivation. Fortunately, the reader has Anthony Bathurst to do that for us.

To be clear, The Spiked Lion is not a perfect mystery. It’s entertaining, witty and clever but the final reveal was rather hokey. Perhaps this is a common problem with Locked Room mysteries. The solution is never as ingenious as the set-up. That said, this is never less than a delightful puzzle which I loved tackling. And I have a feeling, now that I have discovered his work, that the mysterious life of Brian Flynn is something I will keep coming back to.

Hats off to Dean Street Press!

An Interview with Leah Konen: Author of One White Lie

August 11, 2020

One White Lie is the latest novel by Leah Konen. Lucy King is running away from an abusive relationship. To the outside world it might seem strange. She had a good-looking boyfriend who she adored. But little by little, as Lucy is holed up in Woodstock NY with only her dog and her thoughts for company, the reader learns of the abuse and controlling behaviour she has been put through. Things get seriously complicated when a couple she is staying with, seemingly kind and generous on the surface, reveal they have secrets of their own and Lucy gets drawn into a bizarre scheme to fake a man’s death.

Leah Konen has written an ingeniously-plotted, suspenseful thriller that will have you hooked until the last page. One White Lie was published as All The Broken People in the US. I was fortunate enough to interview Leah Konen about her new novel. The following interview took place by email.

Leah Konen

Interviewer: As this is your debut psychological thriller, how did your prior experience as a journalist and writer of Young Adult fiction inform your approach to the genre?

Konen: I believe that writing is writing, so while I have had a more wandering path to get to my first psychological thriller, I do think that my previous work, both as a journalist and as a YA novelist, informed my work for this book. Journalism teaches you the power of observation, as well as the importance of communicating clearly. Particularly when working out characters and writing dialogue, I lean on my skills as a journalist—and it’s also helpful when I know it’s time to “kill my darlings,” if you will. I favour more spare prose, and I think journalism absolutely has influenced that. As for YA, there is no way I could have plotted One White Lie without my knowledge from my previous books. The genre may be different, but so many of the foundations of the writing process are the same.
Interviewer: The story of One White Lie brings to mind both classic films (Sleeping with the Enemy), as well as acclaimed novels such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. But it also has elements which are completely original. What did you want to achieve with the narrative when you set out to write the novel?
Konen: When I began One White Lie, I set out to write a modern film noir with a decidedly feminist slant. Women authors like Gillian Flynn, Tana French and Ruth Ware were absolutely inspirations, but I think I drew the most influence from classic films like Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, and quintessential noirs. I’ve always been a Hitchcock fan, and I hoped to create something with a Hitchcockian feel, updated for today.
Interviewer: There was some worry at the beginning of lockdown that it might lead to a rise in domestic abuse cases. How did you research this subject? Did you look at case studies and speak to survivors?
Konen: I think that’s a huge concern with lockdown, and it is so important that those experiencing domestic abuse have adequate resources to get to safety. In the US, where I live, those resources are woefully lacking. For the book, I did a lot of reading, as well as anecdotal research from people in my networks. What I found was that abuse was very often portrayed a specific way in film, television and novels, but the way it played out was more varied and insidious in real life. I tried to capture the many facets of domestic abuse through Lucy’s story.
Interviewer: Lucy’s first-person narration skilfully takes the reader through the novel. Did you imbue the character with much of your personality and have you shared many of Lucy’s struggles?
Konen: Lucy, like all my characters, is fictional. I think there’s a tendency to assume first-person characters are a vessel for the author, but I hope we can move away from that assumption. I’ve actually written about this phenomenon for Marie Claire. I think it especially comes up for women writers.
Interviewer: What are your writing plans? Has lockdown inspired another novel?
Konen: I’ve actually just turned in revisions on my second novel, and I’m also at work on a third. My next novel follows a group of women who embark on a long girls’ weekend, only for one of them to disappear on their first night out. When the friends go to report her missing, they discover that there’s no record of her existence at all, leaving them scrambling to uncover her secrets while protecting their own. I think readers of One White Lie will find a lot to love in this next book.

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police Gazzette: Civil Unrest—is this America?

July 26, 2020

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter… This article is the seventh instalment in Jason’s epic series exploring the connections between Ellroy and the true crime history of Wisconsin. Here are the links to Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five and Six.

While nothing about the Great Depression was easy, 1933 would prove to be especially painful for Milwaukee. Three years of economic downturn had lacerated the gross national product, and eliminated nearly 27,000 businesses. In 1933 alone, the Cream City weathered an eviscerating 51,000 job losses.

From the Depression’s inception, Milwaukee’s residents stretched every resource available to survive, often immolating savings accounts, insurance policies, and interpersonal relationships in the process. Mounting complaints over the city’s bureaucratically choked response to the crisis eventually transmogrified into violent protest. In February, 1930, a mob of 400 dirty and disheveled men paraded through Milwaukee’s streets to City Hall. According to historian Paul Glad’s extensive writing on the era, they carried with them a petition asking Mayor Daniel Hoan on behalf of unemployed workers to replenish bankrupt welfare services with funds from the city’s coffers. Such services ordinarily provided the destitute with free food, clothing, shelter, and medical services. Mayor Hoan ultimately rebuffed the demonstrators, telling them Milwaukee had no available money for relief. Outside, the demonstrators blocked traffic until the Milwaukee police dispersed them. Though several demonstrators were taken to the central police station a block away, only three of them were arrested and jailed. Later that day, Hoan asked Police Chief Jacob Laubenheimer to release the three, observing that “there is a greater unemployment problem facing us now than in several years… men out of work are likely to make such demonstrations as this.”

Wisconsin’s trouble with demonstrators wasn’t just limited to Milwaukee. Just three weeks later, a small group of unemployed laborers and University of Madison students confronted Mayor Albert G. Schmedeman. Lottie Blumenthal, the leader of the group, interrogated Schmedeman about what the mayor intended to do about 3,000 jobless Madison workers. “What can I do?” Schmedeman retorted. “What power do you think I have to create work?”

Three weeks later, the Madison council of the National Trade Union Unity League staged a protest to voice their dissatisfaction with city officials’ dismissive responses to the unemployment crisis. The demonstrators soon clashed with an irate crowd of university students. In the ensuing melee, the students assaulted Lottie Blumenthal and other radical leaders, destroyed banners and signs demanding work, and scattered thousands of radical pamphlets all over the streets. Ultimately, Madison police arrested the five university athletes who had led the attack.

From 1929 to 1933, Wisconsin’s milk production declined precipitously. Farm prices were already in freefall, and the only way to maintain income was to increase production, something that required significantly larger quantities of hay and other feed. Unfortunately, weather during the 1930s was exceptionally dry, and these unfavorable growing conditions placed severe constraints on available feed. Consequently, many Wisconsin farmers lost substantial income. “Farmers have been agitated and unsettled as never before,” said Ernest L. Luther, Director of Wisconsin’s Farmer’s Institute. As protest movements began to take shape, Luther predicted social disruption if Wisconsin’s population learned just how buried in foreclosures and moratoriums the state really was.

National Guardsmen brought in Governor Albert G Schmedeman to combat striking farmers

In 1933, several Wisconsin dairy farms began withholding their milk from markets to secure higher prices. While the milk price index had been in decline for years before the stock market crash, the arrival of the Great Depression had sent the index into freefall. Dairy farmers were receiving less than a third of the price they once commanded just a decade earlier.

When a large group of farmers from the Wisconsin Cooperative Milk Pool announced their plans to strike on May 13, 1933, newly elected Governor Schmedeman was ready for them, asking Adjutant General Ralph Immell of the Wisconsin National Guard to place 2,500 men under the command of local sheriffs. Crates of tear gas arrived from Washington, and according to Paul Glad, the extensive preparations brought back vivid memories of World War I for those involved. The nostalgia likely served them well, as the striking farmers abandoned their picketing for more guerrilla tactics like dumping the milk of an unprotected delivery truck, then scattering before guardsmen arrived.

Wisconsin Milk Strike

As one Waukesha County farmer reported, the striking farmers weren’t always so lucky: “Yesterday, they went through Richfield […] and there they ran into a bunch of National Guard and deputies [who] surrounded the truck while one man with a gun lined them up and the rest pounded the hell out of them, and I mean pounded. One man has a fractured skull.”

Waukesha County Sherriff Arthur J. Moran instigated an even more dramatic confrontation which came to be known as the “Battle of Durham Hill.” Moran even timed the affair to attract as many photographers and reporters as possible.

In confronting a small group of farmers, Moran’s forces first hit them with a torrent of gas bombs. Nearly 100 guardsmen then charged the farmers with fixed bayonets, driving the strikers over a hill. As Paul Glad recounts, a Wisconsin farm wife who witnessed the calamity asked “Is this America?”

The Battle of Durham Hill

Ultimately, the Milk Pool’s strike efforts were unsuccessful. The organization issued a statement after ending the strikes in May, 1933, still insisting on the farmers’ right to control the price of their product, yet lamenting that enforcement of said control required such violence and anarchy.

Back in Milwaukee, while the city’s police were relieved to have steady jobs during a time when most Americans were hopelessly unemployed, this exceptionally rare job security came at a steep price: The Cream City’s firemen and policemen bitterly accepted a voluntary 10% pay cut, intended to improve Milwaukee’s finances. As most residents were out of work, the city was having difficulty collecting taxes, and actually had to halt the distribution of salaries for an agonizing four months.

When salaries resumed, officers were paid with a city-sanctioned alternative currency known as “scrip”. As most Milwaukee merchants refused to accept the “scrip” at full value, the city paid its officers a ratio of one quarter U.S. dollars to three quarters “scrip”. Some years later, Milwaukee’s firemen received as compensation for their 10% pay cut five days of paid vacation. Milwaukee’s police force received nothing.

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police will return…

A Time for Violence: Stories with an Edge – Review

July 5, 2020

A Time for Violence: Stories with an Edge

Anthologies have a special hold over a reader. Pick up one of the Black Lizard collections and you’ll be transported back to the hardboiled world of Chandler and Hammett and the sexual obsessions of Cornell Woolrich. Picture the scene: It’s 1933. The Great Depression is ravaging America. Some hardbitten scribe is sat plugging away at his Remington typewriter. Nothing but half a bottle of bourbon and an ashtray of full of cigarette buds for company. He’s down on his luck and the rent is overdue, but with a little bit of wordsmith’s magic the story he’s working on will appear in Black Mask and Cap Shaw will be sending him a cheque to clear his debts.

Those days may be long gone but their spirit lives on. A Time for Violence: Stories with an Edge is a new anthology of crime stories comprising the work of established writers and rising stars. It’s filled with noir tales by authors who, one might say, are unofficially honouring the legacy of Black Mask writers such as Raoul Whitfield and Paul Cain. In the introduction Andy Rausch writes:

The theme is violence, plain and simple. But why, you ask? Are we encouraging or promoting violence? Are we rejoicing and revelling in the physical harm of others? No, of course not. So, why violence then? Well, A Time for Violence was a cool title, which was where it began, but beyond that, it’s a simple theme that inspires edgy, transgressive material. And at the end of the day, that was the real theme – edginess and transgression.

Violence takes many forms, from the emotional to the physical, and these stories seemingly cover every possible manifestation of violent act and thought ever devised by man. Don’t let the title make you think this is just a compendium of gore-spattered horror, although one or two stories do lean that way. Most of the stories examine violence in its other day to day forms. The book gets off to a cracking start with ‘Blood Brothers’, a disturbing look at soured brotherly love by Richard Chizmar. Quarry fans will be well-served by ‘Guest-Service’, which sees the titular assassin running a hotel and running away from his past in the idyllic Sylvan Lake, Minnesota. There are also riveting tales by Chris Roy and Paul D. Brazill among others. I’ve still got a few stories to read, but that’s the beauty of a collection of this kind. A dog-eared copy will sit proudly on your bookshelves, just waiting to be revisited.

A Time for Violence: Stories with an Edge is a pitch-black crime anthology, perfect for these cynical times.

Vinnie Got Blown Away – Review

June 24, 2020

Vinnie Got Blown Away by Jeremy Cameron

Nicky Burkett wants revenge. He finds his childhood friend Vinnie dead at the bottom of a tower block with his feet sawn off. Nicky’s code of conduct says he can’t let that stand. Whether you’re Charles Bronson in Death Wish or a wannabe diamond geezer from Walthamstow (Burkett’s manor in North-East London), every male instinctively wants to return violence with violence. But Burkett has to uncover the reason behind Vinnie’s grisly demise before he can wreak revenge. And that ain’t easy when you’re still in your teens and have got the probation service breathing down your neck.

Jeremy Cameron’s debut novel Vinnie Got Blown Away was released in 1995. Lee Horsley identified the book as one of a number of crime novels which critiqued the ‘failed Thatcherite efforts to bring Britain closer to the market-oriented financial system of the United States’. You might say the Iron Lady met the Iron Genre. Cameron uses his experience working for the Probation Service to critique the system. Everyone is on the make, whether they work for the system or against it. And while that worldview might seem cynical, Burkett’s first-person narration has such brash charm that the reader may feel won over by this world of cockney wideboys and tropical chancers

Here’s an example of Nicky in full-flow after lifting a Ford Sierra:

Me I never knew what to do now so circled out and went home, not far off. Thought if I went quietly no one’d notice, never reckoned on looking upstairs for the chopper. Always thought they were up there for the weather or something only this one was following me twenty minutes. Did me no harm in the district mind, it was like Lethal Weapon. Took the Sierra home, dumped it, tumbled out knackered and there was the Bill in six motors. Gave Mum a turn, kept expecting them to shoot her like they do on the news.

Never had shooters so they just had to give a kicking down the nick. Got tired of that after a bit so they drew up nineteen charges. Did me no harm on the manor either, no one on the estate got more than ten before. Mum came down for the charges and the statement, couldn’t make it earlier on account of she had the tea on.

There was Aggravated Vehicle and Criminal Damage and No Licence and Insurance and Unsupervised and Reckless and No ‘L’ Plates and a few others I never heard of. Then they stuck on Obstructing Police, knew I wouldn’t go not guilty on one out of nineteen. Didn’t give me a Producer, hardly worth it at fifteen. Nor tax evasion nor bullion robbery but enough to be going with. Got my brief in, Mrs Mellow that time, and I made no reply when charged.

They reckoned I ought to get some driving lessons. Not many kids my age couldn’t drive proper when they nicked a motor.

The dialect might be difficult for some readers, but at a brisk 160 pages this is a novel that does not outstay its welcome. Indeed, I’ll be rushing out to buy the four follow-up books in the Nicky Burkett series. Oddly enough, the novel is very American in tone and sometimes reminiscent of an Elmore Leonard caper or George V Higgins’ darkly comical takedowns of the justice system. Which is ironic if, as Horsley suggests, there’s a veiled anger about the Thatcherite Americanisation of Britain.

As our lives ease back into normality after lockdown, support your local bookshop and treat yourself to a copy of Vinnie Got Blown Away.

Copy Boy: An Interview with Shelley Blanton-Stroud

June 6, 2020

Shelley Blanton-Stroud – Author of Copy Boy

Copy Boy is the debut novel by Shelley Blanton-Stroud, an author and academic based in Sacramento.

It’s the height of the Great Depression. Seventeen- year-old Jane is caught between an abusive father and manipulative mother. Then one day her father’s physical abuse gets too much for her. Jane snaps, attacking her father with a crowbar and leaving him for dead in an irrigation ditch. She flees to San Francisco where, turned down for job after job, she calculates that men have more economic opportunities than women. Jane disguises herself as a man to be hired as a Copy Boy for a local newspaper – The Prospect. All goes well for a while. But every time a person reinvents themselves, the past is not far behind. Jane’s new identity could unravel when she spots a photograph of her father in the paper with his arm around a girl who was later viciously attacked with a crowbar and left in a coma.

Is her father still alive? Was the assault on the girl a message and will Jane be next? It’s an intriguing premise, skilfully executed, in a narrative which merges suspense with some finely realised noir period detail. I had the pleasure of interviewing Shelley Blanton-Stroud about Copy Boy:

Interviewer: Your portrayal of the Dust Bowl Depression era is brimming with rich and realistic detail. How did your family history inform your writing on this subject?

Blanton-Stroud: Thank you for that. It means a lot to me.

My novel had its origin in the family stories I heard growing up. My father, Kelly Blanton, is one of ten redheaded siblings, eight boys and two girls. They migrated to California from Texas. They lived in Federal work camps, Hoovervilles, like those described in Copy Boy and Grapes of Wrath. The children of his family (and really most of the children he knew) worked alongside their parents, before and after school, picking cotton. As he has often pointed out, it’s hard to do your homework at night after picking if you don’t have electricity, something that inspired him on behalf of his students when he later became superintendent of schools in Kern County. His family stories provoked me to research the larger phenomenon of the Okie migration and the experience of settling, unwelcome, in California towns unready for so many poor people in need of work.

My mother, Yvonne Blanton, is the only child of a farmer and his (also farmer) wife. Though my mother is an only child, and did not have to work in the fields, she was a victim of polio, a horrid disease of that era, which put her in the hospital with no visitors for almost a year as a toddler, also altering her ability to walk. She continues to experience great nerve pain as a result, even now, in her eighties. Yet my mother has always been beautiful, artistic, special. Her experience is at the root of research I did into Dorothea Lange, the WPA documentary photographer who also suffered from polio. Her life provides so much source material for my character Grete.

Interviewer: We are possibly entering, due to the pandemic, another Depression era. Why do you think noir is still relevant nearly a century after your novel is set?

Blanton-Stroud: Protagonists in a Noir story often squirm under the thumb of morally unfit authorities. They are alienated, often a victim of class confrontation. And even when they work to answer the plot’s central question, they generally find that the real question at its core is impossible to answer. There just is no right answer. Noir auteur Megan Abbott adds to this—“In eras tinged with chaos…noir thrives.”

Immoral authorities, alienation, class confrontation, unanswerable questions, chaos? This is a very noir epoch.

Interviewer: Jane disguising herself as a boy is central to your narrative. Gender identity is freely discussed now and considered quite fluid. Did you find much material on gender identity from the period?

Blanton-Stroud: Well of course there have always been cross-dressing women. Even in the 18th century, women enlisted and had careers as soldiers and sailors while pretending to be men—they made much more money doing so than they might have made in female professions. History also describes many women putting on maleness to protect themselves against rape or attack. But also, of course, there have always been women whose cross-dressing reflects their sexual preferences or their attitude toward the rules and limitations of gender. In San Francisco at the time Copy Boy is set, the LGBT community was first fully forming, particularly in the North Beach area. The first lesbian bar, Mona’s on Union Street, opened in 1934, featuring cross-dressing waitresses.

My character, Jane, cross-dresses to get work in the Great Depression. But she’s not just motivated by extreme need. She’s also motivated by ambition. She discovers that “putting on the male” allows her to behave in ways that lead to her professional success. Yet Jane’s age and the extreme circumstances that send her to San Francisco also make her more open to the idea of human fluidity than a typical young woman might be in 1937.

Historically, even when women have worn men’s clothes for practical reasons, like to get a job or earn more money, doing so has meant they were willing to disrupt cultural expectations. They were, as Jane is, difficult women. That disruption is at the heart of things.

Interviewer: You have had a lot of experience helping writers. Did this come in handy when writing your first novel?

Blanton-Stroud: You might think so! However, this actually flowed in the opposite direction. Deciding to be a fiction writer in my fifties required that I put myself at risk in a hundred new ways. Working with peers in critique groups, submitting my work to authoritative strangers, risking rejection, attempting to improve post-rejection—all this, I found, really helped me in my teaching and my professional coaching. I know how it feels to take such risk and keep at it in spite of disappointment, and I remember this when I’m setting up teaching processes, trying to make them as helpful and useful and humane as possible.

Interviewer: Jane struggles to escape from one world and connect with another. Is this a theme which is important to you and does it come from personal experience?

Blanton-Stroud: What a great question. It’s really important to me. I don’t have the drive to “escape” some people do. However, I’m obsessed over whether we are who we are at birth, our particular DNA determining everything, or whether we’re a product of our childhood experience, or whether we can just “decide what to be and go be it,” as the Avett Brothers sing. I like the fact that Jane believes in her ability to do that, to make herself what she wants. And even though she tries to clean up her Okie accent, she can’t entirely—the dust gets in you. I believe we should be able to take our authentic selves with us without it getting in the way of entering new worlds. That obviously doesn’t work a lot of the time. We sometimes have to switch codes to pass in the short term. The friction caused by this “faking” it fascinates me.

Thank you so much for your fascinating questions. I’ve really loved answering them.

The Ticket Out by Helen Knode – Review

May 23, 2020

Ann Whitehead is a film critic for a counter-culture rag in LA. What started as a dream job has become an unfulfilling nightmare. She has seen so many movies that the magic has gone. She has seen lives destroyed in pursuit of the Hollywood dream. Ann wants out, but the murder of a young film student, Greta Stenholm, will plunge her into the dark heart of the movie biz. Greta had been working on a script, now missing, about the real-life unsolved murder of the socialite Georgette Bauerdorf : ‘A Black Dahlia with class,’ quips one detective. Is this a case of murder imitating art?

Helen Knode is the ex-wife of crime novelist James Ellroy. Like Whitehead, Knode was a film critic for many years, writing reviews for the LA Weekly. She puts her inside knowledge of the film industry to good use. Greta Stenholm is loosely based on Kathryn Bigelow. Knode met Bigelow in 1989, when her directorial career was just taking off. Bigelow became the first woman to win a Best Director Academy Award in 2010 for The Hurt Locker. Bigelow won her Oscar for directing a film in the traditionally male-dominated war genre. As Knode puts it, ‘I think that what Bigelow wants, which is to be a female director of action, is strictly speaking impossible, given Hollywood’s gender categories.’

Whitehead has a similar drive to succeed in a man’s world. But to do it, and to solve Greta’s murder, she will have to work closely with LAPD detective Doug Lockwood. Lockwood has a bad rep for his role in the Burger King siege, a scandal which did about as much good for the LAPD’s image as the Rodney King or Rampart affairs. Whitehead is apprehensive around Lockwood at first. She’s the bohemian liberal and he’s a cop in the authoritarian LAPD, but it’s not long before an attraction develops. This might seem like a cliche, but Knode makes it believable and, more importantly, likeable. Knode’s ‘feminist noire’ has a healthy dose of hardboiled romance: ‘I am obsessed with romance and men and women and the female principle and the male principle and how in this day and age, romance seems to have turned into something like pathology. Nobody believes in it, and yet people are falling in love all the time.’

The thin line between love and hate in Ann and Doug’s relationship is mirrored by the film critic’s soured view of the movies. This is brought home beautifully when Whitehead reminisces about a trip to the Viennale film festival in 1993. She has a potential dream-come-true moment when she meets the renowned cinematographer John Alton. Alton’s unconventional style, such as ominous low camera shots, made him a legend to film noir buffs. By the time Whitehead meets Alton though he is a jaded nonagenarian completely bored with cinema:

Here was a guy, I thought, who’d worked for MGM in the 1920s; he’d grown up with the movies, he was as old as the movies almost. But he couldn’t have cared less about them. I pointed this out, and he agreed. He’d left Hollywood in the early ’60s because he was finished with pictures. I asked why. He said it was because pictures were bad. Why bad, I’d asked – in what way, bad?

We were sitting together at a small table. Alton had put both his hands on my forearm and he’d said, “There was no longer any Art.”

I first read The Ticket Out a few years ago. I reread it again recently as I felt drawn back to it with the rise of the MeToo movement. The novel is not about sexual abuse, but it brilliantly dissects show-business hypocrisy. Knode’s style is less outrageous than Ellroy’s, but it is just as gutsy, maybe even more so. After all, Ellroy is fond of portraying long-dead Hollywood figures from the 1940s and 50s who can’t call their lawyers and sue him from the afterlife. Knode has some thinly-veiled portrayals of Tinseltown’s living legends which are so scabrous that it will leave you shaking your head and asking – could she really mean that guy? I mentioned this to Knode once and her response was tantalising: ‘Sacred cows make for the tastiest hamburgers, Steve.’

The Ticket Out is a gripping noir thriller that will leave you wanting to read more about Hollyweird culture and the indomitable Ann Whitehead (fortunately for us, there is a sequel). By the time you get to the last page Knode will have you thinking that, in noir terms at least, John Alton may have been wrong – there still is Art.

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