Monday, February 01, 2016

Jake Hinkson: Pictures From Life's Other Side

The stories in Jake Hinkson's recent volume might well be retitled- apologies to Hank Williams- pictures from life's other side. Of course, that other side depends on which side the perceiver is situated. Pictures of which being, for the most part, in the eye of the beholder, dependent on perspective, point of view, place, class, etc. All key elements in noir fiction and film, with which Hinkson is both conversant and exploits to great effect. Moreover, that perspective is reflected, more often than not, in the first-person, the narrator's camera-eye and a subjectivity embedded in working-class culture (marginal), mood (downbeat), geography (southern) and historical drift (chaotic).

Hinkson's short fiction (I've yet to read his novels) takes place in a world in which religion invariably rubs up against reality, with a thin line separating good and evil, lawfulness and lawlessness. Which means the stories are firmly in the tradition of noir,  in which  a black and white manichaeism is replaced by the relativity suggested in the book's title. Of course, noir aficionados will know about that deepening shade, deployed adeptly by the best noir writers, directors and cinematographers. Consequently, I was hooked from the first story, in which a burnt-out police officer gets increasingly drunk behind a gas station before shooting someone who's attempting to rob the place. It reads like it could have jumped out of a Drive By Truckers songbook. These stories about killer cops but psychos, religious obsessives, lowlifes, abusive relationships and the already-wounded also contain some great lines, like the opening sentence of The Big Sister, about a stripper who helps her young sibling who has just killed a man: "I was shaking my tits at the Friday night crowd when I saw my kid sister walk through the back door of The Fur Trap." Like a cross between Harry Crews and James M. Cain, with an attitude summed up in a line from another story, Cold City, about a cop in debt to a local bad-news loan shark: "If God wanted us to have moral clarity he wouldn't have created us blind and stupid."

So it's hardly surprising that Hinkson should be as knowledgeable as they come regarding film noir. But, then, he has over the years written on the subject for publications like Noir City, L.A. Review of Books and Mulholland Books. It's those articles that have been collected in the appropriately named The Blind Alley. And the book is every bit as good as one might expect. But, then, maybe I'm biased, because anyone who mentions, as Hinkson does in his introduction, the 78 blues record collector and eccentric James McKune (on whom I based the character Felix in my novel Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime), is going to be of no small amount of interest to me.  Covering considerable ground, Hinkson divides his book into four parts: 1) The Beginning and The End, which functions as an  introductory essay on the subject, one in which he lays out his approach, aesthetics, key movies, as well as various likes and dislikes; 2) Blind Alley, which tackles  particular themes and unexplored or misunderstood areas of the genre; 3) From the Shadow Gallery, which explores overlooked figures in film noir; and 4) Mug Shots, devoted, for the most part, to character actors.  I particularly liked his thematic essays: All Kinds of Women: The Lesbian Presence in Film Noir; Through the Camera's I: Noir's Experiment with the Subjective Camera; Hearing Voices: The Varieties of Film Noir Narration: and Women In Trouble: The Crisis Pregnancy in Film Noir. But there are also excellent entries on children in film noir, as well as profiles of Welles, Garfield, Mitchum, Peggie Castle, Frank Lovejoy, Richard Quine, Norman Foster, Felix Feist, Elisha Cook, and, in Hard Luck Ladies- on Thelma Ritter, Linda Darnell, Martha Vickers and Barbara Payton. In each Hinkson links his  subject with a theme or tendency, as in  What Shows and What Doesn't:  Frank Lovejoy and the Cult of Masculinity. And he does all this without engaging  in needless academic jargon, or appealing to the lowest common denominator. Nor is Hinkson afraid of voicing an  unpopular opinion, as in the opening chapter, 1944 and the Birth of Film Noir, in which he admits to not caring all that much for Barbara Stanwyck and Double Indemnity. Some might say a lapse, but more than made up for a few pages later when  he pinpoints the missing scene in Preminger's Laura and cites Dymtryk's  Murder, My Sweet as the visual template for future film noir.

Of the two books, I suppose I marginally prefer The Deepening Shade. After all, credit to anyone who can manage the tricky terrain of the noir short story. Not that such stories don't proliferate on the internet these days; it's just that so few live up to the tradition of which they claim to be a part. Finally, it's worth mentioning that both The Deepening Shade and The Blind Alley are published by  small presses: the former by All Due Respect, the latter by Broken River Books. It's  publishers like these who appear to be producing some of the most interesting crime fiction around. I wonder if that could have anything to do with the fact that they operate outside the restrictions and contractual obligations of corporate publishing? My guess is that just might be the case.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

On the Snap: Three Decades of Snapshots From the World of Jazz, Film and Crime Fiction by Brian Case

Anyone familiar with the British music press from the 1970s through the 1980s- specifically  the Melody Maker and New Musical Express- and Time Out  in the 1990s, where he held down the post of books editor, will be familiar with Brian Case's writing. I guess I first came across Case in Charlie Gillett's short-lived early 1970s magazine Let It Rock, and have been reading him ever since. Also the author of The Users, an evocative jazz-tinged noirish novel set in the 1960s, and first published at the end of that decade, Case's journalistic forte has always been jazz, crime fiction and films, subjects he has long held forth on an idiosyncratic, opinionated and straightforward manner. Born in 1937 to a lower middle-class Deptford family (his father was a copper), Case's attitude and tastes (predominantly American) have, to me, always seemed  particular to London at street-level.  

Though it passed me by at the time, On the Snap came out last year, published by Caught By the River, a small London press. This slim- some sixty pages- but handsome collection of portraits of various musicians, crime writers, actors and film-makers that Case encountered during  his more than three decades as a journalist. Pretty much just Case in conversation mode, On the Snap- a euphemism, one supposes, for the quick fire writing that his kind of journalism entailed- kicks-off with a Foreward by Guardian writer and Case's one-time Melody Maker editor Richard Williams, who says the following about Case:
 "He had a reputation as a stylist, which can be a euphemism for sins committed in the name of creativity. But his writing was surprising, funny, allusive, erudite, emotionally engaged, every paragraph containing an unexpected verbal firecracker, all stitched together with a degree of care and craftsmanship that shaped the narrative and sustained its drive."

What follows are concise takes that hit the reader from odd angles. Amongst his subjects are the following:
-Art Blakey ("waiting for the big oil crisis because it would cut off the electric instruments, leaving only the Jazz Messengers.").
-Art Pepper ("a fragile man to look after....wasn't what you'd call a solid citizen.").
-Chet Baker ("There's a certain sort of trumpeter who seems to exude a lot of self-pity- Chet did, sometimes Miles did.").
-Gerry Mulligan  ("He was amused that I liked that first bassist, Joe Mondragon's wig the best...").
-Duke Ellington ("one time I was glad of my baggy eyes...").
-Dexter Gordon ("Mr. Gordon, I'm your chauffeur...").
-Ornette Coleman ("...there were places he lived where one side of road there'd be hailstones and on the other side of the street it would be sunny. He felt white people were like that to him.").
-Jimmy Smith ("The reason why you don't see a lot of interviews with Jimmy Smith is because he swore all the time- 'motherfucker, motherfucker, motherfucker'....").
-Johnny Griffin ("re-entry goggles all round").
-Al Pacino  ("I thought I mustn't take my mac off. I guess I thought the bullets would spill out of my pockets...").
 -James Elroy ("He was like a junkie, his leg tapping all the time.").
-Michael Caine ("I hadn't really cared about all that swinging London stuff and, of course, he'd been in all that. Then I saw the one set in Newcastle- Get Carter- and I thought, 'Fuck, he's good...").
-Sam Fuller ("He never really realised he was an artist, which was good because he never got pretentious. I loved him.").
-Ian Dury ("We both loved rhyming slang.").
-The Sex Pistols ( Johnny Rotten reminding him of  Pinky in Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, and  Malcolm McLaren, "a hustler of the highest order in fluffy pink jumper.").

To his credit, Case stays clear of the usual  sort of thing you read about when it comes to dead jazz musicians. Says Case, "Writing about fallen angels is a shtick for  journalists." And though his habit of forming a personal rapport with his subjects tends to be a bit predictable, that's part of the charm and no doubt comes with the territory. In the end, you probably won't agree with all his assessments, but you can't help but be entertained by these short narratives, like getting stuck in a Danish hotel with Tom Waits where he tries to figure out if Waits' Louis Armstrong growl is for real.  Or, playing on the fact that he's more fan than critic, when tenor player Ronnie Scott, owner in those years of the Soho club bearing his name, says to Case who'd complimented him on what Scott thought was an inferior set, "But you can't read fucking music, can you!"

That Case was more fan than critic no doubt gave him a certain freedom in his writing. Which perhaps is why for me he has always been near the top of that list of journalists who worked for the NME, Melody Maker, Time Out, Uncut, etc.. The likes of  not only Richard Williams, but Nick Kent, Vivien Goldman, Penny Reel, Paul Morley, Nick Kimberly, Jonathan Meades, Angus Mackinnon, etc..  One thing for sure, Case not only had, and based on these short takes, continues to have, more soul than most, but he seems to have been influenced by no one other than himself. Not if only some publisher, large or greenhorn, were to bring out a collection of Case's journalism. Wouldn't that be a treat?

Listen to Case reading from On the Snap here.

And here's a Brian Case playlist on Spotify of Case's jazz favourites:

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Favourite Noir Fiction and Non-Fiction, 2015


(in no particular order)

- Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 50s. Edited by Sarah Weinman, with stories by Very Caspary, Helen Eustis, Dorothy B. Hughes, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, Charlotte Armstrong, Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Millar, Dolores Hitchens.

- My Face For the World to See by Alfred Hayes

- Hold the Dark by William Giraldi

- Under Tiberius by Nick Tosches

- The Great Swindle by Pierre Lemaire, translated by Frank Wynne

- Nobody Walks by Mick Herron

- It Always Rains on Sunday by Arthur La Bern

- A Very British Ending by Edward Wilson

- Little Sister Death by William Gay

- The Good Physician by Kent Harrington

- Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel, translated by Boris Dralyuk

- Speak of the Devil/The Obstinate Murderer by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding


-Meanwhile There Are Letters- Ross Macondald/Eudora Welty, edited by Suzanne Marr and Tom Nolan

-The Other Paris- An Illustrated Journey Through a City's Poor and Bohemian Past by Luc Sante

-Rendezvous at the Russian Tea Rooms- The Spy Hunter, the Fashion Designer and the Man From Moscow by Paul Willetts

-Empire of Sin- A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder and the Battle For New Orleans- by Gary Kirst

-The Devil's Chessboard- Allen Dulles, the CIA and the Rise of America's Secret Government by David Talbot

-The Crime of Our Lives by Lawrence Block

-Ghettoside- Investigating a Homicide Epidemic by Jill Levoy

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Power of Delusion: Under Tiberius by Nick Tosches

Nick Tosches has always done his best to stir things up and look at things from a different angle. Whether searching for the last opium den; recounting the lives of Jewish crooks, discredited boxers, old country singers and drunk crooners, he's always on the look-out for incongruities, between what is, what was and what might be.  Under Tiberius, though it was hardly reviewed when it first appeared, might well be Tosches's best novel. It could even be the novel Tosches was born to write. In any case, it's certainly his most transgressive. This from someone who has already investigated organised religion and the artifacts and riches it has in its possession: in In the Hand of Dante, a Dante manuscript, and, in Power on Earth, God's banker  Michele Swindon. Tosches seems to be fighting a one-man war against the hypocrisy, if not the dangers of religion. Under Tiberius once again finds him scouring through the Vatican library. And what he discovers is something far more subversive than anything converted in his previous books, and even darker than his last novel, the blood-lusting, sometimes self-indulgent, Me and the Devil. 

 Darker and more subversive because Tosches's latest focuses on Jesus, here portrayed not as the Son of God, but as a wandering scam artist. It's a life depicted by his spin-doctor, Gaius Fulvius Falconius, the former speech writer for the increasingly unstable Tiberius, and recently cast-out from the latter's inner-circle. Falconius's text, a letter written to his grand-son, is found by someone called Nick Tosches in the bowels of the Vatican library. The letter recounts Falconius finding a shabby Judean street thief named Jesus, whom he turns into a wandering demagogue.  Together they move from place to place convincing anyone who will listen the former-street thief is the messiah, with Falconius teaching his acolyte to say whatever the people want him to say and, in doing so, they collect money to build a new temple, though the dosh is really being collected so that Jesus and Falconiius can start a new life in Rome.

Not only an appropriate book to appear at a time when evangelicals are thrusting their tendrils into the body politic, but appropriate given Tosches's track record, as well as the relatively recent publication of Reza Aslan's Zealot, a historical account of Jesus, and a book that Tosches's seems to echo. I have no idea if Tosches might have read Aslan's book- my bet is that he had- nevertheless it's as though he decided to use Aslan's book as a starting-off point, extrapolating on it as only he is able to to do. As Aslan maintains, we know but two historical facts about Jesus: he was a Jew and he was crucified. But Tosches, the hardboiled fabulator, is saying something more controversial, that Jesus, was a charismatic con-man came to believe in the hype and rhetoric fed to him by his spin-doctor.  Naturally there  are discrepancies between the two books For instance, Aslan claims, in accordance with the historical record, that Pilate was nothing more than a hardline anti-semite, while, for Tosches, he is a reasonable man with little, if any, control over Jesus's fate. Of course, one book is fiction, the other fact, even though it, Aslan's, relies for evidence no the gospels which he had already criticised for being fiction and after the fact. Neither is there a crucifixion scene in Tosches's book, nor hint of resurrection. After all, Jesus is only human. To the point  that Tosches goes to some length to describe his sexual proclivities. Clearly this is not your usual divine Son of Man. Nevertheless, the basic story is here, as are most of the main characters. So we get the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes and Lord's Prayer, as well as cryptic parables, claims about bread and wine being flesh and blood and raising Lazarus.  Meanwhile, most, if not all, of Jesus's miracles are mere scams or conjurer's tricks. The dead man is revived having only slipped into a coma having ingested poison. A lame man is paid off to feign recovery. A drunk is convinced he has demons that must be cast out. At the wedding feast in Cana, Jesus deploys a trick amphora to dupe the guests. Though running against expectations- i.e., if one is a Christian- the book's final pages which cover Jesus's trial for sedition are, nevertheless, quite moving.

As Falconius says, people hear only what they crave to hear, particularly in troubled times. For Tosches, the essential question is whether religion leads to violence, or does violence lead to religion? Did humanity invent God simply to deal with the concept of good and evil? As Tosches put in an NPR interview: 
"A lot of my books have been [about] the question of did man invent the concept, the dichotomy of good and evil before he invented the gods? Or did he invent the gods first and then pronounce good and evil through them? [I] wanted to push people to...look at the fact that the idea of  God has never been a force for good in this world, but only for evil. And it's only been born out of weakness and resulted in bloodshed, mayhem, lies, theft."  He goes on to say, "If there is a God...the greatest gift he instilled in every human being is delusion. And that is what hope is, that we who do not have a cup of coffee today, will have one tomorrow. So it basically drives us forward."

Torches's story has been told many times, from an assortment of angles, on the screen as well as the page. There's Kazantzakis, Burgess, Silverberg, Scorsese, Monty Python, etc.. But I can't recall anyone telling it quite like this.  Perhaps the closest might be J.G. Eccarius's scandalous The Last Days of Christ the Vampire from some thirty years ago.  But Under Tiberius is only about religion in the sense that it is about mob hysteria, delusion and mass psychosis. As Falconius, in the end, say this to his grand-son, "[We] are...nothing more than finite being who seek to understand infinity; and this understanding shall never be ours."  Adding, "All gods are phantoms, figments of the minds of men...Trust no man, and trust no god. For, as all men have their birth in mortal flesh, so all gods have their birth in the minds of mortal men, and that source is never anything else than a marsh of disease and ill. Know that every prophet is a false prophet."

Sunday, October 04, 2015

The Sins of the Father: Dan Fante's Fante- a Family's Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving

I must have read Fante's Chump Change around the time it came out in 1998, and remember being impressed by its honesty and directness. Though I admit the only reason I purchased the book was because it was written by the son of one of my favourite writers, John Fante. Still, I was surprised at how much I liked Chump Change. It had a directness about it, by which I mean it was stylistically straightforward and unadorned, not unlike his father's prose. But, at the same time, Dan seemed to be writing mostly about his own life, or a facsimile thereof. It was as though he was digging beneath the surface of his father's fiction.  But even though Dan Fante went on after Chump Change to produce other novels, poetry and plays, I felt I'd probably read enough of his work to get a handle on what he was doing. Which isn't to say I wasn't tempted by his subsequent books. However, when I happened across a copy of Dan Fante's memoir, simply title Fante, published a few years back, about his family- not just his father, but his mother and siblings- and his relationship to them, I grabbed the book and quickly gobbled it up.

Fante might be a memoir, but it is every bit as dark and painful as Chump Change. Not surprisingly, the book pretty much culminates in the publication of the latter, and the beginning of Dan's career as a published writer. And, of course, it's protagonist, like the guy in Chump Change, is just as ill at ease with the world and himself, much of which Dan Fante traces back to his relationship with his writer- father, a cantankerous man at the best of time.  Yet the book also has lighter moments, and, in the end, makes a valiant attempt at being uplifting, which I found problematic but obviously, at least for the author's sake, necessary.

Fante is a book that takes the reader places Stephen Cooper's biography of John Fante, was never able to go. On the other hand, Dan Fante isn't interested in going into the minutiae of John Fante's life. This book is mostly about him, i.e., Dan Fante. And no doubt about it, his father, a man with old school values, was as abrasive as he was demanding. And it would only be in Dan's later years, in the last throes of battling his personal demons, that Dan would come to some understanding about John Fante as a father and an artist, albeit at a time when the latter was  suffering from diabetes, which would lead to amputations, blindness and eventually his death.

From growing up with a difficult father and a somewhat distant mother, to  setting out, however  wounded, on his own, Fante is a narrative in the tradition of street-wise writers like Hubert Selby and Herbert Huncke. In other words, those sinners who eventually become literary saints. Like those two writers, Dan Fante isn't interested in romanticising the life he led, or the self-abasement he endured as he moved from one crap job to another, one woman to another, while, at the same time, consuming copious amounts of alcohol and drugs. Though that might be the view of some readers. Maybe that's inevitable. Because it's only in the final pages when he begins to pull himself together that the book flirts with the bathetic. But, then,  without that light at the end of the tunnel, the book could never have existed, for the simple reason that the author would no longer be with us, having succumbed to his consumerist tendencies. Though he tried on numerous occasions, Dan Fante fortunately did not become just another suicide statistic, but survived  to tell the tale. In doing so, he's given us a first-hand account of both his and his father's life and what it takes to survive with or against the odds. Dan Fante may not be quite the writer his father was, but he's not far off. Conversely, I'm not sure even the great John Fante would have had the courage to descend to such depths, and come up with anything quite like Chump Change or Fante.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Plots and Counterplots: A Very British Ending by Edward Wilson

In the last years of his life, French crime writer Jean-Patrick Manchette liked to say that the genre in which he'd made his name had grown overly insular; consequently its future, if it was to retain a political edge, lay in becoming more international in scope, something akin to espionage fiction, but with a difference. I think if Manchette were alive today he might well have pointed towards the novels of Edward Wilson as evidence of what his particular revisionism should look like.  

Well-researched- no easy task when delving into the workings of the deep state- A Very British Ending is Wilson's latest in a series of novels that span the political landscape from the end WW2 to the Thatcher era. Taken together, they comprise a modern history of political events, particularly when it comes to how those events have been influenced and manipulated by the intelligence services in the UK and US. Though the title might remind readers of Chris Mullin's 1980s A Very British Coup, about the CIA's destabilisation of an anti-nuclear, populist Labour government, Wilson's book goes deeper, more expansive in its range and more biting in its politics.

More focused than Wilson's previous  books,  A Very British Ending contains an array of history-making personalities, from former prime minister Harold Wilson and  head of MI5 Roger Hollis, both of whom were, as the novel points out, thought by some in the intelligence community and elsewhere to be Soviet agents, to art historian and Soviet spy Anthony Blunt and the CIA's poetry-loving counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton. Add to that an assortment of secret operations from that era, including the black propaganda psyops in Northern Ireland called Clockwork Orange and the overthrow of the Whitlam government in Australia. However, the book's primary focus is on the plot to overthrow  Harold Wilson's government in the mid-1970s, and the degree to which the CIA influenced that and other matters.

An American who served as a Special Forces officer in Vietnam before settling in Britain in the early 1970s, Edward Wilson brings to his subject an outsider's perspective and some inside knowledge. His protagonist, the working-class William Catesby who rises through the ranks of  a public school dominated MI6,  finds his career inextricably linked to the rise and fall of Yorkshire left-winger and fellow outsider Harold Wilson. In fact, the novel is really about Catesby's growing politicalisation, as the reader follows him from the end of WW2, and the killing of a German agent, to the election of Margaret Thatcher. And the higher Catesby rises, the less he likes what he sees happening to his country.  

The possibility of a coup is brought up early in the novel. Catesby and the head of the MI6, Henry Bone, are in the park opposite the home of a press baron. Bone asks Catesby how a successful coup in the UK might be accomplished.  Catesby points to the home of the press baron: "[I'd] get him and others  like him on the side of the coup plotters. I wouldn't do it through force of threats; I'd do it through flattery and persuasion- and also their self-interest in terms of money and gongs. I'd make the press barons feel that they were medieval barons- real players carving up and controlling Britain."

And that's pretty much how it plays out. Not that Harold Wilson's downfall was, in the real world, itself proof of a coup.  Though that's what some would have us believe. Of course, there were those on the right, whether in politics, UK and US security services, the media and the military who backed and, in some cases, plotted Wilson's demise. But if a coup, that could either mean  Thatcher's rise to power was a sign that such a coup was successful, or that, with the right person in power, a coup was unnecessary. However,  it goes without saying that Thatcher could not have come to power without the help of the press and various Tory high-rollers. Whatever the case, Edward Wilson's episodic journey makes the reader rethink that era, even though it refuses to come down on one side or the other. As it should be, because to this day it remains a matter of smoke and mirrors, if not plots and counterplots, making conclusions next to impossible to draw. A very British ending, indeed.

Not even Catesby knows with any certainty, only that, "Life wasn't a tightly knit detective novel where there are no loose ends." But, then, that's the deep state for you. PM Wilson was, in reality, not much of a threat to the status quo. Still, whether, senility or lack of focus, he was quickly succeeded by Callahan who would go cap in hand to the IMF for a loan (something not mentioned in the novel), setting the country on the road to monetarism. This, in turn, led to the IMF's usual conditions,  the "winter of discontent" and, ultimately, the election of Thatcher whose more authentic monetarism would have a long-lasting effect on the country. On the night Thatcher is elected, Catesby says, "Britain had become a different place. The genteel veneer was gone. Power had been passed on to a coterie of spivs and saloon bar bores." From that point on it would be, as the author says, a case of who pays, wins. An irrefutable charge, given that wealth has, over the years, become increasingly concentrated, banks have gone unregulated, services privatised and assets have been sold off at an alarming rate.

Likewise, when it comes to the deep state. Just look at revelations from Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, not to mention the dodgy dossier leading to war, the Murdoch press "wot won it" on various occasions, and Britain's status as a client-state, its nuclear capability more a job creation scheme than an independent deterrent. For me, A Very British Ending couldn't come at a more timely moment. Reading it, I kept thinking what role the secret service in the UK and US might play should moderate left winger Jeremy Corbyn be elected Labour leader and, who knows, even prime minister. Edward Wilson's writing might not be as wondrously tight and intricate as Le CarrĂ©'s (very little writing is), or as articulate as Mick Heron's, but it's more than functional. More believable than Heron and even more political than Le CarrĂ©,  A Very British Ending is a highly entertaining and important book, accurate about the past, prescient about the near-future, and Wilson's best yet. I can even picture  Manchette turning- the pages, that is- in his grave.