Saturday, January 31, 2015

How To Escape From New York

As usual the National Weather Service got it wrong and New York City was not hit with a snowmaggedon, but I've been in New York during 2 of the biggest snowstorms of the last hundred years in 2010 and 1996 and it wasn't pretty. I lived in upper Manhattan from 1993 - 2000 and while I was there I became a little obsessed by the idea of how to escape from the island after an emergency. The first attack on the World Trade Centre and the attack on the Tokyo Subway System convinced me (and eventually my more skeptical girlfriend) that New York was going to be struck again by either a natural or man made disaster and we needed a way off Manhattan if the public transport system went down. Manhattan has a resident population of 1.6 million and with commuters that rises to 3.5 million people on any given day. There is enough food on the island to feed these people for about four days. In a medium or long-term emergency then you better be ready to get off the island if you want to eat. If you've seen Independence Day or Godzilla or Cloverfield or if you've walked around the city during a hurricane or snowstorm you'll know that driving off Manhattan is going to be next to impossible. Traffic is bad at the best of times and in an emergency there is gridlock. Biking however is another story and my plan was to bicycle up to the George Washington Bridge from 122nd Street and escape over the Hudson into New Jersey. I bought a two man tent, a couple of bikes and waited for the disaster that didn't happen. We left New York for good in 2000, but only a year later 9/11 happened and after the initial evacuation they did indeed close the bridges and tunnels to allow emergency vehicles in. During the 2003 blackout gridlock ensured people could not get off Manhattan for a long long time but crucially the George Washington and Brooklyn bridges were open to foot or bicycle traffic so you could walk off if you wanted. 
The best thing to do if you really want to be sure of getting away from Manhattan is to cross the Harlem River in a kayak. The Harlem River connects to the Bronx which is on the North American mainland and from there you can walk to just about anywhere. This is a better route than the Hudson River which is very wide and tidal and if the tide is going out you'll get exhausted trying to cross. The Harlem River is also a better route than the East River which leads to Brooklyn and Queens which are on Long Island (why escape one island only to be trapped on another?). That's all very well you're thinking but how do I keep a kayak in my tiny apartment and transport it to the water? The answer to that is that you go to the nearest REI (or ebay) and buy yourself an inflatable kayak that fits into a bag. You put it in a rucksack and walk or cycle to the water and inflate it with a footpump or a small mobile compressor (the kind you use for inflating airbeds). A collapsable paddle completes this arrangement. The Harlem River is about 150 - 200 yards wide for most of its length which you should be able to kayak across in about 8 minutes. Once you're in the Bronx you can walk out of the city on any of a dozen roads but if you take Broadway and keep heading north you can walk all the way to Montreal if you want. (Trust me I've researched this.) 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Sorry Hitch, Women Are Just As Funny & Probably Funnier Than Men

I think the reason men kept women out of so many occupations over the centuries was the fear that women would do those occupations better than they would. Most men grew up with mothers who were wiser than them, stronger willed than them, more patient than them, harder working than them etc. World War 1 and 2 taught us that women can do every single job in the modern world as good as or better than men. The reason they weren't doing those jobs (riveting, truck driving, etc.) was because men had kept them out. What about the actual fighting of the war itself I hear you ask. Oh sure men having always been good at fighting but again thats only because women haven't been given the chance. What's the #1 box office movie at the moment? American Sniper - the story of Chris Kyle. No woman could surely do that job, right? I guess you haven't heard of Lyudmila Pavlichenko who shot 309 Nazis on the Ost Front including 35 enemy snipers trying to kill her. Pavlichenko was one of 2000 female snipers in the Red Army. You really should know about her. She met FDR. Woody Guthrie wrote a song about her. 
If you look at the list of well governed countries where the rule of law prevails, corruption is minimal and people are generally happier it's always the countries where women are most empowered that are the near the top of every table. Denmark, Norway, Finland etc. And if you look at all the nightmare countries in the world it's always the countries where women are treated like shit. Any place where men with guns (or worse men with guns and holy books) are in charge is always going to be a hell hole. We've known for years that the single best way to move a society out of poverty is to educate girls. Educating them at a school not run by an absurd patriarchal desert religion that worships an invisible sky god probably works even better.
Ok so what has this got to do with funny? We've never allowed women to be funny. Nothing scares men like a woman who is funnier and sharper than they are, so funny girls until very very recently in the history of our culture were told to cut it out. Women have had to sneak funny in the back door. Jane Austen still makes us laugh 200 years later, whereas I've never laughed at Dickens, or Tristram Shandy or Tom Jones or any of those supposedly funny books. Jerome K Jerome and Mark Twain are the only nineteenth century novelists who can hold a candle to Austen in the funny department... Men like women to be beautiful or tragic or poetic or sexy but not funny. And men ran the entire world (and still run most of it) until pretty much yesterday. It wasn't until the age of television that we began to allow and even encourage funny women. But they had to fight tooth and nail to have their voices heard. It's tough to make it as a comic but it was always tougher for female comics who got told that they weren't funny by bookers and agents and club owners and - crucially - male comics. 
In 2007 Christopher Hitchens wrote an essay in Vanity Fair called Why Women Aren't Funny. It wasn't the Hitch's best work and the timing was terrible as Tina Fey's 30 Rock had just started. 30 Rock was the first American successful comedy show with a female head-writer and show-runner since Roseanne. 30 Rock was hit and miss with some very annoying characters but when it was good it was very very good. Fey proved week in and week out that she was sharper and funnier and wittier than the men working on TV. I would love to have seen Fey debate Hitch on this topic, it would have been one for the ages, but she wasn't a God botherer so Hitch didn't engage. 
Fey kicked the doors in for other talented women and its obvious now to any fool that women are just as funny as men. I've said for years that women are generally better writers than men (I'm not going to go into all that again now) but the one area men had left to cling to was in comic writing and now that's going too. Kristen Wiig, Rebel Wilson, Sarah Silverman, Amy Poehler are just about the funniest people on the planet right now. Some people say that the funniest and best written show on TV at the moment is Lena Dunham's Girls. I have a lot of problems with Girls not least because the cast and the girls on Girls come from very very privileged backgrounds and this rubs me the wrong way. No I say that the funniest show on TV at the moment is Broad City now in its second season. Written and starring Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson its also the only comedy show I've ever seen (apart from the great Louie) that accurately portrays what living in New York is actually like: the heat, the dirt, the poverty, the crazies...Broad City finally allows women to deploy every weapon in the comedy arsenal: it's not just witty and clever, it's also vulgar, crude, broad, sexually risque and downright silly. 
Glazer and Jacobson will kick in a lot more doors for women. And now that TV execs (still mostly men) see that women being funny can make them a lot of money you should expect to see a lot more funny women on TV. When the playing field finally levels off in a few years we'll see how ridiculous and dated Hitch's arguments are. 
If you live in America or have access to a US proxy IP address you can watch Broad City, here

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Banged Up Abroad

Cullen Thomas
In a recent interview I was asked about my 'guilty pleasure' in TV watching. I told the interviewer I didn't really believe in the concept of guilty pleasures but then I remembered this blogpost from a couple of years ago...
A long time ago I remember watching Barry Norman on the BBC's old Film programme getting himself worked up about Midnight Express. The prison experiences are indeed very harrowing Norman said, but, he wondered "why should we even care about what happens to a self confessed drug smuggler?" Evidently for Barry Norman drug smugglers were not and could never be a hero of a major feature film. A fortiori then Norman must surely hate the National Geographic Channel's TV series Banged Up Abroad, as the vast majority of its subjects are incompetent or wannabe drug smugglers. I don't share Norman's moral concerns about rooting for a drug dealer as most of the people featured on BUA are generally sympathetic - stupid, yes, but sympathetic.
If I believed in the concept of the guilty pleasure Banged Up Abroad would probably be my current guiltiest squeeze. Every episode begins the same way: a naive Brit or American is in a hot foreign country and is persuaded by a smooth talking new friend/boy-friend/girl-friend into smuggling drugs from said hot foreign country into Europe or North America. Taped up with cocaine or heroin or hash and sweating bullets the scheme invariably goes wrong and the naive Anglo-Saxon gets caught and is thrown into an overseas prison. Actors play the younger version of the subject and they narrate their own story in a studio usually (especially with the Brits) with self mocking ironic detachment. Some of the prisons are so chaotic and corrupt that the subject's life is in jeopardy and they must literally fight to survive from day to day. Other prisons are a little more humane but none of them resemble the gentle Scandinavian prisons which are more about reform than punishment. (A few of the less successful episodes have the subject getting kidnapped by terrorists etc. but this, I feel, is stretching the purity of the format.) Why is Banged Up Abroad so compelling to me? Well, for a start I can easily imagine myself getting banged up abroad, not necessarily because of drug smuggling, but maybe because of an incident in a bar that gets out of hand or a violation of local laws of which I am unfamiliar. The fantasy of escape from a barbaric foreign prison has been a staple of literature for centuries, perhaps millennia (St Peter, I think, pulled a daring prison escape somewhere in the New Testatment) and while very few of the subjects on Banged Up Abroad actually manage to escape, it's not difficult to put yourself in their shoes, wondering if you could do the time and if not how you would try to get yourself out. This idea is so obviously interesting to me that I even wrote a novel all about it called Dead I Well May Be...
If you're only going to watch one episode of Banged Up Abroad try to find the one starring Cullen Thomas who gets arrested for trying to smuggle drugs into Korea with his girlfriend Rocket. Cullen's prison experiences are fascinating: after some initial self pity and suffering Cullen transforms himself through a kind of zen process of meditation and self analysis into a mature and thoughtful young man. For Thomas getting arrested for drug smuggling is, in a way, the best thing that ever happened to him, giving his existence meaning and allowing him to live what Plato called the examined life, or what the poet Novalis felt was the greatest journey of all, the journey inwards into the depth of one's own experiences: "nach innen geht der geheimnisvolle Weg." Thomas used the prison time to become a more reflective and interesting person rather than in his phrase "letting the time use him." He has also written a rather good book about his experiences that can be got on, here.  And surely even Barry Norman wouldn't disapprove of that.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Gun Street Girl

Some more reviews of Gun Street Girl:

First of all thank you to all the amazon and Good Reads reviewers - this book is getting possibly the best reviews of my career from ordinary readers and I'm pretty excited about that. Thank you all.

Now some newspaper and blog reviews (I've removed all spoilers and just left the analysis):

Booklist February 1, 2015
...Duffy is more introspective here, and while the Troubles trilogy featured strong characterization, series fans will appreciate the further insight into the fallout from tragic cases, department politics, and war. As usual, there’s plenty of funny and entertaining territorial battling between the dizzying array of law-enforcement agencies acting in Belfast, and Duffy’s investigative skills seem somehow sharpened by his lost hope.
— Christine Tran

[All four Sean Duffy novels have now gotten *starred* reviews by Booklist. Starred reviews are relatively uncommon and for all 4 books of a series to get starred reviews is  - I think - pretty unusual]

The Irish Times

...Gun Street Girl is another superb satire of its time and place.
-Declan Burke


Gun Street Girl is great; I'm so glad that Adrian McKinty has given readers another novel starring Belfast cop Sean Duffy, whose earlier exploits were described in the terrific Troubles trilogy. Don't miss any of the four….”
—NANCY PEARL, NPR commentator and bestselling author of Book Lust

Irish Independent
...Duffy is a brilliant character and there must be plenty of unresolved crimes, even in a backwater like Carrickfergus, for him to tackle and for Adrian McKinty to turn into further gripping episodes of this terrific series.
-Maurice Hayes


This is so good!....There’s a realistic undercurrent of sour humour in this story of a man who has reached a turning point in a troubled land. But more than that, it’s a hugely entertaining and riveting book, with real elements of the times expertly woven into the storyline to give a gritty flavour of life seen through the eyes of an RUC officer on the line.It’s also the most enjoyable book I’ve read in a long time. Highly recommended. Buy it or borrow it, put it on your MBR list (must be read).
-- Adrian Magson

Bite the Book
...Full of McKinty’s wickedly black humour and brilliantly plotted this just maybe the best book in an exceptional series so far. Sean Duffy has come a long way from The Cold, Cold Ground but it is starting to leave its scars. I was reluctantly happy to see the series finish after three books but I think there is possibly a little more life in this awesome series to come. At least I hope so!
-- Jon Page

...There is a hilarious chapter when Sean tries a dating service (seems no one wants to get romantically involved with a – possibly – shortlived police officer). Gerry Adams is back in a cameo, Thatcher is pulling strings in the background and those pesky Americans think they are the boss...Gun-running, politics, love and murder. You can’t ask for more when it’s Adrian doing the writing. Personally I want more Duffy books, but maybe he has been beaten up too many times for that to be likely. And I was going to say that perhaps it’s not good for me to have all I want, but I felt fantastic reading Gun Street Girl. Just saying
--Ann Giles

finally a nice tweet from the great Ian Rankin on twitter:

My first read of 2015 is Gun Street Girl by - early copy; think it's published next week. Reliably great.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

In The Arts Will 2015 Once Again Be The Year Of The Posh?

in this picture from the Daily Mail article on his class at Eton Eddie Redmayne is #11, Prince William is #20
As a break from the awfulness of the world the Golden Globes is hard to beat: beautiful people getting drunk and winning stuff and being gently teased by the razor sharp Tina Fey - who cd complain about that? I'm a cinephile too and I've seen some of this year's big films and this year's TV has been great. Everything went well at the awards I thought (except for True Detective getting robbed) until the best actor trophy where it was a case of the boy from Eton beating the boy from Harrow. I must admit that I found it hard to root for Eddie Redmayne who comes from incredible wealth and who went to the most exclusive private school in the world (Eton College). The bookies had Redmayne as the favourite to win best actor over Benedict Cumberbatch who also grew up rich and went to the second most exclusive private school in the world (Harrow). We all like to cheer for the underdog so its tricky when the culture offers us a choice between a Cumberbatch and a Redmayne. Redmayne was in Prince William's year at Eton and has lived an incredibly charmed life. There was a nice Daily Mail story about him with the headline How Redmayne Went From Riches To Riches. Many of the hot young English actors you can think of went to private school and from thence to Oxbridge and straight into BBC costume drama and Hollywood. (This year's big BBC costume drama is the much anticipated Wolf Hall starring Damian Lewis, who, of course, went to Eton.) For some reason this rule doesn't seem to apply to Scottish or Irish actors as far as I can see but an alarming number of English actors are very posh indeed. 
Of course you can't blame Redmayne or Cumberbatch or Lewis for the choices their parents made in sending them to school but if you go to Eton or Harrow at the very least you should admit your privilege. Not everyone has to be like George Orwell who went to Eton but who then spent a year living as a down and out "to see how the other half lived." You don't have to do that but it would be nice if you could admit that talent only got you so far and for the rest it was connections, wealth and power. Only 6% of the British population go to private school and only 1% go to boarding school, but those 6% and those 1% dominate every aspect of life in the United Kingdom. Business, the arts and political life are run by a tiny private school clique. The editor of almost all the national newspapers is a private school boy, the men (its always men) who run the universities are private school boys, the man (its almost always a man) who chairs the Booker Prize panel is almost always a private school boy. There are exceptions of course but the exceptions prove the rule. Britain's Prime Minister went to Eton, his Deputy Prime Minister went to Westminster School, his Chancellor of the Exchequer went to Eton etc. etc. Even in pop music, apparently, its the private school types who rule the roost. Yes, its true that often talent will always rise to the top like the cream in the milk but its going to be a harder slog if you went to a comprehensive school, or if you're the wrong body shape, or if you're a working class woman, or if, God help you, you have a Brummie accent...
Redmayne did a good job playing Stephen Hawking, almost as good a job as, er, Benedict Cumberbatch did in the BBC TV version 10 years ago . They both seem like thoroughly nice chaps and that's the problem with chip-on-shoulder class war rabble rousing: Redmayne and Cumberbatch are probably good eggs; my point however - such as it is - is that a working class actor could have done just as good a job as either of them but in today's climate they are unlikely ever to be given the chance to show it. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

This Is What The Bottom Of The Slippery Slope Looks Like

censored pigs in a Malaysian edition of the New York Times - the future...
The New York Times, The Daily Mail and the paper I write for The Melbourne Age all refused to show the new cover of Charlie Hedbo magazine because they were afraid it might offend some (a very small minority I reckon) of their Muslim readers. It's just a drawing of the Prophet Mohammed crying, that's all, but apparently that's considered offensive by some people and so the Mail, the Times and the Age all decided not to publish the cover despite the Hedbo image being the most important news story of the day. The Mail is the biggest newspaper site in the world, the Times is America's paper of record and the Age is my employer. I expect better of them and I think they've gone down a very slippery slope. (Here's a good list of those media outlets on the side of freedom and those on the side of cowardice.) 
Over the last 5 years I've happened to travel to Malaysia quite a lot. Beautiful country Malaysia, nice people, great food, but maybe not the place I'd go to to look for the future of free speech. The pic above is from a Malaysian edition of The New York Times where showing the image of a pig is considered offensive by some people. Malaysia is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious state with no laws about showing or not showing pigs in newspapers, but in recent years various Imams have demanded that images of pigs and pork products be pulled from newspapers and advertisements because they are against Islam. Government agencies while not banning pigs have warned printers and publishers about showing images of pigs. It's no surprise to learn that the movie 'Babe' was pulled from cinemas in Malaysia. 
A fortiori...In what is apparently not an April Fool's story (because it's January) it has been reported in the Evening Standard and Daily Telegraph that Oxford University Press will avoid showing images of pigs in their children's literature. This from the Telegraph version of the story: 

The Oxford University Press has warned its writers not to mention pigs, sausages or pork-related words in children's books. The existence of the publisher's guidelines emerged after a radio discussion on free speech in the wake of the Paris attacks. Speaking on Radio 4's Today programme, presenter Jim Naughtie said: "I've got a letter here that was sent out by OUP to an author doing something for young people."Among the things prohibited in the text that was commissioned by OUP was the following: Pigs plus sausages, or anything else which could be perceived as pork.

The OUP later admitted that the report was true. The New York Times, Mail and Age have taken the first steps down the slippery slope along with the OUP (another one of my former employers) to the blacked out image of porkies above. Hope you enjoyed this doleful glimpse of our censored future...

Monday, January 12, 2015

Sean Duffy #4 - The Irish Indy's Verdict

Sean Duffy #4 "Gun Street Girl" was reviewed by Maurice Hayes in the Irish Independent newspaper (Ireland's best selling broadsheet) below. I've removed major spoilers by making the text white at those points (highlighting the text will reveal it if you really want to know). Maurice hated The Sun Is God but he seems to have enjoyed Sean Duffy #4:
So. Sean Duffy is back, having saved Margaret Thatcher from destruction in the Brighton hotel bombing, reinstated in his rank as detective inspector in the RUC, but marooned in a promotional and career backwater as one of the few Catholics in the force, a suspected maverick whose credentials as a company man are doubted by his superiors. He is, however, back as the old Sean Duffy, ruefully wiser and aged by lifestyle, a music buff with catholic tastes in art and literature far outside the scope of the average plod, not to mind his familiarity with Occam's Razor and his taste for high-class cocaine and single-malt scotch whisky.

Adrian McKinty is back, too, with the same funny and perceptive commentary on social conditions and an acute awareness of political realities in the Belfast of the eighties which locates a fast-moving narrative in the context of recognisable historical events, or fictional allusions to others.

So we have as reference points the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Iran-Contra scandal and a spooky Oliver North type figure, the theft of missiles from Short Brothers, the death from drugs of a Cabinet Minister's daughter, a toffy clique that looks like the Bullingdon Club, and the infamous helicopter crash on the Mull of Kintyre which decimated the Northern Ireland intelligence establishment.
The story starts with an open-and-shut case - a spoilt and disaffected rich boy who has dropped out of university, shoots his parents as they watch television and then jumps over a cliff, leaving a written confession.

It is all too neat, too professional and cold-blooded for an angry boy. Duffy sets off on a trail which takes him far outside his comfort-zone, to cover-up in the higher reaches of the British establishment and to American intelligence adventurers who may be located very close to the White House.

In the course of the inquiry, conscious that he is going nowhere in the RUC, Duffy is headhunted for a bigger game by MI5 in a rather unusual recruitment procedure. However, a fortuitous injury sustained while trying to settle a domestic dispute has him refused passage on the Chinook helicopter which carried so many of his colleagues and prospective colleagues to their deaths.

Lucky for him. Lucky, too, for us. Duffy is a brilliant character and there must be plenty of unresolved crimes, even in a backwater like Carrickfergus, for him to tackle and for Adrian McKinty to turn into further gripping episodes of this terrific series.
Thank you very much Mr Hayes! And since I have your attention gentle reader I might just point you towards the reviews of Gun Street Girl which have been very strong so far, here. And to some very perceptive blog reviews here, and here.

Friday, January 9, 2015

LA Dreamscape: Inherent Vice, The Big Fix, The Big Lebowski, The Long Goodbye

When did the 1960's end in California? Or more accurately when did the optimistic spirit of the 60's end? With the election of Richard Nixon? With the assassination of Robert Kennedy & Martin Luther King? With the deaths at the free Rolling Stones concert at Altamont? With the murder of Sharon Tate? Whenever it happened the mood in the 1970's was quite different from that of the 60's. The naive hedonism of the baby boomers was cured by Watergate, the oil crisis, recession and defeat in Vietnam. The 70s was a disillusioned cynical age. To be honest I'm not a huge fan of the baby boomers. The Greatest Generation won World War 2 and put a man on the moon but the boomers don't seem to have done much of anything have they? No cure for cancer, no mission to Mars, 20 years of Reagan-Bush-Bush (and maybe 8 more years beginning in 2016). Still they did give us good movies and the 1970's might well be the greatest decade that there's ever been in American cinema. The other day for a bit of fun I curated a little film festival for myself watching 4 movies set in Los Angeles in the post 60's hangover. 
Inherent Vice (2014) dir by Paul Thomas Anderson is based on the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name. Its about the misadventures of a stoner private eye who gets mixed up in a complicated missing persons case after doing a favour for his old lady in and around Manhattan Beach circa 1971. A funny diverting novel has been turned into a pretty solid movie by LA native Anderson. Joaquin Phoenix does his usual terrific job as the lead and the supporting cast is excellent. Paranoia, betrayal, police corruption, the little man fighting the Man are the themes of IV. The film like the book is a shaggy dog story and loses momentum in the final act, still its pros more than outweigh its cons and its probably the only Pynchon film we are ever going to get... I got a DVD screener of IV through a friend of mine but if you get a chance to see it in the cinema you should because I imagine the drenched, expressive cinematography works really well on the big screen. 
I followed Inherent Vice With The Big Lebowski (1998) which I've watched and written about many times before. Although it is set in 1990 Lebowski is about the 60's generation's attempts to cope with a world that has moved on. I know it divides people but I love this movie and Jeff Bridges's boomer Lebowski is a lot more sympathetic than than the 'goldbricking' blowhard millionaire greatest generation Lebowski. Joel and Ethan Coen have said that the biggest literary influence on Lebowski was Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and you can certainly see what they are talking about: both works are classic visions of Los Angeles and both films follow similar trajectories: a foil gets involved with a disabled rich man, the rich man's daughter, and a runaway from his family who gets mixed up in pornography. Paranoia, police corruption, betrayal, the little man fighting the Man are the themes of TBL. Joel Coen has also said that he was influenced by Robert Altman's 1970's remake of Chandler's The Long Goodbye which I saved for last in my little film festival. Next up however was a film I hadn't seen before: 
The Big Fix (1978) was directed by Jeremy Kagan and based on the novel by Roger L. Simon. Richard Dreyfuss plays private detective Moses Wine who gets mixed up in a political corruption scandal connected to the California governor's race. Divorced Dreyfuss's troubles begin with his old lady (very much a move of Vice and Long Goodbye) and get worse as he uncovers the layers of a conspiracy. Moses Wine is a good if unconventional PI who - adorably - brings his kids on various stakeouts because he cant get a baby sitter. This movie doesn't have much of a following on Rotten Tomatoes but I thought it was really good with a kind of low rent Rockford Files vibe. Paranoia, corruption, betrayal, the little man fighting the Man are the themes of TBF.
Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973) was the last on my list of films. A slightly baked version of Marlowe played by the excellent Elliot Gould drives around a duplicitous (can a landscape be duplicitous?) sun-baked decadent Hollywood encountering the kind of people we meet at Paul Simon's party in Annie Hall (1977) or the rich folk who realise they've been out-generalled by Columbo (which began filming around the same time).  Although largely panned on release The Long Goodbye has aged well I think. Beautifully filmed, chock full of crazy characters (wearing fantastic early 70's clothes) and reasonably faithful to the book The Long Goodbye is a gem of a movie that captures a time and place to perfection. Chandler purists hate the ending and Gould in the role but I loved this film. Paranoia, betrayal, police corruption, the little man fighting the Man are the themes of TLG.
Chinatown (1974) which came out a year after The Long Goodbye wasn't on my little self curated film festival list but you might consider it for yourself. Although it's set in a dreamily shot 1930's it was filmed in the 1970's and shares many of the themes, actors and ideas of the films above. And finally you might also want to check out Cutter's Way (1981) a noir classic filmed in the same milieu. 
Hope this little list has given you some ideas for your own 1970s LA movie party as an escape from these troubled times. As always additional suggestions appreciated in the comments below: 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

True Detective & Philosophy

I think one of the reasons why True Detective was so surprisingly good was because the show's writer did not go to Harvard. In Hollywood these days it seems that most of the people in the writers rooms are Ivy League educated men (its almost always men) who grew up in very comfortable upper middle class homes. They've read a lot of books, interned at all the right places, made all the right connections and look presentable but they know absolutely nothing about life. Nic Pizzolatto who wrote and was the showrunner on True Detective does not come from that world. As Wikipedia explains he "grew up poor in a working-class Catholic family in New Orleans and at age 5 he and his family moved to the rural area outside of Lake Charles, Louisiana." In interviews Pizzolatto has talked about growing up in a house without books and how he became increasingly estranged from his surroundings. Wikipedia again: "Lots of poor people there, lots of drinking and fighting and cheating. Also lots of fanatical religion and illiteracy. It’s a rough place." When he finally did get out of Lake Charles Pizzolatto became an autodidact who devoured books and became interested in metaphysics. Perhaps because of his background and probably because he didn't study philosophy at university he was able to pursue his interests in a very unfashionable school of moral philosophy and ethics: the philosophy of pessimism.
Although it had ancient antecedents pessimism's philosophical foundations were laid down for the most part by Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). Schopenhauer influenced in no small part by Buddhism believed that life was largely one of suffering and pain. We are, Schopenhauer says, driven remorselessly by time's whips and even when our wants are satisfied there is no feeling of achievement or satisfaction, but merely a new want that begins bugging us. (I was sufficiently interested in Schopenhauer to write a novel about a group of Schopenhauer inspired cultists who moved to a South Pacific Island to escape the world.) Although some professional philosophers believe that Schopenhauer has been superseded by Nietzsche and his philosophical descendants he really hasn't. Schopenhauer's skepticism about the inherent utility of life itself is still a potent lance with which to poke utilitarians and Kantian deontologists. 
Nic Pizzolatto's main philosophical influences are the modern viverian skeptics David Benatar, Thomas Ligotti and Eugene Thacker. I've read Benatar and Ligotti and was quite impressed by the singularity of their vision and the purity of their argument if not quite completely won over by the bleakness of their world-view. Benatar is a proper peer reviewed philosopher at the University of Cape Town. His book Better To Have Never Been: The Harm Of Coming Into Existence is a thorough, contemporary account of pessimism. Benatar argues that life is suffering and pain and (like his namesake Pat) that even love is a, er, battlefield. His conclusion is that non existence is the only sensible course for a sentient being and that more sentient beings should not be brought into the world. If he had killed himself shortly after finishing the book I would find Benatar's argument a bit more convincing but he seems to live a pretty good life in Cape Town and this good life that he lives is a kind of refutation of everything he says in the book, don't you think?
Thomas Ligotti is a different kettle of fish. Like his namesake Gyorgy Ligeti Ligotti is obsessed by the austere beauty of the dark. Ligotti is a horror writer very much influenced by the pessimistic gothic fiction of HP Lovecraft and the ghost stories of MR James. True Detective in fact often feels like it is taking place in Lovecraft's universe and Cthulu himself is perhaps the mysterious terrifying presence lurking in the bayou in the guise of the Yellow King. (If you ever played Call of Cthulu in the 1980s you'll remember that Cthulu inspired insanity was an important part of the game.) Ligotti's non fiction work The Conspiracy Against The Human Race  is a brilliant literary and philosophical analysis of the pessimistic strain in contemporary culture. Not exactly a nihilist Ligotti is an anti-natalist who believes that the human race cannot be redeemed and that consciousness was an "evolutionary mistake."
I don't know much about Eugene Thacker but he sounds really interesting too. He's a philosopher at the New School in New York. In an interview with Scapegoat magazine he talked about what attracts him to pessimism: 

That is a good definition of “pessimism” to me—the philosophy of the futility of philosophy.[This thread is taken up from] Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Lichtenberg, Leopardi, Pascal, the French moralists. . .writing against the presuppositions of grand, systematic philosophy, composed as it is of fragments, aphorisms, stray thoughts. There is a subtractive rigour to this kind of pessimism, what Nietzsche called the rigour of the “unfinished thought.”  

There's a good wikipedia page about Thacker, here. Since I have your attention I'd also like to mention my old philosophy tutor John Gray who is a well known anti-utopianist and a skeptic about progress in culture and morals. His most recent book is The Silence of Animals
If you're interested in this topic there's a very nice dialogue on The Vulture between Matt Patches and Paul J Ennis where they talk about Detective Rust's nihilistic world view and the - slight - plagiarism controversy over whether Rust's ideas were 'lifted' from or inspired by Ligotti. In the very last act of True Detective, Pizzolatto has Rust change his mind about nihilism and I think this was a bit of a cop out, probably inspired by nervous producers who wanted a little light at the end of the tunnel. Apart from that minor failure of nerve True Detective is as good an exploration of pessimism as you'll see in contemporary culture. My original post looking at some of these aspects and exploring the feminist critique of the show is here. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

Sean Duffy #4 Gun Street Girl

A little video of me talking about the new Sean Duffy book released in the UK and Ireland this week. Below that is a short video playlist of Duffy's stomping ground in Carrickfergus that I made last summer (notice how much stronger my accent is in the videos made in Carrick...) 


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My Most Viewed Blog Post Of 2014

This is the original edit of my piece on locked room mysteries for the Guardian newspaper that I published in January. I explain how I got hooked on the genre and why I wanted to write one of these in the first place. The piece below is longer than the original newspaper article with a little more exposition on my favourite books and my 'rules' about what makes a good locked-roomer...

My Ten Favourite Locked-Room Mystery Novels
Adrian McKinty

When I was ten years old I remember the first proper mystery novel that I read. It was a paperback of Agatha's Christie early classic Murder on the Orient Express. Orient Express, you’ll recall, is the one where everyone did it, which delighted me no end and I was immediately hooked. I began to work my way through the other Agatha Christies at Belfast Central library and it was probably the sympathetic librarian there who put into my hands The Murders In The Rue Morgue, the first real locked-room mystery that I came across.
     Since Rue Morgue I’ve read dozens of locked-roomers (or ‘impossible murders’ as some prefer to call them) and I have developed firm opinions about the genre. I have no truck whatsoever with the ones that have a supernatural solution or where the author doesn’t give you enough information to solve the case for yourself. Some purists don’t like locked-room problems that involve magician’s tricks (a staple of Jonathan Creek for example) but I’m of the opinion that as long as the mechanics of the trick are explained to the reader (or viewer) well before the solution, these can be permissible.
     A locked-room problem lies at the heart of my new novel, In The Morning I’ll Be Gone in which an RUC detective has to find out whether a publican’s daughter who fell off a table in a bar that was locked from the inside was in fact murdered and if so how. The first thing I had to do was to assure the reader I was not cheating about the facts: the pub was indeed locked and bolted from the inside, there were no secret passages, no concealed rooms and certainly no supernatural element. Then, of course, I had to give the reader all the necessary information so that she or he could solve the case at the same time or before the detective. And by all the information I mean: facts, psychology and motive. When it works you should be able to read a locked-room mystery twice, the second time spotting the clues and seeing how the whole thing fits together and, hopefully, enjoying the iron logic of the solution.
     When a locked-room mystery doesn’t work the solution makes you groan and the book gets hurled across the room. In The Murders In The Rue Morgue an elderly Frenchwoman is killed in a locked room on the fourth floor. The solution – spoiler alert – is that the murder was done by a tame orang-utan who climbed in through the open window with a straight razor. Even at the age of ten I wasn’t happy with that. (I think it was George Orwell who said that the even more ridiculous plot point in Rue Morgue was the idea that an edlerly Parisian lady would go to bed with the window open). More recently The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo found itself flying across my kitchen when I realised that the locked-room problem at its heart (actually a locked island) was a cheat because the reader had been clumsily misinformed about the essential facts.
     The golden age of the locked-room mystery in Anglo-American detective fiction has largely passed but in France Paul Halter has been churning out original impossible murder novels since the mid 1980’s and In Japan the great Soji Shimada virtually invented the Shinhonkaku “logic problem” sub-genre which is still extremely popular today.
     I think there are four elements that make a really good locked-room mystery novel: 1. An original puzzle. 2. An interesting detective and supporting characters. 3. Lively prose. 4. An elegant solution to the puzzle. Mixing classic and contemporary with no supernatural activity allowed these are my ten favourite locked-room/impossible murder novels:

10. The Moonstone (1868) – Wilkie Collins. Rachel Verinder’s cursed Indian diamond ‘The Moonstone’ disappears from her room after her birthday party. This is only a rudimentary locked-roomer, but as the first and still one of the best detective novels it had to be on my list.

9. The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) – John Dickson Carr. Dr. Gideon Fell investigates an alarming number of ‘suicides’ at a remote Scottish castle. The deaths have taken place in locked or completely inaccessible rooms. Dickson Carr was rightly known as the “master of the locked-room mystery” and this entire list could, with some justification, have been made solely from JDC books.

8. And Then There Were None (1939) – Agatha Christie. (Originally published under two equally unfortunate titles.) Eight people with guilty secrets are invited to an isolated island off the coast of Devon where they begin to be murdered one by one. When there are only two of them left the fun really begins.

7. Suddenly At His Residence (1946) – Christianna Brand. In another part of Devon Sir Richard March has been found poisoned in his lodge. A sand covered pathway leading to the lodge is rolled daily by the gardener. Only one set of footprints is found leading to the lodge and they belong to Claire, who discovered the body. A witty and engaging mystery from a writer who was another locked room specialist.

6. The Big Bow Mystery (1892) – Israel Zangwill. Mrs Drabdump’s lodger is discovered with his throat cut, no trace of a murder weapon and no way a murderer could have got in or out. Arguably the first proper locked-roomer and still a classic of the form.

5. The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1908) – Gaston Leroux. Miss Stangerson is found severely injured, attacked in a locked room at the Chateau du Glandier. Leroux provides maps and floor plans showing that a presumptive murderer could not possibly have entered or escaped. Amateur sleuth Joseph Rouletabille has to figure out how the attack was done. Another early classic.

4. The King Is Dead (1951) – Ellery Queen (Frederic Dannay & Manfred Lee). King Bendigo, a wealthy munitions magnate, has been threatened by his brother Judah, who announces that he will shoot King at exactly midnight on June 21st at his private island residence. King locks himself in a hermetically sealed office accompanied only by his wife, Karla. Judah is under Ellery Queen's constant observation. At midnight, Judah lifts an empty gun and pulls the trigger and at the same moment, in the sealed room, King falls back, wounded with a bullet. No gun is found on Karla or anywhere in the sealed room. Furthermore the bullet that wounds King came from Judah’s gun which didn’t actually fire. Good, huh?

3. La Septième hypothèse (1991) – Paul Halter. In pre War London Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Archie Hurst are visited by a man named Peter Moore, secretary to Sir Gordon Miller, a mystery author. According to Moore, Sir Gordon had a strange visitor who gave him a murder challenge. The two men tossed a coin and whoever lost had to commit a murder and try to pin the blame on the other. Peter Moore is subsequently found dead. There are only two possible suspects and both have ironclad alibis. Seven solutions present themselves in this ultra twisty novel.

2. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981) – Soji Shimada. The book begins on a snowy evening in the Shōwa period of pre war Japan. A wealthy artist, Heikichi Umezawa, is finishing up his great cycle of paintings: 12 large canvases on Zodiacal subjects. As he works on the last one his head is smashed in with a blunt object. The studio is locked from the inside and the suspects have alibis. Over the next four decades many of Umezawa’s family members are also gruesomely killed, most in ‘impossible’ ways. In a series of postmodern asides Soji Shimada repeatedly taunts the reader explaining that all the clues are there for an astute observer.

1. The Hollow Man (1935) – John Dickson Carr. Someone breaks into Professor Grimaud's study, kills him and leaves, with the only door to the room locked from the inside, and with people present in the hall outside the room. The ground below the window is covered with unbroken snow. All the elements are balanced just right in this, the best of Dickson Carr’s many locked-room problems.

Monday, December 29, 2014

My Most Commented On Blog Post Of 2014

Last week [Sept 7] in the Guardian former Booker Prize winner Peter Carey attacked the expansion of the Booker Prizes to include American authors. Carey was worried that hordes of Yanks would come over here with their slick talk, Hershey bars and nylons and ultimately the Bookers ‘particular cultural flavour’ would be lost. This was always an unlikely scenario for two reasons: firstly, Hershey bars aren't so great and everybody knows it, secondly Brits are extremely protective of their native literature and this year’s two token Yanks on the shortlist were never going to win.
No, the real problem with the Booker Prize is symbolised by Peter Carey himself: there are too many posh people on the judging panel and too many posh people on the shortlist. Julian Barnes, another former winner, once called The Booker Prize “posh bingo,” and that’s what it has become. Books about working class people and working class lives almost never win the Booker Prize even when they are clearly the best book of the year. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, White Teeth and Brick Lane were all famously excluded from the Booker. Write a book about a man from Hampstead having an affair in the Dordogne and you’ve got a potential winner, but write about a schoolgirl growing up in a council flat in Hackney and you can kiss your chances goodbye. That’s the theory anyway, but can I back any of this up with statistics? Actually I think I can.
       First of all how do we define poshness? Well, a useful rule of thumb is private school. In the United Kingdom only about 5% of the population actually goes to private school (this statistic always amazes the London based journalistic class, almost all of whom, it seems, er, went to private school). Now, if you do an analysis of, say, the last twenty years Booker judging panels you’ll find that a majority of the judges were educated privately, and the stats are even worse with the Booker Prize jury chairpersons. To find the last jury chairperson who went to state school you have to go all the way back to James Naughtie in 2009. Statistically there should be one privately educated Booker chairperson every twenty years or so, but in fact, in the last twenty years, fifteen or possibly sixteen (I’m getting this info from Wikipedia) of the Booker Prize jury chairpersons went to private school. That’s an over representation by a whopping 1600 per cent. (You have to go back over twenty years before you find a Booker jury chairwoman who went to a state school!)
       The stats show that the Booker Prize judging panels are almost always made up of posh people and their chairperson is almost always very posh indeed. Posh people naturally would be sympathetic towards books about their own class and resistant to challenges to the status quo, hence Peter Carey’s worry about vulgar Americans entering the fray. (Peter Carey boarded at Geelong Grammar, one of the most expensive and exclusive private schools in Australia.) In consequence the Booker Prize winning novel is often a safe middle class rather dull book.
       Not this year though. This year’s winner, Richard Flanagan, is a country boy from hardscrabble, rural Tasmania but crucially the hero of his terrific novel, The Narrow Road To The Deep North, is an officer and a doctor tending POW’s in Japanese occupied Burma. This was a wise move on Flanagan’s part. Novels about officers and doctors have a chance of winning the Booker, novels about working class enlisted men don’t. (Incidentally as with many of the disasters of World War 2, it was the posh, idiotic officers who let down the enlisted men when the British surrendered at Singapore - lions led by donkeys, indeed.)
       My favourite book of last year, Red or Dead, by David Peace was an extraordinary novel that invented an entirely new English prose style to tell its story; but Peace never stood a chance of winning the Booker because the world he was writing about was too working class, too northern, too socialist and the love of football in Red or Dead was sincere, communitarian and quasi religious – a million miles removed from the sophisticated, ironic, metropolitan stance of, say a Julian Barnes or Will Self novel.
       Is there anything that can be done to fix the Booker Prize, to make it more relevant and less exclusive? I know the Booker folks won’t listen to me but here are four ideas.
       1 No more posh Booker jury chairmen. A moratorium on private school educated men would still leave you with 97.5% of the British population to choose from and I’ll bet the resulting longlists will have more books from the north, more working class settings, more minorities and more female protagonists.
       2 Publishers should be allowed to enter more than one book per year. At the moment, unless they made the longlist in the previous year, publishers are restricted to one book per house. This encourages them to be conservative, entering only novels that resemble books which have won in the past and which they think might please the judges. Letting them enter 2 books will encourage them to enter a safe choice and a more risky choice.
       3 Encourage genre fiction. The best science fiction, crime fiction and romance writing is often as good as literary fiction but these books seldom make the Booker shortlist because they are considered to be a low form of writing.
       4 Don’t listen to Peter Carey, keep the Americans.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Closure On The Hobbit

I first read The Hobbit in the summer of 1978. As a fairly sensitive ten year old kid growing up in rainy, war-torn, depressing Belfast The Hobbit and Tolkien's universe offered me an enchanted, exciting alternative universe to escape to far from the everyday world of bombs and guns. Tolkien's land was self consciously rural, a pre industrial mythological Europe peopled with magical races and artifacts. I loved the map at the beginning of The Hobbit and the even bigger map at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings. I liked imagining myself exploring the far flung places of Middle Earth that no one ever talked about: The Sea of Rhun, Far Harad, The Mouths of the Anduin... Later when I played MERP (Middle Earth Role Playing) I set campaigns in these places and had my characters explore The Iron Mountains or The Bay or Forochel.
I grew out of Lord of the Rings of course, mainly I think because of its sexlessness, its lack of humour and especially its treatment of the bad guys. The orcs and goblins are sentient creatures who undoubtedly feel fear and pain but as readers we aren't allowed to think about that and we are supposed to rejoice in their deaths (Gimli and Legolas make a game out of killing Orcs). We never find out what the orcs and actually goblins want. What are their goals and dreams? What would an orc victory over Middle Earth look like? Their minds are no doubt swamped by Sauron's power but are there no orcs out there who are capable of resisting, who are capable of having ambitions of their own? Despite what Peter Jackson would have you believe orcs reproduce sexually and have children and for those children to be reared at all they must be loved. And if orcs are capable of love surely it makes slaughtering them with such gay abandon a bit more problematical, no? When I GM'ed MERP campaigns (that took place after the War of the Ring) I had my characters encounter Orcs who had become farmers* and traders (this was not as boring as it sounds) who could be reasoned with not just killed. 
After Tolkien I moved onto Ursula Le Guin, David Eddings, Raymond Feist and other fantasy writers and eventually gave up on the genre completely. I came to believe as Edmund Wilson famously said that Tolkien viewed "the whole drama of life as a showdown between Good People and Goblins.” In another famous essay Michael Moorcock called Tolkien's mythos nothing more than Epic Pooh. (I've written about some of these critiques in The Guardian, here.) As the years went by I grew less fond of Middle Earth but I still visited Tolkien's grave when I moved to Oxford and I made The Eagle and Child my local. And I admit that when I heard that Peter Jackson was making a movie out of Lord of the Rings much of my old excitement was rekindled. I enjoyed The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers and only began to get weary of the whole project during the bombastic and interminable endings (plural) of The Return of the King (the worst of the 3 films). 
On Boxing Day 2014 I finally saw the last film in Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy and now I have some sense of closure. The decision to squeeze as much money out of the fans as possible by making this into 3 films was inexcusable. The Hobbit was by far the most filmable and accessible of the Tolkien stories but greed turned what could have been a solid 2 and a half hour movie into a 9 hour trilogy (the special edition will be 10 hours long), filmed inexplicably at 48fps and in 3 D. The Battle of the Five Armies was long and only intermittently interesting. By stuffing every frame with Lucas-esque CGI, by inventing pointless additional characters by turning The Hobbit into 3 heavy handed clunky films Jackson has finally worn down the last goodwill of this Tolkien fan. I'm glad it's all over. The kid in 1978 would have been so excited to see The Hobbit, the adult in 2014 is now thoroughly fed up with Peter Jackson's versions of Tolkien's books and hopes sincerely that they don't ever make any more. 
*I've always wondered what the orcs and goblins in The Hobbit actually eat. There are tens of thousands of them living underground in Moria and the Misty Mountains and there are no plants or large game animals underground. You could sustain a much smaller population by raiding, hunting and foraging on the surface, but how all those thousands of orcs and goblins feed themselves without agriculture is a mystery. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Ridley Rated

This is an updated version of an earlier post...updated to include my ratings of Exodus (which wasn't very good) and The Counselor which despite the terrible reviews (and my own horrified review of the screenplay) I rather enjoyed.
I like Ridley Scott. He's got a great work ethic for a 77 year old and he's a blunt Geordie (very entertaining interview with Scott here.) Although I dont consider myself a Scott fanboy somehow I have managed to see all of his films. British critics especially consider him to be an auteur but he clearly isn't a genius all the time as there have been some real stinkers along the way. A visual poet certainly but story often lets him down. Although it pains me to say it I don't think Scott has made a really good film in a decade, but I have high hopes for The Martian (one of my favourite books of the year) which will be released in December 2015. Scott will apparently not now direct the Blade Runner sequel due in 2016 but has taken a producer credit on that one. He is determined to make a sequel to the mediocre Prometheus which is due in 2017 when Ridley will be 80 years old. Anyway these are my ratings in the standard A-F format:

1977 The Duellists A
1979 Alien A
1982 Blade Runner A
1985 Legend F
1987 Someone to Watch Over Me D
1989 Black Rain C
1991 Thelma & Louise C
1992 1492: Conquest of Paradise D
1996 White Squall D
1997 G.I. Jane C
2000 Gladiator B
2001 Hannibal D
2002 Black Hawk Down A
2003 Matchstick Men C
2005 Kingdom of Heaven E
2006 A Good Year F
2007 American Gangster D
2008 Body of Lies E
2010 Robin Hood F
2012 Prometheus D
2013 The Counselor C
2014 Exodus D
2015 The Martian ?