“The Good Soldiers”

I want to say a word to our troops and civilians in Iraq. You’ve performed with incredible skill under demanding circumstances. The turnaround you have made possible in Iraq is a brilliant achievement in American history. And while this war is difficult, it is not endless. And we expect that as conditions on the ground continue to improve, they will permit us to continue the policy of return on success. The day will come when Iraq is a capable partner of the United States. The day will come when Iraq is a stable democracy that helps fight our common enemies and promote our common interests in the Middle East. And when that day arrives, you’ll come home with pride in your success and the gratitude of your whole nation. God bless you.

- George W. Bush, April 10, 2008

Each of the chapters in David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, the account of the fifteen months he spent in Iraq with the 2 – 16 battalion on the outskirts of Baghdad, begins with a quote from the then President of the United States; and, without editorial comment, Finkel shows us, in each chapter,  the changing attitudes and growing incomprehension of the officers and men, their fraying hopes and dogged aspirations, as what is happening on the ground increasingly contrasts with the President’s words. And it only takes a glance in the direction of the evening news to set those remarks into a wider context.

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Geoff Dyer said recently that it was non-fiction books that had made the strongest impression upon him of late, rather than fiction. And it’s the case that many of the qualities we expect from fiction – characterisation, narrative development, tension, surprise – the opening up of a world that is both familiar and strange – are here, but with the added knowledge that what we are reading in these pages does not have its wellspring in the writer’s imagination – though there are times when we might wish that were the case – but from his observation. All right, he has made choices, as any writer does, what to report, what to omit, which conversations to include, which to set aside, but the bedrock here is fact rather than fiction and as such, to my reading at least, it hits all the harder.

And what shines through all of Finkel’s writing, alongside a growing bewilderment of the task these men have been set, is his respect for them, no matter what they say or do – no matter how far their views might stray from what we might presume to be his own – and the respect, the love, they have for one another. So, as you read on, each injury becomes an injury shared; each death, lingering or sudden, a loss that is strongly felt.

I can’t recommend this book strongly enough.

A US Humvee in Iraq. Photo: Jewel Samad

A US Humvee in Iraq. Photo: Jewel Samad

“Fourth of July Creek”

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It’s been a long while, too long, since I picked up a novel without any previous sense of what it was going to be like, what it was about, anything, and found it almost impossible to put down until it was finished. Smith Henderson’s debut novel, Fourth of July Creek, is just such a book, and it begins like this …

The cop flicked his cigarette to the dirt-and-gravel road in front of the house, and touched back his hat over his hairline as the social worker drove up in a dusty Toyota Corolla.

So far, so hard-boiled. You could be forgiven for thinking it’s the opening sentence to an American crime novel and, in some ways, it is. The cop in question is mistaken in his assumption that the social worker about to alight from the car will be a woman, but he’s wrong.

“Name’s Pete,” the social worker said, tucking the clipboard and manila folder under his arm, shaking the cop’s hand. “We’re usually women,” he added, smiling with an openness that put the cop at ill ease.

Working alone, or as near to it as makes no difference, and responsible for a patch of mainly rural Montana that seems to stretch towards infinity, if not beyond, Pete is as well-meaning, diligent and caring as a man in his position can be – allowing for a drink problem that varies only in degrees of seriousness, and a wife who’s on the point of leaving him for Texas and taking their daughter with her.

During the day-to-day course of his work, he comes into contact with a violent and eccentric survivalist, whose 11 year old son he strives to protect – just one tough number in a case load amongst many. Here, as elsewhere, he’s close to the loner protagonist we frequently find in crime fiction (his ‘heroic’ drinking in Montana bars brought to mind the characters from a novel by the late James Crumley); closer still when his young teenage daughter goes missing and he sets off to find her.

One of  Henderson’s considerable achievements is to make us both believe in Pete and empathise with him, an empathy that’s necessary if we are to follow him through this sometimes gruesome narrative without being overwhelmed by the awfulness of the lives it transcribes. But Pete strikes true and so do the majority of situations, characters and relationships that inter-twine in the book’s 450-plus pages.

Despite a tendency towards simile and the over-ripe description – never use one qualifier when you can use two – that so much contemporary American fiction is prey to (he was Philip Roth Resident in Creative Writing at Bucknell University) … let’s take a couple of examples from page 84 …

A cold gale ripped at him when he stepped out and the high thin clouds marbled the sky where the sun was placed in the middle of it, like a heartless, gaudy stone.

Chromed long-haulers glinted like showgirls among logging trucks caked in oatmealy mud, white exhaust thrashing flamelike in the wind from their silvery stacks.

… for the most part, Henderson’s prose is hard and anchored in specificity, not afraid to cut in close and away, or to let the dialogue take the strain where necessary … This comes from chapter five, in which he confronts his wife as she is about to leave …

“Fucking Texas?” he asked.
He looked about. Bright squares of fresher paint where the pictures had been removed. Indentures of the cough feet in the rug.
‘Yeah, Pete. Texas.”
“And you don’t ask me.”
“I don’t gotta ask you where I can live.”
“The hell you don’t, Beth. She’s my daughter.”
‘You’re welcome to take her up into the woods with you. If she’d go.”
Backlit from the sunlight in the kitchen, his daughter appeared or might have been in the doorway the whole time. Nearly featureless in the shadows, a cutout. Knobbed at the knees, holding her kindling arms across her.Kn0wing if he went toward her she’d bolt to her room and slam the door, but he did anyway and she did, of course, run to her room.
“Applesauce, come on.”
She was thirteen. She hated him.
He stood in the kitchen. Beth’s keys were on the table. She saw him looking at them and she picked them up and chucked them at his chest.

I don’t know if that’s the kind of stuff you like, but I love it. It’s clear, it’s strong, carries an emotional charge with scarcely a word wasted. In some ways it reminds me of the writing in Peter Temple’s Truth and that’s close to the highest praise I can give. And like Truth, I’d be very surprised if, at some point in the future, I didn’t want to read it again.

 

 

 

Reports From The Road – 8

A couple of days before the fairly glorious Harrogate hoo-hah, otherwise known as the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, I spent a pleasant evening at Heffers’ fine bookshop in Cambridge, enjoying an evening under the aegis of the store’s knowledgeable crime fiction supremo, Richard Reynolds – an event headlined in Mike Ripley’s most recent Getting Away With Murder column in (or should that be on?) ShotsMag, from whence this photo …

Jim Kelly, Alison Joseph & myself at Heffers

Jim Kelly, Alison Joseph & myself at Heffers

The highlight for me of the Harrogate weekend was being interviewed by fellow-writer and friend Mark Billingham in front of an audience of several hundred people; unsurprisingly, Mark did an excellent job and, in consequence, I was able to relax and, thus, enjoyed it a great deal.

Next up is the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Tuesday, 19th August, when I shall be interviewed alongside the Swedish author, Arne Dahl, whose most recent book is To The Top of the Mountain.

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A short break and then, on the evening of Saturday 13th September, I’m in tandem with this year’s CWA Diamond Dagger winner, Simon Brett, at Norwich Waterstone’s, as part of the brand new Noirwich Crime Writing Festival.

Friday September 26th and Saturday 27th finds me down on the south coast at Shoreham WordFest, first reading with the wonderful poet Lee Harwood and John Lake’s fine jazz quartet, and then talking crime with expert Peter Guttridge. And, back in London the following day, Sunday, I’m reading poetry again at the Torriano Meeting House in Kentish Town.

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On National Poetry Day, Thursday 2nd October, I shall be reading at Retford Library in Nottinghamshire, before scurrying back south to pack my bags and climb aboard Eurostar to take part in the Festival du Polar (that’s crime fiction to any non-French speakers out there) at Villeneuve les Avignon.

On Saturday 18th October, I shall be crossing the water again, though this time not so far, heading for the Isle of Wight Festival. Which just leaves Nottingham Readers’ Day on Saturday 8th November, Poetry in the Crypt in Islington on Saturday 15th November, and, finally, the Paris Polar Festival on the weekend of November 22nd, 23rd.

And I thought I was supposed to be slipping slowly and easily into a quiet retirement!

Further details of all these events can be found here …

J. T. Edson on Boot Hill

Long before Laurence James, Angus Wells or myself set out on the trail, another British writer of westerns, J. T. Edson, rode out before us. A collector of replica weapons, with decidedly traditional, not to say extreme right-wing views – in one of his novels he celebrated the Ku Klux Klan as an heroic resistance group – there was a period in the 1960s and early 70s when his westerns – and he wrote just short of 140 of them from his home in Melton Mowbray in the East Midlands – sold well enough for his name to be mentioned alongside that of best-selling American author Louis L’Amour.

J. T. Edson

J. T. Edson

But tastes were changing, and the Edge series of novels, published by New English Library and written by Terry Harknett under the name of George G. Gilman, were more to an emerging public’s taste: violent, sexually explicit and fast-moving, the west that they resembled was that of the Sam Peckinpah and the Spaghetti Western, rather than the more down-to-earth B Movie west peopled on screen by the likes of the baby-faced World War Two hero, Audie Murphy.

In the wake of Edge and another Harknett/Gilman creation, Adam Steele, Laurence James, Angus Wells and myself, writing in a series of combinations and under a variety of pen names, worked on a number of series through the mid- to late-70s, Herne the Hunter, Hawk and The Gringos amongst them. As a publishing phenomenon it was successful if short-lived, though many of the titles are now available against as eBooks through Picadilly Publishing.

Born in Worksop, son of a miner, and educated in Shirebrook, Edson served for four years in the army, afterwards undertaking a number of mundane jobs including that oƒ postman, before turning his hand to writing. Poor health, added to the virtual demise of the western as a popular form, led him to stop writing in the 1990s and from then until the end of his life in July of this year, he had apparently lived as a virtual recluse.

 

Young Vic – “A Streetcar Named Desire”

It took something close to an act of faith to book as far ahead for the Young Vic’s production as we did – other than a vague ‘summer 2014′ there weren’t even any dates when we laid out our cash. We could have been in Croatia or Penwith or just about anywhere … but the promise of Gillian Anderson as Blanche under Benedict Andrews’ direction … Worth a punt, surely?

Surely.

Without being as transformative as the version of The Three Sisters he directed and partly rewrote for the Young Vic in 2012, what Andrews achieves here, by dint of a fairly understated updating, is to remove Tennessee Williams’ play from the baroque cocoon of Southern Gothic and place it in something more contemporary, a study of sexual need and frustration, a portrait of a deteriorating mind.

Played on an open set and a slowly revolving stage that switches both tempo and direction, one of Andrews’ strongest achievements – and one which both rebalances and thickens the texture of the play – is to raise up the role of Blanche’s sister, Stella, to that, almost of an equal, where this is her story as well, her pain and her need, and in Vanessa Kirby (Masha in his Three Sisters) he has an actress with the presence and physicality necessary to claim her place in the story.

Vanessa Kirby

Vanessa Kirby

Gillian Anderson is at her best in the quieter moments, those looking back on the tragedies of her past, while giving Blanche a self-awareness and a brittle sexuality that brings out the occasional humour of the lines even as she shows us the unravelling of her mind. Amongst the other performers, I thought Corey Johnson excellent as Mitch, her would-be suitor, so bravely out of his depth, and only Ben Foster’s Stanley somehow failed to bring the necessary magnetism to his role, diminished here perhaps by the vibrancy of both Blanche and Stella. Not The Three Sisters, but The Two Sisters?

 

At the Movies: “Boyhood”

Richard Linklater is one of those movie directors for whom less is more (witness the way he strung out the Sunrise trilogy) and, with Boyhood, he gives us far more of less than any of us really need.

Filmed over 12 years, in order, presumably, to show its central character – Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane – growing and evolving more naturally than would have been the case had he used actors of different ages – there were times, during the earlier sections especially, when it felt as if it was going to be 12 years in the viewing.

Truth is, very little – one martinet, secret-drinking father aside – that happens to Mason during his pre-teen and early teenage years is of much interest at all; little that we haven’t seen or read in umpteen previous accounts of suburban life in America. Nor does the film succeed in showing – and this is one of my main arguments with it – how the events and emotions of this earlier life turn him into the responsible, emotionally guarded and artistic young man he’s seen to have become. Rather, it’s as if somehow he passes through boyhood relatively untouched, his future determined not by actual life but rather by happenstance – an interest in and talent for photography, for instance, that comes, not from the character but the young actor playing him – and by the demands of a script, however loose, that was based around, one might assume, some kind of fairly idealised version of Linklater himself.

The other flaw for me in the film is the in way it privileges, all too easily, the feckless charm of Mason’s biological, but occasional, father, as played winningly by Linklater favourite Ethan Hawke, here a failed muso turned insurance company actuary who takes the kid bowling and offers poor advice about relationships with girls, against the solid, more predictable presence of Patricia Arquette as the mother, steadily moving herself up the academic ladder while making the worst possible choices in husbands. What she should have done, the film suggests, is to have been more patient with good old Ethan in the first place, let him sew a few more wild oats in Alaska or wherever, and wait for him to become the fairly boring figure he is with his second family.

Most critics, I know – including one or two I trust, such as Nigel Andrews and Anthony Lane – have found a great deal here to admire. I’d like to have joined them, but I can’t.

 

 

 

Harvey Interviewed x 2

Those who were at Harrogate recently for the Theakstons’ International Crime Festival and lucky enough (?) to have been in the audience for the final session of the weekend, in which I was interviewed by Mark Billingham about my crime writing career and why I’m bringing it towards an end, seem to reckon, most of them anyway, that it was a pretty okay occasion.

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For those who missed it, I can offer up, via YouTube,  an earlier interview – conversation, really – with Mark, conducted in the old New Cross police station …

And for those who prefer the written word, here’s an interview conducted with Graham Smith of The Crime Squad earlier on that Sunday morning at Harrogate …

Just a word of warning about the latter – it was early in the morning and I probably had enjoyed one (or two) too many Jameson the night before, so my usual off-the-cuff coherence is not always in evidence.