Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best Reads of 2009

I started keeping track of every book I read a few years ago. I never would have remembered all the great books I read this year if I hadn’t written them down; there were too many.

The following list contains the best books I read for the first time in 2009, regardless of when they were published. (Which is why The Big Sleep isn’t listed.) Last year I named five. This year I planned for ten and was able to pare it to a baker’s dozen only by creating a list of honorable mentions that would have probably made the list in any other year.

Here’s my list, in the order in which they were read.

A Darker Domain, Val McDermid – My first McDermid, it won’t be the last. Excellent cold case story with class differences at the crux. McDermid’s from caol people, and understands them, and their trials. There’s no overt social comment, but it’s rife between the lines, making this en excellent book on multiple levels. The understated writing style is a perfect fit.

The Given Day
, Dennis Lehane – Much anticipated, and even better than I’d hoped. Lehane has long written crime stories that were about something more; now he’s written a book about something more than happens to have crime in it. A wonderful book.

The Ice Harvest, Scott Phillips – I saw the movie and liked it. I met Scott at Bouchercon in Baltimore and liked him. Everyone who knew me and had read it said I’d like it, so I read it. Liked it even more than I expected. A noir story with humor, not gags, the narrator and reader laughing at what clueless bastards these guys are, and waiting to see how the crime gods will smite them next.

Hardcore Hardboiled
, edited by Todd Robinson – A collection of stories originally published by Robinson’s Thuglit website. As with any anthology, some stories are stronger than others, but this collection touches all the bases. Sean Chercover’s award-winning “A Sleep Not Unlike Death” is here, along with high octane stories from Tim Wohlforth, Ryan Oakley, Victor Gischler, B.H. Shepherd, Vincent Kovar, Duane Swierczynski, David Bareford, Charlie Stella, and several others all worth the time. (Full disclosure: I would have loved this book even if I didn’t have a story appearing in Thuglit’s next anthology. And gotten a free copy based on my detailed knowledge of Apocalypse Now. Honest to God.)

What the Dead Know, Laura Lippman – I’m not much of fan of her Tess Monaghan stories, but Lippman’s shorts and standalones are as good as anyone’s. This book is everything a taut mystery should be.

Fifty Grand,
Adrian McKinty – Michael Forsythe has suffered enough in McKinty’s Dead series. This standalone about a Cuban cop looking for answers about how her father died in Colorado is as tightly written as one would expect from McKinty. He knows the territories, having lived in Colorado and spent time in Cuba, and leverages that knowledge with the right amount of cynicism and sardonic eye. Wherever he goes from here is worth watching.

Breathing Water
, Timothy Hallinan – Hallinan may be my favorite contemporary writer. No one writes believable thrillers like he does. He doesn’t just pay lip service to the importance of characters and relationships; his books are about them. The writing treads the line between hardboiled and poetic at times. No one writes more complete and engrossing thrillers. And he keep getting better.

All the Dead Voices
, Declan Hughes – Speaking of continuing to get better, the fourth Ed Loy novel picks a few scabs from the Irish Troubles that weren’t well received by some who were closer to them than I. The controversy’s a shame, as Hughes merges his usual Macdonald-esque family secrets story with the historical backdrop to go to another level.

Cottonwood, Scott Phillips – I loved The Ice Harvest, I like Westerns, so what the hell? The hell of it is, this might be an even better book than Ice Harvest. Phillips has shown interest in using Bill Ogden in a series. Let’s hope so. The voice here is as perfect as the one used for Ice Harvest, though different, as the stories are much different. Phillips nails them both.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle, George V. Higgins – Technically this shouldn’t be here, as I’d read it quite a while ago, before I knew enough to get what Higgins was up to. Now I get it; this truly is a seminal work.

Chasing Darkness
, Robert Crais – Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are reading comfort food to me, among the reasons this book was in my hand when the plane took off for Bouchercon in Indianapolis. That’s not why I was still reading in my hotel room after midnight. Crais is now at the height of his skill; his comfort with these characters is evident on every page. In this familiarity does not breed contempt, but a willingness to take them wherever he wants.

Blood’s a Rover, James Ellroy – My only previous Ellroy was The Cold Six Thousand, and I hated it. Blood’s a Rover hooked me in the first scene and held me, sometimes against my will, through to the end. Love it or hate it, there’s genius sprinkled throughout; you’ll always remember it.

London Boulevard
, Ken Bruen – An updated take on Sunset Boulevard, with William Holden’s Joe Gillis replaced by someone more like Richard Stark’s Parker. All the usual Bruen trademarks and a refreshing perspective on a familiar story. Cold-blooded fun.

Swan Peak, James Lee Burke – I wasn’t sure about this one at first, and I still don’t think his lush descriptions suit Montana as well as they do Louisiana, but multiple layers of story and character combine with a nifty twist at the ending to make this a first-class read.

And that still doesn’t cover it. Honorable mention goes to:
Priest, Ken Bruen
High Season, Jon Loomis
Soul Patch, Reed Farrel Coleman
Swag, Elmore Leonard
Slammer, Allan Guthrie
Family Secrets, Jeff Coen
Silent Edge, Michael Koryta
No More Heroes, Ray Banks
Shakedown, Charlie Stella

If 2010 reads as well as 2009, I’d better rest up.

December's Best Reads

My reading year ended with a bang.

Mischief, Ed McBain – A good, old-school, everyone gets into the act 87th Precinct story, featuring the Deaf Man. Meyer and Hawes get the mystery of abandoned Alzheimer’s patients, Parker and Kling have to work the killings of graffiti artists, and Carella and Brown have to figure out what the hell the Deaf Man is up to. All the stories end with less than perfect resolutions, and McBain is in fine form as the narrator.

Somebody Owes Me Money
, Donald Westlake –The Hunter, played for laughs. Chester Conway gets a tip on a horse and winds, then shows up to collect a few minutes after his bookie gets clipped. The bookie’s widow, his sister, two crime factions, and the cops all think Chet’s involved when all he wants is his $930. He’s going to get it, though. Laugh out loud funny in spots, especially when Chet is laid up and all the other players pass though his bedroom to advance their agendas. Great fun.

Swan Peak, James Lee Burke – His flowing descriptions seem better suited for the lush vegetation of Louisiana than to the sometimes stark beauty of Montana, but Dave Robicheaux always delivers. Clete’s more involved here than usual as a vacation goes sour when he accidentally camps on restricted property. Local law, the feds, organized crime, and a Texas escapee and his pursuer complicate things right up to the ending that doesn’t end quite how you expect.

Shakedown, Charlie Stella – A New York bookie quits the business three months before his old boss turns state’s evidence. Multiple plot lines interweave, and no one does anything out-of-character stupid just to advance the plot; it all makes sense when the decisions are made, no matter how badly things turn out. The mobsters are unapologetically, not caricatures, and the dialog is dead on.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Female Protagonists

Christa Faust recently linked her blog to an article she wrote for Los Angeles Magazine on the fetishization of beautiful female victims. (It’s well worth your time; I’ll wait until you finish.)

I don’t read as much crime fiction by women, or with female protagonists, as I might, or probably should. This has gotten better over the past couple of years, but not greatly so. I have my reasons:

Female protagonists are too often men with breasts and no Adam’s apples. They’re young, sexy, and kick ass. I have nothing against young, sexy, kickass women in principle, but they’re not exactly falling out of trees. (Neither are young, sexy, kickass men, either, but the genre isn’t afraid to have middle-aged, dumpy male heroes.) What’s the point of replacing one stereotype with another, even less realistic?

Female protagonists too often depend on men (or divine intervention) to solve their cases or save their asses. Stephanie Plum comes to mind. You can think of others without me.

Stories with female protagonists are too often cozies in hard-boiled clothing. A lot of people like cozies; generally, I don’t. Whether you do or don’t, a cozy masquerading as hard-boiled is either awkward or comes off as a parody, and parody is harder to pull off than it looks.

Authors—male and female—too often seem uncomfortable with a heroine’s, uh, personal life. How sexually aggressive, or even sexually active, should she be? Will she seem like a bitch if she’s Type A, or a pushover if she’s not? Awkwardness by the writer in this area can easily ruin a book. (Awkwardness in this area by the character can make a book. Many people have this issue, and I suspect women in traditionally male positions probably more than most.)

I’ve come across three female authors who handle all of the above well: Sara Paretzky, Libby Fischer Hellmann, and Christa Faust. (There are, I know, many more. I just haven’t got to them yet.) Christa’s Angel Dare in Money Shot could be a seminal character. (No pun intended.) It’s good to hear Christa has finished the sequel. Having gone that far, Christa is now looking at another breakthrough:

Would it be possible to create a female version of Bucky Bleichert, the obsessed detective in Ellroy’s Black Dahlia? Would a traditionally feminine woman ever fall for a murdered man? Would she moon over his handsome photo, promising his image that she would bring his killer to justice? Or is there something so inherently masculine about the archetype of the white knight avenging the dead maiden that its opposite just doesn’t work?

There’s some hard-wiring to be overcome. Men are the traditional hunters/protectors and women are the traditional gatherers/nurturers. We also know those are not hard and fast rules, especially not in the 21st Century where familial roles are often reversed and single parents are not uncommon. Why wouldn’t some of these characteristics bleed over into the other gender in a realistic way?

Why can’t a woman go “down these mean streets…who is not [her]self mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid?” The situations she could reasonably get herself out of might not get as dire as what a man might be expected to handle, but such a woman would have to be smart and resourceful enough to recognize them and plan exit strategies. She need be neither a nymphomaniac nor frigid; she’s more likely to handle a .32 than a .44, but the smaller gun is just as deadly if used expertly. She may prefer cooking over sports, or not; I know women of both persuasions, and neither precludes the smarts and toughness needed to carry such a story.

Personally, I’d love to read a book like the one Christa describes, so long as it’s not done as a novelty. (And she certainly wouldn’t do it that way.) Such a book might open the gates for a lot of writers. If Spenser can be so overtly masculine while loving to cook, why can’t a woman be solidly feminine and like to build cabinets?

There are two potential hurdles to be overcome. One is whether a woman such as we’re talking about could be reasonably written. I suspect so, but not by me. Part of that is, frankly, because I’m a man. I can relate to the “Laura” scenario; I have no idea if a woman would be so inclined to fall prey to a “Lawrence” obsession. There are a lot of excellent writers who don’t have that problem.

The second, and, I suspect, greater problem is how the public would take to it. We all know best-sellers aren’t created by challenging people’s notions. James Patterson didn’t get to be James Patterson by trying to expand his readers’ horizons. Even Lee Child, whose writing I like, gives pretty much the same Reacher conventions book after book. There may be a glass ceiling here of “cult phenomenon.” Nothing wrong with that. Hell, compared to what makes a best seller, much of what anyone who sees this might read probably qualifies as a cult book.

What such a book might best do is start a discussion. A sub-genre might spring up. A lot of those books would be shit—most of anything is shit—but good examples would grow like mushrooms through it. Enough of this and the female characters who support traditional male heroes might eventually become more diversified and multi-dimensional in a realistic way. There’s no down side to any of that.

I hope she follows through and finds a publisher. She’ll sell at least one copy.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My Year In Review

There’s not a lot has changed for us
Since last I sent a rhyme,
What has changed has been memorable,
And worth a little time.

So chronologically I’ll tell
The story of our year,
I’ll say my piece and then get out,
I’ll not long bend your ear.

A story Dana wrote will be
In print in twenty-ten,
We’ll give a date precise when we
Find out, and only then.

The spring is when it’s likely to
Be found in better stores,
As part of an anthology
Made up of crime and gore.

The Sole Heir donned a cap and gown
To graduate in June,
The family convened in droves;
Agoraphobes would swoon.

In summer Colorado Kings
Came east, and we northwest,
To spend a week with Mom and Dad,
And get a little rest.

‘Twas meant to be relaxing time
Back at the old homestead,
Instead, most time was taken up
In building me a shed.

Then Rachel took the center stage
When school came letting in
Matriculating at the U
Of M, a Terrapin.

A scholarship hard earned will pay
For most of what she owes,
Allowing her to save some cash
For where’er next she goes.

Then just when everyone was sure
The year would surely pass
With whimper in lieu of a bang,
Like many in the past

Beloved Spouse Equivalent
And I had one surprise:
Thanksgiving weekend, here at home,
For just the family’s eyes

We married in our living room,
A most informal wed,
Still, binding legally it is,
(At least, that’s what they said).

An honest man and woman we
Have made of her and me,
To bring this year to rousing end,
Another full of glee.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Pink Panther and Ronin

Snowed like a bastard here this weekend, so I rested after the daily shoveling exercise to watch some hockey and a couple of movies.

The Return of the Pink Panther isn’t one of the better ones, but there are still quite a few laughs. Henry Mancini’s score holds up over thirty years later; it was nice to remember there was a time when segues and establishing shots were actually scored, instead of the current practice of using a pop tune. Herbert Lom manages to steal his scenes as the deranged Chief Inspector Dreyfus, no mean feat when sharing the camera with Peter Sellers. Given what we now know about Sellers, it’s easy to believe Lom wasn’t acting when describing how much he’d like to see Clouseau/Sellers dead.

Ronin is a thriller/caper/action flick that could easily have become stereotypical but for the understated bonding between Robert DeNiro and Jean Reno and the writing of David Mamet. (Mamet received no credit, but IMDB mentions him as a script doctor; little Mamet touches abound.) John Frankenheimer’s film is smart and holds together better than the usual Michael Bay explode-a-thon, even daring to make the audience think. That’s not to say it’s too cerebral; the car chases are riveting by any standards.

There are double-crosses on top of double-crosses; to say much about the plot would be to say too much. Suffice to say DeNiro is part of an international team pulled together on short notice to steal a case for an undisclosed organization; they don’t know what’s in it. The only face they see is of a young Irish woman. That’s not to say the organization is Irish; not to say, it isn’t, either. There are the usual friends with really good connections and sources to smooth out bumps in the plot, but not too many, and they’re not overly convenient. If you’re in the mood to watch an action movie that isn’t mind-numbing, you could do a lot worse than Ronin.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Roaring Twenties

The Roaring Twenties wasn’t the movie I expected. Literally. I thought this was the one where James Cagney pushed the grapefruit into Mae Clark’s face. Halfway through I realized that happened in Public Enemy. So it goes.

The Roaring Twenties still wasn’t the movie I expected, even after I understood I was watching the wrong movie. Released in 1939, it’s not the typical gangster movie, showing how Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett was eased into becoming a bootlegger by not getting a square deal when he returned from World War I. He works his way to the top of his world (no, that’s another different Cagney movie) before the end of Prohibition sends his career, and him, into the gutter.

Two things stand out right away. First is the unflinching look at how quickly this country tired of welcoming home the returning soldiers. Part of this was, I’m sure, fears of the Spanish flu that led some troop ships to being quarantined before they could enter the country. That explains the lack of parades, but the disdain Cagney’s characters receives when he asks for his old job back goes well beyond that. The man who now has the job—and knows he’ll keep it—is overheard to say, “Yeah, those monkeys are gonna' find out what a picnic they had on Uncle Sam's dough while we stayed home and worked!”

There’s also a narrated montage showing how Prohibition and the Volstead act created the bootlegging industry overnight. It’s eerily similar to scenes that have since become common, with whiskey bottles serving the role in 1939 that cocaine, marijuana, and heroin have served for the past thirty years; even the packages resemble each other. Anyone who can watch this, see the similarities, and still not think we’re fighting the wrong war on drugs, isn’t paying attention.

The last half hour doesn’t hold up. Prohibition ends and bootleggers fall on hard times because drinking is legal again. Anyone into crime know that’s not how it worked, with rare exceptions. Bootleggers with a clue were so well fixed during Prohibition, the transition wasn’t that much of a problem. Eddie’s estranged partner, George Halley (Humphrey Bogart) seems to be doing fine; how is never explained. After doing a great—and what was probably at the time a daring—exploration so far, the film goes for a standard Hollywood ending.

The Roaring Twenties is worth watching just for the first hour, and to see Cagney and Bogart work together. Don’t be mad if you doze off toward the end.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Shoeless Joe

Dan O'Shea has a flash fiction challenge going on at his blog, Going Ballistic. Check out the links for the premise and other stories. Mine is below.


Only in America do you take off your shoes. I was in Mexico last year, standing in line for a flight, and the guy comes running up to me, practically laughing. “SeƱor, por favor, there is no need to remove sus zapatas. That is only in America.” Made me feel like the only Protestant at Mass, standing or sitting when I wasn’t supposed to. Parents smacked small children for laughing at the ignorant gringo.

So this time I was getting on a plane in Miami and I do have to take off my shoes. I bent over to take them off and the woman in front of me was wearing an ankle bracelet. Those things are sexy, I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because only women with nice ankles ever wear them, which I wish some of those who wear belly shirts would think of once in a while. My eye moved up to her calf, which was time well spent. She had knee dimples, which I also think are sexy as hell. By the time I took a peek at her thighs she had her shoes off and caught me. I looked away, though she didn’t seem to mind. A gentleman’s gotta show some class.

I hit the bar until they called for boarding. Southwest flight, no reserved seats, everyone lined up like we’re catching helicopters out of Saigon, and there she was, in my group. Shorts exactly long enough to hide her cheeks and one of those things I think they call a camisole that covered her belly but never touched it, not the way her rack held it out. No sign of a bra. No sign she needed one, either.

I showed my pass and took a seat on the aisle so I could stretch my legs and she stops at my row and asks do I mind if she sits in the seat next to me. Please do, I say. I offered to move into the aisle but she said there’s room and slid in facing me so the nipples poking through that silky top were close enough for a taste if I was so inclined. Which I’m not, this being a public place and me a gentleman like I am. But, still.

She said flying made her nervous and she talked when she was nervous and would I mind some conversation to keep her mind off it? Conversation was fine with me, but it wasn’t likely to keep my mind off of what I was nervous about, which was whether she’d notice the front of my pants getting as tight as the back of her shorts. She patted my hand and said I was a nice guy, which I am, as you may have noticed by now.

We talked the whole flight. About the friend she’d been visiting and her job, which was, believe it or not, hospitality. She had a couple of drinks and made a few comments that would have lent themselves to inappropriate rejoinders from a man less simpatico to women than me. Told me again what a nice guy I was and wrapped her hand around mine when things got bumpy. By that time my tray table was down and I was happy to let her hold my hand anywhere she wanted.

She stood well inside what might be classically defined as my personal space while we waited for our luggage. Hers came first and I picked it up for her, of course. She stayed until mine arrived, which I thought was real nice. Said how she couldn’t remember enjoying a flight so much.

She didn’t know where to get a cab and, since it was getting late, I asked where she needed to go. As luck would have it, her place was no more than forty miles from mine, so it was no inconvenience to give her a lift. She said she didn’t want to put me out and I said it was my pleasure, and she hooked the nail of her pinkie finger in the corner of her mouth and smiled at me and said okay, she’d make it up to me. She had one quick stop to make, but it was on the way.

We got to her stop and I waited in the car. She came out at a jog, slammed the door behind her and screamed about getting the fuck out of here now! There was a stop sign at the corner I figured I’d roll through even though it was a residential area, her being in a hurry. She reached her left foot over when I slowed down and stomped on the gas and asked did I hear those sirens or not?

She went quiet and damned if I didn’t hear sirens. Getting closer, too. We were moving pretty good—sixty-five or seventy in a twenty-five mile zone—me getting antsy because I’m a good driver and all but I’m no Jimmy Johnson. She’s the one looks like Danica Patrick, maybe she should drive. I don’t remember what happened next. One second I’m driving, then the air bag is in my lap, I’m staring at a tree through a broken windshield, the inside of my car smells like a shotgun went off, and the chick is gone. There were a lot of cops, though. One reached under the passenger seat and held up what looked like a brick wrapped in cellophane. Hard to make out what they were saying; “Miranda” and “asshole” stood out.

Now I’m bunking with this guy named Junior who says he can tell I’m cherry and he’ll take care of me, but it’s gonna cost. All because I had to take off my fucking shoes.

Valdez is Coming

I DVR’ed this 1970 Western in part because it’s based on an Elmore Leonard novel, and in part because someone (George Pelecanos?) recommended it on his web site. It took a little to get used to Burt Lancaster as a Mexican, but he got the job done, and I’ve never been a huge Burt Lancaster fan, so that says something.

Lancaster plays Bob Valdez, the deputy for the Mexican part of an Arizona frontier town. Valdez is a low-key, obsequious sort until events force him to kill a man who was unjustly suspected of murder. The dead man—who was black, which also entered into the issue—left an Indian woman, and Valdez wants $200 to get her back to the reservation.

The town turns him down; too much money. They’ll come up with half if Valdez can convince Frank Tanner to pay half, since the whole episode was his fault to begin with. Bob has no luck with him, and things get progressively worse until Tanner has his hands dangerously humiliate Valdez by tying him to a cross and setting him loose to walk home.

He gets a little help and gets home, where we learn mild-mannered Valdez was a serious badass in his youth. (This is a Western; what did you expect?) he wants the hundred dollars and he’s going to get it, even after the woman goes to the reservation on her own.

The story and characters are better than the movie’s execution; credit Leonard’s book for that. There’s a lot of stereotypical Western stuff in there, though the use of the landscape to show distances is well done. (The film was shot in Spain.) Lancaster’s physical presence is enough to make Valdez’s transformation back to his former self believable, and you root for him even though he takes Tanner’s almost wife hostage to make an escape and to hold in exchange for the money.

There are little touches of Leonard’s writing all through the movie, if you know where to look. Valdez isn’t dressed up as anything romantic. He’s just doing what he thinks is right. He had to kidnap the white woman to make an escape, and he’s not apologizing to her or anyone else about it. The bad guys are just bad guys: they’re not psychos or caricatures, just guys doing a job. Their jobs just happen to include terrorizing and killing people. (Except for John Cypher’s Tanner an Richard Jordan’s Davis, both of whom had too much ham with their eggs from the location caterer.)

A scene near the end has some classic Leonard dialog. I can’t set it up too much without spoiling the ending, but Tanner’s right-hand man, El Segundo, is talking to Valdez after overtaking him:

El Segundo: [after pausing and nervously clearing his throat] Tell me something... Who are you?
Valdez: I told you once before - Bob Valdez.
El Segundo: [referring to Valdez's earlier marksmanship against his men] You know something, Bob Valdez, you hit one, I think, 700-800 yards.
Valdez: [with certitude] Closer to a thousand.
El Segundo: What was it? Sharps?
Valdez: [nods] My own load.
El Segundo: You ever hunt buffalo?
Valdez: Apache.
El Segundo: I knew it. When?
Valdez: Before I know better.*
El Segundo: You know how many men you kill these last two days?
Valdez: Eleven.
El Segundo: You counted.
Valdez: You better.

Vintage Leonard. Made the whole movie, along with the final scene.

Valdez is Coming isn’t a Western classic, but it’s well worth the time.

* - Dialog down to this point taken from IMDB.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Tide Goes Out, The Tide Comes In

I was so proud of myself. Twenty books I knew I’d never read again, their only reason for existence in my office to take up shelf space that could be used for books I will read again, or at least want to keep. This afternoon I boxed up all that excess and took it to the local thrift store, where someone could at least get some value for them. My good deed for the day.

Then I got to wondering what kinds of books a thrift store carries. Parked the car and went in the front entrance. Turns out there are some pretty book books in thrift stores. First rate writers like George Pelecanos and Linwood Barkley and Harlan Coban and Lee Child and James Lee Burke. All of whom came home with me to overflow my TBR shelf. Again.

I’d look for a twelve-step plan, but I haven’t hit rock bottom yet. That’s the scary part.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Insidious Effects of British and Irish Crime Fiction

I read a lot of British and Irish crime fiction and enjoy it. Ray Banks, Mark Billingham, Ken Bruen, Declan Burke, John Connolly, Allan Guthrie, Declan Hughes, Simon Kernick, Val McDermid, and Adrian McKinty come to mind—alphabetically—off the top of my head; I’m sure I missed a couple. (Stuart Neville’s Ghosts of Belfast on my TBR pile, for example.) Right now there are probably more writers I would consider favourites of mine from across the pond than there are on my side.

That’s the problem. I enjoy their writing so much it’s threatening to creep into my everyday life before I realise it. Just this morning, after donning my anorak and making sure I had no flat tyres before leaving for work, it occurred to me how I must have sounded like an eejit when I told my wife a joke in a half-arsed Irish accent.

It was even worse when I commented on some blogs today. Reading these writers makes the tendency to think like them even more pronounced, though I run the risk of sounding like a real shitehawker if I try to pass myself off as something I’m clearly not, especially if I know fuck all about it. I might fool a few uninformed gobshites, but someone would grass on me sooner or later. Then even my mates would think of me as a pretentious tosser.

Oh, bloody hell. I’ve done it again.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Absence of Malice (And More)

Slowly but surely, we’re easing back into our weekly movie watching routine. This past weekend’s choice was Absence of Malice, a 1981 release starring Paul Newman and Sally Field.

Newman plays Michael Gallagher, a liquor distributor whose father was mobbed up; his uncle is head man in Miami. When the investigation into the disappearance of a union organizer goes nowhere, the Feds lean on Michael, hoping he’ll use his underworld contacts to help them out. To speed this along, knowledge of the investigation is leaked to an eager young reporter (Field). The resulting article essentially ruins Gallagher’s business, and the life of a close friend who tries to help.

The point of the movie is the balance of freedom of the press, its use and abuse by the government, and how people can be ground up by the interactions of institutions that are ostensibly there to serve them. Newman is excellent (his performance was nominated for an Oscar), playing Michael as a hands-on businessman who wants only to be left alone. He has nothing to do with the family’s other business, yet it’s clear he loves his uncle and wouldn’t do anything to hurt him, even if the threat of sleeping with the fishes wasn’t real. His decision to take action on his own makes sense, and the scheme he comes up with is clever and believable. He wants Field’s reporter to believe and trust him, but on his terms. It’s a better performance than The Color of Money, for which he won his lone Oscar. (For the record, Henry Fonda won that year for his farewell performance in On Golden Pond.)

Newman’s in good company. Sally Field was nominated for a Golden Globe, and Melinda Dillon was nominated for an Oscar in a supporting role as Michael’s friend. Still, for all its strengths, the movie is stolen by a ten-minute performance at the end by Wilford Brimley as Assistant Attorney General James Wells. (The role was essentially reprised in his appearance as Postmaster General in Seinfeld.) Rarely can an actor make a movie his own in what is essentially a cameo performance; the best other example that comes to mind Donald Sutherland’s work as the arsonist in Backdraft.

Absence of Malice is worth watching just for Brimley alone, though it would still be worth it had he not appeared. Highly recommended.


My parents came to spend the holiday, so we watched several movies last week. Among them was Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. I only caught the last 45 minutes, and we all know Hitchcock was a genius, but this movie stank on ice. There were enough unbelievable plot holes in what I saw to sink a battleship. I won’t go into detail here, but the whole conceit of the picture, that their kidnapped child can hear Doris Day singing, even though he appears to be about half a mile away in the embassy building, then be found because Jimmy Stewart pinpoints his whistling—portrayed as phantasmagoric echoes in the soundtrack—is enough to put one off of Hitchcock forever, or at least until Rear Window is on again.