Friday, December 28, 2012

TV Review: Doctor Who Christmas Special: The Snowmen (2012)

I liked the bit where Matt made a birdhouse out of a milk carton & pipe cleaners
When a TV series loses its head and embroils its characters in plots and incidents that strain the internal logic of the show it's known as "jumping the shark." But what colourful phrase do you use when a program does the exact opposite? When the show's producer throws in the creative towel and takes a long lunch, leaving a temp to stitch together a tired facsimile of previous shows? How about...taking the zombie for a walk? I think it gets across the idea of something tame, animate and yet lifeless, but be my guest and invent your own term; whatever you come up with will be a perfect description of the latest Doctor Who Christmas special.

I was a very late convert to the charms of the Doctor, only coming on board with the arrival of David Tennant. Nice timing on my part, because some of those shows aren't just great Doctor Who stories, they're excellent sci-fi films by any standard. The Matt Smith years have seen a slow and steady erosion in the quality of the series. The first problem is that Smith's Doctor is a watered-down, emasculated version of Tennant's Doctor. With Smith I can't shake the feeling I'm watching the host of an after school show for kids, the kind of program that features a lot of handicrafts and visits from zookeepers. There's no sense of darkness or anger with Smith, just a lot of bubbly conviviality. Another problem is that the plotting has become frenzied and slapdash. The final story of the last series, The Angels Take Manhattan, was a hot mess of opaque plotting and wholesale quantities of exposition delivered at auctioneer speed. Steven Moffat, the head writer/producer, thinks manic activity is entertaining all by itself. He's especially fond of having the Doctor and his companions trade His Girl Friday-ish banter at lightning speed; nothing wrong with that, but Moffat just doesn't do it very well. In relation to this, the trope of the Doctor and his companions having platonic love affairs has run its course. Can't they just be friends? Please?

This year's special managed to highlight all the faults of the Smith era. The story was a half-baked, underdeveloped piece of glittery, Victoriana-themed nonsense about sentient snow taking the form of killer snowmen. Sounds decent on paper, but the execution was awful, beginning with the problem that snowmen, even if they are equipped with mouths full of sharp teeth, can't do much when they lack arms and legs. They're essentially stationary, weaponless Daleks. Clearly, no one thought this idea through. In one scene snowmen "attack" some workers, and it's obvious the unfortunate director had no idea how to solve the thorny problem of immobile monsters, so he just shot close-ups of men shrieking and snowmen growling. It's inept beyond belief. The villain of the piece is played by Richard E. Grant, who can eat up the scenery with the best of them. Why, then, was he cast in a role in which he remains stone-faced throughout? It's a bit like hiring a top-class dancer and then asking them to sit quietly in a chair. The Doctor's new companion, played by Jenna-Louise Coleman, looks to be a retread of Amy Pond: sassy, independent, flirty, and sexy. She and the Doctor got into the machine gun-paced bantering within moments of meeting, and in due course she locks lips with the Doctor in what's sure to be yet another unfulfilled romantic relationship played out over the upcoming season.

The fundamental problem with the Who franchise at this point is that it's ossifying. It saw spectacular success with Tennant on the the job, and now the handlers are wary about meddling with a winning formula and have ended up becoming formulaic.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Pope Bites Dog!

After his speech Pope Benedict taped the latest episode of Pontiffs & Tiaras
On Friday, December 21, a wrinkly, delusional white man delivered a speech in which he tried to stem the tide of history with arguments based on fear and the kind of warped logic usually used by 10-year-olds to settle playground disputes. Oh, and some guy from the NRA had something to say, too.

Yes, Pope Benedict will be in an ugly papal sulk for a while because his state of the Catholic nation speech was kicked to the back pages by Wayne LaPierre's star turn for the NRA in Washington. The pope's speech was essentially a call to arms against gay marriage. Now, the Pope speaking out against gay marriage is just about as predictable as, say, the head of the NRA standing firm against proposals for gun control. As any politician would put it, they're simply appealing to their base. What was fascinating about the Pope's broadside was that he indicated an interest in cooperating with other faiths in the campaign against gay marriage. Really? And thus we get an object lesson in how the reactionary mind works in the endgame phase of a shift in a society's mores: resort to hysteria and ally yourself with anyone or anything that will buttress your cause.

The logic of monotheism dictates that the pope should be devoting his energies to either converting or castigating those of other faiths. At the very least you'd think he'd be more interested in battling secularism and atheism. But the papacy hasn't been up for a big challenge since the Crusades, and so they've reached a point where the dragon they've chosen to slay is a subset of a very small minority group. The fact that Benedict is willing to ally with other religions is the smoking gun proof of his hysteria and the bankruptcy of his ideas. His medieval predecessors would have roasted him on a spit for the heresy of cooperating with rabbis and mullahs. They might also have taken him aside and told him, sotto voce, that gay men and women should be directed towards a life in the Church, which is where families often sent children who seemed a bit different from the rest.

This kind of hysterical tilting at windmills often occurs when an elitist, hermetically-isolated institution begins to feel the winds of change. The USSR waged a low grade war against the intrusion of Western pop music in the 1970s; the Tea Party is the Republican Party's bug-eyed reaction to a non-white president; China got completely draconian when faced with the Falun Gong, a tepid quasi-religion; and the imprisonment of Pussy Riot shows how tight-assed Putin's Russia is when faced with the slightest criticism. It would seem that the more a regime realizes that it doesn't have a legitimate claim to power, or is due to exit stage right from the stage of history, the more likely it is to become a terrified bully, seeing dangerous mountains where there are only molehills.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Film Review: Across 110th Street (1972)

I've written about what I call "cop noir" in a previous post on The Seven-Ups, but it's worth repeating in the context of this film: Cop noir begins with The French Connection (1971). If film noir was all about doomed lovers, laconic private detectives, and moody cinematography, cop noir was about documenting the decline and fall of American cities and the institutions that make them function as seen through cop eyes. Cop noir looks raw, sounds raw, and shows big American cities torn apart by street crime, organized crime, drug addiction, poverty, and corruption. Hard on the heels of The French Connection came Dirty Harry, Across 110th Street, Busting, Serpico, The Taking of Pelham 123, Badge 373, The Seven-Ups and a number of similar films.

 Across 110th Street is one of the highlights of the genre. All cop noir films are aggressive in showing just how rotten their urban environments are, but this film does it with real ferocity. One way it does this is by showing the racial fear and hatred that was one of the causes of the decline of American cities in the 1970s. The film begins with three black robbers knocking over a cash counting house run by the Mafia and a black Harlem gangster. They make off with 300k after killing five mobsters and two cops, and within hours the Mafia and the Harlem hoods have joined forces to track down the culprits. They join forces despite the fact that they can't stand each other. Nick, the Mafia lieutenant given the task of finding the thieves, gleefully uses the N-word every chance he gets, and Doc, the Harlem boss, happily responds in kind. The detectives in charge of the case (played by Yaphet Kotto and Anthony Quinn) are almost equally at odds because of race. All in all, this had to be an exceedingly uncomfortable film for both black and white audiences to sit through.

Across also gets marks for being non-judgmental about its villains. The three thieves are shown to be acting out of desperation and fear, and the leader of the gang, Jim, gets a compelling speech in which he describes just what's led him to taking such an enormous risk. Paul Benjamin plays Jim, and it's a wonder his performance didn't lead to bigger and better roles. Not surprisingly, it was Sidney Lumet, a director with an amazing ability to spot new talent, who gave him one of his first roles in The Anderson Tapes (1971). All the cast performs well, and even Anthony Quinn manages to tone down his hamminess a wee bit. The look of the film is another of its strengths; it's almost entirely shot with handheld cameras, and the slums and cop shops most of the action takes place in are so gritty you may need to wipe down your TV screen after viewing. The documentary look in cop noir was pioneered in The French Connection, but Across takes it to the next level.

Cop noir took a dystopian view of American society, and it's a perspective that didn't last out the decade. Through the '80s and '90s cops became one-dimensional superheroes played by Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis and Eddie Murphy. These cops were wisecracking killers, and their enemies were cartoon villains or demonized proles interfering with the safe running of the American Dream. The cops in cop noir movies are sometimes corrupt, and when they solve a case it usually produces a lot of collateral damage, both physical and emotional. This harsh view of American life reflected the reality of the nation's cities, but, as it turned out, the public had a limited appetite for it. In the last decade TV shows like The Wire have partially resurrected cop noir, so here's hoping we get a film revival of the genre sometime soon. Are you listening, Quentin Tarantino?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Sun Also Rises (1926) by Ernest Hemingway

No matter how much you read or how varied your taste in literature, there are bound to be yawning gaps in your literary CV; there are just too many great books and authors for one lifetime. One of the gaps in my reading history is, was, Hemingway. I dipped my toe into his novels once or twice a long time ago, but never stuck around long enough to see how the water was. And now I have. I can't say it was worth the wait.  

The Sun Also Rises has not aged well. In 1926 it represented the cutting edge in modern literature with a prose style that was as crisp and declarative as a telegram or newspaper. The circumlocutions and metaphorical excesses of Victorian fiction have been cast aside and what we're left with is a novel that sometimes feel like it's being told in morse code. This is all well and good, a breath of fresh air and all that, but this doesn't get around its main weakness as a novel. One of the hallmarks of pre-WW I literature is that its characters are usually full of ambition or purpose, or, lacking those two qualities, are strongly wedded to, or trapped by, moral and social codes of behavior that dictate their course through life. Hemingway's characters, as he says off the top, are part of a "lost generation," people who are no longer anchored to institutions, beliefs or codes of conduct. Even the plot reflects this idea; the story rambles from Paris to Spain following its small cast of characters as they drink, bicker, have affairs, and soak up the sights. This aspect of The Sun Also Rises makes it feel very modern, but for me Jake Barnes, Cohn, Lady Brett and the other major characters seem more like symbols than flesh and blood people. Their dialogue is so stilted and spiky the impression we're left with is of people playing roles, or of an author who's uncertain of how to create a fully realized character.

One odd aspect of this novel is that it sometimes feels like an excellent travel book marred by outbreaks of fiction. Hemingway loved travel, and that's what shines through most strongly in his writing. His prose style is spare, to say the least, but with a minimum of fuss he manages to capture the appeal of living abroad and being exposed to new sights, sounds and sensations. The best example of this is a section of the novel that describes a fishing trip in rural Spain. A ruthless editor might have excised it as superfluous, but as an aside that describes the pleasures of travel and the outdoor life it can't be beat. I wonder if one reason for its initial and enduring success was that its picture of the hedonistic expatriate lifestyle had a powerful appeal to American readers who found their conservative, church-going society an uncomfortable fit.

Another damaging aspect of the novel is its anti-semitism. The character of Robert Cohn is Jewish, and all the other characters seem to have a visceral dislike of his Jewishness, even Jake, who is the central and most likable character. This anti-semitism isn't examined critically, it seems to be something Hemingway feels is natural and unremarkable. Finally, The Sun Also Rises seems to bear more than a passing resemblance to Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley, which I read earlier this year. Huxley's novel also had a lost generation theme, but takes place entirely in London. Huxley's style couldn't be more different from Hemingway's, but I'm betting Papa was influenced by Antic Hay. Both novels feature a small cast of characters, none of whom are presented realistically, drifting through life. My review of Antic Hay is here.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Best Books of 2012

Here it is: my 16-volume list of the books I enjoyed the most this year. You can click on the titles to link to my full-length reviews. And in no particular order they are...

Johannes Cabal the Detective by Jonathan L. Howard

An audacious blend of occult horror, mystery, humour and steampunk. What makes it work brilliantly isn't that it's a genre mashup; it's because Howard is an excellent writer who would undoubtedly succeed in any conventional genre.

The Black Sheep by Honore de Balzac

When it comes to craftiness and duplicity nobody can beat the French bourgeoisie of the 19th century. The characters in this story expend more mental energy on scamming each other than NASA has used in putting men in space.

The Third Reich In Power 1933-39 by Richard J. Evans

The best book I've ever read about how the Nazis came to power and what they did to warp Germany in their image. 

The Death Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean

I've read five books by McCaughrean this year and all of them could be on this list, but I'll stick with this one and the one below. Roux is a Candide-like tale for the Young Adult market, but the main attraction is the author's prose. McCaughrean is simply the one of the very best writers, all genres included, working today.

Not the End of the World by Geraldine McCaughrean

McCaughrean retells the legend of Noah's Ark as though it actually happened and in the process gives a sublime kicking to religious fanaticism.

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

A couple of teenage boys sail to the Far East in the Victorian era as part of a small team looking to capture a Komodo dragon. Disaster ensues. A superb example of historical fiction. The seafaring sections are the equal, or better, of anything Patrick O'Brian ever wrote.

Damascus Nights by Rafik Schami

Schami writes about Syria with the same intensity and brilliance that Faulkner wrote about Mississippi or Dickens wrote about London. This guy's going to pick up a Nobel Prize for Literature one of these days so get on the bandwagon now.

The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty

McKinty is just about the only reason I'm still reading crime/mystery fiction. This is the first in a trilogy about Sean Duffy, a cop with the RUC in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. McKinty gets bonus marks just for setting a police procedural during this era. Why didn't anyone else think of doing this? Duffy's a great character and N.I. is brought to vivid and uncomfortable life.

The Judgement of Paris by Ross King

Think nothing new can be written about the Impressionists? Think again, Jean-Claude. This is an amazing blend of art criticism and social history that's more entertaining than most novels.

The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette

An amazing subversion of the crime thriller genre. It has all the deviousness and bloodshed you expect in this genre, but it also rubbishes all its conventions. 

Bloodtide by Melvin Burgess

Here's another example of why adults should be checking out the Teen/Young Adult shelves: this novel about a seriously dystopian future is off-the-charts imaginative, combining Norse mythology with, well, everything but the kitchen sink. Think Dr Who on meth.

This Green Land by John Fullerton

Here's a worthy successor to John Le Carre and Eric Ambler. Fullerton seems to be almost unknown, especially in North America, and that's probably because he isn't a huge fan (and that's putting it mildly) of U.S. imperialism. This novel is a thriller set at the height of the Lebanese Civil War and it succeeds on all levels.

 The Big Roads by Earl Swift

A history of the U.S. Interstate Highway System doesn't sound like a page-turner, but it turns out to be a fascinating story about the rise and fall of our love affair with the car.

The Spanish Holocaust by Paul Pearson

Pearson shines a light on the atrocities committed by both sides (primarily the rebels) during the Spanish Civil War. It's a harrowing book but it's a needed look at crimes that are virtually forgotten.

A History of Modern Palestine by Ilan Pappe

A history of the Middle East that demolishes most of the pro-Israeli, pro-Zionist rhetoric and mythology that's written about the region. Pappe is both Jewish and Israeli so no one can accuse him of being an anti-Semitic outsider.

The Pursued by C.S. Forester

Yes, this is the same guy who wrote the Hornblower novels. This novel, however, is a tawdry tale of lower-middle-class sin and murder. Forester isn't the greatest writer, but his evocation of small lives filled with class anxieties makes this read like something Orwell might have written had he turned to crime fiction.

So there you have it, my best of the year. If there's been one big change in my reading habits over the past year it's that I've been enjoying mystery/crime fiction a lot less. I'm finding that the whole genre is getting a bit stale, something I discuss here. The only reason I don't have a worst books of the year list is that I've finally developed the healthy habit of giving up on books if they're not doing anything for me after 50 or so pages. But if I did have such a list Martin Amis' Lionel Asbo would take top honours. To my eternal regret I read all of it, and here's my angry review.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Housing + Hipsters + Hamilton = Homelessness?

The Mayan calendar predicted Hamilton would be invaded by hipsters.
We moved to Hamilton four and a half years ago from Toronto, and when we told our friends and relations about our relocation their various reactions amounted to one big...WTF? Yes, that's pretty much how Torontonians have regarded Hamilton since forever. Hamilton, for those of you not from Ontario, sits at the southwest corner of Lake Ontario about 70km from Toronto and has a population of just over 500,000. Once upon a time it was the Pittsburgh of Canada: a grimy, rough-edged, steel-producing city that measured civic success in the amount of smoke belching from the chimneys of its mills and factories. Down the road in Toronto success was, and is, gauged by the rise of gleaming glass cubes filled with offices and condo units. If Hamilton was Pittsburgh, then Toronto was New York. When smokestack industries began their North American-wide decline in the 1980s Hamilton was hit very hard, and in many parts of the city it looks like time has stood still since then.

It appears that this is all about to change. In the last week, two Toronto newspapers have run major features (read them here and here) on Hamilton as the next big destination for the arts and IT crowd, and for Torontonians looking for affordable housing. Both articles rightly point out some of Hamilton's advantages: cheap housing; quick connections to Toronto; a vibrant arts scene that's growing exponentially; and a pleasing lack of crowds competing for space and services. That's all well and good, but if Hamilton does become the promised land for the next generation of urban pioneers it could be bad news for some Hamiltonians.

One of the important things people should know about Hamilton is that it has one of the highest levels of poverty in the country. When the smokestack industries were going strong in Hamilton no one told their kids it might be a good idea to get a post-secondary education. Why bother? The city was full of blue collar jobs that asked for nothing more than elbow grease and a tolerance for noise and heat. When these industries collapsed the city was left with a sizable population of people with none of the qualifications needed for the New Economy. The ones with an education and/or ambition moved to Toronto or Ottawa or points west, and thus the city's intellectual and entrepreneurial base became hollowed out. What was left were a lot of people on social assistance or working for minimum wage, a depressed housing market, and whole streets of shuttered or declining businesses. It's no accident that the reboot of Robocop was shot in Hamilton this past year; we've got mean streets aplenty.

So why might it be a bad thing for Hamilton to enjoy a wave of what the French like to call bobos (bourgeois bohemians)? It's all about the housing. Both newspaper articles practically salivate over the low cost of homes in Hamilton. As it happens, both articles underestimate the savings to be had. The writers of the articles, clearly aware that their Toronto readership wants housing of a certain quality, talk about the easy availability of ample or characterful homes in the 200-400k range. Speaking from experience, that price range can get you an awful lot of house in Hamilton. But try this on for size: as I write this there are 144 homes for sale in lower Hamilton for 150k or less. You can't buy a bachelor condo in Toronto for that.

Because housing is so cheap, Hamilton has become something of a haven for people on limited incomes. In fact, it's known that aid agencies throughout Ontario will unofficially tell their clients that Hamilton might be a good place to move to in order to make their dollars go further. You don't have to be in Hamilton for long before noticing that it has more than its share of the elderly, infirm and people who have clearly spent their entire lives on the margins of society. Many of them live in cheap rental accommodations, and if a tsunami of affluent Torontonians descend on the city it's these people who are going to suffer. Landlords are going to be turfing tenants so as to renovate their properties and sell them on. Unfortunately, there is no other place for these low-income families and individuals to go to. Ontario is tapped-out when it comes to cheap places to live. It would seem the only two outcomes to such a situation are overcrowding and homelessness.

Given the huge disparity in housing prices between Hamilton and Toronto it seems inevitable that in the near future Hamilton will go through a real estate boom. I can't see how that won't be disastrous for a significant number of Hamiltonians. That being the case, it provides one more reason to support a stronger social safety net. A lot of Hamiltonians just manage to scrape by, so any significant upward shift in accommodation costs is going to have a huge impact on them. Not surprisingly, civic leaders in Hamilton are all aflutter over the prospect of hipsters coming to the city, and this means their attention turns to efforts to gentrify and prettify Hamilton. But if attention isn't paid to the human cost of Hamilton's upcoming demographic shift the consequences will be ugly. Given today's political climate of austerity before all else, it's doubtful any politician is going to step forward to ask for more social assistance for Hamilton, and that might very well create an equation in which each new hipster or yuppie welcomed to Hamilton equals one more person in line at the food bank or killing time inside a shelter. If we are going to be deluged with hipsters, perhaps the city can put a tax on skinny jeans, ironic facial hair, and macchiatos; that should pay for some public housing.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Dead Bunny is on Kindle!

I travel the subway in Toronto pretty frequently so there's no missing the fact that a lot of people are doing their reading on Kindle and a wide variety of other electronic devices with equally unlikely names. And up until now my mystery novel Dead Bunny was only available in that primitive "book" format. Hard to believe people still risk injury to fingers and wrists by manipulating those clumsy masses of paper and glue. I've heard that until the Kindle came along, 3 out of every 19 bibliophiles died of paper cuts before the age of ninety-three. Now that Dead Bunny can be yours for only $5.99 on Kindle there's no reason I shouldn't be a millionaire by Christmas. Help make it happen.

So much for the ruthless shilling of my book. I've actually managed to sell a couple of dozen copies of Dead Bunny, and the feedback has been very encouraging. I even have a couple of 5 star reviews on Amazon that are guaranteed sock puppet-free. Several readers have told me they're looking forward to another mystery featuring Quentin Winchester, and that's a real compliment. If they were being polite they'd probably just say they enjoyed it and leave it at that. To ask for another book seems like genuine appreciation for what I wrote. Guess I'll have to write one more...and earn that second million. To order the Kindle version click here or on the image on the right or go to Amazon's Kindle store. And thanks to everyone who's read Dead Bunny.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Noir More Crime Fiction

He'd slap contemporary noir writers silly.
I used to read a fair amount of crime fiction. A lot, actually. In the last three or four years I've found myself reading less of it, and in the last year or so I find that the novels I give up on the soonest are crime novels. Just this week I had to throw in the towel on The White Road by John Connolly. Connolly sells a lot of books and collects some enthusiastic reviews, but he's not much of a writer. The White Road is a clumsy, sluggish mashup of the private eye genre allied with a whiff of Stephen King horror. Oddly, Connolly is an Irish writer who sets his crime novels in the US. I say oddly because based on the 200 or so pages I read, Connolly's knowledge of America has come entirely from occasional glances at CNN. I could forgive him for calling sneakers "trainers", but when he has three elderly rednecks sitting in a bar in the Deep South watching "a rerun of a classic hockey game" you have to wonder if he could actually find the US on a globe. But enough about Connolly; my real beef here is with crime fiction, particularly the writers, like Connolly, who are described as "noir".

In truth, publishers and critics use the term "noir" with the same promiscuity as the snack food industry uses "Cajun-style." It's a buzzword. Too often what it means are writers who follow a formula that's as trite and predictable as a cosy mystery featuring cats and vicars. One aspect of noir that really tires me out are detectives who are emotionally scarred by a) the tragic death of a wife and/or child, or b) a horrible crime from the past that they were unable to prevent and/or solve. And for some unlucky detectives options A and B are combined in one horrible event. Too often writers seem to think that going this route is a quick and easy way to give their protagonist depth and gravitas. Declan Hughes, Ken Bruen and Connolly all have detectives living with terrible memories, but none of these psychological scars seem convincing; it's all window dressing in the Noir Crime Shop.

The noir detective also needs to be a substance abuser to hold onto his street cred. In The Dying Breed by Declan Hughes his detective, Ed Loy, almost always has a glass in his hand. One reason I quit that book is that Ed's drinking became farcical: in the course of one day's investigation he sinks so much booze he should have ended up in a coma. It's at that point that one realizes the author isn't really paying attention to reality or logic, he's just playing the noir game. Fellow noirists like Bruen, Colin Bateman and Ray Banks also like to keep their detectives pickled and/or pilled up. As with personal tragedies, the drinking detective has come to feel like a paint-by-numbers way of creating a character.

Noir crime writers are also overly fond of letting us know what their detectives like to listen to. In the past few years I've read mysteries by Ken Bruen, Massimo Carlotto, and Gianfranco Carofiglio in which their detectives' musical preferences are regularly mentioned. It's a pedestrian way to build a character, and the worst part is that these Desert Island Discs moments always (for me) break down the fourth wall. I feel like I'm being buttonholed by the author for a bit of a natter about his favourite songs and artists. Not surprisingly, these detectives always have excellent taste in music. I blame Elmore Leonard. He introduced the idea of characters referencing their choices in music and movies, and after that the genie was out of the bottle. One of these days I'd like to see a mystery writer give us a brilliant detective with really horrible taste in music. How about a sleuth who only listens to ABBA and Slim Whitman?

The problem with some of today's noir writers is that they feel all aspects of their stories have to be dark and tragic, including their detectives. The detectives created by Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the original noir crime writers, weren't steeped in darkness. Those detectives were cynical, rough-edged and world-weary, yes, but it was their environment and job that was noir, not the detectives themselves. Part of what made them interesting as characters is that they were apart from the world they moved in. They had the psychic toughness to survive in that world, but they are observers of the noir world, not direct participants.

Now that I've vented, here are some writers who have a better idea of what constitutes noir crime writing. First up is Adrian McKinty, originally from Northern Ireland and now residing in Australia. His trilogy of crime novels featuring the roguish Michael Forsythe are fast, violent, nasty and written with a gleeful, feverish imagination. Most importantly, the Forsythe character steers clear of the usual noir tropes. He's funny, smart and has few regrets. McKinty's newest creation is Sean Duffy, a RUC cop in Belfast circa 1981. Duffy is the rarest kind of cop: he actually likes his work, and if drinks it's for the pleasure of drinking, not to drown sorrows.

Next up is Dominique Manotti, a French writer who specializes in gritty, sexy police procedurals that lay bare the corrupt inner workings of French high society. Manotti has a political axe to grind and she's not afraid to name names as she kicks the crap out of big business and the political elites. Her detective is Commissaire Daquin, who's tough, mean and enthusiastically gay. Manotti's got my vote as best current crime writer anywhere; I just wish she'd speed up her writing schedule.

And last we come to Mike Carey. Carey's detective is Felix Castor, and he's Philip Marlowe in everything but name. Here's the catch, though: Castor is an exorcist. The Castor novels are in the urban fantasy genre, but are, in fact, the best pure noir novels being written today. Castor investigates and battles demons and ghosts, but they might just as well be kidnappers or murderers; the language, the characters, the plotting, it's all pure, classic noir, and Casey's a vastly entertaining writer.

I'll keep plugging away at finding decent crime writers, but from now on if I see the word "noir" used in a blurb or review I'll be looking elsewhere.

Related posts:

Book Review: The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty
A Tale of Two Dominiques (an overview of Manotti's work)
Book Review: Thicker Than Water by Mike Carey

Monday, December 3, 2012

Film Review: The Magic Christian (1969)

I'm not going to pretend that this is a good film, but it can be enjoyed in bits and pieces, rather like a box of chocolates that has too many squishy, fruity selections but does have a few chocolate-covered almonds. The good bits in The Magic Christian are the Monty Python sections. Yes, this film almost qualifies as the first Monty Python film. Graham Chapman and John Cleese have small roles and also contributed to the screenplay. There's also a short piece of animation in the film that I'd swear was by Terry Gilliam, but his name isn't anywhere on the credits.

Peter Sellers plays Sir Guy Grand, a wildly eccentric English millionaire who sets out to prove that anyone, especially members of the upper classes, will do anything if bribed with enough money. Grand begins the film by adopting a tramp (Ringo Starr) he finds in Hyde Park. The pair immediately begin a campaign of financial terrorism, seeing just how much havoc they can cause with a well-placed bribe. What ensues is a series of skits, each one populated by the cream of Britain's character actors and a fair sprinkling of cameos by various stars. Most of the skits are pretty lame; a lot of so-so ad-libbing from Sellers and other stuff that Monty Python was just about to start doing a whole lot better on TV.

The things that work are two comic bits set at Sotheby's auction house, which were written by Chapman and Cleese, and a scene at an expensive restaurant that feels like a dry run for the restaurant sequence in The Meaning of Life. Other than that there's the odd line or two that works, and some of the character actors show their skills by improving weak material to something that's almost watchable. All in all, this isn't a film that can be recommended, but if you can't get enough of Python-related entertainment it might be worth a look.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Madness of King Ford

Mayor Mussolini Ford feels the heat
Once upon a time the wealthy and powerful would gather their male children together and pass judgement on them. The best and brightest would be put in line to take over the family business or launched into careers in Law. The boys who had trouble with maths or had taken too many headfirst tumbles from ponies were bundled off to the Army. Finally, the strange boy, the one no one liked making eye contact with, the one who liked to conduct physics experiments on kittens, the one with an obsessive interest in playing doctor or dress-up games past the age of puberty, that one was sent into the Church. The Church isn't what it used to be, so nowadays these boys are, apparently, directed towards municipal politics. This is one possible explanation for the high percentage of nutjobs in local politics, and I think it might explain why Rob Ford is, for the moment, the mayor of Toronto.

For those reading this outside of Canada some background information is in order. Ford was elected mayor in 2010 on an anti-tax, anti-union, I'm-for-the-little-guy platform. The fact that Ford has never been, financially speaking, a "little guy" didn't seem to bother the voters, and neither did the fact that during his career as a city councillor he'd been arrested twice, once for DUI and once for domestic violence, in addition to going on a drunken verbal rampage at a public event. He's also a serial liar, given to racist remarks, would rather set fire to his head than acknowledge Toronto's large gay community, and is notorious for having little grasp of civic issues that are more complex than dog licensing. In sum, he's Homer Simpson made flesh...lots of flesh. Since becoming mayor he's stumbled, nay, sprinted from one PR disaster to another. The latest scandal (there could be another within the hour; you never know with Rob) is that it seems he's spent most of his working hours over the past few months coaching his beloved high school football team rather than directing the affairs of North America's fifth-largest city. This past week a judge ordered him from office for violating conflict of interest guidelines. Ford is, of course, appealing the decision, but in the short-term it looks like he'll go back to being one of the idle rich.

So then why am I writing this post if Ford is on his way out? Because a mayoral election is in the offing and it will be interesting to see if the politicians of the left and centre in Toronto are able to screw up this election like they did the last one. In 2010 Rob Ford seemed unelectable. In addition to his crimes and misdemeanors, Rob is plain old dumb. Famously so. There's a reason he wasn't left in charge of his late father's $100m company. So how did he win? There are three reasons. First, his opponent, George Smitherman, was a bland centrist who took the high road and didn't stoop to pointing out that Ford is a doltish criminal with anger management issues. Second, Smitherman is openly gay, and the Ford camp, according to rumour, worked overtime to point this out in a whisper campaign aimed at conservative ethnic voters. Three, voter turnout is so low in municipal elections it becomes easier for fringe/loony candidates to scrape together sufficient votes from the mouth-breathing section of electorate. Add in some voter anger over a strike by garbage workers during the previous administration, and what we got was the reign of Rob Ford, king of the dunces who elected him.

There's a real risk history is going to repeat itself. This past week has seen a variety of left-wing politicians and commentators getting all magnanimous and civic-minded about Ford's ouster. There's been a lot of discussion about the law that got him bounced being too harsh, too inflexible, and that, after all, Ford wasn't profiting from his indiscretion. His crime? He solicited donations in his official capacity as mayor for his beloved football "charity". The donations, totalling just over $3,000, came from lobbyists, among others. Is the amount small? Yes, but the thinking behind the law is that public officials are held to a higher standard because of the tremendous influence they have over the disbursement of vast amounts of public funds. The fact that the money was going to a charity is irrelevant. It's no exaggeration to say that Ford is besotted with football, and so it's clear that any lobbyist who contributed to the charity was, in effect, giving money to support Ford's personal hobby. If I'm a lobbyist, I'm thinking that's worth a favour or two.

Speaking as an anxious lefty, what worries me about the next mayoral election is that this golden opportunity for a left-wing candidate like Olivia Chow or Adam Vaughan to step into the mayor's office will be wasted by the left's tedious insistence on playing"nice." No matter if the public office is dogcatcher or prime minister, leftist politicians have an infuriating habit of being unwilling to give their opponents the boots when they're down. During the Reagan/Thatcher era the right learned that fighting without scruples, waving your enemy's dirty laundry from a flagpole, worked wonders at the polls. The left has never quite grasped that the ground rules for politics have changed: it's not Marquess of Queensbury rules anymore, it's Marquis de Sade. The US right (and to a lesser extent the Canadian right) has spent the last decade hysterically smearing the left as everything from Nazis to Marxists, and the venom directed towards Obama qualifies as hate literature. And does the left respond in kind? Rarely. Satirists and comedians take some shots at easy targets on the right, but left-wing politicians just keep smiling gamely as rhetorical rocks are bounced off their heads. God forbid they should pick one up and heave it back. And so we return to Ford, who has said he will be running in the next election whether he's in or out of office. It would not surprise me at all if Chow or Vaughan waged a clean campaign and went down to polite, tasteful defeat.

I'm fairly confident that Ford will sooner or later be turfed from office (even his most ardent supporters are beginning to hold their noses near him), but until Toronto's left-wing politicos learn to get down and dirty they'll be waging election campaigns with one arm tied behind their backs. And the chattering classes would do well to realize that the gibbering classes have learned that they can elect one of their own; it's entirely possible another hooligan will swing down from the trees to replace Ford. I'll finish with an aside: is it just me or does anyone else find it intriguing that Ford, apparently homophobic to the core, likes to spend a lot of his free time in the company of very fit teenage boys? Just saying.