Tuesday, 28 December 2010

If the Dead Rise Not; Philip Kerr

In the early 1990s, Philip Kerr wrote three books about Bernie Gunther, a detective in pre-war and immediately post-war Berlin. The first two, March Violets and The Pale Criminal, were quite straightforward private eye noir; the third one, Berlin Requiem, was a much more complicated and depressing piece of work. Then Kerr stopped writing about Bernie Gunther and went off and wrote a bunch of thrillers which could fairly be described as high-concept books that don't quite pay off. The ideas were interesting, but the characters weren't and the writing was too pedestrian to read for enjoyment. I bought most of those books and discarded them all as soon as I'd read them. Generally with a mild feeling of annoyance that I had bothered to finish them.

A few years ago, Kerr decided to go back to his first break and revive Bernie Gunther, and If The Dead Rise Not is the third of the new sequence of books. It leaves me scratching my head a bit.

Raymond Chandler, who's not only the pope of the detective noir, but one of the few detective story writers living or dead who can be read again and again for just the pleasure of the prose, defined the template of the noir detective:

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

In the first two books, Gunther is the epitome of this trope, albeit not as well written as anything by Chandler; very little in this world is as well written as Chandler. The books have twisty plots which are in their essence straightforward; a bad deed has been done, the detective takes chances to find the truth of it, but at the end true justice will elude him. The clever twist in the books is in the setting; pre-war Hitler's Germany; streets don't get much meaner than the wide boulevards of the pre-war Reich. No matter how triumphant a moral victory your detective achieves, the vast moral defeat underway will overshadow it.

Because Kerr is an ambitious writer and not content to recycle the same plot with unchanging characters, he took a big chance with the third book, Berlin Requiem, and showed us Gunther after a second experience of war had chewed him up and spat him out into post-war Berlin. Very few cities have ever been worked over as thoroughly and with as little regret as Berlin was in the fall of the Reich, and I doubt that it's possible to write a book set in that milieu without creating a thoroughly depressing experience for the reader. Even allowing for that, Berlin Requiem is grim going. I think when Kerr wrote it, he intended it to be the last word on the character, and to some extent on what Germany did to itself between 1932 and 1945.

But writers get older and come back to things with second thoughts, and over the past few years, Kerr has come back to the character and started filling in the blanks. It must be quite interesting for someone who's only discovering the books now all in one lump, because it's not just Bernie's backstory which is getting filled in; all sorts of other side characters are being given deeper histories, and if you'd just read the first two books in the past couple of years and then read the more recent ones, you'd probably be having all kinds of ah-ha moments as Bernie encounters characters who were passing presences in the earlier books. Since I haven't read the earlier books in more than a decade and gave them away a while ago to my sister, I just had the feeling that various intros should have had more resonance for me.

I've bought each of the newer books as they've become available, but finished each with the realisation that my curiousity about what Bernie's been getting up to wasn't the same as a real interest in the character; once I knew roughly what he'd been at, I wasn't going to feel any real need to come back and look at it again later. It was as I read this book that I realised that I'd be perfectly fine with some kind of wikipedia article which just set out the life and times of Bernie Gunther in summary form. It's partly that Bernie isn't much fun to be with, and it's partly that it's getting harder and harder to buy into his story as Kerr unfolds more and more layers to it.

There's a fundamental clash between two things that Kerr is trying to do with Bernie. On the one hand, he's trying to depict the gradual collapse of his character as misfortunes and compromises accumulate, and on the other hand he's sketching in the byways of the less remembered parts of the 20th century as Bernie Zeligs his way into various setpieces. Unfortunately, the second hand requires the kind of contrivance and coincidence which looks preposterous  against the background of a realistically drawn character. In the first couple of new books, Kerr's more or less gotten away with it, because through clever plotting and the nature of his milieu, he could create plausible scenarios where the vibration of history would tend to shake all the pebbles into one corner of the box; it didn't strain credulity too much that Bernie would, for example, run into Eichmann by chance before the war, and then run into him again when both are on the run as wanted Nazis. In If the Dead Rise Not, there isn't the same credibility to the way he runs into the same group of people in both pre-Olympics Berlin and pre-Castro Cuba.

Niels Bohr once recorded his doubts about a hypothesis by saying that it wasn't crazy enough to be true, and in a way that's Kerr's problem; he wants to pull off something bold and impressive and yet truthful, and the impulse to keep it real and down to earth is blowing it all apart for him. Bernie Gunther is like Zelig or Flashman, a spectator at all the big stuff. And Zelig and Flashman work because the writer knows that the idea is ridiculous and piles on at top speed anyway. The very idea CAN'T be realistic, and there's no point in trying to make it so. And the more you try to make everything else realistic, the more you undercut your central premise.

And it's hard to get away from my nagging feeling that it would have been so much easier to keep it simple, and just not bother with the Cuban bit at all. Kerr's always struck me as a guy who writes to a plan, rather than letting things unfold in his mind and write them down as they occur to him, and in the Gunther renaissance, the common thread has been that the books have parts set in pre-war Berlin (where not only Bernie, but Kerr the successful writer, began) and parts set in the 40s and 50s, after the war has destroyed everything that Bernie thought he knew about himself and left him struggling to stay ahead of the consequences of his mistakes. So If the Dead Rise Not had to have that structure, but it's skewed and unbalanced, and doesn't have the symmetry (however forced) of the other two recent books. There's not enough in the Cuban episode to balance the Berlin episode, and the links between them don't feel strong enough or believable enough. Simply put, the book would have been better if Kerr had rounded off the Berlin segment properly and abandoned the grand design.



Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Strip: Thomas Perry writes an Elmore Leonard book by mistake

Thomas Perry is one of the secret treasures of modern American crime writing, a guy who no-one has heard of and who enjoys periodic revivals at unpredictable intervals. At any given time, most of his stuff is out of print, with one or two books at most showing up when you go looking for them. He's been writing since the early eighties and scattered around my house are copies of all 17 of his books, including the crazily hard to find Island. He got on a good run in the mid nineties with a series of books featuring Jane Whitefield, but the ones I keep coming back to are his first five books, which have a fresh distinctive voice and lightheartedness to them that his later work doesn't always show.

Perry's defining characteristic as a writer is that he's got an eye for the details that other writers don't think of. His characters tend to be smart and unconventional, and they're the kind of people who try to solve problems in unexpected ways. Most of his books have one strong character working on the edge of the law, and another strong character trying to catch that strong character from much further over the line. His first book, the Butcher's Boy, was a clever story of a contract killer being hunted by both the FBI and the mob, and deftly playing one side against the other until the FBI had caught enough of the mob guys after him that he could flee the country. The killer was well drawn as a guy just trying to get by without a name or any sense of right and wrong, and his FBI nemesis was a very nicely written character who was smart and yet alway one step behind. The various mobsters were sketched in with just the right level of detail for their - invariably short - appearances. The charm all the way through came from watching the world from the point of view of a character who saw opportunity or threat in small signals which ordinary people would never notice, and Perry's been using that angle ever since, with greater or lesser success.

The Whitefield books were as close as he's come in his career to mainstream success, and when he'd worked that seam out by 1999, he's faltered a bit. Some of the books's he's written in this decade have been good, some have been flat and not quite up to his best work. Probably the best of them was Pursuit; it's about the only apart from Death Benefits that I've re-read more than once.

Strip is not anything like Perry's best, and it took me a while to work out why. Part of the problem is that the jacket copy completely misleads you about who the real focus of the book is going to be. But that's a detail. The real problem is that Perry hasn't quite made his own mind up who the protagonist is. Now, Elmore Leonard has been doing great work for decades with books where it's not obvious right to the end who the main character is, but it's never been Perry's approach. He sets up one protagonist and between one and three antagonists for the protagonist to worry about and eventually outsmart, and then he creates a conflict between them. And it works fine. Strip has too many protagonists. There's Joe Carver, who the jacket copy and the opening chapter would leave you believing was the protagonist. There Mancu Kapak, who looks like the main antagonist. There's Jeff something, who looks like the wild card. There's Spence, Kapak's efficient deputy. And there's Slosser, the detective trying to catch Kapak. And it's too many people. It's actually too many good characters. He's got about two books worth of them when he only needs one book's worth. And they don't really interact with each other enough, or in the right ways. And they're not really given enough time or room to develop properly.

The thing is, Leonard would have carried this off, sort of. Perry doesn't. In part it's because for all that the characters are recognisably different and have strong identities, they don't really have individual voices. They all talk too much alike, and it jars after a while. With fewer characters and more room to build them up, Perry would have had a more satisfying book. And some characters left over for the next one.

It's a shame really. The book opens with a very clever sequence that it never really lives up to afterward. Joe Carver gets stuck in a building crane and surrounded by armed thugs. He sees them off with the crane. It's a clever and typically Perry sequence, in which the use of the crane is a logical outworking of the more important question of why Carver's sleeping in a crane in the first place. It makes Carver interesting and smart, but after that first chapter, we never really see that aspect of Carver again.

I think I see what he was trying to do here; he wanted to write a book in which a lot of characters would collide with each other precisely because no-one really knew what was going on. The problem was that with so many characters in play, it became hard to care what happened to any of them, and accordingly I lost interest in what was going on. There's an amazing amount of symmetrical wrapping up in the final chapters but the ground work hasn't been laid to make it satisfying. One of the jacket blurbs cries out for a sequel; I'd rather see the book broken up into the two good books which got crushed into each other. Maybe I ought to introduce Perry to Connie Willis.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

The Tourist: Waistcoats are the next big thing

That's honestly my big takeaway from Florian Henckel von Donnersmark's new movie; if you don't have a waistcoat, you should go out right now and stock up. Every male character in the movie has a waistcoat. They may not have dialogue, plausible motivation, accents you can believe in, or even actual character, but they do have waistcoats. I'm replanning my wardrobe as we speak.

Now, when any film I've been looking forward to goes all meh on arrival, there has to be a formal casting of the blame, and the Tourist is no exception. First off, we have to acquit Paul Bettany, Rufus Sewell, and Timothy Dalton. And even Steven Berkoff . Blessed with roles that make little sense and dialogue which appears to have been put together in much the same way that Bettany's character obsessively assembles a burnt up letter from scraps, they nonetheless carry off their jobs with such consummate professionalism that you don't even see the regret they must have been feeling. But then, that's why you hire brits for these things. They'll work for cash and since they're actors, they'll throw in at no extra cost a convincing impersonation of a man who'd never so much as think of strangling his agent.

Then we have Johnny Depp, a reliable source of entertainment no matter what. It's actually difficult to weigh up what Depp is doing without blowing up the plot, but his character makes perfect sense as Frank, a maths teacher and widower from Wisconsin, and almost no sense as anything else. He's actually very convincing as a guy who's buried his wife and can't quite get a start on shifting the sadness of that loss. The problem is that he's so convincing as that, and he's shown in so many situations where he responds to problems exactly as that kind of person would, that the big reveal at the end of the movie doesn't make a button of sense. Still, he's lots of fun. Somehow I suspect the running gag that he thinks Spanish is interchangeable with Italian was entirely Depp's own idea, but it never wears out its welcome.

Which leaves Angelina Jolie, who I've rarely seen put to less use. Donnersmark and John Seale (of all people) even find ways to make her look middle-aged and frumpy, but what's startling is how much of the time they just put their faith in having the camera follow her along as she strides around languidly with a mysterious half smile. This is not acting. It isn't even action. Jolie isn't strictly speaking an actress, but she's got a wonderful poise and athleticism which makes her a very good action star. Deprive her of action, and the lack of acting ability starts to show. Her English accent isn't all that bad, oddly enough, but it does sound as though she's been watching the collected works of Liz Hurley and learning all the wrong things from them.

The blame, however, belongs with McQuarrie and Donnersmark. Donnersmark is a very good dramatic director by all accounts, but hiring him to direct stars, as opposed to actors, in a modern caper movie, turns out to be a pretty bad idea. A caper movie has to pop and fizzle and crackle. In between the moments of action and high adventure, the stars have to spark off each other and entertain us. The director's job is to pace the caper so that we're consistently entertained. The writer's job is to write the caper so that the director will have something to pace.

How has McQuarrie come to this? This is the guy who wrote The Usual Suspects. And then wrote Way of the Gun and Valkyrie. Now that I come to think of it, maybe I should stop sounding surprised. It's just very disappointing that the sparkling talent that gave us the Usual Suspects has come to this. The twists and reveals and sudden shifts are there; as is the sense of more than one deep plot colliding. What's not there is the sense of urgency and involvement that the better film had.

All in all, The Tourist is a bunch of talented people doing things that they're not actually that good at. I wish I could believe anyone's going to learn from it.

In other news, I saw the trailer for Reese Witherspoon's new movie, which somehow cost more than Iron Man even though apparently Reese only has one outfit for the whole movie. I have no idea what they spent the money on.


Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Cold. Damn.

I haven't been to the movies in two weeks, because it's just too damn cold here. Air from Siberia has been capriciously mixed with air from the Arctic, and we're living in a winter wonderland here, by which we mean, it's winter, I wonder if this crap is ever going to stop. The most hilarious aspect of it is watching the weather people troop on each evening and tell us that tonight it will be super cold but tomorrow night will be much warmer. That's happened five nights in a row now and I'm starting to think they're using the same software the Department of FInance uses for economic forecasting.

At first it was kind of fun and all, since Ireland gets snow about as often as it gets competent prime ministers, but snow gets old real fast in a country that doesn't have the practice, and now I just want it to get the hell out of my way and let me get back to normal life. Instead, it's outstaying its welcome with the kind of tenacity normally only seen with drunks on the bus and those marvelous people who think that part of the social mission of public service in Ireland is a commitment to spend four hours on the phone listening to them work through everything in the world that isn't really their fault. (Maybe it is your fault, maybe it isn't, but I do know it ain't my job to fix what's wrong with you, because I can't see a copy of the DSM IV anywhere on my office bookshelf).

It was all great and fun and stuff when it was just soft and fluffy snow making my car twice the height those Swiss guys made it, but three days in, the soft and fluffy stuff turned into a lumpy hardpack crust getting between me and everything I gotta do to pay the bills and all the things that I run up the bills doing.

And at first I was cheered up by the way that people were nicer to each other as we wrestled with the misery, but nearly two weeks into this nonsense what I'm noticing is all the people who don't think that they need to do anything to clear the ice away from the front of their businesses. Big business is too big for that kind of thing, I notice. The banks, those kinds of people. Little guys who actually own their stores; you can navigate past those places safely. Big business; not so much. It's going to be brisk business down the Four Goldmines next year as they start to work their way through all the people who picked themselves up from outside big businesses and while they waited for the ambulances remembered what Dillinger used to say about the banks. Thanks goodness I won't need to sit through that.

For me, it's just a matter of wondering whether I'm going to be on my bike again this side of Christmas. The house is still surrounded by a half mile thick no go zone of pack ice before you can get to a main road, not that the main roads are any kind of picnic for bikers. What ice is still left is piled up semi randomly in the gutters, leaving you to wonder whether to get out in the middle and risk some clown skidding through black ice into you, or get in close and kill yourself on whatever's lurking beside the kerb. So I've been riding the buses, which has been educational and impressive. I don't know how bus drivers are getting to work in the first place, given that they don't get paid enough to live anywhere with good transport links or decent roads, but get to work they do, and then they fight their way through stupidly messy roads to get the rest of us to work. I'm a fan of bus-drivers suddenly.

And maybe there's a lesson for us in how we're dealing with the snow in how we ought to deal with the other storms of crap which are falling on the country, but whatever that lesson is, I'm just too damn cold to think what it would be.