Friday, 31 December 2010

The Jungle - Uption Sinclair (1906)

You remember the movie The Deerhunter? Particularly, do you remember the beginning of the movie, before they all go to Vietnam and get all messed up? There's an extended wedding scene, set in working-class Clairton and featuring pretty rough and ready working men in slightly formalised surroundings. It's possibly the most famous wedding scene in the movies (excepting, perhaps, the wedding that starts The Godfather), and is my favourite bit of the film. I love the way it flicks back and forwards amongst the wedding guests, the way Michael is restrained from starting a fight with the outsider soldier, the very fact that Steven doesn't mind that his new wife is pregnant by another man. I like them all getting drunk, and dancing and stripping naked - and I like the drop of blood which spills on Angela's wedding dress, unseen.

You might wonder why I'm bringing this up, since I've no intention of talking about the rest of the movie.

It's pretty straight-forward really - I've been reading Upton Sinclair recently and just read the first half of his most famous novel, The Jungle, which starts with a Lithuanian wedding ceremony in 1906, as opposed to a Russian Orthodox one in the seventies. Regardless of the temporal difference, the Sinclair wedding is obviously the same kind of ceremony, belonging to the same category.

And it's equally beautifully done.

I'd kill to be able to write as well as this.

More later about this novel, which was originally published in the States by a Socialist magazine, having been rejected by numerous other more conservative publishers, and which came about as the result of Sinclair working undercover in the Chicago stock-yards.

But for now, it's Hogmanay and I'm off to have a drink or two...

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Cagney and Lacey: "Bang, Bang You're Dead"

It's mildly astonishing that Cagney and Lacey ever became a success, considering what a casting muddle it got itself in from Day One.

First there was the TV Movie, with Loretta Swit (Hotlips from M*A*S*H) as Cagney, in which the girls get promoted from uniform to detective and in which Al Waxman as Lt Samuels isn't even the Boss Cop.

Then the series proper launches with Meg Foster in the Cagney role and Samuels apparently the Boss but it's sort of hard to tell since he sits at a desk beside everybody else and spends all his time making racist and or sexist comments, while doing his best to ensure that our two heroines spend all their time dressed as hookers.

Finally, after six episodes of this, Foster gets the boot (for no obvious reason - she's no better or worse in the role than either her predecessor or sucessor), Sharon Gless takes over - and the rest is television history.

"Bang, Bang You're Dead" is the first episode of the brief Meg Foster Era, known as Year Zero to C&L fans. I found it all a bit weird and difficult to get into - almost, but not quite, unwatchable in many respects, in fact.

For a start, while Foster really is adequate as Cagney, there's little rapport between her and the always excellent Tyne Daly as Lacey, which does hamstring a buddy cop show from the off.

Secondly, the writing is often absolutely dreadful. Not just not very good or bog standard, but actively bad.

Coming to this after recently watching the fantastic first Daly/Gless Christmas episode ("I'll Be Home for Christmas") the difference is staggering. Having Samuels complain that 'last year they were promoting blacks, this year it's women' or kindly Sidney Clute tell a group of asians teens that they 'all look the same' was bad enough but the sight of Lacey, still dressed as a prostitute (with Rubik Cube ear-rings of all things!), leaning aginst the doorframe of her home and 'seductively' simpering to Harvey, 'I know I'm a cop, but I'm also a woman' almost had me switching off. Presumably the intention is to highlight institutionalised bigotry of all types (though God knows what the seduction scene is meant to demonstrate!), but given that nobody remonstrates about any of these incidents, the actual effect is to present a series of off-colour jokes as completely acceptable.

Finally, there's very little of the 'busy' screen which so appeals in later episodes. Once Sharon Gless takes over the series really starts to fly, and there's a genuine attempt to show Cagney and Lacey as merely the main focus of a very bsy world around them. Every useful space on the tv screen is filled with something or other in support of the main action, even if that something only amounts to a bully of a husband telling his mousey wife to get back inside in a corridor scene, or someone resisting arrest at the Police Station. Here though, the majority of scenes feature merely the actors with lines to say, shot straight on, and then off to the next scene. The visual richness and subtlety to be found in later series is almost entirely missing here, leaving only standard network fayre in its place.

I remember this series from my early teen years as one of those shows I quite enjoyed without being bowled over. Something which filled in 50 minutes or so without being unmissable. Recent viewing of random Daly/Gless episodes convinced me that it was more than that and even that it might deserve its place as a classic US cop show.

Watching this first tentative stab though, and I'm a little concerned that C&L is really about as distinctive and worth re-watching as UK rivals Dempsey and Makepeace or C.A.T.S Eyes.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The Lady Grace Mysteries: Assassin - Patricia Finney (writing as Gravce Cavendish)

Wikipedia has pages for high school basketball players, extinct types of wheat, obscure politicians best known for sending smutty texts to young men and radio stations in Missouri. Until last year, it didn't have a page for the author Patricia Finney.

I'm pretty sure that says something both about the relative usefulness of Wikipedia as an encyclopedia and the general foolishness of its editors.

For Patricia Finney is the author of one of the best Elizabethan spy series (starring David Becket and Simon Ames and running for three volumes to date - Firedrake's Eye (1992), Unicorn's Blood (1998) and Gloriana's Torch (2003)) plus an equally intelligent series about Sir Robert Carey, set a little earlier and now up to five volumes, with the publication of A Murder of Crows earlier this year.

The latter series is written under the nom de plume of PF Chisholm (possibly because the first was submitted for publication when the author was 18 and freshly enrolled at Oxford University as an undergraduate), which perhaps explains the lack of Wiki page to some extent.

The Lady Grace Mysteries - a series of short mystery novels for younger readers set at the court of Elizabeth I - are also pseudonymously written, this time as Lady Grace Cavendish herself, the heroine of the novels. It's a nice idea, but sadly not one which goes any further than that. Unlike George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman books, say, there's no attempt other than in author name to pretend that these are genuine history, even though the books are written in the first person, as a series of diary entries in Lade Grace's daybook.

Still, Lady Grace and her friends and enemies are quickly and effectively sketched in - Masou the little Muslim tumbler is perhaps the most interesting of the supporting characters, but most importantly Elizabeth herself feels real and if she has been given a personality not entirely in keeping with the popular historical profile, she's none the worse for the addition of a little unexpected compassion, mischievousness and sense of humour.

The story itself is neatly constructed, as expected, though obviously not as complex as one of Finney's adult novels. It's perhaps rather too linear a plot for an adult mystery fan and in light of the fairly small cast the eventual villain is pretty obvious from the start, but there was enough in Grace's quest to save her fiancé from execution to keep me intrigued for the novel's short length.

For anyone looking for an Elizabethan Smiley's People, this isn't the place to start - Martin Stephen's Henry Gresham series might be better suited, incidentally - but for a leisurely hour or so in a comfy chair, this is just about the right size.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Sexton Blake: Death in the Top Twenty - Wilfred McNeilly

I've been reading Sexton Blake Library paperbacks from the 1960s recently. They're as thin as a Terrance Dicks Target novelisation, and come complete with gaudy covers showing a naked woman framed by a telephoto lens or a screaming pop star partially obscured by lurid green mist. If ever a series shouted out 'cheapo cash-in' the later Sexton Blake stories certainly do.

And they come with a reputation too. A reputation for tackiness and unpleasantness, with Blake - once the nemesis of super-villains and gentlemen criminal geniuses - reduced to sorting out blackmailers and rapists, finding lost kittens and working for insurance companies. A depressing mix of the utterly mundane and the unnecessarily visceral.

But they're not like that at all, at least in the case of those written by one Wilfred McNeilly.

According to a post on the Groovy Age of Horror McNeill was a hard-drinking hack for hire (in the best possible sense), turning out whatever sort of story he was asked and contented that he died with a new advance partially spent on whisky! War stories, tv tie-in novels, horror fiction and Sexton Blake were only part of a career spent writing millions of words at speed and to dealine.

Which experience possibly explains the deft way he handles the more constrained, less extravagant sixties Sexton Blake and contrives to make a real silk purse form a definite sow's ear, filled with a multitude of things which any reader should love.

I love the way that, in the absence of proper super villains, he populates his books with grotesques and oddities - the middle-class, middle-aged kitchen table abortionist who turns up early in Death in the Top Twenty for instance, or the recurring characters of the crafty, but destitute Duke and Duchess of Derwentwater.

I love the way he drops meta-fictional asides into the text bemoaning that very absence of proper bad guys (in each of his Blake books, he has Blake himself muse about the good old days when he tackled real villains instead of the tiresome insurance work which makes up the bulk of his 60s work) and explaining other jarring elements of the Blake Library (brilliantly, the sole explanation for Tinker not being about 100, given he was born in the last century, is that he's very young looking for his age!).

Particularly pointed in this respect is an aside from Blake about the fact that writers never get paid enough!

I love the characterisation of the regulars. Blake is essentially the same character as he was in the 1920s, with the same attitudes and morals, only now living in the Swinging Sixties, like an early precursor of Austin Powers or a contemporary of Adam Adamant. Tinker, now more generally referred to by his name, Edward Carter, is a real ladies-man, given the task of seducing anyone from pub barmaids to spurned girlfriends.. And Paula Dane is far more than the sort of stock female weakling you would expect in such a novel, proving herself to be a doughty fighter and a master of disguise, infiltrating the villain's lair more often than Tinker and frequently suffering quite extreme violence for her efforts.

I love the plots - Death in the Top Twenty, for instance, is about someone trying to kill a 60s pop star who uses a body double for every part of his life, including his sex life and living in his mansion, because he prefers to live with his mum!

Most of all I love the arch humour of lines like "Riparian rights are liable to enter the leasehold and no riverside dweller can be absolutely sure that by immemorial custom swan-upping does not take place on his front lawn every third Tuesday of September." Really, how unexpected is that in a hard-boiled crime thriller? And how brilliant?

I have to find more of McNeilly's books - I think he did some Danger Man novelisations for a start...