The Ghosts Who Haunt “SPECTRE”

Speculations on the true character of James Bond, and comments on the film, “Spectre.”

Daniel Craig as Bond.

Daniel Craig as Bond in “Spectre”

skull5I’d like to proclaim the new spy epic, “Spectre,” the best James Bond flick ever made. The sole challenge it faces for a spot atop the Bond oeuvre is posed by the first half of “Doctor No.”

As James himself might exclaim, that’s a bloody long time between drinks. “Doctor No” was released more than half-a-century ago, four years after the novel became published in Britain, when author (and former WWII spymaster) Ian Fleming himself was still around and kicking, able to come on set to offer his real-world advice.

In order to reveal how and why “Spectre” succeeds where many preceding Bond films pathetically failed, I must begin by underscoring a few spectacular qualities in that first flick.

James-Bond

Sean Connery – best Bond of all?

Why do I bestow such a resonant “Yes!” on “No?” Some die-hard Bond fans might aver it’s because this movie introduced a youthful Sean Connery to the role. For many, Mr. Connery remains the consummate Bond.
James Bond.I agree with that assessment, yet it’s only part of my answer.


A Real Spy Goes to Work in Dr. No

A greater cause of my high evaluation is the fact that the first half of “Doctor No” consists almost entirely of tradecraft. It shows Bond going on foreign assignment, dealing with an outer ring of baddies, sussing out a messy situation and devising a way to cut to the kingpin. With an absolute, cold efficiency, he deals with any and all who block his path. That style of making progress is a true skeleton key to his personality, and a theme we’ll return to momentarily.

But first, I’d like to describe how the wheels of “Doctor No” fall off entirely in its second half.

The demolition begins when a consummate Bond Girl, the Swedish bombshell Arsula Undress – whoops, lil’ Freudian typo, there – I meant, Ursula Andress, wades from the sea in her itsy-bitsy white bikini. Right then, “Doctor No” jumps the shark and never quite manages to get back on track.

Ian Fleming.Hell, after that, all subsequent Bond films leap blithely over an entire pod of sharks (i.e. they grow increasingly whimsical and preposterous). They never seriously return to their roots, not until now, 2015, some 53 years later, with the release of “Spectre.”

Here’s why “No” fails when Andress appears. Bond is immediately transformed into a lovestruck simp who cares about her at least as much as he cares about his mission. Let me make an era-appropriate reference to pinball: TILT! Following that fail, again and again, the Bond industry’s books and films resort to that same, flimsy, claptrap device. Having a spy with ice in his veins get a warm spot for a gal he’s only just met might be a twist, but it’s wrung to smithereens. The over-used, “lovely-and-beloved-damsel-in-distress” trick is of a piece with the grandiose special effects and the tedious set pieces that gradually swelled up to dominate the whole franchise.

Why is this wrong? To explain, permit me to give the Wayback Machine one more crank.


The Spymaster’s Original Version

Ian Fleming began dreaming up our modern antihero in the 1950s. He started by selecting a boring name for an exciting character – a useful accessory for a spy. So he swiped the byline of an American ornithologist from a bird-watching manual and a meme was born: “It’s Bond. James Bond.” Ian Fleming.

There’s your bland label. And the contents? Unrelieved bottled lighting. Bond is like the Swiss Army Knife of the British secret service, with tools to address any problem. He deploys Q’s devices and his own pluck and dash to defeat all adversaries, regardless of their wealth, power and political clout, or their ability to chain Bond down and assault him with saws, lasers, crematory fires or ravenous sharks if they spot what they think might be an opening. In short, he’s Superman clad in a black-tie tuxedo, not blue tights. He’s a superhero designed for adult consumption, in that he acts like a bit of a cad with the ladies (to whom he unvaryingly proves catnip). He can also waltz deftly around chunks of what would be Kryptonite for ordinary folks: mighty cocktails, strong tobacco, perilous rides in performance autos and nocturnal forays in high-stakes casinos.

FlemingAn impressive package. Why did Fleming devise a character so free of vulnerability, as well as ordinary human complexity? Because James Bond was an archetype of ego-restoration and wish-fulfillment for Britain’s battered psyche. Examine the timing: Fleming wrote just after his country came within an eyelash of being absorbed, body and bones, into Hitler’s Third Reich. Next, fatigued by the existential struggle of World War II, the nation watched its once-global empire shrink like a leaky barrage balloon. Meanwhile, a brash upstart (the U.S.) and a pair of noxious hegemons (the U.S.S.R. and Red China) strode out together to lord over the world’s stage as the reigning trio of superpowers. Finding itself sidelined into roles as a bit player, Britain – via Fleming’s literary ministrations – found its quantum of solace in a fantasy.

Given such genetics, what do we find this homunculus, this fantasy character, desiring and pursuing most ardently? Power. Especially in its most tangible and immediate form: winning a direct confrontation. And if that can be accomplished in the face of impossible odds, so much the better.

Bond might serve a fading nation, yet he invariably shows himself the most knowledgeable about global affairs and international skullduggery, the most brave and skilled at unconventional combat. He becomes the West’s indispensable man for coolly resolving a threat of jaw-dropping proportions. And that prize arrives with a special bonus! Every battle’s won with a sardonic quip and a wry grin. More than a Brit, he’s a cosmopolitan European, with outsize gifts of sang-froid plus savoir-faire. It’s no accident that Bond’s opposite number, in America’s CIA, is one Felix Leiter, drawn as a garishly-dressed, loutish rube (particularly in the films). Leiter’s principal talent seems to be summoning a Hercules plane full of SEALs to assist during the final clean-up phase of Bond’s most recent triumph.

And thus, suddenly, reality flips onto its head and the world’s dominant power becomes reduced to acting as Bond’s sidekick.


Pathology as Talent

One must ask, what keeps this top operative so calm, cool and collected, no matter the threat level? What’s his ice-blue secret? (‘Nother topical reference, there.) We know that normal men must be harshly trained to do what has to be done in combat. They undergo endless drilling in performing essential moves, in practicing obedience to orders, in learning to tamp down most emotion – other than feeling intense bonds of loyalty to cohorts and comrades.

But there’s a certain class of men who come onto tough scenes preternaturally suited to win success at the chores demanded. They have no apparent emotions, other than ones they choose to fake. They possess a grandiose and overweening sense of superiority. Despite this, they can come across as charming, even charismatic, but only because they’re highly persuasive and manipulative. They remain ruthless and lacking in all remorse, but that allows them to focus intently on any task at hand, no matter how violent or vile it appears. They remain untouched by a level of fear that can undo others. We call these men psychopaths. Professionals who study the pathology say 1-2 percent of the world’s population fit this description. Such men can prove quite useful warriors during a conflict. But how on earth do you handle them in peacetime?

Turn them into secret agents. Because for those in clandestine service, wars never end.

When Ian Fleming conjured up James Bond, he envisioned a ruthless variation on the jazz singer Hoagy Carmichael.
Fleming has another character say that Bond looks like Hoagy with, “That black hair falling down over the right eyebrow. Much the same bones. But there was something a bit cruel in the mouth, and the eyes were cold.”

There’s your big clue to Bond’s inner nature, similar to the essential hint Dashiell Hammett provided for his detective Sam Spade, who looks, “rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.”


The Ethics of a Cynic

HoagyBond’s saving grace is that, regardless of what he must do in his tradecraft, he remains a loyal subject of the Crown. That’s his sole North Star, his one moral constant. Put it aside, and he’s a rule-breaker, an impudent and rebellious operative, and a self-serving narcissist. He can read most other people easily, but he basically doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about the lot of them. In essence, he’s an ethical psychopath – which is the root of his legendary coolth and poise.

But, as President Truman said of the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza, “He might be a bastard, but he’s our bastard.”

To design Bond that way, yet also make him a sentimental push-over who falls in love quickly and easily is to stir forces together that can’t actually blend. Misbegotten efforts to humanize him, to round him out, to explain his character and motivation with a traumatic backstory is to attempt to transform him into something he never was and could never be. That irresolvable conundrum has polluted many a film and imitation Bond book (those written by stand-ins after Fleming died).

Even Daniel Craig’s performances as Bond in the films, “Casino Royale,” in which he falls desperately in love with Vesper Lynde, and “Skyfall,” wherein he adores the mother-figure of Judy Densch’s “M”, are cases in point. Those films flail back and forth between presenting Bond as a cold-hearted bastard and Bond as a sweet and decent mensch who’s simply burdened with doing a tough job.

Given that, why do I think that “Spectre” works? Because finally, finally, Craig gets it right – he remains demonically self-possessed no matter what happens. Even when his prime object of desire says goodbye to him, he doesn’t so much as flinch. The script-writers get it right, too – Bond’s quips are not tacky puns, but wry lines that point to a hard, unflinching, and world-weary core philosophy. Even those worn but de rigeur phrases, “Bond, James Bond,” and “shaken-not-stirred,” are slipped deftly into fresh contexts.

But the main reason “Spectre” succeeds that Bond’s object of desire (one hesitates to call her an actual love interest) is nearly as tough as he is. French actress Léa Seydoux – operating at an acrobatic leap beyond her turn as a nubile naïf in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” – is Dr. Madeleine

Swann, the daughter of an international assassin, and no shrinking violet herself. She can shoot, she can fight, and when their mutual combat against a brutal killer on a train is over, she’s more than ready to celebrate with hot sex.


A SUB-ZERO LOVE AFFAIR

Bond does not fall for her, exactly, yet he does want to be with her. Why? Bond’s a consummate narcissist, and she’s entirely too much like him for him to resist. Charming her, kissing her and stroking her, for him all these loving moves are like licking a mirror. As for what she sees in him, Bond provides a compelling view down a path she did not take herself (yet), the same route along which she saw her own father disappear. Bond is her chance to finally grasp the essence of her deceased father, and to some degree, pull a facsimile of him back into her life. You can’t say they don’t have chemistry, but it is of an extremely chilly type – theirs is a romance located, say, on Pluto. Which is perfect for Bond.

“Spectre” is not without flaw. Its opening sequence, with CGI octopus arms writhing across the screen as though black linguini has begun slumping out of a tilted pot, is utterly risible. Yet more ludicrous moments arise during the showdown in the arch-villain’s desert lair. What experienced villain would ever let a major international spy keep his wristwatch right there on his arm? Godammit, did you crafty villains learn nothing from Hermann Goering’s fountain pen? And then, allowing Swann to run to Bond, embrace him (and release him) instead of keeping her tied in a chair? Bad guys, please! That’s just plain goofy.

Another pratfall. I tell my writing classes they can watch a movie’s plot flounder if tension has to flare on the screen via the glowing time readout on some sort of explosive device. Now, I must say, “Spectre” doesn’t inflict a single one of these irksome clichés on you. It offers two, with their readouts running down simultaneously. The first concerns a global takeover by a computer program; the other is on an actual timer in a big building crammed with explosives. And, oh yes, a maiden is indeed also tied to that railroad track.

I don’t think filmmakers gain extra points for doubling or even tripling down on vapidity.

Another gratuitous absurdity: Bond next proceeds to shoot down a helicopter with his handgun. At a range of, oh, a hundred yards or so, in the dead of night. While he himself goes bouncing along the Thames in a speedboat. In all fairness to the filmmakers, though, I must say they do insert a shred of suspense by requiring Bond to take more than a single shot.

But the interpersonal climax? Now, that’s sublime.

So the chopper crashes on Westminister Bridge in London and our chief baddie, Christopher Waltz as Franz Oberhauser (nee Ernst Stavro Blofeld, leader of the international crime syndicate, Spectre) crawls wounded out from the wreckage. Bond then has a chance to shoot him, yet he declines. It’s enough to gaze down at Blofeld, knowing that he has won, and to see Blofeld look back up at him, also knowing that Bond has won.

For Bond, this is way better than any orgasm could ever be. Once again, he’s proven his supremacy as the ultimate icy bastard. He takes special delight in seeing that realization dawn in the eyes of an enemy. Compared to Bond, a serial killer like Ted Bundy is a mere dilettante and poseur. Bundy sought out those he perceived as weaklings for his prey, but Bond takes on near-equals, even presumptive superiors, and for much higher stakes.

Smiling, Bond ejects his gun’s ammo clip (a covert message to Dr. Swann, who did the same thing to his weapon about a third of the film back), then flings it away, telling Oberhauser he’s got better things to do. Next he kisses the girl and strolls off with her. Nice closer sequence, but scoring with this chick again is rather beside the point.

The main thing for viewers to celebrate is that the genuine Bond has finally shown up once more. The last time we really saw the guy was during “Doctor No,” after he’s packed off the female double-agent he’s screwed in more ways than one, and sits playing solitaire and smoking cigarettes while he waits for a target to arrive. That target, a British traitor, dutifully walks in, glimpses the dummies Bond has placed in a bed, falls for the ruse, and fires multiple bullets into them.

Bond then raises his own gun, makes the traitor drop his. When the traitor snatches up his gun again, Bond raises an eyebrow and waits for its firing pin to fall on an empty chamber. “That’s a Smith & Wesson,” Bond informs him. “And you’ve had your six.” Then he calmly drills him.

Six of one, meet half a dozen of the other.

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The Bliss of a Deeper Dive

skull4It is rare when a mystery or thriller attempts to do more than entertain. But when a book does shift away from the genre’s shallow end and charges into the deeps, most often it will do so by analyzing an issue, dissecting a threat, or diving into unexplored history. These are all worthy efforts. Best of all is a book that finds its depth in its characters, that through their story reveals something about what it means to be human.

“Patient Number 7,” set in Austria and Germany during the dismaying rise and precipitant fall of the Nazis, accomplishes this in spades. It might bear a goofy title (the meaning of which only becomes clear in the last pages) but is an excellent book because of the depth of its interest in what constitutes a genuine person.

Patient Number 7

There are twin timelines, occupied by two main characters: Clara Eugenie Herzog, a budding university student in Vienna; and Albert Leonhardt, a captain in the Austrian cavalry. Over the objections of her family, their romance ignites while Albert squires Clara around the countryside on his Norton motorcycle.

There are twin timelines, occupied by two main characters: Clara Eugenie Herzog, a budding university student in Vienna; and Albert Leonhardt, a captain in the Austrian cavalry. Over the objections of her family, their romance ignites while Albert squires Clara around the countryside on his Norton motorcycle.

However, the dark dawn of the Third Reich already looms over their idyll – as indeed it does over the entire Western Hemisphere. In short order, Austria is absorbed by Hitler via the Anschluss in 1938, then  British prime minister Neville Chamberlain secures his everlasting post in infamy by appeasing the Reich and handing over part of Czechoslovakia through the Munich Agreement.

These events first entangle, then ensnare our characters. Albert is dragooned into the German army and becomes a tank commander under Guderian and Rommel. Meanwhile Clara and her family are swept up in the rising Nazi dominance of society at large, and are ceaselessly badgered to join in it. Amid such fraught and parlous times, how can the lovers endure? After they marry and have children, how can they help them survive?

Their salvation is not just that Clara is a strong-minded woman. It is that she’s a woman who knows how to maintain a strong mind, no matter what challenges her. Since the early Thirties, she has taken advantage of a liberal wave in European education to study philosophy, not as a heap of abstract theorems, but as a way to foster inner strength, peace and poise. She studies with Wittgenstein and Freud, and the book presents amusing and intriguing scenes of her with them and other deep thinkers – she even spots Martin Heidigger musing on a park bench, and convincingly imagines what he might be brooding about.

Clara comes to realize you can make philosophy a house that you live in, and regard the world and all its tumult through the windows. You can live in that world, yet still refuse to be of that world.  This poise, coupled with Albert’s innate sense of honor, duty, fair play and dignity, are what see the pair through – even when the story’s great villain, SS Obersturmfuhrer Bonninghaus corners her in a farmhouse to attack her while Albert is gone. The couple have already prepared each other to survive and win.

You know, plenty of stock characters wind up getting deployed over and over again in this genre. One of the hardest-working guys in the thriller bizz, for example, is a former Special Ops military man, cynical but brave, skilled with weapons and adept in martial arts, who wanders about the world’s mean streets to ceaselessly deal out his own special brand of justice, while cracking wise every step of the way. I know you’ve seen this cool bastard in action, since he turns up almost everywhere! He’s Jack, Frank, Clete, Magnum, etc. etc.

And at this point, the guy bores me to tears.

That’s why it’s so compelling to spend quality reading time with a fresh and strong, smart and unique, well-drawn and intriguing heroine like Clara Eugenie Herzog.

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Aboard the Good Ship “Thriller”

Review of Dublin DeadDublin Dead. by Gerard O’Donovan

skull3In one of her lapidary poems, Emily Dickenson incisively summoned for all time our image of a book as an argosy, a ship that can transport a reader to foreign climes and cultures. And indeed, readers can readily expect time spent with a thriller or a mystery to transport them into deeper dimensions of crime and social dysfunction, the horrors of violence, and the harrowing challenges willingly taken up by the champions of justice.

A good mystery or thriller can accomplish this, and more besides. It can also illustrate Dickenson’s literal point by bearing a reader as nearly as far into a distant nation as an actual physical trip might. Such an achievement is scored by Dublin Dead.

Dublin Dead.In this complex tale of crime in modern Ireland, O’Donovan brings back a pair of main characters from a highly successful debut novel, “The Priest.” One of them is Siobhan Fallon, a pretty and feisty investigative female reporter for The Sunday Herald who was literally crucified and almost slain by the demented killer Rinn in O’Donovan’s  earlier work. Mike Mulcahy is a dedicated and dour, implacable detective inspector who heads up the National Drug Unit for the Gardai – the Irish national police.

O’Donovan grasps well that the most potent part of human sexuality is yearning. Siobhan and Mike clearly have got the steamy hots for one another.

Unfortunately they, like many native Irish, carry a mental infection brought on by generations of Manichean Catholicism. For them, strong desire is reason enough to develop resistance to the very thought of getting together. Instead, both members of this potential couple stand frozen before the gleaming apple of temptation. To them the prospect of romance seems simultaneously forbidden and alluring, powerful yet poisonous. Besides that, Siobhan is traumatized by her experiences with Rinn, and Mike is rattled by the blend of his own flight impulse, coupled with excessive concern for her frailty. So all they can seem to offer each other is a bumbling camaraderie that switches back-and-forth between angry confrontation and awkward affection.

In short their situation is so bloody Irish, it fairly sweats Guinness and reeks of peat smoke.

Frustrated passion doesn’t prevent Siobhan and Mike from rushing fiercely into danger over and over again to save each other’s lives. Rather, it actively forces them to do that very thing. Because, you see, it’s a mighty form of sublimation, a substitute for that other consummation which they struggle with all their strength to avoid.

The shamrock is flamboyantly branded on some other story elements that are more atmospheric. These include: a Church whose once-omnipotent presence has faded to a dim, decaying backdrop; a turbulent history whose modern harvest is a glowering belligerence readily accessible to most of the characters; and the faltering spasms of a “Celtic Tiger” economy everywhere reduced to mewling-kitten status.

One more major element helps “Dublin Dead” bear readers away on a voyage to a tarnished Emerald Isle: the well-rendered, rich vernacular language, robust and profane, which is scattered throughout the book’s scenes with a prodigal hand. Here follows a few of my favorite phrases.

Rain is a, “feckin’ downpour”; a criminal is a, “yellow gobshite”; a suspect is, “some eejit”; and the deity is either, “Jaysus” or “Christ on a bike.” For complete sentences, I savored, “All the molly-coddling, it’s complete bollocks”; and, “How do you fancy that pint I owe you?”

As to plot, it primarily deals with the fallout from the seizure of ninety bales of Columbian cocaine, taken from an ocean-going yacht off the Irish coast; this find is Mulcahy’s main focus. Another mystery is presented by the suicide of a promising young Irish real estate developer, who takes a flyer off a high bridge in England; this is the focus of an investigation by Fallon. As the troubled duo of detectives flail through a welter of confusing clues and false leads, they belatedly come to understand they’ve been laboring to unravel opposite ends of the same sprawling conspiracy.

I loved many parts of this novel, except for its climactic finale, which held too many head-snapping reversals-of-fortune for my taste.

However, overall, the part of it I far-and-away loved best was a chance to fly straight into Ireland and linger there for a good while, without any need to purchase or endure a six-hour plane ride.

“There is no frigate like a book

To take us lands away,

Nor any coursers like a page

Of prancing poetry.

This traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of toll;

How frugal is the chariot

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Virtue of the Stark and Simple

The Drop (A Harry Bosch Novel)“  – by Michael Connelly

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I just finished my new favorite work by Michael Connelly: “The Drop,” a Harry Bosch mystery from 2011. (It displaces “Void Moon,” from 1999.) I realize the dude’s scribbled four or five more volumes since Drop. What can I say? Connelly seems to turn ‘em out more quickly than Famous Amos bakes cookies. It’s tough for mere mortals to keep up! Plus, he’s not the only writer any self-respecting mystery/thriller buff must read to stay au courant.

A path into “The Drop” was provided to me by Connelly himself in a recent New York Times book review section (Feb. 2015), wherein he assessed the debut of “The Whites,” by a colleague (and presumptive  competitor) in the genre, Richard Price. Connelly leads into that piece with a generous anecdote, recounting how impressed he was by a Price quote he once plucked from a magazine interview.

To wit: “When you circle around a murder long enough, you get to know a city.”

Connelly cut that line out and stuck it above his computer screen, where it served as a lodestone for his own writing for a few years. I’d like to think that it was still up there as he wrote “The Drop,” because that’s precisely what this deceptively simple – at first! – procedural mystery achieves. It doesn’t only add a fresh stratum to the legend of his enduring detective cum knight errant, Harry Bosch. This book also limns the smog-wreathed skyline of LA and the city’s beleaguered PD… as well as the shadow realm that lurks below the spires and towers of this afflicted metropolis.

This author seems to be at a charmed point in his career. Not just because he’s made the best-seller lists only slightly less often than God, but also, because he now knows he doesn’t need to open a story with a garish and gory splash. His fan base will stick, so he can launch readers into The Drop with a stark and simple scene of detectives shoving files around on desks in their dingy office. And these are not even contemporary files, they’re musty records (“murder books”) of the Open-Unsolved Unit, kicking around cases from decades past.

So Connelly shows us basic cop procedure, rendered in language basic and un-flamboyant. That style happen to remind you of anything? Readers of a certain age may recall the clear and clipped cadences of the old “Dragnet” TV show of the 50s and 60s, which featured the laconic Jack Webb as Detective Sgt. Joe Friday. Cue the musical theme, “dum-da-dum-dum.” And then, after an image of the phallic county courthouse and his badge, number 714, hear Webb intone, “This is the city, Los Angeles, California. I work here. I’m a cop.”

Well, laconic at first, maybe. In some episodes Webb grew way too loquacious and pontifical. But my point is, in the opening tone of “The Drop,” Connelly invokes Joe Friday. Just as in the character development of Harry Bosch, he invokes the long-suffering persistence and battered honor of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe, and other guardians of the presumed innocent in a neon-washed L.A.

Another beauty of “The Drop” is the way a single clue – a faint blood smear on the neck of a 19 year-old coed that did not come from her, nor even from her killer – is unfolded, origami-like, by Bosch, to eventually lead him to a serial murderer who’s outsmarted everyone for decades. This mystery is interwoven with another, as he digs into the truth behind the apparent suicide of the son of a city councilman. These two threads combine to weave a tapestry of deception in which the only reliable constant is Bosch’s dogged persistence.

A third charm, highly unusual in this genre, is that there’s almost no violence. Oh, there are crimes aplenty, some with gruesome evidence, vividly described. But the sole physical action occurs when Bosch engineers a take-down and cuffing of the serial killer, and next prevents his death at the hands of a former victim. The beauty of this is that it allows the reader to focus on the detective work and the character of the detective. Bosch at this point is a gruff, no-nonsense, greying eminence on the force. He needs the job – nailing miscreants is his raison d’etre. But he certainly doesn’t need to take any shit from anyone, including his bosses, and he won’t. That gives his every interaction a stolid, curmudgeonly charm.

To put it simply, in The Drop, Connelly concentrates on making simplicity a virtue. And he ends up with a stark, clear work that portrays victims, assailants and cops churning through a complex dance where death and danger call the tune, and success at completing a number only means winning the chance to do it all over again. This novel offers a map to the homes of the stars, and the retreats of scumbags, and the locations of those caught in between – plus a few unusual people who carry well the awful burden of badges – in a town that Joni Mitchell sang of as, “L.A., city of the fallen angels.”

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About

Hurricane King hit South Florida in the fall of 1950. Paul McHugh blew into town then, too. His father piled limestone boulders into an old Army jeep to keep it from being blown off the road, before he drove McHugh’s mother – already in labor – to the hospital.

McHugh grew up in the Everglades, the Florida Keys and the Bahamas, fostering a deep love for nature and vigorous outdoor sports. At age 13, he entered a Roman Catholic seminary to study for the priesthood. He left at age 19 to complete a secular education at FSU in Tallahassee. He graduated with a summa cum laude degree in English, with an emphasis on poetry (and a minor in psychology) from FSU in 1972.

He rambled by motorcycle across the U.S., looking for the place he wanted to live. It turned out to be Northern California. McHugh supported himself by a variety of jobs – including fair barker, archery instructor, catering truck driver, masseur and union carpenter – while writing his first novel, “The Search for Goodbye to Rains” (published by Island Press in 1980).

McHugh moved up to the thriving artist’s colony of Mendocino, where he launched a career as a freelance writer and video producer, focusing on topics like resource use, environmental issues, and outdoor sport. Meanwhile, he expanded his resume’ of activities, adding rock climbing, ski mountaineering, bow hunting, mountain biking, whitewater kayaking, sea kayak racing and surfing to the activities he had enjoyed growing up in Florida – fishing, hiking, sailing and skin diving.

In 1985, he was hired to be co-editor and main feature writer for the Outdoors section of The San Francisco Chronicle, a post he held until 2007.

During that period, McHugh also published a non-fiction book, “Wild Places,” with Foghorn Books.

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To Be Conscious of a Cult

Film review of “Martha Marcy May Marlene”

skull5What makes a scary movie? And please, don’t say the Wayans brothers.

To induce fear successfully, a film must drill into our deep subconscious, slurp the murky liquor of willful unknowing up into daylight, then squirt it straight into the eyes of viewers – making them absorb realizations they don’t particularly care to acquire on their own. The hallmark of such a film is not that it makes you look, but that it absolutely refuses to let you look away.

That description fits the 2011 psychological drama, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” to a T… though for the sake of brevity, I’m going to call this movie 4Ms.

The odd title of the flick is only a hint of the creativity involved in making this guided trek into the trauma-ridden mind of a youthful follower of a cult, located on a dilapidated farmstead in upstate New York. The eponymous Martha – played by Elizabeth Olsen – is a lovely girl seeking to cross over the metaphorical bridge into womanhood. But she gets stuck about midway. Confused, defensive, vulnerable and unformed, she’s seized upon by a master manipulator named Patrick – played by a supremely conniving and always convincing John Hawkes.

At first, Martha’s induction into the “family” makes her focus on new relationships, music, learning her way around a garden and a kitchen, then assuming some care of the collective’s infants. However the tide of her conversion inexorably begins to flow toward much darker matters: drugs and group sex, then robbery, violence and mayhem.

Though the film’s running-time is 141 minutes, it does feel a great deal longer. That’s a fabulous thing. Too much cinematic story-telling these days obsesses over hitting each highly-prioritized mark in a fast-paced three-act structure. In so doing, a movie can grow as boring and predictable as a pop tune.

However, 4Ms glories in a more jazz-like approach as it switches back and forth between Martha’s time with the commune – gradually turning from idyll to nightmare – and the period spent with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) once they’ve rescued her and brought her to live with them in a vacation cottage. Lucy and Ted only gradually come to see the flaming wreckage inside this apparently frail creature they’ve clasped to their bosom.

The jazz-like development of the story-line is underscored by a major emphasis on the sound edit. Over the film’s course, the hammer-blows and ax-strikes of a rural commune struggling to build itself gradually become the thump of rocks flung onto a roof to distract a home-owner before a hit-squad from the commune invades his house for a robbery. The ring of a phone gradually inflicts terror, after use of phones becomes a means for the communards to track down Martha. And the crunch of a vehicle moving over gravel pursues Martha all the way to the film’s last, unsettling scene.

All of these changes and challenges are chronicled in Martha’s face, sweet but guarded, baffled and yearning, then – increasingly – shocked, numbed, and terrorized. Elizabeth Olsen won nine acting awards for this role, while achieving fifteen nominations for other prizes. I’d say she deserved all of them, and more.

Yet as far as I’m concerned, the palm for supreme achievement here must go to Sean Durkin, 4Ms’ writer and director. Fortunately, the Sundance Film Festival thought that, too. He’s the one who assembled all the parts in this chilling and profound work of story-telling. It’s my belief that story-tellers working in any medium, including prose fiction, can learn a incredible amount from the way Durkin approached his subject and managed to accomplish his goal. In an interview for the book, “The Best Film You’ve Never Seen,” he told author Robert K. Elder, “When I make a film, I think about things that scare me. My exploration of those things is to try and wrap my head around them and confront them.”

Which is also a formula for the way human society can encounter and absorb some of its most necessary stories. Now, more than four decades since Charles Manson and his band of marauders left their famously bloody handprints smeared across the American Southwest, we may finally be ready to see and hear what it actually means to fall under the sway of a masterful and determined, yet thoroughly demented manipulator. And finally understand how this damage, once accomplished, is extremely difficult to undo.

So. Why might this be such a scary message for us? It’s because, my dears, there’s far more than one type of cult.

Let’s give a listen to the lines that Patrick whispers to Martha, as he attempts to convince her that the murder she’s just watched being committed by her fellow communards during a home invasion should not bother her.

“You know that death is the most beautiful part of life, right?… It brings you to now, makes you truly present. That’s nirvana. That’s pure love. So, death is pure love.”

If you’re able to watch that scene and audit that line without a shudder, I’ve got a job for you. I hear Dexter may be looking for an assistant.

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In Murder – Does Neatness Count

Review of “Bones Are ForeverBones are Forever.” by Kathy Reichs 

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There’s a compulsion inherent to mysteries and thrillers – no matter how messy the crime scenes get. And that’s an impulse to clean things up. Baddies enter the story to upend the social order, tie the blond to the railroad track, chew on the scenery and summon all the demons of chaos. But! Then along comes Marshal Jones, in his (or her!) guise as the lonesome stalwart blessed with the inner (and outer!) strength to dish out just desserts, then make the baddies eat ‘em.

That’s the reassurance, the medication – hell, let’s face it – the opiate that most of this genre serves up. The exceptions only prove (or at least serve to underline) the rule. Then, there’s works like “Bones Are Forever,” by Kathy Reichs, a mystery that dances so closely to the line of “too clean” that a reader can practically hear the sentences squeak. Not to mention the wooden gears of the plot.

Murder.There’s no question that Reichs has been a huge success with this approach. Her first book won an Ellis and rocketed to the NY Times best-seller list, as have subsequent works. So, you argue against it at your peril. Clearly there’s an audience out there that’s avid for it. My main concern is that a) such overall tidiness does not mirror the world, and b) that it telegraphs most of the punches – which leaches tension out of the narrative.

“Bones” is a novel that features her recurring heroine, Temperance Brennan. Like Reichs herself,  Brennan is a professional forensic anthropologist. The story opens as she examines the corpse of a baby that appears to have been slain by its mother, and in rapid succession, other children who’ve met a similarly tragic fate. Brennan is soon on the killer’s trail, in the company of homicide detective Andrew Ryan and a Canadian Mountie named Oliver (“Ollie”) Hasty. Brennan has a history with both men, so a romantic triangle descends to complicate the investigation. Unfortunately, it’s a triangle that clanks more than it rings, a formulaic element that feels imposed simply so the guys can snarl at each other while they flirt with Brennan.

The simplest way to indict the repartee that thumps into the story to provide you with a sample. Q: “Why are you looking for her?” A: “I’m a dentist, and I’m worried she’s not flossing her teeth.”

Apparently, this is what passes for tough cop chatter north of the U.S. border.

The trail leads them to aboriginal – Dene – settlements in the northern territories. They find the killer, a simpleton with barely enough brain-power to invent aliases for herself, a witless woman who has worked as a prostitute and deploys infanticide as birth control. But another dimension of the woman’s sad plight is that her family has been targeted by white, pseudo-environmentalists who scheme to deprive the native people of land rights and steal the potential diamond mine that lies underground.

Reichs is a scientist, and her forays into the history of diamond mining, like her scenes of forensic analysis, are all informative and illuminating. She’s a clever enough story-teller to show Brennan making a few mistakes and getting into a bad jam or two. She’s particularly good at rendering some Native American minor characters. But since cleanliness is the overwhelming and dominant virtue of the narrative, there’s never any doubt that her feuding cop partners will cooperate on rescuing Brennan, and all problems will be solved with the smooth efficiency of a softly ticking Swiss watch. As, in the due course of time, they thoroughly are.

Reichs is a master at her own tidy modality, and her readers apparently love the dickens out of her for laying it on them. But me, I’d infinitely prefer to see a truly rogue element – or three, or four – ride in to kick over her far-too-orderly apple-cart, and infuse the literary proceedings with a few bolts of genuine demonic chaos. In this novel, the only true agent of chaos that ever shows up is the hapless infant-killer/prostitute. She’s hardly a worthy antagonist. She’s almost another victim.

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Truth Like the Sun

Review of Truth Like the Sun by Jim Lynch

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My older brother likes to spout a theory that the hippies were correct about everything. I don’t particularly subscribe. However, I will admit that long-haired, herb-smoking mob did create incredibly nifty slogans. Such as: “What if they gave a war, and no one came?”

After you’ve mulled that idea for a bit, try this one on for size. What if someone wrote a crime novel that had few if any crimes? Or presented a mystery that had all its major truths laid out in plain sight?

Such a conundrum is provided to readers by the wonderfully crafted Truth Like the Sun.

A major clue that author Lynch is up to some creative play with ordinary story formulas is that he offers us two protagonists, yet no clear villain.

The first major character is Roger Morgan, a charmed and charming Seattle socialite who draws an idea for the city’s iconic Space Needle on a napkin, and then manages to get the thing built just in time for it to serve as the centerpiece for the Century 21 Exposition, aka the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.

Morgan, then young, is described as jug-eared, loose-limbed, bushy-haired, and is hailed as a “silver-tongued p.r. Hercules” for accomplishing this task. Ever afterward he’s known by the sobriquet, “Mr. Seattle.” In fact, he serves so well and so long as the unofficial social leader of the city that, as the 40th anniversary of the fair approaches, he decides to run for the actual position of mayor, and in this way invoke some of the can-do optimism that prevailed during his heyday.

Enter a muck-raking reporter on the prowl, one Helen Gulanos, an East Coast scrivener who has been lured West by promises of a loose leash and big play for her stories in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Gulanos, a single mom with a hapless love life, is damaged goods. She struggles to raise her pre-schooler son, tries to justify her existence by writing hard-hitting stories, and takes only occasional refuge from stress by sawing away on a violin.

Asked to write “enterprising” stories about the anniversary of the fair, Gulanos first observes Roger Morgan at the party where he announces his candidacy. She suspects Morgan can’t possibly be as clean or as idealistic as he presents himself, decides to probe into his past and Seattle’s, and soon – as Sherlock Holmes might say – the game is afoot.

Lynch cleverly designs “Truth” with two timelines. In the first timeline, set in 1962, the young Roger Morgan is shown afloat on the flood of the energy and enthusiasm that creates the fair – made all the more poignant by the fact that the era was also haunted by the Cold War and a looming specter of nuclear holocaust. Still, the 1962 Morgan enjoys intriguing encounters with actual fair guests like a neckless Ed Sullivan, sardonic John Glenn, hip Count Basie, witty Prince Philip and profane LBJ. His best meet-up by far is with a surprisingly thoughtful and sweet-tempered Elvis.

This timeline also dips into Morgan’s shadow side, as he explores the dark dimensions of his hometown, its illicit gambling halls and dens of vice, its corrupt cops and old-boy network – the elements of any city, really, that must evolve rapidly from a raucous frontier character to a more civilized and modern one. But Morgan himself never seems guilty of anything other than strong curiosity about how things actually work.

In the modern timeline, set in 2001, the reporter Gulanos chases after tiny crumbs of information, bits of historic record, and the grumblings of Morgan’s enemies (any public figure will have them) as she tries to figure out the extent to which he participated in the city’s corrupt practices. Ultimately, she’s only able to brew a weak tea – but her editors insist on distilling it into a far stronger indictment, albeit one based on innuendo rather than verifiable fact.

The character of Gulanos’ face-to-face confrontations with Morgan and his shrewd aide, Teddy Severson, I will leave to the reader to discover – as these are some of the best scenes in the book. For a teaser, though, here is Morgan summarizing Gulanos to her face: “She gets a visceral thrill from unleashing somewhat true stories about him without once imagining what it would feel like to be stalked by herself.”

By the book’s end, a reader is left with plenty to think about. Not just images of the rain-swept Pike Place Market or the soaring Space Needle, or a remarkably well-informed tour of the city and its past… but also an insight into the difference between an almost mythic era and a modern time of greatly lowered hopes. Compared to the grand vision that inspired the building of the Needle and the Expo, Gulanos’ grubby effort to mount a threadbare expose’ stands revealed as a tawdry game of smallball.

And a dearth of dreams soon leads to the death of the dreamer.

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Crime Without Villains

Review of Truth Like the Sun by Jim Lynch

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My older brother likes to spout a theory that the hippies were correct about everything. I don’t particularly subscribe. However, I will admit that long-haired, herb-smoking mob did create incredibly nifty slogans. Such as: “What if they gave a war, and no one came?”

After you’ve mulled that idea for a bit, try this one on for size. What if someone wrote a crime novel that had few if any crimes? Or presented a mystery that had all its major truths laid out in plain sight?

Such a conundrum is provided to readers by the wonderfully crafted Truth Like the Sun.

A major clue that author Lynch is up to some creative play with ordinary story formulas is that he offers us two protagonists, yet no clear villain.

The first major character is Roger Morgan, a charmed and charming Seattle socialite who draws an idea for the city’s iconic Space Needle on a napkin, and then manages to get the thing built just in time for it to serve as the centerpiece for the Century 21 Exposition, aka the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.

Morgan, then young, is described as jug-eared, loose-limbed, bushy-haired, and is hailed as a “silver-tongued p.r. Hercules” for accomplishing this task. Ever afterward he’s known by the sobriquet, “Mr. Seattle.” In fact, he serves so well and so long as the unofficial social leader of the city that, as the 40th anniversary of the fair approaches, he decides to run for the actual position of mayor, and in this way invoke some of the can-do optimism that prevailed during his heyday.

Enter a muck-raking reporter on the prowl, one Helen Gulanos, an East Coast scrivener who has been lured West by promises of a loose leash and big play for her stories in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Gulanos, a single mom with a hapless love life, is damaged goods. She struggles to raise her pre-schooler son, tries to justify her existence by writing hard-hitting stories, and takes only occasional refuge from stress by sawing away on a violin.

Asked to write “enterprising” stories about the anniversary of the fair, Gulanos first observes Roger Morgan at the party where he announces his candidacy. She suspects Morgan can’t possibly be as clean or as idealistic as he presents himself, decides to probe into his past and Seattle’s, and soon – as Sherlock Holmes might say – the game is afoot.

Lynch cleverly designs “Truth” with two timelines. In the first timeline, set in 1962, the young Roger Morgan is shown afloat on the flood of the energy and enthusiasm that creates the fair – made all the more poignant by the fact that the era was also haunted by the Cold War and a looming specter of nuclear holocaust. Still, the 1962 Morgan enjoys intriguing encounters with actual fair guests like a neckless Ed Sullivan, sardonic John Glenn, hip Count Basie, witty Prince Philip and profane LBJ. His best meet-up by far is with a surprisingly thoughtful and sweet-tempered Elvis.

This timeline also dips into Morgan’s shadow side, as he explores the dark dimensions of his hometown, its illicit gambling halls and dens of vice, its corrupt cops and old-boy network – the elements of any city, really, that must evolve rapidly from a raucous frontier character to a more civilized and modern one. But Morgan himself never seems guilty of anything other than strong curiosity about how things actually work.

In the modern timeline, set in 2001, the reporter Gulanos chases after tiny crumbs of information, bits of historic record, and the grumblings of Morgan’s enemies (any public figure will have them) as she tries to figure out the extent to which he participated in the city’s corrupt practices. Ultimately, she’s only able to brew a weak tea – but her editors insist on distilling it into a far stronger indictment, albeit one based on innuendo rather than verifiable fact.

The character of Gulanos’ face-to-face confrontations with Morgan and his shrewd aide, Teddy Severson, I will leave to the reader to discover – as these are some of the best scenes in the book. For a teaser, though, here is Morgan summarizing Gulanos to her face: “She gets a visceral thrill from unleashing somewhat true stories about him without once imagining what it would feel like to be stalked by herself.”

By the book’s end, a reader is left with plenty to think about. Not just images of the rain-swept Pike Place Market or the soaring Space Needle, or a remarkably well-informed tour of the city and its past… but also an insight into the difference between an almost mythic era and a modern time of greatly lowered hopes. Compared to the grand vision that inspired the building of the Needle and the Expo, Gulanos’ grubby effort to mount a threadbare expose’ stands revealed as a tawdry game of smallball.

And a dearth of dreams soon leads to the death of the dreamer.

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Birth of the Metaphysical Thriller

Review of Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

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Everything old is new again. If you spot an exciting, fresh-seeming book called a “metaphysical thriller,” it’s easy to proclaim it as signaling the birth of a genre or sub-genre. But I’m afraid we’ll have to term this only a re-birth. I mean, think about it.

Much of the Bible could be described as a metaphysical thriller, with the entire world’s damnation or salvation as the ultimate high stakes. Prior to the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Odyssey similarly fit the bill. Afterward, the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost did so too, quite ably. In modern times many of the books of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams add religious, spiritual or philosophic dimension to the rollicking ride of their plots.

Now, there’s “Alif – The Unseen,” by G. Willow Wilson, a work so compelling and original that it seems to invent a new category of thriller writing, although it Alif the Unseen only re-imagines one.

As the story opens, the eponymous Alif, a young hacker in a nameless emirate on the Persian Gulf, is breaking up with his high-class girlfriend. In order to block her messages, he constructs a new tool, a computer algorithm that’s capable of identifying any keyboard user – no matter how well shielded – by the pattern of their typing and their style of message entry.

The down side: this unique program is a golden grail for the world’s spy agencies. Alif soon finds that he’s drawn the murderous attention of the local government’s digital watchdog, a vicious and spiteful entity known only as “The Hand.”

Complications, as we like to say, ensue. Even Alif’s adept hacker-pals at their undercover HQ, the Radio Sheik (one of many deft jokes that leaven the story), are unable to do much but wring their hands. However, his young Egyptian friend, Dina can help – she’s a hijab-wearing teenager who grew up near Alif, who believes both in “the man he will become” and devoutly in Islam. Both these elements will grow crucial as the plot thickens. Other boosts come from an American woman known only as “the convert,” an aged mullah of the emirate’s principal mosque, and a wily, ancient djinn (genie) called Vikram the Vampire.

Once Vikram enters the tale, it departs the quotidian earth of normal human affairs and enters a scary realm where the physical and spiritual form a combustible mix. The tinder is a manuscript called the Alf Yeom or “The 1001 Days” (a shadow version of the classic, “The 1001 Nights”) that has been narrated by the djinn. A masterpiece of indirect logic and story-telling, the Alf Yeom seems to hold the key to a paradigm shift in computing, one that will move users from rapid-binary to quantum calculations. With this discovery comes immense power, and possibly the ability to unwind creation.

“Alif the Unseen” is a layered work. Besides achieving success as a metaphysical thriller, it is also: a coming-of age novel; a crime story (covering, without seeming to really stretch, crimes by both individuals and governments); a Mideast fantasy-parable; and a digital-sleuth yarn that picks up where cyberpunk classics like William Gibson’s “Neuromancer’ left off. Perhaps most impressively, it’s an East-meets-West story. It introducers a Western reader to the power of Islam’s basic beliefs, and the magic lore of Arab countries. Meanwhile, it also shows Eastern readers how aspects of their culture might appear to Westerners. The net result is a hemisphere-spanning piece of informative entertainment.

Generally I’m not a big fan of metaphysical or fantasy elements in mysteries or thrillers. A little of that goes a long way, and a bunch of it tends to go way too far. And I say that even though the next two novel manuscripts I’m ready to unload on an unsuspecting public include: 1) a philosophic thriller, and 2) a metaphysical thriller. What I truly object to is an unbalanced use of these elements, which I’ll explain like this. Once an author begins to conjure, he or she can only maintain tension by staying internally consistent (within the realm of the story) and externally consistent (within the elements of culture). Too much rule-breaking results in a world where everything is possible, and consequently nothing is important.

Author G. Willow Wilson, herself a convert to Islam, has side-stepped this chasm. I rarely quote from blurbs (I’d rather be quoted in them), but in this case, I can’t resist. On the cover, Steven Hall calls Wilson’s book, “A Golden Compass for the Arab Spring.” And I believe that’s exactly it is. This book can foster communication between wildly different geopolitical worlds. Way off the charts for the achievements of a thriller, and no mean accomplishment for a book of any stripe.

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