Monday 24 February 2020

Into The River, by Mark Brandi (a review)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I've read and loved, which I think adds to the genre (crime, in this case) and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.
Winner of The Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger and The 2018 Indie Debut Fiction Award

Growing up in a small country town, Ben and Fab spend their days playing cricket, wanting a pair of Nike Air Maxes and not talking about how Fab's dad hits him, or how the sudden death of Ben's next-door neighbour unsettled him. Almost teenagers, they already know some things are better left unsaid.

Then a newcomer arrived. Fab reckoned he was a secret agent and he and Ben staked him out. He looked strong. Maybe even stronger than Fab's dad. Neither realised the shadow this man would cast over both their lives.

Twenty years later, Fab is going nowhere but hoping for somewhere better. Then a body is found in the river, and Fab can't ignore the past any more.

I came to this without knowing anything about it - I was browsing in The Works and saw the cover blurb by my friend Louise Jensen - and I'm pleased about that, because if I'd known the issue at the heart of the story, I might have passed on it.  I'm so glad I didn't.

Ben and Fab are best friends, ten-year-olds growing up in a small town in Northern Australia at the tail end of the 80s (though this isn't specified until later).  They spend their days watching TV (including The A-Team, which I thought was a brilliant touch), playing cricket and yabbying in the local creek.  What they don't do is talk about how Fab’s dad hits him or how the death of Ben’s next door neighbour Daisy unsettled him, certainly once the awful rumours start.  Then someone new moves in, a loner called Ronnie with a flash car and the shadow he casts over both boys lives will be felt for a long time to come.

The situation between Ben and Ronnie is harrowing but the worst of it happens off the page which, I think, makes the drama even more intense.  Brandi captures the dry and hot atmosphere of a country town well, so you can almost feel the parched pavements and gardens and his characterisation of the ten year olds feels accurate - they’re smart, but not as clever as they think they are while their relationship is boisterous and natural.  The adults are seen through their eyes, involved but aloof and Fab’s homelife is nicely done, the violence countered by his wonderful mum (who Ben falls for).  The book is split into three parts, with the first told from Ben's POV (he knows there's a problem with Ronnie, he just can't see what it is) and once that storyline has built to its horrific conclusion, Feb takes the next part, as an adult clearly damaged by life and barely scraping by.  So when the past does return - as heralded by the prologue - things start to crumble.

I liked this a lot, it’s tense but often funny, real and harrowing but mostly hopeful, that friendships do conquer fear sometimes.  Engaging, briskly told and well paced, this is a cracking novel and thoroughly deserving of its acclaim.  Highly recommended.

Monday 17 February 2020

Looking For Rachel Wallace, by Robert B. Parker, at 40

Forty years ago this month, Robert B Parker published the sixth Spenser novel, Looking For Rachel Wallace.
cover scan of my 1987 Penguin edition
Spenser is hired to look after the campaigning lesbian-feminist author Rachel Wallace.

Her new book is going to dish the dirt on people in high places, but its publication brings death threats.  The reluctant Rachel doesn’t like macho wise guys like Spenser and a clash of personalities is inevitable.

After Spenser is fired, Rachel Wallace is kidnapped but the Boston private eye feels honour-bound to find her.

As I wrote in my appreciation of Robert B. Parker (from 2014, you can read it here), I got into crime fiction in the late 80s, starting with Raymond Chandler (after watching The Long Goodbye on Alex Cox’s wonderful Moviedrome thread) who led me to Sara Paretsky’s V I Warshawski series, the Hannah Wolfe novels from Sarah Dunant and various stand-alone titles.  In early 1988, while browsing in Kettering W H Smiths, I picked up - quite by chance - Parker’s Promised Land and fell in love with it (I wrote about it here), becoming an instant fan and working my way through the series until Double Deuce in 1992 (when we parted company).  The earlier novels, in my opinion, are definitely the better ones and I was really pleased to find Looking For Rachel Wallace, on re-reading, still stands up perfectly well, sexual politics and all, being a cleverly constructed mystery with great characters.

Hired by her publisher, Spenser is assigned to protect the feminist-lesbian writer Rachel Wallace, who is ruffling feathers left and right with her new book, Tyranny, that exposes prejudice in high office and business in the Boston area.  When his macho ways include getting into a fight to protect her, Rachel fires Spenser and when, three weeks later she’s kidnapped, he feels duty-bound to find her.  Told with engaging wit and nicely playing the whole spectrum of sexual politics, this sees Parker fitting into the rhythms he’d use for the remainder of the series and promotes Susan Silverman to full partner (she plays a considerable role in the story too).  The characters are well rounded, the mystery falls into place well and Quirk and Belson have much more to do than usual (though Hawk doesn’t make an appearance, more’s the pity).  In keeping with the timeline, this is more violent (Spenser kills two people at one point) than the later books, but Parker also tries to explain the ‘male code’, which is interesting (and sets up a nice relationship with a young cop called Foley).  With a cracking climax - Spenser staging a break-in - that takes place against a blizzard which has brought Boston to a stand-still, this zips along at a rapid pace and is never less than interesting.  Well worth a read!
Robert B. Parker
There really is a lot to like in this.  Spenser and Susan work well together, without a lot of the over-the-top relationship material which tends to overpower the story in later novels and Parker smartly allows Susan to add weight to Spenser’s interplay with Rachel Wallace.  The writer is a terrific creation, strong, smart and resilient and although she and Spenser will never see eye-to-eye, you get a sense of mutual respect from the midpoint (certainly towards the end) and Rachel would re-appear in A Catskill Eagle (1985), Stardust (1990) and Sudden Mischief (1998), developing a strong relationship with Spenser.

Although Hawk doesn’t appear (which is a shame, as I love his character), Lieutenant Martin Quirk and Sergeant Frank Belson do, with fairly big roles (Belson especially) and there’s a well played flare-up between Spenser and Quirk where both men are aware that our hero has slipped up (he fails to make a connection between the villains and a character we already know).  Indeed, the novel’s not afraid to show Spenser making mistakes, not least in his indirectly allowing Rachel to be kidnapped and I think this is one of the few occasions where he loses a fight (though, to be fair, it is against four people) and suffers the physical pain for it.  We also meet the neatly drawn Foley, a young policeman who proudly wears his Vietnam War decorations and clearly follows the same moral code as Spenser & Hawk.

Boston, as ever, is well captured with Parker presumably giving us some of his own thoughts on the city, especially the Boston Public Library at the start of chapter 19:

"The main entrance to the Boston Public Library used to face Copley Square across Dartmouth Street. There was a broad exterior stairway and inside there was a beautiful marble staircase leading up to the main reading room with carved lions and high-domed ceilings. It was always a pleasure to go there. It felt like a library and looked like a library, and even when I was going in there to look up Duke Snider's lifetime batting average, I used to feel like a scholar.
Then they grafted an addition on and shifted the main entrance to Boylston Street. Faithful to the spirit, the architect had probably said. But making a contemporary statement, I bet he said. The addition went with the original like Tab goes with pheasant. Now, even if I went in to study the literary influence of Eleanor of Aquitaine, I felt like I'd come out with a pound of hamburger and a loaf of Wonder bread."

One nice touch, I thought - Spenser & Rachel meet Susan for dinner at Rosalie’s restaurant in Marblehead which is not only a real place, it’s still operating.  As for the blizzard, Boston really was brought to a standstill by one in 1978 (you can read more about it here, at the Boston Globe) which would make sense in terms of the time Parker was writing the novel.

Part of the clash between Spenser and Rachel is her assertion she has no sense of humour and his frequent quipping.  There’s usually plenty of wisecracks in the series but this has some really smart lines.

After being introduced to Rachel she grills him and Spenser reckons “if I’d had tires, she’d have kicked them.”

When he meets Rachel’s publisher, John Ticknor, the man comments he’s been told Spenser is “quite tough.”

“You betcha,” I said. “I was debating here today whether to have the lobster Savannah or just eat one of the chairs.”

Ticknor smiled again, but not like he wanted me to marry his sister.

Crossing a picket line at the Belmont Public Library, one of the demonstrators yells “Dyke!”

I said, “Is he talking to me?”

Rachel Wallace said, “No.”

The Belmont library scene also includes a nice touch in that the audience is under-appreciative, which happens a lot more than non-writers would imagine and it only gets worse later when they go to a book signing and Rachel has to contend with “where do you get your ideas?”

Lastly, in Chapter 10, while guarding Rachel’s hotel room, he’s approached by Callahan, the house detective (he also re-appears in other novels) who asks him for identification.

I handed him my license. He looked at it and looked at me. “Nice picture,” he said.
“Well, that's my bad side,” I said.
“It's full face,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.

hardback third edition (1980) from Delacorte Press (New York)
If you’re intrigued by the Spenser series and looking to get into it, then I envy the enjoyment you have to come.  Although I would, of course, recommend Promised Land (wholeheartedly) or this as starting points, it’s worth bearing in mind the books sit in a chronological timeline so it’s perhaps best to start at the beginning with The Godwulf Manuscript.

Bullets And Beer: Looking For Rachel Wallace

Monday 10 February 2020

Devil Inside, by INXS

Since it's 32 years old this week, I'm taking a look at INXS' Devil Inside, a single I think best encapsulates not only the excellent Kick album but also the time period.
Devil Inside, the second single (following Need You Tonight) from Kick (which I wrote about here), was released on 8th February 1988 in Australia and 13th February 1988 for the rest of the world.  Recorded at Rhinoceros Studios in Sydney during 1986, it was written by Andrew Farriss & Michael Hutchence, produced by Chris Thomas and mixed by Bob Clearmountain.

It’s highest worldwide chart position was number 2, on the US Billboard Hot 100 for a fortnight (held off the top spot by Billy Ocean’s Get Outta My Dreams and Whitney Houston with Where Do Broken Hearts Go), going on to spend seventeen weeks on the chart.  It peaked at number 6 in Australia, 20 in France, 25 in Ireland and 47 in the UK (spending five weeks on the charts here).

Here come the world
With the look in its eye
Future uncertain but certainly slight
Look at the faces listen to the bells
It's hard to believe we need a place called hell

The song, part of the first batch for Kick, was written in July while the band was on the If You Got It, Shake It World Tour in 1986.  Andrew Farriss said, “The band was staying at a hotel in Edgware Road in London.  That’s where I wrote the riff - I put it on a demo in my room.  I worked out the chords, played everything for Michael and he said, ‘That’s really good, let’s run with it.’”

The band enjoyed playing the song live - “if you know the right parts,” Farriss said, “you can pretty much play this song as a bar band” - and Chris Thomas managed to preserve that in the recording.  The song quickly became a staple of concerts and it closed the Summer XS gig at Wembley in July 1991.
Joel Schumacher directed the video, a situation which arose from the soundtrack for his film The Lost Boys, released in 1987.  INXS contributed two songs, both of them collaborations with Jimmy Barnes - Good Times (a cover of the Easybeats song from 1968) and Laying Down The Law (co-written by INXS and Barnes) - which were originally recorded to publicise the Australian Made concerts from December 1986 to January 1987.  Since the music budget for the film wasn’t big enough but Schumacher wanted INXS, he agreed to direct a music video for them and they held him to the offer.

The video was filmed over two nights in mid-November 1987 at the Balboa Island Arcade & Boardwalk in Newport Beach, Southern California.  The production utilised three locations - the Balboa Saloon, as well as the Playland and Funzone arcades - and shot from 8pm to 4am (INXS had to leave for Canada after the second night of shooting for a concert).  The boardwalk was kept open to the public who were encouraged to be involved as unpaid extras, whilst the bodybuilders, bikers, businessmen, the fortune teller and the transvestite were all actors brought in for the shoot.

Kirk Pengilly said, in interview, that he didn’t like the video feeling it was “too American” but I love it and the song equally - both, to me, pretty much encapsulate the 80s in terms of sound and vision.

Devil Inside was nominated for Best Editing in a Video at the 1988 MTV Video Music Awards, but lost out to Need You Tonight (which swept the awards, winning five trophies).

The song was issued on vinyl and CD.  The 7” single and a 12” Maxi-single both contained the single version (at 5:11, the album version run 3:55) and On The Rocks, with the 12” version also including a Devil Inside remix (6:36).  The CD single was identical to the 12”.
Kick was released on 19th October 1987 and remains the bands most successful album, with almost 14m units sold.  It was produced by Chris Thomas (his second of three INXS albums) and recorded at Rhinoceros Studios in Sydney and Studio De La Grande Armée in Paris.  It spent 85 weeks on the ARIA album chart (peaking at number 2), 81 weeks on the US Billboard chart (peaking at number 3) and 103 weeks on the UK album chart (peaking at number 9).  I wrote extensively about the album on its 30th anniversary and you can read the blog post here.

The albums was supported by the enormous Kick World Tour which started at East Lansing in Michigan on 16th September 1987 and took in America, Canada, the UK, Europe, Japan, New Zealand and Australia.  The tour ended on 13th November 1988 at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, having played to more than 3 million people.

This performance was shot at Summer XS, Wembley Stadium, 13th July 1991 - a concert I was lucky enough to attend - and later released on the "Live Baby Live" DVD, directed by David Mallet.  Talk about a great way to close a show!

Monday 3 February 2020

Ten Favourite Covers: Golden Age 2000AD

According to Steve MacManus’ thoroughly entertaining autobiography, The Mighty One: My Life Inside the Nerve Centre, the key age-range for comic readers in the late 70s was the 8-12’s (putting my own ‘golden period’ from 1977 to 1981).  As I’ve been re-discovering 2000AD over the last few years - through Steve’s book, The Judge Dredd Case files and Future Shocks - I thought the comic would make an ideal subject for my occasional Ten Favourite Covers thread.

I hope, if you were a fellow fan, you see a favourite of your own here too…
1977, art by Don Lawrence and Carlos Ezquerra (Judge Dredd) - the first copy I read
1977, art by Evi
1978, art by Dave Gibbons
1978, art by Mike McMahon
1978, art by Kevin O'Neill
1979, art by Carlos Ezquerra
1980, art by Brian Bolland
1980, art by Massimo Bellardinelli
1981, art by Brian Bolland
1981, art by Dave Gibbons

Carlos Sanchez Ezquerra (12th November 1947 - 1st October 2018) was born in Zaragoza, Spain.  He began working in UK comics in 1973, starting with girls romance titles before moving onto westerns and various strips for D. C. Thmson.  In 1974, he was recruited by John Wagner & Pat Mills to work on Rat Pack for Battle Comic.  For 2000AD he co-created, with John Wagner, the characters of Judge Dredd and  Johnny Alpha (Strontium Dog) and also drew the adaptions of Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat novels (wherein Jim DeGriz looked remarkably like James Coburn).
wraparound cover art by Carlos Ezquerra, 1980
Evi, according to comicvine, is the “mysterious cover artist for early issues of weekly British sci-fi anthology comic 2000AD”

David (Dave) Gibbons was born in London on 14th April 1949.  Self-taught, he began working for IPC Media as a letterer and worked on 2000AD from Prog 1.  He drew the first twenty-four episodes of Harlem’s Heroes and was a prolific contributor beyond that, co-creating Rogue Trooper with Gerry Finley-Day.  Perhaps best known for co-creating Watchmen with Alan Moore, he also featured in photographs as superhero Big E, the editor of the short-lived Tornado comic (itself merged in 2000AD after 22 issues - I wrote about it here).

Mick McMahon is a British artist who worked on the first Judge Dredd strip in Prog 2 (co-creators John Wagner & Carlos Ezquerra had both walked away because of a dispute) and is credited with creating the ‘bigboots and crumpled clothes’ that have characterised him since.  He drew the bulk of the first Dredd serial, The Cursed Earth, sharing episodes with Brian Bolland (their styles were radically different), then worked on Ro-Busters, ABC Warriors, The Judge Child and Sláine.

Kevin O’Neill was born in England in 1953 and began working for IPC on Buster comic.  When he found out about 2000AD, he went to see Pat Mills (who was putting the thrill-zine together) and asked to be transferred to it.  As well as working on Ro-Busters, he co-created Nemesis The Warlock and Marshal Law (both with Pat Mills) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (with Alan Moore).  His story Shok!, co-created for the Judge Dredd Annual 1981 with Steve MacManus, formed the (uncredited until there was a court case) basis for Richard Stanley’s Hardware (1990).
wraparound cover art by Kevin O'Neill, 1986
Brian Bolland was born in Lincolnshire on 26th March 1951 and is my favourite of the 2000AD artists.  After studying graphic design at Norwich University of the Arts, he began working on British underground magazines and became friends with Dave Gibbons.  The pair collaborated on a strip called Powerman which was only sold in Nigeria and when Gibbons went to work on 2000AD, Bolland soon followed (his first cover was Prog 11).  A self-confessed slow artist he was "by far the slowest of the rotating Judge Dredd artists" choosing to "take as long as I needed and do a half-way decent job" (he gets the mickey taken out of him for it in the Judge Dredd case files).  Credited with creating the look of Judge Death and Judge Anderson, Bolland later began drawing for DC Comics in the US and is perhaps best known for his work on Batman: The Killing Joke with Alan Moore as well as becoming a much-in-demand cover artist.
wraparound cover art by Brian Bolland, 1981
Massimo Belardinelli was born in Rome on 5th June 1938 and, inspired by Fantasia (1940), went into animation.  After moving into comics, he began working in the UK from the mid-1970s.  For 2000AD, among other strips, he drew Meltdown Man (written by Alan Hebden) while John Wagner & Alan Grant created Ace Trucking Co. to exploit his “fevered imagination”.  He stopped working for UK comics in 1993 when his agent died and passed away on 31st March 2007.
wraparound cover art by Massimo Bellardinelli, 1983

Thanks to Barney, keeper of the 2000 AD database.