Sunday, 21 May 2017

The Vinyl Detective on Audio Books

Not long ago I caught a train to the English Midlands city of Leicester. There waiting for me was my friend Alan Ross. 

I hopped into his van and we set off, leaving the city behind and speeding for the countryside. 

Alan's van has a rather nice picture of John Coltrane on it. This is partly because, like me, Alan is a jazz nut. 

But, much more importantly, it's because he runs a superb record store in Leicester — Jazz House Records. It was an appropriate vehicle, because our mission today was very definitely vinyl related.
 
We drove down winding sun-splashed country roads under the green canopies of trees until we reached a small village called Syston. 

Here we parked outside a pair of tall white buildings — sort of overgrown cottages — with a kind of Moorish courtyard between them. This was the headquarters of White House Sound.

After being greeted at reception we were led through a series of large rooms where men and women sat at desks, listening on headphones as they read through large stacks of print out. On each desk was a wooden spindle running through the central holes of a stack of silver discs — CDs.

Down carpeted corridors we went to a small room packed with recording gear and computer screens, attended by an affable sound engineer. In an adjoining booth a large window allowed us to see walls covered with acoustic-baffle foam panels, a hanging microphone, and a dedicated actor intently reading the words of my novel.

All the words of my novel. W.F. Howes, the company that is doing the Vinyl Detective audio books, prides itself on recording unabridged versions. In fact, they go under the name Whole Story Audio Books.

That's what those men and women were doing with their headphones — those stacks of paper were the entire text of the books which had been recorded. They were diligently checking that every single word had been accurately captured.

I'm a lucky fellow to have my Vinyl Detective novels being produced by these guys. The first one, Written in Dead Wax was narrated by Ben Allen, the second, The Run-Out Groove has just been completed with Finlay Robertson doing the narration. Ben was a terrific choice, Finlay better still.

Written in Dead Wax on audio is available here in the UK and here in the US. The Run Out Groove will be unleashed on the world in ten days time, available here and here.

Thank you for listening.

(Image credits: The CD covers for the audio books are from Whole Story Audio Books for Written in Dead Wax, and Amazon for The Run Out Groove. The shots of White House Sound are from their website. The pic of Alan and his trusty van is by me.)

Sunday, 14 May 2017

The Run-Out Groove by Andrew Cartmel

This week saw publication of my second Vinyl Detective novel, The Run-Out Groove. Normally I would have been far too modest to blog about it, but my friend, who just happens to be a bestselling novelist, insisted I should. So, since he knows his stuff.

In case you haven't read my first book, this series follows the adventures of a record collector turned sleuth. (And be warned, this post contains spoilers about Written in Dead Wax.) If you have read the first one, there are a couple of differences this time around...

For a start, the previous adventure recounted the search for a rare jazz record, so it was immersed in that particular musical world. This time around it's rock music, in particular the British psychedelic or "prog" (for progressive) rock of the 1960s.

In fact, when I began working on The Run-Out Groove I had a very specific inspiration in mind from that scene. The brilliant and ill-fated Syd Barrett, a founder member of Pink Floyd. Barrett was a fascinating and tragic figure and I knew this was potentially powerful material.

So I reached for the biography of Syd Barrett I'd had knocking around the house for several years... and realised I'd donated it to a charity shop just the previous week. Ah well.

This was no bad thing. The notion of a musical genius who became an acid casualty was all I really needed. It was enough of a seed for that element of the story.

But the really big difference between The Run-Out Groove and Written in Dead Wax is that Nevada, the fun loving femme fatale from the first book, has now moved in with our hero and they are an item.

Was this a risk? Changing the Vinyl Detective from an archetypical loner shamus to half of a detective duo? Not really, I knew this could work because I was following in the footsteps of giants. Specifically the footsteps of the wonderful Dashiell Hammett.

Hammett was one of the greatest crime novelists of them all. And among his finest creations are the urbane Nick and Nora Charles, a husband and wife mystery-solving team. They featured in Hammett's 1934 novel The Thin Man and thereafter in an enduring and wildly popular series of movies.

Let's hope the Vinyl Detective and Nevada have some of that longevity and durability...

Oh, and since my friend is insisting I promote my new book, you can buy it here if you're in the USA, or here if you're in the UK. 

Or, indeed, if you'd like a signed copy, leave a message for me in the comment section of this post and we'll see if we can work something out.

Happy reading.

(Image credits: The rather lovely and elegant Thin Man cover is from a little known internet book seller called Amazon. All the other images are from my own collection. The gorgeously gaudy pink and blue creations were commissioned by me from a very talented designer called James King before I got my book deal with Titan, and was toying with the idea of self-publishing.)

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Elle by Verhoeven, Birke & Dijan

Paul Verhoven’s latest movie is a very strange affair. I like Verhoven's work a great deal. Indeed, to my mind, he is one of our greatest living directors. 

It's a great shame that his career stalled with Showgirls, a film that could have been a hit if only he and his screenwriter Joe Eszterhas — one of the most talented writers in the industry — had bothered to make us care about their characters.

But they didn't, and Showgirls pretty much put paid to their careers, at least in America. After some years of decline, both men found work in European films, though Verhoeven has very much had the best of it, with his excellent World War 2 drama Black Book (2006).

Now Verhoven is back with a film made in France called Elle. It is written for the screen by the American David Birke, based on the novel by Philippe Dijan — who also wrote the book on which Betty Blue was based.

As I said, Elle is a curious item. I have become used to defending Verhoven against the critical establishment who loathe his mainstream films like Basic Instinct, Robocop (masterpieces), Total Recall (a near masterpiece masterpiece) and Starship Troopers (hilarious and audacious).

Now I find that the critical establishment is embracing Verhoven and celebrating him for a film which I loathe. The situation is almost surreal. But I went to see my Elle anticipating that it would be something terrific, and it was a staggering disappointment. 

The film is being touted as an Hitchcockian thriller but really it’s a badly judged black comedy with a heavy line in sexual violence.  It’s dull, it’s pointless, and it goes on forever. I felt ashamed of myself for wasting my time in a darkened cinema. And it was a beautiful day, too… 

There is a really lovely grey cat in it, though, called Marty. But even Marty can’t rescue this.

(Image credits: Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Crossroads by John D. MacDonald

Well, this 1959 novel from John D. MacDonald sees one of my favourite writers near the top of his game. It's a human drama which rapidly develops into a crime thriller. By human drama, I guess I'm talking about what would more pejoratively be called a soap opera.

Indeed, British readers will be amused to know that the Crossroads of the title is a motel. Because Crossroads was also the title of a long running (1964-88) and low-rent British TV serial about a motel. Now that really was a soap opera. 

But this is very different territory. John D. MacDonald makes the working of his motel operation entirely fascinating and he peoples it with complex, troubled and appealing characters.  The book is utterly addictive and tremendously riveting and, as I've indicated elsewhere and at length, this guy can really write.

MacDonald memorably evokes the setting of the motel with the "pulsing insistence" of its endless passing traffic, and the big parked trucks outside the diner are "patient as elephants" in the floodlights. And he is bracingly cynical about America's automotive culture and the consequences of frail human beings in their hurtling cars in that endless traffic stream: "Of all the young families a remarkably small percentage, statistically speaking, were crunched into bloody ruin."

Small, random details constantly bring the narrative to life — a woman wears a "cinnamon cardigan" as she sits in her tiny apartment, "with the wind whining outside and intermittent gusts of sleet rattling against a window." A man stands in the bathroom of a cheap motel — not the one of the title, belonging to our heroes — under the "drizzling shower."  Elsewhere, outside, it's a "thunderous Sunday, a day of storms."

Internal landscapes are evoked just as vividly, like the hallucinating alcoholic who commits suicide to escape "the imaginary monsters who sat tall around his bed, staring at him." Or a woman, also destroyed by alcohol, with the "slow thoughts moving in her head."

The book concerns a robbery, and the tense buildup to it. It has some interesting resemblances to MacDonald's The Last One Left (1967). Here again is the use of sexual manipulation to set up a fallguy for the heist, though in The Crossroads it's a male psychopath who is the puppet master, and the fallguy is a hardened young thug rather than an innocent teenager.

As with The Last One Left, the cops turn up very late in the story — inevitably, I guess, since it's not a procedural and the viewpoint characters are not police. And once more the killer is faked out so as to get them to confess. But I think the police are more authentically depicted in The Crossroads. They talk about who they "like" for the crime, and MacDonald unforgettably describes the "pure delicious triumph" the cops feel when they nail the bad guy.

The suspense in this book is considerable; you dread what's going to happen and can hardly bear to go on, but nothing could induce me to stop reading — and after I was finished I immediately wanted more.

(Image credits: The Robert McGinnis cover with all those lovely green trees is from EbookBike. The Pan cover is from Pinterest. The Crest Book original is from another Pinterest page. The Inner Sanctum Mystery hardcover is from AntiqBook. The Fawcett Gold Medal second paperback issue is from Good Reads.)

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Free Fire by Wheatley and Jump

Sometimes I regard this blog as a forum for public-health style warnings, so it's somewhat in that spirit that I'm writing about Free Fire, the latest feature film directed by British wunderkind Ben Wheatley and written by his long time partner (writing and otherwise) Amy Jump.

It's regrettable that I'm going out of my way to advise you to dodge this movie. At one time — after the release of Kill List — Wheatley appeared to be a film maker of impressive talent and originality. But Free Fire is an abjectly feeble and very dull film. It's sub-Quentin Tarantino and sub-sub-sub Martin Scorsese (unbelievably, Scorsese is a producer on it).

Free Fire tells the simple (far too simple) tale of an arms deal gone wrong. Some IRA men (played by Cillian Murphy, late of Peaky Blinders, and Michael Smiley) are in the States, in Boston, in 1979  to buy automatic rifles from American crooks. 

The transaction is taking place in the abandoned factory beloved of film makers and, when it goes sour, the movie spends the rest of its duration in there with the characters shooting at each other.

The cast is strong, featuring such wonderful actors as the South African Sharlto Copley, who has portrayed memorable heavies in Old Boy and Elysium; Armie Hammer — The Social Network and Man from UNCLE; Brie Larson, who was magnificent in Room; and Sam Riley from SS GB

Hammer and Larson are among the few Americans in a cast which is either explicitly foreign or British actors passing. And one of the impressive aspects of this movie is that the whole thing is passing as American — it was actually shot in Britain, but I never would have guessed.

But that's about all I can say in favour of Free Fire. It's desperately boring and, at 90 minutes, feels more like three hours. Once we realise we're stuck in this abandoned factory for the rest of the film, our hearts just sink. 

Yes, these characters are shooting guns at each other, but since we care nothing about any of them, and nothing is at stake, none of it really matters. And it's a long, long slog to the end titles.

In a perceptive review in the April issue of Sight and Sound, Tony Rayns points out that one reason for the utter lack of suspense in Free Fire is that it's devoid of establishing shots. We don't know where the protagonists are in relation to each other and so we don't understand the overall situation. But unlike Tony Rayns, I don't think this is daring artistry. I think it's a fatal mistake.

Rayns also says "Wheatley obviously risks boring his audience stiff" and asks "So what keeps us watching?" To which I can only reply that Wheatley doesn't just risk it, he succeeds: and I wish I hadn't kept watching, but rather had walked out instead of losing an hour and a half of my life which I'll never get back.

However, to be scrupulously fair, there were people in the cinema who were chuckling at the dialogue, so maybe this film will appeal to some. Personally I'd advise you to steer well clear and spend 90 minutes doing something else.

And, although I have yet to see Ben Wheatley's A Field in England, I have seen his movies Sightseers and High Rise and, as far as I'm concerned, Free Fire represents his third strike. Regrettably I think this young British director is out.

(Image credits: Unbelievably, there's 28 posters for this slight film at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 16 April 2017

One for the Dog: Scandal by Shonda Rhimes

There used to be a joke about the god of Christianity: "And she's black." In a white male world this was considered unthinkable, and at one time the notion of a female African American television showrunner would have been equally extraordinary. But now Shonda Rhimes is one of the most potent and brilliant talents working in US TV.

Rhimes created Grey's Anatomy, which was a huge hit, and which I followed myself for a year or so before finally concluding that it was the My Little Pony of medical dramas. It's still a considerable success, in its 13th season (seven seasons are usually the maximum).

More importantly, Shonda Rhimes went on to develop other hit TV shows, and currently has four on the air: Grey's Anatomy, The Catch, How to Get Away with Murder...

And Scandal. I have to thank my friend Celeste for turning me on to Scandal. It was the double punch of Celeste's praise and the discovery a cheap boxed set of the first three seasons that got me watching this show after a long period of neglecting American television dramas.

Scandal is simply amazing. Essentially it's the story of a fixer — a lawyer who solves problems and makes deals, generally operating behind the scenes, rather than practising standard case law and going into court.

If you want a quick — and brilliant — introduction into the way a fixer operates, then watch the wonderful film Michael Clayton, starring George Clooney and written and directed by Tony Gilroy. Scandal bears a fleeting resemblance to Michael Clayton, but rapidly moves into even darker and more troubled territory.

It has a Washington setting and politics are its meat and drink — both of them often poisoned. The central emotional engine of the series (so far; I'm still watching Season 2) is the fact that Olivia Pope (our fixer-in-chief, played by Kerry Washington) has had an affair with the new Republican president Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) and they are still deeply involved with each other.

Pope's firm is the usual crew of interesting and diverse characters — or at least, it first seems that way. But then it rapidly becomes clear that there's nothing "usual" about resident hacker and computer nerd Huck (Guillermo Díaz). He is ex-CIA black ops, and is the show's device for getting us into some extraordinary, and disturbing stories.

In short, Scandal is less like The West Wing and more like the Manchurian Candidate. I'm finding it riveting drama and I commend it to you. It starts off looking like a glossy, frothy soap (making great use of popular songs by the likes of Stevie Wonder and the Staples Singers) but soon turns out to be amazingly hard-hitting and daringly extreme.

Oh and in case there's any confusion about the title for this post, it quotes a memorable piece of dialogue from Series 2, listing how many bullets one of our heroes is going to put into an adversary, and why.

(Image credits: Good old Imp Awards. It turns out they do TV posters, too.)

Sunday, 9 April 2017

The Last One Left by John D. MacDonald

I've mentioned elsewhere how much I admire John D. MacDonald. Indeed, he is probably my favourite crime writer. And considering my bookshelf is jam packed with the likes of Chandler, Hammett, Charles Willeford and Thomas Harris that's no small accolade. (Interestingly, I believe Harris, the creator of Hannibal Lecter, was fruitfully influenced by John D. MacDonald.)

MacDonald is most famous for the creation of Travis McGee, self styled 'salvage consultant', a fresh and intriguing variation on the classic private eye. But the book I'd like to tell you about is not one of the McGee novels — although it is dedicated to him. (MacDonald also dedicated a book to his cats; a man after my own heart.)
 
The Last One Left is a powerful standalone novel about murder for profit. The cold blooded killings take place in the Caribbean and are carried out by Staniker, the hired captain of a pleasure boat. Meanwhile, back in Florida, Crissy Harkinson, the ice-hearted femme fatale who set the crime in motion, waits for her cut of the proceeds.

MacDonald writes strikingly about the "tumbling blue indifference" of the sea, and effortlessly conjures up mood and atmosphere, as when he evokes the "silence and emptiness of Sunday afternoon." The brilliance of his descriptions extends to everyday objects an audio tape on fast forward sounds like a "nest of agitated mice."

Most powerfully, in this book, is the way he conveys the horror of the murders and their terrible psychological toll on the killer, who has to live with what he's done. After the crime Staniker is alone on the boat with the bodies of those he's killed. "They were all — making a silence," he tells his accomplice later.

In this regard MacDonald's writing is suggestive of the great French realistic novelists like Guy de Maupassant or Emile Zola (check out Zola's classic tale of murder, Thérèse Raquin)... This connection is natural enough, since the French writers influenced the likes of James M. Cain and the whole American school of hardboiled crime fiction.

Heartbreakingly, John D. MacDonald brings his various characters vividly to life before the murders so the reader feels their tragedy of their loss all the more keenly. And his gift for characterisation is of a very high order. 

For example, MacDonald delves into the childhood of Crissy Harkinson in a brilliant sequence, and we learn where the book's title comes from — a childhood game, where the winner takes all — and we get an insight into what has made her the selfish killer we see today.

MacDonald has his faults, too. His British aristos in Nassau talk in phoney limey clichés ("Rather a fool then, what?") and one set of characters he keeps returning to, in this multi-viewpoint novel, really get up my nose as we limeys say. 

This is the Cuban couple Cristy Harkinson's maid and her journalist boyfriend, plucky little Raoul who fought heroically against Castro at the Bay of Pigs and is busy trying to single handedly expose the evil communists' attempts to take over Latin America.

MacDonald's efforts at espionage stories have always struck me as terribly phony — his one full-on spy novel Area of Suspicion is my least favourite of his books. On the other hand, The Last One Left was written around 1966 and the Cuban Missile Crisis would have still been painfully fresh in the author's memory. So maybe we should cut him some slack. 

And in contrast to Raoul, one of the other major characters, Corpo, a brain damaged war vet is touching, expertly wrought, and simultaneously scary and delightful. In fact he's sort of a Bizarro World Travis McGee.

And there is one sequence which was so masterful it had me in awe. MacDonald stages a confrontation between Oliver, a teenage kid whom Cristy has seduced and is busy manipulating, and his mother. 

Now, the mother is basically a narrow-minded, bible thumping bigot, so I found myself siding with the sulky Oliver against her... I was thinking, "Shut up, you sanctimonious old bat" — but then I suddenly realised, shit... she's absolutely right. "She's callous and vicious. She's just using you," says the mother about Cristy, and she couldn't be more correct.

In fact, it's tragic, because Cristy's plan involves cold-bloodedly killing Oliver, and throwing the blame for another murder on him. Which she does, hardly batting an eyelash. So this scene shows just how subtle and profound MacDonald's writing can be.

The book has other flaws, though. In the end Crissy is ultimately entrapped with the cooperation of her own lawyer in a manoeuvre which is arguably more evil than the crimes she'll be punished for.

And when I learned that the victims of Staniker's killing spree had been previously hunting dolphins — Jesus, did people do that? — suddenly their brutal murder didn't seem such a crime.

On the whole, though, if you can filter out the Cuban spy subplot, I still think this is something of a masterpiece. And it ends on a savage vignette of ecological disaster that makes me forgive any of the book's inadequacies.

(Image credits: The bulk of the covers are from Good Reads, except for the Fawcett with the white cover and green circle which is from the useful and informative John D. MacDonald Covers, the British Companion Book Club edition which is also from there, and the Doubleday hardcover which is from Amazon. Isn't the original British hardcover beautiful, with its Barbara Walton art of the girl's face against the deep blue background?)