Sunday 30 September 2012

Killing Them Softly: George V. Higgins and Life After Death

There is this to be said for being a good writer. You get a shot at life after death.

I realised this quite forcefully as I sat and watched the new Brad Pitt crime movie Killing Them Softly

The trailers for this had looked promising, and I'd been mildly looking forward to seeing it.

But then I discovered it was based on the novel Cogan's Trade by George V. Higgins, and mild anticipation turned to mild apprehension.

Because Higgins is a hero of mine.

Now largely forgotten, he's a major figure in American crime fiction, on a par with Charles Willeford and Elmore Leonard. Indeed, Higgins' dialogue-led prose style, in which characterisation and plot are largely delivered by letting his characters speak for themselves, demotically and hilariously and at length, was a major influence on Elmore Leonard's later work.

Higgins' raw, authentic, profane and often very funny dialogue was brilliantly written and represented a kind of blue collar American version of Pinter. It was a huge influence on David Mamet.

Higgins first novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle created quite a splash and was turned into an excellent film by Peter Yates and Paul Monash. It was followed by The Digger's Game and Cogan's Trade.

When I learned Andrew Dominick's new film was based on Cogan's Trade I braced myself for a disaster. I was very protective of Higgins brilliant work which, like Elmore Leonard's, can so easily end up disastrously botched when adapted for the cinema.

I needn't have worried. Killing Them Softly is magnificent. It's a masterpiece. It's a movie. Yes, it's a magnificent, mean and moody movie masterpiece.

And it's utterly true to the George V. Higgins novel. When I first saw it (I've seen it twice now and this week I mean to make it a hat trick) I marvelled at how carefully they'd preserved Higgins' superb dialogue.

All power to Andrew Dominik, the New Zealand director and screenwriter who adapted it so beautifully. (His last film was the haunting and elegiac Assassination of Jesse James, a sort of Terence Malick western.)

I was still shaking my head in wonder at how faithful Dominick had been to the source material when I dug out my old paperback copy of Cogan's Trade and started re-reading it.

And I made this extraordinary discovery.

The movie wasn't that close to the book after all.

Yes, it had absolutely preserved the spirit and flavour of Higgins' original. It had captured the essence of it.

But Andrew Dominick has been ingeniously discriminating and selective, adding his own material which is absolutely in keeping with Higgins' book.

His feat is even more impressive than I thought. 

Even more power to Andrew Dominick.

I hope the movie is a huge hit. It certainly stands the chance of finding a large audience thanks to the presence of Pitt. And it has a large overlap with popular urban organised-crime dramas like The Sopranos or the films of Scorsese (and some canny casting reinforces these connections).

But some people find it too downbeat, bleak and talky. A couple sitting behind me walked out after the scene with James Gandolfini and the hooker in the hotel room. 

One of the best scenes in the movie, incidentally.

So you should rush and see this terrific movie while you can. 

And then read some George V. Higgins. He wrote a long string of novels, all of which have merit. But I still think the first three are perhaps the strongest, and certainly the best place to start.

Thanks to Andrew Dominick's dazzling film, George V. Higgins, who died in 1999, lives again.

Sunday 23 September 2012

Cornell Woolrich: The Missing Link Between Poe and Highsmith

It's not often that I have a literary revelation, so when I do I like to share it with you.  

I recently picked up a copy of the Cornell Woolrich anthology Nightwebs. It was a volume in the terrific Crime Masterworks (or 'Rime Masterworks' as this rather poorly cropped image has it) series from Orion in 2002.  

Like everyone else I'm familiar with Woolrich chiefly thanks to his story 'It Had to Be Murder' which was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes as the classic Rear Window. 

Not surprisingly, there's another anthology of his vivid, vicious crime stories available with that title, which I've also read and would recommend — especially if you can get the version with the lovely Steranko cover shown here.  

But back to Woolrich (who also wrote under a number of pseudonyms, notably William Irish). 

There is an almost diseased, pathological quality to his writing which can convey a powerful sense of dread. He is also brilliant at generating suspense. The fact that his prose, characters, and plotting veer from superb to ludicrous somehow doesn't seem to undermine this at all.

In particular, his view of the world as a malign box of tricks designed to torment the protagonist, and the many grisly ways this can happen, reminded me strongly of both his esteemed predecessor Edgar Alan Poe and his brilliant successor Patricia Highsmith. 

Evidence? Well, off the top of my head I'd suggest the Poe story 'The Imp of the Perverse'. It seems to me that this is pure Woolrich in its bent and tortured psychology.

And as for Patricia Highsmith, try Ripley Under Water. Not the best Ripley book. But the scene where Ripley's persecutor dredges up the body of a man Ripley murdered, and dumps it on his doorstep, could have come straight out of Woolrich.

Is there any evidence of Poe influencing Woolrich, and Woolrich in turn influencing Highsmith? 

Well, I haven't scoured the biographies of Woolrich, but I think we can assume that as one of America's leading crime and suspense writers, he would have been acquainted to some degree with the legendary father of the genre. It isn't too much of a stretch.

On the other hand, I have scoured the biographies of Highsmith — or at least one of them, the excellent Beautiful Shadow by Andrew Wilson — and found no mention of Woolrich. But I would be surprised if Highsmith didn't know his stories. She certainly could have seen some of the movies adapted from them and, since Hitchcock did a version of her own novel Strangers on a Train, Rear Window could hardly have escaped her attention.

There is a tendency for Patricia Highsmith to be claimed as a highbrow artist. But let's not forget that she read (and indeed wrote for) comic books. I can easily see her with her nose in a pulp magazine, reading the latest Woolrich epic, avidly flipping pages.

But if anyone knows for sure... do get in touch.

Back to Woolrich and Nightwebs (odd title, effective and poetic, but where did it come from? Not any of the stories in the book). This is a high calibre collection and a good place to start if you don't know Woolrich. It also features first rate supplementray material, in the shape of an indepth introduction and afterwords for each story by Francis M Nevins.

But Woolrich's power is so often dependent on surprise that I advise you not to read any of this stuff until you read the stories themselves. 

And, as for the stories themselves, there are many which deserve discussion. 

But I'll restrict myself for now to the first one in the book. Graves for the Living (1937) is an EC horror comic of a story. It is jarring, lurid pulp. But the weirdest thing is... it bears an almost eerie resemblance to Arhtur Schnitzler's highly literary Traumnovelle, which was adapted by Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael as Eyes Wide Shut. 

Consider the similarities. Both deal with men who find themselves emeshed with a strange cultish group who hold ritualistic secret meetings and seem omni present and menacing. 

Both involve the groups passing threatening notes to the hero to remind him he is under observation. In both the hero attends a masked gathering of the cult/group where he is threatened with (deadly?) punishment and is only saved thanks to a woman. 

And in both of them, the woman offers herself up for punishment in place of the hero. 

It would have been a pretty good trick for Woolrich to have seen the Kubrick film — he died in 1968, some 21 years before it was released. But he could well have been acquainted with Schnitzler's novella, published in 1926. 

Anyhow, thanks for listening.

Do visit the great Cornell Woolrich Cover Gallery.

Sunday 16 September 2012

Music to Write Thrillers By

I like writing with music playing. In fact, it's a big help, in setting the mood, keeping up the pace, and generally inspiring me.

The exception is singing. If someone is singing in English, or any language I can understand (i.e. English), then the words of the song can interfere with the words I'm trying to write.

Film scores are particularly useful for writing (though I listen to a lot of jazz and some rock and classical, too).

If I want to write, for example, a suspenseful vignette or a big action sequence, I can choose music appropriate to that mood. And it gets me going.

Recently I've been writing spy thrillers. Operation Herod was a considerable e-publishing success and my publishers promptly asked for a sequel.

When I
sat down to write it, I needed music to fuel me. And I chose John Powell's excellent scores for the first two Bourne movies.

These worked really well. They remind me of Lalo Schifrin, but more contemporary. They have an electronic and World Music edge which is very interesting.

Above all, they have a propulsive, driving beat which is a real boon when you're pushing relentlessly to beat a deadline.

Anyway, largely t
hanks to John Powell and his magnificent music, I completed the sequel and delivered it a couple of weeks ago. My publishers love it.

And now they want another one...

This is great, because I'm enjoying developing the characters and I'm bubbling
with plot ideas.

The only problem is, those Bourne scores are wearing a little thin. I don't want to play them so much that the music I love becomes the music I wince at.

So I need some more options. Obviously I can get Bourne Ultimatum, another John Powell. Or try James Newton Howard's excellent Bourne Legacy (and maybe his score for Salt, anoth
er spy thriller).
But I was wondering if anybody out there has any suggestions? A tweet on this subject gave rise to some interesting and useful possibilities, including early Mike Oldfield.

Do let me know what you think.

I'm off to read some James Bond.

Sunday 9 September 2012

The Great Ghost Light Tweet Challenge

When I was script-editing Doctor Who I had the privilege of working on some memorable stories.

None perhaps more memorable than the mighty Ghost Light.

A brilliant, quirky, oddball script by the brilliant, quirky, oddball Marc Platt, Ghost Light also has the distinction of having possibly baffled more viewers and fans than any other story.

This always baffled me.

From the inside looking out, Ghost Light always seemed pretty transparent and straightforward.

But numerous discussions and puzzled pleas for clarification over the years have convinced me that there's a genuine issue here.

I, in my turn, have been puzzled as to why.

Ultimately, I've isolated three possible reasons. Two general and one very specific.

Firstly, Ghost Light has a relatively complex backstory. I didn't particularly think so at the time, but I've come to realise it must be a little more ornate than most.

Secondly, I suppose we didn't explicitly spell out every detail of this backstory in the course of the drama. If we had, it would have bogged things down with exposition.

And then there's the matter of Control...

Control is one of the characters, splendidly played by Sharon Duce.

It was only when I went to a convention in Los Angeles that I realised that Control was one of the primary sources of confusion and bewilderment.

The problem was her name.

People thought because she was called Control, she must somehow be in control. That she was the chief, the boss, the captain...

No, no, no, I cry, retroactively over all these years.

She isn't a 'control' in that sense at all.

She is the control in a scientific experiment — the component that remains unchanged so that it can be compared with the component which is subject to change.

Anyway, I've resigned myself to patiently explaining Ghost Light to an endless parade of mystified supplicants and I've gradually honed the explanation down with practise.

But the advent of Twitter recently led to a challenge to summarise the plot in 140 character or less.

Here you go:

Space explorers study alien life by evolving to imitate dominant species. Land in Victorian England. Go slightly nuts. Complications ensue.

That's 139.

You're welcome to submit your own versions.

No swearing, please.

Only I get to do that.