Sunday 28 September 2014

The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis

Continuing my survey of Kingsley Amis's fiction, inspired by reading an excellent biography of Amis, we come to The Anti-Death League. Although it has its flaws, this remains one of my favourite Amis novels and, re-reading it now, I was impressed by how vividly I remembered certain sequences in it from literally decades ago.

Amis was a fan of crime and spy fiction and The Anti-Death League is his attempt at a spy novel. He isn't entirely comfortable with the form — plotting was seldom Amis's strong point and the espionage narrative here is stop-start and often crops up in perfunctory chunks, as if the author's real interest is elsewhere. Which indeed it is. On the other hand, this aspect of The Anti-Death League is fascinating for its relationship with Amis's books about James Bond. He wrote two non-fiction volumes about Ian Fleming's character and, after Fleming's death (and shortly after The Anti-Death League), Amis wrote a 007 novel himself called Colonel Sun which probably remains the best Bond story not written by Fleming.

The Anti-Death League centres on a military base guarding a secret weapon and Amis's army experience during the Second World War is put to good use here. There is a sense of veracity to his soldiers, particularly the way they begin energetically swearing whenever their life is made more difficult (invariably by a superior officer).

And there are some classic Amis observations about the army, and the British class system, as when describing a character's batman (this odd English term means an officer's servant or butler): "his contempt for politicians... would have been totally admirable if expressed in a better accent." Elsewhere, it is said of a handsome young soldier, "He would have been a good model for a recruiting poster... had it not been for his air of intelligence."

The book features a large cast of characters, so large in fact that the author himself grows weary of describing them. "Two men in their thirties... One was very tall and very thin with ears at right angles to his skull. The other was just a man." This is one of the flaws of the book — there are so many characters that the reader loses track of who is who among this extensive roll call. 

It doesn't help that the characters are almost all soldiers at the same military base, some with utterly unmemorable names, some of them unmemorable characters, some alternately referred to by their first and last names — some with last names that sound like first names; I give you Captain Brian Leonard.

All this is a recipe for chaos and incomprehension (I'm still trying to work out who the @£$# 'Alistair' might have been...) and this confusion is aggravated by some clumsy and careless proofreading as in the crucial scene where Max Hunter (one of the few characters I could keep track of) suddenly disappears from the narrative without Amis bothering to tell us he has left the room. And the muddle reaches a frustrating climax at the final grand reveal, where we learn the identity of the spy and I thought... Wait a minute, who the hell is that?

Nevertheless, there are occasional fine moments of action and suspense in the novel and some superb comic characterisation, notably a brilliantly nasty shrink who projects his sexual obsessions onto all his psychiatric patients.

And there is also some quite touching characterisation, like the army padre who is very fond of his dog, who has just become agitated in this scene: " 'It's all right,' he said, stroking her head... 'It's nice of you to worry about me, but there's no need.' "

Amis's gift for description is also strongly to the fore, as in the spy hunter's alarm at learning of a minor security breach: "Leonard felt as if a hot sponge had been pressed against the back of his neck." Later in the book Leonard wearily parks his car, drained after a long, hard and unsuccessful night of spy-hunting and there he "sat for some moments accumulating the will to get out."

There is also a memorably terse sex scene — "It was fine; it was successful; it was over." — which would have done credit to Dashiell Hammett describing a heist. Or again, when the hero is asked by his friend to disclose the details of a secret mission, and the tension is resolved by a three word sentence: "Churchill told him."

Amis's love of science fiction is also an influence on the novel, not just on his choice of a highly portable tactical nuclear weapon as a MacGuffin for the story, but in his impressive description of it in action: "There was the sharp knocking bang of an ordinary rifle cartridge, and then what might almost have been a small piece of the sun came into being across the valley." The sound is described as a "summarized thunderclap."

Later on, a sound from a loudspeaker is presented as being "like a brontosaurus clearing its nostrils", an image which recalls the ship's siren which was like an "ogre breaking wind" in Amis's That Uncertain Feeling.

There is also a strong science fiction influence at work here in the notion of a "node" of death which the characters are passing through in their lives — dangerous at the edges, deadly at the centre. Although this is arguably more like supernatural fiction, especially in the vendetta one of the character carries out against god — the book could as easily be called The Anti-God League, though admittedly that would be a much more crappy title.

Perhaps the most agreeable, and successful, spy-novel aspect of The Anti-Death League is when one of the characters goes nuts and begins to hilariously describe himself as a character in a sub-Bond style spy novel, averting a pulp-fiction apocalypse and being waited on hand and foot by nude servants: "[His] last exploit had saved the world from destruction by death rays... [his] eye ran lazily over their naked forms." (I'm being coy about his name here because I don't want to spoil any surprises in the book.)

For all that it's full of fun, this is ultimately one of Amis's darkest novel. I also think, despite  its numerous deficiencies, it's one of his best — although it is merely a warm up for such splendours to come, in the shape not just of a much more successful spy novel (Colonel Sun) but also a classic ghost story (The Green Man).

(Image credits: Sparse pickings, just the striking US hardcover and handsome Penguin Modern Classic from Good Reads. The British hardcover with its elegant Raymond Hawkey/Adrian Flowers jacket photo — Amis's first illustrative cover from Gollancz — is taken from an ABE seller  and the great — and hilariously misleading — Bond style Ballantine cover is from another ABE seller. The earlier Penguin cartoon cover, by the talented Arthur Robins (misspelled "Robbins") is from Amazon UK. The later Penguin cartoon cover is also by Arthur Robins and  is from Amazon dot com.)

Sunday 21 September 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones by Scott Frank

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about Lawrence Block's fine novel A Walk Among the Tombstones (thanks, Miranda!). I concluded by saying I was looking forward to seeing Scott Frank's film adaptation. Well, I've now seen it and I was irresistibly reminded of the days when I was a young teenager illicitly attending what were then called "X-certificate" films — films you had to be 18 or over to see. And not because Frank's movie is an 18-certificate picture, although it is very much that.

What I remember is a particular occasion when I went to the cinema with a bunch of friends. We were all about 15. And we were challenged. Before they let us in to the movie, they asked us how old we were. Each of us in turn said, "I'm 18" — except for one of our party. He faltered and said, "I'm 17." Now, he was 15 just like the rest of us. So his answer has always struck me as very strange. That is, he managed to lie. But he just couldn't bring himself to lie enough.

This came to mind during A Walk Among the Tombstones because the book was published in 1992 and, due to some technological aspects of the novel, it is very much tied to that period. It was the days of pagers, long before cell phones ruled the earth. And this was crucial to the plot. So I wondered whether Scott Frank would update the movie to make it contemporary, or do it as a period piece (which would enable him to leave some of the subplots intact).

Well, it turns out he's done neither. The movie isn't contemporary or set in 1992. It's set in 1999. For no apparent reason. There's endless references to Y2K in the dialogue, in newspaper headlines, in ads on passing buses and even on a giant graffiti mural Liam Neeson strolls past. But it's all irrelevant, and rather pointless. In other words, Scott Frank managed to backdate the movie, but he just couldn't bring himself to backdate it enough.

Scott Frank — who is a terrific screenwriter and no mean director — has taken considerable other liberties with Lawrence Block's novel. Some of which are good, others not so much. He's injected the tragic backstory of the hero Matt Scudder as a major element of the movie, cunningly played out, and that works supremely well. 

But numerous subplots and characters from Tombstones have bitten the dust. Frank has preserved the big setpiece ending with the ransom payment in the cemetery and much of what happens afterwards. And he's kept — and even built up — the role of TJ, who is Matt Scudder's teenage streetkid sidekick. And he's really gone to town on the Alcoholics Anonymous aspect of the book. 

But he's got rid of, for instance, Scudder's callgirl girlfriend — which makes the movie considerably bleaker than the book and has the unfortunate unintended side effect of making Scudder's relationship with TJ seem a bit suspect.

Two of Scott Frank's great early screenplays, Out of Sight and Get Shorty were adaptations of novels by Elmore Leonard, and they succeeded largely because Frank remained remarkably faithful to the source material. He even preserved many of the quirky little details. But his approach to Lawrence Block's book seems dramatically different. Maybe he doesn't regard Block as quite so important a novelist as Elmore Leonard. If so, he's mistaken. And if he'd stuck more rigorously to Block's orginal he could have avoided some of the more ridiculous contrivances of the movie and his reworked plot (a sinister network of video shops; counterfeit banknotes with wet ink; a magical escape from handcuffs).

A Walk Among the Tombstones is a good movie. It's dark and engrossing and well worth seeing. But it's not a great movie. And Lawrence Block's book is a great book. In fact it's a classic of the genre. It's a pity Scott Frank didn't seem to feel the same way. And perhaps therefore he missed coming up with a film which could also have been a classic.

My verdict? Read the book and then see the movie, and see what you think of the changes Scott Frank made.

(Image credits: Thin pickings at Ace Show Biz.)

Sunday 14 September 2014

How Not to End a Movie

Before I Go to Sleep is an engrossing and clever thriller. It is directed by Rowan Joffe with a script by him based on the novel by S.J. Watson. (Joffe previously wrote an excellent screenplay for the outstanding George Clooney thriller The American.) Before I Go to Sleep is also superbly cast (Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong) and beautifully photographed. 

Unfortunately, it features a final scene so badly miscalculated that it almost nullifies all the positive qualities of the preceding movie. And for anyone interested in movie scripts or film storytelling, it's worth briefly considering what went wrong here...

Inevitably, this is going to involve some spoilers, so if you think you might want to see the movie, I strongly advise you to watch it and only then read this. Thrillers thrive on surprise, and I'm about to let some cats out of the bag.

First, however, I'd like to cite another movie which blundered spectacularly in its final moments – and for much the same reason. Billy Elliot was a touching story of a skinny working class kid who wants to be — of all things — a ballet dancer. Against all the odds, and predictable prejudices, he succeeds. 

And at the end of the movie we jump ten years to watch the grown up Billy in action. Suddenly there's this big hairy bastard we've never seen before, and don't know from Adam, bounding around on stage. The grandiose ending just doesn't work — because we have no emotional investment in this stranger. Who is this big hairy bastard? Where's the plucky, skinny kid whose plight we've come to care about? Catastrophically misjudged, I say.

Similarly, at the end of Before I Go to Sleep, our amnesiac heroine, played by Nicole Kidman, is reunited with the husband and son she thought she'd lost forever. And we are given to understand that her memory is coming back. 

The problem is, we've never seen the husband and son before in the movie. Not as they are now. So they come across as total strangers. And the grand emotional ending has no emotion impact whatsoever. The reaction of the audience is, Who are these jokers? 

Rowan Joffe pulls out all the stops for this tearful reunion, pouring on syrupy music and drawing the camera back in a long retreating tracking shot. All to no avail. 

I'm afraid the patient is dead on the table, doc. No amount of electricity shot through this corpse will ever make it sit up. I guess the only way to conceivably make such a scene work would be to cast huge stars as the husband and son. Maybe Johnny Depp for the hubbie. And for the kid — Christ, I don't know — Justin Beiber? That at least would make the audience think they knew these people. But even that might not work.

There is an old screenwriting adage: Show, don't tell. Meaning you should dramatise a scene and actually see it, rather than just try and report it in dialogue. Well, in this case Joffe should have done exactly the opposite. Tell, don't show.

Do it as a scene between Kidman and Mark Strong as her sympathetic shrink, both of whom we've come to know well throughout the movie, and let their dialogue indicate Kidman's recovery.

I don't want to pillory Before I Go to Sleep, which is otherwise a good film. But this really is how not to end a movie.

(Image credits: All the pictures are from Ace Show Biz.)

Sunday 7 September 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones by Lawrence Block

With the exception of Thomas Harris, famed for dreaming up Hannibal Lecter and creating the whole serial killer genre, I would say the greatest living crime writer is Lawrence Block. But whereas we're lucky if we get a Thomas Harris book every ten years, Lawrence Block is blazingly prolific. There are 18 titles in his Matthew Scudder series alone.

Although I've been increasingly aware of Block and the superlative quality of his writing, I am a late discoverer of this series, having only read my first Scudder novel (which is actually chronologically the tenth) — A Walk Among the Tombstones. Thanks to the magical Miranda, the UK editor of Hard Case Crime, an advance copy of Hard Case's lovely movie edition of Walk Among turned up in the mail the other day. Cue a series of late nights as I sat turning pages, unable to put this powerful, gruelling novel aside.

I won't give away much if I reveal that A Walk Among the Tombstones concerns some exceptionally vicious kidnappers. Block's stroke of genius is to make the first victim of these kidnappers a drug dealer, which means he can't go to the police. Instead he goes to private detective Matt Scudder.

What makes this fictional private eye different from all the others on the market? He's a former cop and reformed alcoholic — nothing new there. But what does distinguish this Scudder novel is simply the brilliance of Block's writing. The plotting is brisk, original, unpredictable and shocking. Great fundamental carpentry. But beyond that we have Block's prose which is of an impressively high order. It's cool, vivid and highly readable. His characterisation is also terrific; I especially like Scudder's streetkid sidekick TJ. And in keeping with this, Block has a knack for smart, authentic-sounding dialogue. Given that his characters include a young black hustler, an old Irish bar owner and a Russian gangster, it's just as well.

And his dialogue is also often very funny, as in this exchange about a struggling ex-junkie: "He's pissed of at God." "Shit, who isn't?" Or when Scudder and his callgirl girlfriend discuss a very strange woman they've just met. "She was probably on magic mushrooms, or some hallucinogenic fungus that grows only on decaying leather. I'll tell you one thing, she could make good money as a dominatrix."  "Not if her leather's decaying."

This dark, sardonic sense of humour pervades the book, which is told by Scudder in the first person. When a computer hacker tries to enlighten him on a technical issue, Scudder ruefully observes, "It was a little like trying to explain the fundamentals of non-euclidean geometry to a field mouse."

Combine this with a plot driven by relentless and unremitting suspense — there are sequences when you literally won't be able to stop reading — and you have an exceptional novel and a classic crime thriller.

What I should warn readers about is that this is a novel which pulls no punches. It's often gruesome and extremely violent. (That pond water in front of Liam Neeson ain't tinted red for no reason.) But this is balanced by the humour, warmth of characterisation and the fact that Scudder is a proper hero. A genuine good guy and urban knight errant. Down these mean streets...

Promisingly, the movie of Walk Among the Tombstones, which is due out soon, stars Liam Neeson and is written and directed by the outstanding Scott Frank. Fingers crossed, we could all be in for a treat. Personally, I'll be first in line when it opens.

(Image credits: With the exception of the lovely film tie-in — thank you, Miranda! — the covers of this great novel are a pretty dull bunch. The Hard Case beauty can be found here at the Hard Case website. The best of the rest is the Avon skull edition, which I gleaned from ABE. The others are from Good Reads.)