Sunday 26 August 2018

The Novels of Ira Levin

I recently stumbled on this series of reprints —  Ira Levin's entire canon of novels, in a uniform edition, with new introductions. And they have led to me rediscovering just what a marvellous novelist he was.

In case the name is unfamiliar to you, Ira Levin is probably best known as the man who created The Stepford Wives, which has been filmed twice — the second time as an appalling comedy — and which has passed into our communal consciousness with its subversive and astonishing take on gender politics.

Rosemary's Baby would be, I imagine, Levin's next most famous work. It was adapted into a classic, and brilliant, horror film which — thankfully — has never been remade. (Although there was a TV mini-series in 2004.)

Probably the best definition of Ira Levin is as a suspense novelist. All of his books have that in common. They are masterpieces of emotional manipulation, and all are beautifully and economically written. They are also, surprisingly, very funny.

Other than that, they're a very diverse group, effortlessly crossing genre boundaries. Some are straightforward crime novels (A Kiss Before Dying, Sliver) others science fiction (This Perfect Day, The Stepford Wives, The Boys from Brazil), others supernatural horror (Rosemary's Baby, Son of Rosemary).

Levin began by writing for radio and television in the 1950s. As a novelist he made a stunning debut with A Kiss Before Dying in 1953, creating a classic which won an Edgar Award as best first crime novel, was promptly filmed, and which has been in print ever since. 

Over a span of 44 years Ira Levin only published a total of seven novels, but he also had a considerable career as a playwright, writing both hit comedies (No Time for Sergeants) and thrillers — Deathtrap is probably his most famous play, and was the longest running thriller on Broadway. But for my money his masterpiece for the stage was the remarkable Veronica's Room.

I'm very grateful to whatever perceptive person at the UK publisher Constable & Robinson (now Hachette) decided to reprint all seven of Levin's novels. The covers vary from the striking (A Kiss Before Dying) to fairly feeble (The Stepford Wives) but they are quite a handsome uniform set, and it's incredibly useful to have them all in print at once.

Plus the introductions, though very brief and also somewhat variable, are a valuable bonus — who knew that Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, was a Rosemary fan? And Jonathan Trigell has some interesting things to say about Sliver.

I hope you find that I also have some interesting things to say about these books. I plan to be writing about all of them over the following months, and at least a couple of Levin's plays, too.

Meanwhile, I urge you to check out these books yourself. You could start with any of them, except Son of Rosemary, which is a sequel. I guarantee that once you begin reading, you will find it very hard to stop.

Mr Levin, more power to you.

(Image credits: all the covers are from Hachette Australia.)

Sunday 19 August 2018

Basic Instinct by Joe Eszterhas

I recently got hold of a deluxe reissue of Jerry Goldsmith's wonderful music for Basic Instinct. And in the course of listening to the CDs and reading the liner notes I got the urge to watch the film again...

Which was very appropriate. Basic Instinct is all about urges — primal, perverse or deadly. Notably homicidal impulse.

Anyway, I dug out my old DVD, complete with its kitsch ice-block menu design (the murder weapon in the movie is an ice pick) and took a trip back to San Francisco in the early 1990s...

In case you've led a commendably sheltered life and have never heard of Basic Instinct, it's a state of the art, latter-day film noir in gorgeous colour. 

It also pays homage to the movies of Hitchcock, notably Vertigo, although it's much more explicit, daring and technically polished (despite Hitchcock's reputation for cinematic expertise I find his films often crude, and I completely agree with Stanley Kubrick's disparaging remarks about Hitchcock's use of crappy back-projection).

In many ways Basic Instinct stands up well. Joe Eszterhas's script is an absolute model of flawless craftsmanship, flowing smoothly and unstoppably from one gripping story point to another. (He was paid $3 million for the script, a record at the time.)

And in Paul Verhoeven, Eszterhas found the perfect director for the film. Verhoeven's kinkiness, intensity of vision, twisted humour and sheer prowess all made him ideal.

However, Verhoeven does have a tendency to go over the top — to say the least. And that, combined with a rather unsubtle performance by Michael Douglas as Homicide Detective Nick Curran, somewhat diminishes the impact of the movie. For example, there's way too much shouting and crashing around, whereas understatement might have been more powerful.

Sharon Stone, on the other hand, is just perfection in her part as the ultimate femme fatale Catherine Trammell — mocking, radiant and diabolical.

In his engrossing autobiography Joe Eszterhas does some diabolical mocking of his own. He recalls how delighted Stone was when she declared that she'd found out the source of her character's name. She was convinced that it derived from an archaic Scottish word for a funeral shroud.

When Joe explained it was actually taken from Alan Trammell, a baseball player, Sharon grew rather irate...

Besides being too shouty, the other flaw in Basic Instinct is — perhaps surprisingly — the sex scenes. At the time they were considered scorching, and somewhat shocking and genuinely pushed the envelope. (The movie had to be trimmed for the US release, with Goldsmith shortening his music cues in consequence.)

But now — and even at the time — they tend to come across as laughably bombastic. To be fair, though, sex scenes are proverbially difficult to do well. Probably still the only film to (excuse the expression) pull it off is Nic Roeg's Don't Look Now from 1973.

In any case, Basic Instinct remains a classic. George Dzundza is excellent as Curran's likable, good hearted partner Gus. (And, as is usual with good hearted, likable characters in a Joe Eszterhas script, he's doomed to a nasty fate.)

The photography by Jan De Bont (who went on to become a director in his own right) is beautiful, and of course Jerry Goldsmith's music is ravishing.

All in all, shouting and sex scenes aside, Basic Instinct has weathered the years well and remains a classic.

(Image credits: The standard vintage vertical poster is from Imp Awards. The stylish ice pick is by Anton Petrov on Pinterest. The nicely designed op art white dress and folded legs is by Chung Kong. The striking horizontal poster of Sharon Stone in the chair — actually a statue, apparently — is by Blitzway on Pinterest. The poster with the photo of Stone in the chair, the black-background 'Flesh seduces, passion kills', the black and white one and 'ultimate edition' are all from the excellent Movie DB.)

Sunday 12 August 2018

Fahrenheit 451 — The Folio Society Edition

The Folio Society is a sort of very classy British book club. They make high quality hardcover reprints of famous titles. These are often very beautiful, printed on fine paper with elegant binding and specially commissioned illustrations. 

Being a sucker for such things, I've frequently sought out their books, occasionally the great classics of literature — but more often, me being me, their crime stories and science fiction. Indeed, a little while ago I wrote a post about the Folio edition of Frank Herbert's Dune.  

In fact it was Dune which prompted me to seek out the earlier Folio edition of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, an unforgettable fable about a dystopian future where firemen no longer put out conflagrations but rather burn books in service of the totalitarian rulers.

Like Dune, the Folio Fahrenheit 451 features illustrations by Sam Weber. Weber's work is lovely, and I bought this book for his illustrations, but as with Dune the real treat turned out to be the extra introductions thoughtfully included by the folks at Folio.

The best of these is a brilliant essay by Michael Moorcock, a great science fiction writer in his own right

Moorcock's introduction is rewarding and delightful. Thought provoking, discursive and detailed, he doesn’t seem to have got the memo that such pieces are usually superficial, facile and fact free. 

He makes the keen observation that the California desert inspired the Martian landscapes of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury. Among his other fascinating reflections is that “Burroughs, Brackett and Bradbury were Californians just like the noir trio of Hammett, Chandler and Caine” and a discussion of “‘Market forces’ as the base for a dystopia’.

Moorcock also writes with bracing vividness as when he talks about the Red witch hunt and the “McCarthy twister” (i.e. tornado) which swept up so many innocent people. 

Ray Bradbury’s own informative introduction is another valuable addition: he recalls writing the book, using rented typewriters in the basement of a library — ten cents per half hour. "I brought a bag of dimes with me and moved in." And there's an enlightening discussion of the story's villain and his motivation (books failed him). 

Both Moorcock and Bradbury are perhaps rightly dismissive of the 1967 Truffaut movie of Fahrenheit 451, but it should be noted that it has a great Bernard Herrmann score.

(Image credits: The cover is from John Guy Collick. The interior illustrations are from Sam Weber's site.)

Sunday 5 August 2018

White Bicycles by Joe Boyd

I'm currently busy writing my fourth Vinyl Detective novel. It's called Flip Back and the central mystery in the book is rooted in the British psychedelic folk scene of the 1960s and 70s. 

During my research for the story I consulted a friend, Gordon Larkin, who is something of a connoisseur of this period and musical genre. And he recommended that I read something called White Bicycles by someone called Joe Boyd. What the hell, I thought, I'll give it a go...

I'm so glad I did.

If you are interested in the popular music of the second half of the 20th century — virtually any form of popular music — then I can't recommend this book highly enough. It's beautifully written, gloriously informative, and very funny.

And I do mean virtually any form of popular music. Joe Boyd had a deep involvement, as manager, promoter, producer and avid fan in the fields of blues, folk, jazz and rock. He loves the music, and the people involved, and he writes about them beautifully. 

Here is his description of encountering Joan Baez in Harvard, "I saw her riding a Vespa with her boyfriend through the slush of the Cambridge winter, grinning wickedly with that beautiful dark mane trailing behind."
And her subsequent influence: "The scene that flourished in the ripples of her success was full of eccentrics, visionaries and travellers."

White Bicycles is told with a unique combination of wit and expert knowledge, as in this discussion of studio recording techniques: "You were, in a sense, creating the ideal physical location for each instrument or voice: the violin in the Sistine Chapel, the singer in your mum's shower stall and the bass drum in Alfred Jarry's cork-lined bedroom."

And Joe Boyd does indeed know about how to record music. He served an apprenticeship working at Lester Koenig's legendary jazz label, Contemporary Records in Los Angeles, and he fondly recalls "Our great engineers Howard Holzer and Roy DuNann." He is also properly sceptical of modern digital techniques.

Boyd is effortlessly witty... "The music business and the criminal fraternities — often quite different people."... and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. 

He recounts how the executives for the German record label Polydor "were not known for diplomacy: the man sent to open their American office startled the crowd at the New York press launch by telling them he had wanted to live in the city ever since he'd seen its skyline from Long Island Sound through the periscope of his U-boat in 1943."

This gift for humour and fascinating observation is constantly intertwined. Waking up to an earthquake in Los Angeles Joe thinks nuclear war has commenced: "I was dead, but at least I had plenty of company... In all my years in recording studios, I had never heard a sound so low. The vibrating object had to be unimaginably huge to make such a noise.”

As with Frederic Raphael's memoirs, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, it seems pretty certain that Joe Boyd kept some kind of diary. His book is full of telling details which brilliantly evoke the past and bring it to life.

And he is keenly aware of loss.

In 1964 he was the manager of a European tour for American blues and gospel giants such as Muddy Waters, Reverend Gary Davies and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. When it was over, "At Orly airport tears were shed, addresses and telephone numbers exchanged... An era in American culture was passing and I had only the barest idea how lucky I was to have witnessed the flash of the sunset."

He was at the pivotal Newport Folk Festival where Bob Dylan decisively went electric and the nature of popular music was changed forever. Like me, Joe Boyd vastly prefers Dylan's new sound to that of the acoustic folkie old guard...

But he has no illusions that this change was entirely benign: "Anyone wishing to portray the sixties as a journey from idealism to hedonism could place the hinge at around 9:30 on the night of 25 July 1965."

Indeed the title of the book reflects this duality. In just that spirit of sixties idealism, the City of Amsterdam provided white bicycles free, to be shared for the use of everyone. But all too soon they were being stolen, repainted and kept.

This is a great book. My only gripe is that half the time I went to type Joe's surname in this post I ended up typing "Body" instead. But that's hardly the author's fault. 

Buy his book and read it. I think you'll love it. I did.

(As a sweetener, I'm planning to run a competition when my new Vinyl Detective novel, Flip Back, is published. Three lucky readers who can spot where my book has been influenced by my research using Joe's will win a rather nice prize.)

(Image credits: The witty Spanish cover is from Good Reads. The strikingly designed graphic cover for the Dutch edition is from the publisher EPO. The French edition is from Fnac. The wacky Russian cover is from Joe's own excellent website. The German paperback is from ABE. The German hardcover is from German Amazon. The British second edition is from Near Street. The British first edition is from Amazon UK.)