Sunday 28 June 2020

The Turquoise Lament by John D. MacDonald

John D. MacDonald is one of my favourite writers, and his creation Travis McGee one of my favourite characters. 

McGee is a kind of unofficial private detective who specialises in attempting to recover large sums of money which have been stolen or otherwise taken from the victim by unscrupulous means.

The deal is, if he's successful, he keeps half the loot and the other half goes back to his client. As he points out — half is a lot better than nothing.

This is a late Travis McGee adventure, number 15 in the series, published in 1973, and both MacDonald and his hero are on absolutely top form. 

The book has the fabulous, densely organised readability of Thomas Harris's Cari Mora and it is full of vivid interest on every page.

I often compare MacDonald to Harris. They are both writers who, with these books, are at the absolute peak of their craft.

The Turquoise Lament is gorgeously written, suspenseful as hell and terrifically funny.

It begins with McGee, summoned by a damsel in distress, jetting to Honolulu and glimpsing "a single tilted vista of Los Angeles in morning light" as he takes off in his connecting flight.

The purloined booty in this particular adventure is literally sunken treasure — pirate gold. And the methodical procedure of a modern undersea treasure hunt is masterfully evoked.

McGee and his fellows use electronic probes and high pressure hoses to search the silt on the ocean floor, with barracuda watching them "like old men at a contruction site."

Like his creator, McGee is respectful of wildlife and very prescient in his environmental concerns. He notes that, "The eerie savage predators of the deep have gotten a very bad press." 

Such ecological interests keeps MacDonald entirely modern and indeed at the cutting edge, as in him talking about ancient geological events, "when mankind was only an unborn threat to the distant future."

The story of the treasure hunt is told with bravura economy. Here is the first sentence of  Chapter 3: "Yes, we found the cannon and we found the gold."

But within a few pages the vast fortune it is snatched away from our protagonists by a hurricane.

Don't worry, though, there is more treasure under the ocean. And the huge wealth at stake makes a young woman the target of a charming, manipulative — and utterly murderous — psychopath.

Which is where McGee comes in.

This book is full of priceless descriptions. A bully's countenance "looked more like a fat boiled fist than a face." 

In the frantic run up to Christmas in Florida: "Counter clerks radiate an exhausted patience leavened with icy flashes of total hate."

Up in the sky there is the "thunder-roll of a jet." "A big raw Saturday wind" blows through the streets. The parking meters by the beach look like a "small lonely forest of Martian flowers." Golf carts are "whining contrivances."

Another great virtue of the Travis McGee novels is that McGee is not a solo act. MacDonald had the great good sense to equip him with a comrade in arms, a brilliant semi-retired economist called Meyer (we never find out his other name).

Meyer is much more than a Watson to McGee's Holmes. Their partnership is more like Aubrey and Maturin in the brilliant seafaring novels of Patrick O'Brian.

This friendship is a thing of beauty and adds a huge extra dimension to these books. The McGee stories are never more compelling than when Meyer is in peril, as he is here.

And he's not the only one. I mentioned the young woman targeted by the psychopath. This antagonist is a classic John D. MacDonald monster...

He is memorably referred to at various times as "a very cold and strange entity", "an amiable maniac", a "jolly sociopath" and a "monstrous... non-person."

In the clutches of such a formidable villain, our heroine is up against overwhelming odds and appears certainly doomed.

But that very cold and strange entity and amiable maniac is, in turn, up against one Travis McGee...

So suffice to say this jolly sociopath and monstrous non-person gets what's coming to him.

If you haven't read any John D. MacDonald, or any of his Travis McGee books, I would say this supremely well crafted novel is an ideal place to start

I can scarcly convey to you just what an effortless pleasure it was to read. 

(Image credits: The $1.25 Fawcett paperback and the rather rubbish British Hale hardcover (leg and gun) are scanned by me from my own library. The other covers are from Good Reads, with these exceptions — the Pan cover is from the Cotswold Library on eBay. The German paperback is from Mord Lust. The German three volume compendium — "blaue krimis" is from Book Looker.)

Sunday 21 June 2020

The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance

Science fiction was my first love as a young reader and recently I've been delving back into the wondrous work of Jack Vance.

Vance also wrote fantasy — terrific, distinctive fantasy: Dungeons and Dragons drew heavily on his writings. But, despite its title, The Dragon Masters is solidly science fiction.

It's set on the planet Aerlith, settled by humans in the distant future, and hinges on their periodic conflict with an alien race called the grephs (or the Basics — we'll explain that in a minute) from the star system Coralyne.

It's periodic because it takes place whenever Coralyne's orbit brings it close enough to Aerlith to enable an attack.
The grephs have an overwhelming technological advantage and raid and enslave the humans at will, carrying them back to their home planet and breeding them into different specialised forms to serve their warlike ends — Weaponeers, Heavy Troopers, Giants.
But, eleven generations before this story begins, the humans win a victory that enables them to capture a signifcant group of the grephs, or Basics.

"Basics" because the humans then proceed to turn the tables on their enemies and selectively breed them into a variety of forms, developed from this basic orginal. These new creatures are called dragons, and they are bred to be used in battle.

And what a variety:

"Termagants darted into the lead, followed by silken Striding Monsters and the heavier Long-horned Murderers, their fantastic chest-spikes tipped with steel. Behind came the ponderous Juggers, grunting, gurgling, teeth clashing together with the vibration of their steps. 

"Flanking the Juggers marched the Fiends, carrying heavy cutlasses, flourishing their terminal steel balls as a scorpion carries its sting; then at the rear came the Blue Horrors, who were both massive and quick, good climbers, no less intelligent than the Termagants."

The genetic manipulation makes this story solidly science fiction, while the symmetry of the conflict gives it a certain savage, poetic irony.

The rich and colourful depiction of this alien world is indeed like a fantasy novel and allows Jack Vance to draw the reader into his story swiftly and seductively.

And he makes the alien seem real by the confident use of exotic terminology, much of it invented but much of it also real, abstruse and archaic — like 'sacredote' (literally, a priest) or 'curvet' (a series of jumps on the hind legs performed by a horse — or in this case, a creature called a Spider).

Vance also writes quite beautifully: "Over them the flier darted, veered, fluttered, settling like a falling leaf." Or his description of a Dragon Master with "eyes black and blank as drops of ink on a plate."

And it's a beautiful, warlike world he describes: "With the cold rain of dawn pelting down upon them, with the trail illuminated only by lightning-glare,  Ervis Carcolo, his dragons and his men set forth... the dragons mumbled and muttered fretfully... watching an opportunity to kick each other or to snip a leg from an unwary groom."

Soon enough the Basics land for another attack and battle is joined and Vance keeps us turning the pages with a prose which is both dryly ironic and downright thrilling. 

"With silken ferocity the Blue Horrors ripped them apart.. What a terrible day... What awful events; what a great victory."

It was a great pleasure to discover that this novel still sparks that same sense of wonder that made me love science fiction in the first place.

(Image credits: The covers are all from the very useful Goodreads; I was pleased to be able to avoid most of the more sword-and-sorcery flavoured ones.)

Sunday 14 June 2020

Red Dragon (the script) by Ted Tally and Thomas Harris

As you may well know, I am an ardent admirer of novelist Thomas Harris, most recently the author of Cari Mora, but still probably best known for Silence of the Lambs.

Harris has fared surprisingly well with screen adaptations of his books, not least because he had the good fortune to have two of his films scripted by the American playwright Ted Tally.

Seldom has such a stupendously talented novelist been adapted by a comparably talented screenwriter.

One reason Ted Tally's movies are so good is that his first instinct is to stick as closely as possible to the source material — an unusual attitude in the world of movies.

When he wrote his adaptation of Silence of the Lambs, Tally even included scenes from the book that I thought could never work on the screen — they were so rooted in the magic of Thomas Harris's prose...

But they did work, and so brilliantly that Silence of the Lambs was a massive hit as a film, and Ted Tally won the Oscar that year for best adapated screenplay.

Unfortunately, no one saw fit to publish this award winning script in book form. (Maybe they'd like to rectify that error now...)

But Tally's script for another Thomas Harris adaptation — Red Dragon — has indeed been published, and if you're interested in the art of screenwriting you should immediately get hold of a copy.

Movie scripts are often a dull, demanding read, requiring your full attention to keep track of characters, locations, and generally what the hell is going on...

Not Ted Tally's Red Dragon. It reads like a dream. I genuinely couldn't put it down. I found it as a dark, scary and profoundly compelling as Thomas Harris's original novel.

Once more Tally has remained impressively true to the book, but he has a made a couple of canny changes.

The story of Red Dragon takes place before Silence of the Lambs, but the film came out ten years after Silence, with Hannibal Lecter already firmly embedded in the public consciousness.

Therefore Tally provides a brief prologue giving us a taste of the cannibal psychiatrist's schtick...

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has a dud flute soloist, so Hannibal thoughtfully helps them out by killing him and serving him up at a dinner party for members of the symphony board...

And the film ends differently from the book, with a coda of Hannibal in his cell being told that the unseen agent Starling is waiting to see him.

In between, Tally gives us an exquisitely riveting plot, told in clear, concise, dramatic scenes with first rate dialogue.

As I say, a lot of this is drawn directly from Harris's novel. But the choice of what to include and what to leave out (and a lot has to be left out) is Tally's.

And he also adds his own beautiful touches... At the bad guy's gothic mansion of a house, there's a veranda where "ancient rocking chairs stir in the breeze, ridden by ghosts."

Later, when that house is torched and becomes an inferno Tally describes, "The rocking chairs on the porch, moving eerily as flames take them. One last ride for the ghosts."

I recently included Thomas Harris's Red Dragon in a list of my top ten favourite crime novels

What a pleasure to report that this screenplay based on it is a masterpiece in its own right.

(Image credits: The front and back cover of the script book are scans by me of my own copy. The other images are from IMDB, where most of the photos are by Glen Wilson and copyright either Glen Wilson or Universal Studios.)

Sunday 7 June 2020

The Big Goodbye by Sam Wasson

Chinatown is one of my favourite films of all time, so when I discovered that someone had written an entire book about the making of it, I immediately rushed out and bought it.

Okay, so that's not true... I immediately rushed to ask my sister to buy it for me, for my birthday.

The book is called The Big Goodbye, a title that invokes the novels of Raymond Chandler, as well as summarising one of the major themes of this impressive study...

To wit, that the era when Chinatown was made — the 1970s — was a high point in the history of Hollywood film making, and a quality of work was achieved then that has never been rivalled since.

Indeed, as Chinatown hit the screens of the world and began its long fade into history, we already began to bid farewell to an age of greatness.

Sam Wasson was familiar to me through the splendid TV series Fosse/Verdon, which was based on his biography of Bob Fosse. 

I'll have to get hold of that, as well as his book about Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Wasson has done a thorough and admirable job of research. 

Whenever he couldn't go to primary sources — either because they're beyond his reach, or dead (beyond anybody's reach) — he's dug deep into previously published interview material, but never settled for the obvious.

And he's ferreted out facts that have added immensely to my appreciation of the film.

For instance, in an account of the troubled journey to create the music for the film, Wasson reveals that Susanna Moore, then girlfriend of Richard Sylbert, the movie's production designer, made a crucial pivotal contribution.

She suggested including the lovely, lilting 1937 song 'I Can't Get Started' by Bunny Berigan. This worked beautifully to evoke the period of the film. 

But more than that, because Berigan was a star trumpeter, it led to a lone trumpet being the signature sound of Chinatown.

To my delight Wasson even devotes a section of the book to Uan Rasey, the virtuoso session trumpeter who plays so unforgettably on the soundtrack.

And of course he also discusses Jerry Goldsmith, whose stellar music is no small part of Chinatown's greatness.

Naturally Sam Wasson also understands the importance of writers, so a major portion of The Big Goodbye is spent on Robert Towne, who wrote the film.

Robert Towne is one of the great screenwriters and I admire him considerably.

However, instead of his single credit on Chinatown, there should be three names on the movie.

Ever since the film appeared, it's been an open secret that Roman Polanski, the director, made a significant contribution to the script. Notably its indelible conclusion.

Here is a website discussing "The memorable ending of the classic 1974 movie Chinatown, written by Robert Towne."

In fact Towne didn't write a word of this sequence. He refused to have anything to do with what Pauline Kael would call Polanski's "gargoyle's grin" of an ending.

More than that, Roman Polanski was responsible for taking Towne's brilliant but vastly overlength and unfocused screenplay and hewing it down so that it unwaveringly followed private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and his story.

But the big surprise in The Big Goodbye is that through all the preliminary years of developing what became Chinatown, Robert Towne had a writing shadow partner, a friend named Edward Taylor.

Taylor who did extensive, unacknowledged work on not only Chinatown, but virtually every screenplay Towne wrote.

None of which diminishes Towne's importance here. But it puts it in perspective, confirms Polanski's contribution and, crucially, finally brings Edward Taylor out of the shadows.

If you haven't seen Chinatown, I'd suggest you do so immediately.

And if you love it as much as I do, you should then buy this book.

Or get someone else to buy it for your birthday.

(Image credits: The cover is from Amazon UK — fair enough, since that is where we bought the book. The other images are all taken from IMDB, where they also have a fine selection of posters I may well draw on when I write about the film itself.)