Sunday, August 2, 2015

Was The Trial More Exciting Than the Book?

During a week when many people were trying to come to terms with two different fictional lawyers, both named Atticus Finch, I was reading the true story of a British barrister who was the pre-eminent defense attorney of his generation. The title, Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories, does not come trippingly off the tongue, but Thomas Grant, also a barrister, has written a hugely entertaining book. Baron Hutchinson is still alive, at 100, and provides the postscript to this volume. Mr Grant insists he is as sharp as ever though a little wobbly on his pins.

Hutchinson’s mother was the inspiration for Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway and Jeremy is said to be one of the models for John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey, though no one would ever accuse him of being a Old Bailey hack and I doubt he’s imbibed much Chateau Thames Embankment.

Hutchinson defended several spies, an art forger and Christine Keeler. He is best known for his role in R v Penguin Books, the most famous obscenity trial of the 1960s (there were quite a few). Penguin wished to publish an unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterly’s Lover to mark the thirtieth anniversary of D. H. Lawrence’s death. All prior editions in Great Britain had been pirated. The government believed that LCL was obscene and felt “if no action is taken in respect of this publication it will make proceedings against any other publication difficult.”

The prosecution contended that the book was obscene because “it sets upon a pedestal promiscuous and adulterous intercourse. It commends … sensuality almost as a virtue. It encourages, and indeed even advocates, coarseness and vulgarity of thought and language.” The prosecution even went so far as to let the jury know how many times certain four letter words appeared. Whatever literary merit the book might have was outweighed by its obscenity.

The defense had numerous academics and writers ready to testify that such was not the case. They settled on, among others, Roy Jenkins, Richard Hoggart and E.M. Forster. T.S. Eliot was prepared to follow Forster but his testimony was not needed.

The most effective witness was Richard Hoggart, a university lecturer little known here but famous in England for his book, The Uses of Literacy. In the book Hoggart talks about popular culture (self-created) v. mass culture (imposed from above).

Hoggart, a child of the working classes, comments on the passages that Hutchinson reads aloud in court. He talks about how often four letter words are used in everyday life. He contends that the descriptions of sex are all carefully woven into the psychological portrait of the characters. He calls the book “virtuous and puritanical.”

When the prosecution objects to the word "puritanical," he explains that the distinguishing feature of Puritanism “is an intense sense of responsibility for one’s conscience. In this sense the book is puritanical.”

The prosecuting barrister makes many missteps. He feels compelled to explain to the jury what a phallus is (“for those of you who have forgotten your Greek”) and calls not a single witness or expert. The prosecution had considered calling Rudyard Kipling. Alas, at the time of the trial, Kipling had been dead for over 20 years.

Despite the poor performance by the prosecution, a not guilty verdict was not a foregone conclusion. The judge was very clearly on the side of the prosecution and the verdict needed to be unanimous. When it was delivered the judged neither agreed to pay Penguin’ s legal costs nor did he thank the jury.

I’ve not ever finished Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Almost all of Lawrence’s other novels are much more interesting. Then in graduate school I was subjected to a Lawrence seminar. There’s nothing like attending graduate school in English to kill one’s love of reading.

As Wordsworth said, “We murder to dissect.”

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

Saturday, August 1, 2015


Being Irish, or at least Irish-American, and being at least somewhat informed about Irish history, I’m ambivalent about the British. And even if I wasn’t from the auld sod, I think I would feel that way. Tweedy types with pipes, going on and on about stiff upper lips and the Queen, and all that rot. I have, however, developed a fondness for Downton Abbey. And they have The Beatles, and the Stones (and the Who, and later Elvis Costello), and I love all of them. Then again, they play soccer, the most boring game ever invented (cricket being the most confusing), and they eat blood pudding and kidney pie, and Masterpiece Theater and Upstairs Downstairs can both be a snore. They’re pretentious, those Brits, spelling things with re at the end instead of er, and they talk weird. And except for Monty Python, those BBC comedies are mostly awful. I don’t get half the jokes, and I’m sure I would not think they were funny if I did.

But never let it be said that I am not willing to try something new. I really liked Brighton Rock, with Sam Riley, so when I was looking through Netflix for my next movie to review, I saw that he was in a thriller called 13. It’s a remake of a French thriller called 13 Tzameti, and I wondered what it would be like to see a French movie seen through a British lens with my thoroughly American eyes. At least it wasn’t a comedy. I mean, the French like Jerry Lewis, and seeing Jerry Lewis interpreted by people who think Hetty Wainwright in Keeping Up Appearances is funny sounded somewhere beyond absurd, completely inscrutable, a Zen Koan told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying …. Well, it just didn’t sound funny.

And then I realized that just because it had Sam Riley, Ronald Winstone, and Jason Statham in it, it wasn’t necessarily British. It also has 50 cent, Mickey Rourke, and Ben Gazzarra, and was produced in the United States. Maybe Rourke and Statham got to drinking on the set of The Expendables and decided to make another movie where each plays, well, the characters they always play—tough guys. Statham does the Silent Man thing, an angry missile of a man looking to blow up anything he can, and Rourke plays an eccentric whacko who is also pretty damned tough (this time out as a cowboy from Texas). His accent sounds like Texas, or at least like Mickey Rourke doing a Texas accent.

Sam Riley plays an American guy named Vince Ferro who overhears a dying guy talking about making a lot of money, and he impersonates him and ends up in a tournament where groups of guys play Russian roulette for rich sponsors who bet gads of money on them. It was done better in The Deer Hunter. This savage “sport” is open to all comers, so I guess that is why you have that hands across the water thing. And to round things out, the director of the original French movie, Gela Babluani, directed this one too. If the remake was faithful to the original, then the French version was awful. The three countries involved should have to play the game, but instead of a bullet to the head, the loser takes responsibility for the movie.

In bit parts, you have Andrew Skaarsgard (True Blood) and Michael Shannon (from Boardwalk Empire, and who played, in a great turn, serial-killing-hit-man-killer Richard Kuklinski in Ice Man). All the guys in this movie have made great movies, in fact, but like all-star teams often do, they add up to less than the sum of their parts.

There have been movies with great ensemble casts (It’s a Mad Mad World comes to mind) and there have been ensemble movies about people who’ve got nothing to lose risking it all at near impossible odds on the slim chance for freedom or a bundle of cash (The Dirty Dozen, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? The Magnificent Seven) but most of these kinds of movies stink on ice (the movie is bloody bollocks, is what I mean to say), like The Poseidon Adventure did, and this one truly does.

There are all kinds of side bets and sub plots in the excruciating “plot”, but they seem like they are there merely to get the flick out past 90 minutes. The thing that can make a movie like this good is caring about the characters, or hating them, or being concerned, anyway, about what happens to them. Of course, Riley wins (the other finalist is Winstone, and of course the plan of an evil plotter, who I will not name, is to not let Riley get away with his winnings. Either the bad guys, or the cops, are going to get Ferro (Ray Liotta turned down the role of the detective, which is a shame, because his turns as a crooked cop in Narc and Avenue of the Pines were fantastic), and there has to be a twist at the end, or two. What they come up with is worthy of an episode of Magnum PI.

Not only are the characters not memorable, they are hardly distinguishable, even as types. At least give each guy some kind of gimmick of shtick to identify him with. The only guy who stands out is Rourke, and that is because of the bad accent (Riley does better with an American one). Winstone and Statham are interchangeable, sinister British guys, except that Winstone is older and not as buff. You know that in the end it is going to come down to two guys, and it does. Will they both make it, like Charles Bronson and James Coburn in The Dirty Dozen, or like Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven? Of course not, it’s Russian roulette.

Maybe these actors all get together and cut deals about which movies they get to live in. Steve McQueen makes it in Magnificent Seven, but not in The Great Escape. And Bronson makes it in Dirty Dozen, but not in The Magnificent Seven. I was not surprised to see who the last guy standing in this movie was. When it was in the theater, I bet no one was either. And instead of trying to be a noir thriller about amoral people who are all doomed, or about existential heroes who are doomed to try and be heroes (and are also just plain doomed), it converts itself into the final scene into a saccharine parable about greed.

The one level this interests me on is that of urban legend. Really rich people can do just about anything they want, but do they do things like this? Do they hunt other humans for sport (see Surviving The Game with Ice T) too? I mean, I don’t believe the one about the gigantic alligators in the NYC sewers, but this seems somehow plausible. I hope it isn’t.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Thursday, July 30, 2015

My Grandfather's Influence

Crime Writers' Chronicle is happy to welcome guest blogger Lois Winston, USA Today bestselling and award-winning author.

Lois makes me look like a real slacker. She writes mystery, romance, romantic suspense, chick lit, women’s fiction, children’s chapter books, and non-fiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. Her latest Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery,
A Stitch to Die For, has just been published.

Kirkus Reviews called her series, “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” Lois is an award-winning craft and needlework designer as well, who often draws source material for both her characters and plots from her experiences in the crafts industry.

The inspiration for the series came from within her own family, as she shares with us today. 

— Sheila York

I started out writing romance and eventually also wrote romantic suspense and chick lit. Several years and seven books later I wrote my first mystery, settling into a genre where I discovered I felt the most comfortable. I’m not sure why I didn’t think to write mystery from the start. Given my family history, it should have been a logical genre for me, but I never gave it a thought until an editor asked my agent if she had any authors who wrote crafting mysteries. Based on my career as a designer in the crafts industry, my agent suggested I try my hand at writing a cozy mystery with a crafting protagonist.

What my agent didn’t know at the time was my familial connection to the world of organized crime. My grandfather spent his entire career as one of the good guys, working to bring down some really badass bad guys associated with Murder, Inc. Climbing his way up the ladder from patrolman to Detective Captain of Essex County, New Jersey, he spent the decades of the twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties on a quest to lock up many a name you might know from various gangster movies.

On October 24, 1935 he was the first officer on the scene when mobster Dutch Schultz was gunned down at the Palace Chop House in Newark, New Jersey. Schultz didn’t die on the scene. He lingered for nearly a full day before he eventually died from peritonitis. During that time, police questioned him at his beside in an attempt to obtain useful information about the shooting and his gangland associates.

I’m assuming my grandfather was one of those officers. I have no way of knowing. He died when I was six years old. I would have loved to learn more about his illustrious career directly from him. Most of what I know is secondhand from relatives or the little I’ve been able to discover on the Internet, such as the attached news clipping about a talk he gave in 1957.

My own personal memories are of a loving, gentle man who would read me the Sunday funnies. It was years before I had any inkling of his statewide fame, but I do have one memory of sitting with him front and center in the grandstand at a Thanksgiving Day parade. I was probably no more than three or four at the time.

New Jersey has always had the reputation of being a corrupt state. My grandfather spent his life countering that reputation. His own reputation was so stellar that he was often approached to run for office, but he declined each time. He felt he served his state much better doing what he did best—rooting out evil.

I’ve often wondered, had my grandfather lived longer, would I have chosen a career in law enforcement? Probably not, given when I came of age, and I’m not sure he would have wanted me to take that path. I doubt he was that forward thinking when it came to women in the workforce. Neither my mother nor my aunt attended college. Few women did back then. However, I hope my grandfather is smiling down from Heaven, watching me deal with badass bad guys in my own “novel” way.

Lois Winston

A Stitch to Die For

Ever since her husband died and left her in debt equal to the gross national product of Uzbekistan, magazine crafts editor and reluctant amateur sleuth Anastasia Pollack has stumbled across one dead body after another—but always in work-related settings. When a killer targets the elderly nasty neighbor who lives across the street from her, murder strikes too close to home. Couple that with a series of unsettling events days before Halloween, and Anastasia begins to wonder if someone is sending her a deadly message.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

What's In a Name?

"I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide!"

(Nelle) Harper Lee

Recently I read in the NYT about Canada's Prime Minister — Stephen Harper — on the same day the air waves were filled with the new news of Harper Lee.

I wondered: Is there ever any connection between people who bear the same name?

Lee — to most Americans — means Robert E. Lee. ( My Tennessee born mother named my brother Robert, after the famous American.)

And many of us connect the name Harper to Harper's Ferry.

The name of Angela Merkel is in the news, daily — vast numbers of Americans (of a certain age) connect that name with Angela Lansbury of Cabot's Cove, Maine.

And many think — Jimmy Carter — when they see Ashton Carter on the news — and Ashton is a far cry from a peanut farmer!

The British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, connects in my mind to Prince Philip and Hammond organs!

Elvira Nabiullina — the Governor of Russia's Central Bank — I can't imagine a Russian woman having the name Elvira!

And the name Brokaw will always be that famous nightly news anchor!

A quick glance at just one page of the daily Times shows a bunch of names with no hint as to their origin - Lebo, Kilgo, Morey, Capote, Nabel, Finch, Gettleman, Randle, Delzell — to name a few.

And who among us would name their kid… Tiger?

So, you ask, what does this have to do with crime writing?

Just ask any sober writer… "Where do you find the names for your characters?"

Not always an easy task… sometimes a writer takes days… or months… to come up with the perfect name…

And then has another problem… when you have the name in your head… can you find a story to use it in?

Today we are fascinated by the names Harper Lee used. And this interest brought me to her own life…

She accompanied Truman Capote to Holcomb, Kansas, to assist him in the research of what became In Cold Blood.

She also wrote part of a novel — The Long Goodbye — and of a factual book about an Alabama serial murderer.

She also researched a true-crime book — The Reverend. (Now that tickles my interest — was the guy the criminal?)

Speaking of names — Gregory Peck's own grandson is named for her — Harper Peck Voll!

In 2007, Lee told the audience of the Alabama Academy of Honor — "Well, it's better to be silent than to be a fool!"

In 2007 President G.W. Bush presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian award in the USA!

In 2010 President Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts.

In 2015 Harper Lee issued a statement: "I'm alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to "Watchman"!

Way to go, Nelle… my kinda writer!

T. J. Straw

P.S. If you have followed news on the current publication of the Harper Lee book, you will find a piece by James Scott Bell of great interest.

Go to the blog — Jungle Red — for 7/18… to Lucy Burdette's referral to James Scott Bell's post on Kill Zone for 7/16. Then read Bell's post on Kill Zone.

Both Bell's ideas and his reader comments are excellent! This is the best I've seen anywhere.

I'd love to read your own comments on this topic! Hope you will share with us here at CWC! tjs

Saturday, July 25, 2015


In ELEGY FOR APRIL, Benjamin Black presents us with a noir mystery very much in the tradition of Raymond Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP. The protagonist, Quirke, a troubled coroner who drinks way too much and then does things he regrets later, confronts a powerful family, the Latimers, which has some extremely nasty secrets that it wants to keep secret. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe was another troubled guy with a fondness for booze and a desire to set wrong things right. The rich and powerful family Marlowe confronts has a shameful sexual secret, and the Latimers, well, their secret is shameful too.

The nighttime Los Angeles Marlowe wanders through is sinister and dark. And of course the Dublin that Quirke wanders through in a kind of existential fugue and fug is sinister and foreboding and melancholy and…..foggy. I never knew that Dublin was foggy in February, but apparently it is, or can be. And of course the fog is a metaphor for the difficulty one faces when searching for the truth.

Everyone in the benighted city, circa sometime in the 1950’s, is lost in the awful fog: “the city seemed bewildered, like a man whose sight has suddenly failed.” And “Motorcars with their headlights on loomed like giant insects, trailing milky dribbles of exhaust smoke from their rear ends.” And finally, “the sun somewhere was trying to shine, its weak glow making a sallow, urinous stain on the fog.” A talent for simile, has this Benjamin Black, which is a pen name the literary novelist John Banville uses when he is writing noir.

Quirke’s (we never learn his first name) daughter Phoebe is sure something bad has happened to April Latimer. April is a junior doctor at the local hospital where Quirke works as a pathologist—he’s told by his step brother Malachy that he is called (behind his broad back, as we learn that Quirke is an enormous man, a man still smarting from the wounds of his childhood as an orphan in an industrial school/orphanage) Doctor Death. Quirke loves Phoebe, even though he gave her up to be raised by Malachy and his wife when his wife Delia died giving birth to her.

At novel’s beginning, Quirke is in a drying out place, what we would call a rehab now, run by the Christian Brothers. He’s told by the house psychiatrist that “with some, such as yourself, it’s not so much the drink that’s addictive, but the escape it offers.” And ironically, the more Quirke drinks, the more he has to escape from: “had he the heart to recount it all again, the shambles that was his life—the calamitous losses of nerve, the moral laziness, the failures, the betrayals?”

And so Quirke checks out to help his daughter (and maybe escape all that exhausting self-scrutiny). Quirke longs to be a good father, and to do so he must escape the demons that drive him to drink and the drink itself. Black does a great job of showing us the glittering allure booze has for our grim hero: "Yes, a smoky dive somewhere, with a turf fire and dim men talking in the shadows, and a tumbler of Black Bush in his fist, that would be the thing."

So, another drunk hardboiled investigator, like Wallander of the Henning Mankell series, and Patrick Taylor, Ken Bruen’s noir PI (I wonder if, all these years later, Taylor is frequenting some of the same bars that Quirke does in the 50’s?), struggling against the forces of darkness both within and without. But it is not old hat, not the way Black does it, with the stark originality of his language, and with his deft portrayal of the desperate longing for connection both father and daughter feel.

The relationship between Quirke and Phoebe is touching without being silly or sentimental. Phoebe is just as lost as her old man, trying to make her own connection to the rest of mankind by hanging out with an apparently merry band of five, including April, Isabel Galloway (a young actress with whom Quirke gets romantically involved, which ends up, or course, being a bad idea) Patrick Ojukwu, a Nigerian medical student, and Jimmy Minor, a reporter on the city’s paper.

As Quirke and Phoebe try to crack the case, Phoebe learns that she may not have known these friends at all, at least not in the way she thought she did. Her trust, already forever compromised by the way Quirke gave her up (and by his not confessing to having done it until she was twenty years old), is further damaged by the secret allegiances, lies and infidelities she finds within the group. She holds herself accountable, taking herself to task because she “did not care too deeply to see into other people’s business, into other people’s hearts. In that, at least, she was her father’s daughter.”

But in order to find April, they must both look into the business and hearts of others. If Phoebe is anything, she is a good and loyal friend, and Quirke wants to be a good and loyal father. The problem with that is his melancholy and backward looking nature (are all Irish characters like this?). His friend, Inspector Hackett, or at least the man who offers Quirke friendship, which Quirke kind of accepts, in his closemouthed, bearish way, says: “That was Quirke, looking back longingly to a past where he had been so unhappy.”

Can Quirke win out over his demons? He is game to try, at least. He tells his stepbrother Malachy, “you have to hold on, Mal, this is all there is, this life. If something has gone out of it for you, it’s up to you to replace it.”

And Quirke tries to replace the love he has lost so many times with Isabel. “You could—I feel you could—save me. Save me from myself.” But the booze sings its siren song for Quirke, and by the halfway point of the novel he is drinking again. The longing he feels for the drink almost made me want to switch from beer to whiskey: “there is, he was thinking, something special about the way light congregates inside a whiskey bottle, the way it glows there, tawny and dense, as it does nowhere else: something almost sacramental.”

There are, of course, shocking family secrets to be uncovered, but it is the way that Quirke and Phoebe try to be a family that really made the novel work for me. She is a great heroine, terrified, but determined to see justice done. And alternating the point of view between her and her father gives a depth of perspective on both that is truly impressive.

So is justice eventually done? Is it ever? In Dublin, like everywhere else, the right thing has its place, but only in a contingent and tenuous way. But like Quirke says, this life is all there is. As for April, I will leave you to read this skillfully wrought bit of Irish noir to discover her fate.

© 2015 Mike Welch