Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Music of the Song: The Beatles Live at the BBC

A Facebook friend recently lamented at hearing some vocal tracks off some very early recordings of some beloved 1960s pop artists. They sounded, he said, like “a brace of baby chickadees peeping for seed.”  It was, it seems, the production team—the guys twirling the knobs, the session musicians who may have joined in later--who improved them into legends of their time, at least initially. But for that, how could they ever have reached the Top 1000, never mind the Top Ten?

From there, the thread briefly waded into the recording process, with discussions of “sweetening” and tape editing, including “Auto-tune” whereby poorly pitched vocals are corrected. Twirl a knob or two and a bleating goat becomes Pavarotti. 

It sounds like cheating, and I’d say it is. But it’s been a part of the record-making process in all genres since the first stereo and multi-track recording systems. Hardly anyone remarks on it anymore. Recording has become so hi-tech clever that some stars—Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney pop to mind—can refashion themselves into one-man bands who work sans any studio musicians, playing all the music, all the instruments, every note and chord, all by themselves. 

God bless Stevie and Sir Paul, but I have to wonder. These musical octopi occasionally bring to mind the acts you see on TCM’s “Soundies” short films of the 1930s; or a street corner novelty act at Fisherman’s Wharf. 

Sure, everyone loves a virtuoso, but I’m one of those who pore over liner notes, in search of my favorite guest and unexpected backup musicians. (“Clapton on nose flute!? Oh joy!”) At best, there’s no one in the studio to share a grin and a cheer: “Hey! We rocked that!” What they save in union wages is lost in the companionable glow cast by a band of musical brothers and sisters.

While on the long Thanksgiving drive back from Pasadena, I by chance pulled out a double that featured Sir Paul’s old backup band from many years ago. It’s been many years since then, but it illuminated the difference between inherent greatness and greatness music that’s been auto-tuned into the Top Ten.

The album is The Beatles Live at the BBC(released in 1994, with an expanded reissue in 2013). It’s the sole remnant of a once fair stack of Beatle bootlegs and ephemera I collected during my years as Beatlephile. Almost the entire pile was made of up stuff suitable only for serious Beatle-ologists (or the zombie fan who rifles garbage cans for tapes, like you know, of that time George accused Paul of using his guitar strings for dental floss).

I don’t think I listened to any of this material more than once. (Most of it the Beatles might well call “rubbish”). Except for that onewith the photo of John Lennon with his schwanzon display, I recall next to none of it.  I finally sold them all off, with no regrets. From this, it would be fair to say that the Beatles, in their final product, got it exactly right and there really is little need for anymore for anyone (excepting for of course, scholars). As I recall George Harrison putting it sagely: “They’ve got thirteen albums. What more do they want?”

And so, of all the Beatle ephemera and re-packaging you could own, I would call Live at the BBCby far the best.

Live at the BBCis one of pop music’s greatest act as themselves, pure, unsullied outside protective studio walls, and stripped to its gears. It’s the band you would have heard if you happened to stumble into the Cavern Club in Liverpool or the Star Club in Hamburg, or any of the other venues they played in early days. (One other example is The Beatles Live at the Star Club Hamburg, a performance caught on a home tape machine, making it unlistenable, though it captures them at their most punk.)

It proves The Beatles didn’t need no stinkin’ Auto-tune.

Abbey Road studios, where the Fab Four made all their records, was nothing much when they walked in, in 1962. It wasn’t even called “Abbey Road.” Studio Two, to which they were assigned, contained was called a REDD mixing console, which I gather, was like the proverbial tin cans and string compared to today’s digital wonders.

Within that shelter, the Beatles didn’t need much sweetening, mind you, but there was some. George Martin (the true “Fifth Beatle”) was known for producing classical and comedy albums and light musical acts and wasn’t well acquainted with Rock n’ Roll (though the Beatles were big fans of the comedy recordings he made with Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and the Goon Show). 

Martin muffled their sound a bit and would, among other things, add piano riffs. He also muted Ringo’s drums in order to bring John and Paul’s vocals to the fore. He said, maybe inaccurately, that fans didn’t care about drumming and, initially, he didn’t think much of them as musicians. (It was he who finally nodded Pete Best toward the door, opening the way for the pursuit of Ringo). It took awhile, but he changed his mind.

After years of grueling work, the Beatles were getting noticed. As part of the marketing push, their brilliant manager, Brian Epstein, got them a gig on BBC radio. This was a very big deal—in those days there were only two radio stations in all of Britain, and, as now, only twenty-fours in a day.

They made their first BBC appearance in 1962 for a live concert (when Pete Best was still with them). According to the CD liner notes, these recordings, while still extant, are of poor quality and hence left off both editions of this CD. 

Finally, in January 1963, after the release of “Please Please Me,” they made their first major BBC appearance on “The Saturday Show,” broadcast to an audience of 10 million. From that point until June 1965, they appeared on fifty-two BBC radio programs, performing eighty-eight songs. Best of all, thirty-six of these songs never appeared on any of the official releases.

John, Paul and George were still in the dawn of their songwriting career, so most of these songs were covers by the artists who inspired them most, especially Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley. They do a great job with every song, bursting with both professionalism and raw enthusiasm. But again, their final decisions for album inclusion were the right ones.

But the limits placed on them by playing in a radio station provide, for me at least, some of the most illuminating pleasures. These performances were recorded in mono, not four-track stereo, so the mixes are not what we hear on the studio albums. This is a sin for serious audiophiles, but for fans of their musicianship, the result is that Beatles rhythm section—Ringo Starr, drums; Paul McCartney, bass; and John Lennon, rhythm guitar—is brought into full light. You can actually hear all of them play their instruments, providing a worthwhile contrast with the studio albums.

It’s especially true in the case of Ringo and Paul. The drummer is the engine of any band, the center out of which the music grows and springs. Ringo Starr is the most basic of drummers, but John, Paul and George pursued him for good reasons—the basics were exactly what they needed. Besides his own large fan base, he brought both raw power, plus a variety of styles and precise timing. He provided solid ground from which Lennon and McCartney and George Harrison could grow their songs. (Paul has described the moment when Ringo first played live with them and he realized he no longer had to look behind him to make sure the drummer was keeping up.) Whatever’s been said about Ringo outside the Beatles, for them, there could be no one else.

Paul McCartney’s bass playing also sounds a little buried in the studio albums. With the BBC album, though, you can hear him working the strings, growing from a young fella copying Chuck Berry’s bass-lines into what many call rock n’ roll’s greatest bass player, his playing growing more fluid and elaborate, maybe reaching its peak with Abbey Road(where Ringo also excels).

In the fifty years since they first appeared, the Beatles have always flowed but never seemed to ebb. Like all great artists, their music has defied both relentless time and fickle fashions. Live at the BBCshows the roots of it all, shows that some artists don’t need no stinkin’ auto-tune. The Beatles remain a soundtrack for the world.

Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown,a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up  novel is now out! His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Arkwon the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon,Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journaland The Strand and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Living Room Bijou: Dogs and Scruggs

Along with so much else, the 2018 holidays have taken a strange turn. Even the climate of holiday movies has shifted. For as long as we can remember, starting at Thanksgiving, Hollywood has rolled out its big pictures for the year: If it’s not Star Wars, it’s James Bond; if not Bond, then Peter Jackson or Michael Bay might lumber out with another Hobbits Meet the Transformers epic, or something equally overweight or overwrought.

This blighted season, however, there seems to be no must-see for-everyone movie, nothing to get us out of the house during those afternoon dead spots when the turkey is cooling down. The closest candidate seems to be the katrillionth version of Robin Hood, which, early reviews indicate, is yet another go round that leaves Errol Flynn and Michael Curtiz securely laughing on their heavenly thrones. (Think about it: eighty years and no onehas bettered Mr. Flynn as Robin Hood. On that score, Hollywood should bury the Robin Hood story in a tomb and just re-release the 1939 version forever. Take it from me and a million others: stay home with Errol Flynn.)

In fact, you might as well stay home in front of a warm TV. And, if not for its ferociously mature content, I’d partially recommend The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the latest offering from the remarkable, always interesting, Joel and Ethan Coen, now available on Netflix.

Buster Scruggs combines two movies we see little of nowadays: 1) a Western and (2) a portmanteau movie. Anthology movies are most always a mixed bag and this one is more mixed than most, a weave and jumble of old styles and contemporary attitudes as seen through the Coens’ amused and bleak gaze.

The film frames its six stories by use of a facsimile of a western anthology of the type written in the 1900s by Stuart Edward White, illustrated in the manner of N.C. Wyeth. It’s a pleasing nod to an old Hollywood style of storytelling.

First comes the title story, featuring Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs, an immaculately white-clad cowpoke, strumming his guitar, singing a song, riding along through John Ford’s Monument Valley and right into bullet-packed trouble. As we learn at slapstick speed, his sugary exterior is a mere shell laid over a hair-trigger pistol-spinning psychopath.

The joke is a bit obvious (or maybe I’m a bit old) and B-movie cowboys, such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, are fat targets for parody. But thanks to Nelson’s indomitable cheer, along with the Coens’ visual imagination and slapstick flair, the sequence is very funny, involving a swell gag involving a poker table, followed by droll visions of angels.

From there, slapstick turns to farce with “Near Algodones.” James Franco plays a luckless bandit whose brief career runs through one necktie party after another. (We picked up on hints of Hang ‘Em Highamong other references.) There’s a clever line near the end, but the jokes go flat here.

“Meal Ticket” is memorable almost solely for its conceit: Liam Neeson plays a traveling freakshow impresario whose sole attraction is “The Wingless Thrush.” The Thrush is an armless, legless actor (well played by Harry Melling, a Harry Potter alumnus) who recites Coenesque mashups of Shelley’s “Ozymandias”, the Bible, Shakespeare and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, to audiences of bored, lonely miners trapped in wintry mountain camps. 

The sequence is mostly a series of dissolves with the camera fixed on Melling’s face as he recites his way through the classics of nineteenth century literature, smoothly edited together to remind us of the Coens’ manner of blending tropes and genres. To the Impresario, the Thrush is but a fancy windup clock. Outside issues of bodily functions—one of them provoking a brief bark of sick laughter— the two men never interact.

The freak show is a success at first as it wanders from camp to camp, but as it goes on—and it does go on—the takings start to dwindle (along with, I admit, my interest). Finally, weary of having to wait um hand and foot on his charge, Neeson resorts to desperate measures to turn his fortunes after an encounter with a calculating chicken. 

For a minute, as my ever-clever wife remarked, it looks as though the sequence would climb the sublime heights of “One Froggy Evening.”  I have little doubt the same idea crossed the Coens’ devilish minds--it sure would mine--but they seemed content to leave it as an anecdotal campfire tale.

The same may be said of the following sequence, “All Gold Valley,” adapted from a Jack London story. Tom Waits channels Gabby Hayes as a gold prospector who lays waste to a pristine mountain paradise. In fact, it’s Tom Waits all by his lonesome until the very end. The underlying environmental message, however, sparks little interest, putting this sequence near the bottom of the pile. But even with the worst westerns, there’s always the scenery to look at. That applies here, too.

The Coens do finally strike real gold with the fourth tale, “The Girl Who Got Rattled.” Adapted from a story by Stuart Edward White, it’s much the best by a prairie mile.

We meet a young woman (Zoe Kazan) and her bull-stubborn, incompetent brother on a wagon train to Oregon. After her brother dies, she’s drawn into a poignant encounter with the train’s wagon masters, played by Bill Heck and Grainger Hines. 

For once the Coens drop their trademark snigger and chilly post-modern detachment to tell a sad, but thrilling yarn in eloquent but plain style and with heart—something we don’t often see from them. For once, they stop looking down on their characters and try to engage them eye to eye. With simple but excellent compositions by cameraman Bruno Delbonnel and sets and lighting by God, it’s a golden pleasure to watch.

It brings back memories of many a good western of old, including those directed by Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann. Zoe Kazan is excellent, but someone should cast both Bill Heck and Grainger Hines in another western as soon as possible. Both actors bring saddle-weary truth to their roles, proving that Randolph Scott still rides.

Unfortunately, the movie loses a shoe and goes lame at the end with “Mortal Remains.” The pyrite of the lot, it’s a Stagecoach Meets Twilight Zone affair whose ending we saw comin’ ‘round the mountain long before its gabby characters did, in a tale more static than claustrophobic. Death is rarely a surprise in a Coen Brothers film and it’s sure no surprise here.

Grumbling aside, it’s pleasing to see filmmakers like the Coens once again tackle the western, as they did so well in True Grit. At its best, Buster Scruggs is an expression of both deep love for and ambivalence toward this most American of film genres. Even so, it runs hot only once and lukewarm-to-cold for the rest. It’s no holiday movie, but one for late night, after children and more sensitive souls have long gone to bed and into dreams of angels and sunny prairies.

We saw Buster Scruggs before Thanksgiving was even on us. During Thanksgiving, the TV sat like a plain black rectangle as we preferred the state of hypnosis induced by a jigsaw puzzle. It wasn’t until Friday, with almost everyone else gone, that we noticed the TV in the room—not for a jumbled epic, not for some antic thriller, but for a Netflix documentary about . . . dogs.

Dogs (an on-the-wet-nose title to be sure), is a six-part documentary series about the roles that dogs play in the lives of the neediest among us. We’ve only seen two chapters so far and have been enchanted and moved.

The first episode, “The Kid with a Dog,” deals with Corinne, a severely epileptic teenage girl who’s so in the grip of her condition that she can never ever be left alone, not even in sleep. Her family is committed and loving, but even they are cracking under the strain by the situation. Finally, they turn for help to a “labradoodle” named Rory who’s been trained to detect seizures and raise the alarm when they arrive.

“Bravo Zeus,” the second episode, follows Ayham, a refugee from the Syrian Civil War who now lives in lonely exile in Berlin, Germany. With the help of an NGO, Animals Syria, he arranges to smuggle his beloved (and very charming) husky, Zeus, from the horrors of war-torn Damascus. Next to this real-life story, most fictional thrillers look a little pale.

The series theme song is the worst sort of treacle, but feel free to plug your ears. Once we got past that, we found both stories deeply moving and hair-raising in their own fashion (even for this cat lover). While portraying the emotional bonds between people and their pets, it also, without making too much of itself, hints at some of the wider complications lurking about.

Rory’s work, while greatly easing the strain, only goes so far in helping Corinne’s family, as her mother must still sleep in the same room with her. Their future still looks bleak. Dogs can do a lot but they can’t do everything.

As for Ayham and Zeus, a utilitarian ideologue (among other moralists) will reject Ayham’s priorities and ask whether any resources should be spent at all on “mere pets” in the midst of so much human suffering.

It might be better though to save our fury for the war from which man and dog fled. When Zeus comes bounding into the airport and into Ayham’s arms, objections fall away and Love remains standing.

Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown,a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up  novel is now out! His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon,Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and The Strand and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.


Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Living Room Bijou: The Haunting of Hill House, 2018


With the end of The Haunting of Hill House, the new Netflix series, in sight, my wife said to me, “You know what? I bet they’ve been trapped inside the house all along. Their whole lives have been a dream created by the house.”

It would have been a good bet, a fine bet. If only she were right. Because until it collapses in the final episode, Hill House looks like it’s on its way to being a really good, if not great, horror series.

It had some big shrouds to fill. The first was Shirley Jackson’s classic 1959 novel. Then came the still-peerless, 1963 film The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise and starring Julie Harris, giving her all in a performance that improves with every viewing. The film ranks high on lists of great supernatural films, including mine.

The series, conceived and directed by Mike Flanagan, re-imagines the story in ambitious fashion while striving to remain true to the spirit of the originals. It expands in both place and time while breaking down and rebuilding its main characters, creating a ghostly family saga. Like all prestige series, it’s a novelistic sprawl that also owes a lot to such classic horror novels as Peter Straub’s Ghost Story.

Instead of the lonely, high-strung, ultra-sensitive, Eleanor “Nell” Vance, we’re presented with a whole family of Eleanors, headed by Hugh and Olivia Crain and their five children: Steven, Shirley, Theo, Luke and Nell. (Fans of the original know the names.

Hugh and Olivia are house flippers. As shown in flashbacks, they purchased Hill House in 1992, planning to move in with their children, remodel it and then sell it and build their “forever house” with the profits. But the project goes terribly wrong: Olivia dies mysteriously and the rest of the family flees in terror (“in the night . . . in the dark” to quote a classic line).

The resulting trauma scatters the surviving Crains across the country, leaving them estranged, broken, vulnerable. Then, twenty-six years later, Nell, the youngest, returns to Hill House, where she too dies. Her death reunites the Crains once again, forcing them to relive and confront the terrors of that night long ago.

Hill House creeps and shudders with promise. It slowly conjures a sense of incident, character and place as it weaves back and forth in time (though sometimes it loses it place.) There are also small pleasures, such as a brief appearance by Russ Tamblyn, the last surviving cast member of the 1963 film.

There are several unnerving moments, some good jolts and, occasionally, that poetic unease that marks the best ghost stories, where the floor on which we all stand crumbles under our feet and reality turns unreal. Impossible things happen and we’re left mute and alone, our poor words no match for the horrors we’ve experienced. The show offers little nuggets of insight into the multiple meanings that lurk behind this most literary of horror’s subgenres. Ghost stories are devilishly hard to get right, but Hill House shows great flashes of promise.

Of the ten episodes, episode five stands out. Set mostly in one location, Shirley Crain’s funeral home, the direction, staging and dialogue reminded me of a chamber drama (or “ghost play”) by Eugene O’Neill or Edward Albee(particularly Tiny Alice,A Delicate Balanceor Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf). Both playwrights knew a thing or two about hauntings.

The funeral parlor is a stark barren blue-gray box, cut off from the world with the Crain family the souls lost in its emptiness, talking and raging at one another but unable to connect. The episode ends on a note of superb horror as we learn what’s behind the apparition known as the Bent-Neck Lady, a revelation cruel and disturbing.

But with all its virtues, in details large and small, there’s a sense of things coming up short.

For one, the opening voice over, taken directly from the novel’s unbeatable opening lines, is prosaically handled, read in bland tones.

Refiguring the characters and then scattering them across space and time also diffused both my interest and sympathy. To convince us that the Crains are a real family, the production cast sisters Olivia, Shirl, and Theo with actors who look too much alike for clarity (though Nell and Luke, who are fraternal twins, look quite different.)

The cast certainly works hard, with Carla Gugino (as Olivia), Kate Segal (Theo) and Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Luke) as the standouts. But, by my lights, none of them touch the raw shivering nerve that is Julie Harris.

Ms. Julie Harris

There’s another misstep with the portrayal of the Dudleys, Hill House’s caretakers. Fans of the original will remember the living skeletons from the 1963 film, especially Mrs. Dudley, then played by Rosalie Crutchley as a near-ghost herself. This time, Mrs. Dudley is a Christian fundamentalist who later evolves into an earth mother, while Mr. Dudley becomes a mellow old hippie. Hill House is supposed to shred the soul of all those in its shadow, but somehow it missed the Dudleys. You’d think they’d be mad as hatters, but here they’re a pair of mellow Air BnB hosts.

And then comes the final episode—which is just awful. Whether for commercial considerations, or just plain soft-heartedness, the series clumsily contrives what one commentator described to me as a “Spielbergian” conclusion—a “happy” ending that ties together all its threads in a warm hug, larded with ham-handed dialogue ripped from Oprah and Dr. Phil. Ideas better implied are served up on platters of homily. It’s a big letdown that undercuts both its ambitions and Shirley Jackson, as we find out that the big nasty old house isn’t so big and nasty after all.

And, that at last, brings us to my biggest problem with Hill House. And that’s Hill House. And for that we turn back again to the first adaptation, The Haunting.

From the 1963 film, the real star of the show.

From the very first frame of The Haunting, we know Hill House is bad, no question, full stop. Thanks to Robert Wise (who apprenticed with Orson Welles and Val Lewton) and his team, there is no doubt that Hill House is alive, hungry and deadly. It breatheswith foul life, perfectly captured in the opening sequence that tells the ghastly history of the place with unnerving brio. Everything about the House is slightly off, reflecting Shirley Jackson’s powerful prose. Even the daylight scenes feel wrong, with that hideous statue of Hugh Crain and family looming at the edges, where the film’s direction always keeps us looking. Ghosts, angry and alone, follow us everywhere. As Eleanor Vance and the house become one, there’s no doubt that Hill House is the real star of The Haunting.

Unfortunately, the new rebuild recasts Hill House as a supporting character. It seems like a perfectly nice bourgie pile, plush, elegant and harmless. It never feels like a bad place. There may be ghosts, but they don’t live in its bones. The spirits in it walls are absent. With all the time-shifts, there were even moments when I couldn’t tell if we were there or not and the occasional M.C. Escher tricks of perspective amount to little.

In the end, The Haunting of Hill House fails to haunt despite its fine intentions. Clearly, they should have listened to my wife.

Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown,a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up  novel is now available. His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Arkwon the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon,Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journaland The Strand and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Thoughts on "Brighton Rock" by Graham Greene

Brighton Rock  by Graham Greene, first published in 1938, is both a dense, exquisitely written suspense novel and an unusual book for our more explicit age. In elusive, poetic style, it tells the story of a cold-blooded young murderer, his sordid milieu, and the passions and events from within his world and without that finally do him in.

We first experience the bleak underworld hiding behind the hectic, colorful façade of Brighton, the famed English resort, through the eyes of Fred Hale. Fred is a small-time crook who’s returned to Brighton for a legit gig as a wandering mark for a newspaper competition.

But Fred’s return home turns out to be a bad idea. Before he left the first time, he’d grassed a local gang leader to the law. Fred tells himself all has been forgotten, but, as he learns, memories die hard—especially for Brighton’s new underworld boss, someone far outside both law and decency.

“Pinkie,” as the new boss is called, is but a boy of seventeen, but what a boy! Raised in a pious Catholic household, he rebelled and signed up with the devil, full stop. A pure sociopath, he seethes with cold rage and disdain for all forms of decency. Ironically, his severe Catholic upbringing has left him with a prissy revulsion toward booze and sex, making into him a perverse monstrous ascetic.

Pinky cuts through it all like his treasured razor and with which he rules his gang. They’re a grubby lot who, considering they’re all older, should be his mentors, but are too dissolute and half-witted to resist Pinkie’s ambition.

“He wasn’t made for peace,” Greene writes in his exquisite prose. “he couldn’t believe in it. Heaven was a word. Hell was something he could trust.”

But once poor Fred falls under Pinky’s knife, the boy finds he can’t put much trust in Hell either, as his actions have consequences far beyond his control.

For one, the alibi Pinky’s constructed to cover the murder starts to crumble, thanks to the innocent actions of Rose, a naïve young waitress who crosses paths with both victim and killer in the hours before the murder.

Desperate to cover his tracks, Pinkie concocts a daft scheme to seduce and marry Rose to keep her from testifying against him. Hopeless, on the one hand, because both of them were raised Catholic; on the other hand, Pinky, despite his hard heart, can’t keep Rose’s blind dedication from prying open his soul and letting the light in.

Pinky faces yet another threat from Colleoni, a big-time London gangster who’s moving in on Brighton. To him, Pinkie and his gang are mere grubs.

As for the good guy, Greene pulls a neat surprise by offering up an inverted Miss Marple. Her name is Ida, a classic free-spirited prostitute with a heart of gold and driving sense of justice and decency. (In Greene’s world, she’s as good a Catholic as any and certainly better than some.) She befriended Fred and saw both him and his killer together just moments before the murder and now burns with a desire to find justice for the victim, with the help of the other knockabout denizens of her world.

With Ida on his trail, Pinkie doesn’t stand a chance.

Brighton Rockis gorgeously written, with Greene’s precise prose brilliantly capturing Brighton’s underworld and its sun-splashed funhouse facade.  The novel may be slow for modern tastes. The violence is handled with British restraint: Some of it takes place off the page, while other incidents are captured in elusive, impressionistic fashion. There are some muddled moments: The official inquest brushes away Fred’s murder as a heart attack while the police seem remarkably absent until the stormy windswept climax (all the more to keep our eyes on Ida).

Richard Attenborough before he was "Sir"

Greene called Brighton Rock one of his “entertainments” as opposed to his dramatic interior-set novels, such as The End of the Affair. It's been adapted for the stage once and twice for the screen: once with noirish flair in 1948, starring Richard Attenborough, who makes Pinkie into a most chilling cherub. (I've not seen the adaptation from 2010.)

Nowadays, that notion has been flipped, with Greene’s “entertainments” drawing much more attention. Brighton Rock  is a serious work with a strong sense of emotional and moral claustrophobia, of a world hermetic, seemingly remote, but as close to the everyday as a window pane.


Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown,a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up  novel is now out! His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Arkwon the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon,Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journaland The Strand and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Lost Letters and Poisoned Soil: The Long Lost Love letters of Doc Holliday and Broken Ground

David Corbett has been writing literary thrillers ripe with evocative style, acute drama and fierce commitment for many years. With The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday he turns his hand to comparatively lighter fare, resulting in a colorful exciting yarn that whips together both the Old and the New West, a blend of modern intrigue and old-fashioned shoot-‘em-up.

There’s a clever idea at the core of this action-packed tale. Legendary Old West gunslinger Doc Holliday was a more complex man than myth, legend and Hollywood would have him. Weaving through his tumultuous life was a gold thread of passion that bonded him and his cousin, Martha (“Mattie”) Anne Holliday. For several years, they exchanged love letters, letters that were eventually lost, apparently destroyed by Mattie following her entry into a convent and Doc’s death in 1887 at age 36, from tuberculosis.

But, this novel asks, what if these letters, shining with the grand passions of the 19thcentury, turned out to be still extant? To paraphrase one classic Western film, there’s a lot of money to made in a scenario like this.

Into this thicket comes Lisa Balamoro, a partner in a San Francisco law firm that usually represents artists. Lisa is something of a character in the Eric Ambler mold—ambitious, talented, perhaps well-meaning but, even though scarred by trauma, not exactly worldly wise.

Suitably blinded by ambition and not a little greedy, she’s also got a hankering for the man who brought her the Holliday letters: Tuck Mercer, ex-rodeo cowboy, ex-con and infamous forger of Old West Masters, such as Fredric Remington. Tuck now works as an art detective, helping art buyers distinguish between the fake and the real. When Lisa looks at Tuck, she not only sees a rough and tumble, good-lookin’ cowboy, but also reflections of her own trauma.

As Tuck tells it, he was brought the Holliday letters by Sophie, an alleged descendant of a Holliday family servant. Sophie asked Tuck to authenticate the letters with the intent of willing them to her granddaughter, Rayella. But before that could happen, Sophie died. 

Rayella, now in possession of the letters (and backed by her own, rather unusual posse), is desperate for money. Tuck agrees to help her find a buyer, whether the letters are authentic or not. (Interestingly, there is an actual market for “genuine” fakes.) Given his criminal history, though, Tuck needs to stay in the brush, leaving Lisa to represent Rayella in the sale.

Soon we meet the buyer: a wealthy and retired Arizona state judge named Littman—gleaming on the outside, rotten and vile on the inside, a greedy committed racist who lives in remote desert compound from where he terrorizes illegal migrants. Lisa and Rayella journey to Tucson to sell the letters to Littman, only to walk into a trap that involves much more than the provenance of some old letters that may or may not be genuine.

It’s a tantalizing situation with a terrific payoff, thanks not only to Corbett’s fine writing and pacing, but in his portrayals of Lisa, a woman who finds herself a pawn in a game  of deceit and danger where no one can be trusted, not even her clients; and especially not the colorful charming bad boy who roped her into this mess.

The novel is interspersed with the purported letters between Doc and Mattie, written in fine and elegant 19th-century style, when even a desperado might express himself in high style. Suffused with a golden aura, they make for a poignant contrast between a seemingly more romantic era and our shrunken money-minded time. Back then, it seems, many men and women strove to find their better angels, while our age seems to value money, power and dominance above all. Even though the novel closes on a note of high romance, it leaves an undertone of bittersweet loss.


It’s a little harder to address Joe Clifford’s Broken Ground, mainly because it’s the first novel of his I’ve read while also being the fourth in his Jay Porter series. The series tells of the struggles of a recovering addict and his efforts to stay afloat and sane in wild rural New Hampshire and away from the violent intrigue that keeps washing around his feet.

Among his many issues, Jay is dealing with the death of his brother Chris some years before, after police killed him during a psychotic episode. Chris had uncovered some crucial evidence concerning criminal actions by the Lombardi family, construction magnates, whose empire rests on poisoned ground (based, it’s said, on the family of Paul Manafort).

Readers of the first three novels will be ahead of the rest of us as I occasionally got lost trying to tie in the threads from the previous books. I also found the sex scenes to be overblown (a common problem in contemporary fiction),  Broken Ground is a good tight rural thriller in the manner of Winter Bone

Best of all is the character of Jay Porter, an enjoyably rowdy, difficult and even dislikable fellow. Like so many who struggle with addiction and its related problems, he’s deeply self-centered, prone to inappropriate outbursts, and unable to fully relate to anyone. He even ruins his professions of love with such lame outbursts as “It was the best sex I ever had!”

Some may demand fictional characters you can take home to your Veggie Feminist Mom. But Jay Porter, I’m glad to say, is not one of them. You may actually want to pop him one from time to time, but you may also want to stick with such a refreshingly difficult troublemaker in his often clumsy search for justice and truth in the wintry violent side of rural America.

Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown,a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up  novel is now available. His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Arkwon the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night(e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon,Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journaland The Strand and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.