Saturday, August 30, 2014

Strike, Twice

Strike, Twice: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith


by Thomas Burchfield


You could do much worse than read Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm, the second novel in his Cormoran Strike series.


It's a good summer read, a well-done page-turner that skates along, smooth and sophisticated. It absorbs and amuses without demanding too much or too little.


For his second case, Strike, a harried detective whose recent success (told in The Cuckoo’s Calling, unread here) weighs on his large shoulders, is hired to track down the notorious, and missing, highbrow novelist Owen Quine. Just before his vanishment, Quine submitted for publication a scandalous roman a clef that obscenely slandered a whole host of egos populating the upper floors of London’s highbrow literary world.


Not surprisingly, Quine meets a very unpleasant fate, vividly reflected in quotes from violent Jacobean tragedies that are laid in at the beginning of every chapter. In addition to a well-exsanguinated corpse, we’re taken on an amusing, colorful tour of modern literary London, a cruel country rife with cutthroat competition, seething resentments, and grudges going back to the halcyon days of printed books. Everyone’s a suspect as it should be, even Quine himself. The literary world here is the perfectly circled firing squad. (“What am I doing in this novel-writing business?” I asked from time to time. My library job started looking better with every page.)


As often happens, the mystery and its solution aren’t terribly compelling, at least to my weathered eyes. Galbraith also commits that annoying, blatant cheat where he conveniently kicks the reader out of the room so the detective hero can spring his “surprise” on both villain and readers.


And despite the crimson quotes from Jacobean plays, little blood is spilled beyond the central murder. Jacobean tragedies brim with eye-popping violence (if you like your bleeding bodies in a pile, you should check them out), but Galbraith declines to let much gore seep onto his pages. Most of the violence happens to pride and reputation; most of the hacking the work of no-talent writers.


I really enjoyed Galbraith’s deft skewering of today’s highbrow literary scene; a series of jibes and jabs by a “downstairs” author at those toffs living “upstairs.” “But writers are a savage breed,” one suspect tells detective Strike. “If you want lifelong friendship and selfless camaraderie, join the army and learn to kill. If you want a lifetime of temporary alliances with peers who will glory in your every failure, write novels.” (And no doubt I’ve spread a bit of cheer in the world.)


The prose stumbles a little, but the characterizations are funny and pungent. So is the atmospheric sketch of England in winter: hard, relentless, bitter, a convincing obstacle to solving the mystery and bringing the villain to justice. It felt cold.


With Cormoran Strike, Galbraith looks to be trying to strike a balance between the predictably invincible and the gruesomely sentimental. A lot of modern detective heroes, it seems, are depressive knights murping about in Philip Marlowe’s heavy armor, mired in past trauma, hopelessly sensitive, understanding, gloomy, and in mourning for the fallen world. You want give them a good slapping. (If it’s all that hard to take, why not quit and be a monk? The detective biz ain’t for saps, bub.)


Strike bears a doughy resemblance to Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, a man not prone to self-pity. He’s been traumatized all right (he lost a leg in Afghanistan, after all), and he even he has a lost love, like copper on his soul. But Strike never seems bitter or wholly defined by tragedy. He’s an action hero dashing to the rescue on a prosthetic leg, and that provides enough immediate frustration without fulminating over what can’t be undone. In the best stiff-upper-lip tradition, Strike “gets on with things.” He’s a portrait of human resilience, a precious quality.


With his second novel, Robert Galbraith has proven himself a more than entertaining genre novelist. Unlike Cormoran Strike, he can well stand on his own two feet and should now stop telling everyone he’s J.K. Rowling. As I’ve said before, if I thought that kind of stunt worked, I’d be passing myself off as Stephen King right now.


Thomas Burchfield recently finished his novel Butchertown, a 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He lives in Oakland, CA with his wife Elizabeth.


Friday, December 13, 2013

Jersey Rascals

The word “boss” used to carry a strong political aroma; it was a term used to define specific kinds of characters who, though often unelected, wielded absolute power in big cities and large towns, power with little or no accountability.

A boss was a species of dictator. His sword was the “political machine” an often-secret government unofficially working the wheels of the officially elected government to create a spoils system. These machines were made up of fiercely loyal armies who rigged elections for the boss’s favored candidates, usually their closest friends and relations. They got dead people, among others, to the polls on election day, sometimes twice. (After all, who says that dead people don’t have rights?) These troops were rewarded in return with direct cash payments, cushy city jobs and other perks. It was nepotism as a finely honed craft. “Transparency” was for saps.

Political machine bosses benefitted a noisy minority at the expense of the larger population. Some of them were colorful characters, sometimes regarded with deep affection and unquestioned loyalty by their constituents. But they were more often hated and rarely mourned when they passed away, either to the Great Beyond or into a gray prison cell.

Bosses accrued both great power and great wealth. Their influence reached upward and outward. They would rig state elections for their cats-paw candidates, pushing their influence into both state senate and executive offices, and even into the federal government. For many, they remain the clearest symbol of big-city corruption during the last two centuries of American history.

 Among the most legendary of this motley crew of crooks were “Boss Tweed,” who ran New York City’s Tammany Hall in the 1850s; James Farley who bossed New York State during FDR’s administration; and Mayor Richard Daley who ran Chicago until late in the last century.

While researching my upcoming novel, Butchertown, I excavated a little nugget of a book called American Dictators, by Steven Hart, a dual biography that casts a small, revealing spotlight on two lesser-known, but nevertheless sterling masters of twentieth-century bossism.

Subtitled Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine, this is a slim book, especially considering it describes two larger-than-life characters. What facts Hart was able to excavate about Hague (elected mayor of Jersey City, 1917–1937) and Enoch “Nucky” Johnson (unelected sachem of Atlantic City around the same time) comes almost solely from the bare dry bones of public records and the ambiguous trails left in magazine and newspaper articles.

Because they played on smaller stages than, say, Huey Long, Hague and Johnson were better able to hide themselves, their hearts and minds, behind a heavy curtain. Neither man left letters or diaries; nor did they conduct many interviews, even the loquacious, hard-partying Nucky Johnson. And no around them was ever willing—or allowed—to talk at any length. Many secrets lie silent in many graves.

Even so, American Dictators is readable and interesting, even if you’re not from the wilds of urban New Jersey. Students of American political history and the intersection of crime and politics will find it particularly interesting—as will viewers of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, which all but fictionalizes Nucky Johnson right out of history (and is also a show that I have given up on—ask and we’ll discuss, here or on Facebook.)


Of the two, author Hart seems most fascinated with Frank Hague. Hague ruled over Jersey City, New Jersey, which, in those days, was a gritty factory town across the Hudson River from Manhattan (and is now a major financial center known as “Wall Street West”).

Hague was born in 1876 in the city’s poor and rowdy Irish-American “Horseshoe” neighborhood, a Republican-gerrymandered district. He ran with street gangs before becoming a fairly successful fight manager. In 1896, he was persuaded to run for constable of Jersey City as a Democrat.

Two years later, he was elected deputy sheriff. A contempt-of-court charge later stripped him of his badge, but his very public loyalty in committing perjury for a friend in another court matter made him an extremely popular figure with the Horseshoe’s poor and working-class Irish voters. Ethnic and neighborhood loyalty worked as a higher form of ethics in these circumstances, right or wrong.

As he rose, Hague became an able opportunist, making and breaking alliances, hopping political fences, a leopard that changed his spots with ease. He first developed a genuine reputation as a serious reformer, winning the favor of both progressive and religious groups in successful battles against prostitution and the drug trade. He was finally appointed mayor of Jersey City in 1917. (The city was run under the commission form of government at the time.)

Once Hague became mayor, though, reform was kicked to the gutter, especially once Prohibition rolled out in 1920. Whatever his reputation for reform, he quickly forgot it. The one-time champion of labor unions became their enemy, for example. He amassed an illegal fortune, wielded absolute power, and stretched his influence throughout state government and onto the national scene, even creating headaches for fellow Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Mayor Hague ruled Jersey City for thirty straight years, winning rigged election after rigged election until 1947. He was a paradox: a crude, hard-nosed teetotaler. Dominated by his mother, shy around women, his lips never touched liquor though he fully tolerated bootlegging and gambling, so long as he received his cut of the action, a private “tax,” often collected through a secret drawer built into his city hall desk.

“I am the law!” he famously bellowed when challenged. Indeed, this otherwise bashful figure laid the law down like a trowel for most of his reign. He used Jersey City police as his own S.S. He branded all opponents as communist inspired and subjected them to brutal public assault. He passed laws limiting dissent, which were enforced even after they were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. He was truly an American dictator.

But as Frank Hague grew older, so did his Irish constituency. As they passed away, their children moved out to the suburbs and the new emigrants filling the vacuum left behind had no interest in him or his bully culture. Finally, his corrupt kingdom passed into new hands and he faded away. 


Nucky Johnson, the boss of Atlantic City, king of the Boardwalk Empire, was of brighter tinsel than dour abstemious Frank Hague. A Republican, Johnson’s only elected offices were sheriff and county treasurer. Once he was appointed treasurer he refused to run again, declaring that elections were beneath the dignity of a machine boss—a king should never have to trowel for votes, like a clam digger. And anyway, serving as chairman of the County Republican Party proved much more lucrative.

Hague had a long climb up his ladder. Nucky was luckier. The son of county sheriff whose jurisdiction included Atlantic City, he was born near the top rungs. Atlantic City was a resort city, a refuge of pleasure, from the first brick laid. Once Nucky got ahold of the purse strings, he tore a piece off every dollar that passed through the city coffers. He also became the resort’s number-one vacationer, never rising before six p.m., never going to bed before six a.m.

Nucky Johnson looked like a mild-mannered banker, but he mixed business with pleasure as adeptly as a bartender mixing a powerhouse martini, squiring showgirls on one arm, collecting bribes and payoffs with the other as he painted the town fifty shades of red. He became the affable but utterly corrupt ambassador of Atlantic City, a gangland Babbitt, passing out favors for everyone, including the city’s large black population. As long as the money rolled in for everyone, few minded Nucky’s corruption.

Somewhat to his credit, Johnson kept a relative peace during his reign, a peace that was especially appreciated during the blood-soaked Prohibition years, as New York and Chicago blazed with mind-boggling gang violence.

In fact, Atlantic City became a DMZ for gangsters like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano to get away from gunplay. It was so peaceful, that Johnson himself played host, in 1929, to what some crime historians call the first national convention of organized crime figures (which led to the establishment of the modern American Mafia in the early 1930s).

The details of the meetings will remain forever speculative—though damn it, wouldn’t we all love to be a fly on that wall—but Nucky was in his element then—drinks on the house for everyone.

Astute as Nucky Johnson was, though, he didn’t have Hague’s attention to detail, ruthless backing, and tough guy’s ability to hang on to power, no matter what. He fell in part due to the weight of his own gluttonous appetites.

As has happened with many crooks, Johnson’s reported modest taxable income failed to tally with his opulent lifestyle. This, of course, drew the eye of the Feds. By 1941, he was off to the pen, convicted of tax evasion. He returned to Atlantic City in 1945 to find his city in the hands of a new boss. He lived out his life as a ghost in a fading city, a place that he made shine more than any other individual. (Atlantic City’s decline is best captured in Louis Malle’s and John Guare’s superb film, Atlantic City, with Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon; Nucky even rates a mention there. Boardwalk Empire, for all its violent flamboyance, does him little justice, exchanging his reality as an adept showboating juggler of power for Tony Soprano light.)

Hart’s book ends with some interesting conclusions, among them, that though undemocratic and ruthless, urban bosses also often set a place at the table for ethnic minorities who had otherwise been kept from influence and power by the majority. (There were also other “bosses” who were less ruthless and corrupt than Johnson and Hague.)

 “Machines” as Hart describes them, are still with us. All city governments work like machines and can work no other way.

It takes a lot of organization to coordinate and run a small land area containing thousands of millions of people, a task the old bosses were good at (though often for the wrong reasons). Only governments have the chops to run towns and cities, not capitalist corporations whose interests are narrow and short-term (and who depend on the government for their business much more than any Randian libertarian wants you to know).

It’s not too much though, to ask that these machines are run with more transparency, by individuals who achieve their power in a democratic manner and who act accordance with the broad interests of the citizens. Mayors and their ilk needn’t—and shouldn’t—be saints. But they have to be better than the likes of Hague and Johnson.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield recently finished his novel Butchertown, a 1920s shoot-'em-up. He can be found on Facebook and Twitter. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Now Playing in Your Living Room: Dracula, the Series

It’s no surprise that we at Castle Burchfield would at least check out the opening episode of the new Dracula miniseries, broadcast on NBC on Friday nights. Since, I have failed to take a second look. Not much surprise there either.

Dracula the series is definitely a lavish, eye-filling concoction. The producers chose to set this one during the time of Stoker’s novel, the opulent peak of the Victorian era. The first hour resembles the perfect coffee table book—with accompanying slides and viewfinder--you might buy for a history buff relative. Lovers of Victorian bric-a-brac will sigh. To the eyes, this Dracula is gorgeous.

Dracula fans, though, may find the rest to be pretty thin-blooded. Oodles of changes have been made to Stoker’s narrative; nothing wrong with that, but the changes, while interesting to ponder, turn out rather uninteresting in practice. Some of them play to woo-woo Twilight fans. Others are willful and arbitrary rather than thought through.

Among the most significant is that Van Helsing the Vampire Hunter is now Van Helsing the Vampire’s Ally (played by Thomas Kretschmann). It seems both he and Dracula have one epic bloody axe to grind with a secret society called The Order of the Dragon and have teamed up to destroy it. The Order is a centuries-old Hellfire Club that has evolved from wielding power with the sword of the supernatural to wielding it with the sword of Gilded Age capitalism and new technologies borne of the Industrial Revolution, such as gas and oil.

Not one to stay behind history (which he always has before), Dracula has refashioned himself—peculiarly, I have to say—as a wealthy Gilded-Age, Andrew Carnegie type American—really, what is up with that?—named Alexander Grayson.

Grayson is developing wireless electricity as a means to not only achieve the power and wealth he needs to destroy his enemies—why an American fer chrissakes?—but also to enhance his nocturnal existence, so he will no longer need rely on moonlight and candles to find his way around. His future will be a world sorely lacking in shadows, that’s for sure. Not one any serious supernatural being would care to haunt.

Jonathan Harker, meanwhile, has become a crusading investigative journalist while Mina Harker his fiancé, is an ambitious medical student, her sights set on breaking the glass ceiling into the then exclusively man-castle of professional medicine. No sign of flailing Quincy Morris, yet; or Dr. Seward.

Where Mina and Dracula are concerned, the show hearkens back to the 1990s Coppola version by making Mina the reincarnation of Dracula’s wife from 1490s Transylvania—wait a minute’s he’s an American? I guess it’s a disguise, but . . . .

Most interestingly, the series solves the Renfield Problem simply by making Renfield into the most dutiful—and clinically sane and competent--African-American butler any wealthy white American of that time could wish for. At last, Dracula has found his Jeeves.

Given its backdrop of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of modern science—and the powers it brings—what is Dracula, who should always have the Greater Powers of Darkness at hand—doing here in the first place? He’s never needed no stinkin’ electricity, that for sure. Why does he need it now and what does that do his supposedly supernatural powers? To me, it diminishes them to near irrelevance. This a Dracula who embraces modernity, absurdly I think and becomes even smaller. He should be turning on the lights by simple force of will.

Stylistically Dracula is as sleek and cinematic as we could wish, but the first episode made gestures that seem merely distracting. The grand opening ball sequence features the guests dancing like stick figures to an avant-garde tarantella-like waltz as might be conjured by Ennio Morricone instead of Strauss or Tchaikovsky. Cute, but how proper Victorians could even dance to this without breaking their spines requires explanation.

We’re also treated to a slow-motion, acrobatic wired sword fight, derived from Chinese action cinema, which has devolved to an annoying tic used in movies with no real excitement in them. It’s a trick to keep that young demographic from switching over to Highlander reruns. No real thrill or urgency here at all.

Finally, there’s the star of the show, the great compelling void whose cruel whirling gravity drains the light from the whole world around, namely Dracula. The show falls short here, too. Real short. Jonathan Rhys-Meyer as Dracula is more than dourly handsome enough for Twilight fans, but he’s also a cool cipher with little power and presence. Dracula needs more than sexual allure. He needs a compelling fearsomeness that Mr. Rhys-Meyers, who tends to fade whenever he shares the screen with anyone else, lacks. Not even the wolves would heed his call.

(re-edited 11/7/13)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has just completed BUTCHERTOWN , a 1920s gangster shoot-'em-up. He can be “friended” on Facebook and tweeted at on Twitter. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.