Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Thoughts on "World Gone By" by Dennis Lehane





“Before the small war broke them apart,” Dennis Lehane’s World Gone By begins, “they all gathered to support the big war.”

From there, I sensed I was in good hands with this fluid, serpentine, and eloquent historical crime novel, the best work of fiction I’ve read so far in 2015.

Lehane is the author of, among many novels, Gone Baby Gone, and was also one of the writers for The Wire. This book is the last in a trilogy focusing on the life and times of Joe Coughlin that began with The Given Day and Live By Night. I’ve not the read those first two—in fact, this is the first Lehane novel I’ve read--but I never once felt at sea with World Gone By. If this is your first Lehane, you’re in for a treat.

The novel opens in 1942. World War II has just begun. Joe Coughlin has evolved from Boston street gangster to consiglieri to the Bartolo gang, the number-one crime family in Tampa, Florida. Joe is a semi-respectable racketeer now, at ease slipping up and down between the world above and the world below.

A soft retirement lies ahead. Joe is respected in both worlds as a man with virtually no enemies, one who makes (mostly illegal) money for his friends while ably protecting them from the law. He seems like a man who, after a long life of crime and corruption, may at last be taking the last turnoff to straight town.

Why kill this golden goose? we wonder. As Joe learns quickly, no one in the underworld can ever said to be safe. A rumor reaches him, via one of the more curious kinks in the lowlife grapevine, that his death is wanted. And will happen. He’s even given a calendar date for his appointment with murder: Ash Wednesday, two short weeks away.

Joe sets out to find out who wants him dead and why on a colorful winding path that unfolds with pleasing roundabout grace and slow-fused suspense. Along the way, we meet a colorful crew of underworld figures including his boss, Dino Bartolo; his glamourous best friend Rico DiGiacomo; Mantooth Dix, top-hatted godfather of Tampa’s black underworld; and King Lucius, as poisonous and reclusive as a black widow, perverse beyond even the understanding of bad men.

The various justifications Joe and his friends have used over three decades to justify “our thing” (La Cosa Nostra) are wearing thin these days, in the light of Joe’s parental responsibilities, a reminder that most gangsters are human. With clumsy sincerity, Joe’s trying to raise his only son, Tomas, on his own after the murder of his mother some years earlier. He wants to raise a good kid, but that’s a mite challenging when Pop’s earning most of his money from the dark side. Still, this father-son relationship isn’t one of the book’s strong points, feeling a little thin and contrived at times, especially toward the end.

In another private complication, Joe is also carrying on with the wife of Tampa’s mayor and fancies the two of them might run away to escape the corruption surrounding them. Fat chance.

Finally, there’s also a mysterious little stranger who creeps by at odd moments in odd places: a ghost from the bloody sorrowful past? A dark portent for a darker future? Who knows? But you’ll keep swiping and turning the pages. As with all the best thrillers, you have to find out.

There’s an autumnal feel to this book, but these autumn leaves run red with blood. In Robert Lacey’s great biography of Meyer Lansky, Little Man, Lucky Luciano, co-founder of the modern American Mafia, is quoted as regretting that he hadn’t led the straight life; that the gangster life had led him only to poverty and loneliness. Like Luciano, Joe Coughlin carries some of the same regret. And like, Luciano, he learns there’s a certain point past which it’s too late for repentance and redemption.


Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Radicals





If you’d been riding East Bay transportation the last month or so, you might have seen a sporty gentleman of robust age reading a book called Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed.

You might have thought “Now there’s a true radical! There’s a Keeper of the Revolutionary Flame, still carrying on the struggle, dreaming the dream of the Socialist Future. Onward comrade! To the barricades, always onward!”

Or you might have thought: “Lousy stinking dirty Red! The treasonous commie scum who’s been hiding under my bed all this time. Call the FBI!”

BTW that reminds me of a question that’s been noodling about my mind . . . how did “red communists” becomes “blue” and “true-blue Americans” become . . . well, never you damn mind, because both thoughts would have been incorrect.

I was reading John Reed’s classic epic of reportage for that most necessary and mundane of reasons: homework. Researching not so much the facts regarding the 1917 Russian Revolution, but the feelings driving it: the outlook, the attitudes, the rhetoric.

Ten Days tells a helluva story, one worth reading. John Reed legendary American journalist and firebrand, with Louise Bryant, a fellow firebrand, at his side, arrived in Moscow in November 1917. They had come to see Utopia being born. They both found themselves at the climax of a ferocious struggle among the various revolutionary factions and against the forces seeking a more moderate path or to hang on to the status quo.

In mere days, Lenin and his Bolsheviks would sweep from the margins to the center, and fire the first shots in the war of ideologies that led to the bloodiest century human civilization has ever known.

Through Reed’s wide open eyes, events rush by in a blur as he races around Moscow, notebook in hand. Action is plentiful, the writing is exciting and vivid, though he risks losing the numerous threads of his narrative as the factions multiply like dividing cells: With the Czar gone, the Left becomes Right and More Left.

For a brief period the Bolsheviks, under Lenin and Trotsky, nearly lose the battle for power and the people’s hearts and minds, but through unnervingly clever cunning and bravado they roar back to take the podium. And the prize—absolute power, power that would truly shake the world.

Despite all the many moving pieces, fortunately, the edition in hand, from Tantallon Press (2000; now defunct), provides  generous background material to help keep the various moving pieces straight.

To be sure, Ten Days is as biased as your tea-partying Uncle Ned bellowing over the Internet. You have to read it with that in mind, take Reed’s ideological blinkers as the price paid for passion.  He had the advantage of actually being there. By all accounts he seems to have been a scrupulous reporter, closely observant of everything.

Despite his enthusiasm for All Things Socialist (a fever burning in most everyone he comes in touch with), ominous threads of unease appear from time-to-time; a sense of events spinning out of control; of consequences not thought through, as he watches ancient churches burn. You sense a chill in the blood during his few brief encounters with the Mephistophelean Lenin.

Still, as a true believer overawed by his proximity to events, he never considers that his heroes might be playing him, like, for example, Judith Miller was played by the Bush White House in the run up to the Second Iraq War. Bias was not an issue among journalists or the public in those days. There were no—repeat no--objective standards of fair reporting at all.  Reporters could, and did, lie broadly and at will, with no expectation of punishment or even loss of readership. (Sorry Mr. Nihilist—journalists are much better than they used to be.)

Still, my feeling is that John Reed, even with blinkers on, is a reliable eyewitness. He told it as he saw it as best he could. You may be as skeptical of utopian revolutions as I am, but you’ll get a good sense of being at this one, the best that words can give.

Like all eyewitness accounts, it’s history through a keyhole, with no wide perspective and only a smattering of countervailing viewpoints (not that Reed had the time to go further; nor would he as he died two years later before concluding a follow-up volume).

What John Reed would have made of later events—when the new boss turned to be even worse than the old boss--we can’t know. After his death in Moscow in 1920 he was, remarkably, interred in the Kremlin Wall as a hero of the revolution.

Aside from this dubious honor though, John Reed had a reputation for both integrity and individualism, under which lay an anti-authoritarianism. It seems fair to say that, like many other worthies, he never intended to be a cheerleader for the rise the greatest, most violent tyranny ever. But in the end, good intentions don’t count for much on the road to the charnel house.

As I said at the start, Ten Days was research. Next I’ll turn to the other side of the early 20th century ideological coin. Among the books I’m considering is Fascist Voices, an account of Italian life under the first Fascist, Benito Mussolini. If I thought I was risking trouble before, I’m really in for it now. Better I hide that book behind a copy of Fifty Shades of Gray. Keep an eye out on BART.

Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.



Friday, April 10, 2015

Passage of Arms to The Light of Day: Two by Eric Ambler






Though this page slumbered for a year or so while I worked on my upcoming novel, Butchertown, other habits continued.

My annual reading of Eric Ambler, pioneer of the modern thriller, continued with Passage of Arms (1960), one of his most complex and convoluted books from his post-WWII period, a more fruitful time than his reputation suggests.

Passage of Arms is the second of Ambler’s novels set in Southeast Asia (after The Nightcomers, aka State of Siege). It weaves together four plotlines: a naïve American businessmen (and his wife) who, out of impulsive juvenile enthusiasm, involves himself in money laundering for gun smugglers; the smugglers themselves and the guerilla groups they supply; the military and intelligence officials, both British and Asian, pursuing the guerillas.

Finally, and most pleasingly, there is Girija, a young Bengali who, unaware of his supporting role in the treacherous drama unfolding around him, dreams only of running his own bus company.

Passage of Arms ticks pleasurably and cleverly away and is more action-packed than other Ambler novels. It’s strewn with his trademark observations about politics in the modern world, ideas that still apply. Along with it is Ambler’s genial sympathy for the innocents caught in the nefarious schemes of the powerful, the criminal, and the desperate. Though things turn out reasonably well–and only reasonably--anxiety and unease remain with us always.

Passage of Arms may best represent the polar opposite of Ambler’s beginnings as a fire-breathing, idealistic young Socialist in the 1930s. Happy to say though, once the face of Communism and Stalin were revealed he resisted racing off to the extreme right,  become one of those apostates, a convert to yet another crude, tyrannical idiot-ology in a bloody quest for perfection.

Rather, Ambler seems to have become a sensible bloke with his decency remaining intact. In these later novels, all ideology is suspect. To paraphrase one critic, Ambler acts as a guide through our fearful, uncertain era. These novels are tales of human blundering and irresponsibility. stories of people as they are, immutably strange, both their motives and the consequences of their twisting schemes beyond perfect understanding.


It’s said that a good book is one that can be read twice. And so it happened I recently reread Ambler’s next novel, his Edgar-award winning The Light of Day (1962), which I first read several years ago, shortly after seeing its celebrated—and mostly faithful--adaptation, the 1964 heist film Topkapi, directed by Jules Dassin. The film is a rare example of an adaptation that remains true to the spirit of its source while standing well on its own.

The Light of Day was definitely worth a second read. It’s a rare and welcome foray into the comic novel. Here, Ambler turns away from the Innocent at Large to tell the story of one Arthur Abdel Simpson. Arthur Simpson is a perfect louse: a misanthropic scam artist, thief, pornographer, and cunning weasely coward: half Egyptian, half-British, adding up to little. With his invalid passport, he’s a nowhere man, even among the efficient, hard-nosed den of thieves who blackmail him into joining a heist.

Simpson is a “rogue hero”, a shabby half-cousin to Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman and Richard Stark’s Parker—half-cousin because he’s nowhere near as sharp or ruthless as they are. (He’s more like a brother to Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman from the Breaking Bad universe.) His sins drape over his rounded shoulders like a damp woolen blanket.

Actor Peter Ustinov played Simpson perfectly in his Oscar-winning performance in Topkapi and maybe has the best take on him:   

“The character is so absurd. I love the idea of a man who aims low and misses. Simpson is the kind of man who wears blazers a little too consistently, the kind with military presumptions, who has to belong to a cricket club. He's a man who hovers between the more reprehensible columns of The News of the World and oblivion."

Simpson is the lowlife friend your mother hated, the hero every writer’s group in the world demands you cut from your novel (or else rewrite as a puppy-snuggling vegan Progressive). He’s “unsympathetic”; an affront to the delicate sensibilities of conservatives and liberals alike.

And I, of course, absolutely loved him.

The Light of Day is one of Ambler’s best from his later years. It’s edgier and darker than the brightly colored film, but genuinely witty and suspenseful as it twists, turns and reverses course through the twisting alleys of mid-twentieth century Istanbul, which comes vividly alive. It handles some of the plot aspects better than the film, while the film portrays the central heist to ingenious and dazzling effect. See the film, read the book or go the other way, you won’t go wrong.

Photo by author

Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads, wagers at Golden Gate Fields, and drinks at a couple bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.