Saturday, June 23, 2012

Thoughts on Two Killings


My taste for British and European TV mysteries predisposed me to like The Killing, the cable mini-series that finally ended its run this last weekend on AMC. That’s “finally” with a sigh of relief.

The Killing is a series that most viewers seem to absolutely love or totally hate, no Mister In-betweeners. As I maybe do too much for some, I stand somewhere in the middle, though, in the end, I think the series a failure. I watched it from first to last and while I enjoyed much of it—the acting and direction, the rainy, Gothic-noir atmosphere—the sins washed away the virtues.

The Killing is an American adaptation of a Danish series called Forbrydelsen (The Crime), reconfigured over here by Veena Sud (an American of Canadian, Filipino and Indian Hindu descent). The Danish version’s first season followed one case for 20 episodes, one day per episode, in one season. It was a huge hit, especially in England where it beat Mad Men in viewer ratings. A third season with a new case is now in production. It’s even ignited a fashion craze.

The American version won’t be welcomed back. It takes the same mystery plot, the murder of a young girl, but strings it out over the course of 26 days and 26 episodes, then splits that into two seasons. A lot needs to happen, but, in the end, as finely made as the show was, its scripting let it down. Not much in the way of surprises did happen and some of them stretched credibility to the snapping point. So many red herrings were flying around, it started smelling like a fish market.

While I didn’t feel as burnt by the reversal at the end of season one as many others, I wondered if they’d run out of rabbits to pull from their hats during season two. And they just about did. Toward the end, we were squirming with irritation and, when the far-fetched reveal came, we shrugged with relief.

I’m all for realistic depictions of flawed detectives who make errors of judgment and who war against the corruption within and without (as in Prime Suspect and The Wire). I can even get with the bad guys escaping justice. But detectives Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder (played by Mirielle Enos and Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman, both excellent in difficult roles) break down so many wrong doors, run out so many wrong threads, and have soooo many personal problems that I wanted to give them both a big big hug before taking away their badges away for good.

I felt almost as intensely against them as I did toward Kenneth Branagh’s mind-blowing, absurd portrayal of the Swedish cop Wallander (the BBC version, guaranteed must-miss TV)—I don’t want these two anywhere near my murder. The Seattle police department is portrayed as being so muddle-headed, I’d much prefer the Baltimore cops in The Wire to be the ones picking over my bullet-ridden corpse.

Much has been made about The Killing’s similarity to David Lynch’s surreal Twin Peaks, but I sensed its real ambition lay in the realist direction of The Wire. If true, then this show really misses the end of the dock. Focusing its lens on a single murder keeps The Killing from taking a wider view of its Seattle setting than it seems to yearn for. It never weaves a genuinely absorbing Dickensian tapestry, a goal The Wire achieved and then some. It never achieves true verisimilitude and instead settles for gloomy attitude. It’s not nearly as deep as it wants to be.

Its attempts to draw connections between Rosie Larsen’s murder, Seattle politics, and back to her family feel poorly contrived—the plotline involving the mayoral campaign seems more irritating than illuminating. Finally, the story of how Rosie Larsen meets her end is unbelievable. I’ve never seen a fictional murder victim go so far out of the way to get killed.


The excellent contemporary noir writer David Corbett has recently published his first short story collection, Killing Yourself to Survive (in e-book editions only). This collection lives right up to its title with seven vivid and twisting tales of desperation and homicide.

Here, all crime is grubby pathos and suffering is its soil. Illness and disease are often the major villains. (Only one classical shark-eyed psychopath reaches from murky corners here.) Each of the seven stories portrays criminals as desperadoes in the original, unromantic sense of the word: desperate souls trying to free themselves from their hand-to-mouth struggle for existence, bring about the awful fates they’re trying to escape.

As most anyone—including me--who’s worked in and around law enforcement knows, criminals are human beings. Corbett’s stories draw them with grim, sometimes blackly comic, pathos. His characters are sunk in miasmas of sickness, cruel circumstances, low expectations, and plain old bad luck. No one, but no one, is ever as clever and hip as they think they are. Reality always has a joker up its sleeve. Whatever your scheme, there’s always another one being played under the table, or in a back room.

This is noir at its blackest, so there’s no hope here, not even for wisdom. This leads to certain blunt determinism after awhile, where you can feel doom tugging your sleeve from the first page.
So, if you’ve got a good spine and strong stomach there’s some excellent vividly written work here. One of my favorites was “Axiom of Choice,” a Hitchcockian fable about a melancholy math professor who encourages his wife to have an affair with a student.

I also got a nasty kick out of “It Can Happen”, a James Cain-type tale set in San Francisco about a wheelchair-bound husband, his scheming wife, loyal daughter, lurking crooks and hoodlums, and an insurance scheme that backfires grandly.

“Bobby the Prop Buys In” paints a colorful, gripping portrait of Bay Area gambling life, as a lowball card player schemes to rob one of the many card rooms that populate the area, a bad idea, especially when he tries to betray the man he trusts the most.

Probably my favorite story is a nifty noir procedural, “Dead by Christmas.” A Phoenix-area homicide detective, grieving over the death of his young son and dissolution of his marriage, pursues a pair of restaurant owners who moonlight as restaurant robbers, but finds they’re getting help from a surprising source.
The title story, the most ambitious of the volume, fell short for me. “Killing Yourself to Survive” is the most doom-shadowed story of all, as an Iraq War vet and special ops contractor working in Guatemala City gets involved with both a blacks ops scheme to kidnap a major Central American drug runner and a beautiful human rights activist. (I may have told too much right there.) It’s beautifully written, full of exact, pungent details that gives you feeling of being right on the ground in one the world’s bad places, a world where “given the impatience of powerful men, the short run always held the cards.” Even so, I saw the ending coming from too far away.

(Re-edited 6/24/12; Veena Sud did NOT create the  original Danish version, as stated earlier.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Pause in the Madness


As you may know, the fifth season of the AMC series Mad Men has ended on one of those summarizing, meditative melodies often played on these programs. I sighed with mild relief, as I do at the end of every episode.

I resisted Mad Men at first, not adding it to our Netflix cue until 2009. First, I thought it might be one of those hip fashionista things, all pretty surfaces, nothing underneath.

Also, there’s the fact that it’s on AMC (Just “Another Movie Channel: We Know You Don’t Really Care About Movies, You Just Want Them As Background Noise While You Vacuum”; All-week Dirty Harry festivals? Yikes . . . .)

I also feared Mad Men might be one of those static, domestic melodramas I’ve haven’t been a fan of since my Eugene O’Neill days in college. I mostly prefer my stories adventurous, outward looking and risk taking, where mortal violent danger shadows every corner. If I didn’t see KGB agents infiltrating Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce or George Smiley or Don Vito Corleone walking through the door with avuncular but sinister smiles, I doubted l would stick with it.

But stuck with it I have, through all five seasons, hot, cold, and lukewarm. Of all the cable series I’ve watched during this unmistakably golden age of television series, it’s the show about which I have the most mixed feelings. I only go “Wow!” from time to time. Sometimes I fidget and check the DVD clock.

But I’ve still been wrong in most of my attitudes. Mad Men is a much more interesting show than I expected. It’s commitment to its art is unshakeable and admirable. Most of the criticism I read—especially the astute comments on Slate’s TV Club—focuses on its lustrous polish and shine, sharp, nuanced performances, tart characterizations, interior set design, costumes, the undercurrents of its weaving plots and the window it opens on its era.

Because many of its viewers are young (unlike me), the show’s noble antecedents are often missed (though they’re not by the show’s creators, as the excellent DVD extras show). Mad Men, for all the fuss about its “radicalism” is a throwback to the early “golden” days of television, of high-minded dramas like The Defenders, Naked City, and East Side/West Side. Sober-minded and as realistic as possible, these dramas were themselves rooted in the serious live theatre of that era.

Many of the same issues which Mad Men dramatizes were dramatized on these shows: both Naked City and The Defenders dealt with themes like abortion, drug addiction, class, and even race and gender, though censorship often forced them to be very circumspect. Both shows delivered stark, powerful episodes on capital punishment, an issue still much with us.

The old shows, however, never gleamed with wit, as Mad Men does generously. In those days, comedy and drama were as strictly segregated as the genders and races were. Earnestness and realism was all.

Sometimes Mad Men stumbles in its sense of time and place fails when it goes outdoors. I lived in Westchester County up the Hudson River from Don Draper and Co. at the exact same time, and let me tell ya, I had no idea New York State was as arid and dusty as Southern California, where the series is filmed in its entirety. Oh well, can’t do everything. . . .

The exterior city scenes fare worse. A scene where Joan Harris and Roger Sterling are mugged and later get it on—I think that’s how it happens--looks like it was filmed hurriedly on a hollow, hastily built soundstage. If you want what 1960s New York truly looked like, I strongly recommend a DVD of Naked City.

Mad Men often goes down a little dry with me. After five seasons, some of the characters remain weirdly static—Pete Campbell will forever remain TV’s favorite punching bag: I’d take a crosstown bus to watch someone bend his nose. I find it incredible that, after two heart attacks, Roger Sterling, SCDP’s resident Peter Pan, is still alive, smoking like a chimney, drinking like a fish and, at the end of this season, dropping acid (twice!).

Since I’m not a big fan of domestic drama, whenever we ride the commuter train home with these folks, my eyes flicker at the clock. Betty Smith (nee Draper) will forever remain an empty dress, as will Trudy Campbell. Kiernan Shipka as Sally Draper is wonderful—and, if truth be known, I rather identify with her--but Sally seems less relevant to the show as time goes on. Nor do I care whether Don’s marriage to Megan works out, though I guess it won’t. (Don’s previous “secret” marriage was clumsily handled from the start. I never it found it credible.)

Still, what really keeps me watching most of all is Jon Hamm as Don Draper. From the first, I found Hamm to be a real star and Don Draper a beautifully conceived and compelling character, a creative, brilliant man both caddish and sensitive, insightful and obtuse, swinging between the poles of ruthlessness and anguish. I find tremendous mismatch between his inner soul and outer world fascinating. So many of his actions are well intentioned, but he still finds himself on the jerk end of the stick and deserving it.

So what truth will Don Draper finally chose? That’s what I keep asking. The life of the artistic soul, or the life of easy comfort promised by modern capitalism. By the end of this season, he seems compromised and settling in to the safe life as a Mad Man, acting more and more like a bully as his soul dries to a pile of sand. But don’t think that’s that: with two seasons left and that yawning, unrepaired elevator, the turn of his soul remains unsettled.


Now, about that elevator (which I’ve been obsessing about).

Death was snooping around SCDP all of season 5. After Don almost fell down the elevator shaft in episode 8, it became clear that, in true Chekovian fashion, someone was going take that worst first step.

I quickly laid bets on Lane Pryce, SDCP’s CFO and the show’s most decent, doom-haunted, and conscience-stricken soul. I imagined Lane at the end of an exhausting day, his bedeviled mind awhirl, blindly taking the wrong door.

I turned out to be half-right. I was wrong about his actual exit Lane [joke], but my suggestion on Slate that someone would get the shaft this season was actually met with one of those absurd bursts of indignation endemic on the Internet: How could I be so lame as to suggest that that the writers would be so CHEAP as to employ Chekovian foreshadowing tactics!

Never mind that all good dramatists everywhere, including me, have used foreshadowing since Sophocles. Without it, your TV drama, play, movie, novel, becomes nothing but disconnected balls of mud thrown arbitrarily against the wall. Whether it’s the pistol on the mantel or a yawning elevator, those “cheap stunts” weave together your drama, themes, and character into a whole.

Remember that Peggy Olson almost stepped into the maw herself as she left SDCP for the last time. That it didn’t happen this season does not mean it will not happen in the seasons remaining. Believe me, unless we see Don Draper call maintenance (like he should have; yet another sign of his often glib sensibility), you can count that someone will take the Big Sleep Express to the first floor. The only questions are who and when? (Hell, they might even hold that elevator until the very last shot.)

No, that howling beast still lurks; that and the never-ending, unfolding dilemmas of Don Draper. And so, I’ll keep watching.

(re-edited 6/17/12)
Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Thoughts on "Pnin" by Vladimir Nabokov

When the Red Room web page invited Red Roomers to write about a lesser-known novel by a great writer this week, I first thought of Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov (the author of Lolita and Pale Fire, two constantly blinking buoys on those ever-roiling lists of greatest novels ever written).

But it’s been a few years since I experienced the hair-raising magic of Laughter, its whirls of whimsy and thrilling, heartbreaking turns.

It so happens that, a week ago, I closed the covers on another lesser-known Nabokov, his short and funny gem Pnin, a novel written after Lolita, but often overlooked in Nabokov discussions. It’s a novel that readers who may feel too intimidated—or disturbed—by other Nabokov classics, are much more likely to take into their hearts.

Timofey Pnin (pronounced p-neen) is an emigrant Russian scholar and lecturer at Waindell, a small university in New York state (modeled on Cornell University where Nabokov taught in the 1950s).

There’s no plot per se in Pnin, but a series of picaresque incidents. We meet Pnin as he’s traveling to deliver a lecture at a far off town and learn early on that he’s on the wrong train. Clearly, we have a man adrift, a homely and homeless exile. Nabokov describes him as:

 “Ideally bald . . . with that great brown dome of his, his tortoise-shell glasses (masking an infantile absence of eyebrows), apish upper lip, thick neck and strong man torso in a tightish tweed coat . . . ”

He almost sounds like a space alien. Or an odd, misshapen species captured in a distant jungle and then set loose to fend for himself.

But Pnin is very human and very much alone: his ex-wife dumped him on the boat over from Europe (as surely as if she’d thrown him overboard). He doesn’t understand his son; he comprehends the English language barely better than the strange inhospitable land he so wants to call his new home, America. On campus, he’s a figure of fun, an object of contempt, his intelligence and sensitivity obscured and ignored. Still, though he’s lost so much, he seems imbued with indomitable innocence and hope.

Pnin’s world is always crumpling like thin ice under his “frail-looking, almost feminine feet.” It’s like he’s seeing through two glasses darkly, with each glass set at a different angle, fracturing his vision and leading to a long chain of misunderstandings and near-calamities.

It’s not that Pnin gets off on the wrong foot wherever he goes. For him, there is no right foot to start from, not in America. It’s only when he returns to the Russia of his memories, or the one he finds in the stacks at the school library, and, in one beautiful episode, during a weekend he spends with some fellow Russian expats, that he finds comfort in his own skin. But these moments slip away, becoming like memories laid over memories. Soon Pnin is back to flailing in his alien adopted land, a place sometimes friendly and generous, sometimes mean and threatening.

Nabokov has been sometimes called a cold, unfeeling writer, but after five years or so of reading through his work, book-by-book, I cannot agree (though cruelties do lurk about, like snakes under a bright flowerbed.) For one, Bend Sinister, his version on the world portrayed in1984, may not be as artistically successful as Orwell’s book, but it nevertheless lifted tears in me more than once.

I find Pnin to be the most touching and kindly of his stories that I’ve read so far. Despite Pnin’s near-constant mishaps, some of his own making, Nabokov’s astounding lyricism captures Pnin’s experience and blossoms into a rare and amazing empathy.

It’s often a big mistake to impute autobiographical intent to a writer’s work—especially Nabokov’s. The author steers the reader away from seeing Pnin as a Nabokov self-portrait with the surprising emergence of a familiar character from Pnin’s Russian past, another exile, one who, instead being overwhelmed and consumed by this new land, has embraced it in his own way.

If there’s a “message” at the center of this bittersweet novel, it’s there but for the grace of God goes Nabokov.

As for the writing, it’s Nabokov prose as it always is--lovely. Delightful imagery and amusing insights alight in the mind’s eye like a butterfly. Pnin’s voice is described as “a slow, monotonous baritone that seemed to climb one of those interminable flights of stairs used by people who dread elevators.” At one point, he becomes enchanted by his landlady’s washing machine “. . . watching through that porthole what looked like an endless tumble of dolphins with the staggers.”  

This isn’t merely the joy of writing. This is the joy of seeing things in a unique way, the way Nabokov sees them.

While Pnin may not strike a major chord like Lolita and other Nabokov books, its bright, charming lyricism and tender regard for the hapless soul at its center, has a way of sticking with you.

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Not in New York

It’s Monday, June 4, not a good day to not be in New York.

My old college girlfriend just this last week moved into a lovely house in Connecticut, an hour or so drive through the rich subtropical-green sward from where I was born and brought up in Westchester County, news that turns over in me a rich loam of homesickness.

Further, the Film Forum in NewYork is screening a week’s supply of that boisterous nutty film genre known as the spaghetti western. Maybe only one of them casts a shadow like Citizen Kane’s, but the real fun for me would be seeing my favorite film villain (and a good actor) Lee Van Cleef starring in several of them, including the apparently restored The Big Gundown, the best non-Leone spaghetti.

Most frustrating of all, is that tonight, June 4, is the night of the Independent Publisher Book Awards Ceremony, where my novel Dragon’s Ark will officially be awarded its bronze medal.

Sure, it’s third place, not first, and none of the winners will get to pontificate, but I truly miss the chance to be in there. And for possibly meeting and congratulating some of my IPPY co-winners, such as the two novelists who beat me out in the horror category: John G. Rees (second place silver for Black Tide) and Ronald Malfi (first place gold for Floating Staircase); and also a certain Paul Russell, silver medal winner in the literary category for a most-unusual sounding book, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov.

I don’t know if they’ll be there—like me, they may be stuck at home—but if they are, hello to you! Congratulations and hoist one for me.

As I go about my business on this unusually rain day in Oakland, one eye flickers watchfully out the corner window, looking the post-person, while my ear hangs by the door listening for the flop of a package on the Mediterranean parquet stoop—the arrival of my awards package from “IPPY,” official proof that I have not been lying to myself, my wife, my various friends and readers, plus numerous book stores—see, told you so!

As stated earlier, I’ve been doing plenty of work, buy advertising online, each payment click cutting a great gouge in the part of body where I store all my money. It sometimes feels more like real blood than red ink.

The previous weekend, a fellow imbiber at Cato’s, the beer hall on Piedmont Avenue, where I can be found on most Saturday evenings, alighted on my shoulder to tell me that his book club had adopted Dragon’s Ark as their next project, and would I like to come by and talk?

Just this last Saturday, I popped by Spectator Books, also on Piedmont:  there upfront with the new books, two copies of Dragon’s Ark.

Money gushes out. Success drips down—Ah! There’s that !kerchunk!

Wow . . . it’s a real medal . . . .

Photo by author

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield is the author of the 2012 IPPY Award winning contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, and the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, Scribed and at the Red Room bookstore. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, and reads at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.