Monday, 31 March 2008

It's Almost Time...

Yep, only 5 days to go until the new season of Doctor Who - and a good thing too, because I've been reduced to watching an episode of Flash Gordon. I gave the pilot a chance but wasn't impressed, but I figured, hey, it can only get better.

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

It's stupid - there's no rocket ships, Flash is a jobless high school grad, Dale is, well, Dale, Zarkov is a college science geek, Ming is a - a bureaucrat! Aaagghh!!

But I digress.

Check out a site called Doctor Who Insania - I need say no more, except -

Daleks and Martha and Rose, oh my...

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Richard Widmark (1914-2008)...


Back at the beginning of this blog, I ran a post on 'Actors I thought were dead but aren't' featuring, as my first subject, Harry Morgan.

I had it in mind to address a number of other stalwarts of Hollywood and, along with Karl Malden, Richard Widmark was high on my list.

Naturally I was surprised and saddened by the news that Mr. Widmark passed away last Monday at the age of 93 following complications from injuries received in a fall.

Richard Widmark (his real name) was born in December 1914 in Minnesota, and his early years were spent between that state as well as South Dakota and Illinois, as his father's work (he was a traveling salesman) took the family.

Widmark did well in school and won a full scholarship to Lake Forest College, Ill., where he played football as well as pursuing drama. Rejected for military service due to a perforated eardrum, Widmark turned to acting, with roles on the Broadway stage as well as radio work.

His first major screen role was in Henry Hathaway's 'Kiss of Death' in which he played psychopath Tommy Udo, a role which earned Widmark an Academy Award nomination.

Subsequent roles alternated between villain and hero, the heroes usually flawed, and Widmark became a staple of Hollywood through the 50s and 60s, playing such diverse characters as Jim Bowie in 'The Alamo', A prosecuting attorney in 'Judgement at Nuremberg', a pioneer homesteader in 'The Way West', and a driven Naval captain in 'The Bedford Incident'.

But for me, one of his most memorable roles was as Det. Dan Madigan in Don Siegel's 1968 picture, Madigan, in which he plays a New York City police detective given a weekend by the Commissioner (Henry Fonda) to capture vicious criminal Benesch, who escaped custody with both Madigan's and his partner's (Harry Guardino) weapons. Widmark reprised the role in six Mystery Movie episodes in the early 70s, which I recall being allowed stay up late to watch.

Richard Widmark is survived by his second wife, Susan Blanchard, and a daughter, Anne, from his first marriage to playwright Jean Hazlewood.

The Surprise Has Been Ruined...

Here in Ireland (and, I'm sure, in the rest of the civilised world) we marvel at the showbusiness extravaganza that is America.

The Superbowl, the (ahem)World Series, national politics - everything is arranged and choreographed with a care and attention to detail unrivalled by anything produced anywhere else.

And we love it - we have parties and pretend to drink Budweiser while we watch the spectacle and go 'Wow!'

So it's a bit of a downer, I have to say, when Diebold has a senior moment and releases the result of the 2008 election - kind of ruins it for us, y'know?

This report on ONN - America's finest news source - tells the story (Spoiler Alert!):


Diebold Accidentally Leaks Results Of 2008 Election Early

Hardly worth heading to the bookie now, is it?

Maybe they'll get it right for 2012...

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Literary Detectives...

I like a good detective story.

In the Chandler style, preferably, but I'm open to pretty much anything except the 'little old lady' sleuths or the supercilious Belgian detectives with idiot sidekicks or the - no, let's go back to 'in the Chandler style.

Raymond Chandler set down his blueprint in 'The Simple Art of Murder' - you know, the one that goes "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean..." - and in doing so, created a whole new stereotype for the literary detective; a man apart, who will do the moral thing, if not the right thing, a sort of knight-errant for the modern age, pursuing his own quest with nothing more than a hat, a coat and a gun. He'll be a resourceful man with no liking or respect for authority, and not a team player.

In Chandler's time, stories were self-contained, and anything the author wanted the reader to know about the character and his history were revealed as the plot demanded. But stories began on page one and ended on page last, and characters would be wrapped up and put away until the next time, and the process would be repeated.

The mark of a good story was that you didn't care; you just enjoyed the reading of it and engaged with the characters as the plot developed. Money and time well-spent.

Today, however, authors have taken the genre further - Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels introduced character continuity and recurring characters - you knew that not only did Carella have to solve his case, he also had to help his kids with their homework and do his taxes and such - and you learned more about each character with every new story. Okay, police procedural rather than hard-boiled PI, but you get my point.

Robert B. Parker's Spenser series took the Chandler model and gave him a private life, while maintaining the PI aspect. He gave him a back story, which developed over the years and a set of regular characters with whom to interact.

Not especially a loner, Spenser exhibited many of the other traits of Chandler's Marlowe - a laconic style, problems with authority, a strong moral compass - that mark him as being cast from the same mould. It could be said of him that in many ways he's an outsider, in that the circles in which he finds himself are not necessarily his own; people try to impress him with their wealth and position, or expertise in a particular field only to find they've underestimated his intelligence, invariably a mistake.

Try The Godwulf Manuscript, God Save The Child, or Mortal Stakes for starters, and go from there.

By contrast, Loren D. Estleman's Amos Walker series, set in Detroit, is very much in the style of Philip Marlowe.

Walker is established early on as a Vietnam/Cambodia veteran who spent time as an MP before joining the Detroit PD training program only to quit with a week to go. He joined an ex-cop turned PI as an apprentice, inheriting the business when his partner was killed, and has been there ever since.

Like Spenser, Walker has a back story and cast of recurring characters; however, the similarity ends there. The characters in Walker's world serve no purpose except to help his case along. He has friends (if, as he himself says, you stretch the term until it creaks) whose purpose is to supply information, render favours, etc., for the usual quid pro quo of an arrest or a scoop. He goes back to his office at the end, pours a drink from the bottle in the drawer, puts his feet up and waits for the phone to ring.

Walker's not an automaton; he is pretty much a loner, but human for all that. He bleeds, he feels, and, occasionally, he loves, but in the end all that's waiting for him is the empty house in Hamtramck and some jazz on the stereo. He's been in business for nearly thirty years, and it's starting to catch up on him, but I figure he has a few good cases in him yet.

If you're interested, check out Motor City Blue, Angel Eyes and Every Brilliant Eye for starters. There's also a collection of short stories called General Murders that's a good starting point.

Michael Connelly's Hieronymus 'Harry' Bosch is a man on the outside. Orphaned as a child when his mother was murdered, a series of foster homes and juvenile institutions led the young Harry to the Army, where he served as a 'tunnel rat' in Vietnam, joining the LAPD upon his discharge.

Now a senior detective with LAPD Homicide Special, he has worked his way up from West Hollywood Detective Division by solving the sort of cases that invite political interference from on high, becoming a constant thorn in the side of certain high-ranking officials in the process.

Harry's successes, his dogged detemination in going the extra mile, have not been without personal cost, and at one point he even resigned the force, becoming a PI instead (interestingly, his first outing as a private operator was told in first-person, where previously the stories were in the third-person). This, of course, put him even more on the outside.

But where other characters are loners by choice or inclination, Harry Bosch has always struck me as someone who finds himself alone but is continually striving for a connection, invariably losing it or having to sacrifice it in the name of duty. Maybe someday, Harry, maybe someday.

Read The Black Echo, The Concrete Blonde and Lost Light - then all the others.

There's always a book by one of these authors close to hand, but that's not to say I'm not reading the work of other writers - I've just discovered the Moses Wine series by Roger L. Simon, as well as the Bernie Gunther books of Philip Kerr. Wine is a Jewish PI in 1970s LA (Richard Dreyfuss played him in a movie version of The Big Fix in 1978), while Gunther, described as 'Jack Bauer but with looser morals' is a detective in Weimar Germany and into the Nazi era. It's work to read, but worthwhile.

Also lined up is Hammett, by Joe Gores, a tale of 1928 San Francisco and a struggling author who goes out into the mean streets to find who killed his friend; and Stalin's Ghost, by Martin Cruz Smith, another in the Arkady Renko sequence so memorably launched with Gorky Park.

Should keep me going for a while - I may* even report back...


*but don't count on it :)


Friday, 21 March 2008

The Passing of Friends...

Last Friday, March 14th, I attended a wake.

I had never been to one before, and I was a little apprehensive as to what to expect.

To make matters worse, the deceased was a friend.

Back when we were in school, a bunch of us started playing Dungeons and Dragons. Once every week or so, in somebody's house, we'd roll dice and fight monsters and have a damn good time doing it. After a while, when we'd left school, we kept up the games, using a classroom in our old school on a Friday night. There was Niall, Dave and Kevin, Niall's sister Paula, Kevin's two brothers Stephen and Colin (and occasionally Derek), Tony, Trevor, Colm and Paul. And me.

We gradually expanded our games to AD&D, Runequest, Traveller, Bushido, Call of Cthulhu and more, and that was what bound us together as friends. Gradually, of course, we all got lives and careers and in most cases, families, and the games became less frequent, although there'd be times when we'd all get together - weddings and birthdays, etc., and, occasionally, funerals.

About three weeks ago, I had a call from Niall, passing along the news that Paul wasn't well. He had been in hospital before Christmas for treatment of a growth on his shoulder, we knew, but he'd had something similar ten years before and had been successfully treated, so we all believed it was going to be the same sort of thing.

However, it appeared that not only had the treatment been ineffective, the cancer had spread throughout Paul's body, and by the time we heard about it he was already undergoing aggressive treatment in a bid to halt, if not reverse, the effects.

He wasn't allowed visitors, but when Niall went by the hospital subsequently to drop off a card and things, he met Paul by chance as he was being transferred to another hospital for his treatment. Niall told me that, even in spite of his heavy medication, Paul was still able to joke about how his attention span was down to about two seconds.

Our friend lost his courageous battle on Wednesday, March 12th, with Caroline, his wife of four days by his side. They were married in a small ceremony hosted at the home of their good friends Colm and Sarah Jane on Saturday, March 8th.

I went, with Niall and his wife Amalia, to Paul's wake at his house in the Dublin suburb of Ballinteer. To my surprise, it wasn't (quite) as subdued as I had expected. The casket had been placed by the front window of the living room and was surrounded by photographs and candles. A laptop on a low table next to it played a continuous slideshow of pictures from Paul and Caroline's wedding. It looked to have been the happiest day of both their lives.

Paul, always an unabashedly-flamboyant dresser - the only man I knew who could wear a white linen suit and Panama hat in Dublin and get away with it - wore what someone told me was his favourite waistcoat - a riot of autumn colours, dark reds and golds. His hat and a rolled-up newspaper lay across his knees, and a cricket ball (he loved the game) was by his side.

He looked completely at peace.

Paul's nephew, Robert, showed us an album of photos of his uncle, from his schooldays onwards. There were group shots taken at various weddings, and a contact sheet of about 20 shots of an unrecognisable Paul, his head shaved, that had been taken for a film role.

In life, Paul was an actor on the Irish stage, and also produced and directed plays for a variety of theatre companies. He worked occasionally in radio and had a brief role (ironically as a doctor) in Fair City, an RTE-produced soap opera set in Dublin.

He also worked as a tour guide aboard the Ghostbus, a nocturnal tour of the haunted history of Dublin, a sort of mobile theatre experience. I met him one evening on my way home from work as he was organising his passengers/audience, and watched him get 'into character' before the tour got underway. Knowing Paul, the audience got value for money.

The funeral took place the following day, observed in Ireland as St Patrick's Day although it was only the 15th. Parishioners coming to the 12 o'clock Mass may have been surprised to find themselves at a funeral, or not. It was a dignified affair, conducted by the same priest who had married Paul and Caroline the previous week.

At the end, before the priest gave the blessing, Caroline and Colm stood to say a few words. Colm explained that they'd sat up the previous night after everyone had left, trying to think of what to say. In the end, they simply recounted the conversation, describing what they'd remember about Paul in single words and short phrases. They captured him perfectly.

In closing, Colm said he'd let Paul have the last word. Forever scribbling, as Colm described his friend, Paul had always kept notes, writing down things as they occurred to him.

And in his time in hospital, when he'd realised how things were going, he'd written about (and this is the meaningI took from it, rather than a direct quote) how he "didn't know what came next, or if there was anything. But one thing I know," he continued, "is that I'm going to circle the world, be a part of everything..."

When Colm and Caroline finished, there followed a standing ovation for Paul that lasted several minutes,
and I'm not ashamed to say I was among many who were strongly moved by it.

Paul Keeley made his final exit, stage left, not pursued by a bear but with the gentle dignity he'd known in life.

We will miss him.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008