Friday, 18 September 2009

Spiral's bound to impress

FRENCH cop thriller Spiral is the best show currently airing on British TV bar none.
The second series, which started on BBC 4 on Sunday, aired in France nearly 18 months ago and sees it pick-up where it left off: in a multi-layered, multiple narrative examination which penetrates into the heart of crime and punishment in modern day Paris.
But, hey, that’s the PR firm’s pitch to BBC 4’s commissioning editors over and done with. Let’s see what it’s really about.
Rather like The W*re, Spiral’s great triumph is not merely at finding out whodunnit, but at the political reasons for why crime happened in the first place and at the attendant immense political compromises inherent in the justice system. It is also highly addictive.
Its original French title, Engrenages, means ‘cogs’, metaphorically illustrating both the wheels within wheels of the justice process and how it impinges on public lives as well as the spirals of life into violence or degradation.
In Series 1, two ridiculously talented and good looking actors: Caroline Proust (Police Captain Laure Berthaud) (above right and Grégory Fitoussi (Pierre Clément, Acting Chief Prosecutor, above centre) investigate the disappearance of a pair of Romanian sisters, both of whom may have been caught up in a prostitution ring involving high ranking government figures and successful businessmen.
One sister is found on a tip in the first episode and the links between her, the chief protagonists and the entire French political system sees it rattle along into a denouement which will challenge the anger management facilities of even the most chilled of buddists. Everyone will be enraged as compromise after compromise sees pogroms against the lowest in society be excused and forgotten in the pursuit of the killer.
Its message is simple: the authorities catch the killer and ignore the social climate in which they exist because that is much too difficult a case to crack. It also says that we are all corruptible.

Chief characters leading the charge towards the darker side of human nature is the brilliantly played detective Gilou played by Thierry Godard (above, left) a cop embedded in the vice and drugs scenes he polices. His character is not particularly new but, Godard has a blast playing it.
Audrey Fleurot (above, second right), the red headed and utterly compromised lawyer Joséphine Karlsson, is emblematic of the corruption in the legal profession. Lawyers are lower than a snake’s coyones in Spiral, and that’s all right by me.

The second series has started as dramatically as the first with a body burned in a car with a small boy videoing it on a mobile phone. It seems to promise a treatise into the reasons why human trafficking and drug dealing can exist and the political reasons why public servants choose to pursue some cases and not others to suit their careers.
At the end of the day, I'll leave it to the often wonderful Polly Vernon from the Guardian to summarise it in a more flippant and honest way,
'Spiral, I realise, is Hollyoaks for the middle-aged, middle-class Francophile who fancies themselves as a bit above the tawdry business of – er, fancying people on TV. All of which makes Spiral magnificent and exciting and better – or at least, Frencher - than The Wire.'

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Ian Rankin: Great fiction, superbly read

IT was a wee bit of a heartbreaking moment finishing the last Inspector Rebus novel, Exit Music. What was more heartbreaking was it was Ian Rankin's best of the 17 Rebus novels.
Dark (but not in a hackneyed way), full of blind alleys and red herrings, it really did toss in a curve ball at the end. It subverted the easy tie-up much beloved by crime writers since the genre achieved mass appeal more than a century ago.
Rebus should be the template for British detective fiction: hard bitten ex-army with a taste for the dark side and an overwhelming thirst for justice. That he has a brilliant record collection makes it even better. That the supporting cast of his partner DS Siobhan Clarke and arch nemesis, gangster Big Ger Caffrey, are also compelling, engaging real characters make it all the more worthwhile.
Anyway, it's all in the past now as Rankin has a new character in his latest tome, The Complaints.
Let's hear a wee dram of Rebus' last adventure dramatised by Little Brown's books podcast and spoken by James McPherson.

The best ticket in town

ONE of the events of the year is happening in Liverpool tomorrow night when writer Paul Du Noyer takes us on a tour through his favourite Liverpool pop songs for Club Geek Chic.
Former Q and Mojo editor Du Noyer has more than 30 years experience writing about pop and rock for the premium magazine brands in Britain and the US and his three best selling books are classics of the genre.
GM must plead conflicting interests at this point as we consider him a bit of a mate and work with him professionally. So we would say all this.
Du Noyer's work welds a kind of academic anthropological take on music with a populist approach which makes musical history easy to understand. In short, it's what all great journalism should be about.
His history of London's music In the City has been critically acclaimed while his history of Liverpool's music scenes Wondrous Place is among GM's top 10 books, ever.
Get along to tomorrow night, Friday, Sep 18 and see what all the fuss is about.

Pie all over sleb chef Martin's face

CELEBRITY chef and ballroom dance botherer James Martin has incurred the wrath of cycling enthusiasts this week after alleging to have driven some off the road in a car test in the Daily Mail.
Martin apologised a couple days later after an online and twitter campaign from the great and the good of the two wheel world where even the chef's wikipedia entry was hacked none to sympathetically. Leading the charge with a display of Alexander Pope-like wit was triple Olympic champion and Tour de France hero Bradley Wiggins whose Twitter feed was at times a tour de force in spleen venting, 'James Martin TV chef, The word cock springs to mind, stick to Ready Steady Twat mate,' was perhaps the most sophisticated offering.
However what lay at the heart of Martin's terrible piece was an obvious ambition to become the next Jeremy Clarkson. He described cyclists as Harriet Harman voting herbal tea drinking hippies dressed like Spiderman in a piece that was less Gonzo journalism and more Gonzo from the Muppets.
No, really, all these tired cliches stacked up and hubris lay thick on the floor.
So not only is he guilty of not knowing the British electoral system (do they all really live in Harriet Harman's constituency?) but also of mistaking all cyclists as trendy lefties and then advocating that the retired Smedlington-Smees from Mail land do the same.
He was guilty of a crassly simplistic journalistic contraction: of contrasting polarised elements of the story by tying together the supposed green, eco credentials of the Tesla electric car with running green, eco warrior cyclists off the road. It was in his mind populist subversive irony. Just, not done very well.
But his ultimate journalistic sin is in providing a tired and testy retread of the work of another pantomime dame motoring hack as boneheaded as himself. It also illustrates the growing narrowness of commentary in a national press where everything has begun to ape itself.
It's what happens when you give a civilian to do a journalist's work.
Anyway, what is a chef doing vacuous journalism for? You'd never get journalist writing vacuously about food... ah, ummmm.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

David Simon: The Definitive Interview

CHARLIE Brooker interviews The Wire creator David Simon at this year's Edinburgh TV Festival. I wish this had taken place in my local pub, which is also called the Edinburgh. But it hasn't got a TV festival.
Watch David Simon in conversation with Charlie Brooker here

Extra bonus features: The three best Simon interviews around
David Simon on his Baltimore
A two parter with Bill Moyers on PBS
This is Simon's great state of nation address about the death of newspapers, but for the casual viewer (fuck the casual viewer), it'll take a while. This is the essential commentary on the 'death' of our press.

Dominic West: What the... I do?

Dominic 'Jimmy - The Wire - McNulty' West in conversation with Miles Jupp at the Edinburgh Festival for the last of The Guardian's Fringe podcasts.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

George Pelecanos: Fiction that sings

‘ Pelecanos' beloved Springsteen (whose Adam Raised a Cain deliberately name-checks Steinbeck's classic) once put it: "Man, the dope's/that there's still hope." It's an idea, not always popular in these cynical, fatalistic times, and one that you certainly don't often see in crime fiction, but Pelecanos is unrepentant: the choices we make always matter, and damn it, there is hope for the future.’
Kevin Burton Smith

ACCOMPANYING the 2004 issue of George Pelecanos’ stand out novel, Hard Revolution, was a CD of classic soul music, the music of 1968 as Washington and a host of other predominantly black cities burned amid the riots which followed the murder of Dr Martin Luther King.
It may have been a straight forward attempt at joining the multi-media age of cross platform marketing which typified much of the early 2000s, but it highlights the centrality of music to Pelecanos’ 16 novels.
The link between social events, either grand or small, and music is one of the key characteristics of Pelecanos’ work.
Get this straight, Pelecanos uses music in the way that great crime writers do: to illustrate a key facet of the time or of a key character’s psyche. Some writers have been accused of shoe horning in hip music, and even the best do sometimes cloyingly throw in classics. It becomes easy to spot.
But, like Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus and his love of prog and dour 70s folk rock and Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander and his deep attachment to opera, Pelecanos’ characters are defined by the centrality of music to their lives. Music is in their background, just as Wallander a former classical hopeful, has the music in his DNA.
In Pelecanos, music touches everyone as it plays on Washingon DC FM stations frequently name checked in the car journeys and diners of the stories. Songs and artists literally bleed through into the prose setting the background to the plot devices making them seem more authentic. Just as it does in such an unobtrusive way in the unfolding narrative of The Wire.
In his Pelecanos’ first novel, A Firing Offence, Nick Stefanos a former punk kid who works as a marketing manager for an electrical outlet (like Pelecanos once did), takes his alcohol loving friends to a series of bars playing Camper Van Beethoven in the car while The Cure’s saxophone solo and The Pogues join up along the way on a bar crawl. There is a vividness in what this music evokes in its time and atmosphere.
Music also is central to many characters’ lives, it footnotes their existence and their remembrance of those years. Record store worker and coke head Dimitri Karras, caught up in the mid 80s drugs explosion of Washington in The Sweet Forever, hits the famous DC hard core club the 9:30:
‘...How Soon Is Now’ played through the sound system. This would be the single Karras would think of when he thought of 1986, the way 'Brass in Pocket’ would always mean 1980 and ‘Dancing with Myself’ would always trigger 1981 in his head.’
There is another wonderful episode of social history after this section, when Dimitri and the girl he has picked up, do a ton of coke and shag listening to The Dream Syndicate, Green on Red, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Pogues and The Replacements on vinyl. As the coke runs out Karras, depressed, manages to get a tiny amount for the last miniscule line, chopped squealingly with his razor,
‘The tap tap tap of the blade on the glass. His dealer called that the mating call of the Eighties.’
In Shoedog, perhaps Pelecanos’ least acclaimed novel released a decade after it was written, the central character Constantine, a drifter who gets dragged into a hellish situation, marks his joining of the army,
‘It was the month of October in 1975 and Constantine would always peg the date of his matriculation into bootcamp as the time he was a mild Springsteen fan (‘Kitty’s Back’ was his Katherine’s song) and Bruce was on the cover of both Time and Newsweek on the rack. Mal and Gary were Bachman Overdrive Freaks...’
In a throwaway paragraph at the start of a chapter in Right as Rain, perhaps the best book of his Derek Strange/ Terry Quinn series, Pelecanos’ choice of music signifies the genre he works in.
It’s not simply crime or thriller but an updating of the much maligned western genre, Strange checks his stocks listening to Elmer Bernstein’s soundtrack to The Magnificent Seven. It’s a tellingly minute and hugely important moment in the novelist’s career. In another Quinn Strange novel, Hell to Pay, the former character is reading James Carlos Blake’s hardboiled western book The Pistoleer, the clues are all there for anyone interested.
But we have to return to Hard Revolution to see the complex interplay between music, society and the personal motivations of key characters at its best.
Early on, Strange’s brother Dennis and his drug buddy Kenneth Willis cruise high on reefer and listening to classic soul. Dennis, tortured by his addictions and heading towards the radicalism of the Nation of Islam (through his reading of black awareness books like The Colonizer and the Colonized and The Wretched of the Earth), and Willis listen to Percy Sledge.
Dennis has no truck with this old soul, preferring the proto funk of Sly Stone and The Chambers Brothers, who represent a new kind of blackness.
‘Percy Sledge? To Dennis he was one of those old time, latern on the lawn Negroes, a prisoner to the record company. He dressed in tuxedos. He still wore pomade in his hair.’
For Dennis, the old time night clubishness of Sledge is tantamount to Uncle Tom-ism, he represents the black past, Sly is a radical new future. Music represents both the future and its tussle with the old. The interplay between character, class and social change and the relationship with the music of the time is hugely important in Hard Revolution.
In Pelecanos’ fiction music has the power to represent characters’ essences and evoke all eras of our time in way that few other authors ever achieve.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

News organisations: own worst enemy shock

AN excellent piece from Robert Niles over at the Online Journalism Review about how newspapers may be their own worst enemies in the battle for survival.
Niles makes some persuasive points about the enormous amounts of corporate debt, employing people without sufficient knowledge or local experience and the assinine he said/ she said style reporting of politics are perhaps the most pertinent.
Though it pains us to say it.

GMs most pertinent blog of its short history?

WE'RE not saying Noel Gallagher, former chief songwriter for the erstwhile Champagne Supernova hitmakers Oasis, cocks an ear to what emerges from GM HQ, but surely it can be no coincidence he sidled out of the band a week or so after we posted this?

George Pelecanos: An appreciation

AS a key partner in the tight group of former journalists, cops, novelists and old stagers who created The Wire, George Pelecanos has jumped out of the narrow genre of hard boiled urban crime writers into the rarified atmosphere of highly successful TV executives.
Thanks to the success of The Wire, of which Pelecanos was the writer and producer, he is now being heralded as one of the kings of American neo noir literature.
But long before The Wire, his previous novels, all set in his native Washington DC, put him in the top bracket of the great social commentators of his generation. Only Richard Price, Dennis Lehane and James Lee Burke can be seen as his equals - the former two also wrote on the Wire.
One of his latest two books, The Turnaround, is a breathtaking example of wonderful democratic fiction, not literary fiction, but fiction which tells a great story but which unveils some of the truths behind race in modern America.
Listen to a short extract from The Turn Around

It has, like most Pelecanos stories, great central figures. In this case Alex Pappas - a Greek American man scarred in a race-related fight he had the misfortune to be involved in, in 1972 and Raymond Monroe, a black man who was involved in scarring Alex.
It revels in the mundanity of ordinary lives and the simple pleasures people take to get through life. There is a tremendous humanity and sense of community in the Turnaround, another characteristic of Pelecanos' work.
Starting in 1972 in the run-up to the incident and then jumping to the present day it showcases Pelecanos' great gift for vivid nostalgia and writing evocatively about the past. It also embraces modern America's race politics and its treatment of its armed forces' Middle East veterans.
More pertinently, The Turnround sees Pelecanos do what he does best - writing the modern urban Western where stoic men face up to their responsibilities, being forced into taking action to protect their families and making up for the sins of the past.
It's a brlliant novel from a writer who has only rarely put a foot wrong.
Hear him speak about his latest novel, The Way Home, currently one of President Obama's holiday reads, below.

Library of Congress interview on The Way Home

Great Pelecanos interviews/ features

Pelecanos on his five favourite books
Pelecanos in the Socialist Review
Amy Raphael from the Observer - with a truly appalling headline
From the Daily Telegraph in July
On Blog Talk Radio
The Times puts him at Number 31 of all time
Here for the full list
The music of Pelecanos, Pelecanos and Washington DC, Pelecanos and the writing life to come later this week