Thursday, November 26, 2009

Delayed Reactions

When I recently left for Vancouver I had a short list of books to buy that haven’t been published or distributed here. (We have much to thank the British publishing cartel that runs things here.) They included four of Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder novels, a highly praised novel based on Frank Lloyd Wright’s love life, “Loving Frank” by Nancy Horan and the new George Pelecanos, ‘The Turnaround’. I headed into the excellent Chapters bookshop in downtown Vancouver and gathered them all up, and more, including an unnoticed Elmore Leonard and a wonderful surprise, a book titled “The Easiest Thing in the World’, the unpublished fiction of the late George V Higgins.

Higgins essentially started a new stream of American crime fiction some forty years or so ago with “The Friends of Eddie Coyle’. He wrote books about his local crime milieu, mixing in the elements of local politics, corrupt churches, even more corrupt government officials, and focussing especially on the low life. His narratives moved along via their characters’ speech and his ear for dialogue and criminal argot was marvellous. His criminals were mostly a newly described form of the urban poor, living in cheap housing, making ends meet with cheap jobs, never knowing when the law would catch them. They did things like supplied guns or set buildings on fire or manhandled recalcitrants. None of it was high-paying. Donald Westlake’s urban gang, was a later comic variation on this form of criminal behaviour. (The gang leader Dortmunder’s wife worked a day job in a supermarket and stole stuff so that the couple could eat.) Higgins’s (and Westlake’s) criminals probably would have made more money, and had less aggravation, if they had worked a steady job. Higgins was largely devoid of humour if not of irony but his influence now spreads far and wide, well into mainstream fiction. His successors write gritty fiction set in the regions outside New York and LA, often located in the criminal heartlands where police don’t go and murders, robberies and drug trafficking are the order of the day.

George Pelecanos is one of the most notable of Higgins successors. He writes razor sharp stories of Washington DC low life and the police who battle to keep a modicum of control and laces his narratives with an encyclopaedic knowledge of rock music. No scene takes place where you don’t get a sentence telling you what’s playing on the car radio or drifting out from an open window. On the cover of The Turnaround there is a photo of the author with the inscription that he is producer and writer for The Wire. Now I had heard of this US TV series but, like The Sopranos and The West Wing, haven’t seen a single episode. Watching these things on commercial TV is out of my bailiwick. The pain of 17 minutes of ads per episode is beyond torture. But I’ve frequently been urged by Rod Bishop and Bob Gardini and others to give in and buy or rent the DVDs.

But a day after finishing Pelecanos splendid new book, a dark tale of youthful stupidity that crosses the racial divide and twists around to eventual redemption, there at JB Hi-Fi are the first four seasons of The Wire for $19.98 each. “Boy are these selling” says the singleted and ear, nose and lip pierced youth behind the counter and so I start. Needless to say the story is that I am a now an officially registered addict. The first series takes the old Howard Hawks/Rio Bravo trope of gathering together misfits, drunks and social incompetents into a crack team to take on the drug lords of Baltimore. Their individual and eccentric skills complement each other perfectly of course, after the usual comic misunderstandings. But the story, as in the best of American crime fiction, gets down into the back blocks where the police are barely competent, sexist, prejudiced, venal and mostly just potter along. They are trying to maintain order in a city where there is a gun murder most days of the week.

The second series is more ambitious, a look at Baltimore’s ailing port and docks. The longshoremen’s union is down to a hundred or so members because the work has disappeared. The union leader, a good/bad guy has hatched a cunning plan to get more state investment but needs money to grease the palms of politicians who will make the decision. He is pursued relentlessly by a senior police (as they call themselves) because he got in first to donate a window to the local Polish Catholic Church. The union leader funds his campaign by facilitating large scale theft and smuggling on the docks but things go wrong when a container full of Russian whores being smuggled in is opened to reveal 13 dead bodies. The complex interaction of black and white politics, the ever present drug scene, prison and street milieus is, well, even more addictive.

George Pelecanos wrote the scripts of a couple of episodes in the first two series but in the third series he has been promoted to producer and you assume it was he who brought in some additional celebrity talent to write some of the episodes. Richard Price and Dennis Lehane among others get credits for an episode each. So, I’m half way through series three. It’s working its magic all over and the box with series four is awaiting. All this for $19.98 each for 12 hours or so of prime viewing per carton. Heavenly really.