A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City – Local Heroes

Local Heroes marks the point at which Astro City began to run into serious difficulties. A glance at the original publication data in the credits reveals that the stories contained herein come from a mixture of the ongoing series, a mini-series and a one-off special. Kurt Busiek’s increasingly severe medical difficulties, undiagnosed for most if not all of the period covered in this book, forced drastic changes on the series.
After The Tarnished Angel, Busiek had announced a sequence of short stories, focussing on the people who live outside the superhero world but are affected by it in differing ways. Unfortunately, it took so long to get the first two of these out that, out of a sense of obligation to his readers, Busiek decided to suspend Volume 2 and, for the foreseeable future, continue Astro City via short-run mini-series, scheduled to appear only when enough issues were compiled to ensure reliable publication.
The first of these was Local Heroes. Consisting of five issues, it was intended to complete Busiek’s sequence of short stories begun in Volume 2. However, one of these got out of hand and insisted (rightly and gloriously) on stretching to two issues. The story forced out then appeared,in extended form, in a one-off special that brings up the rear of this volume.
Unusually, this is the only volume of the series not to print its stories in publication order, with “Newcomers” from Local Heroes 1 appearing first, ahead of the two remaining Volume 2 issues. It’s a broadbrush story, of the kind Busiek does so well, narrated by Pete Donacek, main doorman at a major Astro City Hotel. Donacek, who first came to Astro after a busted knee ended his pro hockey career, has knocked around the town twenty years or so and knows it well. He can relate the city to us even as we watch the differing experiences – and reactions! – of several visitors to the hospital.
It’s the kind of story that doesn’t have a plot, just a string of illustrative vignettes, but Busiek knows better than to leave us without a wrap up: early in the story, Donacek watches a group of teenagers go by, paying particularly attention to a blonde girl. Late in the issue, he flashes back to a street battle involving giant robots or statues, in which he saved a baby from being crushed: the final page brings the teenager back past the hotel, and she is the baby. Donacek doesn’t know her name and never will, but the responsibility still sits on him and he watches out for her, every day. Like the more famous denizens of Astro City, he too wears a uniform.
Following this is another of my favourite Astro City stories (there are two such in this volume), featuring Sally Twinings. Sally is a writer,of comic books, learning her craft at Bulldog Comics under veteran editor Manny Manning. Despite the fact that they’re supposed to be writing factual accounts of actual superhero stories (and you were wondering how superhero comics would work in a superhero world?), Manny wants everything hyped up, Marvel-style. He wants thrills, excitement, drama, especially where there are none.
It’s a sharp two-hander, between Sally’s attempts to reconcile her own instincts with the lies and exaggeration Manny demands, and that he brings to all his encounters, even the one with the villain Glowworm, who’s mightily offended at being painted as a racist in one of Manny and Sally’s comics (“How does (your mother) feel about you robbing banks?”).
Manny comes out of that with three broken limbs and an idea for a new range about cosmic heroes and interstellar stories, characters who “don’t give a gnat’s fart” about what happens on Earth. Turns out Sally is pretty good at these and the new line is a massive success – until six months later the Bulldog Comics building, with Manny in it, vanishes into thin air, leaving behind a strange odour that Sally compares to a gnat’s fart…
The final issue of Volume 2 takes another sidelong look at what it’s like to be on the fringe of superherodom, with Mitch Goodman, stuntman turned actor, playing a bit part role as a superhero on a TV soap, actually prevents a robbery in real life. The result is massive publicity and the opportunity to jump his career up another level. The problem is that the publicity attracts people who don’t want more heroes around and who would like to make Mitch into the kind of example no-one wants to be.

Irene Meriweather

Back at the mini-series, we come to a story in which I appear to differ from the overwhelming majority of my fellow fans: they love it and I think it’s the worst story to date. It’s set in the early Sixties and features a major, but hitherto unmentioned hero named Atomicus. Or rather, it features Atomicus’s girl-friend Irene Meriweather, a career girl in an era inimical to career girls.
The story is simple: Irene falls in love with Atomicus, is challenged by him to prove herself worthy of sharing his life, spends the whole story trying and failing to prove he is Adam Peterson. You recognise this? Of course you do: it’s Lois Lane and Superman, twenty-odd years of psychologically disturbing, pathologically insane stories of obsession, instability and superhero dickishness, given a ‘serious’ twist in Busiek’s tale by making Atomicus not a grown man, in possession of full understanding, but a naïve child.
The story ends in tragedy: one Atomicus manoeuvre too many causes Irene to snap and simply rip off Peterson’s clothes in public: he, in turn, screams how much he’s hated her constantly pressuring him and he leaves Earth, never to return. Irene is publicly fired and humiliated and, though she spends the rest of her life well and worthily, she blames herself ever after.
Why don’t I like this? In part, it’s because, unlike so many other past-set stories, Busiek produces Atomicus like a rabbit out of a hat: he hasn’t even been named since, which feels wrong for such a major, powerful figure, clearly meant to be another Superman-analog. It feels detached and unreal. It’s also a story whose comic book antecedent is simultaneously too blatant and yet insufficiently related for this story to properly work as a commentary on those old Lois Lane tales.
Irene’s daughter (herself a new superheroine) tries to make her mother see how badly she was treated by the superjerk, which is a very pertinent comment on Superman in the Lois Lane stories, but the truth is that Busiek has removed Atomicus too far from Superman for this to pertain to him. To be frank, the Superman/Lois Lane stories feature two unpleasant people continually humiliating themselves and each other: try to impress that template on a couple where both are more sympathetic but caught up in a tragic misunderstanding of each other, and the commentary fails completely.
No such comments about the next story, featuring a smart, slightly snooty Astro teenager forced to spend the summer in the country with her cousins, who spends most of her time being politely dismissive of what they see as cool – especially in respect of the neighbourhood hero, Roustabout – only to learn her lesson in time. Nice, if slight.

My favourite cover

Which leads neatly to that two-parter that took over the end of the mini-series, which is the other of my favourite stories in this volume. That’s because it’s about the Law, and I was a lawyer for thirty years so this is on my home turf, and I understand the sheer enormity of it from the inside.
It’s about rising trial lawyer, Vince Oleck, who’s been handed the case from hell. It couldn’t be simpler: Richie Forgionne, mobster’s son, bludgeoned his date to death in a restaurant in front of 41 witnesses. Open and shut. The world’s greatest lawyer couldn’t defend that, let alone Vince. But Forgionne’s dad expects his boy to walk, and Vince has a wife and young son…
And it’s 1974, when things have begun to go bad. Busiek’s hinted at a bad era, of suspicion, doubt and fear, and it will be the subject of the next extended saga. Here we are: the Silver Agent is dead, Nixon is fighting Watergate, the clouds are gathering. There’s a new ‘hero’ on the streets, the Blue Knight, and the difference is that he kills criminals.
Alone at the sharp end, with no argument, and no defence, Vince Oleck starts to feel the stirrings himself, the stirrings of something more primitive, something older, demanding that he act for himself, protect himself and his family. His friend Josh is a cop, a cop who’s concerned for him. But Josh lost his young son a couple of months ago, killed by a stray bullet in a drive-by (check).
And that’s when an offhand, jokey comment by Vince’s wife, triggers the moment of inspiration.
It’s absolutely hilarious because it’s not merely absurd beyond belief but also completely and coldly logical in a world where superheroes really exist, but Vince starts to recall all the prosecution witnesses, who were so absolutely certain that their evidence pointed only at Richie Forgionne, and starts to question them on past cases.
Like the one where the Doppel Gang robed banks looking like Lyndon Johnson, Elizabeth Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix, down to blood samples and fingerprints.
Like the time Julius Furst of the First family was arrested for treason, only it was his other-dimensional counterpart from the Worst Family.
Like when Supersonic died, but came back to life on the morgue table when the MO was about to start the autopsy…
It’s outrageous, it’s unbelievable, the shock and the concept cause howls of laughter. But within Astro City it is inevitable, and it is correct. Richie Forgionne walks. His dad wants Vince inhouse as their mouthpiece. And Vince runs.
It’s not the Law that protects him, but the Blue Knight, for the simplest of reasons.
At the end, the fact that a vigilante who kills, driven by some sort of primeval urge, undermines Oleck’s attempts to reassure himself that the world makes sense and the Law is a structure that works. He doesn’t continue long as a trial lawyer, but thirty years later he is a Professor of Law, teaching the trial lawyers – defence and prosecution – of tomorrow.

The Blue Knight

The story squeezed out of the mini-series appears last, released as a Character special, in expanded form, and I’m sorry to say that it makes for a disappointing ending. It features the afore-mentioned hero, Supersonic, Dale Enright, a bright, breezy, endlessly inventive hero in the Sixties who now, at the start of the 21st century, is an old man, a widower living in retirement near Astro City. But he’s dragged back into costume by his old Police contact, Captain Robbins, who knew his identity all along.
A giant killer robot is threatening the neighbourhood, and Robbins wants him to stop it. All the younger, more active heroes are otherwise engaged (though the real reason Robins has come to Dale is that he wants to prove that the old warhorses still function, having recently been retired against his will).
Reluctantly, Dale suits up and roars into battle, powers still intact, but his inventive mind, his gift for stratagems, his endless bag of tricks is empty now. All he can offer is brute force, and whilst this prevails, it’s only at the expense of massive property damage, and severe bruising to Enright’s ego.
It’s another story about ageing, but this time about realising when to step down. It’s a less interesting motif that the Junkman’s, in “Show ‘Em All”, and it’s delivered via what is Astro City‘s longest superhero battle, which combines to reduce the ambit of the story and manoeuvre the story to the conventional, which is always a disappointment.
I said that’s the end, but it isn’t. There’s a six page short, entirely free of superheroes (well, I say free: the superheroes are talked of and Winged Victory can be seen in the deep background, but they are beside the point). A young boy visits the Fire Station to thank a fireman who entered a burning building to get him out: the fireman lost a leg. The boy and his Dad drive him to his next appointment, visiting the guys who entered a burning building to get him out: it’s a graveyard.
Put like that, it sounds sentimental, almost manipulative, and if you are too dyed a cynic, you will think that after reading the story, in which Busiek says some important things but, most of all, gives the characters an open, honest life. It was created for a second volume of stories, dedicated to, and sold to raise money for the emergency workers who entered the Twin Towers on 9/11. If it’s emotionally simple, it has the right to be.

The Prisoner: In Order

So we come to the issue concerning The Prisoner that has probably had more words expended upon it than any other aspect of the series over the past four decades: the running order.
For this series of posts, I’ve elected to stick entirely to the original broadcast order, as used in 1967/8, in the Granada repeats of 1976/7, in all but the first of the three series of Channel 4 repeats throughout the Eighties, and in the “Ultimate Collection” DVD Boxset that I own. Which, as we’ve already seen, veers wildly from the production order of the first thirteen filmed episodes.
This, by itself, is no indication. Some series – indeed, nearly every non-serialised drama series in the modern era – are written with a defined sequence. Lost was a serial, as was The Wire. On the other hand, to choose another favourite, Homicide – Life on the Street, though filmed during and for a period that still regarded episodes as detachable, was made with a running order built on developing sub-plots and arcs that continued from episode to episode.
Which didn’t prevent NBC chopping up the planned order and pushing episodes back and forth as it suited their immediate purposes.
However, with no exceptions that I can presently think of, the thriller series’ of the Sixties had no episode to episode continuity. Series could be shown in any order the television companies wanted, because it didn’t matter. Serials were serials, but series’ permitted viewers to miss a week or two, here and there, with no fears that when they returned, they would not understand what was going on.
With minor adjustments, this was the approach taken by The Prisoner, exactly as it had been for Danger Man. Certain episodes – Arrival as the opening episode, to set everything up, Once upon a Time as the series 1 curtain-closer, to set up the never-filmed second series – had a set position: the others might be shuffled as necessity demanded.
It simply wasn’t seen as important, as things are now. Guest stars (with a few exceptions, not foreseen in advance) only appeared in single episodes. Recurring cast were limited to supporting roles: the silent, dwarf butler played by Angelo Muscat was the most prominent, and most prolific, the Shopkeeper recurs a handful of times.
To a large extent, broadcast order was dictated by the order in which episodes finished in production: what was ready first was shown first, though a more contemplative decision was taken to postpone Dance of the Dead: it is clear from internal indications that this should be an early episode – one source suggested that this was one of three commissions issued to writers who were told this was to be the second episode – but its downbeat tone, and its dark and difficult story was thought to be unsuitable so soon into a new series that still needed to establish itself with its audience.
As we’ll see, in due course, its actual placement in the running order was ingenious, to make logical use of its contents.
But despite all this, there are episodes that contain indications that they were intended to show Number Six’s early reactions to the Village, and these are not all shown early in the series. For instance, I commented on the degree of credibility in Free For All behind Number Six’s acceptance of the supposed election: many people believe this indicates the episode should be placed second, when the Prisoner is still unfamiliar with the Village.
And there’s the Colin Gordon issue, as demonstrated by The General.
Given the contrast in his two performances, it’s only logical to place The General before A, B and C: they were filmed in that order, Gordon is the ‘new’ Number Two in the first and ‘is’ Number Two in the second, and he is calm, confident, almost arrogant in the first, but nervy, edgy and hyper-afraid of failure in the second. There is no emotional or psychological credibility in the performances taking place in broadcast order.
Yet in The General Number Two is experienced with Number Six, hints at a pre-episode meeting, already aware of what can and cannot be done with his Prisoner. Nowhere in any episode but this is there a suggestion that Number Six and the new Number Two have had any significant contact before their first onscreen encounter.
No such issues apply to Leo McKern’s episodes as Number Two: though filmed back-to-back, they were always intended to appear at different points in the series, and on McKern’s second appearance in Once Upon a Time, both he and Number Six identify him as having returned.
But there are two other instances where the same actor appears in two separate episodes.  Georgina Cookson, appears in a minor speaking role at Engadine’s party in A, B and C and then returns in a major role, as Mrs Butterworth, in Many Happy Returns. There’s not necessarily a dislocation in this: her first part is as a character in Number Six’s dream, after all, but there are more serious issues surrounding the two appearances of Patrick Cargill, first as a British Intelligence senior official in Many Happy Returns and then, of all things, as Number Two in Hammer into Anvil.
There are alternate running orders available, that try to make more logical sense of the relationships between episodes, and try to encompass the best design in light of the clues that may be discerned. Several versions are detailed in Wikipedia
For instance, Six of One, the Prisoner Appreciation Society have endorsed a running order that is employed on the 40th Anniversary DVD box set. To give you a flavour of it, as it pertains to episodes I’ve already covered, it promotes Free for All to second, followed by Dance of the Dead and Checkmate. The Chimes of Big Ben and A, B and C drop two places but The General still follows that, despite all the indications to the contrary.
Channel 4, in their first repeat in 1983, decided in their wisdom to place Many Happy Returns second, a decision whose inanity you will understand when we move on to that next.
Me, I express no opinions. There is no achievable definitive running order, nothing that is not open to objection on some ground or other. There never was any consistent intention for there to be one. As I’ll be coming to after we’ve looked at Many Happy Returns, there is a second, insuperable bar to the application of strict natural chronology to The Prisoner. And that’s before we even think of Fall-Out.
Some or many of you may find that these contradictions are a bar to your enjoyment, or at any rate your acceptance, of The Prisoner. I have decided to accept them and to exclude appreciation of the story from such demands. It is, and from the beginning was, a thing of surreality, and I’m more than willing to play to its strengths and ignore its weaknesses.
You see, it’s not  real.

Discovering Dortmunder: The Road to Ruin

The eleventh Dortmunder story, The Road to Ruin, though frequently funny, was something of a disappointment on first reading, and whilst it improves on closer acquaintance, it’s still one of the weaker efforts in the canon, for much the same reason as Bad News: John Dortmunder, the ingenious planner, simply doesn’t get enough to do.
It’s not the case that Dortmunder and Co are inserting themselves into someone else’s heist, although the job is brought to them from the outside. Once the idea arises, the gang approaches the job in their usual fashion. But the plan Dortmunder devises to achieve their ends is surprisingly simplistic, and its inevitable frustration has none of the usual sparkle and wit Westlake usually brings to the workings of fate and the real world.
The Road to Ruin begins with a double break with tradition. Firstly, Dortmunder is not on a job that’s either failed or, within moments, is about to fail. Indeed, he’s in the apartment he shares with May, watching the 6 o’clock news.
The second breach is that the street-bell rings, and it’s Kelp: the same Andy Kelp who usually lets himself into their apartment so as to spare John or May the trouble of opening the door. Kelp’s being formal today because he’s not heard from Dortmunder in some time, and he’s worried that John has cut him out, is running with another bunch of guys. Dortmunder can reassure him on that: he’s not even pulling single-os at the moment. Things are pretty dead.
Until Anne Marie phones from Kelp’s apartment, which has just been invaded by this guy, giving no name, wants to see Kelp, is prepared to wait. Dortmunder returns with him, to lend moral support, but there’s nothing to fear: the interloper is Kelp’s old buddy, Chester Fallon, a driver.
Chester’s led an interesting life. First, he was a stunt driver for the movies, until he got replaced by CGI, then he used to work driving away from banks, which is how he knows Kelp. After getting parole, he went to work as chauffeur to Monroe Hall, a rich guy who has a great collection of vintage cars, $6,000,000 worth: perfect job, with house, medical benefits and pension thrown in through Hall’s company, SomniTech.
Until Hall was found to be embezzling SomniTech, and pretty much everyone under the sun, in a deeply greedy and omnivorous fashion. So now Monroe Hall is a pariah, unable to leave his estate in Pennsylvania on account of all these people hanging around wanting to have discussions with him about the staggeringly large sums of money they’ve lost. And the cars have been turned over to a charitable foundation in Florida, even though they’re still ‘displayed’ at the impenetrable, security-wrapped Pennsylvania estate.
Except that the Foundation can’t employ ex-cons, so that’s Chester out on his ear; no job, no house and, thanks to SomniTech having been sucked dry, no pension or medical benefits. So now Chester hates Monroe Hall, like everybody who ever meets him, with the exception of his still-loving wife Alicia. Chester would like some revenge. $6,000,000 of vintage cars-worth.
Naturally, after another trip to the O.J. Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue, the regulars are in the midst of another of their endless cross-purpose rambles, Stan Murch and Tiny Bulcher are on board and the gang head for Pennsylvania in another of Kelp’s doctor’s cars – nice and spacious, to suit Tiny – to case the joint. The security is, however, impenetrable. No-one can get in, and whilst Alicia Hall and the cook come out, Monroe Hall doesn’t.
Dortmunder’s solution is surprisingly simple. Hall, being both a pariah, and a man who offends people as easily as you or I click on a blog, is desperately short of staff: the gang will get themselves hired.
This isn’t quite as easy as it sounds, given the no ex-cons barrier, but this is where Anne Marie – who has adapted with surprising smoothness to this unusual life – comes in. Among her friends from her Washington days as a Senator’s daughter is the deliberately anonymous Jim Green, former FBI Agent and specialist at creating unbreakable new identities for people. Green costs too much for the gang to buy four lives off him, and four’s too many for freebies, but he can let them have four existing identities that the recipients no longer use.
The only risk is that if any of the original inhabitants of these identities created any enemies, any revenge might be directed against these temporary users, but it’s probably only a small risk, eh?
(You’re getting ahead of things. Slow down.)
So Monroe Hall gets four new staff simultaneously: Warren Gillette, a carroty-haired chauffeur, Judson Swope, a man-mountain security guard, Frederick Blanchard, a sharp-featured private secretary, and John Rumsey, a hangdog-looking, slope-shouldered butler. (There’s an in-joke here, but you’re going to have to wait for me to get to the right book before I explain it).
Once inside, the plan is, once again, utter simplicity. Tiny is doing the graveyard shift as the new boy, so he’ll open the gate whilst the other three drive the cars off to a handy holding space whilst the gang dicker with the insurance company.
I mean, that’s it. In terms of Dortmunderian ingenuity, this is kindergarten stuff. I could plot a crime novel with this plan, and I don’t even write crime novels.
So the book, which is already reliant on the little details along the way – the best of which being the discovery that Arnie Allbright’s family, who mainly go in for counterfeiting, have staged an intervention and sent Arnie to Club Med on one of them islands, to get his personality cleaned out –  becomes ultra-dependant on the foil. How will this one screw up?
Westlake takes his time getting there. Given the simplicity of the gang’s part in it, the story stretches to encompass lots of other viewpoints. There’s Chester, for one, taking a (hopefully temporary) job as driver to a drunken sales-rep, under constant bombardment by sales-rep jokes. There’s Monroe and Alicia Hall, at different times: he an unthinking, unheeding monster of selfishness, contemptuous and callous of all, she an attractive, intelligent, perceptive woman doomed by the fact she still loves him.
There’s Hall’s personal trainer, Flip Morriscone, trying to get somewhere with a suet pudding of a man, who Hall betrays to the IRS. Henry Cooper, old ‘friend’ of Hall’s and owner of the Employment Agency to whom the gang apply.
And then there’s Mark and Os, and Buddy, Mac and Ace.
These are people who have been wronged by Hall, people who have been stalking the estate, people who want to get hold of Hall, just for a while, for some monetary redress (Hall, though technically making redress for his embezzlements, is in control of substantial, hidden assets offshore). Mark and Os are brokers, privileged men from privileged families, who want to be put back where they were. Buddy, Mac and Ace are union men, trying to get money back for, not directly themselves, but rather the ACWFFA.
These two sets join forces – tentatively, with piles of mistrust on both sides but no actual double-crossing – and with the assistance of Morriscone, they get onto the estate in a horsebox (Hall wants to take up horse riding) and they get off the estate with Hall in the horsebox.
Unfortunately (that word crops up rather often when discussing a Dortmunder story, doesn’t it?), they also have to take the witness to the kidnapping. The butler, John Rumsey.
Now Dortmunder is not unresourceful, as we have seen. Dortmunder escapes from captivity using a chair (he smashes it into the face of the guy coming into his room, and runs). Monroe Hall, however, is even more resourceful, and escapes from the hunting lodge in which they’re being held. Unfortunately (that word again), he doesn’t so much jump from the window as fall out of it. As a consequence, he hits his head, hard, on a head-sized rock. And loses his memory. Permanently.
Including all the passwords and codes to those off-shore holdings.
And everything just drains away like water. Whilst Dortmunder is making his way back to Pennsylvania, Kelp, Murch and Tiny have to watch the Foundation driving all the cars off the estate, to go to Florida, leaving nothing.
Which, sadly, is the feeling this denouement leaves.
As for the amateur conspirators, whose blunderings across Dortmunder’s path have led to this disaster, the fall-out takes different outcomes, with a pleasingly blue collar twist. And Dortmunder and Co. return to New York dogged by the realisation that they have actually spent two days working in a job!
Westlake does throw in one final plot twist, as we near the end of the book. As Jim Green warned, there is indeed an enemy, a foreign assassin no less, seeking the whereabouts of Fred Blanchard. However, this final twist gets untwisted with such perfunctory and unexpected ease, that it just becomes the reddest of red herrings.
Despite all of this, I like the book, and it’s still plenty funny. But I like it because I know Dortmunder and his friends and associates and hangers-on so well, because their skewed perceptions and the slightly surreal atmosphere that surrounds them is comfortable and engaging, because I like hanging around with them.
In that sense, The Road to Ruin is an archetypal late series book, getting by on familiar routines and tropes, but beginning to have some difficulties in finding fresh things for the cast to do. It might have been the point at which the series began to run into the ground, especially as – breaking his inviolable rule of thirty-odd years – Westlake was going to be writing another Dortmunder story immediately after this one.
But The Road to Ruin would prove to be no more than a stumble, as the series would pick up into its final, compressed years.
Strictly speaking, the next Dortmunder book, published later the same year as this novel, is the short story collection, Thieves Dozen, collecting together all the Dortmunder short stories then published. But I’m leaving the short stories until next to last, after we’ve covered all the novels. You’ll have to wait for me to explain that in-joke.

100 Bullets: Brother Lono 2

In which…

One thing I forgot to mention last month is that, just as this story is set in Mexico, so is it all in Spanish, or rather translated Spanish. The translations to not apply to the chapter titles or credits. So this episode is entitled ¡Tu Pasado Te Matara! which my favoured internet translator tells me means “Your Past will Kill You!”.


For the moment, the story is simply moving forward. Azzarello picks up from within a short time of issue 1’s ending, as Brother Lono escorts Sister Rose to the Church/Orphanages, filling her in on what to expect in Durango. It’s clear that he’s aware of her attractiveness: hell, with shorts that short, and Risso’s ability to draw endless varieties of attractive women, it would be entirely impossible to believe in a Lono who wasn’t aware. But just as this is a Lono who neither swears nor drinks, this is a Lono who no longer fucks. Though the vow of chastity is, he admits, the hardest.

At the orphanage, Sister Rose – or June, when she’s being as informal as Father Manny – is unpacking and settling in. Father and Sister assess each other, and their vocation, but it is Lono’s vocation that the lady is interested in. Because she’s attracted in turn? We’ll wait on that one. But she is intrigued by a Brother who has clearly come from a vastly different past.

So are we, as avid devourers of that past, and Father Manny unrolls the first stage of that story for her and us. Almost three years ago, whilst administering confession to the children, Lono came to the church. He confessed, was absolved, laughed and said something (unrevealed) that had Father Manny prepared to beat him.

But this was Lono as we last saw him, as the walls of the Trust fell inwards and the roof collapsed on (almost) everyone, wounded through the face, wounded by Dizzy Cordova, shot, scarred, mauled and bitten and near to death: Father Manny kept him alive.

There will, I trust, be more, including some sort of explanation of how Lono got from Miami to Mexico when the two are not contiguous,but this is Azz as we know him of old, parceling out information in mean amounts, rigidly avoiding anything that is an “As You Know…”, allowing, no, forcing us to use our own imaginations, to hunt for the clues that will open up the path of what is to come.

As for those many other elements that were flung into our faces first time out, again there is a less jumbled approach, fewer strands to follow, a more linear development. Senor Butler has the meeting with Cortez for which he has traveled. He is the West Coast Connection for Los Torres Gemelas (that The Twin Towers are absent on other business immediately draws from me the thought that they do not exist, that Cortez is the head and they are an invisible shield, all the more deadly for not being real). Butler is here to propose an extension of their franchise into the Midwest.

Los Torres Gemelas approves of the idea, but there is to be an increase in the cost price of almost 25% – Cortez is pedantically precise when he specifies it as 22.3%. There is to be no negotiation, not that this halts Butler from suggesting that Los Torres are not the only organisation in town. This is not a wise thing to say, especially not on Los Torres’ turf: by the issue’s end, he hangs, gagged, from a scaffold outside the compound: wild dogs rip and tear the meat from his naked, living legs.

Los Torres Gemelas are the only ones with whom Butler’s organisation can deal. Unfortunately for him,his organisation is not the only ones with whom Los Torres can deal.

But Lono? Lono has gone into town because red paint is needed. The shops which sell red paint are closed, but he has gone into town. He sits in a bar, debating his own nature, and his denial of it, within himself. He’s also looking at half-naked girls, and the macho boyfriends calls him on it, wants to start a fight. But Lono won’t fight. He apologises, he tries to make things smooth. Even when the idiot pulls a gun, he doesn’t respond,won’t fight. Admittedly, he does that very disturbing trick of crushing the glass in his hand, splintering shards into his hand, and the guy backs down, humouring the loco gringo.

But he won’t fight. He won’t take what he wants because he can, the way he’s always done. Lono is still holding out against himself.

Rather than trek back to the Orphanage, he sleeps in the jail cell: it’s a habit, allowed by the Police, who are investigating another drug-murder, the one we saw last month,the guy forced out of the jail.

Two down, a quarter of the story. Knowing Azz, knowing 100 Bullets, I see a shape forming. The graves of issue 1, page 1, dug by a sweltering man in a loud, Hawaiian shirt, are those of Father Manny, Sister Rose, and the Orphans, and the Lono who digs them seeks revenge on Los Torres Gemelas, who are responsible.

I see a shape forming. But then I only ever once beat Azz to the punch he had hidden in all of 100 Bullets, so I’m not betting on things, not yet.

A Universe in one Comic: Astro City (Volume 3) No. 2

After the mild disappointment of issue 1 of the new series, this is more like the Astro City I’ve been awaiting for three years.

Welcome to Humano General, first half of a two-parter, is an object lesson of the strengths Kurt Busiek brings to Astro City, namely the ability to look at the real-life mechanisms of a world in which super-powered beings dress up in funny costumes and do devastating things, to see not only that ripples spread from such things but that they spread into all sort of logical corners that, in love with the costumes and the violence and the bright, primary colours of conflict, the other writers both ignore and wish to ignore, and the skill to incarnate these things into an intriguing, entertaining and illuminating story.

Meet Marella Cowper, a nice, reasonably attractive post-College girl in need of a job. She wants to work in computing, something close to programming, but to tide her over until she finds a real job, she’s applied for a job in a call centre (my current role in life – getting personal here, Mr Busiek). Only, this being Astro City, this is no ordinary call centre: it’s Honor Guard’s call centre (Honor Guard being Busiek’s analog for the Avengers or the Justice League). Marella’s job is to handle the incoming streams of calls for help, reported suspicions, useful and useless information, and to filter these so that the important calls get through to Honor Guard as quickly as possible.

She’s far from alone: there are 3,412 first line agents dealing directly with the public, and decidedly smaller specialist teams who take over what gets put through, and so forth. It’s the job of Marella and her team-mates – Jeremy, Mikika and Toni – to take, assess and field calls. On their decisions, the superhero jobs are identified from those the Police or FBI could handle. And at intervals, just like a standard comic, the account stops for action as Honor Guard – now seemingly with Winged Victory and The Gentleman on the team, and officially adding Australia’s diminutive hero, The Wolfspider (see the cover above) – deal with the menaces outside.

But this is story is about behind the scenes, and Astro City is not about wasting pages on extended fight scenes, so these are just tableaux, and we stick with Marella, and her growing ease and eagerness about the job. Despite initial overenthusiasm, she is already looking on this as a lifetime profession, and she has an understandable urge to be one who gets a crisis, red alert call – as do both Jeremy and Toni. Instead, she gets the opposite.

This is a two-parter, and Busiek is using a line of approach he has used a number of times before: the first half is all set-up, leading to the true central point of the story as the cliffhanger (he did this with the Jack-in-the-Box two-parter in Family Album and the Blue Knight two-parter in the as-yet-undiscussed Local Heroes). We focus on Marella throughout, her hopes, her wishes, her desire to help. We appreciate the detail of imagination Busiek puts into creating this unconsidered aspect of superheroics (do the JLA still rely on the radio for crime alerts in the second decade of the 21st century?). And he slips something past us.

Marella handles a call from a child in a foreign country, upset that his Mom’s partner is beating her. Naturally, she sends in Social Workers, not superheroes. But on the final page, a major crisis blows-up, a crisis that’s gotten past all Honor Guard’s complex organisation to prevent them being blindsided. And it’s Marella’s call. It’s the Social Workers. It’s her failure.

Next month round, Busiek will play out his set-up, and we’ll see how this affects Marella. It’s easy to anticipate shame, self-disgust and either intended resignation with efforts being made to convince Marella she did not drop the ball, or supervisor investigation in which she is blamed. But Busiek does not design his two-parters to be so predictable, so I’m perfectly confident that he’s got a surprise up his sleeve for us: tune in next month for my thoughts on where he takes us.

As per usual, Brent Anderson is excellent on the inside of the comics. I hope he’ll forgive me if I don’t say much more. Not being an artist, or having an artist’s eye, I have rarely been able to offer much by way of insightful comment on how comics are drawn. Brent is in the grand tradition of photorealistic art, and he does an excellent job of depicting scenes realistically. Unlike many modern artists (we have been saying this for thirty years now) he can draw ordinary people as well as costumed characters, and he has the liberty, and the skill, to make the ordinary: neither mind-bogglingly gorgeous nor symbolically ugly. Marella herself is an ideal example, fresh, attractive, red hair and some freckles, good looking enough to divert glances on the street, and all the better for it. Her breasts are certainly nowhere near as big as her head.

I’m a little less enamoured of Alex Ross’s covers, both this and the previous issue, and I say that with regret because I think he is brilliant. He is, for me, the only artist to make painted art work in comics, and his single images are usually striking for their cleanness and solidity. His characters have heft and weight and an overwhelming reality.

This cover is, to me, too crowded, too fussy. It emphasises, as it is meant to, The Wolfspider, whose role in the story is minimal – he’s introduced rather for the sake of it than any integral element of this issue: mind you, now I’ve said that, you watch, he’ll be absolutely vital in the second half – but he’s placed against a background of other Honor Guard members, looming immensely but standing around a bit haphazardly, and lit differently. This diminishes their reality, and I assume it’s meant to highlight The Wolfspider by distinguishing him from his background, but even Ross can’t full work the trick of bringing him forward: painted art can be oddly less three-dimensional that traditional comics art with its black defining outlines.

The same thing goes for the previewed cover of issue 4, which we’ll discuss come September.

Until next month…

Discovering Dortmunder: Bad News

We’re back on familiar turf at the start of Bad News, the first Dortmunder novel of the twenty-first century, as John’s latest heist flounders (naturally) as a consequence of an unseen alarm. Nevertheless, despite being cornered by the Police in a retail superstore at 2.00am, the genius at work in the two recent examples of revenge is still in full flow as Dortmunder cons everyone into believing he is a customer who fell asleep and got locked in: he almost gets a note from the Police to show May why he wasn’t home at the usual time.
But the rest of the story is different from the usual run of Dortmunder plots, in that our favourite gang finds themselves co-opting into someone else’s scam, and sitting back and watching another planner execute his scheme.
This book marks a sudden rush of Dortmunder stories, for which we can only be grateful. Prior to Bad News, Westlake had written nine novels over a period of thirty years, so it comes as something if a surprise to note that the final five novels of the series would be delivered in a space of only eight more years. Where Westlake had carefully rationed himself before, not wanting to overload the muse or go stale. Now he was going for broke.
The scheme in question this time around is an Anastasia: that is, the production of a false heir to a fortune (named after the claims of the supposed Princess Anastasia in the 1920’s, who was alleged to be the daughter of the Tsar of Russia who, contrary to popular belief, had not been executed after the Bolshevik Revolution.
Anastasia this time round is Little Feather Redcorn, nee Shirley Anne Farraff, former Vegas showgirl, blackjack dealer and, currently the last of the Pottaknobbees. The aforesaid Pottaknobbees are one of a group of Three Tribes – Oshkawa, Kiota, Pottaknobbee – who have had tribal lands returned to them and, in the fashion of many such Native Americans, immediately installed a very lucrative Casino on land which is not actually the United States. Unfortunately, the Pottaknobbees went extinct in the Forties, their last representative having headed out west, pregnant, and never been heard of again.
Little Feather is the grand-daughter of this last Pottaknobbee and, if her claim is accepted, will be entitled to a cool third of the Casino’s largesse, from day one.
The scam has been put together by the self-superior professional scam artist, Fitzroy Guilderpost, with the assistance of disgraced university professor, Irwin Gabel. Now Anastasia’s are difficult to pull nowadays, thanks to such things as DNA (the original ‘Anastasia’ has subsequently been conclusively proved to be a fake, incidentally). But Fitzroy has planned for this. Little Feather’s supposed Pottaknobbee great-grandfather (who fell off the Empire State Building during its construction, though the Tribes always believed he was pushed off by Mohawks) is buried in New York. In order to ensure that Little Feather will show up as genetically descended from Joseph Redcorn, Fitzroy plans to swap the coffins, inserting Little Feather’s actual grandfather.
Which is where we come in, or rather, via the Internet, the smug Fitzroy has hired an Andy ‘Kelly’ and his hangdog friend John, to do the actual grave-robbing, intending all along to dispose of their unwanted help. But John and Andy are the last people to do something like that to. So in order not to have their entire scam exposed, Fitzroy and co have to taken on unwanted partners, in Dortmunder, Kelp and Tiny Bulcher. Tiny’s very useful in negotiations, and don’t forget, John makes him laugh.
That’s where the book becomes different in tone. We stay close to the development of the scam, and in particular to Little Feather, who is out on her own for much of this, with the others making contact surreptitiously. And the scheme hits an immediate snag with an all-out, instant hostile response from the two casino Managers, Roger Fox (Oshkawa) and Frank Oglanda (Kiota) , the other Two Tribes).
It’s not just that Roger and Frank recognise a scam when they see one, and go through the usual process of warning off/buying off the nuisance. The problem is, Roger and Frank have been cooking the books until they’re positively crispy: they can’t afford for Little Feather to be real.
Their excessive response arouses the attention of everybody, including the upstate New York Judge, T. Wallace Higbee, who, faced with the most interesting legal case of his life, wants nothing more than to get back to boring and dull legal issues, and who is determined not to be messed around by all sort of high-powered New York legal tricks. The course of legal proceedings run somewhat differently.
What makes the book unusual, different enough to notice, is that it’s all about somebody else’s scheme. We’re used to Dortmunder’s kind of jobs, and how he approaches them, but this is Fitzroy’s scheme. John and Co are peripheral figures. Very influential and essential background figures when it comes to minutiae and areas of expertise that the equally professional Fitzroy (who, despite the evidence throughout, persist in thinking of himself as a considerably superior, and more intelligent person than his new partners) doesn’t think about.
But it’s somebody else’s con, and Dortmunder has nothing to do, and he starts to fret about it.
The case takes a twist when, with DNA having been put on the table, Dortmunder foresees that the Three Tribes are likely to repeat the grave-moving trick that started this story. Swapping coffins over and over again is impractical, and it’s Tiny who comes up with the ingenious solution: swap[ the headstones. Fox and Oglanda can swap coffins with a total stranger (literally: the grave they rob is of one Buford Strange), and Dortmunder and Co will just put the right gravestone back in time for the official exhumation.
Unfortunately, Fox and Oglanda send Fox’s incompetent nephew Benny Whitefish to do it, and there’s been so much activity round the graveyard by now that they’re caught – and the ostensible Redcorn grave ends up with a twenty-four hour guard to prevent further grave robbing. And restoration of the correct headstone.
This is where John can really get involved, and bring in Stan Murch and Murch’s Mom. The body that’s going to get DNA tested is Buford Strange, who is in no way an ancestor of Little Feather. Simple solution: provide DNA from one of his descendants. Is this getting confusing yet?
By a stroke of luck, Strange’s son was a famous artist whose preserved mansion, full of art treasures, is being curated by one of his daughters. So Dortmunder concocts a scene that involves stealing a sand-spreader and driving it from Cleveland, Ohio to upstate New York. A convenient storm saves them the job of knocking out the electrics in pretence of a storm so the security systems are down. Stan drops off his Mom at the house as a supposed stranded motorist seeking shelter until Stan finishes his sand-spreading duties, she keeps the family together whilst certain small and portable treasures vanish and, just before leaving, collects some hair from a hairbrush.
She also engages in some impromptu marriage counselling that results in saving a rocky marriage and, as a bonus side effect, concealing the fact that anything’s been stolen at all.
After that, it’s plain sailing. Dortmunder and Co offload their ill-gotten gains to a prozaced-but-still-obnoxious Arnie Allbright, Little Feather palms off the purloined hair onto the DNA expert, and the scam succeeds gloriously
Sadly, Fitzroy and Irwin are not around to see this, having embarked on long trips to the West Coast, on account of their having still believed themselves to be smarter than Dortmunder and Co and believing that their allies wouldn’t expect being bumped off now their usefulness was over. In their separate ways, both come to bad ends.
Little Feather is welcomed with open hearts to the Three Tribes as a long lost Pottaknobbee. This warmth does not extend to Fox and Oglanda, who react in different fashions. Fox empties out every bank account and decamps via Canada to commence a life of keeping himself and the money one step ahead of investigators. Oglanda gets drunk, tries to burn the books, and burns the casino down.
The casino that, in Fox and Oglanda’s greedy urge to skim absolutely everything off that they could, was uninsured.
No casino, no one-third share, and an eight-year wait until the Indians can get a licence to build another.
So ends another Dortmunder job. Mind you, there’s the money from the art treasures so our gang at least make something out of it. And Little Feather has a tribe to belong to, and Benny Whitefish wrapped round her little finger. And Fitzroy and Irwin brought it all on themselves, after all. And Judge T. Wallace Higbee can go back to having to deal with simple, straightforward cases involving nothing more than the blatant stupidity of ordinary people.
It’s enough of a happy ending.
As for the peripherals, Andy and Anne Marie have now settled into a solid relationship, like John and May, and Tiny and J.C. (this is demonstrated by an unusually domestic Thanksgiving Dinner that even John enjoys), whilst the O.J. Bar and Grill meeting makes explicit a little meme that’s been emerging inchoately over the last couple of books, that nobody (except Tiny) wants the chair with its back to the door.

The Prisoner: episode 6 – The General – discursion

The General

The General was the sixth episode of The Prisoner to be broadcast, and the tenth episode to go into production. It stars Colin Gordon as Number Two, who impressed Patrick McGoohan sufficiently during filming to be invited to stay on for the next episode, the already broadcast and discussed A, B and C.
The episode was written by the experienced Lewis Greifer, under the pseudonym Joshua Adam (the first names of his children). There doesn’t seem to be any reason why Greifer should have used a pseudonym: McGoohan knew him as a friend of story editor and co-creator George Markstein, and indeed Greifer had introduced the pair.
By the time this episode was made, Markstein and McGoohan had long since parted ways in their vision of (and opinion of) the series, which offers the possibility that Markstein felt his friend needed to hide behind a pseudonym to avoid rejection by McGoohan. But Greifer was a good friend to both, which makes that theory highly improbable.
The theme of the episode came from Greifer, who was inspired by his sons’ boredom at school with rote learning: that Speedlearn is ultimately nothing more than rote learning on a very advanced plane may be the root of Greifer’s idea, but the idea could almost have been calculated to appeal to McGoohan’s belief in the series as a form of social criticism of the way the future seemed to be heading.
The General is, of course, the first example of a Revolt episode. There is a token mention of possible release in return for the Professor’s recorder, but Number Six is committed to a course that would exclude that anyway. Instead, he sets himself to oppose Speedlearn – once he understands fully what it comprises – for no other reason than that he believes it should be resisted as an intrusion into people’s lives and minds.
It’s also the first episode in which Number Six has a genuine ally, not that he trusts him at any time. But Number Twelve, played by a young and imperturbable John Castle, is also committed to resisting Speedlearn; it is he who enables Number Six to get into a position where he can wreck the scheme by broadcasting the Professor’s condemnation, though his desperate attempt to save the Professor’s life, which costs him his own, does blur the issue: the General has been destroyed, but an alive and intact Professor could rebuild him. Whose side was he ultimately on?
Overall, the episode is generally enjoyable and thought-provoking in the manner that McGoohan intended, which makes it a success, but there are a lot of issues surrounding it that detract from its general quality.
The first of these must be Colin Gordon as Number Two.
Let’s get a minor matter out of the way first: Gordon may be excellent in both episodes where he plays Number Two, especially given the contrast between the portrayals, but he’s absolute crap in the title sequence, where his voice lacks any force and his ‘derisive laughter’ at the Prisoner’s assertion that he is ‘not a number, but ‘a free man’ is horrible – a shouted out Hah! Hah! hah!
Inevitably, Gordon’s double appearance brings up the ever-lurking question of the true order of the episodes. On the face of it, The General should precede A, B and C, as it did in production: Gordon is a self-confident, undefeated ‘New’ Number Two in the first, and a nervous, quivering wreck who ‘is’ Number Two in the second. And the episodes were filmed in the logical order. But in The General, Gordon says that he and Number Six are ‘old friends’, and he refuses to waste time in pursuing answers that he knows that Number Six will not give, as you might expect from the broadcast order.
And then there’s the milk: the acidic, ulcerous Gordon of A, B and C continually drinks it: in The General, a milk jug makes a symbolic appearance to create a momentary allusion to the earlier-broadcast, but probably later set episode, further blurring the timeline. Uncertainty multiplies – which is only proper for the series, but it creates questions that are, literally unresolvable.
The General itself is another major point. In a series built upon futuristic aspects, the 1967 version of a supercomputer, no matter how consistent it may be with the contemporary technology, is the single most badly dated aspect of the entire series, a complete failure of foresight as to how things would develop. In a series that so successfully anticipated so many aspects of our present day, the General unfortunately yanks at our suspension of disbelief and sends it crashing to the floor.
The storyline is not without its holes, one of which appears in the opening scene: the tannoy summons’ students to a second lecture of a series for which there is already an almost 75% uptake, for which posters appear publicly around the Village, and Number Six is completely unaware of what is going on until this point? It’s highly improbable: an illogical contrivance intended to facilitate an explanation for the audience.
And later, when Number Six infiltrates the Administration building, whilst he’s clearly established as getting the relevant pass from Number Twelve, there is another improbability when he turns up in black overcoat, white gloves, black top hat and dark glasses – the Education Board uniform. How does he know what to wear? Where does he get it from? It can’t be Number Twelve, who barely had time to get him to agree to go ahead, and give him the microspore and the pass.
Ah yes, the pass. In amongst the advanced underground security of this mysterious orgamisation that has set up the Village and its surveillance/control systems, we may be forgiven for doubting our eyesight when the pass system into the Administration building appears to be a children’s toy. It’s a ‘snatch box’, a Japanese toy of the period, which McGoohan himself asked to be included. It’s undeniably cute, though its charms are exhausted on the first use. The pass – a small circular token – is placed in a slot. A lid on a box lifts very slowly, a plastic arm with a tiny gripping hand extending oh so slowly towards the token until, at the moment it grasps it, the arm shoots back out of sight and the lid slams down.
And the ending. Number Six beats the General with the unanswerable question, ‘Why?’ It is indeed unanswerable, but it’s also very sophomorish, and something of a pseudo-impressive method of winning the game that, after the bells, whistles, smokes and explosions, looks a little unconvincing.
After my recent post about location filming, this is an instructive episode to consider. At first glance, it seems – especially in its opening sequences – to be full of external filming in Portmeriron. But it doesn’t take too much of a closer look to realise just how much of this is stock footage. The overhead shots of the Village, the shots of the helicopter criss-crossing the Village, even the ‘street scene’ showing the approach to the Administration building, are all stock or repeated footage (the last of these was originally shot for Arrival as part of the Prisoner’s first visit to the Town Hall: it’s probably a consequence of that featuring two top-hatted figures that the black uniform for the Education Board was required).
The only purpose-shot filming at Portmeirion features extras only, chasing the Professor’s double along the beach, with McGoohan’s double shot from behind in the foreground. Everything else, the beach scenes, the café, are exterior sets constructed at Borehamwood.
It’s also unfortunate that John Castle’s part should be as Number Twelve, the very next episode after The Schizoid Man. Two as-yet-undealt-with episodes had been filmed since that Number had assumed prominence: hardly enough for John Castle’s character to have become an established Village inmate, but far more plausible than the seven days that would have separated these episodes on original broadcast.
This is another factor to be considered in trying to fathom out the proper order of episodes.
Harking back to The Schizoid Man, this episode explains the then Number Two’s reference to reporting to The General, a rare example in the series of inter-episode continuity.
According to Robert Fairclough’s The Prisoner – The Original Scripts Volume 1, The General was the episode which underwent the least changes between page and performance, and indeed, except in details, Greifer has captured the entire story in his script.
One change, made on budgetary grounds, does blur the storyline: in Act 2, in the Professor’s home, the several busts uncovered by Number Six were originally to be wax effigies, which makes his subsequent decision to batter the Professor’s skull in to be far less shocking. Deduction from evidence already offered to the audience is always a better option than left-field guesswork. Admittedly, the moment offers a televisual jolt, which is usually good, but it’s at the expense of the logic, and therefore the credibility, of the story.
By the time The General and A, B and C, were finished, only two episodes of the original ‘series 1’ remained to be filmed. The next episode broadcast would be the last to be made by the original production team, and was intended to provide a pointer towards the style of ‘series 2’.But, as we know, things didn’t work out that way at all.

I call that a bargain

About a decade ago, eBay was brilliant for getting rid of stuff you no longer wanted/needed, for finding things you wanted but someone else didn’t, at prices you could decide that you could afford.

Of course, because it was so good, especially for all us little people who just wanted to deal with each other, they destroyed it by turning it into a commercial selling machine for commercial sellers, and running it for the big at the expense of the little. You can find what you want still, but you’re only ever going to pay shop prices for it.

Not this month, however. Twice in this month, I’ve picked up expensive, high quality items that have been on my Wish List for years, but which have always been too expensive to justify, given my limited income.

Both these items were three volume hardback slip-cased editions and both were auctions. First, there was the original edition of Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls, which you usually can’t find for less than £45, even used, which I won for just under £16 – and it was still shrink-wrapped!

And today, after an impatient week’s watching, I’ve won The Complete Calvin & Hobbes, for a mere £34, an absolutely brilliant figure given that the minimum price you see on it for Buy It Nows or Amazon is £67 – especially pleasing as I was prepared to go up to £47, and prepared to be outbid even at that.

So that works out as £112 of books for only £50! If I get an equally good bonus this month, does anyone know where I can get some seriously rare R A Laffertys at similar rates?

Discovering Dortmunder: That Shared Chapter

So, here’s the deal. After writing about Drowned Hopes, and its shared chapter with Joe Gores’ 32 Cadillacs, I got curious for the first time about the other side of the coin, and what this shared chapter means in the other book. Using that tainted source of cheap books, Amazon, I ordered a copy of 32 Cadillacs for the princely sum of 1p, and my curiosity is now satisfied.
32 Cadillacs is a relatively early part of Gores’ DKA series, the DKA being Dan Kearney Associates, a San Francisco based firm of repomen. Which, for those unfamiliar with the term, means that their job is to repossess cars whose owners have fallen behind on the payments. And, whilst not technically being private detectives, having to use all the skills of such beings when dealing with skip-traces, i.e., tracking down delinquent car owners who have fled into the night.
Personally, whilst I’ll read anything readable once, I can’t imagine wanting to read a whole series, but then I’m not American, and I don’t have the same kind of relationship with my cars, and especially in the symbolic sense of how they relate to my masculinity/psycho-sexual self-image. This sort of stuff just goes deeper with Brother Jonathan.
Either way, Gores, like other crime-writers before him, was a repoman and a PI for many years so all the stuff that happens in his books is based on actual incidents, which much less tweaking than  you might fondly imagine. Not that I found myself boggling at, well, anything in this novel, not like in Homicide – Life on the Street, where some of the crimes are utterly bizarre, yet are based, sometimes word for word, on a book of non-fiction.
Anyway, to 32 Cadillacs: the story starts by setting up an ingenious scam by two tribes of Gypsies to simultaneously acquire 32 Cadillacs. Their purpose, apart from the fact that Gyppos (I am using the word bandied about freely in the book, this once) scam the Gadje as a way of life, is because the King of the Gypsies is dying as a result of a fall, so the Gypsies will need to choose a new King, or Queen, and everyone is seeking to impress the outgoing King, who will choose his successor.
(The back cover blurb promises “the ultimate scam of all”, and you don’t have to read far to realise that the King is not going to die, he’s just scamming the entire world).
But there are 32 Cadillacs that require repo-ing, which means that Dan Kearney puts his top men (and one woman) on it, and, give or take some sub-plots and a generous amount of Gypsy – let’s say Rom instead – scamming, that’s more or less the story.
Where our favourite gang come in is incredibly late in the story, chapter 42, pp 304-311 out of 335. As we already know, from Drowned Hopes, the Dortmunder gang come into this because of Andy Kelp’s propensity for stealing cars with MD plates. On this occasion, the Cadillac might have Doctor’s plates, but they’re fake, part of a Rom scam.
The guy trailing this particular Cadillac is Ken Warren, who we only know from Drowned Hopes as having a serious speech impediment, that makes him sound like Donald Duck. Warren’s only just been taken on at DKA, to cover the ordinary cases whilst the top team binge on Cadillacs. Warren turns out to be a phenomenal repo machine, breezing through repos in quantity and quality, which is why he’s seconded to the Cadillac team.
We already know what happens: the action and the dialogue are identical to Drowned Hopes and this brief chapter is an hilarious insert into a story that, according to the cover blurb, was supposed to be funny, but which wasn’t making me laugh. Even when they’re being looked at from the outside, the Dortmunders are inherently absurd and recognisable, and Gores sort of sums this up by having Warren leave the scene deflated that he hasn’t had anything resembling a fight to get the Caddy, and thinking that the only one who got things right in that episode was Tom Jimson.
Funnily enough, the scene is funnier and works better in 32 Cadillacs  than in Drowned Hopes. In both books, it’s an in-joke, albeit a big in-joke, but in Westlake’s book it’s wholly unrelated to the story, and it’s an interruption to the flow, whilst in Gores’ book, it’s an episode that, whilst calling attention to itself in a manner that interrupts the story, is structurally more acceptable, because the book is strongly episodic in its nature.
I’m reluctant to be dogmatic about this, since this is the only shared chapter I’ve ever come across, but my immediate impression is that they’re not really a good idea, because they are so detachable. The scene is more naturalistic in 32 Cadillacs but calls attention to itself in a slightly ‘how clever am I?’ manner but is an irrelevancy in Drowned Hopes. In both cases, the book stops whilst you admire the trick. And even if you don’t know that this is going on, the atmosphere changes as the two completely different milieu drift past each other, and you’re jolted, ever so slightly, out of the reality of whichever book you’re reading, which is always detrimental to the story.
I can think of circumstances in which the trick could be employed more seriously, and thus more successfully, but unless the authors were collaborating to an unlikely degree in their separate plotting, I can’t see it working as an integral part of both stories. As a serious part of the plot of one, and a convenient moment in another (e.g., disturbance created in book A to further protagonist’s plans also provides cover for protagonist in book B, who just happens to be in the same place), but it would take a lot of hard work to stop the exercise being, well, just a diversion.
At least I know now. And as for Gores’ work, based on this single example, it’s ok but it doesn’t pull me back for more. And, to be honest, the description of the activities of the Rom in this book as being a racial thing, does repel me.
Back to the Dortmunder gang!

Saturdays and SOTS

The voice of authority and authenticity

It’s Saturday morning as, just as I have for the vast majority of Saturday mornings over the last dozen years, I’m listening to Radio 2 and Brian Matthews presenting another edition of Sounds of the Sixties.
But it’s one of those Saturdays again, that are not just uninteresting to someone of my tastes, but which have become positively irritating, which now leaves me on edge throughout the first twenty minutes of the programme, waiting to see how it’s going to be. And it always starts the weekend off the wrong way.
The programme’s been around for thirty years this year. Each year, the music gets further and more distant, more of the musicians leave us, but the songs are still what they also were, and still as fresh as paint, especially for someone like me, who missed the Sixties, musically – all bar the last ten days,actually.
I used to listen to it a bit in the Eighties, when it still felt soul-crushingly wrong to listen to a show on Radio 2, on my Mam’s radio channel, but I’d forgotten it had even existed by the Saturday morning in 2001 when we were heading north up the M6 and found it by accident.
The programme had changed fundamentally by then. Brian Matthews, with his warm, velvety voice, and his authoritative friendliness, had been in the seat for over a decade, and the show had evolved from being an eternal re-run of those great and glorious, legendary and somewhat familiar hits.
They still strutted their stuff for the ear, but now they shared equal time with the obscure and the unheard: singers and bands who released singles that didn’t make it, until the label dropped them, or they called it a day. B-sides that showed a different aspect to the music of the stars. EP and LP tracks.
There was a feature running,that had been going for ages, “The A to Z of The Beatles”. It was what it said on the tin: every song the Beatles had ever recorded, in alphabetical order. But not just the songs: each one was accompanied by something pertinent to it, interviews, talks, stunts, contemporaneous or subsequent. Not just every Beatle song there could be, but a splendidly knowledgeable, researched, insightful guide to each one.
But it was those obscurities that made the show, the sheer volume, the wealth of Sixties music that, after all this time, I still hadn’t heard. It was the other half of the Sixties, what you had to have been there to have heard, because it never made it into the selective memory, the official explanation of the Sixties.
And if it wasn’t hard to understand why this hadn’t made it then or wasn’t honoured now, the show was full of unbelievable songs and performances, music that should have and in a better world would have been part of the picture that was left behind for is to see: unknown slices of awesomeness that had your ears hurtling across the room, shrieking, “My God, why hast thou kept me from hearing this this forty years past?”
Put that down to the man who compiled the playlist, then-Producer, Roger “The Vocalist “ Bowman. Give credit to Matthews, whose years of experience, and presence throughout the very time of this music,enables him to pass on details about these obscure figures, those who never got to be a part of the dialogue. However much you may ‘know’ that the information he relates has been researched for him, Matthews always makes you feel that he knows all this from back then.
But Bowman had a knack, a gift of finding those incredible unknowns, and dropping them into the programme in a manner that suggested that they belonged, indubitably, with their more famous cousins.
Sadly, Bowman moved on in 2007, by which time Sounds of the Sixties was no longer a BBC production but the work of an independent company. And I mean no disrespect to his successor, Phil “The Collector” Swern, but the programme has never quite been as good since.
Just take some time to think about what the producer has to do. On the surface, it’s simple: just programme two hours of music that was recorded between 1 January 1960 and 31 December 1969 (or which was a re-issued chart hit in that period). This allows the programme to feature songs that were successful in 1970,providing they were actually recorded before the cut-off, and also those previously unissued tracks that crop up on CD compilations in the 21st Century.
But what is Sixties music?
Is it unrepentant rock’n’roll, refusing to go quietly? The safe, tame, plasticised pop pre-Beatles? The Trad boom? Merseybeat? The bluesy rock of the Stones? The explosive, energetic, soul-inflected Mods? Surf music? Electric folk-rock? Dylan? Presley? That mid-Sixties burst of energetic, creative music inspired by Pirate Radio? Tamla Motown? Stax Soul? Bluebeat? Psychedelia? The young mothers sex appeal of Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck? The heavily-orchestrated uptempo pop of the Love Affair and The Marmalade? Reggae and Trojan? The British Blues Boom?
Well, it’s a stupid question because it’s all of those and all those I haven’t mentioned. But the point is that the Sixties is not one homogenised, generic thing but rather a myriad of Sixties, and it takes an extraordinarily broad ear for any one person to love all of it.
I know I don’t. If you were to tailor a SOTS to my tastes, it would be about 75% loaded with music between 1966-69 (and Thunderclap Newman’s Something in the Air would probably be scheduled every other week), and entire ice ages would pass between plays for anything pre-Beatles. Or Elvis and Cliff.
(A story: one time the programme had a feature whereby it played every Sixties hit by Messrs Presley and Richard, in order, on a weekly basis. These were the fourth and fifth tracks on “Side 1” – i.e. the first hour. During this duet I would go downstairs and make a cup of tea for my wife. Unfortunately, and inadvertently, I created a Pavlovian response: every time she heard Elvis or Cliff, she wanted tea!)
Obviously, you can’t run a Sounds on the Sixties based on my preferences, and that goes for everyone else in the show’s millions of “Avids” (avid listeners). We all want something different, and compiling the playlist becomes a balancing act, trying to satisfy as many tastes as you can.
The programme has always had ‘Features’, like the “A to Z of the Beatles”, that give a certain structure to the show, features that change from time to time.
There was the fascinating and frequently bizarre “A to Z of One-Hit Wonders”, a weekly feature playing every single top 40 hit by artists who had only one hit in the Sixties, which revealed it’s own fair share of obscurities, including a fair number of ‘songs’ that were less hidden gems than jaw-droppingly unfathomable … things … that had you doubting the sanity of the people who’d actually bought this record. This feature got re-named something incredibly woolly after SOTS found itself playing David Bowie as a ‘One-Hit Wonder’.
And, maybe twice a year, the show would run specials, where the middle hour was devoted to a complete replay of the US Top Twenty of that week in a given year: I still remember one from 1968 where the Number One was Groovin’ by the Young Rascals, which was not only perfect in itself, but utterly fascinating when heard in the context of what else surrounded it at that moment in time.
Swern has continued the programme’s long-standing balance between the famous and the obscure, and a good third of the track-listing is taken up by listeners’ requests. Even I have had a mention on the show, attached to this example of the instrumental that always takes us up to the Nine O’Clock News.
But it’s not been the same. Swern simply does not have the knack of discovering the amazing obscurities that Bowman had. Nowadays, if the programme features a fresh, bright, exciting piece of little known music, it’s inevitably something I found on YouTube about six months earlier.
What I don’t like about SOTS now is the frequency with which there are editions that are thoroughly biassed towards the first half of the Sixties, like today’s show. After leading off with The Marmalade’s 1968 no. 1, Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, there were only two other tracks out of seventeen in the first hour that post-dated 1965.
In the second half, that number improved to five out of a further eighteen tracks.
To be fair, this is the first time for a couple of months that this has happened, but there have been spells in the past when several weeks have gone by with the programme barely venturing its head above the 1965 parapet.
I’ve contacted the programme about this, and received a pleasingly prompt response from Swern, who denies any bias towards the early – or indeed any – part of the Sixties. It wouldn’t be so bad if there were editions that were conspicuously weighted towards the late Sixties as opposed to the early. I’ve never detected any to any appreciable, let alone regular degree, though being honest requires me to consider that I might not actually notice that kind of show.
I also raised concerns about a new feature that has crept in unannounced and unacknowledged, which is the show’s new habit of a big band ending. Week in, week out, tracks by the likes of Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Cleo Laine. It’s music that’s recorded in, but which is not of the Sixties.
In fact, to be blunt about it, it’s music that rock’n’roll and everything that flowed from it, that the entire Sixties ethos was in rebellion against. It’s music by and for people who loathed and despised pop and rock, people who looked down on Sixties music as cheap, and nasty, and unmusical, and tasteless. It’s our parent’s music.
There may be a place for this in the programme, as part of the panoply of the Sixties, but not as a regular feature, week in, week out. And as a closing feature, it’s an utter disaster. It’s my parents, coming in and sneering at everything I’ve been listening to and being enriched by, and they’re saying ‘Get that rubbish off, this is proper music, not that awful noise you listen to, and they get to have the last word.
It devalues everything played up to that point. We ought to be going out of the programme on a high, on something quintessentially of the time that makes us tune into the programme in the first place, and not something our parents would want to make us listen to instead.
Swern has not been convinced by my argument, but has confirmed that the feature is not permanent, and will be replaced in due course. I hope it will be soon, because it drags down a programme that, on days like this, is already flat and empty for the likes of me.
Although I suppose it could be bloody Elvis and Cliff instead.