The Infinite Jukebox: Martha and The Vandellas’ ‘Dancing in the Street’

When Motown get it right, as they did on more than one occasion in the Sixties, they get it right to an extent where the mere idea of someone else covering a song feels almost like a blasphemy. How can anyone imagine, for the least instant, that they could improve upon some of the greatest music of our times?
But still they do. Sometimes, the motives are pure, the mere desire to touch the hem of immortality by echoing what is beyond your ability to exceed. Not a new version, but as close to an echo as you can make it, just to be part, for three minutes at a time, of something that so strongly has the life force in it.
Something like Martha and the Vandellas, and ‘Dancing in the Street’.
Let that horn riff rip, calling to arms, calling everyone to the dance in tones impossible to resist. The horns summon and the beat transfixes and Martha and her Vandellas make it plain that everyone, absolutely everyone, is called to the spell. Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat? Summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in the street.
We here in Britain, the majority of us, even those whose ears were only just opening up to the sound of any beat at all, found ourselves answering to the call in 1969 when ‘Dancing in the Street’ was one of a run of reissues of Motown songs overlooked by us in mid-decade. We bought it back then, but only in enough numbers to scrape the Top Thirty at no. 28. In 1969, we gave it it’s due due and lifted it to no. 4.
The song hadn’t changed but it’s context had. Martha Reeves always stressed that it was only and ever a party song. Micky Stevenson came up with the idea whilst watching kids dancing in the water of breached fire hydrants, Marvin Gaye persuaded him from ballad to dance – a ballad? – and it became one of those songs indelibly connected with Motown and hot summer streets forever.
But in 1964, things were different. Kennedy was dead, Johnson was President, determined to pass his great Civil Rights legislation. Many people, organisers among them, coded the word ‘Dancing’ into ‘Rioting’. In Britain, some clown of a journalist asked Reeves to her outraged face if she were a militant leader.
And it’s there in the beat, there in the horns, there in the call to be out on the street. Berry Gordy and Motown and Martha Reeves meant nothing but dancing, losing yourself in the heat of the day, launching yourself into and out of the spouting, cold water, jumping and jigging and jiving because with a song like this there is nothing more right than losing yourself in the moment and letting that moment stretch until forever.
You cannot improve on perfection, not even if you’re Mick Jagger and David Bowie. You can only hope to look up to it, to share in a tiny corner of its perfection, to become, for a few minutes, a part of immortality. Because wherever two or more are gathered together in a club or a disco or a party with music, the first note of those horns will draw all of you together, and take you to a blazing hot Detroit street where everybody dances because it’s the most fun thing ever.

Sunday Watch: My World – And Welcome To It – e10-12: A Friend of the Earth/Maid in Connecticut/Native Wit

My world

These aren’t the three strongest episodes of My World – And Welcome To It‘s short life, especially as this little set is bookended by what’s essentially the same story, but William Windon’s slightly grumpy but essentially benign performance as John Monroe (a stand-in for the inimitable James Thurber), added to Lisa Gerritsen’s beautifully portrayal as daughter Lydia, a serious child continually concerned about whether the example her father is setting her is one she should be following, is still the heart of this oddball little comedy.

I’ll pair episodes 10 (A Friend of the Earth) and 12 (Native Wit) together as these are essentially one story, focussed upon an unexpected rivalry between Monroe, a cartoonist and thus a professional humourist, and Zeph Leggin (guest-star Arthur Hunnicut), a crackerbarrel amateur comic with a local reputation as a joke-teller. It starts innocuously enough when the hinges on the Monroe gate start squeaking, John hasn’t got the practical skills to fix it and is led to the town carpenter, the self-same Zeke.

We recognise Zeke instantly. He’s got ‘local character’ written all over him, a constant teller of old jokes in a slow Southern drawl, and snappy little punchlines that raise a laugh each time from his coterie of admirers. A feud arises when ol’ Zeph uses his humour to put John down, when he spends more time, at a dollar and a half an hour, entertaining his dummies than doing his work and, on John’s side, in making Lydia and Ellen laugh more than him. John keeps trying to get the upper hand, but can’t possibly win, for reasons explained in Zeph’s return engagement.

The main reason is that Monroe/Thurber’s humour is tilted to the sophisticated and the surreal. It’s a credit to the episode that it doesn’t overtly say that John’s gags go over their local audience’s heads, and that only John directly criticises Zeph’s humour as bad and old jokes. Actually, they’re gently funny, thanks in large part to Arthur Hunnicut’s slow and laconic style of telling, which ably supplements the point. The first e pisode ends rather inconclusively with Lydia coming to her father to apologise for laughing at Zeph’s jokes, and John properly telling her that she has nothing to apologise for, that he doesn’t hate her for laughing, and that it is he who should apologise to her for taking things too seriously and losing his sense of humour.

Nevertheless, that leaves the ‘feud’ in mid-air so the show went back to Zeph in episode 12. This rotated around John and Lydia’s Sunday walk to the drugstore for ice cream, a ritual undertaken not out of enjoyment of time tohgether but out of ritual. Unfortunately, it means crossing the gauntlet of Zeph and his bunch of chortling rubes (you really cannot get out of the unpleasant undercurrent of the salt of the earth real folk putting them city slickers with their high-falutrin’ graces in their place). Zeph’s targetting John now, rubbing his nose in it.

Which leads John to amateur psychologist hour with his fellow writer Philip Jensen (Henry Morgan) who neatly analyses the difference in the two sides’ humour in a way that is spot on accurate without destroying the humour. Zeke depends on a dummy, a straight man, to set up his ‘snappers’, and is forcing John into that role. Whereas John’s humour is all-at-once, a cartoon, an entirety that doesn’t need a patsy to deliver.

John immediately sees the point and spends a week preparing to shoot Zeph down by studying responses that undercut his snapper by delivering it as a response. Funnily enough, we see Zeph rehearses his set-pieces, including refining the most effective punch-line to a set up for a single gag, that John anticipates brilliantly. All of a sudden, he’s knocked off his perch, and with devastating ease.

John basks in his triumph only briefly, however, until he learns that the humiliated Zeph is preparing to leave town, having lost face. Understanding that people do have their natural place and that he has upset some kind of natural order, he teaches Zeph a whole bunch of his old quips, and teaches him to remove the cruelty of his old approach by removing the need for a stooge and making his jokes self-depracating. Result: Zeph becomes an even bigger local phenomenon, and even tries to get John to become his scriptwriter!

The episode in between was mostly a two-hander between Windom and guest star Queenie Smith as new housekeeper-cum-maid, Mrs Simpkins, whilst Ellen and Lydia spend a weekend away in Connecticut. The gag is that Mrs Simpkins is terribly afraid of everything, but especially electricity, leading her to try to do everything manually with predictably disastrous results. That’s until a very poor prop bat on a string gets into the house, flying about and squeaking unconvincgly but, more importantly, putting the wind up John.

I kept waiting for the obvious moral to be drawn, his realisation that everybody has something they’re unreasonably fearful of, and going soft on her, but instead the episode went for the opposite: John pretends he’s trying to defend Mrs Simpkins from the bat and is conquering his fears to protect her, and she genuinely conquers her fear, and starts to plug in the toaster!

Not the best, not the funniest, but I still like it, and I still have more than half the season to go.

Film 2020: Yesterday – a Postscript


(I’ve added the following to my review of the Richard Curtis film Yesterday (, which I looked at in October 2020, but I’m also posting it here as otherwise no-one will know it’s there)

You’d think that, after my response to this film, I wouldn’t be going any deeper into it, but an hour or so ago I watched a YouTube takedown of it by a proper Beatles enthusiast, who was a lot more savage and pointed in his criticism of the film. Watching that, I was alerted to a deleted scene where Jack appears on The James Corden Show, alongside the beautiful Ana de Armas, is prompted to write something for her on the spot and, of course, comes up with ‘Something’, to the usual response of humanity to a song that’s influenced countless other songs and musicians in the past fifty years. It’s more of the same, only different, in keeping with the film’s care-less and thoughtless approach to its subject. Pah, I say, pah (she is rather lovely, though).

But in searching for this clip I discovered one of the Alternate Ending, which I watched with curiosity. Whilst the film offered us the complete rip-each-others-clothes-off cliche, entireky as you would expect from a Richard Curtis script, the Alternate Ending was actually quite beautiful. It was quiet, delicate, and something that would occur between actual human beings. It was all about Ellie driving Jack home from Wembley to Lowestoft, about the two being quiet in each other’s company, about Jack singing a song he’d actually written (actually, given that it was pure Ed Sheeran, it didn’t come over as being all that original but it suited the setting), getting home in the early light and not jumping frantically into bed at once.

No, it felt utterly real. They made a cup of tea, sat in the garden sipping it, Ellie confirmed Jack had meant the song as a proposal and accepted it, and then they went to bed. Unlike film characters, it showed the patience of real, complex people, who understand that there is no need to rush, that everything is ok, that there’s wonder ahead and there’s going to be a very long time in which to explore it. So much fucking better, Curtis, but you can’t reduce that to lowest common demonitor stuff, can you?

Wierdly, the scene kept the Harry Potter line, although this time they gave it to Ellie and, in a clever but obscure twist, it’s Jack who asks who Harry Potter is. But instead of Ellie rushing to thre internet, she just stands there for a few seconds before saying just some nobody and going to him.

I’m not saying the Alternate Ending would have somehow magically transformed Yesterday or made it a better or more considered film, rather it’s too good for the film, which is no doubt why it was dumped. In its way, it makes the metaphysics of what actually happened even more convoluted. But it would have been a bright spot, and there were precious few of those in the film itself.

The Age of Barry Smith: Conan the Barbarian

conan 1

Though I have little or no interest in reading or writing about anything published by Marvel Comics, I did take the opportunity amongst my other recent acquisitions of comics runs on DVD to obtain the first 24 issues of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian. Comics aficionados will instantly recognise this as encompassing the run of artist Barry Smith (with one or two issues by other hands when Smith first, and temporarily, left the series) .
Smith’s Conan is still highly regarded to this day, fifty years later, and I had every intention of writing about the run in my usual fashion. But re-reading it again was uncannily like the time I re-read Conan’s near-contemporary and equally applauded series, the Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams run on Green Lantern: the art is fine, though not as good as its cracked up to be, but the stories are shit.
Some of it is that Conan was brought to Marvel by Roy Thomas, in the face of great indifference from the powers that be, and it is time to recognise that I am permanently immune to the writing of Roy ‘the Boy’. That’s partly down to the awkward convolutions of his plotting, and his habit of twisting a story into almost fractal contortions to tie it to something that it didn’t need, just because Thomas wanted to make a link, but mostly it’s the words themselves.

conan Frost

It’s no secret, Roy Thomas is verbose. He always has been. His writing goes on, filling up panels with words. His narration is comprehensive, leaving nothing for the reader to infer or imply, and his dialogue is unnecessarily comprehensive, with people telling each other and themselves everything that they are and what is going on, leaving nothing for the pictures to do but peer round the edges of the speech balloons.
And, oh God but does that irritate on Conan. There isn’t a person in the book, down to the least important moron with a sword who, despite being no more than cannon-fodder for Conan’s blade, insists on announcing his name and which of Robert E. Howard’s imaginary countries he comes from. The effect of this is like watching a play in which every spear-carrier is an inveterate ham, eager to ensure you know who he is and half his life history before he carries his spear off.
Though I’m almost entirely unfamiliar with Howard’s work, I have read enough to recognise that Thomas’s mannered narration was trying to ape, and frequently directly use, the original writer’s prose, in which case I am also ill-equipped to enjoy this, because I am cold towards the fantasy of Conan, the thief, the reaver, the slayer. I have no internal urge to see myself as a hyper-confident bully-boy, contemptuous of everything around me for not being his harsh, brooding Cimmeria (why the hell did he leave the place if it’s better than everywhere else?) and filled with the urge to kill everyone who crosses his path (maybe he just can’t stand their appalling habit of announcing who and what they are, and dear god, those crappy, ridiculous names).
And at this distance it’s very noticeable indeed that the steel-thewed lusty barbarian has a great deal more enthusiasm for sticking a stiff broadsword intro a male body than a stiff… anything else into a female one. Conan continually turns up around fit, sexy, barely-clad girls but only gets to fuck the odd one here or there. But then we are dealing with America and its greater comfort about violence than sex.

conan 19

It’s perverse, isn’t it? Here I am, collecting this run for the artist and the art, and all I can write about is the writer. But I think that alone shows how much the writing, and its constant straining for effect, hinders enjoyment of the art.
Conan was, of course, where Barry (not yet Windsor-) Smith grew up. The early issues are penny-plain. Smith is still showing a heavy Jack Kirby influence, especially facially, though his own mannerism of mouths pulled open to such an extent that the jaw must seriously ache is a distraction, over-used and eventually irritating for its repetitiveness. His art is relatively crude, but elegant in intention. Smith’s Conan is sleek, pantherish (as Howard/Thomas is wont to emphasise) but lacks the heft John Buscema would later bring to the character. Smith’s poses are frequently mannered, and disguise a certain amount of anatomical inaccuracy, brought about by the employment of such eye-catching angles. And Smith, with the exception of one half-length short in issue 12, printed directly but muddily, from pencils, is paired with inkers far less talented but, at that point in his career, much steadier and professional, who do a decent job. Sal Buscema would not have much ground for objections at being described as a good meat-and-potatoes action cartoonist, but he does a strong job of rendering Smith’s lines without too much loss of detail.
But the pleasure in reading Conan is still in watching Barry Smith’s art develop and grow on the page before you. The first three issues are primitive but just as soon as Marvel promoted the title to monthly with issue 4, based on initial good sales (which started to sag immediately, with Thomas having to argue Stan Lee out of cancelling the series three issues later), Smith’s art began to expand. The mannered figures and the uncertain anatomy, not to mention the open mouths, were still present but now his art was catching up to his imagination. His backgrounds, his architecture, his cities and temples, towers, gardens and palaces began to proliferate, more detailed, more opulent, more exotic. Howard’s Hyboria began to feel like a real place.
The monsters also proliferated, improbable, tedious but increasingly more beautifully drawn. They still clogged the pages up with juvenile terrors, but that was what the paying customers were paying for and I am as out of step as I always was.
The art improved issue by issue without, at this stage, wholly abandoning Smith’s early Kirby fixation. As I said, his pencils for a short story in issue 12 were so heartbreakingly beautiful that Thomas couldn’t bear to muddy them up with inks, only for the technology of the time to do the job for him shooting from the pencils. The true beauty of the art was only revealed when Thomas reprinted the job in one of the black-and-white magazines: God it was gorgeous, though the story was still bloody silly.

conan sonja

Highlight for me, given that I went through a massive Michael Moorcock jag in my university days, was the two-part team up in issues 14-15 with Elric the Albino, plotted by Moorcock himself, and stabbed in the back by Thomas and his insistence that Conan be morally more pure than everyone he met. Incidentally, it amuses me that Marvel and DC were still telling artists and writers that it was legally impossible for them to own their own creations, that the company and only the company could own them, and here was Elric openly exploding that lie by staying the creation and ownership of Michael Moorcock. As indeed the entire Conan comic refuted that piece of crap. And nobody thought to point that out.
That was supposedly Smith’s swan-song, ‘wanting to move on to other things’, especially as Conan had been bounced back down to bi-monthly. Except that the series was once again monthly from its next issue and Smith was there in a colourised version of a beautiful twelve pager first published in the magazines, except that the beautiful naked girl wrapped in gossamer had to be entwined in much thicker and durable gossamer and her hair grow to immense lengths to dangle across areas that hair normally only dangles in comicbooks. And after a two-parter by Gil Kane, Smith’s return in issue 19 was heralded as ‘a change of heart’. I personally believe none of it.
On the other hand his art had undergone a quantum leap in intricacy and imagination in just those three short months, although the impact was marred by a supposed deadline issue that meant only the first half of the story being inked and the second half shot from Smith’s pencils again, only this time they were so fragile and delicate that the linework could not be picked up.
That, and the need to reprint issue 1 in issue 22, were the only flaws in that last short run, at least so far as the art was concerned. The writing was unchanged. Conan was still a miserable bugger with a chip on both shoulders, knocking off a dozen men an issue or thereabouts for such heinous crimes as breathing in his direction. Or away from him, for that matter.
Issue 23 introduced a red-tressed warrior woman called Red Sonja, who would go on to better things and much more-abbreviated chainmail, but it also included some of the most unsympathetic inks Smith had been smothered by all series, presumably from Chic Stone as the other two inkers had been all over the series.
Which left one last issue, justly inked by Smith himself, teaming Conan with Sonja, and right gorgeous it was, and even the writing didn’t offend, so that makes Barry Smith’s last issue of Conan the Barbarian worth the rest of the run alone.
And that is what I have to say on the subject of barbarians.

Preston Front: s03 e04 – Spock’s Dilated Pupil


The final series of Preston Front contains my two favourite gags from the entire series. We’ve already had the one about the minesweeping moles who couldn’t get their desks close enough to the blackboard, which nobody else seems to find as remotely funny as I do, and now in the open to the midway episode we had the other, and it’s irreproducible.

In a bid to promote the fortunes of the failing ‘Roman Holiday’ Chinese Restaurant, Mr Wang has introduced Chinese Fortune Telling. This takes the form of three Tarot Cards. Hodge gets the ones that tell him he finds love easily but has to fight for what is lasting, Spock (a teacher) is held up as a shaper of men. And Lloydy. Lloydy gets The Car, The Idiot and The Crash. At which point there is a short pregnant pause before Adrian Hood, with an intonation that cannot be conveyed by the mere words, responds… ‘Point Taken’.

It’s no disrespect to the rest of the episode that it contained nothing that matched up to that moment. What it also didn’t contain was any follow-up on the devastating disasters of last week. No Carl Rundle, his secret love for Ally exposed. No Jeanetta and Kirsty and the unexpected collapse of their relationship with Declan. These were all left to stew in the background whilst Tim Firth concentrated upon a two-strand farce, and the raising, or lowering of another source of utter despair and soul-deep pain.

No, it’s not Hodge, apologising to Mel Polson when he discovers she’s a waitress at the Roker Bridge Garden Centre’s new tearooms, nor later on when he sees her in a pretty dress, a change of romantic heart that she rightly categorises to his face as ‘weak’. No, it’s Eric and it’s because Dawn, who he worships and adores and looks up to as in every way better than him, having been laid off from her job as a waitress at the ‘Roman Holiday’, is also a waitress at the Roker Bridge Garden Centre’s new tearooms.

Eric’s problem is that, as a natural response to his whole life so far, he has convinced himself he is a lifelong loser, a nobody, a nothing, pondscum. And Dawn is a winner, beautiful, bright, can be anything she wants and he is the anchor dragging her down, to his level. Besmirching her. What Eric can’t see, through his shit-tinted spectacles, is that Dawn is happy. The pressure is off, she can have fun, she has the exact specific guy in all the world she wants to complete her. And that’s Eric.

Keep that in mind. The two elements of the farce are that, when Lloydy buys a clapped-out banger because it’s got a voice computer that tells him when the doors are open, Spock spots the parallel with his idiot pupil Benno, who is nothing, has nothing, ewants nothing (except Wiz, a drug) and who is as close to a human lump as is physically possible with removal of all internal organs. The light of battle shines forth in thje eyes of Spock, Shaper of Men. He will find out what Benno is good at. Unfortunately, he does, and its nicking cars and joyriding.

This blends into Mr Wang’s latest attempt to boost his restaurant: not just papparazzi outside – well, one young, female papparazzo named Ros, an ex-pupil of Spock’s, a self-termed thicko who credits him with the extra care that got her up to a C – but a celebrity guest. This is the Artist Formerly Known As Prince, or rather it’s the Garage Owner Usually Known As Deisel, with three beshaded minders (Lloydy, Eric and Hodge) and two hot, sexy chicks (Ally and Dawn, the latter in, from the bottom up, knee-length white boots, white tights and not very much of a white skirt: I notice these things, you see).

At which point: Benno discovers his vocation as a limo thief, the gang give chase in Lloydy’s irritating car, accidentally intercepting a drugs-dealer with a sawn-off shotgun fearing a reprisal attack, and get arrested en masse, leadimng to a marvellously deadpan reading of Spock’s statement by a Detective, who solemnly warns his that at Xmas, this statement may be copied and read out at every nick in Lancashire.

But I promised you more pain, didn’t I? Dawn’s bubbling with glee at the whole thing, rejoicing in never having been arrested before. But for Eric it’s the final proof of the disaster he’s inflicting upon her. He’s moving out. Dawn’s shock, and her horror, is manifest. She won’t accept it, not over a row, there never were two people in the world more suited to each other than her and Eric. So he tells her he no longer loves her.

Rundle loves Ally. Jeanetta loves Declan. Dawn loves Eric. It’s all going to shit. It’s so desperately sad and fraught, the tears of laughter and just the tears. How will it all end?

Grand Master Westlake – A Career in Crime: The Samuel Holt Era

Dancing Aztecs was the fourth of twelve successive books Donald Westlake published under his own name. Of the next eight to come, only four find their way into this latest post, three of the other four being about the Dortmunder Gang and thus having already been discussed elsewhere on this blog and the other one of the very few Westlake’s I have neither obtained nor am greatly enthused about. The last book is removed in time and space for reasons that will be familiar when I come to it.

W - Enough

There’s some confusion about Enough. It was a blanket title for a short novel called ‘A Travesty’ and a short story called ‘Ordo’. The two tales are currently available in an American reissue under the title Double Feature. I, on the other hand, read it as my second Westlake, after Adios Scherazade, from Didsbury Library, and it is that UK hardback I have got hold of, only to discover that it only contains ‘A Travesty’, a title I’m tempted to use myself. So this post now only gets to deal with that.
‘A Travesty’ isn’t one of Westlake’s better efforts. For one thing, it’s too short, forcing the story to conclude with fewer convolutions than we usually expect. For another, and more importantly, its narrator, Corey Thorpe, like Art Dodge in Two Much is a wholly unsympathetic character. It’s not that he starts his story just as he’s accidentally killed one of his two regular girlfriends, Laura Penney, a small-time actress, nor even that Corey’s first reaction is to blame her for the argument that led him to hit her and her to fall, bang her head on her coffee table and expire. Nor is it the way Corey decides to avoid being held responsible, but clearing all his things from Laura’s apartment, cleaning the scene almost perfectly and leaving for home. These are all things we can get around.
Indeed, we can almost be sympathetic to him when he is blackmailed by private investigator Edgar Jacobson. Jacobson has been hired not by Corey’s estranged wife to gather information for her divorce proceedings, but by Laura’s estranged husband for the same purposes. Jacobson can testify to Corey entering the apartment block with Laura and leaving a couple of hours later looking as guilty as sin on the photo he shows Corey. For $10,000, he can have the negative.
Corey hasn’t got $10,000. By scrubbing round for every cent he can get and, in the last extreme, robbing a bank with a toy pistol that’s an old film prop (Corey is a film reviewer), he raises $9,200 and change, which Jacobson accepts. The PI hands over the negative, shows Corey the report he’s going to file, stating he never went inside at all. Corey accompanies to his offices to ensure the report goes in and is unchangeable. Then he robs Jacobson of all the blackmail money, using the toy pistol.
It’s a neat reverse and we ought to be cheering Corey on for his cleverness, but already we’re not on his side the way it seems we should. Corey gives us a big clue why up front, firstly by his callous manner towards the late Laura, for whom he has no regrets except the inconvenience she’s causing him, and in terms of his general personality, he amplifies this by telling us that when he and his wife separated, she went to his parents for comfort, support and a home, and they willingly give it.
That’s not the comic twist it would otherwise be. Corey is not only completely self-centred but it doesn’t take us very long to work out (as Westlake does not state) that he is one of those irritating bastards who considers himself to be smarter than everyone else around him and who, as a consequence, doesn’t give a damn about anyone but himself.
The Penney murder case runs through the story and provides its comeuppance end. Corey is cleared almost from the first, in part due to Jacobson’s report, but Detective Fred Staples, a film fan who reads Corey’s reviews, is not only chummy to Corey but when he’s called to a murder in the film world, brings Corey along. This is to identify people for Staples and his more hard-headed Partner, Al Bray, but when Corey solves the crime for them, he becomes a lucky charm, an inspired natural detective who gets called in to consult on several other cases, always successfully.
He’s not totally off the hook yet. Jacobson is blackmailing him, sending anonymous notes to the Police which point at Corey. One leads the cops to Corey’s other girlfriend, Kit Markowitz, which in turn turns Kit detective to clear herself. Unfortunately, Kit eliminates everyone who could be the killer except one: Corey. Who has to kill her.
It’s not even his second murder, as he’s had to hit Jacobson over the head with a hammer. That’s three killings without suspicion falling on him, all cleverly covered up. There’s just one fly in the ointment. Corey has done one stupid thing, that ever he recognises as a stupid thing. It involves a beautiful woman and having enthusiastic sex with her. Which directly leads to him being arrested, in fact quite clearly framed, for the very last murder you’d expect the Police to get him for…

W - Castle

Castle in the Air is not one of Westlake’s most highly regarded books. One commentator has suggested that it’s dedication, to the guys and gals of the Internal Revenue Service, is an indicator that the book may have been written in a hurry to discharge a tax bill. Reading the book, that notion is very plausible.
The book is another multiple viewpoint farce, utilising an exaggerated situation that’s at bottom plausible but which is not sufficiently grounded to be believable. It’s in a similar mould to Dancing Aztecs but lacks the latter’s buoyancy, plausibility, sympathetic central characters, and variety.
The situation is that Eustace Dench, an English planner of large-scale crimes conceives the notion to steal a Castle on its way to an Exposition in Paris. The Castle is coming from South America to be put on display, but its value lies in the outstanding amount of loot the country’s dictator is smuggling out of his forlorn country, which is concealed in a number of hollow blocks in the structure. No-one knows which blocks these are so the whole castle has to be dismantled, stone by stone, and removed to be searched at leisure.
Because of the sheer scale of the prize, Dench opts to set up an international consortium of criminal bosses, from England, France, Germany and Italy, each of whom will bring in two assistants to carry out the operation.
There are two drawbacks. The obvious one is that nobody trusts any of the others and everyone is planning to rip all the other teams, and their overall planner boss, off. The contrived drawback, which is the key to the book being a comedy rather than serious on any level, is that, below the level of the bosses, nobody speaks anybody else’s language. And there is a significant figure who only speaks Spanish just to add to the expected Babel.
So, to basic xenophobia, rampant on all sides, we add an overwhelming lack of comprehension. The result is, as I say, farce. Westlake tries to skate through the story quickly, but there’s a limit to how many incidents he can fit in to what’s very much a skeleton plot, there is really only the one joke, taken to the well far too many times to remain interesting, and it’s pretty clear that his heart isn’t totally in this.
And the switch ending falls flat as a consequence.
It’s also a matter for some concern that Westlake seems to think that Bruddy Dunk is an acceptable name for an Englishman, unless it’s his private signal that even he thinks this is a joke, in which case I can forgive him.
It’s fun, to some extent, but to echo the commentator I mentioned above, you really wouldn’t want to read this as your first Westlake. It’s really for completists only and I was warned about it in advance. Even ‘A Travesty’ in Enough is a better introduction to Westlake’s true form.

W - Kahawa

From a book that appears to have been written in haste, Westlake went to a book that clearly took a considerable time to write. Kahawa, named for the Swahili word for Coffee, was a book unlike any Westlake was to write before or after. At nearly 500 pages it was the longest book of his career, and a completely serious one. Though it bases itself upon a crime, and one that took place in real life, it is a big, serious thriller.
Kahawa appeared in 1982. It was not successful but was republished in 1995, with an introduction from Westlake that suggested that heavily-contributory factors were the replacement early on of a supportive editor with one without sympathy for the book, a publisher in turmoil and a publicity department incapable of suggesting anyone might be interested in reading it in the first place. Westlake even comments that when he mentioned to the afore-mentioned editor that it was being republished, the man’s reaction was, “Why?”
The introduction lays out the circumstances in which Westlake agreed to the book, establishing that initially it was meant to be a typical comic crime caper. The original incident was the actual theft of an entire train of coffee from Idi Amin’s Uganda. Westlake recognised that as a natural, albeit one that would require mountains of research. But the more his research led him to the impossible-to-believe reality of life in Idi Amin’s Uganda, of Amin himself and his reign of Terror, the less and less the prospect of making this into a comedy became viable. Westlake quotes himself as telling his wife, “I can’t dance on all those graves.”
So Westlake set out to write an African Adventure, a wholly serious, wide-ranging thriller with a most unlikely central pair in two actual heroes: mercenary and idealist Lew Bradley and pilot Ellen Gillespie, who come into the matter as a couple, break up and take up again at the end. Lew and Ellen are merely primus inter pares is a dozen or so viewpoint characters ranging across nations and sides, one of whom is Amin himself, though we remain outside his head whilst privy to his thoughts as such moments, probably because an objective explanation of his past and his processes can be made to be barely believable.
I single out Lew and Ellen because they are simultaneously the most sane among the cast of characters, but because they are in their ordinary ways both heroes. Westlake doesn’t do heroes, they’re not his forte, and Lew in particular has his flaws, but both share a common decency that marks them out from the usual Westlake character.
Indeed, Westlake does end up treating this pair as heroes, particularly when their escape from Uganda pauses to save two other more or less good guy characters on the way. That’s actually one of the book’s few big flaws: of its sprawling cast, only two die during the book, one of whom is the biggest, baddest villain who isn’t Idi Amin himself. That isn’t at all realistic.
Overall, Kahawa is a big, sprawling book that puts its research onto the page in a readable manner, without being dry about it too often. Westlake holds up his cast in balance, makes the complex plan look workable in practice, and throws in enough difficulties to sustain a Dortmunder novel without ever having to resort to the comedically mundane.
As far as I can tell, it’s a good book of its kind, but then I never read books of its kind, because they hold no interest for me, so I am hardly the best judge of how successful it is. It’s big, it’s time-consuming, it’s best gulped down in big sessions, as much at once as you can, and if Westlake had wanted to change direction in order to pursue commercial success on a Robert Ludlum scale, he had got off to a good start. I’m glad he didn’t, though.

W - Likely

Kahawa was followed by the next Dortmunder book, the fifth of that ilk. After that came A Likely Story, another out-of-character novel for Westlake, but in a completely different vein. Given his comments about how Kahawa was affected by losing its editor midway through the process, it’s not hard to see this novel being inspired by that recent experience. However, this is a two-track story, operating on two different levels, one professional, one personal.
Tom Diskant is our narrator. Tom is a writer: not of any great magnitude or fame, but a never less than competent professional. The book starts off with a list of his credits, which are, to say the least, mixed. It’s the first of January and Tom is out to sell a book to Clarke, Harry and Bourke, in the form of their editor Jack Rosenfarb. Tom’s idea is a Xmas book, to come out as part of the fall list, an anthology of Xmas stories and illustrations, mixing classical and modern stories and reminiscences.
Tom needs this book, or at least he needs the money from it. You see, Tom broke up with his wife, Mary, last year. Tom’s living with Ginger and her children, who’s separated from Lance, who’s living with Helena and her children, whose husband is, etc., etc.. Everyone’s separated. The fly in the ointment is, however, Mary, who won’t accept that Tom has left her for good and refuses to find herself a man.
So what we have here is, effectively, a diary that is a book, simultaneously covering Tom’s attempts to get his Christmas Book up and running, whilst trying to get his wife to accept he isn’t coming back.
In the first instance, after a first stage in getting the book commissioned, and a second in getting solicitation letters sent out, and handling some of the responses, we come to the point at which Tom’s editor Jack Rosenfarb quits for another job. Instantly, his book becomes an orphan, a project wished on another editor whose principal concern is with the books they have introduced themselves. Cue serious trouble.
Westlake’s evidently having fun with the publishing side of things, getting a lot of horror stories out of his system. I don’t think everything is based in his recent, or even personal experience, because when The Christmas Book is passed to initially indifferent and unsympathetic editor Vickie Anderson, neurotically obsessed with her mother, Tom inadvertently solves that problem by semi-accidentally getting her into bed.
With Lance having been thrown out by his girlfriend and temporarily living with Ginger and Tom, the personal life farce starts to slowly amp up. Tom can’t explain to Lance that he’s cheating on Lance’s wife, Ginger gets the impression Vickie’s a fag hag, Lance wants to date her and everything collides in July when people get out of New York for summer break on Fire Island. Tom and Ginger and her kids are already having to share two of their four weeks with Mary and her kids, and when Vickie comes out for the weekend with the galleys for correcting, Tom is surrounded by three bikini-clad women, all of whom he’s slept with. It’s not as appealing as you might think.
And it gets worse. Suddenly, Vickie discovers she’s pregnant – from before Tom, it’s not his – so this time his new editor is a complete idiot, Dewey Heffernan, 150% lacking in nous, discernment and experience and all set to fuck the book up by ordering a full-page drawing from a Heavy Metal artist, without authority, on the assumption that he knows better than Tom what his book needs.
Meanwhile, Tom’s relationship with Ginger is worsening, because Lance is around all the time. He takes to moving his ‘office’ back to Mary’s. Of course, you can see the way this is going.
And all this is before the intrusive, honest but essentially ignorant lawsuit claiming the whole idea of the book has been stolen…
Overall, the book is very enjoyable for what it reveals about the pitfalls of publishing. The rotating marriages bit is considerably more trivial and with the exception of Tom’s wife, Mary, a level-headed and balanced woman who’s expected him to come back all along, none of the players are sympathetic to any degree, and indeed this whole aspect of the book is superficial and trivial. The Eighties would not prove to be the best decade for Westlake’s writing overall.

A Likely Story was followed by a novel called High Adventure, another of those difficult and expensive to get hold of, and coming with no great reputation, so like Ex Officio and Up Your Banners, I’m passing it by. The sixth Dortmunder book followed in 1985, and then Westlake started his experiment with the protected pen-name of Samuel Holt, which back-fired on him as I’ve already recounted. The first set of three Holt books came out across 1986 and 1987, making Westlake’s next book under his own name, and the last for this post, the National Enquirer take-down, Trust Me on This in 1988.

W - Trust

This is a bit of a difficult book to read. There’s a crime in it, a murder, a dead body, shot in the head, on the first page, and a shoot-out conclusion, but that element is very much for and in the background, though you might think it the most important. But learning the relative importance of such matters is but one of, and pretty much the first lesson to be learned by Sara Joslyn, reporter, about eighteen months out of Journalism school, pretty, bright, ambitious and about to learn more lessons than she could possibly have imagined.
For today is Sara’s first day at the Weekly Galaxy, a 5,000,000 circulation supermarket ‘newspaper’ for the great American unwashed, full of stories with only the most tangential relationship to reality, and the grimmest of grim determination on its editors and reporters to get a story on the famous, the notorious, the TV and film stars, the fantasy creatures to all those readers out there. The Weekly Galaxy is practically the dictionary definition of Invasion of Privacy. It is the dead-end job of dead-end jobs in journalism. mainly because once they see the word Galaxy on your resume, it goes to its final resting place in the circular filing cabinet.
So nobody’s interested in Sara’s dead body, which disappears the same day. This particular fact of life is explained to her by her new editor, Jack Ingersoll, a hard-working, prematurely cynical man about thirty, who will in due course tart to fall for Sara (and she for him), who has to train her towards the kind of mindset this kind of gutter press requires (actually, gutters are a step up) whilst being extremely ambivalent about how well she is taking to it.
The most of the book is about the lengths Galaxy goes to get its story, with particular reference to the forthcoming marriage of TV star John Michael Mercer to the complete unknown, unspoilt and thoroughly ordinary Felicia. The Galaxy’s owner is hot for this, and Jack’s team has to face the fact that Mercer hates and loathes the Galaxy and would only co-operate with them if it was about pitching the whole lot into an alligator-filled pool, just before dinnertime.
The whole thing is so OTT it’s impossible to believe, except that Westlake prefaces the book with a short introduction in which he claims the reality is much worse, which leaves you asking yourself How?!
That’s the main flaw in the book. It’s too fantastic, too unbelievable to be credible in any sane world, which leaves very little room to laugh at the excesses, and an equal amount of room to be horrified. That doesn’t mean that the book is in any way uninteresting: if they really do behave like this at the National Enquirer then I for one would consider filling the obvious commercial gap in setting up alligator filled pools for the use of affronted people.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: s01 e03 – The Quadripartite Affair


U.N.C.L.E.‘s third episode was a lot more like the programme I remembered, though it still feels a lot more like a serious espionage thriller than I was expecting, an effect underlined by the black and white footage. At least this episode, after the same dumb and numbing fourth wall breaking introduction in which the three principals introduce themselves to the camera, broke free from the parameters of the pilot and allowed our Russian pal, Ilya Kuryakin, to play a full part in the story. Though there was one moment…

But in due time. The slightly awkward episode title was left to the viewer to interpret, and was far from obvious, but basically the world was under threat from a consortium of four people: Gervaise Ravel (Anne Francis), a fabulously wealthy woman, widow of a French minister involved in the then-recent Algeria plot, who had committed suicifde rather than face trial, her bland nut exceedingly rich boyfriend Harold Buffertion (John van Dreelen), ex-US Army Colonel and political fanatic Adam Pattner (Richard Anderson) and East European scientist Proffessor Enver Karadian (Richard Karricart), who’d finally perfected a fear gas, capable of reducing anyone to abject terror, for long enough that the conspiracy could overthrow every Government on the planet.

Exactly what motivated the likes of Bufferton, an apt name for its suggestion of buffoon, nor yet Madame Ravel, who was the leader of this little affair, was not gone into, which was a serious ommission in the scripting as far as I was concerned. In a slightly more fantastic world, the idea that any fantastically fit woman could want to take over the world just for the hell of it would be perfectly tenable, but whilst we’re still in touch with groundedness, a little motive would have been very handy. The Colonel was another matter, the epitome of the military bonehead who thinks his brand of don’t-call-it-fascism overrules Government-by-idiots.

U.N.C.L.E. is drawn into this plot by the other guest star, Marion Raven, played by the truly lovely Jill Ireland. In the open we see Marion in Yugoslavia, waiting to meet her Doctor father, who arrives almost gibbering in terror. Whilst she tries to find a medical doctor for him, he is killed by Pattner. Marion’s determination to bring her father’s killers down sees her firstly giving informstion to Mr Waverley, then having Messrs Solo and Kuryakin assigned to protect her and get to the bottom of things.

Given that Robert Vaughan is the star, and Napoleon Solo is the smoothie who gets the girl, I found it amusing that Miss Raven showed a distinct preference for the presence of the brooding Ilya, who kept trying to get her to think of him as something camouflaged as whatever background they found themselves against, to Marion’s clear frustration. But then I’d forgotten that at the time Ms Irelandwas married to David McCallum, so they could hardly have done otherwise!

As thrillers go, the episode was good. Marion is kidnapped in Act 1 after she and Ilya are reduced to cringing fear – which I expected to be an excuse to write Mr Kuryakin out of active performance for the rest of the issue but was thankfully wrong about – and Solo goes solo to invade Ms Ravel’s yacht and rescue her in the face of over a dozen men, with scarcely any plausibility whatsoever. The theme is amplified when Napoleon and Ilya are flown into Yugoslavia to overthrow the conspirators, accompanied by the determined Marion, all in black in tight sweater and even tighter slacks, the idea being that two U.N.C.L.E. agents, one female amateur and, briefly, a flambuoyant Yugoslavian bandit (a great cameo from Roger C. Carmel) are enough to defeat an entire paramilitary forced in an isolated, heavily-guarded, tight security fortress, but when you look at it that way, of course the conspiracy never stood a chance.

There was a bit of an odd ending. Neither Madame Ravel nor the laidback Bufferton had ever really fitted into the story. Ms Francis, who spent most of her screen-time in a sprayed on, ankle length, glittering ballgown that disappointed at least one audience member, whose solo bright spot in Forbidden Planet was the lady’s legs, though she did slip into a one-piece swimsuit for her final appearance. Pattner and Karadian had been killed when Solo dynamited the fortress and buried them under a mountain, but that left two.

Except that, whilst Ilya walked Marion home, the episode ended with Mr Waverley assigning Napoleon the task of dealing with the other two: when you decide what to do, let me know. If they were aiming for enigmatic, they missed the dartboard, because it just felt as if they’drun out of time and had to leave this bit dangling.

Still, we are very early on in the season, and this was thev first time they’d had to dealing with Ilya doing more than just look brooding and speak with an accent so festina lente, eh? (If you’d had a proper childhood and read the Molesworth books you wouldn’t need that explaining to you now, would you?)

The Infinite Jukebox: The Distractions’ ‘Looking for a Ghost’

We all of us have private favourites, songs that we love that are obscure, that have never received the public acknowledgement that we really, truly believe they deserve. They’re our secrets, by default, because nobody else discovered them, and because we can’t spread the song’s fame. Some people want these songs to stay secret, belong to them exclusively, be forever esoteric and cool.
I’m not like that. I want people to know those songs, to share them, to be as enthusiastic and loving as I am about them. I want them to be big and famous and talked upon and given the respect they are due as incredible songs, incredible performances. Everyone should know them so everyone can relish them.
I’ve raved before about The Distractions, a Manchester band who grew out of punk but who married melody and bittersweet love lyrics to the energy of the times. The turning point was their solitary LP, Nobody’s Perfect, when the band effectively divided over the softening of their sound, to produce a more commercial effect, diminishing their rawness. Lead guitarist Steve Perrin, who wrote the majority of the songs with lead singer Mike Finney, quit the band over it.
The album that was left behind is still a pretty decent album. It has, to my mind, a couple of classics on it. One of these is the penultimate track, ‘Looking for a Ghost’.
In some ways, lyrically certainly, the song is of a piece with the rest of the album. It’s a song about a lost love, but not in quite the same sense. People wonder why I smile the way I do, Finney sings, by way of introduction. They think I should be sad now you’re not around. People wonder why it is I don’t miss you, perhaps they don’t know what I’ve found.
And at that moment, the song undergoes a massive shift into something simultaneously mystical in its attestation to the power of love, and deeply disturbing in its evidencing of the singer losing it, big time. I can live without reality’s rewards, Finney sings. My dreams were always much more real. I tell myself you never meant I’m an easy man to fool (I wonder what that’s about?), but I’m too numb to know just how to feel.
All this is taking place against a smooth, almost ethereal background. The song takes a slow, measured beat, its instrumentation relatively subdued. Indeed, it’s next to minimal, a background hum, a few guitar notes. What defines the song is the voices of the rest of the band. Their voices are, in effect, the instrumentation, a choral ensemble of ooh-oohs, built up one upon another.
The first thing to come into your mind is 10cc, and ‘I’m Not In Love’, but there’s a world of difference. Though I don’t doubt that there’s multi-tracking going on here, The Distractions aren’t aiming for anything more than natural voices in harmony. There’s a downhome, slightly raw effect that is all the more intimate and effective.
And as Finney heads into the chorus for the first time, the voices open up, become deeper, broader, more enveloping, whilst in the centre he sings, low-key, downbeat, explaining that if you see him hanging round in places where they always used to go, maybe it’s just because he’s looking for a ghost he used to know.
The song is beautiful but the words are almost unimaginably sad. Losing his lover has driven Finney mad, delusional, unable to accept the world her departure has created. He can only cope by imagining her ghost into being his constant companion.
The combination of the chill this creates and the beauty of the music is extraordinary. My sister and I had vastly different tastes in music, but one night, when she heard me playing this track, she wanted to know who and what it was, and asked to borrow the album, to record this song.
But Finney is not yet finished. He accuses his former lady of never understanding what was inside the real him, but in the same breath admits that all he ever did was make her sad. The voices that surround him reel and swerve and things grow colder as Finney goes on, in that same, undemonstrative tone, to explain that her replacement is now floating by his side, unable to feel good or bad.
Christ, this is getting frightening. This is a dangerous head, a dangerous world to get trapped in, even as the same beautiful, full sound repeats that chorus. And then the voices drop away, leaving Finney on his own, accompanied only by that gentle instrumentation. My only lover lives encased inside my head, he sings, as if this is and should be all that’s important. No-one can ever take her away. But there’s a shred of sanity left in this, as he sings that the ghost now belongs to him before musing, if she ever knew, I wonder what the real thing would say…
I think we all of us have our answer to that and there will be little difference between us, but the thought, and Finney’s final moment of self-analysis pass, as The Distractions launch into the final chorus, the voices raised in an epiphany of sound, louder and fuller than ever before, more heavenly in their power, and Steve Perrin illuminates the coda with a rising and soaring electric guitar solo that weaves into the mix of voices before a long, slow fade that leaves the listener simultaneously chilled and warmed, by the beauty of the song.
Only from Manchester…
The film on YouTube is scenes taken from a Granada World in Action episode on the demolition of the flatblocks of Hulme, symbol of our City in the Seventies, the environment that produced Joy Division and The Distractions both. You might wonder what this says about the song: I have my own ideas on how it is exactly right.

Sunday Watch: Dalziel & Pascoe – s02 e01 – Ruling Passion


The success of the first Dalziel & Pascoe series, adapting three of the first four novels, led to the series being recommissioned, this time with four episodes. This started with ‘Ruling Passion’, which was actually the third novel in the series, requiring a bit of juggling of the books’ continuity to encompass the fact that Peter Pascoe and Ellie Soper are not only already married (cf. ‘An Autumn Shroud’ as s01 e03 but actually the fourth novel) but that Ellie is heavily pregnant.

The story is a very clever one, seeming to deal with two widely separated murders, whose only common factor appears to be Detective Sergeant Pascoe (who becomes a Detective Inspector partway). But in crime fiction we know, as a near-to-immutable law, that both cases are linked, and so it proves. In Yorkshire, we have a series of crimes, burglaries of unoccupied homes, owners away on holidays, theft of what are not described in the episode as objets d’art of all kinds, from figurines to stamps to polished stones. The latest case involved a gardener getting clubbed over the head (fortunately he was wearing a moped crash helmet or this would be a murder case) so Dalziel calls everyone in after their shifts on Friday to discuss the case. The only clue is that during this last case, the burglar micturated in the lady’s kettle. That’s Pascoe’s word, which Dalziel takes the piss out of for the whole episode, which is only appropriate, because that’s what micturation means to poor uneducated sods like you and me.

Incidentally, the piss ends up a crucial clue: the Micturator has diabetes and needs tp pass water frequently (don’t I know it?), though the show gets it ba sly wrong by describing the types of diabetes as A and B whereas they’re known as Type 1 and 2, the latter being my version).

The main effect of this meeting is to mess up Pete and Ellie’s weekend away. They’ve been invited to the lovely, idyllic Cotswold village of Thornton Lacey, for a college reunion: three couples, hosts Colin and Rose, Timmo and Carlo, Pete and Ellie, or ‘Abelard and Heloise’. Instead of arriving for dinner Friday night, the Pascoes arrive at breakfast Saturday morning. As we have already seen, they find three bodies, Rose, Carlo and Timmo, dead from shotgun wounds, and Colin missing.

Two differing places, two Police patches, two murders – the Micturator case becomes a murder when go-getting and farud-perpetrating Estate Agent Matthew Ryder is battered to death, having interrupted the burglar – and Peter Pascoe bouncing between the two jobs as if on two-way elastic bands. The poor University-educated sod had two totally different Superintendants squashing him, the dictatorial, contemptuous and blunt Dalziel on the one hand and the smoother, seemingly more sympathetic Superintendant Backhouse (an excellent guest role for Peter Blythe, of The Barchester Chronicles and Rumpole of the Bailey), who values Pascoe as a witness but not as a fellow copper off his patch.

The main imdb reviewer calls this episode a disappointment and describes it generally, but presumably in relation to the Corswolds murders, as a failed attempt to do a Midsummer Murders, about which I cannot comment, having made it a lifelong rule to never watch even five minutes of one of these, but about which I cannot find any better word springing to mind than ‘bollocks’. Not from a novel written by Reginald Hill and adapted by Malcolm Bradbury, ‘imitating’ a cosy crime potboiler it’s not.

Meanwhile, the Yorkshire investigation continues to baffle until two elements come together to hand the solution to the Micturation murder on a plate, courtesy of Ellie. We’ve had a Yorkshire equivalent to Thornton Lacey introduced in the form of the village of Birkham – horses being led through the streets in both villages, graciuous inns and a reputable antiques shop, what more parallels could you want? – where first Pete and Ellie meet for lunch and a visit to Burne-Jones and Etheridge Antiques, through which one stolen item at least has been resold. And Dalziel invites Ellie to lunch there, to be the first to break the news of Pascoe’s promnotion, but also to try to tell her, in his usual sensitive matter, that if she only leaves him alone, Pascoe could end up the Fat Man’s superior.

Which is where Ellie bumps into one Anton Davenant (Peter Ryecart), aka Terrence Dick. Davenant has been popping up in the Cotswolds with as much frequency as Peter Pascoe. He’s a journalist, who writes articles on art and colections and stuff like that for upmarket magazines that sell to upmarket people, the kind that live in Cotswold Villages (I feel my egalitarian hackles rising…). There’s at least one collector of quite valuable porcelain in Thornton Lacey. And when Dalziel discovers Jonathan Etteridge is diabetic…

So the Yorkshire murder is resolved as one of simple greed, theft gone wrong. So where does Davenant come into play in Thornton Lacey? One of the most fascinating aspects of this story has been Peter Pascoe’s inability to be the copper he should be, that Dalziel advises him to be. Don’t get personally involved. But Pete can’t do that, any more than Ellie. These were their friends. They might not have been close but they were still friends, and they were what every murder victim is to at least one person: irreplaceable. Pete goes through the case with that in his head.

The Cotswold murders – Colin’s body has been found, in a set-up implying murder foilowed by suicide, a convenient, neat explanation that Brickhouse rejects as being too clever, especially the ‘suicide note that later proves to be a quote from Alexander Pope, about Abelard and Heloise, written out for the Pascoes – are not an exact parallel. In fact they’re the complete opposite: Colin, a journalist, had written a book about Middle-Class Poverty in the Nineties, exposing the secrets of many people in the Village, whose appearance belied reality. One resident – in respect of whom a massive foreshadowing clue was permitted – took amiss to the thought, seized one of the clay pigeon shooting shotguns Colin owned, and the rest was history.

And the book was burned.

There is at least a happy ending. Ellie delivers of a baby girl (at least two stories early by the book continuity) which, in memory of their friend, and for Remembrance, they name Rose. Andy Dalziel practically kidnaps the baby from her crib, and Ellie, in a rush of sentiment she’ll no doubt come to regret once the hormones wear off, asks him to be her Godfather.

There is of course much more in the telling than I’ve alluded to. Little offshoots that, in some cases, are potential red herrings, little movements, other concerns, painting in between the lines that set even murder amongst the events of other people’s existences. It all helps to create the calmness that lies at the heart of police cases like this, the film-length episode, taken at a calm, gentle pace, without much action. Nevertheless, the combination of Reginald Hill’s writing and plotting, not to mention the combined qualities of Warren Clarke, Susannah Corbett and Colin Buchanan in the principal roles make this absorbing from start to finish.

What If Julius Schwartz hadn’t changed career?

Unthinkable as it may seem, in 1964, DC Comics were giving serious thoughts to cancelling Batman. That’s right, the Caped Crusader. DC’s second oldest and second most well-known character was in line for the chop. Think for a moment of the difference that would have made to not merely comic history but television and films. If Batman had disappeared, what would DC be doing now, when comics about him make up what seems to be about two-third of their output every month?
The reason Batman was under consideration for cancellation was the usual one: falling sales. All comics sales had been falling since the end of the Second World War and the disappearance of the GI Market, exacerbated by the increase in other distractions competing for the kids’ time, such as television. The moral scares of the Fifties, whipped up by Dr Frederic Wertham and the Kefauver Committee didn’t help and the decision to adopt a Comics Code that practically stripped everything interesting out of comics’ access were all contributory factors.
But the real reason Batman was ahead of Dead Man’s Curve was his editor, Jack Schiff.
I don’t want to be overly critical of Schiff. By all accounts he was a good, decent editor, thoughtful and intelligent. But, like so many people at DC in those decades, his big problem was Mort Weisinger. Schiff edited Batman, Weisinger edited Superman. Say what you like about Weisinger, and many have, one of the kindest (and most printable) things being that he looked like a malevolent toad, he was a very good editor in commercial terms. But he was a man who sought to dominate everyone who was around him, establishing and playing on their weaknesses for no apparent better reason than that he could, and it fed into his urge for power.
Theoretically, Schiff was his more-or-less equal. If DC had ever appointed an Editor-in-Chief the choice would have been between those two only, and one of the best reasons for their not doing so was that the other would have resigned on the spot. But Weisinger, in addition to being a tyrant and a bully, was also a schmoozer when it suited his purposes, which it did with DC’s owners, Harry Donenfeld and Jack Leibowitz. Weisinger made himself amenable and indispensable to Harry and Jack. As was his wont, he continually denigrated anyone he saw as his opponent.
In Schiff’s case, this was in respect of his politics. Schiff was a political liberal which, in the McCarthyite Fifties, was suspicious in itself. Weisinger lost no opportunity to beat Schiff with this. He was a dangerous figure, a pinko, the House Red which, given that Donenfeld and Leibowitz were natural Republicans, was a serious slander. Only Weisinger could stay on top of him, make sure he wasn’t in a position to do any damage.
It had been like that for years. In 1948, under the influence of Bob Kanigher, Superman and Batman made their only active appearance in All-Star Comics with the Justice Society. Weisinger descended, screaming over-exposure, and it never happened again. Schiff wasn’t concerned about Batman, but he was bullied by Weisinger into making the same complaint.
So, when Weisinger was bucking the trend of decreasing sales by establishing an ever-wider Superman family, Schiff was pushed into doing the same for Batman. Instead of just Robin, there was Batwoman, Bat-Girl, Bat-Hound, Bat-Mite, in ridiculous profusion. Schiff hated it but he could do nothing about it. So he decided that if that was what they wanted, that was what they could have.
This led to one of Batman’s worst periods ever, from about 1957 to 1963, the era of the Science Fiction Batman, with endless stories about aliens, alien monsters, monsters, alien planets. Apart from the sheer cynicism involved, which took little account of quality issues, there was the plain fact that this was completely antithetical to the core appeal of Batman, the human crimefighter, tackling urban theft and murder. It was terrible, but Schiff’s answer was that he was only giving them what they wanted.
And so Batman’s sales figures were being driven down. Until DC started looking at them very nervously and contemplating the unthinkable. If it hadn’t been Batman, maybe the comic would have been cancelled without any further thought. But they were thinking seriously about it.
Before cancellation, a rescue operation would clearly be mounted and, given his record of success in reviving superheroes since The Flash in 1956, the obvious choice was Julius Schwartz. Schwartz was agreeable to switching round some of his editorial commitments with Schiff to take over both Batman and Detective.
There were conditions. Schwartz would bring over his top artist, Carmine Infantino, and would rely on his two favoured writers, John Broome and Gardner Fox, for scripts. The array of ghosts who worked under the name of creator Bob Kane would be reassigned, and Kane would no longer automatically have his signature appended to work he had had no part in creating.
Changes were made to the series. Catwoman, frozen out under the restrictive terms of the Comics Code, would return as an antagonist. The Riddler, a past one-off, would be brought in as a new regular villain. In answer to the charges raised by Wertham, that Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson’s home set-up was a ‘homosexual wish-dream’, Alfred was killed off saving the Dynamic Duo from being crushed by a humungous boulder and his place at Wayne Manor was taken by Aunt Harriet to add a feminine touch. And Batman’s costume was updated by the dubious step of adding a fluorescent yellow oval target, sorry, oval, around the bat-symbol.
But just go back and imagine. Julius Schwartz started working as an Assistant Editor at All-American Publications in the mid-Forties. Prior to that he worked as an Agent for SF writers including Alfred Bester and Ray Bradbury. The decline in markets for SF stories led to Schwartz seeking another line of work and it was Bester who told him of the vacancy at All-American.
If there hadn’t been that need, what happens if Julie Schwartz decides to stay an SF Agent. Without him, the Silver Age doesn’t start. There’s no new Flash, no new Green Lantern. No call to revive the Justice Society so there’s no Justice League of America. And nobody with a proven track record to take over and revamp Batman in 1964. If there’s no superhero revival, is there anyone to take on reviving Batman? Would another approach have been so effective?
After all, the Batman TV show started when Producer William Dozier saw a Schwartz-edited cover of either Batman or Detective featuring the Riddler that was so kooky he figured there had to be something in this. No Schwartz, no TV show. How many attempts would DC have made to set Batman back on his feet before they opted just to cancel him?
For that matter, without Schwartz to come up with the Barry Allen Flash, would there still have been comics at all? No Silver Age revival, no superhero renaissance. Was there anyone else to produce that effect without him? Schiff scored a success in Showcase with the Challengers of the Unknown, but they were brought to him by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, already developed, and anyway they were fully human. Weisinger scored with Lois Lane, but she’d been around twenty years and was just another wrinkle on Superman’s stable.
And of course, no Justice League of America and does Martin Goodman demand a group book from his cousin Stanley Leiber? Might the removal of Schwartz’s influence extend to eliminating Marvel Comics as well?
The ‘Great Person’ theory of history is usually a load of codswallop, but when it comes to comics, Julius Schwartz stands to have made enough a difference in so many directions that it is possible to look back and say, if he hadn’t taken that job at All-American Publications, would comics even exist nowadays?
At least we can take the positive that if that had been the way it happened, we wouldn’t have to put up with Film Critics moaning about Marvel Universe films.