Autopsy reports from the REDgroup Retail collapse

There’s been a lot of ink spilt over the news that REDgroup Retail has gone into administration casting an uncertain future over its 26 Borders and 164 Angus & Robertson shops in Australia.

The autopsy reports vary. Some say the company was the victim of online retailing, others that it was just badly run.  Former NSW premier, Bob Carr, said it was the inevitable result of flawed protectionist policies.

I’m not going to pretend I have the answers. All I know is that as an aspiring crime novelist, I doubt it’s going to make getting published any easier.

Of those who have thrown their ten cents into the debate, two are worth quoting in detail. Here’s what founder and publisher of Scribe Publications, Henry Rosenbloom, had to say:

“The REDgroup story is indeed a cautionary tale, but not of the type Carr (or some others) think. This is not a territorial-copyright story. Nor is it an internet-takes-over bookselling story.

Borders/A&R in its REDgroup incarnation was a very badly-run business, for which the owners, PEP, are responsible. The managers were bovver boys who alienated all their inherited knowledgeable staff (who left), made appalling decisions about stock selection and presentation, and tried to treat books like potatoes. They never listened, so their business declined drastically, and they ended up trying to sell giftware instead of books. It’s a very good example of why bookselling is not a corporate business — it’s a hands-on, detail-intensive business, with low profit-margins. Only people who love it and know what they’re doing can make a success of it — internet or no internet.”

The question of whether book selling and hard market economics are antithetical is an interesting question.

My friend, Guy Rundle’s comments here in Crikey about the longer term implications of the Redgroup Retail collapse are also worth thinking about.

“That is clearly changing rapidly and radically, and so the whole centrality of the shop is changing. It is no longer a necessary place, and so the high street no longer acts as the spatial core of a community. At some point a whole series of mainstream shops will succumb to insufficient, intermittent demand. Everyone will want to know they are there, but no-one will use them enough.”

The wider question, in terms of future life, is how we will sustain any form of public spatial life at all – as the last shared, necessary space dissolves. Doubtless we will, but there may be a long period before we realise that the very form of our lives is changing. That period has already begun.”

Last week’s events finally made me get off my arse and sign up for the Book Lovers Book Review Aussie Author Challenge, something I’ve been meaning to do for a while. I have elected the ‘True Blue’ category, which means I have to read and review 12 crime books by at least 9 different Australian authors.

It’s a bit of an ambitious target, if I do say so myself.

Partly, I’ve done it to push myself to read more Australian crime and review it for Pulp Curry. Reading books takes time, especially if you intend to review them. Films are easier, which is why I do more of this for the site.

Partly, there’s a bit of self-interest, well, hell, a lot of self-interest. If I and other first time authors stand any chance of getting our books into print, we need a local publishing infrastructure to exist. That means people need to read Australian books, that means I better start practicing what I preach.

So, 12 Australian crime books by the end of the year and it’s nearly March. I’d better get my skates on.

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In China, crime fiction and social harmony do not mix

Something was confirmed for me over the last couple of days that I’ve long suspected: crime fiction and authoritarian governments do not mix.

But before I explore this further, a little background is required.

On Friday night, I and over a thousand other people crammed into the Melbourne Town Hall for the Gala Night of Story Telling 2011: Voices from Elsewhere, organised by the Wheeler Centre.

Of the eight writers who spoke, my favourite story was Chinese writer Murong Xuecun’s parable about the power of traumatic historical events, in this case Mao’s Cultural Revolution, to distort the individual psyche, even long after they are over.

Murong was 28 and working as a sales manager for a car company in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province and China’s fifth most populous city, when he started posting his first novel on the Internet.

The book, originally titled Chengdu Please Forget Me Tonight, focuses on three young men in newly capitalist Chengdu, their dead-end jobs, and relationships, their drinking, gambling and whoring.

It became a cult sensation among young middle class Chinese. It also landed him in a lot of trouble, especially when Murong refused to join the Chinese Writers Society, the state sponsored writers organisation.

In addition to selling through the roof in China, the book has been translated into English as Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu. It has also come out in French and German, with editions in Italian and Vietnamese in the works.

I haven’t read Leave me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu, but I’m going to.

Anyway, apart from providing some fascinating insights into how young Chinese writers are using the Internet to avoid state censorship and reach audiences, Murong was able to answer a question that’s been nagging me for a while. Why is so little crime fiction coming out of China?

According to Murong, the answer is as follows:

1. The Chinese government does not encourage crime fiction.

2. This is because crime fiction is seen as conflicting with the aim of encouraging a “harmonious society”, one of the guiding principles of the ruling communist party.

3. Foreign crime fiction is available in translated versions and popular (Murong’s favourite is Lawrence Block), because while it is okay for Chinese people to read fictionalised accounts of crime in other countries, it is not okay for them to read similar accounts in their own.

Interestingly, the Chinese government’s tolerance towards foreign crime fiction does not extend to crime films (including those from Hong Kong). These are strictly forbidden, presumably because they can be consumed on a mass basis, although they are widely available on the black market.

It was not always so.

Doing a bit of research on the Internet, I came across this fascinating article on the history of crime fiction in China. This goes back several centuries and often featured clever and incorruptible judges using their wisdom and smarts to solve incredibly complex crimes.

The best known of these in the West is the historical judge Di Renjie, whose stories were translated and made famous by the Dutch diplomat and sinologist Robert van Gulik in 1949, and more recently by the 2010 motion picture, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.

Crime fiction was banned after the communist revolution in 1949. Mao branded private detection and crime “bourgeois” and the historical magistrate genre of crime “feudal”. These restrictions where briefly eased by Deng Xiaoping in 1978-80, giving rise to a new generation of investigative judges in the form of heroic public security personal who fought criminals with bad class backgrounds.

The current freeze on local crime fictions appears to date from 2007, when the communist party adopted the encouragement of social harmony as a key platform.

There are several Chinese authors writing crime fiction set in China, but they don’t live in China.

The best known of these is Qiu Xiaolong, who is Chinese born but now lives in the United States. His character is a poetry-sprouting cop called Chen Cao based in Shanghai. There are also a series of books featuring a female private detective in Beijing, by Diane Wei Liang. She is also based in the US.

Interviews with Qiu say that his work has been translated into Chinese, although Murong said it is not available locally.

Diane Wei Liang’s book, The Eye of Jade, is on my large to read pile of books. I’ve read one of Qiu’s books, A Case of Two Cities, in which Chen is assigned a high-level corruption case in which the principle figure has fled to the US beyond the reach of the Chinese authorities.

To each their own, but I found Chen’s constant spouting of poetry distracting and it broke up the pace. I was also dissatisfied that a large chunk of the book is set in LA, as I wanted it to focus on what was happening in Shanghai.

Murong Xuecun is speaking at the Wheeler Center, Monday 14 February, at 6.15pm. Details are here.

Yakuza Graveyard (and the start of my journey into Japanese crime cinema)

For someone who hosts a blog on crime fiction and film from Australia and Asia, I have to admit I’ve seen very few Japanese Yakuza films.

Indeed, one of my New Year resolutions for 2011 is to make some serious inroads into this fascinating genre of Asian crime film.

But where do I start the journey?

A large number of films featuring the organised crime syndicates known as the Yakuza have been made in Japan since 1945. These can roughly be categorised into several distinct phases.

The first was the so-called ninkyo eiga or ‘Chivalry films” made after World War Two. Japan was occupied, much of it had been destroyed and the economy was a mess. The public needed a hero and the Yakuza began to replace the samurai as the staple of popular Japanese cinema, sticking up for the little guy against Westernised, corrupt Japanese businessmen and politicians.

The sixties saw the emergence of new directors (the best known of which was Seijun Suzuki) who depicted the Yakuza and their elaborate rituals as no different to the trials and tribulations of the average Japanese salary man. Whether you worked for a homicidal crime boss or a large corporation, the hours were long, career advancement was hard and someone was always ready to take your place the moment you tripped up.

In the seventies, the Yakuza began to be portrayed more accurately as  violent, brutal, corrupt gangsters, who’d long ago given up any notion of chivalry for a slice of Japan’s economy growth.

The Japanese studio system collapsed in the eighties, under the impact of Hollywood imports and the advent of home videos. Yakuza films didn’t revive until the early nineties through the efforts of new directors such as Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano and Takashi Miike.

Which leads me back to my original question, where to begin the journey?

As a fan of seventies American and Australian crime cinema, I thought it would be interesting to check out what the Japanese were doing around the same time. So I settled on Kinji Fukasaku’s 1976 film, Yakuza Graveyard (an excellent version of which is now available through Kino International).

Yakuza Graveyard is set in Osaka. Economic problems are putting the squeeze on the city’s organised crime gangs. The two biggest, the Yamashiro and Nishida clans, are eyeing off each other’s operations. The situation is tense as the police brace themselves for all out war. Enter Detective Kuro (Tetsuya Watari), charged with enforcing peace between the gangs.

The same year Yakuza Graveyard was released the third Dirty Harry film, The Enforcer, hit US cinema screens. Although Eastwood’s portrayal of a blunt, laconic cop unafraid to break the rules is now highly regarded, at the time the films were heavily criticised for their brutality and what many critics saw as the central character’s fascist tendencies.

Dirty Harry may have been a loose cannon, but Detective Kuro is a hand grenade with a badge. A violent, chain-smoking alcoholic, it’s not clear what side he’s on. One minute he’s coercing a confession out of a low-level Yakuza operative, the next he’s befriending a senior gangster known as “The Bull”. The two men beat each other half senseless at a major Yakuza ceremony and make-up over whisky and foreign prostitutes.

Kuro is already involved with an alcoholic prostitute whose husband he killed in a bust several years earlier. But that doesn’t stop him from sleeping with Keiko (seventies Japanese female action film icon Meiko Kaji who starred in Lady Snowblood and one of the best named films ever, Female Convict Scorpion), the wife of an imprisoned Yakuza boss. They are brought together by cynical world views and the fact they are both mixed raced.

The blurring between right and wrong is a central theme in Yakuza Graveyard. Kuro’s hatred for the Yakuza is only rivalled by his contempt for the police pen pushers who in his view prevent him from doing his job. He believes both sides are hypocrites, and when Kuro discovers senior police are siding behind the scenes with one gang against another, he goes rogue and decides to form his own alliances.

Little known in the West, Fukasaku was a major creative force in Japanese cinema, making roughly 60 films over a career spanning four decades. His most critically acclaimed, Battles Without Honour and Humanity (1973), about a returned Japanese soldier’s bloody rise in the post-war Hiroshima crime scene, spawned four sequels and kick started the more realistic cinematic depiction of Yakuza.

Yakuza Graveyard was one of Fukasaku’s last films to deal with organised crime, as such the chaos is particularly pronounced. This is further emphasised by the film’s jazz soundtrack and his use of hand-held cameras. Fukasaku also freezes the film at certain points while the narration continues. Both technique are common now but were much less so in 1976.

This is the first in what will be an occasional series of reviews of Japanese crime film over 2012. The next one to feature on Pulp Curry in the coming weeks will be Kinji Fukasaku’s 1968 neo noir, Blackmail is My Business.

Snowtown

2010 was a great year for Australian crime film. In addition to the excellent Animal Kingdom, last year saw the release of the neo-noir Western,  Red Hill, and the gritty revenge flick, The Horseman.

While one can argue the merits and otherwise of aspects of these films, all three were highly original, energetic attempts to put an Australian face on some of key sub-genres of crime film.

Interestingly, all three were also made by first time directors.

This trend appears set to continue in 2011 with the yet to be released Snowtown, first time director Justin Kurzal’s take on one of Australia’s worst serial killing sprees, the ‘Snowtown murders’.

For those who need to be brought up to speed, the Snowtown murders, also known as the ‘bodies in the barrels murders’, involved the killing of 12 people between August 1992 and May 1999. The crimes were discovered when the remains of  8 of the victims were found in barrels of acid in a disused bank building in Snowtown, South Australia, a small economically depressed area 145 kilometres north of Adelaide.

Four people were eventually arrested for the murders. The ringleader, John Bunting, was a white trash suburban psychopath with neo-Nazi leanings who hated gays, pedophiles, very fat people and drug users.

The victims were killed, often tortured beforehand, on a whim for perceived infringements of Bunting’s personal code. They included friends and relatives of the killers. Usually, the victims social security and bank details were obtained and the murderers continued to collect their benefits after their deaths.

As a rule, I ‘m not usually a huge fan of true crime film, but if the menace Kurzal has managed to cram into this very short teaser trailer is anything to go by, Snowtown it looks pretty compelling. The vibe I get from it is similar to the 1998 Australian film The Boys.

Loosely based on another real life crime, the rape and killing of a young nurse in Sydney, The Boys focused on the 24 hours leading up to the crime, in which violent psychopath Brett Sprague (brilliantly played by Aussie actor David Wehnam), is released from prison and returns to his long-suffering mother’s house in Sydney’s western suburbs.

It’s been several years since I’ve seen The Boys, but I remember the ominous, claustrophobic feel produced as Speague, accompanied by a moody score by Australian jazz bad The Necks, prowled the interiors of the mother’s flimsy fibro house like a ticking time bomb, bashing her boyfriend, abusing his girlfriend, and winding up his two brothers. From the very first frame there’s a sense bad things are going to happen, that in no way detracts from the horror for the viewer when they do.

The Boys attempted to examine what kind of people would commit such a horrendous crime and the environment that would produce them. Snowtown looks set to cover similar terrain, hopefully with similar effectiveness.

Snowtown will premier at the Adelaide film Festival in late February.

The Red Sense

The Red Sense is a terrific examination of the ongoing impact on both the victims and perpetrators of the genocide carried out in Cambodia during the short but bloody rule of the Khmer Rouge.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is that it was made not in Cambodia, but in Melbourne, Australia.

Another is the genre in which director and co-writer Tim Pek chose to examine the sensitive issues concerned, a classic Asian ghost story fused with elements of a thriller.

The story is told through the lens of a young Khmer woman, Melear, who discovers the Khmer Rouge commander responsible for the death of her father is alive and living in Melbourne.

Melear is obsessed by her father’s death, spending her days searching for information about his fate and her nights dreaming about him. The opening scene is her recurring nightmare, set in the northwest of Cambodia in 1975. Two men, one of them Melear’s father, kneel in front of a freshly dug grave before being bludgeoned to death by Khmer Rouge soldiers commanded by a tall, bearded man.

In another house in Melbourne, the Khmer Rouge commander responsible for the death of Melear’s father sits listlessly on a sofa. It is the Pchum Ben festival, a time when the Khmer believe that the spirits of the dead walk the earth and the living ease their suffering by offering them food to eat.

The man, Vann Chen, has been housebound for the last 5 years. So wracked with guilt is he for his role during the Khmer Rouge revolution that he is literally wasting away, haunted by the ghosts of his victims, including one with bloody hands to whom Chen pleads for his life.

Chen’s son, Max (co-writer Rithy Dourng) is also wrestling with the knowledge of what his father has done. He knows his father should pay for his crimes, but is it right he must suffer forever?

Meanwhile, someone is stalking Melear, leaving her little red paper flowers to find. She catches glimpses of a hooded stranger following her, gets a letter and threatening phone calls telling her to cease inquiring into her father’s death “or face the consequences”. Then she is run down and nearly killed by an unknown driver.

Two months later, Melear, having recovered from her injuries, enlists the aid of her boyfriend, Odom, and best female friend, Nicki, to set a trap for whoever tried to kill her.

In terms of production values, The Red Sense is not the most polished piece of film making. No doubt, this is a result of the film’s shoestring production budget. Having said that, the dream sequences are remarkably vivid even if the special effects are basic.

Some of the scenes  and accompanying music at times have a slightly soap opera feel to them. But that could just as well be a matter of taste. The film shows Melbourne through a totally Asian aesthetic, something I have never seen before.

These problems aside, there is so much that is good about this film, particularly it’s treatment of the ongoing trauma caused by the violence and upheaval inflicted by the Khmer Rouge, on the victims who experienced it, those who committed the crimes, and the young who strive to comprehend what happened.

Upon taking power in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge closed the country’s border, emptied the major cities at gun point and set about eliminating anyone they suspected of being opposed to their revolution. It was a long list: anyone who worked for the previous government, who was educated or had travelled overseas. Even wearing eye glasses or speaking another language could lead to death. Nearly two million people died of torture, disease, starvation and over work.

The central focus of The Red Sense is not the question of who was responsible for the horrendous crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge. For the most part these people are known and, as the film shows, in many instances they continue to live alongside their victims and their families.

The issue is what is  a just response to those who committed crimes, including the balance between retribution and forgiveness?

The Red Sense premiered in Melbourne in early 2008, a year I spent in Cambodia with my family, amongst other things reporting on the international criminal tribunal into the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge.

That a film like this was made in Melbourne and not Cambodia, is at least partly a product of the parlous state of that country’s film industry, which is only now starting to rebuild after being almost completely obliterated by the Khmer Rouge.

I can’t help but think that it is also a result of the subject matter. It is only just over ten years ago that the last Khmer Rouge guerillas surrendered to Cambodia authorities. The wounds caused by the genocide are still fresh as are the debates about how to deal with its legacy.

Indeed, while all post-1979 Cambodian cinema is informed by the Khmer Rouge, I can’t think of a single film that directly tackles the issues raised by Pek in The Red Sense. The only possible exception is Rithy Pan’s excellent S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine in 2003. However, that was a documentary.

There’s only The Red Sense.

Thanks to Tim Pek for providing the author with a copy of his film.

The most secret place on earth

General Vang Pao in the early days of the CIA-sponsored covert war in Laos.

Last week, Gen. Vang Pao, the key ally of the US during its ‘secret war’ in Laos in the 1960s and early 1970s, died in exile in California at the age of 81.

Vang Pao was only 31 when when recruited by the CIA in 1961 to command clandestine military operations against communist forces in Laos. Supported by American air power and funds generated through opium production, for the next two decades Vang Pao and elements of the Hmong community (significant numbers of Hmong also sided with the communist Pathet Lao) fought Vietnamese supported forces in Laos. When the US pulled out of Laos in 1975, Vang Pao, along with thousands of other Hmong, was resettled in the US.

The media coverage surrounding Vang Pao’s death has focused on his leadership role within the Hmong American community. Less has been said about his role in the ongoing insurgency waged by remnants of the Hmong insurgency still in Laos. This came to prominence in 2007, when US federal agents  arrested Vang Pao and ten others for allegedly planning to buy approximately US$10 million in illegal weapons for a planned violent, anti-government coup in Laos (the charges were dropped in 2009).

The following article is an interview with Marc Eberle, the maker of a fantastic documentary about the conflict in Laos, The Most Secret Place on Earth, which I did for the international news agency, Inter Press Service, in 2008. I saw a rough of The Most Secret Place on Earth at the rooftop cinema Meta House in Phnom Penh. Director Marc Eberle together with Fred Branfman, who features in the film were present for Q&A.

I lived in Laos with my partner for several years in the early nineties and know something of its recent history. The Most Secret Place on Earth is not only a great piece of documentary film making, it is a fascinating insight into a conflict which remains shrouded in mystery.

It was known as the ‘secret war’, a covert operation waged by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) throughout the sixties and early seventies against communist guerrillas in Laos.

And the most secret location in this clandestine war was the former CIA air base of Long Chen, in central Laos, a place still off-limits today.

A new film, The Most Secret Place on Earth, to be released in cinemas across Europe later this year explores this little known conflict.

The film, which previewed for the first time in Phnom Penh in mid-August, includes images of Long Chen shot by the first Western camera crew to enter the base since the communists took control of the country in 1975.

“I first got the idea to do the film when I visited the Plain of Jars in Laos in 2002,” recalls Marc Eberle, the 36 year-old German director in an interview with IPS.

“You could still see the craters from the air bombing and unexploded ordnance was everywhere.”

“Then I heard about Long Chen and the fact that no one had got there since the war and I thought, how do I visit and how do I make a film about it?”

Little is known about the Lao conflict despite the fact it remains the largest and most expensive paramilitary operation ever run by the US.

It was completely run by the CIA using largely civilian pilots from the Agency’s own airline, Air America, and mercenaries recruited from the Hmong, an ethnic tribe living in mountainous areas in central and northern Laos.

Despite being the centre of the covert operation and at its peak one of the world’s busiest airports with a population of 50,000 people, Long Chen’s location was never marked on any map.

“I found it bizarre that at one time this was the second biggest city in Laos and it was completely secret,” Eberle says.

Long Chen remains off-limits to foreigners and most Lao due to clashes with remnants of the CIA’s Hmong army and until recently formed part of a special administrative zone under the direct control of the Lao army.

Renewed interest in the Laos’ secret war was briefly rekindled in 2003 when two Western journalists made contact with members of the Hmong resistance, the first white people they had seen since the CIA abandoned them 27 years ago.

Although pictures from the encounter were printed in Time Asia and won a world press award, US media failed to pick up the story and it died.

The decades-old conflict again made headlines last year when US authorities arrested 78 year-old Vang Pao, the head of the CIA’s Hmong forces in the sixties, and indicted him on terrorism charges relating to his alleged involvement in a plot to over throw the Lao government.

Eberle also believes what happened in Laos in the sixties is relevant in that it shares strong parallels with the conflict in Iraq.

“Laos was the progenitor of the way America fights wars in the 21st century,” he says.

“Outsourcing the war to private companies, gathering public support by falsifying intelligence and documents, embedded journalism and automated warfare including the use of so-called ‘smart weapons’, all these methods were first tested in Laos.”

The conflict in the late fifties as Washington sought to counter communist Pathet Lao forces and their North Vietnamese allies who had begun building the Ho Chi Minh trail through the jungles running down the eastern border of Laos.

The operation was placed under CIA control to get around Laos’ supposed political neutrality the conditions set by the Geneva Accords.

Vang Pao, then an officer in the Royal Lao Army, was recruited in 1960 to lead the Hmong troops drafted to fight the communists, which at the peak of the fighting numbered up to 30,000.

The largest of hundreds of airstrips built by the CIA throughout Laos, Long Chen was established soon after.

The Most Secret Place examines the conflict through the stories of players involved in the covert, diplomatic and military aspects of the conflict, including former diplomats, CIA officers and Air America pilots.

It also draws on critics such as Alfred McCoy, author of The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade and a reporter in Laos at the time, and Fred Branfman, an aid worker turned anti-war activist who worked to expose the conflict.

Ordinary Lao people on the receiving end of the world’s most technologically sophisticated military machine get a chance to tell their story.

Although there is a short interview with Vang Pao, the one aspect of the story not adequately dealt with is the plight of the Hmong, who bore the brunt of some of the most savage combat and with the exception of senior officers and their families, were abandoned when the US pulled out.

One of the most interesting aspects of The Most Secret Place is the some of the previously unused footage Eberle managed to collect, including film of actual combat missions and day-to-day life at Long Chen.

This was gathered from myriad sources, including the US National Film Archive and footage held by television stations from across Europe.

“The CIA had just declassified a whole lot of material so that helped as well,” he says. “The most important source was the guys who were over there filming with their little super 8 cameras, often illegally.”

This film’s analysis sets it apart from other books and documentaries on the subject, most of which justify the conflict, lauding the CIA operatives and their Air America pilots as heroes.

The reality, as Alfred McCoy says towards the end of the film, was very different. “We destroyed a whole civilisation, we wiped it off the map. We incinerated, atomised human remains in this air war and what happened in the end? –We lost.”

The covert nature of the conflict meant that US planes forces were able to ignore virtually all the rules of engagement operating in Vietnam. Every building was a potential target and the civilian toll was huge.

The situation grew worse in 1970 when US President Nixon authorised massive B52 bombing strikes on Laos, which remained classified information until many years later.

American planes dropped an average of one planeload of bombs on targets in Laos every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for nine years, making it the most heavily bombed country on earth per capita in the history of warfare.

Eberle remains cagey about exactly how he managed to gain access to film at Long Chen. “It was a matter of having the right contacts,” he says.

The last film crew to try to get there were caught and convicted to 15 years prison, although they were eventually freed after four weeks due to international pressure.

“After we went another UK crew tried to get there but they were caught and deported,” he adds.

“There are some places in the world that have a different energy and Long Chen is one of these. You look down the runway and think this is the place were it all happened. The planes took off from here and bombed all those people.”

The film, which contains aerial footage of the base as well as shots from the ground, shows Long Chen today as an overgrown airstrip surrounded by heavily forested mountains.

“It’s just an army outpost now. A small village a couple of hundred people, soldiers and their families.”

The buildings, including Californian bungalows and a number of other structures designed in sixties style, largely lie vacant and derelict.

“The golden age of Long Chen is over. It used to be the high-tech oasis for spooks in Laos. There were allegedly more antennas there than trees. Now they do not even have power.”

The 2007 arrest of Vang Pao along with eight other Hmong and a former US army ranger in Vietnam on charges of allegedly plotting to topple the Lao government, has highlighted the current state of Hmong resistance inside Laos.

Eberle believes, as do many other observers in Laos, that the resistance is on its last legs.

“There are still some groups but they are not organised. They are certainly not politically or militarily organised. They are remnants, the children and grandchildren of those involved in the war who are scared to come out of the jungle because they have never known anything else.”

“Whether Vang Pao is guilty or not of the charges he is facing, one thing that is true is that he and other expatriate Hmong have used these people as pawns,” maintains Eberle.

The decline in the resistance has been accompanied by talk of opening up Long Chen and the area around it to tourism.

“I do not see that happening in the next few years. It is still far too sensitive on the part of the Lao government,” says Eberle. “They are also keen not to risk unsettling relations with the Americans by opening it up.”

“It is the last chapter of the Vietnam War and both governments have an interest in making sure it is forgotten.”

Photograph courtesy of Life magazine.

 

Top tens and spent casings

Pulp Curry is going to be taking a break for a couple of weeks over the Christmas/New Year period while the family and I brave the monsoon-like conditions of Queensland.

But before I go, there’s a few spent casings lying around the place I’ve got to clean up.

First up, my list of top ten books for 2010 is up at Day Labor, the official blog of the online magazine, Crime Factory.  No surprises that Garry Disher’s Wyatt is right up there, as is Martin Limon, whose books featuring two military police on the beat in seventies Korea, along with Megan Abbott, are my big finds for this year.

My top ten is part of Day Labour’s Best of Whatever for 2010 series, put together by Keith Rawson. When Keith says whatever, he means whatever. There’s some great posts, not only on books, but comics, film and, well, whatever. Kudos to you, mate, for all your work and thanks to you and your Crime Factory co-editors, Liam Jose and Cameron Ashley, for making me feel so welcome in the Crime Factory family. I really appreciate it.

My recent post Parker and the art of hard-boiled crime writing generated a bit discussion on and off-line. That’s great, because if you haven’t picked up by now, I can talk the leg off a chair about Parker and his creator, legendary crime writer Donald Westlake.

As I said in the post, one of the things that’s always puzzled me is why Westlake stopped writing Parker books between 1974 and 1997. The answer came courtesy of Trent over at The Violent World of Parker who sent me a fascinating article written by Westlake himself for The New York Times in 2001. Like the master thief high tailing after a successful heist it seemed Westlake’s ability to write the Parker character, just disappeared. 

Anyway, you can read the article ‘A Pseudonym Returns From an Alter-Ego Trip, With New Tales to Tell’  for yourself.

One other great piece of Westlake memorabilia I found on the net is this clip of him talking about Parker, the process of writing and his career. Enjoy and see you all in 2011.

The Half-Child

We love a good guest review here at Pulp Curry and today’s is about a book very dear to me, Angela Savage’s The Half-Child. For readers who don’t follow Pulp Curry on a regular basis, in the interests of full disclosure I need to declare that Angela has been my partner in life (and crime) for the last 20 years. Her book, The Half-Child, is also a great read. Many thanks to Sulari Gentill, whose own crime novel, A Few Right Thinking Men, was published in 2010 by Pantera Press.

I am a greedy reader.

When I opened The Half-Child, Angela Savage’s second Jane Keeney crime novel, I looked forward to reacquainting myself with the streets of Thailand, about which Savage writes with an intimate knowledge and affection.

I wanted once again to be shown the colour, the contrast, the cultural crater of a place where West has hurtled into East.  I wanted to see past cliché: the neon, the sleaze, the confronting corruption, to the beauty of an ancient culture and a tenacious and adaptive people. On top of all this I wanted intrigue, excitement, perhaps a little romance, and definitely some humour.  I did start out by saying I was greedy.

The Half-Child completely satiated my literary gluttony and then offered me dessert!

What Savage served up was a story set primarily in the resort town of Pattaya, Thailand, where Jane Keeney investigates the death of a young aid worker.  The novel, particularly for those who have had children, presents the heart-wrenching issues around overseas adoption.

Savage handles it all with non-judgmental compassion.  Rather than give the reader a trite outcome of good and bad, Savage shows us the sadness and uneasiness on both sides of the coin.  She makes us realise that we accept things from the developing world that we would not tolerate in our own country, that the term “better off” is unfairly weighted against the poor, but that sometimes Western concepts of social justice have no place in the harsh reality of the developing world.

Savage also subtly draws upon those common motivations in the hearts of mothers from both East and West.  Mayuree, the unwed mother of a half-child is determined to “…hold her head up high enough to protect [her child] with her shadow”.  I think of this line every time I leave my sons for some work commitment.  Motherhood, and perhaps life in general, is about making choices.  Savage’s book brings home how much harder those choices are for some.

Despite the tragic issue at the centre of this novel, the story is far from grim.  Jayne Keeney is comfortable and natural in this world.  Through her eyes we see it without cultural judgment and as a result we also see humour in the darkness.  Savage has a keen eye for the absurd and not only was I often giggling aloud whilst reading, I found myself thinking of scenes from The Half-Child and grinning insanely at later (often inappropriate) moments.

Jane’s penchant for slipping into the guise of religious zealot simply by responding to everything with “praise the Lord” makes me laugh every time I think of it.  I liked Jayne Keeney in Behind the Night Bazaar (Savage’s first novel), I felt really connected with her in The Half-Child.

This latest novel also introduces us to Rajiv Patel, who becomes a “Watson” to Jayne’s “Holmes”.  He is to say the least, endearing.  He softens, challenges and supports Jayne.  The dynamic between them is beautifully written…a friendship, a partnership and something more.  Again Savage flouts gender conventions without it being a simple and self-conscious reversal of social roles.

In the end, as I closed The Half-Child, I felt well nourished.  I am already hungry for another taste of Jayne’s world and am heartened to hear that Angela Savage is hard at work on the third Jayne Keeney novel.

The Half-Child and its predecessor Behind the Night Bazaar are both so much more than detective stories.  My philosophy on books is admittedly simple.  Make me think and you’ll have my respect, make me laugh and I’ll be you’ll have my friendship.

The Half-Child has both.

Parker and the art of hard-boiled crime writing

December 31 2010 marks the second anniversary of the death at age 75 of one of the masters of hard-boiled crime writing, Donald Westlake.

I’ve found myself thinking a lot about Westlake lately and his best known creation, the professional criminal Parker.

Westlake was a prolific writer. While he specialised in crime fiction, he also did science fiction, erotic stories and westerns under a myriad of pseudonyms of which Richard Stark, the name he used for the Parker books, remains the best known. He also worked on a number of screenplays, including the adaption of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters.

Sixteen Parker novels appeared between 1962 and 1974. For reasons I’m not clear about, Westlake took a rest from the character until 1997, then wrote another eight Parker books.

Several of the books were filmed, the best known of which is Point Blank starring Lee Marvin (later remade as Payback with Mel Gibson as the lead, but the less said about it the better).

I recently discovered via The Violent World of Parker website, The Outfit, an excellent 1973 adaption of Westlake’s novel of the same name, is finally getting an outing on DVD. (The details are here).

Robert Duvall does the honours as Parker or Macklin, as the central character in the film is called, alongside Joe Don Baker, Robert Ryan and the siren of seventies American B-movies, Karen Black. Those of us who have loving held onto our VHS cassettes of the movie can finally trade up.

There’s even a vaguely Blaxsploitation version of Parker, The Split, featuring one of my favourite sixties/seventies actors Jim Brown. In what must have been one hell of a wrap party, it also starred Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates and Donald Sutherland.

Richard Stark aka Donald Westlake

But Parker is at his best in the written word. The character’s influence on crime writers and aspiring crime writers everywhere has been enormous, present company included.

Parker is a career criminal who steals things for a living. Get in his way on a job or try to double cross him afterwards and he’ll hurt you. Yet he’s not a psychopath in the vein of so many contemporary literary and film criminals. His only morals are what it takes to survive, no more, no less. He’s almost an anti-character, emotionless, with few social connections and hardly any past that Westlake ever let the reader know about.

The most recent Parker I’ve read was The Sour Lemon Score (1969). It’s not the best of the series but it’s pretty good and it made me fell a bit like I was saying goodbye to an old friend (not that Parker had friends). Now there’s only the very hard to find Butcher’s Moon and I’ll have completed all of the first wave of Parker books.

I’ve still got a few of the post-1997 Parker books to get through but they lack of hard-boiled feel of the first 16. Parker had mellowed and didn’t come across as nearly so immoral and cynical as his earlier incarnation.

The Parker books are meticulously constructed, using multiple points of view, Parker’s and others. Westlake’s writing style is lean and disciplined. He’s also a master of less is more.

I can’t help but wonder whether part of the reason for this is because Westlake did all his work on manual typewriter. When I first worked as a journalist in Asia I wrote on a small portable type writer I’d bought in a pawn shop in Brisbane. It was a pain in the arse to carry around and getting spare parts and ribbons was a nightmare but it gave my writing real discipline.

At their core all the Parker novels are about the same thing, a heist gone wrong and the consequences –  that and the mechanics of planning and conducting the crime. Parker is a craftsman. It just so happens his chosen trade is illegal, and Westlake was expert at portraying him at work.

Veteran Australian crime writer Garry Disher, whose character Wyatt is based on Parker, nailed it when I asked him in a recent interview what it is about the heist gone wrong genre of crime fiction and film that never seems to go stale.

“Well, there is always the promise that it might go right for a Wyatt or a Parker. There’s also the tension of the actual crime, and when it falls apart when he robs a bank or whatever and things go wrong. Can Wyatt retrieve the situation? Can he get the money back? Can he find out who betrayed him? That’s where the tension lies. Wyatt finding out where it has gone wrong and how he is going to get his revenge or get the money back or both.”

The Sour Lemon Score is about a heist gone sour. One of the gang, George Uhl steals the gang’s haul of $33,000 (not much by today’s standards but its real money, not numbers on a computer screen) and kills all his partners except Parker, which is a big mistake.

Parker spends the rest of the novel travelling up and down the eastern US seaboard searching for Uhl and the money. As is usually the case, things get complex when a couple of hoods pick up on the scent of the money and try to muscle in.

Two things stand out about the book. The first is how good Westlake was at depicting the criminal underworld. A phone call is made, a contact visited, someone talks to a friend of a friend. Each transaction in The Sour Lemon Score leaves Parker with just enough information to move onto the next. There is a constant feel of tension and disorientation.

The second was Westlake’s skill at depicting apparently normal people and places, then transforming them with the slightest twist into something much darker. A second-hand furniture shop run by an old lady is a front for an illegal firearms seller, a down at heel motel is owned by an ex-hooker who let’s people from the life stay when they need a place to lie low.

The best example of this from The Sour Lemon Score is when Parker visits the widow of Benny, a long-term criminal associate and one of the men killed by Uhl.

“Parker had been here a couple of times before, and he remembered how Benny too had built himself a completely different at-home image. He was a semi-retired putterer, the Little League umpire, the maker of model planes and pup tents with the neighbourhood boys, the constructor of bird houses and clipper of hedges, a vague and amiable little man in baggy pants, with his glasses slipping down his nose. The difference was so complete that the first time Parker had come here he hadn’t recognised Weiss and had then thought Weiss had changed so much, grown too old, and couldn’t be used anymore. But Weiss has let himself know he was still his old self on the job, and he was.”

Benny’s widow, who is baking a cake when Parker arrives, is also more than she seems. In a magnificently understated scene, she bargains hard with Parker for money in return for the few grains of information she holds that is useful to him.

‘Thanks, Grace,” says Parker once their trade has been completed.

“I did it for the money,” is all she says back.

Animal Kingdom

There’ll come a day when the Australian film and television industry will have to create a special award for Melbourne’s crime families in recognition of their services in providing so much rich material for screenwriters. Present to accept the award will be whatever members of the Pettingill family who are not dead or incarcerated.

For those readers not familiar with the name, the Pettingill family were Melbourne’s most notorious crime family. They were involved in drug dealing, murder and armed robbery. Two of the sons stood trial in 1998 for the shooting of a couple of Victorian police officers. They were acquitted but are still widely suspected of committing the killings.

Their exploits have also formed the basis for some of the country’s best crime television, including the ABC series Janus and Phoenix, and more recently the film, Animal Kingdom.

Animal Kingdom is the best known of the three Australian crime films released in 2010. Unusually for an Australian film, not only has it received international critical acclaim (including a Golden Globes nomination for actress Jacki Weaver),  it was a success locally.

Most interestingly, Animal Kingdom, along with Red Hill and The Horseman, the two other local crime releases in 2010, were all made by first time film directors, a big improvement on the lackluster Australian crime cinema scene in 2009.

After his mother’s heroin overdose, 17 year-old Josh (James Fresheville) has no choice but to live with his grandmother Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody (Weaver) and her family who he has not had contact with for years.

Doubts about the wisdom of this arrangement are apparent from the first morning Josh wakes up in his new surroundings to find Uncle Baz (Joel  Edgerton) counting out the proceeds of the latest armed robbery on the kitchen table as Janine makes orange juice.

Gradually, we meet the other uncles. Uncle Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is a tattooed, twitchy drug dealer. The youngest uncle, Darren, is like a beaten dog struggling to keep the last vestiges of his decency (and sanity) from being sucked dry by his siblings.

But they are wall flowers compared  Uncle ‘Pope’ (Ben Mendlesohn). On the run from the armed robbery squad who have the entire family under 24-7 surveillance, Pope is an old-school heist guy and sociopath completely unable to deal with normal society.

As the film’s title suggests, Josh and his pretty and naive girlfriend Nicole (Laura Wheelright) are like slow-moving animals amid the snarling pack of carnivores that is the Cody crime family

The only one with any brains or common sense is Baz. He can see the family’s power is on the wane and wants to go legit. His subsequent murder by rogue cops is the signal for all hell to break loose.

In revenge, Pope, Craig and Darren kill two police, escaping in a car stolen by Josh. Police quickly finger the younger member of the Cody family as the weak link. Even though Josh can tell he’s in deep shit, he totally underestimates the lengths his uncles will go to cover their backs.

I have to admit to not being all that taken by Animal Kingdom when I saw it soon after its release. In particular, I thought that the bumbling efforts by the police to protect Josh lessoned the film’s dramatic pace. As did the fact that the uncles get off the wrap for murdering the cops with such apparent ease.

These things still bugged me a little second time around but they’re small beer compared to the film’s strengths. The look of Animal Kingdom is great. I can’t remember a film where Melbourne looked so downbeat and gritty.

While aficionados of Pettingill’s clan’s previous cinematic outings will recognise many of the characters, writer and director David Michod seems to breath new life into them.

The stand out performance is Weaver’s turn as the scheming matriarch,  looking after her boys with barely contained Incestuous lust. She is the glue that holds the film together. The brothers all put in solid performances, particularly Mendlesohn’s ticking time bomb portrayal of Pope. Guy Pearse is good as Leckie,the kind-hearted but ineffectual cop trying to close the Cody family down.

As Josh’s girlfriend Laura Wheelright managers too pull off being both vulnerable and jaded. She’s the perfect foil for Fresheville. His character has shut so much of himself down, to the point where he almost appears to be sleep walking through the film. It’s a logical reaction to his day-to-day existence, first with his heroin addicted mother, then with his adopted family.

Fresheville’s performance mirrors one of the most unsettling aspects of Animal Kingdom, the way that so much of the film’s plot unfolds with little context or for the most part explanation about what’s going on.

One day Josh is living with his junkie mother, the next he shared digs with a notorious crime family. The death of his mother, the exploits of the Cody family, police corruption, the legal system,  nothing is reasoned or analysed. They just happen.

The effect is deeply unsettling.