Saturday, February 29, 2020

Just Out . . . The Neoliberal Age in America: From Carter to Trump

As we enter 2020 it seems as if the country's politics are undergoing nothing less than a tectonic shift—one result of which is that the word "neoliberalism" has passed out of the usage of academics, into general parlance. Those trying to make sense of it all find that the market is flooded with public affairs books—but most are longer on political hacks' rants than substance, or too busy telling colorful stories, to offer answers to such obvious and essential questions as

•Just what is neoliberalism anyway? (And why is there so much confusion about this anyway?)

•What did the Reagan administration actually do, and what were the results?

•What was the policy of the Clinton administration, and did it justify its characterization by critics as neoliberal? (Ditto Obama.)

•What was the country's economic record before and after "the neoliberal turn?"

However, THE NEOLIBERAL AGE IN AMERICA: FROM CARTER systematically examines Federal policy from the 1970s through the Presidencies of Carter, Reagan, the two Bushes, Clinton and Obama, emphasizing specifics and hard data to offer a picture of just what happened in these years as a matter of practical policy, and its consequences—answering these questions and more as we confront this era of crisis, and what may be a historic election this upcoming November.

Available in ebook and paperback formats at Amazon and other retailers.

Get your copy today!

Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Trajectory of Robert Ludlum's Career

In 1971 Robert Ludlum became a name in the spy genre with The Scarlatti Inheritance. Counting the works he produced under two pseudonyms (Jonathan Ryder and Michael Shepherd) he published another eleven books in the next nine years--a dozen books in all over the course of the decade.

In the next two decades Ludlum was not to match that output, at least from the count of titles. One can chalk this up, in part, to the already large books (Ludlum boarded the post-Forsyth "super-thriller" train early) getting bigger, and individually demanding more work. But one can chalk it up to other factors too, among them the fact that the '80s was less fertile soil for the sort of thriller he wrote, in part because of the rightward shift of its politics. Ludlum espoused a centrist liberalism, which deemed anyone who questioned the structure of society an "extremist"; equated extremism with mental illness (the words "Madness!" and "Maniacs!" come up in his prose with tiresome frequency); and hewed to the orthodoxy of the Cold War, which had the Soviets a genuine threat to the West. And as one might guess from all this he was by no means anti-Establishment, but in fact quite genteely pro-Establishment. Still, he took the principles of liberal democracy sufficiently seriously as to hold that there were lines which should not be crossed, that the Cold War spy game was very far from black and white, that "Watergate" and all the rest associated with that term were an outrage, a view widely shared in the country. It must be remembered, too, that if the malefactors got off with a comparative slap on the wrist, the aftermath of the scandal still saw a Vice-President do time, and a President head off impeachment only by resigning his office.

In the next decade, however, the expectations and the reactions were quite different. As Arthur Liman, chief counsel for the Senate during the Iran-Contra hearings remarked, the hearings thoroughly exposed the crimes committed--but as one may observe of the aftermath, to far less consequence. (Exemplary of the lot, Elliott Abrams was convicted on mere misdeameanors, his punishment a fifty dollar fine and some probation and community service, and Bush the First pardoned him, sparing him the full consequences even of that--while he has since continued in his dubious career, the man now Special Representative for Venezuela.) Indeed, many of the chief participants in those crimes were openly and widely cheered as heroes by much of the public. That face of the scandal, Oliver North, put in TV appearances as himself in shows like Wings and JAG, the latter in particular flattering him as International Man of Mystery, while notable among those contributing to his defense was the writer who trumped Ludlum as the commercial colossus in the spy genre that decade, Tom Clancy, whose uncritical, "populist" flag-waving was much more in fashion.

Indeed, Ludlum not only became less prolific, but also more repetitive. He published five new novels in the next decade (1981-1990)--of which three were sequels, following The Bourne Identity with The Bourne Supremacy in 1986 and The Bourne Ultimatum in 1990, and The Chancellor Manuscript with The Icarus Agenda in 1988. There were some new touches here--the East Asian setting of The Bourne Supremacy, the Middle Eastern action with its whiff of Chuck Norris in The Icarus Agenda (Evan Kendrick gets to be popularly known as "Commando Kendrick" after helping resolve an embassy siege in Muscat), and the final showdown between Bourne and Carlos behind The Iron Curtain in the last days of the Cold War. Still, this was a matter of Ludlum following the fashion rather than setting it, and there was usually more old than new here, with the same going for the two books that were not obvious retreads. The Parsifal Mosaic (1982) and The Aquitaine Progression (1984) were variations on the theme of his next-biggest success, The Matarese Countdown, large and largely European-set tales of international conspiracy at the highest levels, with the Cold War sides interpenetrated in The Parsifal Mosaic, and generals instead of corporate overlords plotting world domination in The Aquitaine Progression.

As one might imagine, this was even more the case in the next decade, which saw five more books, two of them sequels, and one a clear repetition of a prior theme. His crack at comedy in The Road to Gandolfo got a follow-up in The Road to Omaha (1992), while after squeezing the last of the juice out of the Bourne saga (the third book did not sell like the first, and anyway Jason was fifty now, in a time before septugenarian action heroes were all the rage), Ludlum produced a sequel to what appears his second-biggest success, The Matarese Circle, The Matarese Countdown (1997). And again the "originals" were less original than their predecessors. The Scorpio Illusion (1993) once more had terrorists as corporate pawns, while in The Apocalypse Watch it was a neo-Nazi takeover plot that could not but recall The Holcroft Covenant on the level of premise, if updated after two decades and with a good deal of spy-fi about it (1995), while they seemed comparatively slight, shallow things compared with what came before--a tendency evident, too, in The Prometheus Deception (2000). And after that, the very last book completed by Ludlum himself, The Sigma Protocol (2001), once more returned to familiar ghosts of World War II.

Moreover, commercial exhaustion followed creative exhaustion, as an examination of the bestseller lists demonstrates. Where in the '80s, even amid the repetitiveness and other signs of decline, a Ludlum novel could still be expected to last six months or more on the New York Times' bestseller list, spending several weeks at #1 (the original Bourne Identity managed an astonishing 16 such weeks), then go on to rank high among its era's top-sellers (The Bourne Ultimatum, the weakest performer, still made #6 on the Publisher's Weekly list), they faded fast through the following decade. Not one of the five novels of the '90s made the #1 spot on the NYT list for a single week, while The Scorpio Illusion was the last to make Publisher Weekly's list (barely doing so at #10), afterward the NYT list appearance at any rank dwindling. (The Prometheus Deception lasted a mere nine weeks.)

Still, the Ludlum name was not so weak that Big Publishing, in its ever-greater ardor to milk any past success, even one fast-fading (anything beats looking at, you know, anything NEW) built the name into a veritable imprint just as Ludlum himself was passing from the scene. Thus followed a string of four more big Ludlum novels not actually written by Ludlum. Following The Sigma Protocol were more big books that looked just like their predecessors, starting with The Janson Directive (2002), and the launch of the "coauthored" Covert-One series with The Hades Factor (2001).

All of this, of course, was helped massively when Doug Liman (yup, Arthur's son) achieved what the legendary Sam Peckinpah and John Frankenheimer did not, turning a Ludlum novel into a really popular feature film.* Liman's The Bourne Identity (2002) launched a cinematic franchise and broader multimedia franchise (four more films, a video game in The Bourne Conspiracy, now a Bourne TV show in Treadstone, with more likely on the way) which of course had as one of its first consequences the reinvigoration of the print franchise (with eleven more Bourne novels to date, and two more to follow next year, not counting the apparent TV tie-in, The Treadstone Resurrection). That helped the other series' to flourish as they have, with the Covert-1 novels now numbering a dozen, and The Janson Directive having turned into a franchise in itself, with three more sequels. And so Ludlum's name, like Fleming's or Clancy's, appears mostly on books he never had anything to do with, and that largely because of the successes to which they led in other media consumable by people who never pick a book, with the pattern continuing decades after their writing their last. And likely to continue decades hence with, I suspect, artificial intelligences churning out new ones just like the originals, for whoever still enjoys that sort of thing. And still other artificial intelligences churning out new ones not at all like the originals for those who don't.

* Sam Peckinpah directed a feature film version of The Osterman Weekend which hit theaters in 1983, John Frankenheimer a version of The Holcroft Covenant (with Michael Caine an exceedingly unlikely Noel Holcroft) that appeared in 1985.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Sixty-Six Years After Casino Royale

In 1953 the "international man of mystery"-type spy was an old, well-worn, frankly stale tradition. It had already been a half century since William Le Queux introduced the type in Secrets of the Foreign Office (1903), where Duckworth Drew trots the globe (this week Paris, next week Constantinople and perhaps St. Petersburg the week after that) on assignments mixing the glamour of high life and the intrigue of high politics with a certain amount of physical danger including death-by-improbable gadget. Most of its variations and innovations were only a little younger (with Fu Manchu and Bulldog Drummond the genre already having its supervillains and freakish henchmen and good girls and bad girls and the rest). And the same went for the genre-subverting drama and parody of the improbable material (which, in the hands of literary masters like Maugham and Ambler, was to frequently be a good deal more memorable than the work off of which they played).

Ian Fleming managed to update that material in a number of ways, extending even beyond the dressing of the technology and geopolitics of the moment (atomic and jet-type and rocket-type things that Fleming was in cases to treat with more rigor than his predecessors, Soviet rather than German nemeses). There was the bureaucratization of intelligence (owing more to Maugham than Le Queux). There was the cynicism and brutalization of a society that had been through two world wars and a Depression and the beginnings of the break-up of Empire, while that process had as yet not gone so far as to end all illusions for Britain's moment as a great power being stretched by American dollars and sheer "knack for the game," which made for a more ruthless, violent adventure (the more so for its coloring by harder-edged American crime fiction, just one way in which this universe was being Americanized). There was the acknowledgment of sex and sexuality and the indulgence of fantasy about them to a certain extent, in that breathing space between Victorian prudery and the Sexual Counter-Revolution. There was a certain reimagining of glamour reflecting post-war Britain's mix of privation and comparative egalitarianism (Bond only gets to be a guest at a club like Blades, the luxury on display not aristocratness but, as Kingsley Amis put it, "backdoor semi-aristocratness"), and the redefinition of what even the most flamboyant luxury would look like by post-war consumerism (the use of brand names much remarked). There was, in Fleming, even a readiness to mix the straight adventure stuff with an element of the parodists' irony.

By the 1960s all of this soon enough stood in need of yet another update for film audiences, with the conservative politics and the bureaucracy played down, the luxury and sex and violence played up--with the help of the technique of the TV commercial, all but inventing the "high concept film" and the action movie as we know it, while the producers invented the practice of marketing blockbuster (a publicity blitz of a movie easily promoted in a commercial because it's a commercial-for-itself anyway, leading up to an ultra-wide release, accompanied by a colossal merchandising offensive), the series' real pop cultural legacies (merely extended and Americanized by George Lucas and co., not created by them).

A half century after that the significance of those three innovations (high concept, action film, blockbuster marketing) still stands as remarkable. But that is not enough to make the Bond films unique. Rather the result is the opposite--the Bond films are now comparatively ordinary, because the things that made them unique have become standard. Meanwhile, those things that make Bond different--the idea of British agents still traveling the globe on missions, for instance--seem out of time. Thus Bond today, older in our time than Duckworth Drew was in Fleming's as he sat down to pen Casino Royale, appears both commonplace and anachronistic, and not for lack of trying. Almost since the end of the '60s filmmakers, and from the start of the '80s, new novelists, have tried to update the update, and arguably the results have been less than totally satisfactory to a critical eye, even as the franchise has gone on raking in money. The most recent print efforts have been especially so, veering wildly between the purely contemporary and the totally retro (sometimes in the same book). Anthony Horowitz's typically and atypically twenty-first century effort at an official prequel to Casino Royale, Forever and a Day, only reaffirmed that impression on my part--discussed here for what it is worth.

Review: Anthony Horowitz's Forever and a Day


I will say up front--for the benefit of those who have never read this blog before--that I tend to be reserved toward prequels. This is all the more the case when the subject of the prequel in question is a figure like Bond. Double-o-seven is very much a Gary Stu figure (if at times quite an unusual one), and it strikes me that such figures ought not to have too much past about them, or too much inner life, with the rebooted film series only confirming me in the impression.

There is, too, the fact that there just does not seem much for a Casino Royale prequel, about Bond becoming a double-o, to do. In Fleming's universe no one becoming a double-o is a neophyte. He is already a veteran when he starts in the section. And of course, the Bond of the novels, even as a veteran, was no omnicompetent superman. Instead he messed up time and again, and badly, often finishing his mission and staying alive simply because of some spectacularly unlikely coincidence. Thus nothing really formative, no making-of-the-superman-type stuff, can be said to happen here, just Bond being Bond, with a predictable result that, after the opening couple of chapters concerning Bond's assignment to the section I quite easily forgot that this was a prequel until some remark about Bond's preference in cigarette brands or cocktail preparation methods arises.

Hardly the makings of a memorable prequel or origin story, that. Still, if there was little hope of that from the outset the question of how well the book does as a plain and simple continuation novel remains. And the answer there is that some of it works, and some of it does not. One can say that the elements are indeed Fleming stuff, less distinctive and flamboyant than the precedents Horowitz opted to follow in Trigger-Mortis, but less worn too (Corsican gangsters and drug trafficking rather than secret rocket bases). Where its structure is concerned the book manages to feel like a Bond novel rather than a novelized Bond movie where the structure of the adventure is concerned. (For better and worse, Benson, and even Gardner, did not always do so.) And orowitz resists being so obvious in his pandering to the sensibility of 2018 (at least, by comparison, with an allegedly '50s-era Bond novel which undoes Pussy Galore's "conversion" in extremely in-Bond's-face fashion, and squeezes in a speech on gay liberation). And so in these ways it may be a more successful performance than his first. I will say, too, that his depiction of headquarters and M holds up, and if he does not quite have Fleming's eye for the little details, his travel writing is solid enough.

Still, some fairly central elements of the book are wildly implausible for a Fleming novel (like the bad blood between Bond and the CIA, even if it does not get quite as nuts as what we see in Faulks' Devil May Care), and wildly implausible period. (This is especially the case with the villain's motivation, the idea of an Establishment billionaire making his last grand act in this world the feeding of a heroin epidemic in the hopes of turning the country's attention inward at the height of the Cold War is . . . well, I cannot think of a way to express my incredulity politely.) So does it go where the smaller touches are concerned. (A lengthy anecdote involves a Soviet cruiser named Aleksander Kolchak, with a Captain Stolypin for a commanding officer. If any irony was intended, there is no sign of it, and I have to admit that it jarred.*)

And more consequential than any implausibility in the story is the sense that nothing here is really surprising or necessary. Of course, I doubt that Horowitz can be blamed for that, with the franchise in its seventh decade; with, even excluding the film novelizations (seven thus far), the spin-offs about Bond's childhood (Charlie Higson and Steve Cole have delivered nine all by themselves), the parodies that actually refer to Bond as Bond (from Christopher Cerf and Michael K. Firth's Alligator to Mabel Maney's Kiss the Girls and Make Them Spy), and assorted still weirder projects (from Andrei Gulyashki's Avakoum Zakhov vs. 07 to the Miss Moneypenny Diaries), nearly forty James Bond novels in print; with the task of "making it new" so much the more difficult because the interaction of book and film encouraged the "formulaic procedural" expectation so many fans of them; likely no one can do anything with them that has not been done before, and that to the point of exhaustion.

But such things do not give publishing executives pause. Whether or not Horowitz's latest has been a moneymaker, the idea of the owners of an IP whose value has been estimated at a staggering $20 billion (the GDP of Malta) letting go of the idea of continuing Bond adventures in the medium where they began is so implausible as to guarantee that "JAMES BOND WILL RETURN."

* Admiral Aleksander Kolchak, of course, commanded one of the White armies which attempted to overthrow the Bolsheviks during the civil war (1918-1921) that followed the Russian Revolution (1917)--hardly somebody Stalin's government would honor by naming a warship after him. (Incidentally, I did make a brief attempt to see if there had ever been such a vessel. Predictably, there wasn't. By the way, Ian Fleming's brother Peter actually wrote a journalistic investigation of the death of Kolchak, The Fate of Admiral Kolchak. Did this escape Horowitz?) Nikolai Stolypin was a pre-Revolutionary Minister remembered principally for his brutal repressive measures (testament to which is the expression "Stolypin necktie"). Alas, not the first time Horowitz has displayed a profound ignorance of other nations' histories and cultures, to the point of confusing racist stereotypes of one country with another (as with the matter of which nationalities supposedly eat dog and so forth, in Stormbreaker).

The Excesses of Critics

If you're one of those who thinks that any and everything that is ever said of any artistic work is entirely "subjective," and any one remark as good as another, and nothing can ever be overrated or underrated (let alone more rigorously and substantively evaluated); and you are utterly unshakable in that opinion; then you may as well stop reading now because nothing I will have to say will mean anything to you.

If that is not your position, then perhaps it will be worth your while to keep on reading.

Now, to begin properly:

It has long seemed to me that arts criticism tends toward the excessive in both its praise and dispraise. The good is passed off as great, the bad horrid--while the merely mediocre is often presented as great or horrid as well.

Why is that? An obvious answer is that many critics are, like many people in any and every line of work, simply not equipped to do their job well--in this case, lacking the grasp of the craft, the frame of reference, the fair-mindedness, to render a meaningful, worthwhile judgment on a given work. (There are film critics who, for example, do not understand how film works, or perhaps the particular kind of film they are writing about. There are critics who have just not seen very many movies, or at least, movies of the kind about which they are talking. There are critics who simply do not seem to care if the remarks they offer make any sense, or are at all supportable.)

Another is that being the critic for too long (which is not so long a time as one may think) leads to boredom and even burn-out. One runs out of things to say, especially when the work in front of them inspires only a "Meh." Hyperbole is one way of spicing things up; colorful insult another. The reader may find the results amusing, but as actual judgment it leaves something to be desired.

I suspect this sort of thing is exacerbated by the pressure to deliver favorable and unfavorable reviews in cases. No critic seems to want to offend the Disney conglomerate, especially when it critic-proofs its films with corporate pseudo-wokeness. (Who wants the flak that would come with giving Black Panther a less than enthusiastically celebratory review?) At the same time there are other movies they are expected to denigrate, even if they have to strain to do it--because they are less than congenial to the politics prevailing among the strata from which they hail and for which they work. (I had a sense of this looking at, for example, the reviews for the legal drama Roman J. Israel, which the critics bent over backwards to denigrate.)

All this has critics very used to talking things up and talking things down excessively. And as they are much more often called on to overpraise a movie than underpraise it, they seize on any opportunity to beat up excessively on something with impunity.

On Johnny Depp's Mortdecai

I recently caught Mortdecai on cable--and found the film a pleasant surprise. Enough of one that I found myself remembering the severity of the critical hostility to it when it came out, and speculating about why they went so over the top in bashing the movie.

I suppose a significant reason was that the movie starred Johnny Depp, over whom the entertainment press has fawned, but against whom it turned years ago, to a ludicrous degree, with one predictable result the excessive bad-mouthing of anything he appears in. (Actually watching Pirates of the Caribbean 4, or The Lone Ranger after hearing their moaning and groaning, that excess was very clear.) That fact aside, the movie was a January "dump month" release of an adaptation of which many of the critics, and their audiences, likely knew nothing (a now comparatively obscure British comic novel of the '70s). This did not invite hostility the way Johnny Depp being in it did as leave the film vulnerable, with the same going for other aspects of the movie--its simply having no lobby in the commentariat that might attack detractors on some political grounds.

I might add that the film's retro aspect, its subtle evocation of something yesteryear, its working in the style of a kind of comedy they do not make much anymore--there were comparisons with The Pink Panther, and they were totally on the mark--probably did not serve it well with the less cinematically literate critics, perhaps especially because of what may have been the most unexpectedly Pink Panther-like aspect of the film of all, Depp's performance as the titular figure, Charles Mortdecai. What Peter Sellers did with the French detective Jacques Clouseau, Depp did with his British aristocrat. I thought it worked brilliantly, and having since read the first of Kyril Bonfiglioli's Mortdecai novels, think it was entirely fitting.

But I suspect the joke went over the heads of many of those critics who thought this "strange," for reasons extending beyond cinematic illiteracy to idiot snobbery. A certain sort of American--and the kind who become film critics for upmarket review pages tend to be so inclined--seem to hear Received Pronunciation, and hear in it their social and intellectual superior, if not their Lord and Master. (This is the sort I suspect bizarrely turned the stale Heritage drivel of a Conservative peer of the House of Lords who came into the Kitchener name via marriage into a cultural phenomenon in the United States.) Seeing such a figure depicted thus was bewildering to them, and perhaps even offensive. A less stupid person, however, would not have that reaction.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

How Did Robert Ludlum Become a Mega-Seller?

Looking back at the history of spy fiction one is struck by British domination of the field for most of its history, where significant, genre-founding and genre-reinventing innovation, the authorship of the classics that stood the test of time, and its largest commercial names, are concerned. William Le Queux virtually invented it in the form in which we know it in Secrets of the Foreign Office, and continued to lay down its foundations in subsequent works like Spies of the Kaiser, along with Erskine Childers, E. Phillips Oppenheim and Joseph Conrad. Following these the writers we tend to remark are Sax Rohmer, John Buchan, H.C. McNeile, W. Somerset Maugham, Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, William Haggard, John le Carrè, Len Deighton, Frederick Forsyth . . . as Americans, if taking occasional and sometimes more than occasional interest, only occasionally produced a book like The Manchurian Candidate before going on to other things.

This changed in the 1970s, however, with that decade and the next seeing two American authors of spy fiction enter that uppermost rank of really commercially successful authors, the Flemings and le Carrès and Forsyths, namely Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy.

I have, of course, got in my two cents on Clancy's success (which had at least as much to do with the boom of the techno-thriller as spy fiction, more narrowly defined). I have given less thought to Ludlum's, but the recent turn of my research and writing has me doing so now.

It strikes me that, in contrast with Fleming (whose sales went through the roof when Bond became a screen hit in the early '60s), or le Carrè (whose career it appears was helped greatly by Martin Ritt's film version of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold shortly after the book hit the market), or Forsyth (whose first novel Fred Zinnemann turned into another commercial success and instant classic), or the later Clancy (whose early Jack Ryan novels John McTiernan and Philip Noyce turned into major hits in a critical period for his career, while shortly after Clancy exploded in the world of video gaming with Rainbow Six), Ludlum did not get a significant boost out of cinematic or other multimedia success during his commercial peak in print. (There were two major feature films based on his work in the '80s, as it happened, helmed by legendary thriller directors--Sam Peckinpah's The Osterman Weekend, and John Frankenheimer's The Holcroft Covenant--but both were commercial and critical flops, while the TV versions of his work, like the 1988 Richard Chamberlain-Jaclyn Smith miniseries version of The Bourne Identity, could do only so much for him.)

And where his writing was concerned he managed to be less accessible than most pop-oriented writers (the way Forsyth and Clancy were, with their transparent prose and straightforward storytelling), without winning critical plaudits (the way le Carrè did), and not wholly without reason. The convoluted plots, and the manner in which he sometimes withheld information, could make his stories hard to follow without their being particularly accomplished artistically. Indeed, Ludlum's prose has been much derided as overdone and melodramatic.

1. The market for American spy fiction was opening up. In the '60s Americans became really big consumers of spy fiction for the first time. They consumed mainly imports--Fleming, le Carrè--but it did suggest opportunity for local product, and Ludlum came out in '71, virtually the first of that crop of Americans to make names for themselves here (James Grady, Charles McCarry, Trevanian).

2. At the start of the decade Frederick Forsyth established the fashion for "super-thrillers"--novels twice as long as had been usual for spy stories and the like--with The Day of the Jackal. As it happened, Ludlum was inclined to big books from the first, and the books went on getting bigger as the decade proceeded. (Looking at those '70s-era novels it seems that most of the competition was behind the curve that way.)

3. Where content was concerned Ludlum was relatively in tune with the times, politically and aesthetically. Suspicion of the security state and of corporate power, international terrorism, and World War II nostalgia were all big in the '70s. Indeed, he did not hesitate to be blatantly topical, writing prominent recent and present day figures into his plots. (In 1977's The Chancellor Manuscript he spun a tale about the then-recent death of J. Edgar Hoover, while the plot of 1980's The Bourne Identity centered on the hunt for Carlos the Jackal.) He also handled the political material in a manner palatable to the broader public. (He was, after all, a centrist in a way that would be less fashionable in the '80s, but hardly as dangerous to one's career as, for example, was the case for Trevanian.)

Jet-setters were popular subject matter, too, and he capitalized on this as well. (Ludlum's heroes were commonly international professional types, whose adventures abroad tended toward the sort of touristy European spots Americans would like to go on vacation.) And the '70s all saw the thriller increasingly shift from mystery-suspense to paramilitary-style shoot 'em up action-adventure, another wave Ludlum rode. (Just compare the suburban head games of The Osterman Weekend to the ample gunplay of The Bourne Identity.)

In short, his early arrival on the scene with distinctly American, rather large, and from the standpoint of theme and style, topical and fashionable, novels, were plenty to give him a shot at the big time, so to speak, and it proved more than enough.

Thoughts on the Upcoming Film Version of Without Remorse

I remember I was a relative newcomer to the techno-thriller genre when Tom Clancy's Without Remorse (1993) hit the stores.

Still, by that point I had already developed certain preferences. It seemed to me that Clancy was more interesting when he was writing wide-view portraits of geopolitical maneuverings involving submarines and space systems (like in, say, The Cardinal of the Kremlin) than when he was writing character-centered stuff where the "heavy artillery" is something carried in the hand (as in Patriot Games). And while this was long before I had grown cynical about prequels, especially the kind devoted to the "making of" some action hero (action heroes are wish-fulfillment figures, after all, and where their past is concerned less tends to be more), I still was not all that interested in a story of Clark's youth. Or intrigued by the associated decision to drop the genre's accustomed present-day emphasis to go back in time a couple of decades to the "last months of the Vietnam War" setting that seemed to me less appealing imaginatively than a contemporary scenario, the more so as, in the early '90s, the Vietnam theme seemed overfamiliar, even stale, as far as this sort of tale went.

I gave the book a chance, though. And it was more or less what I expected. It confirmed me in my impression that Clancy's always bloat-inclined novels bloated more severely and obviously when he was writing these more personal, smaller-scale stories than when he was writing the global scenarios, which at least had more threads to cut back and forth among, and material for interesting info-dumps, and bigger action. It confirmed me in my sense, too, that Clancy was prone to be generic when working outside the rather narrow specialty for which he is best known (as writers usually are). Still, it had its interesting bits, among them the way it worked as a sort of homage to the paramilitary fiction genre already in swift decline circa 1993, not least because of its combination of that genre's principal themes, even obsessions--the '70s fixation on special forces-trained vigilantes going to war with the Mafia on the streets of America, and the '80s fashion for stories about special forces raid into Southeast Asia to rescue Americans taken prisoner by Communist forces during the Vietnam War.

For the most part, though, I have not given the book much thought since, and was surprised to learn that Hollywood plans to have a Without Remorse movie out in September 2020.

This was, in part, because I thought Hollywood had cooled on silver screen adaptations of the Ryanverse. After all, there had already been two reboots which imagined a young Jack getting his start, first with Ben Affleck back in the 2002 The Sum of All Fears, and then Chris Pine in the Kenneth Branagh-helmed Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, the latter backed by only a modest budget and given a modest dump-month-of-January release that led to a modest gross of the kind that does not have the Suits rushing to finance a sequel--which unsurprisingly meant that the other Clancy-based film projects were stuck in development hell the last time I checked, Without Remorse specifically included. Meanwhile the franchise seemed to be doing all right on the small screen with the Amazon Prime series now in its second season, so that I figured this would be the industry's emphasis for the time being.

But of course, that was an underestimation of its insane vehemence in exploiting any and every IP, especially anything action-y to do with the '80s, abiding by their preferred version of the old adage "If the millionth time you don't succeed, reboot, reboot, reboot again." We've just had Rambo 5 and Terminator 6, even though nobody asked for them, and Top Gun 2 is coming our way next summer, despite the extremely questionable timing for such a movie, as Scott Mendelson pointed out just a short time ago, if the film simply serves up more of the original in "a shameless nostalgia-driven fan bait enterprise," it will "be both thin gruel and morally irresponsible considering the times we live in," but if it seriously examines what "overseas engagement" has meant in the decades since that original's release, it would probably offend "the very fans who have wanted this flick for 30 years."

Given the prevailing logic, more Ryanverse seems like a comparatively easy decision next to that.

For the time being not much seems to be available on the project. The word is that there has been filming in Berlin, but that may not signify much about the plot. (After all, these days film shooting locations are determined by the chase after government subsidy, and the German government has long been remarked for generosity here.)

Still, if the prior rebooting of Ryan is anything to go by, and there seems good reason to think it is, the makers of the film will have to set aside that homage-to-paramilitary-action-adventure aspect because it simply does not lend itself well to updating. (What real equivalents have there been to '70s Mafia-fighting and '80s MIA-hunting? None, because the genre sputtered out afterward.) Which makes me wonder what they will replace it with. Perhaps they have a concept. But then again perhaps not. After all, not having an interesting angle on the material never stopped a Hollywood producer from flogging an old IP one more time.

All the same, I expect I will be getting in another two cents on the matter over the course of the year.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Review: Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story, by Ernest Mandel

Minneapolis, MI: University of Minnesota Press, 1984, pp. 152.

Ernest Mandel, whom I was surprised to see writing about crime fiction (as a scholar he is known in the main for his work in economic theory and political economy), promises in the subtitle of his book a specifically social history of the genre to which he here turns his attention.

He delivers on that promise, detailing what now seems the familiar "main line" of the crime story while explaining its development in terms of changes in social life. As Mandel tells it, the genre's beginning in early modern times with the criminal as a hero, oft a romanticized one, such as we see in picaresque fiction like Grimmelshausen's Simplicissimus, expressed a sense of revolt on the part of the bourgeoisie (among other groups) against the feudal order of the day.

That changed as the feudal order declined and fell. The result was that by the nineteenth century there was less tendency to romanticize the criminal. There was, however, still a measure of sympathy, sufficient that the crime story was presented not as a mere tale of individual villainy, but as a social criticism--as in William Godwin's Caleb Williams, or Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. As Mandel explains it, in an era where people were locked up for debt bourgeois anti-statism didn't just mean an unwillingness to pay their share of the tax burden, but a genuine suspicion of state police power and military establishments as well; while the comfortable and even the conservative had not yet become Panglossian about capitalism. (Balzac was a conservative "legitimist"--a monarchist who favored the rule of the traditional Bourbon house--but reading Pere Goriot one can see a robust, critical social understanding that made him Karl Marx's favorite novelist, and which two centuries later Thomas Piketty found it worthwhile to cite in his formidable analysis, Capital for the Twenty-First Century.)

Of course, the nineteenth century was the time when the bourgeoisie, as they grew richer, more powerful, more established, with society increasingly remade in their image and organized around their needs, made a Great Leap Rightward, from revolutionary to conservative and even reactionary. And crime fiction reflected that shift, the social criticism falling away, and the genre's sympathies instead increasingly with those who upheld an order they took ever more for granted as right and good--the detective who uncovers and punishes crime--while the criminal was demonized. (One might say that Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean switched places, certainly by the time that Sherlock Holmes appeared on the scene.)

The crime story was touched, too, by the rise of organization, bigness, professionalism--on both sides of the law. The police became bureaucratized, their vast, scientific machinery, with its files and forensics, routinely grinding out the truth in "procedural" fashion. At the same time crime became larger-scale and more sophisticated, an illicit equivalent of the Big Business so evident and powerful elsewhere, which itself increasingly partook of the illicit. "Legitimate business," seeing laissez-faire replaced by an increasingly high-tax, high-regulation state, increasingly broke the law as a matter of course; as in an age of international conflict and domestic unrest, of formally and permanently institutionalized spy and counterspy, the state's activities in turn became criminal in character; with each associating with, aligning itself with, corrupting, the others, all as organized crime reinvested its profits in legal endeavors and illegally bought politicians, and as business and government in their turn looked to crime for special services.

Lone detectives, lone heroes, were increasingly out of their depth in all this. The cops no longer needed the services of a Holmes, his genius superfluous, while anyway he could hardly be pictured taking on an Al Capone. Indeed, as the corruption of business and government proceeded, such an enemy became too big even for such as Red Harvest's Continental Op--big enough for the local corruption of Personville ("Poisonville"), Montana (after setting the gangsters on each other, he advised Old Wilson to send in the National Guard), but not what seemed an increasingly rotten global system (the Governor's cleanness in the matter a thing that could no longer be assumed). The fiction of the '70s, by which point this sense of a corrupt system had come to be something close to conventional wisdom, the prevailing note was a cynicism that inclined writers to a different sort of hero, and a different sort of ending--heroes who were disaffected, but able to do only so much about the situation that left them so. Trevanian's Shibumi (1979) seems a notable example. Its protagonist Nicolai Hel may be the most skilled assassin on Earth, but even he cannot rid the world of the oil syndicates' conspiracy. The best he can do is exact a personal revenge on his enemies, and restore his little bit of peace in the world--a purely individual revolt that in Mandel's view is all rather "petty-bourgeois" and necessarily negative in contrast with genuine political, social change. Thus the genre seems to have hit a dead end.

Having published his analysis in 1984 Mandel's tracing of the history ends there. And one can only wonder what he would have made of the development of this still quite salable genre three decades since. But as it stands it is a formidable and, I think, extremely useful, analysis. Shorter and less comprehensive in its survey of the material than, for instance, Julian Symons' Bloody Murder, it is far more rigorous in tracing the genre's evolution, to say nothing of presenting a picture of the social factors shaping it. It is interesting, too, for having a somewhat more international perspective than works like Symons (the Belgian Mandel casually referencing a good deal of French, German and other continental work English-language readers are unlikely to have even heard of, but which adds to the strength of his historical analysis). The result seems to me indispensable for anyone looking for the big picture of the history of this important genre.

Sunday, February 16, 2020


We are all familiar with the idea of the action hero as a latterday avenger with a gun—Dirty Harry, Chuck Norris' screen heroes, Rambo. Yet, how did the idea of such heroes emerge in the first place? Why did it explode as it did in the 1970s and, still more, the 1980s, defining the Hollywood action films of that decade? And why did it fall out of fashion?

PARAMILITARY ACTION-ADVENTURE FICTION: A HISTORY examines all these questions, and much more, as it traces the rise of paramilitary action heroes in the tensions and fears underlying the civil image of the nineteenth century, through the stresses of the world wars and the Cold War, to the emergence by the 1960s of commandos fighting undeclared wars on the streets of urban America—and the evolution of that image in the half century since.

Available in paperback and Kindle formats at Amazon and other retailers.

Get your copy today!

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