Thursday, December 31, 2009

Reviewing the Reviewers: An Analysis of Book and Movie Reviews

For a book or movie review to have any credibility, there has to be some balance. In other words, no review should be completely negative or positive. Even if the reviewer absolutely loves what he is reviewing, there must be some criticism, and some call for improvement. Otherwise, the review is tacitly claiming that the book, movie, television show, or anything else that is being reviewed is flawless.

On the other hand, a sneering, lopsided attack is rarely warranted and is usually an excuse for the reviewer to spew some venom and show off how clever he thinks he is.

Unfortunately, the state of reviewing today would lead you to believe that there is an awful lot of perfection out there. Unwarranted praise, low standards, and an unwillingness or inability to thoroughly critique are some of the main problems. Why is this so?

First, there are an awful lot of people out there--mainly online--who have no idea what they are talking or writing about. They have basic emotional responses to what they read and see. Without any knowledge of character development, narrative, or any other aspect of writing or film-making, they simply have nothing worth saying. Their comments are no different than a 12 year-old's description of a movie. When you can't articulate exactly why you have an opinion on something, your comments lose credibility.

Second, numerous reviewers offer up their views as a brazen quid pro quo. They may be getting paid to shamelessly provide a favourable review. Or they simply review positively because they want to maintain access to those who give interviews, provide admission to various junkets, or otherwise make the life of a professional reviewer worthwhile. If those individuals are writing for high-profile media outlets, their opinions can influence others.

Third, as time goes by, there are fewer opportunities for paid reviews in the world of newspapers and magazines. The demise of Kirkus Reviews is another example of that. When reviewers are paid for their time to write a well-researched review backed up with relevant and insightful comments, the quality is generally better.

Finally, there is no accounting for taste. It is hard to fathom the rubbish that is embraced by so many people. This is not so much an indication of the lack of good reviewers as the fact that numerous individuals simply have different standards, and like different things.

The average length of reviews must surely be taking a hit as well. Pithy reviews that are hardly more than a synopsis and a rating are becoming the norm. But all is not lost. Though the amount of worthless garbage on the internet is unlimited, the overall availability of good information on books and movies continues to increase.

In the online world, some of the best and most thorough reviews can be found on Unfortunately, like a microcosm of the vast online universe, to find those reviews, you will have to wade through a lot of dross. Disingenuous tripe that has been planted by those associated with the work that is being reviewed is also a problem.

One of the best high-profile professional movie reviewers remains Roger Ebert. The most well-known and "successful" person in any field, especially one in which writing is the medium, rarely is the most thorough, knowledgeable, and entertaining. Ebert is an exception. He still makes the effort to provide reviews that are entertaining in their own right, and often extrapolates and riffs off the themes in the movie he is reviewing. And if you're a regular reader of Ebert, you are sure to read references to other movies, books, and even great music related to whichever film is the focus of the review.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Police Officer Murdered in Ottawa

When ready-made and easy-to-follow narrtatives come screeching to a halt, many people don't quite know how to react.

In 1995 I was living in Tel Aviv when Yitzhak Rabin was murdered. The night is burned in my memory. There was a nice chill in the air, and a political rally in support of the Oslo peace process was being held a few kilometres away at the Kikar Malchey Israel (Kings of Israel Square). I half-heartedly urged some friends that we should head down to take in the event. Instead, we settled for a night at the local pub.

A few hours later the word came out that Rabin had been shot. There were two palpable, collective pauses that night. The first was after everyone knew the shooting had taken place, but there was still little information available regarding Rabin's condition. A short time later the worst possible outcome was realized: Rabin was dead.

After news that Rabin was dead, rage quickly grew. Everyone was certain was that there was going to be a war, the assumption being that an Arab had pulled the trigger. But still, the officical word had to come down so that the rage could be consummated. When the news broke that, in fact, a Jew had put five bullets in Rabin's back, no one knew quite how to react. A wrench had been thrown into the narrative.

Police Officer Murdered in Ottawa

This is what I am reminded of as the story of a police officer stabbed to death in Ottawa has evolved today. The rightful mourning for the fallen officer, Eric Czapnik, started in earnest as soon as the horrible details started to come out. An officer writing some notes in his car outside an Ottawa hospital was attacked by a knife wielding maniac and stabbed to death.

But things took an even worse turn when we learned that an RCMP officer, Kevin Gregson, had done the killing. The sadness and mourning will not be diminished for the many people who are affected by this killing. But somehow, while it's all a bit more repellent and vile, the rage won't be channeled quite as easily and purely as it would have been if the killer had been a career criminal.

The hatred would have been white hot, the calls for revenge greater, and the ease of attacking the courts for lenience (the RCMP officer who did the killing pulled a knife and threatened someone a few years ago) would have been unhindered.

This will be much harder for police officers to deal with.

Numerous Questions

The details of this story will take some time to come to light. When you consider the secrecy and closed nature of all police forces, it's easy to imagine that the RCMP, at least, will do its best to keep the public in the dark about what exactly happened here.

What is already known is:

The RCMP officer who did the killing was on leave due to the previous charge he faced in 2007, and surgery that he underwent to remove cysts from his brain.

Czapnik was at the hospital on an unrelated call when he was attacked and killed.

But the questions are numerous:

What was Gregson doing at the hospital?

Did Gregson know Czapnik? In other words, was this personal?

Was Gregson treated more leniently in 2007 because he was a member of the RCMP?

Besides determining exactly what happened, the interaction between the Ottawa police and the RCMP will be interesting to watch as this story unfolds.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Mobster Murdered in Montreal

Various media outlets are salivating at the thought of a mob drama to rival any of the cinematic versions after the son of one of Montreal's Mafia bosses was gunned down in broad daylight on Monday, December 28th.

The logical conclusion is that there is going to be instant retaliation and then all hell is going to break loose, with a steady supply of corpses to fill up nightly newscasts and the kind of melodrama that appeals to all segments of the viewing audience, from the wealthy to the white trash. So-called experts on the Mafia scene in Canada have been consulted and the shocking prediction from one is that "There will be, for sure, a retaliation."

A simple narrative that people can get their heads around is what this is all about. Now, if only the requisite drama plays out just as it does in the movies. (Though Mafia killings are at least one example where real-life violence usually trumps anything that happens in books or cinema. In cinema, at least, there just wouldn't be enough time in a two-hour movie to depict the kind of carnage that results when a real Mafia war breaks out.)

And in a demonstration that art and life are often similar, the victim was standing near a car as he was gunned down. Mobsters in the movies and TV often seem to take out their rivals as they are getting into a car. Why exactly is that?

A few possibilities:


When someone is getting into a car, they are preoccupied and vulnerable. As some oaf lumbers out of a restaurant with a gutful of pasta and bends down to unlock the car door, he is less likely to be able to fight back, or flee.


A mobland murder often involves a hitman from out of town to decrease the likelihood that he will be caught. License plates on a car are another way to confirm that the correct person is being targetted.

Random Location

A random location outside decreases the possibility of physical evidence and also narrows the number of possible suspects. On the other hand, when someone is killed at or near a location that he frequented, other regulars from the vicinity, both strangers and those who knew the victim, can provide evidence and be interviewed, thus increasing the chances of finding the killer.

But if the murder of a mobster in Montreal and those killed in the movies bear any resemblance, the similarities end there. Because it's a guarantee that the murderous criminal Mafia thugs, who are often treated with a sick kind of reverance by the media, don't utter a steady stream of clever witticisms and hip aphorisms, do not lead lives in three tidy acts, and are not sympathetic characters in the least.

When Nicolo Rizzuto's brains oozed out of his skull and dirtied the snow on a street in Montreal, it marked the violent end of the kind of person society romanticizes far too often. Whether the killing will spark a mob war in Montreal remains to be seen.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Book Review: Little Caesar by W.R. Burnett

Little Caesar W.R. BurnettSo you read this old, relatively obscure crime novel--Little Caesar. It's got that kind of hipster cachet that comes from the fact that not many people have read it. But at the same time it's often hailed as the first real crime noir novel. It's about Chicago mobsters of the 1920s, and a movie based on the book was made in the 1930s.

You start reading the book and it doesn't really grab you at first. Sure, there's cool slang from the era. Like a gun is called a "gat" and gangsters say things like "I don't wanna get my neck stretched" (i.e., get done for murder and sentenced to death--they still hanged people in most states back then).

Almost everyone has a nickname. Some gangster's girlfriend is called Seal Skin, and someone else is called Big Boy, there's a Scabby, a Blackie, and a Killer Pepi. And even the main character, Rico--that isn't his real name. You don't find out until near the end of the story that his real name is Cesare Bandello.

But you keep reading because the book really isn't that long. And generally when people say good things about a book, you tend to take note and think that there must be something to it.

The book creeps up on you. You realize that it's written in a way that isn't as easily accessible as today's crime novels. That doesn't mean it has dense sections with long sentences. In fact, it's very straight forward with sparse writing and tight dialogue. It has a kind of rhythm that might take readers of today a while to get accustomed to. It's just that W.R. Burnett wrote things that writers of today don't write.


What about the story? It's about a group of mobsters in Chicago. It focuses on an up and comer named Rico who grabs the leadership after he has been around for a while and he helps pull off this caper, see? So Rico, this bird who's the boss on this caper, pops a bull, and then takes charge of the gang in Little Italy. Then the noose slowly starts tightening on him as he realizes that as soon as you're at the top there are going to be others gunning for you. And you can never rest. Just as quickly as he make his move, he is on the run after one of his gang turns soft and gives it up to the bulls, see? He doesn't want to get his neck stretched, so he moves on to get away from the heat.


It's about the protracted lives that criminals of that sort lead. The fact that they know that the end could come at any moment, but there's nothing else to do but keep living like that. It is also about how different characters deal with the reality of the life they have chosen, and how they react when the heat is on and the prospect of life behind bars or the death penalty looms.

A grim kind of fatalism comes through in how different characters face down the inevitable: some choose to die in the streets in shoot-outs with the police, others would rather run and try to begin again in another city, while others have had enough and accept that they are going down.

The dialogue and the characters are the book. There aren't many descriptive passages here. And aside from the mobsters there isn't any real sense of the Chicago of the 1920s in which the novel takes place.

Rico--Little Caesar--is everything those around him are not. He's disciplined--doesn't drink, doesn't fall for dames--while most everyone else has an obvious vice. Though he isn't without weakness: he's quick on the draw and quick to put a bullet in someone. Maybe that too is overcompensation for his appearance, not what you would expect in a feared gangster:
He had none of the outward signs of greatness. Neither the great strength and hairiness of Pepi, nor the dash and effrontery of Ottavio Vettori, nor the maniacal temper of Joe Sansone. He was small, pale and quiet.

Gangster Patois

The gangster patois really sings:
"Gonna stick to your dago buddy, are you? Well, he's got the jack. But what're you gonna do when you need a guy that's got the guts?"

This was too much for Rico. He said:

"What do you know about guts? I guess you ain't so tough or they wouldn't've run you out of Chi."

"Will you listen to that!" said Red. "All right, buddy, you said your piece and you sure spoke out of turn. Why, dago, where I come from you wouldn't live five minutes. Now I'm gonna show you how they treat smart dagos in Chi."

Red made a motion towards his coat pocket, but Rico beat him to it. He pulled his gun from the holster under his armpit and covered Red.

"Red," he said, "in Chicago I wouldn't let you rob filling-stations for me."

Red stood with his hands up, looking from Rico to Chiggi.

"Don't bump him, Louis," said Chiggi.

"I wouldn't waste a bullet on him," said Rico; then glaring at Red he went on: "You been getting away with this rough stuff too long, Red. I'm Cesare Bandello!"

A decent book, most memorable because of the long-gone, seemingly authentic world that it depicts, and because it was the first of its kind.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Breaking Bad: Seasons One and Two Review

White and Pinkman Breaking BadBreaking Bad is an AMC drama about Walter White,(played by Bryan Cranston) a 50 year-old chemistry teacher who has been diagnosed with lung cancer. With the prospect of a few more years of life at the most, White is distraught at the thought that his family will not be left with anything after he passes away.

White's brother-in-law, Hank Schrader, is a DEA agent in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the show is set. After hearing Hank talk about the methamphetamine problem in the area, White asks to go along when a meth lab is being busted. Later, White approaches a former student and proposes the idea of cooking crystal meth in order to get some quick money. The student, Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul, quickly agrees.

The cancer diagnosis is the final straw for White in many ways. He has led a life of conformity and fear (something that he states outright in numerous discussions with other characters). He has been less than successful—settling for a life as a high school teacher as his former friends went on to successful careers as highly paid chemists. One story-line that gets some play during the first two seasons details how White’s former partner and fellow chemist took formulas that they developed together and launched a company, becoming extremely wealthy in the process. White has always given off an accepting and good-natured exterior, while probably cursing himself at the same time.

As he embraces the role of cooking meth, and accepts the fate that he is not long for the world, he also starts lashing out at the kind of arrogant, self-serving behaviour from others that he always accepted in the past. White swings so far in the other direction, however, that by the end of season two, it's hard to characterize him as anything but a nasty piece of work (albeit conflicted about the recent decisions he has made). He is barely able to maintain his cover in front of his family, completely alienating his pregnant wife Skyler as season two draws to a close. But as with all great drama, despite the things White has done, most viewers will still find him likeable and will root for him in most situations.

White and Pinkman start at the bottom of the meth food chain, working with two-bit punks, then nastier individuals, and finally hooking up with big-time distributors. With great dialogue, superb character development, and a few strong themes throughout, every episode and scene ratchets up the tension and results in a fantastic viewing experiences. Whether White and Pinkman are involved in a showdown with some drug-world nasty, or there is a taut moment involving personal interactions of the main characters, the result is entertaining and always pushes the narrative forward.


How people deal with fear and pain, and the fact that the consequences of what people do can be wide ranging are two of the strongest themes in the show.

Every character is dealing with their own demons, and they all keep secrets from the people who should be able to help them the most. Walter White is the most obvious example. A secretive person to start with, White does everything in his power to prevent his family from discovering how he is making money to pay for his cancer treatment. White’s wife, Skyler, starts contemplating an affair with her boss, and begins sneaking the occasional cigarette, even though she is pregnant. Another character, Sklyer’s sister Marie, shoplifts. Marie’s husband, Hank, harbours a great deal of fear about his job, but hides it behind the bluster of his stereotypical, loud, guffawing, good 'ol boy exterior. But even as people go into themselves to deal with their suffering, the things they do to salve the pain often affects others as well.

Another theme that receives a lot of play, is how people in despair often feel that there is nothing more to lose. The horrible realization is that things can always get worse, and there is no limit to human suffering. This is very reminiscent of the Paul Bowles book Let it Come Down, in which the main character moves to Morocco after a failed life in Britain, and slowly spirals into a nightmarish situation.

Religious and Apocalyptic Themes

The writers of the show inserted religious imagery into various scenes in the second season. This reviewer saw many more examples than I was aware of (they seem obvious after someone points them out). The fear of some viewers is that there will be a sharp turn towards religious themes in the third season, and this may result in thinly veiled attempts at preaching right and wrong and a complete change in the show. At the same time, the religious imagery fits in with the dual nature of most of the characters—all of them are battling personal problems in some way. And none of them seem to be able to find solace in their friends and family.

There is an apocalyptic ending to the second season that has many wondering what direction the show will take in the upcoming third season. Will White start recognizing how far off the rails he has really gone? Will he finally have to pay in some, real, consequential way for all the misery he has caused?

Only time will tell. White's character goes so far over board in his behaviour, committing numerous murders, and choosing not to help someone as they lay dying, that you have to assume that there is going to be some kind of reconciling. Some kind of horrific realization of what he has turned into, followed by redemption seems like a possibility in the coming season.


I don't particularly like the cold open in which they often (but not always) give a glimpse of what is going to happen later in that show or later in the season. Of course, as the writers of the show say, it doesn't always go in the exact direction that the little glimpse might lead people to believe. But, the show is too good to need something like that.

In the world of cinematic and literary police forces, writers usually choose to depict them as incompetents or geniuses. In Breaking Bad, it's hard to believe that the police have not been able to draw a straight line to White and his rather blundersome attempts at becoming a local drug distributor. However, the power of the show means that most viewers won't give this much thought.

The performance of Bryan Cranston as Walter White is one of the driving forces behind the show. He puts on a stunning performance in the first two seasons. Like may great performances, you truly feel that he was made to play this role. But as with all great acting, it's only a fantastic script that allows such a performance to come through.

Breaking Bad does a great job of dealing with suspension of disbelief. This is largely down to the great storylines, dialogue, and performances from the actors. The absurdist humour that comes through also helps dispel those “as if” moments that could destroy a show that didn’t have the same level of quality as this one.

After 2 seasons and only 20 episodes, this show is already a classic. For fans of Breaking Bad, the much anticipated season three can’t begin soon enough.

Read a review of season 3 of Breaking Bad

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Book Review: The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly

the scarecrow by michael connellyWhen a skilled writer gets lazy, the result is a novel like The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly.

When you have built up a solid fan base and are guaranteed a fat payoff for every book you are commissioned to write, it must be tempting to churn out a top-of-the-head, subpar effort that is full of clichés.

The plot is basic here. A sexual deviant, who also happens to be a skilled hacker, butchers women and frames up other people using his computer skills. Planted evidence on other people's computers, and hacked e-mail and credit card accounts are some of the tricks he uses. A journalist, Jack McEvoy, becomes a major part of the story after he and a new reporter discover that the suspects taking the fall for these crimes are innocent.

In the first sign of pure laziness on the part of the writer, we have that at-first omnipotent bad guy, who can do absolutely anything to anyone because of his computer hacking skills. But we are never told how he does all these things. A criminal hacking into e-mail and credit card accounts, planting evidence on other people's computers, and accessing other personal information stored online is, of course, plausible. But at least give us a semblance of an explanation as to how this is being done. Here there is nothing of the sort.

No Character Development

The major problem with this book is that the characters are paper-thin. As a reader, you give not a damn about what happens to them, because you have absolutely no sense of who they are. There is no character development, of either the good guys or the bad guys.

Oh wait, there is a few paragraphs-long, laugh-out-loud bit of tripe that is supposed to inform us about why the central creep does the things he does. Pure, well-used cliché here—the individual's mother was a stripper. Take a wild guess what the result is—yep, he hates women and starts butchering them.

Books with a serial killer of some sort always hinge on the fact that everything the killer does has a significant meaning which then allows the cops (or journalists) to cleverly figure everything out due to the references that the killer drops along the way. As if the killer really wants this to be a cat and mouse game, and/or wants to give the cops a legitimate chance to find him. This is something that readers of crime fiction put up with to a degree. But when there are so many other weaknesses in a novel, this kind of boiler-plate becomes even more annoying.


Connelly is either aware of the third-rate book he is offering up to his readers, or he subconsciously lets on through the words spoken by the characters. There are numerous "tells" in the book in which the characters try to head off the inevitable reactions that readers will have.

"It was strange, sometimes, how life worked out." Strange too how a line like that will make an implausible plot twist easier for readers to swallow.

"She said it so matter-of-factly. There was probably nothing in this world that surprised her or horrified her any longer." The flat, meaningless reaction of this character to the discovery of a corpse just doesn't wash. That's what happens when characters aren't developed. The things they say sound strangely inappropriate and unbelievable.

In the section that attempts to give the killer some back-story: "He wondered what had made him go down the hallway to look. He knew the answer was tangled down deep in his darkest roots. In a place no one could go." And in a place that no reader will go, because there is no reasonable insight into his personal history or psyche, and hence no understanding about why he turned into a killer.

"I didn't know exactly where I was going but I drove with subconscious purpose, as though the hands on the wheel and the foot on the pedal knew what my brain didn't" I.e., a meandering, unfocused arc to the book that indicates a lack of planning.

"This doesn't sound like a plan, Jack. It sounds like you're making it up as you go along."

Other Weaknesses

A huge hole in the plot appears as the two main characters, McEvoy and his FBI agent girlfriend Rachel Walling, head to the organization where the killer works. At this point in the book, the story about the serial killer has received huge publicity, with McEvoy's name part of the story, his face on CNN etc. Yet they blunder in to the office and use their real names.

Another major absurdity involves the FBI agent first being fired and then reinstated.

Another failing, and what brings so many books down, is the lack of resistance that is developed in various situations. Things just happen without the requisite opposition from situations or characters.

And in another crime novel cliché, there is the false ending, where the journalist and cop believe that the case is wrapped up but the real killer is still on the loose. As a reader, it is unlikely you will care at this point.

The book isn't a total write-off: there are some reasonably interesting passages. However, these sections involve McEvoy and Walling discussing the case and telegraphing the main plot twists. Another sign of a weak novel.

Are there any themes at play in this novel? I doubt it. And even if there were, they wouldn't salvage this substandard effort.

There is no flesh on the bones of The Scarecrow. Save yourself some time, and give this book a miss.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The LA Times Homicide Report

The LA Times Homicide Report is fascinating for a number of reasons.

The sheer, non-stop parade of senseless murders is probably what brings most people back to the blog. It's hard to comprehend that such violence plays out so consistently in one geographic area. But there it is, every day, with new reports of lives ended.

Ostensibly, as mentioned in its About page, one of the motives behind the Report is to chronicle the deaths of every single person murdered in LA county. In the past, many murders would go unreported. The race and socioeconomic background of a victim often determines how much play a murder gets in the Los Angeles media (and many other jurisdictions as well).

Desensitized to Violence

So, the Report tries to address that failing of the mainstream media. And it makes a pointed effort to include the race of everyone murdered within LA county. If one goal is to give a name to every single murder victim, then the Report succeeds in that respect. But unfortunately, just as with the thousands slaughtered every year in various conflicts around the globe, you feel desensitized to the overwhelming nature of it all. I just can't force myself to feel for most of the victims, as much as I would like to.

This sense that a person should feel something but isn't quite able, is what drives people to set up those sad tributes to high profile murder cases, or the deaths of famous people. It's as if the act of leaving a teddy bear for someone you never knew will convince yourself and others that you are a caring person.

The narrative that surrounds the murder of a stranger is what determines whether or not you feel something. Which is an indication that, despite the humanity that should exist between fellow humans, it doesn't. Unless of course you know the individual who was killed. Or the script contains all the necessary elements so that it elicits empathy.

Which is why we should all recognize the importance of the arts in helping us to feel something about people whose deaths would otherwise be meaningless to us. Books, movies, music, paintings—they are not just distractions, they help us to feel. Which is also why the homicide report posts that include the most detail and use narrative elements more common in fiction are also more likely to make readers feel something.

Bathos and Nastiness

The occasional homicide report victim does get to me. There is usually some kind of bathetic element in the write-up that makes it real. Something that makes an image rise up in my mind of this person as a living, breathing individual who was cut down for some meaningless slight.

Or an extremely despicable incident that robs someone of their life for no other reason than they were at the wrong place at the wrong time in the vicinity of a murdering piece of filth:
Gomez, 92, was a neighborhood fixture, still spry enough to walk the streets for exercise in the mornings, picking up recyclables for extra cash as she went along. On Feb. 2., 2006, she left home dressed in a layer of clothes topped with a red jacket, and pushing a cart to carry cans and bottles, as was her routine.

Somebody stabbed her repeatedly and left her body in front of an apartment complex at 9034 Willis Ave. just south of Nordhoff Street and west of Van Nuys Boulevard.
Of course, there is another reason the report is so popular.When you read about tragedy befalling others, it has the odd effect of increasing your sense of well-being by making you realize that something horrible hasn't happened to you. Yet.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Book Review: Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon

In Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, David Simon details the time he spent with detectives in the homicide division of the Baltimore police department and takes readers inside numerous murder investigations in one of the most violent cities in the U.S.

Simon does a great job of avoiding the sycophantic and lopsided treatment that many crime reporters give to the police forces that they cover. A desire to maintain access and the inevitable bias that comes from hearing about the scum of the earth that the police have to deal with generally gets most reporters onside.

But in some ways, coverage of a homicide department allows a more nuanced take and the potential for less speechifying and political rants. While the crimes are some of the most brutal, the police officers who become detectives and work in homicide are the best of the best. Sure, there is the opportunity for homicide detectives to stitch up an innocent person. But absent a false confession beaten out of a suspect, the necessary legwork has to be done, a suspect caught, and sufficient evidence collected before a prosecutor will take the case to trial and a jury will convict.

Fans of the TV's Homicide: Life on the Streets, which was based on this book, will recognize many of the detectives Simon writes about. Simon was also the creator of The Wire, and many of the characters from that show draw from the real-life situations and people that he writes about here as well.

As Stupid as They Come

Police deal with the scum of the earth, the most deviant pieces of filth on the face of the earth. And despite the well planned murders that we often see in books and cinema, stupidity from the small-time punks and hoods who slaughter each other is more common in the real world. As well as being sociopathic, nasty individuals, the murderers we read about here are some of the most brain-dead individuals on the planet.

In one passage, Simon details how all suspects being interviewed are clearly advised of their rights. Told in plain English that they have nothing to gain by talking and have the right to a lawyer. And then those same detectives spin a narrative in which they give an out to the simpleton sitting in front of them. The detectives tell the suspect, about whom they have no real evidence but know from experience, body language, and common sense that this is their man—they tell him that they sympathize with him. They know he had no choice because he was disrespected by the fool that he then had to murder.

And more times than you might expect, this appeals to a mulish bravado in the suspect and he agrees with what the detectives are saying. He gladly admits to the murder, confident that he has the respect of the detectives interviewing him. Sure, he's now going down for life, but he was punked! What's a brother to do? In the street narrative voice that Simon uses to great effect throughout the book, he perfectly summarizes the wasted lives and the absurd mentality behind the violence:
Get used to small rooms, bunk, because you are about to be drop-kicked into the lost land of pretrial detention. Because it's one thing to be a murdering little asshole from Southeast Baltimore, and it's another to be stupid about it, and with five little words you have just elevated yourself to the ranks of the truly witless.

Superb Writing

Simon brings detectives, perpetrators, and victims to life with a few deft strokes. And like all the best non-fiction books, the prose often reads better than most crime novels. The nastiness of the crime scenes are sketched out in dispassionate detail, and the dialogue crackles with authenticity. The dreary inner city landscape of Baltimore comes through in gritty passages in which Simon details the final resting place of numerous victims.

Simon also shines the light on the kind of gallows humour that police officers use to deal with the gruesome nature of their job. Marveling at the nasty ways that the human body can decompose, the detectives who come upon recent murders usually offer up a good one-liner or engage in some desultory banter that verges on the absurd.

That's one aspect of the great observations and details that Simon offers up—and just the kind of things that readers of true crime and crime novels will love to learn about. We also learn about the competitive aspect of solving crimes—not just between individual detectives, but between the different squads that work homicide. It's a sad glimpse at the fact that getting at the truth is not always the most important factor that drives an investigation forward.

The Weirdness

Remarkably strange occurrences surround many of the murder investigations. As the detectives track down the person who murdered a young black child, they come across what might be a lead in the case. They find a fingerprint on the library book that was found in the young girl's book bag. And, amazingly, they get a hit on the fingerprint in the database that contains thousands of prints of criminals who have been fingerprinted in the past. They get a hit on someone who had shoplifted the day before the fingerprint from the book was fed into the system. Had it been a day earlier, there would have been no return on the fingerprint.
Eight days after a police computer took his name in vain, Kevin Lawrence is brought down to the homicide unit, where he tells detectives that he knows nothing about any girl named Latonya Wallace. He does, however, remember a book about black American heroes with the title of Pioneers and Patriots. Shown the text itself, he can even recall the school report he prepared long ago using that same book, which he had borrowed from the Eutaw-Marshburn school library. The paper was on great black Americans and, as the young man recalled, it earned him an A. But that he says, was more than ten years ago. Why are they even asking about it?

The investigation that exonerates Kevin Lawrence is still wrapping up when Pellegrini returns to duty. But by luck or mercy or both, the primary investigator is allowed to watch from the periphery as other detectives slam into a wall. He is, in a very real sense, spared the anguish of seeing a precious piece of physical evidence reduced to fantastic coincidence—a fingerprint that sat undisturbed on a book for more than a decade, waiting for a million dollar computer to give it life enough to taunt a few homicide detectives for a week and a half.
In another surreal incident, two detectives seek the exhumation of a body from a paupers cemetery on the outskirts of Baltimore. It's part of an investigation into perhaps the most insidious individual who populates the gallery of freaks and killers in this book: a nasty, aging hag who for years convinced men to sign life insurance policies with herself as the beneficiary, and then later had them killed to collect.

Only after the autopsy on the exhumed body do they realize that it's not the person they were looking for. The feckless individual who operates the cemetery admits that he dug a mass grave and bulldozed in a few dozen bodies. The unreal aspect is that the body that was mistakenly exhumed had the same name as a suspect one of the other homicide detectives had recently arrested for a murder. The exhumed body was the father of the suspect. A bizarre and ghoulish coincidence.

The Frustration of Unsolved Murders

During the time that Simon followed the detectives in the homicide department, he was able to see some major cases develop and go to trial. He was also able to see the frustration mount regarding cases that weren't solved, and subsequently never solved years later. When a case can't be solved, there aren't hints at a criminal mastermind who managed to pull off the perfect crime. It is normally drug murders—the hardest of all murders to solve because they often take place outside, in a neutral location nowhere near the victim's or the perpetrator's homes. And because the body is outside, often at a different location than where the murder took place, there is no physical evidence. Those kinds of cases are a source of frustration for the detectives, simply because they bring down the department stats.

But when the victim is an innocent bystander or a child, a cold wind of frustration and despair blows as it becomes apparent that numerous factors conspired to allowed the perpetrator to get away with murder. The unknown perpetrator becomes a phantom who will often haunt a detective until the end of his days. Such is the case with the tragedy of Lantonya Wallace, whose killer was never found. It is when writing about the sad case of that little girl that Simon's writing is most effective:
It is the illusion of tears and nothing more, the rainwater that collects in small beads and runs to the hollows of her face. The dark brown eyes are fixed wide, staring across wet pavement; jet black braids of hair surround the deep brown skin, high cheekbones and a pert, upturned nose. The lips are parted and curled in a slight, vague frown. She is beautiful, even now.

She is resting on her left hip, her head cocked to one side, her back arched, with one leg bent over the other. Her right arm rests above her head, her left arm is fully extended, with small, thin fingers reaching out across the asphalt for something, or someone, no longer there.
Simon sketches out the characters in the real-life dramas that he witnesses as skillfully as great writers of fiction. And because of that, you empathize and get to know the detectives and feel for them when the pieces don't fall into place.

Within the police and crime reporting category, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets is truly one of the great ones.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The False Confession

The false confession is one of the least known and least understood phenomena in the world of crime and justice. The whole concept seems so strange and incomprehensible to most people that any mention of a false confession elicits a mixture of disbelief and rage towards the person who gave the false confession.

A false confession is, just as the name implies, a confession to a crime made by an accused that is not accurate, or in many cases, completely fabricated.

Everyone can get their head around the idea of someone lying to avoid punishment. But wrongly implicating yourself? The very notion is so alien to most people that they have no sympathy for the person in question. No one can envision themselves doing something so "stupid" so they have little time for trying to understand why anyone else would do such a thing.

Beat it Out of Him

Almost without fail, false confessions are elicited by police officers who subject the accused to brutal interrogation over lengthy periods of time—sometimes days on end. The subject is broken down and then the new reality is planted in his mind in which he is the guilty party. The individual truly comes to believe that he was involved in the crime.

interrogate suspectIn the horrific, sleep-deprived nightmare in which he finds himself, his mind is so thoroughly twisted that he recites the narrative that has been presented to him by his tormentors. Or, the accused simply confesses because he knows that will at least momentarily end the abuse. And once the confession is made, the cops have achieved victory and they are heroes within the closed, and self-validating police sub-culture. It is after the accused has recovered from the interrogation that he realizes the mistake he has made. When he retracts his confession it is already too late.

Police decide early on in an investigation who they think the guilty party is, and then search for any evidence that supports their beliefs. When there is a confession, this absolute conviction in their minds becomes invincible.

Mistakes were Made (but not by me)

In the book, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) the authors go into detail about how false confessions come about:

The bible of interrogation methods is Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, written by Fred E. Inbau, John E. Reid, Joseph P. Buckley, and Brian C. Jayne. John E. Reid and Associates offers training programs, seminars, and videotapes on the 9-Step Reid Technique, and on their Web site they claim that they have trained more than 300,000 law-enforcement workers in the most effective ways of eliciting confessions. The manual starts right off reassuring readers that "none of the steps is apt to make an innocent person confess," and that "all the steps are legally as well as morally justifiable":

It is our clear position that merely introducing fictitious evidence during an interrogation would not cause an innocent person to confess. It is absurd to believe that a suspect who knows he did not commit a crime would place greater weight and credibility on alleged evidence than his own knowledge of his innocence. Under this circumstance, the natural human reaction would be one of anger and mistrust toward the investigator. The net effect would be the suspect's further resolution to maintain his innocence.

Wrong. The "natural human reaction" is usually not anger and mistrust but confusion and hopelessness—dissonance—because most innocent suspects trust the investigator not to lie to them. The interrogator, however, is biased from the start. Whereas an interview is a conversation designed to get general information from a person, an interrogation is designed to get a suspect to admit guilt. (The suspect is often unaware of the difference.) The manual states this explicitly: "An interrogation is conducted only when the investigator is reasonably certain of the suspect's guilt." The danger of that attitude is that once the investigator is "reasonably certain," the suspect cannot dislodge that certainty. On the contrary, anything the suspect does will be interpreted as evidence of lying, denial, and evading the truth, including repeated claims of innocence. Interrogators are explicitly instructed to think this way. They are taught to adopt the attitude "Don't lie, we know you are guilty," and to reject the suspect's denials. We've seen this self-justifying loop before, in the way some therapists and social workers interview children they believe have been molested. Once an interrogation like this begins, there is no such thing as disconfirming evidence.

That is the most disturbing thing about false confessions. Even when it has been proved that someone did not commit a crime to which they have falsely confessed, the police who were involved in eliciting that confession rarely, if ever, see the light and admit their mistake.

Referring to innocent people freed from prison (and in these cases, not just due to false confessions) the authors of Mistakes were Made write:

Of all the convictions the Innocence Project has succeeded in overturning so far, there is not a single instance the police later tried to find the actual perpetrator of the crime. The police and prosecutors just close the books on the case completely, as if to obliterate its silent accusation of the mistake they made.

In the light of DNA evidence, eyewitnesses admitting they lied, and numerous other indications that they had the wrong person, the police never decide to seek the person who actually did commit the crime. It is quite a sickening realization that police, lawyers, and others within the justice system, are more motivated by justifying their behaviour and saving face than getting at the truth.

The false confession is far more common than most people could imagine. Within police forces, every action and utterance is validated and justified by a subculture that convinces its members that they can do no wrong. As with all instances of self-justification by humans, when all facts point to police officers being wrong about someone from whom they have elicited a false confession, the likelihood of them seeing the light and trying to right the wrong is almost non-existent.

A Different Type of False Confession

Kyle Unger was recently acquitted after serving 14 years in prison for a crime that he didn't commit. He was convicted largely on the basis of a confession he made to undercover police officers posing as gang members. Unger made the confession to impress the "gang members" in the hopes that he would have the chance to work with them. However, the confession contained numerous details that police knew were false. In the light of evidence to the contrary, they latched on to the confession and sent him away for close to 15 years.

The attorney general in Manitoba has stated that there will be no compensation forthcoming.

The false confession should not disqualify Unger for compensation, just as no other single consideration should disqualify a wrongly incarcerated person for compensation. It's as if we are saying that only those who didn't break under interrogation and long years in prison for a crime that they didn't commit should be compensated for those lost years. This is ridiculous. Lost years are lost years regardless of how the person is wrongly convicted and sent to prison. The blame should not be placed on the person who was interrogated, coerced, and yes, in some cases, tortured into making a false confession.

The false confession has become a way for prosecutors and police forces to absolve themselves of any blame when a wrongly incarcerated person is freed. More importantly, it is a way for governments to avoid paying compensation to people who have sacrificed years, and sometimes decades, of their lives. All because of the arrogance and short-sightedness of police forces that leaned on a suspect until he broke and then, with the assistance of a prosecutor, rode the false confession to a conviction despite all evidence to the contrary.

No police officer wants to be told that something he considers to be a valuable tool—interrogation— in his arsenal against criminals is likely to send a good number of innocent people to prison. But we need to pay more attention to the phenomenon of false confessions, or they will continue to send innocent people to prison, and the reputation of police forces will continue to suffer.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Book Review: The Way Home by George Pelecanos

The Way Home by PelecanosI suppose that it was inevitable: a weak effort from George Pelecanos. The Way Home is the first book I have read by Pelecanos that did not succeed in creating a memorable world full of interesting characters and a fast moving storyline.

The Way Home is maudlin and disappointing. It would likely not have been published had it been submitted by a first-time writer. But Pelecanos has built up a solid fan base and loads of credibility, and can get away with the occasional clunker.

Pelecanos has never been a great writer in much the same way that many of the famous noir writers were not great writers. A solid, entertaining story teller? Absolutely. But skewed syntax and more than a few strangely constructed sentences always stand out in a book by Pelecanos. But it usually doesn't matter, because he has that talent for putting together believable characters in a few deft strokes and then pushing the narrative forward to an explosive if somewhat predictable conclusion.

His most recent effort, however, takes the speechifying that has started creeping into his novels as of late to a whole new, utterly tiresome level. The characters here are flat and will elicit barely any empathy from readers. And the main premise around which the book is built blasts away the suspension holding up any semblance of belief.

We have a father who has always been hard on his son, and the son who predictably goes off the rails, starts using drugs, and gets locked up in a juvenile detention home. Flash forward about eight or nine years, and dear sonny boy is out in the world working for his father's carpet installation business. The classic bag of money that has been at the heart of so many crime novels makes an appearance here. But the way that things play out just isn't likely.

Every plot twist seems to be introduced for the sole purpose of allowing more clichéd pablum to flow from the gobs of the characters. We don't even really get to see the protagonist in action except for a petty juvenile crime that originally landed him in reform school in the early part of the book. Too much effort is devoted to the cause that the author is championing.

We get it: Pelecanos believes that the way young offenders are locked up is wrong. That's the whole problem. It comes across as a book-long rant upon which a weak story is hung. As opposed to a theme that is smoothly woven into the storyline.

Not only is it a weak effort, but it made me look back and reassess some of the other books that Pelecanos has written. Perhaps a similar storyline played out numerous times was not something to criticize at the time because the results were so entertaining. But when none of the elements that make so many of Pelecanos's books enjoyable are present, the same revenge ending with two individuals tooling up to commit justifiable murder falls flat.

Why exactly does a writer like Pelecanos produce a book like this after so many effective efforts? Perhaps he just ran out of the creative juice that spurred him on for so long. Maybe it was a rush job for a paycheque. Maybe the success from his work on The Wire and his energy being taken up elsewhere didn't allow him to put in the necessary time.

If you've heard that Pelecanos is a very good crime writer, you should still believe it. Just don't start with this novel. In fact, give The Turnaround a miss as well—his most recent novel before The Way Home also suffers from some of the same problems. Start with one of his classics, such as Hard Revolution or The Big Blowdown. Let's hope this trend doesn't continue and Pelecanos gets back to writing the great crime novels that made him so popular in the first place.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Review: Dexter Season 4 Premiere

The most frightening thing about the season four premiere of Dexter is the sight of John Lithgow's bare arse.

We are treated to this horrific sight on two occasions. Unfortunately, that is the biggest shock in what is an otherwise worn out show that has apparently failed to recover from a disappointing third season.

As season four begins, Dexter and his wife Rita are living in suburbia with their newborn child. Early on, Dexter flubs his courtroom testimony and a killer walks free. Take a wild swing in the dark and guess what happens next. You got it. Dexter is going to track down the nasty piece of work and lay a butchering on him, replete with all the accoutrements we've come to expect—the drop sheets, photos of the victim's victims (where on earth does Dexter get those photos and when does he find the time to get them framed?), and the assorted weapons. But first, the show has got to give us a glimpse of this year's major storyline and kick start some tired out sub-plots that have been meandering on with slight variations for the past three seasons.

The major storyline—the one that will slowly evolve over the entire season—is the one about the serial killer played by Lithgow. And in another demonstration of just how little imagination the writers of this show have left, we are told straight up by Dexter that "Trinity's [the nickname given to the Lithgow character] the most successful serial killer to get away with it." When facts like that have to be brazenly announced in episode one instead of using suspense and back story—it is likely an indication of quality of the season to come.

Debra is still involved with Anton—the oaf of an informant who she hooked up with in season three. The writers of the show seem fully aware that season three was lacking the appeal of seasons one and two, so they have brought back Frank Lundy (the aging FBI agent played by Keith Carradine) who Deb was involved with in season two.

And Deb is determined to find out which informant her father had an affair with years ago. And then we can know for certain what was already telegraphed to us in season three—that Deb and Dexter are actually biological siblings.

The character of Deb is in fact, one of the most mundane and annoying aspects of the show. Everyone time she uses the word "fucking" in her conversation, it punctuates exactly how devoid of new ideas these writers are. Just as this habit in the real world demonstrates someone lacking in imagination, here it is the same.

Tiresome and Predictable

The little nuances that added to the show in seasons one and two are meaningless without the suspense, clever twists, and great dialogue.

Now it's simply annoying to see Dexter don that stupid, long sleeved, tight-fitting, olive shirt and know that he is going to kill someone again. The weary internal patter/voice over is still there. The only problem is, Dexter has long since ceased to have anything interesting to say. It's just variations on the blandness of being forced to kill people, haunted by this, messed up by that, wot a burden it all is etc.

And hey, here's the laziest aspect of every show popping up again—that wonderful computer of Dexter's at work that gives him every last bit of information about the people that he decides to kill. There is absolutely no sleuthing or clever problem-solving involved.

In a laugh-out-loud scene with all the usual subtlety of this spiraling farce of a show, Dexter's wife says "Aren't you as horny as I am?" Just as the rest of the show is bland and uninspiring, this scene is bereft of any appeal. And so, in keeping with his tired demeanor, Dexter is as uninterested as many viewers will be.

Dexter has ceased to be the clever show that challenged viewers to analyze their beliefs about right and wrong. It is now simply a vehicle for crudely set-up revenge scenes and a whole lot of nastiness for people who like blood and gore. There is no longer any tension or feeling of emotional involvement when violence occurs. The opening scene when guest star John Lithgow slices the femoral artery of a young woman who he is simultaneously strangling in the bathtub makes this repulsively apparent. And here is apparently another trend that the show will carry on until its demise—grade B has-been actors brought in to play the nasty for an entire season.

As the season premiere winds down, a sleep deprived Dexter careens off the road with a corpse in his trunk. This cliffhanger ending is perhaps the only way that the creators of the show will convince viewers to tune in for the second and subsequent installments.

Friday, July 3, 2009

No Country for Old Men: Movie Review

chigurhEveryone is after a suitcase full of money, and one long chase plays out with numerous confrontations in between. Many a great crime narrative is based on such a premise. A one line summary might lead you to believe that's exactly what No Country for Old Men is about. That wouldn't be wrong, but the movie is also much more than that.

The movie focuses on three characters, Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin), Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem), and Ed Tom Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones). Llelwelyn is a retired welder who comes across the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad while he is hunting in the desert. He surveys the carnage and hightails it with a suitcase full of two million dollars he finds at the scene. Chigurh is an ethereal, almost mythical killing machine who wants the money back. And Ed Tom Bell is a jaded, worn out, aging sheriff.

Chigurh kills out of perceived necessity. But sometimes he kills to honour his word. Other times he kills based on the flip of a coin. He often kills with a bolt gun (a stainless steel rod blasted with pressure from CO2 canister) similar to those used for slaughtering animals. Other times he employs a shotgun with a silencer. He never shows any overt emotion while performing the deed. Strangely, viewers may not feel any sort of loathing for Chigurh but might instead only experience a dreadful fascination, both for the performance by Javier Bardem and the sinister brutality of the character.

The Power of Silence

Silence plays a big part in the movie. The most gripping scenes where the tension ratchets up are almost completely devoid of dialogue. This isn't an easy task for a film-maker to accomplish successfully, but here it is done with a master's touch.

The Coen brothers, who directed this movie, understand that the unconscious mind is often more powerful than the conscious. This is communicated through the character of Llewelyn, who suddenly awakens on a few occasions with revelations that spur him on to immediate action.

But more than those obvious moments, the directing style of the Coens emphasizes the power of what is left unsaid. Many subtle effects are channeled to the viewer, and taken together, their collective force is impressive. This is one of the rare films I will watch again because there are so many elements at work.

In one scene, as Lllewelyn lets down his guard after a long journey during which he dodged Chigurh a number of times, he rolls into a motel. He moves with weary intent towards his room, and passes the motel swimming pool along the way. A woman calls out to him and they engage in a bit of flirting from a distance as she invites him for drinks. She tucks her legs up before she rises from her pool-side lounge chair. It is one brief fluid motion yet there is somehow more in that shot than a written description of the scene could ever communicate.

Moments later, Ed Tom Bell comes upon the aftermath of a slaughter at that same motel that has left Llewelyn and the woman dead. The viewer can visualize exactly how the showdown occurred and is better off for not having seen it play out frame by frame on the screen.

The Vagaries of Life

Chance is one of the recurring themes in the movie, with the fate of many of Chigurh's victims determined by an accidental meeting or, literally, the flip of a coin. Perhaps the fact that Chigurh became a nasty, ruthless killer is down to the vagaries and turns of life as well. All three of the main characters were in the military (Chigurh and Llewelyn in Vietnam, and Ed Tom Bell in WWII). Similarities between them are drawn in the personal honour codes they adhere to and even in some of their eerily similar gestures, utterances, and interactions with others.

For whatever reason, the violence of the war together with his personal experiences ricocheted around in Chigurh's mind and turned him into a predator. Llewelyn and Bell never embraced violence but are similar to Chigurh in other ways. Had life conspired differently, perhaps they would have wreaked as much destruction as Chigurh.

Throughout the movie, Bell laments the state of the world and how it seems to be getting more violent. Is he really being genuine? Or are his words just clichés that allow him to converse with others? His conversation with a broken down wheelchair-bound older man who knew Bell's father puts the lie to the age old mantra that things were somehow less violent in the past.

All the characters are poets in No Country for Old Men. Lines spoken in movies are written to be memorable, and the perfection, timing, and sometimes absurdity of movie-speak is half the enjoyment. But the characters in No Country for Old Men all speak in a special way that has a distinct cadence and rhythm appropriate for their roles.

The Coen brothers are the masters at crafting a kind of cinematic violence that is jarring and surreal. This is fitting, as anyone who has experienced real-world violence knows that an odd, unreal quality permeates any such occurrence. And just like real violence, No Country for Old Men is likely to have a real effect on viewers.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Book Review: The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout

The Sociopath Next DoorSociopathic behaviour is familiar to anyone with an interest in crime and crime fiction. The cold-blooded, unfeeling monster shows up with regularity in the world of fiction and in stories on the evening news.

Anyone with a modicum of observation skills has likely pegged someone as a sociopath at least once in their lives. Like the chronic liar who is always creating melodrama and wreaking havoc with other people's lives. Many seem inextricably drawn to such human wrecking machines, if only for the bit of excitement they temporarily introduce into their otherwise dreary lives.

In a world where the word "greed" has almost fallen out of our lexicon, where virtually any tactic employed in business is hailed as shrewd and cunning so long as it further enriches people, and where the slaughter of thousands is still a regular occurrence, the world must be teeming with such reptilian, blood thirsty, self-serving freaks.

The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, deconstructs the mind of the conscienceless amongst us, offers up some narratives that detail their nastiness, poses some interesting questions on what causes the condition, and provides some insightful and believable theories in response.

The book employs a few different methods to deliver information. First, the author uses composite characters in fictitious narratives to describe how sociopaths play their twisted games. These scenarios are based on the years that she has spent as a clinical psychologist analyzing people who have suffered at the hands of sociopaths.

Unfortunately, the first two scenarios used in the book are the least effective. The first example is utilized as a way to help the readers get their heads around the idea of conscience. The second example presents a fairly hackneyed rendering of the developmental trajectory of a sociopath, replete with the abuse of animals, the manipulation of family, and successes in the business world. All accomplished using ruthless tactics aided by a complete lack of conscience. Of course, it is contrived, but that's exactly how it feels.

For example, a chapter about a fictional character named "Skip" is intended to demonstrate how deviant and insidious he is but parts of it just come off as odd and slightly amusing:
Then he would hurl the corpses as far out into the lake as he could, yelling at the dead frogs as they flew, "Too bad for you, you little fuck-face froggy!"

However, the attempts at showing the reader just how unfeeling these creeps are get better as the book moves along. A third narrative describes a more nuanced situation in which a vindictive social climber tries to destroy her rivals.

There's also a handful of real-life situations described in the book, gleaned from the hundreds of individuals the author has helped over the years. She tells the story of these damaged individuals and how they were manipulated and used, and in the process we better understand how sociopaths operate. These vignettes have more impact than the other story-telling examples used in the book.

Amongst the fictional and real stories are psychological explanations on how these misfits tick. Stout references numerous studies and findings as she paints a picture of the mindset of the sociopath. Of course, not all these lunatics are the violent sort, and most manage to fly under the radar while manipulating and intimidating their way through life.

However, I found some of the descriptions of sociopaths and their behaviour leaned towards the black and white. Perhaps the mantra, repeated numerous times throughout the book, that "they can do anything at all" (the italics are always added) is used to gin up the fear just a tad so that the prescriptive sections of the book are more effective.

Surely there must be some of us in the rest of the 96% in society who stray into sociopath territory on occasion. And even within that supposedly beast-like minority of four percent, there must be the occasional individual who feels a smidgen of compassion, does something that isn't completely selfish, or even exhibits a pattern of behaviour that casts doubt on all the literature surrounding the topic.

Still, there are plenty of interesting questions raised and compelling information provided. For example, what about the differences between western and Asian countries? Does the collective nature of many Asian countries result in fewer and qualitatively different sociopaths? It appears so, and the related passages are intriguing and seem plausible.

And one of the litmus tests for sociopaths also has a ring of truth to it:
When deciding whom to trust, bear in mind that the combination of consistently bad or egregiously inadequate behavior with frequent plays for your pity is as close to a warning mark on a conscienceless person's forehead as you will ever be given. A person whose behavior includes both of these features is not necessarily a mass murderer, or even violent at all, but is still probably not someone you should closely befriend, take on as your business partner, ask to take care of your children, or marry.


I'd never really considered the possibility that product placements exist in books just as they do in film and television. It makes perfect sense, of course, and you can't blame the author for making a few extra bucks. I may have even read books where advertisers had paid to have their wares mentioned in an ostensibly natural way.

However, this is the first book in which I have ever noticed the phenomenon. It is a jarring and highly distracting aspect of this book, and one that, for me, detracts from its credibility. In films, you may not even notice the product placements simply because of their fleeting nature. Here, however, they are in your face and one effect is to attach an annoying stigma to the products in question.

Another problem was some of the vaguely propagandistic elements. This book was published in 2005 but no doubt much of it was written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. There are more than a few references to the event, and the underlying assumptions attached to many of those passages could be highly annoying to many readers. The author insinuates that anyone who would dare to target the U.S. must be a sociopath, yet never offers any proof.

Odd that the simpering moron who rode the U.S. into the ground never comes under scrutiny, especially in light of numerous sections like this which could raise his image in many readers' minds:
In a confusing irony, conscience can be rendered partially blind because people without conscience use, as weapons against us, many of the fundamentally positive tools we need to hold society together--empathic emotions, sexual bonds, social and professional roles, regard for the compassionate and the creative, our desire to make the world a better place, and the organizing rule of authority.

Later in the passage she mentions Saddam Hussein and a handful of other notable nasties from the history books but the grinning chimp's name is nowhere to be seen. A few pages later, Stout states,
In fact, one of the more striking characteristics of good people is that they are almost never completely sure they are right.

A trademark of George W. Bush is that together with his arrogance, hubris, and incompetence, the fool never doubted himself or dropped that moronic smile for an instant, even as the country came down around him. But alas, such sacrilege wouldn't sit well with most of this book's intended audience. And it surely is aimed at the talk-show crowd who like their books light and the themes simple and reassuring. That is really my main criticism of this book. It really didn't go far enough or offer any alternative or contrary theories. It's simply too short for such a compelling topic and could easily have been twice its current length.

I often ask myself three questions regarding a non-fiction book: was it entertaining, did I learn something, and will I try to impress friends with snippets and factoids from its pages?

The answers here are yes, yes (learning this word alone was worth it), and yes. A decent read, with a few reservations, regarding a fascinating subject matter.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Review: A & E's The Beast Series Premiere

Patrick Swayze as Charles BarkerOh dear.

The new FBI drama, The Beast, premiered last night (January 15th, 2009) on A & E.

I hadn't heard much of the show until a week ago when its star, Patrick Swayze, announced that he had come down with pneumonia, an apparent complication that had arisen from his fight with pancreatic cancer. As an actor who has been around for years and been in his share of hits, he has garnered the deserved round of sympathy from fans, actors, and other Hollywood insiders.

When such sad stories develop, it's only natural that people want to see things work out best for the stricken individual. In this case, with a new show set to launch starring Swayze, his physical appearance noticeably affected, and whispers that, despite his positive outlook, this could be his last performance, a collective hope that The Beast is something special quickly took shape.

There's only one small problem with that narrative. The Beast is a forgettable and tiresome disappointment.

The concept here is quite basic. Patrick Swayze plays an undercover FBI agent, Charles Barker, who breaks all the rules. Not the most creative starting point but intelligent and skilled writers have taken more pedestrian ideas and shaped them into entertaining dramas. Viewers can expect no such magic from The Beast.

No Suspense

The main problem here is that there is exactly no resistance offered in the face of the gesticulating, loud, blundering Barker as he breaks all the rules and does what he pleases. Apparently the writers of the show are fully unaware that for drama to work there must be suspense and tension. And the key to creating those two elements is resistance.

Now, there are a series of tasks Barker and his rookie partner, Ellis Dove, must accomplish to achieve their overall goal for this first episode. Those tasks are blandly telegraphed to the audience in the most unimaginative way possible. And when they arrive at each subsequent location to meet someone and extract information or goods, in the face of Barker's absurd tactics, the bad guys simply roll over and give it up.

Not Believable

This matter of Barker putting guns in people's faces in broad daylight and blowing up cars in the street with rocket launchers is slightly problematic as well. Let's see, undercover FBI agents... maybe some subtlety, blending into the background, not being found out, some imagination perhaps? All completely lacking here. With some skill and effort, writers can deftly swat suspension of disbelief out of the way with even the most outlandish premises. Here, the characters and situations are completely unbelievable.

Tired Clichés

Clichés are almost unavoidable in these types of police dramas. But they stand out even more in a show such as The Beast that is lacking in so many ways. Meeting someone with information at a lone park bench in a stark setting here, someone parking under a desolate elevated train line and shooting himself in the head there (I still have no idea what relevance that scene has), a long shot of someone walking away from a pre-arranged clandestine meeting there etc.

And in another tired cop show plot, Barker is showing his rookie partner the ropes using the tough love approach. This involves slamming him up against cars, making stern pronouncements, and testing him in various ways. I'm not familiar with the actor who plays Ellis Dove, Travis Fimmel. So I'm not sure how much of his poor performance is down to the terrible script. But he certainly does nothing to rise above the clichéd lines and predictable plot.

The absurdities run wild as the show draws to a close and things reach that cringe-worthy stage where things become unintentionally laughable. Barker slams on his brakes on another deserted, bleak side street that is slick with rain. He informs his partner that he is to play the role of a hick in their upcoming encounter with some heavies who are supposed to buy a rocket launcher from them (by the way, isn't this entrapment?). The result is truly pathetic.

All of this is compounded by some truly ridiculous dialogue. At one stage, Dove says to Barker,

"There's a line though, right?"

"Yeah, there's a line, so we know where to cross it."

Later, Barker rocks the audience with "Everybody's got choices."

And as the hour long premiere winds down, Barker informs us that "You see, "the beast" eats away at you."

Finally, the show wraps up with a scene that is apparently supposed to set the stage for the remainder of the series. A gaggle of unconvincing FBI agents (all of whom had appeared throughout the show as ostensible criminals; many of the skirmishes had simply been tests for the rookie) confronts Dove on a train and informs him that Barker is a rogue and they want to stop him. So, why exactly don't they? If this is supposed to be some clever mystery that will bring viewers back in the coming weeks, the creators of the show are sadly mistaken.

All of this is so bad that something occurs I have rarely, if ever, experienced regarding a television show. I actually felt embarrassed for the actors on the screen.

I truly hope for Swayze's sake that this is not his last role. As for The Beast, it has no bite and deserves to wither away and die.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Criminal Behaviour: Impersonation

This is an odd little scam that pops up once in a while. Someone posing as a former or current professional sports player and convincing people to hand over money for the privilege of spending time with them. This latest fraudulent, scheming example from Ottawa, Canada:
A formerly drug-addicted con man who posed as a former NHL player to dupe hospital patients out of money says he now hopes to help others overcome their addictions and avoid making the same mistakes he has.

I'm trying to get my head around exactly how this scam works. There's no mystery as to why so many individuals go around telling people they're someone they're not. They lead sad desperate impostor and Stephane Richerlives and dream of the wealth and recognition that many professional sports players have. No, the puzzlement is over how easily they seem to sucker so many people. I'm thinking of the conversation between two individuals in a seedy pub somewhere:

"Fancy that! Joe Montana in Shitheels, Arkansas! And right here in the seediest bar in town! I'm truly blown away!"

"Why do you think an incredibly wealthy, famous, accomplished person would find his way here, approach you, and out of the blue, announce who he is? It's a bit odd, don't you think?"

"I never really considered that."

"It's a bit strange that he just asked you for money as well."

"I don't know, you think so? Don't you suppose people with hundreds of millions of dollars often find themselves a bit strapped for cash? Maybe he doesn't like to carry a lot with him."

"But he doesn't even look like Joe Montana. This lad's morbidly obese and about five feet tall. Anyway, we could always search online for a picture of Joe Montana just to be sure."

"I think I'll just hand over the rest of my welfare cheque. It's a bit easier that way. Anyway, it increases the likelihood that we can have starring roles in our own pathetic, white trash soap opera."


A quick google scan brings up a few dozen similar cases. It's truly remarkable.

Man Impersonates Steeler Quarterbacks (notice the plural)

Man Impersonates Baseball Player

Man Impersonates Basketball Player

Of course, most creeps aren't as insidious as the impostor in Ottawa who decided to prey on sick children and their parents. Here's what he had to say after he was caught:

Outside court, Mr. Richer said since his arrest, he has committed his life to Christ and is now taking life "one day at a time."

At least he's stopped playing make believe.

HBO's The Wire: Series Review and Analysis

The HBO drama, The Wire, recently completed its fifth and final season.

It would be harder to find a serial that was better written, developed, acted, and which stayed truer to its themes over the course of multiple seasons.

The Wire explores the sub-cultures of various groups within society. Those in positions of power within each group better understand the dynamics and exploit them for their own personal gain. All the relationships, whether group or individual, are a struggle for power and control.

At the same time, the rebels and mavericks challenge and question the way things are done, upsetting the harmony of the establishment and creating conflict. Inevitably, the various organizations bang up against each other. While the outward manifestations are different, the inner workings of each group have many similarities. In the process, viewers are treated to one of the most relentless, in-depth dramas to ever grace the small screen.

Season OneSeason one focuses on the Baltimore police department and the drug gangs operating in the inner city. Police officer Jimmy McNulty, a maverick within the force, is largely responsible for the formation of a special unit to target a drug gang, the largest in the city, operated by Avon Barksdale.

McNulty is the de-facto lead throughout the entire five year run of The Wire, though there is a large ensemble cast that expands every season.

McNulty convinces himself that the questionable tactics he uses are acceptable because playing by the rules would leave the police at a disadvantage. That is accurate to a degree but self-interest as a motivator is a realistic aspect of his and most of the characters in The Wire. 

The commanders who are pressured to do something about the Barksdale gang throw together a special unit comprised of a rag-tag bunch of rejects and eccentrics from the force. The police establishment are convinced the unit will make little headway and the status quo will remain. 

The newly formed unit begins tracking Barksdale and his minions. But they only start making progress in their investigation when they get the go ahead to wiretap various telephones located within the projects where the drug dealers operate. 

Season one sets the stage for the entire run of The Wire. There is never an easy payoff for the police and, similarly, the viewer must be willing to invest the time and energy to see characters and plots develop. Probably one of the reasons the show was a critical success but also perhaps a clue as to why it has never enjoyed the viewing popularity of other HBO hits such as The Sopranos.

Season Two
In comparison to any other television drama, season two stands up incredibly well. However, within the greatness of The Wire franchise, it is easily the weakest. Again, that isn't to diminish many of the good story-lines and scenes that play out. Comparisons are inevitable and when such a standard has been set, season two falls somewhat short.

The police and drug gangs still make up the core of the show but the spotlight is now also on the local dockworkers. Times are changing and a unionized job working on the docks no longer guarantees a lifetime of steady employment and security. 

Frank Sobotka is the head of the longshoremen's union. Sobotka is a self-doubting and frazzled individual who puts up a blustering exterior. And the walls are starting to close in. A major drug smuggling operation is operating through the port. Sobotka turns a blind eye to the illicit activities his men engage in, tacitly allowing them to work with international drug gangs who supply the inner city drug peddlers we are already familiar with. 

What happens when the leader of a tribe is vulnerable and weak? How does he deal with the doubts from within and the attacks from those trying to corrupt and use him for their own gains? Humans have an innate sense of the weaknesses of those around them and inevitably go for the jugular when the time is right. Sobotka tries to do what he thinks is best, but ultimately fails his son, who also works on the dock, and others around him. 

The roles people play within various institutions and subcultures is again a strong theme in season two.

Season Three
While seasons one and two established The Wire as a show that was willing to challenge the viewer and introduce difficult and long running narratives, season three ratchets the quality of he show to a level that is hard to believe.
City hall enters the Scene as The Wire continues to build the city of Baltimore for the television viewer. The brazen politics of race take centre stage and for a change, blacks have the upper hand in terms of numbers and power. No political correctness in the story-lines except as the characters themselves deal with and shamelessly exploit it for their own agendas. 

The drug gangs surge out in front of the police in the third season. While the final show of the year culminates in an important bust for the major crimes unit and the arrest of Avon Barksdale and some of his key thugs, it simply allows Marlo Stanfield and his gang to fill the void. 

Idris Elba as Stringer Bell puts on an incredible performance during the third season. Driven by his desire to get out from under the control of Avon Barksdale and get involved in more legitimate business dealings, Stringer violates numerous codes that govern the street. Betrayals and duplicity from all sides result in a brutal end for Stringer. Despite his ruthlessness and cold blooded nature, many viewers probably felt a twinge of regret at seeing him expire. Both because his character accomplishes what so many writers of drama aim for: to elicit sympathy for even the nastiest of the nasty, but also because the viewer will no longer get to see him perform. 

There are some great new characters introduced in season three as well. Dennis "Cutty" Wise gets out of prison and has a hard time re-adjusting to life as a free man. He is briefly drawn back into life on the streets but eventually opens a boxing gym that is somewhat important in season four and five.

Season Four
After the dramatic intensity of season three, many fans probably thought it would be unrealistic to expect the quality to continue at such a high level. Incredibly, season four matches and, perhaps for some viewers, even surpasses the previous season's tour de force.

The character of Roland Pryzbylewski, who was a member of the special unit but had to leave the force after mistakenly shooting another officer during season three, is back as a school teacher in one of the city's troubled districts. The school system takes centre stage while all of the previous institutions and its members (save for the dockworkers, whose story-line essentially ended after season two) continue on. 

A group of talented teen-aged actors steps into the line-up as students at the inner city school and some other characters introduced in earlier seasons are given more prominence. 

The lure of the street for many of the youngsters is a focal point for much of the action in season four. The results are both fascinating and heart-breaking. 

As with all the myopic and bloated bureaucracies in The Wire, the ostensible goal of the school system--to educate children--often takes a back seat to politics, personal ambitions, and numbers games.

Season Five
Season five introduces the newspaper and its news room workers as the final social group to be splayed open for analysis. As usual, some excellent characters, interrelationships, and story lines come from this new element. And, as is the pattern, the characters from the newsroom become involved with the other characters and institutions already in play.

The series title "The Wire" describes both the listening devices the police use to gather evidence and the fact that the audience gets a glimpse inside all the various social institutions explored on the show. So it's fitting that the newsroom is the last major social unit examined as it is concerned with observing and bringing information to people. 

A theme that has cropped up numerous times throughout The Wire is the manipulation of the truth, and the effect that shared beliefs of reality have on groups of people. In season five this theme takes centre stage. 

One of the last major plots confirms that The Wire remains relentless and unyielding in its realism and cynicism to the bitter end. However, like the character of McNulty, who has a fatalistic smirk and an ability to enjoy the ride despite the despair and corruption that permeates the city, The Wire gives viewers small and genuine glimpses of hope amidst the violence and filth. 

No show that lasts five seasons and provides such compelling and in-depth story-lines can ever close out in a way that is satisfying to everyone. But The Wire has provided so many angles, reflections, fantastic characters and intriguing plots, that most fans will be hard pressed to feel anything but a wistful admiration and disappointment that there aren't more seasons left to come.

Gay Characters
The Wire contains at least three gay characters, a relatively high number in comparison to most dramas. This is especially significant because homosexuality is not the focus of the series or any particular episodes. Also, none of the character's homosexuality becomes an issue per se, nor is this aspect of their characters examined in any real detail.

So why it relevant at all? It simply reflects the maturity of The Wire that characters who happen to be gay are included without it necessitating the usual cliched crap and cringe-worthy stereotypes. It is an incidental aspect of the characters' lives and reflects the way society has evolved. 

The gay characters are: Kima Greggs, a detective who is part of the major crimes unit, Omar Little, a lone criminal who robs drug dealers of their cash and wares, and Snoop, a female gangster who is part of the Marlo Stanfield crew. 

The choice of Omar as a character who happens to be gay is especially interesting. He is the most feared individual in the neighbourhood and, until his demise in season five, is nearly invincible. The writers use Omar as one of the only instances when they step outside the realism that makes The Wire so powerful. He is painted as an almost mythical figure capable of making otherwise nasty individuals shake with fear.

A fourth character, Major William Rawls, is also apparently gay. In a season three episode, he is briefly seen in the background during a scene in a gay bar. If the viewer blinked, they would have missed it. Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell seem to hint that they are aware of this bit of information as well, as if the fact will be exploited by them for blackmail purposes down the road. Then later in the series, some toilet-wall graffiti also alludes to Rawls's sexual preferences. However, this is one thread that is never explored or again touched on in any way. But in fact, it really is perfectly in line with how the issue of incidental homosexuality is dealt with throughout. Perhaps it's a way for the writers to make the viewer ask "What did you really expect to come of this anyway?"

A Rare Accomplishment
One of the most rewarding aspects of The Wire is that it makes the viewer think. It is rammed full of ideas, themes, and well developed narratives. Many viewers may disagree with many of the observations I have made here. And they may have seen things that didn't even occur to me. The Wire is like a great book that is worth reading more than once. It gets better on every occasion, there is something for everyone, and half the enjoyment is in the times you put it down to reflect.

The Wire is a unique, profound, and moving drama that not only establishes itself for the stories it delivers but also for the look and feel of the show. The stark inner city settings are easily the most memorable. The language the characters use is also effective and rare for a television drama. Taut dialogue rammed full of the slang and jargon specific to each group is a feature that continues throughout. 

The Wire took numerous risks (for example, it was the longest running television drama with a predominantly black cast) and many of them paid off, at least in terms of the credibility and artistic acclaim it received, if not huge viewing numbers. 

Here's hoping that The Wire has set a new standard in television drama to which others will aspire.