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.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Criminal Behaviour: Threats

Firkin Upper StreetYears ago I worked in a pub in London, England. It was located on Upper Street in Islington, a neighbourhood that was moving upscale but, like most of the city, still had its share of decent lower class residents and a heaping of scum. There were plenty of pubs along the stretch where I worked.

Because it was on the high street, numerous people blundered in simply to use the toilets. Some felt the need to order a quick half a pint, take a sip, duck into the toilets, and then return to slug back their drink and be on their way. Leaving us to wonder if they were trapped in a hell of forever nipping in to subsequent establishments to buy the obligatory token drink, draining their bladders and continuing on.

Others had no reservations about striding in to use the loo and then leaving without a word of acknowledgment. This was annoying because the task of cleaning toilets was down to the bar staff. Also, more than a few heroin users shot up in the bogs and left their used needles on the floor.

So we banged up a sign stating that only patrons could use the toilets. This worked for the most part.

One afternoon a group of regulars was knocking back pints in the pub. A rare graveyard shift with some activity and a buzz happening. I was in one of those moods that allowed me to play the raconteur. Pulling pints and engaging in some give and take with the posties who drank during any available free time they had.

A well dressed man walked in and made straight for the toilets. A few moments later he exited and was leaving the pub. I loudly said, "Thanks! Come again!"

He surged towards the bar and castigated me for daring to draw attention to him, assuring me he had spent plenty of money here in the past.

Still playing to the crowd of drinkers watching this little spectacle, I further mocked him to the sniggers and cheers of my audience. He stormed out and I continued to milk the incident for all it was worth.

phone handsetLater on that day, after the afternoon drinkers had cleared out and the early evening vibe was taking shape, the telephone behind the bar rang.


"I'm gonna pay someone to do you in!"


I banged the phone down.

It was obviously the agitated toilet user I had called out earlier in the afternoon. His lame threat sounded so contrived it was almost laughable. His epithet for black people was a word not usually used in Britain, even by racists. It's as if he recognized that I wasn't a Brit and came up with some lame concoction he thought would rattle me based on stereotypes from Hollywood movies.

Still, it did give me pause. Over the next few days I probably scanned the crowd a few more times and with closer scrutiny than usual.


And that is the most obvious reason why people make threats. To a large degree, they work. Anyone who says otherwise is being disingenuous or has never been on the receiving end.

Relative to the amount of effort required, a threat is one of the most effective fear-inducing tactics in the miscreant's trick bag. And, the likelihood of being caught is low. Even if a verbal threat is not made anonymously, police are unlikely to act unless the person making the threat is known to them, or there is some kind of audio or video recording.

Correlation to Action

It would be hard to quantify the number of threats made to the times actions actually are carried out. It's safe to say that most people who make threats never go any further simply because those who are serious about committing a crime usually don't want to be caught.

That's cold comfort for victims of stalkers, who seem to have fully embraced their obsessive lunacy and often preclude violent attacks with nasty threats.

Terrorists as well trade in the business of spreading mind-numbing fear before following through with some cold blooded human destruction.

In this age of hysteria, threats are probably taken more seriously by more people than at any time in history.


Most men who are threatened try to appear dismissive while a sliver of apprehension crawls up their spine. When a threat is made by someone with a violent reputation, the reaction can be more visceral and the attempts to hide fear pointless.

Unfortunately, women no doubt suffer more than men when they are threatened. On the other hand, they may receive more attention and their claims may be given more credibility when they file a complaint with police.

There is no fail-safe way to respond. Bravado may spur some on to carry out their threats while others may be emboldened by a frightened response.

Use your own instincts and your knowledge of the creep in question to take appropriate action. There's a fine line between over-reaction and self-preservation.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Dexter Season Three Review

Dexter posterDexter Morgan is a blood splatter analysis expert working as part of the forensics team in the homicide division of the Miami-Dade police department. Dexter's secret is that he tracks down and butchers criminals who have escaped the law.

The idea of someone working within the police department by day and operating as a murderous vigilante by night was a unique and intriguing concept that the creators of the show pulled off with success during the first two seasons. The dark humour combined with the jolts of pure drama and suspense worked well. Looking back, such a combination had to be done almost perfectly for it to hang together.

However, the third season of Dexter ranks as a major disappointment.

Even in those first two seasons, you could feel the suspension of disbelief get a bit wobbly at times. As the season finales approached, the humour got shunted to one side and the story-lines converged and exploded into the climax. That fine line between ridiculous and seriousness was suddenly gone and the closing drama in each season had to be well executed to succeed. You couldn't help but admire the performance of the writers, actors, and directors for actually making it work.

However, during the third season, that suspension of disbelief falls completely out from under the viewer. Absurdities abound, the writers fail in ramping up the suspense, and any semblance of broader themes that existed before are rendered almost meaningless.

Out of Character

First, the notion that Dexter would so readily take on an accomplice and share his secret with an outsider as he does with the Miguel Prado character (played by Jimmy Smits) just doesn't wash. Any plot twist or character development is believable if done right. But here, the attempts are ham-fisted and the results sometimes border on the ludicrous.

Smits does a decent job with the material he is presented with. The Prado character is highly cliched from the beginning: an emotional, hot-blooded Cuban American who has a free pass from all the other one dimensional Cubans because Prado is a local hero.

The problem here is that things "just happen" without the appropriate level of suspense or in ways that aren't believable for the characters the audience has come to know. In the world of dramatic writing, this failure to adequately create suspense is known as "jumping." This is something that plagues the entire third season of Dexter.

More Absurdities

There are several story-lines that simply don't work and are, at times, unintentionally farcical. First, the character of Camilla Figg, who has been a connection to Dexter's past throughout the series, is dying of cancer. Dexter visits her in the hospital on numerous occasions and plays along with her desire to sample the perfect key-lime pie before she kicks it. Perhaps an attempt at the quirky, noirish aspects layered with double meaning that worked in the first two seasons? Regardless, it simply falls flat. Easily the most saccharine, melodramatic scenes to play out in the series and ineffective as part of any attempts at character or plot development.

Also, an Internal Affairs detective named Yuki Amado starts badgering Debra Morgan, trying to convince her to provide information on her new partner, Joey Quinn. Yuki is a foul mouthed little viper and, not surprisingly, she and Debra take an instant dislike to each other. Finally, Debra tells Quinn about the entreaties, then in turn lets Yuki know she has revealed all to her partner. Yuki discloses that Quinn may have been responsible for the death of a police officer. Apparently, this revelation is supposed to rock Debra and the viewing audience to its core.

But why wasn't this little tidbit mentioned by Yuki in the beginning? Perhaps that would have spurred Debra to consider informing on her partner (though what relevant information she could have provided is never mentioned). This sub-plot comes across exactly for what it is: an ill thought out storyline made up on the fly. The thread peters out in an completely irrelevant way, leaving the viewer to wonder why it was included in the first place.

Another Serial Killer

An indication that the well of ideas has run dry is that a serial killer appears who is very similar to the season one monster. Same consistent pattern, same cutesy nickname, same surreal crime scenes. Only this time around, there is none of the intrigue of the Ice Truck Killer from season one.

Back Story Has Run Its Course

The back story of Dexter's development as an apparent ruthless sociopath seems to have run its course. The image of Dexter's long dead adoptive father is still here, warning against all the decisions he makes, all of which turn out badly. In seasons one and two, Dexter's father showed up in entertaining flash-backs that provided necessary information to the viewer. However, in season three his father appears as an illusion or apparition visible only to Dexter during scenes involving other characters. Simply not as effective as the flashbacks.

Themes Shredded

The ostensible themes that showed up in the first and second seasons are eviscerated this time around. Any sense that all the torture sessions that eventually lead to murder are somehow justified no longer holds water. More and more, the lead character comes across as a self-serving, sociopathic murderer. As an antidote to this, the Dexter character's voice over comes to the rescue numerous times with some convoluted logic in the hopes that the viewer will keep tuning in and going along with the premise.

It seemed fairly evident in season one and two that Dexter was destined to evolve and realize he did in fact have feelings and was largely a product of his upbringing. He showed feelings towards his step-sister and girlfriend, and he had a code he adhered to (i.e. morals, however twisted). These themes don't seem as credible after season three.

Further Problems

These shortcomings only further highlight the fact that Dexter operates in a department full of what must be utter buffoons and incompetents who have no idea he is a serial killer. Again, the glaring holes for which audiences are endlessly forgiving if they are presented with a class A drama. When things start to falter, those inconsistencies and flaws become annoyances and start to drive people away.

And Yet

The show has been renewed for a fourth season and if the producers can't recreate some of the earlier magic, this show should die a rightful death. Many viewers couldn't see the show going beyond season one but were pleasantly surprised with the follow-up. The same concerns were voiced after season two and season three has mostly confirmed that line of thinking.

A handful of teasers from the end of season three will likely be explored next year. It appears Dexter is actually Debra's half-brother and not only a step-brother. Also, Dexter's wife Rita (they were wed in the concluding episode of season three) was apparently married for a brief time as a teenager; something which she is hiding from Dexter. However, the brazen way these facts were telegraphed to the audience provides little hope they will be developed in a convincing way that can salvage the series.

Was season three of Dexter a complete write-off? Despite all the problems listed above, it was Dexter torturestill watchable. The noirish shots of Miami, the occasional bursts of memorable dialogue, and the performance of Michael C. Hall as Dexter were all bright spots in an otherwise disappointing season. Most viewers probably kept watching in hopes of seeing the standard rise close to the levels of previous seasons. There was a lot of capital built up in seasons one and two that kept many fans loyal.

Or perhaps many viewers simply get a kick out of the whole concept and enjoy those nasty scenes where Dexter plays judge, jury, and executioner.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Book Review: The Red Hot Typewriter by Hugh Merrill

The Red Hot TypewriterJohn D. MacDonald was one of the most prolific crime writers to ever put pen to paper. MacDonald published more than 70 novels (not all in the crime genre) and 500 short stories during his lifetime. Probably best known for the 21 Travis McGee novels he wrote, MacDonald spent most of his adult life banging out millions of words of prose at home in Sarasota, Florida. A biography by Hugh Merrill entitled The Red Hot Typewriter: The Life and Times of John D. MacDonald, chronicles the life of one of the most popular crime writers who ever lived.

Some biographies are mind numbingly thorough in chasing down every living person who ever interacted with the individual in question. Such weighty tomes ensure that no stone is left unturned and no detail left unexplored. Thankfully, The Red Hot Typewriter is not one of those biographies. That may be a disappointment to some, but others are just as likely to welcome a lighter, more readable volume. Perhaps Merrill was attempting to emulate the lean writing style that MacDonald was known for in many of his Travis McGee novels.

Neither are there any lengthy interviews with family members or friends of John D. MacDonald. The book is based mainly on letters that MacDonald wrote, and observations and opinions of the author. There are, of course, the requisite passages devoted to the childhood of MacDonald, but things quickly shift to his writing years.

As the lives of some of the past century's greatest writers go, MacDonald's certainly can't be classed as dramatic or overly interesting. But when you churn out so many books and short stories, how much time do you have to get up to real-life adventure? For that reason, the book probably won't appeal to those readers who aren't fans of MacDonald. But Merrill himself clearly is a fan, and his narrative style results in an entertaining and enjoyable book despite the fact that MacDonald led a relatively low-key and conservative life.

The biography rightly focuses on MacDonald's writing but we also discover other aspects of the great crime writer's life. His lifelong concern for the environment, his love of cats, and his battles with property developers in Florida are just a few of the things that kept MacDonald occupied when he wasn't writing.

Despite their wealth, MacDonald and his wife didn't lead extravagant or flamboyant lives. One of their greatest shared passions later in life was going on boat cruises.

MacDonald was such a faithful and committed husband that he was overwhelmed with regret at engaging in a "tryst" that consisted of exchanged glances at cocktail parties and a few emotional conversations. MacDonald dutifully admitted his lapse to his wife and was quickly forgiven. Merrill writes briefly about the non-scandalous, non-affair but MacDonald's life didn't lean towards sleaze, and the biography doesn't seek out gossip or make innuendos.

The most interesting part of the book for many readers will be the passages that discuss the development of MacDonald as a great writer. The advent of Travis McGee came about almost by accident, as Fawcett books contacted MacDonald after one of their most popular crime series writers jumped ship to another publisher. MacDonald had initially decided to name the character Dallas McGee but changed it to Travis after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. At that time, MacDonald didn't want to use the name that could have other associations in the minds of readers. Merrill writes regarding the decisions that went into developing the series:

Once he had a character, he had to decide how to distinguish one McGee book from another. He didn't want to number them, because then a reader might feel compelled to read them in order. MacDonald discussed this problem with friends on a trip to New York.
"Musical terminology, days of the week, months of the year, varieties of gemstones--all of these were discarded, and I believe it was Knox Burger, who edited all the early ones, who suggested colors."

The repeated attempts by movie studios to bring Travis McGee to the big screen also make for interesting reading. MacDonald was torn by the idea, at once not wanting to lose control of his creation but also craving the enhanced legacy that a well-made film could have brought. The unique elements of the McGee novels meant that a successful transition to film was never made.

MacDonald also discusses his hopes and fears in many of the letters that Merrill references in the book. We find out that MacDonald could never wrap his head around the whole race issue that was gripping the U.S. during much of the 1960s and 70s and he never worked the theme into his books in any convincing way.

MacDonald was a drinker for most of his life but it was never a major problem. However, together with his smoking habit and overall sedentary lifestyle, it probably contributed to his death in 1986 at the age of 70.

After reading The Red Hot Typewriter, you will probably have a greater appreciation for John D. MacDonald as a writer and will likely also see him as a reasonable and decent person.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Book Review: The Deep Blue Good-by: by John D. MacDonald

The Deep Blue Good-byThe Deep Blue Good-by was the first of 21 Travis McGee novels by the late, great John D. MacDonald.

McGee is a nihilistic, misanthropic loner who lives on his boat, The Busted Flush, which is docked in a marina in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He has largely dropped out of mainstream life and only works when he runs low on cash.

In the opening chapter of The Deep Blue Good-by, a female character queries McGee about what he does for a living, rephrasing a "job description" McGee had apparently offered up earlier:

"You said if X has something valuable and Y comes along and takes it away from him, and there is absolutely no way in the world X can ever get it back, then you come along and make a deal with X to get it back, and keep half. Then you on that until it starts to run out. Is that the way it is, really?"

McGee accepts this version and thus the reader has an idea of what kind of character they are being presented. He is a sort of private eye, but not exactly. However, like most of the well known hard-boiled private eye novels, this McGee story is a morality play. And like most of the hard cases who came before him in the pulp fiction world, behind the tough talking, fearless forays into dangerous situations, McGee is also someone who genuinely cares about the people he tries to help.

It’s almost as if MacDonald fashioned McGee as a combination of the hardened crime novel detective and the sensitive new age man who was gaining prominence at the time (The Deep Blue Good-by was published in 1964). The typical sleuth/lothario, McGee comes across his share of attractive and troubled tarts. He rebuffs some, sleeps with a few, and feels regret at leading others on.

Through it all, McGee riffs on various things he loathes about the modern world. In The Deep Blue Good-by, a recurring theme is the women he deals with and the limited opportunities they have in life. In one classic rant, McGee muses:

"The scene is reputed to be acrawl with adorably amoral bunnies to whom sex is a pleasant social favor. The new culture. And they are indeed present and available, in exhaustive quantity, but there is a curious tastelessness about them. A woman who does not guard and treasure herself cannot be of much value to anyone else. They become a pretty little convenience, like a guest towel.”

These philosophical asides (and later in the series, conversations with a character named Meyer) became one of the trademarks of the McGee novels. They are one of the aspects that fans of the novels like the most but probably one reason the books were never successfully adapted to the big screen.

The book is written in the first person using simple, lean sentences that move the action forward. The plot is almost secondary here. McGee’s observations, monologues, and dialogue with other characters are the driving force behind the story. Not that there isn’t any plot or action.

McGee tracks down the nasty piece of work who has abused and cheated the two main female characters. While McGee is a nuanced individual who doubts himself and doesn't always play by the rules, the villain is pure evil. The action builds to a brutal showdown in which all does not end in a pat, satisfying way.

A taut, sparsely written novel that is the first in the classic Travis McGee series.


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