Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Max Tegmark's Multiverses

Max Tegmark
one of my favourite posts from two years ago...
Our Mathematical Universe by physicist Max Tegmark is a popular science book in which he unpacks his theory of the level 1,2,3 and 4 multiverses and then in the last third explains his theory of the mathematical universe. I understood the multiverse idea (the first 3 multiverses anyway) but I didn't really get his concept of the mathematical universe (he's either saying that all the laws of physics depend upon fundamental mathematical concepts which isn't very interesting, or he's saying that everything in the universe (suns, planets, you, me, our conscious minds,) is mathematics itself, i.e. we are living in a platonic universe of numbers that only thinks it's a physical universe - this is a very interesting concept indeed but seems completely crazy to me.) I don't have the competence to judge the last third of the book but I do want to talk about the multiverse idea which is fascinating.
The level 1 multiverse is very easy to understand. All Tegmark is saying here is that space is infinite and beyond the visible light boundary of our universe there must be other shit out there. Indeed there must be entire universes out there. This is the cool part: since space is infinite and the different way atoms in a universe can assemble themselves is huge, but, crucially, finite, then there must, logically, be universes out there with an exact replica of you reading this and me typing this. Indeed there are an infinite number of universes out there with exact replicas of you and me, and an infinite number of universes where we are slightly different, or you became President or we both swam the Hellespont or I ended up playing rugby for Ireland (I still believe this cd actually happen). Infinity is a very powerful concept and creates some surprising results. Like I say, cool stuff. 
The level 2 multiverse is also easy to comprehend. In the expansion phase of our universe just after the Big Bang a 'baby universe' was formed that became our universe, an infinite number of these formed, some with completely different laws of physics than our own, but sentient entities like you and me could only exist in one like ours, the Goldilocks one where gravity, Plancks constant, the electro-magnetic force etc. balance perfectly. But again because an infinite number of these multiverses formed there are other yous and mes out there in slightly different physical realities.
The level 3 multiverse is a trickier beast to grasp. Tegmark and what he claims are "an increasing number of quantum physicists" are beginning to reject the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics that has been the dominant interpretation of quantum physics since the 1920's. If you remember the infamous "double slit experiment" from high school you'll recall that when an electron is fired through a piece of metal with a double slit in it sometimes the election acts like a wave and sometimes like a particle. No understands why this is so and it is deeply mysterious to this day. The Copenhagen interpretation basically says that the electron both goes through one slit and does not go through the same slit at the same time. When the election is "observed" by a conscious entity or by a machine (like a camera) its probability wave collapses and it picks one slit to travel down. This has lead to the Schrodingers Cat paradox wherein a cat is both dead and alive at the same time until it has been "observed" - a thought experiment meant to ridicule the Copenhagen Interpretation itself, which I think it did. One alternative to the Copenhagen Interpretation is the Many Worlds Theory. Here there is no need for dead-alive cats, because when the cat experiment is done 2 worlds are created, one in which the cat is dead and another in which it is alive. When you open the cat's box you don't collapse the cat's probability wave you just find out which universe you are in. Similarly when the quantum double slit experiment is carried out, many worlds are created full of scientists carrying out the same experiment. This, some people say, (smart people like David Deutsch) is how quantum computers work - an infinite number of computers exist in an infinite number of many worlds. I know this sounds crazy but I found this part of Tegmark's book very convincing and I now think that the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum physics invented by Hugh Everett is more logical than the Copenhagen Interpretation. Which would mean, if Tegmark, Everett, Deutsch etc. are correct, there is an infinite number of yous and mes existing in what is called Hilbert Space who can interact with one another at a quantum level. If you want to interact with another you in Hilbert space you can do so, here. 
The level 4 multiverse is the multiverse of Platonic mathematics that I didn't really understand. You can read Tegmark's short explanation of it on his MIT website here. Like I say, I didn't follow this in the book or on the website.
I would like to offer an an alternate level 4 multiverse that exists temporally rather than physically. Consider Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok's idea that the universe goes through an infinite number of big bangs, expansions, heat deaths, brane collapses and big bangs...(This is not mentioned in Tegmark's book but I just thought I'd throw it in here. If this is true then not only have I typed this sentence before and you've read it before, but we've all done this infinitely many times in the past, which I for one find depressing. (As did Nietzsche when he thought about the similar notion of eternal recurrence.)) Another possible Level 4 or maybe Level 5 multiverse is Nick Bostrom's idea that we are probably all living in a simulated universe anyway, which he proves from 2 assumptions and then a statistical argument. 
Scott Aaronson
If indeed there are an infinite number of multiverses out there it raises some interesting questions. First of all it makes what I call Strong Atheism philosophically untenable. With an infinite number of universes there must, logically, be at least 1 universe in which a universal God spontaneously came into existence. It is impossible to say whether we are living in that universe or not. Its unlikely that we're in the universe with the God in it, but its impossible to rule it out. An atheism which denies the existence of all gods is therefore logically mistaken; however a more tempered form of atheism (Soft Atheism) which merely denies that there is any evidence for the existence of God works just fine. There are other really fun consequences of living in a multiverse that this dude has catalogued here. (Seriously click on that link and it will blow your mind.)
Max Tegmark's book really gave me food for thought. I didn't get all of it, but I enjoyed reading it and I would recommend it for any of you who have ever, Douglas Adams fashion, wondered about the big questions of life, the universe and everything. It got good reviews in the Guardian and The New York Times among many other papers. The best take down I've read of Tegmark's thesis was done by Scott Aaronson on his vastly entertaining and informative computational science blog Shtetl-Optimized.(Tegmark himself gets sucked into the really rather geekily clever comment thread.)

Friday, September 15, 2017

How To Be Boring

Everybody knows the advice publishers and agents give to young writers: start in the middle and keep it fast, fast, fast to the very end! And that's still pretty good advice if you're all about story and turning pages. But what if you're not? What if you want people to focus on the words and take it easy and read your book slow? Well then you're probably living in the wrong age aren't you? We're the age of quick cuts and page turners and memes and vines. Why watch a whole movie when you can watch a youtube video telling you everything wrong with it in 15 minutes?
When I was a kid we read a lot of Thomas Hardy novels in school and I bloody hated them. One of them, Return of the Native I think, begins with a 15 page description of a heath: the heath in winter, the heath in spring, the heath in autumn and yup you guessed it, the heath in summer. Christ it was tedious. I'll never read anything so boring in my life I thought...until I went to law school. Reading all 5 judgements in a nineteenth century probate case, now that my friend is a whole new level of boring. 
And maybe it was the discipline of law school or maybe it was the time I struggled through bloody Les Miserables in French or maybe it was just a reaction against the begin-in-the-middle school of thought but in the last 5 years or so I've been hunting out authors who take it slow. Who don't begin the middle. Who don't cut to the chase (because usually there is no chase). I've found to my amazement that I quite like Thomas Hardy and Thomas Mann and Thomas Wolfe come to that - 3 Toms who are a little more leisurely about their story telling. 
Lately I've just finished Magnus Mills's The Forensic Record Society and I think its a work of genius. A bunch of blokes meet up in a London pub to listen to records. Nothing much happens. It ends. It's brilliant. Like all of Magnus Mills's books. The comedy of Stewart Lee is similar - Lee is often deliberately boring and repetitive and I love him for it. It's the same thing too with the books of David Peace: repetitive, deliberately slow, amazing. We've got slow cooking and slow travel, how about some slow reading, eh? Less stress, more focus on the words, more pleasure...
Some of you will think I'm mad so feel free to ignore the below reading list of contemporary writers and a few oldies who, ahem, go at their own pace and are all the better because of it: 

Magnus Mills
Charles Palliser
Thomas Mann
David Peace
Susanna Clark
Gertrude Stein
Marcel Proust
Anthony Powell
John Dos Passos
George Eliot
Virginia Woolf
Thomas Hardy
Hanya Yanagihara
Miguel de Cervantes
JA Baker
James Joyce
Herman Melville

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Ned Kelly Award 2017

I am delighted to say that my novel Police At The Station And They Don't Look Friendly has won the 2017 Ned Kelly Award. My wife and kids were in attendance on Friday night in Melbourne when the award was announced. (We were there last year too when I was shortlisted but did not win.) I'm really thrilled about this. To have won the Ned Kelly Award and the Edgar Award for different books in the same year is more than I ever hoped for. Sometimes, with a little luck, dreams do come true. Thank you to all me mates who were there and thank you loyal readers for sticking by me when things weren't looking so terrific not so very long ago and I was thinking of jacking in the whole thing. Go raibh maith agat!

Monday, August 28, 2017

Karin Slaughter

my review of Karin Slaughter's The Good Daughter from the Weekend Australian:

James Dickey’s 1970 novel Deliverance did much to discourage casual visitors from travelling to small-town Georgia. I imagine Karin Slaughter’s new novel The Good Daughter will have Georgia tourism operators similarly tearing out their hair. The book takes place in fictional (I hope) Pikeville, a town with more than its fair share of drunks, bullies, racists, rapists and drug dealers.
The story begins on St Patrick’s Eve 1989 with such an intimate portrait of a loving, interesting family that you just know something terrible is going to happen. This is a Karin Slaughter novel and she has never been one to shy away from nominative determinism, but even I wasn’t quite expecting the brutality of the opening prologue.
Rusty Quinn is Pikeville’s public defender. He’ll take on your case even if you have no money and even if the odds are stacked against you. Unfortunately for him and his family this means his clients are mostly low-life scum who can’t even pay their bills.
Rusty’s wife, Gamma, is a charming and brilliant ex-NASA scientist who tells her two daughters, Charlotte, 13, and Samantha, 15, that when they grow up they should take any job anywhere as long as it’s far away from corrupt and parochial Pikeville.
Gamma is funny and clever but her self-preservation instincts are maybe not up there with the reader’s. When Rusty defends an accused rapist of a popular local girl who went on to hang herself, it’s no surprise the Quinns get firebombed out of their home and are subjected to a blizzard of threatening phone calls.
When Rusty wins the case and there are ­rumours of a lynch mob floating around, this would be the time most of us might take the kids on that long-put-off trip to Disney World.
Alas, Gamma and her two girls stay put and in a horrific 10 pages or so one of Randy’s old clients, Zack Culpepper, and his brother break into the house wearing ski masks and toting shotguns. Randy isn’t home and a desperate Gamma tries to placate the gunmen, begging them not to harm her daughters.
Zack, however, cannot be placated and he shoots Gamma dead on the kitchen floor before marching the girls out to the corn field. Zack is a dumb criminal but with some animal cunning he has sensed the public mood and has realised the Quinns might just be victims of a revenge attack. He and his brother aren’t remotely interested in revenge but in the stack of cash Rusty keeps in his office for paying bail bonds. Charlotte figures all this out in the seconds before she is shot and tossed into a shallow grave.
Cut to 28 years later.
Samantha and Charlotte (known now as Charlie) have survived and become lawyers. Sam is a rich patent attorney in New York while Charlotte, the good daughter, has stayed in Pike­ville to follow in their father’s footsteps. Charlie is at a school shooting in which a “low functioning” 18-year-old kills the school principal and another child. Because Charlie is a witness she can’t take the case. Up to the plate steps 74-year-old Rusty, who defends the girl and again invites the collective wrath of Pikeville.
There are quite a few twists and turns and Charlie ends up on the case anyway, and in a shrewd move on Slaughter’s part she spends some of the second half of the book at war with her sister, who despises her father for the “weakness” that brought death and destruction to their happy family.
What’s great about The Good Daughter is Slaughter’s clever meta-textual undermining of a trope we are familiar with: the young daughter of the decent southern lawyer who works as a public defender of men accused of terrible crimes.
Early on, Slaughter name-checks Clarence Darrow but she might as well throw in Atticus Finch, too, because that’s who we’re all thinking about. She has a lot of fun with the idea that maybe some of those men Rusty skilfully defends aren’t worth the trouble he takes.
Slaughter’s fictions are a considered literary extension of the southern gothic style made ­famous by Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor and Ellen Glasgow. O’Connor indeed provides the book’s epigraph and during the heated fights between the sisters I was half expecting one of them to quote Quentin Comp­son’s ­famous “I don’t hate the South!” from William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom!, but Slaughter adeptly pilots us away from that cliche without injury.
The Good Daughter is maybe a bit overlong and a trifle overbaked, but as blockbuster fare and beach-reading material this is one of Slaughter’s best books yet.
Adrian McKinty is author of the Sean Duffy series of crime novels.
The Good Daughter
By Karin Slaughter
HarperCollins, 512pp, $27.99

Friday, August 25, 2017

BBC Culture's Top 100 films of the twenty first century so far...

The BBC polled prominent critics, film historians, writers and directors to come up with a list of the top films of the century so far. I've reproduced the list below. The top of the list is eerily similar to a list of films I came up with in 2009 as my favourites of the decade which you can find here. I've done three things to the raw data of the BBC list to personalise it slightly. If the film is in bold that means I've seen it and thought that it was ok. If there's an * next to the film it means I really liked it. Two ** indicates that I think the film is a masterpiece. If I've put the letter next to the film I'm saying that I think the film may be a bit overrated by the critics at the moment. If its not in bold I'm afraid I havent caught that one yet. Its a bit of a strange list: no Werner Herzog, Kelly Reichardt, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, Roy Andersson, Denys Arcand, Joanna Hogg or Ben Wheatley? What's up with that?

100. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)
100. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
100. Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010)
99. The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda, 2000)
98. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
97. White Material (Claire Denis, 2009)
96. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003) O
95. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)
94. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) **
93. Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007) O
92. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
91. The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan José Campanella, 2009)
90. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)
89. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008)
88. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)
87. Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) *
86. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
85. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009) O
84. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
83. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001)
82. A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)
81. Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)
80. The Return (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2003)
79. Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000)
78. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)
77. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007)
76. Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003)
75. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)
74. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012)
73. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
72. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013) *
71. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012)
70. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)
69. Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015) O
68. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
67. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)
66. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (Kim Ki-duk, 2003)
65. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009) **
64. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
63. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, 2011)
62. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
61. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
60. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)
59. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)
58. Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembène, 2004)
57. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)
56. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, director; Ágnes Hranitzky, co-director, 2000)
55. Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013)
54. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)
53. Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001) O
52. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)
51. Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) O
50. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015)
49. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014)
48. Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015) O
47. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014) *
46. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
45. Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013) O
44. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)
43. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
42. Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)
41. Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015) O
40. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
39. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)
38. City of God (Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002)
37. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
36. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)
35. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
34. Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015) **
33. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) O
32. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006) O
31. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)
30. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003) **
29. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008) O
28. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)
27. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
26. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)
25. ​Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) *
24. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
23. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005) O
22. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
21. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014) **
20. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
19. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
18. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009) **
17. Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)
16. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)
15. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
14. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
13. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006) *
12. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007) *
11. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013) **
10. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
9. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
8. Yi Yi: A One and a Two (Edward Yang, 2000)
7. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011) O
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
4. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001) O
3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) *
2. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000) **
1. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001) **

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Pride & Prejudice, Pride & Prejudice, Pride & Prejudice, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies

Pride And Prejudice (1940). Journeyman director Robert Z Leonard turns in a creditable movie version of the book in this big budget 1940 studio production. The screenplay was partly written by Aldous Huxley (one of an amazing six writers they needed to translate this material to the screen) and is notable for the interesting spin on the character of Lady Catherine de Bourgh towards the end. The parts in the film are well played: Edward Ashley is a suitably villainous Mr Wickham, Greer Garson is a lively Elizabeth Bennet and Maureen O'Sullivan is a radiant Jane Bennet. Greer Garson's look of hatred towards Miss Bingley after she has dissed her family is some of the finest screen acting you'll ever see, but everyone in the cast is playing second fiddle to Laurence Olivier who is an extraordinary Mr Darcy. This is one of Olivier's best early screen roles: he radiates perfect quantities of menace, intelligence and diffidence. I should also mention Edmund Gwenn as a drole Mr Bennet. The movie is let down a little by the costumes by the famous Adrian Greenburg (who et al. in a brilliant career designed Dorothy's shoes for the Wizard of Oz) which are beyond ridiculous and not remotely Regency.

Pride and Prejudice (1995). For an entire generation of people in the UK this BBC mini series is the definitive version of P&P. With a lot more room to breathe (six hours) the characters are fully fleshed and many of the more diverting but easily cuttable bits of the book are left in. Colin Firth is a stolid Mr Darcy and Jennifer Ehle is a charming Elizabeth Bennet. The BBC lavished a lot of money on carriages, country houses and authentic Regency outfits. And nobody puts a foot wrong. And yet. . .Well call it heresy if you want but I don't find Firth all that interesting as Mr D, Adrian Lukis is a timid and unthreatening Mr Wickham and Jennifer's Ehle's Lizzy lacks bite. You cannot complain about Alison Steadman's Mrs B or Andrew Davis's faithful screenplay. 

Pride and Prejudice (2005). Keira Knightley is a spirited, beautiful Elizabeth Bennet with lank hair and dirty boots. Rosamund Pike is a lovely Jane Bennet. Carey Mulligan shines as Kitty Bennet and Jenna Malone and Talulah Riley are great as Lydia and Mary. Simon Woods is an outstanding Mr Bingley playing him as a bit of a nineteenth century Bertie Wooster. Matthew Macfayden is an appropriately dour, broody Mr Darcy almost as good as Olivier's version. Rupert Friend is sinister and scary as Mr Wickham. This is by far the best directed of the three versions I'm reviewing here. There's a tracking shot at the Bingley ball (the second ball in the book if you'll recall) where the camera swings through the action taking in a sad Mr Collins, a humiliated Lizzy, Mary being consoled by her kind father (Donald Sutherland), an ethereal Jane and a happily toasted Mrs Bennet (the superb Brenda Blethyn). The screenplay was written by Debborah Moggach with script doctoring by Emma Thompson (who won an Oscar for her script for Sense and Sensibility). At two hours this is the right length for the story and the humour of the book is excised & reattached with ease. The scene where Mr Collins (Tom Hollander) proposes to Lizzy is one of the funniest you'll ever see. There's also a little more room given to the servants than any of the other versions, which when you read Jo Baker's Longbourn and watch the upcoming BBC version of that superb book you will appreciate. 

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2015). An ok attempt to mix zombification and class into a post apocalyptic romance. Lily James is all right as Lizzy, Sam Riley makes an OK Darcy. Charles Dance is sadly off form as Mr Bennett. Lena Headey steals the show a bit as Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Ok, as Simon Pegg is wont to say, skip to the end: Wickham, a kind of semi-zombie, (Jack Huston) leads a horde of zombies out of London to conquer England but after Lizzy, of course, realises he's a baddie he is stopped by she and Darcy at the Last Bridge. Good cast and a few good ideas but cd have been much better....

Friday, August 11, 2017

A Guide For Hipsters: The 15 Coolest Novels

a post from a couple of years ago...
So you're a hipster and you live in Brooklyn, Camden Town, St Kilda or downtown LA. You've got your Oxfam cords, your Atari T shirt and your 1970's replica Adidas trainers (I've actually got these and they're great!) You're in the coffee place that no one knows about behind the stolen car chop-shop. It doesn't have Wi-Fi or comfortable furniture but it does have really good coffee. So you're there drinking the Bali Mother Temple Blend, sneaking admiring glances at your trainers, and checking out the other hipsters in the place. Some have Edwardian sideburns, some have full beards and as for the men...Sorry, old joke, couldn't resist. No, the girls are really cute and you're sitting there, worried that you're going to spoil the illusion of cool by bringing the wrong retro paperback out of your battered bike messenger bag. What novel is it ok to read that won't set the hipster alarm bells ringing? In the 1980s it was easier - Sartre, Camus, Henry Miller, Eudora Welty, Philip K Dick, a battered Penguin Classic. . .
But that shit don't work no more. It reeks of a set-book in uni or sixth form college and you're far too cool to be doing homework in here. So what does work? Here are some book suggestions and what to say to the curious guy/gal who - hopefully - asks you about your reading material:

1. Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace. "It's so much funnier on the third reading."

2. Crash - JG Ballard. "It's about this pervy guy called Ballard who meets this guy called Vaughn who wants to kill himself in an erotic car crash with Elizabeth Taylor's limousine. . .What? They made a movie out of it? I don't watch movies from the last 40 years."

3. Platform - Michel Houellebecq. "It's a bit like Crash, actually, but without the cars, Ballard, or Elizabeth Taylor." 

4. Red or Dead - David Peace. "It's like Fever Pitch, but, you know, good."

5. The Rehearsal - Eleanor Catton. "Yeah, I read the one that won the Booker. This is her earlier better, longer, less crowd-pleasing one."

7. The Fortress of Solitude - Jonathan Lethem. "Its about this kid who lives in Brooklyn in the 70's and this homeless dude gives him this ring that lets him fly. No, wait, come back, it's the greatest American novel of the last 20 years. . ."

8. Childhood's End - Arthur C. Clarke. “What's it about? Uhm, well, aliens come to watch all the children on the Earth doing a conga dance that gets out of hand as they merge into a giant supercreature and sublime off into another dimension. He wrote it at the Chelsea Hotel if that helps explain things."

9. La Casa de los Espíritus - Isabel Allende. "Oh this? No, not really my cup of tea. I'm only reading it to improve my Spanish in preparation for my Ayahuasca rebirthing ceremony."

10. Human Race Get Off Your Knees - David Icke. "Alice Walker's favourite book, apparently. I'm guessing this is fiction." 

11. A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth. "She hasn’t met all three of her suitors yet but I’m only on page 973.”

12. The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman - Angela Carter. "The book to give to a white male worried about 'Femi-Nazis'."

13. Post Office - Charles Bukowski. "I actually worked for the Post Office & it was exactly like this except with more drunks and way more depressing."

14. The Art of Fielding - Chad Harbach. "I came for the love triangle. I stayed for the Moby Dick, baseball & body snatching."

15. The Cold Cold Ground: Adrian McKinty. "The best crime writer you've never heard of. . .Wait, you've heard of him? Jesus, that dude is so over."

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Movies That Are Better Than The Book

There are a couple of lists like this floating around the internet but they're all written by kids who have no idea what they're talking about because they haven't A) seen any films or B) read any books. Also you have to scroll through many screens to get their ridiculously uninformed opinions, whereas to get my ridiculously overinformed opinions you need only look below. 
5. The 39 Steps. The book is ok, the Hitchcock film is breezy, sexy and fun. It's got a girl, Mr Memory, a police helicopter (in 1935!)* none of which are in the book. Jorge Luis Borges says in one of his essays that was the first film he'd ever seen that transcended the source material and he is right. Hitchcock didn't get this breezy again until North By Northwest (a kind of remake) 24 years later.
4. The Shining. Pretty good book. Excellent film. Maybe Kubrick's best? I dunno - I'm a wimp so I've always been too scared to watch it again. Same goes with most horror movies and actually most Stephen King books - they are just too scary for me I'm sorry to say. Anyway King was famously never happy with Kubrick's version so he made his own TV version in the 1990s.
3. Jaws. Every single person you ever met on public transport in the 1970s was reading this book. But those, apparently, were the good old days, now everybody on public transport is playing video games and texting and checking their bloody Facebook likes on their bloody phones. I was on a packed supertram yesterday and there wasn't a single other person on there reading a book. God help us all. Lost my train of...what was I talking...Oh yes, Jaws: strange big clunky book with bizarre mafia subplot & 70s style affairs but a lean, clever, subtle film (except, obviously, for the scene where Chief Brody gets slapped).
2. Barry Lyndon. Insufferable, long, meandering, silly, anti-Irish book, but somehow Kubrick made a minor masterpiece out of it. He does that a lot does Kubrick.The duel scenes alone are worth the price of admission...
1. Last of the Mohicans. This book is so dull that Mark Twain made hay out of mocking it 130 years ago and it has not aged particularly well since then. The Michael Mann film however is a classic especially that 8 minute long - almost silent - final sequence.
*ok technically its an autogyro

Friday, July 28, 2017

New Interview

There's a new interview with me here, on the Melbourne classical music station
3MBS. The format of the show is 1 hour of conversation and music and I get to pick 7 pieces of classical music that I particularly enjoy. I didn't want to go overboard with some of my more weirdo choices (which you might know from the Duffy books) but it does get slightly more eclectic near the end. 
I also chat about crime fiction, Belfast in the 70s and 80s and why I never became a lawyer.... Anyway, it's all here if you're interested. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Secrets She Keeps

my review of the new Michael Robotham novel in last Sunday's Weekend Australian:

West London in the present day. Two women have a chance encounter in a supermarket. They are about the same age, both pregnant, both due in early December.
Agatha works in the supermarket as a shelf stacker (the “lowest position in the place”), Meghan is a “mummy blogger” on the rise (a women’s magazine has picked her blog as one of the top five in the country).
Although they live in roughly the same part of the city, they come from different social classes and their lives are on radically different trajectories. Agatha subsists just above the poverty line in a grubby flat with few real friends and no real connection to her Jehovah’s Witness family in Leeds. The father of her baby, Hayden, is a nice but dim sailor with whom she had a one-night stand and who is back on HMS Sutherland, oblivious to her condition.
Meghan is comfortably upper middle class. Her husband, Jack, is an Irish TV sports reporter whom she met at the Beijing Olympic Games. Jack’s more famous than she is and is often recognised down the pub and handed phone numbers by young women who are”desperate to break into television”. We meet Ag­atha first and we see Meghan initially through her eyes. We distrust Agatha from the get-go. She’s not exactly a dishonest narrator but she watches Meghan with the gaze of a voyeur who has a disturbing, covetous streak.
We soon learn that Agatha is up to no good. She’s a liar and not a very good one and she may not be quite right in the head. Either that or she’s just annoyed about how unfair life is. She is impressed and irritated by the beautiful Meghan with her glamorous partner and her blog and her two kids already! Why can’t she have that life?
The Secrets She Keeps is Sydney-based Michael Robotham’s 12th novel and is as brilliant as his recent Close Your Eyes and Life or Death, which won the UK Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger award in 2015. It begins as an acute, psychologically penetrating character study before moving into hair-raising thriller territory in the second and third acts.
As you would expect of someone with Robotham’s gifts for narrative the plot unfolds with clever, ruthless efficiency, but what really impresses is his sympathetic and well-observed unpacking of the two women’s loves and lives. Both have secrets, both have made mistakes and both are trying to navigate a complex web of emotional entanglements.
Meghan is a self-aware hero who is cognisant that her life may read like a sunny cliche to her many readers but who knows that even her minor celebrity is something of a gilded cage. Agatha’s existence is not a one-note stave of gloom and misery.
People are kind to her and at one point she is offered a surprising escape out of the pit she is digging for herself via a gentle letter from her estranged mother, who wants her to leave gloomy London and come live with her in the apartment she is renting in sunny Marbella.
Unfortunately for everyone Agatha is too far gone by this stage. Her obsession with Meghan is running deep.
Robotham plays with the trope of the alter ego here: Echo and Narcissus, Isaac and Esau and Fyodor Dostoyevksy’s 1866 novel The Double where a lowly clerk encounters a facsimile of himself in a snowstorm; but this other him is everything that the clerk is not: confident, happy, successful, respected. Meghan, too, has a little of the doomed Miranda Grey in her from John Fowles’s The Collector.
Agatha ingratiates herself with Meghan by first imprisoning and then pretending to save her toddler, Lachlan, from a storage room at the supermarket. A grateful Meghan is delighted to see her when she turns up at her yoga class and the women begin an unlikely friendship. Agatha admires Meghan’s ability to
transform herself from a pony-tailed Lycra clad gym bunny into a sophisticated modern wife and mother. Next to her I feel as clumsy and frumpy as a pantomime horse.
By this stage of the novel we’ve realised something important about Agatha’s baby that explains her fixation on Meghan.
Inspired by a real-life hospital kidnap incident from the 1990s, The Secrets She Keeps is also an adroit satire on the media feeding frenzy that surrounds cases such as this. Meghan and Jack remind one of the McCanns, another Irish couple living in Britain whose child was taken from them and who have been blamed and trolled mercilessly since. This is a taut, scary and effective thriller but it’s also a sociological portrait of a society where cupidity, stupidity and fame often coalesce to make a toxic brew.
The Secrets She Keeps
By Michael Robotham
Hachette, 436pp, $32.99

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Dirty Cops

my piece from LitHub about Dirty Cops in fiction....

Everybody loves to hate a dirty cop. The idea of the corrupt or lazy policeman is a very old trope indeed - two thousand years ago Seneca was complaining about dishonest Tribunes and cohortes urbanae. Edgar Allan Poe and Fergus Hume both have choice words for indolent and/or stupid policemen. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was not always impressed by the dedication and reliability of the Metropolitan Police.
         Don Winslow’s summer hit The Force has focused renewed interest in a genre that I love. If you’re interested in stories of sleazy, venial, even murderous policemen (and, occasionally women) then you are in a luck as I’ve compiled a little primer for you of my top 10 dirty cop novels.
10. A Scanner Darkly – Philip K Dick. The weirdest novel on my list but also one of the best. Set in a dystopian Orange County (as opposed to a utopian Orange County?) Bob Arctor is an undercover police agent who is sent to spy on himself. Paranoia ensues.

9. 11th Hour - Maxine Paetro & James Patterson. When millionaire Chaz Smith is killed the very pregnant Detective Lindsay Boxer discovers that the murder weapon is linked to the killings of four San Francisco mobsters and that it was taken from her own department's evidence locker. Boxer puts her life and reputation on the life to solve the case.

8. 1977 – David Peace. Exhausted policeman Bob Fraser and burnt-out journalist Jack Whitehead investigate the Yorkshire Ripper case and discover that the West Yorkshire Police Force is a cesspit of corruption, bigotry, languor, racism, darkness and incompetence. Not exactly a lighthearted cozy from the incomparable Mr Peace.

7. Heavens May Fall – Unity Dow. Naledi Chaba is a feisty lawyer at a non-governmental organization that assists children in need in Mochudi, Botswana. She discovers institutional corruption on a societal scale when a young girl’s claims of rape are not taken seriously by the police or the judiciary.

6. The Given Day – Dennis Lehane. Lehane’s classic about the famous 1919 Boston Police Strike. Aiden "Danny" Coughlin is an Irish patrolman reluctantly sucked into going against the brass of his own department by the hardtimes of his brother officers. Luther Laurence is a black man on the run in a city where racism is as rife as any city in the American South. Bomb toting anarchists, destitute immigrants, corrupt ward bosses and cops on the take clash in the climactic revolutionary year of 1919.

5. Hard Revolution – George Pelecanos. Derek Strange, a black rookie police officer joins the Washington DC police department in 1968 just as the city is about to plunge into chaos and revolt following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Racism, the old boy network and corruption are Strange’s unenviable lot on his first weeks and months on the job. For another look at race and the terrible events of 1968 from a master of the PI novel (not quite in my purview here) try the always brilliant Walter Mosley’s Charcoal Joe.

4. The Cold Six Thousand – James Ellroy. This was a tough call. If you’re only going to have one James Ellroy on your list how can you not pick LA Confidential especially with the evil Dudley Smith lurking like a bloated spider at the center of a web of depravity? Well, for me The Cold Six Thousand is LA Confidential taken to the next level. The whole society is dirty here. From the President and the FBI director on down to CIA goon Pete Bondurant to beleaguered ex G man trying to do the right thing Ward Littell to Wayne Tedrow, Jr. a Vegas PD cop looking for the pimp who raped and murdered his wife. The Cold Six Thousand is America as a vile, unreasoning irredeemable dystopia. What’s not to love?

3. The Choirboys – Joseph Wambaugh. Everybody’s already read The Choirboys haven’t they? This is the classic novel of police corruption from the man who, with Ed McBain, virtually reinvented the modern American cop novel. Several young officers of the Wilshire Division learn quickly how things are really done in the endemically crooked Los Angeles Police Department.

2. The Force – Don Winslow. What Wambaugh and Ellroy do for LAPD Winslow does for the NYPD. There have many great dirty New York cop novels (Richard Price for one has performed sterling work in this arena) but Winslow has really done something special here by embracing police corruption as the raison d’etre of an entire segment of the police. Detective Sergeant Dennis Malone leads the Manhattan North Special Task Force, an elite unit established to combat drug gangs, organized crime and gun running. Years of undercover work and dirty deals have compromised Malone and his cohorts so that by the beginning of the book they are a well oiled thieving machine. Unfortunately for Malone the feds and Internal Affairs are looking for a sacrificial lamb to appease the punters and from then on the book is cop versus cop, cop versus DA, cop versus FBI – pretty much everything except cop versus criminals. A masterpiece of the genre.

1. The Killer Inside Me – Jim Thompson. The original and best sociopathic, sadistic, sexually depraved, serial killing, scary dirty cop. Lou Ford is an intelligent, cynical, chronically bored small town Texas deputy sheriff who uses his power to murder and pervert justice with impunity in post war Jim Crow Texas. This and Pop. 1280 (about another corrupt Texas sheriff) are the high watermarks of Thompson’s under appreciated genius.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Don Winslow's The Force

my review of the new Don Winslow in the Sydney Morning Herald...

Don Winslow’s The Force

In 1995 the crime writer James Ellroy published American Tabloid, a novel so revolutionary in its scope, narrative arc, prose style and structure that it immediately raised the bar for all other writers in the genre. Ellroy was the heavyweight champ and if you were going to compete with him you needed to produce something big, brassy and bold.

American crime fiction has thrown up many important talents in the last twenty years but perhaps only Don Winslow, Dennis Lehane and Richard Price possess the requisite skills to get into the ring and challenge Ellroy.

The Power of The Dog (2005) was the book that established Winslow’s brilliance beyond a reasonable doubt for we crime geeks, but it took until 2015’s The Cartel for the rest of the world to catch up. The Cartel won the Dagger Award, was the subject of a lengthy review article in The New Yorker, became an international best seller and was optioned for the movies by Ridley Scott.

Dog and Cartel were two long novels about how America’s war on drugs corrupts everyone and everything. Winslow’s new book The Force is an epic crime novel about a corrupt cop and his crew in contemporary New York.

Detective Sergeant Dennis Malone leads the Manhattan North Special Task Force, an elite unit established to combat drug gangs, organised crime and gun running. Years of undercover work and dirty deals have compromised Malone and his cohorts so that by the beginning of the book they are a well oiled thieving machine. Skimming from dealers is the normal operating procedure for a crew who manage to put enough of the bad guys behind bars to keep the heat off. Malone’s corruption is entirely believable as Winslow’s novel draws on several real life cases, particularly that of Detective Michael Dowd in the notoriously dirty Seven Five precinct.

Of course all good things must come to an end and when Malone kills a drug kingpin and hubristically lifts $4 million and 20 kilos of heroin from the scene of a major drug bust he draws the attention of not just Internal Affairs but also the hated Feds.

Malone is told that they will put him away for a long time unless he cooperates and helps them take down the bigger players. This is the second act turn we as readers are hoping for and I really enjoyed this look into the rules and mores of what a cop will and won’t do to his brother officers. You can rat on a dirty district attorney or a crooked politician but as Frank Serpico discovered more than three decades ago ratting on a brother cop takes you into a really complicated moral maze. Especially in a New York Police Department still in recovery mode from the long lasting psychic damage of 9/11.

One of the most interesting aspects of The Force is its geography. New York’s Upper West Side is cozily familiar to viewers of Law & Order and in the Marvel Cinematic Universe Midtown Manhattan has been the setting for so many Gotterdamerungs with gods, aliens and killer robots that probably every teenage boy on Earth can navigate his way blindfold through Times Square. White New York is a cliché and Winslow is shrewd enough to realise this, so he takes us north into the old Chester Himes territory of Harlem, Washington Heights and Jackson Heights. In the wealthy, gentrified Manhattan of 2017 there is still an invisible line that runs across the island through 125th Street. North of the line is where the action is.

The Force therefore has an original setting, a fascinating lead character and a tense and exciting third act. It’s a brilliant, big, messy, ambitious blockbuster of a book and exactly the kind of thing that American crime writers should be doing if they want to knock Mr Ellroy out of the ring. A+