Thursday, 17 April 2014

Paul Mendelson Interview

Having had the pleasure of reading The First Rule of Survival, the debut novel by Paul Mendelson before its UK paperback release on Thursday 17th April; I contacted the novelist on twitter @MendelPS and he was happy to answer some questions for me via email.  To Mr. Mendelson I am eternally grateful for his time and to read my review of the novel, please follow the link here.
 The First Rule of Survival
- What was the gestation of The First Rule of Survival?

From a really early age, I have always written stories - my study's drawers are filled with unpublishable novels - and, about four years ago, I decided to write an adventure story set in Cape Town, in the style of the early James Bond books. I loved doing it and the few friends to whom I showed it were very keen that it should be published. A couple of literary experts said that they liked the writing, but that the story was not quite right for publication, and they persuaded me to write something more serious. 

- Have you always wanted to write a work of fiction?

My writing career started off at the National Theatre when, being in the right place at just the right moment, I was lucky enough to have a one act play produced. "You're Quite Safe With Me" attracted quite a lot of publicity as, at the age of 21, I was the youngest playwright to be performed there. From that, I got a literary agent, and found myself working on scripts for TV series like "The Bill" and "Moon and Son". That kind of writing didn't agree with me, and I moved away from fiction into writing non-fiction on mind-sports such as bridge, poker and casino gaming, as well as a weekly column for the FT and feature articles for magazines and newspapers elsewhere in the world. All this time, short stories, novels and other fiction has been spouting from my pen/keyboard - but just for fun. Now, it seems, the fun is over...

- Born and bred in London, what is the appeal and attraction of South Africa for you?

I was invited to Cape Town just as negotiations for Nelson Mandela's release were coming to fruition. I stayed with a family deeply involved in anti-apartheid politics and spent much time with politicians and campaigners. I fell in love with this large family and the city of Cape Town, which I thought was one of the most interesting and beautiful places on the planet. I have been visiting pretty much every year since. It's my spiritual home now.

- How much research was required into the SAPS and politics of the country?

Without being at all party political, I have always been fascinated by politics and particularly the formation of a new constitution in South Africa. The transformation from the years of hideous oppression to one of the most forward-thinking constitutions in the world was an extraordinary achievement. Several of my friends there had 
friends in the SAPS, so it was wonderful to be able to get opinions from different officers about crime and the institution of the SAPS itself.

- What are your influences? Which thriller/crime writers do you admire?

James Elroy is my ultimate inspiration. His early work is incredibly raw and immersive in the culture of America in the 1950s and 60s, and I marvel at the simplicity of his language and the power of the images he creates. Then, his more recent work incorporates a series of fascinating (if quite repellant and amoral) characters weaved into American history from the time of JFK to more modern times. In this later work, his use of language is amazing - a contemporary form of poetry; the speech rhythms and the breadth of story-telling awe-inspiring.
Other writers who I think are fantastic would include Deon Meyer - in my view South Africa's pre-emininent thriller writer - whose books impress me more than I can say; Michael Connelly's early Bosch novels; Robert Crais' seemingly effortless prose-style and sharp wit, and Mark Billingham's gritty and truly frightening London crime stories.

- How long did it take to write with redraft and edits?

Because I was writing it more for my own pleasure than with an eye on publication, I took my time and the whole novel took perhaps two years to come together. Then, it required substantial cutting as it was way too long, but with excellent editors - Krystyna Green and Martin Fletcher - it wasn't too painful. There were, basically, no re-drafts, just one or two short extra passages recommended to me for clarification. Then, almost a year's wait until publication.

- Vaughan de Vries is a magnetic personality, will we be seeing more of him?

Thank you for saying so. I wanted to try to create a character who, like everybody else, is far from perfect, but with a strong moral compass (whether you agree with his moral code is another matter). In the SAPS now, if you are a senior white police officer, you certainly have to be determined to find your way through the layers of positive discrimination and general life-sapping bureaucracy, to do any work. This is what De Vries strives for.  And, yes. De Vries is back in the sequel which, as I write this, is sitting on my desktop, 98% completed, and hopefully will see the light of day next year.

- You write books on card games also, was it always an intention to write a work of fiction to show another string to your bow. Myself, I have many interests as my blog can show, so find it hard to focus on one specific category. Is that a cause for concern or just another challenge?

Your blog's subject matter is certainly diverse and, these days, it seems rather old-fashioned just to be interested in just one or two things - everything is happening so fast. My brain is split into two defined parts: the creative and the logical/arithmetic.  I have written 12 books on various mind-sports and I still earn my living teaching and writing about bridge and poker, probabilities and strategies for casino gaming and other odds-based activities. I've done this for thirty years and the creative side of my brain is definitely telling me that it is about time the logical side backed off and let the creative side have free rein so, all being well, there will be a little less bridge and poker work, and more fiction writing because, really, this is what I love. I guess like other artists (I use the term generously in my case) you have to suffer for your art and, earning your living doing other things, is what most writers have to do these days.

- What are you working on currently?

Having just finished the sequel to "The First Rule of Survival", I am already at work on ideas for my third book. I have plans for more De Vries mysteries, but also a slightly skewed version of a detective story set in the UK. I can't decide quite with which to move forward yet. I guess it will depend on whether Vaughn de Vries captures the imagination of enough readers to warrant his return. personally, I hope so.
Follow me on twitter @JamieGarwood

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Ultimate Warrior

Only four days after he was inducted into his rightful place in the WWE Hall of Fame on a Saturday evening, news broke of the death of James Hellwig, the Ultimate a Warrior at the age of 54. Whilst the cause of death was not reported, his use of stimulants during his initial run of WWE will no doubt have a factor.

Considering the number of appearances he had made over the weekend, and his presence on the Wrestlemania XXX pay per view and the live Monday Night Raw telecast, it makes the sudden death all the more shocking and saddening.

Along which the death of Macho Man Randy Savage last year, the work of wrestling has lost two of its biggest and recognisable icons; and while their deaths are not comparable to those of Owen Hart, Eddie Guerrero and even, Chris Benoit where we lost those superstars during their prime.  The death of the Warrior is all the more prophetic as their was a lot of talk about legacy over the weekend.

Legacy is important to the WWE - their new tag line being 'Then, Now, Forever' - and three superstars talked about their legacy over the pay per view.  John Cena said he was fighting Bray Wyatt for his legacy after 12 years of competing. And in the match between Undertaker and Brock Lesnar, two legacies were effected.  Brock Lesnar's is enhanced by becoming the only man to defeat the Phenom at the Show of the Immortals, and the Undertaker chose his last match to be that of a defeat.

The Ultimate Warrior was one of the WWE's biggest stars during the late 1980s and early 1990s due to his physical presence, high intensity and hysterical microphone promotions.  He was much mimicked but equally adored.  Warrior was larger than life in every sense of the word, it is a shame at the stimulants that helped him become larger is the item attributable to his unfortunate death.

Whilst Warrior will never be recognised as the greatest technician in wrestling history, his style nonetheless transcended, you need only look at he fan reaction when he won his first Intercontinental title against the Honky Tonk Man at Summerslam 1988; the crowd erupts in rapture.

He was engaged with some great matches, two that come to mind are the Intercontinental title match versus Rick Rude at Summerslam 1989 and the Career Ending match versus Randy Savage at Wrestlemania VII.  Two matches where two better wrestlers carried Warrior to create good chemistry.

For me though I am glad that the Ultimate Warrior was allowed to make peace with the WWE and Vince McMahon, have one more moment in the spotlight to add to his legacy and hopefully he passed

I Am Pilgrim

I Am Pilgrim is unlike any action book you have read. It is unlike any espionage book you have read. It is unlike any thriller you have read. It is unlike any book you have ever read before.

Terry Hayes, a renowned movie screenwriter of such works as Mad Max/The Road Warrior  (which he co-wrote) with George Miller, releases his first novel from Transworld Publishers. It tells the story of Scott Murdoch, the best special agent in the history of the CIA, the former 'Rider of the Blue' the man who stepped back from espionage work to write a book about committing the perfect crime, which leads to help being re-enlisted to he front line, and attempt to stop a smallpox being released in America by a terrorist.

We think his name is Scott Murdoch, he goes by three different identities during the book's narrative and numerous flashbacks. That is the beauty of this mammoth book of nearly 900 pages, Hayes allows himself the time to tell the story and yet he writes with such a clear and precise purpose that the book rocks along like a Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code which covers as much in half the pages.

The jet-setting narrative and location jumping will make people think of the Brown novels where protagonists jump on planes as quickly as they change trousers, however, Hayes is of a more intelligent ilk and every movement of Pilgrim is necessary to track down the man who wants to destroy America.

The book starts in New York, with a murder in the Eastside Inn with Murdoch meeting his colleague Ben Bradley. The murder is reminiscent of motives put in Murdoch's book under the pseudonym of Jude Garrett, which leads to the globe-trotting. We follow the terrorist from Iran to Pakistan to Afghanistan to Lebanon.  Pilgrim travels from America to Turkey with diversions to Bulgaria, Germany, Milan and Saudi Arabia and back to the climax in Turkey.

However, Hayes loves his characters and wants you to understand them, hence the extensive flashbacks of the back story for all including a clear explanation for the terrorist's actions; the extensive look back at how he obtains the deadly pox strain is brilliantly executed.

Another thrilling sequence is when Ben Bradley tracks down Murdoch in Paris.  It is important that the flashbacks are extensive and not indulgent; the fact being that little morsels of detailed information are implanted within them to maintain your attention as a diligent reader.

The reader is rewarded with great chases, shoot-outs, mind games and the tension reminiscent of a Tom Clancy novel, it is fitting that this novel is released a year within of Mr. Clancy's passing as this is the novel a red-hot Clancy might well have written in his day and age.

Terry Hayes has succeeded in writing what will become a milestone piece of action espionage writing, a game changer in the same vein of John le Carre, Lee Child and Frederick Forsyth's Day of the Jackal - writers that Hayes indebted to.

By writing a book of such girth where not a page is wasted and not enjoyed, it might make other writers take note that in this day and age of immediacy and quickness; if the novel is executed well there is still a place for the 900 pages of thriller writing.

I Am Pilgrim is released on paperback on May 8th from Bantam Press/Transworld Publishers

Monday, 7 April 2014

The First Rule of Survival

The First Rule of Survival

South Africa in recent times has become a melting pot of crime and misdemeanour due to the high profile murder trial of Oscar Pistorius and the ongoing extradition case of Shrien Dewani, who killed his wife Anni on honeymoon in the country during November 2010.

Using first hand knowledge of the country he visits frequently, journalist Paul Mendelson releases his first novel, The First Rule of Survival.  It tells the story of Vaughan De Vries, a policeman in the a Western Cape who is on the case of three young boys who were abducted and been missing for seven years.  De Vries and his colleagues have all been haunted by the case.  Cleverly, Mendelson employs a dual narrative technique of showing us the cops during the present date and flash backing to the original abductions in 2007 so we see the anguish of investigating a case that may not garner positive results.

Child abductions have featured frequently in literature from Alice Seebald's The Lovely Bones to Dennis Lehane's brilliant Mystic River. Whilst the hysteria of those Bostonian characters are not reached in Mendelson's novel, he nevertheless does have in De Vries that typical male police officer.  A man who is persistent and determined to exorcise the demons of being so wrong years ago, if you saw the film Prisoners, Jake Gyllenhaal's detective Loki you may recall that sort of determination which is familiar in the depiction of De Vries.

After one particular ordeal, a colleague asks De Vries how does he live if you have he ghosts of every victim in your head? His answer encapsulates the character

'Why do you think I get up every morning? I have a bond with every victim I encounter. If I don't know my victim, if I don't understand them as if they were my friend in real life, how can I hope to unravel who killed them and why?

Whilst I may be referring to too many American references in my review, it should be noted that they are instrumental in the finished novel.  Whilst Mendelson does well in establishing the world of Cape Town helped by his first hand knowledge, too often this reader felt he could have been reading any American crime novel due to the dialogue used and the office politics so frequently referred to.  Too infrequently, there is not enough South African dialect or vocabulary used in the dialogue.  The odd 'Ja!' is used for impact but if it were not for the well honed descriptive writing of space and landscape by the author, other readers would be confused as to which country they are in.

However, you do not want to offer too much of a disservice to the book which is quite gripping especially at times such as when De Vries goes underground and finds the body of one of the missing young boys in a freezer but the atmosphere that Mendelson invokes as De Vries wanders around in near darkness is expertly rendered.

While the dialogue does not zip along like a Lee Child novel (a writer who has given his personal validation to the novel), Mendelson should be pleased with the construction and execution of a lead character whom this reader would like to encounter again in future works.

The First Rule of Survival is out on paperback on Thursday 17th April but available on kindle now from now

Friday, 4 April 2014

Negative tactics in Champions League


Two supposed super-powers of Europe faced daunting first legs away from home in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Both would have hoped for better results, yet neither were helped by their negative selections in personnel and tactics which invited the home sides to prosper.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, the tie between Manchester United and reigning European champions, Bayern Munich was settled by Pep Guardiola's decison to not play an out and out striker, and instead select Thomas Muller upfront in a false nine role with ball handlers behind in an attempt to pass around Manchester United and eventually breakdown the United defence.

The improved defensive display by United was due to the fact that Munich did not play to the weakness of either Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, which is pace that scares them. Whilst Bayern had all the possession, United took the lead and it was only the introduction of Mandzukic that supplied Bayern with the impetus to score their equaliser.

Bayern have a vital away goal, and on paper should progess to the semi-finals due to their formidable home form, yet that is in domestic competitions. The last time they faced an English side in a knockout fixture at home, they lost 2-0 to Arsenal but thanks to a 3-1 first leg victory went through on away goals.

Chelsea also scored an away goal, however due to some inept goalkeeping and defending, they conspired to concede three goals to a Paris St-Germain team that were flattered by the 3-1 scoreline.  Chelsea also started the match without a recognised striker on the field, with Andre Schurrle leading the line yet the Schurrle's best form this season has come from the right wing and inside to the field; his hat-trick at Fulham can attest to that.

So why did Jose Mourinho not start either Fernando Torres or Demba Ba? Mourinho would have started Samuel Eto'o had he been fit, as the Cameroonian can lead the line well, timing runs and press up the field.  Schurrle was meant to press from the front yet could not forcing Oscar, Wilian and Eden Hazard to do more work in midfield.

Mourinho has clearly lost faith in Torres whose two year malaise is seemingly never-ending and Ba has shown little of the form that warranted a move from Newcastle to West London. Tellingly, Chelsea had little of the ball in the final third and their away goal came from a penalty converted by Hazard. 

Whilst the deficit of 3-1 is not insurmountable, as the victory over Napoli in the Champions League triumph of 2012 can attest to, Chelsea have certainly made the task more of an uphill challenge for themselves. 

Yet why such negativity, such attempts are trying to avoid the worst case scenario and invites the home team to gain momentum.  United could have had two goals before Vidic's set piece header and been 3-0 up.  Last season, Borussia Dortmund demolished Real Madrid in the first leg at home and winning the tie seemingly.

The old adage of having the second leg at home, is possibly a myth. You cannot be eliminated after the first leg, but the tie could well be over.  Chelsea will hope their pedigree will hold them in good stead nonetheless.

Follow me @JamieGarwood

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

How Moyes/ManU just might

David Moyes and Manchester United outdid themselves and surprised many by drawing with current Champions League holders, Bayern Munich at Old Trafford in the first leg of their quarter-final.

Bastien Schweinsteiger cancelled out Nemanja Vidic's opener to keep the tie even going back to Munich next Wednesday. Whilst the tie is even, Munich are in the ascendancy due to the vital away goal, Man United did enough to suggest they can compete and make it hard work for Munich to become the first team to retain the Champions League.

Pep Guardiola sent out a Bayern side without an out and out striker a la his false nine at Barcelona, spearheaded by Thomas Müller with more midfield luminaries; Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Toni Kroos, Schweinsteiger and Philip Lahm.  All horizontal passing and possession, led to little chances as the United defence of Vidic and Rio Ferdinand stood firm.

What Guardiola ignored or failed to realise was that the gameplan of keeping the game in front of the defence plays into the hands of stalwarts like the United central defence pairing.  Guardiola feels that possession is nine tenths of the game, if you have the ball you win.  Yet United's weakness and especially those of an ageing Rio and Vidic has been exposed by pace as Fernando Torres and Daniel Sturridge can attest to.  Play counter-attack at pace with zip and you have United chasing shadows, Moyes had the benefit of playing Phil Jones at right back to give some more stability and insurance.

Moyes made a reputation of making his sides difficult to defeat and break down at Everton, and knowing that he was facing a formidable opponent he had to rock their boat and make them work for it.  The plan was to probably score one goal and stop Bayern scoring that away goal. Guardiola's personnel selection played into Moyes' hands, yet it is telling that once he injected Mario Mandzukic into the match Bayern created more clear cut chances eventually leading to the equaliser.

Man United did create chances especially Danny Welbeck whose pace frightened the make shift Javier Martinez in defence (Martinez is suspended for the second leg), yet Welbeck could not convert a one on one with Neuer.  Yet United scored a goal from that most English of archetypes, the set piece. A great corner delivery from Wayne Rooney was met by Vidic who cleverly diverted to the net helped by the absence of any defenders on the post in a redundant zonal marking system.

This provides the hope for United in the second leg will be to get that away goal that they will vitally need to progress to the semi-final.

The other morsel of hope is that Bayern Munich have this tendency to freeze at home in the Bayer Arena especially against English sides. They have not won the last four games at home to an English side starting with the final defeat to Chelsea three years ago, then the 2-0 home defeat to Arsenal, 2-3 versus Manchester City (which they led 2-0) and they drew 1-1 with Arsenal in the last round.

Do Bayern freeze at home or do the robustness of English sides disrupt their tempo? After starting Marouane Fellaini in midfield, Moyes need that injection of creativity offered by Shinji Kagawa to create chances for Welbeck and Rooney, he will also hope the injury that caused Antonio Valencia is not serious for him to miss out.  Kagawa was influential in the 5-0 away demolition of Leverkusen in the group stage.

David Moyes and Manchester United surprised many by not being embarrassed, now they have a real opportunity to cause a major surprise in Munich next Wednesday.

Monday, 31 March 2014

White Dog

In continuation of their fine Masters of Cinema series, Eureka Video is releasing Samuel Fuller's forgotten controversial title White Dog on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 31st March.

Fuller's film from 1980 tells the story of a white dog who when taken in by a would-be Hollywood starlet Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol) after hitting him one night, realises that her new best friend only seems to like people of a certain skin colour.  The dog is called a white dog (despite its white Alsatian breeding) because it has been trained to bark, sneer and even kill black people.

Julie takes the dog to a specialist trainer called Keys (Paul Winfield), himself a black man who attempts to train the racism out of the dog through aversion therapy and feeding it hamburgers from his black hand.

There are obstacles as with any psychological evaluation, one jail break from the dog one night results in him chasing a black man and killing him in a church.  The symbolism was never lost on Fuller.  Yet we never see the full bloody gore of the attack, the barking and biting is all done in the edit, and Winfield conveys the full horror of the assault through his look alone.  Fuller holds on Keys when he comes across the body in the church and in a long take, allows Winfield to show us the horror in his eyes.

Winfield a stalwart of American prime-time television throughout the 1980s and 90s was one of those amazing well-spoken black actors of this era along with James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams and Carl Weathers; all men of integrity and intelligence without resorting to physical domination in mark contrast to say Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.

Fuller who wrote the screenplay with a young Curtis Hanson (LA Confidential), made a taut and tight thriller that is small on exposition but helped by a stellar cast who do a lot with limited roles and create a world of fear and the unknown due to the odd nature of the canine attacker.

The film was vilified upon completion and not granted a release due to the supposed sensationalist nature of the material and a NAACP fear that the film would stoke up racist violence and allow racists to train racist dogs.  The film was essentially shelved and following the upheaval surrounding the two and four hour cuts of his World War Two opus The Big Red One (1980), Fuller was all but done in Hollywood.

The film is not racist but instead an exploration of the creation of racism and the handling of it.  The story is about a white girl who seeks help from a black man.  Told with the thrilling use of close-ups on McNichol to convey her fear and worry, and editing expertly to convey the rage within the white dog of the title.

Ripe for a re-appraisal from one of the unheralded masters of American cinema, White Dog is a brilliant evocation of racism and psychology dealt with intelligence and finesse.

White Dog is out on Blu-Ray and DVD from Eureka Video on Monday 31st March

Watch a trailer of White Dog here