Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book Review: The Levanter, by Eric Ambler

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Change a few details and Eric Ambler's thriller The Levanter published over 40 years ago in 1972 could well have been written today. The story, set in Syria in 1970 with most of the Middle-East still in turmoil less than 30 years after the creation of the state of Israel, deals with a Cypriot business man who gets himself caught up in a terrorist plot hatched by a Palestinian splinter group--the kind of terrorist plot that might well be keeping the 24 hour news channels as busy, if not busier than an oil field raid and hostage taking. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Once again Ambler builds on his patented plot device where an ordinary citizen finds himself thrust into a cloak and dagger world where spies, terrorists and agents, secret and otherwise, ply their trade, a world very much outside his normal experience. As early as Ambler's very first venture in the genre, The Dark Frontier, when he had used the device to parody the thriller genre, Ambler had been enamored with the possibilities created by the idea of the novice in danger. By the time he gets to The Levanter, some 14 novels into his career, it is a device he has perfected. Essentially, it gives the reader a protagonist with whom he can identify, even as there is some reasonable question about his ability to handle the situation. The superhuman heroes like James Bond and Jack Reacher may inspire wish fulfillment, but there is rarely any question about their success. The more realistic protagonist lends the narrative his realism and creates greater suspense about the possible outcome.

Michael Howell has been effectively running a variety of family businesses based in Syria, but reaching throughout the Levant, the Middle East. He is well versed in the baroque bureaucratic chicanery necessary to conducting business. He understands the practicalities of the situation. He knows which palms to grease, which egos to pump. In other words he knows how to get things done. One evening, after his office manager and mistress Teresa reports some questionable purchases at one of his enterprises, he discovers that his factory is being surreptitiously used by members of the Palestinian Action Force to produce detonators to be used in a bombing raid in Israel. To his horror, not only does he find himself unable to stop them, but he finds himself and Teresa forced to join with the terrorists, and use his business acumen to move their plot forward.

In a fast moving first person narrative, mostly from Howell attempting to explain and   justify his actions, but also from an outside journalist and one section from Teresa to lend some further credibility to his story, Ambler manages to keep up the kind of infectious excitement that gets readers joyfully turning pages. Interestingly, sex is nearly absent from the story, and violence is minimal. There are lessons here for the modern thriller writer. Suspense is possible without pages of gore. The threat of violence left to the imagination is often more terrifying than its literal description.

Readers familiar with the work of Ambler will welcome The Levanter's new release in the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard series, as they would welcome an old friend. Readers unfamiliar with his work will find it an opportunity to meet with one of the truly great masters of the thriller genre.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Music Review: Patti LuPone - Far Away Places.

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Who better to headline the opening of 54 Below, a new night club adjacent to the heart of Manhattan's theater district, than perhaps the reigning Broadway diva, Patti LuPone? What better way to inaugurate a new series of recordings of live cabaret shows that with that diva's performance? No better way, given the critical reaction to the LuPone show, no better way by a long shot. Fans will get their chance to hear the set on January 15th when Broadway Records releases the debut disc in their "Live at 54 Below" series, Patti LuPone's Far Away Places..

From the moment LuPone opens her mouth, she has her audience in thrall. These are people, friends and fans, who know what she's selling and can't wait to buy. Their excitement is palpable and she feeds on it. It is an excitement that comes through even on the CD.

Wanderlust is the theme of the evening, as the singer takes the audience on a journey over water to far away places, interspersed with the kind of clever banter you've come to expect from a cabaret performer. While the clever jokes can get old with the repeated play the album is likely to generate, whether she is talking about her talent for accents or even her Sicilian heritage, they are certainly entertaining enough in the moment.

Still no one is going to buy the CD for the incidental comedy. The music is the thing, and the music can be 'fabulous.' She opens by setting the theme with "Gypsy in My Soul" and follows with a swinging jazzy take on Willie Nelson's "Night Life" in which she redundantly introduces herself and welcomes her audience. The first of four Kurt Weill tunes, "Bilbao Song" is next. According to the liner notes, LuPone was especially keen on performing Weill and her versions of "Bilbao" and later "Pirate Jenny” are among the evening's highlights. Somewhat surprisingly, she ends the show with "September Song" in spite of its opening lines.

Variety is the key to the set list. There as atmospheric, smoky "I Cover the Waterfront," a bluesy "Traveling Light," and a sprawling disco attack on the Bee Gee's "Nights on Broadway." There is a playfully cheeky version of "By the Sea," from Sweeny Todd and a dramatically stylish performance of Edith Piaf's "Hymn to Love." She does some jazzy phrasing on "I Wanna Be Around" before turning in a comic direction. Cole Porter's "Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking" takes her on a romp all over the musical world, ending in an homage to "New York, New York." A sweetly yearning treatment of the album's title song "Far Away Places" and an exotic version of Friedrich Hollaender's "Black Market" that will make you forget Marlene Dietrich round out the album.

Accompanying LuPone are Antony Geralis (accordion and keyboards), Larry Saltzman (guitar and banjo), Andy Stein (violin and saxophone) and Paul Pizzuti (drums and percussion). Music director and arranger Joseph Thalken plays piano and helps with vocals.