The Final Curtain

Murder in Minnesota with a Shakespearean twist kicks off Joan Smith’s round-up

Sunday Times, 12 March 2017

Lady Macbeth has always had a bad press. In The Last Act of Hattie Hoffmann (Quercus £12.99) by Mindy Mejia, the actress playing the role in a high school production is found stabbed to death on the opening night. Mejia lives in Minnesota and the victim appears to be a typical teenager from the mid-west, brought up on a farm with loving parents and a brother serving in Afghanistan. But someone hated her enough to mutilate her face in a fit of intemperate rage.

The local sheriff is a friend of Hattie’s father and he has known her from birth. But he discovers that she was a gifted actress in her own life, playing different roles with her best friend, boyfriend and a married lover who immediately becomes a suspect. The links with Lady Macbeth are obvious and Mejia exploits conventional ideas about female manipulation, only to challenge them as the novel unfolds. This is a haunting piece of fiction, full of characters whose self-obsession leads directly to tragedy.

Samuel Bjork’s first novel, I’m Travelling Alone, was a runaway success. His second, The Owl Always Hunts At Night (Doubleday £14.99), translated by Charlotte Barslund, features the same close-knit squad of detectives based in Oslo. It begins with the ritual murder of a 17-year-old girl whose body, half-starved and surrounded by feathers, is found in a forest after disappearing from an institution for troubled teenagers. The only thing in her stomach is animal feed, a detail that eventually links the murder to a ring of voyeurs. Two books into this stark but compelling series, Bjork’s trademark themes are the lethal intersection of technology with child abuse and misogyny.

Summary Justice (Little, Brown £16.99) is an all-action court drama by John Fairfax, who will be better known to readers of crime fiction under his real name, William Brodrick. He has adopted the pseudonym for a novel featuring a newly-qualified barrister, William Benson, who also happens to be a convicted murderer. Benson protested his innocence and used his time in prison to read for the bar, but now he’s out and no one will help him with his first case. It’s a murder trial, due to start in four days, and it looks hopeless until a solicitor who saw him convicted at the Old Bailey offers to help. This is the first novel in a series and it takes time to set up Benson’s history, but once the trial gets going it really takes off.

Rob McCarthy’s terrific second novel, A Handful of Ashes (Mulholland Books £14.99) marks a second outing for his amateur detective, Dr Harry Kent, a medical examiner for the police. McCarthy is a medical student, providing invaluable background for Kent’s job, and the book’s highly topical subject is whistleblowing. It starts with a routine call-out to the apparent suicide of a junior doctor who has been suspended after raising concerns about a well-known heart surgeon. Kent quickly realises that the death has been staged, plunging him into an explosive confrontation between grieving relatives and the medical establishment.

 

Screen Surrender

Literary Review, March 2017

Irresistible: Why we can’t stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching

Adam Alter, Bodley Head £18.99

When I was a child, I had a number of relatives who kept the TV on all the time, turning down the sound with obvious reluctance whenever we came to visit. Conversation was conducted with furtive glances towards the flickering screen, as though we couldn’t possibly be as interesting as what was displayed on it. There is nothing new about a preference for the latest technology, as it then was, over interaction with actual human beings.

What has changed is the sheer diversity of technology and the speed with which it is updated, creating the (apparently) irresistible temptations cited in Adam Alter’s book. Home computers, smartphones, virtual reality devices: we are already, in only the second decade of the 21st century, inhabiting a world which would have looked like science-fiction not so long ago.

I rarely watch TV and I’m not on Facebook but I do have a smartphone. When I began reading Alter’s book, I wondered whether I might be spending too much time checking emails and Twitter, but an ‘Internet Addiction Test’ in the first chapter established that I’ve nothing to worry about. Most of his advice for avoiding over-use, such as keeping smartphones at a physical distance some of the time, had already occurred to me.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the dystopian world that Alter opens out in the book. It is packed with individuals who spend entire days playing computer games, wasting money on gambling sites and fretting about how many ‘likes’ they have on Facebook. Alter doesn’t mention the 45th President of the United States but Donald Trump is a striking example of someone who is unable to stop posting score-settling tweets in the early hours. Sad!

Alter’s book is about behavioural addictions rather than the more familiar substance addictions. He is an associate professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University but he writes in an engaging journalistic style, using interviews and academic research to demonstrate the amount of time people spend online. Some of the results don’t seem that surprising: users of an app designed to track smartphone usage discovered that they were spending between one and four hours a day on their phones, for instance.

A much bigger piece of work, in which a group of researchers at the University of Southern California reviewed dozens of studies, came up with an estimate that 41 per cent of the population had suffered from at least one behavioural addiction in the past 12 months. Their definition was very broad, including addictions to gambling, love, sex, shopping, exercise and work as well as the Internet. So was their list of negative consequences, which ranged from damage to relationships to ‘involvement in dangerous situations, physical injury and impairment, financial loss, or emotional trauma’.

I was still digesting this claim and trying to square it with my own experience when I came upon another study, this time suggesting that ‘up to 40 percent of the population suffers from some form of Internet-based addiction, whether to email, gaming, or porn.’ That’s pretty alarming, on the face of it, and it sent me scurrying to the notes at the back of the book. The figure actually appears to derive from a study of the impact of ‘problematic Internet use’ by a group of American students on family relationships, which may not tell us much about the behaviour of the wider population.

There is no doubt that Alter’s speaks to a widely-shared anxiety about the impact of technology on human beings. At the same time, one of the biggest problems created by the Internet is mentioned only in passing in Alter’s book. Women’s organisations and children’s charities are hugely worried about the effects on adolescent boys of viewing violent and degrading porn on their smartphones, skewing their expectations of relationships. This is sometimes described (not by Alter) as an addiction, an approach I find deeply troubling. Watching videos of women being beaten and raped is a choice, and one that deliberately ignores the pain that is inflicted on victims, many of whom have been trafficked or otherwise coerced.

He does write about World of Warcraft, an online role-playing game which he describes as ‘one of the most addictive behavioral experiences on the planet’, but he doesn’t mention its citation at a notorious murder trial. Anders Breivik, the right-wing extremist who murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011, spent virtually an entire year playing it. Most players of computer games don’t become mass killers but it is a vivid example of the complicated (and notoriously difficult to unpick) relationship between online behaviour and real life.

I would have liked this book more, I think, if it looked beyond the impact of behavioural addiction on individuals. Vast generalisations such as the one at the end of the book – ‘half of the developed world is addicted to something, and for most people that something is a behavior’ – demand social and political context. I’m not convinced by the claim, but let’s say for a moment I’m wrong. Why, then, isn’t Alter isn’t curious about the impact of all this mind-numbing activity on our critical faculties, the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and the rise of mendacious politicians like Trump?

Hats off to Justin Trudeau, the only world leader able to strip off with dignity

Canada’s prime minister has managed to succeed where Cameron, Blair and Putin have all failed: a bare-chested snap that prompts neither horror nor hilarity

The Guardian, Thursday 2 March 2017

Oh go on then, if you insist. There aren’t many world leaders I could bear to look at without a shirt and I suppose the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, is near the top of the list. Pictures of a young Trudeau, leaning against a window sill with curly hair and dark glasses, are claimed to have “broken the internet”, which is what we say now when a lot of people all look at the same thing.

Trudeau looks a bit like Jim Morrison, whom older readers will remember as the tragically good-looking lead singer of the Doors. Despite sharing a first name and initials with another singer, Justin Timberlake, Trudeau has sensibly avoided the competitive world of showbiz and opted for the safer milieu of politics. It is part of his job to meet other world leaders, most of them men, and even with his shirt on he outshines just about every bloke he shares a stage with.

Trudeau prompts these swooning reactions because he’s operating in a limited field. I’ve never liked the line that politics is showbiz for ugly people, but beauty (especially male beauty) isn’t the first thing most of us look for in a potential leader. That doesn’t mean male politicians aren’t sometimes preposterously vain, a proposition demonstrated every single time I look at Donald Trump’s hair, but they aren’t used to being judged on their appearance in the way women are.

When Theresa May launched her bid to lead the Conservative party and then became prime minister last summer, she gave the impression that she’d planned every public appearance down to the last detail. She’s been around long enough to know that it’s childishly easy to distract supposedly serious political commentators with a pair of faux leopard-skin shoes.

Male politicians have to do something more dramatic to break the internet and few have the confidence – or the gall – to attempt it. I suspect it comes naturally to Trudeau, who is strikingly at ease with his own body: he accidentally photo-bombed a beach wedding in Canada last year when he strode past in a rolled-down wetsuit. It is undeniably a form of display and carries risks, even for someone as confident as Trudeau, because being looked at is traditionally associated with femininity.

It didn’t do David Cameron a lot of favours when he appeared bare-chested on a beach in Cornwall in 2013, looking overweight and uncomfortably red from his time in the sun. But upper-middle-class men aren’t brought up to parade their masculinity, which is entwined with ideas of restraint honed by generations of military forebears. The then prime minister looked a great deal more relaxed posing with a pint in his hand, and his shirt back on, later that day.

Cameron and his predecessor, Tony Blair, were both mocked for having “man boobs”, an unpleasant neologism that confirms the link between displaying the male body and feminisation. I don’t suppose either of them enjoyed the scrutiny or the sarcastic comments, which would have been unimaginable half a century ago. We live in a much less deferential age these days, which is no bad thing, but the line between fame and celebrity is blurred. Few world leaders aspire to the status of heart-throb but Trudeau, deliberately or otherwise, appears to have it.

One of the reasons he gets away with taking his shirt off, I suspect, is that it doesn’t feel as though he’s trying to prove something. The same cannot be said of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, whose stripped-to-the-waist appearances always take place in the context of rugged, masculine, outdoor activities. Putin usually shows off his bare chest while standing in a river, preparing to do battle with a monster fish, or balancing on the back of a stallion. It causes hilarity everywhere but Russia, where the president’s hyper-masculinity feels like a response to the country’s loss of empire and prestige.

In the last few months Washington has become a lot more macho, dominated by a group of golf-playing business cronies in their 60s and 70s who hanker for the days when men were men and it was acceptable to talk about “pussy”. It’s impossible to imagine Trudeau doing that, and I suspect that his version of masculinity – cool, modern, metrosexual – will prove more enduring in the end.

Trump’s fragile male ego craves the drug of adulation

The president’s hyped-up behaviour at his Florida rally was an alarming display of his neediness. Maybe he should have his own theme park

The Guardian, Monday 20 March 2017

Therapy has never been so expensive. At the weekend, it cost American taxpayers millions of dollars to fly Donald Trump down to Florida so he could hold a session with thousands of adoring fans after another trying week in the White House. At a cost of roughly $3m per trip, it would have been cheaper to hire Dr Freud but, sadly, aides who tried to contact him discovered he has been dead since 1939. Instead, the 45th president of the US invited on stage a man who later revealed he has a 6ft cardboard model of his hero and talks to it every day.

Let’s just pause and think about that. This is a leader whose ego is so fragile, he wants to appear on stage with someone most of us would change seats to avoid if he sat next to us on a train. I should point out that Trump chose this particular supporter to appear beside him after he saw him being interviewed on TV before the rally. Ignoring the advice of his security officials: “He said, ‘I love Trump’ … Let him up. I’m not worried about him. I’m only worried he’s going to give me a kiss.”

It is an alarming insight into how Trump (though, not just Trump) operates. Few politicians, no matter how thin-skinned, have displayed such neediness nor demanded such displays of unconditional love from their supporters. Neediness is not usually considered attractive in men who like to be thought of as tough, but Trump is rewriting the rulebook on masculinity.

The trick all along has been to disguise neediness as empathy. When Trump talks about love to the crowds who turn out to see him, they think it’s what he’s offering. In reality, it’s what he demands from them, needing it to fuel the endorphin rush that keeps him going. You can see this process in action as he gets hyped up on stage, prompting a stream-of-consciousness outpouring of personal attacks, weird fabrications and outright lies.

In this emotionally charged atmosphere, it doesn’t matter that there wasn’t a terrorist attack in Sweden on Friday evening, as Trump wrongly implied (“Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden”), because his supporters care about a deeper species of “truth”. Needless to say, this kind of agitated excitement is not a good state for a world leader, especially when he has access to the codes that fire nuclear missiles. But Trump craves it, and he will go on craving it.

Adulation is a dangerous drug for politicians, sometimes affecting those who should in theory be immune to it. Jeremy Corbyn spent years as an obscure Labour backbencher, and the transformation, when he unexpectedly found himself addressing adoring rallies during a couple of leadership contests, has been astonishing to behold.

Corbyn never looks more relaxed than when he arrives to address a theatre full of cheering supporters, coming alive on stage in a way he never does in TV interviews or at press conferences. He shares Trump’s irritation towards even mildly critical questions, instantly reverting to talking about his “mandate” in the same way that the president still boasts about how many votes he got in the electoral college.

This is as much about a type of masculinity – wounded, self-pitying, quick to anger – as it is right or left. Like any patriarch, Trump is protective of the women around him, launching an intemperate attack on a department store that dropped his daughter’s clothing line, but he expects an embarrassing degree of servility in return. His most senior female aide, Kellyanne Conway, recently tweeted in terms that suggested she was auditioning for a part in a rewrite of The Story of O. Corbyn was visibly annoyed when he was challenged over his failure to give top jobs to women in his first shadow cabinet – something he has since rectified, but it was a telling omission.

The trouble with this kind of politics is that it exists, in the long-term, to shore up the fragile ego of one man (and it usually is a man). The symbiosis between leader and supporters is so close that it’s hard to interrupt, existing outside the more or less rational sphere conventional politicians are used to occupying. For the exceptionally loyal base that turns up at rallies, it doesn’t matter if the polls are terrible, because they aren’t part of the inner circle. Here’s the crucial point: when the identification is so close, giving up on the leader would be like giving up on yourself.

I sometimes wonder if we couldn’t build a theme park where Trump is president for life, presiding in a replica Oval Office and flying in a pretend version of Air Force One that never actually leaves the ground. And I’m sure Corbyn would be happier in a fictional Labourland, holding as many Cuba Solidarity meetings as he likes, than leading the party into the next general election. We would have to pay for busloads of extras to provide cheering crowds, but it would be cheaper in the long run.

A horrible combination of circumstances – reality TV, distrust of politicians, a fightback against feminism – has landed us in this unenviable situation. The danger of treating politics as therapy for emotionally needy men is too enormous to allow it to last.