I first saw Off Limits almost 30 years ago, way back in the mythical year of 1988. It made quite an impression on me at the time, and I’ve seen it several times in the intervening years. I won’t say it’s the best film I’ve ever seen, and it’s actually somewhat problematic (especially at the end), but it’s one of those obscure movies I feel confident recommending people see because there’s a lot more good in the movie than there is bad.
The first and best thing about Off Limits is its concept. Set in Saigon in 1968, just prior to the Tet Offensive, Off Limits follows the exploits of two plainclothes military investigators for the Criminal Investigation Division. Buck McGriff is played by an unusually cast Willem Dafoe and Albaby Perkins is played by an equally unusual Gregory Hines. I won’t say Dafoe is a revelation in his part, playing a straightforward hero-type for the first and probably only time in his career, but Gregory Hines is excellent, and easily gives the best performance he ever delivered on film. In fact, I’d consider him the highlight of the picture.
The setting of ’60s wartime Saigon is so good and so rife with storytelling possibilities that I honestly don’t know why it hasn’t been used before or since. Like a tawdry Casablanca, Saigon is a sweaty, turbulent city full of drug dealers and arms smugglers and refugees and sex workers and revolutionaries and every other kind of character you can possibly think of. In the case of Off Limits, the hook is the murder of a prostitute in an off-limits area of the city by a man who might be an Army officer. McGriff and Perkins’ investigation leads to another murder and another murder until it becomes abundantly clear that a serial killer is working his way through the sexual underground of Saigon, seeking out and executing prostitutes who also happen to have Amerasian babies.
A few years back I had the pleasure of watching and reviewing Neill Blomkamp’s District 9. Blomkamp, a South African native, made the film as an allegory about South Africa’s long-defunct system of black/white separation, known as apartheid. There was also a fair amount of condemnation for South Africa’s treatment of poor refugees from other African countries, except that in the place of humans he substituted stranded space aliens. It was an interesting and entertaining film, even though the last quarter of the picture devolved into a lot of shooting and things blowing up. Very cool shooting and blowing things up, but definitely a step down from the storytelling in the first three quarters.
Anyway, District 9 was a surprise hit and Blomkamp was given the go-ahead to make another science-fiction film, only this time with a bigger budget and name stars. The end result is Elysium, a vehicle for lead actor Matt Damon, that shows a lot of the promise of Blomkamp’s previous movie, but doesn’t quite get there.
If it wasn’t made clear by District 9, Blomkamp loves himself some allegory. Elysium is about as straightforward a bit of allegorical storytelling as it comes, so much so that large portions come across as thuddingly unsubtle. Whereas Blomkamp tackled problems specific to South Africa in his last picture, in Elysium he wants to address the broader issue of income inequality. To do this, he’s created a situation where income inequality has been stretched to its ultimate extreme.
Elysium‘s Earth is a dumping ground for the poor, dangerously overcrowded, sweltering with climate-change induced heat and falling apart at the seams. The rich and powerful, no longer satisfied with merely living in gated communities, have decamped to an orbital platform called Elysium. On Elysium there is no want, no unsightliness and not even any disease, as even cancer can be cured at the touch of a button. Obviously everyone on the ground desperately wants to make it to Elysium, but as is the case with being fabulously wealthy today, the chance of bettering one’s position is essentially nil, no matter how hard you work. The game is rigged and the wealthy will do everything in their power to keep the poor under their heel.
You know from visiting me on Facebook and from following me on Twitter, but now the news comes to the blog: Camaro Espinoza is coming to a bookshelf near you.
Late last month, super-agent Oliver Munson — hereafter to be referred to as rock god — negotiated a deal with Mulholland Books in the United States and the United Kingdom for the publication of two Camaro novels, the first to be released in early 2016. Yes, The Night Charter is no longer just a project I natter on about incessantly on the blog, but a real, actual book that you’ll be able to go into a store and purchase with money. I can’t tell you how excited I am.
Knowledge of the deal has been floating around for a while and I’ve had more than a few visits to the blog looking for updates on The Night Charter. One popular destination has been an entry from April of this year when I discussed what The Night Charter represents to me. You can easily click through and find the entry in its entirety, and of course I encourage you to do so, but I’ll cover some of the same ground in this entry.
Camaro was conceived of and written about with success in mind. Obviously everything someone writes is meant to be successful on some level, but Camaro was my ticket to the big time. I was looking for the kind of deal that would put me on the tables at Barnes & Noble, that might get me to the New York Times bestseller list. I wanted to be able to break free of the label “crime writer” and into the broader world of “thriller writer.” I’d never denigrate the work I’ve done up to this point, but my Mexico books have never caught on in the United States and I had begun to despair that they never would. I saw myself dropping out of the publication game altogether, what little capital I’d accrued from good reviews and award nominations spent, ignored by publishers and readers alike. It wasn’t a pretty scenario.
It’s always an interesting exercise to look back on the early works of a successful author to see how he or she came together as a writer. The more successful the author, the more intriguing the journey, and so I set out on a quest nearly twenty years on to read every Jack Reacher book written by pseudonymous author Lee Child. To say this has been a rough journey is something of an understatement.
My interest in Child and Reacher is not purely academic. There are lots of authors who are even more successful with their series characters than Child and I easily could have chosen one of them. I went after Child’s creation, however, because Reacher is the kind of character I can get behind, at least in theory. The books are meant to have an action bent, Reacher is a tough guy and you know how much I enjoy reading about tough guys. If I didn’t, I would have stopped reading Mack Bolan novels 30 years ago.
What I’m discovering, at least in these early volumes, is something far less appealing than I expected. Jack Reacher is more or less what I expected, but he’s not enough to carry the day when the rest of the book in which he appears is lackluster at best. And sometimes the book is lackluster because of Reacher. He’s ill-used and it hurts these early volumes.
Child has publicly said that his earlier books don’t represent him at his best, and I now take him at his word. Running Blind is the fourth volume in what currently stands as an eighteen-part series (nineteen comes along in a month) and it’s a pretty dire piece of work.
If you read my review of Tripwire, the third Reacher outing, you know I didn’t think much of that book. I felt it was too easy for Reacher to overcome the modest obstacles placed in his way, it hinged in several spots on coincidence and it generally lacked forward momentum. Reacher was himself depicted as too competent and, in one scene, was revealed to be literally bulletproof. It’s hard to imagine it gets much worse than that. But then you come to Running Blind.
Some characters never age. Superman and Batman (comic versions) will always hover around 35 years of age. James Bond, when you average out all the various people who’ve played him, falls into the fortyish range. No matter how many adventures these characters have, they will never grow old, never start to fail physically, never know encroaching death. And that’s fine for them. Does anyone want to read about a Batman who can’t swing from a line because his back is giving him trouble? Probably not.
Some characters do age, usually because they’re tagged to a specific performer and performers get older. Indiana Jones was in his 60s in the execrable Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but only because Harrison Ford was of a like age. But rumors that Disney is looking to recast the part with a younger actor — please let the Bradley Cooper rumors be true! — mean that Indiana Jones will become one of those ageless guys who kicks ass through a dozen (or more) installments without ever growing appreciably older. I’m pretty much okay with that.
When I created Camaro Espinoza, I had to make a decision. Would I make it so she would never hit 40? Never hit 50? Never grow too old to fight? Or would I allow her to age like a regular human being? It’s one of those questions a writer has to ask when creating a series character because it will make a difference later on, especially if the series goes on and on for a good, long while. Which is what I expect from Camaro.
Because I’d already decided to tell her story with heavy continuity, the decision as to whether she would age was kind of a no-brainer. She’d have to age, otherwise the stories would make no sense. She’s 35 in Camaro Run and Crossfire, but time has passed between those stories and The Drum. Still more time passes by the time Sisters in Arms rolls around. And when The Night Charter begins? That’s a full year after the last of the initial four novellas. At that point she’s 37 years old.