Ann Rule, Kate Summerscale: two masters of the art of true crime writing

The last two books I read were both in the true crime genre, and brilliant examples of writers at the top of their craft.

First I read Ann Rule’s Don’t Look Behind You and Other True Cases, a collection of mostly cold case investigations that take place around the Seattle area on America’s west coast,

After finishing it, I then stepped back 160-odd years and into an entirely different landscape, of Victorian England and the ghastly murder of a three-year old boy in a large manor house in the countryside and the London detective recruited to solve it in Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.

Ann Rule, who died in 2015 aged 83, started her career as a law enforcement officer for the Seattle Police Department, wrote for True Detective magazine under a pen name and then established herself as the Queen of American true crime writing with a long career of best sellers. She is most famous for The Stranger Beside Me published in 1980, her sensational account of her charming, handsome friend Ted, whom she met while working at a Seattle suicide crisis hotline, who turned out to be serial killer Ted Bundy.

Ann Rule’s books are motivated by a strong desire for justice for the victims and their families, especially those heart-wrenching cases that are never solved.

Don’t Look Behind You and Other True Cases is dedicated to “everyone who has lost someone they love, never to find them – or learn the reasons they vanished”.

Rule goes onto explain, in a brief introduction to the first story in the book “North to Alaska” that when she chooses which cases to write about, they are almost always selected from the Cold Case departments of homicide divisions.

“There is something infinitely satisfying about finding killers long after they have become confident that they have walked away free,” Rule writes.

The two long stories in Don’t Look Behind You – “North to Alaska” and “Too Late for the Fair” both track cold case investigations: the former about the disappearance of charismatic meat salesman Joe Tarricone, and the second about Joannn Hansen, a young mother locked in an abusive marriage who vanished one day, never to be seen or heard from again.

Rule is a master of plot, narrative and pace: she is a natural and gifted storyteller. While her stories are rich with procedural detail – the collection of evidence, investigating leads – and the small steps taken by investigators to unravel decades old crimes, they never becoming boring or plodding.

It’s not hard to see why she became a best selling popular writer of true crime: stories are told in an uncomplicated, linear way with plenty of direct dialogue. She brings characters to life on the page, both the perpetrators and the victims, the latter for whom she displays the greatest of empathy.

She once said of her motivation to write about true crime: “I wanted to know why some kids grew up to be criminals and why other people didn’t. That is still the main thrust behind my books: I want to know why these things happen, and so do my readers,”

Apart from these two books – The Stranger Beside Me and Don’t Look Behind You – I have also read Rule’s Lust Killer, about the shoe fetishist and necrophiliac serial killer Jerome Brudos.

I highly recommend all of them if you enjoy reading, listening to or watching true crime stories. They’re an easy read, but also engrossing and thought-provoking.

Kate Summerscale is cut from a far more literary cloth than Rule, but none the less entertaining a writer.

In the case of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – the only book of hers I have read – Summerscale writes from a much broader historical and social perspective, producing in the words of the great spy novelist John le Carre called “a classic of the finest documentary writing”.

Born in London in 1965, but brought up also in Japan and Chile, Summerscale attended Oxford University and then California’s Stanford University, where she obtained a masters in journalism. She worked at a number of English newspapers including the Daily Telegraph and Independent, whilst establishing herself as a writer with an award-winning biography about eccentric speedboat racer Marion Barbara ‘Joe’ Carstairs.

She then wrote The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which won The Samuel Johnson Prize (since renamed the Baillie Gifford Prize), Britain’s top book award for non-fiction writing. It was also made into an ITV television series, which unfortunately seems very hard to track down.

I’ve actually read the book twice, but enjoyed it just as much the second time round.

It’s not as easy a book to read as the pacier novels of Ann Rule, but if your penchant is for slowly unravelling, procedural crime shows like Inspector Morse, Prime Suspect or Unforgotten I think you’ll immensely enjoy reading The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.

The “Mr Whicher” refers to Jonathan or “Jack” Whicher, one of the first eight police detectives who joined a newly created branch of the London Metropolitan Police, at Scotland Yard in 1842. Which was sent from London to the village of Rode, near Trowbridge in the county of Wiltshire to solve the most famous crime of the era, the murder of three-year-old Francis Saville Kent in a stately country home called Road Hill House.

Summerscale does not just tell the story of the Kent family and the terrible events of the night of Friday 29th of June 1860 at Road Hill House, when the young boy’s body was discovered shoved down a privy (outside toilet), his throat cut, and the efforts of Whicher, the most brilliant detective of his day, to solve the baffling crime.

She captures the whole zeitgeist of that time – the public’s fascination with the crime (especially since it occurred in the country home of a wealthy, upper class family) fueled by a legion of city and country daily newspapers that reported on its every detail, theory and rumour.

“While the press and the public condemned Whicher’s prurient, impertinent speculations, they freely made their own,” Summerscale writes, capturing the fascination with the case that gripped the country from the big cities to farming villages, and its distrust of the new class of detectives.

As Summerscale explains in her wonderfully researched book, the crime was the first “whoddunit” set in a quintessential country home, in which all the suspects were inside the house: circumstances which created the template for hundreds of fictional detective stories, movies and TV shows including Agatha Christie and Midsomer Murders.

Not surprisingly, the case influenced many subsequent Victorian novels, captured the attention of the greatest writer of the times Charles Dickens, a friend and admirer of Jack Whicher. Dickens, like everyone else had his own (wrong) theories about who the murderer was.

There are so many fascinating aspects to this book, not least of which is the crime itself, there’s the story of the brilliant career of Jack Whicher, and how the immense pressure to solve the Road Hill House murder almost finished him off, the growing power of daily newspapers to shape public consciousness and the emerging art of crime detection.

Part true crime, part historical and social commentary, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is non-fiction writing at its finest and a must-read in my opinion.

Oscar Wilde, David Sedaris, Paul Auster and Esther Freud: Four short reviews of books by masterful storytellers

It has been my custom, on this humble blog, to write reviews (often quite badly, but perhaps sometimes entertainingly) of the books I have read.

I’ve gathered them in one spot on the Freshlyworded virtual bookshelf, mostly for my own nostalgic pleasure, to peruse from time to time and to remind me of what I have read over the years. At worst, its fantastically eclectic mix of genres, themes and styles.

I hope it might also provide some recommendations for friends and strangers who may be looking for a tome to entertain them, and perhaps an escape from Netflix etc.

As, I have fallen far behind on the books I have read and not yet reviewed, I’ve decided to gather mini reviews of the last four books I have read – Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, David Sedaris’s The Best of Me, Paul Auster’s Moon Palace and Esther Freud’s Hideous Kinky in one handy blog post, sparing my dear reader the lengthy, waffling and rambling diatribes I tend to succumb to when writing reviews.

While it’s hard to find too many commonalities across the four books – Wilde and Auster’s are novels of exquisite imagination set in big cities (London and New York), while Sedaris and Freud’s works are highly autobiographical and deeply observational stories – I can confidently say that all are the product of wonderfully entertaining storytellers that bring characters to life on the page through their precise and elegant writing.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde, who famously said “Books are well written, or badly written. That is all” penned one of the best works of Victorian Gothic fiction, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in 1890.

An absolutely wicked and very dark tale about how vanity and the pursuit of pleasure can destroy the soul, it was an absolute pleasure to read it for the second or maybe third time. From the very first page, where we meet the artist Basil Hallward painting the portrait of young, beautiful Dorian Gray in a stately London home, Wilde transports you to upper class world of Victorian England.

Wilde depicts the inner moral decline of Gray, who succumbs to the “new hedonism” promoted by the aristocratic Lord Henry, and goes from a innocent “young Adonis” to a cruel, murderer frightened of his own shadow. While Gray retains his youthful looks, the painting hidden up in the attic of his Mayfair townhouse grows hideous, depicting the corruption of his soul.

An aspect I loved about Wilde’s book is that the “monster” of the gothic tale is handsome young man, with evil growing inside him, rather than the real monsters that inhabit Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Forget the numerous film adaptions of the book, and read’s Wilde’s brilliant, dark novel.

Rating: 9/10

The Best of Me by David Sedaris

I was pretty late discovering the wonderful writing of David Sedaris, whose celebrated short stories, fables and accounts of his own life have turned him into one of America’s most celebrated humorist and best selling authors.

A friend lent me a copy of a collection of his stores, Holidays on Ice, published in 1997, that included a retelling of his experiences working as a Christmas Elf in Macy’s Department store in New York

Then I came across Sedaris via the great Radio Show/Podcast This American Life. In one episode he read aloud his story about the death of his sister Tiffany, who committed suicide after a troubled life (Now we are five). In another episode, host Ira Glass meets with Sedaris in Paris, where the writer had lived for two years with his boyfriend Hugh. Sedaris takes Glass on an eventful tour of Paris sharing anecdotes of misadventures with the French language and the dangers of buying the wrong butter

Sedaris narrates his own stories with a delightful weariness in his mid-Western voice. He has an almost magical ability to write as if he is confiding only to his reader.

The Best of Me is an anthology of favourite works hand-picked by Sedaris. It begins with a delightfully wicked tale entitled “Glen’s Homophobia Newsletter Vol. 3 No. 2” where Glen (perhaps Sedaris’s alter-ego) describes his brief and doomed friendship with the attractive male cashier at Dave’s Kwik shop. It’s both very funny and unsettling, descriptions which apply to a lot of the stories contained in The Best of Me.

While I enjoyed some of his fable-like fictional stories like Christmas Means Giving, where rivaling super-rich neighbours try to outdo each other’s charitable acts in the most hideous fashion, my favourite stories are the one Sedaris tells about seminal moments in his own life particularly those about his family. Sedaris grew up with five siblings, including the actress and comedian Amy Sedaris.

Sedaris combines both tenderness and great humour in his writing, which is never overly sentimental or lecturing, but always insightful whether it be about relationships, politics, culture or identity.

Many of his stories explore the relationship with his father, who treated him with disdain and unkindly in his youth, but who softened into someone almost likeable as he aged.

To get a taste of Sedaris’s unique voice, you can listen to him narrate the story of his father’s final days in the achingly poignant Unbuttoned via the New Yorker magazine website. Unbuttoned is one of the stories contained in the anthology.

You can also read online – Dentists without Borders – which was first published in The New Yorker in 2012.

You can also listen to him read Now we are five and Americans in Paris on This American Life and dozens of other episodes featuring his stories and essays.

While his writing is a platform to explore his own upbringing, identity, phobias and personality, Sedaris has this amazing ability to make the reader feel good about being alive in a world of contradictions and craziness.

Rating: 8/10

Moon Palace by Paul Auster

I hadn’t realised how many Paul Auster books I had read until I browsed my bookshelf at home, after reading his work of magical realism Moon Palace.

Here I found Mr Vertigo (1994), The Book of Illusions (2002) and Oracle Night (2003).

I also know of Auster through two screenplays he wrote for the movies Smoke, and its follow-up Blue in the Face, both starring Harvey Keitel, who plays the owner of a Brooklyn cigar shop.

Though I don’t remember all the plots in detail, I have a clear memory of the sheer pleasure in reading those books and the sweetness of the movies, especially Smoke.

Auster, is one of the modern greats of American Literature, and has been touted as a potential recipient of the Nobel Prize of Literature. Were he to win it, he would be one of the most accessible and worthy recipients (the prize is often in my opinion given to writers no one has heard of (Abdulrazak Gurnah in 2021?) apart from university professors of English literature.

Auster is a wonderful storyteller and masterful creator of characters, that often draw on his own personal history. Many of characters reappear in his books, at different ages and stages of their lives.

Moon Palace is narrated in Holden Caufield-like fashion by the introverted, intense and tortured orphan Marco Stanley Fogg. It begins with Fogg nearly starving to death in his sparse New York apartment after deciding to “live dangerously” and simply live off the proceeds of the mountain of books he has inherited from his late Uncle Victor. Later he finds love in the arms of the beautiful and kind Kitty Wu and then a live-in job reading and carrying out chores for a blind old, wheel chair-bound man called Thomas Effing in his large Manhattan apartment.

Along the way, all sorts of strange and seemingly unlikely (but believable in the hands of Auster) coincidences take place throughout Marco’s epic, modern odyssey that take him from streets of New York to the sparse wilderness of the American Mid-West and that bring him closer to knowing his back story and finding his identity.

As with other Auster books, there are “stories within stories” as the reader is swept down portals of time and memory. If you’re looking to make a start on the oeuvre (yep, fancy word – look it up!) of Auster, magical and mystical Moon Palace is a good place to start.

Rating: 8/10

Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud

I thought I’d be a bit more enthralled by Esther Freud’s autobiographical tale about her stint living in Morocco with her aimless mother Julia and older sister Bella. (Freud is the daughter of the legendary portrait painter Lucian Freud and the great granddaughter of the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud).

I picked the book at random from my gigantic 1001 Books You should Read Before You Die and was looking forward to reading it as I’d travelled through Morocco with my wife when we backpacked in 2010 and been entranced by its ancient and bustling cities with their overflowing markets, maze-like laneways and lively squares like the incredible Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square and marketplace in Marrakesh.

Indeed we stayed in just the kind of cheap hotel Lucy, the six-year-old narrator stays in with her mother and sister (the wonderfully named Hotel Moulay Idriss) close to the Jemma el-Fnaa.

Lucy precociously narrates the family’s adventures across the country, the curious sights she sees in the markets, squares and festivals, the relationships forged with local characters like Bilal (her mother’s Moroccan lover and a father figure for her kids) and the eccentric expats they meet, like the wealthy “prince” Luigi Mancini. The children seem to have a supernatural power to to know which adults to trust, a fortunate quality given their mother is often absent, in spirit if not sometimes physically.

The family are constantly having to find ways to make ends meet as they wait for money to arrive, making dolls to sell in the market, or a few pieces of fruit they have gathered. One “holiday” has them sleeping outdoors on a beach for days.

Esther Freud’s beautiful descriptions transported me back to my time in Morocco, especially Marrakesh, which was wonderful. The novel is magical in parts, but I was also quite bored at times by all the wondering about and waiting around. Perhaps I need to read it again (It’s only 186 pages). I’d also like to watch the movie starring Kate Winslet.

Rating: 7/10

Fear of flying

In December 1994, after I had just turned 21, I lost my wallet and about US$300 in cold, hard cash somewhere in the departure terminal at OR Tambo International airport (then called ‘Jan Smuts’) just hours before I boarded a flight for New York  and a dream solo adventure in the USA.

I remember saying goodbye to my parents, clearing passport control, and then while rummaging through my bulbous, black leather money belt, descending into a mad panic when I couldn’t find my wallet amongst my Thomas Cook travellers cheques and passport.

Heart beating feverishly, my anxiety building, I checked and re-checked my money belt, retraced my steps all the way back to the passport control kiosk I’d just passed through, but found nothing.

I was utterly forlorn. I would have wept, were it in my nature, but instead simply deflated quickly like a popped balloon.

The anticipated thrill of the trip – a birthday present I had chosen instead of having a party – and the excitement of traveling abroad had completely vanished, replaced instead with a dark cloud of guilt (what would I tell my parents?) and deep embarrassment (what a careless fool I was).

All that wasted money.

Later, as I sat dejectedly on the South African Airways jumbo jet waiting for take-off I realised what had most likely happened: I’d gone to a store in the airport to buy something to read on the plane (a South African Sports Illustrated magazine no doubt) and other nick nacks. After paying, instead of putting my wallet back into my money belt, I had mistakenly and carelessly slipped it between the money belt and my pants, where it had simply fallen to the ground.

Either that or it had been stolen by some brilliant pickpocket whose speciality was money belts. Either way, someone hit the jackpot at Jan Smuts that evening. I hope they spent it well.

After sitting forlornly on the plane for a number of hours, as it sped through the night sky on the long 18-hour journey to the ‘promised land’, I resolved that I couldn’t allow these unfortunate series of events to ruin a four week adventure. After all, they would mean wasting even more money.

Initially, I tried to work out a plan where I would somehow be so spend thrift on my travels that I would recoup the lost funds – this involved a journal of daily entries of savings made, drinking water instead of buying a Coke, that sort of thing- but that ‘brilliant idea’ did not last long.

Instead, I simply chose to forgive myself and went on my more or less merry way exploring the sights of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego – minus US$300 in cash.

My carelessness was not though confined to losing my wallet.

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Arriving in the US in my jetlagged state, having forgotten about things like time zones, but eager to unburden myself, I’d rung my parents at some ungodly hour to tell them of my misfortune.

My father, fearing the worst when the telephone rang at that time, had sprinted down our passageway, forgetting in the dark there was a security door in the way  (a phenomenon of many Johannesburg homes, it separated the bedrooms from the rest of the house) and nearly knocked himself out trying to get to the phone in the entrance hall.

In the confusion of the corridor dash he’d presumably also forgotten that he might disturb a gang of burglars rifling through the display cabinets of my mother hand-me-down antiques and bric-a-brac. (We were, if my memory serves me true, actually burgled once while we slept in our beds snoring safely behind the locked security door).

Despite being on the receiving end of more stupidity on my part, my parents were exceedingly nice about all of their money I had lost and encouraged me to enjoy my holiday.

However, for years later I was reminded by my family, whenever I prepared to go overseas, to try not to lose all my money before even getting on the plane.

This long-running joke, that was never quite a joke, created I think, a kind of Pavlovian reaction in me: whenever I prepared to fly anywhere, an uncomfortable general anxiety surfaced in my gut accompanied by some irrational thoughts and somewhat obsessional behaviour.

Irrational – in that my anxiety about flying has manifested into a palpable fear of missing my flight.

To counter a myriad of possible, but unlikely scenarios that might befall me on the way to the airport – getting a flat tyre, getting stuck in traffic, the taxi I have booked not arriving, forgetting something and having to go back home – I like to leave for the airport many, many hours earlier than is necessary.

As I usually arrive, without incident, many, many hours earlier than necessary, this only feeds another nervous affectation – a need to constantly pat myself down, checking that I still have my wallet, passport, boarding pass and any other important documentation, and that they hadn’t dropped to the floor, been stolen or simply carelessly left behind.

You will at least be pleased to know (dear reader) that I have dispensed with the god-awful money belt. I prefer having my wallet and passport in the front pockets of my pants where I can reassuringly feel their presence.

As I have grown older and a bit more chilled, I have become a lot less anxious about the trip to the airport and departure lounges no longer generate quite as much stomach-churning action as they did in the past.

Somewhat wiser, or at least more experienced at life, I am able to acknowledge the irrational nature of my worries and doubt.

If anxiety does surface, I remind myself that if I miss my flight, the trip simply wasn’t meant to be or that the plane I never boarded will almost surely plummet into the ocean. It seems to work a treat.

Ironically, my wife and I backpacked around the world in 2010 and pretty much nothing went wrong.

We travelled through 26 or 27 countries, took dozens of flights, bus, train, ferry and boat trips and never missed any of them.

We never lost a single piece of luggage – our expensive Kathmandu backpacks always reappeared no matter whether they were thrown on the roofs of dusty buses in Marrakesh, loaded onto a plane in Delhi or squashed onto a boat in Kho Phi Phi – and we never lost a passport or wallet between us.

As for airports, we breezed through all of those without – miraculously – a penny unaccounted for.

What’s so obsessively interesting about the lives of serial killers?

Chances are, if I am at a loss as to what to watch or listen to, I’ll turn to some documentary, dramatised movie or podcast about a serial killer, psychopath or madman.

Just the other day, while my wife tuned out at the end of the day to episodes of The Nanny, I was racing through a new documentary series on Netflix investigating the Son of Sam murders which occurred in New York in the 1976 and 1977.

Narrated by Paul Giamatti, the show called The Sons of Sam (note the plural) focuses on the claim by obsessive investigative journalist Maury Terry who believed that convicted killer David Berkowitz did not act alone but was part of a satanic cult that committed the spree of murders that terrorised the city.

Then before that, I was gripped by an Australian true-crime documentary series on Stan called After the Night which looked into the series of killings that occurred in the affluent and until then quiet and safe suburbs of Perth in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The crimes were perpetrated by deranged family man Eric Edgar Cooke, the last person to be hanged in Western Australia.

David Berkowitz; Did he act alone or was he part of a satanic cult?

After the Night told the story not only of Cooke, but also of two other men who were wrongly convicted of some of his crimes, Darryl Beamish and John Button, and the lengths they and their supporters went to clear their names.  It also captured very well the easy-going, carefree life in the well-to-do suburbs of Cottesloe and Nedlands, and how that sense of security was shattered by a violent string of murders and rapes.

A big motivator to watch this show was reading and re-reading Robert Drewe’s wonderful Perth memoir The Shark Net which had as its backdrop the Cooke serial murders and Drewe’s start in journalism as a cadet reporter for the West Australian newspaper. (Read my review here).

Before that both my wife and I watched The Serpent on Netflix about conman and serial murderer Charles Sobhraj (also known as the Bikini Killer) who lured in hippy backpackers travelling around South East Asia in the 1970s with the promise of a place to stay and a luxurious lifestyle and then poisoned them, held them captive and then murdered them and stole their possessions.

Charming and sadistic: Ted Bundy is a fascinating study in evil

Then there was the documentary series The Night Stalker, about the satanic serial killer Richard Ramirez who broke into homes across Los Angeles in the mid-1980s to rape and murder in a vile spree that terrorised the city. The documentary focused on the detectives who tracked Ramirez down and some of the extraordinary stuff-ups that occurred along the way. It also delved into the cult-like rock star status Ramirez enjoyed and the perhaps even crazier women who threw themselves at him.

Prior to that there was Des about the London serial murderer Denis Nilsen who lured in young men into his shabby Muswell Hill flat. Here he smothered them, slept with their corpses and then dismembered and attempted to flush their remains away. ‘Des’ was played by the brilliant David Tennant (a key attraction for watching the series).

Killing for Company the classic true crime book about Nilsen by Brian Masters (who is played by the great character action Jason Watkins in the television series) that so fascinated me when I read it whilst visiting my London cousin stirred my interest in Nilsen at the time. It also happened that my London cousin lived and still lives in Muswell Hill, a short distance from Nilsen’s flat of horrors, one of the creepy reasons no doubt I chose to read the book at the time.

David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen in Des

I also watched the Netflix documentary series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes which re-examined one of America’s most notorious and charismatic serial killers, who also had his own female fan club. There was also the biographical crime drama about Bundy (starring Zac Ephron in the lead role) Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile that I watched maybe a year ago.

My fascination with Bundy began when I read Ann Rule’s classic of the true crime genre The Stranger Beside Me. Rule’s perspective was unlike any other in the history: she was a friend of Bundy.

There’s more for sure. And there are also shows I’ve yet to watch but will no doubt get to at some point. A new Netflix documentary about the Yorkshire Ripper looks intriguing.

Part of the fascination for me is the “how they caught them” aspect, the police and detective work, the clues that emerge and the trail that leads them to identify and capture the villain.

It’s probably then not surprising that my favourite detective shows are not the fast-paced glitzy stuff (I can’t stand shows like NCIS) but the slow-paced procedural dramas featuring believable investigators, my favourites being the dour and eternally grumpy Inspector Morse, Idris Elba’s rugged and damaged Luther and most recently, the renegade LA detective Harry Bosch in the Amazon series Bosch played by Titus Welliver (and based on the novels by Michael Connelly).

All these shows and the ones I have described above I highly recommend if that sort of thing intrigues you.

I do wonder why I am so drawn to these dark and disturbing shows, as are so many other people.

I like to think that I am not a secret psychopath with a penchant for blood and violence. Rather I think there is an innate human fascination with evil people or – if you don’t subscribe to that idea – to people who do evil things, especially those who do them over and over again.

After all these ‘monsters’ were soft, and cuddly babies once, not little devils with horns and a pitch fork.

I also think, that there is penchant in all of us – in the right (or wrong) circumstances to commit crimes of violence and descend into a kind of madness. Just think of all those seemingly ordinary Germans and other Europeans who became Hitler’s willing executioners during the holocaust. Might they have gone on living ordinary lives had a mad dictator not come to power?

Interestingly, on YouTube, a death row interview with serial killer Richard Ramirez has over 6 million views, while Ted Bundy interviews and documentaries online have racked up millions. Ditto Jeffery Dahmer and others.

Just like slowing down when we pass a car crash, it seems we can’t look away.

Calling from WHERE? Who can you trust in a world of scams?

My mobile phone started ringing, and a strange, long number flashed up: It was a call from Mumbai, India.

Since I didn’t know anyone from Mumbai and nor did I have any reason to expect a call from the Asian sub-continent, my immediate thought was: this has to be a scam call.

“Ha” I exclaimed as I watched the phone ring out. Then somewhat unexpectedly, the caller left a message on my voicemail. Still I didn’t think too much about it, and ignored that as well.

But then, as I returned to my laptop, a message popped up in my email.

It was from an employee at a data company I’d contacted after my login and password had stopped working on their website, which I use regularly as part of my job.

Based in Mumbai, he had rung me to try and sort out the problem I had.

I apologised for missing his call and asked him to please ring again.

When the Mumbai number came up a second time on my phone, I answered it and spoke to my email correspondent – a polite, softly-spoken man with a light Indian accent – who was doing his best to help me fix my problem. Which he did. A short while later I was able to log onto their website and get on with my work.

The incident though left me pondering about the strange ways our minds work and also how we navigate the world in which we live in.

As a survival mechanism in this digital age, we’ve learned to mistrust a lot of things: unexpected and unsolicited phone calls, emails and text messages that bombard us on an almost daily basis. We’re told: Don’t click on that link!

There is of course a good reason for being so suspicious. So many of these contacts are from criminals trying to steal our money, possessions and identity.

According to the Australian government’s Scamwatch website, Australians lost over $851 million to scams in 2020, a record amount.

This is not surprising. Scammers took advantage of the pandemic, including the fact that we were locked down at home and more reliant than ever on our smartphones, laptops and iPads for communication to steal from us through cunning digital means.

Not only that but a myriad Covid-19 specific scams have emerged that prey on our fears about catching the virus, ensuring we get tested and the urgency to get vaccinated.

“Last year, scam victims reported the biggest losses we have seen, but worse, we expect the real losses will be even higher, as many people don’t report these scams,” said Delia Rickard, deputy chair of the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission.

In fairness to me, I had been primed to treat my Mumbai call with suspicion. In the past few weeks I had received a number of phone calls from a mysterious Sri Lankan number that could only I suspected have been a scam. I ignored and blocked these numbers.

According to Scamwatch, this scam works by people calling the number back, connecting to a premium rate number and losing a lot of money.

“If you call the number back, you may be put on hold, hear music playing or the scammer could try and chat with you. The scammer’s objective is to keep you on the line for as long as possible as your call will be charged at a premium rate,” Scamwatch warns.

Unlike my Mumbai call, there was no follow-up email from Colombo asking me when was a convenient time to call and so I am fairly confident I did the right thing.

Of course Smartphones, which we all never leave home without have put scammers in touch with there potential victims on an almost 24/7 basis, and they know it. Vigilance is required at all times!

Aside from my Sri Lankan friends, I’ve received calls with messages telling me I am being sued or that I owe the tax office a lot of money. I am told to call a number immediately. Then of course there are those countless quasi-scams from energy companies promising to cut my bills.

And what about the calls I get asking me to complete a short questionnaire as part of a Melbourne survey to see how people are coping with the pandemic? Is that a scam? I haven’t stuck around to find out.

My email inbox is also fill of scams, not all of them filtered into the Spam folder.

I regularly get emails telling me an Amazon subscription has been activated and I am about to debited a large amount of money unless I click on some link.

In a variation of this scam, I was emailed a message about a Norton Anti-virus program subscription that had been auto-renewed. In both cases – unless its a coincidence – the scammers had worked out I have an actual subscription to Amazon and that used to have a Norton Anti-virus program on my home computer, no doubt to add a ring of believability to their emails.

The Norton Anti-Virus scam I received via email

Mostly though, email scams are easy to pick out. Often the email address is something concocted on Gmail or Hotmail or there are spelling or grammatical mistakes or other silly errors.

But some scams are extremely sophisticated, one of which nearly caught out a family member who was in the process of transferring a large amount of money overseas.

Known as a payment redirection scam, it involves a scammer impersonating a business or its employees via email and requesting an upcoming payment be redirected to a fraudulent account.

A small error – the incorrect spelling of the word “direct” which was spelled “dirrect” in an email signature alerted my family and the legitimate company they were dealing with to the impending diversion of funds, which was thankfully unsuccessful, but only just in time.

As the Scamwatch figures show, many other people are not so lucky and are conned out of their money, even their houses and possessions, sometimes their life savings.

In some cases, people fall for scams because they are gullible, naïve or not very tech savvy. Sometimes its out of greed or desperation (Emails telling you have won a competition or inherited a large sum of money) or sometimes out of loneliness (as in online romance scams) and sometimes because they scam is very brilliant. We can only hope we don’t fall victim to one of those.

As to my Mumbai call centre caller, I can only apologise and say to him: Sorry mate, it’s the world we live in!

Writing ‘philosophical drivel’ and the other crimes of a ‘Z list blogging cretin’

This week, out of nowhere, and for no obvious reason, I received a lengthy, rather unpleasant email from someone seemingly quite upset about something I’d written on this humble blog, and who it seemed had developed a profound dislike for me and my work.

As the email (which you can read in all its unedited glory below) was sent anonymously, there was no way for me to reply to ask what bothered my mystery correspondent.

As I read his ‘delightful’ note, I was struck by the strange irony of it all: here was someone who apparently “didn’t care what I had to say” but who had taken the time to write to me even if it was to suggest that I try film myself ”sniffing dog farts”.

I suppose I should be flattered – any feedback is better than none. Most of what I write on the blog goes largely unnoticed except for the occasional comment from my close friends and immediate family (Yes, mystery writer, my relatives still seem to tolerate me despite your claims to the contrary, though I will double-check).

As to your concern at my lack of accomplishments to date, I should clarify: I am perfectly fine with my lack – by your standards – of online success. I really am not trying to be a social media influencer or win anyone’s respect or approval.

It’s just a humble blog dear mystery friend, and though I may be a journalist in my professional life (yes a ‘real journalist’!) my online scribblings on freshlyworded.com are nothing more than a hobby, albeit one that I enjoy, a chance to write about the things that interest me and an escape from the property round I cover at The Australian Financial Review.

And so yes, I wholeheartedly agree with you, there are TikTok creators and YouTubers with more influence than me, and good luck to them.

As to the ‘philosophical drivel’ I spout and the ‘profound perspective” I can only pretend to have found, I can only but apologise if it has offended your own world view.

Take care (who ever and where ever you are).

Larry

Hi 🙂

Inbox

blahblahblahblah69blah <blahblahblahblah69blah@protonmail.com>Jun 15, 2021, 5:42 AM (3 days ago)
to me

Hahahahahaha you’ll never know who I am Larry but it brings me so much joy knowing how much of a loser you’ve turned out to be, it’d be one thing if you were a real journalist or had an enviable readership but no, just a Z list blogging cretin who writes about nobodies because that’s what you specialise in. I’ve seen Tik Tok creators and YouTubers with a mere few hundred fans who have more respect and influence than you. 

Here’s a thought why don’t you write an article about this email? You can bullshit for paragraphs about philosophical drivel and pretend to have some profound perspective. 

Just think if you were actually worth anything or if you were actually above average in anything then you’d have accomplished something by now, you’d have given your relatives something to brag about but…no 😦 just an embarassment who can’t even write about interesting people because your own lack of charisma and charm sucks the life out of anything you write. 

Poor poor Larry.

The funniest thing is I don’t even care what you have to say and won’t be using this email again so all you can do is nothing, which you’re good at! 

And if you’re curious lets just say I’m closer than you think and all of us couldn’t be happier or less surprised at what you’ve accomplished. (Nothing Larry, the answer is nothing) 

You could just film yourself sniffing a dogs farts and I think you’d be having the same impact on society. But hey who am I to judge, I’m sure you think you’re doing great.

Bye Larry! 👋

Why ‘Life Itself’ (about Roger Ebert) is one of my favourite documentary films

One of the most entertaining, moving, inspiring and powerful documentary films I have watched in a long time is ‘Life Itself’, about the life of the famous Chicago film critic Roger Ebert. It’s also the title of Ebert’s own memoir published in 2011.

The film by Steve James (who made the Oscar-nominated Hoop Dreams) unintentionally documented the final months in the life of Ebert, who had long battled thyroid cancer, losing his lower jaw in the process, his ability to speak and eat but never his wit or brilliance.

It’s quite shock seeing Ebert for the first time in his hospital bed, missing a large part of his face. But he has these incredibly sparkling eyes, still full of mischief as he types away on his computer, making jokes through a voice synthesizer, writing film reviews and responding to emails.

Just a few months into filming, Ebert passed away in his hospital bed after another medical setback, surrounded by his devoted wife Chaz (who has continued to run rogerebert.com since his passing), friends and family.

The documentary moves between past and present telling the story of how Ebert started out as a young journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times – one of the city’s two main newspapers – and how by chance he became its film critic after a sudden vacancy emerged, a role he maintained and cherished for over four decades.

In 1975, Ebert whose non-snobbish and direct style of writing made film criticism accessible to all who loved the movies, became the first film critic to win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for criticism and later a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

But it was his on screen rivalry with fellow Chicago film critic Gene Siskel (of rival paper the Chicago Tribune) on their show ‘At the Movies’ that would make Ebert almost as famous as the actors and directors whose movies he reviewed.

The documentary features interviews with Gene Siskel’s widow Marlene – Siskel died from cancer aged just 53 in 1999 – who wonderfully channels the love/hate relationship between the pair as well as with director Martin Scorcese, who emotionally praises Ebert for helping resurrect his career when it had sunk to a low point in the 1980s due to cocaine addiction and depression.

The documentary also includes interviews with current film critics like the New York Times’s AO Scott, who wrote of Ebert’s passing that he along with Siskel helped to make Chicago “the first city of movie criticism”

“Every medium [Roger Ebert] made use of was, above all, a tool of communication, a way of talking to people — Sun-Times readers, the critic in the other chair, Facebook friends, insomniacs and enthusiasts — about the movies he cared about and, perhaps more important, the human emotions and aspirations those movies represented,” wrote Scott.

Someone who reviewed hundreds of films a year, wrote books and blogs even when battling cancer, he still had time to answer letters, and emails from schoolchildren and college students, said Scott,

In James’ film, Ebert is a larger than life figure with boundless energy. In his earlier years he was always the last person to leave the local bar in the early hours of the morning (his drinking almost killed him) and then later entertained readers with his offbeat and colourful stories from the Cannes Film Festival.

Someone whose well-chosen words could ruin a movie at the Box office (as could the ‘Thumbs up, thumbs down reviews given on television by he and Siskel), Ebert was also one to champion lesser known film makers and smaller independent pictures – among his most ardent admirers is German filmmaker Werner Herzog who dedicated one of his films to him and said, when Ebert passed away that not only was he “the good soldier of cinema” writing about cinema for four decades but that he was also the “wounded soldier who for years in his affliction held out and plowed on”.

A statue of Roger Ebet outside a movie theatre in Champaign, Illinois where he had is first newspaper job.

Never someone who wrote anything  out of malice or spite, Ebert was controversial at times, most notably in his review of David Lynch’s cult classic Blue Velvet, a film Ebert despised, but one praised by many critics as a masterpiece.

Ebert gave it one star noting that the “movie is pulled so violently in opposite directions that it pulls itself apart”.

But even if Ebert criticised movies, he would often find things in them to praise (including in Blue Velvet). Scorcese called Ebert’s review of his movie The Colour of Money starring Paul Newman “condemning and helping”.

Still I wondered why the documentary film moved me so much. I hardly knew much about Roger Ebert, apart from having read some of his film reviews, and had not followed his career closely, or his battle with cancer.

Reflecting on that question, I think it has a great deal to do with the storytelling – James is a master storyteller – which manages to capture the totality of Roger Ebert’s “grand adventure” from his small town roots to becoming arguably the famous film writer in the world, with a love of movies that never died.

It’s also this idea of a man who loved sitting in a darkened cinema for 40 years, watching and writing wonderfully about movies, and the emotions and feelings they conveyed (and it’s a nice break from almost every other documentary film I watch and like, which seems to be about true crime, especially serial killers and maniacs).

James also manages to capture Ebert’s magnetic and warm personality and his mischievous nature seen – when most of his body had failed him – in his sparkling eyes.

I give it two thumbs up!

Apropos of a lot: A devout Woody Allen fan on his autobiography and legacy

I’d say roughly a third of Woody Allen’s rather concise autobiography, Apropos of Nothing, is devoted to detailing his professional and personal relationship with Mia Farrow and responding to the allegations made in 1992 that he molested his adopted daughter Dylan at Farrow’s Connecticut  home when she was seven.

As a huge fan of both his stand-up comedy (“The moose mingled, did very well. Scored.”) and his movies (Where do I begin? Love & Death, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes & Misdemeanors, Match Point to name just a few) I would have preferred to have heard more about his many celebrated films. some of which are only disappointingly glossed over in the memoir – but its not hard to understand why the Allen-Farrow story is given so much weight.

No matter the three decades of denials and the two major investigations that have cleared his name (Allen has never been charged with any sexual offence) an ‘innocent-until-proven-guilty’ man he is not. Allen has been tried and convicted by the media and by many of his peers in Hollywood, where he has been  lumped into the same #metoo boat that includes jailed sex offender and former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Just the other day – if I needed reminding of the stigma attached to Allen’s name – I was listening to the podcast, Fresh Air featuring an entertaining interview with the film director Spike Lee.

At one point during the chat with guest host Sam Sanders, Lee remarked that he had been called the “black Woody Allen” by film critics after the success of his film “She’s Gotta Have it”.

Sanders jumped in: “ How did you feel about that, because in hindsight, none of us want to be Woody Allen?”

To his credit Lee responded “He’s a great filmmaker, he’s from Brooklyn and he’s a Nicks fan”. But no doubt many others in the entertainment industry would have agreed with Sanders.

Indeed, the publication of the memoir itself was caught up in the rebooting of the allegations when Allen’s original publisher Hachette pulped the book following intense pressure from Dylan Farrow and his estranged son Ronan Farrow (the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose own book Catch and Kill was published by Hachette.).

A new HBO documentary has again examined these allegations, without the participation of Woody Allen who has said all he wants to say in his memoir, and in a subsequent interview with the actor Alec Baldwin on Baldwin’s popular podcast, Here’s the Thing.

In his June 2020 interview with Allen, Baldwin, a staunch supporter of the filmmaker, asked him why he considered the allegations made against him “ludicrous”.

Allen replied: “The idea that any one of good standing, that has never had any problem in his life at all would suddenly pick an odd day once in his life to do something [like this] in the midst of a hostile break-up…the whole thing was so preposterous, I thought any common sense person looking at it would see it for what it was: The cliched accusation that one party makes against the other so common in custody cases.

He admits that the fact he was dating Soon-Yi (the adopted daughter of Farrow and her former husband at the time, the pianist and conductor Andre Previn) “absolutely” made the accusations seem more credible, but that doesn’t make them so.

“People were saying, my God, this older person has seduced this young girl and he is taking advantage of her. It looked awful. I could understand that. But we’ve know been married over 20 years. We have two girls in college. It was tabloid fodder at the time, and I understand why it would be. I’m not naïve.

“But the charges were something else…they were investigated, they were not swept under the rug and given meticulous investigation in Connecticut and over a year in New York…and they said there was no thought this child was ever bothered in anyway.

“I feel better they investigated it, I don’t have to feel this thing was ever side-pocketed…they really followed up on it and those were the conclusions they came to.

“I was never alone with my daughter [at the time of the alleged behaviour]. My son Moses will testify to this. I was always in a room with a lot of people, on the sofa, watching TV. I may have sat on the floor and lay my head down on her lap for a second, but to infer anything sinister from that is crazy.”

Allen says his philosophy was to not focus on any of the “rubbish” being said, but just to work, which he did .

“From the moment the false accusation was made, I worked. I did a million films, I wrote for the theater, I toured my jazz band, I played every week at the Carlyle Hotel. If you just keep your nose to the grindstone and work…”

All of this is elaborated on in detail in the memoir alongside a deeply affectionate portrait Allen paints of his wife Soon-Yi.

It is interesting to note that Mia Farrow, an outstanding actress in my opinion, has appeared in 13 Woody Allen movies, from a Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy in 1982 to Husbands and Wives in 1992, the last of which was filmed at the time their relationship was descending into anarchy, when Farrow discovered erotic Polaroid photos of him and Soon-Yi.

Woody Allen at Cannes in 2016. Pic credit: Georges Biard

While the media focus has always been on Allen’s marriage to a woman 35 years his junior, whom he knew as a child, in his memoir he paints a very damaging picture of Farrow as an often cruel mother who collected children like “toys” – she adopted 10 and had four of her own – and who was especially unkind to Soon-Yi, threatening to send her to an insane asylum.

Allen also reminds readers that three of Farrow’s adopted children died young and that her brother the businessman John Villiers-Farrow was jailed in 2002 for the sexual abuse of two young boys. (Another brother, the sculptor Patrick Farrow, committed suicide in 2009.)

He also notes the irony that Farrow flew to London in 2005 to defend the film director Roman Polanski (Farrow starred in his brilliant horror film Rosemary’s Baby) despite Polanski pleading guilt in 1977 to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old minor.

None of these events I understand are included in the HBO documentary.

In Allen’s retelling of events, he was a doting father, who was denied a relationship with his children by a woman bent on revenge.

“A little girl, just turned seven…is taken from a loving father forever, placed in the hands of her out-of-control mother during an emotionally confusing crisis, suggested to by her mother that she was abused, then her denials are finessed over years of contact with only one parent and she is taught, led over time, to believe she has been molested.”

Despite the lengthy focus on his relationship with Farrow, where he chides himself for not recognising the “red flags” early on, Allen does not come across as bitter. When he talks about Farrow’s alleged cruel behaviour towards her children he merely asserts that what he is saying is true over and over again.

 “And how have I taken all this? And why is it when attacked I rarely spoke out or seemed overly upset? Well, given the malignant chaos of a purposeless universe, what’s one little false allegation in the scheme of things? Second being a misanthropist has its saving grace – people can never disappoint you.”

That attitude certainly helps dealing with a rapid press mob which Allen says have promoted and given substance to Farrow’s claims and the many actors, who worked with Allen in his movies, but who later stated they regretted working with him though never so far, he points out, to return their paychecks or Oscars.

It is interesting to consider, in light of the allegations and theTime’s Up movement to support victims of sexual harassment, that Woody Allen has probably created more memorable and powerful roles for woman than any other director in the history of cinema, many of whom have won or be nominated for Academy Awards for their performances.

He also claims that not a single actress young or old has ever accused him of untoward behaviour, unlike so many other big name directors and actors.

While the memoir is disappointingly and strangely devoid of any photographs, I think it says a lot that the only picture on the back cover, a great shot of Allen stretched out on a couch, was taken by his former girlfriend and long-time collaborator Diane Keaton.

There is of course thankfully a great deal more Allen talks about in the memoir than his disastrous relationship with Mia Farrow and the terrible consequences of it.

I found there was an intimacy to his writing, that I was part of his inner circle. While I have given up hope of ever sharing a coffee  with him, I do feel at least that I got to know him a little better.

Perhaps the most enjoyable parts of the book are Allen’s stories about his childhood as a freckly-faced baseball-obssessed redhead living on 14th Street, Brooklyn and the tales of his gambling, philandering, but loving father who would stuff $20 notes into his pocket while he slept, leaving it up to his more stern and serious mother to keep the household together.

He  confesses, that even though his mother was the better parent, he loved his father more because he was a “sweet guy, warmer, more demonstrably affectionate, while she took no prisoners”.

It’s a heartfelt and very amusing  glimpse into Allen’s early years reminiscent of the opening scenes in Annie Hall, when a young Alvy Singer talks to the camera As a reader you really feel as if Allen is confiding in you and sharing his inner thoughts. A huge fan that I am, it was wonderfully satisfying.

It’s interesting that Allen rejects any claims to be an intellectual – in fact, despite his nerdy appearance he was quite sporty – a point he makes frequently in the book, claiming that he instead has a flair for appropriating erudite snippets that he did not really understand and utilising them in his work “to give the deceptive impression of knowing more than I do”.

He is also extremely self-deprecating about his achievements, especially his work, often attributing its surprising success to cinematographers, editors and co-writers, while always accepting sole responsibility for his flops and failures.

Luck, Allen says played a huge part in the successful career he has had: from getting picked to write jokes that celebrities used in their newspaper columns, to being introduced to the great comedian Sid Caeser (after writing sketches for three seasons at a summer resort in Pennsylvania).

Then, after his stand-up comedy took off, meeting Hollywood superstar Warren Beatty who wanted him to write a comedy. This culminated in 1965’s What’s New Pussycat? which though a bad film in Allen’s opinion, turned into a huge box office hit and paved the way for a long career as an auteur director.

While that luck may have deserted him from 1992 onwards, Allen has just gotten on with his life, making movies, experimenting with different genres and ideas and creating many of his most memorable movies.

While the memoir is ultimately a vehicle for him to tell his side of the story in the Allen-Farrow saga, he has come to terms with the fact that some people won’t ever change their minds about him who “despite all logic, for one reason or another didn’t seem to want to get it.

“Nothing could stir them from the idea that I’d raped Mia’s underage backward child or married my daughter or molested Dylan. I had faith that in due time, common sense, reason and the evidence would descend upon even the most phlegmatic mouth breather, but I also picked Hillary to win.”

An amicable split on screen: Woody Allen and Mia Farrow played a divorced couple in Hannah and Her Sisters.

As a postcript to reading his memoir, I watched Allen’s celebrated comedy- drama Hannah and her Sisters, made in 1986.

I had seen it before, but had largely forgotten the plot which is the story of the loves and lives of three sisters in a large well-off New York family of actors and entertainers.

It’s a wonderful movie, blending dark comedy and pathos in a way only Woody Allen can.

Spookily, the cast contains many of the people who would figure prominently in the abuse allegations.

There’s Allen himself, who plays Mickey, a neurotic television executive having an existenial crisis after finding out he doesn’t have cancer.

His ex-wife Hannah, a Broadway star is tenderly played by Mia Farrow while Moses Farrow (a staunch support of his father) and his future wife Soon-Yi both have cameo appearances as guests at the Thanksgiving dinners that bookend the film

But in a case of art not imitating future life, Mickey and Hannah have parted amicably, remain friends and he is welcomed into her apartment to bring birthday presents to their twin boys. He’s even invited to the second thanksgiving family dinner despite marrying Hannah’s cooky sister Holly (played by Dianne Wiest) and impregnating her.

Reading Philip Roth’s ‘The Plot Against America’ in the age of Trump

“But why did you go,” my mother asked him, “when it was bound to upset you like this?”

“I went,” he told her, “because every day I ask myself the same question: How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country. If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.”

While this may sound like someone reacting to another surreal and disturbing moment in the loony Trump presidency, for example the January 6 storming of the Capitol Building in Washington by far right extremists, it is in fact an extract from Philip Roth’s 2004 novel ‘The Plot Against America’.

The people “in charge” are the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and his far-right cronies in the Republican party, who in Roth’s re-imagining of American history, have swept to power in 1940 (defeating FDR) on a promise of keeping the country out of the War in Europe (“Vote for Lindbergh or vote for war” is their slogan) and maintaining cordial relations with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

Roth tells the story of a Jewish family living in Newark, New Jersey as they adjust – with increasing fear – to life under the anti-semitic policies of a populist leader amid the darkening perceptions of Jews in mainstream American life.

As with many of his books, Roth used his own family as the model for the fictional one in the novel.

He tells the story from the remembered perspective of his seven-year-old self living in a tidy second-floor flat in the “southwest corner of New Jersey’s largest city” which he shares with his father Herman, a hardworking insurance salesman, his loving mother Bess and his willful 12-year-old brother Stanley.

“Our homeland was America.

Then the Republicans nominated Lindbergh and everything changed,” narrates Philip.

Soon after newly inaugurated President Lindbergh has flown to Iceland to meet Adolf Hitler and sign an agreement of peaceful relations between America and Germany, the Roth family take a long-planned holiday to Washington DC to prove to their children that America is not a fascist country, despite who is in office.

But things soon turns sinister when after returning to their hotel from a day’s sightseeing, the Roth’s find their bags packed and lined up in the hotel foyer, because the room they have booked is no longer available.

“Dear, let’s just go,” she (Philip’s mother)  beseeched my father. “Mr Taylor [the Roth’s tour guide] found us a room nearby.”

No!” my father cried and he threw off the hand with which she tried to snatch his  arm. “This policeman knows why we were evicted. He knows, the manager knows, everybody in this lobby knows.”

Later on in the trip there is an ugly incident in a Washington café involving  another diner, who refers to Walter Winchell, the famed New York columnist and radio journalist – a central character in the novel who uses his public platform to denounce Lindbergh – as a “loudmouth Jew with too much power”

“Loudmouth Jew. And for the second time in less than forty-eight hours,” Roth’s young narrator remarks.

Philip Roth, an American literary giant

Philip Roth says he got the inspiration for the book from a line he read in historian Arthur J Schlesinger’s (no relation) book ‘A Life in the 20th Century’ about the isolationist wing of the Republican Party who wanted to nominate Charles Lindbergh as the 1940 presidential candidate.

“It made me think, ‘What if they had?’ and I wrote the question in the margin. Between writing down that question and the fully evolved book there were three years of work, but that’s how the idea came to me,” Roth said in a September 2004 essay he wrote in the New York Times.

He said in a separate NYT interview in 2004 that Lindbergh’s name was “loaded” because he was a hero to the entire world for his record-breaking solo flight across the Atlantic from Long Island to Paris.

“Then in the late 1930s he ceased being a hero in our household because he began to seem like an anti-semite. His diaries….show that he was essentially a white supremecist. Jews were distatestful to him. They were inferior to him,” Roth said.

After the family returns from Washington, Lindbergh’s newly created sinister Office of American Absorption (OAA) creates a program called “Just Folks” designed to get young Jews to work in rural farming areas. The Roth’s elder son Sandy, a gifted artist, signs up and goes to work in Kentucky where he can “live on a farm…draw all the things there. Tractors. Barns. Animals. All kinds of animals”.

To Sandy, who hides a sketch of Charles Lindbergh in his portfolio under his bed, the farm experience is idyllic. But to Herman Roth, Just Folks is merely an anti-Semitic plot to separate Jewish boys from their families.

Herman sees everything the Lindbergh administration does in its true light. This puts him at war with his eldest son and his naive sister-in-law Evelyn, who is engaged to be married to Newark’s conservative Jewish leader, Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf.

It is Bengelsdorf, who endorsed Lindbergh at campaign rallies, that helped legitimise the aviator’s anti-war and anti-semitic rhetoric that swept him to power in a landslide. Bengelsdorf is then appointed as executive director of the OAA.

Like Sandy, Evelyn refuses to believe Lindbergh has evil intentions against the Jews because her husband-to-be is part of his administration. She calls her brother-in-law Herman “another Jew afraid of his shadow”.

Telling the story of America’s rapid decline under Lindbegh, Roth brilliantly weaves in reimagined historical events and real political figures of the times into the story including, most chillingly, a state visit to the White House by Nazi Germany’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (executed in 1946).

Evelyn attends as the partner of Rabbi Bengelsdorf  where she dances with Von Ribbentrop, appearing in news reel footage that Philip watches when he sneaks into the neighbourhood cinema.

“I found him a very charming gentleman and highly intelligent….” says Evelyn of her Nazi dancing companion.

While reading the novel, amid the November presidential election and all its craziness, I could not help think about Donald Trump, a populist and far right sympathiser who unlike Lindbergh did become US president and whose four years in office were marked by chaos and a rapid disintegration of American democratic values. Many have called Trump a dictator.

It also made think of all my fellow Jews around the world, especially in America, who supported President Trump because he is a so-called friend of Israel (that is the most common explanation I hear). However, they conveniently brush aside or willfully forget that Trump has been a strong supporter of the far right white supremacist movement, which is no friend of the Jews.

Poster for the HBO miniseries.

Perhaps they would identify with Roth’s brilliant creation Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who in his pursuit of power, stoops so low as to dine with Lindbergh’s Nazi friends.

In an interview with the New York Times in January 2018 – a few months before he passed away aged 85 – Roth said that while Charles Lindbergh may have been a genuine racist and anti-semite, he was also because of his flying feats a “genuine American hero”

“Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac, “ says Roth.

I couldn’t agree more.

The Plot Against America is a riveting historical novel that will surely resonate with readers in the post-Trump age as we ponder who might be the next popular figure to make a claim for the White House on a platform of lies and disinformation.

Philip Roth said in the same 2004 NYT essay that because the events he depicted in his novel did not happen in America despite many seeds for them occurring being present (other virulent and influential anti-semites at the time of Lindbergh included carmaker Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest whose Jew-hating radio show was broadcast to tens of millions), it shows how “how lucky we Americans are”.

While Joe Biden has promised to restore America’s democratic values, that luck may have run out.

(Footnote: The Plot Against America has been made into an HBO miniseries by David Simon, the creator of The Wire (one of the best TV shows of all time).

It stars among others Winona Ryder as Evelyn Finkel and the great John Turturro as Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf – I am eager to see it.)

‘Happiness’ – is Todd Solondz’s masterpiece the most subversive film of all time?

If you want to have your mind blown cinematically, do yourself a favour and track down a copy of Todd Solondz’s 1998 independent classic “Happiness” starring – among others – the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker, Ben Gazzara (also now deceased), Lara Flynn Boyle, Jon Lovitz, Cynthia Stevenson, Louise Lasser and Jane Adams.

Don’t be fooled by the title (which is ironic), this is one of the most disturbing, brilliant and darkly funny films you will ever  see.

In the style of other great ensemble cast films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, Happiness follows the intertwining stories of an eclectic band of misfits, losers, perverts, loners and dreamers set against the backdrop of modern American life with its condos, office cubicles and supposedly “happy” family homes.

I watched it twice in 1998, when it first came out. The second time I dragged some friends along and I recall some of them swore they’d never forgive me – it’s that kind of movie.

Then, after reading about the making of Happiness in Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, which chronicled the independent film era (movies like Sex, Lies and Videotape, The Crying Game and Pulp Fiction), I felt compelled to watch it again.

It was pretty hard to find it online – the film has slipped somewhat into obscurity. But with a bit of perseverance I finally tracked a bootleg version* and watched it again, astounded once again by its originality as I was 22 years ago.

Among the highlights of the film, is the brilliant performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman in a role you will never forget.

He plays the pivotal character of Allen, an overweight and deeply unhappy office worker whose sexual frustrations and inability to talk to women (“I have nothing to talk about. I’m boring,” he tells his therapist) has transformed into a penchant for making obscene phone calls to single woman he finds in the telephone directory.

This is a central and recurring theme of Happiness – the extraordinary/unspeakable things supposedly ordinary people do behind close doors, when nobody is watching.

(Another key character, Allen’s dowdy and desperately lonely neighbour Kristina (Camryn Manheim) confesses to murder and dismemberment over a chocolate fudge sundae with strawberry ice-cream.)

While Allen may be revolting in many aspects, Solondz treats him and other unsavoury and sad characters in the film with great empathy, recognising that people are not just one shade of colour. Allen can also be kind, comforting and understanding – he just needs to find the right woman!

Allen shares his apartment block and often the lift with the glamourous, but vacuous author Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) one of three sisters whose stories are also told in Happiness.

Allen (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) gets some phone relief

Helen bemoans the inherent phoniness in her writing  -“If only I’d been raped as a child” she moans ridiculously as she longs for some authentically awful experience.

These awful experiences rain down on her younger sister, the naive and sweet guitar-playing Joy (Jane Adams) despite Joy’s best efforts to be a good and useful human being.

The first of these humiliations play out in the brilliant opening scene of the film, where Joy is left devastated by her date Andy (played by the comic Jon Lovitz in a great cameo) after she rejects him as a romantic partner.

Andy gives Joy an expensive gift, but then angrily snatches it back telling her it’s for the girl who loves him for who he is – he just wanted to show her what she is missing out on.

Andy: “…you think I’m shit? Well, you’re wrong, ’cause I’m champagne, and you’re shit. Until the day you die, you, not me, will always be shit.

The third sister is mother hen Trish (Cynthia Stevenson)  who believes she is living the life her unhappily single sister Joy can only dream of.

All dimples and smiles, Trish’s near perfect life is centered around her solid marriage to softly-spoken therapist Dr Bill Maplewood ( Dylan Baker in a devastating brilliant performance) and the home they have made in a big double story house filled with three busy young children.

The illusion of happiness: Bill (Dylan Baker) with his son Billy (Rufus Read)

However, Bill, whose patients include the masturbatory Allen, is not quite the wholesome family man and tender father figure his wife and the world thinks he is. He’s a craven pedophile with an uncontrollable lust for young boys around the age of his eldest son Billy, who just happens to be enduring the trials of puberty and his inability to ejaculate (“Dad, when will I cum?”).

In one of the early scenes in the film, we see Bill drive to a convenience store on the way home, purchase  a teen magazine from the shelf and then vigorously pleasure himself in the backseat of his sedan as he flips through the images.

We also meet Helen, Joy and Trish’s feuding parents, unhappy Lenny (played by the gravely-voiced veteran character actor Ben Gazzara) and his neurotic wife Mona (another movie veteran Louise Lasser) who share a luxurious condo.

Lenny wants out of the marriage, but insists there is no one else. He just wants to be left alone.

Mona’s frustrations boil over into one of the funniest (and tragic) lines of the film:

“It’s OK. I’m not dumb. Things happen. I’ll get over it. I just wish you had done this 20 years ago.  NOW I’LL HAVE TO GET ANOTHER FUCKING FACE LIFT.”

Black humour is a constant throughout the film, often accompanying the most excruciating and humiliating moments.

“If there hadn’t been humour of sorts in the movie, it would be unbearable,” Solondz said in an interview in 1998.

But, he doesn’t use humour just to break the tension, nor does he use it to mock or belittle the character’s painful experiences. For Solondz, humour is the flipside of what is so sad about the characters he depicts.

“It’s often hard for me to separate what I find so sad from what I find so funny. There’s a kind of poignancy for me…things that I am very moved by I find funny.”

I think this is a fundamental truism (as seen in many great Woody Allen movies, especially Crimes & Misdemeanours). If you don’t agree with this premise, you’ll probably hate Happiness.

Solondz goes on to say: “ I didn’t know if people would laugh or if they wouldn’t laugh, but it didn’t matter. I always believe that however  [the audience] felt they would listening to what is going on…that you were seeing something you hadn’t seen before…things that are the most deeply personal are discussed in the most open and devastating way ultimately.

This is especially true of the film’s darkest character, Dr Bill Maplewood, who when confronted by his eldest son Billy  about his terrible crimes, confesses in complete honesty

The scene which occurs on the couch in the family’s living room is one of the most devastating father and son moments ever depicted in a movie. Bill, for all his horrendous faults cannot lie to his son, nor will he harm him, despite his uncontrollable proclivities.

Asked by Billy if he would do to him, what he did to his friends (rape them), Bill replies: “No. I’d jerk off instead”.

As the esteemed film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Happiness: In a film that looks into the abyss of human despair, there is the horrifying suggestion that these characters may not be grotesque exceptions, but may in fact be part of the mainstream of humanity.”

Happiness is ultimately a film about the human condition in all its complexities, perversities, hidden layers and deep dark secrets.

It is in my humble opinion, a masterpiece (but not for everyone).

*To track down a version of Happiness, download the Russian social media app OK (trust me on this one). Login via your Facebook account and then simply search for Happiness on the app.