Sunday, July 28, 2013

Book Review: ‘Easy Prey’ by Douglas Watkinson

Easy Prey Before you get too comfortable or too far into this book review, grab something to write with and write on. Now write down, Douglas Watkinson – Nathan Hawk Mysteries. You are not going to want to forget those names.

Douglas Watkinson has spent most of his adult life as a TV Screenwriter for British television. His fellow countrymen will recognize his work on shows such as Heartbeat, Midsomer Murders, Kavanagh QC, Emmerdale Farm and Poirot among others. A few years ago he turned his hand to prose. He pinned his first book, Haggard Hawk under the pseudonym Marcus Barr. “Don’t ask me why” he says. “I never got used to Marcus so I dumped him and went back to Douglas Watkinson for the second book, Easy Prey (Nathan Hawk Mystery).”

“I clicked my fingers and missed my catch. The glass fell to the floor and smashed. The place went quiet. Such is the power of oncoming violence that his customers knew something was brewing and it wasn't just the coffee. Roberto turned to appeal to the onlookers. None of them really wanted to help. None of them really wanted to be there anymore.”

Watkinson’s Nathan Hawk is a recently and forcibly retired cop. He’s got anger management issues and a host of methods for dealing with them, but they won’t stay down on the farm no matter how hard he tries.The ex-head of a Murder Squad with impeccable credentials for hunting down and ferreting out killers – he solved 35 murders and brought the killers to justice during his career - , he survived a bad marriage, and his wife is now deceased. He’s got a heart to rent and has met a doctor in the village where he has retired to that may or may not be willing to take out a long term lease. He has a fathers worries about his children who have flown the nest. Theoretically. They are all mostly grown and scattered to the four winds, making their own way – in many worrisome ways – in the world.  Mostly, he has too much time on his hand, time to worry about things that he’d rather ignore or let find their own way. He has thrown himself into rehabilitating his small country cottage and into gardening and into mastering his anger control issues in many conventional and eccentric ways, and to sending money to his children who find the damnedest ways to spend it. But, no matter how retired he is, no matter how often the local authorities tell him to stay away, murders keep popping up and he can’t help himself from becoming involved.

Teresa Stillman is the remarkably well adjusted daughter of a local barrister. She has found success as a landscape architect restoring old English gardens and in designing new and beautiful Japanese gardens. And she is having romantic thoughts for Tom Gibson, a helper she had first hired and then started falling for. Tom is a hard worker and seems to have found himself, in the quiet work of gardening. Teresa has never supplied her father with the worrisome things that all children put their parents through. Until now.

Teresa goes missing, along with a £7000 deposit,  after meeting a mysterious potential client. The police, who aren’t keen on pursuing the matter anyhow, run into nothing but dead ends. The local constable postulates that she has finally spread her wings and run off somewhere to sow her wild oats. They can find no evidence of a crime, and put the matter to rest. But her father, John Stillman can’t let her go that easy. After many years of devoting his time to rising to the top of his profession as a prosecuting barrister, and not paying attention to his only daughter, she sill seemed so devoted to him and such a ‘good girl’ he can’t believe that she would just run off and wants nothing to do with him. He knows in his heart that she is out there and just needs someone to find her and bring her home.

He turns to Nathan Hawk, who at first turns down the job because his policeman’s experience tells him that Teresa must be dead and by finding her he would only be robbing John Stillman of his hope. Hawk is just back from a Los Angles vacation where all of his children were for once gathered in the same place. His daughter, Ellie – 19 going on 20 and with plenty of baggage to worry a father, most of it boy baggage – who Hawk expects is going to drop out of her expensive Parisian school, where she has lived alone for the past year, accompanies him home.

He comes to suspect that Ellie is into drugs, though even his policemen's nose must admit he has no real evidence beyond the fact that she has ‘probably’ smoked pot and after she borrows £20 quid from him. Twice. Nevertheless, he goes snooping one night and comes to believe that she is into hard drugs, possibly even heroin.  When Ellie finds out, a fight pursues and Ellie takes off and doesn’t come home that night. Hawk lets his mind wander down the most treacherous road of possibilities, some involving the scruffy Yank she had befriended on the plane home. Hawk is on the verge of calling the authorities and reporting her missing when she shows back up. This little scare, the real life worry and fear he has for his daughter makes him empathize with John Stillman and the hell he is going through with his missing daughter. Ellie was gone for 24 hours. Teresa Stillman ahs been missing for 3 months.  He decides to search for Teresa, but on the understanding that he fully expects to only discover a dead body.

He quickly discovers many clues that the local police never uncovered. First, Tom Gibson has a record from his youth for boosting cars, and did a little time. He also is living in a tent on a neglected field. Next, Teresa’s last client, who she designed the Japanese garden for, is a well respected art dealer, but on further investigation it turns out that he was sent to prison on a fraud charge by Teresa’s father, John, years earlier. But the search for the last client she was going to meet,Richard Crane, the night she disappears is a dead end. He apparently does not exist, and though Tom and the last client are not totally above board, they seem to have no real motive for murder. Hawk feels certain that Teresa is dead and that the illusive Richard Crane is, if not the culprit, then the key to finding her.

One thing that bothers Hawk is a motive for doing harm to Teresa. The obvious is a revenge, but if it’s to be revenge, then why isn’t the killer gloating? And with no other missing young girls, the crime doesn’t feel like a serial killer. Just as Hawk has run out of leads to pursue, he is warned off the case by the local police and anonymous phone calls start to come in, one apparently from the illusive Richard Crane. Eventually Hawk comes to believe that Teresa may have been a mistake. She wasn’t the intended victim, but if that is the case, then who was and what is the motive? Eventually the investigation  leads Hawk to the Scottish highland where he is in an apparent race to save the real target of this killer and in a chase reminiscent of John Buchanan’s 39 Steps, Hawk is pitted against a determined killer and factions of the authorities that want him to quit looking and let nature take its course.

dougWatkinson has written a first-class mystery/revenge thriller with a beautifully paced plot that at once begs the reader to race down the path where the clues lead and to slow down and savor it for the warmth and beauty of the prose and the setting. It examines the realm of murder, crime, revenge and society in an almost languid fashion and with a laconic style that begs the reader to think, to get involved . Hawk is a loveable yet damaged man, he’s psychologically complex and wryly witty, yet hard as nails and deadly serious when he is on a killers trail. But at home, he’s a soft touch, where his children and those he cares for, and what he sees as justice, are are concerned. Hawk is the perfect blend of the British cozy and the hardboiled, dark detective. And there are just enough quirks in his personality to take him to realms that detectives just never acknowledge let a love visit.

Hawk is such a wonderfully drawn character that he moves to the head of the class to stand next to Ian Rankin’s John Rebus or any of the other great contemporary detectives to be found in British crime fiction. He doesn’t muscle aside these other great character so much as wander up to stand next to them, like he has been expected all along, but was running late, probably lingered too long over a glass of wine at the pub. Hawk is more approachable for the American reader, for, though he is thoroughly English, his voice is more international and the reader won’t get bogged down in trying to translate English to English. I know one thing. I won’t be missing the next novel by even a day of its release. Further, Watkins prose are smooth and powerful as a vintage Jaguar shifting through the gears and running up the revs. There are no stops and starts, there are no hesitations, just from opening to closing an engaging, finely told story that is wholly original yet pays homage to the classics of both literature and the genre.


The Dirty Lowdown

"First published on Blogcritics."

Copyright © 2013 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Book Review: “Hour Of The Rat” by Lisa Brackmann

hour of the ratLisa Brackmann’s new novel, Hour of the Rat promised to be a very good international crime thriller and it lives up to that billing very well. The second in what promises to be a very important series, bringing back Ellie Cooper from  her electrifying debut, 2010’s Rock Paper Tiger, and what an encore performance it is.

Ellie McEnroe is an Iraqi war vet, constantly reminded of the wound she suffered to her leg and  haunted by her experiences in the war. Having followed her now ex-husband ,a one time army interrogator , Trey, to China she finds herself a drift. From her marriage, from her country and from “normal” people. Adding to her on-the-edge psyche is her mother, a born again Christian despite her serial bad relationships with seemingly every man she meets. Ellie is now, though thoroughly unqualified, working as an artists agent for her one time love interest Lao Zhang, whose work is viewed as subversive by the Chinese government.

Seeking a bit or release from her chaotic life she decides to do a favor for a fellow wounded Iraqi vet, Dog Turner. Dog’ brother, Jason is a politically active left winger whose politics seems more driven by his hormones than any idealism but he has gone missing in picturesque Yangshuo, a famous tourist destination. Before she can begin her quest to find Jason, Ellie is asked to “have tea”, a euphemism for come in for questioning,  with a Pompadoured Chinese Bureaucrat who works for The Domestic Security Directorate. The DSD’s motto translates to something like “Leniency for those who confess. Severity for those who refuse” They are interested in Ellie’s relationship with Lao Zhang. Why he would employ an American who has no training in art to sell his paintings and if perhaps she holds this position of employment because she works for the American government. More importantly, Pompadour wants to talk with Lao Zhang. Ellie has a clandestine way to contact Lao, through a secret and massive interactive online game that is more a place for dissidents to meet and exchange intelligence than an actual game.  Ellie explains that she doesn’t speak with Lao often, and only then by email. This doesn’t satisfy the DSD but they choose to watch her instead of throw her in jail.

Finally free to travel in search of the illusive Jason, Ellie finds her mother has insinuated herself into the trip, so when Ellie adjusts her mind, stocks her supply of pain killers, and accepts the journey as a sort of mother-daughter get away, she is less than pleased to find out her mother is bringing along her latest flame, “that nice Mr. Zhou next door”. But where Ellie held out little hope of locating Jason, when she peruses the few leads that Dog could give her, she finds herself pulled into a world where the DSD is following her, her ex-husband and his new love, “that bitch, Lily Ping.”keep showing up in the out of the way places she travels to, and she keeps getting emails and phone calls from a secretive Chinese billionaire art collector bent on acquiring Lao Zhangs work even though Ellie has received instructions to take his work off the market. 

Ellie’s Percocet and beer fueled search for Jason leads her through back alleys for secretive meetings, dumpling shops, the art world and virtual reality eventually taking her to some of China’s most beautiful a surreal landscapes. Ellie’s search uncovers a very secretive and dangerous biotech company that might just be involved in genetically altering food crops. Pitted against this conglomerate are people that know or knew Jason and are involved in eco-terrorism. The many characters she meets are entertaining and through them the many facets of the country that is China are revealed. We meet shop girls, factory workers Uigar dissidents, and the quirky people that populate the Chinese art world…and don’t forget the cats.. She’ll make you feel like you are walking the densely populated streets, eating in the small shops and trying to find cold beer.

If Brackmann had stopped there, we would have one of the best thrillers of the year. She manages to weave so many topical subjects and culturally revealing snap shots of the real China into the story, and never lets the detail bog it down. The many quirky characters are brought to life  on the page with a realism that few writers can obtain. The sense of place, both in the fantastical locales and in the dirty mean streets , the subversive online game -which is more virtual reality hangout than game -, and the Chinese art world make the reader feel like they have been here before. The egotistic and threatening government officials feel like government functionaries the world over. And Ellie herself, a strong women, yet vulnerable. Flawed yet moral and with a sense of loyalty, is a character the reader will fall in love with, like that slightly wild younger sibling. And without preaching, she brings to the readers mind the damage our recent wars can do to the people that fight them and the sense of alienation they are often left with. In short, Brackmann has used all the writers tools effortlessly and flawlessly. She has told a story that both entertains and educates, and the plot, with its many facets, its many characters is still easy to follow and get hooked on. But she doesn’t stop there.

Since the days of Raymond Chandler and  on the pages where he invented the hardboiled world of Philip Marlowe and the dark and seedy characters on both sides of the law that he encountered, the noir/hardboiled/detective story has always been dialog-centric. Whether that dialog has been snappy repartee between characters or the inner dialog as the protagonist struggles with their own morals or the pieces of a puzzle.  Chandler was fond of saying that he only captured the language of the common man. Most critic think he took that hard bitten and cynical prose of the street and made it poetry. Regardless, the hardboiled dialog, both darkly humorous and threateningly dangerous has become the trademark of the genre.

Many authors have tried to capture it, reinvent it as their own and parodied it to where it became more caricature than character. Most modern and hugely successful authors that write in the spirit of Chandler for the past twenty or thirty years avoid it; Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder, Walter Mosley's EZ Rawlins weren’t smart mouthed, quick with a line characters, their street wise style was displayed through their inner dialogue and the dark side of their own personas. James Ellroy developed a style and a language that was a mix of police vernacular and jazz-drug patios that is uniquely his own, but doesn’t even pay homage to the ghost of Philip Marlowe. But nobody has updated it. Taken those Chandleresque phrases and brought them into the twenty-first century with any success. Until now.

What those who ended up with parodies of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade forgot was Chandler’s dialog was the real speech of the man on the street. The common man.What Brackmann has done with the dialog in Hour Of The Rat and Rock, Paper, Tiger before it is to take the modern language of the common man – or woman in this case, and make of it a modern, twenty-first century hardboiled dialog. When Ellie is being questioned by the authorities her answers are both sass and jive. But they aren’t lifted from some 1940s “B” movie They are, however,  the responses a modern, hard bitten woman such as Iraqi war vet Ellie might respond with. When she runs up against tough street thugs or reluctant witnesses the dialog is both in your face and street slang. In short, Brackmann has topped off a perfect,  darkly humorous, hip novel and gone one better by writing dialog that is Chandleresque yet thug modern. She has set the bar high for anyone wishing to write at the top of their game in the noir genre.

When Ellie is showing Jason’s photo around to doormen at night clubs and a guy hits on her and invites her for a drink later on. ‘ “Maybe,” I say, and smile back, because he helped me and he’s sort of cute, in a slouchy, borderline-delinquent kind of way.’ It could be Chandler writing in The High Window, “A check girl in peach-bloom Chinese pajamas came over to take my hat and disapprove of my clothes. She had eyes like strange sins.”

When Ellie reflects on her loss of faith and thinks, “When people talk about how your faith gets tested, they always say that trials make your faith stronger. What they don’t say is that sometimes faith just dissolves like desert sand between your fingers.” I am reminded of a scene from The Little Sister where Marlowe “…" put the duster away folded with the dust in it, leaned back and just sat, not smoking, not even thinking. I was a blank man. I had no face, no meaning, no personality, hardly a name. I didn't want to eat. I didn't even want a drink. I was the page from yesterday's calendar crumpled at the bottom of the waste basket."

It’s a realism that mirrors life. Yet the book is full of wry humor, just like life. It’s introspective in places, and wildly entertaining in others. Just like life. Brackmann has pulled off a wonderful piece of work that will be quoted, cited and reread for all of its nuances for a long time to come.

Lisa BrackmannLisa Brackmann has worked as an executive in the Hollywood film industry, been politically active in a presidential election and been a singer/songwriter/bass player with an L.A. Rock Band. She has spent considerable time in China, where she experienced first hand all the different faces of modern China and uses those experiences to paint the background of her novels. Her debut novel, Rock, Paper, Tiger made several “Best of 2010″ lists, including Amazon’s Top 100 Novels and Top 10 Mystery/Thrillers, and was nominated for the Strand Magazine Critics Award for Best First Novel. Her second novel, Getaway, won the Los Angeles Book Festival Grand Prize and was nominated for the T. Jefferson Parker SCIBA award.

The Dirty Lowdown

Copyright © 2013 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved

"First published on Blogcritics."  


  • Hardcover: 371 pages  Publisher: Soho Crime; First Edition edition (June 18, 2013)  Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1616952342 ISBN-13: 978-1616952341

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Book News: On Tour With Tim Hallinan~ Seattle Bound

Edgar Nominee Tim Hallinan, Whose Junior Bender Novels Were Just Optioned To Lionsgate (the creators of MadMen, Anger Management, and the Emmy Award Winning Weeds plus the blockbuster The Hunger Games  franchise, the Bruce Willis vehicle RED2 and the chilling genre film  You’re Next) Will Be Signing  The Fame Thief (Junior Bender #3) at Seattle Mystery Bookshop,  at 12pm Tuesday July 16. Don’t Miss It!

Tim Hallinan

I first met 2011 Edgar Nominee Tim Hallinan through friends from southern California, on Facebook, three or four years ago. I was in the process of reinventing myself as a writer after my nearly 40 year career in technology came crashing to the ground with the aid of an auto immune disease that was slowly taking my eye sight and wearing at my body. I was buying books at the Dollar Store to read and review. Funds were low. Tim was going through changes of his own at the time, but of course I didn’t know this. After around ten critically received novels that only sold moderately he had an idea for a new series of stories. “I started to hear the voice that led me into to the Junior Bender series while I was writing Breathing Water, the third Poke Rafferty novel. I let it tell me a short story about a crook and his hamster and then shut it out until I'd finished Breathing Water. Then I sat down and wore my fingers out for six weeks, and when I got up, I had written Crashed.” Tim says. The problem was his publisher didn’t like the story and showed even less interest in a potential series.

So he fulfilled his contract with that publisher and decided to self publish, in eBook only, what would turn into The Junior Bender series. But self publishing is a difficult path to follow to success. Especially for an author who is used to a traditional publisher doing all the grunt work; Getting the book into stores. Promoting the book through press releases, book tours and more importantly getting it read and reviewed by print and online reviewers. This is where I come in. It turns out that Tim was friends with the same crowd who had befriended me back in the 1980s in the Antelope Valley, north of Los Angles. These friends were aware of my struggle to reinvent myself as a writer of book reviews and they also had the skinny on Tim’s foray into self publishing. It was only natural that they would suggest we get together. BenderAfter a short email conversation, Tim sent me Little Elvises, the second book in the series. I found the book hilarious, extremely well written and what was almost more impressive at the time, beautifully laid out, professionally edited and professionally presented which wasn’t always the case in 2011 when the eBook phenomenon was just getting launched. I  wrote a review in which I compared the book to Johnathan Latimer’s William Crane and called it cynically funny as Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder stories. Apparently a lot of other book reviewers found Junior Bender equally praise worthy. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel said, “Think of him as a detective for delinquents, a fixer for felons.” New York Times Best Selling author, Julia Spencer-Fleming said, “If Carl Hiaasen and Donald Westlake had a literary love child he would be Timothy Hallinan.”

It was about this time, and powered by such rave reviews, that Soho Press came on the scene. They not only loved the Junior Bender books, but they picked up on Tim’s latest entry into the Poke Rafferty series, The Fear Artist (Poke Rafferty). The Fear Artist is Tim at the height of his craft. It is noir perfected. The book crosses over from a first class international thriller in to the realms of literature. I was lucky enough to get to write a review for the book last August and I had to agree with Ken Bruen (who would dare disagree with the Irish master of noir fiction?) who said, "John Burdett writes about Bangkok. Tim Hallinan is Bangkok.”

For the release of The Fame Thief, Tim’ publisher, Soho Crime pulled out all the stops. Advertising in major media markets, radio spots, advance review copies were made available and they have sent him on a national tour. But what’s more, it can now be revealed that his wonderful series that was turned down by a major publisher not only has received the support of Soho, his fans new and old, and book shops across the country but Lionsgate, the creator of some of the best shows on TV – Madmen, Anger Management, and the Emmy Award Winning Weeds not to mention the company that brought you the worldwide blockbuster The Hunger Games  franchise, the Bruce Willis vehicle RED2 and the chilling genre film like You’re Next has bought the film and television rights to the Junior Bender series.

fearartist-250x377Taking a short break on his nation-wide tour promoting The Fame Thief (Junior Bender #3) Tim will be stopping in Portland, Oregon on Monday but there are no book events planned here. His plane lands at PDX at 1:30 and he is grabbing a cab to the Vancouver VA Medical Center, where I have been recovering from cancer surgery. From there we’ll jump back in the cab and find a quiet local eatery to finally meet in person and let me pick his brain about Junior Bender and his future escapades as well as the sixth Poke Rafferty novel which is in rewrite status I am told. After our lunch, Tim will drop me back off at the hospital and jump an early evening flight to Seattle. On Tuesday Tim will be signing The Fame Thief at Seattle’s premier mystery book store, appropriately called, Seattle Mystery Bookshop,  at 12pm. The store is located at 117 Cherry St. in Seattle, WA call (206) 587-5737 for further details or just show up and met this exciting author. His recent success is not due to being an overnight sensation but through hard work, deft craftsmen ship, the support of a great publisher and that quick witted, smart mouthed oddball, Junior Bender who is one of the most refreshing characters to steal into the pages of a book in a very long time. On Thursday, July 18th, Tim will be in Houston, TX for a discussion with Julia Heaberlin at Murder by the Book (6:30pm, 2342 Bissonnet St., Houston, TX 77005 (713) 524-8597) and then he’ll be heading north to Austin, TX to Noir at the Bar Austin and on Saturday, July 20  he’ll be appearing with with Marcia Clark & Josh Stallings, presented by MysteryPeople, Opal Divine's Penn Field  at 7pm the address is 3601 S. Congress Ave. Austin, TX 73301  (512) 707-0237.

Then he finally gets to head home to L.A., but not before a quick stop on Saturday July 27, 2pm at Book ‘Em 1118 Mission St.South Pasadena, CA 91030 (626) 799-9600. If you miss any of the appearances then be sure to pick up the book or better yet all three books in the series. Junior Bender is bound to be the topic of conversation amongst book lovers and crime fiction fans for a long, long time.


The Dirty Lowdown 

"First published on Blogcritics."

Copyright © 2013 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Book Review: “The Holy or the Broken - Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’ “ By Alan Light


Frank Zappa said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. To an extent that is a very true statement. Taking a piece of art that was expressed in one medium and trying to explain; examine it in another medium can be a daunting task. But in the hands of a knowledgeable and dedicated craftsman such as Alan Light it expands on the beauty of the subject piece. Alan Light is one of the foremost music journalists working today and  has written a fascinating account of the making, remaking and unlikely popularization of one of the most played and recorded songs in recorded history. The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah"  takes an in-depth look at the song and attempts to define its universal appeal. Today, it is one of the most covered rock songs in history, covered by literally hundreds of artists including U2, Bon Jovi, Justin Timberlake, Celine Dion, and Willie Nelson to name just a few. The song has been sung by numerous American Idol contestants, opera stars and punk bands. Decades after its creation it climbed into the Top Ten throughout Europe and Scandinavia.  In 2008, different versions simultaneously held the number one and two positions on the UK Singles Chart, with Cohen’s original climbing into the Top 40 at the same time. Light focuses on, perhaps, the three most iconic interpretations of the song, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright and Leonard Cohen’s original delivery while at the same time, through interviews and discussions, examining the interpretations of the many other artists who have covered the song. From Bob Dylan to Bono and with input from other non-musical artists such as Salman Rushdie. 

To get an idea of how many people have performed and listened to this song, you simply need go to YouTube. When you count up the number of times the song has been watched on the site by the various artists and in its numerous interpretations you’ll find that the total is well into the hundreds of millions.Yet, when Cohen presented his record company with the album, Various Positions in 1984, which included the song “Hallelujah” they turned the album down. What’s more they hated the song. In fact the record company thought so little of the song that it didn’t even make Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits. This song, which tortured Cohen for years in the writing, seemingly written to be forgotten some how broke through the judgment of the ‘suits’ to become one of the most recorded songs in music history. Alan Light delves into this Phoenix like rise from obscurity and explores the universal appeal of the song. The way it touches millions of listeners and how it was interpreted by so many important artists. Not all of them musicians.

Leonard Cohen, the singer-song writer, poet and novelist, is one of the most enigmatic and fascinating personages of the late ‘60s. Never having the goal of being a pop music super star, he has somehow retained an audience across four decades of music-making.  With the exception of  Bob Dylan and maybe Paul Simon,  Leonard Cohen , in terms of influence,  still captures the attention of critics and younger musicians more firmly than any other musical figure from the 1960s who is still working.

“Halleujah” Original Studio Version

Among the accolades this reclusive troubadour has garnered over the years are to win the Canadian Juno Award, Cohen has been inducted into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and both the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is also a Companion of the Order of Canada, the nation's highest civilian honor. In 2011 Cohen received a Prince of Asturias Award for literature.

He was rowed down from the north in a leather skiff manned by a crew of trolls. His fur cape was caked with candle wax, his brow stained blue by wine - though the latter was seldom noticed due to the fox mask he wore at-all times. A quill in his teeth, a solitary teardrop a-squirm in his palm, he was the young poet prince of Montreal, handsome, immaculate, searching for sturdier doors to nail his poignant verses on.

Cohen published his first poems in 1954 after a stellar scholastic career. His first published book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies was published in 1956. That was followed by The Spice-Box Of Earth in 1961. Cohen continued to write poetry and fiction throughout much of the 1960s and preferred to live in quasi-reclusive circumstances after he bought a house on Hydra, a Greek island in the Saronic Gulf.

In Manhattan, grit drifted into his ink bottle. In Vienna, his spice box exploded. On the Greek island of Hydra, Orpheus came to him at dawn astride a transparent donkey and restrung his cheap guitar. From that moment on, he shamelessly and willingly exposed himself to the contagion of music. To the secretly religious curiosity of the traveler was added the openly foolhardy dignity of the troubadour. By the time he returned to America, songs were working in him like bees in an attic. Connoisseurs developed cravings for his nocturnal honey, despite the fact that hearts were occasionally stung. – Tom Robbins introduction speech for Leonard Cohen at The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame

“Hallelujah” Jeff Buckley
By 1967, disappointed with his lack of financial success as a writer, Cohen moved to the United States and pursued a career as a folk music singer-songwriter. During the 1960s, he hung out on the fringe of Andy Warhol's "Factory" crowd. His song "Suzanne" became a hit for Judy Collins and was for many years his most covered song. After performing at a few folk festivals, he came to the attention of Columbia Records representative John H. Hammond who signed Cohen to a record deal.

Between 1967 and 1984 Columbia was to release some half dozen Leonard Cohen albums, most to outstanding critical acclaim, if not financial success. His music astounded the luminaries of the day and crossed generations from Bob Dylan to Kurt Cobain who once sang “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld / so I can sigh eternally,”  in tribute to the only songwriter , many believe, who belongs in a class with Bob Dylan.

Yet for nearly ten years after the release of the album, and the song, it gained limited exposure with a few scattered covers versions filling up albums for a disparate list of artists. Then in 1994 Jeff Buckley performed the song on his album Grace. The album served as a pivot point for the song’s popularity. But even that presentation took a number of years to catch on with the listening public. 

Only then did the songs universal appeal become clear to artists and the public. And everybody had their own idea of what the song meant.

On the surface the song touches on the biblical stories of David and Samson, however the song is far from a pious hymn

offering such charged language as “I remember when I moved in you/ and the holy dove was moving too.” Yet, the single word chorus brings the focus back to the hymnlike chant of “hallelujah,” to contrast with the romantic. As Light says in the forward to the book, “..(it) raises an eternal pop music dilemma: are people really paying attention to all the words, and does it matter.”

Perhaps Salman Rushdie, no stranger to the near mythical power of words to transcend their dictionary meaning, said it best: (it’s) joyous and despondent, a celebration and a lament, a juxtaposition of dark Old Testament imagery with an irresistibly uplifting chorus, “Hallelujah” is an open-ended meditation on love and faith.”

Singer songwriter Brandi Carlile refers to the song as “the greatest song ever written,” and goes on to say that it provided her with the key to reconcile her Christian Faith and her homosexuality. “To me, it really outlines how people tend to misconstrue religion versus faith, she said. “I felt that this song was, in a real pure, realistic way, describing what ‘hallelujah’ actually is. ‘it’s not a cry that you hear at night/ It’s not somebody that’s seen the light’ – ‘hallelujah is not something that you shout out on Sunday in a happy voice; it’s something that happens in a way that’s cold and broken and lonely.”

Bon Jovi siad, “it’s got sexuality in the song right away, the chorus is like the climax the rest is foreplay.” But for Rabi Ruth Gan Kagan, who includes the song in the Yom Kippur service at the Nava Tehila congregation in Jerusalem, “it’s a hymn of the heretic, a piyut [liturgical poem] of a modern, doubtful person.” Justin Timberlake described the song to Light this way," “For some, it’s this ability of “Hallelujah” to contain multitudes, to embrace contradictions, that gives it such power.”

And it is that power that Light explores in detail throughout the book. He examines not only how the song was seemingly resurrected from a spurned album, what it means to so many artists, themselves not unfamiliar with the power of song. He charts it’s performance history, which surely lent to the songs acceptance and it’s ability to appeal not only to a wide variety of musicians in and endless list of genre, but it’s ability to touch so many different audiences among the listening public.

AlanLight01_smLight has an ability to look at this song from so many different perspectives and this book doesn’t leave any of those fascets unexplored. Yet, it’s not so steeped in musical terms, literary examination, nor irreverent or whimsical interviews with various artists that it loses the readers interest. Indeed, the readers will find themselves reading and wanting to listen to the song at the same time. You’ll have YouTube open, bios of the various artists, references to Light’s other work, and lyric’s on display in a webpage. Light will suck you into his thesis on this song which has been called I Ching of songwriting. Yet you don’t have to be a musicologist to follow along. Cohen himself said the song represents absolute surrender in a situation you cannot fix or dominate, that sometimes it means saying, “I don’t fucking know what’s going on, but it can still be beautiful.”    That was the power Jeff Buckley’s version, had over a nation after the events of 9/11 when it was applied as a balm to grieving nation and again when it was a point of national pride when it served as the opening statement a the Olympic ceremonies  of the 2010 games in Vancouver, Canada.

Cohens lyrics have always had a strikingly evocative and literary appeal. There is something of the French chansonnier in his style. Yet something that plays around with cabaret. The brooding, dark imagery, but with a knowing and humorous smile. All of that comes together in “Hallelujah” and Light, calling on his time as a fact checker with Rolling Stone in the late ‘80s used all that knowledge, all that experience in pulling this book together, yet the reader isn’t left feeling like it is an exhaustive book, but a labor of love.



The Dirty Lowdown

Copyright © 2013 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved