Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Ron MacLean

Ron breathes the clean, white, air of the country.
I'm usually good for only one sports-related blog post every year, so there must be a great disturbance in the force for me to dash off my second on the subject this year. The disturbance is the news that George Stroumboulopoulos, after only two seasons as the host of Sportsnet's Hockey Night in Canada, has been dumped for the muppet man he originally replaced: Ron MacLean. The perceived reason for the change is that ratings for HNIC have gone down in the last two seasons. Sportsnet figured Strombo was just the young, hip, urban, cool cat who'd pull in a different, and broader, demographic. Apparently the fact that Canadian hockey teams have largely sucked over the last two seasons (I'm looking at you, Toronto) and that the game itself has become progressively less entertaining didn't factor into Sportnet's understanding of the ratings slip. Nor did they pay attention to the fact that although they changed the host, the supporting cast of dull, witless, cranky, reactionary, inarticulate colour commentators and analysts has never been tampered with. No, it was all George's fault. But I don't want this to be a blog about what's wrong with HNIC (you can read my post on that here), or why I think Ron MacLean is a puerile, narcissistic, self-important twat and a craven, simpering, enabler of Don Cherry's bigotry. No, what I want talk about here is that by canning GS and resurrecting RM, Scott Moore, President of Sportsnet, has effectively stuck a big sign on the metaphorical front door of Sportsnet that says, "Whites Only."

A bold statement, I know, but bear with me. The Golden Horseshoe area of Ontario, which encompasses Toronto, and the cities of Vancouver and Montreal (and their suburbs) represent the bulk of the population of Canada. These areas are highly urbanized and very multicultural, especially Toronto and Vancouver. These three areas drive hockey viewership in Canada, and their essential makeup is enthusiastically unrepresented on HNIC. Look at the faces on HNIC and it's pretty much wall-to-wall middle-aged white guys. There are two token women, and two visible minority men who get even less airtime than the women. Compare and contrast with any local TV news crew in any of Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver; diversity, diversity, diversity.

The resolute whiteness of HNIC (and this also applies to every other hockey broadcast in Canada) is, on one level, simply a reflection of hockey culture in North America. The cost of playing hockey for kids and teens is now so prohibitive it's become difficult for anyone but the overwhelmingly white middle and upper-middle classes to participate in it. Look around the NHL today and you see only a bare handful of visible minorities playing the game. Sportsnet isn't responsible for who is or isn't playing the game, but through their choices in on-air personalities and the editorial tone of the hockey broadcasts, Sportsnet is sending a clear message about who they think the game is for and about. And that brings us back to Ron MacLean.

MacLean might be a crap host, but he's the perfect choice if, as it would seem, Sportsnet is only interested in going after the suburban/rural, conservative, white male in the age range of 40 to dead. Ron launches into a bromantic paean whenever he gets to talk about the small-town roots of this or that player. The gushing gets even more torrid if the player is from the Prairies, which, in the minds of Ron and his on-camera cohorts, seems to be the abode of the gods. If a player is from Saskatchewan or Alberta, Ron is sure to mention that "They raise them tough out there" or "He's a good Saskatchewan boy" or "Those long western bus rides build character." Players from the cities don't get any extra praise, unless, of course, they have an Irish last name, which means we're bound to hear either "He's a tough Irishman" or "He's a fine broth of a lad." It's enough to make you gag on your soda bread. And if you're a visible minority the message is clear: don't bother playing or watching hockey...we don't want you.

As though to underline its commitment to an aging, white demographic, two years ago Sportsnet gave MacLean his own show, Hometown Hockey, which saw him hosting NHL games from a different suburb or small town each Sunday. The idea of celebrating places where the vast majority of people don't live seems odd and/or foolish when you're in the business of pulling in viewers. Sportsnet markets the show as a celebration of Canada and Canadians, but the sub-text of the show is that white, non-urban Canadians is who hockey is for. Visible minorities are in the majority in both Vancouver and Toronto, but  good luck seeing any on Sportsnet hockey broadcasts. Too bad they didn't have the foresight to move to a Newfoundland fishing village or a Manitoba farming community.

I'm part of that aging, white demographic, but I work in Toronto with a very diverse group of people, many of whom are young. They talk a lot about basketball and soccer, even baseball, but the subject of hockey is pretty much left to us old guys. Is this what Sportsnet wants? For some of these young Canadians hockey is as remote and irrelevant as jai alai or Australian football. Hockey broadcasting bears a large part of the blame for this situation. Instead of reaching out to the next generation of sports fans, they have turned their backs on them, almost thumbed their nose at them, with their ceaseless and mawkish love affair with a Canada that hasn't existed for at least a generation. Strombo was a weak choice to pull in new viewers, but bringing back MacLean to front Sportsnet's marquee hockey broadcast probably puts HNIC on the black diamond slope to ratings oblivion. And it's what they deserve.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Book Review: The Loney (2014) by Andrew Michael Hurley

The DNA for this wonderfully atmospheric and unsettling novel of the supernatural set in the 1970s can be found in two places. The first is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. What Waters did in her novel was overlay a ghost story on a story that's largely about the social upheaval in post-war Britain as it moved rapidly to a social welfare state. This gave her novel a complexity and resonance that's lacking in most horror/supernatural fiction, which tend to have a relentless focus on nothing but the scares. Like Waters, Hurley has crafted a solid, complex, elegantly-written novel that includes a horror element, but it's not all about the horror. Take away the supernatural element and The Loney could still stand on its merits as a straight novel about faith, especially its blindness.

The other strand of DNA in Hurley's novel comes from Barbara Pym, a forgotten and then rediscovered novelist from the 1960s and '70s. Pym wrote gently comic novels about the English middle-classes. Her characters place great importance on social rank and the proper observance of social customs and traditions, often in the context of the Anglican church. Hurley gives us a group of people who could easily have wandered in from a Pym novel One couple even has a wonderfully fruity and Pym-like surname: Mr and Mrs Belderboss. Like Pym's characters, Hurley's are middle-class and carefully, constantly snobbish about their inferiors, especially those who don't appear to be sufficiently pious. And at times, between the chills and frights, Hurley invites us to smile, if not laugh, at their buttoned-down silliness.

And so on to the plot: the unnamed narrator is a fifteen year-old boy who is the chief carer for his brother Andrew, who is mute, probably autistic, and several years older. Their parents, the Smiths, are devout Catholics and their lives revolve around their church, which has recently changed priestly hands. Father Bernard is the new, young, Irish priest. His predecessor died "suddenly," as they say. The Smiths and Belderbosses aren't keen on this disturbance to their routine, and their first chance to put the new dog collar-wearer to the test comes on their annual Easter pilgrimage. They go to a place on the northwest coast of England called the Loney. It's a bit of untamed coastline that's infamous for is deadly tides and bogs. The house they stay in, called the Moorings, is architecturally in keeping with the gloomy, haunted surroundings. The pilgrimage is a both a retreat and a chance to visit various local shrines. The Smiths fervently believe that God will cure Andrew on one of these pilgrimages.

The Smiths and Belderbosses have happy memories of previous trips to the Moorings, but nothing goes right this time. A third couple, Miss Bunce and her fiance David, had lobbied to go to Wales instead, and Bunce is quick to voice her displeasure at the roughness of the land and the accommodations. None of them are entirely happy with Father Bernard, who seems insufficiently stern, and the weather is thoroughly crappy. And then there's those locals; they're an ominous crew with yeasty accents and a habit of making startling and unnerving appearances.

Without dropping spoilers all over the place it's tricky to describe what constitutes the horror in The Loney. Hurley achieves his goal by layering episodes and glimpses of savagery, menace, eeriness, and disquietude. What it all seems to add up to is that the Loney is a patch of England where pagan beliefs and spirits still hold sway, not to mention some nasty black magic. All this pagan horror is nicely contrasted with the religious activities of the pilgrims at the Moorings, who are equally obsessed with the magic in the form of prayers, holy talismans and Christian shrines. It's a case of two sides of the same coin, only the pagans appear to have backed the winning side.

Hurley's deftness with character-building really puts this novel on a different plane. Tonto, who we meet as an adult at the beginning and end of the novel, is shrewd, caring, perceptive and agnostic, if not atheist, at an early age. He's wise enough to see that the faith of his parents and their peers is equal parts hobby and play-acting. The adult characters, even the minor ones, are sharply drawn. The Smiths and their friends could have easily been portrayed as purely fatuous or shallow, but Hurley takes the harder route of showing people whose often foolish belief in faith arises from being wounded or frightened, or in wishing not to offend loved ones.

So this'll be my book of the year so far, and it also has to be one of the most sophisticated horror novels I've ever read. And now please hurry up with the film version, which is in the capable hands of the people who produced Ex Machina.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Film Review: The Nice Guys (2016)

Shane Black, the testosterone-addled writer/director behind such guys with guns films as Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and The Last Boy Scout, isn't wholly to blame for this embalmed-in-nostalgia disaster. It's clear he didn't get the memo. No one who has read the memo would have cast Russell Crowe in anything remotely resembling a comedy. I'm positive a memo was sent out to everyone in Hollywood letting them know that Crowe can't do funny in the same way that Donald Trump can't do rational. The proof is the romantic-comedy A Good Year (2006), in which Russ tried to go the full Hugh Grant and ended up doing a career face-plant that registered on the Richter scale. And I`m positive another memo will shortly be doing the rounds in Hollywood letting people know that Ryan Gosling also appears to be comedy-impaired.

The plot, such as it is, has Crowe and Gosling as, respectively, Jackson Healey,an enforcer for hire, and Holland March, a boozy P.I., joining forces to find a missing girl in 1977 Los Angeles. Also along for the ride is Angourie Rice playing March's precocious 13 year-old daughter. The missing girl, Elaine, is somehow involved in both the porn business and a scandal affecting Detroit's automakers. Various people want her dead and are happy to take out anyone looking for her. As you can see, Black repeatedly hit the cliche key on his laptop when he sat down to write this mess. The thin plot is just a rickety framework for a barrage of dead-on-arrival gags and glitzy, extravagant production design that recreates in lurid detail the era that good taste forgot.

Even if Crowe and Gosling were born comics it's hard to imagine them wringing laughs out of this material. A typical gag has March asking Healey, "What do you call those guys without balls?" March is thinking of eunuchs, but Healey wittily replies, "Married?" This would have been a tired gag in 1977, but Black thinks it's so funny he has his duo do another variation of it later on. Adding a precocious kid into the mix just makes things more like a bad sitcom, and when the girl ends up at a porn producer's party the film takes a turn into the unsavory that it never recovers from. None of the actors survive this train wreck. Gosling and Crowe are poor, Rice is awful, and Kim Basinger as an attorney general is...very odd. When she first appeared on screen I wasn't sure what I was looking at. A Pixar creation? A hologram? And then I remembered that some actors now have it in their contracts that they must be digitally altered to look younger. Basinger doesn't look younger, she looks like a replicant auditioning for a Blade Runner sequel.

Shane Black clearly set out to make a guns and gags version of Boogie Nights. The latter film, however, wasn't fixated on period detail and had a laser-sharp focus on character. The Nice Guys is just a collection of bad jokes dressed up in wide lapels and garish colours. And even the action elements are lacking, which is a shocker in a Shane Black film. Avoid this one and just watch something nasty and funny that was actually made in the '70s like Freebie and the Bean or Busting.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Film Review: The Witch (2015)

Of all the qualities that help make a horror movie succeed, acting usually isn't at the top of the list. Editing, cinematography, makeup and special effects are normally the most mentioned aspects of horror films. In The Witch, the acting is everything. The setting is colonial America in the early 1600s, and the story focuses entirely on a family of Pilgrims who are trying to farm (not very successfully) in the middle of the wilderness. An opening scene establishes that they have been exiled from a Pilgrim settlement due to some transgression on the part of William, the head of the family. Based on how he behaves with his family, it seems likely that his sin was being too pious for his peers, if that's possible. One day the family's infant son is snatched away by a witch, and so begins the disintegration and destruction of the entire family.

The story is rigorously straight-forward, steeped in folkloric imagery, stripped of all modern sensibilities, and doesn't have any of the cliche plot twists and jump scares that are standard issue in most modern horror films. This is a true horror film in that what rivets our attention is the horror of what's happening to the characters, not the scares inflicted on us by things jumping out of the dark or crashing sound effects or blood-soaked visuals. This makes the acting all the more important because it's the actors who largely carry the burden of transmitting the horror to the audience. The small, ensemble cast is superb, and writer/director Robert Eggers has given them rich, chewy, period dialogue that the actors make sound completely natural. There isn't one performance that stands out from the others, but Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb, the eldest son, deserves special mention for a scene in which he wakes from a fever that is so intense it'll raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

The acting is supported by the look of the film, which is sombre, gloomy and classically understated. Showy camerawork would have taken the audience out of the reality created by the story and the actors, so kudos to the director for that decision. Another subtle and effective touch is that each character is given a flaw that they keep hidden. The father is an incompetent farmer; the mother resents having come to America; the daughter isn't quite pious enough; the son is casting lustful looks at his sister; and the young twins are out and out holy terrors. This isn't a simplistic crew of God-bothering Pilgrims. All in all, the best film I've seen so far this year

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Book Review: Dark Money (2016) by Jane Mayer

There is no getting around or understating the fact that Charles and David Koch, the multi-billionaire brothers from Kansas, have been engaged in a campaign of unarmed insurrection against the American state since the 1980s. Through their underwriting of dozens (hundreds?) of advocacy groups, think tanks, academic institutions, and political campaigns they have advanced the cause of what could be called the abridgment of American democracy. They have spent hundreds of millions of their own dollars to achieve this, and have solicited/badgered their plutocratic peers into giving as much and more to support their goal of reducing the role of government to something resembling that of a concierge at a luxury hotel--a mere functionary tasked with keeping the unwashed out of the lobby and satisfying every whim of the guests.

Jane Mayer has done a remarkable and tenacious job of showing all the roots and branches of the Koch brothers propaganda war. Aided by like-minded billionaires such as Sheldon Adelson, Richard Mellon Scaife, John Menard, and a torch- and pitchfork-bearing mob of mere centimillionaires, the fruit of the tree planted by the Kochs and watered with the furious tears of anti-tax tycoons is that slouching beast known as the Republican Party. What was once upon time a conservative, but mostly rational, political party has now become the marionette and mouthpiece for a cabal who seek to turn the political/capitalist clock back to roughly 1900, which, in their view, was a golden age of capitalism unfettered by unions, taxes or government regulations.

Mayer makes it very clear that the Kochs and their allies don't just want a diminution of the government's role in society and the economy, they want it banished from the playing field altogether. The John Birch Society was the incubator for this extreme philosophy back in the '60s, but it took the Kochs to give it mainstream appeal and respectability through the GOP. The Kochs achieved this by creating an entire ecosystem of advocacy and political organizations that promoted and funded policies and politicians that were in accord with their fanatical worldview. The proof of their success is that the GOP is now not so much a political party as it is a counter-revolutionary movement seeking to rollback all progressive policies enacted since the end of World War Two.

Although taxation and government regulations are the main targets of this Koch-led guerilla war, they work equally hard at deconstructing democracy through the gerrymandering of congressional districts and by curtailing voters rights. The Kochs and their allies are mostly concerned with enriching themselves, but they also want to create a new American state in which corporations become the fourth branch of government, surpassing in power the legislative, executive and judicial. It's arguable that that has been the case in the U.S. for quite some time already, but America's billionaires want to rig the democratic game so that their power cannot be challenged by the judiciary or through the ballot box. Politicians have been for sale for a long time, but the Kochs want to take things to the next level by disenfranchising the poor and establishing legal precedents that give corporations and the wealthy de facto control over the electoral process.

What the Kochs are up to sounds, at times, like some kind of conspiracy theory spawned by social media, but Jane Mayer is meticulous in uncovering all the layers in this proto-parallel government that's made up of interlocking foundations, charitable trusts, PACs and advocacy groups. This kind of detailed reporting always risks being tedious, but Mayer is wonderful at balancing facts and figures with a strong sense of narrative structure.

The question that comes to mind from reading this book is why has the U.S. lead the developed world, especially in the postwar era, in producing so many wealthy people with an ideological blood lust for less government and more, far more, profits? I think there are two possible answers. The first is that, as Calvin Coolidge observed in the '20s, "The business of America is business." The foundation myths of the United States like to dwell on warm and fuzzy concepts such as freedom, democracy, opportunity and escape from persecution. It's more accurate, if less romantic, to say that most people came to America for one reason only: to make money. People didn't uproot themselves and make dangerous sea voyages to an unseen, unknown land for the chance to vote or engage in free speech. They came because America offered economic opportunities that couldn't be found in their own countries. America was populated from the beginning with people who had an intrepid desire to better themselves financially, and this became the country's dominant cultural theme. And for some of the richest Americans, financial self-aggrandizement became a quasi-religious impulse; in fact, in the last several decades capitalism and Christianity have become officially linked in many evangelical churches through the so-called prosperity gospel. The Kochs and others of their ilk see themselves as saintly warriors in the holy war against government.

The flip side to the American dream was slavery, and this institution, which shows capitalism in its rawest form, has affected American's view of labour and capital to this day. Slavery, and the Jim Crow-era that followed up until the 1960s, produced a permanent economic underclass that could be identified by race. Blacks were deemed an inferior race, and it followed that their poverty was a natural by-product of an inherent lack of intelligence and ambition. To be black was to be poor, and to be poor was to be black. For white America, economic failure was regarded as a failing on a personal level, it marked one out as a lesser being, it made you black, but it wasn't seen as an inevitable by-product of capitalism. In Europe, the working classes, who weren't tripped up by racial questions, grasped the fact that economic hardship and inequality was simply part of the capitalist equation, and they organized and backed unions and political parties that fought directly for their interests. In the U.S., the racial fear of poverty and economic disadvantage was a prime reason a true worker's party (on a national level) never emerged. So the sense of shame, horror and fear that Americans have viewed life at the bottom of the economic ladder played right into the hands of people like the Kochs. If the poor and working poor see themselves as lesser Americans, lesser humans, it follows that those at the top are the best and brightest, and to deny them their wealth and power is simply going against nature. It's this warped logic that helps explain why the white, populist, working-class Tea Party (a quietly Koch-founded movement, as Mayer points out) metastasized into the Red Guard of the GOP. Against their better interests Tea Party supporters embrace the brutalist capitalist ideology of the Kochs as a way of distancing themselves from the poverty they fear and loathe.

Many commentators have made the point that during this election cycle the Kochs have ended up on the outside looking in as Donald Trump has swept aside their preferred candidates. The Kochs may have lost the battle but they've won the war. Politics is broken in the United States, and it's due in no small part to the Kochs. The American right is now an anarchic crew of ideologues who want to cripple federal and state governments. These are vandals, not politicians. Jane Mayer's book is an invaluable and astute guide to the structure, purpose and character of this counter-revolution, and it probably stands as one of the most important political books written in the last ten years. The Kochs certainly think so because they tried very hard to silence her. There's no higher recommendation for the book than that.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Film Review: The Long Goodbye (1973)

One of the notable aspects of American films of the 1970s is that many of the male stars who emerged in that decade looked like the average man in the street. Actors such as Dustin Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Al Pacino, and Gene Hackman would have been character actors, at best, in the '40s and 50s, but in the '70s they were major stars. None of them were conventionally handsome, some could even be called homely, but they could all act the pants off most of their more handsome contemporaries.

And then we have Elliot Gould. He leaped from character actor to star with back-to-back roles in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) and MASH (1970). Both films were controversial and very plugged in to the zeitgeist. Those two roles gave Gould enough career momentum to carry him through most of the '70s as a bona fide leading man. But unlike Hoffman and the others, all of whom continued as leading men into the '80s and even the '90s, Gould's career in the big leagues was fading out by 1978 when he starred in Matilda, the one and, hopefully, only film about a boxing kangaroo. The Long Goodbye is a reminder of why Gould's career as a leading man had such a short trajectory: he wasn't a very good actor.

The Long Goodbye is based on a Raymond Chandler novel, with Gould playing iconic  P.I. Philip Marlowe in contemporary Los Angeles. The plot doesn't matter a whit because Chandler's stories are primarily about character, atmosphere, attitude, and the city of Los Angeles, which also, in a sense, fills the role of Marlowe's sidekick and sparring partner. Director Robert Altman is attuned to the special flavour of Chandler's work, especially the louche charm of crime in the sunny, palm tree-shaded environs of California's upper classes. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond puts that louche quality up on the screen in spades, and it's reasonable to say that he's the real star of the film. The supporting actors, Sterling Hayden, Nina van Pallandt and Mark Rydell are all excellent, and in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment you can spot Arnold Schwarzenegger as an anonymous heavy.

It's Gould who torpedoes this film. He mumbles dialogue that sounds as though it was ad-libbed, and all of it is horrible. What Gould and Altman were up to isn't clear, but I'd guess they were trying to create a Marlowe who has one foot in the whiskey and water '40s and another in the weed and transcendental meditation '70s. It's a disaster. Marlowe's incessant chatter isn't amusing or clever, and Gould's acting is, tonally speaking, in another galaxy from what his fellow actors are doing. The scenes between Gould and Hayden are torture to watch because the latter is actually acting while the former is riffing on some cross between Popeye at his most garrulous and a stoner. A much, much better actor might have been able to do something with this role, but Gould makes a bad situation much, much worse.

Gould was one those average-looking guys who became a star in the '70s, but his natural pay grade was as a supporting actor. He was best at playing shrewd, urban, fast-talking hustlers, but only in small doses. His other films from that decade are mostly forgettable or forgotten, as are his performances in them. California Split (1974) and Busting (1974) are the exceptions to this rule, but in each case Gould is sharing the acting load with a co-star. Bits and pieces of The Long Goodbye are excellent, but the stumbling, nattering self-indulgence of Gould's performance turns the film into, at most, a curiosity rather than something worth seeking out.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Book Review: The Sixth Directorate (1975) by Joseph Hone

Yes, it's a horrible cover.
There's never really been a writer of spy fiction like Joseph Hone. He only wrote four spy novels featuring reluctant agent Peter Marlow, and one of those, The Valley of the Fox is more of an eccentric take on a Geoffrey Household-type adventure yarn than it is a spy story. Having read all four now, it's clear that Hone was using the genre as a vehicle for lyrical, trenchant, forensic examinations of male-female relationships. Or to view it another way, he saw spying, and its concomitant betrayals and life-long political commitments, as perfectly analogous to the tides and tempests of romantic relationships.

All four of Hone's spy novels have intense personal relationships at their core. The first in the series, The Private Sector, begins as a study of Marlow's relationship with the woman who becomes his wife in post-colonial Egypt. That novel only kicks into spy gear at about the one-third mark. This novel, the second in the series, begins in full spy mode and then becomes a story of entangled relationships for most of its length. The plot has Marlow assuming the identity of a KGB sleeper agent who has been resident in London for many years. His assignment is to go to New York and take a job at the U.N. where, hopefully, he'll flush out an extensive network of KGB agents. That two sentence synopsis represents about 7.6% of the actual plot of the novel, which is daunting in its romantic and political complexities.

Soon after arriving in New York, Marlow finds that the man he's impersonating is part of a long-standing romantic triangle, and Marlow finds himself taking the man's place in that subterfuge as well. What's even stranger is that not only do all involved know about the various secret personal relationships, the concerned parties also know about who's spying for whom. This may be one of the few novels about spying in which none of the main characters have any secrets worth hiding. They do, however, go through the formalities of pretending they are acting in secret, just as failed relationships will continue to go through the usual domestic routines as though nothing had changed.

The fact that Hone's novels often drift more towards Henry James than Ian Fleming would be a problem if he wasn't such a fine writer, and The Sixth Directorate features some of his best writing. Here's Marlow describing the smile of someone he doesn't much like:

When he smiled, it was no more than a short break in the gray weather over the stumps and mud of no man's land.

And here's the introduction to one of the major characters:

But it wasn't a wooden face by any means. Only its present outlines were fixed. For the moment it had simply withdrawn the currency of  expression; it was resting, as if inwardly reflecting on its assets. leaving only a rough estimate of its worth on view, so that passers-by might be warned of the stakes involved before making an investment. 

Hone also writes prose that can easily double as blank verse. Here's a description of an agent confronting the painful duality of his life:

Now, in the silence, the other man, whose only business was guile, alert and smelling the wind, reared in him, while the happy man cursed the hour.

One of the hallmarks of a great writer is that he or she will toss something into the mix just for the sheer fun of showing off their artistry and technique. This is a description of the interior of the U.N. building that extends a passenger ship metaphor to include a stowaway:

...the whole area was remarkably like the first-class passenger concourse of a big tin liner, moored disconsolately and permanently beyond territorial waters, going nowhere.
     Only the shoeshine man seemed real--a middle-aged, balding New Yorker, in a short-sleeved tartan shirt, bent permanently forward on a little wooden chair over his work, head bobbing furiously, his hands and forearms a dusty brown with the years of his trade. He was like a stowaway on this listless ship full of impeccable people, someone from a ghetto that had shinned up the anchor on our last night in port and had now been set to work his passage by the captain.

Hone's novels are deficient in the slam and bang of a lot of spy fiction, but no one writes as well as him in this genre, and it would be a mistake to ghettoize his talent in the espionage section of the book store; he's simply a superb writer. The Sixth Directorate is only marred by a certain slackness in the later stages of the novel when the personal relationships begin to get a bit too fraught and all-consuming. On the plus side, the finale is wickedly tense and well-plotted.

My reviews of Hone's other Peter Marlow novels:

The Private Sector
The Oxford Gambit
The Valley of the Fox