“Just One More”

Michael Venutolo-Mantovani has written a riveting piece for the October 2022 issue of Wired, “Just One More.” Late on the night of August 15, 2021, Worth Parker’s North Carolina cell phone received a Facebook message about the chaos in Afghanistan. It read: “Sir. I hope you are well. By any chance do you know any Marines who are on the ground right now?” Having retired from the US Marines as a Lt. Colonel six weeks before, Parker thought he’d cut those ties.

The message described the plight of the sender’s brother and father who had both worked for the US military in Afghanistan. With the American pullout scheduled for the end of the month, their lives were in increasing peril. The sender, Jason Essazay, had also worked for the US, but had obtained a Special Immigrant Visa for his service and was living in Houston. “Parker was Essazay’s last resort,” Venutolo-Mantovani writes. At the time the pullout was announced, 81,000 Afghans had pending applications for a SIV. US intelligence reports predicted it would take several months for the Taliban to take Kabul, but as we now know, the fall of Kabul occurred only days later.

When Parker read that the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit was helping with the evacuation, he called an old friend in the unit who said he’d try to help. Working in the eye of a fast-moving hurricane of fragmentary information, changing requirements, and coordination difficulties involving violent extremists and desperate families, Parker’s initiative succeeded.

Three days before Essazay’s contact with Parker, Joe Saboe, who’d left the Army 20 years earlier received a call from his younger brother, wanting help to get a friend and his family out of Afghanistan. Saboe didn’t know how he could help, but “tried the closest thing to a Noncombatant Evacuation Operations tool he had: Facebook. His post asking for help generated a message from a friend of twenty years before also trying to rescue someone. The two men strategized. Soon he heard from more veterans, each worried about a single contact. By August 17, Saboe had a group of volunteers working on the cases of 128 potential evacuees. A story in the Military Times generated more than a thousand contacts from Afghans looking for help and Americans wanting to provide it.

Parker, the former Lt. Colonel, enlisted his high-powered connections in the military establishment to form a group calling itself “the Graybeards.” Learning about Saboe’s operation, Parker hoped to convince Saboe’s volunteers to support the Graybeards’ efforts. “But almost immediately, Parker realized (the younger generation) was comically more tech savvy” than the retired military and civilian leaders. “It was time to reject the chain of command that had been drilled into him from the minute he joined the Marines.” He put the Graybeards’ Project Dunkirk in direct support of Saboe, giving him “some of the best-connected people in the US military and intelligence worlds.”

Heroic efforts were made in a fluid and increasingly dangerous Kabul. They achieved the rescue of more than 1,500 Afghans and, even today, more people continue to be evacuated in ones and twos. Each is a victory, but, collectively, they represent only five percent of Saboe’s database. Volunteers continue to chip away at that list, trying to save, as Project Dunkirk’s motto has it, “Just one more.” This whole inspiring and infuriating article is well worth a read.

The Ride-Along

Frank Zafiro and Colin Conway, two former officers of the Spokane, Washington, Police Department, have collaborated on the important novel, The Ride-Along. One day, at the beginning of his ten-hour overnight shift, experienced officer Lee Salter is asked to have a civilian ride in the patrol car with him. This is not an unusual request in many police departments where ride-alongs are considered part of community relations. In this case, the person who’ll accompany him is a member of a vocal citizens’ Policy Reform Initiative named Melody Weaver. Salter expects a difficult few hours, and so does she.

The authors deserve considerable credit for trying to set aside their biases and present both sides of the police-citizen disconnect. Both parties make their arguments, though the authors’ thumbs seem on the police side of the scale. Weaver is querulous and argumentative, not appearing to want explanations, but rather to criticize. At least at first. Exposure to situations police officers face routinely does get through to her to some extent.

Salter acknowledges missteps by the authorities, particularly in the case of George Floyd’s death. But for the most part, he dismisses the research she cites and she doesn’t come up with specifics, making almost an “everybody knows . . . .” kind of argument. Under pressure, they both tend to retreat to established positions, which not only keeps the dialog from moving forward, but also effectively illustrates how far apart their positions are. Salter’s fallback is “you weren’t there.” That’s an inarguable position.

While the story wasn’t satisfactory in a conventional sense, in that there was no great epiphany by either of them during the ride, it is brilliant in showing how much more dialog is needed to bridge the gap. The book, with its biases (the authors make the point that we all have them), like the ride-along itself, is only a first step. But someone has to take it, and Zafiro and Conway have made a worthy effort. I hope it achieves a wide readership among thoughtful people.

Earlier this week, I wrote about Unexpected Synchronicities. Here’s another one. Recently, I watched the highly regarded 2019 documentary The Human Factor, by Israeli film director Dror Moreh. It chronicles the negotiations undertaken in the Clinton Administration to bring peace to the Middle East. Through photos and video coverage you see the main players—President Clinton; Israeli presidents Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak; Palestine Liberation Army chairman Yasser Arafat; and younger versions of six chief US negotiators: Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, Gamal Helal, Aaron David Miller, Daniel Kurtzer, and Robert Malley, who gave interviewers unprecedented access for this film.

Like in The Ride-Along, you see two intractable sides, locked in a mutually damaging struggle, in which no resolution seems forthcoming. The two sides’ frames of reference barely overlap. At one point, one of the American negotiators comments that the whole idea of peace meant something different to the Israelis than to Arafat. Then, strategic slips in the last round of negotiations set the stage for 25 additional years of conflict. What had been moving in the right direction slid back into chaos. We need to learn from that on the home front.

Film reviewer Matt Fagerhorn says The Human Factor shows “how much we have to lose when we give into the easy temptation of demonizing those who think differently.” It’s a judgment that applies equally to the conflicts in The Ride-Along.

Further reading and viewing:

Shots Fired: The Misunderstandings, Misconceptions, and Myths about Police Shootings by Joseph K. Loughlin and Kate Clark Flora.

Dror Mohreh’s riveting documentary, The Gatekeepers, consisting of interviews with past heads of Israel’s internal Security service, Shin Bet, about the consequences of failure to find peace.

Weekend Movie Pick: The Courier

The Cold War spy film The Courier, which came out last year (I missed it totally), is available on Netflix. A “based on true events” tale that took place around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it describes how a British businessman was persuaded by MI6 and the CIA to make contact with a Soviet scientist who appeared eager to share information about his country’s nuclear program with the West. As we now know, that cascade of events in 1962 came much closer to disaster than our leaders and the American public believed.

The film, directed by Dominic Cooke and written by Tom O’Connor (trailer), stars Benedict Cumberbatch as real-life businessman Grenville Wynne. The Soviet contact, Oleg Penkovsky, is played by a sad-eyed Merab Ninidze. The cast is great and the story gripping, even though it follows a well-trodden path. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. For both Wynne and Penkovsky, it was either take the risk or total annihilation.

The film was originally titled Ironbark, the Brits’ code name for Penkovsky, but the star turn belongs to Cumberbatch, the courier. The touches of Soviet perfidy seem right out of John le Carré. When the MI6 crowd starts talking about exfiltrating Penkovsky, it seemed like an impossible long-shot. (I wish they’d make a film about Oleg Gordievsky, another real-life Soviet spy, whose story was told in Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor, which gives a hair-raising account of how difficult saving Soviet spies really was.

The Courier is a cautionary tale and a solid bit of filmmaking about a period people under 60 weren’t alive to experience.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences 95%

Foreign Entanglements

The Foreign Girls

Sergio Olguín’s The Fragility of Bodies was one of my favorite books of 2020 (review here). His new one, The Foreign Girls once again features the sexy trouble-magnet, journalist Verónica Rosenthal. When I refer to the books as “new,” bear in mind that these are books in translation and have been out several years already in Olguín’s home country, Argentina. But neither one has lost any of its freshness in the interim.

Verónica has deserted Buenos Aires for the countryside, hoping to put the traumatic events at the conclusion of Fragility behind her. She hooks up with two young European women and they travel together for a while, and stay at her cousin’s remote vacation home with pool. What should be a sun-drenched idyll becomes a compelling noir adventure.

One night after a party at a rich man’s home, the foreign girls are missing. What happened to them and who is responsible consumes Verónica. Even though she’s supposedly not working, she knows how to dig out a story and does it without regard for her own safety.

Both of Olguín’s Verónica Rosenthal books were expertly translated by Miranda France, and published by Bitter Lemon Press.

Order it here from Amazon or here from your local indie bookstore.

The Basel Killings

Swiss author and playwright Hansjörg Schneider’s first Inspector Hunkeler mystery, translated by Mike Mitchell, has already won the Friedrich Glauser Prize, Germany’s most prestigious crime fiction award. Like Olguín’s story, the book was first published in German a few years ago and is newly available in English.

Peter Hunkeler, a Basel police detective, is feeling old. His prostate bothers him, he’s tired, his girlfriend is on an extended stay in Paris, and he’s past wanting to deal with his superiors in the police department and prosecutor’s office who want him to play according to their rules.

Walking home from a bar one dreary November night, a season as dark as this story, he spots a man he knows sleeping on a park bench, but the man isn’t asleep, he’s been murdered, and the earlobe where he always wore a diamond earring has been slit open, the earring gone.

To Hunkeler, the crime is too similar to a case he’s investigating, the murder of a prostitute, whose ear also was slit open. The pearl that was always there, gone. Coincidence? But when a young girl from the gypsy camp outside town is attacked, strangled, and her ear cut, he realizes he has a serial killer on his hands. What do these three very different victims have in common?

Hunkeler has an interesting low-key approach to investigating, and uses his farmhouse in Alsace as a retreat from the city, a place to think more clearly. Like many books by European authors, Schneider’s writing is barebones and straightforward, more Hemingway than Faulkner. Yet I found the characters he created here eminently believable.

Order it here from Amazon or from your local indie bookstore.

The Truffle Hunters

Some quirky films came out this past year, despite the pandemic, and we’ve enjoyed watching them at home or, finally—nirvana!—in an actual movie house.

The Truffle Hunters offers a little slice of life about people who live totally different lives than you do (guaranteed). In the beautifully scenic Piedmont area of Italy, the documentary-makers, Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, found a group of aging men who take their dogs into the woods every day searching for truffles (trailer). Apparently, even though truffles are rare, it’s a living, especially if you know the good spots.

People who spend so much time alone are liable to get a little quirky, and, yes, they are. Their dogs are their children, spouses, best friends. One of the best moments is when the filmmakers attached a camera to a dog’s head, and you get to see the world in caninevision. The bouncing along, the snuffling leaves, the distractions left and right. Best of all is when the dog stops to chase his tail and the trees overhead whip around dizzingly. The whole audience laughed.

Roger Ebert’s review was too snarky by half for such an inoffensive movie. Nevertheless, the film left me a little worried. Most of these men can’t do this for many more years, even though the active outdoor life has helped get them into their 80s and even 90s. So where will future truffles come from? It will be sad if the truffle poachers who are trying to move in (they’ve even poisoned some dogs) inherit this livelihood. And, the middlemen who buy as cheaply as possible and sell for exorbitant profits currently keep it a marginalized business.

If you need a big shot of adrenaline, this is not your film. After all the disruptions of the last year, it’s calming to spend some time in the woods—no ticks!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 97%; audiences 77%–probably because of that adrenaline factor.

Kiss the Detective

This is the first book I’ve read by Élmer Mendoza, who’s thought of as “the godfather of narco-lit,” translated from the Spanish by Mark Fried, and the third book in this series. Mendoza has a distinctive writing style, and I’m guessing it’s “love it or hate it.” Definitely, it takes a little getting used to, but well worth it to experience his compelling story and memorable, entertaining characters.

Mendoza, omits quotation marks, “he said” and “she said” some of the time, as well as paragraph changes when the speaker changes at other times.

After a few pages I got the hang of this, and for the most part, I could track the conversations pretty easily (artful writing and excellent translation!). Where I couldn’t—say, when two gangsters of fairly equal power are talking—knowing for sure which one is speaking actually matters less than I thought it might. It’s as if Mendoza submerges you in a river of dialog that sweeps you along through his intriguing plot.

Operating in Culiacán, Sinaloa, police homicide detective Edgar Mendieta is well acquainted with Samantha Valdés, head of the Pacific Cartel. The story opens with an operation against Valdés that offers enough firepower and double-dealing to conjure Don Winslow’s The Border. No time to wait for an ambulance, her crew drives her to the nearest hospital, where she’s in intensive care.

As the cartel members keep their own watch, nervous Mexican army troops and federal police surround the hospital, waiting until she’s well enough to travel, when they’ll transport her to a military hospital in the capital. Word is, they’re coming down on her hard. Still, perhaps the greatest immediate risk she faces is the professional assassin hired to finish her off. And Mendieta too.

The Pacific Cartel fiasco technically belongs to the police department’s narcotics unit. Mendieta has his hands full, anyway, with two unrelated murders: a snappily dressed young fortune-teller whose body was found with fifteen bullets in it; and a small-time crook killed clutching a woman’s purse he’d just snatched.

Mendieta can’t resist some hospital visits to see how Valdés is faring and whether her people know anything about his two cases. In exchange for this information, he agrees to help smuggle her out of the hospital. There’s no going back from this decision. His standing in the police is jeopardized, not to mention his safety.

A call from Mendieta’s ex-wife in Los Angeles further raises the stakes. Their son Jason has apparently been kidnapped by an unknown party, no ransom demanded. Now not only are the Mexican authorities out to get him, he has to negotiate with the FBI as well. The spectre of betrayal lurks everywhere, as Mendieta is pushed into a tighter and tighter corner.

While Mexico’s President Obrador may have declared the war on drugs to be over, Mendieta sees the bodies that keep piling up. Yet, despite threats to his career, his family, and himself he keeps going, finding himself a new girlfriend, sharing beers with friends, holding his head up, a (mostly) honorable man in a dishonorable world. Whose side are you on, Edgar? At times the sides are hard to tell apart.

The book helpfully provides a list of the many characters, which I made good use of. If you give Mendoza’s unusual approach to telling a story a chance, you may find his lively, honest writing refreshing, and Fried’s translation reads beautifully.

Coming Attractions

Detective Montalbano

Here’s an encomium for one of the most entertaining TV crime series ever—Italy’s Detective Montalbano. Read why it’s so popular, how it was made, and watch clips of the earliest episodes, with a preview for the very last one, coming July 6. We’ve watched all the seasons so far at our house, including the bonus interviews with actors, author, and crew.

Luca Zingaretti, who plays the taciturn Salvo Montalbano is especially interesting. He’s played the role so long, it’s fascinating to hear him display his deep understanding of the role and the values the late author, Andrea Camilleri imbued his creation with.

When the director insisted the show be filmed in Sicily (to the RAI backers’ skepticism), they visited the island’s community and regional theaters to find quintessential Sicilians to play the bit parts—the gossipy landlady of the deceased, the creepy boyfriend, the femme fatale sister—and, believe me, these actors make the most of it!

If you do visit the link above, at the bottom of the story, you’ll see reference to the Young Montalbano series. All the main characters in their younger days, with different actors channeling the later portrayals. A delightful way to feed your obsession! Both series have subtitles, but don’t let that put you off. Honestly, the Italian body language is so transparent, you begin to feel you don’t need them!

When we were in Sicily two years ago, there were Montalbano tours all over the southern region, pointing out places where this or that was filmed, primarily in the charming town of Ragusa (above).

The Unforgotten

Season 4 of the award-winning London-based police procedural about a cold case team returns to PBS, Sunday, July 11. Nicola Walker is brilliant as the lead detective with Sanjeev Bhaskar as her second. There’s a strong and believable relationship between them, and an appreciation of the long-lasting impact murder has on those left behind, handled admirably. Good, solid mysteries too (trailer).

Streaming Movie Picks

Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

We liked this unusual Hungarian romance written and directed by Lili Horvát and starring Viktor Bodó and Natasa Stork, one of the most pleasant-looking actresses around (trailer and interview with the filmmaker).

Márta Vizy, a successful 40-year-old neurosurgeon, working in the United States, meets a man at a conference in New Jersey, and they agree to meet a month hence. She abandons her prestigious position in deference to romance, but when she encounters him again in Budapest, he claims they’ve never met. This confuses her to the point that, while she rebuilds her career in her home country, she has to sort out where reality and wishful thinking collide.

While the Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it an 88% score, the few audience ratings averaged out to only 55%.  I suspect what American audiences didn’t like were exactly the features that made us admire the film—primarily, the unexpected plot twists. Certainly (and thankfully) it follows no familiar, superficial formula! Oh, and there are subtitles. “A very engaging film to watch,” says Cinetopia’s Jim Ross

The Outside Story

This drama/comedy is kicked off when Charles locks himself out of his New York apartment. He’s a screen-obsessed introvert (a video editor, who assembles online obituaries for people not quite dead yet). He just broke up with his girlfriend and doesn’t know any of his neighbors. Well, he meets them now, and quirky and charmingly human they are.

Brian Tyree Henry is a genial if befuddled Charles, Sunita Mani, is a parking enforcement officer who’s hilariously suspicious of him, Sonequa Martin-Green is the super-glam former girlfriend. Numerous others turn even the smallest roles into gems. Written and directed by Casimir Nozkowski. This is a lot of fun (trailer)!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 92%; audience rating 79%. The critics consensus: “A refreshingly optimistic look at urban community life.”

A Prosecutor’s Tale(s)

Last week, I had the privilege to be in a Zoom conference with Gianrico Carofiglio (above), a former Italian prosecutor who has turned his hand to writing thrillers. Yesterday I reviewed his newly translated book, The Measure of Time, and in the past, The Cold Summer.

The Measure of Time features lawyer Guido Guerrieri, and readers of the series, who have a bigger context, might have appreciated the character’s dive into the past more than I did (the book was on the Italian best-sellers list for quite a while).

I really did admire The Cold Summer, not part of the Guerrieri series, about a case occurring around the dangerous time the Italian prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were murdered by the Mafia. Those real-life events prompted intense turmoil and social reflection, which made every decision by Carofiglio’s fictional authorities that much more consequential and, therefore, dramatic.

The conversation was launched by Paolo Barlera, Attaché for Cultural Affairs of the Italian Cultural Institute in New York, with questions to the author by Chicago-based lawyer Sheldon Zenner, who has served as both a prosecutor and defense attorney.

Interestingly, Carofiglio said he considered the book as two separate novels, one the retrospective view of Guerrieri’s affair with the woman Lorenza, whose son he is now defending, and the other, the preparation of the son’s case and the courtroom proceedings. If you read my review, you’ll know that I much preferred the latter. The story of the affair was an exercise in melancholy nostalgia, as the protagonist probed the scars of an ideal and thwarted love, “the excitement of discovering things for the first time.”

His observations about the judicial system were fascinating. He thinks all judicial systems are flawed to some degree. They are an imperfect effort to establish what happened at some point in the past, using the tools of science and human memory. We have to remember, he said, that “our freedom is connected to a system that exposes us to mistakes.” He was probably smiling when he added, “The flaws of every judicial system are a friend of story.” Amen to that!

Participants in the justice system—from prosecutors to judges—may be well-versed in the law, but may be blind to other aspects of society, the context in which a crime occurred. You see a reflection of that “cognitive tunneling” in news stories about some legal cases, when the official adopts a single hypothesis that doesn’t admit of any alternative.

When Carofiglio was a prosecutor, he trained the police officers and junior prosecutors he worked with to identify every possible doubt they could think of and address it, through further investigation, expert testimony, or other means. Better them in a conference room than a defense attorney in the courtroom.

The many interesting insights in this session it made me want to read more of Carofiglio’s work and further explore his perspective.

Play the Red Queen & The Coroner’s Lunch

Bust out of your quasi-quarantine and take a trip halfway around the world and decades back in time with crime thrillers set in Saigon in 1963 and Ventiane in 1978. The politics feel tragically quaint, knowing how they turned out, but the settings are ripe for conspiracy, conflicting agendas, and misunderstandings at every level. Yet both books include characters who manage to maintain a sense of humor and perspective, even as their worlds are crumbling around them.

Play the Red Queen

By Juris Jurjevics – This new book has received considerable well deserved attention, bittersweet because the author died suddenly in late 2018, not knowing whether it would even be published. It was his aim that the book would, in his phrase, “bear witness” to an underreported aspect of the Vietnam War: the “elaborate, even treasonous corruption—and our complicity in it.”

He brings all this out in a book that is not a political diatribe but a page-turner of a thriller. American military advisors in Saigon are being killed by a beautiful and mysterious young woman who shoots with unerring accuracy from the back of a speeding Vespa. The U.S. military wants to get to the bottom of it and assigns two genial investigators. They run into countless operational and political obstacles, within the Vietnamese and American bureaucracies. Meanwhile, a powerful sense of foreboding settles on the city, as the corrupt Diem regime loses its grip. Tragically, its ouster opens the door for massive American intervention, which we know as the Vietnam War.

Buy here from Amazon, or Shop your local indie bookstore.

The Coroner’s Lunch

This is the first of Colin Cotterill’s entertaining mysteries about Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 72-year-old physician appointed to be Ventiane’s coroner in the new socialist Laos. He has a disconcerting habit of saying what he thinks—and one thing he thinks is that he has no training for this role—which doesn’t suit the era of extreme political correctness. Yet, people continue to die under questionable circumstances, and he has to sort it out. Fortunately, his staff is loyal and he finds a few important allies.

In theory, I would expect not to like the occasional excursions into the supernatural that Cotterill deploys, but they are so culturally consistent and believable that I just went with it. And am glad I did. It’s a charming book.

Buy here from Amazon, or Shop your local indie bookstore

(This post is my first try at Indie.Bound, an alternative to Amazon. Let me know what you think! And whether it doesn’t work!!)