Wednesday, December 7, 2016

(No. 300) Trump & the Black Swan election


Donald Trump and the Black Swan Election

by

Alastair Rickard

I wrote my previous column ("Donald Trump: media consensus & the echo chamber", No. 299) a few days before the U.S. presidential election; this one a few weeks after.

While I did not opine (unlike most of the American and Canadian media's chattering class) that a Trump victory was impossible, I did say I thought it was "unlikely". His victory should be regarded as something of a black swan, that is something that seemed (to nearly all pundits and pollsters) impossible but turned out to be real.

I was unsympathetic to Trump in my column but sceptical about the quality of the media's coverage and commentary pre-election. I am a Canadian who, had I possessed a vote in the American election, would have cast it reluctantly for Hillary Clinton. Like many of the Americans who did vote for her I did not regard her as a superior candidate but one to be preferred to Mr. Trump.

Since the election I have read and heard more unconvincing and emotional media commentary about the Trump victory than I would have thought possible. It becomes more extensive by the day without becoming more coherent.

Much of it seems to have been written in a passion of anti-Trump exasperation, the sort which leaves no straw man standing. In terms of thoughtful analysis a great deal of the opinion is as substantial as the smile of Lewis Carroll's Cheshire cat.

There have been exceptions of course, including here in Canada. Although the Globe and Mail and the Star (both of Toronto) have been examples to rival the most ardent anti-Trump organs in the U.S. occasionally a columnist has offered perceptive pre-and-post-election comments; for example John Doyle in the Globe and Thomas Walkom in the Star.

In terms of the absence -- both pre-and post-election -- of almost any favourable comment about Trump in the Canadian media a rare exception to be noted is Conrad Black whose words have appeared in RickardsRead. In his National Post column and as a guest on the electronic media, he has been an articulate and steadfast Trump supporter.

The mainstream media's patronizing and unrelenting negative coverage of Trump and his campaign utterances (and he provided lots of ammunition) was actually a major factor in promoting voter support for him as well as helping to solidify support that already existed; this is a factor for which following the election many anti-Trump pundits now seem too modest to claim some credit.

Unlike many in the media punditry in the wake of Trump's surprising victory I won't attempt to offer an explanation of 'the factors' -- real and imagined -- that produced his victory. I will offer a few observations, in no particular order:

*** After Nov. 8 some of the liberal pro-Clinton pundits have conceded that perhaps not all of the more than 62 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump were racist, anti-semitic, misogynistic xenophobes. They may even come around to admitting that half of his supporters do not belong (as Clinton asserted during the campaign) in "a basket of deplorables".

Given the very low regard in which polls show a majority of Americans hold the news media it was that sort of elitist slant on Trump and his supporters energetically embraced by so much of the media commentariat (and echoed so consistently by American late night talk show hosts) that made a major contribution to driving up Trump support during the campaign.

*** Before the election and right up to Nov.8 anyone who followed the media punditry during the campaign will have noticed ( as part of the news media's system of mutual quotation) the repeated offering of several universally agreed upon 'political truths', ones that turned out to be as erroneous as both the polls and the punditry's understanding of American voters residing between the coastal states.. For example:

It was widely and confidently predicted that Trump would lose the election if only because the votes of Hispanics, women and the better educated would go to Hillary and thus combine to guarantee a Clinton victory. She had a lock on most of the votes of those groups. In fact Trump received 29% of the Hispanic vote, 53% of white women and 45% of college graduates. So much for political predictions tied to seriously flawed identity politics.

*** I suspect that too many Canadians look at the Nov. 8 presidential election result with some degree of smugness because Clinton won more of the popular vote than Trump ( 2+ million more but still less than 50% of votes cast) but Trump became president because he won through the U.S. electoral college system, one viewed today by many Americans  as being outdated.

It would take a constitutional amendment to remove the electoral college from presidential elections. Clinton's win of the popular vote but loss of the election is not the first time this has happened; she was the 6th presidential candidate to win the popular vote but lose the election.

In any case Canadians do not have a political platform of their own sufficiently high from which they can look down their noses at the Nov. 8 results of the American electoral system. Our 2015 election produced a 'majority' Liberal government which has since repeated ad nauseam that it received "a mandate from Canadians". That majority 'mandate' is based on having received less than 40% of the votes cast (39.5%), even less than the Conservatives' share in 2011 (39.6%).

*** I did find interesting the repeated post-election comments from President Obama, Hillary Clinton as well as from members of the American chattering class who refer in a self-congratulatory way to the "peaceful transition of power" in the U.S. after an election as being a hallmark of American democracy, as if somehow this is a special or even a peculiar virtue of the American democratic system.

In my years of following politics in Canada I do not recall ever hearing a Canadian politician even mention much less laud the peaceful hand over from one government to its successor following an election in this country. It would not be said here by politicians since it is taken for granted by the Canadian polity as an unremarkable part of British parliamentary democracy, our system in Canada since Confederation.

I may add to these observations in a future column.

*********************************

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns & blog archive:
to access previous columns and this blog's archive, the links to which
are listed chronologically in the margin of each column
as it appears on the RickardsRead.com website, go to
any column and follow the links

to set a "Google alert" for RickardsRead columns
in order to receive notice automatically of new columns
as they are posted to RickardsRead.com, go to
www.Google.com/alert

*************************************

Monday, November 7, 2016

(No. 299) Donald Trump: media consensus & the echo chamber


"Donald Trump: media consensus and the echo chamber

OR

offering tinned goods as fresh produce"

by

Alastair Rickard




As I write this column the American presidential election is just a few days away. As a longtime follower of American politics as well as those of Canada and several other countries I have never seen  so much extreme rhetoric in a campaign (coming from both the Trump and Clinton sides) nor so much repetitive 'group think' comment by television talking heads and other members of the media. Much of the latter has been so ideological and determinedly politically correct as to render it next to useless as analysis.

The late English writer Christopher Hitchens, asked why he wanted to become a journalist, replied so that he wouldn't have to rely on the press for information. I can relate.

I have yet to read or hear a specific reference to what might well be the worst possible Nov. 8 election result in terms of increasing to even greater heights the pre-election toxicity, divisiveness and polarization in the American body politic:  an election result which sees Hillary Clinton win based on securing 270 or more electoral college votes while Donald Trump (who will almost certainly declare ANY result other than a victory for himself the result of a "rigged election") actually receives a higher total of the popular vote than does Clinton. This anomaly of the U.S. electoral system has showed up before and as recently as Al Gore's loss to George Bush in 2000.

If/when he loses, Trump's tens of millions of supporters, doubtless egged on by widespread  inflammatory post-Nov. 8 rhetoric, will generate ongoing popular unrest in American politics going forward the like of which has not been seen since the 19th century. Trump himself will doubtless carry on as a celebrity and a prime example of the arrogance of the self-assured.

The liberal media in the U.S. (as in Canada) have and will continue to stir the pot of political division by deprecating, inter alia, the intelligence of those who support(ed) Trump's candidacy. This widespread elitism among the chattering classes (it can be summed up  as 'we know what is best') is just the sort of irritating and patronizing sermon that contributed so materially to the surprise this same gang suffered in the U.K.'s pro-Brexit vote.

In Canada the editorial approach of the Globe and Mail, self-styled as Canada's national newspaper, aping the New York Times and Washington Post has for months featured an ongoing, repetitive and increasingly tedious competition among its columnists and op-ed writers to determine who can express most emphatically and preciously how shocked and appalled they are by Donald Trump, his bullying demeanor and insulting statements and tweets, etc. etc., all the while offering readers tinned goods as if they were fresh produce.

All well and good to benefit certain media egos but nothing has changed materially involving Trump except for the quantity of examples since even before he declared his candidacy for president in June of last year. He was then clearly an inappropriate person to be president and his antics and declarations since have merely provided devotees of political correctness enhanced opportunities to declare their fear, shock, upset etc. (pick one).

What has changed as we near American election day?

 Really only that for months and months after Trump launched his bid for the Republican nomination he was dismissed by the supposedly wise and best informed members of the media elite as a clownish reality TV celebrity;  he had no chance of securing the Republican nomination much less the presidency.

While Clinton is likely to win next Tuesday, if only because of the curious American electoral college system, Trump has succeeded in demonstrating that the best and the brightest among the American media's talking heads have now lost even more credibility as political soothsayers.

George Bernard Shaw acidly observed that the media can't distinguish between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization. Just so vis-a-vis Donald trump.

Nothing that qualifies Trump (and there is much) to be labeled a sexist, misogynist, racist, narcissist, et al has changed except by accumulation. But once the mainstream media had ridden Trump to months of increased ratings, ad revenue and circulation the time came to get serious about helping the  unpopular Clinton prevent a Trump presidency, an objective devoutly to be wished by a substantial majority of Canadians although (according to the latest U.S. opinion polls) apparently by somewhat less than half of Americans.

The fact of the matter is that, as the election nears,  Clinton's biggest advantage is the high negatives of her opponent among voters. Her own high negative ratings as consistently shown in the polls would preclude her election if Trump's negatives were not somewhat higher.

Any one of several among the sixteen Republican primary election candidates defeated by Trump could have beaten Clinton in this election. Whatever the result on Tuesday -- but particularly if Trump were to win (although that is unlikely) -- the nearer term future of American politics today looks dark, rocky and unhappy.

Nov. 5, 2016


**************************

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns & blog archive:
to access previous columns and this blog's archive, the links to which
are listed chronologically in the margin of each column
as it appears on the RickardsRead.com website, go to
any column and follow the links

to set a "Google alert" for RickardsRead columns
in order to receive notice automatically of new columns
as they are posted to RickardsRead.com, go to
www.Google.com/alert

***************************** 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

(No.298) Justin Trudeau & electoral reform


"Justin Trudeau and Canadian electoral reform:

   spare us the 'sunny ways' "

by Alastair Rickard


I have written columns about the need for reform of Canada's 'first past the post' (FPTP) electoral system -- for example RickardsRead column no. 267.

During the Oct. 15, 2015 federal election campaign all of the parties except the Conservatives espoused the need for electoral reform. Liberal leader and now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised that if a Liberal government was elected electoral reform would be in place within 18 months.

The Liberal winning of a majority of the seats in the House of Commons was widely greeted in the media, especially among the usual cable news talking heads and newspaper columnists as a 'great victory', even as a 'landslide'.

So anxious were certain media voices to welcome the arrival of Justin Trudeau's "sunny ways" government and the departure of the unfriendly (to the press) Harper government that hyperbole -- occasionally merely ghost milk -- was the journalistic order of the day.

Indeed the increase in the proportion of Canadian voters who turned out last October ( 68.3% in 2015 vs 61.1% in 2011) was widely characterized as evidence of the overwhelming desire of the electorate to replace the Harper government with Trudeau's Liberals.

Since taking office Prime Minsister Justin "sunny ways" Trudeau has habitually explained and defended his changes and policy initiatives, especially the reversal of Harper government legislation and policy, by declaring that 'Canadians' voted for Liberal change in the election.

A majority of Canadian voters did nothing of the sort. The Liberal majority of seats in the Commons was a result not reflective of the votes of a majority of Canadians -- thanks to FPTP. In terms of the Liberals' share of voter popularity being the voice of Canadians, that is Prime Minister Trudeau's self-constructed and self-serving political spin. It was the same spin the Tories also found politically useful.

A bit more than a third of Canadian voters supported the Trudeau Liberals. Indeed -- and I have seen this fact noted nowhere in the effusions of the media's chattering classes -- the Trudeau Liberals actually received a lower share (39.5%) of Canadians' votes in 2015 than the Harper government did in 2011 (39.6%). This rather less than impressive popular result was achieved notwithstanding the tsunami of 2.9 million more voters (supposedly pro-change) who came out in the last election.

Post-Oct 15 election analyses indicated that, had the Trudeau Liberals' preferred type of electoral reform been in place (i.e., ranked/preferred ballot), their 39.5% share of the actual votes cast in 2015 would have provided them with an even larger majority of the seats in the Commons. Another excellent illustration of the need for genuine proportional representation.

Many if not most of those (including me) who have supported meaningful electoral reform of the FPTP system advocate some form of proportional representation.

"Sunny ways" Trudeau has decided that the type of reform of Canada's FPTP electoral system will be considered and chosen by a House of Commons committee, a majority of the members of which will be Liberals. Moreover such a de facto change to Canada's constitution will apparently not be submitted to Canadians for approval in a referendum.

If this Trudeau government approach to democracy is supposed to be an improvement on that of the Harper Tories, please spare me such sunny ways.

************************

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns & blog archive:
to access previous columns and this blog's archive, the links to which
are listed chronologically in the margin of each column
as it appears on the RickardsRead.com, go to
any column and follow the links

to set a "Google alert"for RickardsRead columns 
in order to receive notice automatically of new columns
as they are posted to RickardsRead.com, go to
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Sunday, January 10, 2016

(No.297) "Is RickardsRead going away?"


"Is RickardsRead going away?"

by Alastair Rickard

After the posting of my December column about Joseph Belth's "Memoir" I received the following email from a Canadian actuary and (apparently) a regular reader of RickardsRead:

"Many thanks for your blog RickardsRead and particularly your latest post about Joe Belth earlier this month. I was beginning to wonder whether you'd taken a "permanent holiday" given the dearth of posts since late summer. Very pleased to learn, however, that that's not the case.

"By way of a brief introduction, I am an actuary with ties to the Canadian life insurance distribution network via my father who sold life insurance and managed career agents over his 27-year career with the Canadian branch of a US company. So, the issues and concerns -- about product design and marketing practices -- perennially described in the pages of
The Insurance Forum frequently resonated with me too. You were quite correct in noting the clarity of Joe Belth's written exposition, especially when one considers how much smoke passes for insurance industry analysis and reporting.


"Know too that you are also writing in the tradition of Joe Belth with your blog and thereby fulfilling an important role. The mainstream media seems unable to properly cover Canadian insurance company bad acts (e.g. mismanagement of par funds, unhedged seg fund products). Enter RickardsRead." 


This correspondent was generous in his comments about RickardsRead -- and he's correct when he points out the gradual decline in the rate of posting of my columns.

It's not that I lack subjects to address which engage or irritate me about politics, culture and business. My portfolio of interests is not diminishing.

What I seem to lack as I approach the writing of my 300th column for RickardsRead is my erstwhile level of motivation to pick up a pen rather than, say, the latest novel by C.J. Sansom or Robert Harris or to plan a trip.

After I put on the shelf T
he Canadian Journal of LIfe Insurance (which, while employed by a life insurance company, I founded and edited more years ago than I care to recall) I suggested that I had said everything I ever wanted to say about the insurance business -- at least twice. 

Of course that was hyperbole but seemed apt nonetheless as was my recent response to a request for my attention to a certain insurance subject:  I am now declining any invitation that would tend to render my life even more fragmentary and futile. 

That latter phrase has stayed with me from a reply I received decades ago from the Canadian writer and critic George Woodcock (1912-1995).

My correspondent inadvertently touched on another reason why I started both CJLI and RickardsRead when he referred -- quite rightly -- to "how much smoke  passes for insurance industry analysis and reporting ....The mainstream media seems unable to properly cover Canadain insurance company bad acts...."

Indeed the pret-a-porter certainties spread about in the business media concerning insurance companies and their industry suggest that many 'analysts' appear to remain personally and confidently innocent of any meaningful encounter with the business.

Unfortunately it is a feature of the financial world and its media groupies (or as I have dubbed them the 'financial services paparazzi') that so many of its inhabitants would rather be wrong as a group than right on their own (q.v., the 2007-8 financial meltdown). 

It's as if they believe that the thin gruel of their analysis will be inspissated by drawing upon one another through that great system of mutual quotation that characterizes so much of what one reads. 

I am not quite ready to put RickardsRead on the internet shelf. At the least there are a number of updates I feel compelled to add to columns I have written on a range of subjects, from the demutualization of the Economical Mutual Insurance Company to Canadian electoral reform.

Until then ....

***************************

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns and blog archive:
to access previous columns and this blog's archive, the links to which
are listed chronologically in the margin beside each column 
as it appears on the RickardsRead.com website, go to
a recent column and use the links

to set a "Google alert" for RickardsRead columns
in order to receive notice automatically of new columns
as they are posted to RickardsRead.com, go to
www.Google.com/alert

*****************************


Sunday, December 6, 2015

(No.296) Joe Belth's "MEMOIR" about life insurance


"A review of Joe Belth's "THE INSURANCE FORUM:A Memoir" 
is Part 3 of the RickardsRead series
about how to buy life insurance"

by Alastair Rickard


I was for years employed in the Canadian life insurance business and at the same time I was an unlikely but persistent critic of it. I was also dismissive of certain journalists, analysts and self-appointed 'expert critics' of the insurance industry, its products and those who distributed them.

Why?

Too many of those in these categories did not (and still do not) understand many of the realities of the life insurance business. Neither in my experience did too many of senior decision-makers in the industry, some of whom were astonishingly ignorant of certain industry fundamentals like agency distribution, an ignorance often compounded by a patronizingly arrogant attitude to those who actually sold a company's core products..

As for industry critics: far too many were and are so far below the bar of expertise set by Professor Joseph Belth during his 40 years as founding editor of The Insurance Forum in the U.S. that reaching it would require jet travel. Yet the industry needs and benefits from informed criticism and commentary.

This brings me back to Joe Belth. He is the person I have long regarded as the ablest and best informed critic and analyst the modern North American life insurance industry has had. Belth is the gold standard against which I have measured myself and others.

(I wrote a column a couple of years ago when Joe marked the 40th anniversary of The Insurance Forum; see RickardsRead No. 250, "The magnificent Joseph Belth: a model for insurance critics", posted Nov. 7, 2013).    

Professor Belth has recently written and published a book of great value to any reader who wishes to understand core issues involving the life insurance business and its products in North America: "The Insurance Forum:  A Memoir". The volume deserves to be a vade-mecum for anyone, including consumers. with a serious interest in the  life insurance business (see below for details of publication and purchase).

In his "Memoir" Joe covers his life and influences but most of the book is comprised of his analysis of and reflections about more than two dozen major aspects of the modern North American life insurance business from (for example) the demutalization wave of life insurance companies through the secondary market for the buying and selling of  inforce life insurance policies to executive compensation in life companies and life insurance polucy replacement. All of the analysis and comment is informed by a truly impressive understanding of the business and its impact on consumers.

This is a book that ought to be read by every insurance regulator (whose understanding of the business they regulate is in my experience too often inadequate), and by agents/brokers as well as those industry analysts and self-styled 'expert critics' who purport to offer consumers and investors informed opinions on a business about which their views are frequently not just inadequate but defective.

Indeed, based on my experience as both a company officer and an editor (The Canadian Journal of Life Insurance) observing, working with and exchanging views with life insurance industry people at various levels, I would if it were possible make Joe Belth's recent "Memoir" required reading in the industry.

The sad reality is that many insurance company executives know less (or little more) about many of the fundamentals of the business in which they work than certain self-promoting 'expert critics' I have encountered through the years.

I have long believed that a major reason for Joe Belth's understanding of and effectiveness as a critic of the life insurance business, its products and their distribution is rooted in the fact that, before becoming involved in various capacities with education about insurance, Joe actually worked for a time as a life insurance agent. He learned first hand important realities of the life insurance business -- pro and con.

Over the years I have written thousands of words for both public and corporate consumption about a fundamental function of the business: selling stuff to people, most of whom (even in the internet age) will not take the initiative to purchase. Hence the historical and continuing centrality of the active, prospecting agency system of distribution in taking a core product -- individual life insurance as well as various other financial products -- to consumers and convincing them to purchase it to meet a need, a product still at the base of a proper financial planning pyramid.

I have never made this fundamental point as elegantly or as succinctly as Joe Belth does in the conclusion to his "Memoir". His prose is never obscure or less than understandable

Among other observations he concludes that one of the fundamental obstacles faced by the life insurance business has been and is "that the purchase of life insurance requires consumers to think about the unpleasant subject of their deaths and take action rather than procrastinate. As it is often said: 'life insurance is sold not bought'.

"The significance of this obstacle," he continues,"is that life insurnace companies must hire and train life insurance agents to seek out customers ... [and] persuade their customers to take action rather than wait until next year. I call the latter the critical but difficult anti-procrastination function of life insurrance agents.

"The further significance of this obstacle is that a life insurance company must provide the agent with  a strong financial incentive to engage in a difficult and often discouraging type of work. ... Most people die without wills because no one is compensated for performing the anti-procrastination function."

I recommend Joe Belth's book highly, including to existing or potential life insurance consumers who
seek to understand whether what they are being told involving this core product is understandable and reliable
                                                              ***

The hard cover book "The Insurance Forum: A Memoir" by Joseph A. Belth is available direct from The Insurance Forum at P.O.Box 245, Ellettsville, Indiana 47429. The price is $50 (U.S. funds).  Shipping and handling is included.

For ordering details go to www.theinsuranceforum.com and use the link to Memoirs.  


*************************

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns and blog archive:
to access previous columns and this blog's archive, the links to which
are listed chronologically in the margin beside each column
as it appears on the RickardsRead website, go to
a recent column and use the links.

to set a "Google Alert" for RickardsRead columns
in order to receive notice automatically of new columns
as they are posted to RickardsRead.com, go to
www.Google.com/alert

*****************************




Thursday, September 24, 2015

(No.295) "E.L. Doctorow, J.K.Rowling, Charles Bukowski, Dennis Lehane & Lee Child": some end of summer reading"


"Some enjoyable end of summer reading in five novels: the forgotten, the underestimated, the unusual, the surprising and the addictive ---  by E.L. Doctorow, J.K. Rowling, Charles Bukowski, Dennis Lehane and Lee Child"

by Alastair Rickard

The recent death at 84 of the American literary novelist E.L. Doctorow generated numerous reflections and tributes by peers and critics and readers. Many people have read one or more of Doctorow's best-known novels such as "Ragtime" and "Billy Bathgate".

I was prompted to read Doctorow's first novel from 1960 (still in print) "Welcome To Hard Times". Ostensibly it is a western tale set in a small town ca. the 1880s in an unnamed territory not far from the Dakotas.

In fact this tale is really a literary work of fiction as far removed from the typical novels in the American genre of 'westerns' like those by Louis L'Amour as one can imagine. It is a dark tale of the negative effect on the small settlement and its leading characters of a truly sociopathic individual.

The novel was made into a movie Doctorow understandably disliked but Hollywood then as now was unlikely to produce a version of a complex novel pleasing to its author. "Welcome To Hard Times" is worth reading if only to see the point at which Doctorow's novel writing started.

Charles Bukowski was a German born (1920) poet and novelist who came to the U.S. at the age of three. He was raised in Los Angeles and lived there for fifty years. He died in San Pedro California in 1994.

During his often tough and rough life he wrote 45 books of poetry and prose including 5 novels. He gradually developed -- and still has -- a loyal rather than a "best selling" readership.

I recently read his 1982 autobiographical novel "Ham On Rye"(still in print). The novel follows the hardscrabble youth in LA of his alter ego in the book -- Henry Chinaski -- from childhood through to the post-Pearl Harbor American entry into WWII. It is not only an absorbing story but conveys much feeling and impact in its straightforward prose.

Dennis Lehane, a very successful American novelist, may be best known for "Mystic River" which was turned into a successful movie directed by Clint Eastwood.

"Live By Night"(2012) is a tale that unfolds in Boston, Tampa Florida and Cuba during the 1920s and early 1930s. It follows the criminal activity and prison time of Joe Coughlin, the son of a senior but corrupt Boston cop, who makes his money and his reputation in organized crime. It is very well told, a novel that is hard to put down

Lehane continues Coughlin's story in "World Gone By" (2015), a novel set in Tampa and Cuba in the 1940s  For maximum enjoyment the two novels should be read in the order in which they were published. They are very interesting tales.

When J.K. Rowling, the hugely successful creator of the Harry Potter novels, wrote her first non-Potter novel, one for adults called "The Casual Vacancy" (2012), it was as if some book reviewers had been waiting eagerly for the chance to bring down a literary notch or two the world's most commercially successful novelist. Indeed Rowling came to believe that she would receive unbiased reviews from the literary paparazzi for a non-Potter novel written for adults only if critics did not know they were reviewing a novel she had written.

Hence the use by Rowling of the pseudonym Robert Galbraith for the first novel "The Cuckoo's Calling"(her second 'adult' novel after the "The Casual Vacancy") in what by now has turned out to be a series featuring a London private detective and one-legged ex-soldier named Cormoran Strike.

Her identity as its author was leaked but not before a number of critics had given 'Galbraith's first novel' favourable reviews. As I indicated previously in RickardsRead I regard Rowling's detective novels as very good indeed.

"The Casual Vacancy" title refers to a legal/administrative reference to the death of a sitting member of a parish council. The novel's plot is kicked off by and subsequently intertwined with the unexpected death of a 'progressive' member of the parish council of the small English town of Pagford  in contemporary Britain.

Rowling wrote a very good novel indeed, a penetrating story of the various conflicts which surface after the councillor's death among a cast of characters, conflicts related to age, class, gender, politics, incomes and race.  The novel has elements that remind me of both Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.

Lee Child is an Englishman and a former director who worked in British television. He is today a famous New York City-based novelist and best selling American writer.

His current fame derives from the huge commercial success of a series of novels featuring an adventure-seeking ex-U.S. Army military police officer named Jack Reacher, a physically fit and imposing man who is violence prone and wanders the country carrying not much more than his toothbrush.

Child has just put out his latest Reacher novel, the twentieth, titled "Make Me" (2015). The Reacher novels are very successful and, while hardly great fiction, they are addictive for many people including me. The publication of a new Reacher novel is a guaranteed fix for addicts. For us "Make Me" has a plot as absorbing and action-filled as any Reacher fan could desire.

******************************

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns & blog archive:
to access previous columns and this blog's archive, the links to which
are listed chronologically in the margin beside each column
as it appears on the RickardsRead website, go to
a recent column and use the links

to set a "Google alert" for RickardsRead columns
in order to receive notice automatically of new columns
as they are posted to RickardsRead.com, go to
www.Google.com/alert

********************************* 




Saturday, September 5, 2015

(No.294) Part 3 of "Two Macdonalds & several other crime novelists"


Part 3 of "Two Macdonalds (Ross and John D.) and
several other crime novelists"

by Alastair Rickard

In my two previous columns (Nos. 292 amd 293) I offered some comments about new or republished novels I have enjoyed by a number of current writers as well as the accumulated works of the late Ross Macdonald and John D. Macdonald.

This column concludes the series.

                                                 *********

The American author Joseph Kanon is a talented writer. His novels are set in different cities and mainly but not entirely at or shortly after the end of world War II. The novels do not repeat characters or plot lines.

"The Prodigal Spy" (1999) takes place in Washington and Prague and involves an American insider who spied for the Russians. "The Alibi" (2009) involves an American officer in Europe at war's end and his involvement with a Jewish-Italian survivor of war crimes. Both are well written -- as one expects from Kanon.

There is hardly a more reliable writer when it comes to each of his novels ascending the American bestseller lists than Michael Connelly. A former journalist, Connelly is the real deal: a certified producer of 'top 10' novels. His longest running character is the Los Angeles Police Dept. detective Harry Bosch. Because his Bosch novels are not frozen in time Connelly reached a point chronologically when Bosch retired.

However, like Ian Rankin's Detective Inspector John Rebus in Edinburgh who was also retired by his creator, Bosch came out of retirement. "The Burning Room" (2014) is the latest published in the series with another (the 20th,"The Crossing") scheduled for publication in November this year.

Vermont state detective Joe Gunther is the central character in more than two dozen crime novels by Archer Mayor. Gunther is surrounded by a continuing cast of police and non-police characters (especially female friends), a pattern continued in "Proof Positive" (2014), the 25th in the series. The next Joe Gunther novel "The Company She kept" will be out this month.

Lee Child is, like Michael Connelly, the creator of a character -- Jack Reacher -- whose appearance in another new story guarantees that novel bestseller standing. Child, an Englishman who once worked in British television, created an American character who is not only an ex-military policeman, large and very tough, but also a wanderer around the U.S. thus facilitating his encountering of all manner of eccentric people and circumstances.

"Personal" (2014) features rather more than usual of Reacher's biographical details but is just as violent as well as difficult for a reader to put down. The 18 Reacher novels are very successful for good reason: they are absorbing. The next Reacher novel, "Make Me", will be out in Sept. this year.

The American novelist John Sandford has created two long running characters: Lucas Davenport, a senior detective in a Minnesota state policy agency and Virgil Flowers, one of his subordinates, For the most part their respectives cases do not overlap.

There are 25 "Prey" novels featuring Davenport; all his stories have "Prey" in the title: and 8 so far featuring Virgil Flowers. The latest from Sandford are "Gathering Prey" (2015) and (with Flowers) "Deadline" (2014). They are well plotted and told in a fashion as interesting as their predecessors in the two series.

Like Joseph Kanon novels, the historical espionage genre of fiction by Alan Furst, a particular favourite of mine, form a series of novels without continuing characters. In "Midnight in Europe" (2014) Furst again shows that he is a master at setting up the mood and creating the atmosphere of Europe in the years between the two world wars and leading up to WWII.

Finally Rebecca Cantrell, like Furst an American writer who has lived in Europe, began the story of her lead character Hannah Vogel in pre-war Europe in "A Trace of Smoke" (2009). It is the first in a series of novels and a good start, one that has been followed by three more.

Vogel is revealed to be a newspaper crime beat reporter living a hand-to-mouth existence in 1931 Berlin who unintentionally becomes involved with the affairs of a senior Nazi. The story embraces aspects of both the Nazi rise to power in Germany and the corresponding decline in the pre-1933
Berlin/Weimar lifestyles since depicted in books like Christopher Isherwood's "The Berlin Stories"and various movies and plays such as "Cabaret".

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email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

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/Weimar era