Sunday, January 27, 2013

(No.228) American novelists for whom crime pays

"Five contemporary American novelists for whom crime pays"

by Alastair Rickard

The late French novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette argued that the crime novel is the great moral literature of our time. Perhaps but I do think that one of the great pleasures for a reader of novels like me is to discover a writer who has created a continuing character whose life and activities are interesting, a writer who regularly produces a new chapter in the character's life and one who writes well.

As followers of will know I enjoy reading (and reviewing) the work of such novelists from both sides of the Atlantic.

Five such series by American novelists are the subject of this column. All or most of their novels are still readily available.

Robert Crais had his first Elvis Cole novel, "The Monkey's Raincoat", published in 1987. In all there have been fourteen novels with this lead character. Cole is a smart-mouthed Los Angeles private detective who, with his lethal, monosyllabic partner the ex-cop Joe Pike, gets involved in a variety of well-plotted stories.

The novels are always entertaining reading but they are not written in a fashion that reminds me of, say, the American master of the crime fiction genre Elmore Leonard. "The Monkey's Raincoat is a good representative of this Crais series and, like most of these novels, is still widely available in paperback. The latest is "Taken" (2012), as entertaining as ever.

Lawrence Block has been writing novels for decades. His most successful continuing character is Matthew Scudder, an alcoholic AA meeting attender and ex- New York City cop who left the force after accidentally killing a child during a shoot out. Scudder is, by his own choice, an unlicensed private detective who does "favours" for which he accepts "gifts".

Scudder is a character who has aged and evolved through seventeen novels, not frozen in time like bees in amber as some continuing lead characters in series are. Start with the first Scudder novel "The Sins of the Fathers" (1976) while the latest is a flashback on his earlier life "A Drop of the Hard Stuff (2011).

Another among Block's several major continuing characters through ten novels is Bernie Rhodenbarr, a professional burglar. Like Scudder (and Block himself) he too lives and 'works' in New York City. The novels are not as dark as those featuring Scudder . Try the first Rhodenbarr novel "Burglars Can't be Choosers" (1977). The most recent in the series was "Burglars on The Prowl" (2004). I think the Scudder novels are superior to the Rhodenbarr series but the latter novels are enjoyable reading.

Michael Connelly, a former newspaper reporter,  twenty years ago created a memorable character in American crime fiction named Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch, named by the character's mother after the 15th century Dutch painter. He is a Los Angeles Police Dept. homicide detective.

In his virtues and faults, demeanour and attitudes Bosch most reminds me (among the many continuing characters in crime/detective fiction) of Ian Rankin's wonderfully sour, non-team playing Edinburgh Detective Inspector John Rebus. The Scot has recently been brought back from retirement by Rankin in his most recent novel "Standing In Another Man's Grave" (2012), another great Rebus novel.

Try the Bosch novel "The Narrows" (2004). It marks an important stage in Bosch's life, both professional and personal. The first novel in the Bosch series was "The Black Echo" (1992). The latest is "The Black Box" (2012) which is well up to Connelly's customary high standard.

The Bosch novels and plots move chronologically. Lately they have been intersecting with Connelly novels featuring a newer continuing character, an LA criminal lawyer named Mickey Haller. The first in that series, "The Lincoln Lawyer", was published in 2005.

James Lee Burke has been writing successful novels about as long as Lawrence Block. Some critics regard him as the best American 'mystery/crime' writer working today. In my view that 'title' still belongs to Elmore Leonard; in the U.K. there are several contenders for that honour. However Burke is indeed prolific and an accomplished writer. The continuing character for whom he is best known is a Louisiana Cajun police detective named Dave Robicheau who has a seriously dysfunctional former police partner named Clete Purcel.

The Robicheau novels began with "The Neon Rain" in 1987. Burke is still chronicling the life, the Louisiana times and the crimes with which an aging Dave Robicheau is involved. There have been 19 novels in this series so far, the latest published in 2012 "Creole Belle". It is very good. Burke does rank among the best crime fiction writers in the U.S. today.

Joseph Wambaugh is perhaps the most prominent and successful American ex-cop to become a crime novelist. He is sometimes referred to as the father of the modern police novel. He hit it big with "The Blue Knight "in 1971 written while he was an LA cop followed by the great success of "The New Centurions" in 1972.  In recent years he has written several police-centred novels featuring the beat cops working out of the Hollywood Station in Los Angeles.

Wambaugh, who has not himself been an LA  cop for many years, obviously spends much time talking to cops and listening to their stories both humorous and dark. He has been using them as both source material and inspiration for his Hollywood Station series. His most recent novel (his 16th), which has some overlap with the Hollywood Station series, is "Harbor Nocturne" (2012). It is enjoyable although not quite up to the standard of his previous works in the series.

Successful crime series novelists develop a continuing character(s) whose loyal followers can scarcely wait for the next novel in the series to appear. These five fine Americans are indisputably in this category.

Among this quintet of American novelists I do wonder, given their ages,  how long Burke, born in 1936, Block (b.1938) and Wambaugh (b.1937) will continue writing. Still, they have long back lists of novels for new readers to discover and enjoy.




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Monday, January 21, 2013

(No.227) New LLQP & agent licensing: views pro & con

"More about revisions to life insurance agent licensing: 
pro and con on a new LLQP"

by Alastair Rickard

I have written two columns expressing my scepticism about the plan from the provincial life insurance regulators in Canada who comprise CISRO (the Canadian Insurance Services Regulatory Organizations) to introduce a new modular regime (exams and content) to be developed by Quebec's AMF (the Autorite des marches financiers) for use in both Quebec and the common law provinces.

[Those two columns on were: (No.216) "CISRO's 'harmonizing': the life insurance agent licensing regime of LLQP revisited", posted Oct.8, 2013; and (No.222) "CISRO, the AMF and a new LLQP life insurance licensing regime: to whose benefit?", posted Dec.9, 2012.]

The new regime has been given the designation of "the harmonized Life Insurance Licensing Qualification Program". Under the CISRO/AMF plan it would replace the content and exam of the existing LLQP program (the Life Licensing Qualification Program), a program with the development of which I had more than a casual involvement a decade ago.

I will add some further comments on the subject at the conclusion of this column. However in response to my previous columns I received various reactions, pro and con. I have selected some excerpts.

I received a thoughtful reply disagreeing with my views from a person who is involved with one of the CISRO-approved LLQP course providers. He wrote that "I usually agree with you ... but in this regard I believe you are mistaken. ... the [existing] LLQP has many great attributes and it has been a good initiative. However in recent years many of its weaknesses have been exposed. We have internally expressed concern that the LLQP may be on the verge of obsolescence due to some untended to housekeeping issues. Four years of failure to tend to these issues has substantially weakened the LLQP."

The writer's "specific concerns" include that "the LLQP is, outside of BC and to a lesser extent Saskatchewan, almost exclusively overseen by one person. That one person ... has little or no accountability. There is no oversight or review that I am aware of concerning LLQP examination questions."

He continued: "It has been four years since the LLQP Design Document was reviewed" and "the actual examination process, especially in Ontario and BC, is a disaster. The cost may be low (approx. $100 per attempt ...) but this is a case where you get what you pay for."

In terms of my concerns about the inevitable increase in the cost of the LLQP licensing process for applicants the correspondent said that "I believe that it will still be possible to enter this [life insurance] industry with an initial cash outlay of somewhere less than $1200, which is a very low barrier to entry."

He concluded that while he knows that "many in the common law provinces will be critical of the AMF, I have dealt with the insurance regulators in all jurisdictions across Canada, and I find the AMF to be an excellent organization. Further, their licensing materials are quite good, at least on a par with most of the LLQP materials currently in use. ... I like the concept of breaking it [ i.e., the licensing exam process] down into its core components."

On the other side of the issue I received a comment from a Quebec-based life insurance executive (a francophone) whose view of the AMF was not as favourable as the foregoing correspondent's.

He said that "I truly enjoyed your article on AMF and your other comments on the political situation in Quebec under the PQ government. I am personally concerned about the role of the AMF and its capacity to undertake such a major task. They already have enough problems coping with the role they may be asked to play in the supervision of the placement of construction workers!!! They already have enough problems policing the insurance industry operation in the province!!! ..."

From a life insurance executive who has had considerable experience with agency matters in Canada, including those in Quebec, came this comment: " A very well written and extremely important document. I assume you have forwarded a copy with a separate note to [ certain named senior industry executives]. Your insights and suggestions are key to help pull us back from an unneeded and unnecessary cliff."

He continued: "You have done an exccllent job of summarizing a very puzzling solution in search of a problem. The Quebec regime has not produced any measurable improvment to either advisors as measured by productivity or retention or to policy owners as measured by lapse or persistency rates. One can only hope that the [life insurance] industry responds with the needed vigour to prevent a process that will conspire to reduce the number of new advisors, put up barriers to new Canadians and add no value to the public."

Finally, from someone with many years of agency experience in Canada as both an industry executive and as an agent, a comment that goes to the heart of actual agency distribution in the real world: "More barriers [to entry] and less new agent compensation. Does not look promising for the industry. I think I may stick around a little longer as we can't even hire enough new blood to look after existing blocks [of life insurance in force]. Good for us old timers. What a business."


I have not changed my views as I expressed them in my previous columns on this subject. Based on what I have read and heard since they were posted, this 'son of LLQP' process initiated by the insurance regulators is, in CISRO's dealings with those directly concerned, every bit as arrogant in its presentation and the imposition of a plan to bring in a new LLQP regime as it was a decade ago.

So far as I can make out it will likely cost $4 or $5 million to impose when all is said and done with the benefits (if indeed it can be said that there are any useful ones) flowing to the insurance regulators. They will, of course, continue to use as camouflage for their arrogance a claim of benefits for the consumer. The as yet to be provided answer in a real world context (as opposed to a bureaucratic one) is to the key question:  what benefits?

Had the provincial insurance regulators actually been interested in serving core interests other than their own the CISRO consultation with the life insurance industry and other LLQP stakeholders would have occurred before the plan was presented in July 2012 on a 'like it or lump it' basis. But that would have risked insurance regulators being forced to defend their proposed regime on the facts.

CISRO's so-called consultation with stakeholders that has thus far taken place has been little more than window-dressing, arbitrary and bureaucratically self-serving.

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.




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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

(No.226) Daniel Woodrell: the least known major novelist?

"Daniel Woodrell: the least known major American novelist?"

by Alastair Rickard

I have never seen the American novelist Daniel Woodrell interviewed on an arts show or indeed any program. Perhaps it is because he lives in the Ozarks and does not seek publicity. Dennis Lehane, the bestselling novelist, has called Woodrell "the least known major writer in the country". In an Esquire review he was referred to as "the best regarded obscure novelist in America".

Woodrell has been writing published novels since the mid-1980s but he's been far from prolific. He was sick for several years and has written only eight novels so far. Still, while this number compares favourably with the output over decades  of, say,  William Styron who produced five novels during his life (he spent six years writing "Sophie's Choice: A Memory"), it puts Woodrell in a very different category than most of today's bestselling American novelists.

I can't recall where or when I first picked up one of Woodrell's novels but I do remember why. Its subject involved a particular historical interest of mine: the savage guerilla activity in Missouri, Kansas and elsewhere during the American civil war.

The novel, his second, was titled "Woe To Live On" (1987) and featured young southern men who joined ruthless pro-Confederacy guerilla gangs led by men like William Clarke Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson. It is great historical fiction. Unlike Jesse and Frank James and the Younger brothers, who emerged from such activity into post-war banditry and murder, the leading characters in Woodrell's tale are not all actual or even borderline psychopaths.

Jesse James's popular image in American culture to this day is (like Wyatt Earp's) laughably inaccurate and was made even more mythical and false than Earp's by contemporary as well as subsequent writers. Jesse James came to his full pathological maturity in exactly the sort of times Woodrell describes so effectively in "Woe To Live On".

The novel was made into a movie in 1999 with the title "Ride With The Devil" directed by the talented Ang Lee and is an intermittently inspired film  -- but Woodrell's novel is superior to the movie. The novel was reissued by the publisher under the movie's title "Ride With The Devil". 

Three of Woodrells' first four novels featured the members of the Shade family living in a fictional mid-sized southern city he called St.Bruno, located somewhere not all that far from New Orleans. The initial two novels in the series had as a particular focus the life of one of the three Shade sons, Rene, a former boxer turned cop. In fact Woodrell wrote "Woe To Live On" after the first of the trio set in St. Bruno.

The novels "Under the Bright Lights", "Muscle For the Wing" and " The Ones You Do" have now been republished in one volume entitled "The Bayou Trilogy" (2011). When originally published the second and third novels of this fine trilogy were commercially unsuccessful.

The books convey so effectively the dark side of a Louisiana city in the 1980s and 90s that they prompted the modern master of Los Angeles noir fiction James Elroy to call Woodrell the "bayou Elmore Leonard", high praise indeed for any novelist setting out to create believable noir crime fiction. Woodrell himself even dubbed one of his novels "country noir". His own favourite among the Bayou Trilogy  is "The Ones You Do" and it may soon be made into a movie.

Daniel Woodrell, born in Missouri in 1953, left the 'bayou' novels and switched location to the Ozarks where he had been born and to which he returned after a varied life. He and his wife, novelist Katie Estill, live in the Ozarks in West Plain, Missouri. His time away from his own part of the country started with  a hitch in the U.S. Marine Corps in which he enlisted when he was 17 and from which he was discharged for drug use after eighteen months.

His most recent novel Winter's Bone (2006) was set in the Ozarks and was made into a movie directed by Debra Granik. The movie was widely acclaimed and favourably reviewed by critics. The Woodrell novel on which it was based was left out of attendant awards.

In his life as well as certain aspects of his writing Woodrell reminds me of another American novelist, Charles Willeford, who died in 1988 and is probably better known now than when he was alive. I reviewed the four novels Willeford wrote featuring Miami detective Hoke Moseley (, "Charles Willeford & Hoke Moseley", Column No. 210 posted Aug.6, 2012).

Perhaps Willeford's best writing came in his two wonderfully interesting volumes of autobiography: "I Was Looking For A Street" (1988) and "Something About A Soldier" (1986). It is a great loss that Willeford died before he could add at least  one more volume about his own fascinating life.

Daniel Woodrell, like some other highly individualistic American novelists, refuses to change his approach to writing. Referring to the switch to the Ozarks as a setting for his novels Woodrell says that "I am very well aware of how disinterested the country as a whole is in places like this, so I knew it would mean taking a vow of poverty."

His writing style has been described as "regional", "southern", "gothic". He rejects these categories. He says that he views "all labels as a form of prejudice -- so said Chekhov, and, as usual, he knew what he was talking about ... they are all terms meant to segregate us from a true evaluation -- no need for the literary world to even look at the work, since you are sub-literary by category, and the categories are very dumbly applied in many cases."

As with Willeford's Hoke Moseley series, I very much enjoyed the novels making up Daniel Woodrell's Bayou Trilogy but also his other work. His forthcoming novel, also set in the Ozarks, is titled "The Maid's Version".

Whether Woodrell is or isn't the least known major American novelist he is certainly a very talented writer whose novels and short stories will continue to be read.

Books by Daniel Woodrell (all in print):

1. Under the Bright Lights (1986)
2. Muscle For The Wing (1988) 
3. The Ones You Do (1992)
 --   These three novels reissued in one volume as The Bayou Trilogy in 2011
4. Woe To Live On (1987) [reissued in 2011 under the title Ride With The Devil]
5. Give Us A Kiss: A Country Noir (1996)
6. Tomato Red (1998)
7. The Death of Sweet Mister (2001)
8. Winter's Bone (2006)
9  (short stories) The Outlaw Album (2011)




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Thursday, January 10, 2013

(No.225) Sun Life: dumping a can of worms

"Sun Life Financial dumps a can of American worms --
another smart move"

by Alastair Rickard

Since the release of Sun Life Financial's 3rd quarter 2012 financial results the company announced on Dec. 17 the sale for (U.S.)$1.35 billion of its American subsidiary's annuity business and "certain life insurance business". In other words this transaction carries forward the earlier decision by Dean Connor, since becoming CEO of Sun Life Financial, to take Sun Life out of the American individual insurance and annuity business. As Connor put it:  the company will thereby reduce its "risk profile and earnings volatility".

This is another of Connor's smart moves since becoming Sun CEO. For reasons I won't enumerate here the individual life insurance and annuity business in the U.S. became over time a can of financial worms for Sun Life -- and more like a barrel of maggots for Manulife, but that's another story.

As a former executive of Sun Life of Canada (following its 2002 takeover of Clarica Life, the recently demutualized Mutual Life of Canada) I follow the operations of Sun Life with more than casual interest as do the Sun Life people who stay in touch with me. Against the more recent background provided by the American sale it is worth looking at several details of Sun's 3rd quarter results.

Sun's Canadian operations, so greatly enlarged and enhanced by the acquisition of the demutualized Mutual Life and its industry leading career agency distribution system, continue to be the leading profit engine among its world-wide activities.

For example, comparing Q3 2012 results using common shareholders' net income, behold (yet again) the significance to profits of the company's Canadian operations compared to Sun's extra-Canadian activities (in Can.$):

Canada -- $237 million

U.S. -- $18 million

MFS Investment Mgt
(Sun's U.S. mutual
fund operation) --  $46 million

Asia --   $35 million

Corporate (includes U.K.
& reinsurance runoff) -- $47 million

In terms of Sun's 3rd qtr 2012 Canadian results insurance sales by its career agency sales force increased 32% over Q3 2011. In part this reflected the sale by the CSF career agents of a significant but not overwhelming volume of participating whole life insurance, a recently reintroduced individual life insurance product that many agents had long wanted in their product portfolios. Therein lies an interesting story.

When the big Canadian mutual life insurance companies (Mutual, Sun, Manu and Canada) demutualized at the turn of the century their managements and boards couldn't wait to stop selling par business. Why?

Because as stock life insurance companies operating under the federal regulatory regime with shareholders as well as their own pocket books to please, the last thing company boards and senior managers wanted was to sell a form of life insurance (participating) the share in the flow of profits from which to shareholders was restricted.

None of the these four except Mutual Life of Canada ( virtually all of whose policies, even Universal Life, were designated par) had ever been enthusiastic sellers of par life insurance (or been interested in mutuality for that matter) but the grovelling, self-serving haste with which all of them ditched the selling of par policies bordered on the indecent. Still, shareholders post-demutualization were the priority; the par policyholders certainly were not.

As the individual life insurance market waxed and waned over time many agents of long experience complained about the absence of par whole life as a desirable product. It took years for senior company managements to recognize reality and rediscover what had once been a core individual life insurance product. They will tell you that what reappeared was not as attractive as what they formally had but it is something.

Ironically London Life, always a stock life insurance company with a career sales force oriented since Adam was a boy to the sale of par life, never stopped selling par life even after the Jeffrey family gave up control. God knows that successive London Life owners and their senior executives did their best (in the financial interests of principal shareholders) to de-emphasize if not eliminate par life sales -- unsuccessfully. I recall London running non-par annuity sales contests as year end approached trying to boost the volume of non-par business from which the shareholders could be allocated 100% of the profits.

Following the sale in 2008 of Sun's 37% ownership interest in the mutual fund firm CI Investments to the Bank of Nova Scotia (an interest Sun had originally acquired by trading its own mutual fund operation plus Mutual/Clarica's larger one to CI) Sun's Canadian leadership headed by President Kevin Dougherty was finally and belatedly able to begin to think seriously about how Sun Life might actually benefit from getting mutual fund business from Sun's own career agents (who sell much mutual fund business), and (eventually) to get them to sell at least some of the funds later made available through Sun  Life Global Investments (SLGI). This has been a hard slog. In Q3 only 14% of Sun's own career agency force's mutual fund sales went to SLGI.

The challenge for Sun Canada is that for years ( having consistently ignored the warnings and concerns of some of Sun's senior career agency people) Sun senior management gave CI preferred access to the Mutual/Clarica/Sun sales force and did so for far too small a longer term benefit to Sun Canada. Moreover CI was hostile to any suggestion that it ought to put anything in the way of investment into the Sun career agency distribution system on which it came to depend for much of its quality, non-churned mutual fund business.

CI used this preferred access to Sun's large, national career agency system access very effectively and over time built relationships with many Sun agents who were or became successful in the selling of mutual funds. This was based on attractive funds and various types of marketing support. This success also cost Sun much in the way of higher margin life sales activity foregone by agents whose diversion increasingly to mutual funds was encouraged and supported by CI.

To understand how these important sales relationships between Sun agents and CI were built and the resulting Sun agent loyalty sustained I suggest reading the response to a column of mine from a CI-supporting Sun Life career agent who is very successful in the mutual fund business (see, column No.154 posted May 30, 2011).

Direction of  Sun Life's Asian operations was finally and also belatedly placed in Feb. 2012 in the hands of a real insurance man: Kevin Strain, a senior executive in Sun's Canadian operation. Strain, not a friend of mine but someone I have known since he came to Mutual Life from London Life, was -- as I have written elsewhere (, No.189 posted March 5, 2012) an inspired choice for this role by CEO Dean Connor. Sun has long needed someone with experience in and understanding of the real world of the insurance business to try to make more out of Sun's investments in Asia.

Connor's predecessor as Sun Life CEO, Donald Stewart, retired at the end of Nov. 2011. However I am interested that Stewart, with whom as CEO Strain for a time had a direct working relationship following the Sun takeover of Mutual/Clarica, continues to be involved (after a fashion) with Sun's Asian operation, particularly its minority ownership interests in Birla Sun Life (India) and Sun Life Everbright (China).

Sun Life generally and Kevin Strain in particular are likely to benefit over time from Stewart's interest and analysis. Stewart has long been committed enthusiastically to the potential in Asia for Sun Life. As I have written before, I like and respect Don Stewart more than most of the life insurance company CEOs I have known (and known about) over the years. However I disagreed with him on some matters.

For example: in repeatedly painting in countless company meetings large and small a giant and rosy picture of an Asian future for Sun he downplayed the importance to Sun's profitability of the Canadian goose that continued to lay by far the biggest share of its golden eggs and reinforced the senior management tendency to ignore or refuse to recognize the need for the company to invest [non-operating budget] dollars in enhancing a core strength -- the career agency sales force. Dean Connor seems to have moved to restore a more balanced recognition of the importance of Sun's Canadian operation in the larger Sun scheme of things. Kevin Dougherty's leadership of the Canadian operation reinforces this positive change.

Don Stewart also tended not to draw sufficient distinctions among agents operating for Sun in various countries. An agent was an agent was an agent in Stewart's Sun world, whether in India or China or Canada. This was and is a view not anchored in agency reality.

It is a fundamental misunderstanding to equate a typical Sun career agent in Canada, one engaged full time in the sale and service of life and health insurance, mutual funds and annuities with, say, an agent of Birla Sun Life who operates part-time selling what amounts to low margin, single premium GICs masquerading as life insurance and doing so while engaged in other activities and products (e.g., selling phone cards among other things).

One consequence among many is not only an agent retention rate that is risible but a distribution system incompatible with modern career agency principles and results. As major Canadian career agency companies (led by the Mutual Life of Canada) recognized a half century ago and more this approach to distribution requires reformation.

One of the many challenges Kevin Strain faces is to try somehow to reorient some agents and some markets to the sale and purchase of higher margin, annual premium life insurance products. To make money you need appropriate product margins and pricing combined with effective distribution. The relationship is symbiotic, q.v., the history of the agency system and life insurance. Still, having (I assume) Don Stewart available as a counsellor, however informally, can be an asset to Strain in his Asian role.

Another important point to note is that Sun Life Financial now led by Dean Connor is making smart moves solidly grounded in the intelligent conduct of the insurance business. Surely this is obvious (you may say) as a basis for the management of a life insurance company. It should be but in my experience it is far from certain.

Sun's activity has long been analyzed along with Manulife's by certain external 'experts' who have an imperfect understanding of the life insurance business. Expert commentary has tended to be issued comprehensively, like the rain falling on the just and the unjust. The reality is that Manulife's share price continues to languish (as indeed it should) while, as I write this, Sun Life Financial's approaches $28, distinctly higher than the level forecast by 'experts' not long ago.

My view is that there will likely be more smart steps taken. There need to be in order to help offset poor decisions of the past involving Sun's U.S. operation and elsewhere.




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