Sunday, February 14, 2010

Gardening Leave

There are already many good reasons to love Tuscany: the delightfully sensual landscape, the magnificent architecture, the glorious food and the ravishing women (or is it ravishing food and glorious women?), but we can now happily add another one to the long list: Mark Mills’ second novel, “The Savage Garden”, which is a haunting tale of murder, love, divided loyalties and innocence lost set in post-war Italy. It’s a beautifully evocative story of a “long hot summer”, as far removed from “Chiantishire” as you could imagine, though Mills does describe the cities of Florence and Siena with much affection, while perfectly capturing the mysterious atmosphere of the eponymous garden.

Mark Mills is a British author, who has lived in both Italy and France. Like the hero in “The Savage Garden”, he also graduated from Cambridge University. To date, he has only published three novels, though his first book “Amagansett” won the 2004 award for Best Crime Novel by a Debut Author from the prestigious Crime Writers Association. Subsequently re-titled the somewhat less cryptic “The Whaleboat House”, Mills’ debut immediately exhibited his brand of elegant, stylish writing, but also established his trademark themes of time and place, namely setting his stories in the period after World War II in exotic locations (in this case, Long Island). In the same vein, his third novel “The Information Officer” is located in Malta, though this time the story actually takes place during the Second World War.

"This Charming Man"

In “The Savage Garden”, an indolent student, Adam Strickland, follows up a suggestion by his tutor, the learned Professor Crispin Leonard, to travel to the Villa Docci in Tuscany to study the architecture for his thesis. Although the professor offers muted praise for the house itself, “An impressive, if somewhat pedestrian, example of High Renaissance Tuscan vernacular”, he is more effusive about the stunning garden, where “art and nature come together to create a whole new entity”. During his studies, Adam finds himself drawn towards two possible murders and the (family) ties that bind them together, even though they are separated by four hundred years. The first secret is uncovered via a series of clues in the 16th century garden, while the second mystery is altogether closer to home, just after the Nazi occupation of Italy came to a violent end. Solving the first puzzle turns Adam into something of an academic hero, but speculating on the latter places his life in danger.

Built by a banker as a memorial to his wife, who died in 1548 at the tender age of 25, the striking, but disquieting, garden becomes truly enchanted for Adam. A dazzling vision of wooded glades, grottoes, temples, reflecting pools and classical statues of “petrified gods, goddesses and nymphs playing out their troubled stories on this leafy stage”, it seems to give the habitual slacker a sense of purpose for the first time in his young life. The fascinating garden is used as a plot vehicle to introduce us to Italian history and culture, as well as the Doccis’ family background, but is described in loving detail, “Having laid out this new kingdom, Federico had then dedicated it to Flora, goddess of flowers, and populated it with the characters from ancient mythology over whom she held sway: Hyacinth, Narcissus and Adonis. All had died tragically, and all lived on in the flowers that burst from the earth where their blood had spilled - the same flowers that still enameled the ground in their respective areas of the garden every springtime”. Little wonder that Adam takes time to smell the flowers, so to speak.

"Until I learn to accept my reward"

Everyone believes that the grieving husband had designed the garden as a spectacular homage to his dead wife, emphasised by carving her name into the triumphal arch over the splendid amphitheatre, but Adam senses that something is not quite right about the place. He is struck by certain discordant elements in the garden’s symmetry with the placement of the statues and their expressions oddly dissonant and even unsettling, especially a rather provocative marble statue of the banker’s wife. He begins to suspect that the garden’s iconography contains a far more sinister message, representing the late Signor Docci’s confession that he murdered his wife, but also explaining the motive for his crime. The cuckolded husband had actually poisoned his spouse to avenge her adulterous ways. A savage garden indeed.

Ignoring any statu(t)e of limitations, Adam makes use of classical Italian literature to piece together the clues. He first consults Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”, a volume given to him by his professor, in an attempt to discern the meaning of the different statues and whom they might represent, but he eventually realises that this is a false trail. However, his literary approach is still valid and a careful reading of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” enables him to decipher the husband’s intentions, as the nine-tiered garden is clearly modeled on the nine circles of hell.

The story parallels a more recent killing, when Emilio, the eldest son of Signora Francesca Docci, the imperious, but frail matriarch of the Villa, was shot by German soldiers as they retreated. However, Adam discovers that there are several versions of this death and he cannot understand why Francesca has sealed off the floor where Emilio was murdered, as this obliges the family to live forever with this painful memory. Just as he did in “The Whaleboat House”, Mills uses a suspicious death as a way to examine the scars from war that have never quite healed in a tight-knit community. The German occupation devastated the village with understandable tensions still present between the families of collaborators and partisans. The Docci family had come to an understanding with the culture-loving Nazi officer, so that the Villa’s works of art and historical gardens were maintained, but this arrangement was unexpectedly terminated in a disastrous, drunken night of violence, leaving dark secrets hidden within the family domain.

Having said that this is a book about two mysteries, it’s not really a traditional whodunit, but more of an intriguing puzzle – a genuine literary thriller. You will have to look elsewhere for blood, gore, forensics and a high body count, though Mills skillfully creates a growing air of menace with the relative lack of action only increasing the suspense. No, this is a novel of detection, reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, at one stage Adam shares a private joke with his brother Harry that references Arthur Conan Doyle’s finest creation. However, don’t expect a neat dénouement in the style of Agatha Christie, where the culprit is dramatically unveiled before the assembled guests. Mills is much more restrained and understated than that.

"Hold your head high"

At its heart, the book is really about Adam’s development, his coming of age, where he starts to use his brain, rather than always taking the easy option. Like his namesake in the Garden of Eden (don’t tell me that’s a coincidence), Adam rises to the challenge – in both senses. We first encounter him as a rather lazy student, before accompanying him in the guise of innocent abroad, though there is a mounting sense of a loss of innocence in our hero, like Michael Frayn’s nostalgic “Spies”. Initially a reluctant detective (“This means nothing to me/Oh, Siena”), he slowly becomes an obsessive investigator, as he is profoundly affected by his environment. In Cambridge Adam was unceremoniously dumped by his girlfriend, but in the warmth of Italy he transforms into Mr. Loverman, bedding not one, but two Latin lovelies. In the end, the youthful scholar comes away with much more than a thesis, “barely recognising himself”.

There are romantic diversions aplenty in this novel with love (and lust) playing a large role throughout. Adam finds the Docci family, their house and unique garden equally seductive, but he is also captivated by the more earthy pleasures offered by the gorgeous widow Signora Fanelli, the sexually frustrated owner of the local pensione, who is described as a “stringier version of Gina Lollobrigida in Trapeze”. Good enough for Adam – and for most red-blooded males, I would have thought.

"Storm in a teacup"

In the course of his investigations, Adam also has a fling with Antonella, the scarred, but alluring, granddaughter of Signora Docci. He is even more entranced by her feminine charms than the mystifying garden, though her valuable insight helps him to penetrate its hidden meaning. Ultimately he is only fixated on solving the puzzle at the cost of their relationship, which almost brings to life the description of the garden’s temple, “The building was dedicated to Echo, the unfortunate nymph who fell hard for Narcissus. He, too preoccupied with his own beauty, spurned her attentions, whereupon Echo, heartbroken, faded away until only her voice remained.”

Moving stuff, but the beautiful Antonella may not be everything she appears to be. Has she in fact been deceiving Adam? He begins to suspect that his summer project is an elaborate set-up, where he is not proceeding of his own volition, but is being used as a pawn in Signora Docci’s Machiavellian schemes to uncover the truth behind the Villa’s two suspicious deaths. Professor Leonard had warned Adam not to under-estimate his hostess, even though she might be old and frail. The Docci’s have some murky skeletons hidden away in their “History of Violence”.

In fact, everyone appears to have something to hide in this novel about the art of duplicity – about young love, betrayal and sibling rivalry. Adam’s older, roguish brother Harry turns up out of the blue, ostensibly to provide some light relief in his role as a scrounging raconteur, but he also highlights Adam’s lack of perception about their own family secrets, when he informs him that their father has been playing away with his secretary. Similar to the poignant “The Whaleboat House”, which served as a lyrical lament to the fishing community whose traditional way of life was threatened by the arrival of wealthy New Yorkers, a keen sense of loss and longing also suffuses Mills’ second novel, affecting all those we encounter.

One of the author’s great strengths is to draw a cast of credible characters with the appropriate shades of light and dark. Mills himself has said, “There is an old adage in scriptwriting circles which goes ‘character is action’. The plot can only do a certain amount. If the characters don't hold the attention of the reader, then you are fighting an uphill battle”, which is difficult to contradict. In this book, the individuals are all solid, charming, likable people, and it is all too easy to see how Adam believes them. Fausto, a surprisingly well read, but cynical, former soldier actually warns him of the dangers of getting too close to the family, “Be careful up there at the Villa Docci. It’s a bad place and people have a tendency to die there”. Then there is Maria, the unfriendly housekeeper, who acts as Signora Docci’s eyes and ears, appraising Adam “as if he were a horse she was thinking of betting on (and leaving him with the distinct impression that she wouldn’t be reaching for her purse anytime soon)”.

"Mystery man"

This is a good example of Mills’ crisp, elegant prose, but other instances abound. During a storm, “The treetops swayed like drunken lovers on a dance floor”. A work of art is not considered a masterpiece, “but it was distinctive, an unsettling blend of innocence and intensity - like the gaze of a child staring at you from the rear window of the car in front”. His very pleasing writing style is erudite and intelligent, without ever being pretentious or condescending. There are many literary pleasures to be found here: rich imagery, lush characterisations and wonderfully comprehensive research. Its beauty lies in its subtlety, as his knowledge of art, history, literature and nature is worn lightly, yet convincingly, providing far more depth than you would expect in most crime novels. Not only does he manage to artfully weave his way through a multi-layered narrative, seamlessly switching between three time periods, but his plot is deftly paced, taking its time, while still managing to be totally gripping.

Obvious comparisons would include Iain Pears for his blend of crime and history, though his novels are set in a much earlier era, and EM Forster, whose “A Room with a View” was memorably located in Florence. However, John Fowles’ “The Magus” is possibly more apposite, as it also features a seductive young girl leading a perplexed protagonist into a secret world. In terms of the psychological suspense, fans of PD James would surely not be disappointed in Mills’ work.

"Bound for glory"

“The Savage Garden” will appeal to those who love a good mystery (or two). As one of the novel’s characters says, “Things can make sense at the time, but as you get older those consolations no longer help you sleep. It's the only thing I've learned. We all think we know the answer, and we're all wrong. Shit, I'm not sure we even know what the question is”. By the end of the story, it’s not only Adam who has fallen under the spell of the garden. And, by the way, you don’t need to like gardening to enjoy this book.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Greed Is Good

Last week, BBC Radio 5 Live was kind enough to provide a platform to Manchester United Chief Executive David Gill to make a party political broadcast on behalf of the club’s much-maligned owners, the Glazer family. This is a fairly regular occurrence on the “Sportsweek” show, even though I imagine that most of the nation would be happier to “get the ball out” (to quote Jimmy Hill), rather than listening to another tetchy “do you know who I am?” performance from Gill. His self-serving attempts to persuade the listeners that United is a “very well-run club” displayed his trademark combination of smug arrogance and patronising condescension that can only be matched by Premier League Chief Executive Richard “see no evil, hear no evil” Scudamore. When interviewer Garry Richardson had the temerity to question the state of United’s financials, Gill dismissed him with the haughty, “You’re not an accountant, Garry” - as if that’s the worst insult imaginable.

Of course, a man paid £1.8m a year to spout the Glazer ideology is hardly likely to openly criticise his employers, but we could have done without a jumped-up bean counter talking down to us, particularly as some of his comments were misleading at best. When the club’s takeover was first suggested, Gill was vehemently against it and remained that way right up until it was a done deal, when he changed opinion with a body swerve of which Ryan Giggs would be proud. Ever since then he has been an outspoken apologist for the Glazers, even crediting them with playing a major role in the team’s success, “We’ve got the stability of the family owning the club. Long-term decisions can be taken and that’s been proved with the results we’ve achieved over the last two or three years”.

"Radio, Radio"

On the face of it, Gill has a point regarding the financials, as the club reported record revenue of £278.5m in 2009 with EBITDA of £91.3m. He also probably felt that he could afford a bit of a swagger with the club achieving post-tax profits of £6.4m, especially given that they had suffered losses in each of the previous two years, though you might point out that profit in only one year out of three is not really a lot to crow about. To be fair, you’re only as good as your last game and you cannot argue with this year’s performance – right?

Well, yes, actually you can, as the results were entirely driven by the £80m profit made on the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid. In 2009, Manchester United’s holding company, Red Football Joint Venture Limited (crazy name, crazy inter-company structure) recorded £81m profit on disposal of players compared to “just” £21m in the prior year. Without this £60m growth, United’s accounts would have shown a significant loss – for the third year in a row. The fact that the club only made a profit by selling their best player has to be a cause for concern for the fans, who will worry that more players will be sold in the future in order to balance the books.

"Who's the beardy weirdy?"

At least the Glazers have been successful in boosting the club’s revenues (by £66m since 2007), though much of that increase is simply the club’s share of the Premier League’s collective contract with Sky. Moreover, the growth in turnover has been entirely absorbed by the rise in operating expenses (also £66m), so none of it has fed through to the bottom line (“revenue is vanity, profit is sanity”). When analysing the costs, what is particularly striking is that the number of players has slightly fallen over this period (from 63 to 62), while the administration headcount has ballooned by an amazing 50% to 243. That’s a good use of the club’s resources?

In the 5 Live puff, Gill proudly boasted that “We have well over £100m in the bank”, but again it’s worth looking behind the headline figure for why they have so much. First, because they have cashed the £80m Ronaldo cheque and not used any of it to improve the playing squad; second, because the new sponsors, Aon, paid £36m of their £80m four-year deal upfront. Why would any company pay nearly 50% of the total cost more than a year before they were able to replace AIG’s name on the shirts? Almost certainly, they would only agree to this stipulation if the overall cost were reduced. So, the real question is why United were so desperate to bring in cash early?

"Double Glazing salesmen"

The fact is that Manchester United only make profits until they make interest payments, as their enormous debts to the banks and hedge funds soak up all the profits from the playing side. Shockingly, the total interest paid in 2009 was a gobsmacking £68m: that’s £42m on bank loans and £26m on the so-called payment in kind loans (the money owed to the hedge funds at an eye-watering 14.25%). An almost unbelievable £220m of interest has been shelled out over the last three years. A spokesman for the Glazer family claimed that “the club have a £50m surplus to work with once the interest payments have been made”, which is correct in cash terms, as only the £42m on bank loans is actually paid out, but it’s still true that the interest is only covered two times by the profit, which is moving into distinctly dodgy territory.

As a comparison to the average annual interest costs of over £70m, the club paid a £7m dividend the year before the Glazers arrived. Even allowing for the significant growth in turnover, it is clear that the dividend payments would be nowhere near as high as the mountain of interest currently being paid. Even worse, the club had to admit in the last accounts that they took a £35m hit on the interest hedging derivatives, which were only required in the first place because of the scale of the debt. At least the club is getting good value for money from all those extra accountants – not.

"Can't Buy Me Love"

This has been the situation ever since the Glazer family bought the club in 2005 in a £810m leveraged buy-out that loaded debt onto the club. They paid £270m themselves, but borrowed the remaining £540m from banks and hedge funds. Before the men from Florida arrived, Manchester United was a thriving business, free of debt, with plenty of cash to invest, but the Glazers effectively mortgaged the club to the hilt. Even after years of unprecedented success on the sporting front, the original £540m of debt has grown to today’s staggering figure of £716m – after hundreds of millions of interest payments. The debt even increased by £17m last year, despite the company returning to profit! As Harry Philp from Hermes Sports Partners commented, “That debt is a ticking time bomb that they have to pay off”.

The largest rise came in the PIK loans, which increased by £27m to £202m. Payment in kind is actually a bit of a misnomer, as it implies that the loan is paid off with goods rather than cash. In fact, no annual payment of any description is made with the interest simply added onto the loan. So, the debt continues to grow. In fact, it snowballs, as the interest rate is extremely high (14.25% in this case), because the lender gets nothing back until the whole loan is repaid. Ultimately the Glazer family is responsible for these loans, though it would be misleading to say that this is not an issue for the club, and they are clearly anxious to pay off this tranche of debt. Even without the PIKs, Manchester United would be a business £514m in hock. The Glazers have saddled the company with debt close to twice the annual turnover and over five times the underlying profits, a ratio that would classify the debt as “junk” according to Paul Marshall, the co-founder of the Marshall Wace hedge fund. Add in the PIKs and you go beyond junk to Latin American classifications.

"The Masque of the Red Death"

So who benefits from this financial strategy? Certainly not the fans (“customers”), who have seen ticket prices rise by 50% since the takeover. No, the beneficiaries have been the Glazer family and an army of professional advisors. Unlike almost any other owners in the Premier League, the Glazers are not putting money into the club, but taking it out. On top of the estimated £260m that has been leeched out of the club to service the debt since 2005, what really rankles is the amount of money that the Glazers have paid themselves for a “job well done”, also known as constructing this debt nightmare, which adds up to a barely credible £23m in the past three years.

This includes £13m in professional fees (£10m for management and administration, £2.9m for consultancy) plus £10m of loans at favourable rates (that’s £1.667m for each of Malcolm Glazer’s six children, who happen to be directors of Red Football Limited). It has only been legal for a director to borrow money over £5,000 from his company since the Companies Act was revised in 2006. As Keith Harris of Seymour Pierce stated, “You would not expect directors to be borrowing money at a company of United's size and, although it is now allowed legally, it is generally still frowned upon because it does not create a good impression of the directors' governance of the company”. Talk about milking the club for all it’s worth. No wonder the fans “Love United, Hate Glazer”.

"Exit poll"

The bankers, lawyers and accountants have also been rubbing their hands with glee during the last few years, when it has been estimated that they have racked up an outrageous £80m in fees. We know that £24m was wasted (sorry, spent) on the 2006 refinancing, while another £15m was incurred for the recent bond issue. If you were a Cockney Red, would you prefer the hard-earned money you gave the club to be spent on, say, Kaká, or some slimeball in a pinstripe suit?

The Glazers have obviously been well aware of this crippling burden and have attempted to refinance on a number of occasions, but the credit crunch has largely scuppered their efforts, as almost no money has been available on the commercial debt market. The intention was always to pay off the highly onerous PIK notes, which were only meant to be a form of short-term financing, and they did manage to redeem half of this debt in 2006, but had to pay £13m to the hedge funds for the privilege of early redemption.

"Glazed and confused"

The growing concerns over the borrowing arrangements lead to last month’s £500m bond issue. Fundamentally, the Glazers could not secure the desired funding from the banks, either because they were unwilling to loan this amount of money or they would only lend it at exorbitant rates. Additional pressure came from the fact that the cost of servicing the debt was going to increase later this year with the 14.25% rate of interest on the PIK loans rising to a stratospheric 16.25% in August 2010, as the company had gone above the threshold where net debt is not allowed to go above 5 times EBITDA. Breaking this covenant highlights how precarious the club’s balance sheet really is – and also suggests that the management are not, in fact, the financial geniuses they would have us believe. If the situation were to further deteriorate, then the hedge funds could appoint their own directors to the board and potentially seize control of the club.

The bond issue does not remove the debt, but it does allow the Glazers to restructure it, so that they can change the order in which they are allowed to pay it off. Under the terms of the current deal, they can only start paying off the expensive PIK debt after they have repaid the £500m “senior” bank loans arranged through JP Morgan. Hence, the bond issue will be used to clear the bank debt, so they can start to address the increasingly urgent issue of the PIK loans. If they had not managed to refinance, the PIK loans would have grown to £580m by the repayment date of August 2017 – on top of the £500m the club owes to the banks.

"Standing up for the Glazers"

However, this is far from a Premium Bond with the club having to tempt investors with a near double-digit rate of interest. Jonathan Moore from Evolution Securities argued that the bond required a high yield, as “the company has high leverage, limited base case free cash flow (they can’t sell Ronaldo for £80m every season) and pretty leaky covenants. Furthermore, the club’s recent EBITDA has been driven off three excellent seasons on the pitch, but you don’t have to be a Liverpool fan to recognise that football success can be cyclical and this deal seems to be priced for perfection on the pitch”. Maybe this is why Manchester United’s executive management had to slog their way round three continents in two weeks to market the bond.

The effect of the refinancing is to actually make United even more leveraged than it is now, as more cash will be taken out of the club, so that the books will be laden with higher debt levels, although this point is moot, as the Glazers’ debt is effectively the club’s debt anyway. As Duncan Drasado of the Manchester United Supporters Trust said, “The key to the bond issue is that it has opened the door to Manchester United’s vault and now the Glazers can drive in with a fork-lift truck and load up cash”. Sensationalist stuff? Not a bit of it. The bond prospectus lays it all out in black and white with the Glazers able to take out £127m in the first year alone.

"Manchester United - season's video"

Once the restrictive bank covenants have been removed, they are allowed to pay an immediate dividend of £70m to Red Football Joint Venture Limited for “general corporate purposes, including repaying existing indebtedness” plus an additional £25m dividend at any time. On top of this explicit £95m, they are also permitted to pay out dividends up to 50% of net cash profits, as long as the club’s interest is still covered twice by EBITDA, which would have been worth £23m in 2009. Of course, the Glazers will also receive compensation for “management services” - £6m to be precise. However, that does not cover their “general corporate overhead expenses”, which merits a further £3m. That all adds up to a hefty £127m. Cue a hearty rendition of “Money for nothing and your chicks for free”.

After the refinancing, the club’s owners will trouser a whopping £224m over the next seven years (£6+£3+£23 per annum). Adding in the £300m+ interest on the debt, we can see that well over half a billion pounds will be sucked out of the club in the same period. And this does not include any potential sale and leaseback of the Carrington training ground or even the Old Trafford stadium. In fact, the Glazers could actually take out even more cash in dividends, as another result of the bond issue is a “capital contribution” transferring funds from Red Football Joint Venture Limited to its subsidiary Red Football Limited, which is far too technical to fully explain, but effectively means that this money can also be paid out as dividends. Returning to our good friend, David Gill, we can now see that he was absolutely correct in his radio interview when he said that the club had all those millions in the bank, but the real question is for how long, as the bond deal is clearly structured to allow that money to walk out of the door.

"Theatre of Dreams or just collateral?"

You would expect the average supporter to be incensed, but what do the experts think of the bond placing? Jim O’Neill, the Head of Global Economic Research at Goldman Sachs slammed the deal, despite his bank being involved in the fund raising, “There’s too much leverage. Trying to use a lot of debt in the belief that a company’s value will improve forever carries all sorts of risks”. Similarly, a financial analyst on Sky News argued that “in the long-term the bond issue is very bad news for the club, because when you look at the details, a large amount of interest and dividends will leave the club”.

Nevertheless, the company announced to the BBC, “The recent bond issue has been very successful and provides the club with certainty in its interest payments, as well as great flexibility with the removal of bank covenants”. Well, yes, they do get the certainty of fixing the annual interest on the bonds at £44m per year, but at around 9% this is much higher than the previous rate. As for the flexibility, that is also true, but we have seen that this only benefits the Glazers and not the club. David Gill further bragged, “The very fact it was twice over-subscribed demonstrates the strength of the offer”, but it seems that the market would beg to differ. The bonds were sold at a yield of 9.125%, representing a large spread of 5.7% over the gilt rate, which reflects United’s financial riskiness. Once the bond issue was completed, the price in the open market sunk like a stone, sharply increasing the yield. This indicates just how much faith the investment community has in the Glazers’ business model with the Financial Times wondering whether it was the “worst debut by a high yield bond this year”.

"Of course I'm happy with my transfer budget"

The big question, of course, is what would happen to the financials if United’s glory days on the pitch come to an end. The club itself states that “maintaining playing success” is one of their four pillars for driving revenue growth with the other three being “leveraging the global brand, developing club media rights and treating fans as customers”. Pass the sick bag, Alice. The bond’s prospectus contained a lengthy list of risk factors, such as uncertainty over whether full houses will continue (already this season, around 16% of corporate boxes have been left unsold) and increasing competition, jeopardising qualification for the Champions League. The tipping point might come when Sir Alex Ferguson finally retires.

Lord Ferg, that renowned Socialist, has remarkably claimed that United’s finances are “of no concern at all”, patiently explaining that the reason that he has not made any marquee signings is that he cannot find any value in the transfer market. Pull the other one, mate, it’s got bells on. Or, more succinctly, bollocks. If so much money is available, why have the club arranged a new revolving credit facility for an additional £75m “to acquire players”? In other words, if the club wants to buy new players, it will have to take on even more, guess what, debt. It’s almost as if the excess cash that Gill so lovingly describes is needed elsewhere.

"Looking for a hiding place?"

Just as he did with Ronaldo, Gill has emphasised that Wayne Rooney has a contract until 2012, but the question is actually where the club will find the money to buy the next Rooney. Nervous fans are already looking across the Atlantic at the Glazers’ NFL franchise, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won the Super Bowl in 2003, but have since endured a miserable spell, finishing bottom of their division this season, partly because the owners are spending a lot less than the salary cap.

Despite Gill’s blustering performance on the BBC, the reality is that United’s sums simply don’t add up. His confidence is not supported by the bond’s prospectus, which baldly stated, “We cannot assure you that our business will generate sufficient cash flow from operations, or that future borrowings will be available to us, in an amount sufficient to enable us to pay our indebtedness”. Come again? Better still is the comment made by Manchester United’s Chief Executive in 2004, when the club rejected Glazer’s first offer, “We’ve seen many examples of debt in football over the years and the difficulties it causes. We know what that means and we think that is inappropriate for this business”. His name? David Gill.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Blinded By The Light

We do so love our crime series featuring an intriguing detective, especially if the stories are played out in exotic foreign locations. Witness the success of Kurt Wallander in Ystad, Aurelio Zen in Venice and, stretching the point slightly, Rebus in Edinburgh. To this august list, we should surely add the name of Javier Falcón from Seville, the hot, historical capital of southern Spain, who is the central personality in Robert Wilson’s thrilling sequence of four books (tetralogy for classicists, quadrilogy for modern marketeers).

Falcón is a charismatic homicide detective, but he is also a complex and interesting character with a number of faults. Withdrawn and solitary, his brooding agonies of self-doubt embody man’s moral struggle and human frailties, as his journey of self-discovery remind you of the psychological depths to which Adam Dalgliesh is subjected by PD James. Although a Sevillano, Falcón is still an outsider in his own city, having worked extensively in Barcelona, Madrid and Zaragoza.

"Biker Grove"

Even if he is a cultured, intelligent man, well versed in the ways of the world, he is only sporadically wise. The only thing extraordinary about him appears to be his ordinariness. Again very much like Wallander and Rebus, any knowledge is hard-earned, resulting at least as much from mistakes and bruises, both of the physical and mental variety, as from brilliant insights. In these stories, detective work is described as an attritional process, with Falcón slowly but surely guiding us through the maze. In fact, he is caught in an intricate web on a number of levels: criminal, personal and historical.

Robert Wilson is a British crime writer currently resident in Portugal, the author of many stylish thrillers that have been enhanced by placing them in glamorous foreign countries. His first four books were magical, enthralling pieces of detective noir (geddit) set in West Africa, while Portugal provided the backdrop for both “A Small Death in Lisbon”, the winner of the prestigious Gold Dagger Award for Best Crime Novel in 1999, and “The Company of Strangers”. More recently, he has been playing “Spanish songs in Andalucia” while composing perhaps his best-known work, the Javier Falcón quartet.

"Shadow boxing"

The first book in the series is “The Blind Man of Seville”, which is a wonderfully literary detective novel, albeit with dark and disturbing overtones, despite its sunny, colourful setting, that focuses on Falcón’s hunt for a vicious murderer. The first gruesome killing symbolically takes place in Holy Week, when Raul Jimenez, a leading restaurateur with a shady past, is found bound and gagged in front of his television with his eyelids cut off. Not only has he been brutally tortured, but his body is also covered with self-inflicted wounds, which testify to his struggles to avoid the images that he has been forced to watch. When confronted by this horrific scene, the normally implacable Javier Falcón feels inexplicably afraid, asking himself what the victim had seen that could have been so terrible. The investigation into the murders lead Falcón to the journals of his late father, an acclaimed artist, causing him to unearth shocking revelations about the past, both Francisco Falcón’s and his own, thus bringing him to an emotional crisis.

When we first meet Javier Falcón, he is under intense pressure and is in a poor mental state, almost psychologically impaired. He lives alone in the splendid home of his deceased father, but the comfortable surroundings offer him little solace. Unable to get along with his more sociable Spanish colleagues, he is nevertheless obsessed with work, even though his career has stalled. All regard him as a cold, repressed individual, not surprising as he has no friends or lovers, his wife having walked out dismissing him with the contemptuous, “You have no heart”. He wears close-fitting suits, ties and lace-up shoes, as do most fashionable Spaniards, but in his case they also keep him restrained like a straitjacket made by the finest tailors. However, for all his problems, we appreciate the quality of his intelligence and even empathise with his troubles, sensing that at his core he is a genuinely decent man.

"Mine's a Rioja"

Like “A Small Death in Lisbon”, this book showcases Wilson’s technical skills at running a narrative across different time periods, as it alternates between the present day perspective of the police inquiry and the historical revelations from Francisco’s diary entries. In fact, the book addresses three investigations: the first a straightforward police procedural into the murders; the second a penetrating character study into Javier’s mind; and the third a literary study of the journals. The killings are obviously quite sickening, but Wilson’s multi-layered approach, where he forensically dissects the lives of his characters, peeling away their self-deception, discovers even uglier insights into their motives. His claustrophobic focus zooms in on shameful family secrets that reveal themselves to be more ghastly than the most sadistic torture scene – and there are plenty of those to occupy Falcón’s squad.

Falcón informs the widow that the murder is “more extraordinary than any I have seen in my career”, and it is certainly one of the most brutal openings to any crime novel. It is true that Wilson pulls no punches in presenting uncomfortable images of unflinching violence, though there is a poetic edge to his prose that makes even the most merciless scene absolutely compelling. In fact, the author would argue that nothing overly graphic is actually on the page, and he is only guilty of encouraging the reader’s vivid imagination, especially as he often depicts violence through the eyes of a victim, which is a very uncomfortable place to be. His mastery of pacing is evident and he is at his best when ratcheting up and sustaining tension, so the book succeeds admirably as a classic suspense story.

"Art for art's sake"

However, where it really scores is as a brilliantly conceived psychological thriller, the psychology in question being that of the lead detective. The combination of physical and (undisclosed) mental torture fills the reader’s mind with questions, so we are left as confused and intrigued as Falcón himself. Wilson is not an author who is afraid to demand a lot from his audience and any revelations only follow numerous cunning twists in the plot. The orchestrators of evil deeds are not blindingly (see what I did there?) obvious, but are in many ways more frightening than the standard literary psychopaths, because they are so plausibly immersed in everyday life. However, all the villains are driven by reason, not of the intellectual variety, but more by damage that they have sustained at the hands of others, which has broken the bonds of trust. In terms of motivating hatred and aggressive revenge, potent reasons here include love withheld, innocence defiled and vulnerability abused.

The book is as much a study of the lead investigator’s character as it is the story of a horrific crime with the adventure to find the killer taking Falcón on a painful journey of his own. Increasingly, it becomes clear to him that the murders are linked to his own past and unexplained deaths in his family, forcing him to confront ghosts that he has long kept buried. Although he tries desperately to hold everything together, his precious composure begins to unravel and his mental health declines to the point that he becomes a detective “on the verge of a nervous breakdown”. As his personal demons are exposed, including the untimely death of his mother, Falcón must dig down to his very foundations to see what he’s made of – and that makes him a truly mesmerising character. He realises that this is not just a hunt for a seemingly omniscient murderer, but also a search for his missing heart.

An old photograph at the murder scene prompts Javier to read a set of journals left by his famous father, the artist Francisco Falcón. These diaries are a real gem: terrifically frank, full of drama and confession, they are similar to Alan Clark’s, but with more paintbrushes, guns and carnal acts (if you can believe that). Francisco had always been an important person in Javier’s life, but he discovers that he never really knew the father he had so dearly loved. Born in Tangiers, Wilson describes him as a “half-mad, demonic, charismatic, crafty, weak, vulnerable, brutal, sensual, chilling, amusing maniac”.

The discovery of how Francisco’s wicked acts, including atrocious crimes in the Spanish Civil War and unlimited hedonism involving catamites in North Africa, helped shape the motivations for the current spate of killing holds at least as much fascination as the identity of the murderer, especially as they provide important clues. Although long dead, Francisco Falcón is a magnetic figure, dominating the story through the sheer energy of his journals, which he calls a “small history of pain” – that will soon become Javier’s, as he has to re-assess who he really is. All his old certainties are undermined: does he really know his parents? If everything that he had previously believed to be true turns out to be false, where does that leave him?

"Are you sitting comfortably?"

Wilson has said that the book is “about our ability to distinguish between appearance and reality, the extent to which we can believe what our own eyes tell us”. Although the theme of the deceptiveness of appearances is far from original, it is explored here in unusual depth and in many guises. Seville itself encapsulates this contrast with Wilson describing it as “an apparently beautiful place full of happy, animated people whose reality is no different to the urban woes of any other city”. The taut and terrifying Falcón thrillers turn this sunny Spanish city upside down to reveal its seamy underside: petty crime, drugs, racial tensions, corruption and, yes, people get killed. As a vivid example, a prostitute comes to fear “when the shadows move”, the moments when darkness acquires a life of its own. The novel also has a strong art theme running through it with characters not just creating art, but also worshipping it, buying it, stealing it and even inspiring it, and, of course, art offers a multiplicity of dimensions – as Francisco shows us.

The city of Seville is almost a star in its own right, Wilson really bringing it to life. During the day it shimmers with heat and vitality, while the nightlife has a tangible feel with its crowded, smoky bars and mysterious, dark side streets. Wilson has a rare ability to draw the reader in completely to the point where you can almost taste the atmosphere of the world that the protagonists inhabit. As well as being highly evocative, the city’s characteristics are reflected in Javier’s experiences: “The narrow, winding, cobbled streets of Seville became indistinguishable from his anguished mental alleyways. They all formed part of the texture of Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón’s collapsing inner world”. Similarly, the bullfight mirrored the intricacies of the interplay between investigator and killer. However, Falcón’s straitlaced, humourless demeanour is in marked contrast to the riot of colour of Seville’s fiesta.

"Where the streets have no name"

The Spanish backdrop is crucial to the Falcón series with Wilson also wanting to “show where modern Spain had come from”. In particular, he has posed the question, “Did this vibrant, artistic, animated, sociable people have something to hide?” If you want a flavour of Spanish history, then you have come to the right place, as the series covers inter alia the Spanish Civil War, involvement in World War II, nationalism in Tangiers, modern art, the 2004 Madrid bombings, Islamic terrorism, the Russian mafia, the Spanish Intelligence Agency and corruption in the construction trade and local government.

Wilson’s ability to dig beneath the skin to explore psychological and emotional nuances is not restricted to Javier Falcón, as he introduces a host of fascinating characters, who feature throughout the series. An interesting relationship develops between Javier and Consuelo Jimenez, the blue-eyed enigma, who first appears as the primary suspect in the murder. Even more important is Javier’s history with the judge Esteban Calderón, who has hooked up with his ex-wife Ines. In “The Blind Man”, Falcón greatly respects Calderón, who expertly manages the investigation, while Falcón’s mental state deteriorates. Initially Calderón appears to be a charismatic man of integrity and courage, who reveres art and is extremely intelligent. However, he is later revealed to be very different: a womaniser, a wife beater and a coward, who would do anything to preserve his exalted status. Yet again, we are faced with the theme of appearance versus reality.

"Side effect"

As you might infer from the title, this is a book all about seeing, but the irony is that Falcón and many others do not see things at all clearly. Most of the characters are blind in some way, whether to a painful past or their own potential for happiness. This is particularly true for Falcón. His eyes are fine; it’s his soul that cannot see the truth of his haunted history, which prevents him from seeing what’s in front of him. Blindness is a recurring topic with allusions to Francisco being worried about going blind and Javier’s therapist, the perceptive Alicia Aguardo, actually being blind.

There are four books in the Javier Falcón saga. Each one has its own stand-alone investigation, and is distinct rather than formulaic, but the series is held together by an enduring theme with inter-locking story lines and characters. Some of the questions raised in the first book do not get fully answered until the last, so the way to get most out of them is (understandably) to start at the beginning and work your way through the books in order. Wilson has said that he wanted to see how a man could change, taking Falcón on a specific journey from one point in his life to another. Normally middle-aged men never change, which is the reason why Falcón goes through such a mental upheaval in “The Blind Man of Seville”, as this sets the scene for his future development with the subsequent books being all about his rebuilding.

In “The Silent and the Damned” (published as “The Vanished Hands” in the US), Falcón learns the art of communication and we see him start to employ it in his police work. In “The Hidden Assassins” he is back at the top of his game in terms of running his squad and managing a huge and complex investigation, greatly respected by the Seville community, but there’s still something (or rather someone) missing. The lady who puts a spring in his (Spanish) step in “The Ignorance of Blood” is the sexy Consuelo, thus completing the transformation of Javier Falcón.

If you will pardon the pun, “The Blind Man of Seville” is an eye-opening read. Not only is it crime writing at its very best, but it’s also a lot more. Part tense thriller, part compelling examination of the effects of the past on the present (and part Andalucian travelogue), this book is a marvel of construction: commencing with a truly shocking murder, the pace of the investigation is at first steady, then quickens as the journals are introduced, before a breathless last lap as the revelations come thick and fast. If you disagree with me, you’re welcome to your opinion, but remember that there’s none so blind as those who will not see.

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