Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Equus


I’m not quite sure why I have never got round to watching Peter Shaffer’s Equus before – well, in fact, it’s the film version I’ve seen, but the screenplay is by Shaffer. I suppose I was repelled by the idea of a story based upon a boy blinding horses. But although I find the act deeply repugnant, overall I’m glad I watched the film.

It’s a mainstream piece of writing, but really it borrows aspects of the crime novel, not just in the criminal subject matter, but also in terms of the detective work done by the psychiatrist, played by Richard Burton, who tries to understand the forces that drove the boy, played by Peter Firth, to act as cruelly as he did.

Peter Shaffer, with his equally gifted twin brother Antony, collaborated on a short-lived series of detective novels published in the 50s but very much in the Golden Age tradition before moving on to darker and less plot-orientated material. Those books are still enjoyable light reads, by the way.

I found the film compelling, and a reminder of what a good director the late Sidney Lumet was. A word of warning – the violence is graphic, and there is full frontal nudity. Mind you, since the nudity features both Peter Firth and Jenny Agutter, two exceptionally good-looking actors, this might just attract some viewers. The sex and violence is not gratuitous, though. It’s a serious film about a deeply serious subject.

I thought Burton’s performance superb, even though I’d have liked more insight into his character’s personal demons. The parents of the boy are also splendidly played by Joan Plowright and the utterly brilliant Colin Blakely, who died far too young.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Scott Turow's Innocent: TV movie review

Scott Turow's Innocent is one of those titles, like Agatha Christie's Marple, which causes me instinctively to be wary. It's easy to get the impression that the makers of the show are trading too heavily on the name of the author who produced the original, rather than being confident that it will stand on its own two feet as quality entertainment. Having said that, I wouldn't say no if someone wanted to make Martin Edwards' All the Lonely People, or indeed anything else I've written, so perhaps I shouldn't be too critical!

Anyway, Innocent is a 2011 movie that is very clearly aimed at a TV audience, and doesn't have the same ambitions as, say, the film that was made of Turow's first and quite brilliant novel featuring Rusty Sabich, Presumed Innocent. I remember being so gripped when I read that book that I stayed up until the middle of the night to finish it. I don't think I've been more impressed by any other legal thriller. Turow knows the American legal profession inside out, and is a very clever plotter. But he can also write extremely well, and that's the real secret of his enormous success.

I very much enjoyed Turow's second book, which focused on Sandy Stern, Rusty's defence lawyer, but for some reason I've not felt tempted to read his later books. Not sure why. However, this belated sequel to Presumed Innocent is a pretty good story, which certainly kept me entertained. Rusty is charged with murdering his wife, and has behaved badly enough for there to be plenty of incriminating evidence.

Bill Pullman plays Rusty, and Marcia Gay Harden, once an Oscar winner, the doomed Mrs Sabich. Mariana Klaveno is the glamorous aide who seduces Rusty, and then gets involved with his son, making her a possible alternative suspect in the case. All in all, a competent tv movie, lacking in magic, perhaps, but offering very watchable if slightly familiar viewing fare.

Suspension of Disbelief

One of the great challenges for any crime writer is this: how do you ensure that readers suspend their belief so as to enjoy what you've written to the full? Some writers, of course, may argue that their work is so realistic that no suspension of disbelief is needed. This may be so in a minority of cases, but I'm part of the majority whose contemporary books are meant to have a surface authenticity, but which are nevertheless definitely made-up, with invented characters and incidents. (Mind you, I still include libel disclaimers, just in case anyone gets a very wrong idea.)

As a reader, I'm more than willling to suspend my disbelief in the right circumstances. Of course, the events in a book by fine writers such as Frances Fyfield, Andrew Taylor or Ian Rankin - who all write very different types of crime fiction -are not likely to be replicated in real life. But the quality of writing is such that it draws you into the world of the story, and you are happy to believe in the events that unfold.

The same principle applies when I'm watching TV or a film..For instance, Lewis, like Inspector Morse, demands that you accept that Oxford is crawling with ingenious killers. The homicide rate almost matches Midsomer's. Yet the shows are so well done, that it doesn't really matter that in truth, bicycle theft is probably more of a problem. Skyfall definitely requires suspension of disbelief, but it's so well crafted, that it's easy to accept the various improbabilities.

All this leads me back to the BBC TV series about Father Brown. I've watched all ten episodes of the series, which ended last week. Some were good light entertainment. One or two, however, were pretty unfortunate - the episode combining radiation sickness and paedophilia springs to mind: I didn't suspend my disbelief at any point during that story.

I was sympathetic, as I've said before, to the writers' wish to do something fresh with the stories so as to appeal to a modern audience. But G.K. Chesterton persuaded his readers to suspend their disbelief - not least in some remarkable "impossible crime" stories - by focusing very cleverly on paradox and some interesting observations about human nature. In some of these episodes, I felt not enough of an attempt was made to draw out these qualities in the originals, and what was put in place instead tended to be less than compelling. This was a pity, because it is good to see classic sleuths brought back to public attention. I must say I'm glad I watched the series, but I certainly concede it could have been better. With a bit more credit given to the watching audience's readiness to engage with a good priest's take on the failings of human nature, many viewers, I suspect, would have been more willing to go along with the less likely aspects of the show's premise..

Friday, 25 January 2013

Forgotten Book - The Ha-Ha Case

My Forgotten Book for today is another from the prolific Golden Age writer J.J. Connington. Its title in the UK was The Ha-Ha Case, but in the US it was known as The Brandon Case. Presumably the change was because ha-has were thought to be unfamiliar to American readers, but it's a pity, because The Ha-Ha Case strikes me as a rather nice title. And I love the fact that Chapter 5 is called "The Ha-Ha of Death"!

Once I'd finished the book, it was fairly clear to me how Connington set about writing it. He'd come across an arcane snippet of English law, and used that as a basis for his plot (as he did in at least one other novel I've covered in this blog). He then used his knowledge of ballistics, forgery and medical science to furnish the key plot trimmings.

These ingredients are very good. Not only are they pleasing, they are relatively unusual. The snag is that here (as compared, for instance, to the superior The Sweepstake Murders) Connington allowed plot contrivance to dominate the book. As a result it is rather awkward in construction, and the trickery used to disguised the surprise solution is not entirely satisfying. These are significant criticisms, yet the flaws did not destroy my enjoyment, because I find Connington's ambitious and sometimes unorthodox approach to be rather admirable. He was trying to do something different, yet play fair with the reader, and these are excellent aims for a writer of traditional mysteries.

Jim Brandon is concerned that his younger brother, Johnnie, is being exploited by his tutor, someone who is both rascally and idealistic (an uneasy combination, and I didn't find the tutor's characterisation too convincing). When a mysterious death occurs, the investigation is complicated by the arrival on the crime scene of an unexpected third party, who is introduced into the story in a rather witty if politically incorrect way. An ambitious police inspector struggles to find the truth, but in the end, Sir Clinton Driffield rides to the rescue, in his usual smart and sardonic way. 

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Flash Fiction and Crimefest

Sarah Hilary has asked me to mention on this blog a venture connected with this year's Crimefest, to be held in Bristol at the end of May. As regular readers will know, I'm a big fan of Crimefest and have attended each year since its inception. The panels are good, but in many ways the greatest strength of this very friendly event is the social side. There's a great deal of mingling between authors and fans, and speaking as an author who is also a fan, I find that very enjoyable indeed.

The Flashbang competition, is open to people who are not established writers (pity, I've recently developed a taste for writing flash fiction myself!). The aim is to write a story in 150 words or less,and Sarah tells me that this year the judge will be that splendid crime writer Zoe Sharp. Zoe, incidentally, is one of the most knowledgeable people I know on the subject of e-publishing, and has entered that area with her customary zest and effectiveness. She's also, among other things, a highly talented photographer and I well remember a cold day in Ilkley when Murder Squad did  a photo shoot with her. I'm sure she'll be a very fair judge.

Flash fiction has gained in popularity due to the internet, I think. A short-short story is ideally suited to online publication, and there are some very good examples around. I haven't actually seen a conventional print anthology of flash crime fiction, but there may well be some around that I haven't caught up with.

Writing a very short story, say of less than 1000 words, might seem easy, but brevity demands concentration, and I'm not sure writing a really good flash fiction story is much easier than writing a good short poem. One short-short that I did have published conventionally a few years ago, as Sarah reminded me, was a story called InDex, which gave me a lot of pleasure. I hope lots of people will give the competition a go..


Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Blogger Stats

There are lies, damned lies and statistics, and I'm tempted to think that internet-related statistics are among the most unreliable of all. I'm prompted to ask a question after taking a look at Blogger stats for this blog. I've read several times that it's a good thing to monitor the statistics for one's blog or website, but I must admit I'm not totally convinced. I can see that if fewer and fewer people look at the website, there may be something going wrong, but I'm rather dubious about some of the figures that appear to look very healthy, since they may be inflated by spammers or the like.

My post on Father Brown last week attracted a lot of interesting comments and when I checked the stats,it featured in my all-time top ten list of page views. But wait! I remember a couple of the figures for other posts that feature in the list - a review of Sherlock, and one about Reg Hill - from when I last looked at the stats a couple of months ago. But the number of pageviews for those posts has actually reduced. So, in one case, about 2100 all-time pageviews had reduced to about 2050. How can this be?

If anyone with a better understanding of Blogger than me can enlighten me as to how figures can actually reduce in this way, I'd be very glad, because I've become intrigued and puzzled. Mind you, it leaves me all the more dubious about statistics, and the lessons that can be learned from them.

Yet you never know - perhaps my cynicism is mistaken. The crime community includes many people with a real understanding of how to make the most effective use of technology that I only wish I could emulate. So I should also be very interested to hear from others as to whether they find statistics useful, and what lessons they think can be learned.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows

A couple of years ago, I reviewed Guy Ritchie's first Sherlock Holmes movie, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson and said how much I'd enjoyed it - contrary to my expectations, to be honest. I've now watched the 2011 follow-up, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, with the same two stars in the lead roles, and again I found it very entertaining, if not quite as good as its predecessor.

It may be, though, that I'd been slightly spoiled by watching Skyfall, the ultimate action thriller, a while earlier. Compared to the Bond film, which so cleverly blends plot and characterisation, any other film in the same genre is likely to seem a bit unsubtle, and that is true of this movie. Having said that, Ritchie gets his ingredients broadly right: appealing, unorthodox characters and a zippy sequence of events unfolding at a pretty relentless pace. The climax was at the Reichenbach Falls, and we all know what happened there -don't we?

The plot has an international dimension, as Holmes has identified a series of seemingly unconnected "anarchist" outrages,murders and financial shenanigans as the work of his old adversary Professor Moriarty,who is due to speak at an international conference - at Reichenbach. Sherlock gets involved with a mysterious gypsy fortune teller (Noomi Rapace) whose brother is involved with Moriarty, and the plot continues to thicken. Mycroft Holmes (in the shape of the omnipresent Stephen Fry) lends a hand as Holmes races against time to save the world from war.

All in all, it's an enjoyable romp, with our two heroes vying entertainingly with each other as well as trying to catch Moriarty. I'm all in favour of Holmesian pastiches, having written several myself (although my stories are not written with tongue in cheek in the manner of Ritchie's films.) I'm sure many Sherlockians will be unconvinced by this film, but for me it worked pretty well.




Friday, 18 January 2013

Forgotten Book: Burglars in Bucks

The co-authors of today's Forgotten Book are those great political campaigners of the Golden Age, G.D.H. and Margaret Cole. I've been reading up about their life together and what strikes me above all is their unquenchable spirit. Time and again their crusades fell apart, yet each time they dusted themselves down, picked themselves up and started all over again. Rather like their number one sleuth, Superintendent Wilson, who resigned from the police force and became a private inquiry agent, only to resume his official career a few cases later.

I've not read any of the stories in which Wilson was not a policeman. In today's story, Burglars in Bucks, he is back in the police, but is rather on the edge of things, as here the Coles were experimenting. This is one of those stories told by gathering together bits and pieces of evidence - letters, press cuttings, telegrams, police reports and so on. It's a terrific concept, and I'd be glad to hear from readers of any similar Golden Age books they can recommend (other than, say, the Dennis Wheatley crime dossiers, which are not novels but, really, games.) The multiple viewpoint crime story has a hallowed tradition - think of Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, or Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace's under-rated and noteworthy The Documents in the Case, published, like the Coles' book, in 1930.

One of the snags with this book is that there is no murder, just a burglary. And the reality  is that if you are going to write a full-length novel about a much lesser crime than murder, you have to write a truly gripping story. This is a book that is highly rated by a number of judges whose opinions I greatly respect, and I was looking forward very much to reading it. But I must say that it disappointed me. Which only goes to show how subjective an experience reading is.

Intriguingly, there is a seance scene, although it is less effective than the table-turning scene in a superior book published the following year, Christie's The Sittaford Mystery. I am sure there was no question of plagiarism. Probably the ideas common to the books of Christie, Sayers and the Coles were just "in the air" at the time - it often happens, and always will. Possibly conversations over dinner at the Detection Club played a part. Certainly, Christie and Sayers executed the ideas better than the Coles did.

And I was driven almost to scream by the laborious way information about the characters was dragged in, notably in the letters between one suspect and his wife. So we get lots of lines like "You surely can't have forgotten about the Pallants so soon...Don't you remember when the old grandfather died, in 1920, wasn't it?...what you've clearly forgotten is that the villain of the piece was the same Sir Hiram Watkins you're asking about..you'd better have the whole story for reference..." And so it goes on. Such clumsy writing defeats the whole purpose of the very interesting experiment that the book might have been. The Coles were very busy people and they often rushed their writing. Margaret Cole admitted this frankly in later life. They were, though, capable of better than this, and thankfully they bounced back yet again with stories like End of an Ancient Mariner..

Weirdly, for a story set, as the title suggests, near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, the US edition was called The Berkshire Mystery.How can we explain this? Did the American publishers fall asleep before they read much of it? It wouldn't come as complete surprise...

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Characterising real people in films

I've watched a couple of films on TV lately which prompt a few thoughts about one aspect of characterisation, especially in screenplays. Both films were quite bold, and based on the lives of real people, but were very different. They were The Girl, a BBC TV show about Alfred Hitchcock's curious relationship with Tippi Hedren, and The Iron Lady, in which Meryl Streep plays Margaret Thatcher.

The first thing to say is that the acting was exceptionally good in both cases. Toby Jones played Hitchcock, Sienna Miller was Hedren,and Meryl Streep played Thatcher. Streep, of course, was in Oscar-winning form, but I must say that I thought Miller was excellent too. I last saw her in the re-make of Alfie, playing a very different character. Here, she not only seemed at least as beautiful as Hedren (herself famously attractive) but conveyed a complex personality very effectively. Toby Jones is a fine actor, although his performance was to some extent governed by the requirements of the script.

And I did have some reservations about the way the script portrayed Hitchcock, as a sad old man with a deeply unhealthy interest in his star. It may be a fair picture, from Tippi Hedren's perspective, but press reports indicate that a number of the other glamorous blonde actresses whom Hitchcock hired had a very different, and much more positive, view of him. This prompts an interesting question - to what extent, when portraying someone like Hitchcock, should a screenplay writer present a balanced, rather than partisan picture of the character? My own view is that fiction is not about 'balance' or even 'fairness'. Howevert a film like this purports to represent factual events, and that's the tricky thing. Because inevitably,  facts are sometimes twisted to suit dramatic purposes.

The presentation of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady was rather different. Her strengths and failings were addressed, though her supporters and opponents will disagree on whether the screenplay got the balance right. What was most controversial, though central to the story, was the presentation of a living person suffering from deteriorating mental faculties. This obviously raises questions of taste. But I felt that, leaving the matter of taste aside, the screenplay was very intelligently done, and raised questions about fame and power, and their transient nature, which transcended the issue of whether or not one is a fan of Margaret Thatcher. Streep's acting was stunning, and though I wouldn't rate the script as highly as that, it did impress me more than the skilfully written but rather one-sided screenplay for The Girl.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Father Brown: TV review

Father Brown is a brand new BBC TV drama featuring G.K. Chesterton's legendary priest-detective. Oddly enough (at least, I thought it was odd to begin with) it is being shown in the afternoons, 10 episodes of 50 minutes shown on week-days for a fortnight, so most crime fans will be watching it via recordings or iPlayer, as I did with the first episode, The Hammer of God, based on one of the most celebrated stories in the canon.

This isn't the first time that TV has had a go at Father Brown. Kenneth More starred in 13 episodes in the 70s, but I was a student then and didn't watch them. Nor have I ever caught up with the DVDs, so if any reader of this blog has any views on whether that series is still watchable, I'd be glad to know.

What of the new series? Mark Williams plays Father Brown, and the regular cast includes Sorcha Cusack. The stories have been shifted into the 1950s, long after the originals were written, that is, and the setting is the Cotswolds, which is suitably photogenic. The Hammer of God is a long, long way from the graphic violence of Ripper Street, although it begins with a rather more explicit focus on the blacksmith's wife's adultery than you find in the original story, and the motive for the crime is not at all Chestertonian.

Purists may wince, but the question is, if you want to adapt these stories for the modern audience, how do you go about it? You have to look at what the writers were trying to do, and they have given an interesting insight into their approach. I felt that on the whole the writers did a good job. Okay, there was a bit of clunkiness in some of the scenes, and I'm surprised there wasn't more focus on paradox, which is at the heart of Chesterton's writing. But it was easy watching after a long working day, and it's just possible that Father Brown might become a guilty pleasure for a decent number of  viewers -including me. In any case, it's really welcome that a writer of genuine distinction is being brought back into the limelight, even if he would be startled by some of what is being done with his work.  

Monday, 14 January 2013

Invisible Ink by Christopher Fowler

I'm very keen on "books about books" and have just finished reading one that is an absolute gem. It's early days, but if I read a more entertaining book about books in the whole of 2013, I'll count myself extremely fortunate. I'm talking about a little volume called Invisible Ink: How 100  Great Authors Disappeared. The publisher - not previously known to me - is Strange Attractor Press, and the author is Christopher Fowler.

Chris Fowler is someone I've only met very briefly in person, though we do share an agent, but I've been delighted to receive a couple of brilliant short stories from him for CWA anthologies, featuring his series characters Bryant and May. His writing is distinguished by a combination of intelligence and wit that is very much to my taste, and these qualities are constantly in evidence throughout this little book.

The title really is self-explanatory. It's based on a long series of articles Chris Fowler wrote for  The Independent, and at times the pieces show their journalistic origins. There are a few errors of fact, of the kind that crop up in all books like this. For instance, Harry Keating did not produce "the definitive biography of Agatha Christie", but rather edited a book of essays about her. It is also a pity that not only does the book lack an index, there isn't even a list of contents. But at least this meant that it was a pleasant surprise to keep reading and find such great choices of author and so many fascinating and unexpected anecdotes.

There are far too many good lines for me to quote them all, but I really loved the description of Ronald Firbank as "a sort of polar opposite to Andy McNab." Quite a lot of interesting crime writers are featured (but is Harry, who died less than two years ago, really forgotten? it's a grim thought), including the likes of Gladys Mitchell, John Dickson Carr and Austin Freeman. However, there are some people I confess I've never even heard of and some of their personal stories were gripping. Fowler's gift is to make you want to read what his chosen hundred (or at least, most of them) have written, even though each of his pieces is short as well as snappy. All I want now is for him to find another hundred equally fascinating authors to tell us about. In the meantime, I am sure many readers of this blog will enjoy this book as much as I did.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Forgotten Book - He Never Came Back

Regular readers of this blog will have gathered that in the past year, I've developed a real enthusiasm for the work of the American writer Helen McCloy. My Forgotten Book for today is another of hers, dating back to 1954, and called He Never Came Back (it is also known as Unfinished Crime.) As ever, it is very readable.

In many ways, the book is a thriller, rather than a conventional whodunit. It features a number of the devices that one associates with the thriller form, including a hunt for an immensely valuable jewel, which comes from a small country in the Far East. There is even a mysterious, tattooed Oriental character who is in pursuit of the jewel. Shades of The Moonstone!

More importantly, the book has relentless pace. It's quite short, but the action is non-stop, and I wonder if McCloy was influenced by her husband, Brett Halliday, in shifting from the classic style of her earlier books to this kind of story. Whatever the reason, she did it well.

The story begins with a man called Moxon becoming aware that he is being followed. He has stolen the jewel, and hides it in a cheap store. But then he is murdered. The next chapter begins with a short-sighted young woman meeting a male acquaintance in the shop where she takes a fancy to the jewel and buys it. They go off together for a cup of coffee - but then, inexplicably, the man disappears. Later, when he turns up again - he is a different person. But of course, nobody believes the girl when she says the chap is an impostor. The girl is terrified of elevators. So you can guess where the villain traps her...

This brief summary does not do justice to a book with countless changes of direction. In the hands of another writer, the story might be quite trashy, but McCloy was a gifted story-teller, and she contrives a clever and gripping tale, despite a few almost unavoidable improbabilities. An entertaining mystery.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Gwendoline Butler R.I.P.

Gwendoline Butler, a crime novelist of distinction, whose writing career spanned half a century, has, I have been told, died at the age of 90. She was a member of that generation of novelists who did not seek personal publicity or engage in self-promotion, and it may be for that reason that her work is much less discussed than one might expect. I never met her, nor corresponded with her, but over a period of thirty years I occasionally dipped in to her work and found it interestingly different. Just possibly this may explain why her books seem never to have been televised.

By a very strange coincidence, I've just downloaded one of the new books on Bello's list of re-discovered classics.This is The Odd Flamingo, by Nina Bawden, which I've discussed before on this blog. And it has an introduction by - Gwendoline Butler. The edition of the book that I'd read previously had an introduction by Julian Symons, who is rightly regarded as one of the greatest of all crime fiction critics. Yet I think it's fair to say that Gwendoline Butler's appraisal of Bawden's book is at least as insightful as Symons'. It's very clear that she was a highly intelligent and also very thoughtful woman.

Marcel Berlins, another of the finest crime fiction critics, once said in a review: "Gwendoline Butler writes detective novels that, both in method and atmosphere are things apart, not only from the main body of crime writing, but even from the mass of general fiction." And there is certainly a strangeness, bordering at times on the quirky and fantastic, about some of the stories of hers that I've read.

That said, although I have perhaps ten of her books on my shelves, plus one or two short stories (one called "Ladies who Lunch" sticks in my  mind even now, though it's getting on for 20 years since I read it), that represents only a fraction of her output. Apart from a long series under her own name, featuring a cop called Coffin who rose through the ranks to become, in Coffin on Murder Street, "Chief Commander of the Police Force in the newly created Second City of London", she also wrote books as Jennie Melville and created a female cop, Charmian Daniels. Coffin is intellectual, but "never judged arrogant or uncaring". I had the feeling he was very much the sort of man she herself admired, and no doubt that explains why she wrote books about him from 1956 to 2002. Despite her preference for a low profile, she and her books definitely deserve to be remembered.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Cold Weather - movie review

Cold Weather is not a forecast, but a 2011 film set in Portland, Oregon, which has earned largely positive reviews (though British film critics seem to have been less impressed than their American counterparts.) I've seen it described as a "thriller", but this is a misnomer. Cold Weather is as low-key as it is low-budget. And it's certainly different.

In some respects, the story is about crime and its detection, but the whole film is very naturalistic in style and extremely slow-moving. The lack of pace and thrills did not, however,put me off. I found it oddly watchable, from the lethargic start to the unexpected and rather arbitrary ending. So it's fair to say that there must be more to the script, and the acting, than at first meets the eye.

Doug (Cris Lakenau) is a young man who has dropped out of a forensic science course, but he fancies himself as a detective. At the start of the film, he is wrapped up in a book of stories about Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman, and he is a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes. So I was predisposed to like him, despite his general doziness - he really does seem to need a good shake. He takes a dead-end labouring job at an ice factory, and befriends a colleague whom he introduces to his sister (the quietly charismatic Trieste Kelly Dunn) and his former girlfriend Rachel, who has come to town apparently on business. When Rachel goes missing, Doug, his sister and his friend, turn detective and try to find out what is going on.

The plot is, however, inconsequential in the extreme. The real emphasis is on the characters' inter-relationships,.and in particular the brother and sister relationship is at the heart of the movie. About half way through the film, I thought I knew how it was going to develop. It turned out that I was completely wrong, and I give the director/writer Aaron Katz full marks for managing to keep me interested despite failing to supply most of the ingredients that usually go into the making of a good crime film. Definitely worth a look - just don't expect conventional thrills.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Skyfall - film review

If you don't like James Bond, better look away now, since here comes a rave review. I saw Skyfall the other day, and it's possibly the best action thriller movie I've ever seen. If you were wondering whether all the adulatory reviews are over-done, the answer in  my opinion is that they are not. Provided you suspend your disbelief (better still, lock it up in a cupboard), if you are a thriller fan, you can scarcely fail to enjoy this film.

I think that will be true even for those who are not Bond fans. Daniel Craig (surely one of Cheshire's greatest action heroes!) is, I now think, the best of all Bonds. I am a long-time admirer of Sean Connery, but I think there is a decent case for saying that Craig, in three films, has not only reinvented the character, but made even more out of him than Connery managed. He is helped by a clever and witty screenplay. When I went to see it the twists of the story-line brought gasps and murmurs of appreciation from the audience at several points.

There is a great central idea - the secret service, led by M (Judi Dench at her best in this role) has managed to lose vital information identifying embedded secret agents. And, of course, it's fallen into the hands of a bad guy. The story opens with Bond and a female sidekick in Turkey, trying to get the material back from a trained assassin. But it all goes wrong, and M's career looks doomed.

A series of fascinating scenes take us to Shanghai, Macau, central London and finally a remote part of Scotland, where we learn the significance to Bond of Skyfall.  Thomas Newman's soundtrack is very good, and Adele's theme song worthy of the late great John Barry. Naomie Harris is appealing as Eve, and Javier Bardem suitably menacing as Silva. Albert Finney also makes the most of a nice role near the end of the film. As I say, you have to suspend your belief. But trust me, it's worth it.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Forgotten Book - Murder of a Snob

Roy Vickers was a prolific author who is best known for his entertaining short stories about the Department of Dead Ends, but his novels have long been out of print. My first Forgotten Book for 2013 is one of his last books, Murder of a Snob, which was published in 1949, and has now reappeared under Pan Macmillan's Bello imprint. The Bello list features numerous Vickers titles, many of them hitherto impossible to find.

"Samuel Cornboise was murdered because he was a snob" is a first sentence almost worthy of a Francis Iles or a Ruth Rendell. I wouldn't pretend, though, that Vickers is in the same league as a writer. Yet this book shows what he was capable of. The plot is elaborate, making use of Vickers' legal knowledge (he trained as a barrister before turning to journalism) and, although there is only one murder, suspense and interest is maintained quite well from start to finish. The victim's snobbery is a personality flaw which clearly interested Vickers, because he wrote an entirely separate Dead Ends story with a similar title. My guess, for what it's worth, is that Vickers had suffered a good deal from snobbery, and found writing about the subject cathartic.

The victim, who has the title of Lord Watlington, is a self-made man who is bludgeoned to death in his own home. Ralph, his nephew and heir, confesses to the crime - but is he guilty? There are several possible suspects, including the lovely Claudia, whose disreputable past had so annoyed his Lordship when Ralph decided to marry her, an artist and his lover, the deceased's wife (from whom he was long separated) and Querk, a crafty chap who looked after Watlington's business affairs.

I'm very glad that print on demand and digital publishing make obscure books like this available again at affordable prices. Vickers is well worth a look. I am sure he wrote too much, and I think he was better suited to short stories than novels because in the longer form he found it difficult not to digress.But there are some nice touches in this story which make it well worth reading.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Ripper Street - TV review

Ripper Street, the new BBC TV show which had its first episode on Sunday, is not conventional Sunday evening viewing fare in the Heartbeat or Downton Abbey tradition. It's a period piece, admittedly, set in theLondon of 1889, but written in a decidedly modern style, with a relentless focus on the dark underbelly of seemingly respectable Victorian life, "the worm in the bud."

As you would expect of a major new series, the cast is good, with Mathew Macfadyen in the lead role as Scotland Yard's Inspector Reid. His sidekick is played by Jerome Flynn, of Robson and Jerome fame, and Adam Rothenberg plays an American doctor and pathologist who seems to spend more time in a brothel than he does in the morgue.

A woman is found horribly murdered, and everyone assumes that Jack the Ripper is at work again. However,Reid has other ideas and his enquiiries lead him to a respectable house in the suburbs where the victim's husband narrowly escapes being hanged in an attempt at murder disguised as suicide. Clues that the husband reluctantly yields lead to the uncovering of a sinister and sadistic conspiracy.

Despite its gruesome and sadistic elements, and my feeling that writers who set crime stories in Victorian times too often feel the need to introduce a graphic sexual component, as if to compensate for the prudishness of Victorian crime fiction itself, I thought episode one represented a pretty good start for Ripper Street. One weakness was the limited characterisation of the bad guy - a mistake, I felt. Other than that, the story was soundly written, and the acting very good. But I hope that the Jack the Ripper references don't multiply in later episodes, since the original Whitechapel crimes, for all their undoubted massive significance, have to be the most over-referenced murders in the history of true crime.