Monday, 2 October 2023

The Raging Storm by Ann Cleeves - review

Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Ann Cleeves for Barnes & Noble. There was a very good audience with lots of questions and thank goodness the technology worked a treat. I was a bit nervous beforehand, but once we got going, everything was fine. The reason for the interview was that Ann's new book, The Raging Storm, has just been published. Not to be confused with her last book, The Rising Tide, this is the third in her North Devon series featuring the gay detective Matthew Venn.

The story begins with a sort of 'prodigal returns' scenario, as the celebrity adventurer Jem Rosco arrives back in Greystone (based on a place called Hartland Quay), where he developed his sailcraft. He says he's waiting for someone, but is irritatingly mysterious about who that someone might be. In the second chapter, Mary Ford and her colleagues are called out to perform a rescue in the local lifeboat (the book is dedicated to the RNLI) but what they discover is Jem's dead body.  

Matthew and his team are called in and it soon becomes clear that Jem has been murdered. He wasn't by any means universally popular, and a number of possible murder motives emerge, as do various potential suspects. As ever, the landscape is splendidly evoked and it made me want to go back to Devon again. One slight quirk is that the publishers have included a map of Devon, but this doesn't show the key fictional locations featured in the story, which I found rather odd.

There are some interesting observations in this novel, for instance about social class, and Matthew's religious upbringing again plays a part. Particularly good is the way that Ann examines the nature of celebrity status and charisma. Early on, there's a reference to Dorothy L. Sayers and Golden Age detective fiction and the explanation at the end is one of the most intricate Ann has ever come up with. Early on, Matthew appears to overlook one pretty obvious area of enquiry, and that isn't the only mistake he makes. He's no Lord Peter Wimsey, but dogged perseverance gets him there in the end.  

Friday, 29 September 2023

Forgotten Book - The Blackbirder

From the slavery era right up to the present day, people trafficking has been an ugly trade, as unscrupulous people have cashed in on the desperation of others. Dorothy B. Hughes' The Blackbirder was published in 1943, but in some respects it has a timeless quality - a 'blackbirder' in this context is a trafficker. The story concerns the trafficking of people desperate to escape from the Nazis, and that background pins the book as a fascinating contribution to social history. But it's much more than that.

We see everything from the point of view of a young woman whose name is Julie (in fact, she has several names during the course of the story, as she strives to escape trouble). Her courage and determination are admirable, although sometimes - and this is done by Hughes with great narrative skill - she misinterprets what she sees, and the motives of people she encounters. The touches of naivete make her all the more appealing.

We first encounter Julie in New York. She is on the run - but from what, from whom? She's clearly worried when she encounters a young acquaintance called Maxl, but she spends some time with him before he leaves her outside the door of her apartment. Unfortunately, he is then murdered, and Julie, fearing that she may be a suspect, and will soon be found out by the authorities, goes on the run.

Hughes builds the tension with subtlety as well as dynamism. I found this a gripping read from start to finish. It's an unusual book, and one that demonstrates a combination of storytelling flair with in-depth human insight. A very good read indeed. I've read a few negative reviews of this one on Goodreads, which just shows that even a great writer can't please everyone. Ignore the negativity and give it a go. I don't think you'll be disappointed.


Wednesday, 27 September 2023

The Foreigner - 2017 film review

The Foreigner is an entertaining revenge thriller that was released in 2017 to considerable acclaim. The fact that the cast is led by the perhaps unlikely combination of Pierce Brosnan and Jackie Chan makes it interesting, but there's more to the film (script by David Marconi, source material a novel by Stephen Leather) than that. It's fair to say that the acclaim wasn't universal - a review on the usually insightful Roger Ebert website calls it 'an all-round lousy movie', but don't take too much notice of that, since the critical acumen of the reviewer, who is plainly not the late Roger Ebert, can be judged by the fact that he regards Brosnan's Irish accent as 'atrocious'. Oh dear. 

Anyway, Chan plays a chap called Quan, who is leading a quiet life in London when his daughter is murdered in a terrorist incident. He determines to find out who is responsible and mete out his own kind of justice. So far, so very straightforward, but the story gains depth from the way in which Quan targets Brosnan's character, Liam Hennessey. 

Hennessey, who bears a disconcerting resemblance to a prominent Irish politician in reality, is presented as a dodgy character, in his personal life as well as in his political machinations. He is emphatically not responsible for the attack which killed Quan's daughter, but Quan is right to believe that such an influential figure is bound to know where, to coin a phrase, the bodies are buried.

The political dimensions to the story don't get in the way of the action, which is effectively done, but not over-done. Jackie Chan's age makes him an unlikely action man, but he gives a good performance and the implausibilities of the story are addressed quite well in the script, with the tension maintained to the end. I enjoyed it and so, it should be said, did a large majority of the reviewers.

Monday, 25 September 2023

No Way Out - 1987 film review

It isn't often that a remake of a successful and well-made film matches the original, far less surpasses it. One of the rare exceptions to this principle, I think, is No Way Out, which was based (very, very, loosely) on Kenneth Fearing's terrific novel The Big Clock, which was superbly filmed in 1948. There has also been a French remake with the improbable title Police Python 357, which I've never seen. 

The central idea of The Big Clock is of a man being tasked to find a missing witness to a murder, who is in fact himself. The problem is that he's acutely aware that when the truth comes out, his life will be in extreme danger. This 'manhunt for oneself' idea wasn't original to Fearing, but it's a fascinating one which has been employed by various writers over the years, including Derek Marlowe in A Dandy in Aspic, and there's even an echo of it in a sub-plot in my own Sepulchre Street

Robert Garland's terrific screenplay for No Way Out takes this concept and adds a very pleasing additional twist, which - when I first saw the film - took my breath away. I've now watched it for a third time, and the first since I gave the film a brief mention in the very early days of this blog, and for me, it still works very well. I even realised for the first time that the two songs featured in the film are written by Paul Anka.

Kevin Costner plays Tom Farrell, a naval commander who is hired by Brice, the Secretary of State for Defence (Gene Hackman) with the help of his friend and Brice's assistant Will Paton. Farrell meets a glamorous young woman (Sean Young, at her very best) and embarks on a torrid affair with her. When she tells him that she's also involved with Brice, the complications begin to mount.

This is an intelligent and gripping thriller, one of the best from the 1980s in my opinion. A key reason for its success is that the characters, although quite lightly sketched, are far from formulaic. They have genuine depth and their personalities govern their actions. This is also true, for instance, of the disabled IT expert played very effectively by George Dzunda. I'm glad to have enjoyed this film greatly every time I've watched it.

Friday, 22 September 2023

Forgotten Book - Our Jubilee is Death

I've developed an increasing interest in Leo Bruce's detective fiction in recent years and after focusing initially on his pre-war Sergeant Beef novels, I've taken a liking to his post-war stories featuring the school teacher Carolus Deene. The blend of humour and quirky scenarios is appealing. My latest Bruce reading is Our Jubilee is Death, published in 1959.

The set-up is very good. Deene is summoned to Suffolk by his cousin Fay, who tells him about the bizarre murder of a detective novelist called Mrs Bomberger, who has been found buried up to her neck in the sand. He has an entertaining interview with a publisher called Agincourt who tells him how awful the victim was, and it's clear that there will be no shortage of suspects. I also appreciated the name-checking of Bruce's own publisher, Peter Davies. 

Duly encouraged, I prepared myself for a top-notch read. Unfortunately, however, that the rest of the story didn't really live up to the promise of the situation. I was expecting more to be made of the victim's literary career and although flashes of wit continue to enhance the book, the story itself is rather downbeat - Deene describes it as 'beastly' - and I struggled to care about the culprit or the motive. I suspect that Bruce may have written the novel rather too quickly to invest the storyline with enough pazazz. Nor is the plot one of his best.

Steve Barge is among the people who have reviewed this novel and his reservations about it seem similar to mine.  A pity, but Bruce always writes agreeably and I have more Deene novels lined up for future reading.    

Tuesday, 19 September 2023

Glenn Chandler

I've mentioned my enthusiasm for the writing of Glenn Chandler many times on this blog over the years. I first came across him as the creator and writer of Taggart, and I greatly admired the twisty plots of his stories. To this day, I struggle to think of any TV cop show that has gripped me as much as those early episodes of Taggart.

I've also been interested to read and watch some of his work in the true crime field. If you consider his scripts for Taggart carefully, you'll pick up quite a few true crime references and his researches are as careful as his analyses are cogent. One of his more obscure yet still interesting non-fiction titles is Burning Poison, a book with a Liverpool setting that I picked up while working in the city.

His latest book is Sidney Fox's Crime, another non-fiction study, examining the Margate Hotel murder. It's a very interesting case, and his take on it is well worth reading. I hope to discuss the book in more detail in the near future, but on a brief trip to London last week I had the great pleasure of meeting Glenn in person for the first time. He was giving a talk about the Fox case, which was just as interesting as I anticipated. I also had the chance of an enjoyable chat with Tony Medawar as well as meeting a number of pleasant people with a shared interest in true crime cases.

Glenn told me about imminent celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the first Taggart story, Killer. Sadly, the great Mark McManus, who was so good as the eponymous gruff detective, died many years ago, and although Taggart continued for many years thereafter, inevitably it wasn't quite the same. But it was great to meet Glenn and to have a chance to express my appreciation of his writing, which really has given me a great deal of pleasure for a long time. And I'm not alone in this, of course. As I've mentioned previously here, Kate Ellis shares my enthusiasm for early Taggart and again, one can see Glenn's indirect influence in Kate's taste for elaborate and entertaining mystery plots.


Monday, 18 September 2023

See How They Run - 2022 film

See How They Run is an enjoyable homage to Agatha Christie. The film opens at a celebratory party marking the 100th performance of The Mousetrap. An American director has been asked to oversee a film adaptation, a task that doesn't fill him with joy. He drinks too much and behaves boorishly and is promptly murdered backstage.

That's the set-up and the rest of the film is an enjoyable investigation into whodunit. Sam Rockwell plays Inspector Stoppard (and of course we recall that Stoppard wrote a wonderful send-up of plays in the style of The Mousetrap, The Real Inspector Hound). His sidekick, WPC Stalker, is played by Saoirse Ronan, although at first it's not clear whether she will prove to be a help or a hindrance.

There are some wonderfully funny lines in the script and some nice little easter eggs for the diehard fans to look out for - for instance, a passing reference to a dentist named Norman Gale, as in the character from Death in the Clouds. The likeable cast includes Reece Shearsmith, Ruth Wilson, and David Oyelowo. The plot is okay and although it lacks the brilliance of Christie's best work, I felt that it was as good as the storylines in Knives Out and its sequel (not everyone agrees, but that was my view). 

It's a sign of the times that such a tribute to Christie can enjoy such success. Only last week a statue to her was unveiled in Wallingford, another illustration of the esteem in which she's now held. We're living through a real renaissance of Golden Age fiction and although no doubt, like other fashions, it will pass, I believe that the widespread enthusiasm for classic crime means that fewer critics will sneer at traditional whodunits than used to be the case. They offer great entertainment, as does this film.

Friday, 15 September 2023

Forgotten Book - The Long Divorce

The Long Divorce (also known in the US as a  A Noose for Her) is another of the novels by Edmund Crispin that have recently been reissued by HarperCollins in attractive new editions. And it's a story that I'd rate as one of Gervase Fen's most enjoyable cases, right up there with The Moving Toyshop. It's such a pity that after its appearance in 1951, at a point where Crispin had been producing books at a rate of about one novel a year, Fen vanished for more than a quarter of a century before reappearing in The Glimpses of the Moon

In this story, Fen visits the picturesque village of Cotton Abbas under an alias, Datchery. Anyone who has read The Mystery of Edwin Drood will recognise the source of the name, but the links with Drood end there. We are dealing with a classic village mystery here - there has been a plague of poison pen letters in the village, which Fen wants to investigate. 

The little community is also being torn apart by the hostility between the owner of a newish saw-mill and the locals who don't want their way of life disturbed - there's something eternal about this kind of issue, as a glance at many a community Facebook group's posts today will confirm.

The story brims with Crispin's characteristic wit and the plot is stronger than those of some of his other books. The Golden Age might have ended by the time this novel appeared, but Crispin - who was a pillar of the Detection Club - seems to me to have belonged in spirit to the Thirties. Anyone interested in learning more about this gifted writer and composer is recommended to seek out David Whittle's excellent biography.

Wednesday, 13 September 2023

The Winter Lake - 2021 film review

Looking for a cheerful pick-me-up to take your mind off seasonal miseries? Then you'd do well to avoid The Winter Lake, a recent slow-burning suspense movie set in Ireland. But if you can cope with the mood of almost unrelieved bleakness, and you're looking for a low-budget film which is very strong on evocation of place and good in terms of characterisation and acting, then this piece of rural noir is well worth watching.  

Tom (Anson Boon) is a troubled young man who collects animal skulls. He and his young mother Elaine (Charlie Murphy) have moved to a remote cottage, apparently inherited following some turbulence in their lives during which Tom slashed someone with a knife. Unfortunately, he still carries a knife and soon, in a nearby winter lake (a turlough, a geological feature more or less unique to Ireland), he makes a grisly discovery.

Elaine meets Ward (Michael McElhatton) and seeks to initiate a relationship, with minimal success. Ward's concern is for his wayward daughter Holly (Emma Mackey), who strikes up an unlikely friendship with the near-silent Tom. In the background lurks her boyfriend Col (Mark McKenna), to whom Tom takes an immediate dislike. 

After a slow start, the film picks up pace and the tension mounts. I felt that David Turpin's script did a very good job in terms of developing the characters of Tom, Elaine, Ward, and Holly, and their performances did him and director Phil Sheerin justice. My main reservation concerned the pacing and the structure of the storyline, which seemed to me to be very uneven. As a result, the ending of the film is not only low-key but anti-climactic. I admire the way the film avoids the cliches of psychological suspense, but given some strong ingredients, I think that perhaps better use could have been made of them.    

Monday, 11 September 2023

And Then There Were None - 1974 film review

I enjoy many Golden Age detective novels, but if you press me for it (as happened on one of the panels at San Diego a few days ago), my absolute favourite has to be And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, not only an enduring global bestseller and hugely influential on crime writers to this day (how many homages to this book have been published in the last decade? I've lost count). The story is a superb combination of whodunit and psychological suspense. No surprise, then, that there have been plenty of screen versions.

One that has escaped me until now is the 1974 film directed by Peter Collinson. This movie has an indifferent reputation, but I decided I ought to check it out for myself. Collinson was capable of excellent work - he directed the original version of The Italian Job, a great piece of entertainment - and the cast is impressive. The producer was Harry Alan Towers, whose own reputation has not worn well at all, and he also wrote the script, under the pen-name of Peter Welbeck. He makes several changes to the Christie original, and although some are interesting, overall I don't think they work well.

The setting is weird - an abandoned luxury hotel in the middle of the desert in the Iran. So, effectively it's as cut-off as the island in the original story. There are some visual pleasures to be had from this change of scene, but too much is left unexplained. The climax isn't badly done, but the build-up lacks the necessary tension.

This lack of suspense is partly due to the fact that even the notable actors in the cast seem to be affected by a languor, possibly induced by the indifferent quality of the screenplay. Elke Sommer is beautiful and does her best with her part, but Oliver Reed seems to sleep-walk through his. Even Richard Attenborough and Herbert Lom are below their considerable best. The two ex-Bond villains, Gert Frobe and Adolfo Celi, make little impression, and why Orson Welles did the mysterious recorded message from U.N. Owen remained unclear to me. It's not a complete disaster as a film, but overall a waste of talent and of fantastic source material.