Saturday, 30 May 2020

The Ritual - 2017 film review

Sweden is a fascinating country, and I don't say that simply because my daughter lives there. It's a beautiful place, with an intriguing and mysterious landscape that film-makers have used effectively in numerous films and TV series. Midsommar is perhaps the most famous modern horror film set there, but the rather less ambitious, pretentious, and derivative 2017 British movie The Ritual is arguably as good if not better.

Five young men discuss their plans for a holiday, which are rudely interrupted when one of them is cruelly murdered during a burglary that goes wrong. He'd favoured a hike in north Sweden, and the remaining quartet decide to do just that, as a tribute to his memory. It turns out, surprise, surprise, to be a poor decision...

Shortly after they set out, one of them suffers an injury. To save time, they decide to take a short cut away from the marked trail and through a dense forest. Big mistake. Spooky things start to happen, and when they take refuge from a storm in an abandoned cabin, things go from bad to worse. Something is going on in the woods, and it's no teddy bears' picnic...

Rafe Spall, a first-rate actor, leads a small, high-calibre cast which also includes Sam Troughton (grandson of Patrick). Joe Barton's screenplay, based on Adam Nevill's novel, is tightly written, with more sophisticated delineation of character than one finds in many horror films. Consistently watchable and definitely above average in its genre.

Friday, 29 May 2020

Forgotten Book - I Love, I Kill

I Love, I Kill, is an absurdly lurid title for a book that isn't at all lurid, by a writer of considerable discernment, John Bingham. It's a novel of psychological suspense and my copy has a cover blurb from Julian Symons praising the subtlety and psychological penetration of his best fiction. This book, however, was published in 1968, at a time when Bingham's powers were beginning to falter. It's extremely interesting (I even found its flaws rather interesting), but I don't think it ranks with his best.

The story is told in the first person and framed, so that the narrator is speaking in the present and looking back on events of the past. We know that someone called Paul King has been killed but we don't know why or by whom. Most of the story takes the form of extended flashbacks as the narrator, Charles Maither, looks back to his first meeting with King, a fellow actor, and how King married the woman that Charles loved, another actor called Shirley. Charles then explains how he conceived a highly elaborate plan to win Shirley back.

It's not a spoiler to say that the plan was for Charles, in his new role as a publicity agent, to help King (a vain and handsome man with limited talent as an actor) to become a success, so that King became bored with dull old Shirley, leaving the way clear for Charles to reclaim her. Of course, things don't go quite the way that Charles planned.

In Michael Jago's interesting biography of Bingham, he says that the publishers were worried that they might be sued for libel by Richard Burton. Maybe Bingham revised the book to address this, because King didn't remind me of Burton at all. Jago also says that the publishers' reader found parts of the story boring. Because I like Bingham's crisp, readable style, I did not have that problem with the book. He was a genuinely engaging stylist in my opinion. A fairer criticism is that he lacked in-depth knowledge of the theatrical background, but on the whole I felt he did enough to make the setting credible.

I did, however, struggle with the premise. Bingham simply didn't make me understand Charles' obsession about Shirley. She is not terribly interesting at any point in the story, while Charlie is unpleasant and at times surprisingly stupid - a big disadvantage with a first person narrator. As for his plan to make Charlie famous and thus get hold of Shirley, I thought it crazy. Nor did the resolution of the murder plot, handled in a very casual way, satisfy me. The structure was clearly designed to build tension - or rather to overcome the inherent lack of tension in the story, but it didn't really work for me. There are some good scenes in which the police interrogate Charlie, but here Bingham was simply repeating what he'd done in more successful books such as My Name is Michael Sibley.

All in all, I can understand why this book didn't do particularly well on its first appearance, and why it has since slipped out of sight. So why did I rather like it, despite its manifest failings. The answer, as I say, is because Bingham knew how to write readable prose and was a talented storyteller. Even though this story isn't a strong one, I raced through it, rather than giving up because I was frustrated by Charlie's behaviour. Which has to be a positive sign.   




Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Goodbye Lover - 1998 film review

I came to the neo-noir film Goodbye Lover by the most circuitous of routes. Wandering around Youtube, I stumbled across a wonderful, smoky piece of film music by John Barry. It was labelled as a demo from Barry's rejected score for the film Goodbye Lover. I was amazed. How could it have been rejected? The soundtrack actually used was written by someone called John Ottman. Who? No disrespect to him, but Barry won five Oscars. What on earth was going on?

It turns out that the film was made by Roland Joffe, a director of some distinction. He hired Barry, but they fell out, apparently because Joffe felt that Barry's music didn't quite capture the mood he was looking for. So I had to watch the film to figure out why. Having done so, the explanation has become clear. Barry thought he was writing music for a film a bit like Body Heat. Goodbye Lover is a crime film with plenty of twists. But it's primarily a black comedy. And in many ways it's a mess. 

The film flopped on release, with the critics hating it, but I must say that it does have a number of redeeming features and despite myself I rather enjoyed it. The cast is very good, with Patricia Arquette funny as a femme fatale who is obsessed with The Sound of Music, and a great double act in the detectives - one is a hard-bitten woman splendidly played by Ellen De Generes, the other a naive young man who sees the good in everyone, even really evil people. Some of the dialogue is genuinely witty. And some of the plot twists are entertaining.

The trouble is that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. There are enjoyable scenes, but Joffe fails to knit them together in a way that's artistically satisfying. As a result, we lurch from one crazy situation to another, and have no real empathy with any of the characters. It's a great shame, because there were some nice ideas in the script. That was probably what attracted John Barry to the project. Perhaps Joffe would have been well advised to create something closer to the mood of the music that Barry wrote.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Antony Johnston guest post - A Mysterious Love


I'd like to welcome Antony Johnston to the blog. I first met Antony at a get-together to celebrate 30 years of the CWA northern chapter, and discovered that among many other accomplishments, he is the author of Atomic Blonde, filmed with Charlize Theron. Quite something. To celebrate publication of his new book, The Tempus Project, he's kindly written a guest post which I find quite fascinating. Over to Antony... 
Antony Johnston
'First of all, I’d like to thank Martin for offering me space on his blog, despite the fact we write very different books… on the surface, at least. But one thing unites us, and indeed almost all crime and thriller writers, and to be honest it took me some time to realise it about myself.
Writers are often blind to our own work. We spend so long fretting over details of plot, words, and continuity that it becomes difficult to step back and look at a story from the perspective of someone reading it for the first time. Throughout my career I’ve written many different genres, in many different media, and for the first ten years or so when asked I told people I wrote ‘adventure stories’. I love a good turn of phrase or thought-provoking situation as much as anyone, but my work is always primarily intended to entertain and excite, and I’m happy to occasionally sacrifice realism on the altar of derring-do.
But some years ago, now with a hefty body of work to my name, an interviewer asked me, ‘Why do you always write mysteries?’ My first instinct was to answer that I don’t, that only a few specific stories were about crime, while many of the others were… oh.
As I looked over my library shelf, where I keep a single copy of everything I’ve written, I realised he was right. That what united all these books, graphic novels, scripts, and even videogames I’d written were the mysteries locked within their hearts.
That led me to consider the stories I loved reading and watching, the books, comics, and movies I’d grown up reading, the works that had stuck with me through the years and to which I returned more often than any other. The Famous Five and Three Investigators books of my childhood, the Sandman and Sherlock Holmes stories of my youth, the Atticus Kodiak and Vurt novels of my adulthood.
Not all of these are crime, any many can definitely be classed as adventures. But more importantly, they’re all mysteries. Even without a corpse and a detective, a story can revolve around a question that must be answered to make a satisfying finish. William Gibson’s classic Neuromancer is essentially a sci-fi heist, but centred on the mystery of what shadowy figure hired the crew, and why. Cherie Priest’s The Family Plot is a ghost story, but at its core is the mystery of the spirit’s malevolent motives. Neither book could end without answering its central question. My shelves are filled with hundreds of such stories.
Then there’s my own work. Over the years I’ve written sci-fi, westerns, horror, fantasy, manga — and, yes, crime and thriller books. Almost every one is centred around an overriding question the protagonist/s are compelled to answer despite the obstacles in their way.
So why do I always write mysteries? The answer, I realised at last, was deceptively simple. I’m a firm believer in writing stories I’d like to read myself… and nothing keeps me turning the pages faster than not knowing something, trying to solve a puzzle before the protagonist, with the promise that all will eventually be revealed. For me there’s no greater praise than a reader telling me they gasped when a villain was unmasked, or they remained baffled (but compelled!) until the final resolution. That’s how I feel when I read a great mystery, and I know the satisfaction it brings me as a reader, so to hear it about my own work is wonderful.
Unlike Martin, I’m no historian. I’ll leave him to ponder why mysteries are so compelling to readers, where the modern form began, and to trace its roots as only he can. For me, it’s enough to have gained the self-awareness that to truly enjoy a book — both as reader and author — its heart must beat with a mystery to be solved. I’ll keep writing them if you all keep reading them.'

Antony Johnston is the creator of Atomic Blonde and The Exphoria Code, and hosts the podcast Writing And Breathing. His new Brigitte Sharp thriller The Tempus Project is mysteriously published on May 25.
Read more at https://antonyjohnston.com/



Friday, 22 May 2020

Forgotten Book - First Person Plural


First Person Plural by Richard Wiseman

Sometimes it is rather harsh to describe the books I cover in this Friday blog post as forgotten But I don't think there can be any doubt that Richard Wiseman's First Person Plural qualifies for that description. It was published in Macmillan in hardback in 1975 and as far as I know it never made it into paperback. I don't know anything about the author (though I did know someone with the same name!) and as far as I know he wrote only one other crime novel, which was published by Hale.

I saw the book in a second hands shop and bought it on impulse, not knowing anything about it other than the tag-line: "Obsessive Love Led to Murder". I didn't have high hopes, for sure, but once I started reading, I couldn't stop. It's a short book, but I finished it very quickly indeed. It's certainly easy to read, and quite compelling.

The structure is clever. The story is told by three children, who are orphaned and left in effect to their own devices. I don't want to say too much about what happens, for fear of giving spoilers. The blurb calls it "a very unusual novel of suspense....The author displays marvellous invention and a compulsive narrative power..." This isn't an exaggeration. Wiseman may not have been an experienced crime novelist, but he could certainly write.

Interestingly, the novel anticipates a much more famous book with a similar scenario, Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden. Of course, the story develops in a different way, and of course McEwan is a better writer, but I do think it's a shame that Wiseman seems to have sunk so deeply into obscurity. On this evidence, he deserved a better fate. There are flaws in this novel, but I'm definitely glad I read it. 
POSTSCRIPT - thanks to Jamie Sturgeon, I've learned that Wiseman was a pen-name of Nick Bartlett, whose obituary is here: https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2008/jun/20/1

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Escape Room - 2019 film review

Recently, some friends were telling me about their experience of an escape room. Trying to solve various clues in order to get out out of one of these rooms has become a popular pastime. I was rather tempted by their enthusiasm. Having watched the recent thriller movie Escape Room, however, I'm almost having second thoughts....

The premise of the film is pretty straightforward. Half a dozen people from assorted backgrounds receive a puzzle cube which, when solved, results in an invitation to take part in an attempt to get out an escape room, with a $10,000 prize for the winner. This proves an offer too good to refuse, but it's entirely predictable (given a rather dramatic, although perhaps unnecessary, scene just before the opening credits) that they will soon regret their decision to take part.

They arrive at an office block and wait to be told about the game. However, it soon becomes clear that they can't get out of the waiting room, and that room begins to turn into an oven. Can they get out alive before they are roasted to death? And what on earth is going on?

Ordeal by oven is by no means the last of the challenges the group face. The connecting link between the six participants isn't revealed for quite a while, but it's quite a good one. In fact, I found the concept of the film as a whole quite appealing. Yes, it's hokum, but done with great energy. Taylor Russell and Logan Miller, the two leads, are very good and in fact the whole cast performs with conviction as their troubles mount. It's clear from the final scenes that a sequel is envisaged.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

The Limping Man - 1953 film review

If you google The Limping Man, you're sure to come across discussion of the film's ending. Almost every commentator I've read has deplored the ending, and I have to say that I agree. It's dreadful. The only sensible advice is not to take it into account in deciding whether to watch the film - it didn't affect my choice, as I knew nothing about it before taking a look. And overall, it was worth watching, as an average British B-movie of the 50s.

There was a common practice in those days of including American actors in leading roles in British movies for commercial reasons. Here, the star is Lloyd Bridges. He's travelling to the UK on a plane, to reunite with the woman he loves after six long years. Once he gets out of the plane, he offers a light to a fellow passenger. And then the other guy is shot by a marksman.

Our hero is grilled by the police, played by the reliable Alan Wheatley and that eternal Lothario Leslie Phillips. He's reunited with his girlfriend Pauline (Moira Lister), who seems oddly distant. The deceased, he is told, was a bad lot called Kendal Brown. Alas, it emerges that Kendal was mixed up with  Pauline. And she wrote him some compromising letters. Tantalisingly, it seems that the content of those letters could result in her being sent to prison. However, we are never given further particulars.

There are some good actors in the supporting cast, including Rachel Roberts and a very young Jean Marsh. Lionel Blair also appears. The screenplay is based on a novel called Death on the Tideway by Anthony Verney. I've not been able to find out anything about this, and I just wonder if it was a short story rather than a novel. At all events, it's not a bad story. But that ending...

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Hazell - TV series

Gordon Williams and Terry Venables wrote three private eye novels together in the 70s, using the pen-name P.B. Yuill, under which Williams had previously published an intriguing if eccentric thriller The Bornless Keeper. Their private eye was James Hazell, a Cockney and ex-cop, and the snappy writing style ensured the books were more successful than most British attempts at stories about gumshoes.

So successful, in fact, that they were adapted for television. 22 episodes were screened in 1978-79. At the time, I only caught one or two episodes, and they didn't make a lasting impression on me. However, Talking Pictures TV have been screening the series, and rather to my surprise I've found that, even though some of the attitudes have inevitably dated, the stories hold up pretty well.

Much of this is due to Nicholas Ball's performance as Hazell. I don't think Ball has ever quite matched the success of this particular role, but he really handles very well the combination of cheekiness, wit, and vulnerability in the character. Interestingly, I've just given an endorsement to a non-fiction book which includes an interview with him. Anyway, Hazell does misbehave from time to time, but overall it's clear that his heart is in the right place. More or less.

Several good scriptwriters contributed to the series, including Tony Hoare, and there are a number of excellent performances in individual supporting roles from actors ranging from Clive Swift to Pamela Stephenson (who was, in fact, married to Nicholas Ball at one time). A regular character is the dour cop "Choc" Minty, played by Roddy Macmillan; it was his last role prior to his premature death. Another is Dot Wilmington (Barbara Young), for whom Hazell works in the early episodes, an early and interesting example of a lesbian character in a British television series. The theme song is performed by Maggie Bell with the same verve she later brought to the Taggart theme, and it even made number 37 in the charts. There is violence in many of the episodes, but it's not as brutal as The Sweeney. Yes, I've enjoyed watching Hazell forty-plus years on.

Friday, 15 May 2020

Forgotten Book - After the Fine Weather

Michael Gilbert used to tease his fellow detective novelists by saying that it was harder to write thrillers than it is to write detective novels. He was unusual in that he was equally accomplished whether writing classic whodunits or stories of action and adventure (or, come to that, police procedurals or spy stories). After the Fine Weather was published in 1963, four years after his previous novel, which was a London-based police story, Blood and Judgement. This book could hardly be more different from its predecessor.

The setting is Lienz, a tiny Austrian province on the border of South Tyrol. After an introductory chapter which follows the release from prison of a brutish chap called Albin Boschetto, Gilbert switches focus, as we meet twenty-year-old Laura, who is in Rome, and about to travel to Lienz to meet her brother Charles, who is a diplomat.

One of the interesting features about this story, which I think was unusual at the time it was written, is that it's an action thriller with a strong and likeable female protagonist. Laura is a good character, and Gilbert's presentation of her is appealing. Before long, she witnesses an assassination, and although the local authorities have picked their own scapegoat for the killing, she insists that someone else was responsible. The tension mounts from there.

Like all Gilbert's novels, this one is written with great assurance. One of the quaint features is the absence of communications when Lienz is cut off from the rest of Austria by snow. No internet, no mobile phones, nothing like that. The sense of people being dependent on their own personal resources is strong in this story, and it makes for an entertaining read. When I first read it, as a teenager, I was slightly underwhelmed. Belatedly, I've revised my opinion. It's a pity that Laura never returned.


Wednesday, 13 May 2020

A Spot of Folly by Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell was as talented a short story writer as she was a crime novelist, and that's saying something, because so many of her novels were so good. I've devoured her various collections over the years, and now I've had a chance to read her final, posthumously published (in 2017) collection, A Spot of Folly, and to remind myself of her remarkable talent.

The hardback's dust jacket proclaims that it is a book of "New and Uncollected Short Stories." New? Well, they haven't previously been collected together in book form under Rendell's name, although one appeared in Winter's Crimes. But it simply is not correct to imply that these are "new" stories. Most of them were first published in the 1970s, and one of them, the splendid "The Irony of Hate", is discussed in some detail in Harry Keating's equally splendid book about the craft of crime writing. The most recent story was published more than a decade before this book.

Anyway, what of the book itself? It benefits from an intro by Sophie Hannah, who is like me a long-time Rendell fan, and the copyright page reveals that the selection was made by the very knowledgeable Tony Medawar. The contents are billed (more accurately this time) as "ten and a quarter stories" - the quarter story is just a few lines long, but it's neatly done. The story from Winter's Crimes, "A Drop Too Much", shows Rendell, unusually, in comic mode, and it's an entertaining biter-bit tale.

As for the others, they are a mixed bag. There are ghost stories, and also an interesting dystopian story, "Trebuchet", which deserves to be read more than once. It dates from the Eighties, and again it's best read if one remembers that it was written during the Cold War; even so, it has resonance today. There is also an intriguing and unusual story, "In the Time of his Prosperity" which I'm sure will stay in my mind. The novella "The Thief", alas, is a later work, and it rather illustrates Rendell's decline. Plenty of authors would be glad to have written it, but for such a superstar, it's pretty unconvincing. So, overall, this book is a mixed bag, but that is the nature of such things. I'm glad to have caught up with it.