Sunday, October 2, 2016

Why Carrickfergus Is The Happiest Place On Earth

According to the British National Statistics Bureau the happiest place in the United Kingdom is Northern Ireland. Even more surprisingly the happiest place in Northern Ireland is the borough of East Antrim. In other words Carrickfergus is the place in the entire United Kingdom where residents are most content and happiest. If you're a math geek like me you can explore these stats even further. The happiest country in the world with a happiness rating of 7.7 is, famously, Denmark. But East Antrim's happiness rating is 8.3 according to the most recent stats. The methodology of the surveys is slightly different but the results are pretty clear: Carrickfergus is actually the place on planet Earth where residents are the most contented. Not Hawaii, not the Rive Gauche, not the vineyards of Northern California, not Disneyland. No, Carrickfergus. According to the Guardian newspaper even the civil servants reporting on this survey found this all very hard to believe. But I believe it and I have some theories as to why this is so: 

1. The strong sense of community. Go shopping with my sisters or my mum and you'll be there all day. They know everybody and everybody knows them. When I lived on Coronation Road I knew every single person on the street and could have dinner at anybody's house and any of those kids could have dinner at my house. You want to know why the Troubles were so terrible for so long? Because it was a family dispute and those things are the worst. 
2. We know our history. Every kid in Northern Ireland knows where he came from and his context in the history of Ireland and the world. How can you not when there's graffiti everywhere telling us to "Remember 1690" or "Remember 1916" etc. Knowing that you are part of a narrative that stretches all the way back to the Great Rift Valley gives one a tremendous feeling of comfort and well being. We also remember our recent history. Everybody that lived through the Troubles is so relieved and grateful that those terrible terrible days are behind us. 
3. Everyone plays an instrument. They just do. Its part of the culture. And when you've got the blues you can play the blues and that helps. 
4. Kids in school are forced to memorise poetry. That helps too when you're feeling depressed. Trust me. 
5. Sense of humour. The worst thing you can say of someone from Norn Irn is that "they have no sense of humour". That I'm afraid is a deal breaker for potential boyfriends, girlfriends or spouses. Pretty much everything else can be tolerated but if you're humourless you are toast. Trust someone who has lived in 14 different cities in 4 continents - Belfast people have the driest, dourest, blackest sense of humour on Earth. Thats what EVERY single Troubles movie has gotten wrong. The shocking sentimental bullshit music and the lack of jokes. 
6. The sense of humour again. This cannot be overemphasised. You know why my Duffy novels are funny? Because they are mimetic. 
7. Sang froid. We don't take ourselves or life too seriously. We like to think we keep a cool head in a crisis. cf Thomas Andrews, Lord Alanbrooke, Blair Mayne etc. etc.
8. The food and drink. Much maligned but maligned without reason. An Ulster fry is by far the greatest breakfast on Earth. A pint of Guinness or porter in my sister's pub, Ownies, is surely the greatest drink on the planet. Irish stew? The trout, the salmon? One of the best chippies in the world (The Victoria HotSpot in Victoria). And you should try my mum's baked goods...
9. The scenery. Up there on the high bog behind the Glens is God's Own Country and there's a reason why all the most spectacular shots in Game of Thrones were filmed on the Antrim Coast. I'm assuming people further up the Antrim Coast are as happy as the people in Carrickfergus which is why I've included a pic of Dunluce Castle rather than Carrickfergus Castle. 
10. Mustn't grumble. Over the water people whinge about bloody everything. In Ulster people are made of sterner stuff. Visit someone in Belfast on their death bed and this is the sort of thing you'll hear. "Ach, Archie, they say you have a week to live? How are you doing, mate?" "I can't complain."  

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Books In The Duffyverse

Someone hit me up on twitter last week asking what books exist in the Duffyverse. i.e. what books of mine exist in the same universe as Sean Duffy's universe. As you probably know Duffy has interacted with both Killian and Michael Forsythe who have novels of their own. One of Duffy's sidekicks is Alexander Lawson has also his own novel and I used to think that book took place in our universe but now its clear to me now that it doesn't. The Alexander Lawson of Hidden River is a detective operating in a universe without Duffy being there to guide him, the poor sod. Anyway these are the books - kind of - in the extended Duffy universe. All the characters in these books know and have interacted with Sean Duffy in some capacity. I haven't made a serious effort to tie in Fifty Grand and The Sun Is God but I reckon I cd if I worked a bit at it. But, anyway, this should be enough to keep you busy!










Monday, September 26, 2016

Woody Allen Rated

I've seen a lot of Woody Allen films. In fact for my sins, I guess I'm a Woody Allen completist which hasn't been easy the last few years... Here's my rating of the oeuvre in the standard A, B, C, D, F format. A is a classic, F is unwatchable, B is pretty good etc. These are the films Woody directed but I've also included 1 or two that he acted in that I've seen. Woody's career is very streaky it seems to me. You have the brilliance of the mid seventies (Love and Death, Annie Hall etc.) then another great run in the mid eighties (Hannah and Her Sisters and the underrated Radio Days) then a falling off before more good stuff in the early 1990s (Crimes and Misdemeanors, Shadows and Fog). The theory that Woody is in terminal decline doesnt quite hold water though. He's made 3 of his better films in the last five years: Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine & Cafe Society

1969 Take the Money and Run B
1971 Bananas B
1972 Play It Again, Sam B
1972 Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex D
1973 Sleeper A
1975 Love and Death A
1976 The Front  B (acted only)
1977 Annie Hall A
1978 Interiors D
1979 Manhattan B
1980 Stardust Memories B
1982 A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy D
1983 Zelig C
1984 Broadway Danny Rose B
1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo B
1986 Hannah and Her Sisters A
1987 Radio Days B
1987 September D
1988 Another Woman F
1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors A
1990 Alice D
1991 Scenes from a Mall  B (acted only)
1991 Shadows and Fog B
1992 Husbands and Wives B
1993 Manhattan Murder Mystery B
1994 Bullets over Broadway C
1995 Mighty Aphrodite F
1996 Everyone Says I Love You F
1997 Deconstructing Harry C
1998 Sweet and Low Down C
1999 Celebrity F 
2000 Small Time Crooks B
2001 The Curse of the Jade Scorpion F
2002 Hollywood Ending B
2004 Melinda and Melinda F
2005 Match Point B
2006 Scoop F
2007 Cassandra's Dream F
2008 Vicky Cristina Barcelona C
2009 Whatever Works C
2010 You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger F
2011 Midnight in Paris B
2012 To Rome with Love D
2013 Blue Jasmine B
2014 Magic in the Moonlight F
2015 Irrational Man D
2016 Cafe Society B


Thursday, September 22, 2016

Four Gags In A Hundred Seconds Of Action

You're a film director. You're going to shoot a scene where a man with a broken leg is waiting in the back of a Jeep in the jungle in the rain. His two friends are investigating the possibility that a Tyrannosaurus Rex has escaped from its enclosure. The man in the Jeep hears the noise of an approaching monster. The two friends come running out of the bush and jump into the Jeep. The T Rex chases them. Everybody screams. The T Rex gets real close and almost kills them all. Now what you have to ask yourself is what this scene is setting out to do. Its pretty obvious I think. The scene's purpose is to scare the living daylights out of the audience. And any competent film maker is going to do that. Jurassic Park was made in the early days of CGI and an angry realistic T Rex chasing people was something no audience member had ever seen before. What the scene doesn't seem to suggest is the possibility for any comedy. And yet its very funny. Although Jurassic Park it's not a film I particularly rate I've thought a lot about this 100 second long scene (below). Spielberg's genius, it seems to me, is for inserting comedy into horror or action scenes without allowing the comedy to kill the tone of the scene. That's a pretty hard trick to pull off but he does it in this scene not once, not twice, but four times. Four gags in a hundred seconds: 1) the dialogue at 30 seconds in. 2) the dialogue at 50 seconds in. 3) the great visual gag at 59 seconds. 4) and the famous line at the 94 second mark. I think the bit about the gearstick is also quite funny and thats in the tradition of Hitchcock drawing out the tension and making you smile at the same time. Spielberg's Achilles heal is his toleration of schmaltz and bathos but his gift for comedy in the midst of drama is unmatched by anyone making this kind of film today. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

David O Russell Rated

David O Russell rated in the standard A,B,C,D, F format. A is a classic, B is very good, C is ok, D is a miss and F is a fail. As I've said before I like a director who has a few spectacular fails along the way as it means they're willing to take chances. 

Spanking the Monkey 1994 B
Flirting with Disaster 1996  A
Three Kings 1999  B
I ♥ Huckabees    2004 F
The Fighter 2010  C
Silver Linings Playbook 2012 A
American Hustle 2013 A
Accidental Love 2015 F (disowned film, removed name from credits)
Joy 2016 A

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Read Them As Soon As They Come Out

There are about 60,000 new titles published every year in the English language. It's hard to keep up with new authors and new books, and the hot new titles the gatekeepers offer us from The New York Times and Fleet Street are often inside jobs. I do try to read new books (I'm reading a galley by Sebastian Barry at the moment which is excellent) but in this blogpost I wanna talk about those living authors whose books I read as soon as they come out i.e. I buy the bastard in hardback if I can't persuade someone to give to me for free to review. Here are those authors in no particular order. 

Don Winslow: I began with The Trail To Buddha's Mirror when I was still in university. It must have been 1992 or 1993 or thereabouts and since then I've read pretty much everything. If you are going to start anywhere the best place is probably The Power of the Dog (2003) which all of us in the know realised was a masterpiece way back then. Winslow's prose is economical and beautiful and his characters are all too human. Winslow's Mexican novels are mimetic of a very tough world so steal yourself...

David Peace: Another author I started reading in the 1990's and haven't stopped since. My first one was 1974 which is book 1 in The Red Riding Quartet. I believe Peace took the English novel in an entirely new direction with these books which no one else has been brave enough to follow. My favourite Peace is Red or Dead which I reviewed for the Sydney Morning Herald, here. I've read everything he's written.  

James Ellroy. American Tabloid (1995) hit me like a side slewing Volvo XC90 into the back of my motorcycle (something that really happened but this isn't the place to discuss that). Wait a second, you're allowed to do that in a novel? I asked myself 10 pages into Tabloid. Ellroy perfected his brilliant telegraphic style with the mean spirited, utterly crazy The Cold Six Thousand which was the first great American novel of the 21st century. 

Ursula Le Guin. I started reading Le Guin in 1980 and I've read everything she has published since then. Did you know she went to high school with Philip K Dick? No, you didn't but you do now. Still firing on all cylinders is Ms Le Guin. An American literary legend. 

Thomas Pynchon. Read my first Pynchon novel in high school, didn't really get it but then I read Vineland in 1990 in college following Salman Rushdie's review of it in The Times. After that I became a Pynchon completist which can be a long and lonely road at times. Read them in this order 1) Vineland 2) Gravity's Rainbow 3) Inherent Vice 4) V 5) Mason & Dixon 6) Lot 49 7) Bleeding Edge 8) Against the Day.

Donna Tartt. She writes a book every 10 years and its always a masterpiece. What's not to love? Begin with The Secret History. 

Cormac McCarthy. Back in 1984 I was the only person reading Cormac McCarthy in the whole of Belfast I reckon. Certainly nobody else had ever heard of him and the library had trouble getting his books in. Then Oprah came along and spoiled everything. I'm still a completist though - even the plays and screenplays. Start with Blood Meridian, the greatest piece of Star Trek fan fiction ever.*  

Zadie Smith. Like everyone else I was captivated by White Teeth's humanity and humour and it was easy to jump on the Zadie train. 

Dan Woodrell: I read a review of a book called Under The Bright Lights in 1986 and pestered the librarian at Belfast Central Library to get it in and when she finally did I knew I was onto something. Mr Woodrell has never let me down since. Begin with Tomato Red or Winters Bone.

Michel Houellebecq. He's mad, bad and dangerous to know. He's got the worst hair in all of publishing (unlike Donna T above who has the best hair). His books have been getting nuttier and less funny of late but still, each one is a publishing event and I read em all. 

There are many others I was going to name, but I'm just going to end it here otherwise we'll be at this all night.  

*Arena s1 e18

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Why Is Most Nordic Noir Really Bad?

Well, first of all, as Ted Sturgeon says, 90% of everything is crap. 90% of
the actually rather good Mr Nesbo
mystery novels, 90% of science fiction, 90% of literary fiction. Maybe especially literary fiction where the measure of a book's worth is often how boring it is. But let's not get off topic. We're talking about Nordic Noir. Why is most Nordic Noir so particularly bad? The reason is this: the bar for publication of any Scandinavian mystery is very low because the commercial viability of these books is very high. Because of Dragon Tattoo and the success of Jo Nesbo, the Wallendar books etc. basically any old shit from Norway, Sweden, Denmark or Iceland can be published and there's a pretty good chance it will be commercially viable. The book's quality doesn't really matter, what matters is where the book is set. Nordic Noir outsells the noir fiction of any region in the world. It's trendy. Its cool. Everybody likes Denmark and thinks of it as a kind of liberal Utopia. Norway is a rich Denmark. And Sweden is a slightly less rich but much bigger Norway. Iceland? That's the land where the beautiful pixie like people live. 
...
A bad Australian crime novel has no chance of being published in America or the UK but a bad Swedish mystery? It'll probably be a hit. A bad Danish mystery? Mega hit. A good Northern Irish mystery will have trouble finding an audience (even in Belfast) but some old corny crap from Copenhagen will be in every airport newsagent everywhere in the world because that's what the punters want and successful publishers are in the business of giving the punters what they want. NYRB press can give them what they need but everyone else has to give them what they bloody want. What they have wanted for the last 7 or 8 years or so has been Nordic Noir. And that's why there's a glut. And that's why most of those books are shite. I should know, I'm a professional reviewer and my neighbours have been complaining about the increasing number of books that get tossed across the living room and into our shared wall. Don't get me wrong: there are tons of really good Scandi/Nordic writers that I love but in the last few years we've been bombarded with a lot of terrible stuff too. 
...
Ok vent over. Now, let me get a cup of tea to calm down and don't get me started about John Banville. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

17 Big Books I've read so You Don't Have To


a repost from July of last year
...
Life is short, you've got a lot to do and you still havent watched The Wire or read War and Peace yet. Well I haven't watched The Wire either but fortunately I have read everything so here's a quick primer on 20 'great' big books that I've read so that you don't have to.

1. Clarissa: It's unlikely that you'll chance on this by accident but if its on some kind of university course or book group reading list then run don't walk. This will take you hundreds of miserable hours to finish and at the end of it you will have no feeling of achievement, merely the aching knowledge that you wont get those hours back. Even Richardson's much shorter Pamela drags and Fielding's pisstake on Pamela, Shamela isn't the barrel of laughs you'd like it to be either.
2. The Mill On The Floss: You don't need to read this. The soppy ending is telegraphed miles ahead and its a dreary trudge to get there. If you're only going to read one George Eliot in this lifetime make it Middlemarch. 
3. Finnegan's Wake: A literary experiment or a longform poem, not a novel: read Ulysses or Dubliners or Portrait instead. 
4. Jude The Obscure: Thomas Hardy's books and prose style have not aged well. His poetry is terrific but I think you can easily skip the gloomy Jude The Obscure, The Return of the Native & Tess and maybe just read Far From The Madding Crowd which, spoiler alert, has a rare-for-Hardy happy-ish ending.
5. The Brothers Karamazov: Controversial one this. I loved the Brothers K but if you're only ever going to read one Dostoyevsky read Crime And Punishment instead because its shorter, more focused and more contemporary. But hear me well: the five 5 big Dostoyevsky novels are all worth getting stuck into if you've got the time...
6. Little Dorrit: Read the first chapter that begins in a prison in Marseilles. Skip to the end. But definitely read this before Dombey and Son or The Old Curiosity Shop or Hard Times or the steadfastly unfunny Pickwick Papers. My preferred Dickens is the late 3 act masterpiece: Bleak House. 
7. Armadale: Wilkie Collins has been undergoing a revival of late but this isn't the one to start with. The Woman in White, No Name, The Moonstone - stick to those. 
8. From Here To Eternity: Interesting gay subtext, strange nihilistic ending, but James Jones's masterpiece is The Thin Red Line - go get that. Now. 
9. Infinite Jest: DFW's real genius was for writing essays. Read those and you won't regret a minute spent in the great man's company. 
10. War and Peace: The war bits will irritate those of you who like romance. The romance bits will irritate those of you in it for the war. The weird lengthy coda will annoy everyone. Look, I'll be honest I did like this book but if you're pressed for time read Anna Karenina or The Death of Ivan Ilyich or Hadji Murad. 
11. To The Lighthouse - Not really a fan of Woolf but I think Mrs Dalloway is better and sharper than Lighthouse. 
12. A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu: the first 30 pages will give you gist. Trust me.
13. The Harry Potter Series: I think we can all agree now that some kind of collective madness overcame the word in the late 90's when fully grown adults started wearing wizard hats and reading these novels. No one over the age of 14 should really be tackling these. 
14 Dune. I read all 6 Frank Herbert Dune books and a couple of knock offs written by his kid. What the hell was I thinking? Don't get sucked in. 
15. Against The Day. This is not the Thomas Pynchon to begin with. Start thusly: a) Inherent Vice b) Lot 49 c) Gravity's Rainbow d) Vineland e) Bleeding Edge f) Mason & Dixon g) V h) Against the Day.
16. The Heart of Midlothian - Sir Walter Scott hasn't aged that well either although Ivanhoe is still a rollicking good read, isn't it? 
17. A Suitable Boy. I kid. A Suitable Boy is terrific and I won't hear a word against it. I carried it around India with me for two months and it makes a useful stool, a source of emergency toilet or roll up paper and it could be a handy defensive weapon. Its perfect really except for the fact that . . . MAJOR SPOILER ALERT after 1300 pages she HIDDEN TEXT: doesn't actually marry the suitable boy

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Watching The Detectives

a post from 2 years ago
...
A couple of years after I watched Pulp Fiction I read Bell Hooks's impressive critique of the movie where she lambasts Tarantino for his inappropriate appropriation of black culture. Hooks's criticism of Pulp Fiction is angry but entirely logical and smart so when I watched Pulp Fiction again I was prepared to like the movie a lot less. I didn't. When I watched it again I saw that although Hooks's critique works on one level the movie was still a contemporary masterpiece and it was a very interesting experience watching the film from 2 opposing critical perspectives in my own head. This is the Scott Fitzgerald trick of holding two different ideas in your mind at the same time. 
...
I had a similar experience with HBO's True Detective. Before I watched an episode of the show I read Emily Nussbaum's take down of it in the New Yorker magazine. It's a long, pointed review that you can read here, but for me the most important section is this: 

...but, after years of watching “Boardwalk Empire,” “Ray Donovan,” “House of Lies,” and so on, I’ve turned prickly, and tired of trying to be, in the novelist Gillian Flynn’s useful phrase, the Cool Girl: a good sport when something smells like macho nonsense. And, frankly, “True Detective” reeks of the stuff. The series, for all its good looks and its movie-star charisma, isn’t just using dorm-room deep talk as a come-on: it has fallen for its own sales pitch. To state the obvious: while the male detectives of “True Detective” are avenging women and children, and bro-bonding over “crazy pussy,” every live woman they meet is paper-thin. Wives and sluts and daughters—none with any interior life. Instead of an ensemble, “True Detective” has just two characters, the family-man adulterer Marty, who seems like a real and flawed person (and a reasonably interesting asshole, in Harrelson’s strong performance), and Rust, who is a macho fantasy straight out of Carlos Castaneda. A sinewy weirdo with a tragic past, Rust delivers arias of philosophy, a mash-up of Nietzsche, Lovecraft, and the nihilist horror writer Thomas Ligotti. At first, this buddy pairing seems like a funky dialectic: when Rust rants, Marty rolls his eyes. But, six episodes in, I’ve come to suspect that the show is dead serious about this dude. Rust is a heretic with a heart of gold. He’s our fetish object—the cop who keeps digging when everyone ignores the truth, the action hero who rescues children in the midst of violent chaos, the outsider with painful secrets and harsh truths and nice arms. McConaughey gives an exciting performance (in Grantland, Andy Greenwald aptly called him “a rubber band wrapped tight around a razor blade”), but his rap is premium baloney. And everyone around these cops, male or female, is a dark-drama cliché, from the coked-up dealers and the sinister preachers to that curvy corpse in her antlers. “True Detective” has some tangy dialogue (“You are the Michael Jordan of being a son of a bitch”) and it can whip up an ominous atmosphere, rippling with hints of psychedelia, but these strengths finally dissipate, because it’s so solipsistically focussed on the phony duet. Meanwhile, Marty’s wife, Maggie—played by Michelle Monaghan, she is the only prominent female character on the show—is an utter nothing-burger, all fuming prettiness with zero insides. Stand her next to any other betrayed wife on television—Mellie, on “Scandal”; or Alicia, on “The Good Wife”; or Cersei, on “Game of Thrones”; or even Claire, on “House of Cards”—and Maggie’s an outline, too.

These are all good points and largely unassailable. Furthermore, I am not a fan of satanic conspiracy movies or of child abduction/torture books and movies (I hated Girl With A Dragon Tattoo) and I really hate it when the child abduction is connected to a, yawn, satanic conspiracy. (The exceptions here being Ben Wheatley's Kill List and the original Wicker Man.) So you'd have thought I would have despised True Detective on every conceivable level...
...
And yet...I didn't. I loved it. True Detective S1 is a work of high art. The temporal dissonance of the pilot episode was bold and visionary, the dialogue throughout the season was witty, sophisticated and completely authentic (yes skeptical New Yorker readers working class people do in fact talk about big ideas and philosophical concepts), and the Louisiana imagery of the entire season was extraordinary. Nussbaum's point about the female characters is worth saying but a little misplaced because that's not what the show is about, the show is about men - 2 men in particular attempting to cope with a world with no moral centre. The show reminded me of the Thomas Pynchon short story Entropy also set in Louisiana: in both the Pynchon and True Detective we get characters who know that entropy will always win - the universe will end in disorder and nothingness, but here and now in the present we can attempt to impose a little bit of local order on a sea of chaos. We're not holding up a middle finger to God, there is no God and there is no justice, what there is is a little temporary rectangle of order in a bleak rule-less world. The cops in True Detective are existential characters in search of meaning on a planet that has no meaning, but they find an answer in the very quest itself. Yes there's a little Ligotti and Lovecraft in the show (there's not really any Nietzsche) but actually the philosopher who best unravels the characters' journey is Alasdair MacIntyre. You haven't read him have you Emily? Admit it you haven't read Ligotti either. As MacIntyre explains in After Virtue "the man who does what he ought moves steadily towards his fate and his death. It is defeat and not victory that lies at the end. To understand this is itself a virtue, indeed it is the necessary part of courage."
...
Philosophically and visually True Detective is rich and when you add in the extraordinary acting from Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughay and the music from The Handsome Family and T Bone Burnett you get a show that's ambitious, bold and exciting. I watched True Detective the way I rewatched Pulp Fiction with my critical faculties intact and with my antennae up. I watched with 2 different emotions in my brain (emotions is the right word here - remember what Hume said about reason being the slave of the passions). Although I cd see some of Nussbaum's POV ultimately I was much more convinced by the story telling of Nic Pizzolatto - the writer - and ‎Cary Fukunaga - the director. TV programmes aren't supposed to mirror the world, or improve us, or make us better, they're supposed to delight the senses and make the mind think and entertain. The characters delighted my senses and (although I don't think this is entirely necessary) I believed in them because I grew up with people exactly that. It's absurdly condescending to assume that everyone outside of Manhattan is an idiot who dare not attempt to formulate existential questions. 

Unlike Emily Nussbaum I do not find Scandal & The Good Wife and House of Cards to be entertaining. These shows will fade into oblivion and not be remembered or watched 10 years from now. Remember when Frasier was the number 1 comedy in America? That vanishing act is what is going to happen to The Good Wife and Scandal. Those are the true nothing burgers. Nussbaum entirely misses the point of True Detective - this is not a show about families or spunky white collar female professionals or whatever floats her boat; this is a show about maleness and perhaps only men (and maybe Camille Paglia) can truly appreciate the forensic unpacking of its two male leads. True Detective S1 is as good as TV gets and if you can't see that you're just not trying hard enough. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

LA Dreamscape: Inherent Vice, The Big Fix, The Big Lebowski, The Long Goodbye

When did the 1960's end in California? Or more accurately when did the optimistic spirit of the 60's end? With the election of Richard Nixon? With the assassination of Robert Kennedy & Martin Luther King? With the deaths at the free Rolling Stones concert at Altamont? With the murder of Sharon Tate? Whenever it happened the mood in the 1970's was quite different from that of the 60's. The naive hedonism of the baby boomers was cured by Watergate, the oil crisis, recession and defeat in Vietnam. The 70s was a disillusioned cynical age. To be honest I'm not a huge fan of the baby boomers. The Greatest Generation won World War 2 and put a man on the moon but the boomers don't seem to have done much of anything have they? No cure for cancer, no mission to Mars... Still they did give us good movies and the 1970's might well be the greatest decade that there's ever been in American cinema. The other day for a bit of fun I curated a little film festival for myself watching 4 movies set in Los Angeles in the post 60's hangover. 
...
Inherent Vice (2014) dir by Paul Thomas Anderson is based on the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name. Its about the misadventures of a stoner private eye who gets mixed up in a complicated missing persons case after doing a favour for his old lady in and around Manhattan Beach circa 1971. A funny diverting novel has been turned into a kind of dull movie by LA native Anderson. Without a budget to film exteriors this is basically a chamber piece. Joaquin Phoenix does his usual terrific job as the lead and the supporting cast is good but the story bogs down badly in the second act. Paranoia, betrayal, police corruption, the little man fighting the Man are the themes of IV. The film like the book is a shaggy dog story and loses even more momentum in the final act... Still I think its pros weigh just a little more than its cons and its probably the only Pynchon film we are ever going to get...
...
I followed Inherent Vice With The Big Lebowski (1998) which I've watched and written about many times before. Although it is set in 1990 Lebowski is about the 60's generation's attempts to cope with a world that has moved on. I know it divides people but I love this movie and Jeff Bridges's boomer Lebowski is a lot more sympathetic than than the 'goldbricking' blowhard millionaire greatest generation Lebowski. Joel and Ethan Coen have said that the biggest literary influence on Lebowski was Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and you can certainly see what they are talking about: both works are classic visions of Los Angeles and both films follow similar trajectories: a foil gets involved with a disabled rich man, the rich man's daughter, and a runaway from his family who gets mixed up in pornography. Paranoia, police corruption, betrayal, the little man fighting the Man are the themes of TBL. Joel Coen has also said that he was influenced by Robert Altman's 1970's remake of Chandler's The Long Goodbye which I saved for last in my little film festival. Next up however was a film I hadn't seen before: 
...
The Big Fix (1978) was directed by Jeremy Kagan and based on the novel by Roger L. Simon. Richard Dreyfuss plays private detective Moses Wine who gets mixed up in a political corruption scandal connected to the California governor's race. Divorced Dreyfuss's troubles begin with his old lady (very much a move of Vice and Long Goodbye) and get worse as he uncovers the layers of a conspiracy. Moses Wine is a good if unconventional PI who - adorably - brings his kids on various stakeouts because he cant get a baby sitter. This movie doesn't have much of a following on Rotten Tomatoes but I thought it was really good with a kind of low rent Rockford Files vibe. Paranoia, corruption, betrayal, the little man fighting the Man are the themes of TBF. 
... 
Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973) was the last on my list of films. A slightly baked version of Marlowe played by the excellent Elliot Gould drives around a duplicitous (can a landscape be duplicitous?) sun-baked decadent Hollywood encountering the kind of people we meet at Paul Simon's party in Annie Hall (1977) or the rich folk who realise they've been out-generalled by Columbo (which began filming around the same time).  Although largely panned on release The Long Goodbye has aged well. Beautifully filmed, chock full of crazy characters (wearing fantastic early 70's clothes) and reasonably faithful to the book The Long Goodbye is a gem of a movie that captures a time and place to perfection. Chandler purists hate the ending and Gould in the role but I loved this film. Paranoia, betrayal, police corruption, the little man fighting the Man are the themes of TLG.
...
Chinatown (1974) which came out a year after The Long Goodbye wasn't on my little self curated film festival list but you might consider it for yourself. Although it's set in a dreamily shot 1930's it was filmed in the 1970's and shares many of the themes, actors and ideas of the films above. And finally you might also want to check out Cutter's Way (1981) a noir classic filmed in the same milieu. 
...
Hope this little list has given you some ideas for your own 1970s LA movie party as an escape from these troubled times. As always additional suggestions appreciated in the comments below: 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

BBC Culture's Top 100 films of the twenty first century so far...

The BBC polled prominent critics, film historians, writers and directors to come up with a list of the top films of the century so far. I've reproduced the list below. The top of the list is eerily similar to a list of films I came up with in 2009 as my favourites of the decade which you can find here. I've done three things to the raw data of the BBC list to personalise it slightly. If the film is in bold that means I've seen it and thought that it was ok. If there's an * next to the film it means I really liked it. Two ** indicates that I think the film is a masterpiece. If I've put the letter next to the film I'm saying that I think the film may be a bit overrated by the critics at the moment. If its not in bold I'm afraid I havent caught that one yet. Its a bit of a strange list: no Werner Herzog, Kelly Reichardt, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, Roy Andersson, Denys Arcand, Joanna Hogg or Ben Wheatley? What's up with that?

100. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)
100. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
100. Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010)
99. The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda, 2000)
98. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
97. White Material (Claire Denis, 2009)
96. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003) O
95. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)
94. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) **
93. Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007) O
92. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
91. The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan José Campanella, 2009)
90. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)
89. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008)
88. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)
87. Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) *
86. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
85. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009) O
84. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013) O
83. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001) O
82. A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009) O
81. Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)
80. The Return (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2003)
79. Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000) O
78. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)
77. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007)
76. Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003)
75. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014) O
74. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012)
73. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
72. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013) *
71. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012)
70. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)
69. Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015) O
68. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
67. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)
66. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (Kim Ki-duk, 2003)
65. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009) **
64. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
63. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, 2011)
62. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
61. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
60. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)
59. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)
58. Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembène, 2004)
57. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)
56. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, director; Ágnes Hranitzky, co-director, 2000)
55. Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013)
54. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)
53. Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001) O
52. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)
51. Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) O
50. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015)
49. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014)
48. Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015) O
47. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014) *
46. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
45. Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013) O
44. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)
43. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
42. Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)
41. Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015) O
40. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
39. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)
38. City of God (Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002)
37. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
36. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)
35. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
34. Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015) **
33. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) O
32. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006) O
31. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)
30. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003) **
29. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008) O
28. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)
27. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
26. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)
25. ​Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) *
24. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) O
23. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005) O
22. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
21. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014) **
20. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
19. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
18. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009) **
17. Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)
16. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)
15. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
14. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
13. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006) *
12. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007) *
11. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013) **
10. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
9. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
8. Yi Yi: A One and a Two (Edward Yang, 2000)
7. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011) O
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004) O
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) O
4. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001) O
3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) *
2. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000) **
1. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001) **

Sunday, August 21, 2016

An In Flight Michael Shannon Film Fest

So a couple of weeks ago I had to fly from London to Melbourne which is a lovely 20 hour flight. Last year when I did that flight I discovered Fargo S1 and that made the ride quite enjoyable. This year I discovered the films of Michael Shannon. Michael Shannon you'll recall was the best thing about Boardwalk Empire playing a disgraced Revenue Agent. When he and Richard Harrow (the one eyed marksman with half a face) got popped off the spark went out of the show I felt... 
...
The first of Michael Shannon's films I watched was Midnight Special which is a kind of recapitulation of Close Encounters with a bit of ET thrown in for good measure. It's a medium budget movie with big ideas and an ending you're either going to go with completely or be pissed off by. I was in the former category. I liked this movie a lot and Michael Shannon was superb in it playing a father looking out for his troubled son who may or may be not some kind of alien or prophet or kid with superpowers. (Adam Driver is wonderful in the Jeff Goldblum-esque supporting role.) The next Michael Shannon movie I watched was 99 Homes about the mortgage crisis in the US. Again great, moving, intense work from MS and a pretty good story. Next came Elvis Meets Nixon - MS playing Elvis and Kevin Spacey playing Nixon. MS looks nothing like Elvis but he somehow channels the king to deep and moving comic effect. There's a great 70s soundtrack to this film which, oddly, is mostly Motown. This felt like a short film expanded into a feature but somehow that didn't matter so much. It never outstayed its welcome. Batman v Superman came next. When I tell you that Michael Shannon plays a corpse in the movie and its the most convincing performance in the film you'll know that it wasn't a very good movie, but again, Shannon excellent. No more Shannon films on my flight TV alas. 

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Pride & Prejudice, Pride & Prejudice, Pride & Prejudice, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies

Pride And Prejudice (1940). Journeyman director Robert Z Leonard turns in a creditable movie version of the book in this big budget 1940 studio production. The screenplay was partly written by Aldous Huxley (one of an amazing six writers they needed to translate this material to the screen) and is notable for the interesting spin on the character of Lady Catherine de Bourgh towards the end. The parts in the film are well played: Edward Ashley is a suitably villainous Mr Wickham, Greer Garson is a lively Elizabeth Bennet and Maureen O'Sullivan is a radiant Jane Bennet. Greer Garson's look of hatred towards Miss Bingley after she has dissed her family is some of the finest screen acting you'll ever see, but everyone in the cast is playing second fiddle to Laurence Olivier who is an extraordinary Mr Darcy. This is one of Olivier's best early screen roles: he radiates perfect quantities of menace, intelligence and diffidence. I should also mention Edmund Gwenn as a drole Mr Bennet. The movie is let down a little by the costumes by the famous Adrian Greenburg (who et al. in a brilliant career designed Dorothy's shoes for the Wizard of Oz) which are beyond ridiculous and not remotely Regency.

Pride and Prejudice (1995). For an entire generation of people in the UK this BBC mini series is the definitive version of P&P. With a lot more room to breathe (six hours) the characters are fully fleshed and many of the more diverting but easily cuttable bits of the book are left in. Colin Firth is a stolid Mr Darcy and Jennifer Ehle is a charming Elizabeth Bennet. The BBC lavished a lot of money on carriages, country houses and authentic Regency outfits. And nobody puts a foot wrong. And yet. . .Well call it heresy if you want but I don't find Firth all that interesting as Mr D, Adrian Lukis is a timid and unthreatening Mr Wickham and Jennifer's Ehle's Lizzy lacks bite. You cannot complain about Alison Steadman's Mrs B or Andrew Davis's faithful screenplay. 

Pride and Prejudice (2005). Keira Knightley is a spirited, beautiful Elizabeth Bennet with lank hair and dirty boots. Rosamund Pike is a lovely Jane Bennet. Carey Mulligan shines as Kitty Bennet and Jenna Malone and Talulah Riley are great as Lydia and Mary. Simon Woods is an outstanding Mr Bingley playing him as a bit of a nineteenth century Bertie Wooster. Matthew Macfayden is an appropriately dour, broody Mr Darcy almost as good as Olivier's version. Rupert Friend is sinister and scary as Mr Wickham. This is by far the best directed of the three versions I'm reviewing here. There's a tracking shot at the Bingley ball (the second ball in the book if you'll recall) where the camera swings through the action taking in a sad Mr Collins, a humiliated Lizzy, Mary being consoled by her kind father (Donald Sutherland), an ethereal Jane and a happily toasted Mrs Bennet (the superb Brenda Blethyn). The screenplay was written by Debborah Moggach with script doctoring by Emma Thompson (who won an Oscar for her script for Sense and Sensibility). At two hours this is the right length for the story and the humour of the book is excised & reattached with ease. The scene where Mr Collins (Tom Hollander) proposes to Lizzy is one of the funniest you'll ever see. There's also a little more room given to the servants than any of the other versions, which when you read Jo Baker's Longbourn and watch the upcoming BBC version of that superb book you will appreciate. 

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2015). An ok attempt to mix zombification and class into a post apocalyptic romance. Lily James is all right as Lizzy, Sam Riley makes an OK Darcy. Charles Dance is sadly off form as Mr Bennett. Lena Headey steals the show a bit as Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Ok, as Simon Pegg is wont to say, skip to the end: Wickham, a kind of semi-zombie, (Jack Huston) leads a horde of zombies out of London to conquer England but after Lizzy, of course, realises he's a baddie he is stopped by she and Darcy at the Last Bridge. Good cast and a few good ideas but cd have been much better....

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Cartel


a post from last year...
...
Don Winslow's The Power of the Dog was one of the great American crime novels of the last twenty years. Indeed Winslow and James Ellroy so raised the bar of American crime fiction in the early 2000's that every other writer in the genre has been struggling to keep up. You can't get away with weak prose and poor characterisation in US crime writing any more. (If you're a shitty prose writer and you don't care about your characters you should probably write literary fiction - they still tolerate that kind of thing over there.) 

The Power of the Dog told the story of Art Keller a DEA agent fighting the drug wars in the 1970s and 80s particularly in Mexico where he ran afoul of Adan Barrera, the dauphin of the Sinaloa Cartel. Bloody, violent, scary and brilliant The Power of the Dog was not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. But Winslow was not being deliberately sensationalist he was just telling it like it was. 

The Cartel is the sequel to The Power of the Dog which again takes up Art Keller's story. Dog ended with Keller divorced and trying to live in anonymous motels as his various Mexican enemies tracked him down. After Barrera escapes from his prison and resumes his quest to be the patron of patrons of all the cartels in Mexico, Keller is recalled to the life by the DEA. 

The Cartel is a fictionalised account of what's really been happening in Mexico for the last decade and as such it is terrifying. We get to see the Narco wars between the cartels, the corruption of all branches of the Mexican army and police and finally the appearance of the good guys - the Mexican Marines and in particular their special forces unit the untouchable FES. The Cartel isn't so much a crime novel as a war novel and Keller and his comrades are soldiers in that war. If you don't like war novels this probably is not the book for you as there are some pretty strong scenes of combat and violence. My favourite part of the book comes near the end when an old Mexican gentleman named Don Pedro defends his house against the Zeta Cartel, Straw Dogs style...

Keller's character - Catholic, half Mexican, smart, honourable, is brilliantly drawn as is the character of his nemesis the chilly, intelligent, cunning Adan Barrera. Winslow's women are written as well as his men and there are many extraordinarily brave women in the book who are based on real people; indeed The Cartel is a tribute of sorts to the incredibly courageous Dr Maria Santos Gorrostieta (right) who appears, thinly veiled, as Keller's love interest (and who was - in real life - tortured to death by the narcos). 

No novel is without its flaws and I'll admit that I became disheartened by all the murder, mayhem and mutilation in the final third of the novel. But that's part of the point of the book too. The war was relentless. And lest that put you off let me emphasise again, that The Cartel, like The Power of the Dog, is a crime masterpiece. It is being taken very seriously by serious reviewers (that cool image (top above right) is from the New Yorker review.) If there were any justice they'd be giving it the National Book Award or the Pulitzer and at the very least it should get the Edgar next year. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Soji Shimada & Locked Room Mysteries

Two years ago the Guardian asked me to write me an article about locked room mysteries as I'd talked about my favourite classic locked roomers on the radio and a few other places here and there. So I compiled a list of my absolute 10 favourite locked room mysteries and sent it in. Once the original article was published I asked for permission to publish a slightly longer version of the piece on my blog and they said that was ok. So out there in the ether was my original article and the longer blog piece...I kind of forgot all about both until earlier this year when I got an email out of the blue from the Japanese author Soji Shimada who told me something interesting. In my top 10 locked room mysteries piece I had picked as my second favourite locked roomer of all time Mr Shimada's The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, a book which I absolutely loved. Mr Shimada informed me that unfortunately The Tokyo Zodiac Murders had gone out of print in English but because of the interest generated by my article a new English version of the book was being printed by Pushkin Vertigo. Mr Shimada sent me a lovely signed copy and apparently this new version has done very well indeed. So well in fact that the publishers are going to bring out all of his books. I couldn't be more delighted. I loved this novel and I am so thrilled that many more people will get a chance to read it!. Sometimes you try and nudge the general public in a certain direction and nobody takes a blind bit of notice but sometimes it works out the other way too...My original article (the slightly longer version) below (since I wrote this piece I've gone and written another (!) locked room mystery called Rain Dogs):
...
My Ten Favourite Locked-Room Mystery Novels

When I was ten years old I remember the first proper mystery novel that I read. It was a battered paperback of Agatha's Christie early classic Murder on the Orient Express. Orient Express, you’ll recall, is the one where everyone did it, which delighted me no end and I was immediately hooked. I began to work my way through the other Agatha Christies at Belfast Central library and it was probably the sympathetic librarian there who put into my hands The Murders In The Rue Morgue, the first real locked-room mystery that I came across.
     Since Rue Morgue I’ve read dozens of locked-roomers (or ‘impossible murders’ as some prefer to call them) and I have developed firm opinions about the genre. I have no truck whatsoever with the ones that have a supernatural solution or where the author doesn’t give you enough information to solve the case for yourself. Some purists don’t like locked-room problems that involve magician’s tricks (a staple of Jonathan Creek for example) but I’m of the opinion that as long as the mechanics of the trick are explained to the reader (or viewer) well before the solution, these can be permissible.
     A locked-room problem lies at the heart of my new novel, In The Morning I’ll Be Gone in which an RUC detective has to find out whether a publican’s daughter who fell off a table in a bar that was locked from the inside was in fact murdered and if so how. The first thing I had to do was to assure the reader I was not cheating about the facts: the pub was indeed locked and bolted from the inside, there were no secret passages, no concealed rooms and certainly no supernatural element. Then, of course, I had to give the reader all the necessary information so that she or he could solve the case at the same time or before the detective. And by all the information I mean: facts, psychology and motive. When it works you should be able to read a locked-room mystery twice, the second time spotting the clues and seeing how the whole thing fits together and, hopefully, enjoying the iron logic of the solution.
     When a locked-room mystery doesn’t work the solution makes you groan and the book gets hurled across the room. In The Murders In The Rue Morgue an elderly Frenchwoman is killed in a locked room on the fourth floor. The solution – spoiler alert – is that the murder was done by a tame orang-utan who climbed in through the open window with a straight razor. Even at the age of ten I wasn’t happy with that. (I think it was George Orwell who said that the even more ridiculous plot point in Rue Morgue was the idea that an edlerly Parisian lady would go to bed with the window open). More recently The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo found itself flying across my kitchen when I realised that the locked-room problem at its heart (actually a locked island) was a cheat because the reader had been clumsily misinformed about the essential facts.
     The golden age of the locked-room mystery in Anglo-American detective fiction has largely passed but in France Paul Halter has been churning out original impossible murder novels since the mid 1980’s and In Japan the great Soji Shimada virtually invented the Shinhonkaku “logic problem” sub-genre which is still extremely popular today.
     I think there are four elements that make a really good locked-room mystery novel: 1. An original puzzle. 2. An interesting detective and supporting characters. 3. Lively prose. 4. An elegant solution to the puzzle. Mixing classic and contemporary with no supernatural activity allowed these are my ten favourite locked-room/impossible murder novels:

10. The Moonstone (1868) – Wilkie Collins. Rachel Verinder’s cursed Indian diamond ‘The Moonstone’ disappears from her room after her birthday party. This is only a rudimentary locked-roomer, but as the first and still one of the best detective novels it had to be on my list.

9. The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) – John Dickson Carr. Dr. Gideon Fell investigates an alarming number of ‘suicides’ at a remote Scottish castle. The deaths have taken place in locked or completely inaccessible rooms. Dickson Carr was rightly known as the “master of the locked-room mystery” and this entire list could, with some justification, have been made solely from JDC books.

8. And Then There Were None (1939) – Agatha Christie. (Originally published under two equally unfortunate titles.) Eight people with guilty secrets are invited to an isolated island off the coast of Devon where they begin to be murdered one by one. When there are only two of them left the fun really begins.

7. Suddenly At His Residence (1946) – Christianna Brand. In another part of Devon Sir Richard March has been found poisoned in his lodge. A sand covered pathway leading to the lodge is rolled daily by the gardener. Only one set of footprints is found leading to the lodge and they belong to Claire, who discovered the body. A witty and engaging mystery from a writer who was another locked room specialist.

6. The Big Bow Mystery (1892) – Israel Zangwill. Mrs Drabdump’s lodger is discovered with his throat cut, no trace of a murder weapon and no way a murderer could have got in or out. Arguably the first proper locked-roomer and still a classic of the form.

5. The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1908) – Gaston Leroux. Miss Stangerson is found severely injured, attacked in a locked room at the Chateau du Glandier. Leroux provides maps and floor plans showing that a presumptive murderer could not possibly have entered or escaped. Amateur sleuth Joseph Rouletabille has to figure out how the attack was done. Another early classic.

4. The King Is Dead (1951) – Ellery Queen (Frederic Dannay & Manfred Lee). King Bendigo, a wealthy munitions magnate, has been threatened by his brother Judah, who announces that he will shoot King at exactly midnight on June 21st at his private island residence. King locks himself in a hermetically sealed office accompanied only by his wife, Karla. Judah is under Ellery Queen's constant observation. At midnight, Judah lifts an empty gun and pulls the trigger and at the same moment, in the sealed room, King falls back, wounded with a bullet. No gun is found on Karla or anywhere in the sealed room. Furthermore the bullet that wounds King came from Judah’s gun which didn’t actually fire. Good, huh?

3. La Septième hypothèse (1991) – Paul Halter. In pre War London Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Archie Hurst are visited by a man named Peter Moore, secretary to Sir Gordon Miller, a mystery author. According to Moore, Sir Gordon had a strange visitor who gave him a murder challenge. The two men tossed a coin and whoever lost had to commit a murder and try to pin the blame on the other. Peter Moore is subsequently found dead. There are only two possible suspects and both have ironclad alibis. Seven solutions present themselves in this ultra twisty novel.

2. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981) – Soji Shimada. The book begins on a snowy evening in the Shōwa period of pre war Japan. A wealthy artist, Heikichi Umezawa, is finishing up his great cycle of paintings: 12 large canvases on Zodiacal subjects. As he works on the last one his head is smashed in with a blunt object. The studio is locked from the inside and the suspects have alibis. Over the next four decades many of Umezawa’s family members are also gruesomely killed, most in ‘impossible’ ways. Atmospheric and clever with a series of very funny, postmodern asides in which the author repeatedly taunts the reader explaining that all the clues are there for an astute observer.

1. The Hollow Man (1935) – John Dickson Carr. Someone breaks into Professor Grimaud's study, kills him and leaves, with the only door to the room locked from the inside, and with people present in the hall outside the room. The ground below the window is covered with unbroken snow. All the elements are balanced just right in this, the best of Dickson Carr’s many locked-room problems.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

4 More Swimming Pools

st pancras pool is never this empty
I swim wherever I go as its the only real exercise I can do nowadays because of rugby and motorbike knee injuries. (Do yourself a favour and tell your kids not to ride motorbikes or play rugby past their twenties.) So I've become a bit of a swimming pool, lake and swimming pond expert. This is my third post on this subject. Apologies if this is the most boring thing in the world to read...

4 more swimming pools reviewed from my recent trip to the UK, Ireland and back...

1. Singapore Airport Pool. This used to be a great little pool on the roof of a short stay hotel at Singapore Airport. Located right overlooking the runways there was a swim up bar and deck chairs and the best part was that it was always completely empty. So empty in fact that you cd always sneak in without paying and have a quick swim between long haul flights (I did this many times.) But then Anthony Bourdain opened his big mouth and now its always packed with the kind of people who love Anthony Bourdain who (with the exception of course of Dan Woodrell & Ian Rankin) can be a bit hard to take sometimes.

2. St Pancras Leisure Centre Pool. Right behind St Pancras station another hidden gem in the heart of London. A couple of quid and you are in clear blue water swimming laps either clockwise or anti-clockwise with local elderly eccentrics, the occasional beardy hipster swimming butterfly, earnest young women doing the crawl and the odd disgraced geography teacher with a moustache and combover just hanging out creepily in the shallow end.

3. Harrogate Hydro Pool. Walkable from just about everywhere in Harrogate. Its the place to be when the temperature shoots up into the 20's. (Yes, I'm being sarcastic here, I do live in Melbourne you know.) Three pools: an eight-lane 25m short-course competition standard swimming pool; multi-purpose activity pool with moving floor and a training pool for our learners. Usually all very empty in the mornings which is perfect. Men and women get changed in the same place which can be awkward but a scone and a cup of tea at the cafe costs less than 3 quid which cant be beat.

4. Carrickfergus Leisure Centre Pool. Back here again. Lovely pool overlooking a lake and bird sanctuary. Full of crazy people swimming "widths" and if you swim too slowly people think you want to chat. Love this place. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Stranger Things

Stranger Things is an 8 part series from Netflix which is part homage part rip-off of Stand By Me, ET and Stephen King's It. Like ET its set in the early 80s and begins with a bunch of geeky boys playing Dungeons and Dragons. (We don't get to see much of the campaign or even what alignments and races the player characters are. I suspect that the writers of the show weren't real D&D players and the whole D&D stuff is merely a metaphor.) Anyway a girl breaks out of a high security nearby nuclear lab and at the same time one of the group of boys goes missing. Spoiler alert the girl's a government kidnap victim who has mind control powers and has used her remote viewing ability to tear a rift into another version of Earth where monsters live. The monsters can come through the rift and they do that to kidnap one of the male leads and kill the plain girl who is best friends with the pretty female lead. What the critics have loved is the period feel and the mood of the show and that stuff is great. Teen boys in rural America in the 80s having adventures a la Stand By Me, Goonies, Gremlins, etc. is a beloved premise and throw in dark high school stuff and you've got cult classic Heathers as well. Speaking of Heathers Winona Ryder is in it as is another 80s icon, Private Joker, Matthew Modine. These two stars of the period help complete the nostalgia trip as does a great synth score. The show is very good if you like build up and atmosphere and the kids are great. Little kids are almost always terrible in TV shows or movies but they're not in Stranger Things (they weren't in ET or Stand By Me either). The show is not without flaws and these are manifested, like Twin Peaks, in a weak third act arc to the season. Episodes 7 and 8 seem rushed and to be honest not very well thought through in terms of logic or character development. I recently read a book with a similar rip-in-spacetime-that-allows-monsters-through idea called The Fold by Peter Clines which had a much better way of resolving everything in the third act. 
...
Still nice visuals, good soundtrack, good enough story, the return of every single 80's boy's crush, Winona Ryder, so in general this was a pleasing enough little sci-fi horror series. Throw in some car bombs and the odd riot and the first 15 minutes of the pilot is basically my life in the 80s half on the edge of Belfast half on the edge of the Irish countryside playing D&D, listening to the Clash, riding my chopper bicycle through the woods...

Monday, August 1, 2016

3 Shortlists for Rain Dogs....

Rain Dogs has just been shortlisted for the 2016 Ned Kelly Award and the 2016 CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award. This is the first time in 10 years I've made the Ian Fleming Award shortlist and I'm really honoured to be on the Ned Kelly shortlist again. Rain Dogs was also shortlisted for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award but I didn't win that one...Anyway the point is I'm up for several big time awards for what it is clearly one of my better efforts, so for God's sake people, look for this book! It's the only book to be on the Theakston Crime Novel of the Year shortlist, the Dagger shortlist and the Ned Kelly shortlist. Seriously, give it a chance. It's got a nice, punchy short title and there's a doggy on the cover...
...
the dagger shortlist: 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

When Writers Cop Out

So I'm on the plane back from London to Melbourne and I'm watching Deutschland '83 which is about an East German agent infiltrating NATO command in yup, 1983...I'm watching episode 4 and our young, handsome Soviet agent has compromised a NATO General's secretary by leaving a bug under her desk which has been discovered by a cleaner. The agent's handler tells him to recruit the secretary or kill her. He takes her swimming and thinks about letting her drown in the river when she gets cramp but instead he saves her tells her he loves her and then explains that he's a Stasi agent. She thinks things over and decides to run away. He catches up with her in the woods. This is where the writers copped out and I stopped watching the show. Instead of having him kill her, she gets killed sort of accidentally by running in front of a car. Our hero is robbed of his moral choice by a Deus Ex Machina BMW. The writers did this because they thought we would lose sympathy for our hero if he kills the plain, decent, nice secretary.* In other words the writers don't respect you or me the viewer. They don't think we're intelligent enough to have two conflicting emotions in our head at the same time: revulsion at our hero's actions, but interest in seeing what happens to him next. Funnily enough almost exactly the same thing happened in The Crying Game 23 years ago. The writer, Neil Jordan, didn't actually have the IRA man kill the captured British soldier...instead after a run through the woods he is knocked down and killed by a big Deus Ex Machina Land Rover. Neil Jordan was afraid we wouldn't be able to watch the rest of the movie if Forrest Whittaker was actually shot in the head execution style the way the IRA actually killed all their captured British soldiers and policeman. 
...
Bizarrely almost exactly the same death happened in another German production The Lives of Others - woman tormented by Stasi runs out of apartment and is killed by a tram. This, folks, is utter bullshit. Alfred Hitchcock knew this was bullshit 50 years ago when he had that scene in Psycho where Marion's car momentarily doesn't sink in the swamp as Norman Bates tries to get rid of the evidence. We are deliciously on Norman's side with our heart in our mouths as the car sits there in the quicksand not sinking...this despite the fact that we hate Norman Bates for what he's done to the lovely Janet Leigh. Hitchcock knew that audiences are capable of holding several different emotions in our heads at the same time loving and hating the hero protagonist. We're not dumb we'll still watch the movie if the hero makes some terrible moral choices. Indeed our hero wrestling with his or her morality is what makes books and movies interesting in the first place. Just read a Graham Greene novel some time - that's what they're all about and they're bloody fascinating. An unconflicted hero is boring. Unlike the rest of the world I never dug The Shawshank Redemption precisely because there was no actual redemption - Andy was innocent and virtuous all the way through...Ugh. 
...
So yeah don't let writers pull that crap on you and call that shit whenever you see it. You need to be treated with more respect than that. Deutschland '83 you lost me as a viewer when you treated me like an idiot...

*I knew she was doomed, by the way, because she wasn't as pretty as the other female lead on the show. I've been watching Stranger Things and it does the same thing: killing the plainer female characters but letting the prettier ones live...this is some more bullshit right here but that's a discussion for another day...