Sunday, 10 December 2017

Murder in the Wind by John D. MacDonald

My survey of the work of the great American writer John D. MacDonald continues. 

MacDonald got his start in the pulp magazines and in some ways the title of this book is the  last gasp of the pulp mentality. It would have sat happily on the contents page of any of those lurid publications.

But the book itself is vastly beyond the standards of pulp. It interweaves the narratives of a group of disparate (and sometimes desperate) characters who are thrown together when a hurricane hits Florida.

The story begins menacingly with the origins of the storm out in the Caribbean: "The flat sea had the look of a blue mirror on which warm breath had been blown, misting it." As the hurricane develops we are introduced to the protagonists.

They are vividly and economically presented and I felt I was reading about real people until I came upon Malden, a ludicrously phony spy in a ludicrously phony spy subplot. He is described at one point as the "big man with the face of silence"; the big man with the face of bullshit, more like. 

This is the only strand that doesn't ring true. Which is odd, because MacDonald really did work in intelligence during the war. But no matter, Malden plays a tiny part in the proceedings and any weakness in his strand is buried in the general splendour of the novel.

MacDonald's powers of observation, and his sardonic asides, are as acute as usual — "Hal turned the radio off after two bars of hillbilly anguish" — as his characters travel along the roads of Florida through "the hard roar of the rain" to rendezvous with their fate: "The miles ran fleetly under the fat wet wheels of the car."

But it is in his account of the hurricane itself where MacDonald truly excels. The various travellers meet when they come to a blocked bridge and can go no further, and they're forced to take refuge in an abandoned house. 

Here he describes the "the claw and tug and pull of the wind" as they fight their way towards it, the "small wild sounds, fill of a supersonic shrillness" in the empty rooms. Once inside, there's still no true safety. "A great hand pushed against the house." 
And there is the "odd thudding sound that was making the whole house tremble" like "a home built near the tracks of a railroad where a train went endlessly by."

The wind almost becomes a character in its own right — "this monstrous roaring thing." "Within the constant screaming he could hear various soft lost sounds—thumpings and crashings and flappings as though outside there was some great sad imprisoned animal that fought dully for release." There is "a deep note in the heart of it like the constant bowing of a string on a bass."

Because the hurricane coincides with a high tide, there is enormous flooding. One of our protagonists feels "the Gulf was coming in after him." And their ramshackle shelter floods and fills... "When the house shook the tremor of the walls made ripples that met in the middle of the room. In the faint light the water looked black, oily."

The story culminates when some violent young thugs among our group of refugees decide that it is the perfect moment to commit robbery at knife point. 

This act of deliberate human violence in the heart of the hurricane is particularly ugly and disturbing and effective (quite unlike that bit in the movie Titanic when they're racing around fighting over the diamonds).
The robbery attempt goes horribly wrong, and the most hateful of the young thugs decides he's going to leave the flooded house and try and swim to safety. Powerful currents sweep him along until he manages to grab onto some trees. 

He shares this precarious refuge with "two soaked miserable raccoons" in the branches above him. But the murderous thug gets what's coming to him. The roots of one of the trees gives way and it traps his leg against the trunk of the other one, as the water continues to inexorably rise...

"The trees were as unmovable as pillars of concrete" — MacDonald gets the meaning into the reader's brain with perfect precision. And the thug drowns... 

"When both trees went slowly down together, he was released and the current moved the body inland. The two raccoons swam sturdily towards other refuge, eyes alert in the bandit face."

John D. MacDonald is an astonishingly good writer. He is so good he makes me quietly smile and put the book down and write notes for this post.

(Image credits: These are all scanned from my own library — the Dell with the George Gross cover art, the Dell with the Bob Abbett art and the blue Fawcett with the Bob McGinnis art — except for the green Fawcett edition with the Bob McGinnis art which is from Good Reads.)

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Murder on the Orient Express by Green and Christie

Like a temperamental old locomotive restored and overhauled, this year's Murder on the Orient Express is hesitant, shaky and slow to get going. 

But once it's in motion it begins to perform gratifyingly... and it definitely gets us to our desired destination.

Based on a classic mystery novel by Agatha Christie, the story has already been adapted into an excellent film back in 1974, directed by Sidney Lumet, with a script by Paul Dehn, the backbone of the first Planet of the Apes franchise, and Anthony Shaffer, who wrote Sleuth.

This version is directed by Kenneth Branagh (who also plays Christie's hero, the detective Hercules Poirot) and has a script by Michael Green. 

Green is an interesting writer, with extensive television experience and some recent high profile feature film credits. He was involved in both the terrible Alien: Covenant and the wonderful Blade Runner 2049

Michael Green has made a number of changes to the original. The new movie begins with Poirot swiftly solving a high profile case — a sort of mystery in miniature — in Jerusalem. This isn't a bad idea, setting up the detective hero and his shtick at the outset of the film. I just felt it was done rather clumsily.

And Poirot has been given a trusty cane which he wields for numerous purposes. This heightens his resemblance to a comic book super hero with his gimmick and a set of "super powers" which are set up by that mini story at the beginning.

He's also been given an obsession with symmetry which seems utterly irrelevant until the end of the film when the detective has to decide — in a surprisingly moving scene — if he can allow the scales of justice to tilt to one side.

Green's script is often funny — there's a startling early scene with a cheerfully unabashed prostitute and her client — and he has the good sense not to mess too much with the essential Agatha Christie plot, which is very clever and which I have no intention of spoiling by revealing here.

The movie is produced, but not directed, by Ridley Scott, and although I am often harsh in my judgements on Scott, there is no question about his astonishing visual ability as a film maker. I rather missed his presence at the helm on several occasions here — I doubt he would have sanctioned the cheesy and unconvincing CGI (for example, of period Istanbul).

And Branagh isn't great at staging action. There were some incidents when I couldn't even tell what was going on, and one long tracking shot just didn't work for me (we're outside the train looking in, so having the dialogue from inside play over the scene felt rather odd).

But where Branagh really scores is as a magnificent director of actors, and he has assembled a superb cast of them here. They're not the big names, either. Josh Gad plays a flunky to Johnny Depp's gangster. I'd never heard of Gad before, but he has a monologue in the movie which is so superbly performed that it should be screened in every acting school in the world.

Daisy Ridley impresses, as well, showing how far her range extends beyond the Star Wars franchise (in which she was great, incidentally). But again I was knocked out by a less well known name — Lucy Boynton. She plays a drug addicted countess here and she only has one brief monologue, but it's searingly vivid and convincing.

An amazing cast, and Branagh has drawn the best out of them. His Poirot moustache is truly horrid, but then that's sort of essential for the character. And Green's script cleverly makes reference to other classic Christie Poirot cases. At the end, the detective sets off to begin the next investigation...

And for once the prospect of a sequel is entirely welcome. Here's hoping Branagh and Green will have Hercules Poirot back on our screens soon. 

(Image credits: No shortage of suspects at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Ending Up by Kingsley Amis

Kingsley Amis was one of the most gifted of British novelists and he remains a firm favourite of mine. His career began with the resounding success of the riotous Lucky Jim in 1954.

Ending Up comes from 20 years later and has a very different mood to it. Lucky Jim was bright, optimistic, fizzing with energy and all about beginnings — setting off on the adventure of adult life.

As the title suggests, Ending Up is at the other end of things. It's about a collection of oldsters (a classic Amis term) who share a rather shambolic house called Tuppenny-hapenny Cottage where they are going to finish their confused, cantankerous, careworn days together.

This may sound like boring or depressing material but in fact the book is addictively, effortlessly readable and grips like a thriller. 

In his excellent biography of Amis, Zachary Leader accurately describes Ending Up as "a feast of malice and ill humour, one of the best and most artfully constructed of Amis's novels." 

Leader also has some interesting things to say about the real world sources of Amis's fictional characters in this book, such as his mother-in-law Kit Howard, an unlikable woman if ever there was one. Amis described walking past her room as "shooting the rapids" — like everyone else, he was scared of being called inside.

Amis was living in a house in Hertfordshire with Kit, his wife Jane, her brother Colin, and the painter Sargy Mann. At one point Jane idly wondered what it would be like if they all stayed there and grew old together... Kingsley Amis took note of the idea and Ending Up was conceived.

And very carefully conceived, too. Amis devised a meticulous plan for his story. which included 45 "ways to be annoying," all of which appear in the novel. He also drew floorplans of Tupenny-hapenny cottage and sketched a rudimentary timeline.

But it's in his carefully drawn characters where Amis really excels. Some of them are indeed annoying, but his central figure Bernard is pure evil. 

I suppose you could merely say he's a complete bastard, but I think that fatally understates the case. Bernard lives to torment the other inhabitants of the house. He is terminally ill, and knows it, but this in no way excuses his behaviour or softens the reader's attitude to him. (At least, not this reader's.)

So it is a tribute to Amis's considerable talent that he actually makes us feel sympathy for Bernard towards the end of the book.

But this emotional reaction was nothing compared to my utter delight when one of his evil schemes was thwarted. (Bernard was trying to deprive George, a bedridden invalid, of the beloved dog who keeps him company. I told you he was pure evil.)

Oddly, it is Marigold who foils George. I say oddly because Marigold, who was based on Kit Howard, is a dotty old racists with her own bizarre idiom (she refers to "blacks" — black people — as "blackle packles", for instance).

The other denizens of the house are the brave and resourceful George, felled by a stroke and struggling to overcome it; the alcoholic but likable Shorty and the hardworking, unappreciated and unloved Adela (a cruelly reimagined version of Amis's then wife, the distinguished novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard).

Adela is Bernard's sister and he is particularly nasty where she's concerned: "He limped off to the kitchen in confident hope of an opportunity to ridicule and distress her."

In case this suggests that the book is a downer and too negative, let me quickly reassure you. It's actually hilarious, full of classic Amis moments:

"Eighteenth-century timber-frame was what she called the style of the house when asked, and sometimes when not." 

"Outside the sun was shining on various items of vegetation."  

" 'Yes,' said Tracy. She thought for a moment and added, 'Yes.' " 

And then there's Tracy's horror at the thought of old people "fucking like a stoat at over seventy"...

In his valuable introduction to the New York Review Books edition, Craig Dickson describes how "Throughout his oeuvre, irritation plays on the Amis landscape like sun on sea." 

There's much more here than irritation here, though, or even brilliant comedy. 

The ending of the book is a breathtakingly succinct multiple tragedy in which Amis dispatches his characters in a few short pages as if a savagely avenging fate had come calling for them.

This terse, dark, hilarious little book is a masterpiece.

(I've also posted about these other novels by Kingsley Amis: That Uncertain Feeling, I Like it Here, Take a Girl Like You and The Anti-Death League.)

(Image credits: The cover of the New York Review Books edition is my scan of my own copy. The other covers — including the Czech language one featuring an image of Amis himself — are from Good Reads. Thank you, Good Reads.)

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Happy Death Day by Scott Lobdell

Well, this was a complete surprise... I only went to see the movie because (a) it was on at the right time to fit in with something else and (b) it was ending its run yesterday.

And also, and I suppose crucially, because I'm always up for a horror film, in the vain hope that it might be a good one. And this was.

Basically it's Groundhog Day re-purposed as a slasher movie. Every morning our heroine Tree Gelman (played by Jessica Rothe) wakes up and lives through the same day, which culminates in her being killed by a masked assailant.

She has to work out who her killer is, and thereby break the time-loop and resume her life. This is a perfectly workable premise for a horror movie, indeed it's a pretty nifty one. It's only demerit is that it's such a clear ripoff of Groundhog Day.

But it gets around this, and garners lots of brownie points, by openly acknowledging the influence ("You've never seen Groundhog Day?"). 

I also really liked it because it has a story twist which was both unexpected and satisfying — tying up a bunch of loose-ends in the plot which I thought they were going to leave dangling.

Jessica Rothe is terrific. At first I didn't like her, but I was just making the rookie error of confusing the actress with the character she played. Tree Gelman is very unlikable, and Rothe does a great job of making this believable.

But as Tree's plight continues, her behaviour changes, and we warm to her — and Rothe gets to demonstrate the range of her talent.

The movie is written by Scott Lobdell who has a background in scripting Marvel comics, and TV animation series. He's done an excellent job here as has the director, Christopher Landon, who's done a lot of work (as a writer as well as a director) on the Paranormal Activity series.

These guys have come up with a very clever device: the movie is set at Bayview University (actually Loyola, New Orleans) and the football team is called the "Bayview Babies" and fans wear these cartoon baby-face masks.

The killer adopts one of these, and it's mega-creepy.

The movie has its flaws. I mean, it's set in America, so all Tree has to do to defeat her killer is go down to the nearest gun shop and buy an assault rifle with her credit card and blow him to hell... but I'm willing to suspend my disbelief here.

Because it's an imaginative, fun little movie. And it has the best title sequence I've seen in a long time (which plays at the end of the film).

If you're a fan of horror movies, especially ones with an element of comedy, then I think you'll enjoy this. I'm only sorry I didn't see it in time to recommend it for Halloween.

(Image credits: Not a happy day at Imp Awards, where I could only find two posters, the birthday cake and the baby mask with the cupcake and candle. So I had to ransack IMDB for the excellent black and white portrait of Jessica Rothe by Jan-Willem Dikkers. And then I found the rather nice comic-art style poster by Matt Robot is from Poster Spy. The nice knife = candle one by Alex CPS is also from Poster Spy. I think both these Poster Spy efforts are better than the official one. The DVD cover, which I think is also unofficial is from Cover City.)

Sunday, 12 November 2017

The Snow Man by Straughan, Nesbø et al

I've heard a number of interviews with Jo Nesbø and he's a smart, funny guy and clearly very talented. Having had one successful career as a rock musician, he commenced another one as a massively bestselling novelist.

But (and you knew there was a but coming...) I read his novel The Snowman and felt I'd wasted my time. The book features Harry Hole, a cliché embittered alcoholic cop with a trail of broken relationships, and pits him against a cliché sub-Thomas Harris serial killer.

I remember thinking that if I was going to read police procedurals I would have been a lot better off working my way through the writing of George Simenon, who is a genuine artist.

But poor novels often make excellent movies. And when I learned that The Snowman was to be directed by Tomas Alfredson, I had high hopes. Alfredson made Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, one of my favourite films of all time.

And he is an extraordinary film maker, attacking every scene with the intention of deepening its emotional impact and its meaning and elevating it to art. Alfredson clearly cares profoundly about creating real characters and a unique atmosphere to his films, instilling every shot with poetry.

But here his talent is utterly wasted. The movie looks great, with ravishing photography by Dion Beebe (Edge of Tomorrow), superbly effective music by Marco Beltrami and a fresh and interesting cast led by Michael Fassbender, looking great but smoking rather too much as Harry Hole.

But the problem is the script. The team of writers here is impressive, too. It's led by Peter Straughan who worked on Tinker, Tailor and recently adapted Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall for BBC Television. Also involved was Hossein Amini who recently did a fine job on Our Kind of Traitor (another John le Carré adaptation), and Søren Sveistrup, who created the Nordic noir classic TV serial The Killing.

So, a talented team. And they have radically altered the original novel, in much the same way that Scott Frank altered Lawrence Block's Walk Among the Tombstones — and with equally little success.

The story is now often quite different from the book.  It's bloody complicated, but it still doesn't work. And there are some ridiculous failings in the script. For a start, Harry is ineffectual and unlikable.

And we're supposed to be emotionally invested in — wait for it — Harry's ex-girlfriend's teenage son. Seriously.

The movie puts this kid into peril and expects us to be on the edge of our seats. But there's worse to come...

At the very end of the film the bad guy is dealt with in a deus ex machina fashion — he falls through thin ice into a freezing lake, while our hero looks helplessly on.

Come on chaps — this violates one of the cardinal commandments of screenwriting: "Thou shalt not take the resolution out of the hands of your hero."

Before that there's a final fight between Harry and the bad guy, the latter wielding a kind of electronic garrotte device which has to be the least useful and least frightening weapon ever devised for close quarters combat.  

And here Alfredson has to take some of the blame, too, because this fight is so confusingly shot that we have no idea that Harry gets his finger chopped off, presumably by the silly garrotte machine.

This is only made clear in a coda in which, ridiculously, Harry is seen tapping a coffee cup with his new metal finger as he volunteers for a new case against another harrowing psycho killer.

But don't worry. That sequel won't be coming your way any time soon.

(Image credits: not exactly a blizzard of posters, courtesy of Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 5 November 2017

The Drowner by John D. MacDonald

Ah, now... this is one of my all time favourite John D. MacDonald novels and if you're thinking of dipping into the master's work, it's an excellent starting point.

It's a murder mystery, but a vividly different one. In its device of an insurance investigator for a hero it recalls The Brass Cupcake, although in this case our hero, Paul Stanial, is a private eye using the ruse of an insurance investigation to cover his real task.

He has been hired by the sister of a woman, Lucille Hanson, who drowned under mysterious circumstances. The description of the drowned Lucille has eerie echoes of All These Condemned

And the sequence where her drowning is recounted from a god's-eye point of view is reminiscent of a scene in Hannibal by Thomas Harris where the reader is invited to creep into Hannibal's lair and observe the monster at rest...

But Lucille's sister isn't buying the notion of accidental death, and she's right not to...

So she hires Stanial to find out what really happened at that isolated lake on a hot, silent afternoon.

MacDonald expertly evokes the "noontime simmer of May in Florida" outdoors and the "cold clinical breath of the air-conditioning" inside. Later the sound of the air conditioning in his motel makes our hero "feel as if the room were in transit, on some strange vehicle moving steadily through the night."

It's in his characterisation where MacDonald really scores, though. Lucille's lover (and a suspect in her murder) Sam Kimber, is one of his finest creations. He's a ruthless man who's grown rich from dodgy land deals and has good reason to grin with a "wicked amiability." 

And then there's Shirley Feldman the university student, all of 19 years old, who is sleeping with Lucille's ex-husband. She is a great character, vain and pretentious: "Does it sound too impossible for me to say I have a much better mind?"

Or Betty Schaud, a secretary, who has "all the social charm of the attendant in the gas chamber." 

Or Kelsey Hanson, Lucille's lunk of an ex husband who "made love as if he was trying to get a berth on the olympic team."

But most of all, the villain of the piece, Angie Powell is a fabulous invention. (We learn quite early on that Angie is the killer, and move from mystery to suspense, so this isn't a spoiler.)

Angie is a gorgeous young woman, "a wide screen projection of a girl." Healthy, smart, athletic and hard working she's a fixture in her local bowling team and a regular church goer.

She's also a monster, created by the horrific abuse wreaked upon her in childhood by her religious fanatic of a mother — who, in fairness, is the real monster, I guess.  But it's Angie who kills, and then kills again and again, to cover her tracks.

Angie is an amazing creation. And I strongly suspect that she and her hideous mother were the direct inspiration for Carrie White and her horrid mom in Stephen King's Carrie.
In praising MacDonald's characterisation so extensively I don't want to suggest there's any weakness in the plotting or the narrative here. The novel moves with impressive and startling swiftness — making adroit and extensive use of dialogue (and correspondence) to tell the story.

I love the way MacDonald relates his tale through a variety of techniques, from a multiplicity of viewpoints. (Don't try this at home unless you're a very skilled, experienced or gifted writer.)
I really can't fully convey how terrific a novel this is without revealing so much that I'll spoil the experience of reading it. So instead I'll just urge you to do that — read it.

And end on the sobering observation that John D. MacDonald wrote dozens of such books, in the form of disposable mass market paperbacks. And that the creation of such agreeably compact masterpieces of popular fiction seem to be a lost art form.

(Image credits: The Cosmopolitan magazine cover (featuring the original serialisation of the novel) is from the wittily named Ephemera Forever. The book covers are from Good Reads.)

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Thor: Ragnarok by Pearson, Kyle and Yost

Okay, I feel I owe you an apology. Because here I am again writing about another silly Marvel comic book movie. Believe me, I didn't want to...

But the damned things have been so good lately. The film makers have hit a sweet spot balancing humour and thrills. 

And the result is a long run of Marvel adaptations which have been fresh and imaginative (Doctor Strange,  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spiderman: Homecoming have been three recent examples).

And Thor: Ragnarok is no exception. As a matter of fact it won me over almost completely in just the first few moments. Because it's funny. Genuinely, richly, warmly funny.

Which is not to say it fails to deliver on thrills, suspense and occasionally very dark happenings. But humour is always an option, whether an evil superbeing has his big speech undercut by misbehaving equipment or the God of Thunder is ticked off because people keep getting his title wrong.

Since I'm a writer myself this blog tends to be writer-centric. But due credit must be given here to the director of Thor: Ragnarok, one Taika Waititi, a New Zealander who was responsible for a very amusing 2014 faux-documentary about vampires (with a few werewolves thrown in) called What We Do in the Shadows.

No doubt Waititi's knack for comedy is a major reason that the new Thor movie is so good. But we should also acknowledge the three credited writers — Eric Pearson who worked on the Agent Carter TV show and Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost who co-created the animated Iron Man: Armoured Adventures TV series. Yost was also one of the writers credited on the second Thor movie, The Dark World.

Where Thor: Ragnarok really scores, though, is in its fine cast. Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Tom Hiddleston as Loki have already established their value. But this time around they are joined by an eccentric Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster, who provides a lot of the movie's fun.

But it is Tessa Thompson (last seen by me in Veronica Mars) who really delights as a drunken Valkyrie, who is so soused that she falls over when she makes her grand entrance. Mark Ruffalo — when he's not a big green Hulk — is charmingly smitten with her, and one can only sympathise.

Balancing the comedy is Cate Blanchett who as Hela pulls off the difficult task of making an evil super villain effective instead of silly. She is chillingly weird and dangerous, with just a subtle hint of humour.

So there you have it. Another Marvel movie which is well worth a look. My only complaint is that we never got to see Hela ride her giant Fenris wolf.

(Image credits: the posters are from Imp Awards, where Tessa Thompson as the Valkyrie is disappointingly under-represented.)