There’s always something appealing about a freewheeling approach to fiction. It starts off with impetus, bowling along once it has established momentum and, unless something with powerful stopping power gets in its way, it just keeps on a-running. So it was with Bloodshot, the first in The Cheshire Red Reports. Now here comes Hellbent by Cherie Priest. This time we find ourselves in the calm before the storm as Raylene Pendle settles into new premises, and watches with relief and approval as Ian assumes an interest in the waifs who no longer stray quite as much. It’s distracting him from the events of the first novel and providing some stability in the lives of the “kids”.
With the picture of domesticity established, Raylene picks up a job which her instinct tells her is not going to be as easy as her handler would have her believe. And so it is as we watch her walk into her first encounter with what will prove to be a magician of considerable ability. During her escape from indirect attack, she has the chance to acquire another orphan, this time of the feline variety. It seems she’s obsessed with the idea of leaving no-one (human or animal) behind on the battlefield. Now we get into a three-pronged narrative in which she continues to search for the missing box of bacula (the plural of baculum for those who want to look it up), a “murder mystery”, and helping our kick-ass drag queen in the continuing search for his missing sister.
All this involves us flitting from one city to another as we slowly work our way down the shopping list. In the end, we have some of the bacula, an identity for the killer, a sister, another stray, and a probable future collaborator. Several jobs well done, you may say, and indeed it proves so. Hellbent has a slightly more laid-back approach. Bloodshot was more on the serious side with many of the developments coming so thick and fast we arrived at the end feeling somewhat breathless. This is slightly more formulaic because, with only two of the characters on display and better known, we can focus on their situation rather than trying to work them out as people. That said, I do have vague unhappiness. The bacula sequence feels like a bolt-on to establish elements for the third in the series and I’m never happy when an element like the sister has to depend so obviously on coincidence for resolution. For me, it would have been better to focus on the supposed murder and find the sister in a more proactive way. As it stands, this strikes me as lazy plotting to hit a word count. Having had fun with the bacula, that element just stops in its tracks and the sister becomes a dea ex machina to facilitate the escape from Atlanta. This latter feels like a Lionel Fanthorpe ending. He used to write books to a word count and a deadline. When caught short, he would finish with the desperation of a juggler about to drop all the balls. Hellbent is more leisurely that most of the Fanthorpes, but it still feels contrived.
I know we reviewers are supposed to take the book as we find it and not as we would like it to be, yet there’s an additional circumstance to take into account. Curiously, this was only a two-book deal. Publishers have been getting a wee bit more cautious as Amazon flexes its muscles and tries to convince the world it’s in a dominant position. With Borders going belly up and the other brick-and-mortar booksellers struggling in difficult market conditions, we’ll have to wait and see whether Ballantine Spectra shells out for another two (or more) in this series. In this situation, I think Cherie Priest should have left things poised with the arrival of the sister. This would have allowed us a much better development of a rather better mystery element and the political situation between the vampire houses could have been explored in more detail. We could then have had the bacula in volume three should more dollars be forthcoming. Nothing need be wasted. This would have allowed us more time to understand cause and effect, particularly on the question of the earthquake as it affects current and past realities.
So, overall, Hellbent is an entertaining read which develops our understanding of this version of reality. That I think it could have been better is, in a way, a tribute to Cherie Priest. If I had been indifferent, I would simply have put the book back on the shelf and begun the next. But I was sufficiently interested to take the time to analyse the source of my dissatisfaction. For me, she remains an author to watch and my advice to Ballantine is that it should pick up the contract for more in this series.
For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
Those Who Went Remain There Still
Well, here we are in sequel land, and with more zombies. Although, in this case, only the best zombies need apply for admission. Following on the success of Feed, here comes Mira Grant (pseudonym of Seanan McGuire) with Deadline (Book II of the Newsflesh Trilogy). Stands back for a slightly ragged cheer to rise from the ranks of the massed fans. We were all impressed by the first. Indeed, it’s in the running for a Hugo Award so we’re not alone in thinking this was something special. Our months of waiting are over and we can dive into this thick mass market paperback. This produces an immediate groan. Not, you understand, because a zombie has just sashayed into view and is asking for a quick nibble. But because really long books run the risk of being padded out. The bean counters who have a lot of say in the publishing word want more pages for the bucks of their advances. That way, they can sell the public on the more-means-better marketing approach. Never mind the quality, feel the weight.
And the moment we launch into this sequel, our worst fears are realised. This must be the slowest of slow-burner starts in the history of sequel writing. Instead of starting off clean with a two page summary of what we’ve forgotten about the first, we get into a whole rewrite of the first book spread out over the first fifty pages. It’s immensely tedious and not a little annoying. This goes hand-in-hand with some really weird shit. I know I must have read a first-person narrative starring a hero who’s as mad as a box holding two frogs. I’ve read so many thousand books before. This can’t be a first with a schizo who has fully realised conversations with his dead stepsister (in third-person terms, it’s a bit like Harvey Dent who talks things though with himself rather than just flipping a coin). Indeed, towards the end, our hero Shaun is hallucinating she’s in the same room with him and actually touching him. Talk about someone who’s out of his tree and running around in the long grass looking for his psychotic break. This should be the ultimate unreliable narrator except this figment of his imagination keeps giving him very sane advice. Essentially, George, the dead stepsister, keeps him alive and functioning. This is a lot for us to get our head round (or perhaps that should be “heads”).
However, once we get past the leaden opening, it picks up speed and begins to bowl along with the same energy that kept the first book so entertaining. Except we then have a new phenomenon to contend with. It’s what I call cod science. This is content written in language suggesting it’s real science and, for most practical purposes, it’s probably convincing to everyone who knows nothing about the subject-matter involved. That’s me, of course. I could write everything I know about virology on the back of a Brobdingnagian postage stamp. So we have to stop as various experts are tapped for input and our two-minded hero and his merry (wo)men then try to make sense of it. Yes, all this is necessary to advance the plot in an interesting direction. Indeed, one might actually applaud Mira Grant for constructing a nice exercise to evaluate utilitarianism as it might be applied to disease control. When I was younger and could still think coherently, I used to play around with the basic ideas propounded by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, looking for modern scenarios in which we might explore whether the methodology was still relevant. This plot highlights a very interesting dilemma. Although there does seem to be a wider conspiracy in play, one can understand why some of the interested parties might want to hide the “big picture”. Needless to say, our team of news hounds is hot on the trail given that the solution to the problem, as and when it emerges, will also identify the person responsible for the death of stepsister George.
The final problem lies in the use of the cloning trope. I always get the theory of how the body can be grown from the DNA of the original. What I never understand is how the copy comes with the knowledge and memories of the first. Yes, I know we’re not supposed to think about this but, in a book which makes great play of its cod science, you would think there would be some effort to fill in the gaps in our understanding.
Anyway, rather than spoil the enjoyment of getting to the end of this book, I’ll avoid any more discussion of the plot except to say there’s a completely fascinating development to our understanding of the way in which George died and why Shaun has even more reason to feel upset about it. Except, perhaps all this may be a little premature. So, where does all this leave us? If Deadline had been about one-hundred pages shorter, I think it would have been lining up for nominations in its own right. But someone has failed in the editorial stakes and left the blue pencil in a drawer. So be prepared to skip over the draggy bits to get to the heart of a very good story.
And just to prove my standards are too high, this novel is one of the 2011 Philip K. Dick Award Nominees and is shortlisted for the 2012 Hugo Awards for Best Novel.
For a review of the final book in the trilogy, see Blackout.
Watching this film prompts the question of why we watch films. It would be too easy to start and stop with the idea that films are something we find amusing or diverting. This would pitch the expectation at a level equivalent to something relatively light and frothy. While it would not deny the possibility of some intellectual weight, the “intelligence” of the script or the performances would be less than obvious, perhaps something we might only pick up in the post mortem when the other ideas had been fully explored. Yet Gone Baby Gone manages the clever trick of being a very sophisticated exploration of a moral dilemma and entertaining, i.e. it has people investigating a kidnapping and shooting at each other (or into the air at one point). So, in the conventional sense, it’s pandering to an audience that likes thrillers while inviting them to look beyond the superficial action and see something more interesting to talk about in the pub afterwards.
As an example, let’s take a brief look back at a previous morality tale. The Accused (1988) has Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster) raped by multiple attackers. The point of the film is to explore the gray area of liability for spectators who cheer on the rapists. If the original producers were to make a sequel, they might suppose Sarah is pregnant and proposes to have an abortion. Relying on his religiously inspired moral stance against abortion, one of the rapists asserts his paternal rights and petitions the court for an injunction to prevent the abortion. Well, we all know the action would fail. While the child is still a part of the mother’s body, it’s her right to determine what should happen. Fathers have no status when it comes to deciding the fate of their potential children. This is not to say there may be local laws controlling the legality of the abortion but, for the purposes of our potential drama, let’s assume that the victims of rape are allowed to abort.
If someone were to make this sequel, it would run the risk of being preachy on an inflammatory issue. In many countries, abortion is highly controversial and no matter what line the script took, it would upset one side of the polarised debate. So, coming back to Gone Baby Gone, it invites the viewers to consider a simple question. Assuming kidnapping a child is always a crime, are there circumstances in which the commission of this crime would be in the best interests of the child? This is a film based on the book of the same name by Dennis Lehane. It’s the fourth in the series featuring Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angela Genaro (Michelle Monaghan). The couple operate as private detectives, specialising in finding those who have disappeared. Against her better judgement, they take the case and immediately find themselves pitched into a difficult family situation. It’s immediately obvious the mother, Helene McCready (Amy Ryan) is a hopeless addict who cares nothing for her daughter. As more evidence emerges, it appears this mother may have been involved in various criminal activities during which she came into possession of a large sum of money. A criminal interested in recovering this money would have a motive for kidnapping her daughter.
Once our private detectives get on the trail, they find two senior police officers more than helpful: Ed Harris and John Ashton. Their boss, Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) also seems to mellow as the investigation proceeds. A second child then goes missing and a tip comes to Patrick Kenzie identifying the possible abductor. This results in more co-operation with the police, but the outcome is not what Patrick might have hoped for. Since private detective heroes must always be competent, they eventually find the girl but must then decide what to do about it. If you take the view the interests of the child are the first and paramount consideration, you might condone the crime and leave her where she is. But if you trust the system, you might call in the police, send the kidnappers to jail, and wait for the state to declare the mother unfit and find a good foster home. Except who would trust the state with something as important? Only someone self-righteous who would always want to uphold the letter of the law. Which is why I mentioned the abortion issue. One side assets its right to impose its morality on the mother in the belief it knows best. Here our two private detectives get to decide what’s best for the child. For those of you who like to follow loose ends, the question of what happened to the kidnapped child is explained by Dennis Lehane in Moonlight Mile, published in 2010.
Gone Baby Gone is elegantly adapted for screen and directed by Ben Affleck making an auspicious debut behind the camera. Although there’s not a little nepotism in the casting of Casey Affleck as Patrick Kenzie, the result is impressive. Similarly, Ed Harris puts in one of his better performances, the two actors standing out in what is otherwise an ensemble cast — sadly, Michelle Monaghan is not given much to do as Angela Genaro. This is more at the brain food end of the entertainment scale but, by my standards, that make it one of the better films of the last decade. It should also be said that Dennis Lehane is a consistently impressive author and, if you have not already done so, you should read his books.
For a review of another film directed by Ben Affleck, see Argo.
It’s a remarkable marketing coup when the pre-launch publicity for In Time announces Harlan Ellison is seeking an injunction to prevent the release of the film. Mr Ellison alleges this “new” effort from Andrew Niccol has borrowed ideas from the notable short story, “Repent, Harlequin! Said The Ticktockman”. Far be it for me to express an opinion on anything sub judice. All I will say is that I think there’s an equal risk the writing team of David Newman and Robert Benton behind Bonnie and Clyde might be interested in comparing notes.
So here we go with another dystopian film in which oppressive corporate megalomaniacs have yet again ground humanity into the dirt. This “time” they’ve pulled off something completely remarkable (not to say scientifically impossible given anything reasonably foreseeable in the technology field). Someone somewhere in a lab managed not only to identify the ageing gene, but also learned how to turn it on and off. So what these lab rats did was to preprogram humanity (yes, everyone) so that they would age naturally until 25 at which point, they would stop ageing and a very clever piece of electronics would come into play. Grown inside every body is a clock. You can monitor the passage of time because there’s a large LED display on your left arm. This countdowns to zero at which point your genetic life-support is switched off and you die. Needless to say, you can acquire time by working, or as a gift, or by fighting or stealing. In theory, then, anyone can live indefinitely so long as he or she can keep on adding time. The transfer of time can be by a handshake through some nifty hardwired and mind-controlled technology, or by the use of a scanning device. Somewhat surprisingly, time has become the currency. A cup of coffee will set you back five minutes.
Now here comes the hierarchy. The folk at the bottom of the heap work in meaningless jobs for a few hours as payment. The point of this slavery is simply to thin out the population. Since no-one has switched off the reproduction gene, there are more people joining the human race than leaving it. So people have to be kept on the edge of death. Prices for that cup of coffee keep on rising. When people run out of time, they die. In Darwinian terms, this encourages the enterprising to stay alive while all the sheep die soon after their 25th birthday. Yet, remarkably, there seems to be almost no crime. This is set in a future America — land of the free and no gun controls. I suppose the deterrent is clear. Whether you are caught or not, if you run outside the system, there’s a strong risk you’ll just run out of time and die. That said, there are criminals who steal time. Except they are conscripts of the time-police who do the dirty work to ensure stability in the system. If too many people were to build up too much time, it might trigger economic collapse. So these thieves act like predators and skim off whatever surplus time they can find. They survive while everyone else is kept time-poor.
Yet, once you move up in the world, there’s a life of privilege and luxury on the other side of the tracks. If you have a century or so in your body’s bank, you can buy fancy cars and live in a small palace. It’s a good idea to keep a few bodyguards around. There’s no knowing what uppity oiks might try to muscle into this ultimate gated community. So, against this background, our hero Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) acquires a surplus of time through an act of kindness. He travels into the rich compound where he meets Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried), daughter of the Time Lord Philppe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser). Will and Sylvia then go on a crime spree robbing time banks and doing the Robin Hood act of giving away all their time to the poor. Trying to stop them is the lead cop, Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy). There’s quite a lot of running and some driving at speed. A few shots are fired and one or two die. We then have the predictable ending.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say In Time is unoriginal and trite, but it’s not far off. We have every possible cliché thrown in as the clocks keep counting down and our heroes court death yet again. There’s almost no logic to any of this society. Abandoning money in favour of time as a mechanism for oppression is unrealistic. Why is there such passivity? Why is there no armed revolution? Guns seem freely available if you have the time to buy one or the wit to steal one. There are no barbwire fences, armed guards and savage dogs to keep people from marching into the rich compound. So what’s stopping them? Look at it this way. Although there are cameras on street corners, no-one seems to have GPS transmitters in cars (come to think of it, if they can grow a green clock in your arm which works indefinitely without the need to change batteries, the gene technologists could make it transmit your location). This failure makes the task of the police unrealistically difficult in tracking and arresting people. Yet there’s really nothing for them to do. There’s not even a crime syndicate to steal and deal in time. Why are there no time pushers on those street corners? It would be a natural extension to drug dealing or loan sharking. Why have criminals lost their initiative since this would buy them additional years? More importantly, even if we ignore the problem of explaining how society got into this mess, destabilising it would seem likely to cause even more deaths unless there was positive leadership aimed at mitigating losses. Going back to the issue of revolution, I suppose the ultimate deterrent is that the elite could just hike the price of water to infinity. Since no-one could afford to buy, everyone would die. Except, all those people would have the time to walk into New Greenwich, make their displeasure felt and suggest the price of water be reduced. A few bodyguards are never going to prevent this.
Yes, there are one of two amusing moments and it’s fun to see all the generations look 25 years old. I was pleasantly surprised by Justin Timberlake’s performance. He manages not to make a fool of himself even though there’s a lot of posing with his stubble to the fore, and there’s good chemistry with Amanda Seyfried. But without any credibility in the economics of dystopian context, the action is routine Bonnie and Clyde/Robin Hood as the cops try to chase them down. Andrew Niccol does his best but the poor quality of his plot prevents anything interesting from occurring. Frankly, I can understand why the embargo on reviews for In Time has been more strongly enforced this “time” around. The distributors want to get as many people through the doors as possible based on Justin Timberlake’s name before word-of-mouth runs the film down.
For a pleasingly detailed and positive analysis of In Time as an alternate history film, see the excellent Gary Westfahl in Locus.
Hyenas by Joe R Lansdale is another of these novellas published by Subterranean Press (2011). It’s an elegant design with some nifty jacket art by Glen Orbik so, in theory, we’re on to another winner. After all, under normal circumstances, you can’t go wrong with a Hap & Leonard story, now can you? Well, here’s the rub. This is the tenth outing for the dynamic duo, so those of us who have read them all can begin to see patterns. We know you have the set-up when our defenders of the innocent will acquire a “job” of some kind. This will usually involve the use of moderate violence. Whichever one is doling out the beating or “punishment” will usually only want to make an appeal to reason. After all, they know from experience most bears always back away when struck a few time with a baseball bat. Except, of course, those pesky bears can lurk in the woods for an hour or so, and come on their own little home visit to ask for revenge. The rest of the story is usually an extended discussion on the merits of a hat as a form of disguise or whether success in fighting is down to physical size or skill. Because our two heroes are expected to return for another adventure, they have to emerge the winners in this pissing competition or it’s declared an honourable draw with both sides walking away to lick their wounds and screw their partners until blissful sleep overtakes them.
As a formula, there’s not a great deal of room for manoeuvre, but we Lansdale fans forgive structural limitations because we find the author amusing. Yes, there will be bones broken and bullets flying, but it’s all done in the best possible taste, mojo style. In other words, Lansdale makes even the grimmest of stories fun by the banter and repartee between the odd couple, their loved ones and those with whom they contend.
Except Hyenas is a little thin. That’s not thinness in terms of length, you understand. We know from the size of the book this is not one of the longest stories ever written. But the fabric of the narrative is somewhat perfunctory. We have one of the standard plots, but the Lansdale touch seems less evident this time round. There are one or two good lines which provoked a smile but, frankly, not enough of them to sustain this “thin” story. Normally, Lansdale distracts the reader with a mass of irrelevant detail. This is a little bald, even without the hat joke.
I suspect the good folk at Subterranean Press had their doubts because the slim volume is padded out with a short story. “The Boy Who Became Invisible” is a Hap solo — in the old pun sense of him being so lowdown, he’s like a snake. I won’t spoil this short short story by talking about the plot but, like all casual cruelty between peers, it doesn’t show anyone in a good light. I suppose it does shed a sliver of light on how Hap came to be the adult he is, but I’m not convinced. Worse, I’m not convinced the inclusion of this story adds real value to the book. So, I’m in the slightly unusual position of advising people to wait for a novella to be republished in a collection where it will hopefully be a better value purchase. Of course all true Lansdale fans will buy the first edition anyway, but the rest of you might pause before buying. The early Hap & Leonard novels are wonderful. If you haven’t already read them, start with Mucho Mojo.
For those of you who don’t immediately go on to read the comments to these reviews, I have imported the following from the Master himself,
“Just for the record, I insisted the story be included so no one would mistake this for a novel, or hoped they wouldn’t. As to the quality, that is of course the reader’s judgement, but I didn’t want that put on Subterranean Press. That was my idea, and not for the reason you give.”
So now we know. Thanks for that clarification and apologies for any confusion to the folk at Subterranean Press.
Films come in cycles. We’re currently overlapping the centenary of momentous events leading to the downfall of the Qing Dynasty in China. This has triggered the release of the dire 1911, as the Hong Kong/Chinese film industry flirts with historical dramas at or about the Xinhai Revolution. The story of The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake or Jianhu Nuxia reaches its climax in 1907, some four years before the main action. It tells of Qiu Jin who was one of the early martyrs leading up to the Xinhai Revolution and she enjoys a good reputation under the current Chinese regime as a poet, an early feminist and a revolutionary leader. History is one of the more malleable areas of the discourse where each new culture chooses which “facts” it will consider significant in forming the reputation of individuals or past events. Insofar as the successive attempts to overthrow the Manchu government eventually built up enough support to force the abdication of the Qing Dynasty, it’s convenient for the present Government to remember martyrs like Qiu Jin with affection. She was with Sun Yat-sen in Japan, joining the Tongmenghui, and became a pivotal figure when she returned to China, trying to unite the secret societies into a force with sufficient co-ordination to represent a credible threat to the corrupt local governments in the south. She’s a “safe” revolutionary and this has earned her a formal burial site and museum. The theme of this film is rooted in astronomy. Please forgive the mixing of metaphors. Light sets off from a distant star and there’s no telling what life will be like when it arrives at its destination. So this hero’s life is the light setting off. . .
In this film, she’s played by Yi Huang who’s been through an interesting period, appearing in Overheard 2 and dying along with the rest of the cast in Treasure Inn. It’s a considerable relief to see her able to carry the role of Qiu Jin with quiet dignity and some flair when it comes to the fighting.
So, if we take the story in chronological order, our hero is born into a still largely feudal China where women are considered little better than chattels. To satisfy male abstract notions of beauty, women were required to bind the feet of their daughters and to stay indoors to ensure the whitest possible complexion. Qiu Jin persuaded her progressive father to treat her as a son. She therefore learned to read, write, ride and fight. Poetry and martial arts may not seem a good combination but, in this film, she’s shown as devastating with the written word as she was with the sword. Unfortunately, parental permissiveness only goes so far and, when the right family came along, she was married off to Ting-jun (Kevin Cheng). He didn’t exactly get what he was expecting, but they did contrive to produce two children before she tired of his womanising and disappeared off to Japan to improve her education. In this, she was funded by a rich woman sympathiser Pat Ha. There she met her cousin Xu Xilin (Yu-Hang To) and, together, they delved more deeply into revolutionary thinking, joining the Restoration Society or Guangfuhui. On their return to China, they planned successive uprisings at Anqing in Anhui and in Shaoxing.
As an early step, they established the Datong School in Shaoxing. This was a front for training revolutionary troops. Xu Xilin then bought a position as an official in Anqing where he led an uprising of the police recruits, managing to kill En Ming, the Governor of Anhui Province. Unfortunately, he was forced to move early. This prompted the government to send troops to arrest Qiu Jin. Caught unprepared, the school was surrounded and most students were killed. Qiu Jin was arrested and, despite there being only patchy evidence of criminal activity, she was executed. Anthony Wong Chau-Sang is a sympathetic government official in Shaoxing who tries to save Qiu Jin but he’s overruled by senior official Suet Lam. Fearing more unrest and wanting the maximum deterrent effect, she was beheaded, the punishment previously reserved for men. So, even in the manner of her death, she struck a blow for the equality of the sexes.
At every level, this is an inspiring story of a young woman who throws off the shackles of a repressive patriarchy, fights for women’s rights and, as a patriot, fights for her country. Her contribution as a writer, publisher and revolutionary has been matched by few. In general, this film version of her story works reasonably well with director Herman Yau striking a good balance between the history and the need to remain entertaining. But, for me, two problems prevent this from being a really good film. The first is the structure of the narrative. Sadly, I’m old-fashioned and prefer a story to start and the beginning and follow through to a climax at the end. This has an endlessly nested sequence of flashbacks. We start with the battle at the school and then variously move forwards or backwards in time. This is slightly confusing and somewhat annoying. Worse, I think it undermines the emotional power of this hero’s journey from assertive girl to revolutionary leader and martyr to the cause. The second problem involves the fighting. Some of the sequences are brutal and naturalistic. This is as it should be when presenting committed revolutionaries pitched against government troops of questionable morale. But in the sequences involving the Qing military commander Ao Feng (Xiong Xin Xin), naturalism is sacrificed for the modern cinematic version of fighting based on wire work. In any event, there’s some controversy about whether Qiu Jin knew any martial arts. This is not to take anything away from the skill of Yi Huang and Yu-Hang To in their personal martial arts skills. The fights with old pro Xiong Xin Xin are very entertaining in their own right and could take their place with pride in any of the more fantasy-based kung fu films. I simply don’t feel they fit into the tone of this film which, in all other respects, is attempting to be a reasonably accurate historical drama.
So there you have it. The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake or Jianhu Nuxia is inspirational and entertaining, but short of being very good.
I’ve read every novel and short story by Agatha Christie, reading all the paperbacks to catch up in the 1950s, and then buying the hardbacks as they were published until the final case. This means, with one of two exceptions, I’ve got most of the plots in my memory. So, in watching these adaptations of the Miss Marple novels, I’ve been able to remember whodunnit — well with one exception which I’ll come to later.
I find myself faintly amused because, growing up in the immediate period following World War II, I knew people like the characters shown in this “modern” reproduction. Although I was merely middle class and never attended a country-house weekend, my parents were on the fringes of higher society and mixed with people who did. We lived in a private estate — in modern terms, it was a gated community. What actually happened was that on a preset number of days in a year, the groundsman closed the gates to prevent a permanent right of way being established along our road. Looking back on it, most of the children and teens I grew up with were from monied backgrounds. I met their parents at the social events. Before television became established, neighbours used to take it in turns to throw open their homes for an evening party. It was a fascinating time and it’s captured with considerable skill in this series of adaptations.
Born in 1932, Geraldine McEwan has been one of England’s premier actresses for decades. I’ve seen her live on stage in the West End and the Nat — she had immense presence. Even on the small screen, there’s an irresistible life about her and she hits a note of impish charm in this version of Miss Marple. However, I’m not sure we should be smiling at or with Miss Marple. I remind myself of the performances given by Joan Hickson in the television adaptations shown in the 1980s. There was a certain air of menace about that Jane Marple. You had the sense that, behind the apparent confusion you would expect of a lady of that age, there was a real predator waiting to pounce.
So, in the order I’ve seen the series, we started with The Murder at the Vicarage. Frankly, this is a less than impressive mystery. It’s too contrived, depending on being able to ensure Miss Marple will not be too seriously injured as the motorcycle sweeps by. First published in 1930, the characters are cyphers who move around to be in the right places at the right time. Nevertheless, some of the stereotypical characters from village life are nicely skewered in this adaptation and we have the joy of seeing old stalwarts like Herbert Lom and Mirian Margolyes. Except when the team was meeting to plan the series in 2003/4, I wonder what justification they devised for relocating the series to the 1950s. Yes, it makes the milieu instantly recognisable to me as an older viewer, but what other benefits flow from bringing this classic novel twenty years forward in time? Does it make it cheaper and easier to dress the sets, find old cars still running, or save time in recreating the clothes? Frankly, it just annoys me. If you are going to be “true” to a book when adapting it for the screen, you should not reinvent it unless there’s a good reason. This is not the same as, say, staging one of Shakespeare’s plays in modern dress. Often relocating the plot into a more recognisable modern context gives a new set of interpretations to the words. This enhances our understanding and translates the original intention into a form more accessible to the modern audience. I see absolutely no benefit from relocating Miss Marple into the 1950s. As a further trivial objection, using Hambleden, Bucks. as St. Mary Meade is disconcerting when it so regularly pops up in television and films, e.g. in the Midsomer Murders, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, etc.
Then we come to What Mrs McGillicuddy Saw (or as I prefer to think of it, 4.50 From Paddington). This is slightly more in the Tommy and Tuppence mould, with Lucy Eyelesbarrow (Amanda Holden) doing some unofficial sleuthing in the country home of the Crackenthorpe family. This allows for some routine melodrama as our young heroine finds the original body from the train and is a key witness to the death of a family member. This has more life about it for the contemporary audience, but it remains fairly trite.
Finally, The Body in the Library appeared and, for the first time, I found myself involved. Although we start off in St. Mary Mead, this is mostly set in Eastbourne which is shot in a nicely period way, showing life in a hotel with its thé dansants and evening dances and bridge sessions. This directly matches my own experiences of seaside holidays in the 1950s with the snobbishness beautifully caught on screen. Better still, we have the joy of Joanna Lumley as Dolly Bantree, Ian Richardson as the tragically-wounded Conway Jefferson and, of all people, Simon Callow as Colonel Melchett, but. . .
At this point, I need to step back. What’s the purpose of a television adaptation of a classic novel? In one sense, it’s a rescue mission. Sometimes, the prose style doesn’t travel well in time, so showing us the story makes it more accessible to a modern audience. However, I disapprove of an adaptation that rewrites the ending, particularly in a whodunnit. After reflection, I understand why I was hooked. The sly banter between Geraldine McEwan and Joanna Lumley is very contemporary in tone. Thematically, there’s also a lot more sexuality on display than ever Agatha Christie would have written about. This is very much a story for a modern audience. On balance, I’m not convinced. If adapters want to write their own detective stories, that’s fine by me. But they should not rewrite classic novels, changing the identity of the killer or killers. How would the audience feel if Pride and Prejudice was rewritten so that Elizabeth marries either Mr. Collins or Mr. Wickham? I suspect there would be rioting in the streets as everyone equipped themselves with new trainers, kitchen knives and other essentials with which to pursue the writers. So, I give this a good mark as contemporary television, but zero as an adaptation of a classic novel.
For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)
There’s a thin line between a bearable action adventure and action that’s so brainless no-one cares what’s going on nor why it’s going on. In this field, my yardstick is Spartan, written and directed by David Mamet and staring Val Kilmer. In the last decade, I don’t think there’s been a better film detailing the lies and deceptions upon which rest much of the work done by secret government agencies. More importantly, in Val Kilmer’s Scott, we have the ultimate professional who takes the time to work through all the chaos around him until he arrives at what passes for the truth in such films. It’s a kind of Sherlockian approach. When you have eliminated the impossible. . . So, here we go again with another of these conspiracy, wheels-within-wheels, spies fighting each other stories. Killer Elite has one of these overcomplicated plots with freelance assassins led by Robert De Niro as the cliché-named Hunter with Jason Statham as his loyal lieutenant on one side, the SAS in the middle, and a secretive group employing Clive Owen on the other.
I can honestly put my hand on my heart and swear I understood every part of the plot. This is not praise for the screenwriter, Matt Sherring or Ranulph Fiennes the original author of the supposedly truthful book The Feather Men. With an iron will and the help of the loud music, I simply managed to stay awake while the film was running. Whether you believe this true story, the Feather Men as an organisation is supposedly so secretive and so delicate in its interventions, its touch is as soft as a feather. Given this, it’s rather surprising to see how many bodies we have when we’re finished. Indeed, if there’s any common thread throughout this film, it’s the pervasive level of amateurishness. On all sides, no-one seems to sit back and appraise the situation. Hunter gets sold a job that no-one with any ethics should take, but he wants/needs the money (a mere $6 million) so takes it sight-unseen. When he later turns it down, Jason Statham is brought out of retirement. To free his ex-boss, he must complete the job. Yeh, yeh, where have we not seen this plot before.
He recruits two helpers. Davies (Dominic Purcell) whose English accent doesn’t fool anyone when he tries to wheedle information out of SAS men in pubs. He’s the ultimate klutz, getting noticed everywhere and eventually killing a few people before doing the ultimately stupid thing — going to a high-end brothel to celebrate the “official” kill. This is like a bank robber going out and spending money like it’s going out of fashion. It’s like sending up a flare to show where you are. The other elite killer (I’ll stop laughing soon, I promise) is Meier (Aden Young) whose hand shakes when he’s trying to use his electronic system to control a lorry from a moving car. Not surprisingly, he can’t defend himself properly when attacked and gets shot by his own driver who proves even more amateurish than him. Believe me, you couldn’t hope to find two more Keystone Cop helpers.
The SAS are variously shown as being crazed and, not surprisingly, paranoid. Offhand, I can’t think of anything less flattering. That they get mown down so easily by the clowns working for Jason Statham is the ultimate indignity. Playing point for the Feather Men is Clive Owen. He’s partially blind thanks to an accident on a mission. This has left him angry as his career with the SAS is ended. He does not display a stable personality and, frankly, it’s not credible he would be employed by an organisation favouring discretion. At every possible point, this man demonstrates his talent as a loose canon. Needless to say, he would be fired (and probably in a terminal way). That all this committee does for most of the film is to tell him not to interfere is ludicrous. Except, of course, that could be part of the conspiracy.
All of which leaves us with Jason Statham. His stubble is much in evidence again as he looks menacingly into the camera and then wades into another life-and-death situation. Those who know and love Mr. Statham will know it’s always death for the other guy(s). Except, this time, with Clive Owen getting equal billing, their two fights come out as a draw. Yet, here’s the thing. Quite early on, Mr. Statham follows Mr. Owen back to his cheap and scruffy flat. He knows his name and could, at any time, either talk to him as one professional to another to find out exactly what’s going on, or simply kill him. It’s not rational for Mr. Statham to leave Mr. Owen as a potential threat. Indeed, if they ever did try to talk properly, Mr. Statham would immediately recognise an unstable personality in his opponent and kill him to avoid complications. The only conversations they have are towards the end and are nothing more than an exchange of clichés.
So there we have it — a mess from start to finish. Yet, does anyone go to see a Jason Statham film for the plot or the witty dialogue. I suspect not. The target audience is likely to be male. Give them a little psychobabble background showing their hero as having a love interest to offset his attack of conscience when he finds himself pointing a gun at a young girl in the back of a car, and they’ll be happy with the fights even though, sad to say, they are not the best I’ve seen him do. There are the usual close-camera tricks in the hand-to-hand fights to cover up the likely problems in Clive Owen’s relative inexperience. There’s quite a lot of running and some driving in an attempt keep the action going. It’s the usual uninspiring stuff by numbers from Gary McKendry, who’s not the most experienced director in the pack. One final note: perhaps out of desperation, the love interest is Yvonne Strahovski who’s considered a “hot” babe — eye-candy for the young male audience to absorb. This leaves Robert De Niro as the only good thing in the film. He does at least have a little class and is not afraid to show it. More to the point, even at his more advanced age, he manages to fight well and look menacing if asked politely by the director. So this is not not a patch on Spartan, but if all you want is brainless action and a hot babe to ogle, Killer Elite is for you.