It’s one of these facts of life that, no matter who you are, you get old. As one who has already crossed the line into pensioner territory, I can look back on a life misspent. It was not always enjoyable, but it was never boring. Being a steady and consistent reader, afflicted by a completist mentality, I’ve noticed an ageing writer syndrome. That people who manage to produce sparkling prose to deliver entertaining ideas slowly lose that magic ingredient as they advance into senior citizenship. What was effortless becomes laboured. What was light and frothy becomes stodgy and dull. In recent years, this became very obvious with Jack Vance. His most recent books have been pale shadows of what might have been. This is not to say publishers are wrong to show authors with feet of clay. Everyone has bills to pay no matter how young or old. But, with some, you wish the publisher had been a little more honest and stuck a warning label on the jacket indicating the purchase was for charity rather than enjoyment. I confess I was somewhat reluctant to buy Death of an Artist by Kate Wilhelm (Minotaur, 2012). I have all her books and consider her early work of the highest quality. Yet there have been increasing signs of the ravages of time with the last two books being particularly disappointing. Fortunately, while this is not one of her best, it does show a more sure touch on both the plot and the delivery.
I suppose all this does force me to briefly consider what has made her such a special writer. Although it might sound slightly trite, it’s her ability to produce credible characters. Too often authors make do with a few cardboard cutouts who are moved around the scenery to match the needs of the plot. I always have the sense that she starts with the characters and then wonders what might have happened to them in the past and how they would have turned out. Quite often the context or the weather operates as a metaphorical mirror to the emotions of those who occupy the landscape. As with most of her more recent fiction, we’re in deepest Oregon, this time on the coast. One of the features of headlands is all those small valleys and steep creeks that mediate between the land and the shore. Few are easy to travel yet, with effort, they bring us slipping and sliding down to the secret beaches we loved as children. They are the rough and the smooth of life, the tracks of memory to take us back to times when we were so carefree. Living with a panoramic view of the sea is the Markov family. Marnie runs a gift shop in the small town. Her somewhat erratic daughter Stefie is an artist and her granddaughter Van is a mature student just finishing her academic studies to qualify as a doctor. Van’s young son is the joint responsibility of grandmother and granddaughter. Stefie never has been a family person albeit this has not stopped her from entering four marriages and entertaining a series of live-in men. Her latest husband is the junior partner in an art gallery. There’s just one problem. For all she produces eerily beautiful paintings, she never wants to sell. Only years later when she has grown tired of a canvas, can the gallery prise it away from her and find a buyer. This deeply frustrates her husband who would rather she cash in on her talent.
After a series of violent arguments, her husband is thrown out. Weeks later, she dies in a fall and her husband then appears with what appears to be a contract entitling him to sell her paintings. There’s just one problem. She did not sign using her own name. Naturally, the family are convinced the husband killed Stefie but they have no idea how to prove it. By chance, a retired New York homicide detective has recently moved into the town. They ask for his advice. So begins an increasingly detailed investigation into the husband’s affairs. The detective studied law before moving into the police force. He knows the problems in building a case that will satisfy a jury and keep a clever defence lawyer at bay. About halfway through the book, it becomes obvious how the husband committed the crime but knowing in your gut how it was done is not the same as proving it.
Independently, Marnie, Van and the detective decide the husband should not be allowed to get away with the murder. They separately resolve they will kill the husband if there’s insufficient evidence to take the case before a jury. Fortunately, the detective begins to make progress, but not with evidence that would either be admissible or, taken out of context, convincing to a prosecutor. However, a strategy does emerge which puts increasing financial pressure on the husband. With the contract tied up in litigation and no paintings to sell, he has unavoidable bills to pay. He’s forced into action.
Although the element of romance is not quite convincing, we can accept it as part and parcel of the difficult emotions everyone is going through as the problems of proving the homicide seem to grow worse. In the end, everything is nicely tied together. The detective’s backstory inevitably comes to the fore as we see how the events forcing his retirement have shaped his attitudes. Similarly, the details of the family are nicely paced. Even the idiosyncratic Stefie emerges as a rounded person. So, taken overall, Death of an Artist is a return to form from Kate Wilhelm and worth reading. Somewhat ironically, this also marks the last book of hers I shall be buying. She has set up her own press under the name InfinityBox Press and will only publish new material as ebooks. There will be no new books in print. This is a shame. For me, there’s no substitute for a physical book and, even though it marks me as a technological dinosaur who should know better, I shall miss reading her.
Champagne: The Farewell. A Vengeance in the Vineyard Mystery by Janet Hubbard (Poisoned Pen Press, 2012) is the first novel in a series where the intention is to set each investigation in a different wine region in France. Thematically, this is always going to appeal to me. I first went to France back in the 1950s and have been a regular visitor ever since. Although my fluency in the language is diminishing due to lack of practice and the death of brain cells as age advances, I can sill chat away happily albeit with a Belgian accent which, since one kind Frenchman told me, has always been profoundly embarrassing. Who wants to go to France and sound like a renegade from Belgium. Their beer may be fabulous and they do know how to make proper chips, but they do not speak la belle langue.
So where are we with his America/France crossover novel? Well, meet Max Maguire, daughter of Hank who’s something of a legend in the NYPD. She follows in the family business as a detective. Naturally, she’s earned her gold shield and can do more than merely defend herself if attacked. She shoots and fights as well as any other police officer on the force. This is to be expected in thrillerish police procedurals. Women who rise through the ranks must not only be seen to be better than the men, but actually be better. Even so, the men will be angry and resentful when they are passed over. You can’t shake off generations of patriarchal entitlement in a few years. The men assume they are better and so entitled to the highest paid jobs. However, this book is leaping salmonlike into fish-out-of-water territory (love these mixed metaphors) as our heroine takes a break from arresting US perps to jet off to France for a friend’s wedding. The ceremony is to be held in Vallée de la Marne, the central part of the Champagne region, where the family holds one of the prized champagne vineyards.
Max met Chloé Marceau while doing a semester at the Sorbonne but, despite taking language classes, her spoken French is relatively weak. This is odd because her mother is French, but she does at least understand the language and is able to exploit one of the local prejudices. The majority of the French believe the Americans are culturally parochial and incapable of learning a foreign language. Max is therefore able to hide in plain sight and listen into all the conversations around her without anyone suspecting her of eavesdropping. This proves a useful device for innocently collecting information once the murder at the wedding pitches her into the investigation. Even more so because actually working as a detective in a foreign country is one of these thorny jurisdictional problems.
However, Janet Hubbard has given Max an undeclared inside track. Her mother’s sister is married to the French Minister of Justice. As it happens this connection is not immediately played for direct influence, but it’s lurking in the background as she worms her way into the French investigation system. Now I’m not complaining because “ordinary” people would never get the opportunities that come the way of people in books. But, in this instance, our heroine is particularly well-qualified and well-connected. And talking of American connections, it turns out there’s another American at the heart of this little drama. We have Léa de Saint-Pern and Ted Clay — she’s three months pregnant with his child, but this liaison doesn’t save her from being bashed over the head with the usual blunt instrument. The more likely motive revolves around Léa’s decision on whether to sell the vineyard. Lurking in the social undergrowth is Hans Keller, a potential German buyer. Selling to his family would not be popular with the local French, yet the Ministry of Justice prefers this inconvenient buyer not be involved in the investigation. How strange such a high-level fix should be obvious from the first steps in the investigation.
In the midst of all the political infighting which permeates the French criminal justice system, we find Olivier Chaumont. He’s a friend of the family and attending the wedding as part of his plan for slowly returning to social life eight months after his divorce. Despite the real and obvious conflicts of interest in taking an active part in a case involving close friends and family, he’s quickly into his stride. Not surprisingly, this also involves taking a romantic interest in Max. They may come from different cultures but they are both investigators and so naturally feel attracted to each other at a professional level. Fortunately Max is caught in her underwear offering Olivier an early view of how far international co-operation might go and so they are able to give each other alibis for the first murder.
The book is at its best on the economic and political issues surrounding the proposed sale of one of the leading champagne vineyards. There are also questions raised over a possible redefinition of the champagne geography. If the border was to expand and include “ordinary” vineyards, these would spectacularly appreciate in value as being within the champagne Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. Having any of these vineyards owned by some German families would be difficult. Despite the end of the war in 1945, the memories of how some Germans acted when in charge continues to make life difficult for the children and grandchildren when they seek to do business in France — particularly when the business involves one of the French crown jewels in the wine industry.
As to the investigation itself, it’s actually a bit difficult to keep track of all the different characters and where they might have been at the end of the party celebrating the wedding. This is not a criticism. It’s simply a reflection of reality when you have a small château full of drunken and high people partying. No-one is going to be completely clear about who might be where, particularly if some were into a little drugs or anticipating sexual activity. However, by the time we get to the end, it’s become all too clear who the killer is and why. It’s one of these genuinely tragic stories and, although there’s more than a hint of mental instability, we can understand how things could come to this sad outcome. On balance, Champagne: The Farewell is a good first novel and bodes well for Janet Hubbard.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Well instead of dark clouds over a bleak cityscape, we start DCI Banks: Friend of the Devil (2011) with daylight breaking over the moors and our first venture into an inverted crime scenario. Gasp as Dr. Elizabeth Waring (Raquel Cassidy), our vengeful coroner, takes a scalpel and slits the throat of the paralysed and universally hated serial killer of children. Our pocket vigilante has taken the time and trouble to push the paraplegic up into the moorland under the looming electricity pylons. Note the continuing use of dramatic images in this television show. It was never going to be enough to have a bit of grass and the odd sprig of gorse as the moor. There has to be the skeletal shape of the pylon, shot from a slightly unusual angle in shadow to make it look threatening. And with good reason, you may think. Instead of the vigilante allowing her victim a pretty view of the moor as she sits defenceless in the wheelchair, facing the prospect of her death, the location is actually terribly significant. This is where the serial killer buried the bodies! How very symbolic.
I know no-one lives on the moors, but it seems there are neither fell runners nor black-pudding lovers out for their early morning constitutional before the ritual eating of the pudding as breakfast. Let’s be honest, the picture of a woman bolted to a wheelchair being unloaded from the purpose-made van and then pushed up through the grass from the road would have been so unusual a sight, everyone would have remembered it. Actually, the idea the coroner could physically have pushed the chair up the hill without a paved path is a nonsense, but we’re not into this story for the practicalities. Further, this is not the kind of patient that could easily be dechaired and lifted into and out of a conventional car. It would need one of these ambulance-style vans with a hydraulic lift. Yet at no point does anyone try to track down such a vehicle. Annie just seems to suppose the completely paralysed victim could walk out of the nursing home into a car and then calmly bolt herself into the chair for her final journey to the dramatic pylons. As if we needed it, this confirms the emerging probability this police force only has one brain, and it’s passed from copper to copper in the hope one of them can abstract a useful idea before passing it on.
When the reports of the dead body under the dramatic pylons reach DCI Alan Banks (Stephen Tompkinson), he gives the case to DS Annie Cabbot (Andrea Lowe) as her first murder case in charge while he goes into small town Yorkshire to investigate a rape/murder. This second death looks to involve the usual steamy hotbed of stereotypes. We’ve got a young girl from a loopy working-class family. She’s gone off to college which is an excuse to get falling-down drunk on a weekend and take out her anger on anyone within earshot. There may be a lecturer at the college with more than her interests at heart, a young student who’s obsessively in love with her but turned away contemptuously, and the creepy older man who runs the gift shop in the high street. Needless to say the victim’s feckless father beats Timothy Randall (Ian Bartholomew), the gift shop guy, to a pulp and Banks finds DNA from Randall on the victim’s clothes. He therefore arrests Mr Retail Therapy immediately signalling he can’t be the guilty one. No-one in shows like this suffers so much so early on and proves to be guilty when the final credits roll. Indeed, when an alibi emerges, our creepy shop owner finally admits he physically examined the body and then rearranged it into a sleeping position. He’s not guilty of anything more than abusing a dead body and obstructing the police. As in snakes and ladders, we slide back to square one on the rape/murder.
After a discussion with Banks on the meaning of justice during which she acts like one of these soldiers with PTSD returning from Afghanistan, our vigilante coroner decides to stake out the alleys around the back of the fatal pub and kills a young man who may or may not be about to attack a girl. Wow! This is really hot stuff. She’s dressed ninja style and can run through the streets of this small Yorkshire town which seems to be ringed with CTTV cameras and no-one notices. There’s just one problem. The man whose throat she cuts is Kevin Templeton (Tom Shaw), one of the police squad working for Banks. This is a masterstroke. Banks was threatening to smile at the coroner, but this brings back the misery in spades and he spends the rest of the show gnawing at the inside of his cheek and threatening violence to anyone in the neighbourhood. Faced with two victims who have knife wounds to the throat, our friendly coroner hacks at the second wound as part of the autopsy. This gives her evidence to assert the second wound was from a strong person, almost certainly a man. It’s (now) obvious different knives were used, one a scalpel and the other a serrated knife. This seriously confuses the investigation because evidence emerges the dead girl’s father has recently bought a hunting knife.
On the first murder, one of the foot soldiers actually comes up with a sensible suggestion. Why don’t we use our time to find out who knew the serial killer’s identity at the nursing home? Obviously, it’s his turn to hold the department’s brain. This was the best line of investigation from the moment the victim’s false identity was first revealed, but Annie has been solidly in the groove of looking for her suspects from the families of the children who were killed. We now get the arrival of an obsessed detective from the Yorkshire coast with a cold case file. When Annie finally consents to talk to him, she hears the story of a rape survivor and the later killing of the suspected rapist. Ah ha! says Annie and more seriously turns her attention to the coroner. We then get another of these ghastly melodramatic confrontations as Banks and Annie charge into the mortuary. Annie coaxes a confession out of our stone-cold vigilante who stands with a knife in her hand. Banks lurks in the shadows, listening. Did I mention Banks also solves the rape/murder case as well. I can’t say as I cared. Because of the CCTV cameras, only one person could have done it. . . except our ninja coroner could escape detection. . . ah well, no-one cares that much. I didn’t think it possible after the first story, but Friend of the Devil is worse.
This has been a deeply frustrating experience. I like the original story on which The Four (2012) or Si Da Ming Bu is based, and even though the television version was drawn out too far and contained some unfortunate missteps, I went to the cinema prepared to like the big screen wuxia version. Indeed, the first five minutes seem to promise much. The cinematography and shot selection is particularly impressive as crane shots change the angle over street scenes and we follow a CGI bird as it flies over the roof tops to the Palace where we get our first view inside Department 6. This is the top policing agency in the Song Dynasty, and it both runs a spy network and has a paramilitary approach to the process of arrest. Obviously it can be a dangerous business to go up against potentially powerful kung fu masters, so this is SWAT with shields and spears ready to lock together to contain difficult unarmed (sic) criminals.
Anyway, the major problem surfaces almost immediately. I had great difficulty in following the plot. Usually, I have everything nailed down as I watch a film, but this time I emerged from the cinema and had to exchange notes with my wife while we tried to work out who was on which side and why people might have been doing whatever they were doing. Eventually, we arrived at a basic grasp of what we think happened, but we still can’t decide quite what the villain was aiming to achieve. I can’t bring myself to believe this was a plan to kill the Emperor, royal princes and the nobility because there just aren’t enough bodies (literally) available to see the assault through once the fighting begins and the capital is alerted. Worse, even if the Emperor’s army
were to be defeated, there seems to be no planning for any kind of takeover. If you are planning a coup, you need a major team of people ready to step into key roles, taking command of tax collection, the military and other key departments of state. Yet all we ever see is one guy and some minions who start off counterfeiting the coinage and, when there’s an investigation, it escalates into an attack on the Prince. This seems completely illogical because there was a plan in motion to infiltrate Department 6 and, once that was under control, the villain could more or less do what he wanted without anyone investigating him. There was every reason not to attack the Prince, particularly in such a spectacular way.
So after our family powwow, this is what we think happens in the first part of the film. We watch the arrival of a new group of female investigators led by Ji Yaohua (Jiang Yiyan) in Department 6. She, her second-in-command called Butterfly and the others who occupy screen time lolling around naked in a sauna (can’t think why they do that), are infiltrators sent by the villain Lord An (Wu Xiubo). The plan is slowly to kill all the more senior officers and allow them to rise through the ranks until they control Department 6. We then get into a pissing competition between Department 6 and the early version of the Divine Constabulary as to who has the better right to track down those responsible for the outbreak of counterfeiting in the capital. At this point, Zhuge Zhengwo (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) (with Sheren Tang in attendance to bring “free” food and wine from her Inn to feed the constabulary family) has his adopted “daughter” Heartless (Yifei Liu) and Iron Fist (Collin Chu) in place as constables. In the first major attempt to arrest one the the leading villains, Zhuge Zhengwo quickly identifies Chaser (Ronald Cheng) in the crowded inn as Constable material and saves him from arrest by Department 6. The final recruit comes courtesy of Department 6 which sends Cold Blood (Chai Deng) as an undercover agent. We then get the traditional bonding sequences as our four find reasons to fight each other so they can be embarrassed into being friends.
Now a few words about the titular four. Personally, I’m always in favour of realism when it comes to fighting abilities. This does not mean I’m against wire work and the more balletic moves. But I think reliance on supernatural skills is lazy. This might be different if we were watching a Marvel or DC Comics blockbuster. We accept Professor Xavier in his wheelchair using mutant psi powers because the whole is intended to be science fiction. Similarly, Wolverine’s ability to grow hairy and throw people around using super strength is vaguely credible because we’ve seen what he had to go through when William Stryker replaced his bones with adamantium. However, seeing Heartless in her wheelchair use telekinesis and telepathy is not really playing the fantasy game. Similarly, Cold Blood’s ability to turn into a wolf, or Iron Fist’s ability to wield fire is not the same as using steampunk technology to weaponise the wheelchair or being good with a sword. Lord An gets in on the mutant powers with the manipulation of both fire and ice. Even Zhuge Zhengwo turns out to be Magneto with an ability to pull metal needles out of inconvenient places.
At every turn, this plot either grinds to a halt while the emotional Heartless and Cold Blood, the wolfman, decide whether their shared love of a puppy makes them suitable sex partners, or we get the completely redundant introduction of zombies. Yes, there’s a zombie plague in the original story as one village falls prey to an infection, but this is recruiting active and motivated soldiers from the ranks of the dead. There’s no explanation of how they are capable of fighting in an orderly way. There’s also a major distinction between the first fight involving one zombie which survives a major assault by the best humans can bring to bear until Chaser accidentally triumphs, and the massed ranks which are mown down rather more easily by all-comers.
Directors Gordon Chan and Janet Chun should have had people on set telling them when the plot made no sense. It costs little or nothing to spend an extra moment making sure we get a clear view of people or a short explanation of why they act as they do. Merely making the film look good is never enough on its own. If directors can’t communicate a coherent plot, all they do is lose the audience’s interest. In fact this happened around us with many giving up and texting their friends until the next action set piece came along. The Four (2012) or Si Da Ming Bu is not recommended unless you’re into wuxia regardless of plot.
For a review of the television series, see The Four or Shao Nian Si Da Ming Bu (2008)
Although there’s an element of futility in buying ever more books in the hope I’ll somehow manage to read them all before I die, I continue the practice and, having disposed of all but one of the books in the latest batch sent to me for review, I have the chance to start reading a few books for my own interest. So faced with this sudden freedom of choice, I start with Flash and Bones by Kathy Reichs (Scribner, 2011). You should understand by now that I’m not driven by the desire to consume great literature. When I was just starting out, I read omnivorously to map the boundaries of taste. This led me to match the classics with the popular fiction of the day. Now I’m so deep into the genres, few of the books I’ve read over the last forty years would be considered readable by the majority of the population. If you asked for the common denominator, it would be that I prefer the simple escapism of a good story, well told. Since the routines of life are boring when reproduced in fiction, my interest strays far off the reservation with science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery.
I’ve been a fan of Bones since it first appeared way back when and, for those of you who care about details, I’ve seen up to the end of Season 5 which just goes to show I have a life outside television. No doubt I will catch up to the rest of the world when my local free-to-air station decides to deliver Seasons 6 and 7. There’s a rather pleasing quality about Dr Temperance Brennan as played by Emily Deschanel, somehow managing to combine that other-worldly boffin quality with the innocent desire to use her knowledge for the public good. Setting her against the rather more practical and intuitive Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz) has been a triumph of casting as we all wait to see how far their relationship will go — yes, yes we all know where it will go but it’s the suspense thing which, in emotional terms, feels credible despite the often extraordinary nature of the crimes they are called on to investigate.
So, since I like the television show, I’ve been waiting to read the books that inspired the television producers into action. In this case, I’m starting at the end rather than the beginning which is not terribly logical but represents the triumph of expediency — the book was to hand. The first and most obvious surprise is that our heroine is out in the real world rather than stuck in the Jeffersonian Institute in Washington DC. Although this version of Temperance Brennan does go around saying, “I don’t know what that means.” it tends to be because most of the people around her in this exciting episode are talking about NASCAR and, not being even remotely interested in people driving cars faster than the speed of light — even Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace’s podrace bored me to tears — I echo her indifference to the details of racing and its history. Nevertheless, the core of the homicide cases that come her way in this book have the same quality of otherness. As a man of few practical skills, my mind balks at the thought of a killer taking a body, placing it in a drum and then filling the drum with asphalt. I understand how clever people with access to household chemicals and a few lumps of fertiliser can make a bomb, but boiling up some asphalt on the kitchen stove is somewhat outside my usual estimation of the practical. We then get into the consideration of how the killer contrived to transport the resulting lump from wherever the asphalt was heated and poured to its final resting place underground. This is not something conveniently popped into the pocket until it can be dropped unobserved into a convenient hole. We’re talking serious weight and the probable use of a mechanical digger. Anyway, no matter how it got there, the body is exhumed from its tarry shroud, and is soon spirited away by the FBI and burned. Yes, it’s another of these FBI cover-up stories as our intrepid heroine gets all fired up to investigate not only the deaths where she has the bodies, but also the disappearance of a young couple some years earlier. This also carries overtones of corruption in the local police force as one of the investigating officers spent two years in jail for taking bribes.
The third strand of the story shows the complete separation of this Temperance Brennan from the television version. One of the character’s more endearing qualities on screen is her lack of social skills. This Temperance Brennan is worldly wise yet, for all her experience, she finds herself called on to mediate between her ex-husband and the bimbo he seems to want to marry. Apart from the lust factor to explain why he might want to spend time with her, the intelligence level in this specimen of womanhood would pale in any comparison with the brain of an amoeba. So Kathy Reichs is prepared to play to stereotypes of the type of woman who will lure middle-aged men into relationships.
Told in a slightly pithy style, Flash and Bones takes us through the thought processes that lead to the identification of the killer(s) and explanations of the FBI’s motives for apparently acting against the public interest. It makes for a genuinely interesting intellectual ride although I confess to skipping through all the NASCAR factual stuff as terminally boring. No doubt those of you who follow racing will get double the pleasure for both the background and the mystery solved by this older, wiser Temperance Brennan. I can now see why Kathy Reichs has managed to sell the model of forensic anthropology to the wider audience — although I suppose it helps that this heroine also does the thriller thing of being the woman threatened and managing to survive. This is impressive even though the publisher spared no expense in putting the cover together.
The Devoured Earth, Books of the Cataclysm: Four by Sean Williams (Pyr, 2012) pitches us straight into the action. The airship piloted by Griel but supported by Mage Kelloman and Skender, carries the Castillo twins up into the mountains. Those of you who’ve been following this story will remember the twins are now occupying the body of the homunculus: two peas in the one pod. On a different part of the mountains, Sal, Kail and Highson are in pursuit of the group including man’kin and Shilly, but falling further behind. Knowing the problems should Yod break through, Pukje offers them assistance. It’s suits him to have everyone in the right place at the right time. Shilly herself is still linked to an older self in another time. The older and apparently wiser Shilly spends her final years producing a vast pattern capable of bending time and space. All the younger Shilly can do is copy down parts of it. It’s like a jigsaw with no clear set of references to show which piece goes where in the overall design. But she’s the only seer left who can catch real glimpses of such a distant future. And even that glimpse is a fleeting one as Yod shuts down the link. You remember Yod. He wants to eat everyone.
The problem confronted by the defenders of the current realities against Yod is that the original design of the realms may be considered flawed. The presence of the Third Realm has always allowed people to explore the possibilities that exist at each pivotal moment of choice. Because of this, humans have been able to make optimal decisions. Equally, Yod can find new ways in which it may be possible to break through the defences. The problem is always one of prevention or early cure. If you can prevent a parasite from infecting the body, you remain safe. If you can detect a parasite early and kill it before it gets a toehold, you restore safety. But if you are complacent and do nothing when the parasite first appears, it grows powerful and can kill the body. People are vulnerable because they are slow to act.
Through the reappearance of Ellis Quick aka Nona, the sole remaining Sister of the Flame, the disparate forces gain a valuable ally. Then with the glast floating into and out of view to express his enigmatic delight in the world just as it is, we come into the final straight in this sprawling four book epic. There’s also a need for the author to be neat and tidy when it comes to wrapping up all the loose threads into a suitable tapestry we can all look back on and admire how well it’s all woven together. This reflects a fundamental truth that, at some point, everything stops. On the way, some characters might try to simplify decisions. In a way, this a way of deceiving themselves. People often feel more comfortable if they can winnow all the possibilities down to a final binary choice. Too many variables looks confusing, an admission that life is just too complicated to understand let alone control. Although, when you do come to think about it, half the fun we have as human beings lies in the randomness of our existences. We live with the risks of uncertainty — some even becoming addicted to gambling. Of course many individual lose, but, if we make humanity the casino, the House always wins. Change comes in fits and starts, but there’s a steady evolution. As a species we’ve never sat back on our laurels for too long. It’s always been one group or another pushing into more uncertainty and hoping for the best.
As a final thought, the language of the book is interestingly colloquial. It’s often the case that authors writing a major fantasy with epic pretensions aim for hyperbolic excesses. Let’s end a world today and offer help to the others from the future. You know the kind of thing you throw out on a wet Thursday afternoon when you want to get the plot going with a bit more pace. Usually the prose style affects high seriousness, a kind of majestic formality you might associate with the workings of courts in mediaeval times. Yet Sean Williams is frequently chatty and, through that conversational approach to the storytelling, cuts through much of the self-important affectation that makes many fantasy novels hard work to read. My only complaint is that all four books get bogged down in exploring every last option and possibility. There’s no end to the invention and creativity and, for me, that’s a problem. I prefer my books shorter unless there’s something wonderful waiting for us at the end. OK, so that asks the question. Is this the end that makes the entire reading experience worth all the effort? In this case, there have to be several answers. The first explains what happens to all the mass of people and different races who currently occupy the world(s). Yet, once you clarify the future for the mass, you can’t avoid asking about the individuals and, since this all began with the twins and Ellis, they need to be settled. There’s emotional satisfaction and almost everyone else who survives gets the payoffs they deserve. However, it’s not quite enough for me. I can admire The Devoured Earth and all that went before it, but I was not enthralled. It may be different for you. Whatever it’s faults, it’s certainly not a standard fantasy and so interesting to read in its own right for that, if for no other, reason.
For a review of the first book in the series, see The Crooked Letter.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
I need to start with a short explanation of why I’m not going to comment directly on the Colorado massacre. This is a review blog and not concerned with real-world tragedy or the politics of gun control. The only relevant issue is briefly to consider whether writers and those who make films or television programs should be held accountable if people act out what they have read or seen. I’ve long been sceptical of any link between a person reading about specific behaviour or viewing that behaviour on a screen, and the decision to act it out. Since the introduction of the printing press, there have been millions of books from cultures all around the world in which people have been described engaging in a wide range of activities. When we add in films and television programs, and widen the boundaries of taste, we can observe an extraordinary diversity of human behaviour. At moments like this, we’re prompted to ask whether people exposed to depictions of violence become violent but that rather ignores the more general question of cause and effect.
Abuse or aggression in the home is said to shape a child’s upbringing and make him or her more likely to be aggressive in the future. Naturally not all victimised or abused children become aggressive or abusive when they grow up. But some do. During their subsequent trials, the tendency to abuse others is said to be behaviour learned by experiencing how authority figures act. In other words, the socialisation process involves effects from the relationships within the family and the home environment, the interaction with authority figures, the pressures from peers, and a host of other factors. No-one would pull out a single episode in a television series such as Criminal Minds and blame it. Indeed, the problem in designing scientific research into whether there’s any link between violence observed and violence in action, is that showing people stimulus material and trying to measure their reaction takes the stimulus material out of context. Books, films and television do not exist in a social vacuum. Is it to be suggested we should not see news of the shooting in Aurora because this may incite copycat shootings? Every day, the news and comment media carry supposedly factual reports of criminal activity and other acts of social deviancy. There are tens of thousands of books which contain fictionalised versions of what we can imagine protagonists and antagonists doing to themselves or others. We should not censor the information that flows through our culture, nor seek to blame those who originate any individual item in the discourse as a whole. Indeed, news from Aurora would be a positive force for good if everyone focused on condemning the violence and discussing how public policy can be changed to reduce the chances of it happening again. The less violence is glorified and the more the peer group disapproves its use, the less the use of violence is seen as justified. If there are no rewards for the use of violence, there are fewer incentives for people to be violent.
At this point I need to start talking about The Dark Knight Rises (2012) whose contribution to this debate is equivocal. Making a vigilante into a hero plays a dangerous social game. In some senses, it’s showing society taking a positive benefit from the activities of a man who never feels constrained by the usual social conventions. For more than one-thousand years, laws have tried to steer people away from individual action, outlawing blood feuds and criminalising revenge. We have been persuaded the peace and order in society is the greater good and surrendered our individual rights to the law enforcement agencies and the courts. In the film, the Dent Act has been used to deprive alleged criminals of due process. They have been locked away without a right to a fair trial on the facts, and without a proper process for sentencing. In terms of civil liberties, the cure has been worse than the disease. More importantly, the policy is based on the lie that Batman wrongly killed Harvey Dent and so represents the worst political expediency in action. Ironically this gives Bane some moral justification for leading a revolution and storming the local equivalent of the Bastille to release the prisoners. It’s just unfortunate that many of those released are dangerous and probably deserved to be locked up indefinitely. The later scenes showing the revolutionary courts in action mimic those set up by the Committee of Public Safety in France during the Reign of Terror and set up the power of the quote from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens at the end. It pays the framers of the Dent Act the complement of imitation. Both sides are completely arbitrary in their oppression of those they dislike.
Against this background, we need to understand the roles people play. Daggert (Ben Mendelsohn) is the ultimately corrupt politician who uses his position to advance his own fortune. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is the honest cop who feels guilt that he allowed the agenda to get out of his control. He knows the means do not justify the ends. Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) has opted for crime as the means to achieve her ends, but is wise enough to understand there have to be limits and ways to find redemption. She makes a pleasing counterpoint to the self-absorbed Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) who can’t ride down the street on his new bike without breaking half-a-dozen traffic laws every block. Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) represents a single-minded focus on the belief that humanity must somehow rid itself of corruption whether through projects to deliver low-cost energy to Gotham City or other ways. Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the voice of the young generation. Tired of being marginalised and victimised by older placeholders who have no accountability when things go wrong, he wants to get things done even if he ends up killing a few people on the way. But the most interesting figure is Alfred (Michael Caine) who gives a performance of great power as a paternal Everyman. He wants the best for young Master Bruce but not at the expense of Gotham City. When Batman distracts the police from chasing Bane and inspires mayhem, he shakes his head at the price society must pay for indisciplined interference. Would it not be better for Bruce Wayne to be actively involved in using his vast financial resources to help Gotham City out of the mess? Indeed, in Batman Begins (2005) the terrorist organisation called League of Shadows executed Bruce Wayne’s father because his philanthropy was so effective in stabilising the community. Alfred becomes disillusioned and leaves Bruce Wayne, the man he has loved as his own son. We are encouraged to see Bruce Wayne as losing his moral compass. He wallows in the arrogant delusion he can solve all his own problems (and those of Gotham City) by putting the suit back on.
Bane (Tom Hardy) is all business. He’s not showy or extravagant. His initial entry into the city is as a fixer for Daggert but, of course, he’s not a mere criminal. Nor, indeed, is he a true revolutionary. He’s a nicely complicated man who finds himself driven to destroy Gotham City. This understated performance makes a nice counterpoint to Batman’s more extravagant and flamboyant style. Whereas Bane lumbers around looking as if he’s just spent the night sleeping in his sheepskin jacket, Batman has to turn up on novel motorbikes or in futuristic flying machines looking dapper in his body armour. Bane is brutal and effective. With no knee or elbow joint in full working order, and with eight years of inactivity behind him, Bruce Wayne punches with the authority of a schoolgirl. Bruce Wayne overreaches because he believes in the myth of his own invincibility. He therefore has to learn what’s most important to him as his life lies in ruins. That the ending shows nobility of spirit is confirmation that he was, at heart, a good man. Alfred is justly proud of him.
However, I fear the film itself is not a complete success. As a piece of narrative fitting into the format of a trilogy, it’s a masterpiece. I see Christopher Nolan and his bother Jonathan Nolan who jointly wrote the screenplay, allowed a full novelisation by Greg Cox. I suspect it all works rather better on paper. The key difficulty is the need for the action to reflect the passage of at least five months. If a filmmaker is relying on the tired old device of the bomb counting down from 10, we only have a few seconds to watch the hero decide to cut the blue wire. This used to be exciting. But when the countdown is measured in months, it loses its dynamic force. As we watch Bruce Wayne rebuild his body, everything connected with Gotham City is fudged. How do all these policemen survive underground? Where does all the food come from to keep the population alive? How are water and power supplies maintained during the winter? And so on? Although the CGI of the flying bat is quite impressive in the final sequences, it was something I admired at a technical level more than found exciting. Oh dear, I was saying to myself, Gordon’s got himself into another of these silly script situations where he drops the gizmo and gets thrown around the inside of a truck like an action man toy. It’s all been seen before. Yes, it’s put together with all the skill we would expect of Nolan but. . .
Make no mistake, The Dark Knight Rises is a very impressive film and because it thoughtfully addresses some very interesting ideas of contemporary importance about our reaction to criminal behaviour in general and terrorism in particular, it deserves to reach the widest possible audience, i.e. it’s not just a fanboy comic book film. But you shouldn’t go expecting it to be non-stop entertainment in the wham/bam style of blockbuster cinema. It take its time and, in the end, this gives the film more emotional depth.
In my review of Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart by Caitlin R Kiernan, I expressed the opinion, “For once in a discussion of a Subterranean Press book, I have to say I find the jacket artwork from Lee Moyer rather cheesy.” In a blog posting, Caitlin R Kiernan greeted my one-line comment with the equally dismissive assertion that I’m “dead fucking wrong”. I think my original comment had marginally more class than the consequent riposte.
The word “cheesy” is a word of fairly precise meaning but it has connotational layers of pejorative meaning. At a denotational level, it means the food tastes of cheese. However, the scope of the word has slipped to imply that, despite the taste, the food does not actually contain cheese. It merely sports the flavour. As now applied to any situation, it implies that, no matter what the superficial impression, the product is of poor value or fake in some material way. As applied to human behaviour, it implies insincerity.
How to approach critiquing a jacket design and its artwork
I need to start by saying how undervalued the work of the jacket artist is. Many people discount the jacket as part of the overall design without thinking through the contribution the artist and book designer make to the decision to buy. Although there will always be a hard core of buyers who routinely acquire the latest titles by their favoured authors without regard to the physical package, the design of the book more generally encourages us to pick it up and enhances our appreciation of its potential value. In effect, we’ve been trained to become consumers of the pictures used, the choice of font, the placement of title, author and blurb quotes, and so on. All these elements are signifiers in the process of communicating meaning to us.
So, for example, the signified central image might take the form of an old woman holding a broom but, in order to decode its meaning, we need to look at the style and, more importantly, at the context. On a book whose design signals a historical saga set in a Victorian village, the signified might be intended as a farmer’s wife or a maid at the country house of the lord of the manor. On a book presented as fantasy, we would provisionally attribute the characteristics of a witch to the old woman and look for other visual evidence to confirm or deny the hypothesis, e.g. the presence of a cat or other familiar. So there’s a denotational level of interpretation where we take a conventional and literal meaning from what we see. That’s followed by our assessment of the connotational meanings depending on a multiplicity of other signs and signals constituting the book’s physical design as a set of meanings for us to decode.
This makes all meanings relative and, to some extent, dependent on multiple factors not under the control of the artist or the publisher. For example, as an elderly British man, the sum of my cultural experiences accumulated over the years may predispose me to interpret an image in a way completely different to a young American woman. Everything we see is filtered through the lens of our own preconceptions and adjusted according to our personal tastes. In this I separate aesthetics as a set of abstract norms of what I take to represent “beauty”, “cruelty” and other intangibles, and my subjective attitudes. We can hold up yardsticks and make a subjective assessment of whether we like that colour choice or the way the light is used to create a particular effect without it changing our overall assessment that the picture shows, say, a megalomanic in full flow and so delivers the right message in the right context.
When it comes to commercial art, nothing should happen by accident. Whereas fine art may allow for the possibility of serendipity and accident to play a part in the final composition, people paid to supply art to market a product have to understand how the majority of people will understand the picture. So, for these purposes, we examine the artwork as presented to us.
An analysis of the jacket design
Let’s start with the title, Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart. The human heart only has four chambers so the source of the heart cannot be a human body, i.e. as depicted, the purple demon cannot have removed it from the woman in front of her. Now as to the context, the content of the book may legitimately be classified as erotic dark fantasy. So the brief given to the artist might be to signal eroticism as the dominant theme. Yet that could pose commercial dangers. If artwork is too explicit, it probably deters the more casual buyers who prefer their dark fantasy without anything tending to what they deem pornography. So what do we have? The purple demon is obviously female so this is a same sex couple albeit interspecies. The demon’s right hand rests on the woman’s shoulder in a position suggesting dominance and control, yet her eyes are looking directly at us as viewers. One possible interpretation might be that we are voyeurs invited to draw satisfaction from what’s about to happen. Notice the demon’s smile. It’s conspiratorial. We and the demon are assumed to know what will happen, hence the clear way in which the heart is being held up for us to examine. Except, of course, we’re not in the conspiracy. No-one has told us what the heart is for.
What makes this scene surprising is the passivity of the woman. Neither by physical resistance nor facial expression does she register objection. She appears indifferent even though she’s in the presence of a demon. If this scenario is intended to show actual or anticipated sexual activity between the two individuals depicted, the eye contact would be between the partners and their expressions would reflect their respective points of view. We would expect more animation from the woman, but her expression and body language does not signal the anticipation of sexual satisfaction from the use of the heart. Indeed, the pose does not even fit the paradigm of an S&M session staged for the benefit of a voyeuristic audience. The whole point of S&M is for the submissive partner to signal her fearful agony at the prospect of what’s about to happen. She should be looking at the heart with horrified anticipation. This would give the more sadistic among us the chance to vicariously enjoy toying with her fear and then subjecting her to whatever adverse effect the heart has. As it is, the woman’s expression looks more like, “I’ve paid a lot of money to have this heart poultice applied to my hair and I wish this demon would just get on with it.”
In other words, my decoding of the signifiers suggests they do not add value to the marketing of the book. They do not show unambiguously lesbian activity to highlight the book as erotic. There are many legitimate reasons for two woman to hold this pose including a session at a beauty parlour or hairdressing salon. The fact the demon is looking at the viewers is also equivocal. She may be demonstrating the health spa techniques to trainees or there may be potential customers watching this demonstration treatment in the expectation they will be signing up for treatment next Tuesday. From her smile, the demon has obviously just told a slightly risqué joke. Similarly, it’s not an S&M session because the expression of the woman in the submissive position is all wrong.
So taken as a whole, the artwork as a part of the book’s design is not signalling the presence of conventional horror, more traditional fantasy, Lovecraftian horror, a science fiction element, nor overtly sexual content. I don’t think the artist could decide exactly what message he wanted to send to those who view the finished product. Worse, as a title, Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart is unhelpful. Is this the true life confessions of the heart itself? You know the kind of thing: the places I’ve been, the things I’ve done. . . Or is it intended to signal confessions from the demon or the human woman on the uses she’s made of the heart? Thus, to my mind, the picture does not match the title and, by not characterising or defining the nature of the book’s content, does not add value to the marketing of the book. In my vocabulary, that makes the jacket design cheesy because no matter what my appreciation of the aesthetics of the picture, I have no clear idea of what meaning the publisher intends me to draw from the totality of the signifiers. In reaching this conclusion, I do not necessarily attach any blame to the artist. Indeed, he may very well be the victim of an equivocal brief from the publisher or have been given specific directions on what to paint. Ultimately, the publisher carries the responsibility for what I take to be cheesiness because nothing appears on the jacket without the publisher’s express approval.
Having seen a draft of this explanation, Lee Moyer responded:
Thanks for elucidating your brief comment about my cover.
My cover was drawn from the story “Dancing With the Eight of Swords”. I had supposed that readers would find that my illustration the tall violet demon with glassine horns unmistakable and that after reading the tale, they might find cover recontextualized. Maybe in surprising ways. I don’t wish to say more lest I spoil the superb story, but suffice it to say that even the misty background of the cover is specific.
I’m sorry the cover didn’t work for you, but I’m glad to hear your thoughts thereon.
As a final thought from me:
Functionally, the design of the cover should communicate appropriate meaning before the book is read. In the case of a collection where disparate themes may be present, I concede this is a challenge but, to my mind, it’s a challenge the artist should accept. Whether a person who has read the book later recognises the scene from one of the stories is not entirely relevant. For the publisher, the proper consideration is how many potential readers might not be induced to buy and read the book. In this case, both the artist and publisher knew the picture took one scene out of context, but nevertheless incorporated the image plus the other signifiers into the cover design to communicate a more universal meaning. Frankly, I did not and do not find the image in any way representative of the contents of the book. Accordingly, I confirm my opinion that both the artist and the publisher produced a cover design that is, not to put to fine a point on it, cheesy.
I suppose, as one character said in a recent film, there’s really only ever been one plot that just gets endlessly recycled. The authors change the names and locations, and then get on with the craft of retelling. Without straining a muscle in my brain, I think it starts with “Shit happens!” and then we spend the rest of the plot finding out how everyone reacts. Some live. Some die. Some are lucky get laid before they die. Some get laid after they die — I suppose that makes it unlucky for the surviving relatives to discover the body of their loved one has been desecrated or lucky for the dead one because he or she discovers heaven is real and full of available partners. No matter how the sex thing works out, that pretty much sums up Dead Anyway by Chris Knopf (Permanent Press, 2012) and a pretty damn fine plot it turns out to be. Or, to put it another way, even though the plot may not be the most original on the planet, some authors can take it and turn out a really great book.
So here comes a little of the fine detail. Imagine a routine day. Your wife is getting herself up and dressed, ready to go off to work at the insurance agency she has built up into an impressive business. You are lounging around before making a start on your own work. You’re a somewhat obsessive, computer person who finds things out through your research skills. You go out for a walk. When you get back to the house you discover your wife’s car outside. Inside the house, you find a man with a gun. He asks your wife to write down the answers to five questions. She does so. Then the man shoots both of you in the head.
Much to your surprise, you wake up in hospital. The bullet passed through the brain and out through the skull. It did some damage but not enough to kill you. Fortunately, your sister is a doctor and continues the fiction you’re in a coma. In private, you start to exercise both physically and mentally. More importantly, you start to plan. This was obviously a professional hit. Since you had done nothing to justify this level of retaliation, it had to be something connected to your wife. Since you can identify the hitman, the choices are simple and limited. You could simply plead memory loss and hope no-one notices you survived. You could help the police and then go into witness protection. Or you could fake your own death and think about whether it would be possible to take revenge.
OK, so you reason that if you were dead anyway, no-one would be looking for you and you could quietly research who might have ordered the hit. Being a doctor, your sister therefore fakes your death and you disappear into uncharted waters. Over the rest of the book, you make some interesting acquaintances and one possible long-term friend. You also get laid without having to die for real which is a bonus. There are some enemies, of course, including one retired FBI operative who’s vowing to track you down but, on balance, it looks as though a man with your skills can not only survive but also prosper while flying under the radar.
Dead Anyway is one of these deceptively simple thrillers which zips along like it’s on fire and, before you realise it, you’ve reached the end and are gasping for more of the same. It’s obviously set up for a sequel. I’m already sold on buying it. Don’t miss out. While the impulse for revenge gives us some of the oldest plot themes in the world, this reads as fresh as if Chris Knopf just invented it.
For a review of another book by Chris Knopf, see Ice Cap.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.