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ParaNorman (2012)

August 31, 2012 2 comments

I have the sense ParaNorman (2012) went wrong when the powers-that-be sat down to discuss what kind of animated film they wanted to make. Scripts are just words written on pieces of paper if you’re lucky or otherwise displayed on screens of various sizes. When it comes to animation, you can take a simple sentence and make it scary for kids or horror for adults, rotfl for smsers or laugh-out-loud for adults. How you show characters saying the words can be adjusted to whatever audience you’re aiming at. So when the powers-that-be sat down, I think they failed to decide what their intended audience was going to be. The result is something that, at times, may be too scary for young children but is never scary at all to those with any intelligence, with a sense of humour that ranges from the juvenile fixation with what goes on in the toilet stall to distinctly adult sensibilities. I think the rule is you either make an animated film for children with just enough to keep parents from passing out with boredom, or you make an adult film and, if parents are daft enough to take their slightly older children, they can do all the explaining afterwards.

Three generations of the Babcock family

 

So what do we actually get in this package? Let’s start with the stop-motion animation which is stunningly good. Although there’s some CGI in there, all the main action revolves around the use of physical puppets on actual sets using real props. The loving care invested shines through the screen and produces a visual delight. Now come the characters. Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) himself is one of life’s natural victims. His hair stands up and his ears stand out. As if this was not enough to make him the focus of attention for every bully in the world — in this case led by Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) — not only does he see ghosts, but he insists on telling everyone about it. So, not surprisingly, he goes into school and is greeted by the word “freak” written on his locker. The only one even remotely in as much trouble is the inevitable fat boy, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). Together, they make a good pair. However, there’s a major discontinuity between the first fifteen minutes and the rest of the film. We start off with Norman watching a creature feature on television with his grandmother (Elaine Stritch). It seems she died some years ago but is sticking around to keep an eye on our boy in case he gets himself into trouble. Then we see him walking off to school, first without his world view and then watching him react to all the ghosts around him. He’s hardly able to walk in a straight line, ducking and weaving through the crowds around him. But, once he passes through the school gates, we never see him fail to walk or ride his bicycle in a straight line. There’s never another hint he’s reacting to anything except two ghosts. His grandmother and his uncle who has the temerity to die before he can tell Norman how to deal with the “curse”.

Norman and Neil pledge mutual support

 

The rest of the family is mother Sandra (Leslie Mann), father Perry (Jeff Garlin) and older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick). In all films where the hero is a boy on the cusp of teenager status, older sisters exist in a parallel dimension, aware of their brothers in a vague way but never inclined to involve themselves in anything affecting them. The parents view their offspring as at a dangerous stage and fear for them (or maybe, as in this case, they’re afraid of them). The school has one of these over-the-top women as a drama teacher, the town has a sheriff and dim deputy, and there are the usual assortment of locals from the hillbilly yokel to well-heeled middle class citizens.

Uncle not yet dead

 

The plot is struggling to fill time allotted. In the distant past, seven Puritans conspired to kill a talented girl as a witch. Naturally, she was upset and cursed them. Once a year, on the anniversary of her burning, the seven undead return unless the witch is persuaded to go back to sleep. This task is passed down from one generation to the next except Norman fails to get the message in time. He therefore has to wing it, reacting to circumstances as best he can. Some of the early set pieces are wonderfully amusing but, in humour terms, the film shoots its bolt early. Thereafter, we’re left with a mixture of adventure and some preachy sequences when the film-makers thought they’d better give the kids an ear-bending on the need to look for the good in people, not to bully the vulnerable and not to judge people by appearances. All the pace evaporates and plot logic is sacrificed. For example, seven undead would be ripped to pieces and trampled to dust in five minutes by this marauding bunch of townsfolk. The failure to actually burn down the town hall is inexplicable. And so on.

 

So we should be thankful ParaNorman (2012) rejects the Disney animation approach which is to make all the humans and animals cute. You couldn’t hope to find a more dysfunctional town of people than this unhappy bunch. But the film fails to follow its own logic and so produce something satirical or frightening. Yes, there are some very funny moments, but they grow increasingly rare as the film progresses to what should be the major confrontation at the end. Sadly, there’s no real sense of menace or tension. Once the true character of the witch is revealed in a flashback midway through, even a five-year-old could predict how it will all end. So this is not a Coraline (2009) or Corpse Bride (2005). Rather it’s a film that couldn’t decide what it wanted to be and, in trying to be all things to all people, failed to keep enough of the people happy for long enough, leaving us with an empty spectacle — beautiful to behold but lacking in substance.

 

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The Goddess of Dance by Anna Kashina

August 30, 2012 1 comment

The Goddess of Dance by Anna Kashina (Dragonwell Publishing, 2012), Book II The Spirits of the Ancient Lands, follows on from The Princess of Dhagabad which was first published in 2000 but is now republished by Dragonwell. As is the way of the world, there will be a third, perhaps without the twelve year gap. So where to start?

 

Anna Kashina is one of these brave people who not only moves to a new country, but also moves to a country with a different language. When you start off with Russian as your mother tongue, you’re switching from Slavic syntactical systems to a Germanic language, and from the Cyrillic script to our alphabet, both of which slow down the assimilation of the new language. As a result, the English in which this book is written is less naturally idiomatic and slightly more generic. There are also moments when I suspect a thought was first captured in Russian and then translated a little too literally. In a book which is a modern take on the Arabian Nights, this actually works well most of the time. In that context, you expect a more unworldly form of writing with the occasional exotic interlude. For example, “He must be captured back.” is rather more evocative and imperative than a mere, “He must be recaptured.” Except, every now and again, we get a ghastly Americanism. Yes, I know this is a book now published by an American company and intended for sale to local readers. But there should be enough sensitivity in the editors to blue pencil usages like “gotten” or the not infrequent use of “I guess” from an otherwise language neutral text. As it is, there are jarring moments when our Princess and her romantic interest suddenly lapse from an intense exchange into incongruous slanginess. And while we’re on the more technical aspects, I make allowances for only having an ARC to read but this has been typeset by an amateur. Hopefully, the text was reset for sale to the public.

Anna Kashina slightly out of focus

 

Which brings us to the story itself. Structurally, this is quite an elegant updating of the style and conventions of One Thousand and One Nights which, you will recall, was a frame with multiple embedded short stories. The Goddess of Dance is predominantly a linear story describing a Scheherazade who grows in power as time passes. The mechanism of this empowerment is that she experiences the embedded history of another woman as a dream. As the dream develops, our heroine is fascinated by the dance this role model is learning (rather like the exercise routines you see on YouTube) and begins to get fit in body and mind by practising the moves herself.

 

For these purposes, let’s speculate that the original Arabian Nights frame is an early feminist tract. The Princess is able to survive and eventually win a reprieve from the paranoid and homicidal King. At the time the stories were being collected and published, most women were treated as chattels and of little intrinsic value. That the King felt able to kill each new wife on the morning after marrying them speaks loudly of his view of women as irredeemably disloyal and the ultimately disposable sex toys. So readers watching a woman talk her way out of a death sentence would see a relatively modern view of women as able to take a mentally ill man in hand and, through the judicious use of talk therapy, restore him to sanity and a more balanced view of the role of women in society. In this story, the amor vincit omnia moment came at the end of the first novel, freed the djinn and restored his human status. We’re now into dealing with the aftermath of having a superpowered magician wandering around without anyone telling him what to do and, perhaps more importantly, what not to do. Well, of course, that wasn’t so much a problem when the Princess was telling him what to do, but there are plenty of really bad people in this world and if they should happen to lay hands on a djinn, they could inflict a lot of damage. So it’s a good job this ex-djinn is basically a nice guy who, despite several thousand years of experience, can still fall in love with the first pretty young thing to flutter her eyelashes at him. The only man we meet with a djinn is a bit dim and easily manipulated by his djinn which is fortunate because, if she was not a brake on him, he would do terrible things (yet more evidence of a woman’s power of persuasion saving the world).

 

And this is the major problem for me with this book. For the most part, it reads like a YA novel with very simplistic characterisations and a sweet young girl going through trials to toughen her up, and then we have this romantic fiction element with some chaste love, followed by a delicately described orgy, followed by love-at-first-sight (or perhaps it’s a spell) and a one-shot pregnancy deal, followed by more chaste love which finally gets to real sex in the Mills and Boon style of metaphorical writing. Personally, I prefer my fantasies to be more gritty rather than this float-away-on-a-pink-cloud approach to Arabian Nights stories. The Goddess of Dance has all the elements that could have made for a tense and exciting drama but, at every point where Anna Kashina could have introduced a real sense of danger to life and limb, we get the old, “I will struggle while even a single breath is left in my body.” approach to problem solving. While this may go down well in the market for teen female readers who want their spunky, can-do heroine to come through the fire with flags flying and a hose pipe to put out the flames, this jaded old man wants something altogether more edgy and potentially frightening.

 

From all this, you will understand that you will love this book if you are seventeen, have overdosed on Stephenie Meyer type fiction, and want to see what life is like for Princesses in the Arabian Nights scenario. Everyone else will shake their heads in disbelief that an author could assemble the elements for a potentially great story and then waste every opportunity to write one.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: Shoscombe Old Place (1991)

More by an accident of arcane knowledge than any superior kind of deductive reasoning power, I knew who had committed the crime within the first ten minutes. I claim no credit. It simply represents a sometimes misspent youth during which I seem to have picked up a vast array of information only useful when teaming up in a pub quiz, or solving crosswords and television crime cases. Alternatively, my Alzheimer’s is kicking in and, even though I’m often not entirely sure what day of the week it is, I’m suddenly able to remember stories that I read more than fifty years ago. That said, the adaptation of Shoscombe Old Place by Gary Hopkins is crisp and to the point (The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, Season 1, episode 3). There’s only a little padding and the 50 minutes plus ads passed quite satisfactorily until I was able to pop the champagne along with Mrs Hudson (Rosalie Williams). We’d both used inside information to back the right horse.

Frank Grimes introduces Jude Law before he was famous

So what’s the story? Well, here’s Sir Robert Norberton (Robert Ellis), a trainer with a stable full of potentially great horses at Shoscombe Old Place except, despite all the fertiliser in the stables, not all is roses in the garden. The trainer is up to his eyes in debt and being harassed by his creditors. He needs a win win to avoid financial disaster. If there’s a silver lining in all this, it’s that he’s not the owner of the rather fine hall, the stables or the horses. His sister, Lady Beatrice Falder (Elizabeth Weaver) has a life interest in the all the property with the title then passing over to another relative. To some extent, a personal bankruptcy would not unduly damage his family’s position. Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett) gets involved because John Mason (Frank Grimes), a concerned head of stable, hears that Samuel Brewer (James Coyle), one key creditor, has gone missing. When allied to other information, there’s clear evidence suggesting that Sir Robert may have killed Brewer. Apart from this speculation, life at Shoscombe proceeds more or less as normal except for the dismissal of one of the servants, allegedly for stealing, and the banishment of the dog. Lady Beatrice and her maid, Carrie Evans (Denise Black) are routinely seen by the indoor staff and on their daily carriage ride around the estate. We should also note an early screen appearance for Jude Law as Joe Barnes, a wannabe jockey.

Jeremy Brett thinking

So what we have is Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke displaced out of London to Dunham Massey Hall near Altrincham disguised as Shoscombe. Having installed themselves at a local pub, they acquire the banished dog and enjoy scenic walks around the countryside. There are tendencies to the Gothic as a ruined Church is given a “reputation” by the superstitious locals (reinforced by Patrick Lau, the director insisting on candid shots of gargoyles and muffled fiendish laughter from stage left). All of which means Shoscombe Old Place is reasonably entertaining once you look past the showiness of some of the direction.

For reviews of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes series, see:
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: The Boscombe Valley Mystery (1991)
The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (1991)
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: The Illustrious Client (1991)
The Problem of Thor Bridge (1991)

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: The Problem of Thor Bridge (1991)

The Problem of Thor Bridge (1991) is a slight story that is spun out to an hour by Granada TV but fails to hold attention. It’s from The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes which, in publication terms, represents the final twelve short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring our famous detective and, in television terms, is Season 1, episode 2. My sympathies are with Jeremy Paul who drew the short straw of adapting this for the screen. The script is actually quite faithfully to the original although it features quite long sequences where figures stride about the landscape looking distraught but, for the most part, not saying anything to each other. I understand the game that must be played to try to fill the screen with interesting action. To that extent, the arrival of the horseless carriage in Baker Street is a masterstroke. Indeed, the appearances of this wonderful machine brightened my day significantly. More to the point, it was just the kind of showy extravagance that a nouveau riche American would make a point of being seen in while abroad in London. It would have been considered tasteless by conventional society, but given him a significant boost among the other arrivistes.

Daniel Massey in confrontational mode

So, if we put the performances of Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke to one side, the whole shooting match stands or falls on the characterisation of this jumped-up American by Daniel Massey. In his day, Massey would have been considered one of our leading actors, perhaps surprisingly, being nominated for an Oscar and winning the Golden Globe for his role in Star! I suppose his good looks and natural charm won everyone over — being the godchild of Noel Coward also probably helped. Anyway, what with the success of Dominic West in The Wire, Hugh Laurie in House, and Matthew Rhys in Brothers and Sisters, we’ve grown more used to seeing our British stars making a hit on US TV (except for people like Joely Richardson in Nip/Tuck who fail to move their accents across the Atlantic). Massey’s attempt is one of these magnificent failures. He blusters and stomps his feet, waving his arms around when all else fails. Sadly, none of these physical efforts can distract from the stagey awfulness of the accent. Since his role is pivotal, it leads us down the path to melodrama. Maria Gibson (Celia Gregory) wears her slightly revealing dress with great style and walks around the country house hoping to find a welcoming smile, but she knows in her foreign heart that her husband no longer loves her. He’s in the thralls of that prim-looking Grace Dunbar (Catherine Russell) Ay, caramba! or whatever the Brazilian women spurned say at this point in their lives.

Celia Gregory with a wild foreign look

So then on to the bridge itself and, from the outset, we all know the alleged seductress didn’t do it. Poor Grace is locked away in a cell, but still manages to look fresh and strangely unabashed. To get to the answer, all you have to do is ask a couple of questions based on some simple facts. We start with a matched pair of guns in an easily accessible box in the house. Maria is found shot in the head. There’s no gun beside her. A gun is found in Grace’s wardrobe. The other gun in the pair is missing from the box. If you are in need of inspiration, the CSI episode in Season 5 where a Sherlock Holmes impersonator is shot will supply the answer.

The magnificent car that steals every scene it’s in

Put all this together and The Problem of Thor Bridge (1991) is very poor value. When distilled to its essence, we have a bullying Yank who’s quick to fall in love with a Brazilian beauty and then, with equal suddenness, drops her in favour of the English governess. Even at the best of times, Victorian and Edwardian servants were victimised by despotic landowners and their sons, and this poor English rose is no exception. Quite what she sees in this appalling man is never clarified although, I suppose, she may be thinking she can defend the children. Whatever the reason, she endures jail and then submissively consents to be taken away from it all by this dangerously unreliable man. Not even the great Jeremy Brett can save this melodramatic rubbish from sinking into oblivion.

For reviews of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes series, see:
The Boscombe Valley Mystery (1991)
The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (1991)
The Illustrious Client (1991)
Shoscombe Old Place (1991)

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

One of the supposed benefits of my education was a strong emphasis on languages which, as was then the fashion, included both Latin and Greek. While nurturing the development of a rather intellectual way of speaking within the school, there was a necessary parallel development of a separate street language to minimise the bullying from the rest of the neighbourhood. To this day, I can still switch on the Geordie if required. One of the more pleasing idioms from my classical days was, “To pile Pelion on Ossa.” When the Aloadai were attacking Mount Olympus, they were having problems reaching up so high. Their answer was to take Mount Pelion and pile it on top of Mount Ossa, hoping this would give them the necessary height. Sadly, this epic construction project was a failure, albeit spectacular.

 

So this brings me to The Cutting Season by Attica Locke (HarperCollins, 2012). This is a very ambitious novel which takes a relatively conventional murder mystery and locates it in Louisiana with a setting in an old plantation estate, preserved as a museum and exploited as an upmarket venue for weddings and social events. A balance therefore has to be struck between a service to local schools in sanitising and demonstrating the circumstances under which slaves worked the cotton fields, and maintaining the colonial mansion and immaculate lawns to provide the right milieu for the upper middle class to continue flaunting their wealth and massaging their egos. A necessarily ironic juxtaposition providing the money to pay for the upkeep of the house and grounds, and to offer employment to many who live in the local community.

Attica Locke showing great promise as a prose writer

 

The book therefore straddles a number of quite different genres. A murder occurs which starts us off in the mystery category with Caren Gray, the manager of the estate, thrown into the role of amateur detective. She has a daughter and, during the course of the book, Caren Gray finds it necessary to contact the father of the child. This adds an increasingly strong romantic element. In a social context, the book also examines the way in which the cotton industry is now consolidating and discusses the impact this has on local communities. Because of the setting in a colonial estate, a counterpoint emerges as we’re invited to compare how the plantations were run using slaves to the current position of the undocumented workers from Mexico, El Salvador and other sources of willing labour. Indeed, the history of the estate becomes increasingly important as the book progresses so we acquire some more general social comment on racism in both a historical and contemporary genre style. There’s a political element and, of course, because the daughter may have seen or heard more than she should, it’s a thriller.

 

As a much-practised juggler, I was just about keeping all the balls up in the air as the book progressed, but one more element suddenly appeared. It was at this point, I lost faith in the entire enterprise. The golden rule when writing should always be that simple is best. Although an author can legitimately flesh out the basic bones of plot with the characterisation and detailed descriptions of the milieu, there comes a point when enough is enough. This book is a classic example of piling Pelion on Ossa. Just when you think the giants cannot push their mountain consolidation project any higher, they come up with a new system of buttressing and throw up new earthworks. The problem is that, no matter how high each new set of earthworks, they are never going to arrive at Olympus. So it is with authors. They can keep piling new plot elements into the mix but this, of itself, is not going to make the best book. All the complexity does is prove the author’s lack of confidence in a simple story. There’s a murder. The estate’s manager is pushed into a situation where she has to investigate. The innocent young black boy is accused by the white police. As a single mother, she needs the help of her ex-partner and, together, they must weather the storm as the solution slowly emerges. Obviously motive is important so some history and general background is essential, but what we have here is excessive.

 

It’s a great shame. The prose is of the highest quality with a multilayered approach. Structurally, the early stages of the book could not be bettered but, as you read on, the author loses her way. The plot grows increasingly diffuse and I gave up caring who was responsible and why. So The Cutting Season goes on to the list of valiant failures. It’s a brave effort but just as the Gods in Olympus were able to look down on the Aloadai as they tried to mount an attack (pun intended), so we can see this as a book that almost made it but missed out completely because, no matter how hard she tried, the author could not close the final gap to arrive at her destination. That said, the quality of the prose demonstrates this is an author to watch for the future. Even though I found this book unsatisfactory does not mean future books will be flawed. I shall be watching for the next book if only for the pleasure of reading the prose.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Falling Glass by Adrian McKinty

August 27, 2012 3 comments

When I’m reading, I tend to play with various similes and metaphors to capture the immediate experience. This is not to deny the text my full concentration. I always respect the words. But it’s a kind of background monitoring process which was rather more active than usual while reading Falling Glass by Adrian McKinty (Serpent’s Tail, 2011). There’s a rather heightened style at work here that’s like watching the start of a fireworks display when, every now and then, one of these big rockets shoots up and lets go a hail of shells, each one exploding with colours on their way down. There are some wonderful lines where the idea takes off and the elegance of the prose execution just lights up the sky. Unfortunately, in the early chapters, not that much is happening so this is a triumph of style over substance. I’m not denying interest in watching our hero at work or then going through a recruiting interview, but it’s all a little like treading water when you’re hoping the hero will set off to swim the Channel. To get things moving, it would have been credible for our man to be recommended for the job and sent the necessary paperwork by courier. What we actually read has a sense of padding with literary pyrotechnics to distract us. Unfortunately, after a while, there are so many rockets exploding, it gets a bit tiring on the eyeballs and eardrums.

 

The novel itself is almost a stand-alone in that it only ties in with other books by Adrian McKinty through the series character Michael Forsyth who appears, mostly, as a telephone voice. This means we’re off and running with Killian, an Irish Tinker with the gift of the gab who prefers to talk his way out of danger and smooth over troubles. This time, the commission is find the wife of a rich businessman who’s run off with the two children in one of these acrimonious custody disputes. It’s obviously suspicious he’s being offered such a large finder’s fee but, when the “chase” begins, it’s hard to see the catch.

Adrian McKinty finding the middle ground

 

I’m wholly unconvinced by the heavy artillery sent after Killian. The initial brief, as I understand it, is that he follows Killian until the missing wife and children are found, and then he kills the wife (and, if necessary, Killian) and brings back the laptop. Ah, yes, the laptop, something the rich man failed to mention to Killian. As for the traumatised children, they can be collected by the police and social services from the probable scene of carnage. Their father can then collect them through the courts. The professional killer doesn’t seem the sharpest knife in the cutlery drawer, so his physical attack on Killian feels premature. There’s no reason for him to believe he’ll be able to track down the wife from the information he acquires. However, as a plot device, it certainly does enliven the proceedings and gives Killian an incentive to rescue the situation. And this confirms the more general impression about the plot dynamics that, after a gentle ramp-up over the first third of the book, the narrative then takes off down an unexpected hill on the other side. I suppose, pursuing my similes, it’s like one of these old-school roller coasters that slowly winches the paying customers up the first peak until the release and the kinetic energy is sufficient to take them through to the end of the ride without stopping.

 

This is a book rooted in the history of a partitioned Ireland both in more general cultural terms by making Killian a Tinker, but also by making The Troubles an integral part of the book. Of course any book that dares trespass into that minefield is inviting a prejudiced reaction. If Adrian McKinty makes the book balanced in its coverage of the different warring factions, he’ll be accused of dumbing down and simplifying. If he writes anything even vaguely pro-terrorist or pro-British, then he’ll be called reactionary and a propagandist. In this respect, McKinty does rather well by diverting attention away from navel-gazing and introducing an uninvolved third party. The hired killer has no relevant political or religious connection to the Irish conflict. He’s had troubles of his own to contend with. And Killian is a Tinker and so also despised by all factions.

 

At its heart, Falling Glass is a story about loyalty, conscience and guilt. While we can’t separate Northern Ireland from The Troubles, we can ask neutral questions about the aftermath when the worst of the violence has subsided. This is not to sweep the low levels of continuing violence under the carpet, but simply to see it in a different socio-political context following “power-sharing”. This book shows us many different shades of individual from young men learning how a balance is being struck between the use of force and the art of persuasion, to old hands who have no compunction about the resort to violence when it’s expedient. But more than anything, we’re asked to consider whether any issue transcends the religious conflict. For example, is paedophilia a greater or lesser problem when priests belonging to the Catholic Church have been involved? It seems the Church itself and the An Garda SÌoch·na (the Irish police) believed it more important to cover-up the problem to protect reputations than to protect vulnerable children. In today’s climate of opinion, it should be a matter of conscience to protect the young against abuse and all those responsible should be brought to justice regardless of their former status. Yet such idealism doesn’t always work in a culture mired in the past. It may well be that, for all the political lip-service paid to democracy and positive programs to reduce levels of discrimination, some of the guilty may still enjoy immunity for past sins.

 

There’s some violence on display but, with one exception, it’s not gratuitous. Taken overall, Falling Glass is a thriller built like a roller coaster ride, full of excitement captured in electric prose.

 

For reviews of other books by Adrian McKinty, see
The Cold Cold Ground
I Hear the Sirens in the Street
In the Morning I’ll Be Gone
The Sun Is God.

 

Follow this link for An interview with Adrian McKinty.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

An Unattended Death by Victoria Jenkins

August 26, 2012 2 comments

Independently of the process by which we select lovers and so accumulate families and relatives, one of our rights as social animals is to choose our friends. Although there are times when commercial or political expediency forces us into relationships we’d rather avoid, there are always the one or two genuine friends with whom we feel comfortable. The question, therefore, is what makes one person “friend” material. On balance, I think it’s a question of world view, that the potential pair find they share a similar way of assessing how the world works and deciding how best to exploit the opportunities they identify. I suppose this is just a different way of restating the old idiom, “Birds of a feather, flock together.” But whereas some species do congregate in multitudes as a way of reducing the odds they will fall victim to predators, this strikes me as rather different. It’s a more personal exercise of preference. Yes, it will have some defensive capability because, by sharing burdens, friends weather the storms and emerge stronger. But this is not a “fair weather” phenomenon. Friends are friends whether their current experiences are good or bad.

 

Of course, none of this has anything to do with An Unattended Death by Victoria Jenkins (The Permanent Press, 2012) which is a story about people who happen to get caught up in a police procedural investigating a death that may or may not be accidental. The heroine is Irene Chavez who moved away from small-town America in the Puget Sound area and was making a life for herself when, as is always the way, she fell in love. At first, this did not derail her efforts to complete her education, but pregnancy slowed her down. The death of her husband completed the process and diverted her into the police force. With her fourteen-year-old son in tow, she’s now returned to the area of her birth as a detective. Because the men who would have taken lead on this particular death are either too busy with other cases or have gone on holiday, she’s confirmed as the principal to investigate a possible death by drowning.

 

Thematically, this is a book exploring the different ways in which people form and break relationships. The family of the deceased is wonderfully Byzantine — they see themselves as intellectuals, the majority with a medical background and so, as summer residents only, they avoid mixing with the permanent locals. It’s a class thing elevated by their background of some wealth and an innate sense of privilege. In the face of this death, their desire to withdraw from the world and lick their emotional wounds grows stronger. They see the death as so obviously accidental that it does not warrant investigation. The resistance to Detective Chavez is therefore passively aggressive which, to some extent, is also designed to amplify the detective’s sense of her own intellectual inferiority in the face of these well-respected experts. On the land next door, is an elderly lawyer who has a property dispute with the family. The deceased herself was a slightly less than conventional psychiatrist who exploited her own sexuality to bridge the communication gap with her patients. In her personal life, she was ending the reasonably long-running relationship with an unfaithful lover. This means there were several people who might have had motive but opportunity is complicated.

 

In her personal life, the detective’s son gets picked up by the police as a passenger in a truck taken without consent and containing a modest quantity of drugs. As a single mother with a job forcing her to spend long hours away from the home, she has always been aware her son might fall in with the wrong crowd and get into trouble. Because of her role as a detective, the local police bump the case up to the new prosecuting attorney. This gives some level of protection to the police against allegations they cover up the crimes of their own. Interestingly, this attorney is also non-standard, having avoided the usual monomaniacal career path the majority of professionals follow to achieve moderately high-ranking positions. He takes a personal interest in the case and so becomes aware that the detective has been the victim of an attempted rape. The detective had deliberately avoided new relationships after her husband died. This latest experience is hardly likely to endear her to those of the male gender. So much for his chances should he be interested in a relationship with the detective.

 

This is a slice of the real world, mainly told from the detective’s point of view. We therefore look over her shoulder as she follows the trail and confronts her own sense of insecurity as events in her own life and that of her son threaten her hopes for a peaceful life. The resolution of the case comes as a part of the natural flow of events. There’s no artfully staged confrontation with a room full of suspects. Indeed, when she has the answer, she decides not to rush to the family of the deceased with her analysis and explanation. Life just goes on. This makes An Unattended Death a superior crime novel. The detective proves to have more intellectual gumption than the Paris family would patronisingly choose to believe. She works out their “little secrets” which prove the same as those of their social inferiors. Underneath all the veneers of class, people are people. This is definitely recommended to anyone who enjoys a character-driven mystery where, until the end, it remains unclear whether it’s possible to prove the death a murder.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

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